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Archive for the ‘Reagan’ Category

Every time I’ve gone overseas in the past six months, I’ve been peppered with questions about Donald Trump. It doesn’t matter whether my speech was about tax reform, entitlements, fiscal crisis, or tax competition, most people wanted to know what I think about The Donald.

My general reaction has been to disavow any expertise (as illustrated by my wildly inaccurate election prediction). But, when pressed, I speculate that Hillary Clinton wasn’t a very attractive candidate and that Trump managed to tap into disdain for Washington (i.e., drain the swamp) and angst about the economy’s sub-par performance.

What I find galling, though, is when I get follow-up questions – and this happens a lot, especially in Europe – asking how it is possible that the United States could somehow go from electing a wonderful visionary like Obama to electing a dangerous clown like Trump.

Since I’m not a big Trump fan, I don’t particularly care how they characterize the current president, but I’m mystified about the ongoing Obama worship in other nations. Even among folks who otherwise are sympathetic to free markets.

I’ve generally responded by explaining that Obama was a statist who wound up decimating the Democratic Party.

And my favorite factoid has been the 2013 poll showing that Reagan would have trounced Obama in a hypothetical matchup.

I especially like sharing that data since many foreigners think Reagan wasn’t a successful President. So when I share that polling data, it also gives me an opportunity to set the record straight about the success of Reaganomics.

I’m motivated to write about this topic because I’m currently in Europe and earlier today I wound up having one of these conversations in the Frankfurt Airport with a German who noticed my accent and asked me about “crazy American politics.”

I had no problem admitting that the political situation in the U.S. is somewhat surreal, so that was a bonding moment. But as the conversation progressed and I started to give my standard explanation about Obama being a dismal president and I shared the 2013 poll, my German friend didn’t believe me.

So I felt motivated to quickly go online and find some additional data to augment my argument. And I was very happy to find a Quinnipiac poll from 2014. Here are some of the highlights, as reported by USA Today.

…33% named Obama the worst president since World War II, and 28% put Bush at the bottom of post-war presidents. “Over the span of 69 years of American history and 12 presidencies, President Barack Obama finds himself with President George W. Bush at the bottom of the popularity barrel,” said Tim Malloy, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll. …Ronald Reagan topped the poll as the best president since World War II, with 35%. He is followed by presidents Bill Clinton (18%) and John F. Kennedy (15%).

Yes, Ronald Reagan easily was considered the best President in the post-World War II era.

Here’s the relevant chart from the story. Kudos to the American people from giving the Gipper high scores.

And what about the bottom of the list?

Here’s the chart showing Obama edging out George W. Bush for last place.

By the way, I suspect these numbers will look much different in 50 years. I’m guessing many Republicans picked Obama simply because he was the most recent Democrat president and a lot of Democrats picked W because he was the most recent Republican President.

With the passage of time, I think Nixon and Carter deservedly will get some of those votes (and I think LBJ deserves more votes as the worst president, for what it’s worth).

The bottom line, though, is that I now have a second poll to share with foreigners.

P.S. If there’s ever a poll that isn’t limited to the post-World War II era, I would urge votes not only for Reagan, but also for Calvin Coolidge and Grover Cleveland.

P.P.S. People are surprised when I explain that Bill Clinton deserves to be in second place for post-WWII presidents.

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In a column in today’s  New York Times, Steven Rattner attacks Trump’s tax plan for being unrealistic. Since I also think the proposal isn’t very plausible, I’m not overly bothered by that message. However, Rattner tries to bolster his case by making very inaccurate and/or misleading claims about the Reagan tax cuts.

Given my admiration for the Gipper, those assertions cry out for correction. Starting with his straw man claim that the tax cuts were supposed to pay for themselves.

…four decades ago…the rollout of what proved to be among our country’s greatest economic follies — the alchemistic belief that huge tax cuts can pay for themselves by unleashing faster economic growth.

Neither Reagan nor his administration claimed that the tax cuts would be self-financing.

Instead, they simply pointed out that the economy would grow faster and that this would generate some level of revenue feedback.

