Most economists agree that America has enjoyed unprecedented prosperity, based primarily on excessive debt. Thus, any healthy correction would necessarily involve serious deleveraging and a severe recession. After a lot of pain, the economy would rebuild with healthier fundamentals. Infrastructure improvement would aid, but not cause, the eventual recovery.
Recession is the natural cure for the politically inspired profligacy that America has enjoyed for almost 40 years. Unfortunately, the side effects of this medicine, namely the rapid reallocation of labor resources and deflationary damage to debtors, are still unpalatable to pandering politicians.
The Washington regime, particularly members of the Democrat persuasion, leans towards a socialist solution of avoiding recession at any cost. After all, the bills are paid by others, such as taxpayers and holders of US dollars. This results in an increasing amount of other people’s money being spent on “public” works that would in other times carry the label “pork barrel”.
Washington is choosing to pursue the policy of continued and ever-increasing false prosperity, financed eventually by hyper-taxation, hyper-debt and hyper-inflation accompanied by a gradually eroded standard of living. The jobs created by the bill are by and large non-productive and will divert resources from the private sector and rob consumers of their power to make free choices in the marketplace.
Pain avoidance drove the call for stimulus. Politicians are naturally for that because it ensures their future. But in reality it isn’t pain avoidance at all, but simply a form of pain management. And since that management will be spread over many years, those who will lose under it will be less likely to notice that loss over the years than they would if that loss happened all at once. But there’s a price for that, and it will become apparent eventually. That gradual loss won’t allow the recovery to the previous standard of living because government will have supplanted much of the private sector and many of those options (and resources) for regaining that level are no longer available.
Of course, the good news for the present crop of politicians is that realization of loss won’t happen on their watch. And as far as the political class is concerned, that’s all that matters.
Let the good times roll!
You’ve just witness the unimaginable – Congress passes a 789 billion dollar pork-laden spending bill disguised as a “stimulus” bill and they may be contemplating “Unimaginable II”:
Despite the enormous size of the $787 billion stimulus plan, some economists worry that it won’t make a big enough dent in unemployment and that lawmakers will have to work on another stimulus in short order — something members of Congress are loathe to discuss.
“That’s possible,” said Alice Rivlin, a former Clinton administration budget director. “I think the economy is getting worse quite rapidly and this may not prove to be enough.”
And why is that, Ms. Rivlin? Why might it not be “enough”?
The stimulus got “less stimulative,” Rivlin said, as it passed through the Senate and some of the things that offered “the biggest bang for the buck” were scaled back, such as more money for food stamps.
You mean it was exactly what those mean old Republicans said it was – more relief than stimulus. More social spending than jobs? That, in fact, any stimulative part of the bill was watered down or eliminated in favor of special interest spending on programs which are either years in the future or will provide no immediate jobs with which to help get the economy moving?
You mean, despite all the rhetoric and nonsense to the contrary by Obama and the Dems, we are on the road to repeating the mistakes Japan made that brought them their “lost decade”?
And I doubt many would call Ms. Rivlin a right-wing reactionary economist spouting Republican talking points, would they?
So now that the Dems have fulfilled their 40 year social program spending spree, it appears they may now try to actually stimulate the economy with a few more hundred billions of your great, great, great grandchildren’s money.
More future theft.
“Son of Stimulus”, coming to a wallet near you soon?
Since the inception of the current downturn, free market capitalism has taken quite the bashing. Supporters of significant government involvement in the economy deride the horrors of “unfettered capitalism” and a “free market run amuck.” Frequently, deregulation of capital markets is singled out as the most dastardly culprit, to which Pres. Obama seems to be alluding when he blames “relying on the worn-out dogmas of the past,” and “too little regulatory scrutiny.” Yet, after the last eight years in which we witnessed Sarbanes-Oxley, No Child Left Behind, Medicare Part D, and numerous attempts to reign in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac shoved aside by legislators, evidence of unregulated economic activity being the source of our crisis seems rather scant.
