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Archive for the ‘Keynes’ Category

I’m going to be in New York City next week to join with Richard Epstein as we participate in an Intelligence Squared debate against Mark Zandi and Cecilia Rouse.

I’m looking forward to this event because Richard Epstein is a rock star for freedom.

It also gave me an opportunity to pontificate on growth issues for Slate. Here’s what I wrote about Keynesianism.

Keynesianism is the economic version of a perpetual motion machine. It assumes you can take money out of the economy’s left pocket, put it in the economy’s right pocket (probably spilling a lot of it in the process), and somehow be richer as a result. A major problem with the theory is that supporters focus on how an economy’s output is allocated. Is it better for more of the economy’s output to be used for consumption? Or for investment? Or, as Keynesians often argue, should more of our output be used for government spending? But economic growth isn’t boosted by redistributing how gross domestic product is allocated. Economic growth happens when we get more gross domestic product. That is why policies that focus on incentives and disincentives are more likely to generate positive results.

And here’s what I suggested to get the economy going.

…tax reform, such as a flat tax, would be so helpful for job creation and competitiveness. But interim measures also would help, such as lowering the corporate tax rate (especially since the U.S. is tied with Japan for the highest corporate tax burden in the industrialized world). Implementing policies to restrain the burden of government spending also would be critically important. On the macro level, some sort of cap on government spending would help, such as the plans proposed by Sen. Corker of Tennessee and Rep. Brady of Texas. On the micro level, it’s important to figure out the programs, agencies, and departments that should be mothballed, both because they are not appropriate functions of the federal government and because they hinder prosperity.

The NYC debate is open to the public, by the way, though they do charge.

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The folks at U.S. News & World Report have posted an online debate on the never-ending topic: “Does Stimulus Spending Work?

You know my thoughts on the topic, including my thumbs-down to Obama’s latest stimulus scheme, so it won’t surprise you to know that I think Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center beat her three left-wing opponents (there was also a participant who served in the Bush Administration, but I don’t view his section as credible since he basically argued that stimulus spending is okay when GOPers are the ones wasting money).

Here’s some of what Veronique wrote.

…let’s look at the latest attempt to use government spending to jump start the economy: the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Three years after Congress passed that law, unemployment lingers over 9 percent, far above the promised 7.25 percent, and the economy remains weak. Clearly, the stimulus didn’t work as advertised. …The data show that stimulus money wasn’t targeted to those areas with the highest rate of unemployment. In fact, a majority of the spending was used to poach workers from existing jobs in firms where they might not be replaced. Finally, a review of historical stimulus efforts shows that temporary stimulus spending tends to linger. Two years after the initial stimulus, 95 percent of the new spending becomes permanent. …Research from Harvard Business School shows that federal spending in states causes local businesses to cut back rather than to grow. In other words, more government spending causes the private sector to shrink, the exact opposite of the intended result.

If anything, Veronique is too kind in her analysis. I would have pointed out that Keynesian stimulus didn’t work for Hoover and Roosevelt in the 1930s, Japan in the 1990s, or Bush in 2001 or 2008.

But how often do you find someone from France arguing for smaller government?

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Thomas Sowell just completed a three-part “Back to the Future” series, looking at a couple of fiscal policy issues. His unifying theme is how the political class fails (perhaps deliberately) to learn from mistakes.

In Part I, he decimates President Obama’s new stimulus scheme.

Once we get past the glowing rhetoric, what is the president proposing? More spending! Only the words have changed — from “stimulus” to “jobs” and from “shovel-ready projects” to “jobs for construction workers.” If government spending were the answer, we would by now have a booming economy with plenty of jobs, after all the record trillions of dollars that have been poured down a bottomless pit. Are we to keep on doing the same things, just because those things have been repackaged in different words? …When it comes to specific proposals, President Obama repeats the same kinds of things that have marked his past policies — more government spending for the benefit of his political allies, the construction unions and the teachers’ unions, and “thousands of transportation projects.” The fundamental fallacy in all of this is the notion that politicians can “grow the economy” by taking money out of the private sector and spending it wherever it is politically expedient to spend it — so long as they call spending “investment.”

In Part II, he exposes the historical illiteracy of folks who think government intervention ended the Great Depression.

The grand myth that has been taught to whole generations is that the government is “forced” to intervene in the economy when there is a downturn that leaves millions of people suffering. The classic example is the Great Depression of the 1930s. What most people are unaware of is that there was no Great Depression until AFTER politicians started intervening in the economy. There was a stock market crash in October 1929 and unemployment shot up to 9 percent — for one month. Then unemployment started drifting back down until it was 6.3 percent in June 1930, when the first major federal intervention took place. That was the Smoot-Hawley tariff bill, which more than a thousand economists across the country pleaded with Congress and President Hoover not to enact. But then, as now, politicians decided that they had to “do something.” Within 6 months, unemployment hit double digits. Then, as now, when “doing something” made things worse, many felt that the answer was to do something more. Both President Hoover and President Roosevelt did more — and more, and more. Unemployment remained in double digits for the entire remainder of the decade. Indeed, unemployment topped 20 percent and remained there for 35 months, stretching from the Hoover administration into the Roosevelt administration.

And in Part III, he explains how tax changes in the 1920s provide great evidence for the Laffer Curve.

Those who believe in high taxes on “the rich” got their way. The tax rate on people in the top income bracket was 73 percent in 1921. On the other hand, the rich also got their way: They didn’t actually pay those taxes. The number of people with taxable incomes of $300,000 a year and up — equivalent to far more than a million dollars in today’s money — declined from more than a thousand people in 1916 to less than three hundred in 1921. …More than four-fifths of the total taxable income earned by people making $300,000 a year and up vanished into thin air. So did the tax revenues that the government hoped to collect with high tax rates on the top incomes. …Mellon eventually got his way, getting Congress to bring the top tax rate down from 73 percent to 24 percent. Vast sums of money that had seemingly vanished into thin air suddenly reappeared in the economy, creating far more jobs and far more tax revenue for the government.

We could shorten all three of Sowell’s columns into one simple statement: Obama’s agenda of bigger government and class-warfare taxation will undermine America’s economy.

But that would be short-changing ourselves. Sowell’s writing is a model of clarity and logic – characteristics sorely lacking in Washington.

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Herman Cain probably had the best reaction to the President’s speech: “We waited 30 months for this?”

My reaction yesterday was mixed. In some sense, I was almost embarrassed for the President. He demanded a speech to a joint session of Congress and then produced a list of recycled (regurgitated might be a better word) Keynesian gimmicks.

But I was also angry. Tens of millions of Americans are suffering, but Obama is unwilling to admit big government isn’t working. I don’t know whether it’s because of ideological blindness or short-term politics, but it’s a tragedy that ordinary people are hurting because of his mistakes.

