Thursday, September 15, 2016

Testimony 2

On the way back from Washington, I passed the time reformatting my little essay for the Budget committee to html for blog readers. See below. (Short oral remarks here in the last blog post, and pdf version of this post here.)

I learned a few things while in DC.

The Paul Ryan "A better way" plan is serious, detailed, and you will be hearing a lot about it. I read most of it in preparation for my trip, and it's impressive. Expect reviews here soon. I learned that Republicans seem to be uniting behind it and ready to make a major push to publicize it. It is, by design, a document that Senatorial and Congressional candidates will use to define a positive agenda for their campaigns, as well as describing a comprehensive legislative and policy agenda.

"Infrastructure" is bigger in the conversation than I thought. But since there is no case that potholes caused the halving of America's trend growth rate, do not be surprised if infrastructure fails to double the trend growth rate. It's also a bit sad that the most common growth idea in Washington is, acording to my commenters, about 2,500 years old -- employment on public works.

Washington conversation remains in thrall to the latest numbers. There was lots of buzz at my hearing about a recent census report that median family income was up 5%. Chicagoans used to get excited about the 40 degree February thaw.

The quality can be very very good. Congressman Price, the chair of my session, covered just about every topic in my testimony, and possibly better. Congressional staff are really good, and they are paying attention to the latest. If you write policy-related economics, take heart, they really are listening.

The questions at my hearing pushed me to clarify just how will debt problems affect the average American. What I had not said in the prepared remarks needs to be said. If we don't get an explosion of growth, the US will not be able to make good on its promises to social security, health care, government pensions, credit guarantees, taxpayers, and bondholders. Something's got to give. And the growing size of entitlements means they must give. Even a default on the debt, raising taxes to the long-run Laffer limit, will not pay for current pension and health promises. Those will be cut. The question is how. If we wait to a fiscal crisis, they will be cut unexpectedly and by large amounts, leaving people who counted on them in dire straits. Greece is a good example. If we make sensible sustainable promises now, they will be cut less, and people will have decades to adjust.

Ok, on to html testimony:

Growing Risks to the Budget and the Economy.
Testimony of John H. Cochrane before the House Committee on Budget.
September 14 2016

Chairman Price, Ranking Member Van Hollen, and members of the committee: It is an honor to speak to you today.

I am John H. Cochrane. I am a Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University1. I speak to you today on my own behalf on not that of any institution with which I am affiliated.

Sclerotic growth is our country's most fundamental economic problem.2 From 1950 to 2000, our economy grew at 3.6% per year.3 Since 2000, it has grown at barely half that rate, 1.8% per year. Even starting at the bottom of the recession in 2009, usually a period of super-fast catch-up growth, it has grown at just over 2% per year. Growth per person fell from 2.3% to 0.9%, and since the recession has been 1.3%.

The CBO long-term budget analysis4 looks out 30 years, and forecasts roughly 2% growth. On current trends that is likely an over-estimate, as it presumes we will have no recessions, or that future recessions will have not have the permanent effects we have seen of the last several recessions. If we grow at 2%, the economy will expand by 82% in 30 years, almost doubling.5 But if we can just get back to the 3.6% postwar normal growth rate, the economy will expand by 194%, almost tripling instead. We will add the entire current US economic output to the total. In per-person terms, a 1.3% trend gives the average American 48% more income in 30 years. Reverting to the postwar 2.3% average means 99% more income, twice as much. And economic policy was not perfect in the last half of the 20th century. We should be able to do even better.

Restoring sustained, long-term economic growth is the key to just about every economic and budgetary problem we face.

Nowhere else are we talking about doubling or not the average American's income.6

Nowhere else are we talking about doubling or not Federal revenues. Long-term Federal revenues depend almost entirely on economic growth. In 1990, the Federal Government raised $1.6 trillion inflation-adjusted dollars. In 2016, this has doubled to $3.1 trillion. Wow! Did the government double tax rates? No. The overall federal tax rate stayed almost the same -- 18.0% of GDP in 1990, 18.8% of GDP today. Income doubled.

Whether deficits and debt balloon, whether we our government can pay for Social Security and health care, defend the country, and fund other goals such as protecting the environment, depend most crucially on economic growth.

Why has growth halved? Some will tell you that the economy is working as well as it can, but we've just run out of new ideas.7 A quick tour of the Silicon Valley makes one suspicious of that claim.

Others will bring you novel and untested economic theories: we suffer an ill-defined "secular stagnation" that requires massive borrowing and spending, even wasted spending. The "multiplier" translating government spending to output is not one and a half, and a temporary expedient which can briefly raise the level of income in a depression, but six or more, enough to finance itself by the larger tax revenues which larger output induces --a proposition long derided of the "supply side" --and it can now kick off long-term growth.8 Like 18th century doctors to whom disease was an imbalance of humors, modern macroeconomic doctors have one diagnosis and remedy for all the complex ills that can befall a modern economy: "demand!"

