More grim ruminations on our economic prospects: What if recessions do permanent damage, diminishing a nation’s productive capacity?
As I wrote on Thursday, recessions are commonly understood as disruptive rather than destructive to the economy as a whole. But a paper presented Friday at the Brookings Institution warns that recessions may do lasting harm, like an untended house that not only needs a good dusting, but has also started to rot.
The term for this possibility sounds perfectly harsh: hysteresis. (The definition is more benign; it simply means that the past affects the present.)
The proper antidote to hysteresis, the authors write, is an increase in government spending. They write that under current conditions there is a good chance such spending would be self-financing, as tax revenues from resulting economic activity would outweigh the cost. But there is little prospect that Congressional Republicans will revisit their opposition to stimulus this year. Which means that our current experiment will run to completion: If hysteresis is real, we will know it by its consequences.
Of course past actions and behaviors affect the present, often negatively. But there are, just as often, positive consequences, as well as neutral consequences. This is how economic tradeoffs work, in the long run, at a macro level. The call for government intervention, though, does not follow from the premise.
In the first place, harm cannot be determined until after the fact, and harm is a subjective value (though it should be noted that it can be an objective term). Production capacity is not, in and of itself, a worthy end goal, particularly if higher production is inefficient relative to its alternatives. Furthermore, no economic occurrence is inherently harmful; it is only ever harmful to some party. What one party finds harmful another may find beneficial, and so Bastiat’s lesson of the broken window ignored once again.
In the second place, government intervention is not guaranteed to solve the problem. It would seem that the history of government intervention would show, on the whole, that most forms of intervention are net-negative, often benefiting a politically-connected, generally at the expense of the masses. While the technocratic solution to various economic problems can hypothetically be both correct and possible, in practice government intervention is generally more skewed to incentive distortion and political corruption, to use a phrase, the theory doesn’t jive with the real world.
But there’s more to this than meets the eye. What we don’t see are the hidden costs of protectionism. The first is the waste from using costly production methods. Protectionism changes manufacturers’ incentives, and they use capital and labor that could have been better-used elsewhere to produce (say) cars. The economic imagination is useful here. If people weren’t making cars, they could be making medical devices. Or tacos. Or automotive repair services (it stands to reason that if you can build cars, you can probably also fix them). Or any of a number of other things. As Russell Roberts points out in The Choice, there might be some short-run costs for workers who have trouble retooling; however, free trade leads to new opportunities for the next generation.
Replace the word “protectionism” with the word “regulation,” and note that the resulting paragraph makes a compelling case against government regulation. The altered paragraph also explains why free trade is terrible idea at this point in time: there are a massive number of regulations imposed on businesses by the federal government. Allowing for free trade, then, will not make the country wealthier. Rather, all it will do is decrease the cost of consumable goods while simultaneously transferring wealth to foreign businesses. As such, supporting free trade during a time of high domestic economic regulation is akin to supporting government-based foreign aid.
The second cost comes from the fact that tariffs increase the price of cars. When prices rise, people demand less of something. Consumers are worse off because they have fewer cars, and the cars they are no longer buying are cars that would cost less than consumers are willing to pay in the absence of tariffs. Interventions like tariffs raise the incomes of some workers by impoverishing others.
As mentioned before, there are a large number of governmental regulations that hinder the domestic economy. If tariffs were enacted to enforce regulatory parity, prices would naturally go up (or the quality of products would go down) as a response because consumers would have to bear the costs of their government’s regulatory interference. In a democratic country like the US, citizens would have to live with the consequences of the choices their elected representatives make. Thus, by simultaneously desiring free trade and a high degree of regulatory “protection,” Americans are essentially saying that they want societal luxury goods (like minimum wage, reduced pollution, worker safety, etc.) without having to actually pay for them. Unfortunately, nothing is free in this world, and the cost of regulation will be paid for, either in the form of higher prices, in the form of diminished capital, or in the form of increased debt.
The third cost comes from the change in incentives when it is discovered that people can raise their incomes by getting favors from the government. At best, favors from the government are a zero-sum transfer from one group of people to another. In reality, however, people use scarce resources to effect these transfers. Consider just one cost: the cost of flying to and from Washington, DC. The plane that is flying auto executives and union representatives from Detroit to DC could be used for something else, like flying people from Detroit to New York for business or from Detroit to Los Angeles for a vacation. The prospect of subsidies, tariffs, and other benefits from the government means that people will take valuable resources that could have been used to create wealth (planes, the time and energy of flight attendants and pilots, bags of roasted peanuts) and instead use them to transfer wealth. On net, we’re all worse off.
