Tag: keynesianism

U.S. Cuts Welfare Payments to Portugal, Portuguese Unhappy

American alliances are systems that transfer wealth from U.S. taxpayers and their debtors to citizens in wealthy allies. With Uncle Sam paying for those countries’ defense, their governments are free to use their own revenues for welfare programs or other domestic priorities. This is a sucker’s bet from an American perspective, but pretty great from the perspective of the citizen of a rich country who benefits from this largesse.

The Wall Street Journal’s news section over the weekend showed this phenomenon in an article illustrating the wages of sequestration. In the course of trimming the U.S. troop presence in Europe from 74,000 to 67,000 over two years, the strategically vital hamlet of Praia da Vitória in the Azores will be particularly hard hit. You see, the U.S. military presence will be reduced there, possibly by more than 1,000, devastating the economic well-being of the village, population 22,000.

One sympathizes with the Portuguese citizens who, over three generations, have come to rely on U.S. taxpayer dollars for their well-being. They don’t really know a world without that economic nourishment, so it must be unnerving to think about what will happen without it.

The story reads like a bad breakup. One U.S. official quoted in the article charged with breaking the news that we’re just not that into them remarked that the Portuguese felt “we are no longer important to you and we have been your best friend. They took it personally.” Worse, they felt “strategically devalued.” Other unnamed officials rubbed salt in the wound, noting the danger that the removal of U.S. troops threatened to “diminish the continent’s value as a strategic partner,” implying that its strategic value is provided by Washington.

The article also noted that the Portuguese are already whispering about having their eye on another suitor:

Since word of possible cutbacks at the base surfaced a year ago, rumors began circulating that the Americans would leave [the base] entirely, and that China, which has growing economic ties with Portugal, would establish a naval base their to patrol the Atlantic.

An American conservative movement worthy of the name would realize the economic strain the country is under and wouldn’t be embracing situational Keynesianism and trying to insulate the bloated military budget from cuts. It would be pointing out that this system of transferring money from U.S. taxpayers to taxpayers in Japan, or Germany, or Portugal is bad for Americans, unconservative, and unnecessary.

Unfortunately, we don’t have that kind of conservative movement.

Grover Norquist vs. Bill Kristol on Taxes and Pentagon Spending

Grover Norquist spoke yesterday at the Center for the National Interest, and the event drew a gaggle of skeptics convinced that President Obama’s victory over Mitt Romney might spell the end of Norquist’s vaunted Taxpayer Protection Pledge. He sounded an optimistic tone, pointing to past election cycles when the pledge was prematurely declared dead on arrival.

I was most interested in what he had to say about the tiny number of Congressional Republicans who have tried – and so far failed – to build support for tax increases in order to protect the Pentagon from spending cuts. In his opening remarks, Norquist peered into his crystal ball:

With divided government, I think you get the sequester. The President said he doesn’t want to change the money for the Pentagon; Mitch McConnell has said we’re not raising taxes to ransom the Pentagon budget cuts. And, interestingly,…a lot of the focus has been on the Pentagon. The Ds are a lot more concerned about the $50 billion in domestic discretionary spending restraint every year than the Rs are on the defense budget….And you did see the Republican Study Committee, the conservative caucus within the Republican House, which is a majority of House members (maybe 60 percent), announce the only thing worse than sequestration would be not having the savings. So this stampede that was attempted – the problem with the stampede is that there are only two people trying to start the stampede – and it didn’t take. You didn’t get a demand that the defense budget…remain untouched, either in public opinion or in the House and the Senate.

He’s right. You don’t see a groundswell of public opinion calling for tax increases to fund a still-larger military. On the contrary, most polls actually show more support for Pentagon cuts than for cuts in other spending. This poll (.pdf, Q56) found that 52 percent of Republicans, and 57 percent of Independents, are opposed to any increase in taxes in order to maintain the current advantage in military power. In this case, at least, members of Congress are accurately representing the wishes of their constituents.

I invited Norquist to expand on his comments about this failure to mobilize public support for more Pentagon spending in Washington and on Capitol Hill, and whether self-described conservatives risk undermining the GOP’s brand on taxes and spending. What does he think, for example, when Bill Kristol stumps for tax increases, opening the door for major media outlets to spin the story as ”even conservatives like Bill Kristol support tax increases to protect the Pentagon.”

Norquist replied:

Bill Kristol has been on record saying that if the conservatives didn’t want to be the war party that he’d join up with the … Democrat liberal hawks. … It was an odd sort of threat, but it was kind of an explanation that he doesn’t see himself as a mainstream Reagan Republican. Everything is hawkish foreign policy (not a Reaganite foreign policy, but a hawkish foreign policy). So that’s not surprising. That’s … what he does, but it’s not at all transferable. There isn’t a caucus in the House or the Senate that falls in that category.

