Tag: christina romer

Christina Romer’s Naïve Keynesianism

President Obama’s former head of the Council of Economic Advisers has taken to the pages of the New York Times to warn us against pursuing “fiscal austerity just now,” particularly not spending cuts.

Christina Romer’s views are Keynesian. She doesn’t use that word, but she is focused on juicing “demand” with optimally-targeted and well-managed government “investments.”

Economics has numerous schools of thought, but Romer’s writing reflects nothing but the most simplistic Keynesian framework. The fact that the huge Keynesian stimulus of recent years that she supported has coincided with the slowest economic recovery since World War II seems to be of little concern to her.

She also doesn’t seem to be interested in how government spending actually works in the real world. She assures us that “government spending on things like basic scientific research, education and infrastructure … helps increase future productivity.”

That view has a veneer of economic authenticity, but it leaves many issues unaddressed:

  • Most federal spending is on transfers and consumption, not investment. The debt crisis we face is driven mainly by entitlements, which is consumption spending. Romer’s talk of investment spending is a rhetorical bait-and-switch.
  • Romer doesn’t distinguish between average and marginal spending. If some federal investment spending has created positive net returns, that doesn’t mean that additional spending would. Governments already spend massive amounts on education, for example, so the marginal return from added spending is probably very low.
  • If the government investments that Romer touts are so valuable, then why hasn’t the government done them already? After all, federal, state, and local governments in this country already spend 41 percent of GDP.
  • If science, education, and infrastructure investments have the high returns that Romer seems to think they do, then why does the government need to be involved? Private firms seeking higher profits would be all over such investments.
  • Romer mentions that the “social returns” on some investments might be higher than purely private returns. However, that doesn’t mean that the government should automatically intervene. For one thing, the government suffers from all kinds of management failures and other pathologies.
  • Romer also ignores that the government imposes substantial deadweight losses on the economy when it commandeers the resources it needs for its “investments.”

So my reading assignment for Romer is www.DownsizingGovernment.org so she can get a better understanding of how federal programs actually operate.

And readers interested in all the economics of government spending that Romer doesn’t tell you about can consult Edgar Browning’s excellent book, Stealing From Each Other.

Public Schools = One Big Jobs Program

Who said public schooling is all about the adults in the system and not the kids? Everyone knows it’s even more basic than that: Public schooling is a jobs program, pure and simple. At least, that’s what one can’t help but conclude as our little “stimulus” turns one-year old today.

“State fiscal relief really has kept hundreds of thousands of teachers and firefighters and first responders on the job,” declared White House Council of Economic Advisers head Christina Romer today.

Throwing almost $100 billion at education sure as heck ought to have kept teachers in their jobs, and the unemployment numbers suggest teachers have had a pretty good deal relative to the folks paying their salaries. While unemployment in “educational services” – which consists predominantly of teachers, but also includes other education-related occupations – hasn’t returned to its recent, April 2008 low of 2.2 percent, in January 2010 it was well below the national 9.7 percent rate, sitting at 5.9 percent.

Of course, retaining all of these teachers might be of value to taxpayers if having so many of them had a positive impact on educational outcomes. But looking at decades of achievement data one can’t help but conclude that keeping teacher jobs at all costs truly isn’t about the kids, but the adults either employed in education, or trying to get the votes of those employed in education. As the following chart makes clear, we have added teachers in droves for decades without improving ultimate achievement at all:


(Sources: Digest of Education Statistics, Table 64, and National Assessment of Educational Progress, Long-Term Trend results)

Since the early 1970s, achievement scores for 17-year-olds – our schools’ “final products” – haven’t improved one bit, while the number of teachers per 100 students is almost 50 percent greater. If anything, then, we have far too many teachers, and would do taxpayers, and the economy, a great service by letting some of them go. Citizens could then keep more of their money and invest in private, truly economy-growing ventures. But no, we’re supposed to celebrate the endless continuation of debilitating economic – and educational – waste.

You’ll have to pardon me for not considering this an accomplishment I should cheer about.

Can Unemployment Benefits Create Jobs?

At the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, sociologist Michael Leachman claims “some of the most effective job-creation and job protection measures” in last year’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act are excluded from the job figures to be released on recovery.gov on January 30.   He explains that, “Most of ARRA’s distributed dollars to date have gone directly to individuals (including greater jobless benefits and food stamps) and states (including greater federal support for Medicaid).  Although these dollars are likely protecting or creating hundreds of thousands of jobs, none of the aid for individuals or the Medicaid support are [sic] reflected in the January 30 jobs data release.”

In particular, Leachman claims Recovery Act funds to extend unemployment benefits from 26 to 79 weeks (and to 99 weeks since November) “produces and sustains jobs.”  For proof, he cites estimates from Mark Zandi of Economy.com “that every dollar spent on extending unemployment insurance benefits produces $1.61 in economic activity.”

