Dale Franks’ QandO posts
Well, this is interesting. Paul Krugman finally agrees with me:
[W]e already know what isn’t working: the economic policy of the past two years — and the millions of Americans who should have jobs, but don’t."
I’d just like to point out that I knew those economic policies wouldn’t work back in 2009, writing about them here. Since then, I’ve just been watching the kangaroo. So It’s nice to see Krugman joining me in declaring "fail"—though he does so with the advantage of 20/20 hindsight.
I eagerly anticipate my upcoming invitation to Sweden.
Where we diverge is in providing solutions. As always, Krugman’s solution is more spending, and more debt. But with debt already at 100% of GDP, we’re really in uncharted waters, and I have no confidence that more debt is the answer, if the problem is the existing debt overhang.
The real question I’m concentrating on is, "At what point do the markets recognize not only that the debt path we’re on is unsustainable, but that it is going to be impossible to pay it back?" Is that 120% of GDP? 150%? I don’t know. But I fear that we’re going to learn the answer.
On the bright side, I’ll be able to pay off the remaining 19 years of my mortgage for the cost of a nice hat. On the down side, a new Astros baseball cap will cost $200,000. On the bright side, again, the $100,000 from my Nobel will cover half of that, so it’s all good.
James Pethokoukis writes, "Goldman Sachs drops this H-bomb on the Obama campaign:
We have lowered our forecast for US real GDP growth further and now expect real GDP to grow just 2%-2½% through the end of 2012. Our forecast for annual average GDP growth has fallen to 1.7% in 2011 (from 1.8%) and to 2.1% in 2012 (from 3.0%). Since this pace is slightly below the US economy’s potential, we now expect the unemployment rate to be at 9¼% by the end of 2012, slightly above the current level.
Even our new forecast is subject to meaningful downside risk.
So, we got that goin’ for us.
The headline numbers for the the July employment situation show that 117,000 new non-farm payroll jobs were added last month, while the unemployment rate dropped to 9.1%. But, the true story is—as we’ve come to expect—more complicated when you delve below the fold.
Private payrolls rose by 154,000 jobs, while government payrolls declined by 37,000. Average weekly hours were unchanged at 34.3, while hourly earning rose slightly to $23.13.
The decline in the unemployment rate to 9.1 was not a reflection of the increase in non-farm payrolls, but a decline of 193,000 in the labor force, as workers dropped out of the labor market. As a result, the labor force participation rate continued to decline to 63.9%. In addition, the total number of employed persons declined from 139,334,000 to 139,296,000, meaning that 38,000 fewer people were actually working last month, compared to June.
The U-4 unemployment rate, which includes discouraged workers, held steady at 9.8%, while the broadest measure of unemployment/underemployment, the U-6, which includes workers who have part-time jobs for economic reasons, dropped 0.1% to 16.1%.
Overall, the report is not positive. At best, it can be said that we’re about the same last month as we were in June. The trend over the last few months is not good, however, as the table below illustrates.
|Mar 2011||July 2011|
Finally, if we go back to the historical average of labor force participation prior to the recession, which was 66.2%, the proper size of the labor force should be 158,662,000, rather than 153,228,000. Use that figure to calculate the employment rate with the 139,334,000 persons actually employed, and you get an actual unemployment rate of 12.2% for July. The caveat here, of course, is that with the first tranche of Baby Boomers so close to retirement, some number have just retired early and are out of the labor force permanently, so that historical participation rate may no longer be valid.
In any event, once you add in the workers who’ve gotten discouraged, and workers who have part-time jobs because full-time employment isn’t available, this month’s employment report makes it clear that real unemployment is actually back on the rise.
Let me see if I can quantify the current and future budget situation. It’s actually quite simple, and doesn’t require knowledge of anything other than elementary mathematics. The most recent analysis of the Federal government’s unfunded liabilities, to include the national debt, debt financing, Social Security, and Medicare, showed total unfunded liabilities of $61.6 trillion. I’ve seen substantially higher numbers in other analyses—up to $75 trillion, depending on how you score it—but let’s take this fairly conservative one. What are the practical implications of this number?
