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Posts Tagged ‘Reagan’

Having been inspired by Ronald Reagan’s libertarian-ish message (and track record), I’ve always been suspicious of alternative forms of conservatism for the simple reason that they always seem to mean bigger government.

To be fair, proponents of all these approaches always paid homage to the role of markets, so we’re not talking about Bernie Sanders-type nuttiness.

But I don’t want to travel in the wrong direction, even if only at 10 miles-per-hour rather than 90 miles-per-hour.

Now there’s a new alternative to Reaganism called “national conservatism.” It’s loosely defined, as you can see by reports from both left-leaning outlets (New York, New Republic) and right-leaning outlets (Townhall, Daily Signal).

There are parts of this new movement that are appealing, at least if I’m reading them correctly. Proponents are appropriately skeptical of global governance, though maybe not for the reasons that arouse my antipathy. But the enemy of my enemy is my friend in this battle.

They also don’t seem very fond of nation building, which also pleases me. And I also am somewhat sympathetic to their arguments about national unity – assuming it’s based on the proper definition of patriotism.

But their economic views, at best, are worrisome. And, as George Will opines, they’re sometimes awful.

…“national conservatives”…advocate unprecedented expansion of government to purge America of excessive respect for market forces and to affirm robust confidence in government as a social engineer allocating wealth and opportunity. …The Manhattan Institute’s Oren Cass advocates “industrial policy” — what other socialists call “economic planning”… He especially means subsidizing manufacturing..he admits that as government, i.e., politics, permeates the economy on manufacturing’s behalf, “regulatory capture,” other forms of corruption and “market distortions will emerge.” Emerge? Using government to create market distortions is national conservatism’s agenda. …Their agenda is much more ambitious than President Richard M. Nixon’s 1971 imposition of wage and price controls, which were temporary fiascos. Their agenda is even more ambitious than the New Deal’s cartelization of industries, which had the temporary (and unachieved) purpose of curing unemployment. What national conservatives propose is government fine-tuning the economy’s composition and making sure resources are “well” distributed, as the government (i.e., the political class) decides, forever. …Although the national conservatives’ anti-capitalism purports to be populist, it would further empower the administrative state’s faux aristocracy of administrators who would decide which communities and economic sectors should receive “well”-allocated resources. Furthermore, national conservatism is paternalistic populism. This might seem oxymoronic, but so did “Elizabeth Warren conservatives” until national conservatives emerged as such.

Since Nixon and FDR were two of America’s worst presidents, Will is drawing a very harsh comparison.

To give the other side, here are excerpts from a New York Times column by Oren Cass.

…a labor market in which workers can support strong families and communities is the central determinant of long-term prosperity and should be the central focus of public policy. Genuine prosperity depends upon people working as productive contributors to their society, through which they can achieve self-sufficiency, support their families, participate in their communities, and raise children prepared to do the same.

None of this sounds bad.

Heck, it sounds good. I’m in favor of strong families and strong communities.

But what does this rhetoric mean? Here’s where I start to worry.

Crucially, while a labor market left alone will seek an efficient equilibrium, economic theory never promises that the equilibrium will be a socially desirable, inclusive one. A genuine conservatism values markets as powerful mechanisms that foster choice, promote competition and deliver growth, but always in service to the larger end of a cohesive society in which people can thrive. …In some cases, …conservatives will head in new directions or even reverse course. …an insistence that workers throughout the labor market share in productivity growth……longstanding hostility toward organized labor will give way to an emphasis on reform. …new forms of organizing through which workers can support one another, engage with management and contribute to civil society should be a conservative priority.

And my worry turns to unfettered angst when I read some of the specific ideas that Cass mentions.

…a wage subsidy delivered directly into each low-wage paycheck…skepticism of unfettered international trade…legislation that would require the Federal Reserve to close the trade deficit by taxing foreign purchases of American assets.

To put it mildly, more redistribution, more protectionism, and taxes on investment is not a Reaganite agenda.

I’ll close with a political observation. Defenders of national conservatism have told me that the Reagan message is old and stale. It supposedly doesn’t apply to new problems in a new era.

Yet non-conservative Republicans lost twice to Obama while a hypothetical poll in 2013 showed Reagan would trounce Obama.

Some national conservatives point to Trump’s victory as an alternative, but I think that had more to do with Hillary Clinton. In any event, I very much doubt Trumpism is a long-term model for political success. Or economic success.

Maybe the real lesson is that good policy is good politics?