He closed with a unscripted rant against the GOP’s situational Keynesianism. It’s “intellectually dishonest,” he said, to oppose Obama-Reid-Pelosi’s stimulus, but then embrace Romney’s version in the form of massive military spending. His remarks echo some of what he said a few months ago in a Cato podcast, but here are a few new gems:

I thought that the Romney people ill served the country and themselves when they ran these campaigns that if the defense budget was cut all these jobs would disappear. Now lets see, we just spent four years making fun of Obama’s multiplier that if the federal government spends x number of dollars you create jobs.

That’s like arguing that people who are involved in organ donations are creating additional kidneys. No they’re not, they’re just moving them around….the government creates jobs the way ticks create blood. No it doesn’t….You can move stuff around but you took it from somewhere and then you put it somewhere else. You take a dollar from here and kill a job and put it over there and then you hold a press conference over here….

For the Republicans to talk about how defense spending creates jobs, I think, was unfortunate. You can make an argument that you need this plane or this tank, or “The Canadians are being annoying again. Keep an eye on ‘em.” I’m all for that. We should have a strong national defense. But don’t sell it as a jobs program. It’s intellectually dishonest, and it was a shame that it was done.

Note to Larry Summers: The Government Borrows for Transfer Payments, Not Investment

“It is time for governments to borrow more money,” according to former treasury secretary Larry Summers.  He is not peddling this advice to Greece and Spain, but to countries like the United States and Japan that can still sell long-term bonds at very low interest rates. Summers urges the United States, in particular, to borrow more for “public investment projects” that are presumed to raise the economy’s future output. He offers the hypothetical example of “a $1 project that yielded even a permanent 4 cents a year in real terms increment to GDP by expanding the economy’s capacity or its ability to innovate.”

Even if such promising projects were easy to find, however, that is not the way the current government has been inclined to spend borrowed money. Despite all the rhetoric about “shovel-ready projects,” about 95 percent of the 2009 stimulus bill consisted of government consumption (salaries), refundable tax credits, and transfer payments which, as Robert Barro notes, “dilute incentives to work.”

Summers says, “Any rational chief financial officer in the private sector would see this as a moment to extend debt maturities and lock in low rates — the opposite of what central banks are doing.” Locking-in low borrowing costs would indeed make sense if the money from selling long bonds were used to retire short-term Treasury bills, but that would not involve borrowing more as Summers proposes.

For both government and households, it is certainly more prudent to use borrowed money to finance investments that will yield a stream of income in the future—either actual income (such as toll roads) or implicit income (the benefits from living in a mortgaged home).

Apostles of the Keynesian doctrine, such as Larry Summers, Paul Krugman, and Alan Blinder, invariably use hypothetical public works examples to make the case for more and more national (taxpayer) debt. Keynesian forecasting models, used by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) to warn of the looming fiscal cliff and defend the fiscal stimulus of 2009, likewise assume the highest “multiplier” effect from tangible government investments.

In the real world of politics, however, Congress and the White House use borrowed money to placate constituencies with the most political clout. Federal spending on investment projects has essentially nothing to do with the huge 2009-2012 budget deficits (only 29 percent of which can be blamed on the legacy of recession, according to the CBO).

The Table shows that transfer payments and subsidies account for 63.8 percent of estimated spending in 2012, while federal purchases account for 28.4 percent. Also, most federal aid to states is for transfer payments like Medicaid.  Within federal purchases, only 7.6 percent of the spending ($152.5 billion) was counted as gross investment in the first quarter GDP report, and two thirds of that was military equipment and buildings. Net investment, minus depreciation, is smaller still.

If borrowing more for investment was a genuine political priority, rather than an academic conjecture, the government could do that by borrowing less for government payrolls, transfer payments, and subsidies.  At best, Larry Summers has made an argument for spending borrowed money much differently, not for borrowing more.

We’ve Had Enough Government ‘Stimulation’

After three years and $4 trillion in combined deficit spending, unemployment remains stubbornly high and the economy sluggish. That people are still asking what the government can do to stimulate the economy is mind-boggling.

That the Keynesian-inspired deficit spending binge did create jobs isn’t in question. The real question is whether it created any net jobs after all the negative effects of the spending and debt are taken into account. How many private-sector jobs were lost or not created in the first place because of the resources diverted to the government for its job creation? How many jobs are being lost or not created because of increased uncertainty in the business community over future tax increases and other detrimental government policies?

Don’t expect the disciples of interventionist government to attempt an answer to those questions any time soon. It has simply become gospel in some quarters that massive deficit spending is necessary to get the economy back on its feet.

The idea that government spending can “make up for” a slow-down in private economic activity has already been discredited by the historical record—including the Great Depression and Japan’s recent “lost decade.”

Our own history offers evidence that reducing the government’s footprint on the private sector is the better way to get the economy going.

