Archives: 12/2009

CBO, the Wizard of Oz, and the Keynesian Fairy Tale

The Obama Administration said that the so-called stimulus was necessary so that the unemployment rate would not rise above 8 percent. Indeed, the White House warned that the joblessness rate would climb to 9 percent if lawmakers did not approve the $787 billion package. Critics responded by explaining that making government bigger would divert resources from the productive sector of the economy and hurt growth. These skeptics also noted that nations using “Keynesian” policy, such as the United States in the 1930s and Japan in the 1990s, did not generate good results. And since the unemployment rate is now above 10 percent, it certainly seems like opponents were correct.

But now the supposedly non-partisan Congressional Budget Office has jumped to the defense of the White House, estimating that the spending bill actually generated beween 600,000 and 1.6 million jobs. How can that be, you may ask, when the number of jobs has fallen by more than 3 million? The CBO neatly sidesteps that real-world concern by moving the goalposts, using a slightly more sophisticated version of Obama’s “jobs created or saved” alchemy. Their jobs-created estimate is compared to a make-believe baseline of how many jobs there would be “without the law.”

CBO estimates that in the third quarter of calendar year 2009, an additional 600,000 to 1.6 million people were employed in the United States, and real (inflation-adjusted) gross domestic product (GDP) was 1.2 percent to 3.2 percent higher, than would have been the case in the absence of ARRA. …CBO’s current estimates differ only slightly from those CBO prepared in March 2009. At that time, CBO projected that in the third quarter of 2009, U.S. employment would be higher by 600,000 to 1.5 million people with ARRA than it would be without the law, and real GDP would be 1.1 percent to 3.0 percent higher. CBO’s new estimates reflect small revisions to earlier projections of the timing and magnitude of changes to spending and revenues under ARRA. …Economic output and employment in the spring and summer of 2009 were lower than CBO had projected at the beginning of the year. But in CBO’s judgment, that outcome reflects greater-than-projected weakness in the underlying economy rather than lower-than-expected effects of ARRA.

Needless to say, this means there is no objective benchmark. The unemployment rate could jump to 15 percent and total job losses could reach 10 million, but CBO would continue to say, for all intents and purposes, that the results from their Keynesian model are more important than any real-world numbers. This is the fiscal policy version of the Wizard of Oz, and we’re supposed to ignore reality just as Dorothy and friends were supposed to ignore the man behind the curtain.

To be fair, there is nothing inherently wrong with CBO’s methodology. Economic analysis frequently requires people to make assumptions about how the world would behave with or without a certain policy. So the real question is whether Keynesian economics makes sense from a theoretical perspective, whether there is any supporting evidence, and whether there are more compelling alternatives. Click the links and decide for yourself.

Cato’s Legal Arguments Worry U.S. Government

Last month, Cato (joined by Cato senior fellow Randy Barnett) filed a brief in United States v. Comstock, a case regarding the constitutionality of a law authorizing the federal government to civilly commit anyone in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons whom the attorney general certifies to be “sexually dangerous.” The effect of such an action is to continue the certified person’s confinement after the expiration of his prison term, without proof of a new criminal violation.

As I wrote in a previous blog post, “the use of federal power here is unconstitutional because it is not tied to any of Congress’s limited and enumerated powers.” Moreover, the government’s reliance on the Necessary and Proper Clause (Article I, Section 8), “is misplaced because that clause grants no independent power but merely ‘carries into execution’ the powers enumerated elsewhere in that section.” The commitment of prisoners after their terms end simply cannot fit into one of the enumerated powers.

While we of course hope that the Supreme Court pays attention to our brief, we know that Solicitor General Elana Kagan, at least, is concerned enough about our arguments to spend several pages of the government’s reply brief addressing them (see pages 5-9). 

For more on Comstock, see its case page on SCOTUSwiki, which now has all the briefs and will around the Jan. 12 argument date be populated with argument previews and reviews, as well as links to media coverage.

Schumer Fouls Out

Chuck Schumer is perhaps my favorite U.S. Senator because of his endless capacity to make me laugh.  He often reminds me of Inspector Clouseau, the earnest but bumbling detective from the Pink Panther movies.

