Tag: Keynesian economics

Portuguese Finance Minister Admits Keynesian Stimulus Was a Flop

President Obama imposed a big-spending faux stimulus program on the economy back in 2009, claiming that the government needed to squander about $800 billion to keep the unemployment rate from rising above 8 percent.

How did that work out? One possible description is that the so-called stimulus became a festering pile of manure. About three years have passed, and the joblessness rate hasn’t dropped below 8 percent. But the White House has been sprinkling perfume on that pile of you-know-what and claiming that the Keynesian spending binge was good policy.

But not every politician is blindly ideological like Obama. Vitor Gaspar, Portugal’s Finance Minister, is willing to admit error. Here are some relevant excerpts from a New York Times report.

Mr. Gaspar, speaking to The New York Times last week, has a message for observers who say Europe needs to substantially relax its austerity approach: We tried stimulus and it backfired. Like some other European countries, Portugal tried what Mr. Gaspar called “a Keynesian style expansion” in 2008, referring to a theory by economist John Maynard Keynes. But it didn’t turn things around, and may have made things worse.

Why does the Portuguese Finance Minister have this view? Well, for the simple reason that the economy got worse and more spending put his country in a deeper fiscal ditch.

The yield on Portuguese government bonds – more than 11 percent on longer-term bonds — is substantially higher than the yields on debt issued by Ireland, Spain or Italy. …The main fear among investors is that Portugal is going to have to ask for a second bailout from the International Monetary Fund and the European Union, which committed $103 billion of financial aid in 2011.

Maybe the big spenders in Portugal should import some of the statist bureaucrats at Congressional Budget Office. The CBO folks could then regurgitate the moving-goalposts argument that they’ve used in the United States and claim that the economy would be even weaker if the government hadn’t wasted more money.

But perhaps the Portuguese left doesn’t think that will pass the laugh test.

In any event, some of us can say we were right from the beginning about this issue.

Not that being right required any keen insight. Keynesian policies failed for Hoover and Roosevelt in the 1930s. So-called stimulus policies also failed for Japan in 1990s. And Keynesian proposals failed for Bush in 2001 and 2008.

Just in case any politicians are reading this post, I’ll make a point that normally goes without saying: Borrowing money from one group of people and giving it to another group of people does not increase prosperity.

But since politicians probably aren’t capable of dealing with a substantive argument, let’s keep it simple and offer three very insightful cartoons: here, here, and here.

Germany’s Not a Good Role Model…Except When Compared to the Profligate U.S.

Last week in New York City, during my Intelligence Squared debate about stimulus, I pointed out that Germany is doing better than the United States and explained that they largely avoided any Bush/Obama Keynesian spending binges.

One of my opponents disagreed and asserted that I was wrong. Germany, this person argued, was dong better because it was more Keynesian thanks to “automatic stabilizers” that resulted in big spending increases.

This claim was made with such certainty that I wondered if I made a mistake.

Well, we were both right about Germany doing better. In the past few years, it has been enjoying yearly growth of about 3.5 percent while growth in the United States has remained below 3 percent.

But who was right about the key issue of whether Germany has been more Keynesian? At first, I was going to be lazy and not bother combing the data. But then I got motivated after reading an excellent post about Germany’s pro-growth reforms, written for National Review by Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center.

So I looked up the data on annual government spending in the United States and Germany and discovered that I was right (gee, what a shock). As the chart shows, the burden of government spending has increased faster in the United States. And that is true whether 2007 or 2008 is used as the base year.

To make sure the comparison was fair, I sliced the numbers every possible way. But the results were the same, regardless of whether state and local government spending was included, whether TARP spending was included, which base year was selected, or whether I used annual spending increases or multi-year spending increases.

In every single case, the burden of government spending grew faster in the United States from 2007 to 2011.

This does not mean Germany is a role model. Government spending in Germany is far too high and it continues to grow. All we can say is that Germany is not going in the wrong direction as fast as the United States.

