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Posts Tagged ‘Economic growth’

Switzerland’s left-wing party has instigated a referendum for November 24 that asks voters to limit pay ranges so that a company wouldn’t be able to pay top employees more than 12 times what they’re paying their lowest-level employees.

I talked with Neil Cavuto about this proposal and made several (hopefully) cogent points.

Since Swiss voters already have demonstrated considerable wisdom (rejecting a class-warfare tax proposal in 2010 and imposing a cap on government spending in 2001), I predicted they will reject the plan. And I pointed out that Switzerland’s comparatively successful system is a result of not letting government have too much power over the economy.

But I don’t want to focus today on the Swiss referendum. Instead, I want to expand on my final point, which deals with the misguided belief by some on the left that the economy is a fixed pie and that you have to penalize the rich in order to help the poor.

I’ve covered this issue before, and I even tried to educate a PBS audience that economic growth is key.

But maybe this chart is the most persuasive bit of evidence. It shows per-capita GDP in France and Hong Kong over the past 50 or so years. France is a nation that prides itself of redistribution to “help” the poor while Hong Kong is famous for having the most economic freedom of any jurisdiction.

Now look at this data and ask yourself whether you’d rather be a poor person in France or Hong Kong?

Hong Kong v France Per-Capita GDP

Since Hong Kong is richer and is growing faster, the obvious answer is that poor people in France almost surely face a bleaker outlook.

In other words, the welfare state can give you the basic necessities and allow you to survive (at least until the house of cards collapses), but it comes at a very high cost of lower growth and diminished opportunity.

The moral of the story is that prosperity is best achieved by a policy of free markets and small government.

P.S. If you want more evidence on the superiority of markets over statism, check out the comparison of South Korea and North Korea and the difference between Chile, Argentina, and Venezuela. Heck, even the data comparing America and Europe show similar results.

P.P.S. As you might expect, Margaret Thatcher addressed this issue in a brilliant fashion.

P.P.P.S. There’s a lot to like about Sweden, but click here if you want to see an impossibly absurd example from that nation of the equality-über-alles mentality.

P.P.P.P.S. There is some very interesting academic research that suggests humans are hard-wired by evolution to be statists. Let’s hope that’s not true.

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One of the reasons why this blog is called International Liberty is that the world is a laboratory, with some nations (such as France) showing why statism is a mistake, other jurisdictions (such as Hong Kong) showing that freedom is a key to prosperity, and other countries (such as Sweden) having good and bad features.

It’s time to include Chile in the list of nations with generally good policies. That nation’s transition from statism and dictatorship to freedom and prosperity must rank as one of the most positive developments over the past 30 years.

Here’s some of what I wrote with Julia Morriss for the Daily Caller. Let’s start with the bad news.

Thirty years ago, Chile was a basket case. A socialist government in the 1970s had crippled the economy and destabilized society, leading to civil unrest and a military coup. Given the dismal situation, it’s no surprise that Chile’s economy was moribund and other Latin American countries, such as Mexico, Venezuela, and Argentina, had about twice as much per-capita economic output.

Realizing that change was necessary, the nation began to adopt pro-market reforms. Many people in the policy world are at least vaguely familiar with the system of personal retirement accounts that was introduced in the early 1980s, but we explain in the article that pension reform was just the beginning.

Let’s look at how Chile became the Latin Tiger. Pension reform is the best-known economic reform in Chile. Ever since the early 1980s, workers have been allowed to put 10 percent of their income into a personal retirement account. This system, implemented by José Piñera, has been remarkably successful, reducing the burden of taxes and spending and increasing saving and investment, while also producing a 50-100 percent increase in retirement benefits. Chile is now a nation of capitalists. But it takes a lot more than entitlement reform, however impressive, to turn a nation into an economic success story. What made Chile special was across-the-board economic liberalization.

We then show the data (on a scale of 1-10) from the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World, which confirm significant pro-market reforms in just about all facets of economic policy over the past three decades.

But have these reforms made a difference for the Chilean people? The answer seems to be a firm yes.

This has meant good things for all segments of the population. The number of people below the poverty line dropped from 40 percent to 20 percent between 1985 and 1997 and then to 15.1 percent in 2009. Public debt is now under 10 percent of GDP and after 1983 GDP grew an average of 4.6 percent per year. But growth isn’t a random event. Chile has prospered because the burden of government has declined. Chile is now ranked number one for freedom in its region and number seven in the world, even ahead of the United States.

