Tag: recession

Government’s Unwelcome Economic Distortions

A couple of weeks ago, David Boaz discussed the Old Testament story in which the people of Israel ask Samuel for a king to rule over them. God’s instructions to Samuel can be summed up as “tell them to be careful of what you wish for.” David brought up the passage in the context of civil liberties, but the story’s lesson also applies to economic liberties.

Over the past eighty years, the public has become conditioned in times of crisis to turn to their rulers and demand that they “do something.” That the rulers had a hand in the crisis is all too often either unrecognized or it’s a secondary concern. As Robert Higgs demonstrated in his seminal book, Crisis and Leviathan, the rulers will willingly oblige the public and, in the process, come away with more power and control than they had prior to the crisis. Unfortunately, the rulers’ enhanced authority begets more crises in the future.

The latest chapter in this story is the economic downturn. Many of the “seeds” for the recession were planted by government. Regardless, the average citizen reflexively looked toward Washington to quickly fix the economy. The public’s limited patience meshes well with policymakers who are naturally inclined to operate on a short-term horizon (i.e., the next election). Therefore, policymakers responded with quick-fix measures with almost no regard to the long-term consequences.

The long-term economic problems caused by massive deficit spending and mounting debt are the most obvious. But as two stories in the news show, short-term measures implemented by policymakers to “fix” the economy have also introduced unwelcome economic distortions.

First, following the expiration of the federal homebuyer tax credit, home sales have fallen off the cliff. The Christian Science Monitor asks: was the homebuyer tax credit the “scam of the century?” The program was riddled with fraud, some folks who were induced to purchase a house are already underwater or are headed in that direction, and the billions of dollars spent on the program did zilch for the long-term health of the housing market.

When one looks at ultimate beneficiaries of the tax credit, it’s easy to see why the CSM calls it a “scam:”

[I]n trying to fully understand why the government undertook such a useless and poorly calculated program, it’s important to recognize those who truly walk away from this policy in better standing.

Realtors, home builders and mortgage bankers… some of the most notable culprits of the housing bubble years… all walk away cleanly skimming the proceeds coming from the transactions of an estimated 2 million temporarily stimulated home purchases.

It should come as no surprise that these were the very same industry groups that worked tirelessly lobbying to enact this failed policy… it was a simple exchange… your tax dollars to their wallets.

Second, we go from “scam of the century” to the “the dumbest program ever.” The latter refers to the “Cash for Clunkers” program, which Chris Edwards submitted for nomination in August 2009. Chris cited numerous problems with the program, including that “Low-income families, who tend to buy used cars, were harmed because the clunkers program will push up used car prices.”

A senior editor at Edmunds.com tells a reporter from WIOD news radio in Miami that used-car prices are way up (h/t Radley Balko):

If buying a used car is among your cost-cutting measures… be prepared to pay up to 30-percent more than you did last year.

It is a simple case of supply and demand.

Trouble is … there are fewer used cars.

The cash-for-clunkers program took a bunch off the market.

Plus, Edmunds Senior Editor Bill Visnick says 5-million fewer new cars were sold last year…which pares down the used car supply even more.

As Radley sarcastically notes, you can’t blame those supposedly selfish limited government types for this one:

[W]e have a government program whose stated aim was to shore up huge, failed corporations by giving public money to mostly upper-income people that in the end will penalize low and middle-income people. But remember folks, it’s the libertarians—who opposed C4C—who are greedy corporatists who hate the poor.

There could be a silver lining in the cloud if more Americans start to realize that asking policymakers to quickly fix problems that government policies helped foster isn’t much different than asking the arsonist to put out the fire.

When Keynesians Attack

If I was organized enough to send Christmas cards, I would take Richard Rahn off my list. I do one blog post to call attention to his Washington Times column and it seems like everybody in the world wants to jump down my throat. I already dismissed Paul Krugman’s rant and responded to Ezra Klein’s reasonable criticism. Now it’s time to address Derek Thompson’s critique on the Atlantic’s site.

