Archive for the ‘Recession’ Category

I’m not a big fan of Obamanomics. We’re going through the weakest recovery since the Great Depression. Income and wages have been stagnant, particularly when compared to previous expansions. And while the unemployment rate has finally come down, that’s in part a consequence of people dropping out of the labor force.

The net result is that our nation’s output is far lower than it would be if economic performance had simply matched the average for previous business cycles. And that translates into foregone income for American households.

Yet the President seems to think that he deserves applause for his economic legacy. Here are some excerpts from an AP story in the Oregonian.

President Barack Obama is not shy about defining his achievements and casting them in the most positive light…on Monday Obama offered a rare glimpse at how he wants history to judge his presidency, letting the “L” word cross his lips as he touted the U.S. economic recovery… “Obviously there are things that I’ve been proud of,” he said. He first cited the economic crisis he faced upon assuming office in 2009. “It was hard, but we ended up avoiding a terrible depression,” he said.

You won’t be surprised to learn that I have a different perspective. I was on CNN earlier this week and expressed my disappointment with the President’s policies and their impact on the nation.

To be fair, I’m focusing in the interview on the strength (or lack thereof) of the recovery. Obama, by contrast, wants credit for the fact that the 2008 recession didn’t turn into a depression.

Needless to say, there aren’t alternative universes where we can see what would have happened if Obama didn’t get to the White House. And it probably wouldn’t matter even if there were alternative universes since neither McCain nor Romney had a substantially different vision anyhow.

But here’s why I think it’s absurd for Obama to take credit for avoiding a depression. Simply stated, it takes a lot of mistakes, on a sustained basis, to produce a depression.

And that’s precisely what we got from Presidents Hoover and Roosevelt. Thanks to protectionist policies, higher tax rates, a bigger burden of government spending, and massive intervention in markets, a normal downturn was magnified and extended to last an entire decade.

So I suppose we could give Obama credit for not being as bad as Hoover and Roosevelt, but that’s an extreme case of damning with faint praise. And even faint praise is probably unwarranted since Obama wanted more statism and was stopped by the 2010 election.

The bottom line is that Obama wants people – based on zero evidence – to believe a depression would have occurred naturally in the absence of his policies.

The more realistic assessment is that Obama’s policies have been a net negative for the economy. But as I remarked in the interview, I’m not making a partisan argument. Bush’s policies also were a net negative.

By comparison, you can look at Reagan and Clinton for examples of Presidents who increased economic freedom during their reigns.

P.S. Since today’s topic is the economy, here’s a grim reminder of one of the reasons why growth has been relatively anemic.

The folks at Mercatus have put together a pictograph on the regulatory burden.

Something to keep in mind when considering the degree to which red tape is constraining growth and entrepreneurship.

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The great Ronald Reagan famously said (and I am paraphrasing, since I do not remember the exact phrase) that the most dangerous words in the English language were “I am from Washington and I am here to help you.”

Those are very wise words, especially when we think of the damage politicians have done because of their impulse to “do something” when the economy stumbles. The problem is not that there is nothing that needs to be fixed. The problem is that the crowd in Washington is far more likely to make things worse rather than better.

And who better to explain this than Thomas Sowell.

Sowell starts his most recent column by explaining that politicians who want to “do something” almost always want to expand the burden of government spending, but he notes that this approach has meant deeper recessions and more economic suffering. And he cites Warren Harding as an example of a President who rejected the notion that bigger government was some sort of economic elixir.

…you might think that the economy requires government intervention to revive and create jobs. It is Beltway dogma that the government has to “do something.” History tells a different story. For the first 150 years of this country’s existence, the federal government felt no great need to “do something” when the economy turned down. Over that long span of time, the economic downturns were neither as deep nor as long lasting as they have been since the federal government decided that it had to “do something” in the wake of the stock market crash of 1929, which set a new precedent. One of the last of the “do nothing” presidents was Warren G. Harding. In 1921, under President Harding, unemployment hit 11.7 percent — higher than it has been under President Obama. Harding did nothing to get the economy stimulated. Far from spending more money to try to “jump start” the economy, President Harding actually reduced government spending.