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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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The good news is that President Trump wants to boost economic growth, which is a laudable goal after the economy’s sub-par performance during the Obama years.

The bad news is that he may sabotage his good reforms of tax policy and regulation with protectionism.

In a column earlier this month for the Wall Street Journal, Robert Zoellick warns about the likely consequences.

The Trump administration has stacked up a pile of trade cases that will come tumbling down early in 2018. More important than any specific case is the signal of a strategy of economic defeatism. …Mr. Trump’s tactic will likely trigger retaliation from other countries. …“safeguards” to block imports of solar panels and washing machines…doesn’t even require a claim of unfairness. …these amount to an overture to the big show: likely withdrawal from the North American Free Trade Agreement, the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement or both. …The president…relies on the support of economic isolationists who find it easier to blame others than to make America more competitive. Killing Nafta would fit the bill.

Charles Hughes addresses the same topic for Economics 21 and specifically explains that the net effect of trade barriers on solar panels will be to destroy jobs.

President Trump approved new tariffs on solar imports… Manufacturing of solar panels is only one component of the solar industry, which employs between 260,000 and 374,000 workers.  Out of this group, only 38,000 work in manufacturing. Even this oversells the number of people whose work would be insulated from competition from imports, as Solar Energy Industries Association estimates that only 2,000 of these solar manufacturing workers make the products covered by the tariffs.  Significantly more people work in installation. Their jobs would be at risk from higher solar panel prices that would reduce demand for installations, with one estimate that the tariffs would cost 23,000 U.S. jobs in the first year.

These numbers are not a surprise. There have been many studies looking at the impact of protectionism and lost jobs are the usual result, both because trade barriers create inefficiencies, reduce consumer buying power, and increase input prices.

As is so often the case, it’s a question of the seen versus the unseen.

But don’t take my word for it. Here’s President Reagan talking about trade shortly before he left office (h/t: Cafe Hayek).

By the way, some people try to justify Trump’s protectionism by citing some protectionist policies during the Reagan years.

As explained by Colin Grabow and Scott Lincicome in National Review, that is historical revisionism.

Trumpist efforts to save U.S. jobs through higher tariffs, bilateral trade deals, and lower trade deficits can find no “conservative” justification in Reagan-era trade actions. In fact, it’s just the opposite. The Reagan administration did indeed pursue unilateral import restrictions and foreign-trade “enforcement” actions, but history shows that — unlike protectionist policies proposed by Trump — such moves were intended to liberalize trade… Reagan also often sought to educate his fellow Americans on the U.S. trade balance, even extemporaneously (and correctly) explaining at a 1985 press conference that trade deficits often correlate with job growth and economic vitality. …Reagan negotiated and concluded the 1988 Canada–United States Free Trade Agreement — the basis for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). …Reagan administration negotiators also helped launch the Uruguay Round under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which would in 1994 strike the single biggest blow for free trade in the last 70 years by establishing the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Amen. I may have to revise my assessment of Reaganomics and give the Gipper an even better grade.

So what would it mean if Trump’s protectionist push led to similar statist policies by other nations?

A World Bank study gives us an idea of the potential implications.

This paper quantifies the wide-ranging costs of potential increases in worldwide barriers to trade…a coordinated global withdrawal…from all existing bilateral/regional trade agreements, as well as from unilateral preferential schemes coupled with an increase in the cost of traded services, is estimated to result in annual worldwide real income losses of 0.3 percent or US$211 billion relative to the baseline after three years. …Highlighting the importance of preferences, the impact on global trade is estimated to be more pronounced, with an annual decline of 2.1 percent or more than US$606 billion relative to the baseline if these barriers stay in place for three years. Second, a worldwide increase in tariffs up to legally allowed bound rates coupled with an increase in the cost of traded services would translate into annual global real income losses of 0.8 percent or more than US$634 billion relative to the baseline after three years. The distortion to the global trading system would be significant and result in an annual decline of global trade of 9 percent or more than US$2.6 trillion relative to the baseline in 2020.

I wonder if those numbers underestimate the threat given how tit-for-tax protectionism caused much greater levels of damage during the 1930s.

Anyhow, let’s conclude with a very effective (and concise) video from Matt Ridley on the principle of comparative advantage. It’s about trade between two people, but the same principle applies to trade between nations. Simply stated, trade allows for specialization, which enables higher productivity (and therefore higher wages and living standards).

P.S. I also invite readers to watch excellent videos on trade and protectionism from Professors Tyler Cowen and Don Boudreaux.

