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Archive for March 13th, 2010

When Dorothy and her friends finally reach Oz, they present themselves to the almighty Wizard, only to eventually discover that he is just an illusion maintained by a charlatan hiding behind a curtain. This seems eerily akin to to the state of Keynesian economics. It does not matter that Keynesianism isn’t working for Obama. It does not matter that it didn’t work for Bush, or for Japan in the 1990s, or for Hoover and Roosevelt in the 1930s. In the ultimate triumph of theory over reality, the Keynesians say all that matters is the macroeconomic model behind the curtain showing that more government spending leads to more jobs and growth. Consider the recent report from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), which claimed that Obama’s stimulus created at least one million jobs. As Brian Riedl of the Heritage Foundation noted:

CBO’s calculations are not based on actually observing the economy’s recent performance. Rather, they used an economic model that was programmed to assume that stimulus spending automatically creates jobs — thus guaranteeing their result. …The problem here is obvious. Once CBO decided to assume that every dollar of government spending increased GDP…, its conclusion that the stimulus saved jobs was pre-ordained.

But surely this can’t be true, you may be thinking. Our public servants in Washington would not make important policy decisions based on a model that automatically produces a certain result, would they? Peter Suderman of Reason pulls aside the curtain:

…those reports rely on assumption-packed models that effectively predetermine their outcomes; what they say, in essence, is that the stimulus worked because we assume it did. …That’s especially true when estimating government spending’s productive effects, which is accomplished by plugging numbers into a formula that assumes that government spending produces a multiplier—an increased return for every government dollar spent. In other words, it extrapolates from how much money is put in rather than from what has actually come out. And it does so using a formula that dictates that if money is put in, even more money will come out. According to the CBO’s estimates, depending on how the money is spent, one dollar of government spending can produce total economic activity of up to $2.50. What a deal! …for all practical purposes, the same multipliers that were used to predict how many jobs would be created are being used to estimate how many jobs have been created.

Interestingly, CBO’s analysis is completely schizophrenic. Its short-run budget numbers are based on free-lunch Keynesianism that assumes deficit-financed government spending boosts growth, while its long-run numbers are driven by an assumption that government borrowing is terrible for growth (which is why CBO actually claims higher taxes boost economic output – see, for example, Figure 3 of this CBO analysis). It is impossible to know whether the people at CBO actually believe their own work, or whether they are simply trying to please their political paymasters by producing results that (conveniently) match up with political preferences for more spending today and higher taxes tomorrow. You can draw your own conclusions, but keep in mind that CBO is now making the absurd claim that a giant new healthcare entitlement will reduce budget deficits.

But I digress. Let’s now give the defense of Keynesian model. The folks at CBO and other Keynesian who publish estimates that inevitably turn out to be wrong (Mark Zandi comes to mind) will claim that they are right because they are predicting results compared to what otherwise would have happened. So when they claim that Obama’s so-called stimulus created jobs, they are really saying that the economy would have lost even more jobs if the government didn’t spend all that money. The problem with this approach is that there is no independent benchmark, but this is not why Keynesianism is wrong. Indeed, most of the economic profession relies on this kind of “counterfactual” analysis. Instead, the problem with Keynesianism is that it fails the empirical test. The Keynesians may be good at constructing models, but that doesn’t mean much if the models don’t match the real world. Here’s what Kevin Hassett of the American Enterprise said in recent congressional testimony:

