Tag: economics

One Year Later, Another Look at Obamanomics vs. Reaganomics

On this day last year, I posted two charts that I developed using the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank’s interactive website.

Those two charts showed that the current recovery was very weak compared to the boom of the early 1980s.

But perhaps that was an unfair comparison. Maybe the Reagan recovery started strong and then hit a wall. Or maybe the Obama recovery was the economic equivalent of a late bloomer.

So let’s look at the same charts, but add an extra year of data. Does it make a difference?

Meh… not so much.

Let’s start with the GDP data. The comparison is striking. Under Reagan’s policies, the economy skyrocketed.  Heck, the chart prepared by the Minneapolis Fed doesn’t even go high enough to show how well the economy performed during the 1980s.

Under Obama’s policies, by contrast, we’ve just barely gotten back to where we were when the recession began. Unlike past recessions, we haven’t enjoyed a strong bounce. And this means we haven’t recovered the output that was lost during the downturn.

This is a damning indictment of Obamanomics

Indeed, I made this point several months ago when analyzing some work by Nobel laureate Robert Lucas. And it’s been highlighted more recently by James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute and the news pages of the Wall Street Journal.

Unfortunately, the jobs chart is probably even more discouraging. As you can see, employment is still far below where it started.

This is in stark contrast to the jobs boom during the Reagan years.

So what does this mean? How do we measure the human cost of the foregone growth and jobs that haven’t been created?

Writing in today’s Wall Street Journal, former Senator Phil Gramm and budgetary expert Mike Solon compare the current recovery to the post-war average as well as to what happened under Reagan.

If in this “recovery” our economy had grown and generated jobs at the average rate achieved following the 10 previous postwar recessions, GDP per person would be $4,528 higher and 13.7 million more Americans would be working today. …President Ronald Reagan’s policies ignited a recovery so powerful that if it were being repeated today, real per capita GDP would be $5,694 higher than it is now—an extra $22,776 for a family of four. Some 16.9 million more Americans would have jobs.

By the way, the Gramm-Solon column also addresses the argument that this recovery is anemic because the downturn was caused by a financial crisis. That’s certainly a reasonable argument, but they point out that Reagan had to deal with the damage caused by high inflation, which certainly wreaked havoc with parts of the financial system. They also compare today’s weak recovery to the boom that followed the financial crisis of 1907.

But I want to make a different point. As I’ve written before, Obama is not responsible for the current downturn. Yes, he was a Senator and he was part of the bipartisan consensus for easy money, Fannie/Freddie subsidies, bailout-fueled moral hazard, and a playing field tilted in favor of debt, but his share of the blame wouldn’t even merit an asterisk.

My problem with Obama is that he hasn’t fixed any of the problems. Instead, he has kept in place all of the bad policies - and in some cases made them worse. Indeed, I challenge anyone to identify a meaningful difference between the economic policy of Obama and the economic policy of Bush.

  • Bush increased government spending. Obama has been increasing government spending.
  • Bush adopted Keynesian “stimulus” policies. Obama adopted Keynesian “stimulus” policies.
  • Bush bailed out politically connected companies. Obama has been bailing out politically connected companies.
  • Bush supported the Fed’s easy-money policy. Obama has been supporting the Fed’s easy-money policy.
  • Bush created a new health care entitlement. Obama created a new health care entitlement.
  • Bush imposed costly new regulations on the financial sector. Obama imposed costly new regulations on the financial sector.

I could continue, but you probably get the  point. On economic issues, the only real difference is that Bush cut taxes and Obama is in favor of higher taxes. Though even that difference is somewhat overblown since Obama’s tax policies - up to this point - haven’t had a big impact on the overall tax burden (though that could change if his plans for higher tax rates ever go into effect).

This is why I always tell people not to pay attention to party labels. Bigger government doesn’t work, regardless of whether a politician is a Republican or Democrat. The problem isn’t Obamanomics, it’s Bushobamanomics. But since that’s a bit awkward, let’s just call it statism.

The Laffer Curve Works, Even in France

One year ago, I wrote about how the French government was getting unexpected additional revenues following the implementation of lower tax rates.

This is the Laffer Curve in action, and it’s happening again in France, only this time because the government reduced the wealth tax.

