Tag: economics

Defending Cato from Paul Krugman’s Inaccurate Assertions

Writing for the New York Times, Paul Krugman has a new column promoting more government spending and additional government regulation. That’s a dog-bites-man revelation and hardly noteworthy, of course, but in this case he takes a swipe at the Cato Institute.

The financial crisis of 2008 and its painful aftermath…were a huge slap in the face for free-market fundamentalists. …analysts at right-wing think tanks like…the Cato Institute…insisted that deregulated financial markets were doing just fine, and dismissed warnings about a housing bubble as liberal whining. Then the nonexistent bubble burst, and the financial system proved dangerously fragile; only huge government bailouts prevented a total collapse.

Upon reading this, my first reaction was a perverse form of admiration. After all, Krugman explicitly advocated for a housing bubble back in 2002, so it takes a lot of chutzpah to attack other people for the consequences of that bubble.

But let’s set that aside and examine the accusation that folks at Cato had a Pollyanna view of monetary and regulatory policy. In other words, did Cato think that “deregulated markets were doing just fine”?

Hardly. If Krugman had bothered to spend even five minutes perusing the Cato website, he would have found hundreds of items by scholars such as Steve Hanke, Gerald O’Driscoll, Bert Ely, and others about misguided government regulatory and monetary policy. He could have perused the remarks of speakers at Cato’s annual monetary conferences. He could have looked at issues of the Cato Journal. Or our biennial Handbooks on Policy.

The tiniest bit of due diligence would have revealed that Cato was not a fan of Federal Reserve policy and we did not think that financial markets were deregulated. Indeed, Cato scholars last decade were relentlessly critical of monetary policy, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Community Reinvestment Act, and other forms of government intervention.

Heck, I imagine that Krugman would have accused Cato of relentless and foolish pessimism had he reviewed our work  in 2006 or 2007.

I will confess that Cato people didn’t predict when the bubble would peak and when it would burst. If we had that type of knowledge, we’d all be billionaires. But since Krugman is still generating income by writing columns and doing appearances, I think it’s safe to assume that he didn’t have any special ability to time the market either.

Krugman also implies that Cato is guilty of historical revisionism.

…many on the right have chosen to rewrite history. Back then, they thought things were great, and their only complaint was that the government was getting in the way of even more mortgage lending; now they claim that government policies, somehow dictated by liberals even though the G.O.P. controlled both Congress and the White House, were promoting excessive borrowing and causing all the problems.

I’ve already pointed out that Cato was critical of government intervention before and during the bubble, so we obviously did not want government tilting the playing field in favor of home mortgages.

It’s also worth nothing that Cato has been dogmatically in favor of tax reform that would eliminate preferences for owner-occupied housing. That was our position 20 years ago. That was our position 10 years ago. And it’s our position today.

I also can’t help but comment on Krugman’s assertion that GOP control of government last decade somehow was inconsistent with statist government policy. One obvious example would be the 2004 Bush Administration regulations that dramatically boosted the affordable lending requirements for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which surely played a role in driving the orgy of subprime lending.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The burden of government spending almost doubled during the Bush years, the federal government accumulated more power, and the regulatory state expanded. No wonder economic freedom contracted under Bush after expanding under Clinton.

But I’m digressing. Let’s return to Krugman’s screed. He doesn’t single out Cato, but presumably he has us in mind when he criticizes those who reject Keynesian stimulus theory.

…right-wing economic analysts insisted that deficit spending would destroy jobs, because government borrowing would divert funds that would otherwise have gone into business investment, and also insisted that this borrowing would send interest rates soaring. The right thing, they claimed, was to balance the budget, even in a depressed economy.

Actually, I hope he’s not thinking about us. We argue for a smaller burden of government spending, not a balanced budget. And we haven’t made any assertions about higher interest rates. We instead point out that excessive government spending undermines growth by undermining incentives for productive behavior and misallocating labor and capital.