Take for example, the “Not-So-Great Depression” of 1920-21. Cato Institute scholar Jim Powell notes that President Warren G. Harding inherited from his predecessor Woodrow Wilson “a post-World War I depression that was almost as severe, from peak to trough, as the Great Contraction from 1929 to 1933 that FDR would later inherit.” Instead of resorting to deficit spending to “stimulate” the economy, taxes and government spending were cut. The economy took off.

Similarly, fears at the end of World War II that demobilization would result in double-digit unemployment when the troops returned home were unrealized. Instead, spending was dramatically reduced, economic controls were lifted, and the returning troops were successfully reintegrated into the economy.

Therefore, the focus of policymakers in Washington should be on fostering long-term economic growth instead of futilely trying to jump-start the economy with costly short-term government spending sprees. In order to reignite economic growth and job creation, the federal government should enact dramatic cuts in government spending, eliminate burdensome regulations, and scuttle restrictions on foreign trade.

The budgetary reality is that policymakers today have no choice but to drastically reduce spending if we are to head off the looming fiscal train wreck. Stimulus proponents generally recognize that our fiscal path is unsustainable, but they argue that the current debt binge is nonetheless critical to an economic recovery.

There’s no more evidence for this belief than there is for the existence of the tooth fairy.

Not only has Washington’s profligacy left us worse off, our children now face the prospect of reduced living standards and crushing debt.

 

This article originally appeared in a PolicyMic debate between the Cato Institute’s Tad DeHaven and Demos senior fellow Lew Daly. Check out Daly’s piece here.

Paul Krugman Meets E.T.

I’ve poked fun at Paul Krugman for his views on health care and British fiscal policy, and I’ve semi-defended him about unemployment subsidies and housing bubbles.

Now it’s time for some more mockery.

Back in 2001, Paul Krugman received some much-deserved criticism for stating that the 9/11 terrorist attacks would be stimulative for the economy.

He committed the “broken-window” fallacy, explained more than 150 years ago by a famous French economist, Frederic Bastiat.

Breaking a window at the local bakery, Bastiat explained, might generate business for the town glazier, but only at the expense of some other merchant, like a tailor, who would have benefited if the baker didn’t have to spend money on a new window.

In other words, the destruction of wealth is not good for an economy. At best, it makes us poorer and then shifts how current income is allocated. This is why Bastiat wrote (perhaps predicting the emergence of Krugman):

There is only one difference between a bad economist and a good one: the bad economist confines himself to the visible effect; the good economist takes into account both the effect that can be seen and those effects that must be foreseen.

But we have to give Krugman credit for a bizarre form of ideological consistency. He is willing to advocate bigger government, no matter how sloppy the reasoning or how quirky the rationale.

His latest outburst was to say on CNN how wonderful it would be for the economy if the people of earth mistakenly thought we were on the verge of an alien invasion, which would lead to lots of military spending.

He even cited an episode of Twilight Zone to justify his assertions. I’m surprised he didn’t also mention the 1996 film, Independence Day.

As I wrote in a previous blog post, this is one of those moments when your only response is to say “wow.” This is even worse than when Keynesians assert that it would be stimulative to pay people to dig holes and fill them in again.

For those who want more info on why government spending does not boost the economy in the short run, here’s my video on Keynesian economics.



And if you want to know why government spending does not boost the economy in the long run, here’s a video looking at some empirical evidence about economic performance and the size of the public sector.



Debt Deal to Slow the Economy?

The Washington Post reports that spending cuts in the budget deal threaten to slow the economy. The article quotes a number of economists who seem to harbor a rather extreme Keynesian bias in their thinking.

The deal would cut discretionary spending by just $21 billion in 2012, or just 0.6 percent of total federal spending that year. And that’s after federal spending has risen 22 percent since 2008 ($2.98 trillion in 2008 to about $3.63 trillion this year). Even if you believe that government spending helps the economy, it seems rather bizarre to claim that a 0.6 percent retrenchment after a 22 percent increase would hurt.

The other thing to note about these spending-cut worries is that, for Keynesians, it is the total amount of deficit spending that is the amount of economic “stimulus.” We’ve had deficit spending of $459 billion in fiscal 2008, $1.4 trillion in fiscal 2009, $1.3 trillion in fiscal 2010, and $1.4 trillion in fiscal 2011. That is a colossal amount of “stimulus.”

In fiscal 2012, we’ve got even more “stimulus” coming, with a projected federal deficit of about $1.1 trillion, per the CBO March baseline. So a spending cut of $21 billion will reduce the giant Keynesian stimulus in 2012 by just 2 percent. And yet the Washington Post says that this will “endanger the anemic economic recovery,” according to “many economists.” 

Those “many economists” who believe in Keynesianism might be more believable if their theories hadn’t so obviously failed in recent years. Despite the enormous deficit-spending “stimulus” of recent years shown in the chart, U.S. unemployment remains stuck at high levels and the recovery is the slowest since World War II by numerous measures. (See cites in my testimony here.)

Biggest stimulus, slowest recovery. Keynesianism isn’t working.

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.

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