It is true that one government intervention usually begets another. What’s ignored is that not all second-order governmental interventions are irrational or illogical. While the initial tinkering in the economy usually leads to unintended and undesirable consequences, it does not follow that further interventions will do the same. And thus, while it is better for the government to not tinker in the first place, it is ludicrous to suggest that further tinkering will always be a net negative. Furthermore, if we take Carden’s argument at face value, the most appropriate response would be to focus our energy on deregulating the domestic economy instead pursuing free trade, since the domestic economy plays a much larger role in consumers’ lives than foreign trade.
Incidentally, coupling a highly-regulated domestic economy with free foreign trade is economic suicide in the long run because the domestic producers will their ability to innovate to be quite stifled (what with regulation and all), and so they will outsource their innovation to freer countries that offer comparable labor markets. And since production usually initially occurs at the same place as the innovation that leads to said production, it stands to reason that the innovative industries of the future will begin outside of the highly regulated economy that has encouraged outsourcing via free trade.
As should be clear, Art Carden’s argument suffers from the same flaws as all the others made by free traders: it’s shallow, ignores economic complexity, and is based on highly idealistic economic theories instead of actual reality. As such, his policy prescriptions should be ignored.
That is a big part of the problem. It is not politically possible for either the Federal Reserve or the Obama administration to leave the economy alone and let it recover on its own.
Both are under pressure to “do something.” If one thing doesn’t work, then they have to try something else. And if that doesn’t work, they have to come up with yet another gimmick.
All this constant experimentation by the government makes it more risky for investors to invest or employers to employ, when neither of them knows when the government’s rules of the game are going to change again. Whatever the merits or demerits of particular government policies, the uncertainty that such ever-changing policies generate can paralyze an economy today, just as it did back in the days of FDR.
There are two ways in which government tinkering promotes systemic uncertainty: by discouraging investment or by encouraging malinvestment.
The government discourages investment when it increases taxes and/or the cost of regulatory compliance. The state also discourages investment when it constantly reverses its own policies or is erratic in the enforcement of already existing policies. A continual state of flux discourages long-term investment because no one is able to feel certain about forecasting. One of the main reasons why ObamaCare and its counterpart RyanCare is so damaging is imply due to the fact that businesses aren’t able to feel certain about the future. The vociferousness with which RyanCare was debated helped to fuel systemic uncertainty, to a limited extent, because economic actors weren’t able to tell if any (or all) of the proposal would become law, and were thus unable to also determine what sort of long- and short-term plans would be viable.
But beyond that, the constant flux of change that is government tinkering also has a tendency to encourage malinvestment and market timing. Virtually every subsidy speaks as evidence for the former; Cash for Clunkers speaks as evidence for the latter.
Subsidies encourage malinvestment because they eliminate what economists refer to as moral hazard. Moral hazard is simply a fancy way of saying that people are more careful when investing their own money. When the government, for example, subsidizes corn-based ethanol, farmers have an incentive to grow more corn and venture capitalists have an incentive to invest in companies that will turn corn into ethanol-based fuel. This is generally unsustainable by market means because corn-based ethanol is energy negative, which simply means that producing ethanol burns more energy than it creates. Malinvestment can also be encouraged by indirect subsidies, like tax breaks or regulatory exemptions. This lowers the cost of doing business and increases profits, encouraging companies to pursue certain ventures.
When people think that the government may subsidize them, directly or by tax breaks, they have a tendency to wait until they qualify for the terms of the subsidy. This is true especially of temporary programs, like Cash for Clunkers, as mentioned before, or special tax breaks, like the first-time homeowners tax credit. These programs were ultimately failures because all the accomplished was pulling demand forward by a couple of months. They did not jump start the economy or increase long-term demand. Temporary subsidies, then, contribute to systemic uncertainty because economic actors try to time the market in order to get the most favorable deal. Businesses hold inventories to take advantage of greater demand later on. Consumers delay spending money in order to purchase things later on. Instead of allowing the market to function as it ought and smooth demand over time, government interference causes people to time the market and upset long-term plans.
