Tag: economy

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.

Federal Job Creation

The board game Monopoly first took off during the Great Depression. A different game has become popular during today’s Great Recession. In this game, politicians race against high unemployment to create jobs in order to save their own. The players (politicians) have unlimited tax and borrowing authority, and can call upon friendly economists to help them maneuver. The players even get to keep score, although the media can penalize shoddy scorekeeping. Ultimately, voters will decide which players win and lose in the fall elections.

Okay, I’m being facetious. But as politicians continue to throw trillions of dollars at the economy in a vain effort to create jobs, and the media continues to go along with it by obsessing over meaningless job counts, the entire spectacle has become surreal. If government job creation is a game, the losers have been the taxpayers underwriting it, as well as the employers (and their employees) who are closing shop, laying off workers, or not hiring because of uncertainty over what big government schemes will be next.

Two news articles point to this “regime uncertainty” being generated by Washington.

First, the government’s chief technology officer, Aneesh Chopra, received a somewhat hostile reception at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas according to the BBC:

“The government doesn’t spur innovation or entrepreneurship. The government often gets in the way,” said Mr. [Gary] Shapiro, president of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) which stages CES.

It [CEA] also had little support for President Obama’s $787 billion stimulus act calling it “panic spending” and warned of the growing federal deficit.

“The government is often a barrier,” said Mr. Shapiro. “High taxes and regulatory bureaucracy are barriers.”

Mr. Chopra’s response was typical of the political-bureaucratic mindset:

He said the US government was planning a summit with a number of chief executives from the “most innovative companies in the country to directly advise us to make government more efficient and more effective”.

Ah, another summit.

In the other article, the CNBC headline says it all: “Many Reluctant to Hire Because of New Taxes, Rules.” The article makes it clear that what businesses don’t need is another orchestrated summit:

The prospect of increased federal and state regulation and taxes has been particularly disruptive to the hiring plans of small- and medium-sized businesses, which have historically generated about two-thirds of the nation’s jobs. “I don’t really see the private sector hiring much in the next few months,” says Brian Bethune, an economist at Global Insight. “For the small-business sector there is just too much uncertainty about what happens beyond 2010.”

In reporting that its small business optimism index fell for the second straight month in December, the National Federation of Independent Business Tuesday said members’ No. 2 reason for not expanding payrolls was the prospect of government policy initiatives…”We’re hearing it more and more from our membership,” says Bill Rys, the NFIB’s tax counsel. “At the federal level, there’s uncertainty about tax rates, health care costs, energy costs. You also have what’s going on at the state and local levels, with new fees and taxes. They’re reluctant to jump back in.”

Unfortunately, instead of heeding the business community’s message, the Obama administration is focusing its energies on tinkering with the game’s scorekeeping. From ABC News:

The Obama administration has taken some heat and mockery for using the nebulous and non-economic term of jobs being “saved or created” by the $787 billion stimulus program.

So it’s gotten rid of it.

In a little-noticed December 18, 2009 memo from Office of Management and Budget director Peter Orszag the Obama administration is changing the way stimulus jobs are counted.

The memo, first noted by ProPublica, says that those receiving stimulus funds no longer have to say whether a job has been saved or created.

“Instead, recipients will more easily and objectively report on jobs funded with Recovery Act dollars,” Orszag wrote.

In other words, if the project is being funded with stimulus dollars – even if the person worked at that company or organization before and will work the same place afterward – that’s a stimulus job.

The American people are rightly growing tired of this nonsense. But it’s important that they understand that the idea of government job creation was flawed from the get-go. The government cannot simply wave a magic wand and create jobs without making private sector jobs disappear at the same time because of higher taxing and borrowing. There is no free lunch with government.

New Study Seconds Cato Finding: Immigration Reform Good for Economy

The Center for American Progress and the Immigration Policy Center released a new study this morning that finds comprehensive immigration reform would boost the U.S. economy by $189 billion a year by 2019. The bottom-line results of the study are remarkably similar to those of a Cato study released last August.

