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Posts Tagged ‘Economic growth’

Here’s a new video, less than 2-1/2 minutes, pointing out some of the key differences between rich nations and poor nations. Not surprisingly, small government, free markets, and sound institutions are critical.

I narrated a similar video, released more than two years ago, that makes similar points. The production values are not as high, but I had six minutes to play with, so it gave me an opportunity to elaborate on the various factors that contribute to growth. I think the videos are good complements.

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Alberto Alesina of Harvard’s economics department summarizes some of his research in a column for today’s Wall Street Journal. He and a colleague looked at fiscal policy changes in developed nations and found very strong evidence that spending reductions boost growth. This, of course, contrasts with the lack of evidence for the Keynesian notion that growth is stimulated by a bigger burden of government spending.

Politicians argue for increased stimulus spending, as opposed to spending cuts, on the grounds that it would speed up economic recovery. This argument might have it exactly backward. Indeed, history shows that cutting spending in order to reduce deficits may be the key to promoting economic recovery. …recent stimulus packages have proven that the “multiplier”—the effect on GDP per one dollar of increased government spending—is small. Stimulus spending also means that tax increases are coming in the future; such increases will further threaten economic growth. Economic history shows that even large adjustments in fiscal policy, if based on well-targeted spending cuts, have often led to expansions, not recessions. Fiscal adjustments based on higher taxes, on the other hand, have generally been recessionary. My colleague Silvia Ardagna and I recently co-authored a paper examining this pattern, as have many studies over the past 20 years. Our paper looks at the 107 large fiscal adjustments—defined as a cyclically adjusted deficit reduction of at least 1.5% in one year—that took place in 21 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries between 1970 and 2007. …Our results were striking: Over nearly 40 years, expansionary adjustments were based mostly on spending cuts, while recessionary adjustments were based mostly on tax increases. …In the same paper we also examined years of large fiscal expansions, defined as increases in the cyclically adjusted deficit by at least 1.5% of GDP. Over 91 such cases, we found that tax cuts were much more expansionary than spending increases. How can spending cuts be expansionary? First, they signal that tax increases will not occur in the future, or that if they do they will be smaller. A credible plan to reduce government outlays significantly changes expectations of future tax liabilities. This, in turn, shifts people’s behavior. Consumers and especially investors are more willing to spend if they expect that spending and taxes will remain limited over a sustained period of time. On the other hand, fiscal adjustments based on tax increases reduce consumers’ disposable income and reduce incentives for productivity. …Europe seems to have learned the lessons of the past decades: In fact, all the countries currently adjusting their fiscal policy are focusing on spending cuts, not tax hikes. Yet fiscal policy in the U.S. will sooner or later imply higher taxes if spending is not soon reduced. The evidence from the last 40 years suggests that spending increases meant to stimulate the economy and tax increases meant to reduce deficits are unlikely to achieve their goals. The opposite combination might.

Alesina’s research echoes the findings in dozens of other studies, a few of which are cited in this Center for Freedom and Prosperity video I narrated.

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One of the main factors determining incumbent election success is economic performance. When disposable income is rising and people feel good about the future, it is difficult for an incumbent to lose. So why, then, is Obama pursuing policies that are undermining growth? Sure, it is in the interests of the left in the long run to create more dependency on government. That’s one of the reasons why there is nothing resembling a free market party in most European nations. But America isn’t at that stage yet (thankfully). And as John Stossel writes, Obama’s bad government policy is causing joblessness and uncertainty. This is going to hurt Democrats this November and may linger until 2012, when Obama would suffer the consequences (in the unlikely event that Republicans put forth a semi-decent candidate).
Why isn’t the economy recovering? After previous recessions, unemployment didn’t get stuck at close to 10 percent. If left alone, the economy can and does heal itself, as the mistakes of the previous inflationary boom are corrected. The problem today is that the economy is not being left alone. Instead, it is haunted by uncertainty on a hundred fronts. When rules are unintelligible and unpredictable, when new workers are potential threats because of Labor Department regulations, businesses have little confidence to hire. President Obama’s vaunted legislative record not only left entrepreneurs with the burden of bigger government, it also makes it impossible for them to accurately estimate the new burden. In at least three big areas — health insurance, financial regulation and taxes — no one can know what will happen. …Nothing more effectively freezes business in place than what economist and historian Robert Higgs calls “regime uncertainty.”

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The news that China has surpassed Japan as the world’s second-largest economy has generated a lot of attention. It shouldn’t. There are roughly 10 times as many people in China as there are in Japan, so the fact that total gross domestic product in China is now bigger than total gross domestic product in Japan is hardly a sign of Chinese economic supremacy. Yes, China has been growing in recent decades, but it’s almost impossible not to grow when you start at the bottom – which is where China was in the late 1970s thanks to decades of communist oppression and mismanagement. And the growth they have experienced certainly has not been enough to overtake other nations based on measures that compare living standards. According to the World Bank, per capita GDP (adjusted for purchasing power parity) was $6,710 for China in 2009, compared to $33,280 for Japan (and $46,730 for the U.S.). If I got to choose where to be a middle-class person, China certainly wouldn’t be my first pick.

This is not to sneer at the positive changes in China. Hundreds of millions of people have experienced big increases in living standards. Better to have $6,710 of per capita GDP than $3,710. But China still has a long way to go if the goal is a vibrant and rich free-market economy. The country’s nominal communist leadership has allowed economic liberalization, but China is still an economically repressed nation. Economic Freedom of the World ranks China 82 out of 141, just one spot above Russia, and the Index of Economic Freedom has an even lower score, 140 out of 179 nations.

Hopefully, China will continue to move in the right direction. As Jonah Goldberg notes in his Townhall column, it is good for America to have China become a more prosperous nation.

Yes, technically, China’s gross domestic product is now slightly ahead of Japan’s. But GDP is a gross statistic. It doesn’t tell you nearly as much as you might think. In a very real way, China is still poorer than Japan. It’s also poorer than Tunisia, Ecuador, Gabon, Kazakhstan and Namibia. …China still has enormous problems, many of which aren’t reflected in its GDP growth rates, and without democracy, a free press and the rule of law, we can’t know what all of the problems are until they explode (and neither can the Chinese). But all of this misses the most important point. Economic “competitiveness” is a con. It assumes that when other countries prosper, America loses. That’s nonsense. If the average Chinese worker were as rich as the average Japanese worker, it would be an economic windfall for the United States. Conversely, if China’s economy imploded tomorrow, we would “gain” competitively but suffer economically. The cult of competitiveness is just a ruse used to justify the ambitions of economic planners and the pundits who worship them.

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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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