But I think the most important piece of evidence (building on the powerful comparison in this chart) is in the second table we included with the article.

Chile’s per-capita GDP has increased by about 130 percent, while other major Latin American nations have experienced much more modest growth (or, in the tragic case of Venezuela, almost no growth).

Perhaps not as impressive as the performance of Hong Kong and Singapore, but that’s to be expected since they regularly rank as the world’s two most pro-market jurisdictions.

But that’s not to take the limelight away from Chile. That nation’s reforms are impressive – particularly considering the grim developments of the 1970s. So our takeaway is rather obvious.

The lesson from Chile is that free markets and small government are a recipe for prosperity. The key for other developing nations is to figure out how to achieve these benefits without first suffering through a period of socialist tyranny and military dictatorship.

Heck, if other developing nations learn the right lessons from Chile, maybe we can even educate policy makers in America about the benefits of restraining Leviathan.

P.S. One thing that Julia and I forgot to include in the article is that Chile has reformed its education system with vouchers, similar to the good reforms in Sweden and the Netherlands.

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I’m in Vilnius, Lithuania, where I just finished speaking to a regional conference of the European Students for Liberty.

I subjected the kids to more than 90 minutes of pontificating and 73 PowerPoint slides, but I could have saved them a lot of time if I simply showed them this Rahn Curve video and then posted just one slide – the one showing that the burden of government spending in Europe used to be very small.

This slide shows that government spending used to consume only about 10 percent of European economic output in the 1800s and less than 15 percent of GDP as late as 1913.

I explained to the students that it was during this period of small government that Europe became a rich continent. It was back during this time that most European nations didn’t have income taxes, so there wasn’t big government to misallocate economic output, and there weren’t high tax rates to discourage economic output.

So no wonder Europe went from agricultural poverty to middle class prosperity (and here’s a post where I specifically discuss how Denmark became prosperous when government was small).

To be sure, fiscal policy is not the only variable that determines prosperity, and I gave some big caveats about the importance of good monetary policy, good trade policy, good regulatory policy, etc, etc.

In my conclusion, I offered the students a good news scenario and bad news scenario. The good news is that we know how Europe became rich and we know that a return to small government and free markets will enable Europe to again enjoy rapid growth.

The bad news is that Europe will probably move in the wrong direction rather than right direction. I shared this data from the Bank for International Settlements, showing that even supposedly sober-minded and prudent nations such as Germany and the Netherlands are going to face Greek-Style fiscal crises.

Which is why I was only half-joking during the Q&A session when I suggested that the students stock up on guns and ammo. If and when the continent-wide fiscal crisis occurs (because Europe has poorly designed entitlement programs, just like America), and there’s no Germany or no IMF to provide bailouts, the looters and the moochers are going to switch from being run-of-the-mill rioters and instead become marauding gangs.

In that Mad Max Dystopia, as I explained last year on the NRA’s TV program, the ability to engage in self defense will be highly prized.

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I have great fondness for Estonia, in part because it was the first post-communist nation to adopt the flat tax, but also because of the country’s remarkable scenery.

Most recently, though, I’ve been bragging about Estonia (along with Latvia and Lithuania, the other two Baltic nations) for implementing genuine spending cuts. I’ve argued that Estonia is showing how a government can reignite growth by reducing the burden of government.

Not surprisingly, some people disagree with my analysis. Paul Krugman of the New York Times criticized Estonia yesterday, writing that the Baltic nation suffered a “Depression-level slump” in 2008 and has only managed an “incomplete recovery” over the past few years.

He blames this supposedly weak performance on “austerity.”

I have a positive and negative reaction to Krugman’s post. My positive reaction is that he’s talking about a nation that actually has cut spending, so there’s real public-sector austerity (see Veronique de Rugy’s L.A. Times column to understand the critical difference between public-sector and private-sector austerity).

This is a sign of progress. In the past, he launched a silly attack on the U.K. for a “government pullback” that never happened, so what he wrote about Estonia at least is based on real events.

My negative reaction is that Krugman is very guilty of cherry-picking data. If you look at the chart that accompanies his post, Estonia’s economic performance isn’t very impressive, but that’s because he’s only showing us the data from 2007-present.

The numbers are accurate, but they’re designed to mislead rather than inform (sort of as if I did a chart showing 2009-present).

