New York City, New York
FLOYD NORRIS: I have a few housekeeping announcements which you've heard before if you've been here. Welcome to today's Council on Foreign Relations meeting. This meeting is part of the McKinsey Executive Roundtable Series in International Economics. Council on Foreign Relation members around the nation and the world are participating in this meeting via teleconference.
Please completely turn off -- not just put on vibrate -- your cell phones, Blackberries, wireless devices, et cetera, to avoid interference with the sound system. I want to remind everyone here that this meeting is on the record. And let me -- these gentlemen, I should tell you, tell me that they did something similar last night at Columbia and they've been doing it for a while. So they're apparently very good at it, or at least experienced. (Scattered laughter.)
Mr. Holtz-Eakin, let me start with you. What's -- why did McCain suggest that the government buy mortgages at face value?
DOUGLAS HOLTZ-EAKIN: Can I first say I'm delighted to be back at the Council of Foreign Relations. (Laughter.) I did actually once have the privilege of working here, and there's nothing like a presidential campaign to make that look like a good job. (Laughter.)
The notion is very simple, quite frankly. There's been enormous amounts of taxpayer resources now allocated to the task of stabilizing financial markets and getting us through this economic crisis. The crisis began in housing markets. We don't believe that we will stabilize the economy effectively without addressing the housing market. And given the state of current law, there are two things one can do. One is the Hope for Homeowners approach, which Senator McCain actually, earlier in the campaign was fairly fond of, but it's a voluntary approach, where lenders have to take write-downs, and it runs into complications with second liens, and estimates are we'll get maybe 500,000 homeowners that way.
There are 10 million mortgages that are underwater right now. There are 3 million people who are in arrears of one type or another. And if we're going to be effective, we'll have to honor the prepayment clauses in those mortgages.
And so to be broadly effective, the idea is to go in. From the point of view of the homeowner, it looks like a standard refinance. You call up your bank or your broker, and you say, I'd like to refinance my home. They know about the existence of the program. They go in, they retire the existing mortgage.
That does a couple of things for the banking system. It puts cash on the balance sheet of banks. We need to recapitalize the banking system. We know that. It absolutely eliminates any uncertainty about the value of that mortgage, it pays it off, and the valuation of any mortgage-backed security which is involved. And from the homeowner's point of view, you then refinance them into a mortgage they can handle, you know, assuming they pass the credit checks that go with underwriting and they didn't lie about their original loan, things like that.
They will then be able to continue to pay their gasoline, their grocery bills, things like that. That would provide some stability for the housing sector, for the macroeconomy. We'll stop seeing the foreclosure cycle and the diminishing of housing values that will help homeowners everywhere, and we'll simultaneously address part of the financial crisis and the real economy. And, you know, we -- (inaudible) -- very clear, this is an expensive proposition. But the alternative is either to let this volunteer program go through -- it's not been very effective -- or, you know, drag millions of Americans through, you know, default, foreclosure and perhaps even bankruptcy. That doesn't seem like a good way to go.
AUSTAN D. GOOLSBEE: I would say that both candidates have talked about the importance of bringing the country together, but only John McCain has succeeded in this campaign, because this idea was so ill-founded and bad that it united all experts on right, left and center against it. There has not been anyone advocating this as a viable idea.
And the root of the problem is, number one, start with the actual face value of the mortgage, okay. So, even if the original lender committed appraisal fraud and overinflated the mortgage at the time, they would now just be made whole. The essence of this policy is let's just go make the most irresponsible lenders whole by paying the face value of the mortgage, which is double what the market value is. You ought to, if you're going to do a mortgage rescue, start with some variant of the market price. And you could make the value that you're paying even exceed the market price of the loan to induce everyone to do it, but you certainly don't want to do it at face value.
NORRIS: During the campaign -- let me -- let me -- you can come back in a second -- I don't want to have a lot on every topic or we'll never finish, or we won't cover a lot. During the campaign, the primary, Senator Obama opposed a foreclosure moratorium when Senator Clinton endorsed it. Now he's switched. Why?
GOOLSBEE: I would not -- I would -- that is a mischaracterization on two fronts. What he opposed with the -- and I was there opposing it -- was a mandatory backward-looking let's go put in a foreclosure blanket moratorium on all mortgages. What he has said on this is as one of the conditions for a lender receiving billions of dollars from the government that you would agree to conditions like limits on CEO compensation for people that are in a situation that they are trying in good faith to pay, and would likely qualify for a workout through the Hope for Homeowners Act or other government programs, that it doesn't make sense to give the lenders hundreds of billions of dollars and then go down and foreclose on the people who, two months later, would be able to qualify for a workout.
So as a condition of receiving the money, they would agree to that on a voluntary basis. So it's actually completely different from what he opposed.
HOLTZ-EAKIN: I think the goal should be keeping people out of foreclosure. I mean -- you know, to extend their time on financial death row isn't a real good policy. I mean, the idea is to make sure that we get the housing market stabilized, keep people in their homes and they can satisfy the underwriting criteria and stabilize the banking system.
