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Posts Tagged ‘Donald Trump’

I periodically try to remind people that you can’t explain or understand economic performance by looking at just one policy.

I’ve argued, for instance, good tax policy isn’t a panacea if there are many other policies that expand the burden of government. Likewise, bad fiscal policy isn’t a death knell if there’s a pro-market approach on issues such as trade, regulation, and monetary policy.

Which was the point I made, in this short excerpt from a recent interview, when asked about the Trump tax cut.

This obviously has implications for Trump. He wants the economy to grow faster, but he is sabotaging his good tax reform with bad protectionism.

Which is why I’ve also explained that Trump’s overall “grade point average” for economic policy isn’t very good.

And here are two other examples, but showing that tax policy – by itself – does not drive the economy.

  • The economy enjoyed good performance during the Clinton years because his one bad policy (the 1993 tax hike) was more than offset by many good policies.
  • Similarly, the economy didn’t get strong growth during the Bush years because his one good policy (the 2003 tax cut) was more than offset by many bad policies.

The same is true for policy in other nations. That’s why I always check the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World before writing about another country. I want a dispassionate source of data that covers all the major types of public policy.

And that generates counter-intuitive results, at least for people who focus on fiscal policy.

  • I’ve crunched the data to show that nations such as Denmark and the Netherlands remain relatively rich because they have pro-market policies that offset onerous fiscal burdens.
  • Likewise, some nations in Eastern Europe continue to lag economically because the pro-growth effect of their flat taxes are offset by weak scores in other areas, especially quality of governance.

There are a couple of takeaways from this type of nuanced analysis.

First, don’t pay excessive attention to partisan affiliations. Yes, sometimes a Republican such as Reagan reduces the burden of government, but plenty of GOPers (Hoover, the first Bush, Nixon) impose lots of statism.

The same is true in other nations. Many of the pro-market reforms in Australia and New Zealand were initiated by Labour governments.

Second, let’s close by explaining why this matters. When people fixate on partisan labels rather than policy changes, it can lead them to very erroneous conclusions.

  • For instance, even though the Great Depression was mostly the result of government intervention, many people think it was caused by capitalism simply because a Republican president was in office when it started.
  • Similarly, even though the recent financial crisis was caused by government intervention, many people want to blame free markets merely because a Republican president was in office when it started.

P.S. In the interview, I said monetary policy might deserve some of the blame if the economy turns south. I want to stress, however, that I’m not blaming the Fed for trying to “normalize” today. Instead, the problem is all the easy-money policy earlier this decade.

As scholars from the Austrian School have explained, artificially low interest rates and other types of Keynesian monetary policy create the conditions for subsequent suffering.

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President Trump’s view of global trade is so bizarre, risky, uninformed, misguided, and self-destructive that I periodically try to maintain my sanity by reviewing the wisdom of one of America’s greatest presidents.

  • Ronald Reagan’s remarks in 1985 about the self-destructive impact of trade barriers.
  • Ronald Reagan’s remarks in 1988 about the economic benefits of trade liberalization.

Today, let’s travel back to 1982 for more wisdom from the Gipper.

What’s especially remarkable is that Reagan boldly defended free and open trade at the tail end of the 1980-82 double-dip recession that he inherited.

Many politicians, facing an unemployment rate above 10 percent, would have succumbed to the temptation for short-run barriers.

But just as Reagan did the right thing on inflation, even though it was temporarily painful, he also advocated good long-run policy on trade. He understood Bastiat’s wise insight about “seen” benefits vs “unseen” costs.

Trump, by contrast, has a very cramped and limited understanding of trade. Which is why almost all economists disagree with his approach.

