Free Markets, Free People


People who live in glass houses…

When you accuse someone of stupidity, it’s probably wise to avoid saying something stupid yourself while doing so.  Sadly, E.J. Dionne fails to avoid that trap.

Our discussion of the economic stimulus is another symptom of political irrationality. It’s entirely true that the $787 billion recovery package passed last year was not big enough to keep unemployment from rising to over 9 percent.

But this is not actually an argument against the stimulus. On the contrary, studies showing that the stimulus created or saved up to 3 million jobs are very hard to refute. It’s much easier to pretend that all this money was wasted, although the evidence is overwhelming that we should have stimulated more.

Very hard to refute?  That’s nonsense on stilts.  Mr. Dionne may be so smart that rays of light emanate from his brow, but the paragraph above is an extraordinarily foolish position.

First, any statement of any jobs “created or saved” requires that we perform the impossible task of modeling how the economy would have performed in an alternate universe where a different policy mix was applied. We literally have no idea–nor any way to construct a testable hypothesis–that models how the economy would have reacted in the absence of the stimulus.  Even the Congressional Budget Office, while rather supinely delivering a report that ostensibly supported the administrations claims about job creation, was careful to note:

…it is impossible to determine how many of the reported jobs would have existed in the absence of the stimulus package.

Second, the methodology was extremely suspect.  In making its predictions of post-stimulus recovery, the administration simply plugged in an assumption about the multiplier effect of government spending.  They assumed that X amount in spending would result in Y% increase in aggregate demand, resulting in Z jobs.  What the CBO did in checking up on that prediction, was to plug essentially the same assumptions into their model, which, unsurprisingly, “confirmed” the predictions. Even the CBO seemed a bit embarrassed about that.

But the CBO, to its credit, has been fairly forthcoming about its methods and their limitations. In response to a question at a speech earlier this month, CBO director Doug Elmendorf laid out the CBO’s methodology pretty clearly, describing the his office’s frequent, legally-required stimulus reports as “repeating the same exercises we [aleady] did rather than an independent check on it.” CBO tweaks its models on the input side, he says—adjusting, for example, how much money the government has spent. But the results the CBO reports—like the job creation figures—are simply a function of the inputs it records, not real-world counts.

Following up, the questioner asks for clarification: “If the stimulus bill did not do what it was originally forecast to do, then that would not have been detected by the subsequent analysis, right?” Elmendorf’s response? “That’s right. That’s right.”

In other words, the CBO’s regular, legally-mandated reports, are estimates based on an economic model that doesn’t actually take inputs from the real world. They simply take the same estimates the administration used to create their predictions, then apply them to the monthly spending report, coming up with a number of jobs “created or saved” that is, unspurprisingly, exactly what the administration predicted.

Please note: this has no actual relationship to the number of real-world jobs that exist.  The only thing the CBO reports prove–by its own admission–is that it is possible to replicate the administration’s predictions by  duplicating the assumptions.

So, not only is it untrue, as Mr Dionne asserts, that “studies showing that the stimulus created or saved up to 3 million jobs are very hard to refute,” the CBO director explicitly refutes that notion by agreeing that “[i]f the stimulus bill did not do what it was originally forecast to do, then that would not have been detected by the subsequent analysis.”

But, let us say, arguendo, that Mr. Dionne is right, and the $787 billion did, in fact, create 3 million new jobs.  The price tag then, comes to $262,333.33 for each job created. That seems like a relatively steep price.

Happily, we know more or less precisely how many people are employed in the country, and how the size of the labor force has changed. We know this, because the Bureau of Labor Statistics releases those figures on a monthly basis, and they are publicly available at the BLS web site.  If we assume March 2009 to be the first month of the stimulus, we see that there were a total of 140,854,000 Americans over the age of 16 employed, including farm employment.  As of Jun, 2010, there were 139,119,000 Americans working. That tells me that there are 1,735,000 fewer Americans working today, than there were when the stimulus was passed.  If we exclude agriculture, and look at only non-farm payrolls, we see that there were 132,070,000 people employed in March, 2009, vice 130,470,00 in June, 2010.  Again, that’s a net loss of 1,600,000 payroll jobs.

I’m not seeing any net job creation there.

