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.
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.
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.
During much of the last decade, U.S. fiscal policy has been procyclical, that is, destabilizing. We wasted the opportunity of the 2003-07 expansion by running large budget deficits. As a result, in 2010, Washington now feels constrained by inherited debts to withdraw fiscal stimulus at a time when unemployment is still high. Fiscal policy in the UK and other European countries has been even more destabilizing over the last decade. Governments decide to expand when the economy is strong and then contract when it is weak, thereby exacerbating the business cycle.
President Obama proposes allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire next year — as they are scheduled to do if nothing is changed — for those earning more than $250,000, but changing the law so as to extend the tax cuts for those earning less than that amount. Republican politicians are opposing the proposal. I don’t understand what they are thinking. Their position doesn’t make sense to me, regardless whether they are thinking about short-term stimulus, long-term fiscal conservatism, good economics, or even pure politics.
The National Journal asks for reactions to a recent blog post by Greg Mankiw regarding the reasons why US investment has fallen sharply.
I agree with Greg that the dominant empirical fact about investment is its procyclical volatility (the main reason investment has been depressed for the last two years is that the economy has been depressed), and also that the recent credit crunch made it worse. But I don’t agree with a third item on his list: “the policy environment seems adverse to business.” As in many areas, it is when we get to the politics that I disagree.
The famous Paradox of Thrift holds now more than ever: what is good for the individual, and for the economy in the long run — high saving — is bad for the economy in the short run. During the current worst-post-30s recession we need a boost to demand. In the longer run we need more saving.
Americans could not have gotten the timing worse. During the three expansions of 1983-2007 the economy grew well, and by the end of the period the first baby boomers had reached their peak earning years. Yet households’ saving rates declined, falling almost to zero in 2005-07. Meanwhile, the government ran record deficits, reducing national saving even more (in the 1980s and 2000s; the late 1990s saw surpluses). It is ironic that the pro-capital orientation to the Reagan tax cuts of 1981-83 and the Bush tax cuts of 2001-03 was largely sold as an incentive to increase saving and investment, and yet household saving fell sharply subsequent to both policy changes — to say nothing of national saving. The increase in the after-tax return to saving did not lead to a “return to saving.”
So Arthur Laffer — still arguing the improbable “supply side” proposition that cutting income tax rates generally raises total tax revenue — is apparently now a special adviser to John McCain. And McCain has taken on a big consignment of the snake oil, to Greg Mankiw’s dismay. The political temptation for a Republican candidate to promise both lower tax rates and higher revenues is irresistible. The policy-makers who cut taxes when Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, respectively, came to power subscribed to this claim. Remarkably, at the same time, the economists who were the chief economic advisers to Reagan and Bush during these tax cuts disavow the proposition that they increase revenue (Murray Weidenbaum, Martin Feldstein, Glenn Hubbard, Mankiw…) . Almost all serious economists – let us say Ph.D. economists – disagree with this proposition, with only a microscopic handful of exceptions like Laffer. Indeed some of the advisers who defend the Reagan and Bush economic policies claim that this formulation of supply side economics is a caricature, and was not the true rationale of the tax cuts. This wishful thinking is directly at odds with quotes from the presidents themselves and their Treasury secretaries and other economic officials, to the effect that tax cuts stimulate income so much as to produce more tax revenue. Laffer is not a straw man. (See my next post.)
At the 5th anniversary of the war in Iraq, estimates of its long-run cost range from $1.2-$1.7 trillion by my former colleague Peter Orszag, now Director of the Congressional Budget Office, to $2 – 3 trillion by my current colleague Linda Bilmes with another former colleague Joe Stiglitz (in a book that is appropriately getting lots of attention, including for example from John Cusack). The important point is that the costs far exceed the $50-$60 billion that the White House predicted ahead of time.