Why Does President Trump Want to Pump Prime the Economy?

It is difficult to forecast what President Trump’s fiscal legacy will be. He’s sought credit for a recent reduction in public debt, but pledged not to touch the entitlement programs which are its key long-term driver, while also cutting taxes. His team has talked of the need for high-quality infrastructure investment to boost productivity, but leaked memos suggest priority projects must be “shovel ready” and “direct job creators” – different short-term aims.

Anybody hopeful that the fiscal conservative lines of this muddled agenda might win out might want to think again. It looks as if Trump has “stimulus” rather than a supply-side agenda in mind. Here’s an interview excerpt from The NYT:

Trump seemed much less animated by the subject of budget cuts than the subject of spending increases. “We’re also going to prime the pump,” he said. “You know what I mean by ‘prime the pump’? In order to get this” — the economy — “going, and going big league, and having the jobs coming in and the taxes that will be cut very substantially and the regulations that’ll be going, we’re going to have to prime the pump to some extent. In other words: Spend money to make a lot more money in the future. And that’ll happen.”

Let us presume for the sake of argument that Trump is a Keynesian who believes that government spending can be used to re-inflate the economy from downturns. Let us also assume that this kind of agenda works as Keynesian theory predicts. We can still ponder: why does the U.S. economy need a fiscal stimulus now? Theory (even Keynesian) and evidence suggests it does not.

1. Theory would suggest fiscal stimulus is not effective when there is little “spare capacity.” Whatever Trump thinks about the veracity of the statistics, the US economy is close to “full employment.” The civilian unemployment rate currently stands at 4.7 percent, only slightly above the Congressional Budget Office’s estimate for the “natural rate of unemployment.” The job openings rate is now running above that seen pre-crisis, quit rates are about the same as they were prior to the crash. The U5 unemployment rate (which adds marginally attached workers to the official rate) and the U6 unemployment rate (which adds those who are part-time for economic reasons) are at levels seen in the middle of the 2000s and construction unemployment is lower than in 2007. In such an environment, any attempted macroeconomic stimulus through infrastructure investment would be highly likely to crowd out private sector activity.

2. Theory suggests fiscal stimulus will be offset by monetary policy. Given the Fed has begun to raise its target rate, Keynesian theory would suggest monetary policy would offset any expansionary fiscal policy. Paul Krugman spelled this argument out clearly when he wrote “spending can be withdrawn later on without hurting employment, because once you’re out of the liquidity trap the Fed can offset the contractionary effects of a fiscal tightening by holding off on the monetary tightening it would otherwise have pursued.

CBO Projections: Unhealthy Basis for Health Policy

In the political hullabaloo over efforts to shift costs of health care to someone else, the argument for keeping Obamacare’s compulsory insurance and ever-expanding Medicaid enrollment relies naïvely on notoriously comical Congressional Budget Office (CBO) 10-year “projections.” 

CBO claims the initial House Republican plan would eventually cause 3 million to “lose” health insurance simply because they would no longer be fined up to 2.5% of income for not buying a policy designed by and for politicians. This not a loss, but a gain – in freedom of choice.

CBO claims the GOP plan would “lose” another 14 million by not expanding Medicaid enrollment as rapidly as Obamacare hopes to. The federal government pays about 57% of the cost of Medicaid for poor people, but 90-93% (until 2022) to the 31 states that provide Medicaid to those earning up to 138% of the poverty line. That has added 17 million to the Medicaid rolls, and enriched big health insurers and Kaiser Permanente.

A Tale of Two Statements

Remarks made by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Beijing caused a collective gnashing of teeth among the foreign policy establishment this week. At least twice, Tillerson said that the U.S.-China relationship was built on “non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect, and win-win solutions.” These exact words have often been used by China’s president Xi Jinping to describe a “new model of major country relations” between the United States and China.

China watchers based in D.C. rushed to criticize Tillerson’s statements for mirroring Xi’s language. Writing for Politico, Ely Ratner of the Council on Foreign Relations said, “terms like ‘mutual respect’ and ‘nonconfrontation’ are code in Beijing for U.S. accommodation of a Chinese sphere of influence in Asia.” A headline in the Washington Post said that Tillerson handed a “diplomatic victory” to China. The article featured quotes from experts such as Bonnie Glaser from the Center for Strategic and International Studies who said, “By agreeing to [mutual respect], the U.S. is in effect saying that it accepts that China has no room to compromise on these issues.” In Foreign Policy, former State Department and National Security Council official Laura Rosenberger argued that U.S. allies in East Asia “may question [U.S.] commitments given Tillerson’s wording in Beijing.”

