Free Markets, Free People
The indispensible e21 goes after what it calls “the government sector of the economy canard”.
A recurring theme of commentary appearing in the New York Times and elsewhere is that the government is shrinking as a share of the economy. According to Floyd Norris, “the government sector of the American economy has shrunk during the first three years of a presidential administration” for the first time since the 1960s. This dangerous decline in government spending is thought by Norris and others to be responsible for the slow growth since the recovery officially began in July 2009.
The most straightforward way to assess the burden of government is by comparing total government outlays to gross domestic product (GDP). By this standard, the federal government is currently larger than at any point in post-War history. Between fiscal years 2009 and 2012, federal outlays averaged 24.4% of GDP, the highest government-to-GDP ratio since 1946 and 22% (4.4 percentage points) larger than the average size of government since the military demobilization following World War II of 20.0%.
The politics of the Norris approach is to make the canard seem to be reality in an attempt to portray the last three years as a conservative approach to our economic problems by the Obama administration:
Rather than measure actual government spending, which is at record levels, Norris instead focuses on the “government sector of the economy,” which is different conceptually from the actual size of government. Each dollar of government spending does not automatically contribute to GDP. The Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) only counts direct government purchases of goods and services or investments in capital equipment or infrastructure in the National Income and Product Accounts (NIPA). When the government buys an airplane from Boeing, for example, it counts the same in the GDP as if the aircraft were purchased by United Airlines. The same accounting generally works for employee salaries, as government purchases of services provided by Commerce Department employees, for example, count as government consumption spending in GDP.
The difference between government spending and the government contribution to GDP is largely attributable to transfer payments, entitlements, and subsidies. In recent years, transfer payments have exploded upwards. As of March 2012, transfer payments were running at a $2.3 trillion annualized rate, or 15.2% of GDP. Over the past four years, transfer payments have grown at a compound annualized rate of 9.1%, or about 3.5-times faster than the economy. Since passage of the Obama Administration stimulus, transfer payments have accounted for more than 18% of household income. As the composition of government spending has shifted away from capital investments and towards transfers, the “government sector” of the economy has fallen even as government spending has reached record highs.
e21 then does a further analysis of the Norris claims and says while it would be easy to dismiss the Norris critique out of hand, it does have some resonance.
Norris’ talk of the decline in the “government sector” provides insight into the changing role of government – specifically as provider of infrastructure to one of enabling transfer payments:
As e21 explained previously, the growth in state and local government has come with no corresponding increase in public goods like infrastructure to show for it.
Not all spending cuts are the same:
Spending cuts for sequestration aimed at defense, for example, will reduce GDP on a dollar-for-dollar basis. Spending cuts on transfer payments and subsidies only reduce GDP to the extent that the dollar would have been spent or not otherwise earned. A dollar devoted to unemployment insurance that lengthens the duration of unemployment, for example, may actually reduce GDP.
Finally, given those explanations, why did the stimulus bomb?
President Obama’s stimulus was very poorly constructed. In 2009, Republicans criticized the stimulus as a “spending bill.” The President responded that increased government spending was the “whole point” of a stimulus. But based on the analysis of Norris and other commentators, the spending increase was obviously too oriented towards transfers instead of real purchases of goods and services. An effective stimulus based on government spending would have looked like the plan advocated by Martin Feldstein, which would have increased government purchases of military equipment and hardware. While left-leaning economists often lament the size of the President’s stimulus (i.e. wishing that it was even bigger), the composition or relative share of the type of spending was likely a much bigger problem.
It gives further credence to the assertion than economically, Mr. Obama is out of his element. He and Krugman (and most of the left) talk about the size of the stimulus. In fact, what it is spent on is more important than the size.
Meanwhile we’re headed into sequestration where precisely what would help the GDP on the government size of the ledger is on the chopping block (military equipment spending, etc.).
Couple that with "taxmageddon” and you can imagine the economic carnage possible in January.
Yes, Paul Krugman has a novel idea that no one has previously thought of … we can get out of this mess we’ve spent ourselves into by taxing the rich.
And by the way, income inequality now makes that both feasible and acceptable:
About those high incomes: In my last column I suggested that the very rich, who have had huge income gains over the last 30 years, should pay more in taxes. I got many responses from readers, with a common theme being that this was silly, that even confiscatory taxes on the wealthy couldn’t possibly raise enough money to matter.
Folks, you’re living in the past. Once upon a time America was a middle-class nation, in which the super-elite’s income was no big deal. But that was another country.