Now, I understand Austan's and Senator Obama's desire to, quote, "get the lenders." I mean, I think that's a sentiment that's widely shared out there. But the reality is that the lender's probably long gone. One of the striking characteristics of this crisis is the origination process in which things were securitized. People originated, sold off and disappeared. We probably won't find them.
Number two, the only way you can hurt a lender -- the only way is to not give them their money back, which means you have to drag millions of American homeowners through delinquency, default and foreclosure. And that does not seem like a profitable avenue to take this economy.
NORRIS: Mr. Goolsbee, during the primary, Senator Obama sounded pretty protectionist at times. Since then, he's said he regrets his earlier rhetoric. McCain talked like a free trader much more during the primary and during the general election. Isn't that a better approach, and how can you be sure just which Senator Obama is?
GOOLSBEE: Senator Obama has been of the view -- and if you go back and read his book, his second book lays it out some years ago, that free trade is not the enemy. Free trade has been good for the economy. It's helped our industries to grow. It's helped keep prices low in the United States. At the same time, there are millions of people that have been left out in that.
If you push a false choice, as the Bush administration has and as Senator McCain has been pushing, in which you say, either you're going to be for anything that has the name free trade agreement on it, regardless of whether it's going to be enforced, regardless of whether it's riddled with loopholes, regardless of whether it's a tiny bilateral agreement with a small country, you're not doing the cause of open markets and globalization any favors. You are generating a massive backlash against the entire concept.
And so when Senator Obama says, look, let's be mindful of the concerns of the people that are against globalization and have been left out in the bounty of free trade, I don't think it's appropriate to describe that as being protectionist. He's voted for some free trade agreements. He's opposed some free trade agreements. And his usual view is let's look at the thing and see which is best for the country.
HOLTZ-EAKIN: I mean, he said, you know, Canada and Mexico have to renegotiate NAFTA or he'd withdraw. That's not about a nuanced view of getting trade going forward, that's going back. And he did it for politically expedient reasons. And I think it's not a good episode.
But it is revealing because Senator Obama has changed lots of positions for politically expedient reasons. I can even name them all, probably. Think about public financing in the general election, which he swore he would undertake, and he's now turned this general election into an auction. Think about, I will filibuster the FISA bill, which he promptly forgot. Think about, I'll meet John McCain in town halls, which he promptly went away with. Think I'll sit down with no preconditions to meet with leaders who have vile records in international affairs, walked away from that. Think about, when Russia's tanks rolled into Georgia, he said Georgia should show restraint, he walked away from that.
The reality is, Senator Obama is his words. He doesn't have a record. And he's -- you know, he's written more books than he's passed significant legislation.
NORRIS: Okay. Let me --
HOLTZ-EAKIN: And his words change a lot. He did it on trade. He'll do it on anything.
GOOLSBEE: He can filibuster all day. I warn you. I have faith. (Laughter.)
NORRIS: Okay, let me ask you this.
HOLTZ-EAKIN: You've given me a lot of material.
NORRIS: Well, I'm going to ask you to stick to the economic issues for -- at least for today. (Laughter.)
Do you really think Senator Obama's a socialist?
HOLTZ-EAKIN: I have no idea what Senator Obama is. And that's our major concern. (Laughter.) Senator Obama --
NORRIS: Does Senator --
HOLTZ-EAKIN: If --
NORRIS: Does Senator McCain think he's a socialist?
HOLTZ-EAKIN: I won't speak for Senator McCain's thoughts. That's impossible for me to do.
But we know that at the key moments when all of America really wanted to understand how Senator Obama was going to maintain this sort of fiscal house of cards, you know, which is, I'm going to offer everyone a tax cut in America -- 95 percent -- despite the fact that he's never had any record like that -- 94 votes for higher taxes in the Senate -- despite the fact that he's promised trillions of dollars in new spending, which can't possibly add up; despite the fact that, you know, 40 percent of Americans aren't paying the income tax. How do you -- how do you sustain those three fundamental contradictions for any length of time?
Well, he's very good. He's verbally, you know, one of the most talented people you'll ever see. And he did it for a long time until he walked into some plumber's driveway. That was his mistake. And you know, it became very clear at that point his goal was to spread the wealth. Those are his words. And Senator Obama reveals himself slowly, but we will get to learn the man, hopefully, before the election.
GOOLSBEE: Let me say two things.
I believe -- I am firmly of the view that this is the most independent-minded country on Earth, and I invite all of you to simply go look at the records yourself. And I invite all of you to simply watch what's taking place here. When they ask, is he a socialist? It's, oh, I don't know, you'll have to tell us. Go ask him if he's a -- (laughter). Look, is he? Here we go. Is he a Muslim?
GOOLSBEE: Is he a (criminal ?)? Has he cavorted with terrorists?
GOOLSBEE: Here we go. Here we go. (Laughter.)
HOLTZ-EAKIN: No, he has.
GOOLSBEE: Here we go. I invite you, just observe what is happening. And it's time for this to end.