But before exposing that bit of trickery, there’s another mistake worth noting. Krugman presumably wants us to think that the downturn coincided with spending cuts. But his own chart shows that the economy hit the skids in 2008 – a year in which  government spending in Estonia soared by nearly 18 percent according to EU fiscal data!

It wasn’t until 2009 that Estonian lawmakers began to reduce the burden of spending. So I guess Professor Krugman wants us to believe that the economy tanked in 2008 because of expectations of 2009 austerity. Or something like that.

Returning now to my complaint about cherry picking data, Krugman makes Estonia seem stagnant by looking only at data starting in 2007. But as you can see from this second chart, Estonia’s long-run economic performance is quite exemplary. It has doubled its economic output in just 15 years according to the International Monetary Fund. Over that entire period – including the recent downturn, it has enjoyed one of the fastest growth rates in Europe.

This doesn’t mean Estonia is perfect. It did experience a credit/real estate bubble, and there was a deep recession when the bubble burst. And the politicians let government spending explode during the bubble years, almost doubling the budget between 2004 and 2008.

But Estonia reacted to the overspending and the downturn in a very responsible fashion. Instead of using the weak economy as an excuse to further expand the burden of government spending in hopes that Keynesian economics would magically work (after failing for Hoover and Roosevelt in the 1930s, Japan in the 1990s, Bush in 2008, and Obama in 2009), the Estonians realized that they needed to cut spending.

And now that spending has been curtailed, it’s worth noting that growth has resumed.

What makes Krugman’s rant especially amusing is that he wrote it just as the rest of the world is beginning to notice that Estonia is a role model. Here’s some of what CNBC just posted.

Sixteen months after it joined the struggling currency bloc, Estonia is booming. The economy grew 7.6 percent last year, five times the euro-zone average. Estonia is the only euro-zone country with a budget surplus. National debt is just 6 percent of GDP, compared to 81 percent in virtuous Germany, or 165 percent in Greece. Shoppers throng Nordic design shops and cool new restaurants in Tallinn, the medieval capital, and cutting-edge tech firms complain they can’t find people to fill their job vacancies. It all seems a long way from the gloom elsewhere in Europe. Estonia’s achievement is all the more remarkable when you consider that it was one of the countries hardest hit by the global financial crisis. …How did they bounce back? “I can answer in one word: austerity. Austerity, austerity, austerity,” says Peeter Koppel, investment strategist at the SEB Bank. …that’s not exactly the message that Europeans further south want to hear. …Estonia has also paid close attention to the fundamentals of establishing a favorable business environment: reducing and simplifying taxes, and making it easy and cheap to build companies.

Good policy makes a difference. But it also helps to have rational citizens (unlike France, where people vote for economic illiterates and protest against reality).

While spending cuts have triggered strikes, social unrest and the toppling of governments in countries from Ireland to Greece, Estonians have endured some of the harshest austerity measures with barely a murmur. They even re-elected the politicians that imposed them. “It was very difficult, but we managed it,” explains Economy Minister Juhan Parts. “Everybody had to give a little bit. Salaries paid out of the budget were all cut, but we cut ministers’ salaries by 20 percent and the average civil servants’ by 10 percent,” Parts told GlobalPost. …As well as slashing public sector wages, the government responded to the 2008 crisis by raising the pension age, making it harder to claim health benefits and reducing job protection — all measures that have been met with anger when proposed in Western Europe.

It’s worth noting, by the way, that government is still far too big in Estonia. The public sector consumes about 39 percent of economic output, almost double the burden of government spending in Hong Kong and Singapore.

But, unlike certain American politicians, at least the Estonians understand the problem and are taking steps to move in the right direction. I hope they continue.

P.S. The President of Estonia, a Social Democrat named Toomas Hendrik Ilves, used his twitter account to kick the you-know-what out of Krugman yesterday. For amusement value, check out this HuffingtonPost article.

P.P.S. A few other nations, such as Canada and New Zealand, also imposed genuine spending restraint in recent decades and they also got good results.

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It seems I was put on the planet to educate people about the negative economic impact of excessive government. Though I must be doing a bad job because the burden of the public sector keeps rising.

But hope springs eternal. To help make the case, I’ve cited research from international bureaucracies such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and European Central Bank. And since most of those organizations lean to the left, these results should be particularly persuasive.