But we are critics of Keynesianism for reasons I explain in this video. And if you look at current economic performance, it’s certainly difficult to make the argument that Obama’s so-called stimulus was a success.

But Krugman will argue that the government should have squandered even more money. Heck, he even asserted that the 9-11 attacks were a form of stimulus and has argued that it would be pro-growth if we faced the threat of an alien invasion.

In closing, I will agree with Krugman that there’s too much “zombie” economics in Washington. But I’ll let readers decide who’s guilty of mindlessly staggering in the wrong direction.

Osborne Risks a Triple-Dip for the UK

U.K. Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne has resumed his saber-rattling over raising capital requirements for British banks. Most recently, Osborne has fixated on alleged problems with banks’ risk-weighting metrics that, according to him, have left banks undercapitalized. Regardless of Osborne’s rationale, this is just the latest wave in a five-year assault on the U.K. banking system – one which has had disastrous effects on the country’s money supply. The initial rounds of capital hikes took their toll on the British economy – in the form of a double-dip recession. Now, Osborne appears poised to light the fuse on a triple-dip recession.

Even before the Conservative, Osborne, took the reins of Her Majesty’s Treasury, hiking capital requirements on banks was in vogue among British regulators. Indeed, it was under Gordon Brown’s Labour government, in late 2007, that this wrong-headed idea took off.

In the aftermath of his government’s bungling of the Northern Rock crisis, Gordon Brown – along with his fellow members of the political chattering classes in the U.K. – turned his crosshairs on the banks, touting “recapitalization” as the only way to make banks “safer” and prevent future bailouts.

It turns out that Mr. Brown attracted many like-minded souls, including the central bankers who endorsed Basel III, which mandates higher capital-asset ratios for banks. In response to Basel III, banks have shrunk their loan books and dramatically increased their cash and government securities positions, which are viewed under Basel as “risk-free,” requiring no capital backing. By contrast, loans, mortgages, etc. are “risk-weighted” – meaning banks are required by law to back them with capital. This makes risk-weighted assets more “expensive” for a bank to hold on its balance sheet, giving banks an incentive to lend less as capital requirements are increased. 

Five years later, Osborne is attempting to ratchet up the weights on these assets. Indeed, he is taking another whack at banks’ balance sheets – and the result will be the same as when the U.K. Financial Services Authority first took aim at the banking system (under Gordon Brown). As the accompanying chart shows, the first round of capital requirement hikes (in 2008) dealt a devastating blow to the U.K. money supply. Indeed, it tightened the noose on the supply of bank money – the portion of the total money supply produced by the banking system, through deposit creation.

Not surprisingly, this sent the British economy spiraling into its first recessionary dip. The second hit to the money supply came shortly after the Bank for International Settlements announced the imposition of capital hikes under the Basel III accords, in October 2010. Despite numerous infusions of state money (reserve money) via the Bank of England’s quantitative easing schemes, these first two squeezes on bank money have put the squeeze on the U.K.’s total money supply.

This is the case because state money makes up only 16.3% of the U.K.’s total money supply. The remaining 83.7% of the money supply is made up of bank money. In consequence, the Bank of England would have to undertake a massive expansion of state money, via quantitative easing, to offset the U.K.’s bank money squeeze.

It is doubtful, however, that the British pound sterling would be able to withstand such a move. Indeed, there are more storm clouds brewing over Threadneedle Street. The sterling recently touched a 15-month low against the euro, and it has fallen 8% against the euro since late July. For the time being, at least, the pound’s tenuous position will likely put a constraint on any further significant expansion of state money, through quantitative easing. It appears markets simply wouldn’t tolerate it.

Accordingly, the only viable option to jumpstart the faltering U.K. economy is to release the banking system from the grips of the government-imposed bank-money squeeze. Alas, Osborne’s most recent initiative on bank recapitalization goes in exactly the wrong direction.

The ‘New Normal’ of High Unemployment

I almost feel sorry for the Obama administration’s spin doctors. Every month, they probably wait for the unemployment numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics with the same level of excitement that people on death row wait for their execution date.

