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Posts Tagged ‘stimulus’

The United States is supposed to be enjoying a recovery. Indeed, we’re now supposedly in the fifth year of an expanding economy.

Many Americans must wonder why it doesn’t feel that way.

In part, that’s because growth has been very anemic. Indeed, this is the weakest recovery since the Great Depression.

But it’s also because the labor market has been very weak.

Most observers correctly note that there are far fewer jobs than Obama promised if the so-called stimulus was enacted.

I think that’s a very fair complaint, but I’m even more concerned about the very troubling drop in the employment-population ratio and the grim data on long-run joblessness.

Simply stated, our economy’s ability to generate prosperity is a function of the quantity and quality of labor and capital that are being utilized.

So it’s very bad news when millions of workers drop out of the labor force.

So how can we rejuvenate job creation?

I addressed this issue in a column for The Federalist. Here’s some of what I wrote, starting with a generic complaint that the crowd in Washington seems to think that “more government” is the answer to every question.

The discussion in Washington over how best to “create” jobs is a bit surreal. In part, this is a semantic gripe. …jobs are created in the private sector, not by politicians. …Politicians would probably admit that they simply want to “create” the conditions that lead to job creation. But even by that more realistic standard, the Washington debate often is surreal for the simple reason that too many politicians think that a larger burden of government will boost job creation.

President Obama clearly is guilty of this form of hubris.

I touch on several points in the article, but this excerpt highlights his ongoing fixation on Keynesian economics, which I’ve previously referred to as the perpetual motion machine of the left.

President Obama, for instance, routinely urges more government spending to “stimulate” job creation. …The new outlays, we are told, inject money into the economy and jump-start growth, leading to more jobs as businesses increase production in response to higher demand.The problem with this argument, as explained in an earlier Federalist article, is that government can’t inject money into the economy without first taking money out of the economy, either by borrowing or taxation. This is why Keynesian spending didn’t work for Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s, Japan in the 1990s, Bush in 2008, or Obama in 2009.

But the me-too crowd on the right commits the same sins.

While the left has bad ideas and has delivered poor results, some proposals from the “right” aren’t much better. Consider a recent article in National Affairs by Michael Strain of the American Enterprise Institute. Entitled “A Jobs Agenda for the Right,” the piece is filled with proposals that are distressingly reminiscent of the big-government-lite platform of pre-Reagan Republicans.

Do you think I’m exaggerating?

You can click on his article and see for yourself. You’ll find some good information on how the job market is very weak.

But when Strain proposes solutions, he goes awry. As I say in the article, many of his policy ideas “could have been uttered by Harry Reid or Nancy Pelosi.”

He writes that “conservatives should see that there is a role for macroeconomic stimulus.” …He claims, for instance, that “government spending can support economic growth during a recession” That Keynesian statement sounds more like Brookings than AEI. He also has Obama’s faith in “shovel-ready jobs,” extolling “the desirability of a multi-year program of high-social-value infrastructure spending.” …He wants to finance additional spending, at least in part, with higher taxes, suggesting “a reining in of tax expenditures.” There’s nothing wrong with cutting back on tax preferences (properly defined), but the money should be used to lower tax rates rather than expand the burden of government spending. …he endorsed extended unemployment benefits – notwithstanding the wealth of evidence that such policies encourage joblessness.

To be fair, he does list some ideas that are good, as well as some that are mixed, but the unambiguous message of his article is that government needs to play an activist role to boost the job market.

Needless to say, I offer my prescription for job creation and suggest that we go in the opposite direction.

I make (what should be) an elementary observation about the conditions that are necessary for businesses to hire new workers.

[Jobs] are created when businesses think that the amount of revenue generated by new employees will exceed the total costs (including those imposed by government) of putting those people on the payroll.

And I elaborate on this point, quoting myself in the article (and now I’m quoting myself quoting myself, which is definitely a sign I’ve been in DC too long).

It may not be an agenda tailored to appeal to politicians, who generally want to be seen as “doing something,” but the best way to create jobs is to get government to stop trying to help. Free markets and small government are far more likely to produce the conditions that lead to more employment. In other words, let the private sector flourish. The pursuit of profit is a powerful force for growth. To quote one of my favorite people, “businesses are not charities. They only create jobs when they think that the total revenue generated by new workers will exceed the total cost of employing those workers. In other words, if it’s not profitable to hire workers, it’s not going to happen.” …If we really care about workers, particularly those without jobs, the most compassionate approach is prosperity rather than dependency.

And that means free markets and small government.

Which is the direction we headed during the Reagan years and Clinton years, when we enjoyed very good performance in labor markets (as illustrated by this Michael Ramirez cartoon).

But the 21st century has been very bad news for economic freedom.

P.S. In a postscript last week, I shared a very amusing image of Obama and Putin on a horse.

In that same spirit, here’s a phone call between a statist who doesn’t respect the rule of law…and another statist who doesn’t respect the rule of law.

Obama Putin Phone Call

I’m not sure whether this is better than Obama’s NSA phone-tapping conversation, but still amusing.

By the way, it goes without saying that this doesn’t imply the United States should be intervening. You can read my thoughts here.

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It’s sometimes difficult to make fun of Keynesian economics. But this isn’t because Keynesian theory is airtight.

It’s easy, after all, to mock a school of thought that is predicated on the notion that you can make yourself richer by taking money from your right pocket and putting it in your left pocket.

The problem is that it’s hard to utilize satire when proponents of Keynesian theory say things that are more absurd than anything critics could possibly make up.

Paul Krugman, for example, stated a couple of years ago that it would be good for growth if everyone thought the world was going to be attacked by aliens because that would trigger massive military outlays.

He also asserted recently that a war would be very beneficial to the economy.

Equally bizarre, he really said that the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center would “do some economic good” because of the subsequent money spent on rebuilding.

And let’s not forget that John Maynard Keynes actually did write that it would be good policy to bury money in the ground so that people would get paid to dig it out.

As you can see, it’s difficult to mock such a strange theory since proponents of Keynesianism already have given us such good material.

But let’s try.

Here’s an amusing satirical image of Ludwig von Mises describing Keynesian economics.

Here’s Paul Krugman doing a Keynesian weather report.

This is the one that got the biggest laugh from me, though I’m chagrined at the misspelling.

Keynesian Fire

Last but not least, here’s an image of a neighborhood that has been the recipient of lots of stimulus. I bet the people are very happy.

Sort of reminds me of this satirical Obama campaign poster.

Let’s close with a few serious observations.

I recently added my two cents to the debate in an article debunking the White House’s attempt to justify the failed 2009 stimulus.

And there’s lots of additional material here, here, and here. My favorite cartoon on Keynesian economics also is worth sharing.

But you’ll probably learn just as much and be more entertained by this video from the Atlas Economic Research Foundation. It looks at the left’s fascination with disaster economics.

And here’s my video debunking Keynesian theory.

I’ll end with a gloomy comment. It’s easy to mock Keynesian economics, but it’s very hard to put a stake through its heart.

How can you kill an idea that tells politicians that their vice – buying votes with other people’s money – is actually a virtue?

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

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There’s an ongoing debate about Keynesian economics, stimulus spending, and various versions of fiscal austerity, and regular readers know I do everything possible to explain that you can promote added prosperity by reducing the burden of government spending.

Simply stated, we get more jobs, output, and growth when resources are allocated by competitive markets. But when resources are allocated by political forces, cronyism and pork cause inefficiency and waste.

That’s why statist nations languish and market-oriented countries flourish.

Paul Krugman has a different perspective on these issues, which is hardly a revelation. But I am surprised that he oftentimes doesn’t get the numbers quite right when he delves into specific case studies.

He claimed that spending cuts caused an Estonian economic downturn in 2008, but the government’s budget actually skyrocketed by 18 percent that year.

He complained about a “government pullback” in the United Kingdom even though the data show that government spending was climbing faster than inflation.

He even claimed that Hollande’s election in France was a revolt against austerity, notwithstanding the fact that the burden of government spending rose during the Sarkozy years.

My colleague Alan Reynolds pointed out that Krugman mischaracterized the supposed austerity in the PIIGS nations such as Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and Spain.

We have another example to add to the list.

He now wants us to believe that Germany has been a good Keynesian nation.

Here’s some of what Professor Krugman wrote for the New York Times.

I hear people trying to dismiss the overwhelming evidence for large economic damage from fiscal austerity by pointing to Germany: “You say that austerity hurts growth, but the Germans have done a lot of austerity and they’re booming.” Public service announcement: Never, ever make claims about a country’s economic policies (or actually anything about economics) on the basis of what you think you’ve heard people say. Yes, you often hear people talking about austerity, and the Germans are big on praising and demanding austerity. But have they actually imposed a lot of it on themselves? Not so much.

In some sense, I agree with Krugman. I don’t think the Germans have imposed much austerity.

But here’s the problem with his article. We know from the examples above that he’s complained about supposed austerity in places such as the United Kingdom and France, so one would think that the German government must have been more profligate with the public purse.

After all, Krugman wrote they haven’t “imposed a lot of [austerity] on themselves.”

So I followed the advice in Krugman’s “public service announcement.” I didn’t just repeat what people have said. I dug into the data to see what happened to government spending in various nations.

