Thursday, November 1, 2012

Debate with Goolsbee

Last Tuesday, Glen Weyl asked me to debate economic policy issues in the current election with Austan Goolsbee, in the famous "rational choice" workshop. Here's my 10-minute opening statement. Austan did a great job in a tough audience.

Economic Policy and the Election: 

Growth is our number one economic challenge. Here’s how recoveries are supposed to look. We get a period of very strong growth rates, until the economy recovers to “trend,” or potential.”

Here we are. Not only have we failed to bounce back, growth is slowing down. We seem headed for a permanent loss of about 8% and sclerotic 1-2% growth.

I’m not the only one who thinks we should have bounced back. This nice graph comes from the administration’s 2010 budget, to document the same point that we should bounce back. (Note the great depression. It was not 10 years of steady stagnation. It had a strong recovery, then a double dip in 1937.)

And here, I’ve plotted the Administration’s successive forecasts in blue. They thought we should have bounced back, and you can see the tragedy of their slowly diminished expectations. So much for “recessions after financial crises are inevitably [and hence predictably] long.”

Growth drives everything. Before this recession, 63% of population was working. That ratio plunged to 58%, and is stuck there. New “jobs” just match the new people. About 5% of the working-age population – 12 million people – are out of work, apparently, permanently.

Only growth will bring back 12 million jobs. 10 more green energy boondoggles, 100 more job training programs or 100,000 teachers won’t do it. In the short run, capital and technology are pretty fixed, so you hire more people when you produce more output. Or, as Casey Mulligan argues in his great new book, you produce more output when the government stops putting sand in the gears of hiring people.

Our second huge problem is debt. The Federal government takes in about $2 trillion a year, spends $3 trillion and is $16 trillion in debt. This simply cannot last.

To get out, we need growth. The graph shows the surplus/deficit along with detrended GDP. Our government takes in about 18% of GDP year in and year out, no matter what tax rates are. Tax revenue rises when income rises. If income does not rise, we become Greece.

Growth, growth, growth. It’s not a secret. Growth ultimately comes from productivity. New ideas, products, technologies, businesses, and processes. The dismal 1970s coincided with a sharp productivity decline. Following the Reagan recovery, perhaps sparked by deregulation and tax reform, economic growth, trended up for two decades, which, as you see in the previous graph, is what paid off the Reagan deficits.

But we seem ominously set to repeat the 70s.

I’m sure we all have good ideas about what to do. But we’re here to think about what our two presidential candidates are proposing.

Every sensible observer agrees that we need to reform our chaotic tax system. And how: lower marginal rates, but eliminate the forest of deductions, credits, expenditures and subsidies to keep revenue at least neutral.  This is what Mr. Romney is proposing.

No, marginal tax rates are probably not the central thing driving our sluggish growth, and yes, the economy has grown reasonably despite higher rates in the past. But we know the direction of the effect! Margins matter. This is econ 101.

By contrast, the administration has one idea: a monomaniacal focus on raising taxes on “the rich.”

We don’t need to argue about “fairness,” who “made it,” how progressive our tax and benefits system is already. Let’s just ask if it will work.

Even if there is no avoidance or disincentive, this can raise maybe $50 billion, out of $1.2 trillion deficits. No, it will not fund “investments” or bring down deficits, as the President claims. That’s arithmetic, not economics, and it’s off by two orders of magnitude.

And, by what economics is the central key to escaping sclerotic growth that we should sharply raise marginal tax rates on investment and business formation? When, ever, has a society experiencing sclerotic growth restored robust prosperity by a tax-based redistribution? The last time we tried it was 1937. Roosevelt raised taxes on “the rich” to 70% and sent his attorney general off on a “war on capital.” He got a “capital strike” and his big recession became the great depression. President Obama will follow his hero’s footsteps.

The utter chaos of our tax and spending is more important than the rates. The government has not passed a budget in years. Spain and Greece pass budgets! What serious country decides its taxes every year, in late-night sessions in the middle of January, with thousands of special deals up for grabs?

