Posts Tagged ‘Keynesian Economics’

I never watched That ’70s Show, but according to Wikipedia, the comedy program “addressed social issues of the 1970s.”

Assuming that’s true, they need a sequel that addresses economic issues of the 1970s. And the star of the program could be the Congressional Budget Office, a Capitol Hill bureaucracy that apparently still believes – notwithstanding all the evidence of recent decades – in the primitive Keynesian view that a larger burden of government spending is somehow good for economic growth and job creation.

I’ve previously written about CBO’s fairy-tale views on fiscal policy, but wondered whether a new GOP-appointed Director would make a difference. And I thought there were signs of progress in CBO’s recent analysis of the economic impact of Obamacare.

But the bureaucracy just released its estimates of what would happen if the spending caps in the Budget Control Act (BCA) were eviscerated to enable more federal spending. And CBO’s analysis was such a throwback to the 1970s that it should have been released by a guy in a leisure suit driving a Ford Pinto blaring disco music.

Here’s what the bureaucrats said would happen to spending if the BCA spending caps for 2016 and 2017 were eliminated.

According to CBO’s estimates, such an increase would raise total outlays above what is projected under current law by $53 billion in fiscal year 2016, $76 billion in fiscal year 2017, $30 billion in fiscal year 2018, and a cumulative $19 billion in later years.

And here’s CBO’s estimate of the economic impact of more Washington spending.

Over the course of calendar year 2016,…the spending changes would make real (inflation-adjusted) gross domestic product (GDP) 0.4 percent larger than projected under current law. They would also increase full-time-equivalent employment by 0.5 million. …the increase in federal spending would lead to more aggregate demand than under current law. …Over the course of calendar year 2017…CBO estimates that the spending changes would make real GDP 0.2 percent larger than projected under current law. They would also increase full-time-equivalent employment by 0.3 million.


If Keynesian spending is so powerful and effective in theory, then why does it never work in reality? It didn’t work for Hoover and Roosevelt in the 1930s. It didn’t work for Nixon, Ford, and Carter in the 1970s. It didn’t work for Japan in the 1990s. And it hasn’t worked this century for either Bush or Obama. Or Russia and China.

And if Keynesianism is right, then why did the economy do better after the sequester when the Obama Administration said that automatic spending cuts would dampen growth?

To be fair, maybe CBO wasn’t actually embracing Keynesian primitivism. Perhaps the bureaucrats were simply making the point that there might be an adjustment period in the economy as labor and capital get reallocated to more productive uses.

I’m open to this type of analysis, as I wrote back in 2012.

…there are cases where the economy does hit a short-run speed bump when the public sector is pruned. Simply stated, there will be transitional costs when the burden of public spending is reduced. Only in economics textbooks is it possible to seamlessly and immediately reallocate resources.

But CBO doesn’t base its estimates on short-run readjustment costs. The references to “aggregate demand” show the bureaucracy’s work is based on unalloyed Keynesianism.

But only in the short run.

CBO’s anti-empirical faith in the magical powers of Keynesianism in the short run is matched by a knee-jerk belief that government borrowing is the main threat to the economy’s long-run performance.

…the resulting increases in federal deficits would, in the longer term, make the nation’s output and income lower than they would be otherwise.

Sigh. Red ink isn’t a good thing, but CBO is very misguided about the importance of deficits compared to other variables.

After all, if deficits really drive the economy, that implies we could maximize growth with 100 percent tax rates (or, if the Joint Committee on Taxation has learned from its mistakes, by setting tax rates at the revenue-maximizing level).

This obviously isn’t true. What really matters for long-run prosperity is limiting the size and scope of government. Once the growth-maximizing size of government is determined, then lawmakers should seek to finance that public sector with a tax system that minimizes penalties on work, saving, investment, risk-taking, and entrepreneurship.

Remarkably, even international bureaucracies such as the World Bank and European Central Bank seem to understand that big government stifles prosperity. But I won’t hold my breath waiting for the 1970s-oriented CBO to catch up with 21st-century research.

P.S. Here’s some humor about Keynesian economics.

P.P.S. If you want to be informed and entertained, here’s the famous video showing the Keynes v. Hayek rap contest, followed by the equally clever 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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Back in 2010, I described the “Butterfield Effect,” which is a term used to mock clueless journalists for being blind to the real story.