Oh, I suppose we also can say that I was right and my opponent was wrong. The United States has been more Keynesian than Germany.

Speaking of Germany, I combed my archives and found only one post that said anything nice about German politicians.

My other German posts mocked the country’s scheme to tax prostitutes, mocked the government for losing the blueprints for its new spy headquarters, mocked the government for a money-losing scheme to tax coffee, and even mocked the supposedly conservative Chancellor for wanting to impose new taxes.

So even though Veronique is correct about some positive changes, the Germans have a long way to go.

Grading the Likely Components of Obama’s New Stimulus Plan

President Obama will be unveiling another “jobs plan” tomorrow night, though Democrats are being careful not to call it stimulus after the failure of the $800 billion package from 2008.

But just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, bigger government is not good for the economy, regardless of how it is characterized.

Here are the most likely provisions for Obama’s new stimulus, as reported by the Associated Press, along with a grade reflecting whether the proposals will be effective.

  • Payroll tax relief - C - This proposal won’t do any harm, but it probably won’t have much positive impact because people generally don’t make permanent decisions on creating jobs and expanding output on the basis of temporary tax cuts.

    But, to be fair, if the tax cut keeps getting extended, people may begin to view it as a semi-permanent part of the tax code, which would make it a bit more potent.

  • Extended unemployment benefits - F - I agree with Paul Krugman and Larry Summers, both of whom have written that you extend joblessness when you pay people to be unemployed for longer and longer periods of time.

    And I recently produced a chart showing how long-term unemployment has jumped sharply since Obama entered the White House, a dismal result that almost surely is related to the numerous expansions of unemployment benefits.

  • New-hire tax credit - D - This proposal actually would subsidize employment rather than joblessness, so it’s an improvement over extending unemployment benefits, but it’s unclear how the IRS can effectively enforce such a scheme.

    This approach was tried already, as part of HIRE Act of 2010 (which was infamous for the FATCA provision), and it obviously didn’t generate great results. Simply stated, giving special tax breaks to companies with high employee turnover is not an effective approach.

  • School construction subsidies - F - The federal government should have no role in education. Period.

    That being said, the economic flaw of school construction spending-cum-stimulus is that government spending must be financed with either taxes or borrowing, both of which divert resources from the productive sector of the economy. Simply stated, Keynesian spending does not work.

  • Temporary expensing of business investment - B - The current tax code penalizes new business investment by forcing companies to “depreciate” those costs rather than “expense” them, thus forcing companies to artificially overstate profits. Temporary expensing mitigates this foolish bias.

    But temporary tax cuts, as noted above, are unlikely to have a permanent impact on growth. Temporary expensing, however, will encourage companies to accelerate planned investment to take advantage of better tax treatment, so it can lead to more short-term economic activity (albeit perhaps by reducing economic activity in future years).

The only good news - at least relatively speaking - is that Obama supposedly will propose to misallocate $300 billion of resources, significantly less than what was squandered as part of the 2009 faux stimulus.

But the bad news is that the AP story also notes that “Obama has said he intends to propose long-term deficit reduction measures to cover the up-front costs of his jobs plan.” Translated into English, that means the gimmicks and new spending in the plan proposed tomorrow night will lead to proposed tax hikes at some point in the future.

More taxes and more spending. Hey, it worked for the Greeks, right?

Is Obama Really Going to Propose Another Keynesian Stimulus?

Just last week, I made fun of Paul Krugman after he publicly said that a fake threat from invading aliens would be good for the economy since the earth would waste a bunch of money on pointless defense outlays.

Yesterday, there were rumors that Krugman stated that it would have been stimulative if the earthquake had been stronger and done more damage, but he exposed this as a prank (though it is understandable that many people – including me, I’m embarrassed to admit – initially assumed it was true since he did write that the 9-11 terrorist attacks boosted growth).