The I.R.S. reports that in 2007, that is, before the economic crisis, the top 0.1 percent of taxpayers — roughly speaking, people with annual incomes over $2 million — had a combined income of more than a trillion dollars. That’s a lot of money, and it wouldn’t be hard to devise taxes that would raise a significant amount of revenue from those super-high-income individuals.
Because you know, “super-high-income individuals” don’t deserve to keep the money they earned, because, well, we’ve gotten ourselves in this awful mess and we need someone to bail us out.
And they have a lot of money, by gosh. A lot of money. So “it wouldn’t be hard to devise taxes” that would take most of it on the marginal side. Because again, we should have first claim when we get ourselves in trouble. Besides, they have more than enough money and they should pay their “fair share”.
A couple of reminders. Despite what Krugman says, taxing the top 0.1% isn’t going to make a significant difference. And even if it did, it would only make that sort of difference once. The next year, that money would be much less available. Which would probably mean what?
Well “rich” would have to be redefined, wouldn’t it? Maybe then it would be the top 1%, because we all know they have more money than they need and they should pay their fair share, right?
As a reminder, the Adjusted Gross Income necessary to be considered a one-percenter is a ‘rich’ $343,927. And this particular percentage of tax payers are indeed shirking their fair share. After all, they only pay 36.73% of all income tax collected now. Surely we can kick that up to, oh I don’t know, at least 50%. And, of course “we” can, certainly. For a short time, that will indeed bring in more revenue. But, again, once the marginal rate goes up those being stuck with the tax bill will go to work finding ways to minimize that hit. And, they will.
Which means those top 5% suddenly become vulnerable, etc.
A short version of the Krugman solution can be found working so well in Europe right now. And E21 does a good job of reminding us of Krugman’s unadulterated enthusiasm for the social welfare states to be found there. E21 also does a great job of eviscerating Krugman’s arguments concerning Europe’s problems:
Paul Krugman insists that the European debt crisis has nothing to do with excessive government spending. The problem, to him, is a failed monetary experiment that deprives nations like Greece and Italy of the ability to print money to inflate away excessive debts. The need to create an alternative understanding for the origins of the debt crisis is only natural given the extent to which the current crisis has tarnished the statist ideology that Krugman generally follows. But his basic claims are nonsensical, as is Krugman’s citation of Sweden and Germany as economic role models. While these economies have performed relatively well through the crisis, it was because they abandoned Krugman’s preferred economics and moved in a more market-oriented direction long-ago.
He was wrong about Europe and he’s wrong about taxes. He’s become an economic joke but just doesn’t know it yet. He’s a one-trick pony who, much like the global warming alarmists, ignores the fact that what he continues to claim is viable and necessary is constantly and consistently being trashed by reality.
The only good news is he remains a source of entertainment. It’s sort of like a game. You wonder how long he can go before reality actually grabs him by the scruff of the neck and makes him recognize the error of his ways (my bet? Never happens). And, as a bit of side fun, you wonder how long the NY Times will continue to let Krugman push his reality challenged agenda forward before they finally (and, of course “reluctantly”) can him (see first bet – they haven’t a clue).
That is precisely the take that Josh Marshall and much of the left have, amusingly, expressed:
A year ago, no one took seriously the idea that a federal health care mandate was unconstitutional. And the idea that buying health care coverage does not amount to "economic activity" seems preposterous on its face.
I’m not sure how Marshall actually believes "no one" took seriously the idea that the health care mandate was unconstitutional, unless he really means "no one who matters". And even then he’s wrong. So let’s boil it down to its real meaning – no one on the left, who consistently ignore the Constitution and matters relating to constitutionality, took the idea seriously.
I’m shocked – shocked I tell you.
Obviously a whole lot of people in the middle and on the right took it very seriously. So much so that at least a plurality of states have initiated law suits against it and/or passed laws rejecting it.
Marshall also claims that the “idea that buying health care coverage does not amount to "economic activity" seems preposterous on its face.” Uh, OK, who exactly is claiming that? What is being discussed is not buying insurance. And the decision to not buy something has nothing to do with “economic activity” does it? So let’s turn Marshall’s sentence around: “the idea that not buying health care coverage does amount to “economic activity” seems preposterous on its face”.
Yes, I would agree – and so did Judge Hudson.