Now, if you are prone to believe that he's a Muslim terrorist who's done various nefarious things in the driveway of plumbers and he's a socialist, look -- (laughter) -- there's probably nothing I could say that would convince you.
As to things that I can tell you, let us look at the budget. Now, the unbelievable hypocrisy of now hearing the McCain campaign saying he wants to give a tax cut to 40 percent of people who don't pay taxes, let's examine that. Number one, every person that receives a tax cut under Barack Obama's plan is working. This is simply neglecting -- and it's shocking for the former head of the Congressional Budget Office to engage in the deception.
One-third of federal tax revenue is the payroll tax. All of the people that are receiving this credit are paying payroll tax under Obama's program. So it's completely not true that they aren't paying taxes. They aren't paying income taxes, but they are paying payroll taxes. They aren't paying the estate tax either, but that doesn't mean that they don't pay taxes. (Laughter.)
And to say that it's welfare, as John McCain has said, when John McCain's own health care credit of $5,000 is completely refundable and going to every single one of the people that they're saying is on welfare, is almost unbelievable. It makes my head want to explode. And yet they're going out each day and saying it.
So I again invite each of you, go to the Tax Policy Center. Go to the Center for Responsible Federal Budgeting. Go to truly nonpartisan organizations, not the National Taxpayers Union which Doug is going to quote for you. (Laughter.) Go to them and look at the budget. Just look at the budgets where they're laid out.
And Barack Obama's long-term budget -- we're not talking about the next two years when we are in economic crisis -- his long-term budget is some $3.5 trillion better in terms of fiscal responsibility than the McCain budget because John McCain has $3.5 trillion of unfunded tax cuts. And unfunded tax cuts, the economics teaches you, are not tax cuts at all. They are tax increases on your children because someone has to pay back the money.
HOLTZ-EAKIN: So just to get the facts right --
GOOLSBEE: He already answered this question.
HOLTZ-EAKIN: No, I do want to understand this. I said income taxes. I said income taxes.
HOLTZ-EAKIN: The mortgage tax credit is refundable, right?
HOLTZ-EAKIN: It's not work --
GOOLSBEE: It has a work requirement.
GOOLSBEE: Because we added a work requirement. You can't get anything unless you do that.
GOOLSBEE: We had 98 percent of our money was tied to work.
HOLTZ-EAKIN: (Inaudible.) I want to know.
GOOLSBEE: They started by saying, ah, this is welfare. So just so that they wouldn't -- absolutely not be able to say that, we said, fine, for the last 2 percent, we'll simply add a work requirement.
HOLTZ-EAKIN: When did this change? I'm just curious.
GOOLSBEE: About two weeks ago. The 98 percent was set up last September, September of '07. They are all tied to work. They tried to seize on the 2 percent sliver that wasn't and say, see, they want to give a handout. What about the health care credit, which is not tied to work and is refundable and goes to all the very people? Is that socialism? Are you a Muslim? (Laughter.) Have you -- (laughter).
HOLTZ-EAKIN: Everyone knows how the child credit works because Jason Furman, your economic adviser, advocated it for months in written articles all across the country.
So it's real simple. We have a subsidy for health insurance in the United States. It's an exclusion from tax. That subsidy tilted toward one kind of insurance, employer-sponsored, and is far more generous to high-income individuals than low-income individuals. We're not going to raise taxes to spread our refundable credits. We're going to take the existing subsidy, reform it so that it is more fair. It will be available to everybody who has insurance regardless of source. And it'll be the same amount regardless of whether you're rich or poor: $5,000 for a family, $2,500 for an individual.
NORRIS: Mr. Holtz-Eakin, earlier in this campaign, when my colleague David Leonhardt was pushing to understand exactly how you proposed to balance the budget, you said that in time the details would become clear and, quote, "It's just June." Well, it's late October now. Are the details clear?
HOLTZ-EAKIN: I'd say the answer to that is no because we've seen events in the past month that have blown the budget wide open. I mean, the current, you know, 2007-2008 trajectory is very bad, going from a modest deficit to a very large one, and we've got the bailout on the horizon. So the reality is, John McCain had -- has a commitment to balancing the budget. We had hoped to balance it by the end of the first term. It's gotten an awful lot harder.
We believe that fundamentally what must happen in the United States is reverse the legacy of the past eight years, where we spent money hand over fist. Had we simply stuck to things like the 1997 balanced budget agreement between Bill Clinton and the Republican Congress, we'd be spending nearly $200 billion less in discretionary spending this year. We want to go back to that kind of an environment, where money is considered to be a valuable thing, it's used in a responsible way, and budgetary decisions are each year important and quite difficult, to be honest. Those who went through that era remember it being very hard, and that would be a good thing for the U.S. to return to. And that's what we'd like to see.
GOOLSBEE: It's true there's no question that the developments of the last three weeks and the last year have made the budget situation quite terrible. And it is also true that the McCain budget would make it substantially worse.
If you look at the tax plans at the Tax Policy Center, they make clear that the Obama tax plan is paid for, would reduce the deficit from where it is under current policy, and the McCain tax plan is completely not paid for, would add some $350 billion to the deficit. Quite separate from whatever the deficit is that we get in the current economy, the McCain plan is making it worse and the Obama plan is making it better.
