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Archive for the ‘stimulus’ Category

I wrote two days ago about how the White House is contemplating ideas to boost the economy.

This is somewhat worrisome since “stimulus” plans oftentimes are based on Keynesian economics, which has a terrible track record. But there are policies that could help growth and I comment on some of them in this interview.

The discussion jumped from one idea to the next, so let’s makes sense of the various proposals by ranking them from best to worst.

And I’m including a few ideas that are part of the discussion in Washington, but weren’t mentioned in the interview.

  1. Eliminate Trade Taxes – Trump’s various trade taxes have made America’s economy less efficient and less productive. And, as I explained in the interview, the president has unilateral power to undo his destructive protectionist policies.
  2. Index Capital Gains – The moral argument for using regulatory authority to index capital gains for inflation is just as strong as the economic argument, as far as I’m concerned. Potential legal challenges could create uncertainly and thus mute the beneficial impact.
  3. Lower Payroll Tax Rates – While it’s always a good idea to lower the marginal tax rate on work, politicians are only considering a temporary reduction, which would greatly reduce any potential benefits.
  4. Do Nothing – As of today, based on Trump’s statements, this may be the most likely option. And since “doing something” in Washington often means more power for government, there’s a strong argument for “doing nothing.”
  5. Infrastructure – This wasn’t mentioned in the interview, but I worry that Trump will join with Democrats (and some pork-oriented Republicans) to enact a boondoggle package of transportation spending.
  6. Easy Money from the Fed – Trump is browbeating the Federal Reserve in hopes that the central bank will use its powers to artificially reduce interest rates. The president apparently thinks Keynesian monetary policy will goose the economy. In reality, intervention by the Fed usually is the cause of economic instability.

In my ideal world, I would have included spending cuts. But I limited myself to ideas that with a greater-than-zero chance of getting implemented.

I’ll close with some observations on the state of the economy.

Economists have a terrible track record of predicting twists and turns in the economy. This is why I don’t make predictions and instead focus on analyzing how various policies will affect potential long-run growth.

That being said, it’s generally safe to assume that downturns are caused by bad economic policy, especially the Federal Reserve’s boom-bust monetary policy.

Ironically, some people then blame capitalism for the damage caused by government intervention (the Great Depression, the Financial Crisis, etc).

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I was interviewed yesterday about the possibility of a recession and potential policy options. You can watch the full interview here and get my two cents about economic forecasting, as well as Keynesian monetary policy.

In this segment, you can see that I’m also worried about a return of Keynesian fiscal policy.

Let’s examine the issue, starting with an analogy.

According to the Urban Dictionary, a bad penny is a “thing which is unpleasant, disreputable, or otherwise unwanted, especially one which repeatedly appears at a bad time.”

That’s a good description of Keynesian economics, which is the strange notion that the government can provide “stimulus” by borrowing money from some people, giving it to other people, and assuming that society is then more prosperous.

Keynesianism has a long track record…of failure.

Now the bad penny is showing up again.

Donald Trump already has been pushing Keynesian monetary policy, and the Washington Post reports that he is now contemplating Keynesian fiscal policy.

Several senior White House officials have begun discussing whether to push for a temporary payroll tax cut as a way to arrest an economic slowdown… The payroll tax was last cut in 2011 and 2012, to 4.2 percent, during the Obama administration as a way to encourage more consumer spending during the most recent economic downturn. …Payroll tax cuts have remained popular with Democrats largely because they are seen as targeting working Americans and the money is often immediately spent by consumers and not saved. …In the past, Democrats have strongly supported payroll tax cuts, while Republicans have been more resistant. Republicans have complained that such cuts do not help the economy.

As I wrote back in 2011, it’s possible that a temporary reduction in the payroll tax rate could have some positive impact. After all, the marginal tax rate on work would be lower.

But it wouldn’t be a large effect, and whatever benefit wouldn’t accrue for Keynesian reasons. Consumer spending is a symptom of a strong economy, not the cause of a strong economy.

Now let’s look at another nation.

