The Jackie Robinson of Economists
Denver Forum President writes about a recent Forum event
By George Mitrovich
The Huffington Post
February 25, 2009
Some of us warned early on the American economy was going down and not likely to recover in the foreseeable future.
Late last year government economists would tell us we're in a "recession", but I contend what's happening cannot be defined either by monetary definition or historical precedent. Why? Because, in the modern era nothing like this has been experienced before.
What about the Great Depression? No. The United States in 2009 is vastly different from what it was 77 years ago. It's not even close. In population alone there are 186 million more of us now than when Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected - which invalidates the comparison.
In 1932 no one talked about a "global economy," it wasn't there. But the effect of what's happening now spans the globe. As a result the finger of blame for the collapse of markets and economies of other nations - even tiny Iceland is insolvent - is directed pointedly at the United States, where laissez faire regulation caused the wheels of America's economic wagon to come off - with disastrous worldwide consequences.
My constant refrain about our economic collapse has annoyed some, but I cannot, will not, deny what I see happening in America - and in the wider world beyond our borders and shores. My critics insist I do not understand economics. Maybe. But I have been right more often about the run up to our current economic crisis than many alleged "experts."
I have invoked the imagery of space's "black hole" to describe our monetary peril - meaning a mass so dense that our ability to escape it becomes problematical. We're in a place from which no one knows how we emerge, when we emerge - if we emerge. The best and brightest of our time appear clueless.
Which leads me to the following:
As president of The Denver Forum I recently invited Dr. William E. Spriggs, the chair of the Department of Economics at Howard University in our nation's capital, to speak on the economy.
I had seen Dr. Spriggs on C-Span the night before the presidential inauguration of Barack Obama. Dr. Spriggs was part of a panel on the economy held at Howard. The panelists included some major heavyweights in the world of economics - Andrew Brimmer, ex of the Federal Reserve Board, John Fund of The Wall Street Journal, and the head of UBS, the powerful Swiss bank. But it was Dr. Spriggs who impressed me the most.
But television is one art form, public speaking, another. I thus incurred a certain risk with Dr. Spriggs. Perhaps the vibrant and impressive person on TV would be dull and disappointing in person. It's happened.
That was hardly the case.
Following my introduction Dr. Spriggs came to the podium. In his hands he held neither manuscript nor note cards. Nothing. I didn't know what to expect.
What transpired in the next 40 minutes was a presentation magisterial in its reach. Jeff Hart, a member of The Forum and a key figure with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), described Dr. Spriggs' speech as "The most lucid explanation on our economy I've heard." In that judgment, he was hardly alone.
I did not take notes on Dr. Spriggs' speech, so focused was I on what he was saying, but toward the end of his speech he used a striking metaphor. He said, "The body of the economy has fallen off the top of the Empire State Building. You may be thinking, 'Okay, I'm not affected.' No, perhaps not, but the body has only passed the 76th floor!"
While Dr. Spriggs was alarming about where we are and where we're headed, and questions whether the Obama Administration's $787 billion stimulus plan is sufficient - a view shared by other economists, both left and right - he was nonetheless upbeat on the resiliency of the American people; our greatest strength, he said, in vexing and troublesome times.
Subsequently I had a conversation with Bob Kuttner, the editor and founder of The American Prospect, and a highly regarded economist. I asked him if he knew William E. Spriggs? He replied, "I do. Bill Spriggs is the Jackie Robinson of economists. He broke the barrier of white-only economists."
If Dr. Spriggs is that, the "Jackie Robinson of economists", why is he so seldom on TV? I regularly watch the MSNBC troika of Matthews, Olbermann, and Maddow, and I do not recall seeing Dr. Spriggs. I've seen white economists, but not Bill Spriggs. Why not?
If the EPA's Jeff Hart is right that Dr. Spriggs understands better than any other American economist the God-awful mess we're in, if he posses an economist's rare gift of presenting immense learning in language discernible to common people, as indeed he does, then why isn't he more visible?
That question pointedly raised, I would strongly urge readers of The Huffington Post to read Spriggs' extraordinarily prescient testimony in 2007 before the Committee on Way and Means in the U.S. House of Representative: http://waysandmeans.house.gov/hearings.asp?formmode=view&id=5395.
Having met him, having had the privilege of hearing him speak, my great regret is that President Obama did not select William E. Spriggs as Secretary of the Treasury.