P.P.S. I also encourage people to read Walter Williams on this topic.

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Back in 2013, I put together a visual showing the good and bad policies that were enacted during the Clinton years. The big takeaway was that the overall burden of government was substantially reduced during his years in office.

Two days ago, I did the same thing for Richard Nixon, but noted that his record was universally awful. I couldn’t think of a single pro-growth policy when he was in the Oval Office.

Now let’s look at the Ronald Reagan. I analyzed his record last year, but mostly looking at the aggregate results.

So let’s look at the details, putting specific pro-growth policies in one column and specific anti-growth policies in another column. As you can see, there was a substantial net improvement during the Reagan years.

I gave extra credit for his tax cuts, the spending restraint, and the taming of inflation.

On the negative side of the ledger, Reagan did approve some post-1981 tax hikes, imposed some protectionism, and also supported Medicare expansion, so he certainly wasn’t perfect.

I also was tempted to give Reagan some credit for NAFTA and the WTO since those initiative got their start during his presidency, but that would break my rule of only counting policies that were implemented while a president was in office.

The bottom line is that Reagan was a net plus for economic liberty. And if you count the collapse of the Soviet Empire, he was a net plus for global liberty.

Let’s close by discussing Henry Olsen’s new book on Ronald Reagan. Henry tried to make the case that Reagan was sort of a New Deal Democrat rather than a libertarian-ish ideologue. Writing for the Claremont Review of Books, Steven Hayward obviously is a fan of the book but is not entirely sympathetic to Henry’s hypothesis.

You should read Steven’s entire review, and also get Henry’s book and read it as well. I’ll simply cite two passages from the review for the simple reason that they match my beliefs (shocking, huh?). First, Reagan (quite correctly) was not a big fan of the New Deal.

Reagan’s long-time economic adviser Martin Anderson once told me that despite Reagan’s general kind words for FDR and the New Deal, he could not recall Reagan ever endorsing a specific New Deal policy… But if anyone wants to see Reagan as the heir of the New Deal, he has to get past one of Reagan’s most famous critiques of it—his 1976 remark that “Fascism was really the basis for the New Deal.” …Reagan, to his campaign managers’ consternation, stoutly defended his comments. In August 1980 Reagan told dumbfounded reporters: “Anyone who wants to look at the writings of the Brain Trust of the New Deal will find that President Roosevelt’s advisers admired the fascist system. . .  They thought that private ownership with government management and control a la the Italian system was the way to go, and that has been evident in all their writings.”

And he also opposed Washington-based income redistribution (another sensible view).

When Reagan opposed Nixon’s guaranteed annual income proposal, the Family Assistance Plan, in 1969 and 1970—the only governor in the country to do so—he said in a TV debate that “I believe that the government is supposed to promote the general welfare; I don’t think it is supposed to provide it.” If welfare was centralized in Washington, Reagan knew, reform would be all but impossible and there would be a bias toward increased spending in the future. …“If there is one area of social policy,” Reagan began to say in his standard stump speech, “that should be at the most local level of government possible, it is welfare. It should not be nationalized—it should be localized.” …In another 1982 speech to the NAACP (amidst a fierce recession), Reagan argued that the Great Society had done more harm than good for black Americans. Liberals howled with indignation about both of these heresies.

Amen.

I’m not a Reagan historian like Olson or Hayward, so I’ll wrap up this conversation with one small observation. Reagan was not as libertarian as I would like. I came to DC near the beginning of his second term and I remember feeling disappointed at the time that more progress could be made. I’ve now learned much more about the very weak records of other senior Republican and I now realize his accomplishment were large and meaningful.

It wasn’t just what he achieved. He also changed the “Overton Window,” meaning that he substantially expanded the acceptability of ideas about free markets and limited government. Prior to the Gipper’s tenure, Republicans rarely challenged the welfare state. They basically accepted the New Deal and Great Society. Reagan didn’t have much success unraveling welfare state programs, but he showed that such programs could be criticized and big-picture ideas about reform were not politically toxic.

P.S. Let’s also not forget that Reagan opposed the value-added tax. The rejection of a bad policy doesn’t belong on the above list, but it’s a notable piece of evidence about Reagan’s economic wisdom.

P.P.S. Reagan also showed that good policy can be good politics.

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I’ve learned that it’s more important to pay attention to hard numbers rather than political rhetoric. Republicans, for instance, love to beat their chests about spending restraint, but I never believe them without first checking the numbers. Likewise, Democrats have a reputation as big spenders, but we occasionally get some surprising results when they’re in charge.