The idea that “deregulation” was somehow responsible for the mortgage meltdown is a particularly shaky proposition. Shannon Love explains why:
Leftists have to answer a question: if greedy, irresponsible, unregulated etc. capitalism caused the housing bubble, why didn’t we see a similar bubble in commercial real-estate markets which operate under even less regulation than the residential markets? Why does the politically neglected and unregulated commercial real-estate market exhibit much milder swings?
The differences between residential and commercial real estate provide the means to test the hypothesis that government intervention or the lack thereof caused the housing bubble and subsequent collapse of the financial system. We can compare the two markets because the same institutions ultimately make residential and commercial loans. They make loans in the same communities and regions. Changes in the economy affect both types of real estate at the same time and to the same rough degree. The only major difference between the two markets lies in the degree of government intervention.
After dispensing with some obvious questions about the comparison, Love highlights how the residential market was essentially turned into a Lemon’s Market:
As Love points out, the commercial real estate market has no such mechanism muddying its waters, and information is comparatively less asymmetric. Without the government interference, commercial mortgage lenders let the potential for bad outcomes drive their decision making:
More than any other policy, the creation of Freddie Mac and Fanny May distorted the residential mortgage market in a way that the commercial market escaped. The FMs exist solely to induce lenders to make residential loans that the free market judged too risky. The FMs buy up residential mortgages from primary lenders and bundle them together in securities. They do so precisely in order to short-circuit the free-market feedback system that communicates to banks when the financial system as a whole has lent out as much money as it safely can. That feedback system worked like a governor on an engine. It kept the system from running away and lending more money than it could recoup, but also prevented people with poorer credit from getting loans.
Politicians who wanted the engine to run faster created the FMs to bypass the governor in order to get higher performance in the short run. Since the FMs would buy up almost any mortgage, lenders could make riskier and riskier loans without suffering any negative consequence. The FMs replaced the self-interested secondary-market buyers with people playing with government money and a mandate to induce more and more lending. Special dodgy accounting rules allowed the FMs to hide the risk behind the securitized mortgages they sold.
Tellingly, no such intervention occurred in commercial markets. The FMs’ charters expressly prevented them from buying commercial mortgages. As a result, the commercial mortgage market functioned with a free-market governor. When lenders made too many risky loans, free-market secondary buyers stopped buying their mortgages and the system cooled down. As a result, commercial markets saw no runaway boom and subsequent colossal bust.
Although I think that laying the crisis solely at the feet of the residential mortgage market is overly simplistic (for example, what was up with the ratings agencies?), Love does point to a very apt comparison as to how government intervention in the market changes incentives and behavior. If you guarantee risks against bad loans, and subsidize the debtors, then more of such loans will be made. Remove such a guarantees and subsidies and market forces will severely punish improperly compensated risk taking.
The trade off, of course, is that free markets do not allow much opportunity for rent-seeking. Which is why Love’s final lament is so true:
Sadly, experience suggests that mere empiricism has no place in political economics.
That’s because empiricism does not buy votes.
Apparently the Brainiac known as John Kerry is again displaying his wit an wisdom for all to see. Mary Katherine Ham caught him on the floor of the Senate pontificating about why tax cuts were bad:
I’ve supported many tax cuts over the years, and there are tax cuts in this proposal. But a tax cut is non-targeted.
If you put a tax cut into the hands of a business or family, there’s no guarantee that they’re going to invest that or invest it in America.
They’re free to go invest anywhere that they want if they choose to invest.
If you feel like you’ve just been hit in the solar plexus, welcome to the club. While technically true, his statements are so stunningly ignorant it’s hard to fathom how one could actually articulate them with a straight face.
This man who wanted to be president is sure that only government can “invest” these dollars properly – like the first half of the TARP funds, some of which went toward buying banks in China – but that the majority of Americans would “invest” them ignorantly or not at all.