This analysis runs into two big problems.  The first is that it assumes that the amount of time people spend on unemployment insurance is unrelated to how long the government offers to keep paying benefits.  The second is that it assumes that the assumptions about “fiscal multipliers” built into Economy.com econometric model are actually evidence rather than just assumptions.

On the first point, page 75 of the 2007 OECD Employment Outlook explains: “It is well established that generous unemployment benefits can increase the duration of unemployment spells and the overall level of unemployment… This could have a negative impact on productivity through inefficient use of resources and depreciation of human capital during long spells of unemployment. In addition, by reducing the opportunity cost of unemployment, generous unemployment benefits may lead existing employees to reduce their work effort, thereby lowering productivity (see e.g. Shapiro and Stiglitz, 1984; Albrecht and Vroman, 1996).”

As I recently noted, the overwhelming evidence that extended unemployment benefits raise the duration and rate of unemployment comes from economists in the Obama administration, Larry Summers and Treasury economist Alan Krueger, as well as many others such as Lawrence Katz of Harvard and Bruce Meyer of the University of Chicago.

Contrary to Leachman, bribing people to stay on the dole for an extra 53-73 weeks leaves them with less money to spend, not more.   It also looks bad on resumes, and may cause lasting damage to future job prospects.

Leachman’s second problem concerns fiscal multipliers, such as Zandi’s astonishing 1.6 multiplier for unemployment benefits.

In a similar effort to pretend that borrowed money is free, and therefore “creates jobs,” the Council of Economic Advisers claims to use “mainstream estimates of economic multipliers for the effects of fiscal stimulus.” Yet the cited sources are not from academic research at all, but from the mysterious innards of notoriously unreliable econometric forecasting models from Economy.com, Global Insight, J.P. Morgan Chase and Goldman Sachs.

At the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, by contrast, economist Sylvain Leduc surveyed contemporary research by ten distinguished scholars, including current CEA chair Christina Romer and IMF chief economist Olivier Blanchard.

“An interesting aspect of this new literature,” wrote Leduc, is that, notwithstanding their vastly different methodologies, they reach surprisingly similar conclusions. Regarding the impact of tax cuts on the level of real GDP one year after the change in taxes, the three studies predict a multiplier of roughly 1.2…  Moreover …  in contrast to theoretical predictions from the simple Keynesian framework, the analyses found that government spending had less bang for the buck than tax cuts. For instance, one year after the increase in spending, the impact on the level of real GDP is less than one-for-one, partly reflecting a decline in investment.”

In this new academic research, the estimated multiplier for deficit spending ranged from 0.4 to 0.6 — meaning a dollar of added federal debt added far less than a dollar to GDP.   Moreover, an IMF paper on “Fiscal Multipliers” adds that negative multipliers are quite possible: “fiscal expansions can be contractionary if they decrease consumers’ and investors’ confidence, especially if the fiscal expansion raises, or reinforces, fiscal sustainability concerns.”

Whether the government pays people to work or to stay on the dole, it has to get the money by taxing, borrowing or printing money — all of which reduce real income and employment opportunities in the private sector.  To imagine that borrowing from Peter to pay Paul is a way to create or save Paul’s job is to forget that Peter expects his money back with interest.

If every dollar of unemployment benefits really added $1.61 to real GDP, then putting everyone on the dole would make us all much richer

Three Worthwhile Health Care Videos

The first comes from the group Patients United Now.  Keep this video in mind the next time you hear someone say that a new “public option” is not about a government takeover of the health care sector.

The next video comes from the Independence Institute in Colorado.  It is a nice complement to my colleague Michael Tanner’s recent study, “Massachusetts Miracle or Massachusetts Miserable: What the Failure of the ‘Massachusetts Model’ Tells Us about Health Care Reform.”

Finally, a really disturbing video showing Christina Romer, chair of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors, refusing to admit to a congressman that the president’s reform plan would oust Americans from their current health plans.

It’s a shame what politics does to really smart people.

McAuliffe-nomics

Good news for Virginia taxpayers! Turns out that gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe, longtime Democratic fundraiser and former national chairman, understands the power of tax cuts. At a forum on Wednesday, he said that $1.25 million in tax cuts could generate $80 million in economic activity. I’m not sure even Art Laffer or Christina Romer would claim that much return on tax cuts. But here’s McAuliffe:

At George Mason University yesterday, McAuliffe said Virginia’s appeal to Hollywood filmmakers could improve the state’s economic picture. McAuliffe said he became familiar with the potency of the film industry while serving as chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

During a roundtable discussion with local filmmakers and producers at George Mason, he unveiled a proposal to offer additional tax incentives and other benefits to film crews making movies in Virginia. He said the state has been losing out to such states as North Carolina and Georgia, which offer greater benefits and have seen their film industries flourish.