The Wall Street Journal this morning offered a similar response, but said it in a nicer way.

This is not to say that Mr. Obama hasn’t made any intellectual progress across his 32 months in office. He now admits the damage that overregulation can do, though he can’t do much to stop it without repealing his own legislative achievements. He now acts as if he believes that taxes matter to investment and hiring, at least for the next year. And he now sees the wisdom of fiscal discipline, albeit starting only in 2013. Yet the underlying theory and practice of the familiar ideas that the President proposed last night are those of the government conjurer. More targeted, temporary tax cuts; more spending now with promises of restraint later; the fifth (or is it sixth?) plan to reduce housing foreclosures; and more public works spending, though this time we’re told the projects really will be shovel-ready.

And let’s also note that Obama had the gall to demand that Congress immediately enact his plan – even though he hasn’t actually produced anything on paper!

And then, for the cherry on the ice cream sundae, he says he wants the so-called supercommittee to impose a bunch of class-warfare taxes to finance his latest scheme.

What began as tragedy has now become farce.

If you didn’t see it when I posted it a month or so ago, here’s the video I did last year when Obama was proposing a second faux stimulus. Now that he’s on his fourth of fifth jobs-bill/stimulus/growth-package/whatever, it’s worth another look.

Though I must confess that I made a mistake when I put together this video. I mistakenly assumed the economy would have at least managed to get back to a semi-decent level of growth. More confirmation that economists are lousy forecasters.

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President Obama will be unveiling another “jobs plan” tomorrow night, though Democrats are being careful not to call it stimulus after the failure of the $800 billion package from 2008.

But just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, bigger government is not good for the economy, regardless of how it is characterized.

Here are the most likely provisions for Obama’s new stimulus, as reported by the Associated Press, along with a grade reflecting whether the proposals will be effective.

o Payroll tax relief – C – This proposal won’t do any harm, but it probably won’t have much positive impact because people generally don’t make permanent decisions on creating jobs and expanding output on the basis of temporary tax cuts.

But, to be fair, if the tax cut keeps getting extended, people may begin to view it as a semi-permanent part of the tax code, which would make it a bit more potent.

o Extended unemployment benefits – F – I agree with Paul Krugman and Larry Summers, both of whom have written that you extend joblessness when you pay people to be unemployed for longer and longer periods of time.

And I recently produced a chart showing how long-term unemployment has jumped sharply since Obama entered the White House, a dismal result that almost surely is related to the numerous expansions of unemployment benefits.

o New-hire tax credit – D – This proposal actually would subsidize employment rather than joblessness, so it’s an improvement over extending unemployment benefits, but it’s unclear how the IRS can effectively enforce such a scheme.

This approach was tried already, as part of HIRE Act of 2010 (which was infamous for the FATCA provision), and it obviously didn’t generate great results. Simply stated, giving special tax breaks to companies with high employee turnover is not an effective approach.

o School construction subsidies – F – The federal government should have no role in education. Period.

That being said, the economic flaw of school construction spending-cum-stimulus is that government spending must be financed with either taxes or borrowing, both of which divert resources from the productive sector of the economy. Simply stated, Keynesian spending does not work.

o Temporary expensing of business investment – B – The current tax code penalize new business investment by forcing companies to “depreciate” those costs rather than “expense” them, thus forcing companies to artificially overstate profits. Temporary expensing mitigates this foolish bias.

But temporary tax cuts, as noted above, are unlikely to have a permanent impact on growth. Temporary expensing, however, will encourage companies to accelerate planned investment to take advantage of better tax treatment, so it can lead to more short-term economic activity (albeit perhaps by reducing economic activity in future years).

The only good news – at least relatively speaking – is that Obama supposedly will propose to misallocate $300 billion of resources, significantly less than what was squandered as part of he 2009 faux stimulus.

But the bad news is that the AP story also notes that “Obama has said he intends to propose long-term deficit reduction measures to cover the up-front costs of his jobs plan.” Translated into English, that means the gimmicks and new spending in the plan proposed tomorrow night will lead to proposed tax hikes at some point in the future.

More taxes and more spending. Hey, it worked for the Greeks, right?

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I’ve written extensively about the flaws of Keynesian economics, and I’ve even narrated a video on the flaws of Keynesian theory.

But this clever Lisa Benson cartoon may be more effective than anything I’ve ever done.

If you like cartoons that teach economics, check out this gem. It’s not on Keynesianism, but it’s very good.

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Just last week, I made fun of Paul Krugman after he publicly said that a fake threat from invading aliens would be good for the economy since the earth would waste a bunch of money on pointless defense outlays.

Yesterday, there were rumors that Krugman stated that it would have been stimulative if the earthquake had been stronger and done more damage, but he exposed this as a prank (though it is understandable that many people – including me, I’m embarrassed to admit – initially assumed it was true since he did write that the 9-11 terrorist attacks boosted growth).

 But while Krugman is owed an apology by whoever pulled that stunt, the real problem is that President Obama and his advisers actually take Keynesian alchemy seriously.

And since President Obama is promising to unveil another “jobs plan” after his vacation, that almost certainly means more faux stimulus.

We don’t know what will be in this new package, but there are rumors of an infrastructure bank, which doubtlessly would be a subsidy for state and local governments. The only thing “shovel ready” about this proposal is that tax dollars will be shoveled to interest groups.

The other idea that seems to have traction is extending the current payroll tax holiday, which lowers the “employee share” of the payroll tax from 6.2 percent to 4.2 percent. The good news is that the tax holiday doesn’t increase the burden of government spending. The bad news is that temporary tax rate reductions probably have very little positive effect on economic output.

Lower tax rates are the right approach, to be sure (particularly compared to useless rebates, such as those pushed by the Bush White House in 2001 and 2008), but workers, investors, and entrepreneurs are unlikely to be strongly incentivized by something that might be seen as a one-year gimmick. Though I suppose if the holiday keeps getting extended, people may begin to think it is a semi-durable feature of the tax code, so maybe there will be some pro-growth impact.

In any event, we will see what the President unveils next month. I’ll be particularly interested in how his supposed short-run jobs proposal fits in with his long-run plan for dealing with red ink. He has been advocating for a “balanced approach” and “shared sacrifice” – but that’s Obama-speak for higher taxes, and we know that’s a damper on job creation and new investment.

As you can tell, I’m not optimistic. The best thing for growth would be to get the government out of the way. The Obama White House, though, thinks bigger government is good for the economy.

This stimulus video was produced last year and was designed for another jobs plan concocted by the Adminisration, but the message is still very appropriate.

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Paul Krugman recently argued that a fake threat from space aliens would be good for the economy because the people of earth would waste a bunch of money building unnecessary defenses.

