Tag: Paul Krugman

Bastiat on the Japanese Tsunami

Nathan Gardels at the Huffington Post writes (emphasis added):

No one – least of all someone like myself who has experienced the existential terror of California’s regular tremors and knows the big one is coming here next – would minimize the grief, suffering and disruption caused by Japan’s massive earthquake and tsunami.

But if one can look past the devastation, there is a silver lining. The need to rebuild a large swath of Japan will create huge opportunities for domestic economic growth, particularly in energy-efficient technologies, while also stimulating global demand and hastening the integration of East Asia.

But as French political economist Frédéric Bastiat noted, destruction isn’t stimulative because it cannot create wealth:


Krugman (Both of Them) on Competitiveness

When it became clear that President Obama would make “competitiveness” a theme of his SOTU address, I looked forward to seeing Paul Krugman’s statement pointing out how much nonsense that is. Here he is, after all, in his excellent 1997 book, Pop Internationalism (MIT Press):

…International trade, unlike competition among businesses for a limited market, is not a zero-sum game in which one nation’s gain is another’s loss. It is [a] positive-sum game, which is why the word “competitiveness” can be dangerously misleading when applied to international trade.

Sure enough, President Obama’s speech last night was peppered with references to “the competition for jobs,” “new jobs and industries take root in this country, or somewhere else, “the competion for jobs is real,” etc. And of course there was a healthy dose of the usual mercantalist obsession with exports.

Although written before the President’s address was delivered, what would Paul Krugman 2.0 think of this sort of talk? The title of his column Sunday was certainly encouraging: “The Competition Myth.” But the substance of the column went in a … er… different direction from that which I had anticipated/hoped:

…talking about “competitiveness” as a goal is fundamentally misleading. At best, it’s a misdiagnosis of our problems. At worst, it could lead to policies based on the false idea that what’s good for corporations is good for America

So what does the administration’s embrace of the rhetoric of competitiveness mean for economic policy?

The favorable interpretation, as I said, is that it’s just packaging for an economic strategy centered on public investment, investment that’s actually about creating jobs now while promoting longer-term growth. The unfavorable interpretation is that Mr. Obama and his advisers really believe that the economy is ailing because they’ve been too tough on business, and that what America needs now is corporate tax cuts and across-the-board deregulation. [emphasis mine]

In other words, Krugman’s objections to the “competitiveness” rhetoric are based on his fear that it will lead to policies favorable to corporations, not that the whole concept is flawed.

[Disclaimer: the above is by no means an exhaustive analysis of the problematic parts of the column]

I yield to no-one in my admiration for Paul Krugman, trade economist. He made a real contribution to the discipline I’ve loved since I was a teenager. But Paul Krugman, columnist…not so much.

Behind the Political Rhetoric Are Profound Differences

Today POLITICO Arena asks:

Post-Tucson will campaign trail rhetoric change in any discernible way? Should it change? What phrases or words should be considered out of bounds? Or is that approach a way of silencing legitimate criticism of political candidates?

My response:

Post-Tucson campaign trail rhetoric won’t change because, as Charles Krauthammer put it brilliantly in yesterday’s Washington Post, fighting and warfare are routine political metaphors for obvious reasons: “Historically speaking, all democratic politics is a sublimation of the ancient route to power – military conquest. That’s why the language persists,” why we speak of “battleground states” or “targeting” opponents.

That doesn’t mean that no charge is “out of bounds.” It’s perfectly all right for Sarah Palin to “target” 20 potential swing districts – Democrats do the same. And her use yesterday of “blood libel,” as Alan Dershowitz explains, is entirely acceptable too. What is out of bounds is the kind of scurrilous charges we’ve seen from The New York Times, the Paul Krugmans, E.J. Dionnes, Jonathan Alters, and their ilk, that the Tea Party and the political discourse around it contributed to the Arizona shooting – when there isn’t a shred of evidence to support that, and every indication that a lone mentally disturbed individual was responsible.

But far deeper issues are at play here, and they’re brought out in a penetrating piece by Daniel Henninger in this morning’s Wall Street Journal, “Why the Left Lost It.” He points first to the devastating, potentially sea-changing midterm elections – “Republicans now control more state legislative seats than any time since 1928” – which “came atop the birth of a genuine reform movement, the tea parties.” And the debt crises, state and federal, that animate the Tea Party pose a mortal threat to a liberal agenda that stretches back at least to Goldwater.

As Henninger writes, the divide between today’s left and its conservative opponents “is deep, and it will never be bridged. It is cultural, and it explains more than anything the ‘intensity’ that exists now between these two competing camps.” Read it.

Where are the ’60s Hippies Now that They’re Needed to Fight Keynesianism?

