Tag: Keynesian economics

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.

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?