…on Trump’s other point — that protectionism offers Americans the road to riches — most specialists in international trade would beg to differ. “Even by Washington standards, Trump’s tweet was profoundly wrong,” said Daniel J. Mitchell, a conservative economist. In a recent column criticizing Trump’s tweet, Mitchell wrote, “The last time the United States made a big push for protectionism was in the 1930s. At the risk of understatement, that was not an era of prosperity.” …said Lawrence White, a professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business…”tariffs, like any tax, generally introduce an inefficiency and makes the two sides of the trading relationship poorer — not richer.”

I appreciated the chance to be quoted in the story, and I also was happy that a link to one of my columns was included.

Though I gladly would have traded that bit of publicity if Politifact instead had shared my “edits” to Trump’s infamous “Tariff Man” tweet.

I’ll conclude by noting that Reagan’s record didn’t always live up to his rhetoric.

P.S. I winced when Reagan positively cited the International Monetary Fund in his remarks. Though maybe the IMF in the early 1980s wasn’t the pro-tax, anti-market, bailout-dispensing bureaucracy that it is today.

P.P.S. I noted that Reagan was one of America’s great presidents. I also include Calvin Coolidge and Grover Cleveland on that list.

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In this interview yesterday, I noted that there are “external” risks to the economy, most notably the spillover effect of a potential economic implosion in China or a fiscal crisis in Italy.

But many of the risks are homegrown, such as Trump’s self-destructive protectionism and the Federal Reserve’s easy money.

Regarding trade, Trump is hurting himself as well as the economy. He simply doesn’t understand that trade is good for prosperity and that trade deficits are largely irrelevant.

Regarding monetary policy, I obviously don’t blame Trump for the Fed’s easy money policy during the Obama years, though I wish that he wouldn’t bash the central bank and instead displayed Reagan’s fortitude about accepting the need to unwind such mistakes.

The interview wasn’t that long, but I had a chance to pontificate on additional topics.

The bottom line is that Trump has a very mixed record on the economy. But I fear the good policies are becoming less important and the bad policies are becoming more prominent.

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Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have said really foolish things, but Donald Trump may have set a new record for economic illiteracy with this tweet.

This tweet contains an astounding collection of inaccurate and offensive statements.

Here my corrective commentary.

I’ll briefly elaborate, starting at the top left and going clockwise.

The bottom line is that Trump is playing with fire. Indeed, what’s happening in financial markets is a very worrisome sign that he’s putting the economy at risk.

To be sure, I don’t think all of the volatility on Wall Street can be blamed on Trump’s protectionist policies and statement (the Federal Reserve should be blamed for creating a fragile market with easy-money policies). But a trade war could be the trigger that leads to the next recession.

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During his final days in office, I gave a thumbs-down assessment of Barack Obama’s presidency. Simply stated, he increased the burden of government during his tenure, and that led to anemic economic numbers.

Now the economy seems to be doing a bit better, which is leading my friends on the left to make two impossible-to-reconcile claims.

  1. It is doing better, but Obama deserves credit.
  2. The economy isn’t doing better.

I’ve previously explained that the first argument doesn’t hold water. Today, let’s address the second argument.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, former CEO Andy Puzder claims that Trump easily wins over Obama when you look at the numbers.

For eight years under President Obama, the growing burden of government suppressed the economic recovery that should have followed the recession of 2008-09. Mr. Obama nonetheless has claimed responsibility for today’s boom, asking Americans in September to “remember when this recovery started.” Yet it wasn’t until President Trump took office that the economy surged. …The result is a rising tide that is lifting boats across every class and region of the country. …Today unemployment rests at 3.7%, near a 50-year low. Since the government began reporting the data, unemployment has never been as low as it is today for African-Americans, Latinos, Asians and people with only a high-school education.

It’s certainly good news that unemployment rates have dropped. But labor-force participation numbers still haven’t fully recovered, or even come close to fully recovering, so the data on jobs is not quite as impressive as it sounds.

That being said, Puzder has a compelling indictment of Obama’s performance.

During a typical recovery, the economy grows at a rate between 3% and 4%, and the Obama administration predicted such a surge in its 2010 midsession review. It never came. The “recovery” of those years often felt much like a recession.