Per Kerry you can’t be trusted to spend your money the way John Kerry wants it spent – on bike paths and Frisbee Golf Courses or other misbegotten projects he finds preferable. The poster boy for rule by the elite, Kerry manages in three sentences to underscore why this travesty of a bill will fail. The economic ignorance embodied by his words, and the fact they fairly represent the dominant thinking in the dominant party and their lackeys is amazing but true.
With people like Kerry in charge, it is going to be a long, debt-ridden and impoverished 4 years, folks.
It’s been interesting to watch the left attempt to paint the right as obsessive about tax-cuts, to the exclusion of any other method of stimulating the economy. Josh Marshall called it “tax cut monomania”. Of course careful readers who’ve followed this debate know that’s absolute nonsense. The Republicans have bought into the premise that some level of government spending is necessary, except that it should be tightly targeted and provide immediate stiumlus.
Instead they’re faced with this bloated piece of garbage legislation derisively called the “2009 Spend Your Grand Children and Great Grand Children into Debt bill”.
I noted Marshall’s appeal to authority (the sacred macroeconomic texts) yesterday and his claim that macroeconomists couldn’t exactly run controlled experiments to prove their point. But upon reflection, I thought, that’s not precisely true. While it may not fit the classic definition of a “controlled experiment”, Japan’s 2 decade long struggle to revive its economy is about as close as we’re going to get.
And you know what – the lessons learned from that say we’re about to commit the same mistakes they did. President Obama claimed, last night, that spending on infrastructure was the way to go – that it would create jobs and stimulate the economy. But Japan spent $6.3 trillion on construction-related public investment between 1991 and September of last year, and it did nothing of the sort. Nope, paving over Japan accomplished little in terms of stimulating a down economy.
In the end, say economists, it was not public works but an expensive cleanup of the debt-ridden banking system, combined with growing exports to China and the United States, that brought a close to Japan’s Lost Decade. This has led many to conclude that spending did little more than sink Japan deeply into debt, leaving an enormous tax burden for future generations.
In the United States, it has also led to calls in Congress, particularly by Republicans, not to repeat the errors of Japan’s failed economic stimulus. They argue that it makes more sense to cut taxes, and let people decide how to spend their own money, than for the government to decide how to invest public funds. Japan put more emphasis on increased spending than tax cuts during its slump, but ultimately did reduce consumption taxes to encourage consumer spending as well.
Trade and tax cuts along with spending targeted at banking system was how Japan finally pulled out of its doldrums. We already have 700 billion aimed at our banking system, with only half of it spent. That leaves what, if you’re interested in not repeating the mistakes of an economy which has already gone thorugh this sort of thing?
Well it’s certainly not a huge NRA style spending spreed on public works. Japan spent trillions on public works and infrastructure and it didn’t do what all the economists said it would do. Instead Targeted spending on the banking system, tax cuts and the development of trade turned the tide.
Given the present bill it appears we’re going to “Buy American”, refuse tax cuts and spend hundreds of billions on roads and bridges. The Republicans objections to this mammoth pork and relief fest have nothing to do with “tax cut monomania”. It has much more to do with understanding the lessons learned from the Japanese experience and not wanting to repeat them. Democrats, in their arrogance, seem to believe that they can do the same thing as Japan but have a different outcome.
Many progressives thought that Pres. Obama had abandoned them after the election, but I’ll bet they’re singing a different tune today:
President Barack Obama on Wednesday imposed a $500,000 cap on senior executive pay for the most distressed financial institutions receiving taxpayer bailout money and promised new steps to end a system of “executives being rewarded for failure.”
The limit would apply to top-paid executives at the most distressed financial institutions that are negotiating bailout agreements with the federal government.It also would apply to other banks that receive aid, but they could get around the limits by publicizing to shareholders plans to exceed the salary cap.