That was a bit loopy, as I noted a few days ago, but other Keynesians also have been making really weird assertions. Obama’s Secretary of Agriculture (another department that shouldn’t exist) just said that food stamps are a great form of stimulus (video at the link, for those who think this can’t possibly be true).

Makes me wonder if they’re having some sort of secret contest for who can say the strangest thing on TV. And if that’s the case, Nancy Pelosi has to be in the running for her claim that you create jobs by subsidizing joblessness.

Appearing on Judge Napolitano’s show, I explained why the Keynesian theory is misguided.

Unfortunately, Keynesians are immune to evidence. No matter how bad an economy does when the burden of government increases, they just point to their blackboard equations and claim things would be even worse without the so-called stimulus.

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I’ve poked fun at Paul Krugman for his views on health care and British fiscal policy, and I’ve semi-defended him about unemployment subsidies and housing bubbles.

Now it’s time for some more mockery.

Back in 2001, Paul Krugman received some much-deserved criticism for stating that the 9-11 terrorist attacks would be stimulative for the economy.

He committed the “broken-window” fallacy, explained more than 150 years ago by a famous French economist, Frederic Bastiat.

Breaking a window at the local bakery, Bastiat explained, might generate business for the town glazier, but only at the expense of some other merchant, like a tailor, who would have benefited if the baker didn’t have to spend money on a new window.

In other words, the destruction of wealth is not good for an economy. At best, it makes us poorer and then shifts how current income is allocated. This is why Bastiat wrote (perhaps predicting the emergence of Krugman):

There is only one difference between a bad economist and a good one: the bad economist confines himself to the visible effect; the good economist takes into account both the effect that can be seen and those effects that must be foreseen.

But we have to give Krugman credit for a bizarre form of ideological consistency. He is willing to advocate bigger government, no matter how sloppy the reasoning or how quirky the rationale.

His latest outburst was to say on CNN how wonderful it would be for the economy if the people of earth mistakenly thought we were on the verge of an alien invasion, which would lead to lots of military spending.

He even cited an episode of Twilight Zone to justify his assertions. I’m surprised he didn’t also mention the 1996 film, Independence Day.

As I wrote in a previous blog post, this is one of those moments when your only response is to say “wow.” This is even worse than when Keynesians assert that it would be stimulative to pay people to dig holes and fill them in again.

For those who want more info on why government spending does not boost the economy in the short run, here’s my video on Keynesian economics.

And if you want to know why government spending does not boost the economy in the long run, here’s a video looking at some empirical evidence about economic performance and the size of the public sector.

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While driving home last night, I had the miserable experience of listening to a financial journalist being interviewed about the anemic growth numbers that were just released.

I wasn’t unhappy because the interview was biased to the left. From what I could tell, both the host and the guest were straight shooters. Indeed, they spent some time speculating that the economy’s weak performance was bad news for Obama.

What irked me was the implicit Keynesian thinking in the interview. Both of them kept talking about how the economy would have been weaker in the absence of government spending, and they fretted that “austerity” in Washington could further slow the economy in the future.

This was especially frustrating for me since I’ve spent years trying to get people to understand that money doesn’t disappear if it’s not spent by government. I repeatedly explain that less government means more money left in the private sector, where it is more likely to create jobs and generate wealth.

In recent years, though, I’ve begun to realize that many people are accidentally sympathetic to the Keynesian government-spending-is-stimulus approach. They mistakenly think the theory makes sense because they look at GDP, which measures how national income is spent. They’d be much less prone to shoddy analysis if they instead focused on how national income is earned.

This should be at least somewhat intuitive, because we all understand that economic growth occurs when there is an increase in things that make up national income, such as wages, small business income, and corporate profits.

But as I listened to the interview, I began to wonder whether more people would understand if I used the example of a household.

Let’s illustrate by imagining a middle-class household with $50,000 of expenses and $50,000 of income. I’m just making up numbers, so I’m not pretending this is an “average” household, but that doesn’t matter for this analysis anyway.

Expenses                                                        Income                                  

Mortgage           $15,000                        Wages                $40,000

Utilities               $10,000                        Bank Interest       $1,000

Food                     $5,000                        Rental Income      $8,000

Taxes                  $10,000                        Dividends             $1,000

Clothing               $2,000

Health Care         $3,000

Other                   $5,000

The analogy isn’t perfect, of course, but think of this household as being the economy. In this simplified example, the household’s expenses are akin to the way the government measures GDP. It shows how income is allocated. But instead of measuring how much national income goes to categories such as consumption, investment, and government spending, we’re showing how much household income goes to things like housing, food, and utilities.

The income side of the household, as you might expect, is like the government’s national income calculations. But instead of looking at broad measures of things such wages, small business income, and corporate profits, we’re narrowing our focus to one household’s income.

Now let’s modify this example to understand why Keynesian economics doesn’t make sense. Assume that expenses suddenly jumped for our household by $5,000.

Maybe the family has moved to a bigger house. Maybe they’ve decided to eat steak every night. But since I’m a cranky libertarian, let’s assume Obama has imposed a European-style 20 percent VAT and the tax burden has increased.

Faced with this higher expense, the household – especially in the long run – will have to reduce other spending. Let’s assume that the income side has stayed the same but that household expenses now look like this.

Expenses                                                       

Mortgage           $15,000

Utilities                 $9,000        (down by $1,000)

Food                     $4,000        (down by $1,000)

Taxes                  $15,000        (up by $5,000)

Clothing               $2,000

Health Care         $3,000

Other                   $2,000        (down by $3,000)

Now let’s return to where we started and imagine how a financial journalist, applying the same approach used for GDP analysis,  would cover a news report about this household’s budget.

This journalist would tell us that the household’s total spending stayed steady thanks to a big increase in tax payments, which compensated for falling demand for utilities, food, and other spending.

From a household perspective, we instinctively recoil from this kind of sloppy analysis. Indeed, we probably are thinking, “WTF, spending for other categories – things that actually make my life better – are down because the tax burden increased!!!”

But this is exactly how we should be reacting when financial journalists (and other dummies) tell us that government outlays are helping to prop up total spending in the economy.

The moral of the story is that government is capable of redistributing how national income is spent, but it isn’t a vehicle for increasing national income. Indeed, the academic evidence clearly shows the opposite to be true.

Let’s conclude by briefly explaining how journalists and others should be looking at economic numbers. And the household analogy, once again, will be quite helpful.

It’s presumably obvious that higher income is the best thing for our hypothetical family. A new job, a raise, better investments, an increase in rental income. Any or all of these developments would be welcome because they mean higher living standards and a better life. In other words, more household spending is a natural consequence of more income.