Let’s see what we’d have to do to pay all that back in 30 years. I picked that length of time because a) it covers the entire span of Baby Boomer retirements, and b) it equals the longest maturity of any Federal debt instrument, the 30-Year Note.
Let’s look at the rounded numbers, derived from the Statistical Abstract of the United States. In fiscal 2010, GDP was $14.63 trillion. Of that $2.165 trillion was collected in Federal revenue, or 14.8% of GDP. $61.6 trillion, paid over 30 years, will require equal installments of $2.05 trillion every year.
Now we’ll make some assumptions. Let’s assume that we get 2% growth this year, and that for the next 29 years, we get an average of 3% growth in both GDP and in tax revenues collected. We also have to assume that the US Government doesn’t run a deficit, or add and more to the national debt between now and 2041. And let’s even assume that the current 14.8% of GDP we’re currently collecting in revenues doesn’t rise to the the historical 17.8% average, and that we can fund the government on just revenues of 14.8% of GDP.
Finally, let’s remember that most revenue that has ever been collected in all of American history, as a percentage of GDP, was 20.6% in 1999, after a substantial economic boom. Prior to that was 1945’s 20.4%.
In order to pay off this year’s share of the $61.6 trillion in unfunded liabilities, the government will have to collect $4.261 trillion in revenues. With an estimated 2011 GDP of $14.922 trillion, that comes to 28.6% of GDP. If we assume government revenues rise to the historical average, the we’ll need the government to take 31.6% of GDP in tax revenues. Happily, because we’re assuming a 3% rise in GDP and revenues for every year over the next 30 years, that percentage will decline slightly every year, until, in 2041, we’ll only need to collect 20.5% of GDP in tax revenues to pay off the last installment, assuming, again, 14.8% of GDP covers the operation of government. If we go back to the 17.8% figure, then we’ll have to collect 23.5% of GDP in revenues.
Either way, for the next 30 years, we need to collect substantially higher tax revenues than we have collected at any time in the nation’s history, and we have to do it every year for 30 years.
Quite frankly, I doubt that this is even physically possible, much less politically possible. Quite apart from anything else, I have no confidence whatsoever that we will even have 3% GDP growth under a regime where more than one-quarter of national income is given to the government for the next decade.
If you want to see the year-by-year numbers, my Excel worksheet is here.
UPDATE: A commenter points out that http://www.usdebtclock.org/ shows a total unfunded liability of $114 trillion. I believe that figure goes out to the year 2087, however. But, those calculations wouldn’t look that much different for individual years. We’d just have to support unsustainable taxes for 70 years instead of 30. Not that it matters, ‘cause we won’t do it anyway.
BTW, keep in mind that these numbers are just a simple back-of-the-envelope calculation to wrap our heads around the basic scope of the problem, not a precise model of government expenditures and revenues for the next 30 years. I wasn’t really interested in doing 20 hours of math for a 15-paragraph blog post, after all.
I did a little PHP programming this evening.
It’s now 1:00am. I worked for 1.5 hours on the previous post, hit publish…and the only thing that got saved was…the title of the post. All that work gone.
But I’m a stubborn SOB. I spent some time searching for some offline blogging tools, only to discover that I already had Windows Live Writer 2011 installed on my netbook. And it’s great. Not perfect, but at least I now can write and save drafts locally, and I won’t lose an entire post to the vagaries of the online editor in WordPress. And it’s free!
It supports the blog theme, categories, tags, media uploads, and just about everything I use on a regular basis. It’s way better than the clunky blog publishing feature in Microsoft Word, and it doesn’t have all that extra word processing/desktop publishing stuff that Word has. It just has tools specifically relevant to writing and editing blog posts, plus comment moderating and administrative tools. And in addition to the WYSIWYG editor, it has an HTML editor and a preview screen built in. Apparently, there are also a number of plug-ins available for it that I’m now keen to investigate.
I’m not usually a big rah-rah guy for Microsoft software, but this Writer application really works.
I re-wrote the previous post in Writer, saved a local copy of it, then hit Publish, and it all worked as smooth as a baby’s behind. I heartily recommend Writer. it’s a pretty neat little application.
Now, I can go to bed.