Germany was actually semi-sensible during the last recession, resisting the siren song of Keynesianism.

But now politicians in Berlin are contemplating a so-called stimulus.

The Wall Street Journal opines against this type of fiscal backsliding.

The German Finance Minister said Sunday he might possibly…cobble together a Keynesian stimulus package for his recession-menaced country. …Berlin invites this stimulus pressure as the only large eurozone government responsible enough to live within its means. A balanced budget and government debt below 60% of GDP encourage the International Monetary Fund…to call for Berlin to “use” its fiscal headroom to avert a recession. …Germany’s record on delivering projects quickly is lousy, as with Berlin’s perennially delayed new airport. Too few projects would arrive in time to stimulate the new business investment proponents say would save Germany from an imminent downturn, if they stimulate business investment at all. …The worst idea, though one of the more likely, is some form of cash-for-clunkers tax handout to support the auto industry.

The right answer, as I said in the above interview, is to adopt sensible pro-market reforms.

The main goal is faster long-run growth, but such policies also help in the short run.

And the WSJ identifies some of those reforms for Germany.

Cutting taxes in Germany’s overtaxed economy would be a faster and more effective stimulus… The main stimulus Germany needs is deregulatory. In the World Bank’s latest Doing Business survey, Germany ranked behind France on time and cost of starting a business, gaining construction permits and trading across borders. Germany also lags on investor protections and ease of filing tax returns. A dishonorable mention goes to Mrs. Merkel’s Energiewende (energy transformation), which is driving up costs for businesses already struggling with trade war, taxes and regulation. …these problems don’t require €50 billion to fix, and scrapping the Energiewende would save Berlin and beleaguered businesses and households money. The bad news for everyone is that Berlin is more likely to fall for a quick-fix chimera and waste the €50 billion.

The bottom line is that Keynesian economics won’t work. Not in the United States, and not in Germany.

But politicians can’t resist this failed approach because they can pretend that their vice – buying votes by spending other people’s money – is actually a virtue.

In other words, “public choice” in action.

Let’s close by augmenting our collection of Keynesian humor. Here’s a “your mama” cartoon, based on the Keynesian notion that you can boost an economy by destroying wealth.

P.S. Here’s the famous video showing the Keynes v. Hayek rap contest, followed by the equally enjoyable sequel, which features a boxing match between Keynes and Hayek. And even though it’s not the right time of year, here’s the satirical commercial for Keynesian Christmas carols.

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Earlier this month, I commented on a Wall Street Journal report that expressed puzzlement about some sub-par economic numbers in America even though politicians were spending a lot more money.

I used the opportunity to explain that this shouldn’t be a mystery. Keynesian economics never worked in the past, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that it’s not working today.

This is true in the United States, and it’s true in other nations.

Speaking of which, here are some excerpts from a story in the Wall Street Journal about China’s sagging economy.

A strategy by Chinese policy makers to stimulate the economy…hasn’t stopped growth from slowing, stoking expectations that Beijing will roll out more incentives such as easier credit conditions to get businesses and consumers spending. …The breakdown of second-quarter figures shows how roughly 2 trillion yuan ($291 billion) of stimulus, introduced by Premier Li Keqiang in March, is failing to make business owners less risk-averse. …While Beijing has repeatedly said it wouldn’t resort to flooding the economy with credit, economists say it is growing more likely that policy makers will use broad-based measures to ensure economic stability. That would include fiscal and monetary stimulus that risks inflating debt levels. Policy makers could lower interest rates, relax borrowing restrictions on local governments and ease limits on home purchases in big cities, economists say. Measures they could use to stimulate consumption include subsidies to boost purchases of cars, home appliances and other big-ticket items.

This is very worrisome.

China doesn’t need more so-called stimulus policies. Whether it’s Keynesian fiscal policy or Keynesian monetary policy, trying to artificially goose consumption is a dead-end approach.

At best, temporary over-consumption produces a very transitory blip in the economic data.

But it leaves a permanent pile of debt.

This is why, as I wrote just a couple of days ago, China instead needs free-market reforms to liberalize the economy.

