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A Kennedy-Reagan-Trump Fiscal Policy?

A Kennedy-Reagan-Trump Fiscal Policy?

Heather Long reports that the White House economists have no clue about the history of U.S. fiscal policy:

President Trump’s policies are driving an economic turnaround that puts him in the company of transformative presidents such as John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, White House economists said Wednesday as they unveiled their first “Economic Report of the President.” The report presents a highly optimistic view of the economy’s current condition and future course, with growth predictions that exceed most nonpartisan economists’ expectations. Economists also caution the White House’s efforts to juice growth could cause the economy to overheat and then careen into a downturn.

Brad DeLong asks whether his latest on fiscal policy and long-term growth belongs in the next edition of Martha Olney’s and his macroeconomics textbook? While I say it should, permit me to quote the relevant passages after I inform these clueless White House economists about fiscal policy during the 1960’s and under Reagan as I noted over at Brad’s place:

We did get that 1964 tax cut right after Kennedy died and we did ramp up defense spending for Vietnam. In December 1965 Johnson’s CEA had the good sense to tell him that we had gone overboard with fiscal stimulus. Alas we got the 1966 Credit Crunch anyway followed by an acceleration of inflation when the FED backed off on its restraint. Reagan gave us a similar fiscal policy but the Volcker FED did not back off its tight monetary policy so we got the mother of all crowding out – high real interest rates for years and a massive currency appreciation. Glad to see that Trump’s CEA has compared this fiscal fiasco to the previous mistakes. Oh wait – Kevin Hassett thinks this is good fiscal policy. It seems the current CEA is as stupid as the President it advises!

OK – now that I’m done with my rant and little history lesson, let’s hear from Brad:

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Paying for Health Care Over Time

Paying for Health Care Over Time

Simon Wren Lewis illustrates the long-run government budget constraint with this tale:

There are many reasons why, outside of a recession, deficits that, if sustained, would steadily increase the debt to GDP ratio may be bad for the economy, but let me give the most obvious here. For a given level of government spending, interest on debt has to come out of taxes. The higher the debt, the higher the taxes. That is a problem because high taxes discourage people from working, and it is also unfair from an intergenerational point of view. This last point is obvious if you think about it. The current generation could abolish taxes and pay for all spending, including any interest on debt, by borrowing more. That cannot go on forever, so at some point taxes have to rise again. A whole generation has avoided paying taxes, but at the cost of future generations paying even more. As a result, unless there is a very good reason like a recession, a responsible government will not plan to sustain a deficit over time that raises the debt to GDP ratio. The problem though is that it is very tempting for a government not to be responsible. The current US government, which is essentially a plutocracy, wants above all else to cut taxes for the very wealthy, and if they do it without at the same time raising taxes on other people but instead by running a deficit they think they can get away with it. Democrats have every reason to say that is irresponsible, although of course the main thing they should focus on is that the last people who need a tax cut are the very rich.

In my discussion of a paper by Jeffrey Miron, I exemplified what he is saying here with the Reagan tax cuts for the rich and defense spending build-up, which may be a description to what Trump is doing now. As Simon admitted after this comment, borrowing to fund infrastructure investment is different:

But surely spending from borrowing and at least some taxation wouldn’t necessarily have the same effect. An equilibrium could at least be sought at higher levels of borrowing and higher levels of economic activity. Particularly with spending on education of course (where in any case the intergenerational fairness argument is weaker).

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A Critical Review of Jeffrey Miron’s Call to Slash Entitlements

A Critical Review of Jeffrey Miron’s Call to Slash Entitlements

I accused John Cochrane of incoherent babbling on the Federal deficit issue noting his update where he flip flopped:

He went from fiscal policy being sober to we are in dire straights just like that! Oh my the sky is falling. We have to take away those Social Security benefits that my generation have been paying into for 35 years. We cannot afford Federal health care spending. After all those tax cuts for the rich can never be reversed. Yes John Cochrane is part of the Starve the Beast crowd even if granny starves from these supposedly required reductions in transfer payments.