Can we learn any lessons from Harding’s anti-Keynesian approach? Assuming we want more growth and less unemployment, the answer is yes (and we can also learn the lesson that Hoover was a moronic statist from the very beginning).

President Harding deliberately rejected the urging of his own Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover, to intervene. The 11.7 percent unemployment rate in 1921 fell to 6.7 percent in 1922, and then to 2.4 percent in 1923. It is hard to think of any government intervention in the economy that produced such a sharp and swift reduction in unemployment as was produced by just staying out of the way and letting the economy rebound on its own. Bill Clinton loudly proclaimed to the delegates to the Democratic National Convention that no president could have gotten us out of the recession in just one term. But history shows that the economy rebounded out of a worse unemployment situation in just two years under Harding, who simply let the market revive on its own, as it had done before, time and time again for more than a century.

Allow me to actually quibble with what Sowell wrote. Harding didn’t “let the market revive on its own.” He helped the economy grow faster by shrinking the federal budget. As Jim Powell explained in National Review, “Federal spending was cut from $6.3 billion in 1920 to $5 billion in 1921 and $3.2 billion in 1922.”

That’s a stunning statistic, akin to cutting more than $1.5 trillion from today’s bloated federal budget.

Sowell  also cites the achievements of the Gipper. Since I’ve posted some powerful comparisons of Reaganomics and Obamanomics, this is music to my ears.

Something similar happened under Ronald Reagan. Unemployment peaked at 9.7 percent early in the Reagan administration. Like Harding and earlier presidents, Reagan did nothing, despite outraged outcries in the media. The economy once again revived on its own. Three years later, unemployment was down to 7.2 percent — and it kept on falling, as the country experienced twenty years of economic growth with low inflation and low unemployment. The Obama party line is that all the bad things are due to what he inherited from Bush, and the few signs of recovery are due to Obama’s policies beginning to pay off. But, if the economy has been rebounding on its own for more than 150 years, the question is why it has been so slow to recover under the Obama administration.

By the way, Sowell also could have mentioned what happened in the United States immediately after World War II. The Keynesians were predicting a return to depression because of big reductions in government spending and the demobilization of millions of troops. But as Richard Vedder and Jason Taylor explained for the Cato Institute, the economy quickly adjusted and rebounded precisely because politicians didn’t revive the New Deal (and, as you can see from this video, President Reagan understood this bit of economic history).

Sowell also explains how FDR made a bad situation worse in the 1930s.

A great myth has grown up that President Franklin D. Roosevelt saved the American economy with his interventions during the Great Depression of the 1930s. But a 2004 economic study concluded that government interventions had prolonged the Great Depression by several years. Obama is repeating policies that failed under FDR.

In previous posts, I have cited both Sowell and the Wall Street Journal to make this very point, but I also call your attention to this post referencing the seminal work of Robert Higgs, as well as this video on the pernicious role of government intervention in the 1930s.

Last but not least, check out this video to understand more about FDR and his malignant views.

P.S. Fans of Professor Sowell can read more of his work here, here, here, here, here, hereherehereherehereherehereherehereherehere, and here. And you can see him in action here.

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On this day last year, I posted two charts that I developed using the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank’s interactive website.

Those two charts showed that the current recovery was very weak compared to the boom of the early 1980s.

But perhaps that was an unfair comparison. Maybe the Reagan recovery started strong and then hit a wall. Or maybe the Obama recovery was the economic equivalent of a late bloomer.

So let’s look at the same charts, but add an extra year of data. Does it make a difference?

Meh…not so much.

Let’s start with the GDP data. The comparison is striking. Under Reagan’s policies, the economy skyrocketed.  Heck, the chart prepared by the Minneapolis Fed doesn’t even go high enough to show how well the economy performed during the 1980s.

Under Obama’s policies, by contrast, we’ve just barely gotten back to where we were when the recession began. Unlike past recessions, we haven’t enjoyed a strong bounce. And this means we haven’t recovered the output that was lost during the downturn.

This is a damning indictment of Obamanomics

Indeed, I made this point several months ago when analyzing some work by Nobel laureate Robert Lucas. And it’s been highlighted more recently by James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute and the news pages of the Wall Street Journal.

