Tag: stimulus

$2 trillion: The Infrastructure Answer To What Question?

Media reports suggest President Trump and Democratic leaders have agreed in principle to a $2 trillion infrastructure plan “to upgrade the nation’s highways, railroads, bridges and broadband.”

Minor details such as how to finance it have yet to be agreed. White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney doubts the deal will come to fruition anyway, given differences between the parties on environmental regulations surrounding new projects.

But it’s difficult to think of a worse way to make major policy than to dream up a big round number and then work backwards in deciding how money is spent.

Indeed, if $2 trillion is the answer, then what, exactly, is the economic question?

Is $2 trillion the amount needed to invest in targeted public goods that the market would not or could not provide? Is $2 trillion the amount the politicians think is needed for specific projects to enhance long-term economic growth? Is $2 trillion the amount politicians feel is necessary to repair existing infrastructure? Is $2 trillion what they feel the federal infrastructure contribution needs to be to alleviate negative externalities such as pollution? Or is $2 trillion maybe what they think is necessary to create shovel ready jobs to minimize unemployment?

Judging by the joint post-meeting statement from Speaker Pelosi and Senator Schumer, the Democrats have no coherent answer here. Within their 224-word statement, they outlined no fewer than 9 distinct policy aims or ambitions that any infrastructure package would be trying to meet:

  1. “creating jobs immediately”
  2. “bolstering commerce”
  3. “advancing public health with clean air and clean water”
  4. “improving the safety of our transportation”
  5. “expanding broadband to…underserved areas”
  6. “being for the future”
  7. paying “the prevailing wage”
  8. involving “women, veteran and minority-owned businesses in construction”
  9. addressing needs in “every congressional district”

Whatever the economic case for a major infrastructure program (and for my thoughts on that, read here), it should be obvious that these aims contradict one another.

Lots of projects with high returns take extensive planning and won’t “create jobs immediately.” Investment in safety might come at the expense of other projects that bolster commerce. Paying “the prevailing wage” will likely leave fewer resources to address needs in more districts. Selecting contractors based on the demographics of the owners might trade-off the safety quality of the job. Focusing on safety upgrades for existing infrastructure means fewer resources for “the future.” Addressing needs in every district and expanding rural broadband is almost certainly not the best way to bolster overall commerce. I could go on.

This plethora of aims is grist to the mill for a conclusion I reached back in 2017:

The sad truth is that infrastructure investment through the political process rarely prioritises long-term growth. Other considerations dominate, whether electoral advantage or regeneration of an area – even when market signals point to the need to expand booming regions.

And:

The conflicted role of being both the promoter of a project and being responsible for examining its failures and risks leads politicians to make over-optimistic claims about a scheme’s benefits relevant to costs.

In principle, smart investments in infrastructure can sometimes improve economic welfare. But when huge amounts of federal money is seen as a communal pot for a host of social, environmental, local and “make work” objectives, the chances that such money will be spent wisely looks slim.

Republicans Embrace Bad Economics and Bad Policy

To be blunt, Republicans are heading in the wrong direction on fiscal policy. They have full control of the executive and legislative branches, but instead of using their power to promote Reaganomics, it looks like we’re getting a reincarnation of the big-government Bush years.

As Yogi Berra might have said, “it’s déjà vu all over again.”

Let’s look at the evidence. According to The Hill, the Keynesian virus has infected GOP thinking on tax cuts.

Republicans are debating whether parts of their tax-reform package should be retroactive in order to boost the economy by quickly putting more money in people’s wallets.

That is nonsense. Just as giving people a check and calling it “stimulus” didn’t help the economy under Obama, giving people a check and calling it a tax cut won’t help the economy under Trump.

Tax cuts boost growth when they reduce the marginal tax rate on productive behavior such as work, saving, investment, or entrepreneurship. When that happens, people have an incentive to generate more income. And that leads to more national income, a.k.a., economic growth.

Borrowing money from the economy’s left pocket and then stuffing checks (oops, I mean retroactive tax cuts) in the economy’s right pocket, by contrast, simply reallocates national income.

The War against Cash, Part III

Although it doesn’t get nearly as much attention as it warrants, one of the greatest threats to liberty and prosperity is the potential curtailment and elimination of cash.