I'm here to tell you the most plausible answer is simple, clear, sensible, and much more difficult. Our legal and regulatory system is slowly strangling the golden goose of growth. There is no single Big Fix. Each market, industry, law, and agency is screwed up in its own particular way, and needs patient reform.

America is middle aged, out of shape and overweight. One voice says: well, get used to it, buy bigger pants. Another voice says: 10 day miracle detox cleanse! I'm here to tell you that the only reliable answer is good old-fashioned diet and exercise.

Or, a better metaphor perhaps: our economy, legal and regulatory system has become like a hoarder's house. No, there isn't a miracle organizer system. We have to patiently clean out every room.

Economic regulation, law and policy all slow growth by their nature. Growth comes from new ideas, new products, new processes, new ways of doing things, and most of these embodied in new companies. And these upend old companies, and displace their workers, both of whom come to Washington pleading that you save them and their jobs. It is a painful process. It is natural that the administration, regulatory agencies, and you, listen and try to protect them. But every time we protect an old company, an old industry, or an old job, from innovation and competition, we slow down growth.

How do we solve this problem and get back to growth? Our national political and economic debate has gotten stale, each side repeating the same base-pleasing talking points, but making no progress persuading the other. Making one or the other points again, or louder, will get us nowhere. I will try, instead, to find policies that think outside of these tired boxes, and that can appeal to all sides of the political spectrum.

Rather than "more government" or "less government," let's focus on fixing government. We need above all a grand simplification of our economic, legal, and political life, so that government does what it does competently and efficiently.

Regulation: fix the process.

"There's too much regulation, we're stifling business. No, there's too little regulation, businesses are hurting people." Or so goes the tired argument. Regulation is strangling business investment, and especially the formation of new businesses. But the main problem with regulation is how it's done, not how much. If we fix regulation, the quantity will take care of itself. We can agree on smarter regulation, better regulation, not just "more" or "less" regulation.9

Regulation is too discretionary --you can't read the rules and know what to do, you have to ask for permission granted on regulators' whim. No wonder that the revolving door revolves faster and faster, oiled by more and more money.

Regulatory decisions take forever. Just deciding on the Keystone Pipeline or California's high speed train --I pick examples from left and right on purpose --takes longer than it did to build the transcontinental railroad in the 1860s. By hand.

Regulation has lost rule-of-law protections. You often can't see the evidence, challenge witnesses, or appeal. The agency is cop, prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner all rolled in to one. [And, a Congressman pointed out during the discussion, recipient of collected fines.]

Most dangerous of all, regulation and associated legal action are becoming more politicized. Each week brings a new scandal. Last week10, we learned how the Government shut down ITT tech, but not the well-connected Laureate International. The IRS still targets conservative groups11. The week before, we learned how the company that makes Epi-pens, headed by the daughter of a Senator, got the FDA to block its competitors, Congress to mandate its products, and jacked up the price of an item that costs a few bucks to $600. This is a bi-partisan danger. For example, presidential candidate Donald Trump has already threatened to use the power of the government against people who donate to opponents' campaigns.12

America works because you can lose an election, support an unpopular cause, speak out against a policy you disagree with, and this will not bring down the attentions of the IRS, the EPA, the NLRB, the SEC, the CFPB, the DOJ, the FDA, the FTC, the Department of Education, and so forth, who can swiftly put you out of business even if eventually you are proven innocent, or just slow-roll your requests for permissions until you run out of money.

This freedom does not exist in much of the world. The Administrative state is an excellent tool for cementing power. But when people can't afford to lose an election, countries come unglued. Do not let this happen in the US.

Congress can take back its control of the regulatory process. Write no more thousand-page bills with vague authorizations. Fight back hard when agencies exceed their authorization. Insist on objective and retrospective cost benefit analysis. Put in rule-of law protections, including discovery of how agencies make decisions. Insist on strict timelines --if an agency takes more than a year to rule on a request, it's granted. [I later learned this is called a "shot clock" in Washington, a nice metaphor.]

Health care and finance are the two biggest new regulatory headaches. The ACA and Dodd-Frank aren't working, and are important drags on employment and economic growth. Simple workable alternatives exist. Implement them.

The real health care problem is not how we pay for health care, but the many restrictions on its supply and competition.13 If hospitals were as competitive as airlines, they would work darn hard to heal us at much lower --and disclosed! --prices. If the FDA did not strangle new medicines and devices, even generics, prices would fall.

Competition is always the best disinfectant, guarantor of good service and low prices. Yet almost all uncompetitive markets in the US are uncompetitive because some law or regulation keeps competitors out.

Rather than guarantee bank debts, and unleash an army of regulators to make sure banks don't risk too much, we should instead insist that banks get their money in ways that do not risk crises, primarily issuing equity and long-term debt. Then banks can fail just like other companies, and begin to compete just like other companies.14

"The planet is dying, control carbon!" "Your crony energy boondoggles and regulations are killing the economy!" Well, that argument is not getting us anywhere, is it? The answer is straightforward: A simple carbon tax in exchange for elimination of all the growth-killing, intrusive, cronyist, and ineffective micromanagement. We can continue to argue about the rate of that tax, but it will both reduce more carbon, and increase more growth, than the current ineffective policies --and stagnant debate.

