Tag: economic growth

Does the U.S. Economy Need More Boeings or More Facebooks?

Remember the story of that once-great nation that sacrificed its well-paying manufacturing jobs for low-wage, burger-flipping jobs at the altar of free trade? At one time, that story was a popular rejoinder of manufacturing unions and their apologists to the inconvenient facts that, despite manufacturing employment attrition, the economy was producing an average of 1.84 million net new jobs per year every year between 1983 and 2007, a quarter century during which the real value of U.S. trade increased five-fold and real GDP more than doubled.

The claim that service-sector jobs are uniformly inferior to manufacturing jobs lost credibility, as average wages in the two broad sectors converged in 2005 and have been consistently higher in services ever since. In 2011, the average service sector wage stood at $19.18 per hour, as compared to $18.94 in manufacturing. (But I don’t recall buying any $25-$30 hamburgers last year.)

One reason for U.S. manufacturing wages being higher than services wages in the past is that manufacturing labor unions “succeeded” at winning concessions from management that turned out to be unsustainable. The value of manufacturing labor didn’t justify its exorbitant costs, which encouraged producers to substitute other inputs for labor and to adopt more efficient techniques and technologies.

With the superiority-of-manufacturing-wages argument discredited, new arguments have emerged attempting to make the case that there is something special – even sacred – about the manufacturing sector that should afford it special policy consideration. Many of those arguments, however, conflate the meanings of manufacturing sector employment and manufacturing sector health or they rely on statistics that don’t support their arguments or they become irrelevant by losing sight of the fact that resources are scarce and must be used efficiently. And too often the prescriptions offered would place the economy on the slippery slope that descends into industrial policy.

I recently submitted this rebuttal to this essay by an environmental sciences professor by the name of Vaclav Smil, who commits those errors. (Judging from the tone of his mostly evasive response to my rebuttal, Smil doesn’t seem to have much tolerance for views that differ from his own.) Perhaps most noteworthy among Smil’s slew of questionable arguments is his claim that manufacturing companies, like Boeing, valued at $50 billion, are better for the economy than service companies like Facebook, which is also valued at $50 billion because

[i]n terms of job creation there is no comparison… Boeing employs some 160,000 people, whereas Facebook only employs 2,000.

Granted, Boeing’s operations support more jobs. But is that better for the economy than a company that provides the same value using 1/80th the amount of labor resources? Of course not. We need economic growth in the United States to create wealth and increase living standards. Economic growth and employment are not one and the same thing. In fact, the essence of growth is creating more value with fewer inputs (or at lower input cost). Creating jobs is easy. Instead of bulldozers, mandate shovels; instead of shovels, require spoons. Inefficient production techniques can create more jobs than efficient ones, but they don’t create value, which is the economic goal.

With 2,000 workers producing the same value as 160,000 – one producing the same value as 80 – Facebook is 80 times more productive than Boeing, freeing up 158,000 workers for other more productive endeavors (perhaps 79 more Facebook-type operations). If those companies were individual countries, the per capita GDP in Facebookland would be $25 million, but only $3.125 million in Boeingia. Where would you rather live?

Smil calls my assessment a cruel joke, presumably for its failure to empathize with unemployed and underemployed Americans, by considering value before job creation.  But policies designed to encourage more Boeing’s, as Smil supports (or, in fairness, any businesses that employ at least X number of people or meet this requirement or that) would likely retard the establishment of firms, like Facebook, that produce the goods and services that people want to consume. The provision of goods and services that people want to buy – rather than those that policymakers in Washington think people want to buy (or are happy to force them to buy) – is the essence of value creation.

