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Archive for the ‘stimulus’ Category

The United States is supposed to be enjoying a recovery. Indeed, we’re now supposedly in the fifth year of an expanding economy.

Many Americans must wonder why it doesn’t feel that way.

In part, that’s because growth has been very anemic. Indeed, this is the weakest recovery since the Great Depression.

But it’s also because the labor market has been very weak.

Most observers correctly note that there are far fewer jobs than Obama promised if the so-called stimulus was enacted.

I think that’s a very fair complaint, but I’m even more concerned about the very troubling drop in the employment-population ratio and the grim data on long-run joblessness.

Simply stated, our economy’s ability to generate prosperity is a function of the quantity and quality of labor and capital that are being utilized.

So it’s very bad news when millions of workers drop out of the labor force.

So how can we rejuvenate job creation?

I addressed this issue in a column for The Federalist. Here’s some of what I wrote, starting with a generic complaint that the crowd in Washington seems to think that “more government” is the answer to every question.

The discussion in Washington over how best to “create” jobs is a bit surreal. In part, this is a semantic gripe. …jobs are created in the private sector, not by politicians. …Politicians would probably admit that they simply want to “create” the conditions that lead to job creation. But even by that more realistic standard, the Washington debate often is surreal for the simple reason that too many politicians think that a larger burden of government will boost job creation.

President Obama clearly is guilty of this form of hubris.

I touch on several points in the article, but this excerpt highlights his ongoing fixation on Keynesian economics, which I’ve previously referred to as the perpetual motion machine of the left.

President Obama, for instance, routinely urges more government spending to “stimulate” job creation. …The new outlays, we are told, inject money into the economy and jump-start growth, leading to more jobs as businesses increase production in response to higher demand.The problem with this argument, as explained in an earlier Federalist article, is that government can’t inject money into the economy without first taking money out of the economy, either by borrowing or taxation. This is why Keynesian spending didn’t work for Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s, Japan in the 1990s, Bush in 2008, or Obama in 2009.

But the me-too crowd on the right commits the same sins.

While the left has bad ideas and has delivered poor results, some proposals from the “right” aren’t much better. Consider a recent article in National Affairs by Michael Strain of the American Enterprise Institute. Entitled “A Jobs Agenda for the Right,” the piece is filled with proposals that are distressingly reminiscent of the big-government-lite platform of pre-Reagan Republicans.

Do you think I’m exaggerating?

You can click on his article and see for yourself. You’ll find some good information on how the job market is very weak.

But when Strain proposes solutions, he goes awry. As I say in the article, many of his policy ideas “could have been uttered by Harry Reid or Nancy Pelosi.”

He writes that “conservatives should see that there is a role for macroeconomic stimulus.” …He claims, for instance, that “government spending can support economic growth during a recession” That Keynesian statement sounds more like Brookings than AEI. He also has Obama’s faith in “shovel-ready jobs,” extolling “the desirability of a multi-year program of high-social-value infrastructure spending.” …He wants to finance additional spending, at least in part, with higher taxes, suggesting “a reining in of tax expenditures.” There’s nothing wrong with cutting back on tax preferences (properly defined), but the money should be used to lower tax rates rather than expand the burden of government spending. …he endorsed extended unemployment benefits – notwithstanding the wealth of evidence that such policies encourage joblessness.

To be fair, he does list some ideas that are good, as well as some that are mixed, but the unambiguous message of his article is that government needs to play an activist role to boost the job market.

Needless to say, I offer my prescription for job creation and suggest that we go in the opposite direction.

I make (what should be) an elementary observation about the conditions that are necessary for businesses to hire new workers.

[Jobs] are created when businesses think that the amount of revenue generated by new employees will exceed the total costs (including those imposed by government) of putting those people on the payroll.

And I elaborate on this point, quoting myself in the article (and now I’m quoting myself quoting myself, which is definitely a sign I’ve been in DC too long).

It may not be an agenda tailored to appeal to politicians, who generally want to be seen as “doing something,” but the best way to create jobs is to get government to stop trying to help. Free markets and small government are far more likely to produce the conditions that lead to more employment. In other words, let the private sector flourish. The pursuit of profit is a powerful force for growth. To quote one of my favorite people, “businesses are not charities. They only create jobs when they think that the total revenue generated by new workers will exceed the total cost of employing those workers. In other words, if it’s not profitable to hire workers, it’s not going to happen.” …If we really care about workers, particularly those without jobs, the most compassionate approach is prosperity rather than dependency.

And that means free markets and small government.