A period of reform beginning in the late 1970s produced great results. Another burst of liberalization today would be similarly beneficial.

P.S. Free-market reforms in China also would help cool trade tensions. That’s because a richer China would buy more from America, thus appeasing folks like Trump who mistakenly fixate on the trade deficit. More important, economic liberalization presumably would mean less central planning and cronyism, thus mitigating the concern that Chinese companies are using subsidies to gain an unfair advantage.

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Given the repeated failures of Keynesian economic policy, both in America and around the world, you would think the theory would be discredited.

Or at least be treated with considerable skepticism by anyone with rudimentary knowledge of economic affairs.

Apparently financial journalists aren’t very familiar with real-world evidence.

Here are some excerpts from a news report in the Wall Street Journal.

The economy was supposed to get a lift this year from higher government spending enacted in 2018, but so far much of that stimulus hasn’t shown up, puzzling economists. Federal dollars contributed significantly less to gross domestic product in early 2019 than what economic forecasters had predicted after Congress reached a two-year budget deal to boost government spending. …Spending by consumers and businesses are the most important drivers of economic growth, but in recent years, government outlays have played a bigger role in supporting the economy.

The lack of “stimulus” wasn’t puzzling to all economists, just the ones who still believe in the perpetual motion machine of Keynesian economics.

Maybe the reporter, Kate Davidson, should have made a few more phone calls.

Especially, for instance, to the people who correctly analyzed the failure of Obama’s so-called stimulus.

With any luck, she would have learned not to put the cart before the horse. Spending by consumers and businesses is a consequence of a strong economy, not a “driver.”

Another problem with the article is that she also falls for the fallacy of GDP statistics.

Economists are now wondering whether government spending will catch up to boost the economy later in the year… If government spending were to catch up in the second quarter, it would add 1.6 percentage points to GDP growth that quarter. …The 2018 bipartisan budget deal provided nearly $300 billion more for federal spending in fiscal years 2018 and 2019 above spending limits set in 2011.

The government’s numbers for gross domestic product are a measure of how national income is allocated.

If more of our income is diverted to Washington, that doesn’t mean there’s more of it. It simply means that less of our income is available for private uses.

That’s why gross domestic income is a preferable number. It shows the ways – wages and salaries, small business income, corporate profits, etc – that we earn our national income.

Last but not least, I can’t resist commenting on these two additional sentences, both of which cry out for correction.

Most economists expect separate stimulus provided by the 2017 tax cuts to continue fading this year. …And they must raise the federal borrowing limit this fall to avoid defaulting on the government’s debt.

Sigh.

Ms. Davidson applied misguided Keynesian analysis to the 2017 tax cut.

The accurate way to analyze changes in tax policy is to measure changes in marginal tax rates on productive behavior. Using that correct approach, the pro-growth impact grows over time rather than dissipating.

And she also applied misguided analysis to the upcoming vote over the debt limit.

If the limit isn’t increased, the government is forced to immediately operate on a money-in/money-out basis (i.e. a balanced budget requirement). But since revenues are far greater than interest payments on the debt, there would be plenty of revenue available to fulfill obligations to bondholders. A default would only occur if the Treasury Department deliberately made that choice.

Needless to say, that ain’t gonna happen.

The bottom line is that – at best – Keynesian spending can temporarily boost a nation’s level of consumption, but economic policy should instead focus on increasing production and income.

P.S. If you want to enjoy some Keynesian-themed humor, click here.

P.P.S. If you’re a glutton for punishment, you can watch my 11-year old video on Keynesian economics.

P.P.P.S. Sadly, the article was completely correct about the huge spending increases that Trump and Congress approved when the spending caps were busted (again) in 2018.

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I wrote in 2010 that Keynesian economics is like the Freddy Krueger movies. It refuses to die despite powerful evidence that you don’t help an economy by increasing the burden of government. In 2014, I wrote the theory was based on “fairy dust.” And in 2015, I said Keynesianism was akin to a perpetual motion machine.