And I know you’ll be shocked to see that Krugman was wrong. The Germans have been more frugal (at least in the sense of increasing spending at the slowest rate) than nations that supposedly are guilty of “spending cuts.”

German Austerity Krugman

To ensure that I’m not guilty of cherry-picking the data, I look at three different base years. But it doesn’t matter whether we start before, during, or after the recession. Germany increased spending at the slowest rate.

Moreover, if you look at the IMF data, you’ll see that the Germans also were more frugal than the Swedes, the Belgium, the Dutch, and the Austrians.

So I’m not sure what Krugman is trying to tell us with his chart.

By the way, spending in Switzerland grew at roughly the same rate as it did in Germany. So if Professor Krugman is highlighting Germany as a role model, maybe we can take that as an indirect endorsement of Switzerland’s very good spending cap?

But I won’t hold my breath waiting for that endorsement to become official. After all, Switzerland has reduced the burden of government spending thanks to the spending cap.

Not exactly in line with Krugman’s ideological agenda.

P.S. This isn’t the first time I’ve had to deal with folks who mischaracterize German fiscal policy. When Professor Epstein and I debated a couple of Keynesians in NYC as part of the Intelligence Squared debate, one of our opponents asserted that Germany was a case study for Keynesian stimulus. But when I looked at the data, it turned out that he was prevaricating.

P.P.S. This post, I hasten to add, is not an endorsement of German fiscal policy. As I explained while correcting a mistake in the Washington Post, the burden of government is far too large in Germany. The only good thing I can say is that it hasn’t grown that rapidly in recent years.

P.P.P.S. Let’s close with a look at another example of Krugman’s misleading work. He recently implied that an economist from the Heritage Foundation was being dishonest in some austerity testimony, but I dug into the numbers and discovered that, “critics of Heritage are relying largely on speculative data about what politicians might (or might not) do in the future to imply that the Heritage economist was wrong in his presentation of what’s actually happened over the past six years”

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Are there any fact checkers at the New York Times?

Since they’ve allowed some glaring mistakes by Paul Krugman (see here and here), I guess the answer is no.

But some mistakes are worse than others.

Consider a recent column by David Stuckler of Oxford and Sanjay Basu of Stanford. Entitled “How Austerity Kills,” it argues that budget cuts are causing needless deaths.

Here’s an excerpt that caught my eye.

Countries that slashed health and social protection budgets, like Greece, Italy and Spain, have seen starkly worse health outcomes than nations like Germany, Iceland and Sweden, which maintained their social safety nets and opted for stimulus over austerity.

The reason this grabbed my attention is that it was only 10 days ago that I posted some data from Professor Gurdgiev in Ireland showing that Sweden and Germany were among the tiny group of European nations that actually had reduced the burden of government spending.

Greece, Italy, and Spain, by contrast, are among those that increased the size of the public sector. So the argument presented in the New York Times is completely wrong. Indeed, it’s 100 percent wrong because Iceland (which Professor Gurdgiev didn’t measure since it’s not in the European Union) also has smaller government today than it did in the pre-crisis period.

But that’s just part of the problem with the Stuckler-Basu column. They want us to believe that “slashed” budgets and inadequate spending have caused “worse health outcomes” in nations such as Greece, Italy, and Spain, particularly when compared to Germany, Iceland, and Spain.

But if government spending is the key to good health, how do they explain away this OECD data, which shows that government is actually bigger in the three supposed “austerity” nations than it is in the three so-called “stimulus” countries.

NYT Austerity-Stimulus

Once again, Stuckler and Basu got caught with their pants down, making an argument that is contrary to easily retrievable facts.

But I guess this is business-as-usual at the New York Times. After all, this is the newspaper that’s been caught over and over again engaging in sloppy and/or inaccurate journalism.

Oh, and if you want to know why the Stuckler-Basu column is wrong about whether smaller government causes higher death rates, just click here.

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President Bush imposed a so-called stimulus plan in 2008 and President Obama imposed an even  bigger “stimulus” in 2009. Based upon the economy’s performance over the past five-plus years, those plans didn’t work.

Japan has spent the past 20-plus years imposing one Keynesian scheme after another, and the net effect is economic stagnation and record debt.

Going back further in time, Presidents Hoover and Roosevelt dramatically increased the burden of government spending, mostly financed with borrowing, and a recession became a Great Depression.

That’s not exactly a successful track record, but Paul Krugman thinks the evidence is on his side and that it’s time to declare victory for Keynesian economics.

Those of us who have spent years arguing against premature fiscal austerity have just had a good two weeks. Academic studies that supposedly justified austerity have lost credibility; hard-liners in the European Commission and elsewhere have softened their rhetoric. The tone of the conversation has definitely changed.

“Victory for us Keynesians. Now we get the cheerleaders!”

But Krugman doesn’t just want to declare victory. He also spikes the football and does a dance in the end zone.

I’m always right while the people who disagree with me are always wrong. And not just wrong, they’re often knaves or fools. …look at the results: again and again, people on the opposite side prove to have used bad logic, bad data, the wrong historical analogies, or all of the above. I’m Krugtron the Invincible!

So why does Krugman feel so confident about his position, notwithstanding the evidence? Veronique de Rugy has a concise and fair assessment of the Keynesian rationale. Simply stated, no matter how bad the results, the Keynesians think the economy would have been in even worse shape in the absence of supposed stimulus.

…the country’s economic performance of the last four or five years can hardly be described has a rousing success for Keynesian economics, at least as implemented by the administration. In fact, measured by the unemployment rate, it hasn’t been a success by the administration’s own standards. To that, Krugman says that the stimulus implemented by the administration wasn’t big enough and, as such, that Keynesian economics hasn’t been tried yet.

Veronique, by the way, points out why this argument is utterly unpersuasive by using the same logic to declare victory for markets.

But by this logic, free-market economics is doing pretty well, too: I think we can all agree that free-market economics wasn’t tried. The economy hasn’t really recovered properly. This must mean free-market economics has won.

But I think the best part of Veronique’s article is the section explaining that not all austerity is created equal. Simply stated, why expect better economic performance if “austerity” means that taxes go up and the burden of government spending stays the same?

Here’s some of what Veronique wrote on this issue.

…austerity, as defined by economists, represents the measures implemented by a government in order to reduce the debt-to-GDP ratio. Unlike Keynesians, I do not think that debt is good for economic growth, but I would prefer the word “austerity” to describe the measures implemented to shrink the size and scope of government… In other words, the important question about austerity has less to do with the size of the austerity package than what type of austerity measures are implemented. …when governments try to reduce the debt by raising taxes, it is likely to result in deep and pronounced recessions, possibly making the fiscal adjustment counterproductive. …austerity measures implemented in Europe are not the kind of austerity we actually need. In fact, the data shows that it has mostly consisted in raising taxes.

Since I’ve repeatedly made these same points, you can understand why I’m a big fan of her analysis.

Moreover, I think this gives us some insight into why Krugman may actually think he has prevailed. Simply stated, he’s comparing Keynesianism to the IMF/European version of austerity.

But that type of “austerity” – as you can see from one of Veronique’s charts – is overwhelmingly comprised of tax hikes.

Yet is anybody surprised that we haven’t seen much – if any – growth in tax-happy nations such as Greece, Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Spain, and the United Kingdom?

What we really need are examples of nations that have reduced the burden of government spending. Then we can compare those results with nations that have tried Keynesianism and nations that have tried tax increases.

Sadly, we only have a few examples of this smaller-government approach. But we get very positive results.

The burden of government spending was reduced during the Reagan years and Clinton years, for instance, and the economy enjoyed good growth in both periods.

Canada was even more aggressive about reducing the size of the state during the 1990s. Their economy also did quite well, notwithstanding Keynesian dogma.

I suspect Keynesians would respond to these examples by asserting it’s okay – at least in theory – to restrain spending if the economy isn’t in recession.*

But then how do they respond to the experience of the Baltic nations? When the financial crisis hit a few years ago, those governments imposed genuine spending cuts and largely avoided the big tax hikes that have plagued other European nations.

Now Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia are enjoying impressive growth while the nations that raised taxes seem stuck in perpetual recession.**

So let’s recap. When nations try Keynesianism, they get bad result because more government spending isn’t conducive to growth.

When nations raise taxes, they get bad results because you don’t get more growth by penalizing work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship.

But when nations reduce the burden of government spending and leave more resources in the productive sector, the economy recovers.

Seems like one side can declare victory and spike the football, but it’s not Paul Krugman and the Keynesians.

*I’m guessing one would be hard pressed to find any examples of modern-day Keynesians ever supporting fiscal restraint.

**Krugman tried to undermine the Baltic model of fiscal restraint by attacking Estonia, but wound up with egg on his face.

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Back in 2010, I shared a remarkable graph comparing the predictions of economists to what actually happened.

Not surprisingly, the two lines don’t exactly overlap, which explains the old joke that economists have correctly predicted nine of the last five recessions.

It’s not that economists are totally useless. It’s just that they don’t do a very good job when they venture into the filed of macroeconomics, as Russ Roberts succinctly explained. And they look especially foolish when they try to engage in forecasting.

But at least economists sometimes can be entertaining, though usually in the laughing-at-you rather than laughing-with-you way.

Consider, for instance, the escapades of one of Portugal’s leading economic analysts. Here’s some of what the UK-based Guardian recently reported.