A former reporter for the New York Times, Fox Butterfield, became a bit of a laughingstock in the 1990s for publishing a series of articles addressing the supposed quandary of how crime rates could be falling during periods when prison populations were expanding. A number of critics sarcastically explained that crimes rates were falling because bad guys were behind bars and invented the term “Butterfield Effect” to describe the failure of leftists to put 2 + 2 together.

Here are some of my favorite examples, all of which presumably are caused by some combination of media bias and economic ignorance.

  • A newspaper article that was so blind to the Laffer Curve that it actually included a passage saying, “receipts are falling dramatically short of targets, even though taxes have increased.”
  • Another article was entitled, “Few Places to Hide as Taxes Trend Higher Worldwide,” because the reporter apparently was clueless that tax havens were attacked precisely so governments could raise tax burdens.
  • In another example of laughable Laffer Curve ignorance, the Washington Post had a story about tax revenues dropping in Detroit “despite some of the highest tax rates in the state.”
  • Likewise, another news report had a surprised tone when reporting on the fully predictable news that rich people reported more taxable income when their tax rates were lower.

Now we have a new example for our collection.

Here are some passages from a very strange economics report in the New York Times.

There are some problems that not even $10 trillion can solve. That gargantuan sum of money is what central banks around the world have spent in recent years as they have tried to stimulate their economies and fight financial crises. …But it has not been able to do away with days like Monday, when fear again coursed through global financial markets.

I’m tempted to immediately ask why the reporter assumed any problem might be solved by having governments spend $10 trillion, but let’s instead ask a more specific question. Why is there unease in financial markets?

The story actually provides the answer, but the reporter apparently isn’t aware that debt is part of the problem instead of the solution.

Stifling debt loads, for instance, continue to weigh on governments around the world. …high borrowing…by…governments…is also bogging down the globally significant economies of Brazil, Turkey, Italy and China.

So if borrowing and spending doesn’t solve anything, is an easy-money policy the right approach?

…central banks like the Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank have printed trillions of dollars and euros… Central banks can make debt less expensive by pushing down interest rates.

The story once again sort of provides the answer about the efficacy of monetary easing and artificially low interest rates.

…they cannot slash debt levels… In fact, lower interest rates can persuade some borrowers to take on more debt. “Rather than just reflecting the current weakness, low rates may in part have contributed to it by fueling costly financial booms and busts,” the Bank for International Settlements, an organization whose members are the world’s central banks, wrote in a recent analysis of the global economy.

This is remarkable. The reporter seems puzzled that deficit spending and easy money don’t help produce growth, even though the story includes information on how such policies retard growth. It must take willful blindness not to make this connection.

Indeed, the story in the New York Times originally was entitled, “Trillions Spent, but Crises like Greece’s Persist.”

Wow, what an example of upside-down analysis. A better title would have been “Crises like Greece’s Persist Because Trillions Spent.”

The reporter/editor/headline writer definitely deserve the Fox Butterfield prize.

Here’s another example from the story that reveals this intellectual inconsistency.

Debt in China has soared since the financial crisis of 2008, in part the result of government stimulus efforts. Yet the Chinese economy is growing much more slowly than it was, say, 10 years ago.

Hmmm…, maybe the Chinese economy is growing slower because of the so-called stimulus schemes.

At some point one might think people would make the connection between economic stagnation and bad policy. But journalists seem remarkably impervious to insight.

The Economist has a story that also starts with the assumption that Keynesian policies are good. It doesn’t explicitly acknowledge the downsides of debt and easy money, but it implicitly shows the shortcomings of that approach because the story focuses on how governments have less “fiscal space” to engage in another 2008-style orgy of Keynesian monetary and fiscal policy

The analysis is misguided, but the accompanying chart is useful since it shows which nations are probably most vulnerable to a fiscal crisis.

If you’re at the top of the chart, because you have oil like Norway, or because you’re semi-sensible like South Korea, Australia, and Switzerland, that’s a good sign. But if you’re a nation like Japan, Italy, Greece, and Portugal, it’s probably just a matter of time before the chickens of excessive spending come home to roost.

P.S. Related to the Fox Butterfield effect, I’ve also suggested that there should be “some sort of “Wrong Way Corrigan” Award for people like Drum who inadvertently help the cause of economic liberty.”

P.P.S. And in the same spirit, I’ve proposed an “own-goal effect” for “accidentally helping the other side.”

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Keynesian economics is a perpetual-motion machine for statists. The way to boost growth, they argue, is to have governments borrow lots of money from the economy’s productive sector and then spend it on anything and everything.