What’s my proof? Well, during the period when Obama’s “stimulus” was in effect, unemployment got worse. And the best growth period under Obama was after the sequester, which Obama and others said was going to hurt the economy.

When I discuss these issues with Keynesians, they reflexively claim that Obama would have gotten good results if only he had increased spending even faster (which is also their knee-jerk response when you point out that Keynesianism didn’t work for Hoover, didn’t work for FDR, didn’t work for Japan, etc).

This is the Wizard-of-Oz part of Keynesianism. No matter how bad it works in the real world, they always claim that it theoretically could have worked if governments simply spent more.

But how do they explain away the fact that nations that adopt the right kind of austerity get better results?

Professor Edmund Phelps of Columbia University won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2006. Here’s some of what he wrote today for the Wall Street Journal, starting with a description of the debate.

Generations of Keynesian economists have claimed that when a loss of “demand” causes output to fall and unemployment to rise, the economy does not revive by itself. Instead a “stimulus” to demand is necessary and sufficient to pull the economy back to an equilibrium level of activity. …it is widely thought that fiscal stimulus—increased public spending as well as tax cuts—helped pull employment from its depths in 2010 or so back to normal in 2017. …But is there evidence that stimulus was behind America’s recovery—or, for that matter, the recoveries in Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Britain and Ireland? And is there evidence that the absence of stimulus—a tight rein on public spending known as “fiscal austerity”—is to blame for the lack of a full recovery in Portugal, Italy, France and Spain?

So he looked at the real-world evidence and discovered that Keynesian policy is correlated with worse outcomes.

The stimulus story suggests that, in the years after they hit bottom, the countries that adopted relatively large fiscal deficits—measured by the average increase in public debt from 2011-17 as a percentage of gross domestic product—would have a relatively speedy recovery to show for it. Did they? As the accompanying chart shows, the evidence does not support the stimulus story. Big deficits did not speed up recoveries. In fact, the relationship is negative, suggesting fiscal profligacy led to contraction and fiscal responsibility would have been better. …what about monetary stimulus—increasing the supply of money or reducing the cost of money in relation to the return on capital? We can perform a similar test: Did countries where monetary stimulus in the years after they hit bottom was relatively strong—measured by the average quantity of monetary assets purchased by the central bank from 2011-17—have relatively speedy recoveries? This is a complicated question, but preliminary explorations do not give strong support to that thesis either. …the Keynesian tool kit of fiscal and monetary stimulus is more or less ineffective.

Here’s the chart showing how so-called fiscal stimulus is not associated with economic recovery.

He also reminds us that Keynesian predictions of post-World War II disaster were completely wrong.

Don’t history and theory overwhelmingly support stimulus? Well, no. First, the history: Soldiers returning from World War II expanded the civilian labor force from 53.9 million in 1945 to 60.2 million in 1947, leading many economists to fear an unemployment crisis. Keynesians—Leon Keyserling for one—said running a peacetime fiscal deficit was needed to keep unemployment from rising. Yet as the government under President Harry S. Truman ran fiscal surpluses, the unemployment rate went down (from 3.9% in 1946 to 3.1% in 1952) and the labor-force participation rate went up (from 57.2% to 58.9%).

It’s also worth remembering that something similar happened after World War I.

The economy boomed after the burden of government was reduced.

Let’s close by adding to our collection of Keynesian humor.

This is amusing, but somewhat unfair to Bernanke.

Yes, he was a Keynesian. But he wasn’t nearly as crazy as Krugman.

P.S. Here’s my video on Keynesian economics.

P.P.S. Here’s the famous video showing the Keynes v. Hayek rap contest, followed by the equally entertaining sequel, which features a boxing match between Keynes and Hayek. And even though it’s not the right time of year, here’s the satirical commercial for Keynesian Christmas carols.

P.P.P.S. I also like what Professor Phelps said about the benefits of tax competition and jurisdictional rivalry.

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When I give speeches on Keynesian economics, I usually begin with a theoretical discussion on why consumer spending is a consequence of growth rather than the cause of growth.