Incidentally, the reason why temporary government programs generally become permanent is because there are some people who find temporary programs to be personally beneficial. When you have programs that offer lower prices to consumers and larger profit margins to businesses, most of the parties involved want to continue taking advantage of that system. Because of this, politicians vote to make temporary programs permanent because it is politically popular with their constituents, and because the political costs are widely dispersed and indirect.
Of course, the possibility of a temporary program becoming permanent also encourages systemic uncertainty because economic actors are unsure which specific programs will become permanent and if the terms of those programs will be altered in the process of attaining permanence.
In sum, it is simply best to let the market correct itself. Tinkering is futile at best and counterproductive at worst. Therefore, simply letting the market be is the best strategy, even if it is somewhat painful from time to time.
Freidrich Hayek and the Austrian school of economic policy argue for a laissez faire approach to the economy – emphasizing individual actions and criticizing government intervention. John Maynard Keynes acknowledged that economies could, over time, correct themselves, but argued that government had a responsibility to intervene and stimulate demand when the economy is in a slump. This video is a sequel to Fear the Boom and Bust, also produced by Econstories.tv
For my students, see how many of today’s economic issues you can find in this video and compare them to our look at the Great Depression.
Richard Posner’s recent book, ‘The Crisis of Capitalist Democracy’, is mainly about the global financial crisis, how it came about in the US, the lessons that the author thinks we should have learned from it and what governments should do to prevent similar crises in future. According to this distinguished author the crisis came about because of lax regulation; we have learned from it that the financial system is inherently fragile and that Keynes is still relevant; and the way to avoid similar crises in future is to introduce regulatory reform in the financial sector.
To be fair, Posner condemns some of the knee jerk responses of governments introducing tighter financial regulation and acknowledges that he is not entirely happy with his own suggestions for regulatory reform. He views the only ambitious proposal that he discussed sympathetically – the separation of commercial banking from other forms of financial intermediation – as ‘fraught with problems’ (p.362).
It is arguable that the global financial crisis was a crisis of capitalism. A milder financial crisis might still have occurred if central banks had not previously acted in ways that led major financial institutions to expect that they would be bailed out if their excessive risk-taking resulted in major losses. It is even possible to entertain the idea (as I did here) that the financial crisis has highlighted a fundamental problem in that laws governing the financial system currently permit financial intermediaries to make promises that they can’t always keep. But why view this economic crisis as a crisis of democracy?
The title of the book arises from Posner’s view that while the American political system can react promptly and effectively to an emergency, it ‘tends to be ineffectual’ in dealing with longer term challenges:
‘The financial collapse and the ensuing depression (as I insist we must call it) have both underscored and amplified grave problems of American public finance that will not yield to the populist solutions that command political and public support. The problems include the enormous public debt created by the decline of tax revenues in the depression, the enormous expenses incurred by government in fighting the depression, and the boost the depression has given to expanding the government’s role in the economy. These developments, interacting with a seeming inability of government to cut existing spending programs (however foolish), to insist that costly new programs be funded, to limit the growth of entitlement programs, or to raise taxes, constitute the crisis of American-style capitalist democracy’ (p.387-8).
Unfortunately, the quoted passage appears in the final paragraph in the book rather than the introduction. There is not much discussion in this book about this supposed weakness of the US democratic system. The author implies that it is largely a problem of political culture. Republicans favour low taxes but they have been reluctant to reduce government spending. Democrats favour high levels of government spending but they have been reluctant to raise taxes. As a result:
‘From the standpoint of economic policy we have only one party, and it is the party of profligacy’ (p.384).
As a person living in a democratic country in which a large part of the electorate has come to equate responsible economic management with budget surpluses and minimal public debt (to the dismay of some left wing economists who would like to see more public sector investment) I find it difficult to take seriously the idea that the current political culture in the United States involves a crisis of capitalist democracy. I am confident that before too long Americans will insist that their governments balance their books in order to avoid the problems currently being experienced in Greece and other European countries.
However, the picture might look a lot different from within the US. Before a change in political culture can occur in the US it will be necessary for a lot more Americans to become concerned about the future implications of current fiscal policies. Richard Posner claims that he has no idea how to solve the problem of America’s political culture (p.385) but I think he is contributing to the solution by merely raising awareness of the problem.