 But while Krugman is owed an apology by whoever pulled that stunt, the real problem is that President Obama and his advisers actually take Keynesian alchemy seriously.

And since President Obama is promising to unveil another “jobs plan” after his vacation, that almost certainly means more faux stimulus.

We don’t know what will be in this new package, but there are rumors of an infrastructure bank, which doubtlessly would be a subsidy for state and local governments. The only thing “shovel ready” about this proposal is that tax dollars will be shoveled to interest groups.

The other idea that seems to have traction is extending the current payroll tax holiday, which lowers the “employee share” of the payroll tax from 6.2 percent to 4.2 percent. The good news is that the tax holiday doesn’t increase the burden of government spending. The bad news is that temporary tax rate reductions probably have very little positive effect on economic output.

Lower tax rates are the right approach, to be sure (particularly compared to useless rebates, such as those pushed by the Bush White House in 2001 and 2008), but workers, investors, and entrepreneurs are unlikely to be strongly incentivized by something that might be seen as a one-year gimmick. Though I suppose if the holiday keeps getting extended, people may begin to think it is a semi-durable feature of the tax code, so maybe there will be some pro-growth impact.

In any event, we will see what the President unveils next month. I’ll be particularly interested in how his supposed short-run jobs proposal fits in with his long-run plan for dealing with red ink. He has been advocating for a “balanced approach” and “shared sacrifice” - but that’s Obama-speak for higher taxes, and we know that’s a damper on job creation and new investment.

As you can tell, I’m not optimistic. The best thing for growth would be to get the government out of the way. The Obama White House, though, thinks bigger government is good for the economy.

This stimulus video was produced last year and was designed for another jobs plan concocted by the Administration, but the message is still very appropriate.

Basic Economics for Financial Journalists and Other Dummies

While driving home last night, I had the miserable experience of listening to a financial journalist being interviewed about the anemic growth numbers that were just released.

I wasn’t unhappy because the interview was biased to the left. From what I could tell, both the host and the guest were straight shooters. Indeed, they spent some time speculating that the economy’s weak performance was bad news for Obama.

What irked me was the implicit Keynesian thinking in the interview. Both of them kept talking about how the economy would have been weaker in the absence of government spending, and they fretted that “austerity” in Washington could further slow the economy in the future.

This was especially frustrating for me since I’ve spent years trying to get people to understand that money doesn’t disappear if it’s not spent by government. I repeatedly explain that less government means more money left in the private sector, where it is more likely to create jobs and generate wealth.

In recent years, though, I’ve begun to realize that many people are accidentally sympathetic to the Keynesian government-spending-is-stimulus approach. They mistakenly think the theory makes sense because they look at GDP, which measures how national income is spent. They’d be much less prone to shoddy analysis if they instead focused on how national income is earned.

This should be at least somewhat intuitive, because we all understand that economic growth occurs when there is an increase in things that make up national income, such as wages, small business income, and corporate profits.

But as I listened to the interview, I began to wonder whether more people would understand if I used the example of a household.

Let’s illustrate by imagining a middle-class household with $50,000 of expenses and $50,000 of income. I’m just making up numbers, so I’m not pretending this is an “average” household, but that doesn’t matter for this analysis anyway.

Expenses                                                        Income                                  

Mortgage           $15,000                        Wages                $40,000

Utilities               $10,000                        Bank Interest       $1,000

Food                     $5,000                        Rental Income      $8,000

Taxes                  $10,000                        Dividends             $1,000

Clothing               $2,000

Health Care         $3,000

Other                   $5,000

The analogy isn’t perfect, of course, but think of this household as being the economy. In this simplified example, the household’s expenses are akin to the way the government measures GDP. It shows how income is allocated. But instead of measuring how much national income goes to categories such as consumption, investment, and government spending, we’re showing how much household income goes to things like housing, food, and utilities.

The income side of the household, as you might expect, is like the government’s national income calculations. But instead of looking at broad measures of things such wages, small business income, and corporate profits, we’re narrowing our focus to one household’s income.