25 Years Later, Is It Still the Hayek Century?

F. A. Hayek died 25 years ago today. His secretary called Cato Institute president Edward H. Crane, who confirmed the sad news to the New York Times.

Hayek’s life spanned the 20th century, from 1899 to 1992. In his youth he thought he saw liberalism dying in nationalism and war. Thanks partly to his own efforts, in his old age he was heartened by the revival of free-market liberalism. John Cassidy wrote in the New Yorker that “on the biggest issue of all, the vitality of capitalism, he was vindicated to such an extent that it is hardly an exaggeration to refer to the twentieth century as the Hayek century.”

Back in 2010 the New York Times said that the Tea Party “has reached back to dusty bookshelves for long-dormant ideas. It has resurrected once-obscure texts by dead writers [such as] Friedrich Hayek’s “Road to Serfdom” (1944).” I responded at the time,

So that’s, you know, “long-dormant ideas” like those of F. A. Hayek, the winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, who met with President Reagan at the White House, whose book The Constitution of Liberty was declared by Margaret Thatcher “This is what we believe,” who was described by Milton Friedman as “the most important social thinker of the 20th century” and by White House economic adviser Lawrence H. Summers as the author of “the single most important thing to learn from an economics course today,” who is the hero of The Commanding Heights, the book and PBS series by Daniel Yergin and Joseph Stanislaw, and whose book The Road to Serfdom has never gone out of print and has sold 100,000 copies this year.

On the occasion of Hayek’s 100th birthday, Tom G. Palmer summed up some of his intellectual contributions:

Hayek may have made his greatest contribution to the fight against socialism and totalitarianism with his best-selling 1944 book, The Road to Serfdom. In it, Hayek warned that state control of the economy was incompatible with personal and political freedom and that statism set in motion a process whereby “the worst get on top.”

But not only did Hayek show that socialism is incompatible with liberty, he showed that it is incompatible with rationality, with prosperity, with civilization itself. In the absence of private property, there is no market. In the absence of a market, there are no prices. And in the absence of prices, there is no means of determining the best way to solve problems of social coordination, no way to know which of two courses of action is the least costly, no way of acting rationally. Hayek elaborated the insights of the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises, whose 1922 book Socialism offered a brilliant refutation of the dreams of socialist planners. In his later work, Hayek showed how prices established in free markets work to bring about social coordination. His essay “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” published in the American Economic Review in 1945 and reprinted hundreds of times since, is essential to understanding how markets work.

But Hayek was more than an economist. As I’ve written before, he also published impressive works on political theory and psychology. He’s like Marx, only right. Tom Palmer noted:

Building on his insights into how order emerges “spontaneously” from free markets, Hayek turned his attention after the war to the moral and political foundations of free societies. The Austrian-born British subject dedicated his instant classic The Constitution of Liberty “To the unknown civilization that is growing in America.” Hayek had great hopes for America, precisely because he appreciated the profound role played in American popular culture by a commitment to liberty and limited government. While most intellectuals praised state control and planning, Hayek understood that a free society has to be open to the unanticipated, the unplanned, the unknown. As he noted in The Constitution of Liberty, “Freedom granted only when it is known beforehand that its effects will be beneficial is not freedom.” The freedom that matters is not the “freedom” of the rulers or of the majority to regulate and control social development, but the freedom of the individual person to live his own life as he chooses. The freedom of the individual to break old molds, to create new things, and to test new paths is the mark of a progressive society: “If we proceed on the assumption that only the exercises of freedom that the majority will practice are important, we would be certain to create a stagnant society with all the characteristics of unfreedom.”

Reagan and Thatcher may have admired Hayek, but he always insisted that he was a liberal, not a conservative. He titled the postscript to The Constitution of Liberty “Why I Am Not a Conservative.” He pointed out that the conservative “has no political principles which enable him to work with people whose moral values differ from his own for a political order in which both can obey their convictions. It is the recognition of such principles that permits the coexistence of different sets of values that makes it possible to build a peaceful society with a minimum of force. The acceptance of such principles means that we agree to tolerate much that we dislike.” He wanted to be part of “the party of life, the party that favors free growth and spontaneous evolution.” And I recall an interview in a French magazine in the 1980s, which I can’t find online, in which he was asked if he was part of the “new right,” and he quipped, “Je suis agnostique et divorcé.”

Hayek lived long enough to see the rise and fall of fascism, national socialism, and Soviet communism. In the years since Hayek’s death economic freedom around the world has been increasing, and liberal values such as human rights, the rule of law, equal freedom under law, and free access to information have spread to new areas. But today liberalism is under challenge from such disparate yet symbiotic ideologies as resurgent leftism, right-wing authoritarian populism, and radical political Islamism. I am optimistic because I think that once people get a taste of freedom and prosperity, they want to keep it. The challenge for Hayekian liberals is to help people understand that freedom and prosperity depend on liberal values, the values explored and defended in his many books and articles.