This has been going on for a while, and today’s new data provide another good example.

As the chart below indicates, the White House promised that the unemployment rate today would be almost 5 percent if we enacted the so-called stimulus back in 2009. Instead, the new numbers show that the jobless rate is 7.9 percent, almost 3.0 percentage points higher.

Obama Unemployment

I enjoy using this chart to indict Obamanomics, in part because it’s a two-fer. I get to criticize the administration’s economic record, and I simultaneously get to take a jab at Keynesian spending schemes.

What’s not to love?

That being said, I don’t think the above chart is completely persuasive. The White House argues, with some justification, that these data simply show that they underestimated the initial severity of the recession. There’s some truth to that, and I’ll be the first to admit that it wouldn’t be fair to blame Obama for a bleak trendline that existed when he took office (but I will blame him for continuing George W. Bush’s policies of excessive spending and costly intervention).

That’s why I think the data from the Minneapolis Federal Reserve are more damning. They show all the recessions and recoveries in the post-World War II era, which presumably provides a more neutral benchmark with which to judge the Obama record.

Why GDP Data Shouldn’t Be Interpreted in Ways that Support Keynesian Spending

Fighting against statism in Washington is a lot like trying to swim upstream. It seems that everything (how to measure spending cuts, how to estimate tax revenue, etc) is rigged to make your job harder.

A timely example is the way the way government puts together data on economic output and the way the media reports these numbers.

Just yesterday, for instance, the government released preliminary numbers for 4th quarter gross domestic product (GDP). The numbers were rather dismal, but that’s not the point.

I’m more concerned with the supposed reason why the numbers were bad. According to Politico, “the fall was largely due to a drop in government spending.” Bloomberg specifically cited a “plunge in defense spending” and the Associated Press warned that “sharp government spending cuts” are the economy’s biggest threat in 2013.

To the uninitiated, I imagine that they read these articles and decide that Paul Krugman is right and that we should have more government spending to boost the economy.

But here’s the problem. GDP numbers only measure how we spend or allocate our national income. It’s a very convoluted way of measuring economic health. Sort of like assessing the status of your household finances by adding together how much you spend on everything from mortgage and groceries to your cable bill and your tab at the local pub.

Wouldn’t it make much more sense to directly measure income? Isn’t the amount of money going into our bank accounts the key variable?

The same principle is true - or should be true - for a country.

That’s why the better variable is gross domestic income (GDI). It measures things such as employee compensation, corporate profits, and small business income.

These numbers are much better gauges of national prosperity, as explained in this Economics 101 video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

The video is more than two years old and it focuses mostly on the misguided notion that consumer spending drives growth, but you’ll see that the analysis also debunks the Keynesian notion that government spending boosts an economy (and if you want more information on Keynesianism, here’s another video you may enjoy).

The main thing to understand is that GDP numbers and the press coverage of that data is silly and misleading. We should be focusing on how to increase national income, not what share of it is being redistributed by politicians.

But that logical approach is not easy when the Congressional Budget Office also is fixated on the Keynesian approach.

Just another example of how the game in Washington is designed to rationalize and enable a bigger burden of government spending.

Addendum: I’m getting ripped by critics for implying that GDP is Keynesian. I think part of the problem is that I originally entitled this post “Making Sense of Keynesian-Laced GDP Reports.” Since GDP data is simply a measure of how national output is allocated, the numbers obviously aren’t “laced” one way of the other. So the new title isn’t as pithy, but it’s more accurate and I hope it will help focus attention on my real point about the importance of figuring out the policies that will lead to more output.

French Thief Complains that Victims Are Running Away

Atlas is shrugging and Dan Mitchell is laughing.

I predicted back in May that well-to-do French taxpayers weren’t fools who would meekly sit still while the hyenas in the political class confiscated ever-larger shares of their income.

