Tag: the economy

Americans Are Not Convinced of Top Down Economics

Several recent polls have shown Americans are becoming increasingly skeptical of Washington’s economic planning capabilities. According to a recent Washington Post poll, 73 percent of Americans doubt Washington’s ability to solve economic problems. In fact, these numbers have leapt from 52 percent last year and from 41 percent in 2002. It appears that the more the government has tried to fix the U.S. economy, the less confident Americans are that the government is capable of doing such things.

When the government in Washington decides to solve economic problems, how much confidence do you have that the problem actually will be solved: A lot, some, just a little, or none at all?


 Source: Washington Post Poll

Another example of this skepticism toward government economic planning comes from a recent Rasmussen poll finding that 71 percent of Americans believe the private sector is better than the government at determining technological potential.

Who is better at determining the long-term benefits and potential of new technologies, private sector companies and investors or government officials?

 71 percent: Private sector companies and investors

11 percent: Government officials

17 percent: Not sure

This suggests the public is not convinced that President Obama’s “investment” spending will necessarily be properly directed to its most useful ends. For example, in the president’s 2011 State of the Union address, he marshals the word “invest” or “investment” 13 times, with 8 specifically referencing government investment. It is important to remember that when government “invests” in the economy, it requires officials to make decisions about who gets funding. This presupposes that the government has the knowledge to know which technologies have the greatest potential and thus are worthy of investment. Instead of letting billions of individuals work through a marketplace to best allocate resources to the technologies with the greatest potential, this would instead rely on a small, centralized group of intellectuals deciding who gets what.

Also, according to this Rasmussen poll the public is not convinced that when the government does “pick winners” to receive government funding, that the money will not be wasted. 64 percent believe it is likely that if a private company, which cannot find investors, gets funding from the government that the money will be wasted.

Sometimes a company cannot find investors for a new technology and they seek research funding from government. Suppose a private company cannot find investors but gets funding from the government. How likely is it that government funding will be wasted?

30 percent: Very likely

34 percent: Somewhat likely

21 percent: Not very likely

4 percent: Not at all likely

11 percent: Not sure

It might be time to rethink the alluring sound of government “investment” and reevaluate the merits that government has the knowledge necessary to make these sorts of economic decisions.

Cross-posted from Reason.com 

U.S. Corporate Tax Rate the Highest

Japan has announced that it will cut its corporate tax rate by five percentage points. Japan and the United States had been the global laggards on corporate tax reform, so this leaves America with the highest corporate rate among the 34 wealthy nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

That is not a good position for us to be in. Most of the competition faced by U.S. businesses comes from businesses headquartered in other OECD countries. America also competes with other OECD nations as a location for investment. Our high corporate tax rate scares away investment in new factories, makes it difficult for U.S. companies to compete in foreign markets, and provides strong incentives for corporations to avoid and evade taxes.

The chart shows KPMG data on statutory corporate tax rates in the OECD for 2010, but I’ve also put in the new lower rate for Japan. With the Japanese reform, the average rate in the OECD will be 25.6 percent. That means that the 40 percent U.S. rate is 56 percent higher than the wealthy-nation average.

Most fiscal experts agree that cutting the U.S. corporate tax rate is a high priority, and President Obama’s fiscal commission endorsed the idea. If the president wants to get the economy firing on all cylinders–and generate a new pragmatic and centrist image for himself–he should lead the charge to drop the corporate rate to at least 20 percent.

With state-level taxes on top, a federal corporate rate of 20 percent would put America at about the OECD average, and give all those corporations sitting on piles of cash a great reason to start investing again.

Dan Mitchell’s comments are here.

Buy Global Tax Revolution here.

A Wall Street Journal Column Understates the Size of U.S. Manufacturing

The Wall Street Journal’s December 1 “Ahead of the Tape” column, by Kelly Evans, says “manufacturing is a relatively small part of the economy; It employs about 9% of the work force and accounts for about the same percentage of GDP.” Actually, manufacturing accounts for about 12 percent of nominal GDP.  But that, too, is misleading.  

Chicago Fed economist William Strauss explains why neither U.S. manufacturing’s share of employment nor its share of GDP captures the actual strength of manufacturing:

Between 1950 and 2007 (prior to the severe recession), manufacturing output was just over 600% higher while over the same period growth in real GDP of the U.S. was only a slightly lesser 560%. Yet, the manufacturing share of GDP declined markedly over this period as measured in current dollar value of output. In 1950, the manufacturing share of the U.S. economy amounted to 27% of nominal GDP, but by 2007 it had fallen to 12.1%. How did a sector that experienced growth at a faster pace than the overall economy become a smaller part of the overall economy? The answer again is productivity growth. The greater efficiency of the manufacturing sector afforded either a slower price increase or an outright decline in the prices of this sector’s goods. As one example, inflation (as measured by the Consumer Price Index) averaged 3.7% between 1980 and 2009, while at the same time the rise in prices for new vehicles averaged 1.7%. So while the number (and quality) of manufactured goods had been rising over time, their relative value compared with the output of other sectors did not keep pace. This allowed manufactured goods to be less costly to consumers and led to the manufacturing sector’s declining share of GDP.

Those who imagine “we don’t make anything anymore,” as Donald Trump claims, don’t grasp the magnitude of America’s industrial productivity gains.

In reality, the U.S. is by far the world’s largest manufacturer, with China trailing by 22 percent according to U.N. data for 2008 and arguably much more when we’re not in recession.