Amen. This echoes my criticism of Obamanomics. He made the U.S. a bit more like Europe, so it’s no surprise that growth was weak.

Let’s now look at Puzder’s evidence that Trump has done a better job. He compares the end of the Obama economy with the beginning of the Trump economy.

GDP growth staggered along at 1.5% in Mr. Obama’s final six full quarters in office. …growth doubled to 3% during Mr. Trump’s first six full quarters. …the increase in job openings over Mr. Trump’s first 21 months has averaged an impressive 75,000 a month. Over Mr. Obama’s last 21 months in office, the number of job openings increased an average of 900 a month. …During Mr. Obama’s last 21 months, the number of employed Americans increased an average of 157,000 a month. Under Mr. Trump, the increase has accelerated to 214,000 a month, a 36% improvement. …In Mr. Obama’s final 21 months, weekly earnings rose an average of $1.31 a month. Under Mr. Trump, weekly earnings have increased an average of $1.84 cents a month: a 40% improvement that’s come mostly since tax reform took effect in January. Over that period, weekly earnings have grown an average of $2.31 a month, a 76% increase over Mr. Obama’s last 21 months. …The unemployment rate declined 13% during Mr. Obama’s last 21 months, but from there it has dropped another 23% during Mr. Trump’s tenure.

All of this data is compelling, but I caution my GOP/Trump friends about relying on short-run economic data to make their case.

For instance, what if the economy is in a false boom caused by easy money? If that leads to a recession, will they want Trump to take the blame?

Or let’s consider a more tangible example. Trump and his supporters used to make a big deal out of rising stock prices, but that argument no longer appears to be very persuasive.

Let’s close with two charts that take different sides. The first one is from MSNBC, which makes a persuasive case that reductions in unemployment under Trump are simply a continuation of the trend.

On the other hand, this second chart, which comes from the White House, shows that economic outcomes are better than what the Obama Administration predicted.

This also is compelling data, and I’ve explained that even small improvements in economic performance are very desirable.

Though it remains to be seen whether this additional growth is either real or sustainable.

The bottom line is that there’s no reason to expect big economic improvements under Trump, at least in the long run. His good policies on taxes and regulation are offset by bad policies on spending and trade.

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While I have no objection to applauding Donald Trump’s good policies such as tax reform and deregulation, I also don’t hesitate to criticize his bad policies.

His big missteps are protectionism and fiscal profligacy, but he also does small things that are misguided.

I’ve already written about his energy socialism and his increased handouts to the World Bank.

Today, we’re going to analyze his proposal for price controls on certain prescription drugs.

For some background on the topic, we’ll start with a very sound editorial from the Wall Street Journal. Here are the key passages.

…the U.S. shouldn’t put the world’s most innovative drug market at the mercy of what Greece is willing to pay for a cancer treatment. …a potential rule…would tether what Medicare Part B pays for certain drugs to a price index of what other developed countries pay. The goal is to bring prices down to 126% of what other countries pay, versus 180% today. …The reason European countries pay less for drugs is because they run single-payer health systems and dictate the prices they’re willing to pay. …Other countries have the luxury of extortion because the U.S. produces more drugs than the rest of the world combined. Mr. Trump mentioned these realities in his speech but blew past them to suggest importing the same bad behavior.

If we import bad policies, we import bad outcomes.

Europe does pay more—in the form of reduced access. Of 74 cancer drugs launched between 2011 and 2018, 70 (95%) are available in the United States. Compare that with 74% in the U.K., 49% in Japan, and 8% in Greece. This should cure anyone of the delusion that these countries will simply start to pay more for drugs. They’re willing to deny treatments… Better quality care in the U.S. is why America outpaces 10 European countries on cancer survival rates… Any investor who wants to bankroll the cure for Alzheimer’s is already staring at a very small chance of success—and the Trump HHS proposal adds another a potential limit on return that will be restricted further if Democrats retake power and use it as a precedent.