Through an excellent post by Scott Lincome today, I learned not only that official NBA jerseys (those worn by the players) are made for Adidas in upstate New York, but that Senator Schumer is attempting to thwart the company’s decision to move production to Thailand. 

I share Scott’s assessment of the absurdity of Schumer’s efforts, but more importantly, I wanted to share this humorous footage of Schumer’s awkward nativist appeal that basketball is an American-centric game….conducted in front of German-born NBA Star Dirk Nowitski’s jersey. 

Classic!

Is Trade Policy Obsolete?

That is one of the conclusions in my new paper, “Made on Earth: How Global Economic Integration Renders Trade Policy Obsolete.”

For hundreds of years, trade policy has been premised on the assumptions that exports are good, imports are bad, and the interests of domestic producers are tantamount to the “national interest.” Though that mercantilist worldview has never been accurate, its persistence as a pillar of trade policy into the 21st century is especially confounding given the emergence and proliferation of disaggregated production processes, transnational supply chains, and cross-border investment. Those trends have blurred any meaningful distinctions between “our” producers and “their” producers and speak to a long chain of interdependent economic interests between product conception and consumption.

Still, trade policy places the interests of domestic producers above all else even though the definition of a domestic producer is elusive and even though actions on behalf of producers often harm interests along the product continuum, which include engineers, designers, financiers, processors, assemblers, marketers, shippers, retailers, consumers, and others.

In 2008, foreign nameplate automobile producers, employing American workers, paying American taxes, and supporting American businesses, communities, and charities, accounted for almost half of all U.S. light vehicle production. The largest “U.S.” steel producer, Arcelor-Mittal, is a majority-Indian-owned company with headquarters in Luxembourg and Hong Kong. The largest “German” producer, Thyssen-Krupp, is completing a $3.7 billion green-field investment in steel production facilities in Alabama, which will create an estimated 2,700 jobs in that state.

So, who are “we”? And who are “they”?

Are these foreign-named or –headquartered companies not “our” producers because some of the profits they earn are repatriated or invested in operations outside the United States? If so, then shouldn’t we consider U.S. Steel Corporation, which earned 25 percent of its revenue last year on steel produced in Slovakia and Serbia, and General Motors, which has had success producing and selling cars in China, to be “their” producers? Why should U.S. Steel, General Motors, and the unions that organize workers at those companies dictate the parameters of U.S. trade policy, while Toyota, Thyssen and their non-union workers have no input? Why should trade policy reflect a bias in favor of producers—or worse, particular producers—at all? That bias hurts other interests—both foreign-based and domestic—in the supply chain.

Global commerce isn’t a competition between “us” and “them.” It is instead a competition between entities that defy national identification because of cross-border investment or because the final good or service comprises value added from many different countries. This reality demands openness in both directions, which flies in the face of conventional trade policy wisdom, which seeks to maximize access for domestic producers abroad while minimizing access for foreign producers at home.

It is only for simplicity’s sake that a container full of iPods shipped from China and unloaded in Seattle registers as imports from China. But the fact is that only a few dollars of the $150 cost to produce an iPod is Chinese value-added. The rest is mostly value attributable to Japanese, Korean, Singaporean, Taiwanese, and American components and labor. Then iPods retail for about $300 and most of the mark-up accrues to Apple, which uses the profits to support innovation and higher paying jobs in the United States.

From a trade policy perspective, each iPod imported from China adds $150 to our bilateral deficit in “high tech” goods. It is regarded as a problem to solve. The temptation is to restrict.

But from a commercial perspective, each imported iPod supports U.S. economic activity up the value chain. Without access to lower-cost labor abroad—if rudimentary component manufacturing and assembly operations were required to take place in the United States—ideas hatched in American labs would be far less likely to make it beyond the white board. Much higher costs would make it far more difficult to create these ubiquitous devices that have, in turn, spawned new ideas and industries.

Essentially, the factory floor has broken through its walls and today spans borders and oceans, making Chinese and American labor complementary in this and many other industries. Yet, despite all of this integration, despite the reliance of producers in the United States and abroad on imported raw materials, components, and capital equipment, trade policy still pretends that access to the domestic market is a favor to grant or a privilege to revoke. Trade policy is officially ignorant of commercial reality.