As I’ve previously noted, there are two reasons why statists don’t like cash and instead would prefer all of us to use digital money (under their rules, of course, not something outside their control like bitcoin).

First, tax collectors can’t easily monitor all cash transactions, so they want a system that would allow them to track and tax every possible penny of our income and purchases.

Second, Keynesian central planners would like to force us to spend more money by imposing negative interest rates (i.e., taxes) on our savings, but that can’t be done if people can hold cash.

To provide some background, a report in the Wall Street Journal looks at both government incentives to get rid of high-value bills and to abolish currency altogether.

Some economists and bankers are demanding a ban on large denomination bills as one way to fight the organized criminals and terrorists who mainly use these notes. But the desire to ditch big bills is also being fueled from unexpected quarter: central bank’s use of negative interest rates. …if a central bank drives interest rates into negative territory, it’ll struggle to manage with physical cash. When a bank balance starts being eaten away by a sub-zero interest rate, cash starts to look inviting. That’s a particular problem for an economy that issues high-denomination banknotes like the eurozone, because it’s easier for a citizen to withdraw and hoard any money they have got in the bank.

Now let’s take a closer look at what folks on the left are saying to the public. In general, they don’t talk about taxing our savings with government-imposed negative interest rates. Instead, they make it seem like their goal is to fight crime.

The Missing Data in Krugman’s German Austerity Narrative

There’s an ongoing debate about Keynesian economics, stimulus spending, and various versions of fiscal austerity, and regular readers know I do everything possible to explain that you can promote added prosperity by reducing the burden of government spending.

Simply stated, we get more jobs, output, and growth when resources are allocated by competitive markets. But when resources are allocated by political forces, cronyism and pork cause inefficiency and waste.

That’s why statist nations languish and market-oriented countries flourish.

Paul Krugman has a different perspective on these issues, which is hardly a revelation. But I am surprised that he often times doesn’t get the numbers quite right when he delves into specific case studies.

He claimed that spending cuts caused an Estonian economic downturn in 2008, but the government’s budget actually skyrocketed by 18 percent that year.

He complained about a “government pullback” in the United Kingdom even though the data show that government spending was climbing faster than inflation.

He even claimed that Hollande’s election in France was a revolt against austerity, notwithstanding the fact that the burden of government spending rose during the Sarkozy years.

My colleague Alan Reynolds pointed out that Krugman mischaracterized the supposed austerity in the PIIGS nations such as Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and Spain.

We have another example to add to the list.

He now wants us to believe that Germany has been a good Keynesian nation.

Imaginary Squabbles Part 3: Krugman and DeLong’s Changing Theories and Missing Facts

Responding to a student question after a recent Kansas State debate with Brad DeLong I posed a conceptual puzzle.  I asked students to ponder why textbooks treat Treasury sales of government bonds as a “stimulus” to demand (nominal GDP) in the same sense as Federal Reserve purchases of such bonds.  “Those are very different polices,” I noted; “Why should they have the same effect?”  

The remark was intended to encourage students to probe more deeply into what such metaphors as “stimulating” or “jump starting” really mean, not to accept as dogma that fiscal and monetary policy are equally effective or that economists are certain just how they work.

DeLong’s misinterpretation of my question led him to lecture me that, “if you really do think that monetary expansion undoes fiscal expansion because monetary expansion buys bonds and fiscal expansion sells bonds, you need to educate yourself.” Citing that wholly imaginary rewriting of my question, Paul Krugman wrote, “My heart goes out to Brad DeLong, who debated Alan Reynolds and discovered that his opponent really doesn’t understand at all how either fiscal or monetary policy work.”

Did I really say that “monetary expansion undoes fiscal expansion”?  Of course not.  If that had been my question, I would have answered myself by saying that piling more debt on the backs of taxpayers is unlikely to stimulate private spending (much less encourage more or better labor and capital) unless the added debt is “monetized” by the Fed and regulators allow banks to lend more to private borrowers.  DeLong made much the same point by saying, “Expansionary monetary policy makes it a sure thing that expansionary fiscal policy is effective by removing the channels for interest-rate and tax crowding out.” 

The Fed’s current bond-buying spree is bound to have some effect, if only to facilitate cheap corporate buybacks of shares and speculative day trading of such stocks on margin.   But selling more government bonds per se (if the Fed won’t buy more) would be just as much an added burden for taxpayers as it would be a benefit to whoever receives the resulting government transfers, contracts or subsidies. 

