Tag: Keynesian economics

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.

No Matter How Hard He Tries, Obama Will Never Be as Bad as FDR

I’ve explained on many occasions that Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal was bad news for the economy. The same can be said of Herbert Hoover’s policies, since he also expanded the burden of federal spending, raised tax rates, and increased government intervention.

So when I was specifically asked to take part in a symposium on Barack Obama, Franklin Roosevelt, and the New Deal, I quickly said yes.

I was asked to respond to this question: “Was that an FDR-Sized Stimulus?” Here’s some of what I wrote.

President Obama probably wants to be another FDR, and his policies share an ideological kinship with those that were imposed during the New Deal. But there’s really no comparing the 1930s and today. And that’s a good thing. As explained by Walter Williams and Thomas Sowell, President Roosevelt’s policies are increasingly understood to have had a negative impact on the American economy. …[W]hat should have been a routine or even serious recession became the Great Depression.

In other words, my assessment is that Obama is a Mini-Me version of FDR, which is a lot better (or, to be more accurate, less worse) than the real thing.

To be sure, Obama wants higher tax rates, and he has expanded government control over the economy. And the main achievement of his first year was the so-called stimulus, which was based on the same Keynesian theory that a nation can become richer by switching money from one pocket to another. …Obama did get his health plan through Congress, but its costs, fortunately, pale in comparison to Social Security and its $30 trillion long-run deficit. And the Dodd-Frank bailout bill is peanuts compared to all the intervention of Roosevelt’s New Deal. In other words, Obama’s policies have nudged the nation in the wrong direction and slowed economic growth. FDR, by contrast, dramatically expanded the burden of government and managed to keep us in a depression for a decade. So thank goodness Barack Obama is no Franklin Roosevelt.

The last sentence of the excerpt is a perfect summary of my remarks. I think Obama’s policies have been bad for the economy, but he has done far less damage than FDR because his policy mistakes have been much smaller.

Moreover, Obama has never proposed anything as crazy as FDR’s “Economic Bill of Rights.” As I pointed out in my article, this “would have created a massive entitlement state—putting America on a path to becoming a failed European welfare state a couple of decades before European governments made the same mistake.”

On the other hand, subsequent presidents did create that massive entitlement state and Obama added another straw to the camel’s back with Obamacare. And he is rigidly opposed to the entitlement reforms that would save America from becoming another Greece. So maybe I didn’t give him enough credit for being as bad as FDR.

P.S.: Here’s some 1930s economic humor, and it still applies today.

P.P.S.: The symposium also features an excellent contribution from Professor Lee Ohanian of UCLA.

And from the left, it’s interesting to see that Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research basically agrees with me. But only in the sense that he also says Obama is a junior-sized version of FDR. Dean actually thinks Obama should have embraced his inner-FDR and wasted even more money on an even bigger so-called stimulus.

A Cartoon Showing the Logic (or lack thereof) of Keynesian Economics

I’ve run across very few good cartoons about Keynesian economics. If my aging memory is correct, I’ve only posted two of them.

But at least they’re both very good. We have one involving Obama, sharks, and a lifeboat, and another one involving an overburdened jockey.

Now we have a third cartoon, by Australian freelancer Jon Kudelka, to add to the collection:

To provide a bit of additional background, the cartoon is channeling Bastiat’s broken-window insight that make-work projects don’t create prosperity, as explained in this short video narrated by Tom Palmer.

I make similar points in this post mocking Paul Krugman’s wish for an alien invasion and this post explaining why Obama’s green energy programs lead to net job destruction.

P.S. This Wizard of Id parody is the best cartoon about economics, but it teaches about labor markets rather than Keynesianism.

Another Month of Data Re-Confirms Obama’s Horrible Record on Jobs

Remember back in 2009, when President Obama and his team told us that we needed to spend $800 billion on a so-called stimulus package?

The crowd in Washington was quite confident that Keynesian spending was going to save the day, even though similar efforts had failed for Hoover and Roosevelt in the 1930s, for Japan in the 1990s, and for Bush in 2008.

Nonetheless, we were assured that the stimulus was needed to keep unemployment from rising above 8 percent.

Well, that claim has turned out to be hollow. Not that we needed additional evidence, but the new numbers from the Labor Department re-confirm that the White House prediction was wildly inaccurate. The 8.2 percent unemployment rate is 2.5 percentage points above the administration’s prediction.

Defenders of the Obama administration sometimes respond by saying that the downturn was more serious than anyone predicted. That’s a legitimate point, so I don’t put too much blame on the White House for the initial spike in joblessness.