At the risk of re-stating someone else’s argument, Thompson’s central theme seems to be that there are many factors that determine economic performance and that it is unwise to make bold pronouncements about Policy A causing Result B. If that’s what Thompson is saying, I very much agree (and if it’s not what he’s trying to say, then I apologize, though I still agree with the sentiment). That’s why I referred to Reagan decreasing the burden of government and Obama increasing the burden of government — I wanted to capture all the policy changes that were taking place, including taxation, spending, monetary policy, regulation, etc. Yes, the flagship policies (tax reduction for Reagan and so-called stimulus for Obama) were important, but other factors obviously are part of the equation.

The biggest caveat, however, is that one should always be reluctant to make sweeping claims about what caused the economy to do X or Y in a given year. Economists are terrible forecasters, and we’re not even very proficient when it comes to hindsight analysis about short-run economic fluctuations. Indeed, the one part of my original post that causes me a bit of regret is that I took the lazy route and inserted an image of the chart from Richard’s column. Excerpting some of his analysis would have been a better approach, particularly since I much prefer to focus on the impact of policies on long-run growth and competitiveness (which is what I did in my New York Post column from earlier this week  and also why I’m reluctant to embrace Art Laffer’s warning of major economic problems in 2011).

But a blog post is no fun if you just indicate where you and a critic have common ground, so let me identify four disagreements that I have with Thompson’s post:

(1) To reinforce his warning about making excessive claims about different recessions/recoveries, Thompson pointed out that someone could claim that Reagan’s recovery was associated with the 1982 TEFRA tax hike. I’ve actually run across people who think this is a legitimate argument, so it’s worth taking a moment to explain why it isn’t true.

When analyzing the impact of tax policy changes, it’s important to look at when tax changes were implemented, not when they were enacted (data on annual tax rates available here). Reagan’s Economic Recovery Tax Act was enacted in 1981, but the lower tax rates weren’t fully implemented until 1984. This makes it a bit of a challenge to pinpoint when the economy actually received a net tax cut. The tax burden may have actually increased in 1981, since the parts of the Reagan tax cuts that took effect that year were offset by the impact of bracket creep (the tax code was not indexed to protect against inflation until the mid-1980s). There was a bigger tax rate reduction in 1982, but there was still bracket creep, as well as previously-legislated payroll tax increases (enacted during the Carter years). TEFRA also was enacted in 1982, which largely focused on undoing some of the business tax relief in Reagan’s 1981 plan. People have argued whether the repeal of promised tax relief is the same as a tax increase, but that’s not terribly important for this analysis. What does matter is that the tax burden did not fall much (if at all) in Reagan’s first year and might not have changed too much in 1982.

In 1983, by contrast, it’s fairly safe to say the next stage of tax rate reductions was substantially larger than any concomitant tax increases. That doesn’t mean, of course, that one should attribute all changes in growth to what’s happening to the tax code. But it does suggest that it is a bit misleading to talk about tax cuts in 1981 and tax increases in 1983.

One final point: The main insight of supply-side economics is that changes in the overall tax burden are not as important as changes in the tax structure. As such, it’s also important to look at which taxes were going up and which ones were decreasing. This is why Reagan’s 1981 tax plan compares so favorably with Bush’s 2001 tax plan (which was filled with tax credits and other policies that had little or no impact on incentives for productive behavior).

(2) In addition to wondering whether one could argue that higher taxes triggered the Reagan boom, Thompson also speculates whether it might be possible to blame the tax cuts in Obama’s stimulus for the economy’s subsequent sub-par performance. There are two problems with that hypothesis. First, a substantial share of the tax cuts in the so-called stimulus were actually new spending being laundered through the tax code (see footnote 3 of this Joint Committee on Taxation publication). To the extent that the provisions represented real tax relief, they were much more akin to Bush’s non–supply side 2001 tax cuts and a far cry from the marginal tax-rate reductions enacted in 1981 and 2003. And since even big tax cuts have little or no impact on the economy if incentives to engage in productive behavior are unaffected, there is no reason to blame (or credit) Obama’s tax provisions for anything.