The “most distressed financial institutions” will not include those which have already received TARP funds, such as AIG and Citigroup. However, those firms are already subject to caps on executive pay under the statute authorizing the bailout last Fall. And because these companies have all come to the government “with hat in hand,” in Obama’s words, not too many people outside of Wall Street are upset. Yet, Obama does not seem content to stop with these “distressed” companies:
The administration also will propose long-term compensation restrictions even for companies that don’t receive government assistance, Obama said.
Those proposals include:
• Requiring top executives at financial institutions to hold stock for several years before they can cash out.
• Requiring nonbinding “say on pay” resolutions — that is, giving shareholders more say on executive compensation.
• A Treasury-sponsored conference on a long-term overhaul of executive compensation.
This is exactly the sort of creeping socialism that many of us were worried about with Obama’s election. Mind you, McCain would not have been much better, but this sort of heavy handed government interventionism would not have been proposed by his administration, much less tolerated by most Republicans in Congress.
Obama’s proposals are somewhat tolerable with respect to the bailed out companies since they are being funded with tax payer dollars. If these companies are going take the money, then they should have to abide by whatever rules are attached to the funding no matter how onerous. But trying to impose such draconian restrictions on companies that are not being bailed out is nothing more than a direct assault on freedom.
Even if you think that no executive should be paid more than $X more than the lowest paid employee of a firm, or are just angry at the seemingly wasteful and lavish life styles of Wall Street bankers, you still have to find this sort of proposed legislation abominable. Why? Because no matter what you think about executive compensation, the owners and operators of these companies think otherwise. It’s their decision to make about how their companies are run and how well their employees are paid. Unless, of course, you would just fine and dandy with some government bureaucrat deciding that you are overpaid for your position, and that no matter how hard you work you can never make more than $Y.
The only people who would ever agree to such slavery are those who have no ambition and little, if anything, to offer the world in terms of work product. They are not the people who invent the items, create the ideas, or provide the services that make our lives better over time. That is not to say that their efforts are not appreciated, nor that they shouldn’t be rewarded. But neither should we base the engine of wealth creation on their hopes and dreams of sinecure.
Beyond the egregious assault on freedom these proposals represent, there is also a huge question as to their efficacy, regardless of whether the firms are troubled or not (my emphasis):
Compensation experts in the private sector have warned that intrusions into the internal decisions of financial institutions could discourage participation in the rescue program and slow down the financial sector’s recovery. They also argue that it could set a precedent for government regulation that undermines performance-based pay.
“One of the big questions is whether it will make it more difficult to recruit and retain executives at these companies,” said Claudia Allen, chair of corporate governance at the Chicago-based law firm of Neal, Gerber & Eisenberg.
The $500,000 cap “is a very tight limit,” she said.
Timothy J. Bartl, vice president and general counsel for the Center On Executive Compensation, said the president’s actions are a unique situation given the government’s role bailing out troubled institutions.
“We do not view it as something that ought to be extended beyond this circumstance,” he said.
I don’t think there’s any legitimate doubt that these will be the effects. Indeed, here are some of the reactions to Obama’s proposals:
Goldman Sachs said yesterday it wants to repay $10 billion it got from Treasury under the TARP to signal the firm is healthy and to escape limitations that came with that infusion of money. “Our financial condition is sound and, subject to approval from regulators, we hope to repay TARP money as soon as practicable,” said Lucas van Praag, a spokesman for New York- based Goldman Sachs.
JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon said Feb. 3 that the firm didn’t need capital and didn’t ask for TARP funding. The lender accepted the $25 billion it received from the first capital injection at the request of the government and to help stabilize the banking system, he said.
Goldman has to get permission to repay the government? Does that make sense? Only if the reason the funds were distributed in the first place was to give the federal government control over the market place. I think that’s exactly what Bush (“I’ve abandoned free-market principles to save the free-market system”) and Paulsen had in mind with TARP, and I think Obama is prepared to carry the ball even further into socialist territory.
