Tag: larry summers

Can Unemployment Benefits Create Jobs?

At the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, sociologist Michael Leachman claims “some of the most effective job-creation and job protection measures” in last year’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act are excluded from the job figures to be released on recovery.gov on January 30.   He explains that, “Most of ARRA’s distributed dollars to date have gone directly to individuals (including greater jobless benefits and food stamps) and states (including greater federal support for Medicaid).  Although these dollars are likely protecting or creating hundreds of thousands of jobs, none of the aid for individuals or the Medicaid support are [sic] reflected in the January 30 jobs data release.”

In particular, Leachman claims Recovery Act funds to extend unemployment benefits from 26 to 79 weeks (and to 99 weeks since November) “produces and sustains jobs.”  For proof, he cites estimates from Mark Zandi of Economy.com “that every dollar spent on extending unemployment insurance benefits produces $1.61 in economic activity.”

This analysis runs into two big problems.  The first is that it assumes that the amount of time people spend on unemployment insurance is unrelated to how long the government offers to keep paying benefits.  The second is that it assumes that the assumptions about “fiscal multipliers” built into Economy.com econometric model are actually evidence rather than just assumptions.

On the first point, page 75 of the 2007 OECD Employment Outlook explains: “It is well established that generous unemployment benefits can increase the duration of unemployment spells and the overall level of unemployment… This could have a negative impact on productivity through inefficient use of resources and depreciation of human capital during long spells of unemployment. In addition, by reducing the opportunity cost of unemployment, generous unemployment benefits may lead existing employees to reduce their work effort, thereby lowering productivity (see e.g. Shapiro and Stiglitz, 1984; Albrecht and Vroman, 1996).”

As I recently noted, the overwhelming evidence that extended unemployment benefits raise the duration and rate of unemployment comes from economists in the Obama administration, Larry Summers and Treasury economist Alan Krueger, as well as many others such as Lawrence Katz of Harvard and Bruce Meyer of the University of Chicago.

Contrary to Leachman, bribing people to stay on the dole for an extra 53-73 weeks leaves them with less money to spend, not more.   It also looks bad on resumes, and may cause lasting damage to future job prospects.

Leachman’s second problem concerns fiscal multipliers, such as Zandi’s astonishing 1.6 multiplier for unemployment benefits.

In a similar effort to pretend that borrowed money is free, and therefore “creates jobs,” the Council of Economic Advisers claims to use “mainstream estimates of economic multipliers for the effects of fiscal stimulus.” Yet the cited sources are not from academic research at all, but from the mysterious innards of notoriously unreliable econometric forecasting models from Economy.com, Global Insight, J.P. Morgan Chase and Goldman Sachs.

At the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, by contrast, economist Sylvain Leduc surveyed contemporary research by ten distinguished scholars, including current CEA chair Christina Romer and IMF chief economist Olivier Blanchard.

“An interesting aspect of this new literature,” wrote Leduc, is that, notwithstanding their vastly different methodologies, they reach surprisingly similar conclusions. Regarding the impact of tax cuts on the level of real GDP one year after the change in taxes, the three studies predict a multiplier of roughly 1.2…  Moreover …  in contrast to theoretical predictions from the simple Keynesian framework, the analyses found that government spending had less bang for the buck than tax cuts. For instance, one year after the increase in spending, the impact on the level of real GDP is less than one-for-one, partly reflecting a decline in investment.”

In this new academic research, the estimated multiplier for deficit spending ranged from 0.4 to 0.6 — meaning a dollar of added federal debt added far less than a dollar to GDP.   Moreover, an IMF paper on “Fiscal Multipliers” adds that negative multipliers are quite possible: “fiscal expansions can be contractionary if they decrease consumers’ and investors’ confidence, especially if the fiscal expansion raises, or reinforces, fiscal sustainability concerns.”

Whether the government pays people to work or to stay on the dole, it has to get the money by taxing, borrowing or printing money — all of which reduce real income and employment opportunities in the private sector.  To imagine that borrowing from Peter to pay Paul is a way to create or save Paul’s job is to forget that Peter expects his money back with interest.

If every dollar of unemployment benefits really added $1.61 to real GDP, then putting everyone on the dole would make us all much richer

Was Bill Clinton Also an “Extremist” on Trade?

This has not been a good week for the national Democratic Party. Along with losing the Massachusetts Senate seat, the party took another step toward making hostility to trade liberalization a plank of party orthodoxy.