Which is the direction we headed during the Reagan years and Clinton years, when we enjoyed very good performance in labor markets (as illustrated by this Michael Ramirez cartoon).

But the 21st century has been very bad news for economic freedom.

P.S. In a postscript last week, I shared a very amusing image of Obama and Putin on a horse.

In that same spirit, here’s a phone call between a statist who doesn’t respect the rule of law…and another statist who doesn’t respect the rule of law.

Obama Putin Phone Call

I’m not sure whether this is better than Obama’s NSA phone-tapping conversation, but still amusing.

By the way, it goes without saying that this doesn’t imply the United States should be intervening. You can read my thoughts here.

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It’s sometimes difficult to make fun of Keynesian economics. But this isn’t because Keynesian theory is airtight.

It’s easy, after all, to mock a school of thought that is predicated on the notion that you can make yourself richer by taking money from your right pocket and putting it in your left pocket.

The problem is that it’s hard to utilize satire when proponents of Keynesian theory say things that are more absurd than anything critics could possibly make up.

Paul Krugman, for example, stated a couple of years ago that it would be good for growth if everyone thought the world was going to be attacked by aliens because that would trigger massive military outlays.

He also asserted recently that a war would be very beneficial to the economy.

Equally bizarre, he really said that the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center would “do some economic good” because of the subsequent money spent on rebuilding.

And let’s not forget that John Maynard Keynes actually did write that it would be good policy to bury money in the ground so that people would get paid to dig it out.

As you can see, it’s difficult to mock such a strange theory since proponents of Keynesianism already have given us such good material.

But let’s try.

Here’s an amusing satirical image of Ludwig von Mises describing Keynesian economics.

Here’s Paul Krugman doing a Keynesian weather report.

This is the one that got the biggest laugh from me, though I’m chagrined at the misspelling.

Keynesian Fire

Last but not least, here’s an image of a neighborhood that has been the recipient of lots of stimulus. I bet the people are very happy.

Sort of reminds me of this satirical Obama campaign poster.

Let’s close with a few serious observations.

I recently added my two cents to the debate in an article debunking the White House’s attempt to justify the failed 2009 stimulus.

And there’s lots of additional material here, here, and here. My favorite cartoon on Keynesian economics also is worth sharing.

But you’ll probably learn just as much and be more entertained by this video from the Atlas Economic Research Foundation. It looks at the left’s fascination with disaster economics.

And here’s my video debunking Keynesian theory.

I’ll end with a gloomy comment. It’s easy to mock Keynesian economics, but it’s very hard to put a stake through its heart.

How can you kill an idea that tells politicians that their vice – buying votes with other people’s money – is actually a virtue?

P.S. Here’s the famous video showing the Keynes v. Hayek rap contest, followed by the equally entertaining sequel, which features a boxing match between Keynes and Hayek. And even though it’s not the right time of year, here’s the satirical commercial for Keynesian Christmas carols.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We have another example to add to the list.

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

Here’s some of what Professor Krugman wrote for the New York Times.

I hear people trying to dismiss the overwhelming evidence for large economic damage from fiscal austerity by pointing to Germany: “You say that austerity hurts growth, but the Germans have done a lot of austerity and they’re booming.” Public service announcement: Never, ever make claims about a country’s economic policies (or actually anything about economics) on the basis of what you think you’ve heard people say. Yes, you often hear people talking about austerity, and the Germans are big on praising and demanding austerity. But have they actually imposed a lot of it on themselves? Not so much.

In some sense, I agree with Krugman. I don’t think the Germans have imposed much austerity.

But here’s the problem with his article. We know from the examples above that he’s complained about supposed austerity in places such as the United Kingdom and France, so one would think that the German government must have been more profligate with the public purse.

After all, Krugman wrote they haven’t “imposed a lot of [austerity] on themselves.”

So I followed the advice in Krugman’s “public service announcement.” I didn’t just repeat what people have said. I dug into the data to see what happened to government spending in various nations.

And I know you’ll be shocked to see that Krugman was wrong. The Germans have been more frugal (at least in the sense of increasing spending at the slowest rate) than nations that supposedly are guilty of “spending cuts.”

German Austerity Krugman

To ensure that I’m not guilty of cherry-picking the data, I look at three different base years. But it doesn’t matter whether we start before, during, or after the recession. Germany increased spending at the slowest rate.

Moreover, if you look at the IMF data, you’ll see that the Germans also were more frugal than the Swedes, the Belgium, the Dutch, and the Austrians.

