Friday Reads: the long and wonky road

barrett-600Good Morning!

I am grading essays and papers on currency crises (circa 1999-2002) and financial crises (the last one) and basically all those kinds of crises the tend to come from out of control speculation and the government encouraging the wrong kinds of things.  This mostly happens because rich people donate to the campaigns of politicians and own newspapers and media outlets.  Politicians want to get reelected and get more powerful and more rich.  Rich businesses and investors want to get more powerful and rich. It’s kind of the perfect alignment of shared interests based on lust and greed and all the baser instincts.  Isn’t it terrible when the facts get in the way?  So, they just ignore them or consider them an alternative liberal opinion.  It drives me nuts.

So, BB asked to me write something about what I research and teach and usually regurgitate to you. You know that the austerity narrative has theoretically fallen apart.  Well, it’s also falling apart via the numbers, data, facts and reality   So, let’s start out with some very bad, awful, terrible horrible Dubya Bush Policy 10 years ago and why tax cuts for the rich still don’t do good things for the economy or now, even the investment markets. This is written by economist Bruce Bartlett who was an adviser to the Reagan administration.

Ten years ago this month, Congress enacted the third major tax cut of the George W. Bush administration. Its centerpiece was a huge cut in the tax rate on dividends. Historically, they had been taxed as ordinary income, but the Bush plan, enacted by a Republican Congress, cut that rate to 15 percent. The tax rate on ordinary income went as high as 35 percent.

This initiative originated with the economist R. Glenn Hubbard, who had been chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers when the proposal was sent to Congress. Mr. Hubbard was a strong believer that the double taxation of corporate profits – first at the corporate level and again when paid out as dividends – was a major economic problem.

During the George H.W. Bush administration, Mr. Hubbard had been deputy assistant secretary of the Treasury for tax policy and wrote a Treasury report advocating full integration of the corporate and individual income taxes.

Mr. Hubbard had also spearheaded enactment of big tax cuts in 2001 and 2002 that he said would jump-start the American economy. In an op-ed article in The Washington Post on Nov. 16, 2001, he predicted that the soon-to-be-enacted 2002 tax cut, which President Bush signed on March 9, 2002, would “quickly deliver a boost to move the economy back toward its long-run growth path.”

Mr. Hubbard predicted that it would create 300,000 additional jobs in 2002 and add half a percentage point to the real gross domestic product growth rate.

There is no evidence that the tax cut had any such effect. The unemployment rate remained above 5.7 percent all year, rising to 5.9 percent in November and 6 percent in December. The real G.D.P. growth rate fell each quarter of 2002, and by the fourth quarter growth was at a standstill. Hence the need for yet another big tax cut.

The idea of the 2003 legislation was to raise dividend payouts, thereby bolstering personal income, and raise the prices of common stock, which would improve household balance sheets. As President Bush explained in his signing statement, “This will encourage more companies to pay dividends, which in itself will not only be good for investors but will be a corporate reform measure.” He also said the dividend tax cut would “increase the wealth effect around America and help our markets.”

The Treasury Department issued a fact sheet on July 30 asserting that the decline in dividends had been a cause of the weak stock market and noting that dividend payouts had risen since enactment of the tax cut on May 28.

Subsequent research, however, found that the increase in dividends was a short-term phenomenon and mainly at companies where stock options were a major form of executive compensation. A 2005 Federal Reserve Board study found that the United States stock market did not outperform European stock markets after the dividend cut. Nor did stocks qualifying for lower dividend taxes outperform those, such as real estate investment trusts, that did not qualify for lower dividend taxes. Non-dividend paying stocks slightly outperformed dividend-paying stocks, and many corporations that did pay higher dividends scaled back stock repurchases by a similar amount.