As an ex-presidential consultant, a former adviser to the World Bank, a financial researcher for the United Nations and a professor in the US, Artur Baptista da Silva’s outspoken attacks on Portugal’s austerity cuts made the bespectacled 61-year-old one of the country’s leading media pundits last year.  …Mr Baptista da Silva…claimed to be a social economics professor at Milton College – a private university in Wisconsin, US…and to be masterminding a UN research project into the effects of the recession on southern European countries.

Promoting more government spending

Promoting more government spending

Mr. da Silva was sort of the Paul Krugman of Portugal, working with the left and urging Keynesian policy.

Blessed with such an impressive CV, Mr Baptista’s subsequent criticisms of the Lisbon government’s far-reaching austerity cuts, as well as dire warnings that the UN planned to take action against it, struck a deep chord with its financially beleaguered population. According to the Spanish newspaper El País, his powerfully delivered comments at a debate at the International Club, a prestigious Lisbon cultural and social organisation last month, were greeted with thunderous applause and a part-standing ovation. Then, in a double page interview in the weekly newspaper Expresso in mid-December, Mr Baptista da Silva continued to denounce the government’s policies. That was followed by an interview for the radio station TSF, appearances in high-profile television debates and well-publicised meetings with trade union leaders to advise them on economic policies.

But it turns out that there was a tiny problem with Mr. da Silva’s resume. At least if “tiny” is the right way to describe a total fraud.

The only problem was that Mr Baptista da Silva is none of the above. He turned out to be a convicted forger with fake credentials and, following his spectacular hoodwinking of Portuguese society, he could soon face fraud charges. …in the country’s jails, Mr Baptista da Silva’s sudden appearance among the intellectual elite caused amazement among his former cellmates. …Mr Baptista da Silva’s comeuppance began when the UN confirmed to a Portuguese TV station last month that he did not work for the organisation, not even as a volunteer, as he later alleged. Further media investigations uncovered his prison record and fake university titles… Mr Baptista da Silva has now disappeared completely from public life, and there are reports he is under investigation for fraud charges by the police.

I guess if he was intentionally misrepresenting himself, that perhaps da Silva should go back to jail. Though a lot of real economists and almost all politicians should be in prison as well if that’s the standard.

Let me close by making a serious point. Economists do not hold some magic source of knowledge about public policy. So I’ve never objected when journalists, political scientists, laymen, and others engage in debates about economic policy.

The key to good economic analysis, as Bastiat explained in the 1800s, is looking at the seen and the unseen. And you don’t have to be an economist to recognize that the secondary and tertiary effects of public policy are very important.

Indeed, if Paul Krugman’s any indication, maybe it’s better not to be an economist.

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Good fiscal policy doesn’t require heavy lifting. Governments simply need to limit the burden of government spending.

The key variable is making sure spending doesn’t consume ever-larger shares of economic output. In other words, follow Mitchell’s Golden Rule.

It’s possible for a nation to have a large public sector and be fiscally stable. Growth won’t be very impressive, but big government doesn’t automatically mean collapse. Sweden and Denmark are good role models for this approach.

And it’s even easier for a jurisdiction to have a small government and be fiscally stable, particularly since less spending and lower taxes are associated with prosperity. Hong Kong, Singapore, and Switzerland are good examples.

Unfortunately, many nations face fiscal death spirals. The burden of government spending keeps climbing, while private sectors gets hit over and over again with higher taxes. This destructive combination inevitably leads to fiscal collapse.

I’ve warned about potential fiscal crises in France, Greece, and the United Kingdom. I’ve even noted that the United States has a very dismal future if government policy stays on autopilot.

More spending and higher taxes!

But Japan may be poster child for reckless and irresponsible tax and spending policy.

Even though the public sector already is far too big and even though the government has incurred more debt than any other developed economy, the new Prime Minster thinks another Keynesian stimulus package is the recipe for economic revival.

I’m not joking. Even though the economy has been stagnant for 20 years – a period that has seen several so-called stimulus schemes, the government wants to throw good money after bad.

You won’t be surprised to learn that the New York Times approves of this new pork-fest.

The $116 billion stimulus package unveiled Friday by Japan’s new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, is a step in the right direction… Mr. Abe’s package of public-works spending…, investment tax credits and more spending on education and health care could help jump start the moribund Japanese economy. … Some forward-looking steps, like expanded health care spending, are already in the stimulus package.

Though if you read the entire editorial, at least the NYT acknowledged that this so-called stimulus should be accompanied by some long-term reforms such as fewer subsidies for politically powerful sectors of the Japanese economy.

Japan’s Fiscal Suicide

Now let’s shift to the tax side of the fiscal equation. We know that Japan has some of the highest tax rates in the industrialized world. Indeed, until last year, Japan was the only nation to have a higher corporate tax rate than the United States.

These high tax rates undermine competitiveness and hamper growth. Simply stated, the government is discouraging work, saving, investment, entrepreneurship, and other productive behaviors.

So what do you think the Japanese government is planning? You guessed it. Even higher tax rates. Here are some excerpts from a story at Tax-news.com.

…the ruling Liberal Democratic  Party (LDP) and its coalition partner, New Komeito, have now turned their attention  to ways to revise taxation, including increased taxes for the wealthiest taxpayers. …While there may be some disagreement within the coalition concerning an inheritance   tax rate rise for the largest estates, which is supported by New Komeito, there   is expected to be less of a problem over raising individual income tax rates   for the highest-earners. A progressive tax package, which might, for example, raise the present highest   40% income tax rate and reduce the JPY50m inheritance tax exemption amount,   is likely to be announced at a coalition meeting expected later this month.

I’m not going to pretend that I know when Japan’s economy implodes, but I think that collapse is almost inevitable at this point. Class warfare tax policy and Keynesian fiscal policy are not a recipe for a good outcome.

The real mystery is why both a state and a nation on the other side of the Pacific Ocean want to copy Japan’s suicidal fiscal policy?

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I’m understandably partial to my video debunking Keynesian economics, and I think this Econ 101 video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity does a great job of showing why consumer spending is a consequence of growth, not the driver.

But for entertainment value, this very funny video from EconStories.tv puts them to shame while also making important points about what causes economic growth.

The video was produced by John Papola, who was one of the creators of the famous Hayek v Keynes rap video, as well as its equally clever sequel.

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I’ve commented before how the fiscal fight in Europe is a no-win contest between advocates of Keynesian deficit spending (the so-called “growth” camp, if you can believe that) and proponents of higher taxes (the “austerity” camp, which almost never seems to mean spending restraint).

That’s a left-vs-left battle, which makes me think it would be a good idea if they fought each other to the point of exhaustion, thus enabling forward movement on a pro-growth agenda of tax reform and reductions in the burden of government spending.

That’s a nice thought, but it probably won’t happen in Europe since almost all politicians in places such as Germany and France are statists. And it might never happen in the United States if lawmakers pay attention to the ideologically biased work of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).

CBO already has demonstrated that it’s willing to take both sides of this left-v-left fight, and the bureaucrats just doubled down on that biased view in a new report on the fiscal cliff.

CBO economist prepares another Keynesian estimate

For all intents and purposes, the CBO has a slavish devotion to Keynesian theory in the short run, which means more spending supposedly is good for growth. But CBO also believes that higher taxes improve growth in the long run by ostensibly leading to lower deficits. Here’s what it says will happen if automatic budget cuts are cancelled.

Eliminating the automatic enforcement procedures established by the Budget Control Act of 2011 that are scheduled to reduce both discretionary and mandatory spending starting in January and maintaining Medicare’s payment rates for physicians’ services at the current level would boost real GDP by about three-quarters of a percent by the end of 2013.

Not that we should be surprised by this silly conclusion. The CBO repeatedly claimed that Obama’s faux stimulus would boost growth. Heck, CBO even claimed Obama’s spending binge was successful after the fact, even though it was followed by record levels of unemployment.

But I think the short-run Keynesianism is not CBO’s biggest mistake. In the long-run, CBO wants us to believe that higher tax burdens translate into more growth. Check out this passage, which expresses CBO’s view the economy will be weaker 10 years from now if the tax burden is not increased.

…the agency has estimated the effect on output that would occur in 2022 under the alternative fiscal scenario, which incorporates the assumption that several of the policies are maintained indefinitely. CBO estimates that in 2022, on net, the policies included in the alternative fiscal scenario would reduce real GDP by 0.4 percent and real gross national product (GNP) by 1.7 percent.  …the larger budget deficits and rapidly growing federal debt would hamper national saving and investment and thus reduce output and income.

In other words, CBO reflexively makes two bold assumption. First, it assumes higher tax rates generate more money. Second, the bureaucrats assume that politicians will use any new money for deficit reduction. Yeah, good luck with that.

To be fair, the CBO report does have occasional bits of accurate analysis. The authors acknowledge that both taxes and spending can create adverse incentives for productive behavior.

…increases in marginal tax rates on labor would tend to reduce the amount of labor supplied to the economy, whereas increases in revenues of a similar magnitude from broadening the tax base would probably have a smaller negative impact or even a positive impact on the supply  of labor.  Similarly, cutting government benefit payments would generally strengthen people’s incentive to work and save.