So I’m not sure what Krugman is trying to tell us with his chart.

By the way, spending in Switzerland grew at roughly the same rate as it did in Germany. So if Professor Krugman is highlighting Germany as a role model, maybe we can take that as an indirect endorsement of Switzerland’s very good spending cap?

But I won’t hold my breath waiting for that endorsement to become official. After all, Switzerland has reduced the burden of government spending thanks to the spending cap.

Not exactly in line with Krugman’s ideological agenda.

P.S. This isn’t the first time I’ve had to deal with folks who mischaracterize German fiscal policy. When Professor Epstein and I debated a couple of Keynesians in NYC as part of the Intelligence Squared debate, one of our opponents asserted that Germany was a case study for Keynesian stimulus. But when I looked at the data, it turned out that he was prevaricating.

P.P.S. This post, I hasten to add, is not an endorsement of German fiscal policy. As I explained while correcting a mistake in the Washington Post, the burden of government is far too large in Germany. The only good thing I can say is that it hasn’t grown that rapidly in recent years.

P.P.P.S. Let’s close with a look at another example of Krugman’s misleading work. He recently implied that an economist from the Heritage Foundation was being dishonest in some austerity testimony, but I dug into the numbers and discovered that, “critics of Heritage are relying largely on speculative data about what politicians might (or might not) do in the future to imply that the Heritage economist was wrong in his presentation of what’s actually happened over the past six years”

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Are there any fact checkers at the New York Times?

Since they’ve allowed some glaring mistakes by Paul Krugman (see here and here), I guess the answer is no.

But some mistakes are worse than others.

Consider a recent column by David Stuckler of Oxford and Sanjay Basu of Stanford. Entitled “How Austerity Kills,” it argues that budget cuts are causing needless deaths.

Here’s an excerpt that caught my eye.

Countries that slashed health and social protection budgets, like Greece, Italy and Spain, have seen starkly worse health outcomes than nations like Germany, Iceland and Sweden, which maintained their social safety nets and opted for stimulus over austerity.

The reason this grabbed my attention is that it was only 10 days ago that I posted some data from Professor Gurdgiev in Ireland showing that Sweden and Germany were among the tiny group of European nations that actually had reduced the burden of government spending.

Greece, Italy, and Spain, by contrast, are among those that increased the size of the public sector. So the argument presented in the New York Times is completely wrong. Indeed, it’s 100 percent wrong because Iceland (which Professor Gurdgiev didn’t measure since it’s not in the European Union) also has smaller government today than it did in the pre-crisis period.

But that’s just part of the problem with the Stuckler-Basu column. They want us to believe that “slashed” budgets and inadequate spending have caused “worse health outcomes” in nations such as Greece, Italy, and Spain, particularly when compared to Germany, Iceland, and Spain.

But if government spending is the key to good health, how do they explain away this OECD data, which shows that government is actually bigger in the three supposed “austerity” nations than it is in the three so-called “stimulus” countries.

NYT Austerity-Stimulus

Once again, Stuckler and Basu got caught with their pants down, making an argument that is contrary to easily retrievable facts.

But I guess this is business-as-usual at the New York Times. After all, this is the newspaper that’s been caught over and over again engaging in sloppy and/or inaccurate journalism.

Oh, and if you want to know why the Stuckler-Basu column is wrong about whether smaller government causes higher death rates, just click here.

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

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

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

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

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

“Victory for us Keynesians. Now we get the cheerleaders!”

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

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

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

…the country’s economic performance of the last four or five years can hardly be described has a rousing success for Keynesian economics, at least as implemented by the administration. In fact, measured by the unemployment rate, it hasn’t been a success by the administration’s own standards. To that, Krugman says that the stimulus implemented by the administration wasn’t big enough and, as such, that Keynesian economics hasn’t been tried yet.

Veronique, by the way, points out why this argument is utterly unpersuasive by using the same logic to declare victory for markets.

But by this logic, free-market economics is doing pretty well, too: I think we can all agree that free-market economics wasn’t tried. The economy hasn’t really recovered properly. This must mean free-market economics has won.

But I think the best part of Veronique’s article is the section explaining that not all austerity is created equal. Simply stated, why expect better economic performance if “austerity” means that taxes go up and the burden of government spending stays the same?

Here’s some of what Veronique wrote on this issue.