Here’s part of the story at Tax-news.com.

France’s solidarity tax on wealth (l’impôt de solidarité sur la fortune – ISF), which was radically reformed by the government in June last year, has served to yield much greater fiscal revenues for the state than initially predicted.

…[T]he government agreed that the solidarity tax on wealth would in future comprise of only two tax brackets: a 0.25% tax rate imposed on individuals with net taxable wealth in excess of EUR1.3m (USD1.7m), and a 0.5% tax rate levied on individuals with net taxable assets above EUR3m. Previously, the entry threshold at which wealth tax was applied was EUR800,000, with the rates varying between 0.55% and 1.8%. To alleviate any threshold effects, a discount mechanism was also instated applicable to wealth of between EUR1.3m and EUR1.4m, as well as to wealth of between EUR3m and EUR3.2m. Although the new provisions provide for lower tax rates and for the abolition of the first tax bracket, effectively exempting around 300,000 taxpayers from the tax, according to latest government figures, the tax yielded around EUR4.3bn in 2011, almost EUR60m more than originally forecast in the collective budget.

This is not to say that France is an example to follow. There shouldn’t be any wealth tax, and income tax rates are still far too high.

And it’s also worth remembering that tax policy is just one of many factors that determine economic performance.

That being said, nations that shift from terrible tax policy to bad tax policy will enjoy better economic performance, just as nations that go from good policy to great policy also will reap benefits.

In other words, incremental changes make a difference. That’s even the case when the politicians impose a “Snooki tax” on indoor tanning services.

The most dramatic Laffer Curve effects, though, occur when there are big changes in policy. The video after the jump looks at some of the evidence.

This video is part of a three-part series, by the way. Click here if you want to see the entire set.

Soak-the-Rich Taxes Create Happier Nations According to Junk Science Study

In the past 20-plus years, I’ve seen all sorts of arguments for class-warfare taxation.These include:

I suppose leftists deserve credit for being adaptable. Just about anything is an excuse for soak-the-rich tax hikes. The sun is shining, raise taxes! The sky is cloudy, increase tax rates!

But if there was an award for the strangest argument in favor of higher taxes, it would probably belong to a group of academics who have concluded that “progressive” tax systems make people happier.

I’m not kidding. There’s a new study making that assertion. Here are some passages from an announcement by the Association for Psychological Science.

…a new study comparing 54 nations found that flattening the tax risks flattening social wellbeing as well. “The more progressive the tax policy is, the happier the citizens are,” says University of Virginia psychologist Shigehiro Oishi, summarizing the findings, which will be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. …Well-being was expressed in people’s assessments of their overall life quality, from “worst” to “best possible life,” on a scale of 1 to 10; and in whether they enjoyed positive daily experiences (such as smiling, being treated with respect, and eating good food) or suffered negative ones, including sadness, worry, and shame. …The degree of progressivity was measured by the difference between the highest and lowest tax rates, corrected for such confounding factors as family size, social security taxes paid, and tax benefits received by individuals. The results: On average, residents of the nations with the most progressive taxation evaluated their own lives as closer to “the best possible.”

The actual study isn’t available yet, but the release from APS screams junk science - especially since a study of American states found that high taxes lead to unhappiness.

But we should be skeptical of all this research. There are myriad pitfalls, including cultural differences.

But the most obvious problem is causality. Even if we assume it’s possible to make accurate cross-border comparisons of happiness, is there any reason to think that progressive tax rates are a causal factor, one way or the other? Heck, we may as well assume that crowing roosters cause the sun to appear.

Here’s one very obvious guess about what may cause the APS results. I’m guessing that people in Sweden and Denmark say they are happy. That’s not too surprising. They live in rich countries. But those countries became rich before the welfare state began and before high tax rates became the norm. So does it make sense to say they are happy because of high tax rates?

People in Mongolia and Bulgaria, by contrast, probably aren’t as happy as people in the Scandinavian nations. They live in relatively poor nations that suffered from decades of communist enslavement. In recent years, though, both nations implemented flat taxes in hopes of spurring growth and catching up to the rest of the world. But progress doesn’t happen overnight. So does it make sense to say that they are unhappy because the tax system isn’t “progressive”?