None of these recommendations are ideological or partisan. These are just simple, clean-out-the-junk, workable ways to get our regulatory system to actually work, for its goal of protecting consumers and the environment, at minimal economic and political damage.

Social programs: Fix the incentives.

"Cut spending, or the debt will balloon!" "Raise spending or people will die in the streets!" That's getting nowhere too. And it ignores central problems.

In many social programs, if you earn an extra dollar, you lose a dollar or more of benefits. Many programs have cliffs, especially in health care and disability, where earning one extra dollar triggers an enormous loss. Even when one program cuts benefits modestly with income, the interaction of many programs makes work impossible.15 No wonder that people become trapped. We need to fix these disincentives. Doing so will help people better. If we fix the incentives, though it may look like we spend more, in the end we will spend less --and encourage economic growth as well as opportunity.

Spend more to spend less. "Spending is out of control! We need to spend less or there will be a debt crisis!" "Oh there you go being heartless again. We need to invest more in programs that help Americans in need." I feel like I'm at a dinner party hosted by a couple in a bad marriage. This isn't getting us anywhere.

It is important to limit Federal spending. However, we tend to just limit the appearance of spending by moving the same activities off the books. Off-the-books spending does the same economic damage. Or more.

For example, we allow an income tax deduction for mortgage interest, in order to subsidize homeownership. From an economic point of view, this is exactly the same thing as collecting higher taxes, and then sending checks to homeowners. It looks like we're taxing and spending less than we really are. But from an economic growth point of view, it's the same thing.

Actually, it's worse, because it adds unfairness and inefficiency. Suppose a colleague proposes a bill to you: The U.S. Treasury will send checks to homeowners, but high income people get much bigger checks, as will people who borrow a lot, and people who refinance often and take cash out. People with low incomes, who save up to buy houses, or don't refinance, get a lot less. You would say, "You're out of your mind!" But that's exactly what the mortgage interest deduction achieves!

If we were to eliminate the mortgage deduction, and put housing subsidies on budget, where taxpayers can see where their money is going, the resulting homeowner subsidy would surely be a lot smaller, much more progressive, helping lower income people, better targeted at getting people in houses, and less damaging of savings and economic growth. Both Republicans and Democrats should rejoice. Except the headline amount of taxing and spending will increase. Well, spend more to spend less.

We allow a tax deduction for charitable deductions. This is exactly the same thing as taxing more, but then sending checks to non-profits as matching contributions --but much larger checks for contributions from rich people than from poorer people. Then, many "non-profits" spend a lot of money on private jet travel, executive salaries, and political activities. Actual on-budget federal spending, convoluted and inefficient as it is, at least has a modicum of oversight and transparency. If we removed the deduction, but subsidized worthy charities, with transparency and oversight, we'd do a lot more good, and probably overall tax less and spend less. Except the headline amount of taxing and spending might increase. Well, spend more to spend less.

Mandates are the same thing as taxing and spending. Many European countries tax a lot, and then provide services, like health insurance. We mandate that employers provide health insurance. It looks like we're taxing and spending less, but we're not. A health insurance mandate has exactly the same economic effects as a $15,000 head tax on each employee, financing a $15,000 health insurance voucher.

Economics pays no heed to budget tricks. Spending too much rhetorical effort on lowering taxes and spending induces our government to such tricks, with the same growth-destroying effects. If you want economic growth, treat every mandate as taxing and spending.

Taxes: break up the argument.

The outlines of tax reform have been plain for a long time: lower marginal rates, broaden the base by getting rid of the massive welter of special deals. But it can't get done. Why not?

When we try to fix taxes,16 we argue about four things at once: 1) What is the right structure for a tax code? 2) What is the right level of taxes, and therefore, of spending? 3) What activities should the government subsidize -- home mortgages, charitable contributions, electric cars, and so on? 4) How much should the government redistribute income?

Tax reforms fail because we argue about all these together. For example, the Bowles-Simpson commission got to an improvement on the structure of taxes, but then the reform effort fell apart when the Administration wanted more revenue and congressional Republicans less.

I am back at my dysfunctional dinner party. Sometimes, in politics as in marriage, it is wise to bundle issues together, each side accepting a minor loss to ensure what they see as a major gain. You clean up your socks, I'll clean up my makeup. Sometimes, however, we bundle too many issues together, and the result is paralysis, as each side vetoes a package of improvements over a small issue. Then, it's better to work on the issues separately.

So, let's fix taxes by separating these four issues, in four commissions possibly, or better in four completely separate sections of law.

1) Structure. Agree on the right structure of the tax code, with its only goal to raise revenue at minimal economic distortion, but leave the rates blank.

2) Rates. Determine the rates, without touching the structure of the tax code. A good tax code should last decades. Rates may change every year, and likely will be renegotiated every four. But those who want higher or lower rates know they can agree on the structure of the tax code.