But the new President of France, Francois Hollande, doesn’t seem overly concerned by economic rationality and decided (Obama must be quite envious) that a top tax rate of 75 percent is fair. And patriotic as well!

French Prime Minister: “I’m upset that the wildebeest aren’t remaining still for their disembowelment.”

So I was pleased - but not surprised - when the news leaked out that France’s richest man was saying au revoir and moving to Belgium.

But he’s not the only one. The nation’s top actor also decided that he doesn’t want to be a fatted calf. Indeed, it appears that there are entire communities of French tax exiles living just across the border in Belgium.

Best of all, the greedy politicians are throwing temper tantrums that the geese have found a better place for their golden eggs.

France’s Prime Minister seems particularly agitated about this real-world evidence for the Laffer Curve. Here are some excerpts from a story in the UK-based Telegraph.

France’s prime minister has slammed wealthy citizens fleeing the country’s punitive tax on high incomes as greedy profiteers seeking to “become even richer”. Jean-Marc Ayrault’s outburst came after France’s best-known actor, Gerard Dépardieu, took up legal residence in a small village just over the border in Belgium, alongside hundreds of other wealthy French nationals seeking lower taxes. “Those who are seeking exile abroad are not those who are scared of becoming poor,” the prime minister declared after unveiling sweeping anti-poverty measures to help those hit by the economic crisis. These individuals are leaving “because they want to get even richer,” he said. “We cannot fight poverty if those with the most, and sometimes with a lot, do not show solidarity and a bit of generosity,” he added.

In the interests of accuracy, let’s re-write Monsieur Ayrault’s final quote from the excerpt. What he’s really saying is: “We cannot buy votes and create dependency if those that produce, and sometimes produce a lot, do not act like morons and let us rape and pillage without consequence.”

So what’s going to happen? Well, I wrote in September that France was going to suffer a fiscal crisis, and I followed up in October with a post explaining how a bloated welfare state was a form of economic suicide.

Yet French politicians don’t seem to care. They don’t seem to realize that a high burden of government spending causes economic weakness by misallocating labor and capital. They seem oblivious  to basic tax policy matters, even though there is plenty of evidence that the Laffer Curve works even in France.

So as France gets ever-closer to fiscal collapse, part of me gets a bit of perverse pleasure from the news. Not because of dislike for the French. The people actually are very nice, in my experience, and France is a very pleasant place to visit. And it was even listed as the best place in the world to live, according to one ranking.

But it helps to have bad examples. And just as I’ve used Greece to help educate American lawmakers about the dangers of statism, I’ll also use France as an example of what not to do.

P.S. France actually is much better than the United States in that rich people actually are free to move across the border without getting shaken down with exit taxes that are reminiscent of totalitarian regimes.

P.P.S. This Chuck Asay cartoon seems to capture the mentality of the French government.

A Perfect Holiday Album for the Keynesians on Your Christmas List

I’m understandably partial to my video debunking Keynesian economics, and I think this Econ 101 video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity does a great job of showing why consumer spending is a consequence of growth, not the driver.

But for entertainment value, this very funny video from EconStories.tv puts them to shame while also making important points about what causes economic growth.

The video was produced by John Papola, who was one of the creators of the famous Hayek v Keynes rap video, as well as its equally clever sequel.

For the Sake of Intellectual Integrity, Republicans Should Not Cite the CBO When Arguing against Obama’s Proposed Fiscal-Cliff Tax Hike

I’ve commented before how the fiscal fight in Europe is a no-win contest between advocates of Keynesian deficit spending (the so-called “growth” camp, if you can believe that) and proponents of higher taxes (the “austerity” camp, which almost never seems to mean spending restraint).

That’s a left-vs-left battle, which makes me think it would be a good idea if they fought each other to the point of exhaustion, thus enabling forward movement on a pro-growth agenda of tax reform and reductions in the burden of government spending.

That’s a nice thought, but it probably won’t happen in Europe since almost all politicians in places such as Germany and France are statists. And it might never happen in the United States if lawmakers pay attention to the ideologically biased work of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).