Unfortunately, the jobs chart is probably even more discouraging. As you can see, employment is still far below where it started.

This is in stark contrast to the jobs boom during the Reagan years.

So what does this mean? How do we measure the human cost of the foregone growth and jobs that haven’t been created?

Writing in today’s Wall Street Journal, former Senator Phil Gramm and budgetary expert Mike Solon compare the current recovery to the post-war average as well as to what happened under Reagan.

If in this “recovery” our economy had grown and generated jobs at the average rate achieved following the 10 previous postwar recessions, GDP per person would be $4,528 higher and 13.7 million more Americans would be working today. …President Ronald Reagan’s policies ignited a recovery so powerful that if it were being repeated today, real per capita GDP would be $5,694 higher than it is now—an extra $22,776 for a family of four. Some 16.9 million more Americans would have jobs.

By the way, the Gramm-Solon column also addresses the argument that this recovery is anemic because the downturn was caused by a financial crisis. That’s certainly a reasonable argument, but they point out that Reagan had to deal with the damage caused by high inflation, which certainly wreaked havoc with parts of the financial system. They also compare today’s weak recovery to the boom that followed the financial crisis of 1907.

But I want to make a different point. As I’ve written before, Obama is not responsible for the current downturn. Yes, he was a Senator and he was part of the bipartisan consensus for easy money, Fannie/Freddie subsidies, bailout-fueled moral hazard, and a playing field tilted in favor of debt, but his share of the blame wouldn’t even merit an asterisk.

My problem with Obama is that he hasn’t fixed any of the problems. Instead, he has kept in place all of the bad policies – and in some cases made them worse. Indeed, I challenge anyone to identify a meaningful difference between the economic policy of Obama and the economic policy of Bush.

  • Bush increased government spending. Obama has been increasing government spending.
  • Bush adopted Keynesian “stimulus” policies. Obama adopted Keynesian “stimulus” policies.
  • Bush bailed out politically connected companies. Obama has been bailing out politically connected companies.
  • Bush supported the Fed’s easy-money policy. Obama has been supporting the Fed’s easy-money policy.
  • Bush created a new healthcare entitlement. Obama created a new healthcare entitlement.
  • Bush imposed costly new regulations on the financial sector. Obama imposed costly new regulations on the financial sector.

I could continue, but you probably get the  point. On economic issues, the only real difference is that Bush cut taxes and Obama is in favor of higher taxes. Though even that difference is somewhat overblown since Obama’s tax policies – up to this point – haven’t had a big impact on the overall tax burden (though that could change if his plans for higher tax rates ever go into effect).

This is why I always tell people not to pay attention to party labels. Bigger government doesn’t work, regardless of whether a politician is a Republican or Democrat. The problem isn’t Obamanomics, it’s Bushobamanomics. But since that’s a bit awkward, let’s just call it statism.

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Ronald Reagan would have been 100 years old on February 6, so let’s celebrate his life by comparing the success of his pro-market policies with the failure of Barack Obama’s policies (which are basically a continuation of George W. Bush’s policies, so this is not a partisan jab).

The Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis has a fascinating (at least for economic geeks) interactive webpage that allows readers to compare economic downturns and recoveries, both on the basis of output and employment.

The results are remarkable. Reagan focused on reducing the burden of government and the economy responded. Obama (and Bush) tried the opposite approach, but spending, bailouts, and intervention have not worked. This first chart shows economic output.

The employment chart below provides an equally stark comparison. If anything, this second chart is even more damning since employment has not bounced back from the trough. But that shouldn’t be too surprising. Why create jobs when government is subsidizing unemployment and penalizing production? And we already know the so-called stimulus has been a flop.

None of this should be interpreted to mean Reagan is ready for sainthood. He made plenty of compromises during his eight years in office, and some of them were detours in the wrong direction. But the general direction was positive, which is why he’s the best President of my lifetime.*

*Though he may not be the best President of the 20th Century.

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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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Here’s a clever video produced by the Winston Group, comparing the tax policies of two Democratic Presidents. Having previously highlighted Kennedy’s tax-cutting approach, it is painful for me to observe the class warfare approach of the Obama Administration.