Even if the money is squandered on global defense against a make-believe alien attack, according to Keynesians like Paul Krugman!

Krugman also has argued that a real war is good would be good for growth since the goal is simply more spending.

Heck, Krugman even asserted the 9-11 attacks were good for the economy because governments then spent more money.

And Nancy Pelosi actually argued that paying people not to work was a great way of creating jobs. I’m not joking.

Amazing. It’s almost as if these people are secret libertarians and they’re saying crazy things to discredit Keynesianism.

But they’re actually serious. This makes it difficult to tell the difference between satire and reality (though this collage is a good example of the latter).

I’ve explained (over and over again) why the Keynesian theory is misguided, and even narrated a video on the topic.

But I suspect most people are more convinced by real-world evidence, which is why I’ve used data from nations such as Germany, Japan, Switzerland, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States to show that bigger government generally hampers prosperity.

Now let’s add to this wealth of evidence, but this time focus on developing economies.

Ruchir Sharma, head of emerging markets for Morgan Stanley Investment Management, has a column in the Wall Street Journal that reviews the track record of so-called stimulus in developing nations.

He starts by noting that some of the usual suspects are pushing for more Keynesianism.

…expect more big names to join the chorus calling for increased government spending to enliven the flailing global recovery. President Obama and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew are among the voices urging European leaders to spend more. The International Monetary Fund and former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers —who wrote in the Financial Times in October that “there is for once a free lunch”—have even been arguing that government borrowing to build roads or airports would more than pay for itself. If only governments in the developed world would start spending more, this refrain goes, the global economy’s future would be brighter.

But Mr. Sharma explains that many countries in the developing world just had a very bad experience with Keynesian economics.

…it is worth noting that the big emerging nations—China, Russia and Brazil—have just tried a full-throttle experiment in stimulus spending, and it failed….Their experiment began in late 2008. …the leaders of these nations turned to the ideas of John Maynard Keynes… The emerging economies embarked on a spending campaign that dwarfed its counterparts in the U.S. and Europe….The emerging ones spent more than half again as much, 6.9% of GDP. And that figure does not include the money that many big emerging nations continued to pump into their economies by ordering state banks to ramp up lending. These directives vastly boosted the scale of the stimulus, particularly in China… Keynesians everywhere let out a cheer.

Here’s some of the data.

Since 2010, the growth rate in China has fallen by a third and is headed below 7%. Brazil is in recession. Russia, which spent a staggering 10% of GDP on stimulus, is now contracting sharply. What happened? Emerging nations borrowed from the future to produce that flash of growth in 2010, and now they face the bills. Their government budgets have fallen into the red…public debt has risen significantly, throwing the books out of balance. …the IMF and others are lowering forecasts for emerging-world GDP growth for the rest of this decade to 4% or less—a return to the pace of the crisis-ridden 1990s.  …The message: When the state spends in haste, it will repent at leisure.

But there is some good news.

Many leaders in emerging nations now recognize that bigger government is not a recipe for prosperity.

…emerging-world leaders admit that their own stimulus experiments backfired. In May, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang warned that using stimulus to generate growth is “not sustainable” and “creates new problems.” …Agustín Carstens, the president of Mexico’s central bank, recently told me that in the long run “fiscal and monetary policy cannot create growth.” And former Indian finance minister P. Chidambaram admitted that his government “lost control of the economy” because of a stimulus campaign that led to higher deficits and inflation.

I guess we can add these officials to the list that already includes leaders from Portugal and Finland, who also have acknowledged that economic growth is undermined when the burden of government spending is increased.

Unfortunately, the lesson isn’t being learned in America, at least not in the rudimentary reading class that is otherwise known as the Obama Administration.

P.S. You can enjoy some good anti-Keynesian humor by clicking here, here, here, and here.

P.P.S. There are some Republican Keynesians, so this is a bipartisan problem.

P.P.P.S. Happy Birthday to the Princess of the Levant. We’re celebrating in the Cayman Islands, where there’s warm sunshine, clear ocean, and zero income tax.

P.P.P.P.S. Returning to the unpleasant topic of Keynesian economics, it’s very discouraging that Obama Administration officials seem so intent on pushing bad policy in other nations.

P.P.P.P.P.S. The New York Times publishes a lot of Krugman’s diatribes, but they also make room for other fact-challenged Keynesians.