So, this is yet another example where Republican economic policy is totally out of step with outcomes, data, and reality.  Yet, they keep repeating that it works the way it doesn’t work just because, remember, the agenda is greed, power, and more wealth to the already greedy, powerful and wealthy.    The deal is they get it wrong, got it wrong, and continue to get it wrong but that doesn’t stop them from trying to weasel their way into a narrative that says, hey, this really isn’t wrong.  There’s still some validity there and all economists must be liberals like Paul Krugman who are just talking up their philosophical line.  Take austerity economics, please.  I mean it.  Take it and those idiots who push it to hell and leave them there.  Still, the very serious people want to take this very seriously even when it is just plain seriously wrong.  Take Michael Kinsley, please.  He can report from Hell.

I’ve spent a rather alarming portion of this week wading into intellectual pissing matches, so I’m loath to respond to Michael Kinsley’s response to last week’s brouhaha over austerity policies. But one paragraph does merit some pushback. After noting the backlash to his last column, Kinsley writes the following:

There are two possible explanations. First, it might be that I am not just wrong (in saying that the national debt remains a serious problem and we’d be well advised to worry about it) but just so spectacularly and obviously wrong that there is no point in further discussion. Or second, to bring up the national debt at all in such discussions has become politically incorrect. To disagree is not just wrong but offensive. Such views do exist. Racism for example. I just didn’t realize that the national debt was one of them.

Kinsley assumes that it must be the second explanation, and then goes on from there.

I can’t speak for anyone else who pushed back against Kinsley’s column from last week. Speaking for myself, however, I blogged about it because Kinsley was “spectacularly and obviously wrong.” I say this because almost everything I wrote in my response to Kinsley I knew at age 18 after taking Economics 101 in college.

To explain, let me focus on Kinsley’s motivation for thinking that the austerians have a point:

Austerians believe, sincerely, that their path is the quicker one to prosperity in the longer run. This doesn’t mean that they have forgotten the lessons of Keynes and the Great Depression. It means that they remember the lessons of Paul Volcker and the Great Stagflation of the late 1970s. “Stimulus” is strong medicine—an addictive drug—and you don’t give the patient more than you absolutely have to.

This is wrong for three reasons, one pedantic and two substantive. First, to be pedantic, the austerity debate is about the wisdom of using expansionary fiscal policy — i.e., running a significant federal budget deficit — to alleviate downturns. Paul Volcker was the chairman of the Federal Reserve and thereby responsible for setting monetary policy. He had nothing to do with fiscal policy. This is a distinction that I learned in my first few lectures on macroeconomics. So either Kinsley phrased this badly or he’s confused about what this debate is about.

It just keeps coming down to the fact that most journalists and politicians simply do not know what they are talking about when it comes to 120922020914-molly-ows-old-horizontal-galleryeconomics.  So, they assume an economist like Paul Krugman has a liberal bias on all things–including the color of the sky and the laws of gravity and demand–and they make the worse assumption that those arguing Republican policy these days must have a valid point when the only point is, yes, you know it … to deliver more wealth, power and influence to themselves and their friends that already have it.  Some times a lie really is just a lie.

Here’s a good blog post by Jonathan Bernstein that’s just oozing with the issue.   There is no argument or theoretical question about austerity.  But that’s not stopping the punditry.

A wonderful example of the myopia of the deficit scolds…

The background is that Michael Kinsley wrote a particularly bad column last week about “austerity,” a key point of which was based on factually incorrect memories of what went wrong in the 1970s; as you can imagine, this earned him plenty of corrections and dismissals from people who used access to accurate economic and government policy statistics.

Kinsley was quite taken aback by this, apparently, and wrote a follow up to defend himself. Dan Drezner has already pointed out that Kinsley is still relying on the same inaccurate memories that got his first column into trouble, but I actually found a different part of Kinsley II more interesting, in which he thinks he’s caught Paul Krugman in a contradiction.