But I do blame them for the fact that the labor market has remained weak for such a long time. The chart below, which I generated this morning using the Minneapolis Fed’s interactive website, shows employment data for all the post-World War II recessions. The current business cycle is the red line. As you can see, some recessions were deeper in the beginning and some were milder. But the one thing that is unambiguous is that we’ve never had a jobs recovery as anemic as the one we’re experiencing now.

Job creation has been extraordinarily weak. Indeed, the current 8.2 percent unemployment rate understates the bad news because it doesn’t capture all the people who have given up and dropped out of the labor force.

By the way, I don’t think the so-called stimulus is the main cause of today’s poor employment data. Rather, the vast majority of that money was simply wasted.

Today’s weak job market is affected by factors such as the threat of higher taxes in 2013 (when the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts are scheduled to expire), the costly impact of Obamacare, and the harsh regulatory environment. This cartoon shows, in an amusing fashion, the effect these policies have on entrepreneurs and investors.

Postscript: Click on this link if you want to compare Obamanomics and Reaganomics. The difference is astounding.

Post-postscript: The president will probably continue to blame “headwinds” for the dismal job numbers, so this cartoon is definitely worth sharing.

Post-post-postscript: Since I’m sharing cartoons, I can’t resist recycling this classic about Keynesian stimulus.

Will More Federal Debt Improve the U.S. Government’s Creditworthiness?

Writing in today’s Washington Post, former Obama economist Larry Summers put forth the strange hypothesis that more red ink would improve the federal government’s long-run fiscal position.

This sounds like an excuse for more Keynesian spending as part of another so-called stimulus plan, but Summers claims to have a much more modest goal of prudent financial management.

And if we assume there’s no hidden agenda, what he’s proposing isn’t unreasonable.

But before floating his idea, Summers starts with some skepticism about more easy-money policy from the Fed:

Many in the United States and Europe are arguing for further quantitative easing to bring down longer-term interest rates. …However, one has to wonder how much investment businesses are unwilling to undertake at extraordinarily low interest rates that they would be willing to undertake with rates reduced by yet another 25 or 50 basis points. It is also worth querying the quality of projects that businesses judge unprofitable at a -60 basis point real interest rate but choose to undertake at a still more negative rate. There is also the question of whether extremely low, safe, real interest rates promote bubbles of various kinds.

This is intuitively appealing. I try to stay away from monetary policy issues, but whenever I get sucked into a discussion with an advocate of easy money/quantitative easing, I always ask for a common-sense explanation of how dumping more liquidity into the economy is going to help.

Maybe it’s possible to push interest rates even lower, but it certainly doesn’t seem like there’s any evidence showing that the economy is being held back because today’s interest rates are too high.

Moreover, what’s the point of “pushing on a string” with easy money if it just means more reserves sitting at the Fed?

After suggesting that monetary policy isn’t the answer, Summers then proposes to utilize government borrowing. But he’s proposing more debt for management purposes, not Keynesian stimulus:

Rather than focusing on lowering already epically low rates, governments that enjoy such low borrowing costs can improve their creditworthiness by borrowing more, not less, and investing in improving their future fiscal position, even assuming no positive demand stimulus effects of a kind likely to materialize with negative real rates. They should accelerate any necessary maintenance projects — issuing debt leaves the state richer not poorer, assuming that maintenance costs rise at or above the general inflation rate. …Similarly, government decisions to issue debt, and then buy space that is currently being leased, will improve the government’s financial position as long as the interest rate on debt is less than the ratio of rents to building values — a condition almost certain to be met in a world with government borrowing rates below 2 percent. These examples are the place to begin because they involve what is in effect an arbitrage, whereby the government uses its credit to deliver essentially the same bundle of services at a lower cost. …countries regarded as havens that can borrow long term at a very low cost should be rushing to take advantage of the opportunity.

Much of this seems reasonable, sort of like a homeowner taking advantage of low interest rates to refinance a mortgage.

But before embracing this idea, we have to move from the dream world of theory to the real world of politics. And to his credit, Summers offers the critical caveat that his idea only makes sense if politicians use their borrowing authority for the right reasons:

There is, of course, still the question of whether more borrowing will increase anxiety about a government’s creditworthiness. It should not, as long as the proceeds of borrowing are used either to reduce future spending or raise future incomes.

At the risk of being the wet-blanket curmudgeon who ruins the party by removing the punch bowl, I have zero faith that politicians would make sound decisions about financial management.

I wrote last month that eurobonds would be “the fiscal version of co-signing a loan for your unemployed alcoholic cousin who has a gambling addiction.”

Well, giving politicians more borrowing authority in hopes they’ll do a bit of prudent refinancing is akin to giving a bunch of money to your drug-addict brother-in-law in hopes that he’ll refinance his credit card debt rather than wind up in a crack house.

Considering that we just saw big bipartisan votes to expand the Export-Import Bank’s corporate welfare and we’re now witnessing both parties working on a bloated farm bill, good luck with that.