Fed’s QEII Offers More Risk Than Reward

As the Federal Reserve Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meets today, it is widely expected that the Fed will announce a new round of quantitative easing (QE).  The first round began in March 2009, as the Fed started large-scale purchases of Fannie and Freddie debt and MBS.  The next round is expected to focus on purchases of long-dated US Treasuries.

The objective of QEII would be to reduce long-term interest rates, with the belief that such a reduction would spur investment and consumption, thus increasing employment.   Estimated impacts on rates range from zero to 80 basis points (80/100s of one percent).  

Given the large excess reserves in the banking system, it is likely that much of the monetary stimulus provided by QEII will simply be added to bank reserves, which would correspondingly have little to no impact on either lending or interest rates.  So its likely that we will get very little bang out of QEII.

Even if QEII did lower rates as much as some Fed leaders claim, the impact would still be relatively small, under one percent.  Given that mortgage rates have already fallen by that much over the last six months without changing the direction of the housing market, it is hard to see even a 1% decline in rates moving the economy.  Quite simply, the major problem facing the economy today is not high interest rates.

The real impact, and the greatest risk, of QEII is that it changes expectations of inflation.  It seems pretty clear that the Fed wants higher inflation than we have now.  QEII sends the signal that the Fed will do everything possible to create that additional inflation.  QEII also runs the real risk that the Fed ends up “monetizing the debt” - both reducing the political pressure to address our fiscal imbalances as well as undermining the dollar.  I see these risks as easily outweighing what little bump one might get from a few basis points decline in long-term interest rates.

Emergency Spending

A recent paper by Veronique de Rugy examines how policymakers use various budgeting gimmicks to increase spending and obscure liabilities. One particularly abusive mechanism is the designation of supplemental spending as an “emergency.” The emergency designation makes it easier for policymakers to skirt budgetary rules, particularly “pay-as-you-go” (PAYGO) requirements.

The following chart from the paper shows how supplemental spending, most of which was designated as “emergency,” has taken off in the last decade:

As the chart notes, much of the increase is attributable to supplemental appropriations for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Bush administration was rightly criticized by analysts across the ideological spectrum for funding the wars outside of the standard budget process.

However, with the Democrats in control, the emergency designation is now being abusively applied to domestic spending. Congressional Research Service data obtained by the office of Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) finds that emergency spending has increased deficits by almost $1 trillion since the 111th Congress was seated in January 2009.

The biggest chunk came with passage of the $862 billion “emergency” stimulus bill in February 2009. The Obama administration insisted that the emergency spending legislation was necessary to jump-start the economy and keep unemployment below 8 percent. Oops.

Congress has since passed additional multi-billion dollar “emergency” bills to extend supposedly simulative activities like unemployment benefits. The latest “emergency” extender bill that is bogged down in the Senate would add another $57 billion in debt.

What is Congress allowed to designate as emergency spending? Keith Hennessey, a former economic advisor to George W. Bush, offers the best definition: “it’s whatever you can get away with labeling as an emergency.”

However, Hennessey points out that there was originally a test with a fairly high bar created by the Office of Management and Budget in 1991 under the first President Bush. According to Hennessey, all five of these conditions had to be met:

  1. Necessary; (essential or vital, not merely useful or beneficial)
  2. Sudden; (coming into being quickly, not building up over time)
  3. Urgent; (requiring immediate action)
  4. Unforeseen; and
  5. Not permanent.

Hennessey says the definition was included in congressional budget resolutions during Bush II’s administration and that the president proposed codifying it in law. But that doesn’t seem to be the policy that the Bush II administration actually followed. With perhaps the exception of initial hostilities, there was nothing “unforeseen” about Bush’s “emergency” war spending in Iraq and Afghanistan. It seems that Bush’s inability to abide by his own proposal is another sad reminder that his fiscally reckless tenure helped pave the road to Obama.

The Case for Auditing the Fed

Recently, the Federal Reserve has significantly altered the procedures and goals that it had followed for decades. Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) has introduced a bill calling for an audit of the Fed.

Remarkably, there is significant opposition to such oversight, and the political prospects for undertaking such an audit are relatively bleak. In a new paper, Cato scholar Arnold Kling examines the processes and outcomes on which an audit should focus, and looks at opposition to the audit:

We should document why the Fed took each step, what the expected results were, and whether those results were achieved. …The profit or loss of the Fed’s investments would provide a very helpful indicator of whether the Fed’s actions served the economy as a whole or merely transferred wealth from ordinary taxpayers to bank shareholders.

Read the whole thing.

Three Steps to Comprehensive Immigration Reform

Congress can and should pass comprehensive immigration reform in 2010. Any legislation worthy of the name would:

1) offer legalization to undocumented workers who have been here for several years, pass a security check, and pay a reasonable fine and back taxes;

2) create a temporary-visa program sufficient to meet future labor needs of a growing economy; and

3) enforce the law against those who still insist on working outside the system, but in a way that does not restrict the freedom of American citizens.

Reform would reduce illegal immigration by offering a legal alternative. It would tighten border security by allowing U.S. agents to focus on intercepting real criminals and terrorists, not dishwashers and gardeners. And it would expand output, investment, and job opportunities for middle-class Americans. Polls show a majority of Americans will accept the three-fold approach to reform. Recent elections confirm that support for reform is a modest plus with swing voters, and a huge plus with Hispanics.

This is an issue where both major parties can work together to fix our immigration system in a way that boosts the economy, enhances security, and expands liberty.

For more, see Cato’s research on immigration.

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