Ironically, the APS release does include the following results.

Higher government spending per se did not yield greater happiness, in spite of the well-being that was associated with satisfaction with state-funded services. In fact, there was a slight negative correlation between government spending and average happiness.

Since we do have good evidence that economic growth suffers as government expands, this conclusion makes a lot more sense.

But I’m still skeptical about happiness studies. Seems like they might suffer from the credibility issues associated with global warming research.

Actually, I retract that statement. Happiness research may be imprecise and susceptible to bias, but I doubt people in that field would ever make a claim as absurd as global warming causes AIDS. And I doubt they would try to do something as stupid as rationing toilet paper or create something as silly as a hand-cranked vibrator.

Will the Last Job Creator to Leave California Please Turn Off the Lights?

I’ve written before about whether California is the Greece of America, in part because of crazy policies such as overpaid bureaucrats and expensive forms of political correctness,

And we all know that California has one of the nation’s greediest governments, imposing confiscatory tax rates on a shrinking pool of productive citizens.

So it is hardly surprising that the Golden State is falling behind, losing jobs and investment to more sensible states such as Texas.

But not everybody is learning the right lessons from California’s fiscal and economic mess.

There’s a group of crazies who want to increase the top tax rate by five percentage points, an increase of about 50 percent. And they have made Kim Kardashian the poster child for their proposed ballot initiative.

I’m relatively clueless about popular culture, but even I’m aware that there is a group of people know as the Kardashian sisters. I don’t know who they are or what they do, but I gather they are famous in sort of the same way Paris Hilton was briefly famous.

And they have cashed in on their popularity, which may not reflect well on the tastes of the American people, but it’s not my job to tell other people how to spend their money.

But not everybody share this live-and-let-live attitude, which is why the pro-tax crowd in California produced this video.

I suppose I could criticize the petty dishonesty of the proponents, since they deliberately blurred of the difference between “tax rates” and “taxes paid.”

Or I could expose their economic illiteracy by pointing out that higher tax rates would accelerate the emigration of investors, entrepreneurs, small business owners, and other rich taxpayers to zero-tax states such as Nevada.

But I won’t do those things. Instead, like the Nevada Realtors Association and Arizona Business Relocation Department, I’m going to support this ballot initiative.

Not because I overdid the rum and eggnog at Christmas, but because it’s good to have negative role models, whether they are countries like Greece, cities such as Detroit, or states like California.

So here’s my challenge to the looters and moochers of the Golden State. Don’t just boost the top tax rate by five-percentage points. That’s not nearly enough. Go for a 20 percent top tax rate. Or 25 percent. After all, think of all the special interests that could use the money more than Ms. Kardashian.

And if somebody tells you that she will move to South Beach or Las Vegas, or that the other rich people will move to Texas, Wyoming, or Tennessee, just ignore them. Remember, it’s good intentions that count.

In closing, I apologize to the dwindling crowd of productive people in California. It’s rather unfortunate that you’re part of this statist experiment. But you know what they say about eggs and omelets.

By the way, here’s some humor about the Golden State, including a joke about the bloated bureaucracy and a comparison with Texas.

New Video Punctures Myths about Great Depression, Exposes Damaging Impact of Statist Policies by Hoover and FDR

I’ve commented many times about the misguided big-government policies of both Hoover and FDR, so I can say with considerable admiration that this new video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity packs an amazing amount of solid info into about five minutes.

Perhaps the most surprising revelation in the video, at least to everyone other than economic historians, is that America suffered a harsh depression after World War I, with GDP falling by a staggering 24 percent.

But we don’t read much about that downturn in the history books, in large part because it ended so quickly.

The key question, though, is why did that depression end quickly while the Great Depression dragged on for a decade?

One big reason for the different results is that markets were largely left unmolested in the 1920s. This meant resources could be quickly redeployed, minimizing the downturn.

But this doesn’t mean the crowd in Washington was completely passive. They did do something to help the economy recover. As Ms. Fields explains in the video, President Harding, unlike Presidents Hoover and Roosevelt, slashed government spending.

