Tag Archives: Reagan

The Return of Voodoo Economics

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Paul Krugman’s column in the New York Times today talked of the revival of “Voodoo economics” by some Republican politicians.  This refers to the Laffer Proposition that a cut in income tax rates stimulates economic activity so much that tax revenue goes up rather than down.   Gov. Sam Brownback, who is running for re-election in Kansas, has had to confront the reality that tax revenues went down, not up as he argued they would, when he cut state tax rates.

I disagree with one thing that Krugman wrote in his column: the idea that there was a long break,  particularly after George W. Bush took office, during which Republican politicians did not push this line.  To the contrary, I have collected many quotes from George W. Bush and his top officials claiming the Laffer Proposition during the decade of the 2000s.   The quotes are on pages 35-39 of “Snake-Oil Tax Cuts,” RWP 08-056, Harvard Kennedy School, 2008.   Here is one of many from him: “The best way to get more revenues in the Treasury is…cut taxes to get more economic growth.“ It is true that the chairmen of Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers did not support the Laffer Proposition, known as the centerpiece of “supply-side economics”.  But then that was also the case in the Reagan Administration.

The McCain presidential campaign replayed the pattern yet again in 2008: the candidate said tax cuts would bring in more revenue even though his economic adviser said it wouldn’t.    Voodoo economics is a very hardy perennial.

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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.

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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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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