Thus, policies should incentivize (or, at least not discourage) the kind of innovation and entrepreneurship needed to create more Facebooks? This kind of business formation occurs in environments where the rule of law is clear and abided; where there is greater certainty to the business and political climate; where the specter of asset expropriation is negligible; where physical and administrative infrastructure is in good shape; where the local work force is productive; where skilled foreigners aren’t chased back to their own shores; where there are limited physical, political, and administrative frictions; and so on. In other words, restraining the role of government to its proper functions and nothing more would create the environment most likely to produce more Facebooks in both the manufacturing and services sectors.

The Brutal Impact of North Korean Statism

One hopes that the dictator of North Korea suffered greatly before he died. After all, his totalitarian and communist (pardon the redundancy) policies have cause untold death and misery.

But let’s try to learn an economics lesson. In a previous post, I compared long-term growth in Hong Kong and Argentina to show the difference between capitalism and cronyism.

But for a much more dramatic comparison, look at the difference between North Korea and South Korea.

Hmmm… I wonder if we can conclude that markets are better than statism?

And if you like these types of comparisons, here’s a post showing how Singapore has caught up with the United States. And here’s another comparing what’s happened in the past 30 years in Chile, Argentina, and Venezuela.

We’ve Had Enough Government ‘Stimulation’

After three years and $4 trillion in combined deficit spending, unemployment remains stubbornly high and the economy sluggish. That people are still asking what the government can do to stimulate the economy is mind-boggling.

That the Keynesian-inspired deficit spending binge did create jobs isn’t in question. The real question is whether it created any net jobs after all the negative effects of the spending and debt are taken into account. How many private-sector jobs were lost or not created in the first place because of the resources diverted to the government for its job creation? How many jobs are being lost or not created because of increased uncertainty in the business community over future tax increases and other detrimental government policies?

Don’t expect the disciples of interventionist government to attempt an answer to those questions any time soon. It has simply become gospel in some quarters that massive deficit spending is necessary to get the economy back on its feet.

The idea that government spending can “make up for” a slow-down in private economic activity has already been discredited by the historical record—including the Great Depression and Japan’s recent “lost decade.”

Our own history offers evidence that reducing the government’s footprint on the private sector is the better way to get the economy going.

Take for example, the “Not-So-Great Depression” of 1920-21. Cato Institute scholar Jim Powell notes that President Warren G. Harding inherited from his predecessor Woodrow Wilson “a post-World War I depression that was almost as severe, from peak to trough, as the Great Contraction from 1929 to 1933 that FDR would later inherit.” Instead of resorting to deficit spending to “stimulate” the economy, taxes and government spending were cut. The economy took off.

Similarly, fears at the end of World War II that demobilization would result in double-digit unemployment when the troops returned home were unrealized. Instead, spending was dramatically reduced, economic controls were lifted, and the returning troops were successfully reintegrated into the economy.

Therefore, the focus of policymakers in Washington should be on fostering long-term economic growth instead of futilely trying to jump-start the economy with costly short-term government spending sprees. In order to reignite economic growth and job creation, the federal government should enact dramatic cuts in government spending, eliminate burdensome regulations, and scuttle restrictions on foreign trade.

The budgetary reality is that policymakers today have no choice but to drastically reduce spending if we are to head off the looming fiscal train wreck. Stimulus proponents generally recognize that our fiscal path is unsustainable, but they argue that the current debt binge is nonetheless critical to an economic recovery.

There’s no more evidence for this belief than there is for the existence of the tooth fairy.

Not only has Washington’s profligacy left us worse off, our children now face the prospect of reduced living standards and crushing debt.


This article originally appeared in a PolicyMic debate between the Cato Institute’s Tad DeHaven and Demos senior fellow Lew Daly. Check out Daly’s piece here.

New Video Has Important Message: Freedom and Prosperity vs. Big Government and Stagnation

The folks from the Koch Institute put together a great video a couple of months ago looking at why some nations are rich and others are poor.

That video looked at the relationship between economic freedom and various indices that measure quality of life. Not surprisingly, free markets and small government lead to better results.

Now they have a new video that looks at recent developments in the United States. Unfortunately, you will learn that the U.S. is slipping in the wrong direction.