And, yes, I wrote this post in Writer, too.
Let’s see how today went, shall we? We got our debt ceiling deal, but the Dow dropped 266 points, and the S&P 500 fell 33 points, so it’s now negative for the year. The yield on the 10-year T-note dropped to 2.61%. Gold, meanwhile, hit a fresh record high of $1,644.50/oz. So, I guess this year’s Recovery Summer is over.
None of this, by the way, has anything to do with the debt limit battle in DC. No one on Wall Street really thought a deal wouldn’t be struck. At the end of the day, everybody was pretty confident that the debt ceiling would be raised, and a default avoided.
Stock prices are volatile, of course, so one day’s movement doesn’t mean much, but we have lost about 800 points on the Dow since 22 July, so the trend isn’t good. What’s worse is the steady decline on treasury yields and the climbing price of gold. When you couple that with the 0.4% 1Q GDP increase, and the danger of downward revisions to the lackluster 2Q GDP over the next two months, the evolving picture doesn’t look pretty. We’ve also has a few weeks of unremittingly bad economic releases, showing the economy might be heading back towards recession, and unemployment getting closer to 10% than 8%.
So then what’s the problem? I mean, we’ve had our big stimulus, and our TARP and our Quantitative Easing I and II, and we’re still not only barely budging into positive GDP territory, but now all the signs are showing the economy slowing. What’s happening? Why isn’t any of this working?
I think the answer can be found in what I wrote in my previous post about debt levels, and how over the last several years…
…a body of peer-reviewed work has been developed (PDF) that shows that an excess of government debt serves as a drag on the economy, shaving at least a full percentage point off of annual GDP growth. And we’ve learned that this negative economic effect has a non-linear effect on economic growth as debt increases.
What seems to happen is that, as you begin to approach a debt-to-GDP ratio of 100%, economic growth slows. As you add debt, there’s a non-linear decrease in economic growth. and each additional increment of debt slows growth more than the last. As I also pointed out, this has some pretty scary implications for Keynesian policies, because as you add debt, you’re no longer stimulating growth, you’re hindering it ever more strongly.
That puts policy makers in a pretty bad spot. For instance, right now, real short-term interest rates are effectively zero, so the interest rate tool is no longer of any use to the Fed. You can’t lower rates below 0%. With that tool gone, the only thing left to try and stimulate the economy is to add more debt. Conversely, cutting spending will result in more government workers and contractors being moved over to the unemployment line, and the economy still slows. It’s a trap, where all the standard policy moves result in a slowing economy.
Back in the 80’s my fellow Econ and Business undergrads would debate about all the debt Reagan was adding, and trying to figure out when all that debt would begin crowding out private investment and slowing economic growth. As it turned out, it took far longer than any of us believed it would, but I think we finally have the answer.
The really scary this is that, if we decided that we had to bite the bullet, and impose some austerity, it really wouldn’t help much. We could cut discretionary spending by half, and all it would do is gain us a few years of breathing space before the coming explosion in Social Security and Medicare entitlements—about $60-76 trillion worth of them—eat up any short-term savings and debt reduction we might acquire. After all, discretionary spending—including defense—is only about 39% of the current budget anyway.
What part does economic growth play in all this? Well, it’s clear that 2% per year isn’t going to help much.
It is a generally accepted truism that the trend rate of growth in a mature economy is 3%. There are a lot of reasons given for this; slower population growth in developed countries, large sunk costs in plant and capital, blah, blah, blah. But why should any of that matter? Just because population growth is slow, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the growth of wealth or human ingenuity is hampered.
Here is a reason for that slow growth that’s almost never given. You see, one of the things that mature economies all seem to have in common is large government expenditures, extensive entitlements, massive regulatory oversight, and increasing debt. All of that is financed by taxation to remove money from the productive portion of the economy. So, one of the primary reasons we have slower economic growth is because we trade it for public goods.
Now, we may love these public goods. And they are certainly nice to have if you can afford them. But the evidence is increasingly that we cannot. if we could, we wouldn’t be racking up a level of peacetime debt that’s nearly 90% of GDP. Not only do we give up a lot of economic growth to sustain these public goods, but, apparently, we eventually give up all of it…at which point, we have to give up the public goods as well.