3) Separate the subsidy code from the tax code. Mortgage interest subsidies? Electric car subsidies? Sure, we'll talk about them, but separately. Then, we don't have to muck up raising revenue for the government with subsidies, and the budgetary and economic impact of subsidies can be evaluated on their own merits

4) Separate the redistribution code from the tax code. Then we don't muck up raising revenue for the government with income transfers.

The main point is that by separating these four elements of law, each with fundamentally different purposes, we are much more likely to make coherent progress on each. You need not oppose beneficial aspects of an economically efficient tax simplification, say, if you wish to have a greater level of redistribution --well, at least any more than you might oppose any random bill in order to force your way on that issue.

Some thoughts on how each of these might work:

Structure. The economic damage of taxation is entirely about "marginal'' rates --if you earn an extra dollar, how much do you get to enjoy it, after all taxes, federal, state, local, sales, estate, and so forth. Economics has really little to say about how much taxes people pay. The economists' ideal is a tax system in which people pay as much as the Government needs --but each extra dollar earned is tax-free. Politics, of course, focuses pretty much on the opposite, how much people pay and ignoring the economically-distorting margins.

Thus, if you ask 100 economists, "now, forget politics for a moment --that's our job --and tell me what the right tax code is, with the only objective being to raise revenue without distorting the economy,'' the pretty universal answer will be a consumption tax --with no corporate tax, income tax, tax on savings or rates of return, estates, or anything else, and essentially no deductions. (They will then say "but..." and go on to demand subsidies and income redistribution, at which time you have to assure them too that we'll discuss these separately.)

A massive simplification of the tax code is, in my opinion, as or more important than the rates --and it's something we're more likely to agree on. America's tax code is an obscenely complex cronyist nightmare.

For example, that's why I favor, and you should seriously consider, eliminating the corporate tax. Corporations never pay any taxes. All money they send to the government comes from higher prices, lower wages, or lower returns to shareholders --and mostly the former two. If you tax people who receive corporate profits, rather than collecting taxes from higher prices and lower wages, you will have a more progressive tax system.

But more importantly, if you eliminate the corporate tax, you will eliminate the constant stream of lobbyists in your offices each day asking for special favors.

Far too many businesses are structured around taxes, and far too many smart minds are spending their time devising corporate tax avoidance schemes and lobbying strategies. A much simpler tax code even with sharply higher rates --but very clear rates, that we all know about and can plan on --may well have less economic distortion than a massively complex code, with high statutory rates, but a welter of complex schemes and deductions that result in lower taxes.

Subsidy code. Tax expenditures --things like deductions for mortgage interest, employer provided health care, charitable contributions, and the $10,000 credit my wealthy Palo Alto neighbor got from the taxpayers for buying a Tesla -- are estimated at $1.4 trillion,17 compare with $3.5 trillion Federal Receipts and $4 trillion Federal Expenditures.18 Our Federal Government is really a third larger than it looks.

While the subsidy code could consist of a separate discussion of tax expenditures, it would be far better for the rules of the subsidy code to be: all subsidies must be on budget, where we can all see what's going on.

Redistribution. Even a consumption tax can be as progressive as one wants. One can use the regular income tax code with full deduction of savings and omitting capital income, thus taxing high consumption at higher rates and low consumption at lower rates.

Again, however, it might well be more efficient to integrate income redistribution with social programs. Put it on budget, and send checks to people. Yes, that makes spending look larger, but sending a check is the same thing as giving a tax break. And spending can be more carefully monitored.


Infrastructure is all the rage19. America needs infrastructure. Good infrastructure, purchased at minimum cost, that passes objective cost-benefit criteria, built promptly, can help the economy in the long run. Soft infrastructure --a better justice system, for example --matters as much as hard infrastructure --more asphalt.

However, there is no case that the halving of America's growth rate in the last 20 years is centrally due to potholes and rusting bridges. Poor infrastructure is not the cause of sclerosis, so already one should be wary of infrastructure investment as the central plan to cure that sclerosis.

The claim that infrastructure spending will lift the economy out of its doldrums lies on the "multiplier" effect, that any spending, even wasted, is good for the economy. That is a dubious proposition, especially when the task is to raise the economy by tens of trillions, over decades.

Modern infrastructure is built by machines, and not many people; even less people who do not have the specialized skills. A Freeway in California will do little to help employment of a high school dropout in New York, or a middle-aged mortgage broker in New Jersey. Neither knows how to operate a grader.

The problem with infrastructure is not lack of money. President Obama inaugurated a nearly trillion dollar stimulus plan 8 years ago. His Administration found out there are few shovel-ready projects in America today. They're all tied up waiting for historic review, environmental review, and legal challenges.

The problem with infrastructure is a broken process. Put a time limit on historic, environmental, and other reviews. Require serious, objective, and retrospective cost-benefit analysis. Repeal Davis-Bacon and other contracting requirements that send costs soaring. If the point is infrastructure it should be infrastructure, not passing money around. You ought to be able to agree on more money in return for assurance that the money is wisely spent.