Kinsley writes:
Paul Krugman takes credit for good economic news whenever it happens. On Krugman’s blog site (“The Conscience of a Liberal”) last week were two bits of prose side-by-side. One was an ad for his latest book, End This Depression Now! “How bad have things gotten?” the ad asks rhetorically.” How did we get stuck in what now can only be called a depression?” Right next door is Krugman’s gloat about the recent pretty-good economic news. “So where are the celebrations,” he asks, “now that the debt issue looks, if not solved, at least greatly mitigated?” Greatly mitigated? By what? Certainly not by anyone taking Paul Krugman’s advice. He has been, in his own self-estimate, a lone, ignored voice for reason crying out in an unreasoning universe.

What’s the problem? The linked post by Krugman isn’t a gloat about good economic news! It is, to be sure a gloat; it’s a gloat about deficits…Krugman goes so far as to call lower deficits “progress,” although as I read it he’s really just saying that lower deficits should be counted as progress from the point of view of the deficit scolds.
What’s happening here is that Kinsley is projecting onto Krugman a classic deficit scold mistake; Kinsley is conflating the federal budget deficit with the economy. Krugman isn’t doing that; it’s purely Kinsley’s invention.

It gets, however, to exactly why Kinsley was buried under a large pile of abuse after his first column. Well, in part; the other part, as Krugman notes elsewhere, is “the existence now of a policy blogosphere…which makes bluffing harder.” Say something factually inaccurate these days, and you’re going to get slammed; it seems that some pundits who preceded that development find it hard to get used to it.

I still have no idea why journalists feel they just know everything about economics compared to say, knowing everything about Brownian motion or performing brain surgery.  It’s the same with politicians.  They just seem to confuse a really complex subject that most people really struggle with in college and never take beyond that with something like a political science class or a journalism class.  You don’t even get real economic stuff until you way up there in school.  The introductory stuff is like the ABCs and they don’t even seem to grasp that.  Anyway, stop confusing getting facts wrong with just another opinion …

Read the rest of this entry »

If the Turkey didn’t put you to sleep …

Economics doesn’t take holidays.  It’s probably why we economists are so grim.  Just in case you need a good nap, here’s some of my pointy head friends with bow ties discussing things economic.  I was going to try to spare you out of holiday cheer, but Mark Thoma reeled me in and now I must share.

I’ve mentioned recently how absolutely baffled I am by the number of “conservative”  (i.e. radical) Republicans who keep buying into economic fallacies that even conservative (i.e. authentically conservative) economists can’t support.  I mentioned Nobel Prize winning and father of the Monetarists Milton Friedman’s huge study on the Great Depression.  His thesis was that very poor Fed policy made the Great Depression.  In 2002, Bernake even agreed and apologized to him for the FED’s errant ways. Friedman was a consummate free marketer and wrote pop books and pop Newsweek columns during his heyday as a conservative icon. I’m sure he would not be suffering these fools were he alive today.

Thoma points to two recent columns by two former Reagan Team economists.  One article is from Martin Feldstein who is probably the closest thing remaining to Milton Friedman in terms of conservative, free market, economic thought.  The other is from Bruce Bartlett who was one of the fathers of Supply Side economics during the Reagan years but has since repented.  He’s really adapted the Friedman statement “We’re all Keynesians now”.  Both economists are intent on stopping this current batch of policy nincompoops from recreating The Great Depression.

The first Thoma thread references Feldstein who writes on the QE2 at Project Syndicate.  Feldstein was Chair of Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisors and was President of the NBER.  You  may recall that NBER dates business cycles for the country.  I want to hit his bottom line first so those of you that are using this for nap material can see that it’s ludicrous to think the QE2 is wild-eyed and out-there policy experimentation.

In short, the Fed’s policy of quantitative easing is likely to accelerate the rise of the renminbi – an outcome that is in China’s interest no less than it is in America’s. But don’t expect US officials to proclaim that goal openly, or Chinese officials to express their gratitude.