I’ve also cited the work of academic scholars from all over the world, including the United States, Australia, and Sweden. The evidence is very persuasive that big government is associated with weaker economic performance.

Now we have some new research from the United Kingdom. The Centre for Policy Studies has released a new study, authored by Ryan Bourne and Thomas Oechsle,  examining the relationship between economic growth and the size of the public sector.

The chart compares growth rates for nations with big governments and small governments over the past two decades. The difference is significant, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The most important findings of the report are the estimates showing how more spending and more taxes are associated with weaker performance.

Here are some key passages from the study.

Using tax to GDP and spending to GDP ratios as a proxy for size of government, regression analysis can be used to estimate the effect of government size on GDP growth in a set of countries defined as advanced by the IMF between 1965 and 2010. …As supply-side economists would expect, the coefficients on the tax revenue to GDP and government spending to GDP ratios are negative and statistically significant. This suggests that, ceteris paribus, a larger tax burden results in a slower annual growth of real GDP per capita. Though it is unlikely that this effect would be linear (we might expect the effect to be larger for countries with huge tax burdens), the regressions suggest that an increase in the tax revenue to GDP ratio by 10 percentage points will, if the other variables do not change, lead to a decrease in the rate of economic growth per capita by 1.2 percentage points. The result is very similar for government outlays to GDP, where an increase by 10 percentage points is associated with a fall in the economic growth rate of 1.1 percentage points.16 This is in line with other findings in the academic literature. …The two small government economies with the lowest marginal tax rates, Singapore and Hong Kong, were also those which experienced the fastest average real GDP growth.

The folks at CPS also put together a short video to describe the results. It’s very well done, though I’m not a big fan of the argument near then end that faster growth is a good thing because it generates more tax revenue to finance more government. Since I’m a big proponent of the Laffer Curve, I don’t disagree with the premise, but I would argue that additional revenues should be used to finance lower tax rates.

Since I’m nit-picking, I’ll also say that the study should have emphasized that government spending is bad for growth because it inevitably and necessarily leads to the inefficient allocation of resources, and that would be true even if revenues magically floated down from heaven and there was no need for punitive tax rates.

This is my message in this video on the Rahn Curve.

When the issue is government, size matters, and bigger is not better.

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One hopes that the dictator of North Korea suffered greatly before he died. After all, his totalitarian and communist (pardon the redundancy) policies caused untold death and misery.

But let’s try to learn an economics lesson. In a previous post, I compared  long-term growth in Hong Kong and Argentina to show the difference between capitalism and cronyism.

But for a much more dramatic comparison, look at the difference between North Korea and South Korea. Hmmm…, I wonder if we can conclude that markets are better than statism?

And if you like these types of comparisons, here’s a post showing how Singapore has caught up with the United States. And here’s another comparing what’s happened in the past 30 years in Chile, Argentina, and Venezuela.

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The folks from the Koch Institute put together a great video a couple of months ago looking at why some nations are rich and others are poor.

That video looked at the relationship between economic freedom and various indices that measure quality of life. Not surprisingly, free markets and small government lead to better results.

Now they have a new video that looks at recent developments in the United States. Unfortunately, you will learn that the U.S. is slipping in the wrong direction.

The entire video is superb, but there are two things that merit special praise, one because of intellectual honesty and the other because of intellectual effectiveness.

1. The refreshingly honest aspect of the video is its non-partisan tone. It explains, in a neutral fashion, that Bush undermined prosperity by making government bigger and that Obama is undermining prosperity by increasing the burden of government.

2. The most important and effective argument in the video, at least from my perspective, is that it shows clearly that a larger government necessarily comes at the expense of the productive sector of the economy. Pay extra-close attention around the 2:00 mark.

It’s also worth pointing out that there are several policies that impact on economic performance. The Koch Institute video focuses primarily on the key issues of fiscal policy and regulation, but trade, monetary policy, property rights, and rule of law are examples of other policies that also are very important.

This video, narrated by yours truly, looks at economic growth from this more comprehensive perspective.

The moral of the story from both videos is very straightforward. If the answer is bigger government, you’ve asked a very strange question.

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Here’s a new video, less than 2-1/2 minutes, pointing out some of the key differences between rich nations and poor nations. Not surprisingly, small government, free markets, and sound institutions are critical.