I then focus on two reasons to be skeptical about borrow-and-spend schemes to artificially boost growth.

  • In the short run, it makes no sense to “stimulate” an economy by borrowing from one group of people and giving the money to another group of people. It’s like trying to become richer by taking money out of your left pocket and putting it in your right pocket.
  • In the long run, so-called stimulus creates a ratchet effect for larger government since politicians rarely obey Keynes’ admonition to cut back on government spending and run surpluses when the economy is in an expansion phase.

But I oftentimes include a caveat when discussing the first point.

It is possible, I hypothesize, to increase your short-run consumption if you take money out of a foreigner’s left pocket and put it in your right pocket.

I hasten to add that this is probably not be a wise course of action since the money may be squandered and you simply wind up further in debt, but I admit that the short-run consumption data will be better.

Well, there’s a new academic study on exactly this issue from the European Stability Mechanism (sort of an IMF for eurozone countries).

Here’s what the authors decided to investigate.

In this paper, we argue that there is a natural and largely unexplored connection between fiscal multipliers and the foreign holdings of public debt. The intuition is simple….fiscal expansions can…have crowding-out effects on the domestic private sector. Probably the most important among the latter is that the resources used by the domestic private sector to acquire public debt can detract from consumption and investment. This implies that the crowding-out effect of fiscal expansions is likely to be stronger when they are financed by selling public debt to domestic (as opposed to foreign) residents.

Here’s some of the data on foreign holdings of national debt.

Our data on foreign holdings of public debt reveals interesting patterns. First of all, there is significant variation across countries: in some countries, such as Canada and Japan, the share of public debt held by foreigners is consistently low, whereas in others, such as Finland and Austria, foreigners hold more than 75% of public debt towards the end of the sample. Over time, in line with the rise of financial globalization, the general pattern is one of increasing public debt in the hands of foreigners. In the United States, for instance, the share of public debt held by foreigners has increased from less than 5% in the 1950s to close to 50% today.

And here’s a chart from the study showing how foreign holdings of U.S. government debt have increased over time.

And their conclusions, after crunching all the numbers, is that nations can boost short-run consumption if a significant share of new debt is financed by foreigners.

Our main result is that, consistent with the previous argument, the estimated size of fiscal multipliers is increasing in the share of public debt that is in the hands of foreigners. This result holds both for the United States during the postwar period, and for a panel of advanced (OECD) economies over the last few decades. …We find that the average foreign share, i.e., the share of public debt held by foreigners before a fiscal shock, …reflect capital inflows, which help finance fiscal expansions thereby minimizing their crowding-out effects on domestic investment.

Incidentally, the authors acknowledge that this creates a beggar-thy-neighbor effect.

Our findings…point to a potentially negative spillover: to the extent that fiscal expansions are financed via foreign borrowing, their crowding-out effects are exported and consumption and investment are reduced elsewhere.

In other words, any transitory benefit one country experiences will be offset by losses elsewhere.

But politicians barely care about their own voters, much less those who live in other countries, so that certainly would not be an effective argument against Keynesian spending binges.

For what it’s worth, I still think the most persuasive argument is that Keynesian economics has an awful track record, even if there’s some ability to shift part of the short-run cost onto foreigners. After all, ask Keynesians to identify an example of successful government stimulus.

And let’s not forget that the long-run costs are always negative because larger government sectors necessarily lead to smaller productive sectors.

P.S. I feel somewhat guilty for writing a column that acknowledges a potential benefit (albeit transitory and unneighborly) of Keynesian economics, so allow me to expiate my sins by sharing this comparison of Keynesian economics and Austrian economics.

For what it’s worth, I think the Austrians over-emphasize the importance of interest rates. But there’s no question they are much closer to the truth than the Keynesians.

P.P.S. If you want to enjoy some cartoons about Keynesian economics, click here, here, here, and here. Here’s some clever mockery of Keynesianism. And here’s the famous video showing the Keynes v. Hayek rap contest, followed by the equally enjoyable sequel, which features a boxing match between Keynes and Hayek. And even though it’s not the right time of year, here’s the satirical commercial for Keynesian Christmas carols.