Debt and deficits

This hearing is also about budgets and debts, which I have left to the end. Yes, our deficits are increasing. Yes, every year the Congressional Budget Office declares our long-term promises unsustainable.

I have not emphasized this problem, though in my opinion it is centrally important, and I think I was invited here to say so.

Recognize that computer simulations with hockey-stick debt, designed to frighten into submission a supporter of what he or she feels is necessary government spending, are as ineffective as computer simulations with hockey-stick temperatures, designed to frighten into submission a supporter of current economic growth and skeptic of draconian energy regulation. Yelling about each, louder, is not going to be productive.

And there are many voices who tell you debt is not a problem. Interest rates are at record lows. Why not borrow more, and worry about paying it back later? So, let me offer a few out of the box observations, and suggestions that you might agree on.

It is useful to clarify why debt is a problem. The case that large debts will slowly and inexorably push up interest rates, and crowd out investment, is hard to make in this era of ultra-low rates. Debt does place a burden of repayment on our children and grandchildren, but if we have reasonable economic growth they will be wealthier than we are.

The biggest danger that debt poses is a crisis.

Debt crises, like all crises that really threaten an economy and society, do not come with decades of warning. Do not expect slowly rising interest rates to canary the coalmine. Even Greece could borrow at remarkably low rates. Until, one day, it couldn't, with catastrophic results.

The fear for the US is similar. We will have long years of low rates. Until, someday, it is discovered that some books are cooked, and somebody owes a lot of money that they can't pay back, and people start to question debts everywhere.

For example, suppose Chinese debts blow up, and southern Europe as well. Both Europe and China will start selling Treasury debt quickly. Suppose at the same time that student loans, state and local pensions, and state governments are blowing up, along with some large U.S. companies, and banks under deposit insurance. A recession looms, which the US will want to fight with fiscal stimulus. The last crisis occasioned about $5 trillion of extra borrowing. The next one could double that.

So, the U.S. needs to quickly borrow additional trillions of dollars, while its major customers --foreign central banks --are selling. In addition, the U.S. borrows relatively short term. Each year, the U.S. borrows about $7 trillion to pay off $7 trillion of maturing debt, and then more to cover the deficit.

Imagine all this happens 10 years from now, with social security and medicare unresolved and increasing deficits. The CBO is still issuing its annual warnings that our debt is unsustainable. Now, bond investors are willing to lend to the US government so long as they think someone else will lend tomorrow to pay off their loans today. When they suspect that isn't true, they pull back and interest rates spike.

But our large debts leave our fiscal position sensitive to interest rate rises. At 100% debt to GDP ratio, if interest rates rise to just 5%, that means the deficit rises by 5 percentage points of GDP, or approximately $1 Trillion extra dollars per year. If bond investors were worried about sustainability already, an extra trillion a year of deficits makes it worse. So they demand even higher interest rates. Debt that is easily financed at 1% rates is not sustainable at 5% rates and a catastrophe at 10% rates --if you have a large debt outstanding.

This is a big part of what happened to Greece and nearly happened to Italy. At low interest rates, they are solvent. At high interest rates, they are not.

Debt crises are like an earthquakes. It's always quiet. People laugh at you for worrying. Buying insurance seems like a waste of money. Until it isn't.

So, the way to think about the dangers of debt is not like a predictable problem that comes to us slowly. View the issue as managing a small risk of a catastrophic problem, like a war or pandemic.

The easy answers are straightforward. Sensible reforms to Social Security and Medicare are on the table. Fix the indexing, improve the incentives for older people to keep working. Convert medicare to a premium support policy.

The harder problems are those less recognized. Underfunded pensions, widespread credit guarantees, and explicit or implicit too big to fail guarantees add tinder to the fire. Dry powder and good credit are invaluable.

Above all, undertake a pro-growth economic policy. We grew out of larger debts after World War II; we can do that again.

You can also buy some insurance. Every American household that takes out a mortgage faces the choice: fixed rate, or variable rate? The fixed rate is a little higher. But it can't go up, no matter what happens. The variable rate starts out lower. But if interest rates rise, you might not be able to make the payments, and you might lose the house. That is what happens to countries in a debt crisis.

For the US, this decision is made by the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve. The Treasury has been gently lengthening the maturity of its borrowings. The Federal Reserve has been neatly undoing that effort.

Both Treasury and Fed need direction from Congress. The Treasury does not regard managing risks to the budget posed by interest rate rises as a central part of its job, and the Fed does not even consider this fact. Congress needs to decide who is in charge of the maturity structure of US debt, and guide the Treasury. I hope that guidance leans towards the fixed rate plan. By issuing long-term debt --I argue in fact for perpetuities, that simply pay a $1 coupon forever with no fixed roll over date -- and engaging in simple swap transactions that every bank uses to manage interest rate risk, the U.S. can isolate itself from a debt crisis very effectively.20 But at least ask that fixed or floating interest rate question and make a decision.