(3) Why doesn’t anyone care that the Federal Reserve almost always is responsible for serious recessions? This isn’t a critique of Thompson’s post since he doesn’t address monetary policy from this angle, but if we go down the list of serious economic hiccups in recent history (1974-75, 1980-82, and 2008-09), bad monetary policy inevitably is a major cause. In short, the Fed periodically engages in easy-money policy. This causes malinvestment and/or inflation, and a recession seems to be an unavoidable consequence. Yet the Fed seems to dodge any serious blame. At some point, one hopes that policy makers (especially Fed governors) will learn that easy-money policies such as artificially low interest rates are not a smart approach.

(4) Thompson writes, “Is Mitchell really saying that $140 billion on Medicaid, firefighters, teachers, and infrastructure projects are costing the economy five percentage points of economic growth?” No, I’m not saying that and didn’t say that, but I have been saying for quite some time that taking money out of the economy’s left pocket and putting it in the economy’s right pockets doesn’t magically increase prosperity. And to the extent money is borrowed from private capital markets and diverted to inefficient and counter-productive programs, the net impact on the economy is negative. Thompson also writes that, “Our unemployment picture is a little more complicated than ‘Oh my god, Obama is killing jobs by taking over the states’ Medicaid burden!’” Since I’m not aware of anybody who’s made that argument, I’m not sure how to respond. That being said, jobs will be killed by having Washington take over state Medicaid budgets. Such a move would lead to a net increase in the burden of government spending, and that additional spending would divert resources from the productive sector of the economy.

The moral of the story, though, is to let Richard Rahn publicize his own work.

Responding to Paul Krugman and Ezra Klein

I seem to have touched a raw nerve with my post earlier today on my International Liberty blog,  comparing Reagan and Obama on how well the economy performed coming out of recession. Both Ezra Klein and Paul Krugman have denounced my analysis (actually, they denounced me approving of Richard Rahn’s analysis, but that’s a trivial detail). Krugman responded by asserting that Reaganomics was irrelevant (I’m not kidding) to what happened in the 1980s. Klein’s response was more substantive, so let’s focus on his argument. He begins by stating that the recent recession and the downturn of the early 1980s were different creatures. My argument was about how strongly the economy rebounded, however, not the length, severity, causes, and characteristics of each recession. But Klein then cites Rogoff and Reinhardt to argue that recoveries from financial crises tend to be less impressive than recoveries from normal recessions.

That’s certainly a fair argument. I haven’t read the Rogoff-Reinhardt book, but their hypothesis seems reasonable, so let’s accept it for purposes of this discussion. Should we therefore grade Obama on a curve? Perhaps, but it’s also true that deep recessions usually are followed by more robust recoveries. And since the recent downturn was more severe than the the one in the early 1980s, shouldn’t we be experiencing some additional growth to offset the tepidness associated with a financial crisis?

I doubt we’ll ever know how to appropriately measure all of these factors, but I don’t think that matters. I suspect Krugman and Klein are not particularly upset about Richard Rahn’s comparisons of recessions and recoveries. The real argument is whether Reagan did the right thing by reducing the burden of government and whether Obama is doing the wrong thing by heading in the opposite direction and making America more like France or Greece. In other words, the fundamental issue is whether we should have big government or small government. I think the Obama Administration, by making government bigger, is repeating many of the mistakes of the Bush Administration. Krugman and Klein almost certainly disagree.

Even Keynesian Accounting Can’t Find All That ‘Stimulus’

From January 2009 to the present, President Obama and his team have repeatedly made grandiose claims about the economic benefits of shoveling money at shovel-ready projects or green jobs.  “It is largely thanks to the Recovery Act that a second Depression is no longer a possibility,” said the President.   He also claimed that lavish spending alone (not Federal Reserve actions or bank bailouts) is what prevented the unemployment rate from “getting up to … 15%.”