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Keynesian economics is like Freddie Krueger, constantly reappearing after logical people assumed it was dead. The fact that various stimulus schemes inevitably fail should be the death knell for the theory, which is basically the “perpetual motion machine” of economics. Indeed, I’ve wondered whether we’ve reached the point where the “debilitating drug” of Keynesianism has “jumped the shark.”

Yet Keynesian economics has “perplexing durability,” probably because the theory tells politicians that their vice of profligacy is actually a virtue.

But there are some economists who genuinely seem to believe that government can artificially boost growth. They claim terrorist attacks and alien attacks can be good for growth if they lead to more spending. They even think natural disasters are good for the economy.

I’m not joking. As reported by CNBC, the President of the New York Federal Reserve actually thinks the economy is stimulated when wealth is destroyed.

Hurricanes Harvey and Irma actually will lead to increased economic activity over the long run, New York Fed President William Dudley said in an interview. …”The long-run effect of these disasters unfortunately is it actually lifts economic activity because you have to rebuild all the things that have been damaged by the storms.”

I’m always stunned when sentient adults make this kind of statement.

Should we invite ISIS into the country to blow up some bridges? Should we dynamite new buildings? Should we pray for an earthquake to destroy a big city? Should we have a war, featuring lots of spending and destruction?

All of those things, along with hurricanes and floods, are good for growth according to Keynesian theory.

Jeff Jacoby explains why this is poisonous economic analysis.

Could anything be more absurd? The shattering losses caused by hurricanes, earthquakes, forest fires, and other calamities are grievous misfortunes that obviously leave society poorer. Vast sums of money may be spent afterward to repair and rebuild, but society will still be poorer from the damage caused by the storm or other disaster. Every dollar spent on cleanup and reconstruction is a dollar that could have been spent to enlarge the nation’s reservoir of material assets. Instead, it has to be spent replacing what was lost. …No, hurricanes are not good for the economy. Neither are floods, earthquakes, or massacres. When windows are shattered, all of humanity is left materially worse off. There is no financial “glint of silver lining.” To claim otherwise is delusional.

By the way, I don’t think any Keynesians actually want disasters to happen.

They’re simply making a “silver lining” argument that a bad event will lead to more spending. In their world, what drives the economy is consumption, and it’s the role of government to either consume directly or to give money to people so they will spend it.

In a recent interview, I pointed out that investment and production are the real keys to growth (which is why I prefer GDI over GDP). Increased consumption, I explained, is a result of growth, not the cause of growth.

You’ll notice I also threw in a jab at the state and local tax deduction, a loophole that needs to be abolished as part of tax reform.

But let’s not get sidetracked.

For those who want to do some additional reading on Keynesian economics, I recommend this new study by a couple of professors. Here’s a blurb from the abstract.

…Keynesians assert that even wasteful government spending can be desirable because any spending is better than nothing. This simple Keynesian approach fails to account, however, for several significant sources of cost. In addition to the cost of waste inherent in government spending, financing that spending requires taxation, which entails an excess burden. Furthermore, the employment of even previously idle resources involves opportunity costs.

I’ll close by augmenting theory and academic analysis with some real-world observations. Keynesian economics didn’t work for Hoover and Roosevelt, hasn’t worked for Japan, didn’t work for Obama, and didn’t work in Australia. Indeed, Keynesians can’t point to a single success story anywhere in the world at any point in history.

Though they always have an excuse. The government should have spent more, they tell us.

P.S. Since their lavish tax-free salaries are dependent on pleasing the governments that finance their budgets, international bureaucrats try to justify Keynesian economics. Here’s some recent economic alchemy from the IMF and OECD.

P.P.S. I frequently urge people to watch my video debunking Keynesian economics. Though I admit it’s not nearly as entertaining as the famous video showing the Keynes v. Hayek rap contest, followed by the equally enjoyable sequel, which features a boxing match between Keynes and Hayek. And even though it’s not the right time of year, here’s the satirical commercial for Keynesian Christmas carols.

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