Similarly, the best thing for the economy is more national income. More wages, higher profits, increased small business income. Any or all of these developments would be welcome because we would have more money to spend as we see fit to enjoy a better life. This higher spending would then show up in the data as higher GDP, but the key things to understand is that the increase in GDP is a natural result of more national income.

Simply stated, national income is the horse and GDP is the cart. This video elaborates on this topic, and watching it may be more enjoyable that reading my analysis.

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Even though he’s become rather partisan in recent years, I still enjoy an occasional visit to Andrew Sullivan’s blog. But I was rather amused last night when I read one of his posts, in which he was discussing whether government spending helps or hurts economic performance. He took the view that a bigger public sector stimulated growth, and criticized those who wanted to reduce the burden of government spending, snarkily observing that, “The notion that Herbert Hoover was right has become quite a dogged meme on the reality-challenged right.”

Since I’m one of those “reality-challenged” people who prefer smaller government, I obviously disagreed with his analysis. But his reference to Hoover set off alarm bells. As I have noted before, Hoover increased the burden of government during his time in office.

But maybe my memory was wrong. So I went to the Historical Tables of the Budget and looked up the annual spending data. As you can see from the chart, it turns out that Hoover increased government spending by 47 percent in just four years (if you adjust for falling prices, as Russ Roberts did at Cafe Hayek, it turns out that Hoover increased government spending by more than 50 percent).

I suppose I could make my own snarky comment about being “reality-challenged,” but Sullivan’s mistake is understandable. The historical analysis and understanding of the Great Depression is woefully inadequate, and millions of people genuinely believe that Hoover was an early version of Ronald Reagan.

I will say, however, that I agree with Sullivan’s conclusion. He closed by saying it would be “bonkers” to replicate Hoover’s policies today. I might have picked a different word, but I fully subscribe to the notion that making government bigger was a mistake then, and it’s a mistake now.

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Larry Summers served as Chairman of the National Economic Council for Barack Obama, so it is rather remarkable that he is admitting that the economy is in deep trouble and that America may be on the verge of long-term, Japanese-style stagnation. Here’s part of what he wrote.

From the first quarter of 2006 to the first quarter of 2011, the U.S. economy’s growth rate averaged less than 1 percent a year, similar to Japan in the period its bubble burst. During that time, the share of the population working has fallen from 63.1 to 58.4 percent, reducing the number of those with jobs by more than 10 million. …Traditionally, the American economy has recovered robustly from recession as demand has been quickly renewed. Within a couple of years after the only two deep recessions of the post-World War II period — those of 1974-75 and 1980-82 — the economy was growing in the range of 6 percent or more, rates that seem inconceivable today. Why?

So what does Summers propose as a solution? Well, there’s good news and bad news.

The good news is that he wants a tax cut. Indeed, he wants a fairly large tax cut. And while his column does contain a few throwaway lines in favor of government spending, he doesn’t have a laundry list of new programs that he wants to fund, so he’s not calling for a repeat of the failed stimulus from 2009.

The bad news is that he wants a Keynesian tax cut. More specifically, he wants a temporary payroll tax cut. As a knee-jerk advocate of lower taxes, it seems that I should be happy, but I want the right tax cuts for the right reason. More specifically, I want proposals that permanently reduce marginal tax rates on productive behavior – i.e., supply-side tax cuts.

Summers, by contrast, wants a tax cut that will encourage people to spend more money. But that’s the Keynesian approach, and it fails to realize that economic growth is when people earn more money. In other words, we need to produce before we consume.

A temporary payroll tax cut would reduce a marginal tax rate on employment, so there is some merit to Summers’ proposal. But it’s difficult to imagine businesses making permanent decisions to boost jobs and output on the basis of temporary tax policy. My main concern is that we would get very little bang for the buck from this proposal.

Here’s more of the oped.

Without the payroll tax cuts and unemployment insurance negotiated by the president and Congress last fall, we might well be looking at the possibility of a double-dip recession. Substantial withdrawal of fiscal support for demand at the end of 2011 would be premature. Fiscal support should, in fact, be expanded by providing the payroll tax cut to employers as well as employees. Raising the share of the payroll tax cut from 2 percent to 3 percent would be desirable as well. At a near-term cost of a little more than $200 billion, these measures offer the prospect of significant improvement in economic performance over the next few years translating into significant increases in the tax base and reductions in necessary government outlays.

I suppose I should be happy that Summers is moving in the right direction. This plan is much better than the 2009 stimulus. But if it gets enacted (and it is part of the discussions between Biden and congressional Republicans), don’t expect an economic renaissance.

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Based on this morning’s numbers, I’ve updated my chart showing what the Obama Administration said would happen with the so-called stimulus compared to what actually has happened. As you can see, the unemployment rate is about 2.5 percentage points higher than the White House claimed it would be at this point.

Since I just did an I-told-you-so post about Greece, I may as well pat myself on the back again (albeit for another completely obvious prediction). Here’s the video I narrated a couple of years ago on the Obama faux stimulus.

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The first entry in this series was an Internet sensation. Now you can enjoy Part II.

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I periodically get emails and phone calls from people wanting me to respond to particular statements from politicians, columnists, and other high-profile figures.

Not surprisingly, Paul Krugman occasionally is the subject of these communications, particularly with regards to his view that Keynesian spending is an elixir and universal cure for economic stagnation.

I certainly have waded into the so-called stimulus fight, addressing the issue over and over and over again. But I generally try to comment on the underlying economic and political issues while avoiding pointless arguments with other people (not always with total success, as seen here and here).

The most recent Krugman-related email I received, however, has nothing to do with fiscal policy. It deals with his views on housing bubbles. Here’s what he advised back in 2002.

To fight this recession the Fed needs more than a snapback; it needs soaring household spending to offset moribund business investment. And to do that, as Paul McCulley of Pimco put it, Alan Greenspan needs to create a housing bubble to replace the Nasdaq bubble.

Given what has happened in the past five years, Krugman’s endorsement of a housing bubble certainly leaves him vulnerable. And if it turns out that Alan Greenspan took his advice, that would be rather damning.

But I think he should be criticized for his general support for economic intervention, not his specific recommendation for a housing bubble.

Sure, his advice doesn’t look very good with the benefit of hindsight, but economists are notoriously awful forecasters, as I’ve noted before. Moreover, Krugman legitimately could argue that his advice was for the specific circumstances of 2002, and not a permanent recommendation.

That’s why my criticism is limited to his overall belief that government should steer the economy. And if you want to understand that issue, this post looking at the work of Robert Higgs is a great place to start.

P.S. If you want some amusing Krugman-baiting, you should read Best of the Web by James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal. Taranto often refers to Krugman at the “former Enron adviser” and routinely mocks Krugman for his silly assertion that horror stories about healthcare in the United Kingdom are false.