If any of that were remotely close to being true then, as a matter of simple accounting, rising federal spending would have shown up as a huge offset to falling GDP in 2009, and also as a major component of the modest increase in GDP growth in early 2010.   On the contrary, the table below shows that the increase in federal nondefense spending contributed only two-tenths of one percent (0.2) to the change in GDP in 2009.  That was no better than 2008 when the Recovery Act did not exist.  If nondefense spending had not increased at all in 2009 (unlike 2008) then GDP would have fallen 2.8% rather than 2.6% — scarcely the difference between a recession and a “second Depression.”  If nondefense federal spending had not increased at all in 2010, the economy still would have grown at a 3.6% pace in the first quarter, 2.1% in the second.  Cutbacks in state and local spending were a trivial damper on GDP growth last year, contrary to recent speculation, and real state and local spending rose significantly in this year’s second quarter (unlike the first).

This is just an exercise in crude Keynesian accounting, not economics.  Yet it nonetheless makes the stimulus bill look like a huge waste of money.  The reason Keynesian accounting is no substitute for economics is that governments can only spend other peoples’ money.  To claim that such spending is a net addition to “aggregate demand” is to ignore those other people — namely, current and future taxpayers.

Nobel Laureate Robert Lucas put it this way:

If the government builds a bridge … by taking tax money away from somebody else, and using that to pay the bridge builder — the guys who work on the bridge — then it’s just a wash.  It has no first-starter effect.  There’s no reason to expect any stimulation.  And, in some sense, there’s nothing to apply a multiplier to.  You apply a multiplier to the bridge builders, then you’ve got to apply the same multiplier with a minus sign to the people you taxed to build the bridge.  And then taxing them later isn’t going to help, we know that.

New York State Should Cut Property Taxes

The New York Times editorialists are at it again.  June 12th’s lead editorial, “The Latest Work Dodge: A Shutdown,” frets over the specter of the New York state government being shut down because Albany’s legislators can’t agree on a budget.  Well, the Times must have breathed a collective sigh of relief late Monday (June 14th).  That’s when the State Senate passed Governor Paterson’s 11th temporary budget extender, which allowed state offices to hang out “open for business” signs on Tuesday.

But, the Times wants a final state budget and claims that more taxing and borrowing and maybe some cuts in school aid will do the trick.  One item that the Times wants off the table in Albany is property taxes.  According to the Times, Democratic state senators outside New York City should stop pushing for restrictions on the rate of growth of property taxes.  I agree.  Instead, the legislators should start pushing for sharp cuts in New York’s oppressive property taxes.  When every U.S. county is ranked according to its average property-tax bill, as a percent of home values, 14 of the highest 15 are in New York state.

As Prof. Steve Walters and I concluded in “A Property Tax Cut Could Help Save Buffalo” (Wall Street Journal, December 6, 2008),  New York should follow California and Massachusetts and cut property taxes.  Voters capped property taxes in California at 1% of market value with Proposition 13 in 1978. That forced San Francisco to cut its rate by 57% overnight and brought forth a tidal wave of investment, even amidst a recession. By 1982, inflation-adjusted city revenues were two-thirds higher than they had been before Prop. 13. Massachusetts voters passed Prop 2 ½ in 1980, forcing Boston’s property tax rate down by an estimated 75% within two years. Massive reinvestment, repopulation and urban renewal followed.

Will Higher Tax Rates in 2011 Cause an Economic Collapse?

Art Laffer has a compelling column in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, where he makes the case that future tax rate increases will cause considerable economic damage because people have an incentive to maximize income this year to take advantage of current tax rates – resulting in an artificial drop in economic activity next year. In effect, this will be a reverse version of the experiment in the early 1980s, when entrepreneurs and investors had an incentive to postpone economic activity since Reagan’s tax rate reductions were phased in over several years. I am reluctant to endorse Art’s prediction that the “economy will collapse,” since even good economists are lousy forecasters. But we certainly will see a large degree of tax planning, which will lead to less revenue than expected next year. And the higher tax rates will inhibit growth, though it is impossible to predict whether this means 2.1 percent growth instead of 2.3 percent growth, for instance, or 0.5 percent growth instead of 0.6 percent growth.