If we really want to climb out of this hole, then what we really need to do is to radically rethink what government should be, what it should be allowed to do, and how it’s funded. It’s not enough any more to cut budgets, while leaving the regulatory, entitlement, taxation, and spending structure intact. A truly radical solution would be to limit government spending and revenues to no more than 10% of GDP in peacetime. Replace the income tax with a 10% VAT. Eliminate the departments of Education, Commerce, Labor, Transportation and Agriculture. Repeal most Federal criminal laws. Privatize social security. Enforce free markets, rather than the crony capitalism we have now.
No one in our current political class has the slightest interest in any of those suggestions. Drastically reducing the size and scope of government is the only solution that can possibly increase economic growth substantially, and give us a shot at paying off our ever-increasing debt, but our current political class will never embrace that.
The thing is, reality doesn’t care what the political class—or anyone else for that matter—wants. It just is what it is. So, no matter what happens, we won’t have to worry about the deficit or government spending for much longer. Either we’ll fix the problem by electing a political class that’s devoted to cutting government across the board and paying down the debt. Or we won’t fix the problem, and the resulting bankruptcy and hyperinflation will allow us to monetize our debt, wipe out the life savings of every person in the country, and we will start over from scratch with a bright shiny new currency!
But the problem will get solved. The only question is how much control we’ll retain over the process, and how much government we’ll retain at the end of it.
Sen. Dick Durbin is an angry man, because he sees the debt deal as the death of Keynesian economics. For some reason, he appears to see this as a bad thing. In his comments today, discussing the debt ceiling deal, he noted:
“I would say … that symbolically, that agreement is moving us to the point where we are having the final interment of John Maynard Keynes,” he said, referring to the British economist. “He nominally died in 1946 but it appears we are going to put him to his final rest with this agreement.”
That’s a bit of hyperbole, but even if true…well…so what?
Lord Keynes had some valuable insight into how fiscal and monetary policy can work inside certain parameters, but outside those parameters, it fails. And I have no doubt whatsoever that even Lord Keynes would recognize that, once a country has accumulated enough debt, the debt itself becomes a drag on economic growth, and attempting to inflate your way out of it by piling on more debt is a solution worse than the disease.
We’ve actually learned quite a lot about how the economy works since the General Theory was published in 1936, not the least of which were the limitations of Keynesian theory in the 1970s. Keynes famously noted that politicians are almost always influenced by the opinions of some long-dead economist. Like John Maynard Keynes.
Keynesian economics should be dead. If nothing else, the existence of stagflation in the 1970s should have shown that Keynsian policy prescriptions were ultimately unworkable. Indeed, the very existence of Stagflation shows that several central tenets of Keynesianism are simply flat wrong. The response to this is usually that the 70s were an aberration due the oil shocks of the Arab Embargo, and the subsequent price hikes enforced by OPEC.
I am, of course, quite well aware of this. I did, after all, live through it.
I am also aware that Keynesianism regarded inflation and recession as being mutually exclusive--an idea that fostered a reliance of the Philips Curve, and constant seeking by the Fed to find the NAIRU. I am further aware that the Fed’s response to the oil shocks was a highly expansionist monetary policy that ultimately kicked off a wage-price spiral in a recession, rather than causing an economic expansion. Apparently, we found the limit at which expansionist policy ceased to be expansionary, and became merely inflationary.
What solved that problem was Paul Volcker’s Fed adopting an explicit Monetarist policy at the Fed to essentially ignore interest rates and concentrate on money supply growth. As hard as it may be to believe now, markets would almost shut down on Thursdays waiting for the M1, M2, and M3 numbers from the Fed. We mostly ignore that Thursday money supply release now. It took a fair amount of pain, and back-to-back recessions in 1981-82 with 11% unemployment to solve the inflation problem, but it did wring inflation out of the economy.
What we learn from all this is that Keynes had some serious policy limitations in the real world. I believe that we are currently discovering more of those limitations.