The entire video is superb, but there are two things that merit special praise, one because of intellectual honesty and the other because of intellectual effectiveness.

1. The refreshingly honest aspect of the video is its non-partisan tone. It explains, in a neutral fashion, that Bush undermined prosperity by making government bigger and that Obama is undermining prosperity by increasing the burden of government.

2. The most important and effective argument in the video, at least from my perspective, is that it shows clearly that a larger government necessarily comes at the expense of the productive sector of the economy. Pay extra-close attention around the 2:00 mark.

It’s also worth pointing out that there are several policies that impact on economic performance. The Koch Institute video focuses primarily on the key issues of fiscal policy and regulation, but trade, monetary policy, property rights, and rule of law are examples of other policies that also are very important.

This video, narrated by yours truly, looks at economic growth from this more comprehensive perspective.

The moral of the story from both videos is very straightforward. If the answer is bigger government, you’ve asked a very strange question.

Trade Helps Explain Texas-Sized Job Growth

As its governor, Rick Perry, weighs a run for the White House, Texas has drawn attention for its healthy job growth. Since the recession ended in June 2009, Texas has accounted for half of the net new jobs added to the U.S. economy, according to the lead story in this morning’s USA Today. That’s quite a record for one lone state.

We’ll leave it to others for now to argue over how much credit Gov. Perry can claim. Some credit surely goes to high oil prices, fueling job growth in a sector important to the Texas economy. Another reason for its relatively strong job growth is a friendly business climate, including no state income tax and relatively light regulations. And for those who scapegoat trade for the nation’s persistently high unemployment rate, consider that Texas is the nation’s number one trading state. As the USA Today story notes:

Overseas shipments by Texas’ strong computer, electronics, petrochemical and other industries rose 21% last year, compared with 15% for the nation, according to the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank. The state also benefits from its proximity to Latin American countries that are big importers of U.S. goods … The surge creates jobs for Texas manufacturers and ports.

As I can attest from recent speaking engagements in San Antonio and Laredo, Texans have embraced their state’s position as the nation’s leading gateway for trade with NAFTA-partner Mexico and the rest of Latin America.

While politicians and union bosses from other states grumble about allegedly unfair trade, the latest trade and job numbers show that the people of Texas are making the most of the opportunities created by our more open economy.


Chained CPI: A Stealth Tax Increase

As we close in on congressional votes to increase the federal debt limit, negotiators are coming up with all kinds of ideas to hike taxes. (Suspiciously, they haven’t revealed very many spending cut ideas so far).

One idea being discussed is to raise revenue by reducing the indexing of parameters in the income tax code. Currently, tax brackets and other features of the tax code are indexed to the Consumer Price Index (CPI). It is widely recognized that the CPI overestimates inflation for various reasons, as discussed here.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics has developed a more accurate (and lower) measure of inflation, called chained CPI. If the tax code was indexed to chained CPI instead of CPI, the government would receive an automatic tax increase relative to current law every year until the end of time.

Switching to chained CPI is a very bad idea for two reasons:

  • It would create a large tax increase over the long run. And it would be an invisible annual tax increase on families and voters because there would be no obvious changes in their tax forms.
  • It would be an anti-growth tax increase because it would push families into higher tax brackets more quickly over time, subjecting them to higher marginal tax rates. The chained CPI proposal is essentially a proposal to increase marginal tax rates slowly and steadily over time.

Some economists may argue that the chained CPI proposal is a good idea because the tax code would more accurately reflect inflation, and it would. However, the tax code already contains a bias that pushes families into higher tax brackets over time, which is called “real bracket creep.” Real growth in the economy steadily moves taxpayers into higher rate brackets since the tax code is indexed for inflation but not real growth. The discussion in the Congressional Budget Office’s new long-range budget outlook implies that this will be an important force in raising federal revenues as a share of GDP in coming decades.

