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Archive for April 20th, 2013

I’m not a very exciting guy. It’s Saturday afternoon and I’m perusing the Budget and Economic Outlook from the Congressional Budget Office.

But sometimes it pays to be a nerd because I just found an interesting tidbit of information. Here’s what CBO says about the anemic economic output we’re experiencing compared to the growth we should be enjoying.

…output is likely to remain below its potential (or maximum sustainable) level until 2017—almost a decade after the recession started in December 2007. CBO estimates that real GDP in the fourth quarter of 2012 was below its potential level by about 5½ percent; that gap is only modestly smaller than the gap (of about 7½ percent) that existed at the end of the recession in mid-2009 because growth in output since then has been only slightly faster, on average, than growth in potential output.

Let’s translate this bit of jargon into English.

What CBO actually is saying is that the economy hasn’t enjoyed the bounce of above-average growth that normally follows a recession (and we have more than 130 years of data showing this is the normal pattern). As a result, instead of recovering all the lost output associated with the downturn, we’re still suffering from sub-par levels of output.

CBO specifically says that we were “about 5½ percent” below potential at the end of last year. That’s about $880 billion of lost output. Not exactly a ringing endorsement of Obamanomics.

But that’s just part of the story. CBO also looks at the cumulative output gap.

With such a large gap between actual and potential output persisting for so long, the cumulative loss of output relative to the economy’s potential between 2007 and 2017 will be equivalent to nearly half of the output produced last year.

Since output last year was $16 trillion, the cumulative output gap is $8 trillion. That’s a ton of money, even by Washington standards.

Here’s a chart from CBO showing this output gap.

CBO Obama Growth Gap

By the way, I’m not sure I believe CBO’s estimate that we’ll get back to the trend line by 2017. Why expect good things when the economy is saddled by excessive taxation, wasteful spending, and burdensome regulation?

CBO Obama Growth Gap 2All that we know for sure is that the economy has been lagging, which is starkly evident if we simply look at actual data.

By the way, if you think I’m cherry picking numbers to make Obama look bad, my first reaction is to laugh since CBO leans way to the left and has zero reason to make Obama look bad. Remember, these are the clowns that tried to justify Obama’s Keynesian stimulus scheme.

But if you don’t want to believe the CBO data for inexplicable reasons, how about the Washington Post, which certainly is on the left side of the political spectrum? Surely they’re not part of the vast right-wing conspiracy, right?

Check out this chart they posted comparing the current recovery to a normal recovery, though you won’t be surprised to learn that they conveniently waited until after the election before sharing this vital bit of information.

Or what about the Minneapolis Federal Reserve, which has an interactive website enabling a reader to compare all the business cycles since the end of World War II.

These charts show both employment and output for every one of those business cycles. You can click to see larger versions, but all you need to know is that the current business cycle is the red line – and it happens to show that Obamanomics has generated the worst results whether we’re looking at jobs of GDP.

Minn Fed Data

None of this is to suggest, by the way, that Obama’s policies caused the recession. That happened on Bush’s watch.

But I am stating that Obama’s big-government policies have played a role in keeping the economy from enjoying a strong recovery. That’s been no post-recession bounce.

Ronald Reagan also inherited a dismal economy. He had to deal with high interest rates and inflation rather than a banking crisis, so I don’t know which President was dealt a worse hand of cards. But I know that Reagan’s policies of free markets and smaller government helped trigger an economic boom.

Obama, by contrast, basically has continued Bush’s policies of intervention and bigger government. No wonder we’re suffering a multi-trillion dollar output gap.

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I wrote last September that the budget plan put forward by Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson was fatally flawed.

There were some positive features in the plan, to be sure, such as lower marginal tax rates. And I suppose it’s worth noting that the burden of government spending didn’t climb as fast under their proposal as it did in Obama’s budget, though that’s hardly an accomplishment.

Cartoon Fiscal Cliff 7But there were lots of fatal flaws in the Bowles-Simpson plan. It included a big tax increase, even though America’s fiscal problem is entirely the result of too much spending.

Moreover, the so-called entitlement reform in Bowles-Simpson wasn’t reform. It was basically a random package of means testing and price controls, and we have lots of experience showing that this approach doesn’t yield sustainable savings.

Well, Bowles and Simpson now have a new plan. Have they learned from their past mistakes? Have they responded to earlier criticisms? Have they made a more serious effort to restrain spending? To genuinely reform entitlements? To shut down useless agencies, programs, and department?

Not that you’ll be surprised, but the answer to all those questions is a big fat NO. Ryan Ellis of Americans for Tax Reform has a short analysis of the plan’s shortcomings and here are some of the highlights (though lowlights might be a better word).

The Simpson-Bowles plan headline report says it only raises taxes by $585 billion over a decade by eliminating or limiting tax deductions and credits (beyond what is needed to lower rates). …However, the plan also calls for “Chained CPI,” which the President’s FY 2014 budget says raises taxes by another $100 billion over the decade, and this plan’s Figure 21 (buried deep in the appendix) says will raise taxes by $124 billion. …There’s a third hidden tax increase, again only to be found buried in Figure 21.  This is “program integrity,” which is a polite euphemism for creating a fishing expedition audit slush fund for the IRS.  This is expected to raise another $30 billion by 2023. Put it all together, and the plan raises taxes by $739 billion over the next decade. …All of the tax hikes described above are just the first stage of new tax hikes in the Simpson-Bowles plan.  There’s also a shadowy “Step Four” which calls for even deeper tax increases to “fix” the entitlement crisis.

In other words, the plan is taxes, then more taxes, followed by additional taxes, topped off by a promise of even more taxes.

Ryan also notes that the plan doesn’t do anything about the fiscal disaster of Obamacare and that it also exacerbates the tax code’s punitive bias by increasing double taxation of income that is saved and invested.

Gee, what’s not to love about such a proposal?

Nonetheless, a lot of people feel compelled to say nice things about Bowles-Simpson. I don’t know whether it’s because they blindly assume a “bipartisan” plan must be good.

Or perhaps they think that a plan needs to be “balanced” between tax increases and spending cuts.

I don’t have any objection to bipartisanship, assuming politicians are proposing good ideas, but let’s take a closer look at this notion of “balance.”

  1. Why should we raise taxes when the current fiscal mess is the result of the excessive spending of the Bush-Obama years?
  2. Why should we raise taxes when the long-run fiscal mess is the result of rising spending caused by poorly designed entitlement programs?
  3. Why should we raise taxes when the “spending cuts” we get in exchange are based on dishonest Washington budget math?
  4. Why should we raise taxes when bitter experience teaches us that politicians will simply raise spending?

Let’s close by elaborating on this final question. A couple of years ago, a columnist at the New York Times complained that Republicans used to be much more susceptible to getting seduced by these “balanced” budget deals.

But the reporter inadvertently showed that tax-hike deals are a mistake. It turns out that the only budget deal which actually worked was the one in 1997 that lowered taxes instead!

I’m not making an argument for the Laffer Curve, by the way. The fiscal success of the late 1990s was a result of genuine spending restraint, as explained in this video. The lower taxes were simply a bit of icing on the cake.

My main point is that genuine fiscal restraint is far less likely to happen if tax hikes are on the table. After all, why would politicians have any incentive to do the right thing if there’s a possibility of simply siphoning more money from the economy’s productive sector?

We see the same pattern in other nations. When governments such as Canada and New Zealand actually imposed genuine limits on the growth of government spending, good things happened.

But when governments supposedly try to deal with fiscal problems by raising taxes, you get dismal results. Just look at mess in Europe, where tax increases have been nine times larger than spending cuts.

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