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London was just hit by heavy riots as part of a protest against the “deep” and “savage” budget cuts of the Cameron government. This is not the first time the U.K. has endured riots. The welfare lobby, bureaucrats, and other recipients of taxpayer largesse are becoming increasingly agitated that their gravy train may be derailed.

The vast majority of protesters have been peaceful, but some hooligans took the opportunity to wreak havoc. These nihilistic punks apparently call themselves anarchists, but are too dense to understand the giant disconnect of adopting that title while at the same time rioting for bigger government and more redistribution. My anarcho-capitalist friends must be embarrassed by the potential linkage with these angry morons.

Speaking of rage, Paul Krugman is equally dismayed with Prime Minister Cameron’s ostensibly penny-pinching budget. Summoning the ghost of John Maynard Keynes, he asserts that such frugality is misguided when an economy is still weak and people are unemployed. Indeed, Krugman argues that the U.K. economy is weak today precisely because of Cameron’s supposed austerity.

Not surprisingly, the purpose of his argument is to discourage similar policies from being adopted in the United States.

Here’s part of what Krugman wrote as part of his column on “The Austerity Delusion.”

Austerity advocates predicted that spending cuts would bring quick dividends in the form of rising confidence, and that there would be few, if any, adverse effects on growth and jobs; but they were wrong. …Like America, Britain is still perceived as solvent by financial markets, giving it room to pursue a strategy of jobs first, deficits later. But the government of Prime Minister David Cameron chose instead to move to immediate, unforced austerity, in the belief that private spending would more than make up for the government’s pullback. As I like to put it, the Cameron plan was based on belief that the confidence fairy would make everything all right. But she hasn’t: British growth has stalled, and the government has marked up its deficit projections as a result.

At first I wondered if Krugman was playing an April Fool’s joke, but this is consistent with his long-held views about the magical impact of government spending. Besides, his piece is dated March 25, so I think we can safely assume he actually believes that Cameron’s supposed budget cutting is crippling the U.K.’s recovery.

There are two problems with Krugman’s column. The obvious problem is his unwavering support for Keynesian economics. I’ve addressed that issue here, here, here, here, and here, so I don’t feel any great need to rehash all those arguments. I’ll just ask why the policy still has adherents when it failed for Hoover and Roosevelt in the 1930s, failed for Japan in the 1990s, failed for Bush in 2008, and failed for Obama in 2009.

But the really amazing thing this is that both Krugman and the rioters are wrong, not just in their opinions and ideology, but also about basic facts. Government spending has skyrocketed in the United Kingdom in recent years. And, as the chart shows, spending is even increasing by about twice as fast as inflation in the current fiscal year. But don’t believe me. Look on page 102 of the U.K.’s latest budget.

Maybe that’s austerity to the looters and moochers who think they have an unlimited claim on the production and income of other people, but it’s hard to see how a 4 percent increase can be characterized as “brutal” and “vicious” spending cuts.

Moreover, Cameron also has been a disappointment on the tax issue. He left in place Gordon Brown’s election-year, 10-percentage point increase in the top income tax rate. But then he imposed an increase in the VAT rate and implemented a higher capital gains tax.

To be sure, Cameron’s budget promises a bit of fiscal restraint in upcoming years, with spending supposedly growing at about 1 percent annually over the next three years. That would actually be somewhat impressive, roughly akin to what Canada and Slovakia achieved in recent decades. But promises of future spending restraint (which may never materialize) surely are not the same as present-day austerity.

One final comment. While I obviously disagree with much of what Krugman wrote, he does make some sound points. Many Republicans and Democrats claim that changes in deficits and debt have a big impact on interest, for instance, but Krugman correctly notes that there is no evidence for this assertion. Nations such as Portugal and Greece may face high interest rates, but that’s because investors don’t trust those governments to pay their debts, not because the borrowing of these states is having an impact on credit markets.

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Earlier this week, the Washington Post predictably gave some publicity to the Keynesian analysis of Mark Zandi, even though his track record is worse than a sports analyst who every year predicts a Super Bowl for the Detroit Lions. The story also cited similar predictions by the politically connected folks at Goldman Sachs.

Zandi, an architect of the 2009 stimulus package who has advised both political parties, predicts that the GOP package would reduce economic growth by 0.5 percentage points this year, and by 0.2 percentage points in 2012, resulting in 700,000 fewer jobs by the end of next year. His report comes on the heels of a similar analysis last week by the investment bank Goldman Sachs, which predicted that the Republican spending cuts would cause even greater damage to the economy, slowing growth by as much as 2 percentage points in the second and third quarters of this year.

Republicans understandably wanted to discredit this analysis. But rather than expose Zandi’s laughably inaccurate track record, they asked the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, for his assessment. But this is like asking Alex Rodriguez to comment on Derek Jeter’s prediction that the Yankees will win the World Series.

Not surprisingly, as reported by McClatchy, Bernanke endorsed the notion that spending cuts (actually, just tiny reductions in planned increases) would be “contractionary.”

Bernanke was asked repeatedly about GOP proposals to trim anywhere from $60 billion to $100 billion in government spending during the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. These cuts would do little to bring down long-term budget deficits but would slow the economic recovery, he cautioned. “That would be ‘contractionary’ to some extent,” Bernanke said, projecting that “several tenths” of a percentage point would be shaved off of growth, and it would mean fewer jobs. …While Democrats got what they wanted out of Bernanke with that answer, he frowned on some of their projections that the spending cuts that are being debated could reduce growth by a full 2 percentage points.

Since he is not a fool, Bernanke was careful not to embrace the absurd predictions made by Zandi and Goldman Sachs. But that’s merely a difference of degree. Bernanke’s embrace of Keynesian economics is disgraceful because he should know better. And his endorsement of deficit reduction (at least in the long run) is stained by crocodile tears since Bernanke supported bailouts and endorsed Obama’s failed stimulus.

But while Bernanke is not a fool, I can’t say the same thing about Republicans. Bernanke has made clear that he either believes in the perpetual-motion machine of Keynesianism, or he’s willing to endorse Keynesian policies to curry favor with the White House. Republicans should be exposing these flaws, not treating Bernanke likes he’s some sort of Oracle.

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I discuss taxes, spending, and other fiscal policy issues in three interviews at CPAC.

In this interview for PJTV, I mostly chat about taxes, including the fight over the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, the threat of a value-added tax, and the potential for real tax reform.

In this podcast for the Institute for Liberty (beginning at the 8:55 mark), I explain why government spending undermines prosperity, whether it is short-run “stimulus” spending or long-run “investments,” and also talk about the debt limit and a potential government shutdown.

In this podcast for United Liberty, I pontificate about spending fights on Capitol Hill, including the “continuing resolution,” the debt limit, entitlements, repealing Obamacare, and the 2012 budget.

