Tag: economists

State of the Union Fact Check

Cato experts put some of President Obama’s core State of the Union claims to the test. Here’s what they found.

THE STIMULUS

Obama’s claim:

The plan that has made all of this possible, from the tax cuts to the jobs, is the Recovery Act. That’s right – the Recovery Act, also known as the Stimulus Bill. Economists on the left and the right say that this bill has helped saved jobs and avert disaster.

Back in reality: At the outset of the economic downturn, Cato ran an ad in the nation’s largest newspapers in which more than 300 economists (Nobel laureates among them) signed a statement saying a massive government spending package was among the worst available options. Since then, Cato economists have published dozens of op-eds in major news outlets poking holes in big-government solutions to both the financial system crisis and the flagging economy.

CUTTING TAXES

Obama’s claim:

Let me repeat: we cut taxes. We cut taxes for 95 percent of working families. We cut taxes for small businesses. We cut taxes for first-time homebuyers. We cut taxes for parents trying to care for their children. We cut taxes for 8 million Americans paying for college. As a result, millions of Americans had more to spend on gas, and food, and other necessities, all of which helped businesses keep more workers.

Back in reality: Cato Director of Tax Policy Studies Chris Edwards: “When the president says that he has ‘cut taxes’ for 95 percent of Americans, he fails to note that more than 40 percent of Americans pay no federal incomes taxes and the administration has simply increased subsidy checks to this group. Obama’s refundable tax credits are unearned subsidies, not tax cuts.”

Visit Cato’s Tax Policy Page for much more on this.

SPENDING FREEZE

Obama’s claim
:

Starting in 2011, we are prepared to freeze government spending for three years.

Back in reality: Edwards: “The president’s proposed spending freeze covers just 13 percent of the total federal budget, and indeed doesn’t limit the fastest growing components such as Medicare.

“A better idea is to cap growth in the entire federal budget including entitlement programs, which was essentially the idea behind the 1980s bipartisan Gramm-Rudman-Hollings law. The freeze also doesn’t cover the massive spending under the stimulus bill, most of which hasn’t occurred yet. Now that the economy is returning to growth, the president should both freeze spending and rescind the remainder of the planned stimulus.”

Plus, here’s why these promised freezes have never worked in the past and a chart illustrating the fallacy of Obama’s spending claims.

JOB CREATION

Obama’s claim:

Because of the steps we took, there are about two million Americans working right now who would otherwise be unemployed. 200,000 work in construction and clean energy. 300,000 are teachers and other education workers. Tens of thousands are cops, firefighters, correctional officers, and first responders. And we are on track to add another one and a half million jobs to this total by the end of the year.

Back in reality: Cato Policy Analyst Tad Dehaven: “Actually, the U.S. economy has lost 2.7 million jobs since the stimulus passed and 3.4 million total since Obama was elected. How he attributes any jobs gains to the stimulus is the fuzziest of fuzzy math. ‘Nuff said.”

Another Reason Imports Get a Bad Rap

Why blame only media and politicians for the public’s confusion about imports and trade deficits? Surely economists deserve some scorn. Some of the misunderstanding can be traced to the famous National Income Identity, which expresses gross domestic product, as: Y = C + G + I + (X-M). That is, national output (Y) equals personal consumption (C) plus government spending (G) plus investment (I) plus exports (X) minus imports (M).

The expression clearly lends itself to the wrong interpretation. The minus sign preceding imports suggests a negative relationship with output. It is the reason for the oft-repeated fallacy that imports are a drag on growth. Here’s why that conclusion is wrong.

The expression is an accounting identity, which “accounts” for all of the possible channels for disposing of our national output. That output is either consumed in the private sector, consumed by government, invested by business, or exported. The identity requires subtraction of aggregate imports because consumption, government spending, business investment, and exports all contain, in various amounts, import value. Americans consume domestic and imported products and services, the aggregate of which shows up in Consumption. Likewise, Government purchases include domestic and imported products and services; businesses Invest in domestic and imported machines and inventory; and, eXports often contain some imported intermediate components. Thus, the identity would overstate national output if it didn’t make that adjustment for iMports. After all, imports are not made on U.S. soil with U.S. factors of production, so they shouldn’t be included in an expression of our national output.

To reiterate, it is a simple matter of accounting: as an expression of national output, the National Income Identity subtracts imports only because imports are that portion of consumption, government spending, investment, and exports that are not produced on U.S. soil with U.S. factors of production. If we did not subtract an aggregate import value, then national output would be overstated.