He pointed to the HBO miniseries “John Adams,” about the nation’s second president, as an example of a film project that had benefited the state. The miniseries, filmed partly in Williamsburg and at the College of William and Mary, cost Virginia $1.25 million in tax breaks, but it boosted the local economy by $80 million and created 3,500 jobs, he said.

Unless … wait a minute. Could it be that McAuliffe only favors targeted tax cuts, tax cuts that would direct economic activity in a particular direction, tax cuts that would in fact help his Hollywood fundraising friends? Hard to say. He’s not calling for tax increases during his gubernatorial campaign, but of course he helped President Clinton raise taxes and he supports President Obama’s tax-spend-and-borrow policies. According to this liberal blogger, McAuliffe tells liberals privately that he can’t run for governor of Virginia on a tax-increase platform … if you get my drift.

But hey, if a $1.25 million tax break can generate $80 million of economic activity, what could a $125 million tax break do for Virginia?

America’s Problem: Too Little Government Lending!

Suffering through a massive housing bust spurred by the activities of utterly irresponsible government-sponsored entities such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, may have led you to believe that the government should stop subsidizing the irresponsible and improvident.   Indeed, with government spending and lending off the charts, you might even have come to believe that Washington should cut back on its spending and lending. 

Silly you.

According to the Obama administration, more spending and lending is in order.  And by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.  Indeed, preparing the government for even more spending and lending apparently is the goal of current policy, which already includes a lot of spending and lending.

Christina Romer, Chairwoman of the Council of Economic Advisers, was interviewed by CNN’s John King on Sunday.  She helpfully sought to clear up the confusion exhibited by  those of us who thought the current economic crisis resulted from irresponsible spending and lending.  According to CNN:

KING: Mr. Liddy said he is going to break up AIG. Do we need to break up Fannie and Freddie?

ROMER: I think that is certainly going to be an issue going forward. I think it should be part of the overall financial regulatory reform, to figure out what is the best way.

Again, you know, anytime we have now got taxpayer money on the line, what we have an obligation to do is do it in a way that protects the American taxpayer. What is going to be the way that gets these institutions safe, gets them doing what we need them to do, which is lend like crazy, and just basically functioning again for the economy.

Of course. 

“Lend like crazy” really is the “just basically functioning” of Fannie and Freddie.  But it is beyond question that this behavior helped spark the current crisis.  Unfortunately, Dr. Romer does not explain exactly how we can make these fiscally irresponsible, money-losing organizations “safe.”  Nor does she enlighten us on how having Fannie and Freddie ”lend like crazy” will have better results than before. 

If this is the advice President Barack Obama is getting from what traditionally is one of the most economically responsible agencies in the executive branch, imagine what he is hearing elsewhere.  Buckle up, for the economic ride is likely to get much worse.

Oh C’mon, NYT!

C@L readers know that I’m a fan of the NY Times’s news and business reporting. If you want depth and detail (especially today, when papers increasingly read like Tweets), the NYT’s news coverage is about as good as it gets.

The opinion page, sadly, is another matter.

Case in point, last Friday’s lead editorial chastising Japan and Europe for not adopting large fiscal stimulus plans. The lede:

The world economy has plunged into what is likely to be the most brutal recession since the 1930s, yet policy makers in Europe and Japan seem to believe there are more important things for them to do than to try to dig the world, including themselves, out.

That’s actually OK — the editorial board is free to believe (and espouse) that massive fiscal stimulus is the best policy for dealing with the current recession. But to use an old saying, they’re entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. Ignoring that admonition, the ed led off its final graf with this howler:

In a recent speech, Christina Romer, another of President Obama’s economic advisers, pointed out some lessons [sic] from the Great Depression: fiscal stimulus works.

If you follow the economic history literature, this is a stunner; some of Romer’s most important academic work demonstrates the opposite, namely that fiscal stimulus did little to get the United States out of the Depression [$] and subsequent U.S. recessions [$]. Has she rejected her own findings?

I tracked down the speech transcript and found out that, nope, she hasn’t; in fact, she was explicit that “fiscal policy was not the key engine of recovery in the Depression.”

Romer did go on to say that she strongly supports the Obama stimulus plan, believing it will be effective and worthwhile. But this belief is rooted in one school of economic thought (or ideology, to borrow from NYT columnist Paul Krugman), not history. Whatever the merits of Romer’s belief, the NYT’s line about the Depression proving that “fiscal stimulus works” is just plain horseradish.

In recent years, the NYT editorial board has repeatedly chastised non-progressives, claiming they put ideology over objective fact. Will the ed board scold itself?