China is experiencing inflation.  We are experiencing deflation.  The reason this is good for both countries is that it will offset each of these pressures.  Feldstein explains the goal of the QE2 in terms of US policy first.  I’ll cover that quote.  You’ll need to go read the explanation for the China side of the equation too.

The United States Federal Reserve’s policy of “quantitative easing” is reducing the value of the dollar relative to other currencies that have floating exchange rates. But what does the new Fed policy mean for one of the most important exchange rates of all – that of the renminbi relative to the dollar and to other currencies?

The effect of quantitative easing on exchange rates between the dollar and the floating-rate currencies is a predictable result of the Fed’s plan to increase the supply of dollars. The rise in the volume of dollars is causing the value of each dollar to fall relative to these currencies, whose volume has remained constant or risen more slowly.

The Fed’s goal may be to stimulate domestic activity in the US and to reduce the risk of deflation. But, intended or not, the increased supply of dollars also affects the international value of the dollar. American investors who sell bonds to the Fed will want to diversify the dollars that they receive from it. One form of that diversification is to buy foreign bonds and stocks, driving up the value of those currencies.

The result of this move will be to make our exports more competitive abroad and to make every one else’s exports–including those countries that have pegged their currencies to the dollar in an unfair manner–less competitive. We are simply turning the tables on the beggar-thy-neighbor growth policy China and others have adopted. The Fed is doing this because there is no will on the part of domestic policy makers to stimulate the demand in our country for consumers or government.  There are 4 major parts of GDP.  If fiscal policy doesn’t stimulate Consumption or Government demand, then there remain Investment and Exports.  Investment is the least reliable form of demand and is rather small compared to the rest of the economy.  The Fed is trying to tackle the  aggregate demand shortage as best it can in response to the laws that compel it to act when unemployment is high.

Which brings me to the Bruce Bartlett thread.  Bartlett has a piece today up at The Fiscal Times called ‘Starve the Beast: Just Bull, not Good Economics’.  As some one who is currently suffering from a governor who has selectively adopted the policy as a path to the White House, I personally can tell you that it is very much Bull and causes a lot of undue suffering.  It is ideology chosen over fact, logic, and above all, compassion.  Bartlett goes straight to the heart of Voodoo Economics by using data to show that Dubya  Bush’s embrace of  of tax cuts in his first term as president did nothing to further economic growth and did everything to drive us in to unnecessary deficit spending.

It ought to be obvious from the experience of the George W. Bush administration that cutting taxes has no effect whatsoever even on restraining spending, let alone actually bringing it down. Just to remind people, Bush inherited a budget surplus of 1.3 percent of the gross domestic product from Bill Clinton in fiscal year 2001. The previous year, revenues had been 20.6 percent of GDP, spending had been 18.2 percent, and there had been a budget surplus of 2.4 percent.

When Bush took office in January 2001, we were already well into fiscal year 2001, which began on Oct. 1, 2000. He immediately pushed for a huge tax cut, which Congress enacted. In 2002 and 2003, Bush demanded still more tax cuts, even as the economy showed no signs of having been stimulated by his previous tax cuts. The tax cuts and the slow economy caused revenues to evaporate. By 2004, they were down to 16.1 percent of GDP. The postwar average is about 18.5 percent of GDP.

Spending did not fall in response to the STB decimation of federal revenues; in fact, spending rose from 18.2 percent of GDP in 2001 to 19.6 percent in 2004, and would continue to rise to 20.7 percent of GDP in 2008. Insofar as the Bush administration was a test of STB, the evidence clearly shows not only that the theory doesn’t work at all, but is in fact perverse.

There is nothing better than an addict who has fought their demons and comes out the other side to explain exactly why the demon should die.  Bartlett succinctly explains why the Republicans continue to support the ideology and the drivel despite evidence that everything they believe is quite false.

