Category Archives: 2012 presidential campaign

Four Magic Tricks for Aspiring Fiscal Conservatives

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Politicians who advertise themselves as “fiscal conservatives” sometimes campaign on crowd-pleasing pledges to cut taxes and simultaneously reduce budget deficits.  These are difficult promises to deliver on in practice, since the budget deficit equals government spending minus tax revenue.

Aspiring fiscal conservatives may be interested in learning four innovative tricks that are commonly used by American politicians who like to promise what seems impossible.   Each of these feats has been perfected over three decades or more.  Indeed they first acquired their colorful names in the early years of the Ronald Reagan presidency:

1. The “Magic Asterisk”
2. “Rosy Scenario”
3. The Laffer hypothesis
4. The “Starve the Beast” hypothesis.

As shop-worn as these four conjuring tricks are, voters and journalists continue to fall for them. Thus they remain useful equipment in the repertoire of the fiscal conservative.

The first term was coined by Reagan’s Budget Director, David Stockman.  Originally it was an act of desperation, because the numbers in the 1981 budget plan didn’t add up.  “We invented the ‘magic asterisk’:  If we couldn’t find the savings in time – and we couldn’t-we would issue an IOU. We would call it ‘Future savings to be identified.'” [p.124]   Since that time the Magic Asterisk has become a familiar device in the American policy arena.   Recent examples include the recommendation of the Simpson-Bowles commission to cut real spending growth by precise amounts, without saying where.   US Presidential candidate Mitt Romney has done the same in his spending plan.    Another current application of the Magic Asterisk is Romney’s plan to eliminate enough tax expenditures to make up the revenue lost by cutting marginal tax rates by 20% (which is $5 trillion in revenue), while steadfastly refusing to say what tax expenditures he would eliminate.

As Election Day nears, the pressure on a candidate to get more specific grows.  The conjurer is thus forced to go to Trick Two:  since he can’t find enough tax loopholes to eliminate, he must claim that what he meant by closing the revenue gap was that stronger economic growth will bring in the added revenue.   The most popular magician’s assistant of all time makes her encore on the stage.  Murray Weidenbaum, Reagan’s first Council of Economic Advisers Chairman, deserves the credit for originally dreaming up Ms. Rosy Scenario, “perhaps my most lasting legacy” [p.57].  The Reagan Administration in its early years forecast 5% income growth (twice the long-run average), in order to imply in its projections a boost to revenues big enough to make up for its many tax cut measures [p.93-97].   Since then candidates of every party have made use of Rosy’s talents.

Indeed official growth forecasts are systematically overly optimistic in almost all of a sample of 33 countries, contributing to overly optimistic budget forecasts.   European governments are particularly biased.

In the Republican primaries last year, candidate Tim Pawlenty assumed a 5 per cent growth rate to make his own plan work.   He was all but laughed out of the race.  Mitt Romney probably can’t get away with this sleight-of-hand either.   The press asks, “Why should we believe that the growth rate will magically accelerate just because you become president?   Where will this GDP come from?   It sounds like pulling a rabbit out of a hat.”  Right on cue, it is time for Trick 3.

Trick 3 is the famous Laffer Hypothesis.   This is the proposition, identified with “supply side economics,” that reductions in tax rates are like magic beans:  they stimulate economic growth a lot — so much so that total tax revenue (the tax rate times income) goes up rather than down.   One might think that the Romney campaign would never resurrect such a hoary and discredited trick.  After all, two of his main economic advisers, Glenn Hubbard and Greg Mankiw, both have textbooks in which they say that the Laffer Hypothesis is incorrect as a description of US tax rates.  Mankiw’s book, in its first edition, even called its proponents “charlatans.”  But the historical record is that each Republican presidential candidate since Reagan has had good economic advisers who disavow the Laffer Hypothesis.  Yet time and again the president (or candidate), and his vice president (or running mate) and his political aides read from a script that relies on the Laffer logic (Appendix I). They are the ones who make the policy if the candidate wins, not the academic economist.   George W. Bush had these same two top economic advisers in his first term, Hubbard and Mankiw, when he cut taxes and transmogrified a record surplus into a record deficit.