In at least one sense, though, Mr. Dionne is quite right.  Since the administration’s claims of 3 million jobs “created or saved” is empirically disprovable, they can tout them as much as they’d like, even in the face of 1.6 million jobs actually disappearing under the stimulus.  After all, they can always say, “There would have been 3 million fewer jobs if we hadn’t acted.  And if you don’t believe me, prove me wrong!”  It is, after all, so comforting to be able to take refuge in an unfalsifiable hypothesis.

Coming government layoffs

Apparently the only jobs the massive "stimulus" may have saved, at least temporarily, were government jobs. Now, even those are in jeopardy as state and local governments are forced to deal with the reality of their fiscal situation:

Up to 400,000 workers could lose jobs in the next year as states, counties and cities grapple with lower revenue and less federal funding, says Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody’s


Layoffs by state and local governments moderated in June, with 10,000 jobs trimmed. That was down from 85,000 job losses the first five months of the year and about 190,000 since June 2009. But the pain is likely to worsen.

States face a cumulative $140 billion budget gap in fiscal 2011, which began July 1 for most, says the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

While general-fund tax revenue is projected to rise 3.7% as the economy rebounds in the coming year, it still will be 8%, or $53 billion, below fiscal 2008 levels, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers.

And that means that states will not be able to afford some of the services or staff they presently employ.  And that, of course, means layoffs and even more workers seeking jobs.  While to this point, many state and  localities have been able to avoid layoffs by offering furloughs, that option is no longer viable for most.

And economic growth isn’t looking all that hot either.  Wells Fargo economist Mark Vitner is amending his third quarter economic growth estimate from 1.9% to 1.5%.

If this is a recovery, I’d hate to see a depression.


Observations: The Qando Podcast for 02 May 10

In this podcast, Bruce, Michael, and Dale discuss the economy, Charlie Crist, and the Times Square bombing attempt. Billy Hollis checks in, too.

The direct link to the podcast can be found here.


The intro and outro music is Vena Cava by 50 Foot Wave, and is available for free download 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 2009, they can be accessed through the RSS Archive Feed.

Observations: The QandO Podcast for 18 Apr 10

In this podcast, Bruce, Michael and Dale discuss the state of the economy, Tea Parties, and the Democtrats’ approach to politics. The direct link to the podcast can be found here.


The intro and outro music is Vena Cava by 50 Foot Wave, and is available for free download 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 2009, they can be accessed through the RSS Archive Feed.

Observations: The Qando Podcast for 11 Apr 10

In this podcast, Bruce, Michael and Dale discuss the state of the economy, and the Obama  Administration’s childlike foreign policy. The direct link to the podcast can be found here.


The intro and outro music is Vena Cava by 50 Foot Wave, and is available for free download 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 2009, they can be accessed through the RSS Archive Feed.

Scary Employment Chart of the Day

When it comes to employment, we have dug ourselves a tremendous hole. I will be surprised if unemployment is back to where it was four years from now. This chart gives us all an idea why:

Of particular interest is the path of the last two recessions which had anemic job growth despite relatively shallow initial dips. The recovery period for each far exceeded previous recessions. If we see a repeat this time the V shaped recovery in employment we keep hearing about is not going to happen. So why the difference?

The earlier recessions exhibited a similar pattern of sharp drops in employment followed by sharp recoveries as the economy snapped back. The change that we began to see in the 1990 recession is partly structural. The layoffs associated with the much larger manufacturing sector in recessions of the past were associated with a rundown in inventories which then snapped back once the inventories were depleted.

Something else is going on here as well in my own opinion. As the eighties gave way to the nineties the US was in the early stages of an experiment in monetary and economic policy. Monetary policy was explicitly geared to reduce economic volatility. This led to attempts to reduce the severity of recessions, and also led to a reduction in upside volatility as well. This was (at least for a while) somewhat successful, resulting in what became known as “The Great Moderation.” The recession of 1990 was the first crack in that system. Attempts to limit volatility not only reduced the violence of the recession, but the explosive growth typical after recessions previously. It also was a recession which was a result of a financial crisis (the S&L’s) and the real estate boom of the late eighties. The deleveraging of the finance and debt recession (what we are going through now, only in miniature) was sluggish. It took a good while for the adjustment to occur.

