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Archive for the ‘Bush’ Category

Two years ago, there was a flurry of excitement because some guy named Rex Nutting crunched annual budget numbers and concluded that Barack Obama was the most fiscally conservative President since at least 1980.

I looked at the data and found a few mistakes, such as a failure to adjust the numbers for inflation, but Nutting’s overall premise was reasonably accurate.

As you can see from the tables I prepared back in 2012, Obama was the third most frugal President based on the growth of total inflation-adjusted spending.

And he was in first place if you looked at primary spending, which is total spending after removing net interest payments (a reasonable step since Presidents can’t really be blamed for interest payments on the debt accrued by their predecessors).

So does this mean Obama is a closet conservative, as my old – but misguided – buddy Bruce Bartlett asserted?

Not exactly. A few days after that post, I did some more calculations and explained that Obama was the undeserved beneficiary of the quirky way that bailouts and related items are measured in the budget.

It turns out that Obama supposed frugality is largely the result of how TARP is measured in the federal budget. To put it simply, TARP pushed spending up in Bush’s final fiscal year (FY2009, which began October 1, 2008) and then repayments from the banks (which count as “negative spending”) artificially reduced spending in subsequent years.

So I removed TARP, deposit insurance, and other bailout-related items, on the assumption that such one-time costs distort the real record of various Administrations.

And that left me with a new set of numbers, based on primary spending minus bailouts. And on this basis, Obama’s record is not exactly praiseworthy.

Instead of being the most frugal President, he suddenly dropped way down in the rankings, beating only Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Which explains why I accused him in 2012 of being a big spender – just like his predecessor.

But the analysis I did two years ago was based on Obama’s record for his first three fiscal years.

So I updated the numbers last year and looked at Obama’s record over his first four years. And it turns out that Obama did much better if you look at the average annual growth of primary spending minus bailouts. Instead of being near the bottom, he was in the middle of the pack.

Did this mean Obama moved to the right?

That’s a judgement call. For what it’s worth, I suspect that Obama’s ideology didn’t change and the better numbers were the result of the Tea Party and sequestration.

But I don’t care who gets credit. I’m just happy that spending didn’t grow as fast.

2014 Spending TotalI’m giving all this background because I’ve finally cranked the most-recent numbers.  And if we look at overall average spending growth for Obama’s first five years and compare that number to average spending growth for other Presidents, he is the most frugal. Adjusted for inflation, the budget hasn’t grown at all. That’s a very admirable outcome.

But what about primary spending? By that measure, we have even better results. 2014 Spending PrimaryThere’s actually been a slight downward trend in the fiscal burden of government during the Obama years.

This doesn’t necessarily mean, to be sure, that Obama deserves credit. Maybe the recent spending restraint in Washington is because of what’s happened in Congress.

I’ve repeatedly argued, for instance, that sequestration was a great victory over the special interests. And Obama vociferously opposed those automatic budget cuts, even to the point of making himself a laughingstock.

But don’t forget that TARP-type expenses can mask important underlying trends. So now let’s look at the numbers that I think are most illuminating. 2014 Spending Primary Minus BailoutsHere’s the data for average inflation-adjusted growth of primary spending minus bailouts.

As you can see, Obama no longer is in first place. But he’s jumped to third place in this category, which is an improvement over prior years and puts him ahead of every Republican other than Reagan. Given that all those other GOPers were statists, that’s not saying much, but it does highlight that party labels don’t necessarily mean much.

My Republican friends are probably getting irritated, so I’ll share one last set of numbers that may make them happy.

I cranked the numbers for average spending growth, but subtracted interest payments, bailouts, and defense outlays. What’s left is domestic spending, and here are the rankings based on those numbers.

2014 Spending Primary - Defense - Bailouts

Reagan easily did the best job of restraining overall domestic discretionary and entitlement outlays. Bill Clinton came in second place, showing that Democrats can preside over reasonably good results. And Richard Nixon came in last place, showing that Republicans can preside over horrible numbers.

Obama, meanwhile, winds up in the middle of the pack. Which is probably very disappointing for the President since he wanted to be a transformational figure who pushed the nation to the left, in the same way that Reagan was a transformational figure who pushed the nation to the right.

Instead, Obama’s only two legacies may turn out to be a failed healthcare plan and a tongue-in-cheek award for being a great recruiter for the cause of libertarianism.

P.S. Historical numbers sometimes change slightly because the government’s data folks massage and re-measure both inflation and spending. Though I confess I’m not sure why the 2013 calculation for Nixon’s primary spending minus bailouts is somewhat different from the 2012 and 2014 numbers. Perhaps I screwed up when copying some of the numbers, which has been known to happen. But since Nixon’s performance isn’t the focus of this post, I’m not going to lose any sleep about the discrepancy.

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The establishment fervently believes that more money should come to Washington so that politicians have greater ability to buy votes.

That’s why statists from both parties are so viscerally hostile to Grover Norquist’s no-tax-hike pledge. They view it as an obstacle to bigger government.

And it also explains why politicians who raise taxes are showered with praise, especially when they are Republicans who break their promises and betray taxpayers.

Which is why President George H.W. Bush was just awarded a “profiles in courage” award for raising taxes and breaking his read-my-lips promise by the crowd at Harvard’s Kennedy School.

Here’s some of what was reported by the Dallas News.

Former President George H.W. Bush was honored Sunday with a Kennedy “courage” award for agreeing to raise taxes to confront a spiraling deficit, jeopardizing his presidency that ended after just one term. …The budget deal enacted “responsible and desperately needed reforms” at the expense of Bush’s popularity and his chances for re-election, Schlossberg said. “America’s gain was President Bush’s loss, and his decision to put country above party and political prospects makes him an example of a modern profile in courage that is all too rare,” he said.

I’m not surprised, by the way, that Mr. Schlossberg praised Bush for selling out taxpayers.

But I am disappointed that the Dallas News reporter demonstrated either incompetency or bias by saying that Bush raised taxes to “confront a spiraling deficit.”

If you look at the Congressional Budget Office forecast from early 1990, you’ll see that deficits were on a downward path.

CBO 1990 Deficit Forecast

In other words, Bush had the good fortune of inheriting a reasonably strong fiscal situation from President Reagan.

Spending was growing slower than the private economy, thanks in part to the Gramm-Rudman law that indirectly limited the growth of spending.

So Bush 41 simply had to maintain Reagan’s policies to achieve success.

But instead he raised taxes. That got him an award from the Kennedy School this year…and it resulted in bigger government in the early 1990s.

Writing for National Review, Deroy Murdock is justly irked that President George H.W. Bush was given an award for doing the wrong thing.

…former president George Herbert Walker Bush received the Profile in Courage Award from the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation. What intrepid achievement merited this emolument? Believe it or not, breaking his word to the American people and hiking taxes by $137 billion in 1990.  …Bush’s tax hike was a political betrayal for Republicans and other voters who believed him when he pledged to the 1988 GOP National Convention: “Read my lips: No new taxes.” …Bush violated his promise and hiked the top tax rate from 28 percent to 31. Bush also imposed a luxury tax on yachts and other items. This led to a plunge in domestic boat sales and huge job losses among carpenters, painters, and others in the yacht-manufacturing industry.

The worst result, though, was that the tax hike enabled and facilitated more government spending.

Here are the numbers I calculated a couple of years ago. If you look at total spending (other than net interest and bailouts), you see that Bush 41 allowed inflation-adjusted spending to grow more than twice as fast as it did under Reagan.

And if you remove defense spending from the equation, you see that Bush 41’s bad record was largely the result of huge and counterproductive increases in domestic spending.

With such a bad performance, you won’t be surprised to learn that market-oriented fiscal experts do not remember the Bush years fondly.

Deroy cites some examples, including a quote from yours truly.

“Bush’s tax hike repealed the real spending restraint of Gramm-Rudman and imposed a big tax hike that facilitated a larger burden of government spending,” says Cato Institute scholar Dan Mitchell. “No wonder the statists . . . are applauding.” …“Of course the Left wants to celebrate Bush’s broken tax promise,” Moore says. ”It is what cost Republicans the White House and elected Bill Clinton…” says Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform. “This is an award for stupidly throwing away the presidency to the Democrats…” Norquist further laments: “You never see a Democrat get a ‘courage’ award for saying ‘No’ to the spending-interest lobby.”

The moral of the story is that Washington tax-hike deals are always a mechanism for bigger government.

And President George H.W. Bush should be remembered for being a President who made Washington happy by making America less prosperous. As I wrote last year, “He increased spending, raised tax rates, and imposed costly new regulations.”

Hmmm…an establishment Republican President who increased the burden of government. If that sounds familiar, just remember the old saying, “Like father, like son.”

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I got involved in a bit of a controversy last year about presidential profligacy.

Some guy named Rex Nutting put together some data on government spending and claimed that Barack Obama was the most frugal President in recent history.

I pointed out that Mr. Nutting’s data left something to be desired because he didn’t adjust the numbers for inflation.

Moreover, most analysts also would remove interest spending from the calculations since Presidents presumably shouldn’t be held responsible for servicing the debt incurred by their predecessors.