Peter Navarro Responds to His Trade Critics (Sort of)

White House National Trade Council Director Peter Navarro’s views have been roundly criticized by economists and policy professionals from across the political and ideological spectra. There seems to be an emerging consensus that the more Navarro speaks and writes, the more he marginalizes his influence within the administration. It is with that cause and (positive) effect in mind that I continue pulling on this thread.

A couple of weeks ago, Navarro wrote an oped in the Wall Street Journal, offering some really unconventional perspectives about trade policy and revealing a profoundly unique understanding of economics. I replied (in long form) on the Cato blog and (in shorter form) with a letter to the editor of the WSJ.

This afternoon, the WSJ published a response from Navarro to me and the authors of the two other letters published in response to Navarro’s original oped. And in response to Navarro’s response, Cafe Hayek’s/Mercatus’s/GMU’s Don Boudreax wrote this letter to the WSJ editor:

22 March 2017

Editor, Wall Street Journal

1211 6th Ave.

New York, NY 10036

Dear Editor:

The headline is promising: “Peter Navarro Responds to His Trade Critics” (March 22). So I eagerly anticipated reading Navarro’s substantive defense, against knowledgeable critics, of his reasons for fearing trade deficits. Alas, disappointment. Navarro offers not a single relevant argument.

Typical is his contemptuous treatment of Dan Ikenson. To establish that Mr. Ikenson has an “Alice-in-Wonderland worldview,” Navarro merely lists some of Mr. Ikenson’s policy positions without offering as much as a syllable to inform us why these positions are untenable.

The closest Navarro comes to making a relevant argument is when he writes, responding to Desmond Lachman, that “if India agrees to lower its tariffs on Harley Davidson motorcycles, Indian consumers will buy more Harleys and save less while Harley will sell more Harleys and invest more.” Well, no one has ever denied that Indians would buy, and Harley would sell, more Harleys if India reduces its tariff on these bikes. But it doesn’t follow that Indians would necessarily, as a result, save less. (Does Navarro always save less when his cost of living falls?) And while more resources would indeed likely be invested in Harley’s operations, these resources would have to come from foreigners if Americans don’t increase their savings. Contrary, therefore, to the conclusion that Navarro wants us to draw from what he pretentiously (if inaccurately) calls “obvious general equilibrium effects,” a cut in India’s tariffs on Harleys is not remotely guaranteed to lead to a decrease the U.S. trade deficit.

Sincerely,

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
and
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA  22030 

Stay tuned!

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Finding Victims for Trump Budget Cuts

A Washington Post story today about one of President Trump’s budget cuts reflects what can be called victim journalism. The story focuses on the proposed ending of federal funding for the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), which provides subsidies for economic development in selected states. The reporter presents an interesting narrative about some ARC beneficiaries, but does not provide the balance needed to judge the overall value of the program.

The story presents individuals in Appalachia as victims, and federal money as the only savior. It does not focus on personal responsibility, local government policies, or federal program failures. The reporter does not mention any studies examining the ARC’s overall effectiveness, or whether auditors have done a benefit-cost analysis to see whether the program’s benefits outweigh the costs.

However, the main problem with the Post story is a lack of appreciation for the federal structure of American government. Statements like this bewilder me: “The federal funding [for ARC] often goes toward repairing essential services rural towns cannot afford on their own, such as fixing broken sewer systems…”

Sewer systems are indeed an essential local service. As such, they should receive a high priority in state and local budgets. If sewers in Appalachia are not being fixed, then state and local governments are failing at a core responsibility. Reporters should ask why that is.

The ARC sprinkles about $150 million a year across 13 states, from New York to Mississippi. Combined state and local spending in those states (excluding federally funded spending) is more than $800 billion a year. So the supposedly crucial ARC spending represents less than 0.02 percent of the region’s own government spending. If the ARC were eliminated, those governments could easily fill the small void with their own money.


Addendum

Let’s drill down on Kentucky, which was the focus of the Post story and is in the center of the ARC region. If all the ARC money were spent just in Kentucky, it would still be only 0.5 percent of the roughly $30 billion in state/local spending in that state.

The Post story claims “so much of the Appalachian commission’s budget — $146 million in 2016 — goes toward infrastructure projects…” Assuming that is true, why doesn’t Kentucky have room in its own budget for infrastructure such as sewers? Looking at Census data for state and local governments in Kentucky suggests why. Total capital spending on sewers and solid waste was $234 million in 2014, but spending on “public welfare” was $8 billion and spending on government worker salaries was $10 billion.

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