Democrats, Republicans, and Lags
I’ve had a few posts comparing performance in various series by presidential administration. As a general rule, in most of the series I looked at, Democratic Presidents have done better than Republican Presidents, JFK/LBJ and Clinton have better than Carter, and Reagan has done better than the other Republicans. Among the exceptions was my last post on real median income, in which JFK/LBJ and Clinton led the pack, but Carter brought up the rear.
Some readers have said that one cannot read much into the results of all these series, that they do not, in fact, show that Democrats do a better job at these measures than Republicans. These readers tend to want to vote Republican, and they insist that most of a President’s policies have long lag times, so their effects may not even show while a President is in office.
And to some extent, they’re right. For instance, to use a little publicized piece of policy… when GW (temporarily) retired the 30 year bond in 2001, he in effect prevented the country from locking in the very, very low rates that prevailed until the 30 year bond was reinstated. This will result in higher interest payments, probably for decades to come. Similarly, abstinence only programs – children not having the benefit of sex ed are likely to have unexpected and unwanted pregnancies with all the problems that entails, including abortions, as much as 30 years later.
But most of a President’s policies have a much more immediate effect. And most people who insist on the long lag explanation believe that too – most of them are quick to credit the performance of the economy in the last few years (though, I would imagine, not in the last quarter) to the President’s tax cuts in 2003. And they are quick to credit Reagan for turning the country around – early in the Reagan administration, not during the GHW administration. (Though if one reads the National Review or Clown Hall, one can sometimes find examples where they credit Reagan for everything good that happened in the Clinton years.)
Furthermore, I’ve had posts looking at the correlation between deficit spending and growth, and between taxes and growth. The correlations are there, and they kick in very quickly.
But in the end, the big problem with the lag theory is that the length of the lag magically changes. If Republicans are responsible for the growth during Democratic admnistrations, and vice versa, how do we account for the poor performance of GHW in almost every measure? Did Reagan’s virtues only begin to kick in 4 years after he left office? And why didn’t that happen with Ike, or Nixon/Ford, both of whom were followed by Presidents that outperformed them on most measures?
Similarly, if Reagan had to struggle to build things up after Carter… why did GHW have the same struggle? And if it took Carter only four years to screw things up, why wasn’t that true of the other Democratic administrations? Why didn’t things hit the proverbial fan from 1965 to 1968, or from 1996 to 2000?
And then there is one other problem. To which President would the lag proponents credit the performance during the Reagan administration? Carter? Nixon & Ford? Or does it go back farther, to LBJ? I think none of the above. They will tell you that Reagan was the one that made things the way they were in the Reagan administration, at least the good thing. (I’ve seen the Reagan deficits blamed on Congress many a time.)
I don’t buy the lag story at all. If the data shows that things generally went better in Democratic administrations, its either because God doesn’t like it when we vote Republican, or because Democratic Presidents have followed better policies. Take your pick.
Update… The second to last sentence fixed. Error spotted by reader Dean Moriarty.