Keynesian economic theory is the social science version of a perpetual motion machine. It assumes that you can increase your prosperity by taking money out of your left pocket and putting it in your right pocket. Not surprisingly, nations that adopt this approach do not succeed. Deficit spending did not work for Hoover and Roosevelt is the 1930s. It did not work for Japan in the 1990s. And it hasn’t worked for Bush or Obama.

The Keynesians invariably respond by arguing that these failures simply show that politicians didn’t spend enough money. I don’t know whether to be amused or horrified, but some Keynesians even say that a war would be the best way of boosting economic growth. Here’s a blurb from a story in National Journal.

America’s economic outlook is so grim, and political solutions are so utterly absent, that only another large-scale war might be enough to lift the nation out of chronic high unemployment and slow growth, two prominent economists, a conservative and a liberal, said today. Nobelist Paul Krugman, a New York Times columnist, and Harvard’s Martin Feldstein, the former chairman of President Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisers, achieved an unnerving degree of consensus about the future during an economic forum in Washington. …Krugman and Feldstein, though often on opposite sides of the political fence on fiscal and tax policy, both appeared to share the view that political paralysis in Washington has rendered the necessary fiscal and monetary stimulus out of the question. Only a high-impact “exogenous” shock like a major war – something similar to what Krugman called the “coordinated fiscal expansion known as World War II” – would be enough to break the cycle. …Both reiterated their previously argued views that the Obama administration’s stimulus was far too small to fill the output gap.

Two additional comments. First, if Martin Feldstein’s views on this issue represent what it means to be a conservative, then I’m especially glad I’m a libertarian. Second, Alan Reynolds has a good piece eviscerating Keynesianism, including a section dealing with Krugman’s World-War-II-was-good-for-the-economy assertion.

My Overdue Response to Jesse Larner

Back in August of 2007, I issued a challenge to Jesse Larner, who blogs at HuffingtonPost.  One week later, Larner took up my challenge in a post that I’ve just finished reading.

Larner very graciously admitted to a couple of misstatements, and I must reciprocate.  I wrote, “I challenge Larner to show where a Cato scholar … describes America’s as a ‘free-enterprise system of health care.’”  Sure enough, Larner found an oped where one of my colleagues wrote, “I live in a country with a free-market health-care system.”  Obviously, I disagree with that claim.  But Larner was right, and I will have to look into this.

A few remaining areas of disagreement:

  • I wrote that Larner “claims that people don’t die on waiting lists in Canada’s health care system.”  Larner responds: “Actually, that’s not what I claimed. I claimed that people don’t often die on waiting lists.”  Canada’s Supreme Court writes that “in some serious cases, patients die as a result of waiting lists for public health care.”  Is some as many as often?  I hope not.
  • Larner: “the Canadian system has problems … [but] it worked better before a series of conservative provincial governments began to de-fund it.”  This isn’t the first time that advocates of socialized medicine have blamed its shortcomings on politicians who (supposedly) oppose socialized medicine.  But it is an inherent feature of such systems that they will inevitably fall into the hands of whatever viable political parties exist in that nation.  As I explained to Paul Krugman, “Unless you have a plan to abolish Republicans, they’re part of your plan.”
  • Larner writes: “a public health care plan is a public good.”  Public good is an economic term with a specific meaning.  A public health care plan is not a public good.
  • Larner: “is Cannon saying that we do not have rationing in the US?”  Hardly.
  • Larner: “In a free-market system, what mechanisms would prevent insurers from cherry-picking their customers, and denying coverage to those who are likely to require expensive treatment?”  The question presumes that insurance should do something that insurance cannot do: insure the uninsurable.  In this chapter of the Cato Handbook on Policy, I explain the (amazing) things that health insurance can accomplish, and why “health insurance markets are completely justified in not covering preexisting conditions.”
  • “So here’s my challenge to Cannon: show me a way that a true free-market system can provide decent coverage to everyone, regardless of ability to pay, without rationing.”  Elsewhere in his post, Larner acknowledges this is an impossible task.  In this magazine article, I explain that there is no way to reform health care that can guarantee that no patients will fall through the cracks.  In this Cato paper, I explain how a free market would minimize the number of people who do.
  • “Cannon is not in favor of universal coverage as a social right.” True, that.  “As a libertarian, he doesn’t even recognize the concept of social rights.”  I believe it was Friedrich Hayek who said there’s no better way to strip a word of its meaning than to place the word “social” in front of it.  Try it yourself .  I suggest using words like security, contract, justice, responsibility…

New York Times Seeks Higher Taxes on the ‘Rich’ as Prelude to Higher Taxes on the Middle Class

In a very predictable editorial this morning, the New York Times pontificated in favor of higher taxes. Compared to Paul Krugman’s rant earlier in the week, which featured the laughable assertion that letting people keep more of the money they earn is akin to sending them a check from the government, the piece seemed rational. But that is damning with faint praise. There are several points in the editorial that deserve some unfriendly commentary.