But let’s note why Cochrane flip flopped in his update:

Jeff Miron wrote to chide me gently for apparently implying the opposite, which is certainly not my intent. One graph from his excellent “US Fiscal Imbalance Over Time”.

Having read this Cato paper, it is time for my critical review that I promised. The review will start with the technical finance which in one way is a lot better than Cochrane’s rants but still troubling in certain ways. I will next turn to the policy if not political issues where this paper is even worse than Cochrane’s update. Beware – we will have to cover a fair amount of numbers but I hope to keep this within the context of my present value model:

Let g = the ratio of Federal expenditures excluding interest payments to GDP and t = the ratio of Federal taxes to GDP. If we assume a steady state model, the present value of future primary surplus is simply V = (t- g)/(r – n), where r = the real interest rate and n = the long-term growth rate. As long as V is at least as great as the debt/GDP ratio, we are not on the bankruptcy path that economists were talking about when Reagan initiated his 1981 fiscal fiasco. Tax rates were massively cut and defense spending spiked and had this fiscal stance continued forever, then the debt/GDP ratio would have exploded. Of course it didn’t as there were future tax increases and the peace dividend.

Miron is using the same basic model, which he expresses as:

Fiscal Imbalance = Present Value of Future Expenditure – Present Value of Future Revenue + Outstanding Debt

What I like about this equation is its focus on future spending and revenue not historical decisions which can be summarized as the current level of debt in terms of our model. Cochrane’s rant was a bit weak in this regard. May I suggest Cochrane rent the 1989 movie and check out this scene as the Joker gets basic finance! While I may quibble with Miron with respect to his forecasts, my big problem the use of nominal figures to draw his graph – which is far from “excellent”. Note his measure doubled in nominal terms since 2000 but so has nominal GDP (higher prices, more people, and higher income per person). Which is why this title and introduction is misleading:

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Fiscal Stability or Dire Straights: John Cochrane’s Latest Rant

Fiscal Stability or Dire Straights: John Cochrane’s Latest Rant

At times John Cochrane babbles on incoherently on what should be a straight forward issue. This post is one example:

Once you net out interest costs, it is interesting how sober US fiscal policy actually has been over the years. In economic good times, we run primary surpluses. The impression that the US is always running deficits is primarily because of interest costs. Even the notorious “Reagan deficits” were primarily payments, occasioned by the huge spike in interest rates, on outstanding debt. On a tax minus expenditure basis, not much unusual was going on especially considering it was the bottom of the (then) worst recession since WWII. Only in the extreme of 1976, 1982, and 2002, in with steep recessions and in the later case war did we touch any primary deficits, and then pretty swiftly returned to surpluses.

I too advocate looking at the primary surplus. Cochrane is a finance professor so let’s make this simple. Let g = the ratio of Federal expenditures excluding interest payments to GDP and t = the ratio of Federal taxes to GDP. If we assume a steady state model, the present value of future primary surplus is simply V = (t- g)/(r – n), where r = the real interest rate and n = the long-term growth rate. As long as V is at least as great as the debt/GDP ratio, we are not on the bankruptcy path that economists were talking about when Reagan initiated his 1981 fiscal fiasco. Tax rates were massively cut and defense spending spiked and had this fiscal stance continued forever, then the debt/GDP ratio would have exploded. Of course it didn’t as there were future tax increases and the peace dividend. Cochrane takes us through the Great Recession:

Until 2008. The last 10 years really have been an anomaly in US fiscal policy. One may say that the huge recession demanded huge fiscal stimulus, or one may think $10 trillion in debt was wasted. In either case, what we just went through was huge. And in the last data point, 2017, we are sliding again into territory only seen in severe recessions. That too is unusual.