We followed a familiar script of lowering interest rates and encouraging credit expansion. Constant expansions of credit whenever things slowed kept the engine running until a bigger crisis hit with the bursting of the tech and telecom bubble. Once again we applied even more credit easing to soften the blow, and the attempt to avoid wringing the excesses of credit from the system led to another sluggish recovery with anemic job growth. Profits however were large and the return for the steadily growing financial sector was immense. If the economy was going to be stabilized by constant applications of credit expansion, then the financial sector was the main beneficiary. Finally we have the latest crisis, one where the financial system itself was the most important bubble.

What we can now see is that the types of recessions we have been experiencing are successive deleveraging cycles, each “solved” by releveraging the economy and leading to a bigger crisis down the road. Sadly deleveraging processes, especially if drawn out by keeping them from running their course, result in tepid job growth. We are now in a massive deleveraging cycle which we are once again trying to solve by adding massive debt to the system. Once again job growth and recovery is slower. Unless we break this cycle (which would be very painful) we should expect nothing different in the outcome, except that the problem is bigger and will last longer.

Cross Posted at: The View from the Bluff

Food Stamps Do Not Increase Employment

You may recall that I questioned the efficacy of Paul Rosenberg, et al.’s argument that increasing food stamp benefits would directly lead to an increase of 9 to 10 million more people being employed:

Without arguing the statistical or modeling specifics behind the chart, there is one glaring item that reveals how much magical thinking went into its creation. By far the most “stimulating” actions set forth are “Temporary Increase in Food Stamps”(calculated to create 9,803,333 jobs), “Extending Unemployment Insurance” (9,236,667 jobs), and “Increased infrastructure Spending” (9,010,000 jobs). The closest tax-cutting measure, according to this analysis, in job creation is a “Payroll Tax Holiday” which is estimated to create 7,253,333 jobs. Do you see the problem?

How, exactly, do food stamps and unemployment benefits create jobs? Arguably, spending on infrastructure could create construction jobs on a temporary basis, although that hasn’t proven to be the case with the stimulus bill that was passed. But there is simply no logic to the idea that providing government benefits to the poor and unemployed will serve to create jobs, much less 9 to 10 million of them. That’s just magical thinking.


Whatever the virtues of income support, and even if that support will be quickly spent in the economy, there is no justification for concluding that it will expand the economy. At best, it can stabilize a downturn by maintaining some level of consumer spending. But that does not expand the economy in any way, shape or form, and it certainly doesn’t create jobs [at] an unprecedented level as suggested by Rosenberg.

As it turns out, we have plenty of empirical evidence to show that, in fact, increasing food stamp aid does nothing to increase employment. Indeed, for the past decade, the US has dramatically increased the number of participants who receive food stamps to the point that 1 in every 8 Americans now partakes in the program:

The reason for the expansion, as the chart’s creators point out, is that we’ve been pushing food stamps not just on the needy, but on the working poor as well [via: James Joyner]:

States eased limits on people with cars and required fewer office visits from people with jobs. The federal government now gives bonuses to states that enroll the most eligible people.

A self-reinforcing cycle kicked in: outreach attracted more workers, and workers built support for outreach. In a given month, nearly 90 percent of food stamp recipients still have incomes below the federal poverty line, according to the Department of Agriculture. But among families with children, the share working rose to 47 percent in 2008, from 26 percent in the mid-1990s, and the share getting cash welfare fell by two-thirds.

Whether this is a good policy or not is neither here nor there. Instead, what should be glaringly evident is that there is no correlation between food stamp distribution and job creation. Over the past decade, as the number of people using food stamps rose from around 17 million to almost 35 million, the economy has both created and shed millions of jobs. For example, since December 2007, when the recession officially began, the economy lost 8.4 million jobs according to the Labor Department. Yet in that same time, according to the chart above, around 7 million more people received food stamps (rising from about 27 million to 34 million). If the “food stamps = job creation” were correct, how did we lose all of those jobs?

The inescapable conclusion is that food stamps do not create jobs, and at best only serve to keep some minimal level of economic activity going during down times.

Why Are Businesses Not Hiring?

We’ll soon be treated to the spectacle of a White House job summit in December.  Yes, almost 11 months into his presidency, Barack Obama has discovered that the public is most concerned with the economy and jobs – not health care.  Not the environment.  Ironically, it is most likely those two things at which the administration and the Democratic Congress have been working so hard to pass into law that have caused the job situation and economic outlook to remain so bleak.

While President Obama and congressional leaders say they would like to do more to spur job creation, economists and business executives warn that their plans to impose new health care and climate-change costs on corporations would have the opposite effect.