Here’s the bottom line.

Mr. Trump is right that Europe, Australia and many others are freeloaders on U.S. innovation, and better intellectual property protections in trade deals might help. But that is no reason to repeat their price-control mistake and undermine the reasons the United States is the last, best hope for medical progress.

Sadly, there aren’t many politicians willing to say and do the right thing.

Which is why Congressman Bucshon of Indiana deserves praise. Here are some details from a report by the Hill.

Rep. Larry Bucshon (R-Ind.) on Friday criticized a drug pricing proposal President Trump made last month, marking some of the first public resistance to the move from congressional Republicans. Bucshon told The Hill that Trump’s proposal to lower some drug prices in Medicare by tying them to cheaper prices in other countries is too far of a move toward “price controls.” …“I understand that we do want to get drug prices down but I think that any proposal that would lead to government price-fixing in that space is a pathway we don’t want to follow.” Trump’s move, announced in October, went farther in the direction of price controls on drugs than what Republicans typically support. Some Democrats praised his move… Bucshon helped lead opposition to a somewhat similar Medicare drug pricing proposal from former President Obama in 2016.

Amen.

A bad Obama policy of intervention doesn’t suddenly become a good policy simply because Trump has adopted it.

Here’s some of what I wrote about the issue in a column for FEE.

…prescription drug prices are typically higher in the US than many other nations. That’s both because bad domestic policies restrict the kind of competition that would keep prices in check and the fact that many foreign governments enact price controls while threatening to steal patents from companies that don’t cooperate. So, it’s especially troubling to see a proposed rule from the Trump administration that would index prescription drug reimbursements under Medicare Part B—which covers drugs exclusively handled by physicians and hospitals like vaccines and cancer medications—based on the prices paid in other countries, including those with nationalized health care systems. To borrow a legal metaphor, it’s fruit of the poisonous tree.

And what happens when we import bad policies?

At stake aren’t just high-minded free-market principles but the vitality of the most innovative pharmaceutical market in the world. US drug companies have only weathered the abuses of foreign governments because the domestic market is large enough that they can recoup the losses. That’s why the president is right to call it “very, very unfair” for other countries to keep their prices artificially low at the expense of American patients; but importing those losses by allowing foreign abuses to set US prices will mean no more market in which to offset losses to socialized systems and thus an inevitable decline in research and development of new medications.

What’s the bottom line? As I noted, we’ll get bad results.

From rent control to the gasoline lines of the 1970s, the connection between price controls and shortages has been well established.

In the case of pharmaceuticals, I fear the main result will be a decline in innovation. The drug companies make nice profits in drugs that already are developed and approved, so I doubt they’ll have much incentive to withhold production on existing drugs if price controls are imposed.

But those profits help to offset the very high cost of development and testing. Including for all the research and development that doesn’t produce marketable products.

So the real victims will be all of us since we won’t have access to the potentially life-saving and life-improving drugs that might be created in the future – assuming an absence of price controls.

The economics of price controls are clear. The consequences are always bad, whether we’re looking at price controls on labor, price controls on gasoline, or price controls on other products.

Which is why such policies generally are supported by the world’s most economically illiterate governments (or, in the case of Nixon, the most venal politicians). Oh, and don’t forget Puerto Rico.

We need Ludwig Erhard, but we got Donald Trump.

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The most disturbing outcome of the recent mid-term election isn’t that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez will be a Member of Congress. I actually look forward to that because of the humor value.

Instead, with the Democrats now controlling the House of Representatives, I’m more worried about Donald Trump getting tricked into a “budget summit” that inevitably would produce a deal with higher taxes and more spending. Just in case you think I’m being paranoid, here are some excerpts from a recent Politico report.