The Great Recession did demand huge fiscal stimulus – we got a tempered version of what was really needed. The last decade has taken the debt/GDP ratio to 100% but we have returned to near full employment so I do not get his 2 last sentences quoted. In 2017, g was 19.5% and t was 18.5% so maybe we should be more concerned especially since we have had another tax cut for the rich as well as a call for a larger defense budget. But then comes his update!

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Baumol Cost Disease and Relative Prices – Part 2

Baumol Cost Disease and Relative Prices – Part 2

Many thanks to the Angrybear for reposting this as well as some excellent comments (save that absurd contention I’m a Luddite). If you check the comments over at Mark Perry’s place you will see that Paul Wynn made the same point I made and even linked to Timothy Lee:

This became known as Baumol’s cost disease, and Baumol realized that it had implications far beyond the arts. It implies that in a world of rapid technological progress, we should expect the cost of manufactured goods — cars, smartphones, T-shirts, bananas, and so forth — to fall, while the cost of labor-intensive services — schooling, health care, child care, haircuts, fitness coaching, legal services, and so forth — to rise. And this is exactly what the data shows. Decade after decade, health care and education have gotten more expensive while the price of clothing, cars, furniture, toys, and other manufactured goods has gone down relative to the overall inflation rate — exactly the pattern Baumol predicted a half-century ago… this has an important implication for government policy. Most of federal and state budgets are spent on services — law enforcement, education, health care, the courts, and so forth — that are subject to Baumol’s cost disease. Government spending on these categories has grown inexorably in recent decades, and many conservatives see this as a sign that there’s something badly wrong with how the government provides these services. But Baumol’s work suggests another explanation: It was simply inevitable that these services would get more expensive over time, at least relative to private sector manufactured goods like televisions and cars. The rising cost of services is an unavoidable side effect of rising affluence generally. There’s probably no way to maintain our current standard of living while cutting the cost of these services back to the levels of the 1950s.

Lee wrote this back on May 4 and included the same graph that Mark Perry presented.

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Mark Perry Has Never Heard of William Baumol

Mark Perry Has Never Heard of William Baumol

Otherwise why would Mark Perry write this nonsense:

The chart above (thanks to Olivier Ballou) is an update of a chart we produced last year about this time, and shows the percent changes since January 1997 in the prices of selected consumer goods and services, along with the increase in average hourly earnings in this version … Blue lines = prices subject to free market forces. Red lines = prices subject to regulatory capture by government. Food and drink is debatable either way. Conclusion: remind me why socialism is so great again.

PGL: The reason that prices of certain services have risen relative to the price of manufactured goods is socialism? There could be no other explanation. I guess Perry has never heard of William Baumol’s cost disease:

The example Baumol and the late William G. Bowen made famous is that of the string quartet. The number of musicians and the amount of time needed to play a Beethoven string quartet for a live audience hasn’t changed in centuries, yet today’s musicians make more than Beethoven-era wages. They argued that because the quartet needs its four musicians as much as a semiconductor company needs assembly workers, the group must raise wages to keep talent—to keep its cellist from chucking a career in music and going into a better-paying job instead. The effect now known as Baumol’s Cost Disease is used to explain why prices for the services offered by people-dependent professions with low productivity growth—such as (arguably) education, health care, and the arts—keep going up, even though the amount of goods and services each worker in those industries generates hasn’t necessarily done the same.

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Why Tax Cuts for Rich Dude Will Lead to Little Stimulus

Why Tax Cuts for Rich Dude Will Lead to Little Stimulus

Over at Brad DeLong’s blog jonny bakho adds an interesting comment:

How much stimulus did the GWBush tax cuts provide? They came during a recession followed by “jobless recovery” made somewhat better by the housing bubble, then burst big time in 2008. How different would the multiplier be if given to infrastructure repair and broadband extension, investments that create domestic jobs? In a global economy, tax cuts to the investor class are spent globally. Tax cuts for investors can theoretically speed the process of offshoring if most of the good investments are in foreign countries, a negative domestic stimulus. In a global economy, all “stimulus” is leaky. To be a truly domestic stimulus, tax cuts and spending must be carefully targeted. GOP tax cuts in 2001 and 2016 were both designed to enrich wealthy patrons, with little attention to targeting for domestic stimulus