This make-believe squabble about monetary expansion undoing fiscal expansion exists only in DeLong’s imagination, like my non-prediction of mammoth inflation or Krugman’s non-facts about Ireland’s fiscal frugality.

Krugtron the Invincible…or Krugman the Inadvertent Opponent of Tax Increases?

President Bush imposed a so-called stimulus plan in 2008 and President Obama imposed an even bigger “stimulus” in 2009. Based upon the economy’s performance over the past five-plus years, those plans didn’t work.

Japan has spent the past 20-plus years imposing one Keynesian scheme after another, and the net effect is economic stagnation and record debt.

Going back further in time, Presidents Hoover and Roosevelt dramatically increased the burden of government spending, mostly financed with borrowing, and a recession became a Great Depression.

That’s not exactly a successful track record, but Paul Krugman thinks the evidence is on his side and that it’s time to declare victory for Keynesian economics.

Those of us who have spent years arguing against premature fiscal austerity have just had a good two weeks. Academic studies that supposedly justified austerity have lost credibility; hard-liners in the European Commission and elsewhere have softened their rhetoric. The tone of the conversation has definitely changed.

But Krugman doesn’t just want to declare victory. He also spikes the football and does a dance in the end zone.

I’m always right while the people who disagree with me are always wrong. And not just wrong, they’re often knaves or fools. …look at the results: again and again, people on the opposite side prove to have used bad logic, bad data, the wrong historical analogies, or all of the above. I’m Krugtron the Invincible!

So why does Krugman feel so confident about his position, notwithstanding the evidence? Veronique de Rugy has a concise and fair assessment of the Keynesian rationale. Simply stated, no matter how bad the results, the Keynesians think the economy would have been in even worse shape in the absence of supposed stimulus.

Margaret Thatcher and the Battle of the 364 Keynesians

With the death of Margaret Thatcher, and the ensuing profusion of commentary on her legacy, it is worth looking back at an overlooked chapter in the Thatcher story. I am referring to her 1981 showdown with the Keynesian establishment—a showdown that the Iron Lady won handily. Before getting caught up with the phony “austerity vs. fiscal stimulus” debate, the chattering classes should take note of how Mrs. Thatcher debunked the Keynesian “fiscal factoid.”

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a factoid is “an item of unreliable information that is reported and repeated so often that it becomes accepted as fact.” The standard Keynesian fiscal policy prescription for the maintenance of non-inflationary full employment is a fiscal factoid. The chattering classes can repeat this factoid on cue: to stimulate the economy, expand the government’s deficit (or shrink its surplus); and to rein in an overheated economy, shrink the government’s deficit (or expand its surplus).

Even the economic oracles embrace the fiscal factoid. That, of course, is one reason that the Keynesians’ fiscal mantra has become a factoid. No less than Nobelist Paul Krugman repeats it ad nauseam. Now, the new secretary of the treasury, Jack Lew (who claims no economic expertise), is in Europe peddling the fiscal factoid.

Unfortunately, the grim reaper finally caught up with Margaret Thatcher—but not before she laid waste to 364 wrong-headed British Keynesians.

In 1981, Prime Minister Thatcher made a dash for confidence and growth via a fiscal squeeze. To restart the economy, Mrs. Thatcher instituted a fierce attack on the British fiscal deficit, coupled with an expansionary monetary policy. Her moves were immediately condemned by 364 distinguished economists. In a letter to The Times, they wrote a knee-jerk Keynesian response: “Present policies will deepen the depression, erode the industrial base of our economy and threaten its social and political stability.”

Mrs. Thatcher was quickly vindicated. No sooner had the 364 affixed their signatures to that letter than the economy boomed. Confidence in the British economy was restored, and Mrs. Thatcher was able to introduce a long series of deep, free-market reforms.

As for the 364 economists (who included seventy-six present or past professors, a majority of the Chief Economic Advisors to the Government in the post-WWII period, and the president, as well as nine present or past vice-presidents, and the secretary general of the Royal Economic Society), they were not only wrong, but also came to look ridiculous.

In the United States, the peddlers of the fiscal factoid have never suffered the intellectual humiliation of their British counterparts. In consequence, American Keynesians can continue to peddle snake oil with reckless abandon and continue to influence policy in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere.

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