But these small concessions do not offset the deeply flawed analysis that dominates the report.

But that analysis shouldn’t be a surprise. The CBO has a track record of partisan and ideological work.

While I’m irritated about CBO’s bias (and the fact that it’s being financed with my tax dollars), that’s not what has me worked up. The reason for this post is to grouse and gripe about the fact that some people are citing this deeply flawed analysis to oppose Obama’s pursuit of class warfare tax policy.

Why would some Republican politicians and conservative commentators cite a publication that promotes higher spending in the short run and higher taxes in the long run? Well, because it also asserts – based on Keynesian analysis – that higher taxes will hurt the economy in the short run.

…extending the tax reductions originally enacted in 2001, 2003, and 2009 and extending all other expiring provisions, including those that expired at the end of 2011, except for the payroll tax cut—and indexing the alternative minimum tax (AMT) for inflation beginning in 2012 would boost real GDP by a little less than 1½ percent by the end of 2013.

At the risk of sounding like a doctrinaire purist, it is unethical to cite inaccurate analysis in support of a good policy.

Consider this example. If some academic published a study in favor of the flat tax and it later turned out that the data was deliberately or accidentally wrong, would it be right to cite that research when arguing for tax reform? I hope everyone would agree that the answer is no.

Yet that’s precisely what is happening when people cite CBO’s shoddy work to argue against tax increases.

It’s very much akin to the pro-defense Republicans who use Keynesian arguments about jobs when promoting a larger defense budget.

To make matters worse, it’s not as if opponents lack other arguments that are intellectually honest.

So why, then, would anybody sink to the depths necessary to cite the Congressional Budget Office?

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I’ve explained on many occasions that Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal was bad news for the economy. And the same can be said of Herbert Hoover’s policies, since he also expanded the burden of federal spending, raised tax rates, and increased government intervention.

So when I was specifically asked to take part in a symposium on Barack Obama, Franklin Roosevelt, and the New Deal, I quickly said yes.

I was asked to respond to this question: “Was that an FDR-Sized Stimulus?” Here’s some of what I wrote.

President Obama probably wants to be another FDR, and his policies share an ideological kinship with those that were imposed during the New Deal. But there’s really no comparing the 1930s and today. And that’s a good thing. As explained by Walter Williams and Thomas Sowell, President Roosevelt’s policies are increasingly understood to have had a negative impact on the American economy. …what should have been a routine or even serious recession became the Great Depression.

In other words, my assessment is that Obama is a Mini-Me version of FDR, which is a lot better (or, to be more accurate, less worse) than the real thing.

To be sure, Obama wants higher tax rates, and he has expanded government control over the economy. And the main achievement of his first year was the so-called stimulus, which was based on the same Keynesian theory that a nation can become richer by switching money from one pocket to another. …Obama did get his health plan through Congress, but its costs, fortunately, pale in comparison to Social Security and its $30 trillion long-run deficit. And the Dodd-Frank bailout bill is peanuts compared to all the intervention of Roosevelt’s New Deal. In other words, Obama’s policies have nudged the nation in the wrong direction and slowed economic growth. FDR, by contrast, dramatically expanded the burden of government and managed to keep us in a depression for a decade. So thank goodness Barack Obama is no Franklin Roosevelt.

The last sentence of the excerpt is a perfect summary of my remarks. I think Obama’s policies have been bad for the economy, but he has done far less damage than FDR because his policy mistakes have been much smaller.

“Hey, don’t sell me short. Just wait to see how much havoc I can wreak if reelected!”

Moreover, Obama has never proposed anything as crazy as FDR’s “Economic Bill of Rights.” As I pointed out in my article, this “would have created a massive entitlement state—putting America on a path to becoming a failed European welfare state a couple of decades before European governments made the same mistake.”

On the other hand, subsequent presidents did create that massive entitlement state and Obama added another straw to the camel’s back with Obamacare.

And he is rigidly opposed to the entitlement reforms that would save America from becoming another Greece.

So maybe I didn’t give him enough credit for being as bad as FDR.

P.S. Here’s some 1930s economic humor, and it still applies today. And I also found this cartoon online.

And here’s a good Mini-Me image involving Jimmy Carter. I wasn’t able to find one of Obama and FDR.

If anybody has the skill to create such an image, please send it my way.

P.P.S. The symposium also features an excellent contribution from Professor Lee Ohanian of UCLA.

And from the left, it’s interesting to see that Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research basically agrees with me.

But only in the sense that he also says Obama is a junior-sized version of FDR. Dean actually thinks Obama should have embraced his inner-FDR and wasted even more money on an even bigger so-called stimulus.

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I’ve narrated a video on why Keynesian economics is bad theory, I’ve also narrated a video specifically debunking Obama’s failed stimulus, and I’ve put together a post with data from the Minneapolis Fed showing how Reaganomics worked far better than Obamanomics.

But this video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity Foundation does all that – and more – in only about six minutes.

By the way, for those who like gory details, a previous video in the CF&P Foundation’s Economics 101 series looked at how the so-called stimulus was a rat’s nest of waste and corruption.

Not that anybody should be surprised. Big government facilitates corruption in the same way that a dumpster attracts rats and cockroaches.

My concern is long-term trends. Politicians should be complying with Mitchell’s Golden Rule, which means reducing government spending as a share of GDP (to put it in terms that make economists feel warm and fuzzy, gov’t exp/GDP should be decreasing).

What irks me about Obama is that he wants to increase the burden of government spending, which means the numerator in the equation is going in the wrong direction. And he wants class-warfare tax policy and more red tape, which makes it even harder for the denominator to move in the right direction.

And if that ratio continues to deteriorate, as both the BIS and OECD are predicting, then it’s just a matter of time before the United States becomes Greece.

P.S. Welcome Instapundit readers. This Chuck Asay cartoon and this Michael Ramirez cartoon use humor to say the same thing as the video.

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The great Ronald Reagan famously said (and I am paraphrasing, since I do not remember the exact phrase) that the most dangerous words in the English language were “I am from Washington and I am here to help you.”

Those are very wise words, especially when we think of the damage politicians have done because of their impulse to “do something” when the economy stumbles. The problem is not that there is nothing that needs to be fixed. The problem is that the crowd in Washington is far more likely to make things worse rather than better.

And who better to explain this than Thomas Sowell.

Sowell starts his most recent column by explaining that politicians who want to “do something” almost always want to expand the burden of government spending, but he notes that this approach has meant deeper recessions and more economic suffering. And he cites Warren Harding as an example of a President who rejected the notion that bigger government was some sort of economic elixir.

…you might think that the economy requires government intervention to revive and create jobs. It is Beltway dogma that the government has to “do something.” History tells a different story. For the first 150 years of this country’s existence, the federal government felt no great need to “do something” when the economy turned down. Over that long span of time, the economic downturns were neither as deep nor as long lasting as they have been since the federal government decided that it had to “do something” in the wake of the stock market crash of 1929, which set a new precedent. One of the last of the “do nothing” presidents was Warren G. Harding. In 1921, under President Harding, unemployment hit 11.7 percent — higher than it has been under President Obama. Harding did nothing to get the economy stimulated. Far from spending more money to try to “jump start” the economy, President Harding actually reduced government spending.

Can we learn any lessons from Harding’s anti-Keynesian approach? Assuming we want more growth and less unemployment, the answer is yes (and we can also learn the lesson that Hoover was a moronic statist from the very beginning).

President Harding deliberately rejected the urging of his own Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover, to intervene. The 11.7 percent unemployment rate in 1921 fell to 6.7 percent in 1922, and then to 2.4 percent in 1923. It is hard to think of any government intervention in the economy that produced such a sharp and swift reduction in unemployment as was produced by just staying out of the way and letting the economy rebound on its own. Bill Clinton loudly proclaimed to the delegates to the Democratic National Convention that no president could have gotten us out of the recession in just one term. But history shows that the economy rebounded out of a worse unemployment situation in just two years under Harding, who simply let the market revive on its own, as it had done before, time and time again for more than a century.

Allow me to actually quibble with what Sowell wrote. Harding didn’t “let the market revive on its own.” He helped the economy grow faster by shrinking the federal budget. As Jim Powell explained in National Review, “Federal spending was cut from $6.3 billion in 1920 to $5 billion in 1921 and $3.2 billion in 1922.”

That’s a stunning statistic, akin to cutting more than $1.5 trillion from today’s bloated federal budget.

Sowell  also cites the achievements of the Gipper. Since I’ve posted some powerful comparisons of Reaganomics and Obamanomics, this is music to my ears.

Something similar happened under Ronald Reagan. Unemployment peaked at 9.7 percent early in the Reagan administration. Like Harding and earlier presidents, Reagan did nothing, despite outraged outcries in the media. The economy once again revived on its own. Three years later, unemployment was down to 7.2 percent — and it kept on falling, as the country experienced twenty years of economic growth with low inflation and low unemployment. The Obama party line is that all the bad things are due to what he inherited from Bush, and the few signs of recovery are due to Obama’s policies beginning to pay off. But, if the economy has been rebounding on its own for more than 150 years, the question is why it has been so slow to recover under the Obama administration.