On or about Jan. 1, 2011, federal, state and local tax rates are scheduled to rise quite sharply. …the highest federal personal income tax rate will go 39.6% from 35%, the highest federal dividend tax rate pops up to 39.6% from 15%, the capital gains tax rate to 20% from 15%, and the estate tax rate to 55% from zero. …Tax rates have been and will be raised on income earned from off-shore investments. Payroll taxes are already scheduled to rise in 2013 and the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) will be digging deeper and deeper into middle-income taxpayers. And there’s always the celebrated tax increase on Cadillac health care plans. State and local tax rates are also going up in 2011 as they did in 2010. Tax rate increases next year are everywhere. …if people know tax rates will be higher next year than they are this year, what will those people do this year? They will shift production and income out of next year into this year to the extent possible. As a result, income this year has already been inflated above where it otherwise should be and next year, 2011, income will be lower than it otherwise should be. …In 1981, Ronald Reagan—with bipartisan support—began the first phase in a series of tax cuts passed under the Economic Recovery Tax Act (ERTA), whereby the bulk of the tax cuts didn’t take effect until Jan. 1, 1983. Reagan’s delayed tax cuts were the mirror image of President Barack Obama’s delayed tax rate increases. For 1981 and 1982 people deferred so much economic activity that real GDP was basically flat (i.e., no growth), and the unemployment rate rose to well over 10%. But at the tax boundary of Jan. 1, 1983 the economy took off like a rocket, with average real growth reaching 7.5% in 1983 and 5.5% in 1984. It has always amazed me how tax cuts don’t work until they take effect. Mr. Obama’s experience with deferred tax rate increases will be the reverse. The economy will collapse in 2011. …The result will be a crash in tax receipts once the surge is past. If you thought deficits and unemployment have been bad lately, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

The Good Side of Bad News in Europe

What does the Greco-Euro currency/debt crisis mean for the U.S. economy?

Nearly everyone except the uniquely wise economist John Cochrane assumes very bad “contagion” effects –on U.S. banks, exports and particularly U.S. manufacturing.

This echoes identical anxieties while the world went through a far more dramatic Asian currency crisis after  July 1997,  and a Russian debt crisis the following May.

The most widely ignored effect of that crisis, however, was to depress foreign demand for oil, and thus slash oil prices to U.S. buyers from $25 a barrel in early 1997 to $11 by the end of 1998.

Oil is a major input into the manufacturing process (e.g., chemicals and plastics), and a major cost of distribution (trucks, trains and airplanes).  It is also a major determinant of the cost of all energy sources used in making other goods such as aluminum and paper.   When marginal costs go down, it becomes profitable to expand production.

At the height of the Asian/Russian crises, the table below shows that U.S. manufacturing output  rose by more than 10 percent. It’s an ill wind that doesn’t blow somebody some good.

Looking at the same phenomenon from the other side, every recession but one (1960) was preceded by a big increase in the price of oil. For oil importers like the U.S., cheaper oil is definitely better.

During the last big foreign currency/debt crisis, the real growth of U.S. Gross Domestic Purchases (the home-grown portion of GDP) jumped by 4.7% in 1997 and 5.5% in 1998.  Yet the Fed cut interest rates three times in October and November of 1998 because of what was happening in other countries.

The table  show what happened to the price of oil and to U.S. manufacturing from June 1997 to December 1998. The middle column is the price of a barrel of West Texas crude, and the column to the right is the U.S. industrial production index for the manufacturing sector.

1997-06    19.17    87.80
1997-07    19.63    88.12
1997-08    19.93    89.69
1997-09    19.79    90.45
1997-10    21.26    90.98
1997-11    20.17    92.05
1997-12    18.32    92.52
1998-01    16.71    93.36
1998-02    16.06    93.31
1998-03    15.02    93.13
1998-04    15.44    93.68
1998-05    14.86    94.25
1998-06    13.66    93.53
1998-07    14.08    92.96
1998-08    13.36    95.40
1998-09    14.95    95.11
1998-10    14.39    95.96
1998-11    12.85    96.08
1998-12    11.28    96.63

In recent weeks, as the debt and currency problems in Euroland hit the front page, the price of crude oil fell by about 20 percent.

Once again, as in 1997-98, everyone may be watching the wrong ball in the wrong court.