Tag Archives: Bush

Perspective on the Latest Employment Numbers

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The BLS this morning reported U.S. job gains of 163,000 in July, which is good news in the eyes of the financial markets.  The jobs data had been disappointing over the preceding three spring months.  Before that, during the winter months, employment growth was strong.

In terms of perceptions and politics, pundits will say that today’s report is good news for Obama’s re-election prospects, just as they said the spring jobs numbers were bad news for the President.  But my interest is in economics and reality, rather than perceptions and politics.   From a longer-term perspective, a few important facts have not been adequately discussed.

  • 1. The rate of job growth over the last two years, 137,000 jobs per month, inadequate as it is, has actually been greater than the rate of job growth during the George W. Bush Administration (101,000 per month) even if one excludes the two Bush recessions that occurred in the first and last years of his administration, respectively.   The Obama Administration looks even better if one confines the numbers to private sector employment, since the government has been shedding jobs under Obama and was growing rapidly under Bush. Of course this is still nothing like the sort of progress we would ideally want to see – say, the 237,000 jobs that were created month in and month out on average during the 8 years of the Clinton Administration. And the number of long-term unemployed remains worryingly high. But the situation is a big improvement over the economy that Obama inherited three years ago.  

 

  • 2. An unemployment rate of 8.3% shows that the economy is still in unsatisfactory shape.   (The July numbers show a rise from 8.21 to 8.25, which the BLS labelled “essentially unchanged” in the first sentence of its release.)   Unemployment remains higher than what the Obama Administration hoped we would have by now at the time it took office in January 2009.  Most of the difference can be explained by the fact that the level of economic activity in January 2009 – as a result of the free-fall in the last part of 2008 – was much worse than was realized at the time. The subsequent downward revision by the Commerce Department in the official statistic for the level of GDP at the start of 2009 can explain why the level of the economy is disappointing 3 ½ years later, more than the rate of growth over the intervening period. After all, those horrendous 2008 rates of decline in GDP and employment turned around during the six months immediately following the day Obama took office.  

 

  • 3. Most private-sector and independent economists agree that the Obama fiscal stimulus made a positive difference; that – together with TARP and monetary easing by the Fed, unpopular as they are in some circles — it helps explain the mid-2009 economic turnaround; and that it helps explain the moderate growth that followed (2 ½ % growth p.a. in the 2nd half of 2009 plus 2010).   A good explanation for the disappointingly slow rate of growth in output and employment since the end of 2010 is that the fiscal stimulus has been withdrawn and the government sector has been contracting. (Since the November 2010 election, there have been enough Republicans in Congress to block the American Jobs Act and every other action that Obama proposes.)  One can see this in the composition of both GDP and employment. Today’s jobs report features another 9,000 jobs cut in state, local, and federal governments, continuing the pattern that has held throughout the recovery: jobs and output in manufacturing and the rest of the private sector have been expanding, partially offset by contraction in the public sector.
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The Procyclicalists: Fiscal Austerity vs. Stimulus

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       The world is in the grip of a debate between fiscal austerity and fiscal stimulus.  Opponents of austerity worry about contractionary effects on the economy.  Opponents of stimulus worry about indebtedness and moral hazard.

Is austerity good or bad?   It is as foolish to debate this proposition as it would be to debate whether it is better for a driver to turn left or right.   It depends where the car is on the road. Sometimes left is appropriate, sometimes right.  When an economy is in a boom, the government should run a surplus; other times, when in recession, it should run a deficit.    

True, it is hard for politicians to get the timing of countercyclical fiscal policy exactly right.  This is the reason, more than any other, why Keynesian policy lost its luster.  “Fine-tuning” it was called.  Sometimes the fiscal stimulus would kick in after the recession was already over.   

But this is no reason to follow a pro-cyclical fiscal policy.  A procyclical fiscal policy piles on the spending and tax cuts on top of booms, but reduces spending and raises taxes in response to downturns.  Budgetary profligacy during expansion; austerity in recessions.  Procyclical fiscal policy is destabilizing, because it worsens the dangers of overheating, inflation, and asset bubbles during the booms and exacerbates the losses in output and employment during the recessions.  In other words, a procyclical fiscal policy magnifies the severity of the business cycle.

Yet many politicians in the United States, the United Kingdom, and the eurozone seem to live by procyclicality. They argue against fiscal discipline when the economy is strong, only to become deficit hawks when the economy is weak.  Exactly backwards.

            Consider the positions taken over the last three decades by some American politicians. 

First cycle:    During a recessionary period, President Ronald Reagan in his 1980 campaign and in his 1981 Inaugural Address urged immediate action to reduce the national debt “beginning today.”  (Recession: austerity.)    But in 1988, as the economy approached the peak of the business cycle, candidate George H.W. Bush was unconcerned about budget deficits, even though the national debt was rapidly approaching three times the level it had been when Reagan had given his speeches.   “Read my lips, no new taxes,” Bush famously said.  (Boom: profligacy.)

Second cycle:  Predictably, the first President Bush and the Congress finally summoned the political will to raise taxes and rein in spending growth at precisely the wrong moment, that is, just as the US was entering another recession in 1990.   (Recession: austerity.)  Although the timing of the legislation was poor, the action was courageous.    The Pay as You Go Rule and other reforms switched government finances back onto a path that eventually was to eliminate the deficits by the end of the decade.   

But three years later — and even though the most robust recovery in American history had begun — every Republican congressman voted against Clinton’s 1993 legislation to continue Bush’s spending caps, PAYGO, and tax increases.  Nor did they change their minds in response to the subsequent success of the policy.   Even after seven years of strong growth, with unemployment at the peak of the business cycle dipping below 4% for the first time since the 1960s, George W. Bush based his 2000 campaign on a platform of large long-term tax cuts. (Boom: profligacy.)