But even when you make these adjustments and measure inflation-adjusted “primary spending,” it turns out that Nutting’s main assertion was correct. Obama is the most frugal President in modern times.

When you look at the adjusted numbers, though, Reagan does a lot better, ranking a close second to Obama.

I also included Carter, Nixon, and LBJ in my calculations, though it’s worth noting that none of them got a good score. Indeed, President Johnson even scored below President George W. Bush.

Some of you may be thinking that I made a mistake. What about the pork-filled stimulus? And all the new spending in Obamacare?

Most of the Obamacare spending doesn’t begin until 2014, so that wasn’t a big factor. And I did include the faux stimulus. Indeed, I even adjusted the FY2009 and FY2010 numbers so that all of stimulus spending that took place in Bush’s last fiscal year was credited to Obama.

So does this mean Obama is a closet conservative, as my misguided buddy Bruce Bartlett has asserted?

Not exactly. Five days after my first post, I did some more calculations and explained that Obama was the undeserved beneficiary of the quirky way that bailouts and related items are measured in the budget.

It turns out that Obama supposed frugality is largely the result of how TARP is measured in the federal budget. To put it simply, TARP pushed spending up in Bush’s final fiscal year (FY2009, which began October 1, 2008) and then repayments from the banks (which count as “negative spending”) artificially reduced spending in subsequent years.

And when I removed TARP and other bailouts from the equation, Obama plummeted in the rankings. Instead of first place, he was second-to-last, beating only LBJ.

But this isn’t the end of the story. My analysis last year only looked at the first three years of Obama’s tenure.

We now have the numbers for his fourth year. And if you crank through the numbers (all methodology available upon request), you find that Obama’s numbers improve substantially.

Pres Spending 2013 - PrimaryAs the table illustrates, inflation-adjusted non-interest spending has grown by only 0.2 percent per year. Those are remarkably good numbers, due in large part to the fact that government spending actually fell in nominal terms last year and is expected to shrink again this year.

We haven’t seen two consecutive years of lower spending since the end of the Korean War!

Republicans can argue, of course, that the Tea Party deserves credit for recent fiscal progress, much as they can claim that Clinton’s relatively good numbers were the result of the GOP sweep in the 1994 elections.

I’ll leave that debate to partisans because I now want to do what I did last year and adjust the numbers for TARP and other bailouts.

In other words, how does Obama rank if you adjust for the transitory distorting impact  of what happened during the financial crisis?

Well, as you can see from this final table, Obama’s 2013 numbers are much better than his 2012 numbers. Pres Spending 2013 - Primary Minus BailoutsInstead of being in second-to-last place, he’s now in the middle of the pack.

I used a slightly different methodology this year to measure the impact of TARP and related items, so all of the numbers have changed a bit, but Reagan is still the champ and everyone else is the same order other than Obama.

So what does all this mean?

As I constantly remind people, good fiscal policy occurs when the burden of government spending is falling as a share of economic output.

And this happens when policy makers follow my Golden Rule and restrain spending so that it grows slower than the private economy.

That’s actually been happening for the past couple of years. Even after you adjust for the quirks of how TARP repayments get measured.

I’m normally a pessimist, but if advocates of small government can maintain the pressure and get some concessions during the upcoming fights over  spending levels for the new fiscal year and/or the debt limit, we may even see progress next year and the year after that.

And if we eventually get a new crop of policymakers who are willing to enact genuine entitlement reform, the United States may avoid the future Greek-style fiscal crisis that is predicted by the BIS, OECD, and IMF.

That would almost be as good as a national championship for the Georgia Bulldogs!

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Even though I’m a staunch libertarian, I’m not under any illusion that everyone is open to our ideas. Particularly since, as I wrote a couple of weeks ago, we get falsely stereotyped as being heartless, hedonistic, anti-social, and naively isolationist.

That’s why I’m willing to accept incremental reforms. Compared to my libertarian dream world, for instance, the entitlement reforms in the Ryan budget are very modest. But they may be the most we can achieve in the short run, so I don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good.

But I do make the bad the enemy of the good. Politicians who expand the size and scope of government get on my wrong side, regardless of whether they are Republicans or Democrats.

Which explains why I haven’t approved of any Republican presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan.

With this in mind, you can imagine my shock when I read Robert Patterson’s recent column that blames recent GOP presidential woes on…you guessed it, “far-right libertarians.”

…in the political big leagues, …the GOP strikes out with the popular vote in five of the past six presidential elections… That familiar lineup shares one big liability: libertarian economics, which has been undermining the Republican brand… That message represents the heart and soul of a party that started sleeping with far-right libertarians in 1990. …In the libertarian universe, “economic freedom” trumps everything: civilization, nation, statecraft, patriotism, industry, culture and family. This “economic freedom,” however, diverges greatly from the liberty that transformed the United States into an industrial, financial and military colossus.

What the [expletive deleted]!

Let’s go down the list of  recent GOP presidential candidates and assess whether they were captured by “far-right libertarians” and their dangerous philosophy of “economic freedom.”

  • George H.W. Bush – He increased spending, raised tax rates, and imposed costly new regulations. If that’s libertarian, I’d hate to see how Patterson defines statism.
  • Do you see any libertarians? Me neither.

    Robert Dole – All you need to know is that he described his three proudest accomplishments as the creation of the food stamp program, the imposition of the costly Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Social Security bailout. I don’t see anything on that list that’s remotely libertarian.

  • George W. Bush – I’ve written several times about Bush’s depressing record of statism. Yes, we got some lower tax rates, but that policy was easily offset by new spending, new intervention, new regulation, and bailouts. No wonder economic freedom declined significantly during his tenure. Not exactly a libertarian track record.
  • No libertarians here, either

    John McCain – His track record on spending is somewhat admirable, but he was far from libertarian on key issues such as tax rates, global warming, bailouts, and healthcare.

  • Mitt Romney – He was sympathetic to a VAT. He criticized personal retirement accounts. He supported corrupt ethanol subsidies. And he said nice things about the TARP bailout. And I don’t need to remind anybody about Obamacare’s evil twin. Is that a libertarian agenda?

I also disagree with several of the policies that Patterson advocates, such as protectionism and industrial subsidies.

But that’s not the purpose of this post. Libertarians already face an uphill battle. The last thing we need is to be linked to a bunch of big-government Republicans when we share almost nothing in common on economic policy.

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I almost feel sorry for the Obama Administration’s spin doctors. Every month, they probably wait for the unemployment numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics with the same level of excitement that people on death row wait for their execution date.

This has been going on for a while and today’s new data is another good example.

As this chart indicates, the White House promised that the unemployment rate today would be almost down to 5 percent if we enacted the so-called stimulus back in 2009. Instead, the new numbers show that the jobless rate is 7.9 – almost 3.0 percentage points higher.

Obama Unemployment

I enjoy using this chart to indict Obamanomics, in part because it’s a two-fer. I get to criticize the Administration’s overall record, and I simultaneously get to take a jab at Keynesian spending schemes.

What’s not to love?

That being said, I don’t think the above chart is completely persuasive. The White House argues, with some justification, that this data simply shows that they underestimated the initial severity of the recession. There’s some truth to that, and I’ll be the first to admit that it wouldn’t be fair to blame Obama for a bleak trendline that existed when he took office (but I will blame him for continuing Bush’s policies of excessive spending and costly intervention).

That’s why I think the data from the Minneapolis Federal Reserve is more damning. It looks at all the recessions and recoveries in the post-World War II era, and presumably provides a more neutral benchmark.

As you can see from this chart of job creation during all post-World War II recoveries, there’s one period that stands out for having the worst performance. Take a wild guess which line includes the Obama years.

Feb 2013 Minn Fed Employment Recession Data

An Obama defender will argue that this chart is unfair because the recession began during the Bush years.

Since there’s no significant difference between Bush’s policies and Obama’s policies, I don’t think that’s a strong defense, but let’s bend over backwards and instead look at job creation during recovery periods.

Feb 2013 Minn Fed Employment Recovery Data

These numbers are a bit more favorable (or less damning) to Obama, but you can see that job creation for this recovery has been far below the average. Indeed, it only surpasses Bush’s job numbers coming out of the 2001 recession.

But I’m not surprised that the job numbers for Bush and Obama are both dismal. As stated above, they both pursued a statist agenda (though a Bush defender doubtlessly will point out that unemployment didn’t drop that much in 2001, so it would have been impossible to have a strong post-recession bounce).

The real lesson to be learned is that we live in an era of higher taxes on productive activity, a heavier burden of government spending, and more costly government regulation and intervention. And since we’re now more like Europe, the “new normal” is to have weak European-style economic numbers.

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People in the political world say that President Obama threw Secretary of State Clinton under the bus in an attempt to protect himself from political fallout from Libya.

I don’t follow those issues, so I can’t comment about the veracity of that charge, but I find it very interesting that some conservatives are urging Mitt Romney to throw former President George W. Bush under the bus.

More specifically, they’re urging him to condemn Bush’s statism and to attack Obama for continuing Bush’s failed policies.