I've been a little frustrated that the McCain campaign has said they would balance the budget at the end of four years. They outlined a program which would run a deficit previous to the bailout in the $1 trillion a year range. And I just kept saying, which $1 trillion would you cut out of the budget? They have specified earmarks and a one-year freeze on discretionary spending. The two combined add up to $30 billion a year, and that freeze is just for one year. So we've got ($)30 billion, and the question is now which ($)970 billion are you going to cut from the deficit?
Now, at one point when their health plan looked like it would add more than a trillion dollars to the deficit, they came forward and seemed to suggest that they were going to cut $1 trillion out of Medicare. They have since backed away from that and said it would be cost-saving. In our program, we have a very aggressive level of cost-saving -- ($)55 billion a year -- and they have been attacking us for the last year saying that's totally unrealistic, there's no way you can save that much money. So I am -- we are back to the same old playbook of calling for trillions of dollars of high-income tax cuts that are unfunded, calling for balancing the budget by giving spending restraint that isn't specified in any way, to be done sometime in the future. And I will simply remind everyone the historical record on that as a program is not super great.
HOLTZ-EAKIN: Can I talk about the Tax Policy Center, which Austan evidently loves to quote? You know, mixing and matching of baselines is one of the things that the Obama campaign likes to -- if put them on an apples-to-apples comparison, the Obama campaign is scored as raising $600 billion in taxes, the McCain campaign cutting ($)600 billion in taxes. It's true. And that's a straight tax calculation. That's what the Tax Policy Center does.
It doesn't do any analysis of the spending side. It doesn't do any analysis of the growth implications -- although they have acknowledged the McCain plan is better for economic growth. And so it is simply not capable, as a matter of arithmetic, of saying anything about future deficits. You can't project the path of the economy when you don't touch the spending side. It's not in any reasonable way capable of talking about the deficit. So to quote those numbers is to miss the point entirely.
NORRIS: Much of the debate we've heard on health care has been on the way to fund it. Let me turn, in turn, to the spending. Are there any areas in Medicare in particular where you think they should spend less, perhaps by cutting some expensive and not very useful procedures sometimes? Are there any specifics on where they should cut spending?
HOLTZ-EAKIN: We believe deeply that this is one of the most important policy areas. And here's the problem with Medicare. If you look at Medicare, Part A pays hospitals, Part B pays doctors, Part C pays insurance companies, Part D pays drug companies. There's no beneficiary in there anywhere. It is a set of siloed provider payments that does not in any way reward coordination of care, quality of outcomes, high-value care versus low-value care -- prevention is a very high-value care -- and is incapable of providing a payment for management of chronic disease, which is 70 percent of the American health care bill.
What John McCain would like to do is use the Medicare system as a lever to transform the practice of medicine in America. All the research suggests we can get the same quality outcomes at much lower costs, and that's what we need to do.
So how do you do that? Well, the first thing you can do is you can take care of the low-hanging fruit -- $60 billion a year, 10 percent of the Medicare budget, is estimated to be fraud by its own inspector general. That ought to go. You ought to use more extensively generics and biogenerics as cheaper pharmaceuticals. We'd also like to see affluent Americans pay a greater share of their Part D drug premiums. There's no reason why they deserve a 75 percent subsidy on average.
We would like to pay for preventive care. That would be an important part of getting this right. And if you pay for bundled outcomes -- coordinated outcomes -- take a bypass as a great example. Instead of paying for every little piece of the pre-admission screening, the admission and testing, the grafts themselves, the post-operative care and the discharge and follow up, pay for a high-quality bypass. There are lots of them in America today. They all have the same pieces. If you pay for that as a bundled outcome, you build a business model for providers to actually coordinate at low cost. That's called health information technologies. You have a reason to diffuse that into a $2 trillion sector of the economy, and you can achieve a tremendous savings. That's the McCain health care reform.
That's the most important thing, change what we get for the $2 trillion we spend. And we'll make insurance cheaper, we'll slow the cost growth in Medicare and in health in general.
GOOLSBEE: I agree with that. I mean, that's a -- there are many aspects of cost-saving that are the same or similar across the two plans, and that part is totally reasonable. Now, many, if not most, of those cost-saving type measures, as you might imagine, are a longer-run issue than what do we do in the next few years.
One specific example that I would give on Medicare where Senator Obama believes we should cut right now is there's a $15 billion a year Medicare Advantage subsidy for private Medicare providers that was created to try to encourage private competition with Medicare, and the data is overwhelmingly clear that that private competition is less efficient than the regular Medicare system. And so he said we should just cancel the $15 billion Medicare Advantage subsidy.
NORRIS: It's -- I think there's a general consensus that the financial regulatory system is going to need substantial changes during the next administration. Are either of you prepared to give us any details on how it should be changed?