Third cycle:  Even after the Bush fiscal expansion had turned the inherited record budget surpluses into record deficits, the Administration went for a 2nd round of tax cuts in 2003, and continued a rate of growth of spending that was triple the rate under Clinton (both national security and domestic spending).  Vice President Richard Cheney said “Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter.”   These policies were maintained for five more years, as another $ four trillion was added to the national debt.  (Boom: profligacy.)  

Predictably, when the worst recession since the Great Depression hit in 2007-09, politicians felt constrained from an adequate fiscal response due to the big deficits and debts the government had already been running. Republicans suddenly re-discovered the evil of budget deficits and decided that retrenchment was urgent.  They opposed Obama’s initial fiscal stimulus in February 2009, even though GDP growth and employment were much worse than they had been when Reagan and Bush had launched their tax cuts and spending increases.  (Recession: austerity.)   Subsequently, with a new majority in the House, they succeeded in blocking further efforts by Obama when the stimulus ran out in 2011.  The government spending cutbacks of the last two years are the most important reason, in my view, why the economic recovery which began in June 2009 subsequently stalled in 2011.

Three cycles.   Three generations of politicians who favored expansionary fiscal policies during a boom and then decided after a recession had hit that budget deficits were bad after all.  (See the graph below.)

This is not to say that the procyclicalist politicians have always succeeded in getting their policies adopted.   Clinton had a strong enough congressional majority in August 1993 that he was able to pass his budget balancing legislation (Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act) — even though every Republican in Congress voted “no” at a time when the economy was expanding.  Similarly, Obama had a strong enough majority in January 2009 that he was able to pass some initial fiscal stimulus (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act), without a single Republican vote, at a time when the economy was in freefall.  But too often the countercyclicalists are overpowered by the procyclicalists.

            Trying to turn left or right at precisely the wrong points in the road is a worse record than one would get by switching policies randomly.  To explain this perverse pattern, let us switch metaphors in mid-stream.   It is the old problem of needing to fix the hole in the roof when the sun is shining, rather than waiting for a storm to realize that it is necessary.  When the economy is booming, there is no political support for painful spending cuts or tax increases.  After all, everything seems fine; why make a change?   Then when the deluge comes, sinners suddenly see the evils of their ways and proclaim the necessity of reforming.  Of course it is very difficult to fix the roof in the middle of a thunderstorm.

Procyclical Politicians:  Support for fiscal contraction (down-arrows) and fiscal expansion (up-arrows) 

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The Pot Again Calls the Kettle Red: Republicans, Democrats, the Fed and QE2

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     Some conservatives are attacking current U.S. monetary policy as being too expansionary, as likely to lead to excessive inflation and debauchment of the currency.   The Weekly Standard is promoting a letter to Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke that urges a reversal of its policy of QE2, its new round of monetary easing. The letter is signed by a list of conservatives, most of whom are well-known Republican economists, some associated with political candidates.  Apparently the driving force is David Malpass, who was an official in the Reagan Treasury, and he is taking out newspaper ads later this week.  This follows similar attacks on the Fed by politicians Sarah Palin, Mike Pence, and Paul Ryan

     If the National JournalWall Street Journal and Politico are right that the Republicans are trying to stake out a position that Democrats are pursuing inflationary monetary policy, they are on shaky ground.   I will leave it to others to make the important point of substance:  the risk of excessive inflation is low now compared to the risk of an alarming Japan-style deflation, with the economy having only begun to recover from its nadir of early 2009.   Or to acknowledge that Quantitative Easing is only a second best policy response to high unemployment.    (Fiscal policy would be much more likely to succeed at this task, if it were not for the constraints in Congress.)

     I will, rather, respond to the political component of the National Journal’s question by pointing out some insufficiently understood history:

  1. Republican President Nixon successfully pushed Fed Chairman Arthur Burns into an excessively easy monetary policy in the early 1970s — leading to high inflation which the White House tried to address with wage-price controls.  Nixon, of course, also devalued the dollar, and took it off gold, thereby ending the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates.
  2. Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush tried aggressively to push Fed Chairmen Paul Volcker and Alan Greenspan into easier monetary policy, especially in election years.  This is documented in Bob Woodward’s 2000 book Maestro.   The White House succeeded in making life unpleasant enough for inflation-slayer Volcker that he eventually declined to be reappointed, prompting Treasury Secretary James Baker to exult “We got the son of a bitch!” (p.24).  Baker is also the man usually credited with the Plaza Accord and the associated 50 % depreciation of the dollar from 1985 to 1987.
  3. Democratic Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton are the two presidents in the last four decades who scrupulously refrained from pushing their Fed Chairmen (Volcker and Greenspan, respectively) into inflationary monetary policy.  
  4. Under Republican President G.W.Bush, monetary policy once again became excessively easy, during 2003-06, contributing substantially to dollar depreciation, the housing bubble and the subsequent financial crash.

     Thus if the other party were to accuse Democrats of pursuing excessively inflationary monetary policy, it would be akin to them accusing Democrats of pursuing excessively expansionary fiscal policy.    Perhaps such accusations will strike some who don’t pay close attention as superficially plausible, even after all these years.  But they nonetheless fly in the face of history.   Another case of the pot calling the kettle “red.”   Yes, I know, the usual saying is about the color black.  But red is the color of deficits, overheating, … and Republicans.

    I document the history in “Responding to Crises,” Cato Journal 27, 2007. 

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