Trick 4, “Starve the Beast,” typically comes later, if and when the president is elected, has enacted his tax cuts, and discovers that smoke and mirrors don’t work against hard fiscal reality. He can’t find enough spending to cut (Magic Asterisk has disappeared up the conjurer’s sleeve); the acceleration in GDP is nowhere to be seen (Rosy Scenario has vanished in thin air); and tax revenues have not grown (no rabbit in the Laffer hat).   The audience is now told that losing tax revenue and widening the budget deficit was the plan all along.  The performer explains that the deficit is all the fault of Congress for not cutting spending and that the only way to tame the beast is raise the budget deficit because “Congress can’t spend money it doesn’t have.”  This trick never works either, of course.  Congress can in fact spend money it doesn’t have, especially if the “conservative” president has been quietly sending it budgets every year that call for that.   “Starve the Beast” as a budget strategy, like the other three, dates back to the first Reagan Administration. (Bartlett, 2007, p.6-7.)

By the time the crowd realizes it has been had, the confidence man has pulled off the greatest trick of all:  yet another audience who came to see the deficit shrunk instead leaves the theater with the deficit bigger than when it came in.

References
Bruce Bartlett, 2007, “‘Starve the Beast’ Origins and Development of a Budgetary Metaphor,”The Independent Review, XII, 1, summer, 5-26.
Jeffrey Frankel, 2008, “Snake-Oil Tax Cuts,” Economic Policy Institute, Briefing Paper 221, September.
–2011, “Over-optimism in Forecasts by Official Budget Agencies and Its Implications,” Oxford Review of Economic Policy vol.27, no. 4, 536-562. NBER WP 17239; Summary in NBER Digest.
David Stockman, 1986, The Triumph of Politics: Why the Reagan Revolution Failed (Harper & Row).
Murray Weidenbaum, 2005, Advising Reagan: Making Economic Policy, 1981-82 (Washington Univ., St.Louis).

[A version of this column appeared earlier at Project Syndicate, which has the copyright.  Comments can be posted there.]

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What Did the Debates Tell Us About What the Candidates Will Do if Elected?

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Every pundit agrees that President Obama did badly in the first debate.  But I can’t help wondering whether he (and VP Joe Biden) would have been able to come out swinging as freely as they have in the subsequent debates, if it were not for what happened in Denver.  Obama must have been afraid of sounding unpresidential.   But because his initial performance was so roundly criticized for passivity, he was licensed after that to argue aggressively:  “What you are saying is not true, Governor Romney.”  And it helps that he was right, each time.   (My morning-after talking-head comments can be viewed: Re-cap of 1st Presidential Debate,” Oct.4; and Re-cap” of 2nd Presidential Debate, Oct.17.)

Of all the areas where Romney’s assertions in the first debate were rebutted successfully in each of the subsequent debates, his tax “plan” is one of the most important.  The credibility of independent analysts and fact-checkers has helped here.   The main problem is not that Romney hasn’t announced a plan detailed enough to be worthy of the name.   The main problem is, rather, that no plan can achieve three simultaneous goals, each of which the Republican candidate has repeatedly promised:   (1) cutting tax rates 20%,  (2) avoiding loss of tax revenue by elimination of deductions, and yet  (3) preventing overall taxes from going up on those earning less than $200,000 a year.    Romney and Ryan have been conducting a shell game:  they show the public what is under two of the three shells, but not all three at any one time.  For example, Republicans will argue that the tax cut won’t raise the budget deficit by citing a study that cuts middle class benefits like the tax-deductibility of mortgage interest.  Then when reminded that they promised not to do that, they will cite a study that lets taxes go up on those earning $100,000-$200,000.