Since I’ve attacked Bush for expanding the burden of government spending and reducing economic freedom, this resonates with me.

Phil Kerpen of American Commitment nails the issue in a column for Fox News.

Romney’s biggest missed opportunity in the second debate wasn’t on Libya…he should have connected the dots between Obama and Bush to illustrate the accurate point that on the most significant dimensions of economic policy, Obama has accelerated Bush’s policy errors rather than reversing them. In the crucible of the 2008 financial crisis, President Bush famously remarked that “I chucked aside my free-market principles .” He was referring to TARP, his infamous big bank bailout. Obama supported the bill and voted for it. …On government spending, it’s the same story. Bush racked up one of the most disastrous records of out-of-control spending and debt the country had ever seen. Every aspect of the federal budget jumped under Bush. …Obama came in and continued spending recklessly. Bush’s $152 billion stimulus bill failed and so did Obama’s $821 billion stimulus bill. Bush flushed $25 billion in bailout funds to Chrysler and General Motors, and Obama added another $20 billion before finally recognizing that the companies would inevitably file for bankruptcy. All of the pre-bankruptcy bailout dollars were lost. …On the biggest economic policy questions, the Bush/Geithner/Bernanke approach is almost indistinguishable from the Obama/Geithner/Bernanke approach. It hasn’t worked. Obama’s failed policies of the present are all too similar to Bush’s failed policies of the past.

Amen. Bush was a statist, period.

Peter Wallison of the American Enterprise Institute made similar points in an article for the Weekly Standard.

Obama’s claim that Bush’s policies caused the recession resonates with American voters. Almost four years after George W. Bush left office, polls show the American people continue to blame him—more than Obama—for the recession that created today’s dismal economic conditions. Throughout the fall and in their debates, it’s a sure thing that Obama will continue to argue that Romney is just another George W. Bush. How can Romney respond? …Romney should not deny Bush’s error. Although Clinton began the process of forcing low mortgage underwriting standards, Bush continued and enhanced it. Instead, Romney should point out that the government should never have been in the housing finance business, and that he will eliminate Fannie and Freddie to restore a functioning housing market—something Obama has failed to do in almost four years.

But here’s where I disagree with Kerpen and Wallison, or at least where I would add a big caveat to their analysis. What makes them think that Romney would be any different that Bush or Obama?

This post highlights a few of Romney’s policies that would undermine free markets and expand the public sector.

If all one cares about is whether politicians have an “R” or a “D” after their names, then my concerns don’t matter.

But if you’re actually interested in making America a better place, then policy matters a lot.

I’ll close with a final point. I have no idea whether Romney is a closet statist or a closet Reaganite. All I’m saying is that, if Romney wins, people who value limited government and freedom should begin working on November 7 to take whatever steps are necessary to prevent Romney from becoming another RINO such as Bush or Nixon.

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Statism is a bad idea, regardless of which political party is promoting bigger government. And it’s a really bad idea when people who should know better decide to increase the burden of government spending.

Consider, for example, the supposedly pro-marriage programs adopted last decade by Republicans. It turns out that millions of dollars were wasted and there was no positive impact on relationships.

Here are some excerpts from a story in Mother Jones.

With congressional Republicans beating the drum about profligate and wasteful government spending, they may want to take a hard look at a federal program pushed by a host of top GOPers during the Bush-era… Originally championed by Republican lawmakers including Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, and current Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, a federal initiative to promote marriage as a cure for poverty dumped hundreds of millions of dollars into programs that either had no impact or a negative effect on the relationships of the couples who took part, according to recent research by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). …Starting in 2006, millions of dollars were hastily distributed to grantees… The money went to such enterprises as “Laugh Your Way America,” a program run by a non-Spanish speaking Wisconsin minister who used federal dollars to offer “Laugh Your Way to a Better Marriage” seminars to Latinos. It funded Rabbi Stephen Baars, a British rabbi who’d been giving his trademarked “Bliss” marriage seminars to upper-middle-class Jews in Montgomery County, Maryland, for years. …when the federal government started dumping million of poverty dollars into marriage education, there was virtually no research on how such programs would fare with poor, inner-city single moms. Now, though, the data is in, and it doesn’t look good for proponents of taxpayer funded marriage education. This month, HHS released the results of several years of research about the performance of the marriage programs, and it indicates that the Bush-era effort to encourage Americans (straight ones, at least) to walk down the aisle has been a serious flop. …Take the Building Healthy Families program…, couples in the eight pilot programs around the country actually broke up more frequently than those in a control group who didn’t get the relationship program. The program also prompted a drop in the involvement of fathers and the percentage who provided financial support.

Isn’t that wonderful? Taxpayers are financing programs that undermine marriage. Not that we should be surprised by that results. The federal government declared a “War on Poverty” and wound up increasing dependency and destitution.

And even when researchers found results that vaguely could be interpreted in a positive fashion, the cost was absurd.

…married couples who participated in a government-funded relationship class reported being somewhat happier and having slightly warmer relationships with their partners. But the cost of this slight bump in happiness in the Supporting Healthy Marriage program was a whopping $7,000 to $11,500 per couple. Imagine how much happier the couples would have been if they’d just been handed with cash.

One would hope that this evidence of government failure would motivate GOPers to eliminate this example of waste. But I wouldn’t recommend holding your breath until that happens.

Given the underwhelming track record of the federal marriage program, it would seem a ripe target for GOP budget hawks, especially given that many of the original proponents of the program are no longer in Congress to defend it. Instead, in November 2010, Congress allocated another $150 million for healthy marriage and fatherhood related programs, with another $150 million budgeted for 2013. And this fall HHS doled out $120 million worth of grants.

What really irks me is that a former Bush Administration official defends the marriage handouts because we waste even more money on a Head Start program that doesn’t produce good results.

Ron Haskins, a marriage program supporter who is a former adviser to Bush on welfare issues and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, thinks Obama did the right thing. He points out that research on poverty programs beloved by liberals, such as Head Start, doesn’t look so good either, but that doesn’t mean the government should simply get rid of it. “When there’s tremendous pressure on the budget, there is a reason for reducing the spending,” he says. “The exception is, if it’s a new program you ought to try to figure out if you can improve it.” Haskins notes that in the grand scheme of the federal budget, the marriage program is but a blip. “We don’t spend a lot of money on these programs. [We spend] $7 billion on Head Start, but not even a $100 million on these [marriage] programs.”

I realize this is heresy in Washington, but what would be wrong with saying, “Neither marriage programs nor Head Start generate positive results, so let’s get rid of both and save $7.1 billion.”

No wonder we’re likely going to be another Greece in just a few decades.

P.S. I shouldn’t have to write this (especially since I’ve already explained my socially conservative inclinations), but allow me to deflect foolish attacks by saying that being against federal programs to subsidize marriage doesn’t make me anti-marriage. I like softball, apple pie, chocolate milk shakes, and the Georgia Bulldogs football team, but I don’t want the federal government subsidies for any of those things either. Indeed, I fear subsidies and handouts will have a negative impact.

P.P.S. The conservatives who support these programs are making the mistake of legislating based on good intentions. They correctly understand that stable marriages are a good thing (as Walter Williams has explained, an intact family is a sure-fire way of avoiding poverty if accompanied by a high school education, any sort of job, and obeying the law), but they erroneously jump to the conclusion that a good thing can be made better with money from the federal government.

P.P.P.S. Conservatives who want stronger marriages and healthier families should concentrate on ending the pernicious welfare handouts that, for all intents and purposes, replace fathers with government programs. I won’t pretend that’s a full solution because it’s not easy to put toothpaste back in a tube, but it can’t hurt given the strong correlation between the growth of the welfare state and the decline in stable low-income families.

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A couple of weeks ago, I debunked the myth that Obama is a fiscal conservative by showing how TARP masks his real record.

I then followed up that post by showing that Obama is a traditional leftist who spends on social welfare programs, but also did a final post showing that Bush was similarly profligate.

Now we have some additional research confirming these points. Art Laffer and Steve Moore investigate Obama’s claim in today’s Wall Street Journal.

They start with an acknowledgement that the burden of spending declined during the Clinton years.

Here’s the picture. In the chart nearby we’ve plotted federal government spending on a National Income and Product Accounts (NIPA) basis as a share of total U.S. GDP from 1990 to the present. …The stories the chart tells are amazing. …The first is how much government spending fell during President Bill Clinton’s eight years in office and how low it was when he left office. When he became president in 1992, government spending was 23.5% of GDP, and when he left in 2001 it was 19.5% of GDP. President Clinton, in conjunction with a solid Republican Congress, cut government spending by more than any other president in modern times, and oversaw one of the greatest periods of economic growth and prosperity in U.S. history.

Since I’ve done a video highlighting the good fiscal record of both Reagan and Clinton, this is music to my ears.

Unfortunately, policy moved in the wrong direction once Bush got to the White House – and Laffer and Moore specifically highlight the negative impact of Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid.