Which is exactly what happened. Heck, even leftists agree that there’s a Laffer Curve. The only disagreement is the point where tax receipts are maximized (and I don’t care which side is right on that issue since I don’t want to enable bigger government).

Anyhow, Rattner also wants us to believe the tax cuts hurt the economy.

…the plan immediately made a bad economy worse.

This is remarkable blindness and/or bias. The double dip recession of 1980-1982 was the result of economic distortions caused by bad monetary policy (by the way, Reagan deserves immense credit for having the moral courage to wean the country from easy-money policy).

But even if one wants to ignore the impact of monetary policy, how can you blame the second dip of the recession, which began in July 1981, on a tax cut that was signed into law in August 1981?!?

Moreover, while Reagan’s tax cut was adopted in 1981, it was phased in over several years. And because of previously legislated tax increases, as well as inflation-driven bracket creep (prior to 1985, households were pushed into higher tax brackets by inflation even though their real income did not rise), the economy did not enjoy a tax cut until 1983. Not coincidentally, that’s when the economy began to boom.

Rattner even wants us to believe the Reagan tax plan caused higher interest rates.

…the Reagan tax cut increased the budget deficit, helping elevate interest rates over 20 percent, which in turn contributed to the double-dip recession that ensued. The stock market fell by more than 20 percent.

The deficit jumped mostly because of the double-dip recession, just as red ink always climbs when there is an economic downturn.

And interest rates were high largely because inflation was so high (lenders don’t like to deliberately lose money).

But the most amazing part of the above excerpt is that Rattner wants us to believe the Reagan tax cuts caused the part of the double-dip recession that occurred in 1980, when Jimmy Carter was still president.

That’s sort of like Paul Krugman trying to imply that Estonia’s 2008 recession was caused by spending cuts that took place in 2009!

You also won’t be surprised to learn that Rattner selectively likes Keynesianism.

Big deficits can sometimes be advisable, as they were in aiding recovery from the 2009 recession.

I guess he wants us to applaud Obama’s so-called stimulus and be impressed by the very anemic recovery that followed.

But we’re supposed to overlook the booming economy of the Reagan years.

Last but not least, it’s noteworthy that Rattner – in spite of his bias – endorses part of the Trump tax plan.

I understand our need to lower the corporate tax rate to compete with other countries and adjust other provisions to keep companies and jobs here. Critics are correct that our business-tax structure encourages companies to ship jobs and even themselves overseas.

And when even folks like Rattner realize that the current corporate tax system is indefensible, that explains why I’m semi-hopeful that we’ll get a lower rate at some point in the near future.

Now let’s look at broader lessons from the Reagan tax cuts.

Lesson #1: Lower Tax Rates Can Boost Growth

We can draw some conclusions by looking at how low-tax economies such as Singapore and Hong Kong outperform the United States. Or we can compare growth in the United States with the economic stagnation in high-tax Europe.

We can also compare growth during the Reagan years with the economic malaise of the 1970s.

Moreover, there’s lots of academic evidence showing that lower tax rates lead to better economic performance

The bottom line is that people respond to incentives. When tax rates climb, there’s more “deadweight loss” in the economy. So when tax rates fall, output increases.

Lesson #2: Some Tax Cuts “Pay for Themselves”

The key insight of the Laffer Curve is not that tax cuts are self financing. Instead, the lesson is simply that certain tax cuts (i.e., lower marginal rates on productive behavior) lead to more economic activity. Which is another way of saying that certain tax cuts lead to more taxable income.

It’s then an empirical issue to assess the level of revenue feedback.

In the vast majority of the cases, the revenue feedback caused by more taxable income isn’t enough to offset the revenue loss associated with lower tax rates. However, we do have very strong evidence that upper-income taxpayers actually paid more to the IRS because of the Reagan tax cuts.

This is presumably because wealthier taxpayers have much greater ability to control the timing, level, and composition of their income.

Lesson #3:Reagan Put the United States on a Path to Fiscal Balance

I already explained above why it is wrong to blame the Reagan tax cuts for the recession-driven deficits of the early 1980s. Indeed, I suspect most leftists privately agree with that assessment.

But there’s still a widespread belief that Reagan’s tax policy put the United States on an unsustainable fiscal path.