The dust has barely settled on the midterm elections, yet tax talk is already in the air thanks to President Donald Trump signaling openness to higher taxes, at least for some. …Trump said he’d be open to making an “adjustment” to recent corporate and upper-income tax cuts… Those off-the-cuff comments are sure to spark concerns among Republican leaders… Trump also suggested he could find common ground with Democrats on health care and infrastructure.

To be fair, Trump was only talking about higher taxes as an offset to a new middle-class tax package, but Democrats realize that getting Trump to acquiesce to a net tax hike would be of great political value.

And I fear they will be successful in any fiscal negotiations. Just look at how Trump got rolled on spending earlier this year (and that orgy of new spending took place when Democrats were in the minority).

I fear a deal in part because I object to higher taxes. But also because it’s quite likely that we’ll get the worst kind of tax hikes – i.e., class-warfare increases in tax rates or work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship.

The political dynamic of budget deals is rather straightforward. So long as the debate is whether to raise taxes or not, the anti-tax crowd has the advantage since most Americans don’t want to give more of their money to politicians.

But if both parties agree with the notion that taxes should increase, then most Americans will – for reasons of self defense – want higher taxes on the rich (with “rich” defined as “making more money than me”). And those are the tax increases that do the most damage.

Interestingly, even economists from the International Monetary Fund agree with me about the negative consequences of higher tax rates. Here’s the abstract of a recent study.

This paper examines the macroeconomic effects of tax changes during fiscal consolidations. We build a new narrative dataset of tax changes during fiscal consolidation years, containing detailed information on the expected revenue impact, motivation, and announcement and implementation dates of nearly 2,500 tax measures across 10 OECD countries. We analyze the macroeconomic impact of tax changes, distinguishing between tax rate and tax base changes, and further separating between changes in personal income, corporate income, and value added tax. Our results suggest that base broadening during fiscal consolidations leads to smaller output and employment declines compared to rate hikes, even when distinguishing between tax types.

Here’s a bit of the theory from the report.

Tax-based fiscal consolidations are generally associated with large output declines, but their composition can matter. In particular, policy advice often assumes that measures to broaden the tax base by reducing exemptions and deductions are less harmful to economic activity during austerity. …base broadening often tends to make taxation across sectors, firms, or activities more homogeneous, contrary to rate increases. This helps re-allocate resources to those projects with the highest pre-tax return, thereby improving economic efficiency.

By the way, “base broadening” is the term for when politicians collect more revenue by repealing or limiting deductions, exemptions, exclusions, credits, and other tax preferences (“tax reform” is the term for when politicians repeal or limit preferences and use the money to finance lower tax rates).

Anyhow, here are some of the findings from the IMF study on the overall impact of tax increases.

The chart on the right shows that higher taxes lead to less economic output, which certainly is consistent with academic research.

And the chart on the left shows the revenue impact declining over time, presumably because of the Laffer Curve (further confirming that tax hikes are bad even if they generate some revenue).

But the main purpose of the study is to review the impact of different types of tax increases. Here’s what the authors found.

Our key finding is that tax base changes during consolidations appear to have a smaller impact on output and employment than tax rate changes of a similar size. We find a statistically significant one-year cumulative tax rate multiplier of about 1.2, rising to about 1.6 after two years. By contrast, the cumulative tax base multiplier is only 0.3 after one year, and 0.4 after two years, and these estimates are not statistically significant.

And here’s the chart comparing the very harmful impact of higher rates (on the left) with the relatively benign effect of base changes (on the right).

For what it’s worth, the economic people in the Trump Administration almost certainly understand that there shouldn’t be any tax increases. Moreover, they almost certainly agree with the findings from the IMF report that class-warfare-style tax increases do the most damage.

Sadly, politicians generally ignore advice from economists. So I fear that Trump’s spending splurge has set the stage for tax hikes. And I fear that he will acquiesce to very damaging tax hikes.

All of which will lead to predictably bad results.

P.S. A columnist for the New York Times accidentally admitted that the only budget summit that actually led to a balanced budget was the 1997 that lowered taxes.

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