By the way, Sowell also could have mentioned what happened in the United States immediately after World War II. The Keynesians were predicting a return to depression because of big reductions in government spending and the demobilization of millions of troops. But as Richard Vedder and Jason Taylor explained for the Cato Institute, the economy quickly adjusted and rebounded precisely because politicians didn’t revive the New Deal (and, as you can see from this video, President Reagan understood this bit of economic history).

Sowell also explains how FDR made a bad situation worse in the 1930s.

A great myth has grown up that President Franklin D. Roosevelt saved the American economy with his interventions during the Great Depression of the 1930s. But a 2004 economic study concluded that government interventions had prolonged the Great Depression by several years. Obama is repeating policies that failed under FDR.

In previous posts, I have cited both Sowell and the Wall Street Journal to make this very point, but I also call your attention to this post referencing the seminal work of Robert Higgs, as well as this video on the pernicious role of government intervention in the 1930s.

Last but not least, check out this video to understand more about FDR and his malignant views.

P.S. Fans of Professor Sowell can read more of his work here, here, here, here, here, hereherehereherehereherehereherehereherehere, and here. And you can see him in action here.

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If it wasn’t for the fact that so many people are suffering and being seduced into empty lives of government dependency (symbolized by Julia, the world’s most disappointing daughter), I might feel sorry for President Obama.

He promised unemployment would never climb above 8 percent if Congress squandered $800 billion on a Keynesian stimulus scheme.

Well, Congress said yes and the results have not been pretty. And every month we get new numbers to show us that the Administration’s policies have failed. It’s like Chinese water torture for the White House.

The numbers released this morning from the Department of Labor don’t change the narrative. The Republican and Democratic spin-doctors obviously will spit out their talking points, but here’s a visual put together by Political Math that trumps all the political maneuvering. If you’re wondering where Obama is, look at the lower left portion of the image.

This image is a couple of months old, but job creation has been so anemic that the naked eye wouldn’t be able to tell the difference if it was updated.

Since I normally show a graph with the actual unemployment rate compared to what Obama promised, I’ll add that as well. Not a pretty picture. I wrote that last month’s version would cause anxiety for Obama, and see no reason to change that assessment.

Yes, the official unemployment rate dropped to 8.1 percent, but that was because more Americans dropped out of the labor force.

Most important, the rate of joblessness is about 2-1/2 to 3 percentage points higher than what Obama promised. Now he wants a second term, yet all he’s promising is more of the same.

Actually, I retract that statement. He wants to maintain his current approach, but then add some class-warfare taxes to the mix.

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The burden of federal spending in the United States was down to 18.2 percent of gross domestic product when Bill Clinton left office.

But this progress didn’t last long. Thanks to George Bush’s reckless spending policies, the federal budget grew about twice as fast as the economy, jumping by nearly 90 percent in just eight years This pushed federal spending up to about 25 percent of GDP.

President Obama promised hope and change, but he has kept spending at this high level rather than undoing the mistakes of his predecessor.

This new video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity Foundation uses examples of waste, fraud, and abuse to highlight President Obama’s failed fiscal policy.

Good stuff, though the video actually understates the indictment against Obama. There is no mention, for instance, about all the new spending for Obamacare that will begin to take effect over the next few years.

But not everything can be covered in a 5-minute video. And I suspect the video is more effective because it closes instead with some discussion of the corrupt insider dealing of Obama’s so-called green energy programs.

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I almost feel sorry for the ideologues and partisan hacks who feel obliged to defends Obama’s miserable economic performance.

Keynesian spending policies and class-warfare tax policies have produced dismal economic performance, with unemployment stuck above 8 percent – even though the White House promised the joblessness rate by this point would be about 5.5 percent if we squandered $800 billion-plus on the so-called stimulus.

Yet Keith Boykin gamely tries to put perfume on this hog in our debate on CNBC.

Notice that I began this post by saying I “almost feel sorry” for the spin-meisters who defend Obamanomics. But “almost” is the key word in that sentence. I reserve my genuine sympathy for the millions of people who can’t find jobs because of the President’s destructive policies.

Let me add a few comments.

Boykin tries to disavow the Romer-Bernstein report and pretend that the President didn’t highlight and promote its claims when pushing for the faux stimulus. That’s a remarkable bit of revisionist history and I think I was effective at tying that rotting fish around his neck.

Keith also highlights the relatively good performance of the Clinton years. As I’ve done before, I announce that we’d be much better off with the Clinton tax rates – but only if we also get rid of all the reckless spending and regulation of the Bush and Obama years. I thinks that’s an effective point to make, but I confess I don’t have any feedback one way or the other to indicate that it’s a persuasive argument.

The most revealing point of the interview is when the host incredulously remarked to Keith that “you think we should have bigger government.”

But if anybody thinks that it’s a good idea to increase the burden of government spending, then they need to explain why America will be better off if we make our country more like Greece and France.

Last week, I shared some numbers from the left-wing OECD which showed that living standards are much higher in the United States than they are in Europe’s welfare states. That is what this fight is all about.

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Can we finally all agree that Keynesian economics is a flop? The politicians in Washington flushed about $800 billion down the toilet and we got nothing in exchange except for anemic growth and lots of people out of work.

Indeed, we’re getting to the point where the monthly employment reports from the Labor Department must be akin to Chinese water torture for the Obama Administration. Even when the unemployment rate falls, it gives critics an opportunity to recycle the chart below showing how bad the economy is doing compared to what the White House said would happen if the so-called stimulus was enacted.

But for the past few months, the joblessness rate has been rising, making the chart look even worse.

I never watch TV, so I’m not in a position to know for sure, but I haven’t seen any articles indicating that the Romney campaign is using this data in commercials to criticize Obama.

This seems like a missed opportunity.

But since it’s not clear to me that Romney would actually do anything different than Obama (check out this post if that seems like an odd assertion), I don’t focus on the political implications.

Instead, I’m hoping the American people will learn an important long-run lesson. If you want more growth and prosperity, the recipe is smaller government and free markets.

In other words, our economic policy should be more like Hong Kong and Singapore, but Obama has been making us more like France.

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I’ve run across very few good cartoons about Keynesian economics. If my aging memory is correct, I’ve only posted two of them.

But at least they’re both very good. We have one involving Obama, sharks, and a lifeboat, and another one involving an overburdened jockey.

Now we have a third cartoon to add to the collection.

To provide a bit of additional background, the cartoon is channeling Bastiat’s broken-window insight that make-work projects don’t create prosperity, as explained in this short video narrated by Tom Palmer.

I make similar points in this post mocking Krugman’s wish for an alien invasion and this post explaining why Obama’s green energy programs lead to net job destruction.

P.S. This Wizard of Id parody is the best cartoon about economics, but it teaches about labor markets rather than Keynesianism.

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Remember back in 2009, when President Obama and his team told us that we needed to squander $800 billion on a so-called stimulus package.

The crowd in Washington was quite confident that Keynesian spending was going to save the day, even though similar efforts had failed for Hoover and Roosevelt in the 1930s, for Japan in the 1990s, and for Bush in 2008.

Nonetheless, we were assured that Obama’s stimulus was needed to keep unemployment from rising above 8 percent.

Well, that claim turned out to be quite hollow. Not that we needed additional evidence, but the new numbers from the Labor Department re-confirm that the White House prediction was wildly inaccurate. The 8.2 percent unemployment rate is 2.5 percentage points above the Administration’s prediction.

Defenders of the Obama Administration sometimes respond by saying that the downturn was more serious than anyone predicted. That’s a legitimate assertion, so I don’t put too much blame the White House for the initial spike in joblessness.

But I do blame them for the fact that the labor market has remained weak for a lengthy period. This chart, which I just generated this morning on the Minneapolis Fed’s interactive website, shows employment data for all the post-World War II recessions.

The current business cycle is the red line. As you can see, some recessions were deeper in the beginning and some were more mild. But the one thing that is unambiguous is that we’ve never had a jobs recovery as anemic as the one we’re experiencing today.

Job creation has been extraordinarily weak. Indeed, the 8.2 percent unemployment rate actually masks the bad news since it doesn’t capture all the people who have given up and dropped out of the labor force.

By the way, I don’t think the so-called stimulus is the main cause of today’s poor employment data. The vast majority of that money was pissed away in 2009, 2010, and 2011.

Today’s weak job market is affected by things such as the threat of higher taxes in 2013 (when the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts are scheduled to expire), the costly impact of Obamacare, and the harsh regulatory environment. This cartoon shows, in an amusing fashion, the impact of these policies on entrepreneurs and investors.

P.S. Click on this link if you want to compare Obamanomics and Reaganomics. The difference is astounding.

P.P.S. Obama will probably continue to blame “headwinds” for the dismal job numbers, so this cartoon is definitely worth sharing.

P.P.P.S. Since I’m sharing cartoons, I can’t resist recycling this classic about Keynesian stimulus.

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It seems that any argument about the economy eventually boils down to the core issue of whether government spending acts as a stimulus or whether it is – in the words of Thomas Sowell – a sedative that undermines prosperity.

So when Robert Reich and I went on Erin Burnett’s CNN show to discuss Obama’s stumbling economic performance, much of our discussion focused on whether to further expand the burden of the public sector.

Here are a couple of observations about the interview.