But what unnecessary confusion that identity has created. Economists are often indecipherable, but here was an opportunity to actually connect with the public and describe a relatively easy concept in relatively easy terms. Why has it not been commonplace to use notation that conveys in no uncertain terms that C and G and I and X include some amount of imports? Maybe something like this:

Y=C(d)+C(m)+G(d)+G(m)+I(d)+I(m)+X(d)+X(m)-M,

where (d) connotes domestic; (m) connotes imported; and M=C(m)+G(m)+I(m)+X(m).

Again, imports are subtracted, not because they are a drag on output, but because imports are included in the other constituent elements of the identity. I’ve always found it misleading that the parentheses go around X-M – which isolates the expression “net exports,” but in the process can obscure the fact that imports are subtracted from the whole expression.

Finally, if the description above makes sense, then you’ll agree that imports have NO impact on national output. Regardless of how large or small, the import value embedded in the four constituent elements of national output is fully deducted by subtracting M. Thus, imports are neither a drag on GDP, nor can they cause GDP to rise. That conclusion may sound like it contradicts one of my assertions in yesterday’s post—that imports are pro-cyclical—(at least that was the claim of a NBER economist responding my post yesterday), but I think the conclusions are harmonious. To say imports are pro-cyclical means that they rise when the economy is growing and fall when the economy is contracting. It says nothing about causation.  That pattern has been amply and consistently demonstrated through expansion, recession, and recovery.

Vikings and Pirates and Taxes, Oh My!

Today’s episode of “Hagar the Horrible” could be an epigraph for the new Fall 2009 issue of Cato Journal.

Hagar_The_HorribleThis issue includes Greek economists Michael Mitsopoulos and Theodore Pelagidis on “Vikings in Greece: Kleptocratic Interest Groups in a Closed, Rent-Seeking Economy” as well as Peter Leeson, author of The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates, writing (with David Skarbek) on the effects of foreign aid. As for taxes, well, editor Jim Dorn has assembled a number of useful papers:

  • Andrew T. Young on taxing, spending, and “fiscal illusion”
  • Michael J. New on the “starve the beast” hypothesis
  • Alan Reynolds on Paul Krugman’s misunderstanding of the monetary and fiscal lessons of the Great Depression and Japan’s lost decade

And on the general rapaciousness of the state, don’t miss Jason Kuznicki’s careful review of government racial discrimination from the end of Reconstruction until the civil rights movement.

ACORN and Health Care

Last week, editors at Politico posed two questions to an online panel to which I contribute: “ACORN: Underplayed or overblown?” and “Will the Dems ever get their act together on healthcare?”

The two are intimately connected by a simple proposition: “Most people want more housing and health care than they can afford.” Of course, for “housing” or “health care” one could substitute whatever one wishes: food, clothing, cars, education, entertainment, vacations, you name it. Economists call this the problem of scarcity, and it’s the beginning of economics.

In a free society, most individuals, families, and firms will deal with that problem through such homely measures as creating and husbanding wealth, planning for the future, and living within their means. Some, however, will be indifferent to such discipline and will demand more than they can afford. Enter thus ACORN and the Dems – the party of government. ACORN, like our president, is in the “community organizing” business – a euphemism for putting (some) people in a position to better demand things from government. Some of those demands are perfectly legitimate: reduce crime; fix the potholes. But others, the demands ACORN specializes in, are not thus “common.” They can be satisfied, in a world of scarcity, only by taking from some and giving to others.

And that’s what the housing and health care debates today are largely about. And it’s why on both, the Dems are having difficulty getting their act together, because however much they turn a blind eye toward scarcity or pretend that they all agree, the truth is that they represent discrete constituencies, with discrete conflicting interests. That’s what happens when we’re all thrown into the common pot. What once was decided by individuals, reflecting their own particular interests, is now decided by government – and it’s a Hobbesian war of all against all.

The AP report on ACORN last week illustrated that nicely. ACORN has been in the forefront of those browbeating banks, under the Community Reinvestment Act, to provide housing loans to people who couldn’t afford them. Banks were reluctant to make those loans, of course – until the government stepped in to “guarantee” them. Well, we’ve seen where that ended: we’re all paying the price, especially those who couldn’t afford the homes in the first place, and will be for years to come. AEI’s Peter Wallison details some of that fiasco in this morning’s Wall Street Journal, placing a finger on none other than Barney Frank, who parades now as our savior.

But the same something-for-nothing mindset is at work in the health care debate. Here again, many people want more health care than they can afford, which means that someone else will have to pay for it – the government having nothing except what it takes from us. The pretense that it is otherwise – or that they can redistribute more equitably than the market does – is what drives the Dems to their pie-in-the-sky schemes – until some among them realize that it is they and their constituents who are being taken for a ride. At that point, either the recalcitrant are silenced, with some temporary sop, or the bottom falls out of the scheme, which is what many of us are hoping for here. If not, the housing debacle will prove in time to be a pale harbinger of the health care debacle, at least for those who live to see it.