Openness to trade in both directions is an imperative in the 21st century. Policies that do not try to channel incentives for the benefit of specific groups but rather provide the greatest opportunities for citizens to participate most effectively in our increasingly integrated global economy are the ones that will maximize economic growth and national welfare. People in other countries should be thought of more as customers, suppliers, and potential collaborators instead of competitive threats.

In the 21st century, instead of serving the exclusive interests of domestic producers, trade policy should be about welcoming investment and attracting and cultivating the human capital necessary to make the United States the location of choice for the world’s highest value economic activities.

Lying and the Federal Government

Speaking of White House gate-crashers Tareq and Michaele Salahi (as we were trying to think of an excuse to do, to increase blog traffic), Slate says they might be guilty of a federal crime. What crime? Well, possibly trespassing on federal property. Or maybe the “broad prohibition on lying to the federal government.” Title 18, section 1001 of the U.S. Code

can be used to prosecute anyone who “knowingly and willfully … falsifies, conceals, or covers up by any trick, scheme, or device a material fact” or “makes any materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or representation” to the government. That could include lying about your arrest record on a government job application, claiming a fake deduction on your taxes, or telling someone you’re on the White House invite list when you’re not.

I can’t help wondering, is there any equally broad prohibition on lying by the federal government? If the federal government, or a federal agency, or a federal official “knowingly and willfully … falsifies, conceals, or covers up” information or “makes any materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or representation” – about the costs of a new entitlement, or how a candidate for reelection will act in his next term, or case for going to war – is that prohibited? Or are the rules tougher on the ruled than the rulers?

Today’s White House ‘Jobs Summit’

Today’s Politico Arena asks:

The WH Jobs Summit: “A little less conversation? A little more action? ( please)”

My response:

Today’s White House “jobs summit” reflects little more, doubtless, than growing administration panic over the political implications of the unemployment picture.  With the 2010 election season looming just ahead, and little prospect that unemployment numbers will soon improve, Democrats feel compelled to “do something” – reflecting their general belief that for nearly every problem there’s a government solution.  Thus, this summit is heavily stacked with proponents of government action.  This morning’s Wall Street Journal tells us, for example, that “AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka is proposing a plan that would extend jobless benefits, send billions in relief to the states, open up credit to small businesses, pour more into infrastructure projects, and bring throngs of new workers onto the federal payroll – at a cost of between $400 billion and $500 billion.”  If Obama falls for that, we’ll be in this recession far beyond the 2010 elections.
 
The main reason we’re in this mess, after all, is because government – from the Fed’s easy money to the Community Reinvestment Act and the policies of Freddy and Fannie – encouraged what amounted to a giant Ponzi scheme.  So what is the administration’s response to this irresponsible behavior?  Why, it’s brainchilds like ”cash for clunkers,” which cost taxpayers $24,000 for each car sold.  Comedians can’t make this stuff up.  It takes big-government thinkers.
 
Americans will start to find jobs not when government pays them to sweep streets or caulk their own homes but when small businesses get back on their feet.  Yet that won’t happen as long as the kinds of taxes and national indebtedness that are inherent in such schemes as ObamaCare hang over our heads.  Milton Friedman put it well:  “No one spends someone else’s money as carefully as he spends his own.”  Yet the very definition of Obamanomics is spending other people’s money.  If he’s truly worried about the looming 2010 elections (and beyond), Mr. Obama should look to the editorial page of this morning’s Wall Street Journal, where he’ll read that in both Westchester and Nassau Counties in New York – New York! – Democratic county executives have just been thrown out of office, and the dominant reason is taxes.  Two more on the unemployment rolls.

College Students to Taxpayers: ‘Rent Now, Oppressors!’

Inside Higher Ed reports today on growing college student acitivism. And what are the young scholars suddenly so active about? Not unjust wars, racism, or anything else so high-minded. No, today the “no justice, no peace!” chants are all about the injustice of students being asked to pay for more of their hugely taxpayer-subsidized educations.

There’s a word for this kind of activism, and it’s not “idealism” or anything else so complimentary. It’s “rent seeking.” Or, if you want to put it more bluntly, “freeloading.”