President Obama was especially hard to categorize. Republicans automatically assume he was profligate because he started his tenure with a Keynesian spending binge and the Obamacare entitlement. But after a few years in office, some were arguing he was the most frugal president of modern times.

Or, to be more accurate, what I basically discovered is that debt limit fights, sequestration, and government shutdowns were actually very effective. Indeed, the United States enjoyed a de facto spending freeze between 2009 and 2014, leading to the biggest five-year reduction in the burden of federal spending since the end of World War II. And it’s unclear that Obama deserves any of the credit since he was on the wrong side of those battles.

Anyhow, I’ve decided to update the numbers now that we have 8 years of data for Obama’s two terms.

But first, a brief digression on methodology: All the numbers you’re about to see have been adjusted for inflation, so these are apples-to-apples comparisons. Moreover, all my calculations are designed to show average annual increases. I also made sure that the “stimulus” spending that took place in the 2009 fiscal year was included in Obama’s totals, even though that fiscal year began (on October 1, 2008) while Bush was President.

We’ll start with a look at total outlays. On this basis, Obama is actually the most conservative President since World War II. And Bill Clinton is in second place.

But total outlays doesn’t really capture a President’s track record because interest payments are included, which effectively means they get blamed for all the debt run up by their predecessors.

So if we remove payments for net interest, we get a measure of what is called primary spending (total outlays minus net interest). As you can see, Obama is still in first place and Reagan jumps up to second place.

I would argue that one other major adjustment is needed to make the numbers more accurate.

There have been two major financial bailouts in the past 30 years, the savings & loan bailout in the late 1980s and the TARP bailout at the end of last decade. Those bailouts created big one-time expenses, followed by an influx of money (from asset sales and repaid loans) that actually gets counted as negative spending.

Those bailouts added a big chunk of one-time spending at the end of the Reagan years and at the end of the George W. Bush years, while then producing negative outlays during the early years of the George H.W. Bush Administration and Obama Administration.

So if we take out the one-time effects of those two bailouts (which I categorize as “non-TARP” for reasons of brevity), we get a new ranking.

Reagan is now in first place, followed by Clinton and Obama.

By the way, Lydon Johnson has been in last place regardless of how the numbers are calculated, and George W. Bush has had the second-worst numbers.

For all intents and purposes, the above numbers are how a libertarian would rank the various Presidents since both domestic spending and military spending are part of the calculations.

So let’s close by looking at how a conservative would rank the presidents, which is a simple exercise because all that’s required is to remove military spending. Here are the numbers showing the average inflation-adjusted increase in overall domestic outlays for various Presidents (still excluding the one-time bailouts, of course).

By this measure, Reagan easily is in first place. Though it’s worth noting that three Democrats occupy the next positions (though Obama’s numbers are no longer impressive), while Republicans (along with LBJ) get the worst scores.

The bottom line is that Reaganomics was a comparative success. But should we also conclude that Obama was a fiscal conservative?

I don’t think he deserves credit, but I won’t add anything to what I wrote above. Instead, I’ll simply note that Brian Riedl of the Manhattan Institute has a good analysis of Obama’s fiscal record. Here’s his conclusion.

It is important to recognize that Obama did not stop trying to expand government after 2010. The president’s eight annual budget requests gradually upped their 10-year revenue demands from $1.3 trillion to $3.4 trillion, while proposing an average of $1.0 trillion in new program spending over the next decade. His play, in short, was to gradually trim the budget deficit by chasing large spending increases with even larger tax increases. The Republican Congress stopped him. My assessment: Obama’s most important fiscal legacy was a sin of omission. Despite promising to confront Social Security and Medicare’s unsustainable deficits, the president refused to endorse any plan that would come close to achieving solvency. This surrendered eight crucial years of baby-boomer retirements while costs accelerated. With baby boomers retiring and a national debt projected to exceed $90 trillion within 30 years, this was no small surrender.

In other words, the relatively good short-run numbers were in spite of Obama. And the long-run numbers were bad – and still are bad – because he chose to let the entitlement problem fester. But he was still better (less worse) than Bush I, Bush II, and Nixon.

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I’m currently in Iceland for a conference organized by the European Students for Liberty. I spoke earlier today on the case for lower taxes and I made six basic points.

Sadly, not everyone agrees with my views, either in Iceland or the United States.