P.P.P.P.P.P.S. For those of us who try to educate policy makers, Keynesian economics is like a Freddy Krueger movie.

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I wrote earlier this year about the “perplexing durability” of Keynesian economics. And I didn’t mince words.

Keynesian economics is a failure. It didn’t work for Hoover and Roosevelt in the 1930s. It didn’t work for Japan in the 1990s. And it didn’t work for Bush or Obama in recent years. No matter where’s it’s been tried, it’s been a flop. So why, whenever there’s a downturn, do politicians resuscitate the idea that bigger government will “stimulate” the economy?

And I specifically challenged Keynesians in 2013 to explain why automatic budget cuts were supposedly a bad idea given that the American economy expanded when the burden of government spending shrank during the Reagan and Clinton years.

I also issued that same challenge one day earlier, asking Keynesians to justify their opposition to sequestration given that Canada’s economy prospered in the 1990s when government spending was curtailed.

It seems that the evidence against Keynesianism is so strong that only a fool, a politician, or a college professor could still cling to the notion that bigger government leads to more growth.

Fortunately, it does appear that there’s a growing consensus against this free-lunch theory.

Professor John Cochrane of the University of Chicago (and also an Adjunct Scholar at Cato) has a superb column about the retreat of Keynesianism in today’s Wall Street Journal.

The tide also changed in economic ideas. The brief resurgence of traditional Keynesian ideas is washing away from the world of economic policy. …Why? In part, because even in economics, you can’t be wrong too many times in a row. …Our first big stimulus fell flat, leaving Keynesians to argue that the recession would have been worse otherwise. George Washington’s doctors probably argued that if they hadn’t bled him, he would have died faster. With the 2013 sequester, Keynesians warned that reduced spending and the end of 99-week unemployment benefits would drive the economy back to recession. Instead, unemployment came down faster than expected, and growth returned, albeit modestly. The story is similar in the U.K.

All of this is spot on. Once the stimulus was replaced by spending restraint, the economy did better. And job creation picked up when subsidies for unemployment were limited, just as more sensible economists predicted.

Cochrane is also correct about the spending restraint in the United Kingdom. I didn’t expect Cameron and Osbourne to deliver some good fiscal policy, but it’s happening and the British economy is the envy of most other European nations.

The column also looks at past Keynesian failures.

These are only the latest failures. Keynesians forecast depression with the end of World War II spending. The U.S. got a boom. The Phillips curve failed to understand inflation in the 1970s and its quick end in the 1980s, and disappeared in our recession as unemployment soared with steady inflation.

But this isn’t just about empirical evidence.

I’ve used humor to debunk Keynesianism. Professor Cochrane takes a more high-brow approach to show why the theory doesn’t make sense.

Hurricanes are good, rising oil prices are good, and ATMs are bad, we were advised: Destroying capital, lower productivity and costly oil will raise inflation and occasion government spending, which will stimulate output. Though Japan’s tsunami and oil shock gave it neither inflation nor stimulus, worriers are warning that the current oil price decline, a boon in the past, will kick off the dreaded deflationary spiral this time. I suspect policy makers heard this, and said to themselves “That’s how you think the world works? Really?” And stopped listening to such policy advice. …in Keynesian models, government spending stimulates even if totally wasted. Pay people to dig ditches and fill them up again. By Keynesian logic, fraud is good; thieves have notoriously high marginal propensities to consume.

By the way, just in case you think he’s exaggerating, keep in mind that Paul Krugman actually argued that a fake invasion from outer space would “stimulate” growth because the world would waste money building defenses against E.T.

And Krugman also argued that the 9-11 terrorist attacks were pro-growth!

Cochrane closes with some optimistic thoughts.

…no government in the foreseeable future is going to enact punitive wealth taxes. Europe’s first stab at “austerity” tried big taxes on the wealthy, meaning on those likely to invest, start businesses or hire people. Burned once, Europe is moving in the opposite direction. Magical thinking—that, contrary to centuries of experience, massive taxation and government control of incomes will lead to growth, prosperity and social peace—is moving back to the salons. …the policy world has abandoned the notion that we can solve our problems with blowout borrowing, wasted spending, inflation, default and high taxes. The policy world is facing the tough tradeoffs that centuries of experience have taught us, not wishing them away.

I wish I was equally optimistic about the death of Keynesianism. As I glumly stated a few years ago, Keynesian economics is like a Freddy Krueger move, inevitably rising from the dead when politicians want to rationalize wasting money on favored interest groups.