HOLTZ-EAKIN: I could speak in broad terms. And what the senator would like to see is we would like to see a fact-finding commission set up, something along the lines of the 9/11 commission, that is populated not by politicians but by experts, so that as we enter into the next Congress there will be a groundwork of clear, nonpartisan fact-finding that will be the basis for recommendations that can bring a Congress together. This will have to be bipartisan. He'd like to see that happen.
Obviously, there'll be tough legislative action. And what should come out is something that has a safety and soundness regulator for every significant financial institution that has the capacity to shut it down if it's threatening the system as a whole.
We'd like to see better consumer protections. We obviously should not have a repeat of the poster child of the mortgage failure, which is real abuse by mortgage originators, particularly in some states.
He'd like to make sure that we do get some corporate governance reforms. Senator McCain has long been a believer that every dollar of CEO compensation should be clearly displayed and that there ought to be a shareholder vote on that compensation.
And the hope would be to come out with a regulatory system that adhered to the principle that comparable economic transactions are regulated comparably, regardless of where they occur in the system. That's something that we don't see at the moment.
GOOLSBEE: Senator Obama was way out front on this issue, has been talking and thinking about the issues of financial oversight for a long time. More than a year ago, he gave a speech at NASDAQ in which he said we are facing the prospects of a financial crisis when we have the loss of public trust in our capital markets, and that to have robust oversight is not anti-capital market. As we see, it would be absolutely vital for capital markets, and that he would be strongly in favor of it. Partly on the strength of that speech, he got the endorsement of Paul Volcker himself.
In March, more than six months ago, he laid out a six-point specific plan of how we ought to oversee markets. He got the endorsements of Bill Donaldson, David Ruder, Arthur Levitt, three former heads of the SEC of different parties. And in that, it includes things like if you can receive -- if you can go to the government for lender of last resort privileges, you have access to a sacred insurance policy underwritten by the taxpayer, and so you should at all times be subject to liquidity and capital requirements.
Some of the ideas are what Doug just mentioned, but we ought to be strengthening the SEC, we ought to be strengthening the CFTC, not shifting to self-regulation, because we have seen over the last eight years that self-regulation equals no regulation; that if you rip up the rules of the road, it's very problematic for the free market. It's not -- when you do that, you end up in a situation where you're nationalizing the banks. That's not in the interest of the free market. And I would also point out that Senator McCain has been of two minds, shall we say; that now he is forwarding that he's a major proponent of regulatory oversight, but in many areas, not just in banking, he has been a massive proponent of deregulation, and I would characterize it as ripping up the rules of the road. So I think that that's been rather a reinvention in recent days.
NORRIS: Thank you. We're going to go to the audience now. I'd like to invite any of you who'd like to to answer -- to ask questions. Please wait for the microphone and speak directly into it. Please stand when you're asking your question and give your name and affiliation. We'd like for you to limit yourself to one question, and of course, questions as opposed to speeches are preferred.
QUESTIONER: I'm Daniel Stern (sp). I'm with -- (affiliation inaudible).
Thanks to both of you. I'm sure you're waiting for two weeks and a day, when we can move from the silly season of campaigns to actually getting into policy.
And my question has to do with once we get past the campaign into the reality that we're facing -- and we all know the plans on the table and the fiscal realities are all very different than any of the discussion of plans that really is taking place at this level and by the candidates, and the hands that everyone will have to play are severely restricted. My question is, and is -- looking at priorities going into '09, given that any president will really be able to pick up one or two major issues that you can make a major legislative push with your mandates, what -- how do you set the priorities, given the realities that we have? New stimulus plan, is it health, is it the tax piece? Which is the most pressing, the most politically doable, and how would you set those priorities?
HOLTZ-EAKIN: Can we go to the next question? (Laughter.)
You know, the reality is now that the economy will be front and center, and that will be -- you know, the financial stabilization, near-term economic stimulus as needed, and I think that will be the top priority. Events have driven that.
In terms of the things not driven by events, Senator McCain's, you know, really pushed hard for the notion that we ought to transform our energy sector. Included in that is his longtime advocacy for a cap-and-trade approach to addressing global warming. The international timetables are such that if the United States is going to show significant progress of the type that will bring China, India, South Africa, Mexico and the like into genuine participation in a global agreement -- and if it's not global, it's not going to work -- that would have to include action early in the next Congress.
And so those are two major initiatives. The capacity of Congress to take on some of the others is obviously constrained by time. So, you know, it looks difficult, quite frankly, given the large number of pressing issues on the agenda.
My own view is that in thinking about how to move forward with the rest of the things, one ought to go toward the places where there are clear bipartisan kinds of agreements. So in health, there's an obvious sharp debate about access issues and the best way to approach health insurance. There's not the same sharp debate about the research findings on the cost of care in the United States, the ability to deliver higher-quality care at lower cost. Some of those common elements ought to be things that are embedded into the legislative agenda so that we can build a record of bipartisan accomplishment. That is, in the end, what the American people are starved for.
I mean, if you travel -- as I've been fortunate enough to do with Senator McCain -- to the town halls and listen to people, they are thoroughly tired of the Bush administration. There's no question about that. They're also thoroughly sick of the Congress, that seemingly gets nothing done. And more than anything else, they would like to see a government that is responding effectively to what they perceive as their needs. That's the top agenda item in the next Congress.