First, let’s give the editors credit for being somewhat honest about their bad intentions. Unlike other statists, they openly admit that they want higher taxes on the middle class, stating that “more Americans — and not just the rich — are going to have to pay more taxes.” This is a noteworthy admission, though it doesn’t reveal the real strategy on the left.

Most advocates of big government understand that it will be impossible to turn America into a European-style welfare state without a value-added tax, but they don’t want to publicly associate themselves with that view until the political environment is more conducive to success. Most important, they realize that it will be very difficult to impose a VAT without seducing some gullible Republicans into giving them political cover. And one way of getting GOPers to sign up for a VAT is by convincing them that they have to choose a VAT if they don’t want a return to the confiscatory 70 percent tax rates of the 1960s and 1970s. Any moves in that direction, such as raising the top tax rate from 35 percent to 39.6 percent next January, are part of this long-term strategy to pressure Republicans (as well as naive members of the business community) into a VAT trap.

Shifting to other assertions, the editorial claims that “more revenue will be needed in years to come to keep rebuilding the economy.”  That’s obviously a novel assertion, and the editors never bother to explain how and why more tax revenue will lead to a stronger economy. Are the folks at the New York Times not aware that both economic growth and living standards are lower in European nations that have imposed higher tax burdens? Heck, even the Keynesians agree (albeit for flawed reasons) that higher taxes stunt growth.

The editorial also asserts that, “Since 2002, the federal budget has been chronically short of revenue.” I suppose if revenues are compared to the spending desires of politicians, then tax collections are - and always will be - inadequate. The same is true in Greece, France, and Sweden. It doesn’t matter whether revenues are 20 percent of GDP or 50 percent of GDP. The political class always wants more.

But let’s actually use an objective measure to determine whether revenues are “chronically short.” The Democrat-controlled Congressional Budget Office stated in its newly-released update to the Economic and Budget Outlook that federal tax revenues historically have averaged 18 percent of GDP. They are below that level now because of the economic downturn, but CBO projects that revenues will climb above that level in a few years - even if all of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts are made permanent. Moreover, OMB’s historical data shows that revenues were actually above the long-run average in 2006 and 2007, so even the “since 2002” part of the assertion in the editorial is incorrect.

On the issue of temporary tax relief for the non-rich, the editorial is right but for the wrong reason. The editors rely on the Keynesian rationale, writing that, “low-, middle- and upper-middle-income taxpayers…tend to spend most of their income and the economy needs consumer spending” whereas “Tax cuts for the rich can safely be allowed to expire because wealthy taxpayers tend to save rather than spend their tax savings.”

I’ve debunked Keynesian analysis so often that I feel that I deserve some sort of lifetime exemption from dealing with this nonsense, but I’ll give it another try. Borrowing money from some people in the economy and giving it to some other people in the economy is not a recipe for better economic performance. Economic growth means we are increasing national income. Keynesian policy simply changes who is spending national income, guided by a myopic belief that consumer spending somehow is better than investment spending. The Keynesian approach didn’t work for Hoover and Roosevelt in the 1930s, it didn’t work for Japan in the 1990s, and it hasn’t worked for Obama.

And it doesn’t matter if the Keynesian stimulus is in the form of tax rebates. Gerald Ford’s rebate in the 1970s was a flop, and George W. Bush’s 2001 rebate also failed to boost growth. Tax cuts can lead to more national income, but only if marginal tax rates on productive behavior are reduced so that people have more incentive to work, save, and invest. This is an argument for extending the lower tax rates for all income classes, but it’s important to point out that the economic benefits will be much greater if the lower tax rates are made permanent.

Last but not least, the editorial asserts that, “The revenue from letting [tax cuts for the rich] expire — nearly $40 billion next year — would be better spent on job-creating measures.” Not surprisingly, there is no effort to justify this claim. They could have cited the infamous White House study claiming that the so-called stimulus would keep unemployment under 8 percent, but even people at the New York Times presumably understand that might not be very convincing since the actual unemployment rate is two percentage points higher than what the Obama Administration claimed it would be at this point.

A Birthday Gift from Paul Krugman

I turn 41 this summer (thank you for the condolences). Along with the well wishes of family and friends, I received an unexpected gift from NY Times writer Paul Krugman: this column in which he bashes people who are critical of Social Security in its current form or who worry about its ability to deliver expected benefits.

At first glance, the column hardly seems like a gift: it’s long on pointless insults, short on thoughtful discussion, and misleading. But it offers such a poor defense of the Social Security status quo that I suspect readers will be more skeptical of the program after seeing the column, not less. Hence, Krugman’s gift.