But I hope Cochrane is right and I’m wrong.

For further information, here’s my video on Keynesian economics.

P.S. Since it’s the holiday season and I’m sharing videos, here’s a very clever and funny video about Keynesian Christmas carols.

The songs in the second half of the video are the ones that make sense, of course, and I particularly like the point that consumer spending is a reflection of growth, not a driver of growth.

P.P.S. If you want even more visual content, 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.

P.P.P.S. But if you want more humor about Keynesian economics, click here, here, here, and here.

P.P.P.P.S. Let’s end on a serious note. It’s encouraging that leaders from nations at opposite ends of Europe are acknowledging the shortcomings of Keynesianism.

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You’re probably surprised by the title of this post. You may even be wondering if President Obama had an epiphany on the road to Greece?

I don’t mean to burst your bubble, but the leader we’re talking about isn’t the President of the United States.

Instead, we’re talking about the Prime Minister of Finland and he deserves praise and recognition for providing one of the most insightful and profound statements ever uttered by a politician.

He explained that the emperor of Keynesian economics has no clothes.

As reported by Le Monde (and translated by Open Europe), here’s what Alexander Stubb said when asked whether European governments should try to “stimulate” their economies with more spending.

We need to put an end to illusions: it’s not the public sector that creates jobs. To believe that injecting billions of euros [into the economy] is the key to growth is an idea of the past.


You don’t make a nation richer by taking money from one pocket and putting it in another pocket.

Particularly when the net effect is to redistribute funds from the productive sector to the government.

I’m glad Mr. Stubb has figured this out. I just with some American politicians would look at the evidence and reach similarly wise conclusions.

The Obama Administration, for instance, still wants us to believe the faux stimulus was a success.

And speaking of our President’s views, this Gary Varvel cartoon isn’t new, but it’s right on the mark.

Any “job” created by government spending necessarily comes at the expense of the private sector.

And since I’m sharing old cartoons, here’s one that also is a nice summary of what happens when government gets bigger.

This cartoon definitely belongs in my collection (here, herehereherehere, here, herehereherehere, here, and here) of government as a blundering, often-malicious, overweight nitwit.

P.S. Other European policy makers have admitted that Keynesian economics is a farce.

P.P.S. Finland has the world’s 7th-freest economy, significantly better than the United States.

P.P.P.S. If you want some humor about Keynesian economics, click here.

P.P.P.P.S. If you prefer tragedy instead of humor, here are some horrifying quotes by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

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Regular readers know that good fiscal policy takes place when government spending grows slower than the private economy.

Nations that maintain this Golden Rule for extended periods of time shrink the relative burden of government spending, thus enabling more growth by freeing up resources for the productive sector of the economy and creating leeway for lower tax rates.

And when countries deal with the underlying disease of too much spending, they automatically solve the symptom of red ink, so it’s a win-win situation whether you’re a spending hawk or a so-called deficit hawk.

With this in mind, let’s look at some interesting new research from the Heritage Foundation. They’ve produced a report entitled Europe’s Fiscal Crisis Revealed: An In-Depth Analysis of Spending, Austerity, and Growth.

It focuses on fiscal policy over the past few years and is an important contribution in two big ways. First, it shows that the Keynesian free-lunch approach is counterproductive. Second, it shows that the right kind of fiscal consolidation (i.e., spending restraint) generates superior results.

Here are some excerpts from the chapter by Professor Alberto Alesina of Harvard of Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center. They look at some of the academic evidence.

The debate over the merits of austerity (the implementation of debt-reduction packages) is frustrating. Most people focus only on deficit reduction, but that can be achieved in many different ways. Some ways, such as raising taxes, deeply hurt growth… The data show that austerity has been implemented in Europe. However, with some rare exceptions, the forms of austerity were heavy on tax increases and far from involving savage spending cuts. …spending-based adjustments are more likely to reduce the debt-to-GDP ratio, regardless of whether fiscal adjustments are defined in terms of improvements in the cyclically adjusted primary budget deficit or in terms of premeditated policy changes designed to improve a country’s fiscal outlook. …Other research has found that fiscal adjustments based mostly on the spending side are less likely to be reversed and, as a result, have led to more long-lasting reductions in debt-to-GDP ratios. …successful fiscal adjustments are often rooted in reform of social programs and reductions in the size and pay of the government workforce rather than in other types of spending cuts. …tax increases failed to reduce the debt and were associated with large recessions. …growing evidence suggests that private investment tends to react more positively to spending-based adjustments. For instance, data from Alesina and Ardagna and from Alesina, Favero, and Giavazzi show that private-sector capital accumulation increases after governments cut spending.