Speaking of Judge Hudson, Richard Epstein gives a pretty good summary of the key point in his ruling:
The key successful move for Virginia was that it found a way to sidestep the well known 1942 decision of the Supreme Court in Wickard v. Filburn, which held in effect that the power to regulate commerce among the several states extended to decisions of farmers to feed their own grain to their own cows. Wickard does not pass the laugh test if the issue is whether it bears any fidelity to the original constitutional design. It was put into place for the rather ignoble purpose of making sure that the federally sponsored cartel arrangements for agriculture could be properly administered.
At this point, no District Court judge dare turn his back on the ignoble and unprincipled decision in Wickard. But Virginia did not ask for radical therapy. It rather insisted that “all” Wickard stands for is the proposition that if a farmer decides to grow wheat, he cannot feed it to his own cows if a law of Congress says otherwise. It does not say that the farmer must grow wheat in order that the federal government will have something to regulate.
It is just that line that controls this case. The opponents of the individual mandate say that they do not have to purchase insurance against their will. The federal government may regulate how people participate in the market, but it cannot make them participate in the market. For if it could be done in this case it could be done in all others.
Read all of Epstein’s opinion piece by the way. There’s a lot more to this than just the point I made and he explains it very well. The usual suspects disagree.
Anyway, assuming this somehow stands and makes it to the Supreme Court, where after a good breakfast and a good night’s sleep Justice Anthony Kennedy decides “what the hell, Judge Hudson is right” and the court rules the mandate unconstitutional, what would be the ramifications?
Without the individual mandate, the whole Obamacare edifice crumbles. The judge did not rule that the entire law must be invalidated. But if the individual mandate goes, the insurance regulations — and most especially the requirement that insurers must take all comers without regard to their health status — will never work. Patients could simply wait to enroll in health coverage until they needed some kind of expensive treatment or procedure, and thus pocket the premiums they would have paid when they were not in need of much medical attention.
Or said more simply – without the mandate the whole of the law is unworkable. Without the mandate, repeal will seem to be the best option.
Oh, and watch the GOP on that point. When it was first passed, all I heard was “repeal, repeal”. Now I’m hearing “repeal and replace”. Uh, no – no “replace”. Fix the government side of things that are in such horrendous shape and driving the cost of health care up, but stay out of people’s private insurance.
And should repeal actually happen the insurance industry better get their heads out of their posterior and get busy finding ways to insure more people more cheaply (like creating products where employers could indeed move their workers to that would be outside the work place making insurance portable (thus no “pre-existing conditions”), affordable (large pool) and deliver quality care. Because, as is obvious, if they don’t someone will again try to do it for them.
I discussed this earlier with a post about Paul Krugman and Gary Becker, explaining why the German approach – essentially getting government out of the way while providing incentives to businesses for expansion and hiring – was superior to the tried and consistently failed tactic of huge amounts of government deficit spending as a "stimulus". Krugman and others waved away the German recovery as simply an upsurge in exports, nothing more.
E21 has an excellent article out today in which it takes exception to the Krugman claims (note too that E21 refuses to call Krugman and economist but instead refers to him as a “commentator”):
U.S. commentators, like Jonathan Chait and Paul Krugman, have taken issue with holding out Germany’s economic recovery as a success story – one that contains lessons for U.S. policymakers. Contrary to their claims, Germany’s recovery does not appear to just be about trade flows and global demand for their manufactured goods. 50% of their second quarter GDP came from private sector consumption and investment growth.
Private sector growth – what a concept, no?
Here is an extended excerpt which is probably one of the best explanations I’ve seen. The last line is so irony laden that it almost makes you wince. Also, as you read this carefully you will again note the obvious – “this ain’t rocket science”:
The contractionary effects of deficit-financed stimulus were highlighted by European Central Bank (ECB) President Jean-Claude Trichet at the Jackson Hole conclave. While many commentators in the U.S. still depict the debate over stimulus as pitting sagacious “pure” economists that favor more deficit spending against the politically astute economic illiterates, Mr. Trichet explains that the Franco-German technocrats in Frankfurt view the economic literature as counseling steep budget cuts in the current environment. Many U.S. economists speak of the need to increase deficit-financed public expenditure to avoid a Japanese-style “lost decade”, yet it is precisely the exploding public debt ratios that Mr. Trichet identifies as the real cause of Japan’s malaise and the greatest risk to Western economies today. To those who believe sharp reductions in public expenditure are too risky, given overall economic weakness, Mr. Trichet responds that deficit-financed stimulus is unlikely to provide any measureable boost to demand in the current environment because the government purchases are offset by reduced private expenditure. And on this point, Mr. Trichet even goes even further:
“There is the additional argument positing that credible fiscal deficit reductions through expenditure cuts lead the private sector to expect a lower future tax burden, especially when the nature of the cuts make future tax reductions more likely. This can generate higher consumption expenditures and more investment.”