Yet the Congressional Budget Office, as Reagan left office in early 1989, projected that budget deficits, which had been consistently shrinking as a share of GDP, would continue to shrink if Reagan’s policies were left in place.

Moreover, the deficit was falling because government spending was projected to grow slower than the private sector, which is the key to good fiscal policy.

Lesson #4: Lower Tax Rates Are Just One Piece of a Larger Puzzle

Having just disgorged hundreds of words on the importance of lower tax rates, let’s close by noting that fiscal policy is just one of many factors that determines an economy’s performance.

Indeed, tax and budget issues only account for 20 percent of a nation’s economic performance according to Economic Freedom of the World.

So it’s quite possible for a nation to be relatively free even with a bad tax system, and it’s also possible for a country to be economically repressed if it has a good tax system.

And this explains why economic freedom increased in America during the Clinton years, notwithstanding the 1993 tax hike. Simply stated, it’s the overall policy mix that matters.

I’ll conclude by noting that aggregate economic freedom in America increased during the Reagan years.

And the biggest reason for the increase was better fiscal policy.

It’s possible that we may also get more economic freedom during the Trump years. Indeed, I gave him a decent score for his first 100 days.

But it takes a lot of political courage to consistently fight for economic liberty in a town that cheers statism. And even though there’s a strong case to be made that there are political benefits to good policy, I’m not overly optimistic that Trump will be another Reagan.

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For three decades, I’ve been trying to convince politicians to adopt good policy. I give them theoretical reasons why it’s a good idea to have limited government. I share with them empirical evidence demonstrating the superiority of free markets over statism. And I’m probably annoyingly relentless about disseminating examples of good and bad policy from around the world (my version of “teachable moments”).

But if you want to get a politician to do the right thing, you need more than theory, data, and real-world case studies. You need to convince them – notwithstanding my Second Theorem of Government – that good policy won’t threaten their reelection.

My usual approach is to remind them that Ronald Reagan adopted a bunch of supposedly unpopular policies, yet he got reelected in a landslide because reducing the burden of government allowed the private sector to grow much faster. George H.W. Bush, by contrast, became a one-term blunder because his tax increase and other statist policies undermined the economy’s performance.

I’m hoping this argument will resonate with some of my friends who are now working in the White House. And I don’t rely on vague hints. In this clip from a recent interview, I bluntly point out that good policy is good politics because a faster-growing economy presumably will have a big impact on the 2020 election.

Here’s another clip from that same interview, where I point out that the GOP’s repeal-and-replace legislation was good news in that it got rid of a lot of the misguided taxes and spending that were part of Obamacare.

But the Republican plan did not try to fix the government-imposed third-party-payer distortions that cause health care to be so expensive and inefficient. And I pointed out at the end of this clip that Republicans would have been held responsible as the system got even more costly and bureaucratic.

Now let’s shift to fiscal policy.

Here’s a clip from an interview about Trump’s budget. I’m happy about some of the specific reductions (see here, here, and here), but I grouse that there’s no attempt to fix entitlements and I’m also unhappy that the reductions in domestic discretionary spending are used to benefit the Pentagon rather than taxpayers.

The latter half of the above interview is about the corruption that defines the Washington swamp. Yes, it’s possible that Trump could use the “bully pulpit” to push Congress in the right direction, but I wish I had more time to emphasize that shrinking the overall size of government is the only way to really “drain the swamp.”

And since we’re talking about good policy and good politics, here’s a clip from another interview.

Back when the stock market was climbing, I suggested it was a rather risky move for Trump to say higher stock values were a referendum on the benefits of his policies. After all, what goes up can go down.

The hosts acknowledge that the stock market may decline in the short run, but they seem optimistic in the long run based on what happened during the Reagan years.

But this brings me back to my original point. Yes, Reagan’s policies led to a strong stock market. His policies also produced rising levels of median household income. Moreover, the economy boomed and millions of jobs were created. These were among the reasons he was reelected in a landslide.

But these good things weren’t random. They happened because Reagan made big positive changes in policy. He tamed inflation. He slashed tax rates. He substantially reduced the burden of domestic spending. He curtailed red tape.