 …the biggest surge in government spending came during the last two years of President George W. Bush’s eight years in office (2007-2008). A weakened Republican president dealing with a strident Democratic Congress, led by then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, resulted in an orgy of spending. Mr. Bush and Republicans in Congress capitulated to and even promoted each and every government bailout and populist redistribution canard put before them. It’s a long list, starting with the 2003 trillion-dollar Medicare prescription drug benefit and culminating with the actions taken to stem the 2008 financial meltdown—the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program, the bailout of insurance giant AIG and government-sponsored lenders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the ill-advised 2008 $600-per-person tax rebate, the stimulus add-ons to 2007’s housing and farm bills, etc.

Needless to say, Obama decided to double down on Bush’s failed policies.

After taking office in 2009, with spending and debt already at record high levels and the deficit headed to $1 trillion, President Obama proceeded to pass his own $830 billion stimulus, auto bailouts, mortgage relief plans, the Dodd-Frank financial reforms and the $1.7 trillion ObamaCare entitlement (which isn’t even accounted for in the chart).

Adding injury to injury, the so-called stimulus didn’t work. And the authors are right about the looming fiscal nightmare of Obamacare.

It’s also worth noting that Keynesian spending didn’t work for Hoover and Roosevelt back in the 1930s, and Laffer and Moore also explain how those two supporters of statism exacerbated the damage with class-warfare tax policy.

Like President Obama, President Hoover proposed massive tax increases. Unlike Mr. Obama, Hoover was successful. The highest marginal income tax rate jumped to 63% from 24% on Jan. 1, 1932. That November, Hoover lost the election to Franklin D. Roosevelt in a landslide. As if Hoover’s tax increases weren’t enough, on Jan. 1, 1936, FDR raised the highest marginal income tax rate to 79% with further rate increases up to 83% coming later. Estate and gift taxes, taxes on retained earnings, state and local taxes were also raised. This is why the Great Depression was the Great Depression—massive deficit spending and tax rate increases.

But that’s a separate issue. The key takeaway from the Laffer/Moore column is that government spending undermines prosperity.

…the most amazing feature of the nearby chart, which is rarely ever noted, is that when spending declined sharply the economy boomed under President Clinton, and when spending soared under Presidents Bush and Obama, the economy tanked.

P.S. For those who appreciated a more humorous look at Obama’s record, here are two amusing cartoons.

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A financial columnist named Rex Nutting recently triggered a firestorm of controversy by claiming that Barack Obama is not a big spender.

Here’s the chart he prepared, which certainly seems to indicate that Obama is a fiscal conservative. Not only that, it shows that Republicans generally are the big spenders, while Democrats are frugal with other people’s money.

In some ways, these numbers don’t surprise me. I’ve explained before that Bush bears a lot of blame for the big expansion in the burden of government this century, and I’ve specifically pointed out that he deserves the blame for most of the higher spending from the 2009 fiscal year (which began October 1, 2008).

That being said, Nutting’s numbers seemed a bit nutty. Sorry, couldn’t resist. Nutting’s numbers actually seem accurate, including the fact that he decided that Obama should be responsible for $140 billion of the spending in Bush’s last fiscal year (a number he may have taken from one of my posts).

But sometimes accurate can be misleading, so I decided to dig into the data.

I went to the Historical Tables of the Budget from the Office of Management and Budget, and I calculated all the numbers for every President since LBJ (with the exception of Gerald Ford, whose 2-year reign didn’t seem worth including).

But I corrected a big mistake in Nutting’s analysis. I adjusted the numbers for inflation, using OMB’s GDP deflator.

As you can see, this changes the results. My chart isn’t as pretty, but based on the inflation-adjusted average annual growth of outlays, it shows that Clinton was the most frugal president, followed by the first President Bush and Obama.

With his guns-n-butter Keynesianism, it’s no big surprise that LBJ ranks last. And “W” also gets a very low grade.

But then I figured we should take interest payments out of the budget and focus on inflation-adjusted “primary spending.” After all, Presidents shouldn’t be held responsible for the national debt that existed before they took office.

Looking at these numbers, it turns out that Obama does win the prize for being the most fiscally conservative president in recent memory. Reagan jumps to second place. Clinton is in third place, which won’t surprise people who watched this video, while W and LBJ again are in last place.

But I don’t want my Republican friends to get too angry with me, so let’s expand our analysis. Just as we don’t want to blame Presidents for net interest payments on debt that was accrued before their tenure, perhaps we should make sure they don’t get credit or blame for defense outlays that often are dictated by external events.

There’s obviously room for disagreement, but most people will agree that the Cold War and 9/11 meant higher defense spending, regardless of which party controlled the White House. Similarly, the collapse of the Soviet Empire inevitably meant lower military expenditures, regardless of whether Republicans or Democrats were in charge.

So let’s now look at primary spending after subtracting defense outlays (still adjusting for inflation, of course). All of a sudden, Reagan jumps to the top of the list by a comfortable margin. LBJ and W continue to score poorly, but Nixon takes over last place.

But it’s also worth noting that Obama still scores relatively well, beating Clinton for second place. Inflation-adjusted domestic spending (which is mostly what we’re measuring) has grown by 2.0 percent annually during his three years in office.

So does that mean Obama deserves re-election? Well, before you answer, I want to make one final calculation. Just as there are good reasons to exclude interest payments because they’re not something a president can control, we also should take a look at what spending would be if we don’t count the cost of bailouts.

To be sure, these types of expenditures can be controlled, but if we go with the assumption that the federal government was going to re-capitalize the banking system (whether using the good FDIC-resolution approach or the corrupt TARP approach), then it seems that Presidents shouldn’t get arbitrary blame or credit simply because some financial institutions failed during their tenure.

So let’s take the preceding set of numbers and subtract out the long-run numbers for deposit insurance, as well as the TARP outlays since 2009. And keep in mind that repayments of TARP monies (as well as deposit insurance premiums) show up in the budget as “negative spending.”

As you can see, this produces a remarkable result. All of a sudden, Obama drops from second to second-to-last.

This is because there was a lot of TARP spending in Bush’s last fiscal year (FY2009), which created an artificially high benchmark. And then repayments by banks during Obama’s fiscal years counted as negative spending.

When you subtract out the big TARP spending surge, as well as the repayments, then Bush 43 doesn’t look quite as bad (though still worse than Carter and Clinton), while Obama takes a big fall.

In other words, Obama’s track record does show that he favors an expanding social welfare state. Outlays on those programs have jumped by 7.0 percent annually. And that’s after adjusting for inflation! Not as bad as Nixon, but that’s not saying much since he was one of America’s most statist presidents.

Allow me to conclude with some caveats. None of the tables perfectly captures what any president’s fiscal record. Even my first table may be wrong if you want to blame or credit presidents for the inflation that occurs on their watch. And there certainly are strong arguments that bailout spending and defense spending are affected by presidential policies rather than external events.

And keep in mind that presidents don’t have full power over fiscal policy. The folks on Capitol Hill are the ones who actually enact the bills and appropriate the money.

Moreover, the federal government is akin to a big rusty cargo ship that is traveling in a certain direction, and presidents are like tugboats trying to nudge the boat one way or the other.

But enough equivocating. The four different tables at least show more clearly which presidents presided over faster-growing government or slower-growing government. More importantly, the various tables provide a good idea of where most of the new spending was taking place.

We can presumably say Reagan and Clinton were comparatively frugal, and we can also say that Nixon, LBJ, and Bush 43 were relatively profligate. As for Obama, I think his tugboat is pushing in the wrong direction, but it’s only apparent when you strip out the distorting budgetary impact of TARP.

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I’m a big believer in fairness. And since I’ve written about the shortcomings of Newt Gingrich, Mitch Daniels, Ron Paul, Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann, and Mitt Romney, I need to say something about Rick Santorum.

Actually, I don’t need to say anything, because other people have done that job already.

Here’s an excerpt of what Conn Carroll of the Washington Examiner wrote.

“Don’t tread on me” — the rallying cry emblazoned on the Gadsden flag — might as well have been the official motto of the Tea Party. If there is one central theme to the most politically effective movement in recent memory, it’s that the federal government needs to get out of our lives. Which is why it is so disheartening that Rick Santorum has become the supposed conservative alternative to Mitt Romney in the Republican primary. You would be hard-pressed to identify a Republican who better embodied the Bush era’s failed big-government/compassionate conservatism experiment.

Conn’s column includes a list of all the terrible legislation Santorum has supported, so feel free to read the entire article if you want to get depressed.

And here’s some of what Kevin Hassett of the American Enterprise Institute wrote for National Review.

The good news is that much of Santorum’s plan is centered on lowering taxes. The bad news is that much of his tax relief is either welfare in disguise or social engineering. …Santorum would also triple the personal exemption for dependent children while maintaining the earned-income tax credit and the child tax credit. This move would radically reduce the percentage of taxpayers paying any federal income tax whatsoever. Since he would retain most of the other major individual tax deductions, complexity would not be reduced… This plan caters to the fetishistic political focus on giveaways to manufacturing. An optimal code would reward job-creating businesses regardless of their industry. The radical differences between taxes for manufacturing and other activities would introduce perhaps the biggest and most damaging tax distortion in American history. It would also invite endless fraud. As I type this piece, I am manufacturing sentences, am I not? Shouldn’t my income be taxed as manufacturing?