Titled “Raising the Floor for American Workers: the Economic Benefits of Comprehensive Immigration Reform,” the CAP study was authored by Dr. Raul Hinojosa-Ojeda of the University of California, Los Angeles.

It finds that legalizing low-skilled immigration would boost U.S. gross domestic product by 0.84 percent by raising the productivity of immigrant workers and expanding activity throughout the economy.

Using a different general-equilibrium model of the U.S. economy, the earlier Cato study (“Restriction or Legalization? Measuring the Economic Benefits of Immigration Reform,” by Peter Dixon and Maureen Rimmer) found that a robust temporary worker program would boost the incomes of U.S. households by $180 billion a year by 2019.

Both studies also concluded that tighter restrictions and reduced low-skilled immigration would impose large costs on native-born Americans by shrinking the overall economy and lowering worker productivity.

I’m partial to the Cato study. Its methodology is more comprehensive and more fully explained, but it is worth noting that very different think tanks employing two different models have come to the same result: Legalization of immigration will expand the U.S. economy and incomes, while an “enforcement only” policy of further restrictions will only depress economic activity.

If Congress and President Obama want to create better jobs and stimulate the economy, comprehensive immigration reform should be high on the agenda.

A Double Dip for Housing?

Washington is fretting this week over news that mortgage applications fell dramatically in November. Coupled with earlier indications of renewed softening in the housing market, there is growing fear that housing is headed for a “double-dip downturn” that could further damage the economy. As a result, Federal Reserve policymakers are considering additional stimulus, while the National Association of Realtors is suggesting an(other) extension of the “temporary” homebuyer tax credit.

Remarkably, neither policymakers nor the media are asking the obvious question: Given all of the emergency interventions in housing that government has undertaken, and the fact that the housing market continues to erode, do such interventions do much good?

Since the bursting of the bubble in 2006, the great unknown has been whether housing prices will revert to their historical trend (and possibly to below trend for a short period), or stabilize at some permanently higher level because a portion of the bubble (aided perhaps by public policy) would prove enduring. There is good reason to expect reversion to trend, but the economy can surprise us.

Let’s use an example to understand this better. The graph below depicts the course of house prices for my hometown of Hagerstown, MD, an area within commuting range of suburban DC that was hit particularly hard by the bubble and its deflation. The black line is a house price index computed by the Federal Housing Finance Agency for 1989–2009. The red line is an extended linear trendline drawn using index data from the period 1989–2002. (You can do the same analysis for your area using these FHFA data.) The question, then, is whether house prices will fall all the way back to the trendline or will stabilize at a level above the trendline. 

Figure

The sharp downward slope at the end of the price line and  the latest housing news suggest that Hagerstown is destined to revert to trend (perhaps after a period below trend). I’ve drawn similar figures for several other locations and they show similar patterns. It looks like the nation’s housing markets, for the most part, are reverting to trend.

When this crisis first began in 2007, Bush administration officials vowed to “stabilize house prices at the highest possible level.” However, despite their efforts and those of the Obama administration, Congress, and the Fed,  reversion to trend appears inevitable. At best, those efforts may have slowed the reversion — in which case, I suppose the Bush goal has been met.

It can be argued that a gentler reversion to trend may be more tolerable than a sharp return. On the other hand, there are fears that a lengthy softening of the housing market will lead to more defaults, less worker mobility, continued weak consumption, and a long period of high unemployment and stagnant wages for those who are working. Perhaps a sharp return would be the quickest way to shed the ill effects of the bubble.

This leaves us with a final question that policymakers, the media, and the public should be grappling with: If all of these emergency housing interventions only result in a slower reversion to trend, then is that benefit worth the cost?

Weekend Links

  • How the president’s policies are holding back the economy: “Right now, the best thing Washington can do for our economy is to simply stop what it has been doing.”

Obama’s Copenhagen Speech

Politico asks, “Was he convincing?”