In other words, there was a direct connection between good policy, good economy, and good political results. Indeed, let’s enshrine this relationship in a “Fourth Theorem of Government.”

For what it’s worth, Reagan also demonstrated leadership, enacting all those pro-growth reforms over the vociferous opposition of various interest groups.

Will Trump’s reform be that bold and that brave? His proposed 15-percent corporate tax rate deserves praise, and he seems serious about restraining the regulatory state, but he will need to do a lot more if he wants to be the second coming of Ronald Reagan. Not only will he need more good policies, but he’ll also need to ditch some of the bad policies (childcare subsidies, infrastructure pork, carried-interest capital gains tax hike, etc) that would increase the burden of government.

The jury is still out, but I’m a bit pessimistic on the final verdict.

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Among Republicans and conservatives, Ronald Reagan is widely revered as a great President.

From their perspective, he was the candidate who actually made America great again.

Fans of the Gipper tell us the economy rebounded, inflation was tamed, incomes rose, unemployment fell, and the Evil Empire was defeated. What’s not to love?

That’s an impressive list of accomplishments, but is it accurate? Did Reagan and his policies produce good results, or has history created a misleading perspective (just as people for many decades credited Franklin Roosevelt for ending the Great Depression when we now know that FDR’s policies actually lengthened and deepened the downturn)?

Some libertarians are skeptics, arguing that Reagan’s rhetoric about reining in big government was much better than his actual record.

So let’s look at what actually happened in the 1980s.

The place to start, if we want neutral and unbiased data, is Economic Freedom of the World. Annual data for the 1980s isn’t available, but the every-five-year data allows us to see that economic liberty did increase between 1980 and 1990.

By the way, a couple of caveats would be helpful at this point. Reagan entered office in January 1981 and left office in January 1989, so there’s not a perfect overlap between the EFW data and the Reagan years. Also, the EFW data measures changes in a nation’s economic liberty and it silent on whether a president (or the legislative branch) deserves credit or blame.

Now let’s look at the specific components to see the potential impact of Reaganomics on important variables such as fiscal policy, rule of law and property rights, trade policy, regulatory policy, and monetary policy.

I’ve created a table from the data on page 188 of the latest Economic Freedom of the World. As you can see, there was a substantial improvement in fiscal policy, a modest improvement in monetary policy, no change in regulation, no change in rule of law and property rights, and a small drop in trade.

And if you then dig into the EFW excel file and look at the specific variables that are used to create these five scores, you’ll get more details.

On fiscal policy, for instance, there was a modest improvement in the “government consumption” score but a huge jump in the “top marginal tax rate” score. All of which makes sense because the burden of government spending (measured as a share of GDP) fell slightly during the Reagan years while the top tax rate dropped dramatically from 70 percent t0 28 percent.

Monetary policy improved for the obvious reason that the big drop in inflation meant a big increase in the “inflation” score. And the trade score dipped mostly because of an erosion in score for “tariffs.”

Now for my subjective assessment. I think Reagan was even better than shown by the EFW data. Here are three reasons.

  1. The overall burden of government spending only fell by a small amount, but that number masks the fact that domestic spending was reduced significantly as a share of GDP during the Reagan years. That decrease was somewhat offset by a buildup of defense spending, but you can argue that the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union meant this was a rare instance of government outlays actually generating a positive rate of return.
  2. Reagan’s approach to monetary policy rarely gets the credit it deserves. By supporting a tough anti-inflation policy, he made it possible for the Federal Reserve to restore price stability. It’s very rare for a politician to allow some short-run pain (especially political pain) to achieve long-run gain for the country. And, to be fair, some of the credit goes to Jimmy Carter (though he also deserves blame for letting the inflation genie out of the bottle in the first place).
  3. On trade policy, Reagan’s legacy is much better than indicated by the EFW scores. During his tenure, the NAFTA and GATT/WTO trade liberalization negotiations began and gained considerable steam. Yes, the implementation occurred later (with both the first President Bush and President Clinton deserving credit for following through), but we never would have reached that stage without Reagan’s vision of expanded trade and rejection of the protectionist philosophy.