…most economists learned in graduate school that models like those relied upon most heavily by the CBO provide nonsensical results. The reason the original large scale Keynesian Macro forecasting models were discarded by most of the profession is that they make a simple logical error in assuming that individuals do not change their behavior based on the expectation of future policy. …Professor Barro has been one of the primary contributors to the macroeconomic time series literature that has tried to estimate effects from observed economic data, rather than assume affects, as is done by the Keynesian models. …Barro’s analysis is based on econometric evidence, a reliance on experience. The CBO analysis is based almost exclusively on speculation within the context of Keynesian Macro models that were discredited decisively in the 1970s. …Dating at least back to the seminal work of Nelson (1972), economists have known that the empirical time series approach significantly outperforms macroeconomic models in forecasting competitions. …Ashley (1988) compares data based time series forecasts to those from the large macro forecasters and concludes not only that the time series approach is superior, but that the macro forecasts were so bad that, “most of these forecasts are so inaccurate that simple extrapolation of historical trends is superior for forecasts more than a couple of quarters ahead.” …Finally, one should note that this literature, combined with an earlier public finance literature, raises questions concerning the welfare gain associated with short-term increases in spending. …Browning (1987) finds that the marginal cost ranges widely, between 10% and 300%. Thus, the welfare costs of paying the bill may be greater than the short-term boost to the economy from the most optimistic estimates. This literature would be consistent with Barro’s analysis that suggests the stimulus makes us worse off in the long run.

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An insightful editorial from the Wall Street Journal examines how soak-the-rich taxes in Maryland backfired, leading to less revenue for the government. The politicians would like us to think this is just the effect of the recession, but the article points out that one out of every eight millionaires who filed a tax return in 2007 did not file one in 2008. A few may have died, but the big reason for this shocking reduction is migration. As one study discovered, Maryland’s tax base fell by $1 billion because successful taxpayers escaped to other states:

Illinois Governor Pat Quinn is the latest Democrat to demand a tax increase, this week proposing to raise the state’s top marginal individual income tax rate to 4% from 3%. He’d better hope this works out better than it has for Maryland. …The politicians in Annapolis had said they’d collect $106 million by raising its income tax rate on millionaire households to 6.25% from 4.75%. In cities like Baltimore and Bethesda, which apply add-on income taxes, the top tax rate with the surcharge now reaches as high as 9.3%—fifth highest in the nation. Liberals said this was based on incomplete data and that rich Marylanders hadn’t fled the state. Well, the state comptroller’s office now has the final tax return data for 2008, the first year that the higher tax rates applied. The number of millionaire tax returns fell sharply to 5,529 from 7,898 in 2007, a 30% tumble. The taxes paid by rich filers fell by 22%, and instead of their payments increasing by $106 million, they fell by some $257 million. Yes, a big part of that decline results from the recession that eroded incomes, especially from capital gains. But there is also little doubt that some rich people moved out or filed their taxes in other states with lower burdens. One-in-eight millionaires who filed a Maryland tax return in 2007 filed no return in 2008. Some died, but the others presumably changed their state of residence. (Hint to the class warfare crowd: A lot of rich people have two homes.) A Bank of America Merrill Lynch analysis of federal tax return data on people who migrated from one state to another found that Maryland lost $1 billion of its net tax base in 2008 by residents moving to other states. …Thanks in part to its soak-the-rich theology, Maryland still has a $2 billion deficit… The state’s best hope is that politicians in other states are as self-destructive as those in Annapolis.

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As usual, Sowell is right on the mark. By expanding the size and burden of government, Obama is making it more difficult for the economy to prosper:

President Obama keeps telling us that he is “creating jobs.” But more and more Americans have no jobs. The unemployment rate has declined slightly, but only because many people have stopped looking for jobs. You are only counted as unemployed if you are still looking for a job. If all the unemployed people were to decide that it is hopeless and stop looking for work, the unemployment statistics would drop like a rock. But that would hardly be a solution. What is going on, that nothing seems to work? None of this is new. What is going on is what went on during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Money circulated more slowly during the 1930s than during the 1920s. Banks lent out a smaller proportion of the money they had on hand during the 1930s than they did in the 1920s. Anti-business rhetoric and anti-business policies did not create business confidence then, any more than it does now. Economists have estimated that the New Deal prolonged the depression by several years. This is not another Great Depression, at least not yet, and the economy may recover on its own, if the government will let it. But Obama today, like FDR in the 1930s, cannot leave the economy alone. Both have felt a need to come up with one bright idea after another, to “do something.”

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