The 20% cut in tax rates would in itself cost $480 billion on revenue in 2015 or about $5 trillion over the next 10 years.  I don’t think there is disagreement about that.  (But Bruce Bartlett estimates $6 trillion:Tax Notes, 10/29/12, p.2.)   All the disagreement is whether Romney can make up the revenue by eliminating deductions as he claims.  Yet in the first debate, when Obama started to address this question, Romney tried to shut him down by saying that a $5 trillion tax cut wasn’t his complete plan, as if anyone had ever said it was.  Worse, in the Vice Presidential debate, Congressman Ryan claimed that the Obama deputy campaign manager had “stipulated” that they had been wrong, that the tax cut wasn’t really $5 trillion.  The media was fooled by this one, failing to note that she had only made the (accurate) statement that the question of controversy was not whether the overall loss of revenue would be the full $5 trillion, but whether Romney could make all of that up by eliminating deductions.  This is an elementary point and Obama was able to get it across effectively in the second and third debates, even to number-weary viewers.

Some pundits say that, if Romney’s weakness is that his budget numbers don’t add up, Obama’s weakness is that he hasn’t laid out a specific agenda for his second term.  (Either that, or that he didn’t get us out of the recession fast enough.)

What will happen after the election?   It is typical that fervently debated plans of the candidates become mostly irrelevant soon after the winner’s presidential term begins.  (My Oct.22 talking head comments on this are viewable, at the 26-min. mark.) They are overtaken by unexpected events, such as a market crash at home or an armed attack somewhere in the world.  In the present case, we have a good idea of the events that, soon after the election, will quickly replace the sound-bites of the campaign.   In economic policy, a renewed euro crisis within the next year is likely to have serious spillover effects.   But more urgent for the American president will be the Fiscal Cliff, which arrives January 2013.   Immediately after the election it will become the dominant question.  Yet neither candidate is talking about it.  The explanation for this silence is in part that no politician wants to talk about the specifics of budget-cutting pain; but it is also in part that the two candidates genuinely can’t know what they will do before they know how many supporters they would have in Congress to do it. By the way, I have a prediction regarding monetary policy.   If Romney were to be elected president, his position that monetary policy has been much too easy would turn around on a dime.   Like Nixon, Reagan and Bush before him, he would seek to push the Fed toward easing, not tightening.

Foreign policy was the focus of the third debate.  (Incidentally, why does Romney believe that Syria “is Iran’s path to the sea?”  That is a strange rendering of geography.  Four years ago, McCain thought that Afghanistan bordered Iraq.  GWB said that Africa was one nation.  Reagan mixed up Brazil and Bolivia. Anyone see a pattern? )

The pressing foreign policy issues for the next president will likely be the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the nuclear standoff with Iran, and territorial disputes over islands off the coast of Asia.  Instead of discussing realistically the sort of policy decisions that will need to be made, the candidates have been debating “who said what, when” after the killing of four American diplomats in Benghazi last month.   Despite that tragedy, Obama’s overall policy in Libya remains a success on net.  His actions helped remove Qaddafi, which is reminiscent to me of Bill Clinton’s interventions in Kosovo (helping remove Milosevic) and Haiti (Cédras).   Removing bad guys without US combat deaths.   Libya ranks behind two other major Obama foreign policy successes: withdrawal from Iraq and removal of bin Laden.   Contrast that to the 4,000 Americans who died in the Iraq war; the 3,000 in the World Trade Center; and the global damage done to American foreign policy more generally during those years.

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Economists Polled on the Pre-Election Economy

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         A survey of economists is published in the November 2012 issue of Foreign Policy.  One question was whether we thought that the US unemployment rate would dip below 8.0% before the election.   When the FP conducted the poll at the end of the summer, unemployment was 8.1-8.2%.  Now it’s 7.8%.  Only 8% of the respondents said “yes.”   (I was one.  I basically just extrapolated the trend of the last two years.)   

My fellow economists choose defense spending and agricultural subsidies as the two categories of US federal budget that they think the best to cut.  They rate the euro crisis as the greatest threat to the world economy now and are particularly worried about Spain.   

For a slideshow presentation of the results, see “The FP Survey: The Economy.”   Or in a magazine format:  “If we’re ever going to get out of this slump, what will it take?  We asked more than 60 leading economists to tell us.”   

        Also, here is a recent poll from The Economist, asking similar questions of NBER and NABE economists:   “Asking the Experts,” Oct. 6.

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