In tomorrow’s episode of John Stossel’s new show on Fox Business, he will address the question, “Who is Wesley Mouch?” in speaking to the parallels between Atlas Shrugged and contemporary America. As one might expect, in my view it seems as if almost all businessmen (given their predilection towards using government to destroy markets to their own advantage) in one way or another embody the qualities of Wesley Mouch.
One exception who will be on Stossel’s program is John Allison, an executive at BB&T Bank, who staunchly opposed TARP, has repeatedly refused to use the law to plunder the property of others and as one might guess is an ardent Austrian-school libertarian. In a scene reminiscent of the smoke-filled rooms of Atlas Shrugged, Allison divulged at an NYU lecture this past fall that the Feds threatened to go in and audit any bank that wouldn’t take government funds, forcing healthy banks to comply so as to cover for the fact that the government was only propping up a select few sick ones (at the expense of the solvent I might add).
In response to Stossel’s call in the aforehyperlinked column for suggestions for a follow-up show on “crony capitalism,” I posted:
If you want to talk about crony capitalism, it may pay to have Burton Fulsom who wrote “The Myth of the Robber Barons” on the program. I think the key is to delineate between political entrepreneurs and market entrepreneurs, something which he does astutely in that book.
Political entrepreneurs seek to use government decrees to profit, largely by cartelization, monopoly advantages and other barriers to entry, while market entrepreneurs generally seek to win profits in the market by merit – by producing the best product at the cheapest price.
More generally, the Mouch problem lies in the fact that while initially businessmen extol the virtues of little regulation, low barriers to entry and minimal governmental interference generally, once they become successful, out of self-interest they support any and all legislation that will cement their position in the market. They support all of those things anathema to the free market that they had used to their advantage in the first place.
This is akin to the economic plight of America as a whole. While up until the early 20th century (though some libertarians will argue that it was really only up until the time of Lincoln), America functioned under a largely laissez-faire economy, with the wealth and progress generated by this economy, we forgot about the virtues that led to our success and rewarded those tending towards failure. We created a welfare state from the riches of a relatively free state, throwing under the bus the very principles that elevated to us to our position as a great nation.
An open letter from Colorado Governor Bill Ritter:
Here in Colorado, we’re seeing encouraging signs of success and reason for optimism.
Last week we learned Colorado’s unemployment rate has dipped to 7%, now nearly 3 full points below the national average of 9.8% — and lower than all but a dozen states’ unemployment rates.
We’re still not out of the woods. Too many Coloradans are still struggling to find work, as businesses and families tighten their belts and adjust to the new economic reality. We continue to face a very difficult budget situation in the capitol. We’re making tough choices from limited options, requiring everyone from state employees to those who rely on public services to make even more sacrifices in the months ahead.
While challenging, this new economic reality presents us with a fresh opportunity to think ahead, adapt and create new pathways to grow and prosper in the 21st Century.
That’s why we’re building New Colorado Partnerships that better connect government with businesses, schools, and our research facilities to invest in our people and attract the industries of tomorrow to Colorado. We’re transforming government to keep pace with the rapid changes each Colorado business and family must face today, while making it tighter, more entrepreneurial, and more nimble to meet the challenges of these new economic times. We’re offering tax incentives to businesses that create jobs in Colorado, providing access to capital, making revolutionary changes to improve our education system, and strengthening our public universities.
That’s why Forbes.com and CNBC both rank Colorado among the top five states in which to do business. It’s why Colorado schools are well-positioned to receive millions of dollars in federal “Race to the Top” funding. And it’s why many experts believe our diverse economy will help Colorado emerge from the national recession sooner and stronger than other states.
Our bold strategy is already paying dividends, as last week’s unemployment report confirms. We are setting an example for the rest of the nation to follow. The challenges ahead are great, but they are not impossible, and Coloradans have a reason for optimism.
Please join me to share this simple message of hope:
While unemployment continues to creep upwards of 10% or even 15% in other states, Colorado is open for business and attracting new jobs every day. This month alone, two major New Energy Economy companies — SunRun and SMA Solar Technology — have announced plans to open their doors and hire more than 700 new workers here in Colorado.
They join dozens of other new energy, aerospace, bioscience, and technology companies adding thousands of new jobs and forever re-orienting Colorado’s economy to be more innovative, more prosperous, and more sustainable.