As my Cato colleague Sallie James flagged earlier today, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee issued a press release yesterday criticizing a Republican candidate in upstate New York for contributing to the Cato Institute. And, of course, everyone knows that Cato is “a right wing extremist group that has long been a vocal advocate for extremist, unfair trade policies that would allow companies to ship American jobs overseas.”

Among our sins, in the eyes of the DCCC, is that Cato research has supported tariff-reducing trade agreements, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Our work has also advocated unilateral trade liberalization—getting rid of self-damaging U.S. trade barriers regardless of what other countries do—which violates the conventional Washington wisdom that we can’t lower our own barriers without demanding “reciprocity” and “a level playing field” from other nations

There is nothing extreme about our work on trade. It fits comfortably within mainstream economics expounded not only by Adam Smith and Milton Freidman but by such liberals as Paul Samuelson and Larry Summers.

In fact, for decades, the Democratic Party embraced lower barriers to trade:

  • In the 1930s and ’40s, President Franklin Roosevelt and his Nobel-Peace-Prize-winning Secretary of State Cordell Hull lead the United States away from the disastrous protectionism of President Hoover and a Republican Congress.
  • Democratic Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Carter all supported successful agreements in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade to reduce trade barriers at home and abroad.
  • Bill Clinton, the only Democrat to be re-elected president since FDR, persuaded a Democratic Congress to enact NAFTA in 1993 and the Uruguay Round Agreements Act in 1994, which created the World Trade Organization. Clinton also championed permanent normal trade relations with China in 2000, which ushered that nation into the WTO.
  • In the previous Congress, scores of House Democrats co-sponsored “The Affordable Footwear Act,” which would have unilaterally lowered tariffs on imported shoes popular with low-income Americans. Liberal Democrat Earl Blumenauer of Oregon visited the Cato Institute in July 2008 to speak in favor of the bill. (Will he be the next target of a DCCC press release for cavorting with “extremists”?) In the current Congress, a similar bill in the Senate is currently co-sponsored by such prominent Democrats as Dick Durban (Ill.), Chuck Schumer (N.Y.), and Mary Landrieu (La.).

To learn more about why Democrats (and Republicans) should support free trade, I highly recommend two books: Mad about Trade: Why Main Street America Should Embrace Globalization, by yours truly; and Freedom From Want: Liberalism and the Global Economy, by Edward Gresser, a trade expert with the Democratic Leadership Council.

Obama Bank Tax Is Misguided

Perhaps I am a little confused, but didn’t the Obama Administration tell the American public only months ago that TARP was turning a profit?   But now the same administration is proposing to assess a fee on banks to cover losses from the TARP. Maybe President Obama is coming around to the realization that the TARP has indeed been a loser for the taxpayer. He appears, however, to be missing the critical reason why: the bailouts of the auto companies and AIG, all non-banks. This is to say nothing of the bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, whose losses will far exceed those from the TARP. Where is the plan to re-coup losses from Fannie and Freddie? Or a plan to re-coup our rescue of the autos?

If the effort is really about deficit reduction, then it completely misses the mark.  Any serious deficit reduction plan has to start with Medicare and Social Security.  Assessing bank fees is nothing more than a rounding error in terms of the deficit.  Let’s put aside the politics and get serious about both fixing our financial system and bringing our fiscal house into order.  The problem driving our deficits is not a lack of revenues, aside from effects of the recession, revenues have remained stable as a percent of GDP, the problem is runaway spending.

The bank tax would also miss what one has to guess is Obama’s target, the bank CEOs.  Econ 101 tells us (maybe the President can ask Larry Summers for some tutoring) corporations do not bear the incidence of taxes, their consumers and shareholders do.   So the real outcome of this proposed tax would be to increase consumer banking costs while reducing the value of bank equity, all at a time when banks are already under-capitalized.

But now the same administration is proposing to assess a fee on banks to cover losses from the TARP.  Maybe President Obama is coming around to the realization that the TARP has indeed been a loser for the taxpayer.  He appears, however, to be missing the critical reason why:  the bailouts of the auto companies and AIG, all non-banks. This is to say nothing of the bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, whose losses will far exceed those from the TARP. Where is the plan to re-coup losses from Fannie and Freddie? Or a plan to re-coup our rescue of the autos?

Hurting the Sick Is Not Good Politics

I was glad to see James Pinkerton engage my criticism of Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s (R) endorsement of federal price controls for health insurance.  I was even more pleased to see that Pinkerton has his own blog devoted to developing a Serious Medicine Strategy.