For the first time ever, this administration doesn’t even pretend that it will balance the budget! Despite all the rosy scenario they can muster, they are proposing trillion dollar deficits forever. Forget the games of “scoring” various plans – does anyone really believe that the actual outcome of a Romney administration is going to be higher deficits than under a second Obama term?

Entitlements are the long-run budget catastrophe. Like it or not, at least Ryan and Romney are advocating a serious entitlement reform. The administration promises, not one penny cut from your Medicare and Social security. But we don’t have that money – this promise must be broken. The only question is how.

Rather than get the long-run right, the administration has indulged in a patchwork of short-run meddling. Stimulus. Cash for clunkers, which destroyed the market for used cars that low-income people depend on. Temporary tax breaks, with the constant threat of higher future taxes. 100 mortgage writedown programs that don’t work. Bankrupt solar panel factories, yet Al Gore walks away with $100 million bucks.

I would not mind if any of this worked. It demonstrably did not.

Source: John Taylor
Dodd Frank and Obamacare are the administration’s singular achievements. With the house in Republican hands, it’s clear there will be no big legislative initiatives in a second Obama term.

Thus, the main story of the second Obama term will be Dodd-Frank and Obamacare “implementation,” writing tens of thousands of pages of rules and creating the hundreds of new agencies those measures mandate, along with expansion of the other regulatory agencies.

I would not mind if these had a chance of working. Health care is a mess. And financial regulation needed to be rethought. But Dodd Frank and Obamacare are disasters. Beyond the well-reported costs.

Obama care and Dodd Frank are not really laws or rules. Instead, they send appointed officials off with huge power and discretion, to run businesses and markets as they see fit. (There are “rules” but they are so massive and so vague, that discretion is their effect.)

A microscopic example: “stress tests.” The Fed staffers in charge are not writing rules – they’re open about it: If they write rules, the banks will work around the rules. So each quarter they dream up something new and challenging to surprise the big banks with. And hundreds of billions of dollars hang on the results. George Stigler is turning over in his grave.

Another: Obamacare is so onerous, that thousands of discretionary waivers are already being handed out. Better not contribute too loudly to Republican causes.

Another: the EPA official caught wanting to “crucify” a few businesses. Here’s a guy dispassionately enforcing clear rules, eh?

Now, telescope. There are tens of thousands of these stories. Regulation is not “more or less” it’s smarter or dumber, more or less prone to evasion, economic stagnation, unintended effects, anti-competitive capture, and crony capitalism.

Our only hope is to replace these with clear, simple, rule-based regulations. Individual, portable, renewable health insurance and a competitive health-care market. Simple effective financial regulation. After four more years of Dodd-Frank and ACA metastasis, the chance to do that will have passed.

None of this was a mistake. The last four years of disastrous economic policy came from a deeply ingrained philosophy: that detailed discretionary control by government bureaucrats is the way to run the macro and micro economy. That growth comes from a one-year special tax break for this or that, a $7000 credit for silicon valley tycoons to buy electric sports cars, and sending the staff of HHS to tell each of us what medicine we need and the Fed to tell each bank who it should lend to.

No. Prosperity comes from property rights, rule of law, simple clear and stable taxation and regulation, which is hard to bend to crony capitalism and protection, and competition.

Not everything in Romney’s plan is perfect. I won’t defend “energy independence” and a fairly mercantilist attitude towards trade. But again, our task tonight is to pick from the menu, not to roll our own. The outlines of what Romney is proposing – and more importantly he, Ryan, the economic advisers I know, and what seems likely to emerge from their administration -- are a lot closer to that philosophy.

(Notes:  This is more political than what I usually write here, so I turned comments off. I don't want to fight about politics or deal with moderating the hate-filled comments I know are coming.

Many graphs and points have shown up in previous blog posts with more detailed explanation, especially "Just how bad is the economy?" "Inevitably slow recoveries?,and  Recoveries after financial crises".

I deliberately kept the graphs simple so the facts would be transparent. Yes, GDP per capita, consumption per capita, etc. might be better measures, labor force should adjust for demographics, I used output per worker to measure productivity, etc.  All can be done better, getting the same basic result, but at the cost of a bit of obscurity.)