Important Reads on the Economy

The regular old newspapers -- yes, those unloved dinosaurs of a bygone age -- have been full of some really first-rate articles recently. Or maybe I'm just taking more time to read them. This past Sunday, I actually sat down and read a huge stack of papers on, well, paper and was reminded of the recent studies showing that the whole psycho-ergonomics of absorbing information work better with a physical newspaper layout than just on screen. To me this makes sense: there are simply more cues about the importance and context of a story when you can take in its placement on a page. And this weekend I found myself tearing out a bunch of stories for later followup.

Some of them a for another time. Here are a few (of a large number) not to miss.

1) Joe Nocera's column in the NYT this morning about a new analysis of our economic predicament from the New America Foundation.* One of the great and under-used functions of the regular op-ed column is to point readers to enlightening, original-source information -- as opposed to just gassing off about one's feelings on recent events. Nocera does that in this column, as he has done before, and I give a +100 to his recommendation that you read what the New America authors have written. (*Disclosures: Nocera is a long-time friend, from our days at the Washington Monthly and Texas Monthly. I am on the New America Board, though I knew nothing ahead of time about this study.)

The value of the report lies in giving a convincing explanation for why so many of this era's woes are connected -- chronic unemployment, rising disparities in wealth and income, worldwide economic imbalances -- and saying that there are some obvious solutions. A sample comes after the jump. Please do read at least Nocera's column and ideally the whole study.

HawleySmoot.jpg1A) Historico-editorial comment. As the Congress gets ready to vote on the Chinese-currency bill, I see lots of people throwing out the "ooh, another Smoot-Hawley!" warning and scare talk. That's imprecise. This currency bill wouldn't do any good, and for reasons I've written about over the years I'm against it.

But I'm even more against the misuse of Smoot-Hawley. That label should be reserved for where it really applies: to this summer's tragic, unnecessary, misguided, and destructive debt-ceiling bill. The debt ceiling fight was our Smoot-Hawley.  A self-inflicted wound that did the opposite of what the times and circumstances call for, and whose damaging effects will reach around the world for years. You can look it up in the history books, 25 years from now. Maybe there will be a little thumb-cut of Rep. Eric Cantor next to those of Smoot and Hawley.

2)  From the Washington Post this weekend, a sample of what is worth reading:

   - From Ezra Klein, an extended take-out on how much more the Administration might have done to fend off the current economic disaster. An important corrective/complement to the much-discussed Ron Suskind hypothesis on the same subject.

   - From EJ Dionne, a sensible corrective to some nonsense from George Will on the Massachusetts Senate race and modern politics more broadly.

  - From Steve Pearlstein, more on the politics-and-economics continuum of our time.

  - From Scott Wilson, a hypothesis on why things have gone the way they have for Obama.

3) And back to this weekend's NYT:

  - David Leonhardt on why the economy is actually worse than we think.

 - Todd Gitlin, historian of the "old" New Left, about what Occupy Wall Street means for any future left (or right, or whatever).

 - Scott Shane, on a topic that actually worries me: What happens when lots of other countries and hostile groups get drones too?

- Susan Gregory Thomas, with a bleakly hilarious and inspiring essay on living cheap, Depression style.

So, yes, America may be going to hell. But it's a great moment for some newspapers.

Bonus: From the New America 'The Way Forward' paper:

Part V [of the paper] then lays out a three-pillared recovery plan that we have designed with those criteria in mind.  It is accordingly the most detailed part of the paper.  The principal features of the recovery plan are as follows:

First, as Pillar 1, a substantial five-to-seven year public investment program that repairs the nation's crumbling public infrastructure and, in so doing, (a) puts people back to work and (b) lays the foundation for a more efficient and cost-effective national economy.  We also emphasize the substantial element of "self-financing" that such a program would enjoy, by virtue of (a) massive currently idle and hence low-priced capacity, (b) significant multiplier effects and (c) historically low government-borrowing costs.

As you'll see if you read the paper, this (and the other recommendations, including significant shifts in our financial interactions with China) come directly from the convincing diagnosis of the problems, and not from an a priori desire for a public-spending plan.

After you read the paper, you'll wonder all the more why the Administration is not making the case above all day every day.

Maybe some of the Republicans will appropriate the plan in tonight's debate! If Jon Huntsman really wanted to nail down the "think different" slot among his colleagues, here is an opening. "Call me crazy," he could say.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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