European Central Bank Research Shows that Government Spending Undermines Economic Performance

Europe is in the midst of a fiscal crisis caused by too much government spending, yet many of the continent’s politicians want the European Central Bank to purchase the dodgy debt of reckless welfare states such as Spain, Italy, Greece, and Portugal in order to prop up these big government policies.

So it’s especially noteworthy that economists at the European Central Bank have just produced a study showing that government spending is unambiguously harmful to economic performance. Here is a brief description of the key findings.

…we analyse a wide set of 108 countries composed of both developed and emerging and developing countries, using a long time span running from 1970-2008, and employing different proxies for government size… Our results show a significant negative effect of the size of government on growth. …Interestingly, government consumption is consistently detrimental to output growth irrespective of the country sample considered (OECD, emerging and developing countries).

There are two very interesting takeaways from this new research. First, the evidence shows that the problem is government spending, and that problem exists regardless of whether the budget is financed by taxes or borrowing. Unfortunately, too many supposedly conservative policy makers fail to grasp this key distinction and mistakenly focus on the symptom (deficits) rather than the underlying disease (big government).

The second key takeaway is that Europe’s corrupt political elite is engaging in a classic case of Mitchell’s Law, which is when one bad government policy is used to justify another bad government policy. In this case, they undermined prosperity by recklessly increasing the burden of government spending, and they’re now using the resulting fiscal crisis as an excuse to promote inflationary monetary policy by the European Central Bank.

The ECB study, by contrast, shows that the only good answer is to reduce the burden of the public sector. Moreover, the research also has a discussion of the growth-maximizing size of government.

… economic progress is limited when government is zero percent of the economy (absence of rule of law, property rights, etc.), but also when it is closer to 100 percent (the law of diminishing returns operates in addition to, e.g., increased taxation required to finance the government’s growing burden – which has adverse effects on human economic behaviour, namely on consumption decisions).

This may sound familiar, because it’s a description of the Rahn Curve, which is sort of the spending version of the Laffer Curve. This video explains.

The key lesson in the video is that government is far too big in the United States and other industrialized nations, which is precisely what the scholars found in the European Central Bank study.

Another interesting finding in the study is that the quality and structure of government matters.

Growth in government size has negative effects on economic growth, but the negative effects are three times as great in non-democratic systems as in democratic systems. …the negative effect of government size on GDP per capita is stronger at lower levels of institutional quality, and ii) the positive effect of institutional quality on GDP per capita is stronger at smaller levels of government size.

The simple way of thinking about these results is that government spending doesn’t do as much damage in a nation such as Sweden as it does in a failed state such as Mexico.

Last but not least, the ECB study analyzes various budget process reforms. There’s a bit of jargon in this excerpt, but it basically shows that spending limits (presumably policies similar to Senator Corker’s CAP Act or Congressman Brady’s MAP Act) are far better than balanced budget rules.

…we use three indices constructed by the European Commission (overall rule index, expenditure rule index, and budget balance and debt rule index). …The former incorporates each index individually whereas the latter includes interacted terms between fiscal rules and government size proxies. Particularly under the total government expenditure and government spending specifications…we find statistically significant positive coefficients on the overall rule index and the expenditure rule index, meaning that having these fiscal numerical rules improves GDP growth for these set of EU countries.

This research is important because it shows that rules focusing on deficits and debt (such as requirements to balance the budget) are not as effective because politicians can use them as an excuse to raise taxes.

At the risk of citing myself again, the number one message from this new ECB research is that lawmakers - at the very least - need to follow Mitchell’s Golden Rule and make sure government spending grows slower than the private sector. Fortunately, that can happen, as shown in this video.

But my Golden Rule is just a minimum requirement. If politicians really want to do the right thing, they should copy the Baltic nations and implement genuine spending cuts rather than just reductions in the rate of growth in the burden of government.

American Politicians Should Copy Canada’s Leftist Government of the 1990s and Cap Spending

Since I’ve written before about Canada’s remarkable period of fiscal restraint during the 1990s, I was very pleased to see that the establishment press is finally giving some attention to what our northern neighbors did to reduce the burden of government spending.

Here are some key passages from a Reuters story.