What’s especially fascinating is that JFK intuitively understood the Laffer Curve, particularly the insight that deficits usually are the result of slow growth, not the cause of slow growth.

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The Free Market Mojo site asked me a number of interesting questions about public policy. I’m not sure all of my answers were interesting, but here are some snippets that capture my curmudgeonly outlook.

I think it’s important to divide the topic into two issues, the policies that cause short-run fluctuations and the policies that impact long-run growth. Generally speaking, I try to avoid guessing games about what is happening today and tomorrow (or even yesterday), and instead focus on the policies that will boost the economy’s underlying productive capacity. …the Fed’s easy-money policy was a mistake. If the central bank had behaved appropriately, we presumably would not have suffered a financial crisis and recession. And if we go back in history, we find the Fed’s fingerprints whenever there is an economic meltdown. …I would not want the government to impose a gold standard. Competitive markets should determine the form of money and/or what backs up that money. Perhaps gold would emerge in such a competitive system, but a gold standard should not be imposed. …I don’t trust politicians. They would pass a bill to impose a VAT while simultaneously phasing out the income tax over a five-year period. But inevitably there would be some sort of “emergency” in year three and the income tax would be “temporarily” extended. When the dust settled, temporary would become permanent and we would be a decrepit European-style welfare state. …There are many great economists, but for my line of work, Milton Friedman has to be at the top of the list. He had an incredible ability to explain the benefits of liberty and the costs of statism in a way that reached average people.

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In a very predictable editorial this morning, the New York Times pontificated in favor of higher taxes. Compared to Paul Krugman’s rant earlier in the week, which featured the laughable assertion that letting people keep more of the money they earn is akin to sending them a check from the government, the piece seemed rational. But that is damning with faint praise. There are several points in the editorial that deserve some unfriendly commentary.

First, let’s give the editors credit for being somewhat honest about their bad intentions. Unlike other statists, they openly admit that they want higher taxes on the middle class, stating that “more Americans — and not just the rich — are going to have to pay more taxes.” This is a noteworthy admission, though it doesn’t reveal the real strategy on the left.

Most advocates of big government understand that it will be impossible to turn America into a European-style welfare state without a value-added tax, but they don’t want to publicly associate themselves with that view until the political environment is more conducive to success. Most important, they realize that it will be very difficult to impose a VAT without seducing some gullible Republicans into giving them political cover. And one way of getting GOPers to sign up for a VAT is by convincing them that they have to choose a VAT if they don’t want a return to the confiscatory 70 percent tax rates of the 1960s and 1970s. Any moves in that direction, such as raising the top tax rate from 35 percent to 39.6 percent next January, are part of this long-term strategy to pressure Republicans (as well as naive members of the business community) into a VAT trap.

Shifting to other assertions, the editorial claims that “more revenue will be needed in years to come to keep rebuilding the economy.”  That’s obviously a novel assertion, and the editors never bother to explain how and why more tax revenue will lead to a stronger economy. Are the folks at the New York Times not aware that both economic growth and living standards are lower in European nations that have imposed higher tax burdens? Heck, even the Keynesians agree (albeit for flawed reasons) that higher taxes stunt growth.

The editorial also asserts that, “Since 2002, the federal budget has been chronically short of revenue.” I suppose if revenues are compared to the spending desires of politicians, then tax collections are – and always will be – inadequate. The same is true in Greece, France, and Sweden. It doesn’t matter whether revenues are 20 percent of GDP or 50 percent of GDP. The political class always wants more.

But let’s actually use an objective measure to determine whether revenues are “chronically short.” The Democrat-controlled Congressional Budget Office stated in its newly-released update to the Economic and Budget Outlook that federal tax revenues historically have averaged 18 percent of GDP. They are below that level now because of the economic downturn, but CBO projects that revenues will climb above that level in a few years – even if all of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts are made permanent. Moreover, OMB’s historical data shows that revenues were actually above the long-run average in 2006 and 2007, so even the “since 2002” part of the assertion in the editorial is incorrect.

On the issue of temporary tax relief for the non-rich, the editorial is right but for the wrong reason. The editors rely on the Keynesian rationale, writing that, “low-, middle- and upper-middle-income taxpayers…tend to spend most of their income and the economy needs consumer spending” whereas “Tax cuts for the rich can safely be allowed to expire because wealthy taxpayers tend to save rather than spend their tax savings.”