C/P Politico’s Arena

What Is Regulation?

The New York Times tries to spin the work of Nobel laureates Elinor Ostrom and Oliver Williamson as not anti-regulation:

Neither Ms. Ostrom nor Mr. Williamson has argued against regulation. Quite the contrary, their work found that people in business adopt for themselves numerous forms of regulation and rules of behavior — called “governance” in economic jargon — doing so independently of government or without being told to do so by corporate bosses.

But none of us “anti-regulation” folks are against “rules of behavior that people in business adopt for themselves independently of government.” The world is full of rules, from wearing clothes in the office to customary trade practices to the rules for managing common-pool resources that Ostrom studied. Anyone who opposed such “forms of regulation” wouldn’t be a libertarian or even an anarchist – he’d be a nihilist. (Of course, one could sensibly oppose particular rules; but no one seriously wants a world without rules of behavior.)

David Henderson analyzes one of the misunderstandings about the laureates’ findings:

Some have summarized their work by saying that institutions other than free markets often work well. But that statement can mislead you to conclude that government solutions are the answer. Free markets are only a subset of free institutions. A better way to sum up their work is that what Ms. Ostrom and Mr. Willamson really show is that voluntary associations work.

The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics defines “regulation” this way: “Regulation consists of requirements the government imposes on private firms and individuals to achieve government’s purposes.” That’s the kind of regulation that is controversial among economists and often criticized by libertarians. It is entirely different from “rules of behavior that people in business adopt for themselves independently of government.” Those sorts of rules – often called “governance,” as the New York Times notes – are private and voluntary, made by the voluntary interactions of a few or many people.

The work of Ostrom and Williamson supports the idea of spontaneous order, an order that emerges as result of the voluntary activities of individuals and not through the commands of government. Spontaneous order can be hard to grasp, though it is the background of our entire world – language, common law, money, and the economy are all spontaneous orders (though government has intruded into some of those orders). It’s misleading to say that work of Ostrom and Williamson is somehow supportive of “regulation,” given the way that word is commonly used.

Sheldon Richman made a similar point back in June and wrote a Facebook note on the same paragraph that caught my eye.

The VAT Debate: Should Politicians in Washington Get a Huge New Source of Tax Revenue as a Reward for Overspending?

Based on five criteria, James Pethokoukis of Reuters connects the dots and warns that President Obama is going to propose a value-added tax.

Does President Obama have a secret plan to raise taxes on middle-class Americans — and,well, pretty much everybody else — with a European-style, value-added tax? Actually, it’s not such a big secret. …Obama’s campaign promise to not raise taxes on households making less than $250,000 a year was always considered a joke here inside the Beltway. …Maybe it was a joke inside the campaign, too. Since being elected, Obama has raised cigarette taxes and has advocated raising healthcare taxes, energy and small business taxes, in addition to corporate taxes. What’s more, economic advisers like Larry Summers seem eager to get rid of all the Bush tax cuts, not just those on so-called wealthy Americans. And it’s also no secret that economists love the idea of a VAT. It promotes savings over consumption, and its hidden nature may mean it has less behavioral impact on taxpayers. …Liberals love the idea of a VAT because it’s, well, so European — also because it does raise tons of revenue to expand government. And that is what Obama wants: more revenue to pay for bigger government. Is a VAT better than the soak-the-rich approach favored by Democrats such as Nancy Pelosi and Charlie Rangel? Sure. Of course, the concern is that a VAT would be in addition to new soak-the-rich taxes.

While the timing is unclear, his prediction is correct. The politicians in Washington want much bigger government, but they know that it will be difficult to achieve that goal without a big new source of revenue. The VAT would be perfect from their perspective. It is a form of national sales tax, but would be hidden in the price of products and therefore easy to increase. Moreover, every time they increase the VAT, they would use that as an excuse to raise income tax rates for “distributional fairness.” It is no exaggeration to say that the VAT is the biggest fiscal threat to the cause of limited government.

One final point about the column. Economists don’t love the VAT, per se, but they do view it as being less destructive - per dollar raised - than the income tax. But less destructive is still destructive. And since the VAT would be in addition to the taxes we have now (and actually create the conditions for higher income tax rates), its enactment would create a lose-lose situation for taxpayers.

Tuesday Links

  • Richard Rahn on the growing debt bomb, set to explode within three years: “Expect to see record high real interest rates and/or inflation, coupled with a collapse of many ‘entitlements.’”
  • Let the battle of ideas begin: Economists debate the monetary lessons of the last recession.