We’ve actually learned quite a bit about how economies actually work in the 75 years since The General Theory was published. Over the last decade, for instance, a body of peer-reviewed work has been developed (PDF) that shows that an excess of government debt serves as a drag on the economy, shaving at least a full percentage point off of annual GDP growth. And we’ve learned that this negative economic effect has a non-linear effect on economic growth as debt increases. I would submit that in light of this, that no matter how workable Keynesian theory may be in a regime of moderate public debt, with judiciously applied counter-cyclical monetary and fiscal policies, that it simply falls apart as the debt approaches 100% of GDP. One of the key problems is, of course, that we’ve rarely seen the high levels of public indebtedness we’re currently experiencing, so prior to this decade, much of the work in this area was theoretical, except for data from highly indebted emerging countries, which may not be entirely applicable to mature economies.
Sadly, we’re collecting that empirical data now.
I’d also point out that we also don’t have to rely solely on 1970s stagflation to note the failure of Keynesian predictions in the real world. One merely has to look at the wide-spread Keynesian predictions in the immediate Post-WWII era that massive budget cuts to pay down the war debt, coupled with the demobilization of 12 million soldiers, would lead to a return of the US to a depression economy. Of course, no such depression occurred. Quite the opposite, in fact.
It was clear, even a decade after the General Theory was propounded, that it was…incomplete.
One more thing that relates the current level of indebtedness is that attempting to apply Keynes over and over again–but only the deficit spending part–is that, in effect, you’re arguing that the Keynesian solution is to spend, spend, spend, not matter what the level of debt.
There’s simply no evidence at all that even Keynes would have bought into that sort of argument. Indeed, quite the opposite is true. Lord Keynes never argued for increasing public spending as a matter of course, but rather tempering spending with budget-cutting at the appropriate time. Properly applied, even Keynesianism tends towards a balanced budget over time. What we’ve done over the past three decades isn’t Keynesianism, it’s a perversion of it. We’ve spent like drunken sailors attempting to stimulate the economy, but we’ve never actually gotten around to cutting budgets and paying down the debt in the good times. We’ve simply accepted the new level of increased spending as the baseline.
My argument is that we’ve reached beyond the outer bounds where Keynes is applicable. However relevant his observations may be in a regime of limited public debt and counter-cyclical fiscal and monetary policy–which we’ve never really applied by the way, as we’ve ignored the budget-cutting bits–we’ve simply passed the point at which his policy prescriptions can be relied upon, even if they are correct in other contexts.
If Keynesianism is dead, it’s mainly because we’ve killed it.
UPDATE: From Billy Hollis in the comments:
One of the main reasons I have disdain for experts that are part of the political class is the Honors Economics course I took in 1975-76. The professor (an excellent one, and one of the few non-collectivist professors in the department) had us read and contrast John Kenneth Galbraith, who was the leading Keynesian proponent of the time, and Milton Friedman. Galbraith sounded like nonsense to me, and Friedman seemed logical and reasonably clear…
Pumping up the money supply artificially increases demand, trading present good stuff for future bad stuff (inflation, high interest rates, etc.). The only way you can believe that such a technique works in the long term is to assume people are stupid and will fall for the same short term thinking every time you try it.
I’d respond that what JKG called Keynesianism…wasn’t.
Keynes said that in recessions or depressions, the government should use deficit spending to pump more money into the economy. This extra spending would increase the money supply, and stimulate the economy. In addition, the government could cut taxes, allowing people to keep more of what they’d earned.
In good economic times, he said the government should operate at a surplus. That would keep the economy from heating up too fast, and set aside a store of money to be spent in the recessionary times. It would also reduce the money supply, and erase the inflationary pressures bought about by increasing the money supply during the recessions. Taxes could also be raised to help make up the previous budget shortfalls.
So, in a perfect world, the budget would balance, over the course of a business cycle. You’re still trading present good stuff for future bad stuff, but in relatively tiny increments. You really aren’t supposed to do it $14 trillion at a time.
What we had in the 1970s–and since–was half of Keynes. The easy bit. The bit that allowed us to spend, spend, spend, with nary a thought of ever applying fiscal austerity in the good times. Austerity is hard and unpopular. It’s easier just to spend money as a way to buy votes.