I’ve debunked Keynesian analysis so often that I feel that I deserve some sort of lifetime exemption from dealing with this nonsense, but I’ll give it another try. Borrowing money from some people in the economy and giving it to some other people in the economy is not a recipe for better economic performance. Economic growth means we are increasing national income. Keynesian policy simply changes who is spending national income, guided by a myopic belief that consumer spending somehow is better than investment spending. The Keynesian approach didn’t work for Hoover and Roosevelt in the 1930s, it didn’t work for Japan in the 1990s, and it hasn’t worked for Obama.

And it doesn’t matter if the Keynesian stimulus is in the form of tax rebates. Gerald Ford’s rebate in the 1970s was a flop, and George W. Bush’s 2001 rebate also failed to boost growth. Tax cuts can lead to more national income, but only if marginal tax rates on productive behavior are reduced so that people have more incentive to work, save, and invest. This is an argument for extending the lower tax rates for all income classes, but it’s important to point out that the economic benefits will be much greater if the lower tax rates are made permanent.

Last but not least, the editorial asserts that, “The revenue from letting [tax cuts for the rich] expire — nearly $40 billion next year — would be better spent on job-creating measures.” Not surprisingly, there is no effort to justify this claim. They could have cited the infamous White House study claiming that the so-called stimulus would keep unemployment under 8 percent, but even people at the New York Times presumably understand that might not be very convincing since the actual unemployment rate is two percentage points higher than what the Obama Administration claimed it would be at this point.

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I’m still dealing with the statist echo chamber, having been hit with two additional attacks for the supposed sin of endorsing Reaganomics over Obamanomics (my responses to the other attacks can be found here and here). Some guy at the Atlantic Monthly named Steve Benen issued an critique focusing on the timing of the recession and recovery in Reagan’s first term. He reproduces a Krugman chart (see below) and also adds his own commentary.

Reagan’s first big tax cut was signed in August 1981. Over the next year or so, unemployment went from just over 7% to just under 11%. In September 1982, Reagan raised taxes, and unemployment fell soon after. We’re all aware, of course, of the correlation/causation dynamic, but as Krugman noted in January, “[U]nemployment, which had been stable until Reagan cut taxes, soared during the 15 months that followed the tax cut; it didn’t start falling until Reagan backtracked and raised taxes.”

This argument is absurd since the recession in the early 1980s was largely the inevitable result of the Federal Reserve’s misguided monetary policy. And I would be stunned if this view wasn’t shared by 90 percent-plus of economists. So it is rather silly to say the recession was caused by tax cuts and the recovery was triggered by tax increases.

But even if we magically assume monetary policy was perfect, Benen’s argument is wrong. I don’t want to repeat myself, so I’ll just call attention to my previous blog post which explained that it is critically important to look at when tax cuts (and increases) are implemented, not when they are enacted. The data is hardly exact, because I haven’t seen good research on the annual impact of bracket creep, but there was not much net tax relief during Reagan’s first couple of years because the tax cuts were phased in over several years and other taxes were going up. So the recession actually began when taxes were flat (or perhaps even rising) and the recovery began when the economy was receiving a net tax cut. That being said, I’m not arguing that the Reagan tax cuts ended the recession. They probably helped, to be sure, but we should do good tax policy to improve long-run growth, not because of some misguided effort to fine-tune short-run growth.

The second attack comes from some blog called Econospeak, where my newest fan wrote:

I’m scratching my head here as I thought the standard pseudo-supply-side line was that the deficit exploded in the 1980’s because government spending exploded. OK, the truth is that the ratio of Federal spending to GDP neither increased nor decreased during this period. Real tax revenues per capita fell which is why the deficit rose but this notion that the burden of government fell is not factually based.