Kevin also points out good features of Santorum’s plan, such as getting rid of the tax penalty on new investment, but concludes that Santorum’s plan is an implausible mess.

Even the people who say nice things about Santorum inadvertently point out bad policies.  Here’s some of what David Brooks wrote as part of a column praising the Pennsylvania Republican.

Santorum has sought to use the federal government to nurture healthy communities. …he came to support AmeriCorps, the federal community service program. Santorum believes Head Start should teach manners to children. He has supported efforts to police the airwaves and corporate marketing campaigns.  …If you believe in the centrality of family, you have to have a government that both encourages marriage and also supplies wage subsidies to men to make them marriageable.

I’m not sure if the last excerpt is something Santorum has endorsed, or if it’s something Brooks is endorsing, but it’s probably the most absurd idea I’ve heard in a long time. Do these people really think it’s the job of the federal government to make men more marriageable? Or that such a program would actually work?

Last but not least, Jon Henke neatly shows what’s wrong with Rick Santorum by juxtaposing two quotes to illustrate the decline of the GOP.

From Ronald Reagan:

If you analyze it I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism. … The basis of conservatism is a desire for less government interference or less centralized authority or more individual freedom and this is a pretty general description also of what libertarianism is.

To Rick Santorum:

One of the criticisms I make is to what I refer to as more of a libertarianish right. … This whole idea of personal autonomy, well I don’t think most conservatives hold that point of view. Some do. They have this idea that people should be left alone, be able to do whatever they want to do, government should keep our taxes down and keep our regulations low, that we shouldn’t get involved in the bedroom, we shouldn’t get involved in cultural issues. You know, people should do whatever they want. Well, that is not how traditional conservatives view the world and I think most conservatives understand that individuals can’t go it alone. That there is no such society that I am aware of, where we’ve had radical individualism and that it succeeds as a culture.

Santorum’s straw-man attack on libertarians is especially silly and sophomoric. We want a smaller federal government precisely because we value the institutions of civil society as well as the principle of individual liberty.

Someone who doesn’t understand the value of freedom probably shouldn’t be in the White House. Heck, Santorum probably thinks this satirical video is an accurate portrayal of libertarianism.

But if you want another George W. Bush, feel free to support Santorum.

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I’ve been a relentless critic of Obama’s policies of redistributionism, class warfare, and cronyism, so I didn’t feel I had anything new to say after Obama gave what’s being called his “Teddy Roosevelt speech” in Kansas earlier this week.

But David Harsanyi has an insightful column at Reason that is worth sharing. Here’s my favorite passage.

Obama’s mimicking Teddy Roosevelt’s end-of-career hard left turn tells us a lot about the president’s worldview. In his speech in Osawatomie, Kan., Obama dropped almost all pretenses and made the progressive case against an American free market system, which he called “a simple theory…one that speaks to our rugged individualism and our healthy skepticism of too much government….And that theory fits well on a bumper sticker. But here’s the problem: It doesn’t work.” Obama, after all, is such a towering economic mind that in Osawatomie, he once again blamed ATMs (and the Internets) for job losses. This is a man we can trust. “Less productivity! More jobs!”

The only part that of the excerpt that might not be accurate is the jab about Obama’s  “towering economic mind.”

It’s not that I object to insults and name calling, especially if the target is someone who routinely demonizes his opponents and questions their motives.

But I do think there’s another interpretation. Instead of assuming Obama is clueless, might it not be more reasonable to think he simply doesn’t care?

Let’s do a thought experiment. Imagine you are President and you want to curry favor with special interest groups and buy support from various voting blocs. Wouldn’t that explain a lot of Obama’s policies?

In other words, maybe Obama’s making government bigger in response to the same short-term political pressures that motivated the Bush Administration to make government bigger.

This doesn’t excuse the bad policy, to be sure. It just means politicians do the wrong thing because they are often guided by something other than what’s best for America.

By the way, this is also why I disagree with those who think Obama is trying to deliberately destroy the nation. Why make such a radical assumption? Do you also think Bush was trying to wreck America? Do you think Greek politicians have been trying to cripple their nation? Or French politicians, Spanish politicians, and Japanese politicians?

As a general rule, I think politicians are contemptible, self-serving, corrupt, and hypocritical. But that doesn’t mean they’re stupid and/or deliberately destructive.

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I’ve pointed out on several occasions that Herbert Hoover was a big-spending Keynesian. Heck, Hoover was pursuing failed Keynesian policies several years before Keynes produced his most well-known book, The General Theory.

Hoover’s big spending was so pronounced that it generated this cartoon in 1932.

Sadly, this cartoon applies just as well today.

Except Bush and Obama take the place of Hoover and Roosevelt – with the same dismal results.

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Have you ever tried to run in waist-high water? It’s not easy, but it’s a useful exercise if you want to experience what it’s like to comply with government rules, regulation, paperwork, and red tape. Especially if you want to understand why it’s getting harder for American companies to compete against firms from other nations.

The Wall Street Journal reports on some new numbers released by the White House Office of Management and Budget.

The effort needed to comply with federal bureaucracy now has a number. According to new government estimates released this week, Americans spent 8.8 billion hours filling out government forms in fiscal 2010. …In all, the paperwork burden has increased by around 19% over the past decade, up from 7.4 billion hours in fiscal 2000, the White House Office of Management and Budget said.

The article explains that there is plenty of blame to go around, showing that politicians of both parties seem perfectly happy to bury Americans under a mountain of red tape.

Between 2002 and 2005, federal agencies reported significant increases in paperwork demands. Republicans controlled Congress and the White House for almost all that period. In 2005, laws including the Bush administration’s Medicare prescription-drug overhaul, created what is now estimated to be an extra 250 million paperwork hours. At the same time, the biggest single-year jump in the past decade came in 2010, when individuals and businesses spent an extra 352 million hours responding to paperwork requests from agencies prompted by new statutory requirements.

Some of the example will help you understand why the economy is having trouble creating jobs.

Last year, employers needed almost 70 million additional hours to claim a new credit for hiring more workers, and restaurants spent 14.5 million hours to display calorie counts for their menus, according to figures submitted to OMB by the departments of the Treasury and Health and Human Services. In fact, the Treasury was the source of most of the paperwork burden in 2010, hitting 6.4 billion hours, or 73%. …The winner of the largest year-on-year increase was the Securities and Exchange Commission, which decided it actually took twice as long to complete its forms than it previously thought, upping its estimates to 361 million hours from 168 million. A spokesman declined to comment.

The real cost of all this regulation is measured in lost economic output, jobs not created, and mandated inefficiency. According to the Small Business Administration, that amounts to a whopping $1.75 trillion per year.

But if you just want to measure the cost of the man-hours required, the Administration has an estimate.

The OMB said it hadn’t attempted to put a financial cost on the paperwork requests, but noted in its report that “it is clear that the monetary equivalent would be very high. For example, if each hour is valued at $20, the monetary equivalent would be $176 billion.”

Considering much of the compliance burden falls on the business community, the $20 per-hour figure is obviously way too low.

But whatever the actual total, remember that the man-hours are just one small slice of the burden.

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The 2011 edition of Economic Freedom of the World, published by Canada’s Fraser Institute (with help from groups like Cato), has been released.

Covering data through 2009, the new report provides damning evidence of the negative impact of the Bush-Obama policies of bigger government and more intervention.

Here’s a relevant passage from the Executive Summary.

The world’s largest economy, the United States, has suffered one of the largest declines in economic freedom over the last 10 years, pushing it into tenth place. Much of this decline is a result of higher government spending and borrowing and lower scores for the legal structure and property rights components. Over the longer term, the summary chain-linked ratings of Venezuela, Zimbabwe, United States, and Malaysia fell by eight-tenths of a point or more between 1990 and 2009, causing their rankings to slip.

This chart, taken directly from the book, shows how the United States has been of the world’s five-worst performers over the past decade, putting America in a very unfortunate category.

The previous chart shows the decline in America’s absolute ranking. And here’s a chart I created showing how the United States has declined relative to other nations. Simply stated, America is on the verge of falling out of the top 10, after being the 3rd-freest economy in the world at the end of the Clinton Administration.

Thanks George and Barack.

By the way, Hong Kong and Singapore are the top two nations, where they’ve ranked for quite some time. Here is the full top-10 list.

1. Hong Kong

2. Singapore

3. New Zealand

4. Switzerland

5. Australia

6. Canada

7. Chile

8. United Kingdom

9. Mauritius

10. United States

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Congressman Eric Cantor, the House Majority Leader, has a rather persuasive column in the Washington Post about the negative impact of President Obama’s big-government agenda.

… the Obama administration’s anti-business, hyper-regulatory, pro-tax agenda has fueled economic uncertainty and sent the message from the administration that “we want to make it harder to create jobs.” There is no other conclusion for policies such as the new Environmental Protection Agency regulations, including the “Transport Rule,” which could eliminate thousands of jobs, or the ozone regulation that would cost upward of $1 trillion and millions of jobs in the construction industry over the next decade. The administration’s new maximum achievable control technology standards for cement are expected to affect nearly 100 cement plants, setting over-the-top requirements resulting in increased costs and possibly thousands of jobs being offshored. There is the president’s silence as the National Labor Relations Board seeks to prevent Boeing from opening a plant in South Carolina that would create thousands of jobs. Such behavior, coupled with the president’s insistence on raising the top tax rate paid by individuals and small businesses, has resulted in a lag in growth that has added to the debt crisis, contributing to our nation’s credit downgrade.