Last but not least, let’s look at what Reagan’s policies meant for ordinary people. Did more economic liberty lead to better lives?

The answer is yes. The poisonous hidden tax of inflation largely disappeared. The unemployment rate fell. Labor force participation increased (in marked contrast with Obama). And there was a big increase in income for average Americans (again, in sharp contrast with Obama).

No wonder, when presented with a hypothetical matchup, the American people said they would elect Reagan over Obama in a landslide.

P.S. Critics of Reaganomics, including some on the right, inevitably raise the issue of deficits and debt and assert that Reagan failed. I think red ink is the wrong measure, but even for those who fixate on that variable, it’s worth noting that deficits were relatively small by the time Reagan left office and the Congressional Budget Office predicted they would continue falling if his policies were maintained. Moreover, the 1980-1982 double-dip recession was the reason red ink expanded so much during the early Reagan years, and that was primarily the inevitable consequence of the reckless monetary policy of the 1970s.

P.P.S. For Reagan humor, click here, here, and here.

P.P.P.S. If you want to be inspired, click here and here to see two short clips of Reagan in action. And at the bottom of this post, there’s a great video of Reagan embracing libertarianism.

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The long-term trend in China is positive. Economic reforms beginning in the late 1970s have helped lift hundreds of millions of people out of abject poverty.

And thanks to decades of strong growth, living standards for ordinary Chinese citizens are far higher than they used to be. There’s still quite a way to go before China catches up to western nations, but the numbers keep improving.

That being said, China’s economy has hit a speed bump. The stock market’s recent performance has been less than impressive and economic growth has faltered.

Is this the beginning of the end of the Chinese miracle?

If you asked me about six months ago, I would have expressed pessimism. The government was intervening in financial markets to prop up prices, and that was after several years of failed Keynesian-style spending programs that were supposed to “stimulate” growth.

But maybe my gloom was premature.

An article in The Economist examines the new “supply-side” focus of China’s leader (h/t: Powerline).

Mr Xi has seemed to channel the late American president. He has been speaking openly for the first time of a need for “supply-side reforms”—a term echoing one made popular during Reagan’s presidency in the 1980s. It is now China’s hottest economic catchphrase (even featuring in a state-approved rap song, released on December 26th: “Reform the supply side and upgrade the economy,” goes one catchy line). …Mr Xi’s first mentions of the supply side, or gongjice, in two separate speeches in November, were not entirely a surprise. For a couple of years think-tanks affiliated with government ministries had been promoting the concept (helped by a new institute called the China Academy of New Supply-Side Economics).

Sounds encouraging, though it’s important to understand that there’s a big difference between rhetoric and reality.

Talking about “gongjice” is a good start, but are Chinese officials actually willing to reduce government’s economic footprint?

Perhaps.

Their hope is that such reforms will involve deep structural changes aimed at putting the economy on a sounder footing, rather than yet more stimulus. …Mr Xi’s aim may be to reinvigorate reforms that were endorsed by the Communist Party’s 370-member Central Committee in 2013, a year after he took over as China’s leader. They called for a “decisive” role to be given to market forces

Wow, the communists in China want free markets. Maybe there’s hope for some of America’s more statist politicians!

All kidding aside, there’s some evidence that officials in Beijing realize that the Keynesian experiment of recent years didn’t work any better than Obama’s 2009 spending binge.

Here’s more from the article.

Those who first pushed supply-side reform onto China’s political agenda want a clean break with the credit-driven past. Jia Kang, an outspoken researcher in the finance ministry who co-founded the new supply-side academy, defines the term in opposition to the short-term demand management that has often characterised China’s economic policy—the boosting of consumption and investment with the help of cheap money and dollops of government spending.The result of the old approach has been a steep rise in debt (about 250% of GDP and counting) and declining returns on investment. Supply-siders worry that it is creating a growing risk of stagnation, or even a full-blown economic crisis. Mr Jia says the government should focus instead on simplifying regulations to make labour, land and capital more productive. Making it easier for private companies to invest in sectors currently reserved for bloated state-run corporations would be a good place to start, some of his colleagues argue.