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Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke is at it again, giving an interview that combines all of the worst features of Keynesian economics. I have an excerpt below from a New York Times report, which features an amazing amount of mistakes in a very short amount of space. Here are three that demand correction.

1. The economy needs less government intervention, not more “government help.” Bernanke doesn’t understand that job creation and entrepreneurship are hurting because politicians are doing too much, yet he wants more interference from Washington.

2. The economy needs less government spending, not Keynesian nonsense about big deficits to boost consumer spending. Bernanke seems to think so-called stimulus schemes for more wasteful spending help the economy, even though those policies failed for Hoover, Roosevelt, Bush, and Obama.

3. The economy needs a strong and stable dollar, not inflationary quantitative easing. Bernanke wants us to believe that low interest rates are the key to growth, but apparently oblivious to the fact that interest rates are very low now (and have been very low in Japan during that country’s 20-year stagnation. Memo to Ben: People don’t invest when they expect to lose money, regardless of interest rates.

Here’s the excerpt about Helicopter Ben’s thinking:

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke is stepping up his defense of the Fed’s $600 billion Treasury bond-purchase plan, saying the economy is still struggling to become “self-sustaining” without government help. In a taped interview with CBS’ “60 Minutes” that aired Sunday night, Bernanke also argued that Congress shouldn’t cut spending or boost taxes given how fragile the economy remains. The Fed chairman said he thinks another recession is unlikely. But he warned that the economy could suffer a slowdown if persistently high unemployment dampens consumer spending. The interview is part of a broad counteroffensive Bernanke has been waging against critics of the bond purchase plan the Fed announced Nov. 3. The purchases are intended to lower long-term interest rates, lift stock prices and encourage more spending to boost the economy.

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I’m understandably fond of my video exposing the flaws of Keynesian stimulus theory, but here’s another very good contribution to the debate.

This new 5-minute mini-documentary looks at consumer spending and its role in the economy.

Also check out this very popular video from earlier this year on the nightmare of income-tax complexity.

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When politicians and bureaucrats spend our money, they rarely demonstrate any concern about waste and fraud. Why be conscientious, after all, if you’re spending other people’s money – especially if your real goal is to buy votes and get campaign contributions by providing unearned wealth to well-connected insiders?

I’ve always been more concerned about the negative economic impact of government spending and the failure of Keynesian fiscal policy, but it’s also important to focus on waste and fraud. The average taxpayer may not want to get into the weeds of economic theory, but you don’t need an advanced degree to get upset about $27 light bulbs.

Fortunately, auditors caught this example of waste and fraud, but one can only imagine all the nonsense that’s slipping through the net. Here’s an excerpt from a Bloomberg story:

Contractors billed New Jersey $27 for light bulbs, and ran up tens of thousands of dollars in other “unreasonable costs” on a $119 million weatherization program funded with U.S. stimulus money, the state auditor said. …One contractor sought $27 for light bulbs, while another billed $1.50 for similar items, according to the report and Assistant Auditor Thomas Meseroll. Another vendor charged $75 for carbon-monoxide detectors that it had provided to a different program for $22, the report said. Eells also cited $32,700 in auditing fees when “no services had been performed” and $69,000 in construction costs that couldn’t be verified.

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The new unemployment data has been released and it’s not a pretty picture. Literally and figuratively. This image is all we need to know about the success of President Obama’s big-government policies. The lower line is from a White House report in early 2009 and it shows the level of unemployment the Administration said we would have if the so-called stimulus was adopted. The darker dots show the actual monthly unemployment rate. At what point will the beltway politicians concede that making government bigger is not a recipe for prosperity?

They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result. The Obama White House imposed an $800-billion plus faux stimulus on the economy (actually more than $1 trillion if additional interest costs are included). They’ve also passed all sorts of additional legislation, most of which have been referred to as jobs bills. Yet the unemployment situation is stagnant and the economy is far weaker than is normally the case when pulling out of a downturn.

But don’t worry, Nancy Pelosi said that unemployment benefits are stimulative!

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Keynesian economic theory is the social-science version of a perpetual motion machine. It assumes that you can increase your prosperity by taking money out of your left pocket and putting it in your right pocket. Not surprisingly, nations that adopt this approach do not succeed. Deficit spending did not work for Hoover and Roosevelt is the 1930s. It did not work for Japan in the 1990s. And it hasn’t worked for Bush or Obama.

The Keynesians invariably respond by arguing that these failures simply show that politicians didn’t spend enough money. I don’t know whether to be amused or horrified, but some Keynesians even say that a war would be the best way of boosting economic growth. Here’s a blurb from a story in National Journal.
America’s economic outlook is so grim, and political solutions are so utterly absent, that only another large-scale war might be enough to lift the nation out of chronic high unemployment and slow growth, two prominent economists, a conservative and a liberal, said today. Nobelist Paul Krugman, a New York Times columnist, and Harvard’s Martin Feldstein, the former chairman of President Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisers, achieved an unnerving degree of consensus about the future during an economic forum in Washington. …Krugman and Feldstein, though often on opposite sides of the political fence on fiscal and tax policy, both appeared to share the view that political paralysis in Washington has rendered the necessary fiscal and monetary stimulus out of the question. Only a high-impact “exogenous” shock like a major war — something similar to what Krugman called the “coordinated fiscal expansion known as World War II” — would be enough to break the cycle. …Both reiterated their previously argued views that the Obama administration’s stimulus was far too small to fill the output gap.
Two additional comments. First, if Martin Feldstein’s views on this issue represent what it means to be a conservative, then I’m especially glad I’m a libertarian. Second, Alan Reynolds has a good piece eviscerating Keynesianism, including a section dealing with Krugman’s World-War-II-was-good-for-the-economy assertion.

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Former Senator Phil Gramm had a column last week in the Wall Street Journal that deserves two blog posts. This first post highlights Gramm’s analysis showing that the U.S. has been very Keynesian compared to Europe, with numerous efforts to jump start the economy with deficit spending. But Senator Gramm hits the nail on the head, comparing America’s tepid recovery with the better performance across the Atlantic.

During the average recovery since World War II, gross domestic product (GDP) surpassed the pre-recession high five quarters after the recession began. It has never taken longer than seven quarters. Yet today, after 11 quarters, GDP is still below what it was in the fourth quarter of 2007. The economy is growing at only about a third of the rate of previous postwar recoveries from major recessions. Obama administration officials such as Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner have argued that without their policies the economy would be worse, and we might have fallen “off a cliff.” While this assertion cannot be tested, we can compare the recent experience of other countries to our own. …There are 4.6% fewer people employed in the U.S. today than at the start of the recession. Euro zone countries have lost 1.7% of their jobs. …This simple comparison suggests…that American economic policy has been less effective in increasing employment than the policies of other developed nations. …While the most recent quarterly growth figures are just a snapshot in time, it is hardly encouraging that economic growth in the U.S. (1.7%) is lower than in the euro zone (4%), U.K. (4.8%), G-7 (2.8%) and OECD (2%).