So I’ve got a better idea than indexing the tax code to chained CPI: indexing the tax code to nominal GDP growth. That would adjust for the effects of both inflation and real economic growth on tax code parameters, and it would prevent stealth tax rate increases under our graduated income tax system.

Tax Cuts, Loopholes, and Government Size

President Obama wants to raise revenues by reducing tax deductions and other tax breaks, which the administration calls “spending in the tax code.” Donald Marron of the Tax Policy Center argues that “hundreds of billions of dollars of spending are disguised as tax cuts.”

Don is a very good economist, and he is concerned that special interest tax breaks can misallocate resources the same way that spending subsidies do. I agree. But I’m also concerned that tax breaks and spending subsidies have different implications for the size of government, which is where I part ways with Don and the president.

The following Tax Policy Matrix helps sort out which sorts of tax cuts make economic sense when government size is also a consideration.

The government distorts the economy and reduces GDP through both its taxing and spending actions. One reason is that both taxes and spending cause individuals and businesses to change their behaviors and reallocate resources in suboptimal ways. The table has columns for tax and spending distortions. It also has a column for government debt because running deficits today may translate into higher levels of distortionary taxes tomorrow.

The table includes two Starve-the-Beast scenarios. “With Starve-the-Beast” means that tax cuts will reduce government spending to some extent over time. A narrow tax base shot full of loopholes creates allocation distortions, but if starve-the-beast works that sort of tax base also limits the government’s size creating a counterbalancing benefit to GDP.

In the short run, starve-the-beast may or may not work. Bill Niskanen says that it does not, but I think the effectiveness of it changes over time as political culture changes. In the 1980s and 1990s, policymakers took corrective actions when deficits rose, but the revival of Keynesianism in recent years changed the political culture and, for a while, nullified the fear of deficits for many politicians.

In the long run, it seems obvious that the inflow of tax revenues to the government is a hard check on spending because there are financial market limits to government borrowing.

Let’s go through the rows in the table:

Row 1. The government starts off with a balanced budget and with tax and spending systems that cause medium damage.

Row 2. The government cuts taxes $100 by way of a loophole. Tax distortions rise because marginal tax rates are unchanged and we’ve added a new distortion. Higher debt likely pushes up future tax distortions. This appears to be a poor policy choice.

Row 3. The government cuts taxes $100 by way of marginal rate cut. Tax distortions are reduced, which increases economic growth. The downside is higher debt. This may or may be a good policy depending on the quality of the tax cut. If the cut is to a very distortionary part of the tax code—such as the corporate income tax rate—this policy could make sense. One reason is that the deficit increase might end up being quite small because of the positive economic response to the pro-efficiency tax cut.

Row 4. With starve-the-beast operational, a special interest tax cut becomes a bit of a closer call. Tax distortions and debt rise, but government spending falls somewhat, so the net effect on the economy is unclear. However, I think there are considerations here aside from economics. Special interest tax breaks—such as the ethanol tax break—are troubling because they represent a corruption of the law, an affront to the American ideal of “equal justice under law.” So just on that basis, I’m against special interest breaks, and indeed am in favor replacing the current code with a flat tax.

Row 5. A pro-efficiency tax cut is very likely a winner if you assume that starve-the-beast is operational. Tax and spending distortions both fall, although there is a modest increase in debt.

So far we’ve left out the most important fiscal tool available to policymakers—spending cuts to unneeded and damaging programs to reduce government harm to the economy. The best policy choice would be to combine pro-growth tax cuts with spending cuts to harmful programs. That would reduce government distortions on both sides of the budget, and thus unambiguously increase GDP.

In sum, without matching spending cuts, tax cuts may or may not make sense depending on the type of cut and whether reducing Uncle Sam’s diet will force him to slim down in subsequent years. But it is a fiscal policy win-win to match spending cuts with cuts to the most damaging parts of the tax code.