The Congressman’s criticisms certainly are substantive and accurate, but I can’t help but wonder why he didn’t write this column years ago. Or, more important, why didn’t he object to big government when Bush was in the White House.

And, most important, why did he vote for all the wasteful spending and increased regulation of the Bush years. Such as:

Congressman Cantor voted for the no-bureaucrats-left-behind bill that further centralized education.

He voted for the Sarbanes-Oxley regulatory regime that dramatically raised the cost of red tape and drove business out of America.

He voted for the Medicare prescription drug entitlement that did more to increase long-term debt than Obamacare.

And he voted for the TARP bailout, exacerbating moral hazard and facilitating the corrupt mix of Wall Street and Washington.

I’m not trying to pick on Cantor. Most other GOPers were equally guilty of going along with big-government conservatism.

And I actually give Cantor a bit of credit for acknowledging that Republicans bear some of the blame for the current mess. The second sentence of his column refers to “decades of fiscal mismanagement by both political parties.”

All I’m really saying is that big government is the wrong approach, regardless of which party is in charge.

So while I’m glad Republicans are opposing Obama’s statist agenda, they would have more credibility if they also had opposed Bush’s statist agenda.

But the real purpose of this post is to wonder what will happen if we somehow wind up with a President Romney. Will congressional Republicans continue to do the right thing and oppose big government?

Or will they once again decide that the Washington cesspool is really a hot tub and join with Romney in making government even bigger and more wasteful? The experience of the Bush years does not give me much cause for optimism.

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It was a strange experience to read the comments and emails generated by yesterday’s post on the “Obama downgrade.”

Democrats and liberals were upset that I blamed Obama for the downgrade, as you might expect. Republicans and conservatives, however, were agitated that my first sentence pointed out that Bush bore significant responsibility for the spending binge that created the fiscal crisis.

This got me thinking about the underlying causes of America’s long-term fiscal problems and whether it might be possible to come up with some sort of reasonable estimate on which Presidents are most responsible for fiscal crisis.

So I decided to look at the most recent long-run forecast from the Congressional Budget Office. As you might suspect, entitlement programs are THE reason why the United States is in deep trouble.

What does this allow us to say about various presidents? Well, it turns out that Social Security is a relatively minor part of the problem, so even though President Roosevelt’s policies exacerbated and extended the Great Depression, the program he created is only responsible for a small share of the fiscal crisis. To give the illusion of scientific exactitude, let’s assign FDR 13.2 percent of the blame.

The health care numbers are much harder to disentangle because it’s not apparent how much of the increase is due to Medicare, Medicaid, Bush’s prescription drug entitlement, and Obamacare. A healthcare policy wonk may know these numbers, but the CBO long-run forecast didn’t provide much detail.

So with a big caveat that these are just wild estimations, I feel reasonably comfortable in saying that both Bush and Obama made matters worse with their reckless entitlement expansions, but that they merely deepened a fiscal hole that was created when President Johnson imposed Medicare and Medicaid.

With that in mind (and ignoring, for the sake of simplicity, the role of other Presidents – such as Nixon – who expanded the size and scope of health entitlements), here is my ranking of presidential responsibility for America’s fiscal decline.

This does not mean, however, that it was unfair yesterday to apply the “Obama Downgrade” label.

In part, he is responsible because the downgrade from Standard & Poor happened on his watch. But the real reason he earned that label is that he doubled down on the reckless policies of his predecessors and demagogued against lawmakers such as Cong. Paul Ryan who actually have tried to solve the problem.

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I don’t have my finger on the pulse of black America, and I don’t pretend to understand the emotional and symbolic value of a black President to the African-American community.

But I do know that the big-government policies of the Obama Administration have not been good news for blacks. Here’s an excerpt from a new Associated Press story about the growing wealth gap between white and black America.

The wealth gaps between whites and minorities have grown to their widest levels in a quarter-century. The recession and uneven recovery have erased decades of minority gains, leaving whites on average with 20 times the net worth of blacks and 18 times that of Hispanics, according to an analysis of new Census data. The analysis shows the racial and ethnic impact of the economic meltdown, which ravaged housing values and sent unemployment soaring.

To be fair, the numbers started turning in the wrong direction under Bush, and Obama is right when he says he inherited a bad situation. On the other hand, Obama has continued the big-government and interventionist policies of his predecessor, so it’s not clear that this is much of an excuse.

The unemployment data also shows bad news for blacks. This chart uses data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and it shows unemployment among African-Americans has nearly doubled in recent years.

Once again, it’s worth pointing out that the numbers were heading in the wrong direction as Obama took office. But as I note above, I’m not sure that matters since Obama has continued Bush’s approach of higher spending and more intervention. But even if you can’t accept that analysis because you’re a partisan Democrat or Republican, all that really matters is that the black unemployment rate has increased dramatically and is now stubbornly high.

The moral of the story, needless to say, is that free markets and small government are the right policies. That’s the best approach to improve living standards for all Americans.

But lower-income Americans are especially vulnerable to economic fragility, so better economic performance disproportionately helps people on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder.

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There’s an interesting debate in the blogosphere about whether President George W. Bush was a conservative (here’s a good summary of the discussion, along with lots of links, though I especially like this analysis since it cites my work.).

I’ve already explained that Bush was a statist rather than a conservative, and you can find additional commentary from me here, here, here, and here.

Simply stated, any President who doubles the burden of federal spending in just eight years is disqualified from being a conservative – unless the term is stripped of any meaning and conservatives no longer care about limited government and constitutional constraints on Washington.

But if you don’t want to read the blog posts I linked above, this chart should make clear that Bush was a big spender, not only when compared to Reagan, but also compared to Clinton. Moreover, we’re only looking at overall domestic spending, so this doesn’t include Iraq, Afghanistan, and other defense expenditures. And these are inflation-adjusted dollars, so we’re comparing apples to apples.

But let’s also examine the burden of domestic spending as a share of GDP. As you can see, there actually was progress during the Clinton years, and significant progress during the Reagan years. But all that was completely wiped out during the Bush presidency.

These numbers should not be a surprise. During Bush’s tenure, we got the no-bureaucrat-left-behind education bill, two corrupt farm bills, a new prescription drug entitlement, two pork-filled transportation bills, an auto company bailout, and a TARP bailout for banks.

This was a time of feasting for special interest groups and lobbyists, to put it mildly.

If that’s conservative, then Ronald Reagan was a liberal.

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America faces a fiscal crisis. The burden of federal spending has doubled during the Bush-Obama years, a $2 trillion increase in just 10 years. But that’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Because of demographic changes and poorly designed entitlement programs, the federal budget is going to consume larger and larger shares of America’s economic output in coming decades.

For all intents and purposes, the United States appears doomed to become a bankrupt welfare state like Greece.

But we can save ourselves. A previous video showed how both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton achieved positive fiscal changes by limiting the growth of federal spending, with particular emphasis on reductions in the burden of domestic spending. This new video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity provides examples from other nations to show that good fiscal policy is possible if politicians simply limit the growth of government.

These success stories from Canada, Ireland, Slovakia, and New Zealand share one common characteristic. By freezing or sharply constraining the growth of government outlays, nations were able to rapidly shrinking the economic burden of government, as measured by comparing the size of the budget to overall economic output.

Ireland and New Zealand actually froze spending for multi-year periods, while Canada and Slovakia limited annual spending increases to about 1 percent. By comparison, government spending during the Bush-Obama years has increased by an average of more than 7-1/2 percent. And the burden of domestic spending has exploded during the Bush-Obama years, especially compared to the fiscal discipline of the Reagan years. No wonder the United States is in fiscal trouble.

Heck, even Bill Clinton looks pretty good compared to the miserable fiscal policy of the past 10 years.

The moral of the story is that limiting the growth of spending works. There’s no need for miracles. If politicians act responsibly and restrain spending, that allows the private sector to grow faster than the burden of government. That’s the definition of good fiscal policy. The new video above shows that other nations have been very successful with that approach. And here’s the video showing how Reagan and Clinton limited spending in America.

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Since February is the 100th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s birth and I still haven’t gotten over my man-crush on the Gipper, I figured it would be interesting to look at Reagan’s fiscal record, particularly to see whether he was successful in restraining the growth of domestic spending.

There is lots of good information in the Historical Tables of the Budget, which is produced by the Office of Management and Budget. I was particularly fascinated by the data on inflation-adjusted total domestic spending (discretionary and entitlements), which can be obtained by adding columns E and H of Table 8.2.

As you can see in this chart, Reagan managed to limit average domestic spending increases to less than one percent per year. These figures, which are adjusted for inflation, show that spending has grown more than five times as rapidly during the Bush-Obama years.