As I have warned against focusing too much attention on on-budget spending, so let me warn against too much attention on deficits rather than spending. If you focus on debt and deficits, the natural inclination is to raise tax rates. Europe's experience in the last few years argues against "austerity" in the form of sharply higher tax rates, as always adding to the disincentive to hire, invest, or start innovative businesses.

Concluding comments

I have sketched some novel and radical-sounding approaches to restoring robust economic growth. Economic growth, together with commonsense fiscal discipline are keys to solving our budget problems.

This is not pie in the sky. These are simple straightforward steps, none controversial as a matter of economics. And there really is no alternative. Ask of other approaches: Does this at all plausibly diagnose why America's growth rate has fallen in half? Does the cure at all plausibly address the diagnosis? Is the cure based on a reasonable causal channel that you can actually explain to a constituent? Does the cure have a ghost of a chance of having a large enough effect to really make a difference?

You may object that fundamental reform is not "politically feasible." Well, what's "politically feasible" can change fast in this country. This is an exciting time politically. The people are mad as hell, and they're not taking it any more. They are ready for fundamental changes.

Furthermore, it is time for Congress to take the lead. These are properly Congressional matters, and no matter who wins the Presidential election you are unlikely to see leadership in this direction.

Winston Churchill once said that Americans can be trusted to do the right thing after we've tried everything else. [NB: apparently this is an urban legend. Oh well, it's a good quip if not a quote] Well, we've tried everything else. It's time to prove him right.


1. You can find a full CV, a list of all affiliations, and a catalog of written work at

2.This testimony summarizes several recent essays. On growth and for an overview, see "Economic Growth." 2016. In John Norton Moore, ed., The Presidential Debates Carolina Academic Press p. 65-90.; "Ending America's Slow-Growth Tailspin." Wall Street Journal, May 3 2016., and "Ideas for Renewing American Prosperity" Wall Street Journal July 4 2014.

3., Continuously compounded annual rates of growth. Per capita


5. 100*exp(30 x 0.02) = 182. 100*exp(30*0.035) = 286.

6. As an example of agreement on the fundamental importance of growth among economists of all political leanings, see Larry Summers, "The Progressive Case for Championing Pro-Growth Policies," 2016.

7. For an excellent recent exposition of this view, see Robert J. Gordon, The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living since the Civil War. Princeton University Press 2016.

8. An influential example of these views, including self-financing stimulus: J. Bradford DeLong and Lawrence H. Summers, "Fiscal Policy in a Depressed Economy" Brookings Papers on Economic Activity. Spring 2012. Interestingly, DeLong and Summers condition their view on interest rates stuck at zero, a cautionary limitation that current stimulus advocates seem to have forgotten.

9. See "Rule of Law in the Regulatory State." 2015. rule_of_law_and_regulation essay.pdf




13. See "After the ACA: Freeing the market for health care." 2015. In Anup Malani and Michael H. Schill, Eds. The Future of Healthcare Reform in the United States, p. 161-201, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

14. See "Toward a run-free financial system." 2014. In Across the Great Divide: New Perspectives on the Financial Crisis, Martin Neil Baily and John B. Taylor, Editors, Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, p. 197-249., and "A Blueprint for Effective Financial Reform." 2016. In George P. Shultz, ed, Blueprint for America Hoover Institution Press, p. 71 - 84.

15. See Casey Mulligan The Redistributon Recession, Oxford University Press 2012.

16. See "Here's what genuine tax reform looks like." Wall Street Journal, December 23 2015.

17. Table 14;


19. See "The Clinton Plan's Growth Deficit." Wall Street Journal, August 12 2016. Also, for an excellent and well documented review of these issues, see Edward L. Glaeser, 2016, "If you Build it..." City Journal, Summer 2016,

20. For more details see: A New Structure For U. S. Federal Debt." 2015. In David Wessel, Ed., The $13 Trillion Question: Managing the U.S. Government's Debt, pp. 91-146. Washington DC: Brookings Institution Press. and For a clear analysis of the problem, that recommends the opposite action --shortening the maturity structure to take advantage of low rates --see Robin Greenwood, Samuel G. Hanson, Joshua S. Rudolph, and Lawrence H. Summers, "The Optimal Maturity of Government Debt" and "Debt Management Conflicts between the U.S. Treasury and the Federal Reserve," also in David Wessel, Ed., The $13 Trillion Question: Managing the U.S. Government's Debt.


  1. Prof. Cochrane: You're falling into the trap of asking for too many things at once, and all those things favor precisely one political side. You really should emphasize which reforms are most likely to generate growth the quickest, and mention which areas you're willing to cede ground to the opposition. For example cutting capital taxes (money moves faster than people) and deregulation of the cronyist industries (like health care) should take absolute priority in a Republican administration. On the other hand, I would suggest ceding ground on higher income taxes for the wealthy. Republican leaders have become too focused on reducing income taxes for the middle class, when the evidence of the Bush tax cuts suggest we may have hit the point of diminishing marginal returns of those tax cuts.

    How about this compromise? Conservatives agree to raise a carbon tax and income tax on the rich. Liberals agree to cut corporate tax and capital gains tax. Conservatives agree to spend more on infrastructure. Liberals agree to prioritize deferred maintenance and deregulate the procurement process.