Since Keynesianism essentially requires the administration of wise philosopher-kings to administer it, democratically-elected polities have failed at implementing it.
Even more than that, Keynesianism essentially requires the ability to rather precisely target both the timing and amount of stimulus needed to ameliorate a recession, and the timing and amount of austerity to apply in an expansion to wring the expansionary and inflationary pressures out of the economy. But, absent a philosopher king who can operate in synch with the state of the economy, things begin to break down.
Timing the changes in fiscal and monetary policy are, at best, difficult in a democratic state. Messy political deals have to be made and legislation gets held up while waiting for amendments to satisfy some special interest, without which, too few politicians are willing to vote in favor. On the monetary policy side, the effects of policy changes aren’t realized for 8-16 months after a policy change, such as a change in interest rates. And, in either case, no one actually knows what the state of the economy is right now. At best we know what the state of the economy was last month, or three months ago, when the statistics were compiled.
Even at the best of times, with political players of unquestioned integrity, the immense difficulty of knowing the precise timing and amounts of expansionary or contractionary policy that is needed is a daunting task.
Theoretically, Keynes theory is elegant, and explains much about money-based economies. In practice, it’s so difficult and messy to try and implement, and so filled with negative incentives for the politicians who are asked to administer it, that it has simply proven unworkable.
Like communism, the fact that it’s never been properly implemented, or achieved the claimed result, raises serious questions about whether, in the messy world of real people, it ever can be.
In this podcast, Bruce, Michael, and Dale discuss concerns about Turkey, and the debt limit.
The direct link to the podcast can be found here.
As a reminder, if you are an iTunes user, don’t forget to subscribe to the QandO podcast, Observations, through iTunes. For those of you who don’t have iTunes, you can subscribe at Podcast Alley. And, of course, for you newsreader subscriber types, our podcast RSS Feed is here. For podcasts from 2005 to 2010, they can be accessed through the RSS Archive Feed.
Gangs of anything are rarely good things. And when it comes to the Senate’s Gang of Six, that caution is doubly true. Today the Gang proposed a bipartisan deficit plan to which the president–eager to kick the deficit can down the road past the 2012 election–gave his qualified approval. There is only this summary (PDF) available at the moment, and there is much to digest.
The good news is that there is at least some sanity in it.
- Personal and corporate income taxes would be reduced to a top rate of 29%.
- The Alternative Minimum Tax–which has turned into a horrific taxation burden–will be eliminated.
- The CLASS Act provision of Obamacare would be repealed.
The bad news–and there’s always bad news with these guys–is that the budget reduction portion of it is notional. As usual in Washington, it calls “cuts” what the rest of us would call “reductions in the rate of spending increases”. In other words, spending isn’t actually reduced at any point, they just promise not to spend as much as they previously said they would. The main problem points include:
- None of the plan’s “spending caps” apply to entitlement programs, only discretionary spending. So the 800-pound gorilla of the budget remains untouched.
- Reform tax expenditures for health, charitable giving, homeownership, and retirement. These aren’t expenditures! They are allowing you to keep your money for IRAs, 401(k)s, Mortgage interest, etc. So, that sounds…ominous. Especially since the plan assumes that these, and similar reforms will net an additional $1 trillion in revenue.
- No reform at all of Medicare of Medicaid.
- A politically-imposed requirement to use the Chained-CPI as an inflation measure, presumably to cut down on cost-of-living increases, as the Chained-CPI understates inflation even more than the current CPI does.
- Requires the tax code to become more “progressive”, so you can expect serious increases in Capital Gains taxes.
- No Social Security reform at all, unless there’s 60 votes for it in the Senate, i.e., sponsors for such reform prior to its submittal to the Senate for consideration. So, essentially, never.
There’s no information at all on how big or expensive government will be, say 10 years down the road. No information on how strict the spending caps will be, making me expect another Gramm-Rudmann deal: Good on paper, ineffective in practice.
Basically, this plan, so far as I can tell, contains some eye-candy on income taxes to draw in the supply-siders, with the actual deficit reduction portion sounding…sketchy. Or in the case of entitlements, by far the source of most federal spending, non-existent.