Nor was Bush’s budgetary profligacy limited to programs that could be justified, however loosely, on national security grounds. As I detailed last week, he and a Republican Congress created a massive new entitlement program, Medicare Part D, to buy the votes of seniors and buy themselves reelection in 2004. Among those voting for this monstrosity were many Republicans still in Congress today who are unjustly considered to be staunch fiscal conservatives, including incoming Speaker of the House John Boehner, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, and House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan.

Because of its obvious ridiculousness, one seldom hears conservatives say openly that tax cuts automatically reduce spending. But it still underpins the entire Republican budget strategy — tax cuts never have to be paid for, no meaningful spending cuts are ever put forward, earmarks and foreign aid are said to be the primary sources of budget deficits, and similar absurdities.

Both of these men have written tractable–albeit, tough–reads on policy decisions that people really need to understand.  I know there is a tendency this time of year to wallow in football games, shopping binges, and short term feel good embrace of childhood memories, but really, there is a lame duck congress in session and an incoming group of Congressional morons with a President in office who wants to play Let’s Make a Deal with them.

If you can awake from tryptophan dreams long enough to read these two articles thoroughly, please do so.  We can’t afford any more Voodoo policy mistakes.

Morphing the Conversation

One of the things that I’ve found profoundly upsetting about the last several decades is how successfully movement conservatism has confused and morphed policy conversation into a mishmash of labels which in no way describe what used to be general understanding of policy. Movement conservatism has reframed many definitions that were used as the basis for policy discourse. In a reaction to this, movement progressivism has reframed the reframe rather than try to shift the conversation back to what used to be common ground and common definitions. The terms “socialism”, “liberal”, and “Keynesian” are now completely divorced from reality–if I can use that word–and from their traditional meanings. Shared definitions and discussion of one’s assumptions are important for civil debate. Civil debate is necessary for successful policy implementation. Our discourse is so inflamed these day that we no longer even share the process by which we have historically entered into dialogue. Screaming ill-defined frames is now de rigueur.

Movement conservatism–its media outlets and thinktanks– has moved the Overton Window so far off the ruler that even former Reagan officials are coming forward to press the reset button. Movement progressivism has borrowed from their play book and is now doing the same. Several TC readers have brought up some really good examples recently.

My personal hypothesis is that both Democrats and Republicans have the same agenda which is to feed the hand of the industries and interests that can keep them in power. They play on different teams with different sponsors but their basic goals are the same. That would be to return money to people that provide money to them. The rhetoric we see in ads and speeches are positioned to keep us on the hook and tagging along. Ever so often they throw us a few things like a study on getting rid of DADT or a law that looks like it may get rid of job place discrimination. These are mostly symbolic and have very little real effect. The right does the same thing. They throw a few restrictions on abortion rights or pull together funds for an government agency that lets churches proselytize through social services. Nothing changes in the big policy realm except the continuation of laws that concentrate media, economic, and political power into the power brokers of each party’s choice. This is something that many of the ‘tea-partiers’ as well as those drawn to the move-on movement share; a sense that government moves when one set of interests that fund politicians asks it to do so. We get wars when the Oil industry needs its interests protected. We get bail outs when the finance industry needs its interests protected. Meanwhile, the rest of us get fed hype that something is happening in our best interests as they reframe discourse with their best Madison Avenue gestalt.

Yesterday, I tried to approach this problem from the sociopolitical concepts. Today, because of some down thread links folks pointed out, I’m going to switch to the socioeconomic. I tag these things with ‘socio’ on the front, because I do believe that most of this comes from differences in class more than differences in anything else. Today’s populists are spewing the words ‘elite’ when I think what they are really sensing is they are far removed from the bonus class of Wall Street, the political class in Washington, and the cultural class in Hollywood. There is nothing elite about them other than their ability to attract money and power through a velvet schmooze and a public platform.

Read the rest of this entry »

Did he come to bury or praise Suppy-Side Economics?