If I understand Pinkerton, his argument is essentially: it’s all well and good for some unelectable wonk in the “citadel of libertarian thinking” to “uphold ivory-tower free-market purity” by opposing price controls.  But Republicans need “art-of-the-possible solutions” to win elections, and 90 percent of the public support those price controls.  “Everyone has a right to his or her principled position,” Pinkerton writes, “but the majority has rights, too.”

Two problems.

First, Pinkerton suggests that libertarians oppose price controls for reasons that only matter to libertarians, and therefore may be safely ignored.  Problem is, price controls hurt people.  Were Pinkerton to explore the merits of Jindal’s proposal, he would soon conclude that imposing price controls on health insurance taxes the healthy, reduces everyone’s health insurance choices, and creates even greater incentives for insurers to shortchange the sick.  (Turns out that what Larry Summers said about price controls applies to health insurance, too.)  As John Cochrane explains, those price controls also block innovative products that would provide more financial security and better medical care to the sick.

But Pinkerton’s advice for Republicans is, essentially: “Do what’s popular now, even if it hurts people and voters end up blaming Republicans for it later.”  How is that a good strategy?

Second is this idea that “the majority has rights.”  Majorities don’t have rights.  Individuals have rights.  For example, you have the right to negotiate the terms of your health insurance contract with the individuals at this or that insurance company.  Majorities may attain power, but that’s the opposite of rights.  (See the Bill of Rights.)

Finally, a couple of important odds and ends.  Pinkerton suggests it is “un-libertarian” to be “pro-life,” or to “support the police, the military, and other upholders of public order,” or to “support government restrictions on…euthanasia.”  Writing from the “citadel of libertarian thinking,” I can assure him he is wrong.  Might I suggest Pinkerton read the relevant chapters from The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism?  (The health care chapter is a page-turner!)  Also, I did not “denounce Jindal” any more than Pinkerton denounced me.  I criticized his ideas, and I respect the man.

(Cross-posted at Politico’s Health Care Arena.)

Nobody Considers Health Insurance Mandates a Tax? Really??

As my colleague Jeffrey Miron noted earlier today, when grilled by George Stephanopolous on whether the so-called “individual mandate” is a tax increase, Obama replied, “Nobody considers that a tax increase….You can’t just make up that language and decide that that’s called a tax increase…My critics say everything is a tax increase.”

Where do Obama’s critics get these wacky ideas?  From a bunch of nobodies, that’s who!

Princeton economist Uwe Reinhardt, quoted by Larry Summers (1987):

[Just because] the fiscal flows triggered by mandate would not flow directly through the public budgets does not detract from the measure’s status of a bona fide tax.

Economist Larry Summers, Obama’s National Economic Council chair (1989):

Economists have generally devoted little attention to mandated benefits regarding them as simply disguised tax and expenditure measures… Essentially, mandated benefits are like public programs financed by benefit taxes… [If] the mandated benefit is worthless to employees, it is just like a tax from the point of view of both employers and employees…There is no sense in which benefits become ‘free’ just because the government mandates that employers offer them to workers.

Columbia University economist Sherry Glied, Obama’s appointee to HHS Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, in the New England Journal of Medicine (2008):

The mandate is in many respects analogous to a tax. It requires people to make payments for something whether they want it or not. One important concern is that the government will provide insufficient funds for the subsidies intended to accompany the mandate. In that case, the mandate will act as a very regressive tax, penalizing uninsured people who genuinely cannot afford to buy coverage.

Congressional Budget Office (2009):

Under some proposals, firms would be required to make payments to the federal government if they chose not to offer health insurance to their employees, and individuals who did not comply with the requirement to  obtain insurance would have to pay a penalty. Such payments would be equivalent to a tax or a fine, and the government’s receipts should be recorded in the budget as federal revenues.

Here’s a question: if an individual mandate is not a tax, why exempt anybody?  If an employer mandate isn’t a tax, why exempt small businesses?

Obama’s Health Care Speech in Plain English

health care addressHell of a speech last night, eh?  Here are a few of my favorite gems.

Under this plan, it will be against the law for insurance companies to deny you coverage because of a pre-existing condition.

Translation: I, Barack Obama, ignoring thousands of years of failed price-control schemes, will impose price controls on health insurance. I will force insurers to sell a $50k policies for $10k. What could go wrong?

We were losing an average of 700,000 jobs per month.

True. And your employer mandate would kill hundreds of thousands of low-wage jobs that would never come back.