The initiatives, according to this analysis, are likely to overwhelm any positive impact on jobs from stimulus measures by giving businesses a reason to keep laying people off.

The House’s health care bill would raise the cost of hiring in a straightforward way: by charging businesses a new payroll tax of up to 8 percent if they do not provide health insurance to workers. The Senate plan would impose smaller fines on those same employers.

The House-passed climate-change legislation would not add directly to the cost of hiring, but would raise energy prices, which are a major cost of doing business. Economists say that many companies would react by hiring fewer people.

As we’ve mentioned numerous times, businesses want, in fact usually require, a stable economy before they begin hiring or expanding. They want to see trend lines headed up and they also want a climate that is conducive to expansion and thus hiring.

With these to major bills looming and, as the Washington Times notes, major new costs a part of their passage, businesses aren’t going to
commit to doing anything until they understand how those new costs will impact them.

So don’t hold out much hope for anything major to come out of the job summit. It’s mostly for show – a way to show concern. If the administration really wanted to see jobs created, they’d kill the two monstrosities in question and provide incentives to business (tax cuts, tax incentives, etc) to spur hiring. Instead we’re much more likely to see talk about a “second stimulus” and other big government “solutions”.

Just don’t forget the promise of the last “stimulus” – it would stop unemployment at 8% and “create or save” millions of jobs.

The official unemployment rate is 10.2%.


Phantom Jobs Support Fake Recovery?

John Crudele alerts us to a GIGO (garbage-in-garbage-out) statistic the Labor Department uses and has used for a long time that provides erroneous data.  Bad as it is in normal times, it is even worse in bad economic times:

In 11 of the 12 months, the government adds massive numbers of jobs — sometimes more than 100,000 — that it thinks, but can’t prove, exist.

This is because the Labor Department uses something called the birth/death model, which assumes that no matter how bad the economy is, there are itty-bitty, newly-formed companies — which can’t be reached by government surveyors — that are creating jobs.

So it pumps up its statistics with unconfirmed jobs created which hides the real extent of the jobs lost. And, of course, as Crudele points out, the stats are iffy in a good economy, but reliance on them in this sort of an economy is simply a travesty.

Even the Labor Department has now admitted that:

Right after Friday’s report came out, Bloomberg News called Chris Manning, the national benchmark branch chief at the Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, and asked about the 34,000 probably non-existent jobs.

“In this period of steep job losses, the birth/death model didn’t work as well as it usually does,” Manning told Bloomberg. “To the extent that there was an overstatement in the birth/death model, that is likely to still be there.” No freakin’ kidding! This year alone, this model has added over 700,000 jobs that don’t exist to the government’s count.

The Labor Department is not only still using this model, but it nearly doubled the number of phantom jobs for this September compared with the same month last year.

So if you’re wondering how distinguished economists can get things so wrong, this provides a peek. After all, these are the statistics they’re stuck using. Phantom job creation stats based on an absurd assumption that says something’s happening that can’t be confirmed and, by the way, it continues to happen at the same rate even in the worst of financial times. Does that conform with your experience in the real world?

Mine either. Keep that all in mind when you hear the “experts” tell you that according to the latest unemployment stats, it just isn’t as bad as you might think.

[HT: Mark W.]


Details, Promises And Other “Stimulus” Package Fun Stuff

As the details of the compromise stimulus package come out, most will find plenty to not like.

For instance, those stimulative tax cuts for 95% of Americans:

Q: What are some of the tax breaks in the bill?

A: It includes Obama’s signature “Making Work Pay” tax credit for 95 percent of workers, though negotiators agreed to trim the credit to $400 a year instead of $500 — or $800 for married couples, cut from Obama’s original proposal of $1,000. It would begin showing up in most workers’ paychecks in June as an extra $13 a week in take-home pay, falling to about $8 a week next January.

$13 bucks a week for 6 months, down to $8 bucks a week by January. $338 in ’09, and, if it stays in place for all of ’10, $416.

Wow. 800 billion of your dollars and in the next year and a half you’re going to see $754 of it. Go make that down payment on the new house or car now!

Now, here’s the rope-a-dope:

Q: How will infrastructure spending affect jobs?