GOOLSBEE: I would say for Obama, it's clear that the most pressing issue now facing the next president is going to be preventing a financial crisis every bit as severe as the financial crisis of 1929-1930 from turning into the next Great Depression. Nobody asked for that. Nobody wanted that to be the number one priority. But it's clear that's the number one priority.
So that may mean extensive more stimulus. It clearly means addressing -- the two root causes of this problem are, one, we had an intense squeeze on the vast majority of the country, with stagnant incomes and rising costs in a variety of areas. The inability of millions of people to be able to make the payments of their houses ultimately sets the stage for consumer debt-based crisis. You knew -- it was first mortgages, now it's credit cards, auto loans, a number of things. That squeeze equals ultimately consumer debt-based crisis, which has morphed into the weakness of financial institutions. So it's clear it has to be addressing all of the issues surrounding that.
Other than that, what Obama had always said was his three priorities were winding down war in Iraq, health care and energy. I have no reason to think that he's changed those as priorities. It's just we've got to deal with the other first.
NORRIS: This gentleman here.
QUESTIONER: John Beattie (ph) from UBS.
The McCain campaign has focused on offshore drilling as a means of stimulating job creation and economic growth. As we all know, however, the upstream (sector ?) is very capital-intensive and requires comparatively little labor input.
Furthermore, of the labor input that is required, the skillsets are such that the demand is primarily for technical skills, such as engineering of which there's a clear shortage of in this country. Could you please elaborate on exactly what -- how you envisage offshore drilling engendering significant job creation?
HOLTZ-EAKIN: I think that's a -- that's an accurate characterization of how the public imagination took over the offshore drilling issue. But the Lexington Project, also called the all-of-the-above energy plan that Senator McCain has proposed, consists of the recognition that we are, as a national security matter and as an economic security matter, far too exposed to international oil markets. And his approach to addressing this is, first and foremost, to -- in the near term, develop domestic alternatives where possible. That's where the offshore drilling came in. So with oil and natural gas -- which I think gets overlooked in this discussion too often. It's a far less internationally traded commodity, and has been an extraordinary source of cost pressure in the United States. Fertilizer prices up almost 80 percent, largely because of natural gas prices. So some domestic alternatives.
Then change dramatically the way we drive. An aggressive attempt to move to flex-fuel vehicles, plug-in hybrids and electric cars -- a variety of policy initiatives there. An advocacy for a smarter grid and, in this case, greater use of nuclear power so that we can, in effect, drive off the one zero-emissions technology that exists, which is nuclear power. So it -- you know, the offshore drilling got all the attention, but the construction of nuclear power plants, the transformation of the auto sector in the United States, are all important parts of reducing our exposure to reliance on international oil.
And then finally, you know, he's concerned about the environmental consequences. And so he would like to see, you know, a permanent, rational production task credit for renewables -- wind, solar and the like. He certainly wants to impose the cap and trade in the context of international negotiations, so that we end up with an energy portfolio that is very, very different.
And the final piece of that, and the one that is the most important and where it's going to require a very aggressive research and development effort is on clean coal and carbon capture and sequestration. Because, you know, China, quite frankly, is not going to walk away from its coal. And so if we do not find a way to use coal effectively in a -- in a cleaner way, we will not get an international agreement and we will not address global warming.
So those are the agenda items. You know, the offshore drilling got all the attention. The American public grasped onto that when gasoline was $4 a gallon. That's like -- but the agenda was much broader.
GOOLSBEE: I would say, look, nobody -- I enjoy landing blows on the McCain campaign as much as anyone, but in fairness, I never heard them say that we ought to do offshore oil drilling to generate jobs. As you say, a lot of these oil rigs -- nobody works on them. They operate on their own, so that'd be a a strange job creation program, to have an offshore rig that doesn't -- that's not associated with any jobs.
On the broader issue of energy, there is -- there are at least two major issues that I'd like to raise, differences between the two candidates. While John McCain is talking about an all-of-the-above energy policy, it's all-of-the-above with none of the funding, and that's a not-all-of-the-above policy. That is a policy which is a continuation with the major focus on nuclear and oil because they're heavily, heavily subsidized now.
Obama's effort is let's have a cap and trade, and it is to McCain's credit that in his party, he was alone out there advocating the cap and trade. They are both for a cap and trade. But Obama has been quite clear from the beginning that we must auction the permits of a cap and trade and we should use the money, part for direct funding of a Manhattan Project for research, development and deployment of a variety of alternative energies to actually make this desire manifest.
And two, let's take all the rest of the money, and let's give it out in rebates so that we are not, as we would be in the policy that McCain is advocating, of putting a cap and not auctioning the permits -- of giving the permits away. That is a policy that asks ordinary Americans to bear the brunt of paying for our adjustment on environmental grounds. They're -- they would face higher electricity prices, they would face higher gas prices and they would not be able to receive any rebate from the government to make them whole as they would under the Obama plan. It's -- that is extremely important, and it's a fundamental difference.