As far as retaining talented executives, why would any of them stay? If you were making $10 Million per year including your bonuses (not uncommon), why would you stay somewhere that’s forcing you take a 95% pay cut? Of course, many will say good riddance to bad rubbish, and perhaps their right. It’s not like a firm that goes crawling for a federal handout was performing all that well. Except that (a) it’s far from clear that bad management led to the current crisis (although, surely that had something to do with it), and (b) even if it were clear, not every executive or potential executive was responsible. If you are a rising star in your investment bank who has put in exhaustingly long hours to get ahead in hopes of a big payday in the future, why would you stick around where you know your options are limited? These are very smart, industrious and capable people. There are plenty of places where they can go and not be subject to such pay strictures, and that is where they will end up.
Moreover, a part of the proposed regulations practically eliminates the fabled “golden parachutes” for executives:
Obama said that massive severance packages for executives who leave failing firms are also going to be eliminated. “We’re taking the air out of golden parachutes,” he said.
This displays a fundamental misunderstanding of what golden parachutes are. Contrary to popular belief, they are not generous giveaways to failed executives, but instead incentives for failed executives to get out of the way and allow new management. Without these sorts of incentives, management becomes entrenched and complacent. If a proposed takeover threatens to take away the goodies they can vote themselves, then they will forego such proposals and keep cashing in. In order to align management’s interests with the shareholders, golden parachutes were introduced to incentivize firm managers to sacrifice their jobs when the best interests of the company warrant it. Since one of the major problems that everyone seems to have with Wall Street is the failure of effective management, one would think the new rules would make it easier to bring in new blood, not harder.
But none of that matters to Obama:
Mr. Obama said the cap strikes the right “balance” between fair compensation and proper stewardship of taxpayer funds. “This is America. We don’t disparage wealth. We don’t begrudge anybody for achieving success. And we believe that success should be rewarded. But what gets people upset –and rightfully so–are executives being rewarded for failure, especially when those rewards are subsidized by U. S. taxpayers.
“For top executives to award themselves these kinds of compensation packages in the midst of this economic crisis is not only in bad taste, it’s a bad strategy — and I will not tolerate it as President.”
Again, it’s hard to generate much sympathy for executives who’ve come begging to Washington. But at the same time, what point is there to heavy handed measures that don’t do anything more than satisfy some people’s jealousy and outrage? Shouldn’t these proposals be designed to put people back to work?
Marshall’s premise is that we are, without a doubt, headed for the “Greatest Depression Ever” if Republicans don’t just capitulate and spend a trillion bucks on whatever it is the Democrats say we should spend it on.
The discussion of what to do on the Democratic side tracks more or less with textbook macroeconomics, while Republican argument track either with tax cut monomania or rhetorical claptrap intended to confuse. It’s true that macro-economics doesn’t make controlled experiments possible. And economists can’t speak to these issues with certainty. But in most areas of our lives, when faced with dire potential consequences, we put our stock with scientific or professional consensus where it exists, as it does here. Only in cases where it goes against Republican political interests or economic interests of money-backers do we prefer the schemes of yahoos and cranks to people who study the stuff for a living.
The link, if your wondering (or even had to wonder) is to Paul Krugman.
So let’s recap. Only the sacred texts hold the answer. But it’s also true that “macro-economists” can’t conduct “controlled experiments”. And it is also true that economists can’t speak to these issues with certainty.
But, by George, we should listen to them anyway. And certianly not to Republican “cranks” and “yahoos” who only have the interests of “money-backers” at heart and are truly only opposing this for political gain.
No word from Marshall as to why a Senate of 57 Democrats and 2 Independents caucusing with the Dems can’t seem to get this passed, but assuredly the reason is the Republicans and their repudiation of the sacred texts.
And correct me if I’m wrong (speaking of controlled experiments), but the last time we did the Paul Krugman macro thing in the ’30s, the results were less than stellar.