…austerity, as defined by economists, represents the measures implemented by a government in order to reduce the debt-to-GDP ratio. Unlike Keynesians, I do not think that debt is good for economic growth, but I would prefer the word “austerity” to describe the measures implemented to shrink the size and scope of government… In other words, the important question about austerity has less to do with the size of the austerity package than what type of austerity measures are implemented. …when governments try to reduce the debt by raising taxes, it is likely to result in deep and pronounced recessions, possibly making the fiscal adjustment counterproductive. …austerity measures implemented in Europe are not the kind of austerity we actually need. In fact, the data shows that it has mostly consisted in raising taxes.

Since I’ve repeatedly made these same points, you can understand why I’m a big fan of her analysis.

Moreover, I think this gives us some insight into why Krugman may actually think he has prevailed. Simply stated, he’s comparing Keynesianism to the IMF/European version of austerity.

But that type of “austerity” – as you can see from one of Veronique’s charts – is overwhelmingly comprised of tax hikes.

Yet is anybody surprised that we haven’t seen much – if any – growth in tax-happy nations such as Greece, Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Spain, and the United Kingdom?

What we really need are examples of nations that have reduced the burden of government spending. Then we can compare those results with nations that have tried Keynesianism and nations that have tried tax increases.

Sadly, we only have a few examples of this smaller-government approach. But we get very positive results.

The burden of government spending was reduced during the Reagan years and Clinton years, for instance, and the economy enjoyed good growth in both periods.

Canada was even more aggressive about reducing the size of the state during the 1990s. Their economy also did quite well, notwithstanding Keynesian dogma.

I suspect Keynesians would respond to these examples by asserting it’s okay – at least in theory – to restrain spending if the economy isn’t in recession.*

But then how do they respond to the experience of the Baltic nations? When the financial crisis hit a few years ago, those governments imposed genuine spending cuts and largely avoided the big tax hikes that have plagued other European nations.

Now Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia are enjoying impressive growth while the nations that raised taxes seem stuck in perpetual recession.**

So let’s recap. When nations try Keynesianism, they get bad result because more government spending isn’t conducive to growth.

When nations raise taxes, they get bad results because you don’t get more growth by penalizing work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship.

But when nations reduce the burden of government spending and leave more resources in the productive sector, the economy recovers.

Seems like one side can declare victory and spike the football, but it’s not Paul Krugman and the Keynesians.

*I’m guessing one would be hard pressed to find any examples of modern-day Keynesians ever supporting fiscal restraint.

**Krugman tried to undermine the Baltic model of fiscal restraint by attacking Estonia, but wound up with egg on his face.

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Back in 2010, I shared a remarkable graph comparing the predictions of economists to what actually happened.

Not surprisingly, the two lines don’t exactly overlap, which explains the old joke that economists have correctly predicted nine of the last five recessions.

It’s not that economists are totally useless. It’s just that they don’t do a very good job when they venture into the filed of macroeconomics, as Russ Roberts succinctly explained. And they look especially foolish when they try to engage in forecasting.

But at least economists sometimes can be entertaining, though usually in the laughing-at-you rather than laughing-with-you way.

Consider, for instance, the escapades of one of Portugal’s leading economic analysts. Here’s some of what the UK-based Guardian recently reported.

As an ex-presidential consultant, a former adviser to the World Bank, a financial researcher for the United Nations and a professor in the US, Artur Baptista da Silva’s outspoken attacks on Portugal’s austerity cuts made the bespectacled 61-year-old one of the country’s leading media pundits last year.  …Mr Baptista da Silva…claimed to be a social economics professor at Milton College – a private university in Wisconsin, US…and to be masterminding a UN research project into the effects of the recession on southern European countries.

Promoting more government spending

Promoting more government spending

Mr. da Silva was sort of the Paul Krugman of Portugal, working with the left and urging Keynesian policy.

Blessed with such an impressive CV, Mr Baptista’s subsequent criticisms of the Lisbon government’s far-reaching austerity cuts, as well as dire warnings that the UN planned to take action against it, struck a deep chord with its financially beleaguered population. According to the Spanish newspaper El País, his powerfully delivered comments at a debate at the International Club, a prestigious Lisbon cultural and social organisation last month, were greeted with thunderous applause and a part-standing ovation. Then, in a double page interview in the weekly newspaper Expresso in mid-December, Mr Baptista da Silva continued to denounce the government’s policies. That was followed by an interview for the radio station TSF, appearances in high-profile television debates and well-publicised meetings with trade union leaders to advise them on economic policies.

But it turns out that there was a tiny problem with Mr. da Silva’s resume. At least if “tiny” is the right way to describe a total fraud.