  1. Reich admitted that spending is a problem and in the “long term” needs to be reduced. I suspect “long term” never arrives in Reich’s world, but this is nonetheless a startling concession on his part.
  2. Reich claimed World War II was an example of successful Keynesian stimulus, but if he wants to make that argument, then he needs to explain why we didn’t fall back into the Great Depression after the war – which is what all the Keynesians warned would happen.
  3. For reasons outlined in my beat-down of Krugman, I’ve become a cheerleader for Estonia and used the interview to promote that country’s fiscal restraint.

If you want to understand more about Keynesian economics and why it doesn’t work, this video will be more instructive than my food fight with Reich.

P.S. Obama is monotonously repetitive in his claim that the economy is facing headwinds. As this Ramirez cartoon illustrates, he’s right, but not in the way he thinks.

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Writing in today’s Washington Post, former Obama economist Larry Summers put forth the strange hypothesis that more red ink would improve the federal government’s long-run fiscal position.

This sounds like an excuse for more Keynesian spending as part of another so-called stimulus plan, but Summers claims to have a much more modest goal of prudent financial management.

And if we assume there’s no hidden agenda, what he’s proposing isn’t unreasonable.

But before floating his idea, Summers starts with some skepticism about more easy-money policy from the Fed.

Many in the United States and Europe are arguing for further quantitative easing to bring down longer-term interest rates. …However, one has to wonder how much investment businesses are unwilling to undertake at extraordinarily low interest rates that they would be willing to undertake with rates reduced by yet another 25 or 50 basis points. It is also worth querying the quality of projects that businesses judge unprofitable at a -60 basis point real interest rate but choose to undertake at a still more negative rate. There is also the question of whether extremely low, safe, real interest rates promote bubbles of various kinds.

This is intuitively appealing. I try to stay away from monetary policy issues, but whenever I get sucked into a discussion with an advocate of easy money/quantitative easing, I always ask for a common-sense explanation of how dumping more liquidity into the economy is going to help.

Maybe it’s possible to push interest rates even lower, but it certainly doesn’t seem like there’s any evidence showing that the economy is being held back because today’s interest rates are too high.

Moreover, what’s the point of “pushing on a string” with easy money if it just means more reserves sitting at the Fed?

After suggesting that monetary policy isn’t the answer, Summers then proposes to utilize government borrowing. But he’s proposing more debt for management purposes, not Keynesian stimulus.

Rather than focusing on lowering already epically low rates, governments that enjoy such low borrowing costs can improve their creditworthiness by borrowing more, not less, and investing in improving their future fiscal position, even assuming no positive demand stimulus effects of a kind likely to materialize with negative real rates. They should accelerate any necessary maintenance projects — issuing debt leaves the state richer not poorer, assuming that maintenance costs rise at or above the general inflation rate. …Similarly, government decisions to issue debt, and then buy space that is currently being leased, will improve the government’s financial position as long as the interest rate on debt is less than the ratio of rents to building values — a condition almost certain to be met in a world with government borrowing rates below 2 percent. These examples are the place to begin because they involve what is in effect an arbitrage, whereby the government uses its credit to deliver essentially the same bundle of services at a lower cost. …countries regarded as havens that can borrow long term at a very low cost should be rushing to take advantage of the opportunity.

Much of this seems reasonable, sort of like a homeowner taking advantage of low interest rates to refinance a mortgage.

But before embracing this idea, we have to move from the dream world of theory to the real world of politics. And to his credit, Summers offers the critical caveat that his idea only makes sense if politicians use their borrowing authority for the right reasons.

There is, of course, still the question of whether more borrowing will increase anxiety about a government’s creditworthiness. It should not, as long as the proceeds of borrowing are used either to reduce future spending or raise future incomes.

At the risk of being the wet-blanket curmudgeon who ruins the party by removing the punch bowl, I have zero faith that politicians would make sound decisions about financial management.

I wrote last month that eurobonds would be “the fiscal version of co-signing a loan for your unemployed alcoholic cousin who has a gambling addiction.”

Well, giving politicians more borrowing authority in hopes they’ll do a bit of prudent refinancing is akin to giving a bunch of money to your drug-addict brother-in-law in hopes that he’ll refinance his credit card debt rather than wind up in a crack house.

Considering that we just saw big bipartisan votes to expand the Export-Import Bank’s corporate welfare and we’re now witnessing both parties working on a bloated farm bill, good luck with that.

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The continuing weakness in the job market, which I wrote about this morning, means that the debate over unemployment benefits will get more heated.

I’ve already noted that even left-wing academics like Paul Krugman and Larry Summers have admitted that you get more unemployment when you subsidize joblessness.

And I’ve cited some good research on the topic from the San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank, as well as other studies by academic economists.

But none of this evidence seems to matter, as I discovered in this debate with a former Obama Labor Department official.

To better understand the points I was making, here are two good anecdotes from Ohio and Michigan.

Last but not least, this cartoon does a very good who of teaching about the economics of unemployment insurance. And if you want to understand the absurdity of the left, this post shows Nancy Pelosi is a train wreck of economic illiteracy.

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The Labor Department just released its monthly employment report and the White House is probably not happy.

There are several key bits of data in the report, such as the unemployment rate, net job creation, and employment-population ratio.

At best, the results are mediocre. The unemployment rate generally gets the most attention, and that was bad news since the joblessness rate jumped to 8.2 percent.

What makes that number particularly painful is that the Obama Administration claimed that the unemployment rate today would be less than 6 percent if the so-called stimulus was adopted. But as you can see from the chart, squandering $800 billion on a Keynesian package hasn’t worked.

While that chart is probably embarrassing to the White House, I think the most revealing numbers come from the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank’s interactive website, which allows users to compare employment data and GDP data for different business cycles.

I looked at those numbers a couple of months ago, so I could compare Reaganomics and Obamanomics, and the difference is startling. The Reagan policies of lower tax rates, spending restraint, deregulation, and tight money generated much better results than the statist policies of Obama.

The most recent numbers, shown below, aren’t any better for the Obama Administration.

But I suppose the good news is that the United States is not Europe. Government is even bigger on the other side of the Atlantic and many of those nations are in the middle of a fiscal crisis and the unemployment rate averages 11 percent.

Sort of makes you wonder whether there’s a lesson to be learned. Maybe, just maybe, bigger government means weaker economic performance.

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Most of my work on government stimulus focuses on economic theory and evidence.

But every so often it’s a good idea to remind ourselves of the ridiculous ways that government wastes money.

Here are some details from a boondoggle in West Virginia.

Nobody told Hurricane librarian Rebecca Elliot that the $22,600 Internet router in the branch library’s storage closet was powerful enough to serve an entire college campus. Nobody told Elliot how much the router cost or who paid for it. Workers just showed up and installed the device. They left behind no instructions, no user manual. The high-end router serves four public computer terminals at the small library in Putnam County. …The state of West Virginia is using $24 million in federal economic stimulus money to put high-powered Internet computer routers in small libraries, elementary schools and health clinics, even though the pricey equipment is designed to serve major research universities, medical centers and large corporations, a Gazette-Mail investigation has found. …The Cisco 3945 series routers, which cost $22,600 each, are built to serve “tens of thousands” of users or device connections, according to a Cisco sales agent. The routers are designed to serve a minimum of 500 users. Yet state broadband project officials directed the installation of the stimulus-funded Cisco routers in West Virginia schools with fewer than a dozen computers and libraries that have only a single terminal for patrons.

Sounds like the government could have bought every user a laptop and squandered less money.

It’s important to realize that this type of boondoggle is the rule, not the exception. Every so often, we see stories about absurd waste, such as the $423,000 study to find out that men don’t like to wear condoms, the Pentagon spending $900 on a $7 control switch, or a $100,000 library grant to a city without a library.

We should get upset about these examples. But remember that the second cartoon in this post is exactly right. The waste, fraud, and pork that we find out about is dwarfed by what remains hidden.

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Two years ago, I posted a mildly inappropriate photo of an old guy protesting Obama’s faux stimulus.

I should have realized that no amount of satire can match the real-world stupidity of government. Here are some details, courtesy of an NBC station, about some squalid waste.

The NBC Investigative Unit has raised questions about two grants totaling nearly $1.5 million dollars distributed to the University of California San Francisco. The money was part of the federal stimulus program and went to studies into the erectile dysfunction of overweight middle aged men and the accurate reporting of someone’s sexual history. …According to the grant, a good portion of the study will “Improve the accuracy of responses to questions,” specifically questions about a person’s sexual behavior. …The NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit discovered that for $1.2 million dollars, taxpayers funded a study that included 200 videotaped interviews at $6000 per interview. …Kovaleski then asked about jobs. “How many jobs did this $1.26 million dollars create?” “Well I can’t really say,” Sheehy said. “There were eleven researchers hired on the job, two consultants. Well I can’t say. This has not been evaluated for job creation.” The number Sheehy quoted during an interview with NBC Bay Area did not match information on recovery.gov, the government’s website for stimulus funds. According to the site, the grant produced 0.85 jobs. “It does make you scratch your head and wonder,” Amey said, “Wait a second taxpayer dollars went to a sex study that barely funded less than one person.”

I realize government spending is inherently wasteful, but even I’m shocked. Does it really cost $6,000 to interview someone?!?