They will no longer be able to place some arbitrary cap on the amount of coverage you can receive in a given year or a lifetime.   We will place a limit on how much you can be charged for out-of-pocket expenses…. And insurance companies will be required to cover, with no extra charge, routine checkups and preventive care.

Translation: Boy! Are we going to force you to buy a lot of coverage!

I will make sure that no government bureaucrat or insurance company bureaucrat gets between you and the care that you need.

…except for the bureaucrats I proposed to put between you and your doctor.

Some… supported a budget that would have essentially turned Medicare into a privatized voucher program. That will never happen on my watch. I will protect Medicare.

Translation: I will never let seniors control their own health care dollars. I will never give up Washington’s control over your health care decisions.  Mmmmuuuuhahahahahaha!

…there are too many Americans counting on us to succeed.

Translation: There are too many lobbyists counting on me to succeed: drug-industry lobbyists, health-insurance lobbyists,  physician-cartel lobbyists, large-employer lobbyists, hospital lobbyists….

It’s a plan that asks everyone to take responsibility for meeting this challenge – not just government and insurance companies, but employers and individuals.

Translation: I’m going to tax the hell out of you, but I don’t want you to notice how much I’m going to tax you. So I’m going to tax employers and insurance companies, and they’re going to pass the taxes on to you. Most of the taxes won’t even show up in the government’s budget. It’s all very clever. No, seriously – just ask my economic advisor Larry Summers.

It’s a plan that incorporates ideas from Senators and Congressmen; from Democrats and Republicans – and yes, from some of my opponents in both the primary and general election.

Translation: I may have savaged your ideas in the past, called them irresponsible…risky…dangerous…whatever. But that wasn’t about principle; I just wanted to become president. Now that I’m president, I need a win. So you’ll help me, won’t you? Hey, where’s Hillary?

Would Summers Be Any Worse than Bernanke?

As I have argued elsewhere, Bernanke’s record as both a Fed governor and Chair suggest we be better off with a new Fed Chair come January 2010, when Bernanke’s term as Chair expires. Outside of those who believe the bailouts have saved capitalism, two very reasonable arguments are put forth for keeping Bernanke at the helm:  1) in a time of crisis, the markets need certainty and dislike change; and 2) the alternatives, such as Larry Summers, would be worse.  Both these points have real merit, however I believe in both cases the pros of change outweigh the cons of staying the course with Bernanke.  I will save the “certainty” debate for another time, for now, let’s ask ourselves:  Would Summers really be any worse than Bernanke?

Before I make the case for Summers, I do want to make clear, President Obama, and the country, would best be served by a “Carter picks Volcker” type moment.  Go outside the Administration, go beyond the usual circle of easy-money, new Keynesians.  The Fed lacks creditability in two (at least two) important areas: bailouts and inflation.  And one doesn’t even need to go outside of the Federal Reserve System to find candidates.  Topping my list would be Jeff Lacker (Richmond Fed), Gary Stern (Minn Fed) and Charles Plosser (Philly Fed).  Any of these three know the workings of the Fed, have the respect of the Fed staff, and have taken strong positions on both “too big to fail” and easy money.  In the case of Gary Stern, it would seem especially appropriate, as his early warnings (see his 2004 book on bank bailouts) were largely ignored and dismissed.  If we want to reward and promote those who got it right, these guys are at the top of the list.

But let’s reasonably suppose that Obama wants someone close, someone he personally knows and will stick with tradition by picking a member of his own administration.  Without going into any detail, picking Romer would offer little substantial difference with keeping Bernanke.  The case for Summers is essentially that here is one instance where his enormous ego would be an asset.  One easily gets the sense that when Summers sits next to President Obama, Summers is thinking to himself just how lucky the President is to be sitting next to Larry Summers.  One can call Summers lots of things, starstruck is not one of them.  Given what we now need most in a Fed Chair is true independence, from especially the Administration but also from Congress, Summers is the only qualified economist close to the President who displays even the slightest streak of independent thinking.  Bernanke, in contrast, has endlessly pandered to the Administration and to Congressional Democrats.  Summers has been willing on occasion to actually defend the sanctity of contract (remember the debates over the AIG bonuses), a rarity on the Left, and more than Bernanke was willing to say.  

So forced to choose between Bernanke and Summers, the need for an independent Fed Chair willing to take on the Administration and Congress, when appropriate, makes Summers a far better choice.  That said, here’s to encouraging Obama go outside his comfort zone and pick someone who has the will to remove excess liquidity from the system before the next bubble gets going.