Asking the wrong question about presidents and jobs

Ezra Klein asks a number of former chairs of the White House Council of Economic Advisors if presidents can create jobs. Since this allows me to channel one of the greatest Saturday Night Live skits ever, let me point out that the question is moot.

The right question is: Are the policies pushed by presidents or candidates appropriate to the economic problems and challenges actually facing the country?

So, was the Obama administration right to advocate for substantial fiscal support as soon as they entered office? Absolutely – the economy was losing around 750,000 jobs a month by the time they took the reins of policymaking, even as the Federal Reserve’s conventional recession-fighting tools were exhausted. Were they right in advocating for further substantial fiscal support this fall? Again, absolutely yes – the Fed’s recession-fighting tools remain ineffective even while unemployment hovered over 9 percent. The proper criticism of their actions is, of course, that they have not been aggressive enough in their advocacy for more fiscal support.

What does this mean for Mitt Romney’s job prescription to cut (spending and taxes) and deregulate? That it’s a fundamental misdiagnosis of what actually ails the U.S. economy. The mammoth job loss we experienced during the Great Recession didn’t occur because taxes went up or regulations proliferated in Dec. 2007 – the job-losses happened because spending by households and businesses collapsed in the face of the bursting housing bubble.

From Flickr Creative Commons by Secretary of Defense

Klein is right that many things besides presidential policy preferences and even policy actions determine job growth in the economy. But, this does not mean that they’re irrelevant to economic performance, and I fear far too many of Klein’s readers will come away from this column with the impression that they are; or even worse, that there’s little information available to voters to assess who would be the better economic manager. That’s not right – the president sets the agenda and it’s hugely important to know what this agenda is and whether or not it’s appropriate for the economic challenges facing us.

Klein’s also right that it would be nice if there was an easily-tracked single benchmark that reliably graded presidential performance, but that such a benchmark doesn’t exist. That said, answering the right question – are candidates proposing solutions consistent with the problems – isn’t really so hard.