Those are some interesting points, and I might respond to them if I wanted to open a new conversation, but they’re not germane to what I said. In my original post (the one he was attacking), I commented on the “burden of government” rather than the “burden of government spending.” I’m a fiscal policy economist, so I’m tempted to claim that the sun rises and sets based on what’s happening to taxes and spending, but such factors are just two of the many policies that influence economic performance. And with regard to my assertion that Reagan reduced the “burden of government,” I’ll defer to the rankings put together for the Economic Freedom of the World Index. The score for the United States improved from 8.03 to 8.38 between 1980 and 1990 (my guess is that it peaked in 1988, but they only have data for every five years). The folks on the left may be unhappy about it, but it is completely accurate to say Reagan reduced the burden of government. And while we don’t yet have data for the Obama years, there’s a 99 percent likelihood that America’s score will decline.

This is not a partisan argument, by the way. The Economic Freedom of the World chart shows that America’s score improved during the Clinton years, particularly his second term. And the data also shows that the U.S. score dropped during the Bush years. This is why I wrote a column back in 2007 advocating Clintonomics over Bushonomics. Partisan affiliation is not what matters. If we want more prosperity, the key is shrinking the burden of government.

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

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

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

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Both Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama entered office during periods of economic misery. But they adopted dramatically different solutions. Reagan reduced the burden of government and Obama increased the burden of government. So which approach worked best? In his Washington Times column, Richard Rahn compares the economy’s “recovery” performance under both Presidents. As you can see, Reaganomics is much better than Obamanomics.

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Much of the economic debate in Washington revolves around the silly Keynesian notion that politicians can stimulate an economy by borrowing money from the private sector and using the funds to make government bigger. That didn’t work for Hoover and Roosevelt during the 1930s, Japan during the 1990s, Bush in 2008, or Obama last year and this year, but the theory is convenient for politicians seeking ways to justify their natural tendencies. There are other factors that impact economic performance, however, and Amity Shlaes explains in the Washington Post that Obama is making the same mistakes as Roosevelt in some of these other areas. Here’s a blurb from her column, comparing Obama’s class-warfare tax agenda with FDR’s disastrous “soak the rich” law.
By fixating on the debt and stimulus plans, Obama and Congress are overlooking challenges to the economy from taxes, employment and the entrepreneurial environment. President Roosevelt’s great error was to ignore such factors — and the result was that sickening double dip. …Income taxes, the dividend tax and capital gains taxes are all set to rise as the Bush tax cuts expire. The Obama administration portrays these increases as necessary for budgetary and social reasons. …The administration and congressional Democrats are also striving to ensure that businesses pony up. …Roosevelt, too, pursued the dual purposes of revenue and social good. In 1935 he signed legislation known as the “soak the rich” law. FDR, more radical than Obama in his class hostility, spoke explicitly of the need for “very high taxes.” Roosevelt’s tax trap was the undistributed-profits tax, which hit businesses that chose not to disgorge their cash as dividends or wages. The idea was to goad companies into action. The outcome was not what the New Dealers envisioned. Horrified by what they perceived as an existential threat, businesses stopped buying equipment and postponed expansion. They hired lawyers to find ways around the undistributed-profits tax. In May 1938, after months of unemployment rates in the high teens, the Democratic Congress cut back the detested tax. That bill became law without the president’s signature.

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Ambrose Evans-Pritchard of the UK-based Telegraph has a very dismal outlook for the US economy. I’m more optimistic. While I think Obama’s policies will prevent America from enjoying a Reagan-type boom, I don’t think the current Administration is repeating all the mistakes of Hoover and Roosevelt, so I think a depression or double-dip recession is unlikely.

Roughly a million Americans have dropped out of the jobs market altogether over the past two months. That is the only reason why the headline unemployment rate is not exploding to a post-war high. Let us be honest. The US is still trapped in depression a full 18 months into zero interest rates, quantitative easing (QE), and fiscal stimulus that has pushed the budget deficit above 10pc of GDP. The share of the US working-age population with jobs in June actually fell from 58.7pc to 58.5pc. This is the real stress indicator. The ratio was 63pc three years ago. Eight million jobs have been lost. The average time needed to find a job has risen to a record 35.2 weeks. Nothing like this has been seen before in the post-war era. Jeff Weninger, of Harris Private Bank, said this compares with a peak of 21.2 weeks in the Volcker recession of the early 1980s. “Legions of individuals have been left with stale skills, and little prospect of finding meaningful work, and benefits that are being exhausted. By our math the crop of people who are unemployed but not receiving a check amounts to 9.2m.” …in the first quarter…the economy eked out a growth rate of just 2.7pc. This compares with 5.1pc, 9.3pc, 8.1pc and 8.5pc in the four quarters coming off recession in the early 1980s.