I narrated a similar video, released more than two years ago, that makes similar points. The production values are not as high, but I had six minutes to play with, so it gave me an opportunity to elaborate on the various factors that contribute to growth. I think the videos are good complements.

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Alberto Alesina of Harvard’s economics department summarizes some of his research in a column for today’s Wall Street Journal. He and a colleague looked at fiscal policy changes in developed nations and found very strong evidence that spending reductions boost growth. This, of course, contrasts with the lack of evidence for the Keynesian notion that growth is stimulated by a bigger burden of government spending.

Politicians argue for increased stimulus spending, as opposed to spending cuts, on the grounds that it would speed up economic recovery. This argument might have it exactly backward. Indeed, history shows that cutting spending in order to reduce deficits may be the key to promoting economic recovery. …recent stimulus packages have proven that the “multiplier”—the effect on GDP per one dollar of increased government spending—is small. Stimulus spending also means that tax increases are coming in the future; such increases will further threaten economic growth. Economic history shows that even large adjustments in fiscal policy, if based on well-targeted spending cuts, have often led to expansions, not recessions. Fiscal adjustments based on higher taxes, on the other hand, have generally been recessionary. My colleague Silvia Ardagna and I recently co-authored a paper examining this pattern, as have many studies over the past 20 years. Our paper looks at the 107 large fiscal adjustments—defined as a cyclically adjusted deficit reduction of at least 1.5% in one year—that took place in 21 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries between 1970 and 2007. …Our results were striking: Over nearly 40 years, expansionary adjustments were based mostly on spending cuts, while recessionary adjustments were based mostly on tax increases. …In the same paper we also examined years of large fiscal expansions, defined as increases in the cyclically adjusted deficit by at least 1.5% of GDP. Over 91 such cases, we found that tax cuts were much more expansionary than spending increases. How can spending cuts be expansionary? First, they signal that tax increases will not occur in the future, or that if they do they will be smaller. A credible plan to reduce government outlays significantly changes expectations of future tax liabilities. This, in turn, shifts people’s behavior. Consumers and especially investors are more willing to spend if they expect that spending and taxes will remain limited over a sustained period of time. On the other hand, fiscal adjustments based on tax increases reduce consumers’ disposable income and reduce incentives for productivity. …Europe seems to have learned the lessons of the past decades: In fact, all the countries currently adjusting their fiscal policy are focusing on spending cuts, not tax hikes. Yet fiscal policy in the U.S. will sooner or later imply higher taxes if spending is not soon reduced. The evidence from the last 40 years suggests that spending increases meant to stimulate the economy and tax increases meant to reduce deficits are unlikely to achieve their goals. The opposite combination might.

Alesina’s research echoes the findings in dozens of other studies, a few of which are cited in this Center for Freedom and Prosperity video I narrated.

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One of the main factors determining incumbent election success is economic performance. When disposable income is rising and people feel good about the future, it is difficult for an incumbent to lose. So why, then, is Obama pursuing policies that are undermining growth? Sure, it is in the interests of the left in the long run to create more dependency on government. That’s one of the reasons why there is nothing resembling a free market party in most European nations. But America isn’t at that stage yet (thankfully). And as John Stossel writes, Obama’s bad government policy is causing joblessness and uncertainty. This is going to hurt Democrats this November and may linger until 2012, when Obama would suffer the consequences (in the unlikely event that Republicans put forth a semi-decent candidate).
Why isn’t the economy recovering? After previous recessions, unemployment didn’t get stuck at close to 10 percent. If left alone, the economy can and does heal itself, as the mistakes of the previous inflationary boom are corrected. The problem today is that the economy is not being left alone. Instead, it is haunted by uncertainty on a hundred fronts. When rules are unintelligible and unpredictable, when new workers are potential threats because of Labor Department regulations, businesses have little confidence to hire. President Obama’s vaunted legislative record not only left entrepreneurs with the burden of bigger government, it also makes it impossible for them to accurately estimate the new burden. In at least three big areas — health insurance, financial regulation and taxes — no one can know what will happen. …Nothing more effectively freezes business in place than what economist and historian Robert Higgs calls “regime uncertainty.”