This is music to my ears.

Assuming President Xi is willing to adopt the types of reforms advocated by Mr. Jia, China’s economy will have a very bright future.

The key goal for policy makers in Beijing should be to improve China’s economic freedom score over the next 10 years by as much as it improved between 1980 and 2005.

In other words, if China adopts genuine free markets like Hong Kong and Singapore (and, to a lesser extent, Taiwan), then it will simply be a matter of time before living standards reach – and exceed – levels found in western nations.

I’ll close by outlining two challenges for Beijing.

First, entrenched interest groups will be an obstacle to pro-growth reform. In this sense, politics in China is very similar to politics in Greece, America, France, and South Africa. The sad reality is that too many people – all over the world – think it’s morally acceptable to obtain unearned wealth via the coercive power of government. Though there are reasons to be optimistic because a strong majority of Chinese people have expressed support for free markets.

Second, even if China’s leaders overcome the interest groups and adopt good long-run policy, there’s still the challenge of short-term dislocation and instability caused by so-called stimulus programs and easy-money policy from the central bank. Just like you can’t un-ring a bell, you can’t magically undo the malinvestments caused by those policies. So Beijing will need to weather a temporary economic storm at the same time it engage in long-run reform.

P.S. If you want to know a recipe for Chinese stagnation, simply look at the IMF’s recommendations.

P.P.S. Some senior Chinese officials have a very astute understanding of why welfare states don’t work.

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When I get my daily email from the editorial page of the New York Times, I scroll through to see whether there’s anything on economic issues I should read.

As a general rule, I skip over Paul Krugman’s writings because he’s both predictable and partisan. But every so often, his column will grab my attention, usually because the headline will include an assertion that doesn’t make sense.

The bad news is that this is usually a waste of time since most of his columns are ideological rants. But the good news is that I periodically catch Krugman making grotesque errors when he engages in actual analysis. Here are a few examples:

  • Earlier this year, Krugman asserted that America was outperforming Europe because our fiscal policy was more Keynesian, yet the data showed that the United States had bigger spending reductions and less red ink.
  • Last year, he asserted that a supposed “California comeback” in jobs somehow proved my analysis of a tax hike was wrong, yet only four states at the time had a higher unemployment rate than California.
  • And here’s my favorite: In 2012, Krugman engaged in the policy version of time travel by blaming Estonia’s 2008 recession on spending cuts that took place in 2009.

And if you enjoyed those examples, you can find more of the same by clicking here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

But perhaps he’s (sort of) learning from his mistakes. Today, we’re going to look at Paul Krugman’s latest numbers and I’ll be the first to say that they appear to be accurate.

But accurate numbers don’t necessarily lead to honest analysis. Krugman has a post featuring this chart, which is supposed to show us that GOP presidential candidates are wrong to pursue “Bushonomics.”

In looking at this chart and seeing how Krugman wants it to be interpreted, I can’t help but think of the famous zinger Reagan used in his debate with Jimmy Carter: “there you go again.”

Let’s consider why he’s wrong.

First, he asserts the chart is evidence that GOP candidates shouldn’t follow Bushonomics.

I actually agree. That’s because the burden of government spending jumped significantly during the Bush years and the regulatory state became more oppressive. All things considered, Bush was a statist.

Krugman, however, would like readers to believe that Bush was some sort of Reaganite. That’s where we disagree. And if you want to know which one of us is right, just check what happened to America’s rating in Economic Freedom of the World during the Bush years.

Second, Krugman would like readers to think that Presidents have total control over economic policy. Yet in America’s separation-of-powers system, that’s obviously wrong. You also need to consider what’s happening with the legislative branch.

So I added a couple of data points to Krugman’s chart. And, lo and behold, you can just as easily make an argument that partisan control of Congress is the relevant variable. As you can see, Republican control of Congress boosted job growth for Obama, whereas the Democratic takeover of Congress led to bad results during the Bush years.

By the way, I don’t actually think congressional control is all that matters. I’m simply making the point that it is misleading to assert that control of the White House is all that matters.

What is important, by contrast, are the policies that are being implemented (or, just as important, not being implemented).