Now let’s modify this example to understand why Keynesian economics doesn’t make sense. Assume that expenses suddenly jumped for our household by $5,000.

Maybe the family has moved to a bigger house. Maybe they’ve decided to eat steak every night. But since I’m a cranky libertarian, let’s assume Obama has imposed a European-style 20 percent VAT and the tax burden has increased.

Faced with this higher expense, the household – especially in the long run – will have to reduce other spending. Let’s assume that the income side has stayed the same but that household expenses now look like this.

Expenses                                                       

Mortgage           $15,000

Utilities                 $9,000        (down by $1,000)

Food                     $4,000        (down by $1,000)

Taxes                  $15,000        (up by $5,000)

Clothing               $2,000

Health Care         $3,000

Other                   $2,000        (down by $3,000)

Now let’s return to where we started and imagine how a financial journalist, applying the same approach used for GDP analysis,  would cover a news report about this household’s budget.

This journalist would tell us that the household’s total spending stayed steady thanks to a big increase in tax payments, which compensated for falling demand for utilities, food, and other spending.

From a household perspective, we instinctively recoil from this kind of sloppy analysis. Indeed, we probably are thinking, “Spending for other categories – things that actually make my life better – are down because the tax burden increased!!!”

But this is exactly how we should be reacting when financial journalists (and other dummies) tell us that government outlays are helping to prop up total spending in the economy.

The moral of the story is that government is capable of redistributing how national income is spent, but it isn’t a vehicle for increasing national income. Indeed, the academic evidence clearly shows the opposite to be true.

Let’s conclude by briefly explaining how journalists and others should be looking at economic numbers. And the household analogy, once again, will be quite helpful.

It’s presumably obvious that higher income is the best thing for our hypothetical family. A new job, a raise, better investments, an increase in rental income. Any or all of these developments would be welcome because they mean higher living standards and a better life. In other words, more household spending is a natural consequence of more income.

Similarly, the best thing for the economy is more national income. More wages, higher profits, increased small business income. Any or all of these developments would be welcome because we would have more money to spend as we see fit to enjoy a better life. This higher spending would then show up in the data as higher GDP, but the key thing to understand is that the increase in GDP is a natural result of more national income.

Simply stated, national income is the horse and GDP is the cart. This video elaborates on this topic, and watching it may be more enjoyable than reading my analysis.

Andrew Sullivan Has No Idea What He’s Talking about, but I Agree with His Conclusion

Even though he’s become more partisan in recent years, I still enjoy an occasional visit to Andrew Sullivan’s blog. But I was disappointed last night when I read one of his posts, in which he discussed whether government spending helps or hurts economic performance. He took the view that a bigger public sector stimulates growth, and criticized those who want to reduce the burden of government spending, snarkily observing that, “The notion that Herbert Hoover was right has become quite a dogged meme on the reality-challenged right.”

Since I’m one of those “reality-challenged” people who prefer smaller government, I obviously disagree with his analysis. But his reference to Hoover set off alarm bells. As I have noted before, Hoover increased the burden of government during his time in office.

But maybe my memory was wrong. So I went to the Historical Tables of the Budget and looked up the annual spending data. As you can see from the chart (click for larger image), it turns out that Hoover increased government spending by 47 percent in just four years. (If you adjust for falling prices, as Russ Roberts did at Cafe Hayek, it turns out that Hoover increased real government spending by more than 50 percent.)

I suppose I could make my own snarky comment about being “reality-challenged,” but Sullivan’s mistake is understandable. The historical analysis and understanding of the Great Depression is woefully inadequate, and millions of people genuinely believe that Hoover was an early version of Ronald Reagan.

I will say, however, that I agree with Sullivan’s conclusion. He closed by saying it would be “bonkers” to replicate Hoover’s policies today. I might have picked a different word, but I fully subscribe to the notion that making government bigger was a mistake then, and it’s a mistake now.