INTERVIEW: How The Stimulus Remade America Without Anyone Noticing
Michael Grunwald is exactly the person who should have written a book about the stimulus.
He’s not a fan of everything government does. He’d like to privatize the Post Office, for instance. And as Time magazine’s senior national correspondent and the author of a book about the Everglades — 2007’s The Swamp — Grunwald is intimately familiar with the boondoggles government can get us into… and help get us out of, if we’re lucky.
Mark Schmitt called The New New Deal “the best book about the Obama administration.” It’s an enthralling narrative that captures the battle to pass the bill along with the explosion of good the stimulus did, contrasted against the tidal wave of misinformation synchronized by the far right to not only hide the incontrovertible evidence that the president’s first huge and possibly most important legislative achievement worked — but to even rewrite the history of the original New Deal.
Grunwald spoke to The National Memo about The New New Deal on the day his indispensable book about the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 came out in paperback with a new afterword.
What does your new afterword cover?
First, thanks so much for doing this, and thanks so much for your kind words, as well as The National Memo’s kind words. It’s been stunning to watch a book about a frigging stimulus bill find an audience, so I’m incredibly indebted to everyone who has made it into a thing. Anyway, the hardcover covered the Obama era through the spring of 2012, so the afterword for the paperback updates the story through the campaign, the election and the beginning of the second term. There’s some stuff about the fiscal cliff and the non-breaking of the Republican fever, some new stimulus updates, and some What It All Means philosophizing. It isn’t all thinly disguised I-told-you-so gloating. Some of it is thickly disguised.
Have your thoughts on the stimulus evolved at all since Obama’s re-election?
Not really on the substance. I still think it was a huge deal, as important as Obamacare, and I still think it was a huge success, as a short-term boost to the economy and as a long-term driver of change. But the re-election did get me thinking about the politics. The stimulus was hideously unpopular. And when it was done, Obama bailed out the auto industry, also hideously unpopular. Then he started with health care, even more unpopular. He kept doing all kinds of controversial things—pulling out of Iraq, pushing cap-and-trade, endorsing gay marriage—and pundits kept accusing him of political malpractice. But he got re-elected anyway—partly because the stimulus (and the auto bailout) made the economy much better than it would have been, partly because some bartender dude brought an iPhone to a fundraiser in Boca. My takeaway is that when you’ve got power, you might as well try to do stuff, rather than obsess about the political ramifications. Because really, who knows how the politics are going to play out?
You said you’ve regretted spreading the meme that 97 percent of the Department of Energy’s stimulus loans were successful to contrast the GOP’s Solyndra fixation. Why?
I think I started that meme on Twitter during one of the presidential debates, after Mitt Romney claimed that half the stimulus-funded clean energy companies had gone bankrupt. Which was bullshit—as you said, only 3 percent of the companies that got loans went under. (It’s less than that for stimulus funds in general.) As I explain in the book, just about everything Republicans have said about Solyndra is bullshit. But I do regret that the 97 percent meme has become such a big thing. For starters, more companies are going to fail. That’s what happens in a capitalist economy. And then critics are going to say, oh, look, now it’s only 91 percent, or 82 percent, or 74 percent. But the point of the program wasn’t cradle-to-grave assurance of success for all these companies; it was a jump-start, with the hope that some of these companies will change the world. And they are. They’re bringing solar and wind and advanced biofuels to scale. In fact, if I had to criticize the loan program, I’d say some of its loans were too safe, financing projects that might have gotten financing without government help. I’d like to see more technological and entrepreneurial risk and more failure, which would mean even more upside from the projects that succeed.