And since the economic policies of Bush and Obama have been largely similar, the bottom line is that it’s disingenuous to compare job creation during their tenures and reach any intelligent conclusions.

Third, since Krugman wants us to pay attention to job creation during various administrations, we can play this game – and actually learn something – by adding another president to the mix.

Krugman doesn’t identify his data source, but I assume he used this BLS calculation of private employment (or something very similar).

So I asked that website to give me total private employment going back to the month Reagan was nominated.

And here’s what I found. As you can see, good private-sector job growth under Reagan and Clinton, but relatively tepid job growth this century.

Now let’s take a closer look at the total change in private employment for the first 81 months of the Reagan, Bush, and Obama Administrations. And you’ll see that Krugman was sort of right, at least in that Obama has done better than Bush.

And if there’s no recession before he leaves office, he’ll look even better than Bush than he does now. But Obama doesn’t fare well when compared against Reagan.

So does this mean Krugman will now argue GOP candidates should follow Reaganomics rather than Obamanomics or Bushonomics?

I’m not holding my breath waiting for him to make a correction. By the way, keep in mind what I said before. Presidents (along with members of Congress) don’t have magical job-creation powers. The best you can hope for is that the overall burden of government diminishes a bit during their tenure so that the private sector can flourish.

That’s what really enables job creation, and that’s the lesson that really matters.

But it’s not easy to find the truth if you put partisanship above analysis. Krugman erred by making a very simplistic Bush-Republican-bad/Obama-Democrat-good argument.

In reality, the past several decades show that it’s more important to look at policy rather than partisan labels. For instance, the fiscal policies of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton are relatively similar and are in distinct contrast to the more profligate fiscal policies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

P.S. Paul Krugman’s biggest whopper was about healthcare rather than fiscal policy. In 2009, he said “scare stories” about government-run healthcare in Great Britain “are false.” But you can find lots of scary stories here.

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What does World War I have to do with Obamanomics?

There’s no real connection, of course, but it did give me an opportunity to present a good analogy. At a conference in London last week, I was discussing with some folks the state of the American economy and the role of public policy.

I was trying to explain what’s happened in the past few years, describing the avalanche of bad policy last decade, culminating with the faux stimulus in 2009 and the enactment of Obamacare in 2010.

I then said that Obama’s efforts to impose further statism have been largely stymied, particularly after the Tea Party election of 2010. There have been lots of skirmishes in recent years, to be sure, with Obama winning a few (such as the recent imposition of “net neutrality” regulations on the Internet) but also losing a few (such as spending restraint caused by policies like the sequester).

But the fact that Obama hasn’t been able to make additional “progress” is not really a victory. It’s simply a stalemate.

And that’s where the World War I analogy fits. As I was trying to get across my point, it occurred to me that it’s vaguely like World War I.

When the war started, the Germans gained considerable ground, overrunning much of Belgium and a lot of territory in northwestern France. That’s akin to Obama’s victories in 2009-2010.

But then the period of trench warfare began and neither side made much progress. And that’s a good description of what’s been happening in recent years in Washington.

This is a good news-bad news situation. To continue with my analogy, the good news is that Obama isn’t conquering more territory. The bad news is that we aren’t pushing Obama back into Germany and reclaiming territory.

And so long as we’re in this stalemate, it’s unlikely that we’ll enjoy robust economic growth. And that’s our topic for today.

In my actual speech, I dusted off my charts based on Minneapolis Fed data, and updated them to compare today’s weak recovery with what’s happened during previous business cycles. And I specifically focused on a comparison of the very strong growth of the Reagan years with the lackluster growth of the Obama years.

But it’s a pity that my speech wasn’t one week later, because I’ve just seen some really good contributions on the same topic from economists Robert Higgs and John Taylor.

Writing for the Independent Institute, Higgs looks at what’s been happening with a key measure of our prosperity.

Arguably the best single, currently available measure of the entire public’s payoff from economic activity is real disposable income per capita. This is the average amount per annum that Americans receive in exchange for the use of their labor and other input services, after taxes, corrected for changes in the purchasing power of the dollar. …this measure of economic well-being has scarcely increased at all since 2007.