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The news that China has surpassed Japan as the world’s second-largest economy has generated a lot of attention. It shouldn’t. There are roughly 10 times as many people in China as there are in Japan, so the fact that total gross domestic product in China is now bigger than total gross domestic product in Japan is hardly a sign of Chinese economic supremacy. Yes, China has been growing in recent decades, but it’s almost impossible not to grow when you start at the bottom – which is where China was in the late 1970s thanks to decades of communist oppression and mismanagement. And the growth they have experienced certainly has not been enough to overtake other nations based on measures that compare living standards. According to the World Bank, per capita GDP (adjusted for purchasing power parity) was $6,710 for China in 2009, compared to $33,280 for Japan (and $46,730 for the U.S.). If I got to choose where to be a middle-class person, China certainly wouldn’t be my first pick.

This is not to sneer at the positive changes in China. Hundreds of millions of people have experienced big increases in living standards. Better to have $6,710 of per capita GDP than $3,710. But China still has a long way to go if the goal is a vibrant and rich free-market economy. The country’s nominal communist leadership has allowed economic liberalization, but China is still an economically repressed nation. Economic Freedom of the World ranks China 82 out of 141, just one spot above Russia, and the Index of Economic Freedom has an even lower score, 140 out of 179 nations.

Hopefully, China will continue to move in the right direction. As Jonah Goldberg notes in his Townhall column, it is good for America to have China become a more prosperous nation.

Yes, technically, China’s gross domestic product is now slightly ahead of Japan’s. But GDP is a gross statistic. It doesn’t tell you nearly as much as you might think. In a very real way, China is still poorer than Japan. It’s also poorer than Tunisia, Ecuador, Gabon, Kazakhstan and Namibia. …China still has enormous problems, many of which aren’t reflected in its GDP growth rates, and without democracy, a free press and the rule of law, we can’t know what all of the problems are until they explode (and neither can the Chinese). But all of this misses the most important point. Economic “competitiveness” is a con. It assumes that when other countries prosper, America loses. That’s nonsense. If the average Chinese worker were as rich as the average Japanese worker, it would be an economic windfall for the United States. Conversely, if China’s economy imploded tomorrow, we would “gain” competitively but suffer economically. The cult of competitiveness is just a ruse used to justify the ambitions of economic planners and the pundits who worship them.

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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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Appearing on MSNBC, I explain why Reagan’s approach helped America. But I also warn that Obama is making America more like France.

For inexplicable reasons, some people have been giving me a hard time about my very snazzy jacket.

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If I was organized enough to send Christmas cards, I would take Richard Rahn off my list. I do one blog post to call attention to his Washington Times column and it seems like everybody in the world wants to jump down my throat. I already dismissed Paul Krugman’s rant and responded to Ezra Klein’s reasonable attack. Now it’s time to address Derek Thompson’s critique on the Atlantic’s site.
 
At the risk of re-stating someone else’s argument, Thompson’s central theme seems to be that there are many factors that determine economic performance and that it is unwise to make bold pronouncements about policy A causing result B. If that’s what Thompson is saying, I very much agree (and if it’s not what he’s trying to say, then I apologize, though I still agree with the sentiment). That’s why I referred to Reagan decreasing the burden of government and Obama increasing the burden of government. I wanted to capture all the policy changes that were taking place, including taxation, spending, monetary policy, regulation, etc.Yes, the flagship policies (tax reduction for Reagan and so-called stimulus for Obama) were important, but other factors obviously are part of the equation.
 
The biggest caveat, however, is that one should always be reluctant to make sweeping claims about what caused the economy to do X or Y in a given year. Economists are terrible forecasters, but we’re not even very proficient when it comes to hindsight analysis about short-run economic fluctuations. Indeed, the one part of my original post that causes me a bit of guilt is that I took the lazy route and inserted an image of the chart from Richard’s column. Excerpting some of his analysis would have been a better approach, particularly since I much prefer to focus on the impact of policies on long-run growth and competitiveness (which is what I did in my New York Post column from earlier this week and also why I’m reluctant to embrace Art Laffer’s warning of major economic problems in 2011).
 
But a blog post is no fun if you just indicate where you and a critic have common ground, so let me know identify four things about Thompson’s post that rubbed me the wrong way.
 