Lest anyone believe Mr. Trichet was talking about modest cuts to public expenditure to assuage irrational markets, he went on to suggest that cuts to government spending should be sufficient to reduce debt-to-GDP ratios by 30 percentage points over the medium term. Mr. Trichet cites numerous examples where cuts of this magnitude have resulted in improved short-run economic performance. That it takes a French lifetime bureaucrat to travel to the American West for these words to be spoken at a U.S. policy symposium says something fairly profound about the current state of policymaking in the U.S.
Again, as I mentioned in the first post I’ve cited, the proof is in the pudding. Germany is back to pre-recession unemployment rates and excellent GDP growth. And where, again, is the US during “recovery summer”?
Perhaps now you can understand the reason Mort Zuckerman has referred to the economic policies of this administration as our “economic Katrina”. At this point we’d better hope the worst we suffer is a lost decade like Japan’s.
Tim "Turbo Tax" Geithner has an op-ed in the New York Times entitled, "Welcome to recovery".
Or perhaps I should say that it is a litany of liberal talking points and just plain old fantasy. He has a list of indicators which he’d like you to believe prove we’re just around the corner from full recovery.
I don’t have the time to go through all of them, as much as I’d like too, but a couple caught my eye. For instance, jobs:
Private job growth has returned — not as fast as we would like, but at an earlier stage of this recovery than in the last two recoveries. Manufacturing has generated 136,000 new jobs in the past six months.
That’s just nonsense on a stick. If your best example is a major economic sector which may be adding 23,000 jobs a month, you haven’t much to crow about. Not when you look at the jobs that are going away each month. The reports are not good and pretending they are doesn’t impress anyone and makes what little credibility you might still retain suspect.
The auto industry is coming back, and the Big Three — Chrysler, Ford and General Motors — are now leaner, generating profits despite lower annual sales.
That’s either a flat out lie or it’s from a second set of books.
e21 points out that if you analyze the auto industry, the news is not good:
The auto companies are certainly not out of the woods yet. There has been a massive rebuild of negative working capital balances at GM (and Ford). What does that mean? Well, working capital is current assets minus liabilities – and it’s a good way to measure whether a company has the liquid assets to grow or build the business (and add shareholder value). Positive working capital is also a useful measure for gauging a company’s financial resilience. Negative working capital, on the other hand, means that current liabilities exceed assets – and a firm in this situation can’t spend as aggressively.
How massive is the “rebuild of negative working capital?” Massive:
Those are monthly figures (GM’s only from Jul 09 when it emerged from bankruptcy). There’s nothing in those figures that makes any sort of case that the companies are turning a profit. In fact, if you look at what e21 says, it is clear that they’re still doing what got them into the shape they were in previous to the financial downturn.
Certainly their position hasn’t been helped by slow auto sales (even during the “recovery”), but what all of them could use is some investment help. Ford could possibly get it but it is also possible investors are not likely to risk their capital on an industry that has a government presence. Again e21 explains:
The roughshod methods that were used against bondholders in the bailout, the questionable methods used to pick winners and losers in the rush to close thousands of auto dealerships and the favorable treatment given to the unions (followed by the codification of this policy in the Orderly Liquidation Authority in the Dodd-Frank financial regulation bill) serve as the case study for why investors and lenders will be skittish about lending or investing in U.S. companies that have a big union presence and/or would be deemed Too Big To Fail by the government.
And then there’s all the money they owe under TARP.
Like I said, just two of the many examples which are pure fiction.
The rest of his article is an attempt to write a favorable history of the government’s effort – but those who watched it and assessed its results aren’t particularly impressed. Geithner ends his ramble with this:
And as the president said last week, no one should bet against the American worker, American business and American ingenuity.
No one should be at war against any of those either, yet this administration has been at war with the financial industry, the energy industry and business in general from it’s first day in office. Perhaps it is time for a little internal administration introspection – honest introspection – with the aim of determining whether they’re part of the problem of part of the solution. If they actually did that, they’d have to honestly assess themselves as part of the problem. Geithner’s fantasy piece is all the proof you’ll ever need to know that will never happen.