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Art Laffer has a compelling column in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, where he makes the case that future tax rate increases will cause considerable economic damage because people have an incentive to maximize income this year to take advantage of current tax rates – resulting in an artificial drop in economic activity next year. In effect, this will be a reverse version of the experiment in the early 1980s, when entrepreneurs and investors had an incentive to postpone economic activity since Reagan’s tax rate reductions were phased in over several years. I am reluctant to endorse Art’s prediction that the “economy will collapse,” since even good economists are lousy forecasters. But we certainly will see a large degree of tax planning, which will lead to less revenue than expected next year. And the higher tax rates will inhibit growth, though it is impossible to predict whether this means 2.1 percent growth instead of 2.3 percent growth, for instance, or 0.5 percent growth instead of 0.6 percent growth.

On or about Jan. 1, 2011, federal, state and local tax rates are scheduled to rise quite sharply. …the highest federal personal income tax rate will go 39.6% from 35%, the highest federal dividend tax rate pops up to 39.6% from 15%, the capital gains tax rate to 20% from 15%, and the estate tax rate to 55% from zero. …Tax rates have been and will be raised on income earned from off-shore investments. Payroll taxes are already scheduled to rise in 2013 and the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) will be digging deeper and deeper into middle-income taxpayers. And there’s always the celebrated tax increase on Cadillac health care plans. State and local tax rates are also going up in 2011 as they did in 2010. Tax rate increases next year are everywhere. …if people know tax rates will be higher next year than they are this year, what will those people do this year? They will shift production and income out of next year into this year to the extent possible. As a result, income this year has already been inflated above where it otherwise should be and next year, 2011, income will be lower than it otherwise should be. …In 1981, Ronald Reagan—with bipartisan support—began the first phase in a series of tax cuts passed under the Economic Recovery Tax Act (ERTA), whereby the bulk of the tax cuts didn’t take effect until Jan. 1, 1983. Reagan’s delayed tax cuts were the mirror image of President Barack Obama’s delayed tax rate increases. For 1981 and 1982 people deferred so much economic activity that real GDP was basically flat (i.e., no growth), and the unemployment rate rose to well over 10%. But at the tax boundary of Jan. 1, 1983 the economy took off like a rocket, with average real growth reaching 7.5% in 1983 and 5.5% in 1984. It has always amazed me how tax cuts don’t work until they take effect. Mr. Obama’s experience with deferred tax rate increases will be the reverse. The economy will collapse in 2011. …The result will be a crash in tax receipts once the surge is past. If you thought deficits and unemployment have been bad lately, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

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I’ve explained on several occasions that Obama has a legitimate point when he says he inherited a mess. After all, Bush spent the economy into a ditch and the Fannie/Freddie/Federal Reserve-caused financial crisis put the economy into recession before Obama took office. That being said, economies normally rebound from a deep recession with a big recovery and this has not happened (at least so far) this time. The Wall Street Journal editorializes about how weak the current recover is compared to the Reagan expansion:

One way to judge the strength of a recovery is to compare it to the growth after downturns of similar severity. The best recent comparison to the recession of 2008-2009 would be that of 1981-1982. …both periods had steep declines in output and jobless rates that hit 10%. The 1982 recession officially ended in November, and the recovery came roaring out of that year, gaining momentum throughout 1983 and carrying 8% growth into 1984 with an expansion that lasted six more years. …By comparison to that boom, the current recovery has been about half as strong. …The full incentive-enhancing impact of the 25% Reagan reduction in marginal tax rates finally kicked in on January 1, 1983…. At the same time, an era of deregulation was lowering costs across most industries. The groundwork for a durable expansion had been laid in lower taxes, lower inflation and lower business costs. In the current recovery, the policy headwinds are very different. Taxes are set to rise significantly on January 1, 2011, and the political class is signaling the need for still more taxes to pay for the costs of stimulus and the expanding entitlement state.

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