NORRIS: I have a question here from the national audience, from Edward Schumacher-Matos of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard: How will your proposed measures here affect the economic situation in Europe, especially given the real estate bubbles in Britain and Spain, and what different kinds of collaboration might there be with European authorities from what is happening now?
GOOLSBEE: I'd say the most important answer to that question is the financial crisis started here, but it's clear it's now emanating through the entire -- it's a global financial industry, and it's clearly affecting Europe. So every step that we take to address the deteriorating economy and the financial crisis has a direct impact on Europe.
In terms of coordinating policy, we have just gone through a period in which we have seen the worst possible outcomes of not coordinating the policies, where you've got individual countries saying, well, we'll guarantee all deposits, and that's sucking funds out of their neighbors because they want to get the guarantee. You've had the nation of Iceland having a banking collapse when they won't be protected. So it's screaming out for everybody to get together and try to work out joint solutions for how they're going to address the banking crisis. You've seen Gordon Brown and Sarkozy saying they want a world summit and Bush looking like he agrees with that, though I'm not sure how the logistics of that are going to work, but it's clear we've got to address that first and foremost.
HOLTZ-EAKIN: I think the most important thing is to remember that, you know, real economic growth matters, and only with substantial real economic growth will we ever move past the burdens that are going to come out of the de-leveraging that's now a worldwide phenomenon. So it could build wealth. And we have to have real economies grow, the U.S. remains the preeminent economy on this globe, and to take care of business and get the economy growing faster will be the most important thing, not just for Europe, but for the international economy.
We have benefited greatly from a global episode of economic growth. It's been a phenomenal period. And in the past year, we have even benefitted, as the U.S. has slowed, from our export sector, which has been the greatest source of stimulus. It looks at this point that we're turning the corner, and it will be incumbent upon the United States to take care of its business to get itself growing as a benefit to the global economy.
And then I think the outlook for the international coordination, I think, is unclear. It's not obvious what the objectives of this summit are. We're as interested as anyone. There have been a variety of papers circulated with different ideas.
One of the difficulties that it looks will have to be addressed in that setting is the very different characteristics of the financial sectors in different countries. The U.S. uses far more extensively non-bank entities, like, you know, General Motors Assistance Corporation, GE Capital, than do other countries. And a one-size-fits-all approach to this probably won't be very successful.
NORRIS: Down there, Mr. Franklin. No, right here, in the front.
QUESTIONER: Thank you. Jacob Franklin.
You've just alluded to this subject, so I really wanted to move on with this summit. Since the end of the '60s, there have been always calls coming primarily from Europe, primarily from the French, to have a new Bretton Woods, to have a new architecture, et cetera, and the U.S. has resisted it. It's resisted it for a variety of many reasons; many of them are good. And the key issue was we don't want -- so the argument was -- went -- to move it to the political arena; this is an area where at least a professional groundwork should be put in place. And indeed if you look at the first Bretton Woods when the various decisions were made, they were primarily to ensure free trade -- free trade so that the growth in the world will be done.
Just before the Asian crisis, the IMF was ready with the support of everyone to expand it into free trade and capital and to define (compatibility ?) in the broader context, and then there was a setback and back to the drawing board.
The key question is, first on the logistics, which you raised, if there is going to be a summit organized in the United States, called by the French, well, who is in the driver's seat? What is the agenda? It is going to be launched during the current administration. It's going to be implemented, if at all, during the next administration. I think that it would be very wise to move it off the -- (inaudible) -- to move to the side first that it is really a serious matter, and therefore a lot of professional groundwork before the politicians move on. Otherwise, you are going to have a lot of ladders that you will need to find ways to climb up the tree.
GOOLSBEE: Well, look, I -- well, maybe Doug does, but I don't know who's involved, who's in charge, what the logistics, what airline they're flying -- I don't know anything about it other than what I've read in the newspaper. Obviously it's -- the heads of state of these countries would be sorting these things out.
I do think -- to take a step back, I think to call it a Bretton Woods-style thing is ultimately a completely misplaced analogy. Maybe that's the right way to say it. Since it's not -- the goal of what we need to do right now is not about exchange rates, is not about things of that nature. It's about setting up regulatory oversight and thinking of government interventions to prevent financial crisis from worsening. That strikes me as pretty different from Bretton Woods, and maybe that's the way to say it.
HOLTZ-EAKIN: I don't have a lot to add, except that it's not obvious what the role of the campaigns would be in this. As you've said, this administration is going to participate in whatever event is ultimately developed.
You know, I know for sure that in the climate arena, the December meetings, Senator McCain will send his team -- he's always sent it as a senator. Any participation by the president-elect in this will be, you know, up to the administration and the other participants. So it's not obvious what our role is.
NORRIS: And one more question from the phones. Lederick Hale (ph) from the David Hale global economics of Chicago.
How will you advise the new president in terms of economic policy toward China? Do you expect any policy shifts?