The comparison is even more dramatic if we examine the average annual increase in inflation-adjusted domestic spending. In other words, we’re looking at how much spending increased each year, not the percentage change. During the Reagan years, overall domestic spending grew less than $10 billion per year, while spending has soared more than $100 billion per year during the Bush-Obama era. Remember that we’re using inflation-adjusted dollars, so this is an apples-to-apples comparison.

The final chart maps annual domestic spending (in constant 2005 dollars) for Reagan’s eight fiscal years on the right vertical axis and the 10 fiscal years of Bush-Obama on the left vertical axis. Two things stand out. First, the bailout dramatically affected outlays in recent years, both because of a huge jump in fiscal year 2009 and an artificial dampening in the past two years (because repayments from banks and other bailed-out institutions count as “negative spending” rather than revenues).

Second, you can’t blame the poor record of Bush and Obama on bailouts. The chart axes are designed to give a similar starting point for Reagan’s spending and Bush-Obama spending, and it is obvious that Bush’s approach of so-called compassionate conservatism meant a bigger and more wasteful budget for domestic spending. Obama promised hope and change, of course, but he grabbed the big-spending baton from Bush and continued in the same direction, though TARP payments and repayments make it more challenging to discern the precise impact of the “stimulus” and other Obama initiatives (Tables 8.6 and 8.8 of the Historical Tables have program-by-program data for those who want the gory details).

Last but not least, don’t forget that FY2009 began October 1, 2008, nearly four months before Obama took office, and the bad numbers for that fiscal year generally should be attributed to Bush. Yes, Obama added to FY2009 spending with an omnibus appropriations bill and the faux stimulus, but I’ve estimated that 96 percent of that year’s spending was the result of Bush Administration decisions.

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President Obama unveiled his fiscal year 2012 budget today, and there’s good news and bad news. The good news is that there’s no major initiative such as the so-called stimulus scheme or the government-run healthcare proposal. The bad news, though, is that government is far too big and Obama’s budget does nothing to address this problem.

But perhaps the folks on Capitol Hill will be more responsible and actually try to save America from becoming a big-government, European-style welfare state. The solution may not be easy, but it is simple. Lawmakers merely need to restrain the growth of government spending so that it grows slower than the private economy.

Actual spending cuts would be the best option, of course, but limiting the growth of spending is all that’s needed to slowly shrink the burden of government spending relative to gross domestic product.

Fortunately, we have two role models from recent history that show it is possible to control the federal budget. This video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity uses data from the Historical Tables of the Budget to demonstrate the fiscal policy achievements of both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.

Some people will want to argue about who gets credit for the good fiscal policy of the 1980s and 1990s.

Bill Clinton’s performance, for instance, may not have been so impressive if he had succeeded in pushing through his version of government-run healthcare or if he didn’t have to deal with a Republican Congress after the 1994 elections. But that’s a debate for partisans. All that matters is that the burden of government spending fell during Bill Clinton’s reign, and that was good for the budget and good for the economy. And there’s no question he did a much better job than George W. Bush.

Indeed, a major theme in this new video is that the past 10 years have been a fiscal disaster. Both Bush and Obama have dramatically boosted the burden of government spending – largely because of rapid increases in domestic spending.

This is one of the reasons why the economy is weak. For further information, this video looks at the theoretical case for small government and this video examines the empirical evidence against big government.

Another problem is that many people in Washington are fixated on deficits and debt, but that’s akin to focusing on symptoms and ignoring the underlying disease. To elaborate, this video explains that America’s fiscal problem is too much spending rather than too much debt.

Last but not least, this video reviews the theory and evidence for the “Rahn Curve,” which is the notion that there is a growth-maximizing level of government outlays. The bad news is that government already is far too big in the United States. This is undermining prosperity and reducing competitiveness.

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Somebody emailed me this t-shirt. Rather amusing, but fairness requires me to suggest two changes, as explained underneath.

First, the writing on the t-shirt should be expanded to state “January 20, 2001-January 20, 2013.” In other words, people who dislike Obama’s reflexive statism should be just as disappointed and upset about what Bush did to make government bigger as they are about what Obama is doing to make government bigger.

Second, the t-shirt should include “…and the start of another” as a disclaimer since the GOPers jockeying for the 2012 nomination seem to be a dismal gaggle of big-government types who will continue the bad policies of Bush and Obama.

Other than that, a great t-shirt!

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Gallup just released a poll showing that 46 percent of Americans view the federal government as an immediate threat to the rights and freedoms of ordinary Americans. My first reaction was to wonder why the number was so low. After all, we have a political elite that wants to do everything from control our health care to monitor our financial transactions.

But a secondary set of numbers is even more remarkable. As seen in this chart, both Republicans and Democrats tend to view the federal government as a threat mostly when the White House is controlled by the other party.

This complacency is very unfortunate. Republicans presumably want to limit government control over the economy, yet it was the Bush Administration that put in place policies such as Sarbanes-Oxley, the banana-republic TARP bailout, the corrupt farm bills, and the pork-filled transportation bills. Democrats, meanwhile, presumably want to protect our civil liberties, yet the Obama Administration has left in place virtually all of the Bush policies that the left was upset about just two years ago. There has been no effort to undo the more troublesome provisions of the PATRIOT Act. And shouldn’t honest liberals be upset that the Obama Administration is going to such lengths to defend the military’s don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy?

The lesson to be learned is that there is an unfortunate tendency for politicians to misbehave when they get control of the machinery of government. Lord Acton warned that “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It’s almost as if Republicans and Democrats do their best every day to confirm this statement.

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Jonah Goldberg writes in National Review that President Obama is beginning to look like the next Herbert Hoover. This is rather ironic since the left wanted him to become the next Franklin Delano Roosevelt, ushering in a new era of politically-popular statism.
…the Great Depression discredited laissez-faire economics for a generation or more. Hoover, who was hardly the “market fundamentalist” FDR made him out to be, suffered largely from the (bad) luck of the draw, giving Democrats a chance to argue for a new deal of the cards. For reasons fair and unfair, Obama, who inherited a bad recession and made it worse, every day looks more like a modern-day Hoover, whining about his problems, rather than an FDR cheerily getting things done. Inadequate to the task, Obama is discrediting the statism he was elected to restore. 
Jonah makes a compelling case, particularly from a political perspective. But if we look just at economic policy, the Obama-as-FDR analogy is more accurate. Hoover was a big-government interventionist with failed policies. That’s a pretty good description of Bush. FDR got elected in 1932 by promising to fix the mess, which is akin to Obama’s hope and change message in 2008. And, just like FDR, Obama then continued the big-government interventionist policies of his predecessor. The only difference is that Roosevelt somehow was able to remain popular even though his policies kept the nation mired in depression for another decade. Obama, by contrast, is veering dangerously close to becoming another Jimmy Carter. Tom Sowell has some key details about the timing and impact of the Hoover-Roosevelt policies.
The history of the United States is full of evidence on the negative effects of government intervention. For the first 150 years of this country’s existence, the federal government did not think it was its business to intervene when the economy turned down. All of those downturns ended faster than the first downturn where the federal government intervened big time– the Great Depression of the 1930s. …if you look at the facts, they go like this: Unemployment never hit double digits in any of the 12 months following the big stock market crash of 1929 that is often blamed for the massive unemployment of the 1930s. Unemployment peaked at 9 percent, two months after the October 1929 crash, and then began drifting downward. Unemployment was down to 6.3 percent by June 1930, when the first big federal intervention occurred. Within six months, the downward trend in unemployment reversed and hit double digits for the first time in December 1930. What were politicians to do? Say “We messed up”? Or keep trying one huge intervention after another? The record shows what they did: President Hoover’s interventions were followed by President Roosevelt’s bigger interventions– and unemployment remained in double digits in every month for the entire remainder of the decade. There is another set of facts: The record that was set in 1929 for the biggest stock market decline in one day was broken in 1987. But Ronald Reagan did nothing– and the media clobbered him for it. Then the economy rebounded and there were 20 years of sustained economic growth with low inflation and low unemployment. Can you imagine Barack Obama doing another Ronald Reagan?

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After being in 1st place in 2007 and 2008, America dropped behind Switzerland in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report in 2009. The 2010 ranking was just released, and the United States has tumbled two more spots to 4th place, behind Switzerland, Sweden, and Singapore. I’m not a complete fan of the World Economic Forum’s methodology (the Economic Freedom of the World rankings are the best measure of sound economic policy), but it’s almost surely a bad sign when a country moves down in the rankings.  The timing of the fall will lead some to blame Barack Obama, and I certainly agree that his policies are making America less competitive, but Bush also deserves blame for increasing the burden of government and compromising America’s economic vitality. Here’s a blurb from the Associated Press.
The U.S. has slipped down the ranks of competitive economies, falling behind Sweden and Singapore due to huge deficits and pessimism about government, a global economic group said Thursday. Switzerland retained the top spot for the second year in the annual ranking by the Geneva-based World Economic Forum. It combines economic data and a survey of more than 13,500 business executives. Sweden moved up to second place while Singapore stayed at No. 3. The United States was in second place last year after falling from No. 1 in 2008.