He writes:

Social Security has been running surpluses for the last quarter-century, banking those surpluses in a special account, the so-called trust fund. The program won’t have to turn to Congress for help or cut benefits until or unless the trust fund is exhausted, which the program’s actuaries don’t expect to happen until 2037 — and there’s a significant chance, according to their estimates, that that day will never come.

OK, 2037 — no worries. Except that, as I said, I turn 41 this summer, which means I’ll turn 67 and qualify for full Social Security benefits in mid-2036. The very next year, the Social Security trust fund will be exhausted, according to the “intermediate” scenario contained in the most recent Social Security Trustees Report, available here (see Section IV-B and Appendix E). The program will still pay out some benefits — but less than 3/4s of what it now promises. So what happens then? That’s not a good question if you’re my age or younger.

But suppose you’re not my age or younger. Suppose you’re 10 years older than me, and will have collected 10 years of benefits by 2037. Don’t feel smug — you’ll be asking “So what happens next?” when you’re 77. That’s not a good question at your age, either. 

In fairness to Krugman, the Trustees Report considers different Social Security cost scenarios, the most optimistic of which projects that the trust fund will not be fully exhausted over the 75-year period the report considers. Krugman says there’s “a significant chance” this will be the case, but my (admittedly quick) skim of the report suggests it’s more just “a chance.”

One quick aside about the 2037 exhaustion date: when Krugman wrote this column in 2005, the Trustees’ intermediate scenario projected that the trust fund would last until 2042. In five years’ time, that date has grown 10 years closer. Not good.

Krugman writes that, if the trust fund does run out, Social Security can maintain its benefits using money transferred into the program by Congress from elsewhere in the federal budget. In fact, Congress will have to direct money from elsewhere to Social Security much earlier than 2037. Under the Trustees’ intermediate scenario, beginning in 2018 the amount of money Social Security pays out in old-age benefits each year will be greater than what the public pension program takes in in payroll taxes. (The Disability Insurance component of Social Security is in even worse shape, according to the Trustees, such that the program overall will go in the red in 2015.) To cover the difference, Congress will have to begin paying off the treasury bonds that currently comprise Social Security’s trust fund in order to provide the promised benefits. (In fact, Congress will have to do that this year because, as a product of the recession, Social Security obligations are greater than revenues. Hopefully, the economy will rebound and give the program a few years’ respite before transfers become an annual necessity, though the pessimistic scenario predicts no such respite.)

Krugman is unconcerned by these transfers, dismissing those who worry about them as engaging in “three-card monte.” His column doesn’t acknowledge that these transfers would need to occur at a time when Congress will be scrambling to cover other growing costs: similar deficits in Medicare, obligations to the ever-growing federal debt, and Medicaid’s increasing burden on federal and state governments. I worry that future taxpayers will not be amenable to having so much of their tax money directed to retirees (who refused to reform Social Security when they could have done so at relatively lower cost) rather than to government services for current taxpayers.

Krugman ends the column criticizing the proposal to reduce Social Security’s cost by raising the age at which retirees become eligible for full benefits. As part of an adjustment that began in 2002, retirees must now wait until age 66 to receive full benefits; beginning in 2021, the age requirement will slowly be raised until it reaches 67 in 2027. (Retirees will still be able to take reduced benefits at 62.) Some have suggested raising the full-benefit age to 70. Krugman says that would be unfair:

America is becoming an increasingly unequal society — and the growing disparities extend to matters of life and death. Life expectancy at age 65 has risen a lot at the top of the income distribution, but much less for lower-income workers. And remember, the retirement age is already scheduled to rise under current law. So let’s beat back this unnecessary, unfair and — let’s not mince words — cruel attack on working Americans.

There is something to what Krugman says. From 1980 to 2000, life expectancy at birth for the poorest decile (i.e., 10%) of the U.S. population increased from 73.0 years to 74.7 years, while life expectancy for the wealthiest decile increased from 75.8 years to 79.2 years. (The disparity in life expectancy between the top and bottom decile groups does decline to 1.6 years at age 65, which is up from 0.3 years in 1980. H/T to Dr. Daniel Coyne at the Washington University in St. Louis School of Medicine.)

But inequality in Social Security benefits would exist whether the eligibility age is 65, 66, or 70. Because Americans are required to participate in Social Security, and because all Americans become eligible for full retirement benefits for the rest of their lives at a single threshold age, then the longer-lived wealthy will receive more in benefits than the shorter-lived poor no matter what that threshold is. This is the product of having a one-size-for-all public pension plan (with lousy benefits). The way to address this inequality problem is through Social Security choice.

As I wrote at the beginning, Krugman’s column should leave thoughtful and informed readers more concerned about Social Security, not less. He couldn’t have given me a better present.