Heck, I’ll interview overweight middle-aged men about erectile dysfunction and only charge $5,000 a pop. Actually, I don’t think I could do that without throwing up. Not because of the stories from the old guys, which probably wouldn’t be pleasant, but because I don’t believe in using the coercive power of government to steal from fellow Americans.

This may be even more absurd than the Social Security Administration giving disability payments to a 30-year old man because he wanted to wear diapers and live as an “adult baby.”

But I still think the all-time silliest waste of taxpayer money comes from Greece, where the bureaucracy demands stool samples from entrepreneurs who apply to set up online companies.

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There’s an old saying that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results. This certainly is a good description of Keynesians, who relentlessly push more government spending as some sort of magic potion for the economy – notwithstanding a record of failure.

The latest example if Larry Summers, the former economist for the Obama White House, who says Europeans need to make government bigger.

Here is some of what he writes for today’s Washington Post.

European efforts to contain crisis have fallen short. …Much of what is being urged on and in Europe is likely to be not just ineffective but counterproductive to maintaining the monetary union, restoring normal financial conditions and government access to markets, and reestablishing economic growth. The premise of European policymaking is that countries are overindebted and so unable to access markets on reasonable terms, and that the high interest rates associated with excessive debt hurt the financial system and inhibit growth. The strategy is to provide financing while insisting on austerity, in hopes that countries can rein in their excessive spending enough to restore credibility, bring down interest rates and restart economic growth.

The good news is that Summers recognizes that there has been “excessive spending.” The bad news is that he uses the wrong definition of austerity.

Many European nations seem to think higher taxes are a sign of fiscal conservatism (see this post by Veronique de Rugy for a good discussion of this confusion). Summers accepts that approach, and says that policy makers should choose a Keynesian policy instead.

Unfortunately, Europe has misdiagnosed its problems in important respects and set the wrong strategic course. …Europe’s problem countries are in trouble because the financial crisis underway since 2008 has damaged their financial systems and led to a collapse in growth. High deficits are much more a symptom than a cause of their problems. And treating symptoms rather than underlying causes is usually a good way to make a patient worse. …The right focus for Europe is on growth; in this dimension, increased austerity is a step in the wrong direction.

There’s more good news. Summers is right in stating that Europe suffers from low growth. And I agree with him that the European version of austerity – higher taxes – is not a solution.

But, as always, there is a catch. Summers has the wrong approach on how to encourage growth. He wants Keynesian spending, and here is his defense.

 Skeptics will rightly wonder how a prescription for more spending by countries that already have trouble borrowing can be correct. The answer lies in the difference between borrowing by individuals and countries. Normally, an individual helps his creditors by borrowing less; but a person who stops borrowing to finance commuting to his job does his creditors no favor. A country’s income is determined by spending, so a country that pursues austerity to the point where its economy is driven into a downward spiral does its creditors no favor.

Sounds semi-reasonable. After all, everyone understands that it is important to get to their place of employment. Sometimes you spend money to make money.

But here’s the problem. Can anyone name anything in so-called stimulus schemes that actually increase a nation’s productive capacity? As we saw with Obama’s failed stimulus, lots of money gets distributed, but the main purpose seems to be buying votes and creating dependency.

What about jobs? A miserable failure.

Adding insult to injury, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that American taxpayers are supposed to pick up the lion’s share of the tab for the new spending in Europe since Summers wants the IMF to be the sugar daddy.

Going forward, the IMF and international community should condition further support not merely on individual countries’ actions but on a common European commitment to growth.

This approach is illogical, as explained in this video.

And let’s consider the historical record. Nations that have tried this type of “stimulus” have not fared well. Big spending increase under Hoover and Roosevelt failed in the 1930s. Japan tried several Keynesian packages and failed in the 1990s. Bush failed in 2008 and Obama failed in 2009.

Germany did not go with a big program of government spending, and they did better than the United States. The same is true about Canada. But the real success story is the Baltic nations. They imposed real spending restraint, not the fake austerity found in places such as the United Kingdom.

And even though it caused some short-term pain since there’s a short-term cost when labor and capital get redeployed to more productive uses, the Baltic nations are now in much better shape that the European nations that have floundered because they limited themselves to the no-win choice of Keynesianism and tax hikes.

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President Obama imposed a big-spending faux stimulus program on the economy back in 2009, claiming that the government needed to squander about $800 billion to keep the unemployment rate from rising above 8 percent.

How did that work out? One possible description is that the so-called stimulus became a festering pile of manure. About three years have passed, and the joblessness rate hasn’t dropped below 8 percent. But the White House has been sprinkling perfume on that pile of you-know-what and claiming that the Keynesian spending binge was good policy.

But not every politician is blindly ideological like Obama. Vitor Gaspar, Portugal’s Finance Minister, is willing to admit error. Here are some relevant excerpts from a New York Times report.

Unlike Obama, willing to admit mistakes

Mr. Gaspar, speaking to The New York Times last week, has a message for observers who say Europe needs to substantially relax its austerity approach: We tried stimulus and it backfired. Like some other European countries, Portugal tried what Mr. Gaspar called “a Keynesian style expansion” in 2008, referring to a theory by economist John Maynard Keynes. But it didn’t turn things around, and may have made things worse.

Why does the Portuguese Finance Minister have this view? Well, for the simple reason that the economy got worse and more spending put his country in a deeper fiscal ditch.

The yield on Portuguese government bonds – more than 11 percent on longer-term bonds — is substantially higher than the yields on debt issued by Ireland, Spain or Italy. …The main fear among investors is that Portugal is going to have to ask for a second bailout from the International Monetary Fund and the European Union, which committed $103 billion of financial aid in 2011.

Maybe the big spenders in Portugal should import some of the statist bureaucrats at Congressional Budget Office. The CBO folks could then regurgitate the moving-goalposts argument that they’ve used in the United States and claim that the economy would be even weaker if the government hadn’t wasted more money.

But perhaps the Portuguese left doesn’t think that will pass the laugh test.

Amazingly, the Germans, who have a disturbing affinity for powerful government, decided against Keynesianism and that’s paid dividends for their economy.

In any event, some of us can say we were right from the beginning about this issue.

Not that being right required any keen insight. Keynesian policies failed for Hoover and Roosevelt in the 1930s. So-called stimulus policies also failed for Japan in 1990s. And Keynesian proposals failed for Bush in 2001 and 2008.

Just in case any politicians are reading this post, I’ll make a point that normally goes without saying: Borrowing money from one group of people and giving it to another group of people does not increase prosperity.

But since politicians probably aren’t capable of dealing with a substantive argument, let’s keep it simple and offer three very insightful cartoons: here, here, and here.

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Sweden has a very large and expensive welfare state, but it’s actually becoming a bit of a role model for economic reform. I’ve already commented on the country’s impressive school choice system and noted that the Swedes have partially privatized their Social Security system.

I even wrote a Cato study looking at the good and bad features of economic policy in the Nordic nations, and cited a Swedish parliamentarian who explained that his nation became rich because of small government and free markets and how he is hopeful his country is returning to its libertarian roots.

Notwithstanding the many admirable features of Sweden, I never thought they would be moving in the right direction on fiscal policy while the United States was heading in the opposite direction.

Yet that’s the case. We all know that America has had made many mistakes during the Bush-Obama years, particularly with failed stimulus schemes in 2008 and 2009.

Sweden, by contrast, has put in place pro-growth reforms. Here’s what Fraser Nelson wrote for the UK-based Spectator.

Can we trade Geithner for Borg?

When Europe’s finance ministers meet for a group photo, it’s easy to spot the rebel — Anders Borg has a ponytail and earring. What actually marks him out, though, is how he responded to the crash. While most countries in Europe borrowed massively, Borg did not. Since becoming Sweden’s finance minister, his mission has been to pare back government. His ‘stimulus’ was a permanent tax cut. …Three years on, it’s pretty clear who was right. ‘Look at Spain, Portugal or the UK, whose governments were arguing for large temporary stimulus,’ he says. ‘Well, we can see that very little of the stimulus went to the economy. But they are stuck with the debt.’ Tax-cutting Sweden, by contrast, had the fastest growth in Europe last year, when it also celebrated the abolition of its deficit. …‘Everybody was told “stimulus, stimulus, stimulus”,’ he says — referring to the EU, IMF and the alphabet soup of agencies urging a global, debt-fuelled spending splurge. Borg, an economist, couldn’t work out how this would help. ‘It was surprising that Europe, given what we experienced in the 1970s and 80s with structural unemployment, believed that short-term Keynesianism could solve the problem.’ …He continued to cut taxes and cut welfare-spending to pay for it; he even cut property taxes for the rich to lure entrepreneurs back to Sweden. The last bit was the most unpopular, but for Borg, economic recovery starts with entrepreneurs. If cutting taxes for the rich encouraged risk-taking, then it had to be done.

The article notes that government is still far too large in Sweden, but it’s also clear that moving in the right direction generates immediate benefits.

I posted a video back in 2010, narrated by a Swedish economics student, and asked a rhetorical question of why Obama wants to make America more like Sweden when the Swedes are moving in the other direction.

Unfortunately, there was no good answer then and there’s no good answer now.

Let’s close with some irony. Last year, I cited a study showing how large public sectors undermine economic performance. The study was written by two Swedish economists. In addition to trading Geithner for Borg, perhaps we can ship Krugman to Stockholm and bring those economists to America.