CBO already has demonstrated that it’s willing to take both sides of this left-v-left fight, and the bureaucrats just doubled down on that biased view in a new report on the fiscal cliff.

For all intents and purposes, the CBO has a slavish devotion to Keynesian theory in the short run, which means more spending supposedly is good for growth. But CBO also believes that higher taxes improve growth in the long run by ostensibly leading to lower deficits. Here’s what it says will happen if automatic budget cuts are cancelled.

Eliminating the automatic enforcement procedures established by the Budget Control Act of 2011 that are scheduled to reduce both discretionary and mandatory spending starting in January and maintaining Medicare’s payment rates for physicians’ services at the current level would boost real GDP by about three-quarters of a percent by the end of 2013.

Not that we should be surprised by this silly conclusion. The CBO repeatedly claimed that Obama’s faux stimulus would boost growth. Heck, CBO even claimed Obama’s spending binge was successful after the fact, even though it was followed by record levels of unemployment.

But I think the short-run Keynesianism is not CBO’s biggest mistake. In the long-run, CBO wants us to believe that higher tax burdens translate into more growth. Check out this passage, which expresses CBO’s view the economy will be weaker 10 years from now if the tax burden is not increased.

…the agency has estimated the effect on output that would occur in 2022 under the alternative fiscal scenario, which incorporates the assumption that several of the policies are maintained indefinitely. CBO estimates that in 2022, on net, the policies included in the alternative fiscal scenario would reduce real GDP by 0.4 percent and real gross national product (GNP) by 1.7 percent. …the larger budget deficits and rapidly growing federal debt would hamper national saving and investment and thus reduce output and income.

In other words, CBO reflexively makes two bold assumption. First, it assumes higher tax rates generate more money. Second, the bureaucrats assume that politicians will use any new money for deficit reduction. Yeah, good luck with that.

To be fair, the CBO report does have occasional bits of accurate analysis. The authors acknowledge that both taxes and spending can create adverse incentives for productive behavior.

…increases in marginal tax rates on labor would tend to reduce the amount of labor supplied to the economy, whereas increases in revenues of a similar magnitude from broadening the tax base would probably have a smaller negative impact or even a positive impact on the supply of labor. Similarly, cutting government benefit payments would generally strengthen people’s incentive to work and save.

But these small concessions do not offset the deeply flawed analysis that dominates the report.

But that analysis shouldn’t be a surprise. The CBO has a track record of partisan and ideological work.

While I’m irritated about CBO’s bias (and the fact that it’s being financed with my tax dollars), that’s not what has me worked up. The reason for this post is to grouse and gripe about the fact that some people are citing this deeply flawed analysis to oppose Obama’s pursuit of class warfare tax policy.

Why would some Republican politicians and conservative commentators cite a publication that promotes higher spending in the short run and higher taxes in the long run? Well, because it also asserts - based on Keynesian analysis - that higher taxes will hurt the economy in the short run.

…extending the tax reductions originally enacted in 2001, 2003, and 2009 and extending all other expiring provisions, including those that expired at the end of 2011, except for the payroll tax cut—and indexing the alternative minimum tax (AMT) for inflation beginning in 2012 would boost real GDP by a little less than 1½ percent by the end of 2013.

At the risk of sounding like a doctrinaire purist, it is unethical to cite inaccurate analysis in support of a good policy.

Consider this example. If some academic published a study in favor of the flat tax and it later turned out that the data was deliberately or accidentally wrong, would it be right to cite that research when arguing for tax reform? I hope everyone would agree that the answer is no.

Yet that’s precisely what is happening when people cite CBO’s shoddy work to argue against tax increases.

It’s very much akin to the pro-defense Republicans who use Keynesian arguments about jobs when promoting a larger defense budget.

To make matters worse, it’s not as if opponents lack other arguments that are intellectually honest.

So why, then, would anybody sink to the depths necessary to cite the Congressional Budget Office?