“Everyone wants to know how we did it,” said political economist Brian Lee Crowley, head of the Ottawa-based think tank Macdonald-Laurier Institute, who has examined the lessons of the 1990s. But to win its budget wars, Canada first had to realize how dire its situation was and then dramatically shrink the size of government rather than just limit the pace of spending growth. It would eventually oversee the biggest reduction in Canadian government spending since demobilization after World War Two. …The turnaround began with Chretien’s arrival as prime minister in November 1993, when his Liberal Party - in some ways Canada’s equivalent of the Democrats in the U.S. - swept to victory with a strong majority. The new government took one look at the dreadful state of the books and decided to act. “I said to myself, I will do it. I might be prime minister for only one term, but I will do it,” said Chretien. …The Liberals thought their first, rushed budget - delivered in February 1994, three months after taking office, was tough. It reformed unemployment insurance entitlements, and cut defense and foreign aid… The upstart Reform Party, then the main national opposition party, had campaigned on “zero-in-three” - balance the budget in three years. “We were always trying to go faster,” said Reform’s leader at the time, Preston Manning. …The Liberals were stung by the criticism and, at first reluctantly but then with gusto, they got out the chain saws. …Cutting government spending programs went against the Liberal grain. Contrary to the Reform Party, the Liberals saw a more important role for government. Paul Martin now has a lasting reputation as the finance minister who slayed Canada’s deficit, but the conversion from spender to cutter was painful. His father, also called Paul, had helped create Medicare, Canada’s publicly funded health care system, and suddenly here was Paul Junior contemplating massive cuts.

This is a remarkable story. My only real quibble is that the fiscal restraint actually started the year before the Liberal Party took power, as the chart illustrates.

But the key thing to understand is that Canada enjoyed a five-year period when government spending increased by an average of only 1 percent each year.

There are more good passages in the story. Can anybody imagine Obama doing this?

At one 1994 cabinet meeting, Martin announced a spending freeze. A minister put forward a project that needed funding but Chretien cut him off, reminding him of Martin’s freeze. A second minister raised his hand to ask for funding, and a testy Chretien told the cabinet that the next minister to ask for new money would see his whole budget cut by 20 percent. …The ratio of spending cuts to tax hikes was seven-to-one. Asked why, Chretien said simply: “There was more need on one side than the other.” …Cuts ranged from five percent to 65 percent of departmental budgets.

By the way, while there were a few tax hikes implemented, they were trivial. Tax revenue as a share of GDP rose from 44.2 percent of GDP to 44.5 percent a GDP, an increase that probably was going to happen anyhow as Canada’s economy recovered.

So what were the results of Canada’s spending freeze?

The following passage has some numbers, but the second chart shows that the burden of government spending in Canada (right axis) fell from 53 percent of GDP to 44 percent of GDP in just five years. And red ink (left axis) completely disappeared.

The deficit disappeared by 1997 and the debt-to-GDP ratio began a rapid decline - it is now at about 34 percent. …After wrestling the deficit to the ground, Canada enjoyed what Crowley calls the payoff decade, outperforming the rest of the G7 on growth, job creation and inward investment. From 1997 to 2007, it averaged 3.3 percent economic growth. while U.S. growth averaged 2.9 percent.

The most important thing to understand is that Canada’s economy improved because the burden of government spending was reduced. Moreover, because the underlying disease was being treated, this meant two of the symptoms of excessive government - deficits and debt - also became less of a problem.

Last but not least, there are rewards for good policy. Just as Reagan enjoyed a landslide in 1984 after sticking to his guns, Canada’s Liberal Party also reaped the benefits of doing the right thing.

The final lesson is that you can impose painful spending cuts and still win elections. Chretien went on to win two more back-to-back to form majority governments, a rare feat. „,Drummond, who later moved to the private sector and is now an advisor helping the Ontario provincial government slash its deficit, noted that governments on the right and left in Saskatchewan, Alberta and Ontario won more voter support after their own budget cuts in the 1990s.

Here’s a video I narrated that looks at the Canadian experience, as well as similar good reforms in New Zealand, Ireland, and Slovakia.

Last but not least, let’s put all of this in context. As demonstrated here, the U.S. would enjoy a balanced budget in just eight years if politicians could be convinced to limit spending so that it increased by 1 percent each year.