The basic message of the Alesina-de Rugy chapter is that bad outcomes are largely unavoidable when nations spend themselves into fiscal trouble, but the damage can be minimized if policy makers impose spending restraint.

The Heritage Foundation’s Salim Furth is the editor of the report, and here’s some of what he wrote in Chapter 3, which looks at what’s happened in recent years as countries dealt with fiscal crisis.

Tax austerity is very harmful to growth, while spending cuts are partially replaced by private-sector activity, making them less harmful. …Estimating growth effects on private GDP, the difference between tax and spending multipliers grows predictably. A two-dollar decline in private GDP is associated with every dollar of tax increases, but spending cuts are associated with no change in private GDP.  …fiscal consolidation that relied 60 percentage points more on spending cuts was associated with 3.1 percentage points more GDP growth from 2009 to 2012, when average growth was just 3.3 percent over the entire period. In other words, a country that had a fiscal consolidation composed of 80 percent of spending cuts and 20 percent of tax increases would grow much more rapidly than a country in which only 20 percent of the consolidation was spending cuts and 80 percent was tax increases. The association is slightly stronger for private GDP.

Salim then cites a couple of powerful examples.

…the difference between Germany’s 8 percent growth from 2009 to 2012 and the 1 percent growth in the Netherlands is largely accounted for by Germany’s cut-spending, cut-taxes approach and the Netherlands’ raise-spending, raise-taxes approach. The U.K. and Italy enacted similarly-sized austerity packages, but Italy’s was half tax increases while the U.K. favored spending cuts. Neither country excelled, but over half of the gap between the U.K.’s 3 percent growth and Italy’s negative growth is explained by Italy’s tax increases.

By the way, it’s not as if Germany and the United Kingdom are stellar examples of fiscal restraint. It’s just that they’re doing better than nations that traveled down the path of even bigger government.

Regarding supposed Keynesian stimulus, Salim makes a very important point that more government spending seems positive in the short run, sort of like the fiscal version of a sugar high.

But that sugar high produces a bad hangover. Nations that try Keynesianism quickly fall behind countries with more prudent policy.

Government spending boosts GDP instantly and then crowds out private spending slowly. The incentive effects of taxation may take effect over several years, but they are permanent and especially pronounced in investment. If anything, this recent crisis shows how brief the short run is: Countries whose spending-focused stimulus put them one step ahead in 2010 were already two steps behind in 2012.

There’s a lot more in the report, so I encourage readers to give it a look.

I particularly like that it emphasizes the importance of properly defining “austerity” and “fiscal consolidation.” These are issues that I highlighted in my discussion with John Stossel.

Another great thing about the report is that it has all sorts of useful data.

Though much of it is depressing. Here’s Chart 2-9 from the report and it shows all the countries that have increased top marginal tax rates between 2007 and 2013.

Portugal wins the booby prize for the biggest tax hike, though many nations went down this class-warfare path. Including the United States thanks to Obama’s fiscal cliff tax increase.

The United Kingdom is an interesting case. It raised its top rate by 10 percentage points, but then cut the rate by 5 percentage points after it became apparent that the higher rate wasn’t collecting any additional revenue.

We should give credit to the handful of nations that have lowered tax rates, several of which replaced discriminatory systems with simple and fair flat taxes.

Though it’s also important to keep in mind where each nation started. Switzerland lowered it’s top rate by only 0.4 percentage points, which seems small compared to Denmark, which dropped its top rate by 6.7 percentage points.

But Switzerland started with a much lower rate, whereas Denmark has one of the world’s most punitive tax regimes (though, paradoxically, it is very laissez-faire in areas other than fiscal policy).

Let’s look at the same data, but from a different perspective. Chart 2-10 shows how many nations (from a list of 37) raised top rates or lowered top rates each year.

The good news is that tax cutters out-numbered tax-hikers in 2008 and 2009.

The bad news is that tax increases have dominated ever since 2010.

Many of these post-2009 tax hikes were enabled by a weakening of tax competition, which underscores why it is so important to preserve the right of jurisdictions to maintain competitive tax systems.