Of course, at some level, why would Republicans be trying to drive the country off a cliff? Well, not pretty to say, but they see it in their political interests. Yes, the DeMints and Coburns just don’t believe in government at all or have genuinely held if crankish economic views. But a successful Stimulus Bill would be devastating politically for the Republican party. And they know it.
Obviously Marshall hasn’t paused long enough in his rant to take a breath and realize that the stimulus package is going to pass in some form. What he’s whining about, and casting aspersions over, is the fact that the Senate Republicans (and the House Republicans as well) refused to bow at the altar of the the newly annointed and take that package of bacon without checking to see if it was spoiled. And besides, if the Republicans only have the interests of “money-backers” at heart, I’d be pleased to hear an argument which logically supports their desire to “driv[e] the country off the cliff” economically.
Yup, doesn’t resonate with me either.
If the GOP successfully bottles this up or kills it with a death of a thousand cuts, Democrats will have a good argument amongst themselves that Republicans were responsible for creating the carnage that followed. But the satisfaction will have to be amongst themselves since as a political matter it will be irrelevant. The public will be entirely within its rights to blame Democrats for any failure of government action that happened while Democrats held the White House and sizable majorities in both houses of Congress.
The public, of course, is showing much more sense than Marshall, with support for this massive mistake dropping to 37% according to Rasmussen.
And, to be clear here, if (and when) the bill does pass (since it is clear that Marshall hasn’t figured that out yet – it isn’t “if” but “when and with what”) then Republicans will be able to hold Democrats responsible for creating the debacle that follows, correct?
So either way – the failure to pass it or the responsibility for the failure that occurs when it passes – rest in the lap of Democrats.
Works for me.
Hope and change.
Bruce wrote earlier that the stimulus bill, in it’s current form, invites a Trade War with the rest of the world. Naturally, the protectionist elements of the bill had many of our trading partners both worried and miffed.
The EU, for example, has been struggling with the issue over there, and began tossing off warnings of a trade war. The EU Ambassador to the united States, John Bruton, expressed those warnings frankly.
The EU warnings came in letters to US political leaders in Congress, Timothy Geithner, the Treasury Secretary, and Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State. Mr Bruton urged them to respect the decision taken by the G20, the world’s leading economic nations, in Washington last November to resist protectionism as a defence against the crisis. They are expected to meet again in London in April.
“Failing this risks entering into a spiral of protectionist measures around the globe that can only hurt our economies further,” he wrote.
“Open markets remain the essential precondition for a rapid recovery from the crisis, and history has shown us where measures taken contrary to this principle can lead us.”
Back in Europe proper, the language was bit less guarded and diplomatic.
The European Commission’s powerful trade department, a bastion of open markets formerly headed by Lord Mandelson, said yesterday that the “Buy American” clause was “the worst possible signal” that could be sent to world trade.
A spokesman said: “We are particularly concerned about the signal that these measures could send to the world at a time when all countries are facing difficulties. Where America leads, many others tend to follow.”
In responding to those concerns, Pres. obama seems to have backed down a bit.
Last night Mr Obama gave a strong signal that he would remove the most provocative passages from the Bill.
“I agree that we can’t send a protectionist message,” he said in an interview with Fox TV. “I want to see what kind of language we can work on this issue. I think it would be a mistake, though, at a time when worldwide trade is declining, for us to start sending a message that somehow we’re just looking after ourselves and not concerned with world trade.”
Congratulations to Pres. Obama for realizing the toxic effect that outright protectionism would have on world trade, and economic recovery.
MoDo is in full anti-capitalist mode and boy I guess it feels good to finally let loose:
The president’s disgust at Wall Street looters was good. But we need more. We need disgorgement.
Disgorgement is when courts force wrongdoers to repay ill-gotten gains. And I’m ill at the gains gotten by scummy executives acting all Gordon Gekko while they’re getting bailed out by us.
18 billion taken from the government vs. 885 billion taken from the people. In which case are you sure “disgorgement” will never occur?
And that begs the question: who’s the looter here?