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Demonstrating that he’s probably not a fan of Mitchell’s Golden Rule, Paul Krugman recently asserted that fiscal austerity has failed in the United Kingdom.

Citing Keynesian theory and weak economics numbers, he warned about “the austerity doctrine that has dominated elite policy discussion” and says that the British government made a mistake when it decided to “slash spending.”

In support of the New York Times columnist, another blogger commented on the “sharp retrenchment in public spending” in the U.K. And a Bloomberg editorial also supported Krugman’s position, stating that recent events “undermine the conservative idea that slashing government spending will somehow bring about a confidence-driven economic boom.”

There’s only one small, itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny problem with all of these statements. They’re based on a falsehood. Government spending in the United Kingdom has not been slashed. It hasn’t been retrenched. It hasn’t even been cut.

I first made this point back in 2010. And I also noted that year that the supposedly conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer advocated a big increase in the value-added tax was good since it would generate “13 billion pounds we don’t have to find from extra spending cuts.”

I then repeated myself last year, pointing out once again that government spending was expanding rather than shrinking.

To be fair, spending hasn’t been growing as fast in the past couple of years as it did last decade. According to European Union data, government spending in the United Kingdom grew by an average of 7.6 percent each year between 2000-2008, so the recent annual increases of 2 percent-4 percent may seem frugal by comparison.

But at the risk of stating the obvious, slower spending increases are not budget cuts. Unless, of course, proponents of big government decide to use the dishonest political definition that spending is cut when the budget doesn’t increase as fast as previously planned. But if that’s the case, then they are turning Keynesian economics into a political gimmick.

Not only haven’t there been any spending cuts in recent years, but it also appears that there won’t be any in future years. The Centre for Policy Studies just put out a report comparing “austerity” in the United Kingdom today with the fiscal discipline that took place in Canada during the 1990s.

As seen in the table, and as I noted in a previous post, Canada actually reduced spending.

In the United Kingdom, by contrast, spending has been climbing. And that’s projected to happen even in future years.

To be sure, spending in the U.K. won’t grow very fast (assuming the government sticks to its plans, which may be an unrealistic assumption).

But spending that grows slowly is not austerity or retrenchment.

Which is unfortunate, because that’s precisely what is needed in the United Kingdom. And the Canadian experience shows how genuine fiscal restraint generates big benefits.

Let’s also look at some more information from the CPS report.

The Canada of 1994 in many ways resembled the Greece of today. …Spending was to fall 8.8% over two years. Large cuts in transportation, industry, regional development, and scientific support were made. The size of the federal government was to decline from 16.2% of GDP in 1994 to 13.1% in 1996. Public-sector employment was to fall by 14%. The new discipline paid off quickly. Federal government spending as a share of the economy fell more rapidly than planned. Provincial government spending also decreased significantly from 25% of GDP to 20%. …Ottawa offered a historic deal to the provincial governments: unprecedented freedom to make their own welfare policies. This was localism in action – and it unleashed a wave of fruitful experimentation and innovation in the provinces, while spending was cut at the national level. The results were stunning. Large numbers of Canadians, previously trapped in poorly designed benefit programmes, returned to the workforce. By 2000, the number of welfare beneficiaries in Canada had declined by more than a million people, from 10.7% in 1994 of the population to 5.1% in 2009. …Cuts  ranged  from  5%  to 65% of departmental budgets and included cuts to health budgets. In the end, programme spending (everything except interest payments on the debt) fell by 9.7% in nominal terms (or C$11.9 billion) between 1994-95 and 1996-97.

So what were the results of this fiscal discipline? Let’s go back to the report.

Fast-forward again to 2007, and Canada seemed to be back on track. The country’s economy grew at an average rate of 3.3% between 1997 and 2007, the highest average growth among the G-7 countries, including the US. Canada’s job-creation record was nothing short of stellar. From 1997 to 2007, Canada’s average employment growth was 2.1%, doubling that of the US and exceeding employment growth in all other G-7 countries. Perhaps most importantly for future economic prosperity, during the same period Canada outperformed the G-7 average almost every year on business investment. …Canada weathered the recent recession  better than its G-7 partners. … None of Canada’s major financial institutions had to be bailed out

And this also was a period of tax cuts.

…coupled with stronger economic performance than expected, meant Ottawa could then cut taxes, including personal and corporate income taxes, capital gains taxes, and the corporate capital tax. In this period:

  • Corporate Income Tax (federal) was reduced from 28% to 21% with further cuts planned;
  • Capital Gains Tax were reduced to 14.5%;
  • Personal Income Tax rates were finally indexed to inflation;
  • Federal capital taxes were abolished.

It certainly seems that genuine fiscal restraint worked in Canada.

To be fair, though, Krugman isn’t arguing against small government in his column. He’s arguing for short-run Keynesian stimulus policy. And it’s possible to be in favor of more spending in the short run and smaller government in the long run.

Moreover, I’m not arguing that genuine spending cuts are immediately expansionary, as some research has indicated. I’m sure that happens in some cases, but it’s not a hard and fast rule.

And I imagine that 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.

My argument is that the short-term impact of spending restraint – whether positive or negative – is trivial compared to the long-run benefits of better fiscal policy. A small public sector means labor and capital get used more productively, and it presumably also allows a less punitive tax system.

This video has more information about Canada’s fiscal policy success, along with data about similar episodes of genuine austerity (properly defined) in Ireland, Slovakia, and New Zealand.

Even the United States has enjoyed periods of semi-impressive fiscal discipline, most notably during the Reagan and Clinton years. Unfortunately, the modest progress achieved during those periods has been wiped out by the profligacy of the Bush-Obama years.

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People often ask why I put so much political humor on this site. The easy answer is that I like a good joke.

But I also find that some cartoons and jokes do a very good job of helping people understand economics. I’ve always liked this cartoon, for instance, because it cleverly illustrates the impact of government handouts on the labor market. And looking at that cartoon is a lot quicker than taking a class about labor economics.

Well, you can also skip the class about public finance. Here’s a cartoon that shows the economic burden of government “stimulus” spending.

Very funny and very intellectually sound. Indeed, the only thing that would have made the cartoon even better would have been showing that the jockey became bloated by eating the horse’s food. But I reckon it’s not easy making multiple points with one picture.

Anyhow, I’m disappointed that I didn’t notice it at Reason.com a couple of years ago when the debate on the faux stimulus was taking place. It probably would have helped more people understand that you don’t boost economic performance by draining resources from the productive sector of the economy to finance a larger government.

By the way, if you want to understand in greater detail why the cartoon is accurate, this video on Keynesian economics is helpful, as is this video explaining the failure of Obama’s $1 trillion boondoggle.

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The Washington Post is a left-wing newspaper, so I’m never surprised to find examples of biased reporting.

Last month, for instance, I made fun of the Post for asserting that Germany was “fiscally conservative.”

I also mocked the Post last March, when a reporter hysterically claimed that a proposal to trim $6 billion from a $3,600 billion budget would “slash” government.

Today, I want to analyze a column by Jonathan Alter.

Entitled “Five Myths about Barack Obama,” it’s in the opinion section, where people are supposed to present a point of view.

So I’m not going to complain about bias, but I am going to disagree about some of his judgments. Here are the five supposed myths, along with my two cents on whether Alter is correct.

Myth 1. Obama is a socialist.

I basically agree with Alter. As I explained two years ago, a true socialist wants “government ownership of the means of production.” To be sure, most self-avowed socialists today have given up on that goal and instead focus on redistribution. And since Obama also is a redistributionist, I understand why people call him a socialist. Nonetheless, it is much more accurate to call him a statist or corporatist.

Myth 2. Obama is a tool of Wall Street.

Alter is right and wrong. Obama is pursuing policies that Wall Street doesn’t like, such as class-warfare tax hikes. On the other hand, he supported the TARP bailout and pushed for the Dodd-Frank bailout legislation that was supported by Goldman-Sachs and the other big players on Wall Street.

Myth 3. Obama is an effective public speaker.

I’m not sure what to say about this assertion. I don’t find his pedantic ramblings effective or persuasive, but I’m not the target audience.

Myth 4. Obama’s stimulus failed.

This is Alter’s most absurd assertion. To bolster his claim, he cites a handful of institutions that have Keynesian models, including the laughably inaccurate crowd at the Congressional Budget Office. Wow, what a revelation. Keynesians support Keynesianism. What’s next, a poll of Obama campaign staff showing that people support the President’s reelection? Read this post for a good explanation of how Keynesianism has failed.

Myth 5. Obama is a weak leader.

This isn’t my area of expertise, but I mostly agree with Alter’s assessment. For better or worse (and you know how I feel), the President put everything on the line to enact Obamacare. That was bad for the nation, but I suppose it required effective leadership.

In closing, the Washington Post does deserve some credit for having diversity on the opinion page. Yes, Alter’s column has a leftist perspective, but the paper routinely carries people like George Will, Robert Samuelson, and Charles Krauthammer.

That doesn’t excuse the Post for displaying bias in news articles, as I mentioned above, but I think it’s better than the New York Times (damning with faint praise).

Lastly, it’s worth noting that the Post’s editorials are dogmatically statist (though it does support Postal Service privatization, perhaps because that affects the paper’s bottom line).

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