HOLTZ-EAKIN: Senator McCain's, you know, always felt that it's a mistake to try to pull out of a China relationship a siloed economic approach. And, you know, China is a very important issue, and their record on human rights -- their record on places like North Korea, Iran, cannot be ignored in thinking about the economic relationship as well.
So I think the best way to describe it is he wants to find a way to constructively engage the Chinese more broadly than just bilateral, if at all possible. The Europeans do now seem to be more firmly engaged in worrying about currency alignments, and that's a good thing. And that will be a more effective way to bring pressure to China to honor its international obligations, and, you know, that's going to be the basic strategy, which is multilateral approaches to a large economy that has to participate in a way that, you know, honors its international agreements.
GOOLSBEE: I would say, you know, if you look, you know, in an economy like China where they're still operating with investment -- a GDP ratio of 40 (percent), 50 percent, it's clear that a transition must take place sometime along the way in which China's economy is operating more like a big rich country than a small emerging market. There have been -- there's -- the transition is a bit awkward, it's a bit painful. It's also clear that it's an extremely important relationship. Perhaps for the 21st century, there is no important relationship than the U.S. relationship with China.
Senator Obama has been of the view that the Bush administration approach of let's not, for example, enforce violations of our agreements that -- if China's violating our intellectual property, let's not even use the WTO mechanisms to enforce those agreements in the interests of being friendly -- is ultimately not paying off, both because it's engendering a massive political backlash in the United States in a lot of areas as well as it's sending the completely wrong signal, that you can sign agreements that say one thing with no intention of abiding by them and there isn't really any consequence from that. Both of those strike me as fairly problematic.
NORRIS: Okay. This gentleman here in the aisle.
QUESTIONER: Bill Ewers (ph). We're in the middle of a crisis. We're going to have a new president-elect within a month. And we're mid-stream on defining how to deal with that crisis. What would be the plans of the Obama administration in terms of maintaining continuity with the Paulson strategy and the people who carry it out? And how would you include the administration in this -- the new Obama administration, if it should happen -- in that process and keep it going forward?
GOOLSBEE: I assume that's a similar question for both candidates. They have been fairly careful in the Obama camp. And this -- all issues of transition, which both candidates are thinking about -- in Obama's case has been completely separate from the campaign. Everybody in the campaign is tasked with thinking about how to get him elected. So I have not been privy to any discussions about if he were to win, how would they do that?
Partly the answer to that question, and I don't mean to be flip is, it depends on what Paulson does. They have gone through three different iterations of what the rescue is going to be, pretty fundamental changes in what they were envisioning the rescue was going to be. And even with what they've settled on now of the direct capital infusion, which I do understand and in more -- we have been more in favor of that as an approach than to just go out and pay market value to buy up toxic waste -- the toxic waste part of the mortgage-backed securities. It's still not clear how they're going to do it. So the amount of continuity is obviously going to depend on whether Senator Obama thinks what they're doing is a good idea or is fundamentally not a good idea.
But Senator Obama has talked regularly with Secretary Paulson, as I think he has also talked with Senator McCain. He's talked with Senator (sic) Bernanke. And then, as I mentioned, Senator Obama's got a lot of very prominent advisers from both parties that he's -- you know, that he's communicating with. And certainly Paul Volcker, Bob Rubin, Bill Donaldson -- you know, the collection of major names is going to influence both continuity and how he responds to the thing.
HOLTZ-EAKIN: Life is full of ironies. And it is ironic that at this point in Bush administration, the Treasury would matter so much when it was so clearly not central to policymaking for so long.
And I think that one of the things that we will see is a transition, regardless of who is elected, that is much more accelerated compared to the past. There is now a formal process that permits pre-clearing of some personnel that was largely intended as a security issue -- homeland security process. But in these times, it could be applied to the economic advisers -- get them in, get them in more quickly to permit that transition. And I think what you will have to see is less of an emphasis on the political and more of an emphasis on the substantive retention and hiring of career staff to manage these programs effectively from within an administration, not outsource them. And that's got to be a top priority.
NORRIS: We have time for one brief question. If you don't have a brief question, put your hand down. (Laughter.)
QUESTIONER: Thank you. I'm Tony Miller, from Ramius Capital. I'm based in Asia, and so my perspective's going to be from Asia.
Given the Herculean task of the Federal Reserve governor to get it right always, all the time, no matter how brilliant they are, perhaps it can't be done. You're both economists. Would you comment. Is there any conceivable circumstance that would cause you to consider a gold standard?
GOOLSBEE: Look, let's remember the lesson of the Great Depression, in which countries on the gold standard suffered terribly during the Depression because the gold standard -- and we can go through, and Jagdish is here and can lay out the mechanism -- but it creates an automatic mechanism by which a problem in one country directly affects the next country. So I would have just started with no, but I add an exclamation point, given that we are in this massive financial crisis. If we had been on the gold standard when this thing began, holy cow, you know, the people would be running for the exits.
HOLTZ-EAKIN: No. (Laughter.)
NORRIS: Thank you both. (Laughter.) Thank you for coming.
And thank you. (Applause.)
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