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Warren Buffett once said that it wasn’t right for his secretary to have a higher tax rate than he faced, leading me to point out that he didn’t understand tax policy. The 15 percent tax rates on dividends and capital gains to which he presumably was referring represents double taxation, and when added to the tax that already was paid on the income he invested (and the tax that one imagines will be imposed on that same income when he dies), it is quite obvious that his effective marginal tax rates is much higher than anything his secretary pays. Though he is right that his secretary’s tax rate is much too high. 
 
Well, it turns out that Warren Buffett also doesn’t understand much about other areas of fiscal policy. Like a lot of ultra-rich liberals who have lost touch with the lives of regular people, he thinks taxpayer anger is misguided. Not only does he scold people for being upset, but he regurgitates the most simplistic Keynesian talking points to justify Obama’s spending spree. Here’s an excerpt from his hometown paper.
Taxpayer anger against President Barack Obama and Congress is counterproductive because policy makers took measures including deficit spending to stimulate the economy, billionaire investor Warren Buffett told CNBC. …“I hope we get over it pretty soon, because it’s not productive,’’ Buffett said. “We will come back regardless of how people feel about Washington, but it is not helpful to have people as unhappy as they are about what’s going on in Washington.” …“The truth is we’re running a federal deficit that’s 9 percent of gross domestic product,” Buffett said. “That’s stimulative as all get out. It’s more stimulative than any policy we’ve followed since World War II.”
About the only positive thing one can say about Buffett’s fiscal policy track record is that he is nowhere close to being the most inaccurate person in the United States, a title that Mark Zandi surely will own for the indefinite future.

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Not that we need more evidence, but here are two new items confirming the absurdity of thinking that bigger government is stimulus. First, we have a story from Los Angeles revealing that the city only created 55 jobs with $111 million of stimulus funds. This translates to a per-job cost of $2 million, which is a grossly inefficient rate of return. But this calculation is incomplete because it doesn’t measure how many jobs would have been created if the money was left in the productive sector of the economy. Moreover, it’s also important to consider long-term costs such as the fact that Los Angeles now has more overhead, which will exacerbate the city’s fiscal problems.
The Los Angeles City Controller said on Thursday the city’s use of its share of the $800 billion federal stimulus find has been disappointing. The city received $111 million in stimulus under American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) approved by the Congress more than year ago. “I’m disappointed that we’ve only created or retained 55 jobs after receiving $111 million,” says Wendy Greuel, the city’s controller, while releasing an audit report. …The audit says the numbers were disappointing due to bureaucratic red tape, absence of competitive bidding for projects in private sectors, inappropriate tracking of stimulus money and a laxity in bringing out timely job reports.
Our second item is a new study from two scholars who find that the cash-for-clunkers program was a total failure. Just as anybody with an IQ above room temperature could have predicted, the overwhelming effect of the program was to encourage people to change when they purchased cars. There was no long-term positive impact on any economic variable.
A key rationale for fiscal stimulus is to boost consumption when aggregate demand is perceived to be inefficiently low. We examine the ability of the government to increase consumption by evaluating the impact of the 2009 “Cash for Clunkers” program on short and medium run auto purchases. Our empirical strategy exploits variation across U.S. cities in ex-ante exposure to the program as measured by the number of “clunkers” in the city as of the summer of 2008. We find that the program induced the purchase of an additional 360,000 cars in July and August of 2009. However, almost all of the additional purchases under the program were pulled forward from the very near future; the effect of the program on auto purchases is almost completely reversed by as early as March 2010 – only seven months after the program ended. …We also find no evidence of an effect on employment, house prices, or household default rates in cities with higher exposure to the program. 
The lesson from the cash-for-clunkers program also can be applied to other temporary programs. Good tax cuts, for instance, become gimmicks when they are temporary. This doesn’t mean there is no positive effect on incentives from a payroll tax holiday, temporary expensing, or a two-year extension of the 2001/2003 tax cuts, but the overwhelming impact is to alter the timing of economic activity rather than the level of economic activity.

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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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Dana Milbank of the Washington Post wrote this weekend that critics of Keynesianism are somewhat akin to those who believe the earth is flat. He specifically cites the presumably malignant influence of the Cato Institute.

Keynes was right, and in this case it’s probably for the better: Keynes didn’t live to see the Republicans of 2010 portray him as some sort of Marxist revolutionary. …These men get their economic firepower from conservative think tanks such as the Cato Institute… What’s with the hate for Maynard? Perhaps these Republicans don’t realize that some of their tax-cut proposals are as “Keynesian” as Obama’s program. There’s a fierce dispute about how best to respond to the economic crisis — Tax cuts? Deficit spending? Monetary intervention? — but the argument is largely premised on the Keynesian view that government should somehow boost demand in a recession. …With so much of Keynesian theory universally embraced, Republican denunciation of him has a flat-earth feel to it. …There is an alternative to such “Keynesian experiments,” however. The government could do nothing, and let the human misery continue. By rejecting the “Keynesian playbook,” this is what Republicans are really proposing.

Milbank makes some good points, particularly when noting the hypocrisy of Republicans. Bush’s 2001 tax cuts were largely Keynesian in their design, which is also one of the reasons why the economy was sluggish until the supply-side tax cuts were implemented in 2003. Bush also pushed through another Keynesian package in 2008, and many GOPers on Capitol Hill often erroneously use Keynesian logic even when talking about good policies such as lower marginal tax rates.

But the thrust of Milbank’s column is wrong. He is wrong in claiming that Keynesian economics works, and he is wrong is claming that it is the only option. Regarding the first point, there is no successful example of Keynesian economics. It didn’t work for Hoover and Roosevelt in the 1930s. It didn’t work for Japan in the 1990s. It didn’t work for Bush in 2001 or 2008, and it didn’t work for Obama. The reason, as explained in this video, is that Keynesian economic seeks to transform saving into consumption. But a recession or depression exists when national income is falling. Shifting how some of that income is used does not solve the problem.

This is why free market policies are the best response to an economic downturn. Lower marginal tax rates. Reductions in the burden of government spending. Eliminating needless regulations and red tape. Getting rid of trade barriers. These are the policies that work when the economy is weak. But they’re also desirable policies when the economy is strong. In other words, there is no magic formula for dealing with a downturn. But there are policies that improve the economy’s performance, regardless of short-term economic conditions. Equally important, supporters of economic liberalization also point out that misguided government policies (especially bad monetary policy by the Federal Reserve) almost always are responsible for causing downturns. And wouldn’t it be better to adopt reforms that prevent downturns rather than engage in futile stimulus schemes once downturns begin?

