Stiglitz Criticizes O.'s Speech, Favors Single-Payer

by Chris Sturr | February 26, 2009

This seems pretty explosive to me: Nobel-Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz came put in favor of a single-payer universal health program as “the only alternative” in an interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!. Hat-tip to Dr. Christine Adams of Health Care for All Texas. Very interesting also that he also criticizes Obama as having “confused saving the banks with saving the bankers.” (Amy Goodman’s phrase, but Stiglitz responded: “Exactly.”)

There’s also a discussion of nationalization, and from what I can tell Stiglitz calls for a Swedish-style “nationalization,” which is really just temporary receivership (or what Krugman usefully calls “preprivatization”—though this is what Krugman favors too). This puts him barely to the left (on this issue at least) of Alan Greenspan, who as we’ve reported here, has said that “nationalization” will probably be necessary. Wish Amy had asked him about full, permanent nationalization… Click here for Fred Moseley’s argument for it in the March/April issue of D&S. We’ll have an article about single-payer in that issue too.

Here is the beginning of the DN! transcript:

AMY GOODMAN: Your first assessment of the speech last night?

JOSEPH STIGLITZ: Oh, I thought it was a brilliant speech. I thought he did an excellent job of wending his way through the fine line of trying to say—give confidence about where we’re going, and yet the reality of our economy—country facing a very severe economic downturn. I thought he was good in also giving a vision and saying while we’re doing the short run, here are three very fundamental long-run problems that we have to deal.

The critical question that many Americans are obviously concerned about is the question of what do we do with the banks. And on that, he again was very clear that he recognized the anger that Americans have about the way the banks have taken our taxpayer money and misspent it, but he didn’t give a clear view of what he was going to do.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to the clip last night. During his speech, President Obama acknowledged more bailouts of the nation’s banks would be needed, but didn’t directly say, as Joe Stiglitz was saying, whether the government would move to nationalize Citigroup and Bank of America.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We will act with the full force of the federal government to ensure that the major banks that Americans depend on have enough confidence and enough money to lend even in more difficult times. And when we learn that a major bank has serious problems, we will hold accountable those responsible; force the necessary adjustments; provide the support to clean up their balance sheets; and assure the continuity of a strong, viable institution that can serve our people and our economy.

Now, I understand that on any given day Wall Street may be more comforted by an approach that gives bank bailouts with no strings attached and that holds nobody accountable for their reckless decisions. But such an approach won’t solve the problem. And our goal is to quicken the day when we restart lending to the American people and American business and end this crisis once and for all. And I intend to hold these banks fully accountable for the assistance they receive, and this time they will have to clearly demonstrate how taxpayer dollars result in more lending for the American taxpayer.

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama on Tuesday night. Joe Stiglitz, is he holding the banks accountable?

JOSEPH STIGLITZ: Well, so far, it hasn’t happened. I think the more fundamental issues are the following. He says what we need is to get lending restarted. If he had taken the $700 billion that we gave, levered it ten-to-one, created some new institution guaranteed—provide partial guarantees going for, that would have generated $7 trillion of new lending. So, if he hadn’t looked at the past, tried to bail out the banks, bail out the shareholders, bail out the other—the bankers’ retirement fund, we would have easily been able to generate the lending that he says we need.

So the question isn’t just whether we hold them accountable; the question is: what do we get in return for the money that we’re giving them? At the end of his speech, he spent a lot of time talking about the deficit. And yet, if we don’t do things right—and we haven’t been doing them right—the deficit will be much larger. You know, whether you spend money well in the stimulus bill or whether you’re spending money well in the bank recapitalization, it’s important in everything that we do that we get the bang for the buck. And the fact is, the bank recovery bill, the way we’ve been spending the money on the bank recovery, has not been giving bang for the buck. We haven’t gotten anything out.

What we got in terms of preferred shares, relative to what we gave them, a congressional oversight panel calculated, was only sixty-seven cents on the dollar. And the preferred shares that we got have diminished in value since then. So we got cheated, to put it bluntly. What we don’t know is that—whether we will continue to get cheated. And that’s really at the core of much of what we’re talking about. Are we going to continue to get cheated?

Now, why that’s so important is, one way of thinking about this—end of the speech, he starts talking about a need of reforms in Social Security, put it—you know, there’s a deficit in Social Security. Well, a few years ago, when President Bush came to the American people and said there was a hole in Social Security, the size of the hole was $560 billion approximately. That meant that if we spent that amount of money, we would have guaranteed the—put on sound financial basis our Social Security system. We wouldn’t have to talk about all these issues. We would have provided security for retirement for hundreds of millions of Americans over the next seventy-five years. That’s less money than we spent in the bailouts of the banks, for which we have not been able to see any outcome. So it’s that kind of tradeoff that seems to me that we ought to begin to talk about.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you say Obama, too, has confused saving the banks with saving the bankers.

JOSEPH STIGLITZ: Exactly.

AMY GOODMAN: Should they all have been fired?

JOSEPH STIGLITZ: Well, I think one has to look at it on a bank-by-bank basis. Clearly, the banks that have not been managed very well, we need to not only fire them, we have to change their incentive structure. And it’s not just the level of pay; it’s the form of the pay. Their incentive structures encourage excessive risk taking, shortsighted behavior. And in a way, it’s a vindication of economic theory. They behaved in the irresponsible way that their incentive structures would have led them to behave.

Read or listen to the rest of the interview.

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