March 27, 2012 3:40PM

The ‘Dodd Rule’ on Nominations

Obama's recent nomination of Jeremy Stein and Jerome Powell to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System raises an important question: How should the Senate treat nominations whose terms are likely to run beyond the term of the current president? If confirmed, Stein could serve until 2018 and Powell until 2014. Of course this pales in comparison to current governor Janet Yellen, whose term runs until 2024.  With or without Stein and Powell, Obama nominations will have control of the Federal Reserve for years to come.

The long terms of Federal Reserve governors are meant to insulate them from political pressure. But that's after they've been confirmed.  This structure tells us little about how to handle such appointments during their nomination phase.

In the absence of strong policy or theoretical rationales, we often look to precedent. In this case we have at least one. In December of 2007, almost a year before the November 2008 election, then Senate Banking Committee chair Chris Dodd (D-CT) said, in relation to the nomination of Randall Kroszner to the Federal Reserve, "We're frankly getting down to less than a year away from the election. On nominations of that length, I'm fairly reluctant." Senator Dodd acted (or rather failed to act) on that reluctance, and blocked the nomination of Professor Kroszner.  His nomination was not an exception, as the nominations of Larry Klane to the Federal Reserve and a couple of nominations to the Securities Investor Protection Corporation were also blocked, for apparently this same reason. Dodd also delayed nominations to the President's Council of Economic Advisers, although those positions would have ended with the term of President Bush. Also worth noting is that these important economic policy positions were being blocked in the middle of a recession and financial crisis, when one would think you need "all hands on deck."

Is this "Dodd rule" the correct position? It's hard to know. I can say I didn't think it was appropriate at the time. And I am usually not one to believe that "two wrongs make a right." The correct solution, in my view, would be to have the Senate decide upon the appropriate length of time before a presidential election that it will no longer consider nominations that run beyond the president's term and incorporate that decision into the Senate rules.  Until then operating under the "Dodd Rule" strikes me as fair enough.

August 29, 2011 10:00AM

Obama Supports VAT Sympathizer for Top Job at Council of Economic Advisers

The White House has announced that it is nominating Alan Krueger, a professor at Princeton, to be the new Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers.

In a Freudian copy-editing slip, the Fox News story (at least as of 8:44 a.m.) says "Krueger's job will be to provide policy prescriptions on ways to spur unemployment."

That's obviously tailor-made for a joke about the Obama Administration not needing any help when it comes to stimulating joblessness.

On a more serious note, though, I'm worried about Krueger's sympathy for a value-added tax (VAT). Here's what he wrote back in 2009.

...a 5 percent consumption tax would raise approximately $500 billion a year, and fill a considerable hole in the budget outlook. In addition, a consumption tax would encourage more saving in the long run. Many economists consider a consumption tax an efficient way of raising tax revenue, especially in a global economy. The prospect of greater revenue flowing into federal coffers would probably help lower long-term interest rates because the government would need to borrow less down the road, and further bolster the economy.

To be fair, Krueger was very careful to leave himself some wiggle room, even going so far as to write that, "I’m not sure it is the best way to go."

But it seems rather obvious that Krueger, like other leftists, wants this giant new source of revenue. Heck, President Obama also has semi-endorsed a VAT, saying it is "something that has worked for other countries."

The President's assertion is especially foolish. After all, European nations imposed VATs about 40 years ago, which simply encouraged more spending and more debt -- and now several nations are on the verge of bankruptcy.

If that's "something that has worked," I'd hate to see the President's idea of failure.

The real lesson is that the United States should not copy Europe's mistakes. This short video has the key arguments against this European-style national sales tax.

P.S. For a humorous perspective on the VAT, take a look at these clever cartoons (here, here, and here).

February 23, 2010 2:05PM

Unions, Productivity, and the 2010 Economic Report of the President

I’ve become a fan over the years of the annual Economic Report of the President, released around this time each year by the Council of Economic Advisers. The more than 100 tables in the back of the book provide an invaluable picture of the economy over many decades, covering all the major indicators from output and employment to interest rates and trade. Each report also contains chapters explaining the economic thinking behind administration policies.

Chapter 10 of the latest report focuses on “Fostering Productivity Growth through Innovation and Trade.” For critics of trade, it offers sound economic reasons why trade raises U.S. productivity and, thus, over the long run, U.S. living standards.

One of ways trade promotes growth is “Firm Productivity.” Economists have come to appreciate that firms within an industry will differ in their productivity. Those that are more productive will tend to grow and prosper in larger and more competitive global markets. As a result,

when a country opens to trade, more productive firms grow relative to less productive firms, thus shifting labor and other resources to the better organized firms and increasing overall productivity. Even if workers do not switch industries, they move from firms that are either poorly managed or that use less advanced technology and production processes toward the more productive firms.

The report doesn’t mention this, but one reason why firms differ in their productivity is unionization. As I spell out in an “Economic Watch” column in today’s Washington Times, and explore in more detail in the latest Cato Journal, unionized firms tend to lose market share to non-unionized firms:

The weight of evidence indicates that, for most firms in most sectors, unionization leaves companies less able to compete successfully. The core problem is that unions cause compensation to rise faster than productivity, eroding profits while at the same time reducing the ability of firms to remain price-competitive. The result over time is that unionized firms have tended to lose market share to non-unionized firms, in domestic as well as international markets.

Compared to equivalent non-unionized competitors, unionized firms are associated with lower profits, less investment in physical capital, and less spending on research and development. By exposing an industry (say, automobiles) to more vigorous international competition, trade accelerates the shift from less competitive unionized firms to more competitive non-unionized firms.

Economists serving a Democratic administration would be understandably reluctant to say such a thing explicitly, but it is certainly there between the lines in Chapter 10 of the new Economic Report of the President.