None of this means that Keynes was a bad economist. Indeed, it’s very important to draw a distinction between Keynes, who was wrong on a couple of things, and today’s Keynesians, who are wrong about almost everything. Keynes, for instance, was an early proponent of the Laffer Curve, writing that, “Nor should the argument seem strange that taxation may be so high as to defeat its object, and that, given sufficient time to gather the fruits, a reduction of taxation will run a better chance than an increase of balancing the budget.”

Keynes also seemed to understand the importance of limiting the size of government. He wrote that, “25 percent taxation is about the limit of what is easily borne.” It’s not clear whether he was referring to marginal tax rates or the tax burden as a share of economic output, but in either case it obviously implies an upper limit to the size of government (especially since he did not believe in permanent deficits).

If modern Keynesians had the same insights, government policy today would not be nearly as destructive.

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Like a terrible remake of Groundhog Day, the White House has unveiled yet another so-called stimulus scheme. Actually, they have two new proposals to buy votes with our money. One plan is focused on more infrastructure spending, as reported by Politico.
Seeking to bolster the sluggish economy, President Barack Obama is using a Labor Day appearance in Milwaukee to announce he will ask Congress for $50 billion to kick off a new infrastructure plan designed to expand and renew the nation’s roads, railways and runways. …The measures include the “establishment of an Infrastructure Bank to leverage federal dollars and focus on investments of national and regional significance that often fall through the cracks in the current siloed transportation programs,” and “the integration of high-speed rail on an equal footing into the surface transportation program.” 
The other plan would make permanent the research and development tax credit. The Washington Post has some of the details.
Under mounting pressure to intensify his focus on the economy ahead of the midterm elections, President Obama will call for a $100 billion business tax credit this week… The business proposal – what one aide called a key part of a limited economic package – would increase and permanently extend research and development tax credits for businesses, rewarding companies that develop new technologies domestically and preserve American jobs. It would be paid for by closing other corporate tax loopholes, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the policy has not yet been unveiled. 
These two proposals are in addition to the other stimulus/job-creation/whatever-they’re-calling-them-now proposals that have been adopted in the past 20 months. And Obama’s stimulus schemes were preceded by Bush’s Keynesian fiasco in 2008. And by the time you read this, the Administration may have unveiled a few more plans. But all of these proposals suffer from the same flaw in that they assume growth is sluggish because government is not big enough and not intervening enough. Keynesian politicians don’t realize (or pretend not to realize) that economic growth occurs when there is an increase in national income. Redistribution plans, by contrast, simply change who is spending an existing amount of income. If the crowd in Washington really wants more growth, they should reduce the burden of government, as explained in this video.
 

The best that can be said about the new White House proposals is that they’re probably not as poorly designed as previous stimulus schemes. Federal infrastructure spending almost surely fails a cost-benefit test, but even bridges to nowhere carry some traffic. The money would generate more jobs and more output if left in the private sector, so the macroeconomic impact is still negative, but presumably not as negative as bailouts for profligate state and local governments or subsidies to encourage unemployment – which were key parts of previous stimulus proposals.
Likewise, a permanent research and development tax credit is not ideal tax policy, but at least the provision is tied to doing something productive, as opposed to tax breaks and rebates that don’t boost work, saving, and investment. We don’t know, however, what’s behind the curtain. According to the article, the White House will finance this proposal by “closing other corporate tax loopholes.” In theory, that could mean a better tax code. But this Administration has a very confused understanding of tax policy, so it’s quite likely that they will raise taxes in a way that makes the overall tax code even worse. They’ve already done this in previous stimulus plans by increasing the tax bias against American companies competing in world markets, so there’s little reason to be optimistic now. And don’t forget that the President has not changed his mind about imposing higher income tax rates, higher capital gains tax rates, higher death tax rates, and higher dividend tax rates beginning next January.
 
All that we can say for sure is that the politicians in Washington are very nervous now that the midterm elections are just two months away. This means their normal tendencies to waste money will morph into a pathological form of profligacy.

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One of the many disappointing things about Republicans is that they fail to correct problems when they get power. After the 1994  “Gingrich Revolution,” the GOP had complete control of Capitol Hill. This meant complete authority over the Congressional Budget Office and Joint Committee on Taxation. Did Republicans use this power to fire the old staff and put in people who understood economics? Of course not. I don’t know if this is because Republicans are stupid or if it’s because they’re too timid to take steps that would generate complaints from their enemies. Regardless, what really matters is that CBO and JCT are just as biased today as they were 20 years ago. Diana Furchtgott-Roth of the Hudson Institute exposes CBO’s latest shoddy Keynesian analysis. She is correct, and the people making these same arguments 20 years ago were correct. And I’m afraid people will be saying the same things 20 years from now. Which leads me to think that maybe the best approach is to get rid of these bureaucracies. 
…on Tuesday the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office issued a report showing that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 increased the number of people employed by between 1.4 and 3.3 million people in the second quarter of 2010 and lowered unemployment by 0.7 to 1.8 percentage points. CBO concludes that without the Recovery Act unemployment, which stood at 9.5% in July, might exceed 10% and possibly be above 11%. There’s just one problem. CBO’s latest figures are inconsistent with its claims of the effects of the stimulus bill when it was passed in February 2009. If its models failed to accurately predict the effects of the stimulus bill then, why should we believe the models now? This is important because some are taking the CBO report as proof that the stimulus bill is working and so we need…more stimulus. …After passage of the stimulus bill, in a March 2009 letter to Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley, CBO predicted that the unemployment rate in the last quarter of 2009 would rise to 9% without the stimulus package, from its then-current level of 8.2%. With the stimulus, CBO said, the unemployment rate would range from 7.8% to 8.5%. The actual rate in December, 11 months after enactment of the stimulus, was 10%, far higher than CBO said it would be absent the stimulus. …If Americans had known in February of 2009 that the $787 billion stimulus package (whose cost CBO later raised to $862 billion) would not lead to declines in unemployment, but instead a substantial increase in the unemployment rate to 9.5%, opposition to the spending would have been practically universal. Put it another way – if Americans were asked now whether they would prefer today to have back the February 2009 unemployment rate of 8.2% and the $862 billion spent on stimulus, they would say yes. Some say things would have been worse if the stimulus funds had not been spent. They assume that more government spending, including the $862 billion stimulus, must be good for the economy. This form of Keynesian economics fell out of fashion decades ago everywhere, except in the halls of power in Washington. If more government spending always helped the economy, why stop at $862 billion? Why not give each American an unlimited bank account? Then the unemployment rate would likely rise to 100%. But some economists would still offer unverifiable models to “prove” the benefit to the American public.

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