A: The Federal Highway Administration has estimated that every $1 billion the federal government spends on infrastructure projects translates to 35,000 jobs. Collins put the total infrastructure spending — including highways, mass transit, environmental cleanups and broadband facilities — at $150 billion. Do the math and that translates into more than 5 million jobs, based on the highway administration’s assumptions.

Senate leaders have offered their own estimate — they said Wednesday that the total stimulus package will sustain some 3.5 million jobs.

Most of that work will go to people who already have jobs. And those who are hired will be hired on a temporary basis. When the revenue stream for that job ends, so will the temporary jobs.

And one other thing to keep in mind – these people are estimating based on nothing more than some assumptions they’ve decided look rosy and fit their narrative. They have no freakin’ idea how many jobs, if any, their spending will bring.

Q: How long would it take for highway projects to begin?

A: Lawmakers say most of the projects could be up and running within 90 days, although it could take somewhat more time in northern states with longer winters. Highway construction groups have estimated that there are thousands of projects that could be started within that 90 days.

Here’s a dirty little secret about this answer – projects that are 90 days from beginning have most likely already been funded and those who are going to work on them have been hired.

All the rest of the projects in the bill will have to go through the normal years long bidding process that is required by government. So “shovel ready” does not necessarily mean an infusion of new cash or jobs.

Q: Does the bill include federal aid to the states?

A: Yes. It includes major contributions to states to help with their budget shortfalls and assure the viability of Medicaid and education programs.

Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the moderate Republican who helped broker the deal, said the spending includes about $90 billion in increased federal matches to states to help pay for Medicaid, along with a $54 billion “fiscal stabilization” fund that states could use to build and repair schools and improve facilities at institutions of higher learning.

This bill is the “State Fiscal Mismanagement Bailout Bill” which rewards states for budget busting.

Tell me, in life, what is one of the major means of changing behavior?

Pain. No pain, nothing learned. Be it emotional, physical or financial pain, unless you suffer it, you have no reason to change your behavior. Given this bill, profligate state governments have no reason to change their spendthrift ways.

BTW, none of that spending will stimulate anything but more government.


Q: What are some of the other main focuses of the bill?

A: Here are some highlights:

Education: The package has some $11.5 billion to support the IDEA program for special education. There’s another $10 billion for a federal program to help low-income students.

Energy: The package includes funds to modernize the electrical grid — in part by incorporating renewable energy resources — and to make federal buildings more energy efficient and help low-income households weatherize their homes.

Health: The plan includes subsidies to allow people who are laid off to purchase health insurance through the federal COBRA plan. There is also money to support hospitals seeking to modernize health information technology.

Infrastructure: The infrastructure section of the package includes funds for building and repairing highways and bridges, expanding transit systems, upgrading airports and rail systems and building and repairing federal buildings — with the focus on making them more energy efficient. Funds are available for clean water projects, cleanup of environmental waste areas and nuclear waste cleanups.

Nothing listed here is stimulative. Nothing. This is all the pork that everyone has denied is in the bill. This is the left’s shopping list of the last 40 years rolled into one big raid on your wallet.

And what about the engine of productivity, the creator of jobs and wealth? Not much at all:

From auto dealers to the home-building industry, big business appears to be the biggest loser in the final economic stimulus plan being pieced together Wednesday on Capitol Hill.

Negotiators from the House and Senate sliced billions of dollars in tax incentives for businesses and slashed huge tax breaks for consumers that were strongly backed by industry lobbyists.

Many of the business tax provisions were added to the stimulus legislation in the Senate in an effort to attract Republican votes. President Barack Obama wants bipartisan support for the plan and was dealt a setback when no Republicans voted for the House version of the plan two weeks ago.

But when only three Republican senators voted for the Senate version of the bill Tuesday, Democrats slashed the business tax proposals in an effort to bring the total cost of the bill under $789 billion.

That’s right, Democratic spite and their propensity toward government as the solution have mostly driven tax breaks for business, the one sector that can, in fact, create real jobs that produce wealth, out of the bill.

Tthe Democrats like to use the term “trickle down” derisively, but as Karl Rove notes, you’re  about to see their version of it. The difference is the money will “trickle down” through the government filter. Any guess as to how much will actually reach down to where it is needed?

Well, don’t bet that whopping $754 bucks you’ll be seeing over the next year and a half that it will do any good. Instead you might consider buying gold with it, since my guess is it isn’t going to be worth $754 when the Democrats get done with screwing around with the economy.