1. To reinforce his warning about making excessive claims about different recessions/recoveries, Thompson pointed out that someone could claim that Reagan’s recovery was associated with the 1982 TEFRA tax hike. I’ve actually run across people who think this is a legitimate argument, so it’s worth taking a moment to explain why it isn’t true. When analyzing the impact of tax policy changes, it’s important to look at when tax changes were implemented, not when they were enacted (data on annual tax rates available here). Reagan’s Economic Recovery Tax Act was enacted in 1981, but the lower tax rates weren’t fully implemented until 1984. This makes it a bit of a challenge to pinpoint when the economy actually received a net tax cut. The tax burden may have actually increased in 1981 since the parts of the Reagan tax cuts that took effect that year were offset by the impact of bracket creep (the tax code was not indexed to protect against inflation until the mid-1980s). There was a bigger tax rate reduction in 1982, but there was still bracket creep, as well as previously-legislated payroll tax increases (enacted during the Carter years). TEFRA also was enacted in 1982, which largely focused on undoing some of the business tax relief in Reagan’s 1981 plan. People have argued whether the repeal of promised tax relief is the same as a tax increase, but that’s not terribly important for this analysis. What does matter is that the tax burden did not fall much (if at all) in Reagan’s first year and might not have changed too much in 1982. In 1983, by contrast, it’s fairly safe to say the next stage of tax rate reductions was substantially larger than any concomitant tax increases. That doesn’t mean, of course, that one should attribute all changes in growth to what’s happening to the tax code. But it does suggest that it is a bit misleading to talk about tax cuts in 1981 and tax increases in 1983. One final point. The main insight of supply-side economics is that changes in the overall tax burden are not as important as changes in the tax structure. As such, it’s also important to look at which taxes were going up and which ones were decreasing. This is why Reagan’s 1981 tax plan compares so favorably with Bush’s 2001 tax plan (which was filled with tax credits and other policies that had little of no impact on incentives for productive behavior).
 
2. In addition to wondering whether one could argue that higher taxes triggered the Reagan boom, Thompson also speculates whether it might be possible to blame the tax cuts in Obama’s stimulus for the economy’s subsequent sub-par performance. There are two problems with that hypothesis. First, a substantial share of the tax cuts in the so-called stimulus were actually new spending being laundered through the tax code (see footnote 3 of this Joint Committee on Taxation publication). To the extent that the provisions represented real tax relief, they were much more akin to Bush’s non-supply side 2001 tax cuts and a far cry from the marginal tax-rate reductions enacted in 1981 and 2003. And since even big tax cuts have little or no impact on the economy if incentives to engage in productive behavior are unaffected, there is no reason to blame (or credit) Obama’s tax provisions for anything.
 
3. Why doesn’t anyone care that the Federal Reserve almost always is responsible for serious recessions? This isn’t a critique of Thompson’s post since he doesn’t address monetary policy from this angle, but if we go down the list of serious economic hiccups in recent history (1974-75, 1980-82, and 2008-09), bad monetary policy inevitably is a major cause. In short, the Fed periodically engages in easy-money policy. This causes malinvestment and/or inflation, and a recession seems to be an unavoidable consequence. Yet the Fed seems to dodge any serious blame. At some point, one hopes that policy makers (especially Fed Governors) will learn that easy money policies such as artificially low interest rates are not a smart approach.
 
4. Thompson writes, “Is Mitchell really saying that $140 billion on Medicaid, firefighters, teachers, and infrastructure projects are costing the economy five percentage points of economic growth?” No, I’m not saying that and didn’t say that, but I have been saying for quite some time that taking money out of the economy’s left pocket and putting it in the economy’s right pockets doesn’t magically increase prosperity. And to the extent money is borrowed from private capital markets and diverted to inefficient and counter-productive programs, the net impact on the economy is negative. Thompson also writes that, “Our unemployment picture is a little more complicated than ‘Oh my god, Obama is killing jobs by taking over the states’ Medicaid burden!'” Since I’m not aware of anybody who’s made that argument, I’m not sure how to respond. That being said, jobs will be killed by having Washington take over state Medicaid budgets. Such a move would lead to a net increase in the burden of government spending, and that additional spending would divert resources from the productive sector of the economy.
 
The moral of the story, though, is to let Richard Rahn publicize his own work.