Bruce-Bartlett-Says-300x225Bruce Bartlett has just released a new book–and a mea culpa of sorts– for supply side economics (SSE). As an ex-aide to the late Jack Kemp and author of a book on Reaganomics, Bartlett’s got an interesting perspective from having a seat near the table. He also takes a few undeserved potshots at some Keynesians that were slow to embrace a few ideas that later proved to be good ones. As an example, Bartlett mislabels the District’s discovery of the importance of monetarism as something that could be credited to supply-siders. Reaganuts frequently try to take credit for that even though credit should rightly go to President Jimmy Carter and his appointment of Fed Chair Paul Volker.

There’s also a bit of clinging to that magical marginal tax rate idea the Laffer curve which has been seriously debunked by empirics during the Reagan and Clinton years. However, I will give the Kemp-Roth tax bill–and hence, Bartlett and his Supply Side–credit for two positive policies. The first was a Keynsian style spending/tax fiscal policy during the last bad recession we had back in the 1980s. The other is the realization that it’s good to provide tax incentives for long term supply curve enhancement. This would be tax credits for re-capitalization for industry which should actually be more part of a national industrial plan, but I’ll just leave it at that. The other would be the idea of tax sheltering money for retirement. 401(k)s were a good innovation. The Clinton administration was also instrumental in sheltering long term savings from current taxes. These two things do help with long run economic growth and capital formation which are lofty and necessary goals.

However, for the little bit of good coming from SSE, also came a lot of bad. I found it interesting that in Bartlett’s piece today he reveals the bad with almost what appears to be relish. That is how most Republicans turned the idea that you can promote long term economic growth with some good, targeted tax policy into the mess that Dubya/Cheney wrought with the frightful combination of tax cuts are good for everything that ails you and deficits never matter as long as you spend the money on wars and enriching the military industrial complex.

During the George W. Bush years, however, I think SSE became distorted into something that is, frankly, nuts–the ideas that there is no economic problem that cannot be cured with more and bigger tax cuts, that all tax cuts are equally beneficial, and that all tax cuts raise revenue.

These incorrect ideas led to the enactment of many tax cuts that had no meaningful effect on economic performance. Many were just give-aways to favored Republican constituencies, little different, substantively, from government spending. What, after all, is the difference between a direct spending program and a refundable tax credit? Nothing, really, except that Republicans oppose the first because it represents Big Government while they support the latter because it is a “tax cut.”

I think these sorts of semantic differences cloud economic decisionmaking rather than contributing to it. As a consequence, we now have a tax code riddled with tax credits and other tax schemes of dubious merit, expiring provisions that never expire, and an income tax that fully exempts almost on half of tax filers from paying even a penny to support the general operations of the federal government.

The supply-siders are to a large extent responsible for this mess, myself included. We opened Pandora’s Box when we got the Republican Party to abandon the balanced budget as its signature economic policy and adopt tax cuts as its raison d’être. In particular, the idea that tax cuts will “starve the beast” and automatically shrink the size of government is extremely pernicious.

It’s a great read for any one that wants to understand the economic policy making of the last 30 years or so. This was the best part for me, the stalwart Keynesian when it wasn’t popular. He actually mentions that Keynes isn’t all about government spending and budget deficits all the time. That is the part that the Dubyas and Cheneys of the world always conveniently or ignorantly overlook.

So basically the book is about the rise and fall of Keynesian economics followed by the rise and fall of SSE. Although the Keynesian part of the book was originally intended to flesh out my model of the rise and fall of economic theories, it turned out to have very valuable lessons for today. Indeed, the circle appears to have come around to where Keynesian theories are now the best ones we have for dealing with today’s economic crisis.

Maybe Bruce, who now writes for the Daily Beast and was fired from a conservative think tank for writing a book that criticized Dubya, has found that with age comes wisdom. Also worth a read are two Bartlett’s pieces from the blog new majority. The first is Tax Tea Party Fantasy from last spring and Why I Am Anti-Republican from late this summer. It seems old dogs do occasionally learn new tricks.