    1. Thanks for your comment, and its constructive and polite tone. But I did cede (and suggest that others cede -- this isn't my job!) that ground. It's right there -- add a redistribution code. A consumption tax can be as progressive as you like. For example, you can have a flat VAT, checks for poor people, and a supplemental individual consumption tax collected via the income tax mechanism. Isn't your second paragraph also exactly what I suggested?

  2. "There was lots of buzz at my hearing about a recent census report that median family income was up 5%"

    Year after year I'm perplexed by how much attention these surveys get. During the time frame in question here, real GDP grew by less than 2%. According to the BEA, real disposable income per person grew by a little over 2% over the same span while real personal consumption expenditures were closer to 1.5%. Yet according the the Census Bureau survey the median household and median personal income levels jumped by over 5%? It also shows the median income in Pennsylvania increasing by more than $5,000 in 2015. Admittedly I have my personal biases, but I find this impossible to believe.

    Back on topic though, great essay. I agree with the vast majority of it, particularly on the tax code. Although I'm a bit more skeptical that American people are really ready for "fundamental changes" on most of these issues.

    1. Zack,

      I haven't looked at the numbers in depth, but here are a couple sources of increased income that may not show up in the GDP numbers:

      1. Increased transfer payments (unemployment benefits, Social Security, etc.)
      2. Increase sale of used goods

      Also, median income can rise while total income is flat or declines. Redistribution can have that effect.

    2. "Also, median income can rise while total income is flat or declines. Redistribution can have that effect."

      True but the Census survey still shows the average income increasing by a little over 4.5% during a span in which GDP growth was under 2%.

      Your points 1 and 2 both make some sense with regard to GDP, but that still seems to leave a large gap between the Census household income numbers and the BEA numbers for per capita income and consumption expenditures.

      Looking at the website it looks like the survey methodology has been redesigned several times over the years, most recently in 2014. Perhaps that explains the discrepancy.

  3. In general, I agree a nation should tax and regulate productive behavior the least.

    Still, it is dispiriting that the US spends about $1 trillion a year on "national security" (DoD, VA, black budget, prorated debt), yet here are are debating infrastructure programs, which completely dwarfed by the magnitude of spending on "national security."

    George Bush and Barack Obama have spent $16 trillion on "national security." After $16 trillion in spending, taxpayers are informed the military has to re-built, dangers are mounting everywhere.

    In truth, beyond the heinous annoyance of terrorism, the US faces zero military threats.

    Trump's infrastructure plan, considered over the top, calls for $600-odd billion in additional infrastructure spending. Hillary Clinton's infrastructure plan appears to be a mishmash of ideas that will render little upside with a $300-odd billion price-tag that appears bogus.

    Still, the Trump and Hillary infrastructure plans are pre-dinner peanuts next to the federal government annual "national security" main course.

    BTW, the US plans to spend about $1.5 trillion for the F-35 jet fighter, despite the fact that even military agencies now say it is not stealthy due to change in radar technology, but gave up too much performance to be stealthy. No matter, the F-35 is a jobs and contract program at this point, divorced from national defense. The program will proceed.

    The airframes for the F-35 will be made in Turkey. Why Turkey? They make the best airframes? No, so they will buy the jets. Yes all that super-duper secret technology will be in the hands of Islamics. In short, nothing about F-35 makes sense, from the taxpayer perspective.

    Keep your eye on the ball!

  4. "Above all, undertake a pro-growth economic policy. We grew out of larger debts after World War II; we can do that again."

    We didn't grow our way out of large World War II debts. The debt burden shifted from the public sector (federal government) to the private sector.

  5. "So, the way to think about the dangers of debt is not like a predictable problem that comes to us slowly. View the issue as managing a small risk of a catastrophic problem, like a war or pandemic."

    "The easy answers are straightforward. Sensible reforms to Social Security and Medicare are on the table. Fix the indexing, improve the incentives for older people to keep working. Convert medicare to a premium support policy."

    Is this more urban myth that passes for truth?

    The three largest drivers of the recent increase in federal debt are
    1. Unpaid for wars
    2. Banking bailouts
    3. A refusal to sell equity in lieu of debt

    Your "sensible" solutions address none of the above.

    And finally:

    "But our large debts leave our fiscal position sensitive to interest rate rises. At 100% debt to GDP ratio, if interest rates rise to just 5%, that means the deficit rises by 5 percentage points of GDP, or approximately $1 Trillion extra dollars per year."

    In terms of federal debt, we just crossed the 105% Debt / GDP ratio.

  6. You address Congress as if its members were motivated primarily to serve the public interest. Because this is not true, I predict that your sensible proposals will have little political salience (even if, as you say, Congressional staffers are "listening" to you).

    1. "This is not true?" That is a pretty damning insult with little evidence. In my view and experience, most congresspeople are motivated to serve the public interest -- some with different ideas about how to go about that than I do, but that's all.