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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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These results won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has compared long-run growth rates in Hong Kong, the United States, France, and North Korea, but there’s a new study by three economists showing that nations with better tax policy grow faster and create more jobs. There are many other factors that also determine growth, as this video explains, but punishing investors and entrepreneurs with high tax rates is never a good idea. Here’s a passage from the study’s abstract, including a specific warning about the anti-growth impact of Obama’s plan for higher taxes in 2011.
Results indicate that lower tax rates are associated with more favorable economic activity, including growth in GDP, lower unemployment, and higher savings. These findings suggest that at the micro-level, corporate managers should consider tax rates when deciding to locate or not locate business operations within a given country, especially if the goal is to locate where the economy is dynamic. At the macro-level, before making changes to tax law, policy makers should carefully consider how tax rates affect economic activity. For example, policy makers in the US Congress, at the time of this writing, are considering whether to allow the Bush tax cuts to expire in 2010. If the Congress allows that to happen, the outcome would effectively be the largest tax increase in US history.

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Since many of the politicians want America to be more like Europe (including full government-run healthcare), it’s worth contemplating what that would mean for the economy. America today is richer than Western Europe. Indeed, per-capita living standards are about 30 percent higher in the United States – and that’s according to the statists at the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (see page 6 of this report). And we have been growing faster, which presumably should not be the case according to convergence theory (see Annex Table No. 1 of this OECD database). It also seems that Europe’s economy is more likely to endure a double-dip recession. Bloomberg reports:

Europe’s economy may be coming unstuck from the global recovery as governments to the south of the region struggle to reverse budget deficits and consumers in the north pull back spending. After the 16-nation euro economy almost stagnated in the fourth quarter, data this week showed the weakness reaching into 2010. …“Europe is where we see the biggest risk of a double dip at the global level,” said Julian Callow, chief European economist at Barclays Capital in London. “Europe has been lagging and we’ve continued to see better numbers in Asia and now the U.S.” …“There are tentative signs that the U.S. economy may be pulling ahead from Europe,” Nelson said in a Feb. 23 report… “The sovereign debt crisis in Europe’s periphery reinforces drags on euro-area growth,” said Michael Saunders, an economist at Citigroup in London.

Irwin Stelzer, meanwhile, writes in the Washington Examiner about the same topic:

Europeans are comparing their close-to-zero growth rate in the last quarter of 2009 with our almost-6 percent growth. …We are growing and they are not. …Large numbers of shops in London are shuttered, students see no prospect of work when they graduate, and businessmen are groaning under rising tax burdens.

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A column in the Wall Street Journal mocks President Sarkozy for suggesting that gross domestic product, which is how economic growth is measured, be changed to include subjective variables such as happiness. This is a transparent attempt to paper over France’s sluggish economic performance. Happiness is important, of course, but it comes about by allowing people to make voluntary choices in a free society, not by creating involuntary leisure with stifling tax rates and welfare dependency:

French President Nicolas Sarkozy recently said he wanted the nations of the world to stop using GDP, or gross domestic product, as the main measure of their economic performance. He wants them instead to work up another metric that takes into account not only economic production but such things as environmental quality and even time not spent in traffic—a sort of gross national satisfaction index. France has excellent reason to suppress GDP statistics. Since 1982, among developed nations, France has been a clear laggard in GDP growth. In the quarter century following 1982, France’s GDP growth rate was a mere 2.1% per year in comparison to the U.S.’s 3.3%. Thus the U.S. grew at more than a 50% premium to France per year during that span. When the quarter century elapsed, Americans were one-third richer than the French. …countries of “old Europe” such as France and Italy that were content to stand pat with an overregulated private sector and tax rates well above 50% were left in the dust. In 2003, as the Iraq war got going, France complained that the U.S. was the world’s “hyperpower.” Yet France itself was partly responsible for this fate. …If Mr. Sarkozy’s statisticians ever come up with their new economic index, they should be sure it includes leisure time—because that is one thing the French economy excels at producing. In 2004, the year he won the Nobel Prize, economist Edward Prescott asked, in the title of a journal article, “Why Do Americans Work So Much More Than Europeans?” The answer, he found, was tax rates. Tax rates had fallen so much in the U.S. by that year that the American workforce couldn’t wait to get on the job—or start a business—because you got to keep so much of what you earned. In contrast, high and progressive French taxes left over from the 1970s lured people away from work, especially as they started doing well. So people came to take seven-hour days and six-week vacations, as well as not show any particular interest in striking out on their own in a work-intensive small business. The oldest and most pathetic trick in the book when you lose a contest is to try to move the goal posts. GDP statistics of the past quarter century have shamed France but flattered the U.S., Britain and East Asia. Mr. Sarkozy’s gambit to paper over this real difference will be lucky to find any takers.

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