My response:

In Copenhagen this morning, President Obama convinced only those who want to believe — of which, regrettably, there is no shortage.  Notice how he began, utterly without doubt:  “You would not be here unless you, like me, were convinced that this danger is real.  This is not fiction, this is science.”  The implicit certitude is no part of real science, of course.  But then the president, like the environmental zealots cheering him in Copenhagen, is not really interested in real science.  Theirs, ultimately, is a political agenda.  How else to explain the corruption of science that the East Anglia Climate Research email scandal has brought to light, and the efforts, presently, to dismiss the scandal as having no bearing on the evidence of climate change?  If that were so, then why these efforts, or the earlier suppression of contrary or mitigating evidence that is the heart of the scandal?

We find such an effort in this morning’s Washington Post, by one of those at the center of the scandal, Penn State’s Professor Michael E. Mann.  Set aside his opening gambit — “I cannot condone some things that colleagues of mine wrote or requested” — this author of the famous, now infamous, “hockey stick” article seems not to recognize himself in Climategate.  That he then goes after Sarah Palin as his critic suggests only that on a witness stand, confronted by his real critics, he’d be reduced to tears by even a mediocre lawyer.  One such real critic is my colleague, climatologist Patrick J. Michaels, who documents the scandal and its implications for science in exquisite detail in this morning’s Wall Street Journal.

But to return to the president and his speech, having uncritically subscribed to the science of global warming, Mr. Obama then lays out an ambitious policy agenda for the nation.  We will meet our responsibility, he says, by phasing out fossil fuel subsidies (which pale in comparison to the renewable energy subsidies that alone make them economically feasible), we will put our people to work increasing efficiency in our homes and buildings, and we will pursue “comprehensive legislation to transform to a clean energy economy.”

Mark that word “legislation,” because at the end of his speech the president said:  ”America has made our choice.  We have charted our course, we have made our commitments, and we will do what we say.”  But we haven’t made “our choice” — cap and trade, to take just one example, has gone nowhere in the Senate — even if Obama has made “our commitments.”  And that brings us to a fundamental question:  Can the president, with no input from a recalcitrant Congress, commit the nation to the radical economic conversion he promises?

Environmental zealots say he can.  Look at the report released last week by the Climate Law Institute’s Center for Biological Diversity, “Yes He Can: President Obama’s Power to Make an International Climate Commitment Without Waiting for Congress,” which argues that in Copenhagen Obama has all the power he needs under current law, quite apart from the will of Congress or the American people, to make a legally binding international commitment.  Unfortunately, under current law, the report is right.  I discuss that report and the larger constitutional implications of the modern “executive state” in this morning’s National Review Online.

There is enough ambiguity in the president’s remarks this morning to suggest that he may not be prepared to exercise the full measure of his powers.  But there is also enough in play to suggest that it is not only the corruption of science but the corruption of our Constitution that is at stake.

Obama on Health Care: Half Right

President Obama gave what seems like his thousandth exclusive health care interview last night, this one to ABC News’s Charles Gibson.  In trying to sell his health care plan, the president warned that if Congress does not pass legislation controlling health care costs, the federal government “will go bankrupt.”  He also warned that unless health care is reformed, “your premiums will go up.”

 The president is absolutely correct about that.  The only problem is that, according to the president’s own chief health care actuary, the bills that Congress is now considering do nothing to restrain either federal health care spending or total health care costs.  In fact, Rick Foster, chief actuary at the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) says that if Congress passes the bill now before the Senate, health care spending will actually increase by $234 billion more over the next 10 years than if we did nothing. 

And, according to the Congressional Budget Office, the congressional bills do little or nothing to reduce the growth in insurance premiums. Even if a bill passes, premiums will roughly double by 2016, and keep rising after that.   But for millions of Americans the bill will actually make things worse.  According to CBO, the Senate bill would actually increase insurance premiums by 10-13 percent for Americans who buy their insurance through the non-group market, that is those who don’t receive insurance from their employer.  Those 10-13 percent increases are over and above the increases that would occur if we did nothing.    

On the other hand, if the president were really serious about controlling health care costs and lowering premiums, he wouldn’t need to spend trillions of dollars and take over one-sixth of the US economy; he could try some of the ideas written about here, and here, and here.