    2. Professor Cochrane, I do love your stuff, but in this reply to Philo, I have to very respectfully disagree.
      There is a whole literature, a whole sub-discipline, called Public Choice, (James Buchanan, a Chicago alumn I might add, comes to mind) that supports Philo's comment. Would you condemn Public Choice as "a pretty damning insult"?

    3. I'm a huge fan of public choice analysis. Which says that good people, well motivated to serve the public interest, find themselves in a system that forces bad outcomes. Philo attacked their morals and motivation. Public choice exactly denies the conventional analysis that the people involved are immoral, and we just need to kick out the evil ones (the other party) and put in good ones (your party). No, the people are by and large hard working and well intentioned, but the rules of the game result in bad outcomes. That's public choice, and a far more subtle and profitable analysis of the situation.

    4. Professor, again, I am not sure I completely agree with you here. The way I read Public Choice is not that politicians and bureaucrats find themselves in a "system" that swallowed up their noble intentions. No, the way I read Public Choice is that those politicians and bureaucrats *have their own objective function from the get-go*, and such objective function may or may not coincide with the public interest. I do not mean to speak for Philo, but that is the way I interpreted it.
      Here is an entry by William Shughart at

      "As James Buchanan artfully defined it, public choice is “politics without romance.” The wishful thinking it displaced presumes that participants in the political sphere aspire to promote the common good. In the conventional “public interest” view, public officials are portrayed as benevolent “public servants” who faithfully carry out the “will of the people.” In tending to the public’s business, voters, politicians, and policymakers are supposed somehow to rise above their own parochial concerns.
      ...But public choice, like the economic model of rational behavior on which it rests, assumes that people are guided chiefly by their own self-interests and, more important, that the motivations of people in the political process are no different from those of people in the steak, housing, or car market. They are the same human beings, after all. As such, voters “vote their pocketbooks,” supporting candidates and ballot propositions they think will make them personally better off; bureaucrats strive to advance their own careers; and politicians seek election or reelection to office. Public choice, in other words, simply transfers the rational actor model of economic theory to the realm of politics."

      In this definition, there is *nothing* saying "the system made me do it", or "those poor politicians fell into the hands of a bad system", as you seem to imply. No. Their objective function *from the get-go" is selfish and driven by their own objective function, which may or may not include the public interest at large.

  7. Dr. Cochrane, do you have any books you can recommend on cronyism and dysfunctional regulation in the US?

    1. Jefftopia - start with George Stigler's concept of regulatory capture.
      His original paper is dated, almost 40 years old or so, but still so relevant.

  8. Sure - Fixing regulation is a mother hood issue. Except of course, there are powerful, and legitimate, political elements who don't want development and who favor a regulatory process that blocks projects like Keystone Xl. A stream lined and more open and efficient process that respects public opinion might simply get to "NO" faster. No growth there. (A comprehensive study of why the well recognized rail bottleneck at Chicago persists would be interesting.)

    A lot of the reforms seem to be one shot gains. You might move the needle from 2% to 4% growth for a decade (giving a material 20% gain) but then you are going to fall back to the sub 2% trend. To suggest that you can move to 4% compound growth for an extended period of time is unrealistic. The future is not like the post war era. The only thing that could make it more like the post war era is scientific breakthroughs. We could have major scientific breakthroughs all though I tend to the view that any breakthrough is likely to be of the sort that increases consumer surplus a lot more than it increases GDP. What effect would a ten dollar cure for cancer have on consumer surplus? what effect on GDP?, what effect on the budget? Medicare costs would go down but social security costs would go up.

    If the United States cuts social security and medicare and reduces taxes then you might get growth in
    "average" income but with all of that increased income going to the top 10% of households and the bottom 50% of households falling.

  9. And another thing ...

    It seems to me that the idea that tax reform will yield significant growth is contrary to the evidence we see around us.

    The argument seems to be tax reform will spur investment. We live in a world awash in capital. We don't need to encourage more saving.

    Interest rates have been trending down for thirty years. The equity premium seems to be compressing significantly. REITs and MLPs pay no tax. Investments are available that are not taxable (municipal bonds, 401(k) plans, IRAs, pension funds.)

    With interest and depreciation deductible in calculating income, an existing profitable business in America can get capital for new projects at a cost that is insignificant.

    If you want to reform corporate taxation you could copy Canada's "integration". The income taxes that a company pays are effectively credited back when a taxpayer pays taxes on dividends. If the taxpayer is tax exempt then they cannot utilize the credit.

    1. Absalon,

      "With interest and depreciation deductible in calculating income, an existing profitable business in America can get capital for new projects at a cost that is insignificant. "

      It's called the zero bound. The right kind of tax reform breaks through that barrier.

  10. I learned a lot of insights

  11. If we increase growth and double real GDP per capita in a generation it would not help Medicare or Social Security much:
    1) we can reasonably expect that doctors nurses and every other health care provider to reasonably expect that their incomes would double in real terms;
    2) the historical experience is that our definition of poverty would change (and the cost of personal services the elderly need would double) so there would be enormous pressure to increase Social Security payments.


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