And don’t forget that tax policy will probably get even worse in the future because of aging populations and poorly designed entitlement programs.

Let’s close with some more numbers.

Here’s Table 2-5 from the report. It shows changes in the value-added tax (VAT) beginning in December 2008.

The key thing to notice is that there’s no column for decreases in the VAT. That’s because no nation lowered that levy. Practically speaking, this hidden form of a national sales tax is a money machine for bigger government.

But you don’t have to believe me. The International Monetary Fund unintentionally provided the data showing that VATs are the most effective tax for financing bigger government.

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Keynesian economics is a failure.

It didn’t work for Hoover and Roosevelt in the 1930s. It didn’t work for Japan in the 1990s. And it didn’t work for Bush or Obama in recent years.

No matter where’s it’s been tried, it’s been a flop.

So why, whenever there’s a downturn, do politicians resuscitate the idea that bigger government will “stimulate” the economy?

I’ve tried to answer that question.

Keynesian economics is the perpetual motion machine of the left. You build a model that assumes government spending is good for the economy and you assume that there are zero costs when the government diverts money from the private sector. …politicians love Keynesian theory because it tells them that their vice is a virtue. They’re not buying votes with other people’s money, they’re “stimulating” the economy!

I think there’s a lot of truth in that excerpt, but Sheldon Richman, writing for Reason, offers a more complete analysis. He starts by identifying the quandary.

You can’t watch a news program without hearing pundits analyze economic conditions in orthodox Keynesian terms, even if they don’t realize that’s what they’re doing. …What accounts for this staying power?

He then gives his answer, which is the same as mine.

I’d have said it’s because Keynesianism gives intellectual cover for what politicians would want to do anyway: borrow, spend, and create money. They did these things before Lord Keynes published his The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money in 1936, and they wanted to continue doing those things even when trouble came of it.

Makes sense, right?

But then Sheldon digs deeper, citing the work of Professor Larry White of George Mason University, and suggests that Keynesianism is popular because it provides hope for an easy answer.

Lawrence H. White of George Mason University, offers a different reason for this staying power in his instructive 2012 book The Clash of Economic Ideas: The Great Policy Debates and Experiments of the Last Hundred Years: namely, that Keynes’s alleged solution to the Great Depression offered hope, apparently unlike its alternatives. …White also notes that “Milton Friedman, looking back in a 1996 interview, essentially agreed [that the alternatives to Keynesianism promised only a better distant future]. Academic economists had flocked to Keynes because he offered a faster way out of the depression, as contrasted to the ‘gloomy’ prescription of [F.A.] Hayek and [Lionel] Robbins that we must wait for the economy to self-correct.” …Note that the concern was not with what would put the economy on a long-term sustainable path, but rather with what would give the short-term appearance of improvement.

In other words, Keynesian economics is like a magical weight-loss pill. Some people simply want to believe it works.

Which is understandably more attractive than the gloomy notion the economy has to go through a painful adjustment process.

But perhaps the best insight in Sheldon’s article is that painful adjustment processes wouldn’t be necessary if politicians didn’t make mistakes in the first place!

A related aspect of the Keynesian response to the Great Depression—this also carries on to the current day—is the stunning lack of interest in what causes hard times. Modern Keynesians such as Paul Krugman praise Keynes for not concerning himself with why the economy fell into depression in the first place. All that mattered was ending it. …White quotes Krugman, who faulted economists who “believed that the crucial thing was to explain the economy’s dynamics, to explain why booms are followed by busts.” …why would you want to get bogged down trying to understand what actually caused the mass unemployment? It’s not as though the cause could be expected to shed light on the remedy.

This is why it’s important to avoid unsustainable booms, such as the government-caused housing bubble and easy-money policy from last decade.

Hayek, Robbins, and Mises, in contrast to Keynes, could explain the initial downturn in terms of the malinvestment induced by the central bank’s creation of money and its low-interest-rate policies during the 1920s. …you’d want to see the mistaken investments liquidated so that ever-scarce resources could be realigned according to consumer demand… And you’d want the harmful government policies that set the boom-bust cycle in motion to end.

Gee, what a radical notion. Instead of putting your hope in a gimmicky weight-loss pill, simply avoid getting too heavy in the first place.

For further information, here’s my video on Keynesian economics.

P.S. Here’s some clever humor about Keynesian economics.

P.P.S. If you like humor, but also want some substance, 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, this satirical commercial for Keynesian Christmas carols is right on the mark.

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