Regarding the latter, Robert Samuelson expressed a contrary position last month when writing about the tax debate in the Washington Post.

…we need higher, not lower, taxes. …We are undertaxed. Government spending, led by the cost of retirees, regularly exceeds our tax intake.

After reading his column, I thought about putting together a detailed response. I was especially tempted to debunk the carbon tax, which is his preferred way of generating additional tax revenue.

But then it occurred to me that could make an “appeal to authority.” In my Iceland presentation today, I cited very wise words from four former presidents on tax policy. And their statements are all that we need to dismiss Samuelson’s column.

We’ll start with Thomas Jefferson, who argues for small government and against income taxation.

We then take a trip through history so we can see what Grover Cleveland said about the topic.

Simply stated, he viewed any taxes – above what was needed to finance a minimal state – as “ruthless extortion.”

The great Calvin Coolidge said the same thing about four decades later.

Last but not least, the Gipper addresses Samuelson’s point about the difference between taxes and spending.

Reagan is right, of course. The burden of federal spending is the problem whether looking at pre-World War II data or post-World War II data.

Four good points of view from four good Presidents.

The only missing component is that I need to find a President who correctly explains that higher taxes will lead to higher spending and more red ink.

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Every time I’ve gone overseas in the past six months, I’ve been peppered with questions about Donald Trump. It doesn’t matter whether my speech was about tax reform, entitlements, fiscal crisis, or tax competition, most people wanted to know what I think about The Donald.

My general reaction has been to disavow any expertise (as illustrated by my wildly inaccurate election prediction). But, when pressed, I speculate that Hillary Clinton wasn’t a very attractive candidate and that Trump managed to tap into disdain for Washington (i.e., drain the swamp) and angst about the economy’s sub-par performance.

What I find galling, though, is when I get follow-up questions – and this happens a lot, especially in Europe – asking how it is possible that the United States could somehow go from electing a wonderful visionary like Obama to electing a dangerous clown like Trump.

Since I’m not a big Trump fan, I don’t particularly care how they characterize the current president, but I’m mystified about the ongoing Obama worship in other nations. Even among folks who otherwise are sympathetic to free markets.

I’ve generally responded by explaining that Obama was a statist who wound up decimating the Democratic Party.

And my favorite factoid has been the 2013 poll showing that Reagan would have trounced Obama in a hypothetical matchup.

I especially like sharing that data since many foreigners think Reagan wasn’t a successful President. So when I share that polling data, it also gives me an opportunity to set the record straight about the success of Reaganomics.

I’m motivated to write about this topic because I’m currently in Europe and earlier today I wound up having one of these conversations in the Frankfurt Airport with a German who noticed my accent and asked me about “crazy American politics.”

I had no problem admitting that the political situation in the U.S. is somewhat surreal, so that was a bonding moment. But as the conversation progressed and I started to give my standard explanation about Obama being a dismal president and I shared the 2013 poll, my German friend didn’t believe me.

So I felt motivated to quickly go online and find some additional data to augment my argument. And I was very happy to find a Quinnipiac poll from 2014. Here are some of the highlights, as reported by USA Today.

…33% named Obama the worst president since World War II, and 28% put Bush at the bottom of post-war presidents. “Over the span of 69 years of American history and 12 presidencies, President Barack Obama finds himself with President George W. Bush at the bottom of the popularity barrel,” said Tim Malloy, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll. …Ronald Reagan topped the poll as the best president since World War II, with 35%. He is followed by presidents Bill Clinton (18%) and John F. Kennedy (15%).

Yes, Ronald Reagan easily was considered the best President in the post-World War II era.

Here’s the relevant chart from the story. Kudos to the American people from giving the Gipper high scores.

And what about the bottom of the list?

Here’s the chart showing Obama edging out George W. Bush for last place.

By the way, I suspect these numbers will look much different in 50 years. I’m guessing many Republicans picked Obama simply because he was the most recent Democrat president and a lot of Democrats picked W because he was the most recent Republican President.

With the passage of time, I think Nixon and Carter deservedly will get some of those votes (and I think LBJ deserves more votes as the worst president, for what it’s worth).

The bottom line, though, is that I now have a second poll to share with foreigners.

P.S. If there’s ever a poll that isn’t limited to the post-World War II era, I would urge votes not only for Reagan, but also for Calvin Coolidge and Grover Cleveland.

P.P.S. People are surprised when I explain that Bill Clinton deserves to be in second place for post-WWII presidents.

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