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Do We Understand How Big The Economic Recovery Plan Is?

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We are on the verge of nothing less than a transformation in the role of our federal government, from one of conservative neglect to one of progressive action.

Conservatives, deeply fearful of being buried on the wrong side of history, are gearing up to obstruct progress wherever possible.

Yet it seems to me that the liberal progressive grassroots are not similarly geared up to deflect conservative attacks and maximize chances of success.

Earlier this month, the Institute for America's Future proposed a Main Street Recovery Program of $900 billion in "substantial, strategic, and sustained" investment over two years in infrastructure, clean energy, broadband, health care and education.

Such public investment would not only blunt the impact of recession in the short-term, but strengthen America's global competitiveness in the long-run, firmly putting us on the path toward energy sustainability, quality education and health care for all. (IAF's Robert Borosage and Eric Lotke recently published "A New New Deal? in the latest edition of The Nation, making the case for the plan.)

A coalition of more than 200 economists, labor leaders and progressive organization leaders endorsed the plan, declaring $900 billion over two years, "should define the floor, not the ceiling, of what needs to be done."

The Obama-Biden transition team is discussing something similar in terms of what areas of neglect public investment should target, but has yet to commit to a package of quite that size. Incoming White House senior adviser David Axelrod said yesterday on CBS' Face The Nation:

We've talked about a package from $675 billion to $775 billion. But you know, those numbers are not fixed.

One thing we--I think everyone agrees on, economists from left to right, is that we have to do something very large.

Larry Summers wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post today, in which he said that economists believe that if we don't do something large that we're going to be looking at double-digit employment--unemployment by the end of next year, and that is totally unacceptable. So we want to create three million--or create or save three million jobs to forestall that.

And we want to do it in a way that leaves a lasting footprint, by investing in energy and health care projects and refurbishing the nation's classrooms and labs and libraries so our kids can compete, and rebuilding our crumbling roads and bridges and waterways.

And in this way we're not only just--we're not only creating work. But we're laying the foundation for the future of economy.

Following Axelrod, Nobel award-winning economist Paul Krugman expressed concern that, as big as $775 billion is, it may not be big enough:

I'd like to see it bigger. I understand that there's difficulty in actually spending that much money, and they're also afraid of the T-word. They're afraid of a trillion dollar[s] for the two-year number.

But you know, the back of my envelope says it takes roughly $200 billion a year to cut the unemployment rate by 1 percent from what it would otherwise be. In the absence of this program, we could very easily be looking at a 10 percent unemployment rate.

So you do the math and you say, you know, even these enormous numbers we're hearing about are probably enough to mitigate but by no means to reverse the slump we're heading into.

So ... they're thinking about it straight. I liked what Larry Summers wrote in The Washington Post. I think he was getting it right that the risks of being too small are much bigger than the risks of being too big.

Nonetheless, I am actually concerned that this thing is not going to be really big enough.

At the same time, the Obama-Biden transition is showing some concern that conservative obstructionists will be able to delay any enactment of an economic recovery plan, even though everyone agrees that urgent action is needed if our government is to successfully mitigate the damage from the recession.

Already, conservatives are flailing about trying to come up with talking points to justify obstruction, finding a sliver of projects that look like wasteful pork to stoke skepticism about the overall package. Traditional media outlets have begun carrying water for conservatives, relaying knee-jerk criticisms without bothering to investigate the merits of those projects or putting their tiny size in the broader context.

Between today and the Jan. 20th inauguration is a critical period, where a concerted push from the liberal progressive grassroots can generate healthy pressure on President-Elect Obama and congressional leaders to treat $900 billion as the minimum number for any package, and put heat on Senate Republicans to think twice about obstructing action in a time of crisis.

If the package is too small and too slow to be effective in limiting the pain from the recession, we may miss this once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform our government from one defined by callous and reckless conservatism to one that exemplifies responsible and responsive liberalism.

However, in my casual political conversations with liberal friends and family over the last few days, I don't see a focus on quickly enacting a successful economic package.

I see understandable criticism about certain Obama cabinet picks and Rev. Rick Warren. I hear chatter about Gov. Blagojevich. But I feel little energy towards what will literally be the Number One legislative priority for our next government. And with conservatives beginning to regroup, that's a potentially dangerous dynamic.

For progressive ideals to be successful in remedying the damage left by conservatism, we in the grassroots need to be able to walk and chew gum, push against Obama and pull for Obama when appropriate.

If we assume that Obama never needs any help, and we spend all of our time finding things to criticize, we will not play a positive influential role. Good ideas will get watered down as all outside pressure will be coming from the Right, and constructive criticism from the Left of bad ideas will get unfairly dismissed as coming from an unreasonable peanut gallery.

Now is a time to help. Speak up. Comment on Change.gov. Contact your congressperson and Senator. Write your local newspaper. Call-in your favorite talk radio show. Set a high bar for action. Debunk conservative misinformation. Let Washington know you're paying attention.

On economic recovery, the stakes are enormous, and we cede the debate at our peril.

Originally posted at OurFuture.org