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If you saw the Wall-E movie, you may remember how people morphed into helpless blobs because all their needs were being fulfilled by something called BNL. I realize I’m a quirky libertarian, but the movie made me think about how excessive government is doing something similar to people who get seduced by dependency.

This was one of the topics covered in my recent interview on Fox News with Neil Cavuto. We began by talking about America’s unfortunate drift in the direction of being a nanny state, but also covered other fiscal and economic issues.

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I don’t agree with all the points in this column from Real Clear Markets, but I fully agree with the overall theme that the GOP would be wise to cut Bush out of the Party’s history. Like Nixon, he was a failed, big-government statist.

The sour economy is presenting Republicans with a golden opportunity to retake both houses of Congress. The Democrats will try to defend their seats by attacking Bush’s record on the economy. Republican candidates should counter this move by acknowledging the economic errors made during the Bush years. This will help restore the credibility of the Republican brand with respect to the economy and free up the candidates to move on to what really matters-the future. …Was Bush 43 the worst post-1952 president in terms of the economy? No, he was the second-worst. Jimmy Carter managed to drive the Real Dow down by 78% in just four years, 1976-1980. If considered as one presidency, Nixon/Ford was the third-worst… So, what were the mistakes that made Bush 43 the second-worst president since 1952 with respect to the economy? The biggest single economic error Bush made was his “weak dollar” policy. While the president has no direct control over monetary policy, it is said that a president always gets the monetary policy he wants. Bush (and his Treasury Secretaries) wanted a weak dollar, and they got one. The dollar lost 69% of its value against gold during the Bush years. This accounted for almost 80% of the decline in the Real Dow during his presidency. The unstable dollar during the Bush years was the root cause of the financial crisis of 2008. The dollar fell almost continuously during the first seven years of his term. By February 2008, it had lost 72% of its value. …The third biggest economic error under Bush was the design of the 2001 tax cuts, which phased in the reductions in the top income tax rate over 5 years. As we learned in 1981-1982, phased-in tax cuts guarantee economic sluggishness, because people defer income until the lower rates take effect. The result was a “jobless recovery”, slow growth, and escalating deficits. The 2001 tax cuts also wasted $58 billion on futile Keynesian “stimulus”, an error that Bush was to repeat in 2008. If Bush had gotten his 2001 tax cuts right, and economic growth in fiscal years 2002 and 2003 had averaged 3.5% instead of 1.6%, the “Bush deficits” would have peaked at 2.5% of GDP in FY2004, rather than at 3.5%. A continuation of 3.5% real growth would have put the budget in surplus by FY2007, despite the massive spending. …Because the Democrats have “doubled down” on Bush’s economic errors, Democrat-held House and Senate seats are ripe for the picking. During the first 18 months of the Obama administration (i.e., through June, 2010), the Real Dow fell by another 11% to 7.86, which was the level of June 1952. After 16 months of massive government “stimulus”, total employment in June 2010 was 6.0 million below what the administration predicted it would be if the stimulus bill passed, and 3.2 million lower than they said it would be if the stimulus bill didn’t pass. If the labor force participation rate had not unexpectedly declined, June’s unemployment rate would have been reported at 11%.

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I’m still dealing with the statist echo chamber, having been hit with two additional attacks for the supposed sin of endorsing Reaganomics over Obamanomics (my responses to the other attacks can be found here and here). Some guy at the Atlantic Monthly named Steve Benen issued an critique focusing on the timing of the recession and recovery in Reagan’s first term. He reproduces a Krugman chart (see below) and also adds his own commentary.

Reagan’s first big tax cut was signed in August 1981. Over the next year or so, unemployment went from just over 7% to just under 11%. In September 1982, Reagan raised taxes, and unemployment fell soon after. We’re all aware, of course, of the correlation/causation dynamic, but as Krugman noted in January, “[U]nemployment, which had been stable until Reagan cut taxes, soared during the 15 months that followed the tax cut; it didn’t start falling until Reagan backtracked and raised taxes.”

This argument is absurd since the recession in the early 1980s was largely the inevitable result of the Federal Reserve’s misguided monetary policy. And I would be stunned if this view wasn’t shared by 90 percent-plus of economists. So it is rather silly to say the recession was caused by tax cuts and the recovery was triggered by tax increases.

But even if we magically assume monetary policy was perfect, Benen’s argument is wrong. I don’t want to repeat myself, so I’ll just call attention to my previous blog post which explained that it is critically important to look at when tax cuts (and increases) are implemented, not when they are enacted. The data is hardly exact, because I haven’t seen good research on the annual impact of bracket creep, but there was not much net tax relief during Reagan’s first couple of years because the tax cuts were phased in over several years and other taxes were going up. So the recession actually began when taxes were flat (or perhaps even rising) and the recovery began when the economy was receiving a net tax cut. That being said, I’m not arguing that the Reagan tax cuts ended the recession. They probably helped, to be sure, but we should do good tax policy to improve long-run growth, not because of some misguided effort to fine-tune short-run growth.

The second attack comes from some blog called Econospeak, where my newest fan wrote:

I’m scratching my head here as I thought the standard pseudo-supply-side line was that the deficit exploded in the 1980’s because government spending exploded. OK, the truth is that the ratio of Federal spending to GDP neither increased nor decreased during this period. Real tax revenues per capita fell which is why the deficit rose but this notion that the burden of government fell is not factually based.

Those are some interesting points, and I might respond to them if I wanted to open a new conversation, but they’re not germane to what I said. In my original post (the one he was attacking), I commented on the “burden of government” rather than the “burden of government spending.” I’m a fiscal policy economist, so I’m tempted to claim that the sun rises and sets based on what’s happening to taxes and spending, but such factors are just two of the many policies that influence economic performance. And with regard to my assertion that Reagan reduced the “burden of government,” I’ll defer to the rankings put together for the Economic Freedom of the World Index. The score for the United States improved from 8.03 to 8.38 between 1980 and 1990 (my guess is that it peaked in 1988, but they only have data for every five years). The folks on the left may be unhappy about it, but it is completely accurate to say Reagan reduced the burden of government. And while we don’t yet have data for the Obama years, there’s a 99 percent likelihood that America’s score will decline.

This is not a partisan argument, by the way. The Economic Freedom of the World chart shows that America’s score improved during the Clinton years, particularly his second term. And the data also shows that the U.S. score dropped during the Bush years. This is why I wrote a column back in 2007 advocating Clintonomics over Bushonomics. Partisan affiliation is not what matters. If we want more prosperity, the key is shrinking the burden of government.

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A very depressing story in USA Today reveals that federal bureaucrats are making more than twice as much as people in the productive sector of the economy. Even worse, the advantage for bureaucrats has jumped from $30K to $62K during the spendaholic Bush-Obama years.

At a time when workers’ pay and benefits have stagnated, federal employees’ average compensation has grown to more than double what private sector workers earn, a USA TODAY analysis finds. Federal workers have been awarded bigger average pay and benefit increases than private employees for nine years in a row. The compensation gap between federal and private workers has doubled in the past decade. Federal civil servants earned average pay and benefits of $123,049 in 2009 while private workers made $61,051 in total compensation, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. The data are the latest available. The federal compensation advantage has grown from $30,415 in 2000 to $61,998 last year.

Just to remind everybody why this stinks, here’s the video I narrated on how we have too many bureaucrats and they are paid too much.

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I seem to have touched a raw nerve with my post earlier today comparing Reagan and Obama on how well the economy performed coming out of recession. Both Ezra Klein and Paul Krugman have denounced my analysis (actually, they denounced me approving of Richard Rahn’s analysis, but that’s a trivial detail). Krugman responded by asserting that Reaganomics was irrelevant (I’m not kidding) to what happened in the 1980s. Klein’s response was more substantive, so let’s focus on his argument. He begins by stating that the recent recession and the downturn of the early 1980s were different creatures. My argument was about how strongly the economy rebounded, however, not the length, severity, causes, and characteristics of each recession. But Klein then cites Rogoff and Reinhardt to argue that recoveries from financial crises tend to be less impressive than recoveries from normal recessions.
That’s certainly a fair argument. I haven’t read the Rogoff-Reinhardt book, but their hypothesis seems reasonable, so let’s accept it for purposes of this discussion. Should we therefore grade Obama on a curve? Perhaps, but it’s also true that deep recessions usually are followed by more robust recoveries. And since the recent downturn was more severe than the the one in the early 1980s, shouldn’t we be experiencing some additional growth to offset the tepidness associated with the aftermath of a financial crisis?
I doubt we’ll ever know how to appropriately measure all of these factors, but I don’t think that matters. I suspect Krugman and Klein are not particularly upset about Richard Rahn’s comparisons of recessions and recoveries. The real argument is whether Reagan did the right thing by reducing the burden of government and whether Obama is doing the wrong thing by heading in the opposite direction and making America more like France or Greece. In other words, the fundamental issue is whether we should have big government or small government. I think the Obama Administration, by making government bigger, is repeating many of the mistakes of the Bush Administration. Krugman and Klein almost certainly disagree.

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