For some reason I could not add to his comment there so I decided to post my thoughts here:

Make that the 2017 tax cut and add in the 2003 tax cut and I agree. First of all the marginal propensity to consume for rich dudes (MPC-rd) is likely quite modest and the impact effect = the tax cut for our rich dude times (MPC-rd minus his marginal propensity to import). If this rich dude takes his trophy wife to Rodeo Drive to spend $1800 on a Louis Vuitton bag – that bag was made in France.

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Lawrence Summers on Those Employee Bonuses – a Redux of the 1990’s?

Lawrence Summers on Those Employee Bonuses – a Redux of the 1990’s?

Lawrence Summers made an interesting comments during a CNBC interview:

Former Treasury Secretary and Obama administration economic advisor Larry Summers said Friday that recent employee bonuses are stunts and not reflective of long-term hopes for prosperity that tax cuts are supposed to bring. “I think it’s a gimmick,” Summers told CNBC’s “Squawk Alley.” “I think in many cases the firms have to raise wages because labor markets are tight, and so why not curry some favor with the White House by linking it to the tax cuts.”

During the late 1990’s we saw a temporary surge in demand for R&D personal that was driven by the internet revolution. A lot of the compensation for these employees came in the form of employee stock options. One possible rational for this form of compensation is had these companies raised their employee wages then it might be difficult to curtail compensation if the demand for their products and services fell. In fact we know the internet revolution did have a crash at the turn of the century and the issuance and value of these employee stock options took a hit.

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The Black Unemployment Rate

The Black Unemployment Rate

 Josh Marshall listens to Donald Trump so we do not have to:

President Trump has been out bragging that “because of my policies” the African-American unemployment rate has dropped to its lowest level ever. This appears to be technically true. But I thought it made sense to give some context for the nonsensical nature of this claim. As you can see, the idea that this is “because of my policies” is a bit hard to square with the actual data.

Josh provides the data on the black unemployment rate from January 1972 to December 2017. This rate spiked during the Great Recession but fell dramatically during the Obama term and continued its decline. Far enough but this is a very misleading metric. While the black unemployment rate is lower than it was even in 2000, let’s note why. The black labor force participation rate was only 62.1% as of December 2017 as opposed to 66.0 percent in April 2000. A better metric would be to compare the black employment to population rate which reached 61.4% but was only 57.9% as of December 2017. One has to wonder if Trump just thinks we are stupid or if he has just incredibly low expectations.

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Negative Interest Rates and a Term Structure Puzzle

Negative Interest Rates and a Term Structure Puzzle

James Hamilton provided us with another interesting discussion on negative interest rates:

we now have several years of experience from Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland, Japan, and the European Central Bank in which the central bank successfully induced negative interest rates in hopes of stimulating a greater level of spending on goods and services.

Please read the entire post including some interesting comments. Alas I must be late to the party as I could not provide a reply to an interesting query from Barkley Rosser:

Does anybody have an explanation as to why when a nation has negative nominal target interest rates it often seems that the time horizon of government securities that end up having the most negative rates are often at the two years time horizon? Look at the Sweden case, where this has been the case, and it has also been in quite a few other nations as well. I have yet to see an explanation of this peculiarly non-monotonic yield curve in this situation so often.

Maybe Europe has turned Japanese. I’ve been looking at an Excel file of their government bond rates provided by the Ministry of Finance (not the Bank of Japan). Japan had low but not negative interest rates before 2012 with a somewhat upward sloping term structure. Since 2012, two features describe this data: (1) one-year rates hovering around zero – sometimes positive and sometimes negative; (2) two-year rates hovering near the one-year rate and it times just below them. What is driving this? I have no answer.

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