Higgs also prepared a table to make it easier to compare performance of this important variable during various business cycles.

As you can see, the current “recovery” has been dismal compared to previous periods.

And here’s his analysis of why we’re suffering from sub-par growth.

These figures demonstrate that even though the rate of increase has varied substantially in the past, it has never remained so low as it has been in recent years. Even during the decade of so-called stagflation from the early 1970s to the early 1980s, real disposable income per capita grew more than twice as fast as it has grown in the past seven years. In the past, recessions were always followed by relatively brisk growth during the first several years of the ensuing recovery. Such has not been the case this time. Nor do forecasters anticipate any such surge of growth in the future. Might it be that the state’s burdens loaded onto the private producers of wealth—taxes, regulations, uncertainties, intrusions of all sorts, including demands for elaborate reports, asset seizures, and threats of felony prosecution for completely innocent and harmless actions—have finally become the “last straw” for these long-suffering camels? …the current situation is clear enough. The U.S. economy, though not yet completely stagnant, has made little headway for more than seven years, and there is little reason to foresee any great change in this regard.

Returning to my analogy, Higgs is basically saying that we’ll be mired in trench warfare for the foreseeable future.

Not exactly a rosy projection.

Now let’s look at the analysis of Professor John Taylor of Stanford University. He starts by walking through a timeline of the current “recovery.”

At the time of the first anniversary of current recovery in 2010, it showed clear signs of weakness compared to the recovery from the recessions in the early 1980s and from all other deep recessions in American history.  …By the recovery’s second anniversary in 2011, it was weak for long enough that I called it “a recovery in name only, so weak as to be nonexistent.” …By the recovery’s third anniversary in 2012, it was now the worst recovery from a deep recession in American history. …By the recovery’s fourth anniversary in 2013, few disputed any more that it was unusually weak and disappointing.  …By the recovery’s fifth anniversary, we were so far away from the recession that linking the terrible performance to the recession became increasing far-fetched.

Professor Taylor has a couple of charts of his own that bolster his argument.

Here’s a comparison of quarterly growth during the Obama recovery and Reagan recovery.

If you’re keeping score, Reagan’s economy out-performed Obama’s economy (often by a very wide margin) in 19 out of 22 quarters.

If this was a boxing match, it would have been stopped long ago.

Taylor also looks at the performance of the labor market during the Obama recovery and Reagan recovery.

Once again, there’s no comparison. During the Reagan years more people were working and adding to the productive capacity of the nation.

During the Obama years, by contrast, the most optimistic assessment is that we’re treading water.

Here’s more of his analysis about the ongoing stagnation.

With the recovery now approaching its sixth anniversary, there is more optimism that we are finally coming out the excruciating slow growth. There is also some wishful thinking that the drop of people out of the labor force—which has made the unemployment rate come down—is due to demographic factors not the slow growth itself. And we are not as bad as Europe. But as these charts show there is still not much in this recovery to write home about. Growth over the four quarters of 2014 looks to average only 2.2% compared with 4.4% in the corresponding quarters of the 1980s recovery. And as of January 2015 the employment-to-population ratio is still lower than at the start of the recovery.

So what’s the bottom line?

To be blunt, you can’t make America more like Europe and then be surprised that our economy isn’t firing on all cylinders.

Returning to our analogy, we need to defeat the enemy of statism and reclaim our lost territory.

But that won’t happen until 2017 at the earliest. And it’s possible it will never happen, particularly if we don’t implement genuine entitlement reform.

P.S. The bad news is that we’re becoming more like Europe. The good news is that we’re not there yet. Our overall burden of government has expanded, but we still have considerably more economic liberty than the average European nation. And that helps to explain why our recovery (even though anemic by American standards) is far more impressive than what’s been happening across the Atlantic.

P.P.S. Based on insightful analysis from Thomas Sowell, John Mackey, and Ronald Reagan, it may have been more accurate (albeit snarky and inappropriate) to have used a World War II example, with Obama’s first two years being akin to the Nazi blitzkrieg and the conquest of France, and recent years being akin to the period between the Battle of Britain and D-Day.

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