Paul Krugman and the European Austerity Myth

With both France and Greece deciding to jump out of the left-wing frying pan into the even-more-left-wing fire, European fiscal policy has become quite a controversial topic.

But I find this debate and discussion rather tedious and unrewarding, largely because it pits advocates of Keynesian spending (the so-called “growth” camp) against supporters of higher taxes (the “austerity” camp).

Since I’m a big fan of nations lowering taxes and reducing the burden of government spending, I would like to see the pro-tax hike and the pro-spending sides both lose (wasn’t that Kissinger’s attitude about the Iran-Iraq war?). Indeed, this is why I put together this matrix, to show that there is an alternative approach.

One of my many frustrations with this debate (Veronique de Rugy is similarly irritated) is that many observers make the absurd claim that Europe has implemented “spending cuts” and that this approach hasn’t worked.

Here is what Prof. Krugman just wrote about France.

The French are revolting. …Mr. Hollande’s victory means the end of “Merkozy,” the Franco-German axis that has enforced the austerity regime of the past two years. This would be a “dangerous” development if that strategy were working, or even had a reasonable chance of working. But it isn’t and doesn’t; it’s time to move on. …What’s wrong with the prescription of spending cuts as the remedy for Europe’s ills? One answer is that the confidence fairy doesn’t exist — that is, claims that slashing government spending would somehow encourage consumers and businesses to spend more have been overwhelmingly refuted by the experience of the past two years. So spending cuts in a depressed economy just make the depression deeper.

And he’s made similar assertions about the United Kingdom, complaining that, “the government of Prime Minister David Cameron chose instead to move to immediate, unforced austerity, in the belief that private spending would more than make up for the government’s pullback.”

So let’s take a look at the actual data and see how much “slashing” has been implemented in France and the United Kingdom. Here’s a chart with the latest data from the European Union.

I’m not sure how Krugman defines austerity, but it certainly doesn’t look like there’s been a lot of “slashing” in these two nations.

To be fair, government spending in the United Kingdom has grown a bit slower than inflation in the past couple of years, so one could say that there’s been a very modest bit of trimming.

There’s been no fiscal restraint in France, however, even if one uses that more relaxed definition of a cut. The only accurate claim that can be made about France is that the burden of government spending hasn’t been growing quite as fast since the crisis began as it was growing in the preceding years.

This doesn’t mean there haven’t been any spending cuts in Europe. The Greek and Spanish governments actually cut spending in 2010 and 2011, and Portugal reduced outlays in 2011.

But you can see from this chart, which looks at all the PIIGS (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, and Spain), that the spending cuts have been very modest, and only came after years of profligacy. Indeed, Greece is the only nation to actually cut spending over the 3-year period since the crisis began.

Krugman would argue, of course, that the PIIGS are suffering because of the spending cuts. And since there actually have been spending cuts in the last year or two in these nations, does that justify his claims?

Yes and no. I don’t agree with the Keynesian theory, but that doesn’t mean it is easy or painless to shrink the burden of government. As I wrote earlier this year, “…the economy does hit a short-run speed bump when the public sector is pruned. Simply stated, there will be transitional costs when the burden of public spending is reduced. Only in economics textbooks is it possible to seamlessly and immediately reallocate resources.”

What I would argue, though, is that these nations have no choice but to bite the bullet and reduce the burden of government. The only other alternative is to somehow convince taxpayers in other nations to make the debt bubble even bigger with more bailouts and transfers. But that just makes the eventual day of reckoning that much more painful.

Additionally, I think much of the economic pain in these nations is the result of the large tax increases that have been imposed, including higher income tax rates, higher value-added taxes, and various other levies that reduce the incentive to engage in productive behavior.

So what’s the best path going forward? The best approach is to implement deep and meaningful spending cuts, and I think the Baltic nations of Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia are positive role models in this regard. Let’s look at what they’ve done in recent years.

As you can see from the chart, the burden of government spending was rising at a reckless rate before the crisis. But once the crisis hit, the Baltic nations hit the brakes and imposed genuine spending cuts.

The Baltic nations went through a rough patch when this happened, particularly since they also had their versions of a real estate bubble. But, as I’ve already argued, I think the “cold turkey” or “take the band-aid off quickly” approach has paid dividends.

The key question is whether nations can maintain spending restraint, particularly when (if?) the economy begins to grow again.

Even a basket case like Greece can put itself on a good path if it follows Mitchell’s Golden Rule and simply makes sure that government spending, in the long run, grows slower than the private economy.

The way to make that happen is to implement something similar to the Swiss Debt Brake, which effectively acts as an annual cap on the growth of government.

In the long run, of course, the goal should be to shrink the overall burden of government to its growth-maximizing level.

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.