The only problem was that Mr Baptista da Silva is none of the above. He turned out to be a convicted forger with fake credentials and, following his spectacular hoodwinking of Portuguese society, he could soon face fraud charges. …in the country’s jails, Mr Baptista da Silva’s sudden appearance among the intellectual elite caused amazement among his former cellmates. …Mr Baptista da Silva’s comeuppance began when the UN confirmed to a Portuguese TV station last month that he did not work for the organisation, not even as a volunteer, as he later alleged. Further media investigations uncovered his prison record and fake university titles… Mr Baptista da Silva has now disappeared completely from public life, and there are reports he is under investigation for fraud charges by the police.

I guess if he was intentionally misrepresenting himself, that perhaps da Silva should go back to jail. Though a lot of real economists and almost all politicians should be in prison as well if that’s the standard.

Let me close by making a serious point. Economists do not hold some magic source of knowledge about public policy. So I’ve never objected when journalists, political scientists, laymen, and others engage in debates about economic policy.

The key to good economic analysis, as Bastiat explained in the 1800s, is looking at the seen and the unseen. And you don’t have to be an economist to recognize that the secondary and tertiary effects of public policy are very important.

Indeed, if Paul Krugman’s any indication, maybe it’s better not to be an economist.

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Good fiscal policy doesn’t require heavy lifting. Governments simply need to limit the burden of government spending.

The key variable is making sure spending doesn’t consume ever-larger shares of economic output. In other words, follow Mitchell’s Golden Rule.

It’s possible for a nation to have a large public sector and be fiscally stable. Growth won’t be very impressive, but big government doesn’t automatically mean collapse. Sweden and Denmark are good role models for this approach.

And it’s even easier for a jurisdiction to have a small government and be fiscally stable, particularly since less spending and lower taxes are associated with prosperity. Hong Kong, Singapore, and Switzerland are good examples.

Unfortunately, many nations face fiscal death spirals. The burden of government spending keeps climbing, while private sectors gets hit over and over again with higher taxes. This destructive combination inevitably leads to fiscal collapse.

I’ve warned about potential fiscal crises in France, Greece, and the United Kingdom. I’ve even noted that the United States has a very dismal future if government policy stays on autopilot.

More spending and higher taxes!

But Japan may be poster child for reckless and irresponsible tax and spending policy.

Even though the public sector already is far too big and even though the government has incurred more debt than any other developed economy, the new Prime Minster thinks another Keynesian stimulus package is the recipe for economic revival.

I’m not joking. Even though the economy has been stagnant for 20 years – a period that has seen several so-called stimulus schemes, the government wants to throw good money after bad.

You won’t be surprised to learn that the New York Times approves of this new pork-fest.

The $116 billion stimulus package unveiled Friday by Japan’s new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, is a step in the right direction… Mr. Abe’s package of public-works spending…, investment tax credits and more spending on education and health care could help jump start the moribund Japanese economy. … Some forward-looking steps, like expanded health care spending, are already in the stimulus package.

Though if you read the entire editorial, at least the NYT acknowledged that this so-called stimulus should be accompanied by some long-term reforms such as fewer subsidies for politically powerful sectors of the Japanese economy.

Japan’s Fiscal Suicide

Now let’s shift to the tax side of the fiscal equation. We know that Japan has some of the highest tax rates in the industrialized world. Indeed, until last year, Japan was the only nation to have a higher corporate tax rate than the United States.

These high tax rates undermine competitiveness and hamper growth. Simply stated, the government is discouraging work, saving, investment, entrepreneurship, and other productive behaviors.

So what do you think the Japanese government is planning? You guessed it. Even higher tax rates. Here are some excerpts from a story at Tax-news.com.

…the ruling Liberal Democratic  Party (LDP) and its coalition partner, New Komeito, have now turned their attention  to ways to revise taxation, including increased taxes for the wealthiest taxpayers. …While there may be some disagreement within the coalition concerning an inheritance   tax rate rise for the largest estates, which is supported by New Komeito, there   is expected to be less of a problem over raising individual income tax rates   for the highest-earners. A progressive tax package, which might, for example, raise the present highest   40% income tax rate and reduce the JPY50m inheritance tax exemption amount,   is likely to be announced at a coalition meeting expected later this month.

I’m not going to pretend that I know when Japan’s economy implodes, but I think that collapse is almost inevitable at this point. Class warfare tax policy and Keynesian fiscal policy are not a recipe for a good outcome.

The real mystery is why both a state and a nation on the other side of the Pacific Ocean want to copy Japan’s suicidal fiscal policy?

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