Government can’t do everything, and our New Colorado Partnerships aren’t the only reason companies and entrepreneurs are choosing to open their doors in Colorado. But government can do a lot to build a brighter future for families and businesses and help all of us achieve the Colorado Promise, and so long as I’m governor, it will.
Bill Ritter, Jr.
Governor of Colorado
The policy of credit card companies charging an annual fee for those cardholders with solid credit is a good proxy for the state of the nation, and also a microcosm of both the progressive (read socialist) movement in this country and the unintended consequences of an economic policy destined to fail — or succeed if you measure success by increased impoverishment.
Those two solvent, reputable, dare I say creditworthy institutions Bank of America and Citi are reportedly
starting to charge fees to reliable customers in response to a slew of new credit card industry regulations that will limit when banks can hike interest rates. Cardholders who get a new annual fee notice in the mail will be in a no-win situation.
“They can either pay that fee or they can close the account, and if they have had the account for a while and they close it, they are potentially going to hurt their credit card score,” said Woolsey (Director of Consumer Research at CreditCards.com).
This response to government intervention provides great insight into the problems with regulations the government claims will help the consumer. By preventing banks from increasing their rates in response to a lack of creditworthy borrowers in the markets, those who have proved creditworthy customers over time will be forced to subsidize those less reliable to make up the difference, proving yet again that there is no such thing as a free lunch. We could examine the further consequences for the macroeconomy of these creditworthy people being incentivized to become less creditworthy or if nothing else losing purchasing power as a result of this policy, but the above synopsis should do.
This policy reflects what happens every time the government tries to set prices – in this case the price of credit. Some people are aided, while others lose as a consequence. Further, as with the way in which government seems to favor the debtor over the creditor today, here the less responsible is favored over the more responsible. Adding insult to injury, the more responsible cardholder must subsidize the less responsible one. In essence, this is the basis of the welfare state. Those who generate more wealth must have a significant percentage of it expropriated to help out those who do not create as much wealth. We can argue over whether wealth generators are more responsible than the indigent, but I think you understand my point.
As I have mentioned before though, this liberal system in the end devours itself. First, it is economically unsustainable. At some point, those continually forced to subsidize the reckless and feckless will either go broke or go Galt. As a consequence, so too will the whole system (go broke that is). Second, from a moral perspective, the values engendered in rewarding people for being unproductive and penalizing those who create will pervert society, leading to its malaise.
As I have harped on continually here, the problem with the development of a capitalist system is that if not constantly fought for on both economic and perhaps more importantly moral grounds, it ends up sowing the seeds of its own destruction. Wealth begets wealth until it begets redistribution of wealth. Redistribution of wealth destroys the mechanisms that create it in the first place and weakens the moral fiber of a society. Much like organisms in nature that grow beautiful and strong only to decay in old age, capitalism seems to grow great only to end in grief.
Tax the rich
Feed the poor
Til’ there are no, rich no more
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has proposed a new version of a popular home-buyer tax-credit extension. Folks close to the matter claim a vote on the proposal is coming shortly.
Another recent Senate alternative would continue the $8,000 credit for four months and then gradually phase it out after that. Current law has the credit expiring at the end of November.
The value of the credit would drop by $2,000 every quarter until it halted completely by the end of 2010.
The National Association of Realtors supports the extension of the credit though at least the first two quarters of 2010 to assure that recent new home sales is firmly on a recovery track. They claim that home-buying activity in that six-month period could be crucial for new stability in the housing market again.
On the contrary, the Reid proposal wouldn’t be nearly as effective at stimulating home sales, Mr. Salvant said, because it would start winding down during the second quarter.
The debate comes as a Treasury auditor revealed this week that the Internal Revenue Service improperly issued millions of refunds related to the credit.
At a House panel hearing this week, an IRS official said it is reviewing 100,000 returns to determine if credits were paid appropriately. Given the popularity of the credit, however, experts say the allegations are unlikely to derail the push to extend it in some form.
Spurred on by the credit home sales have been recovering nicely in the past six months. On Friday home sales were report to jump significantly in September. Existing home sales rose 9.4 percent. The West was the strongest region, up 13.0 percent. In an extremely encouraging sign, supply on the market fell back sharply — down 7.5 percent in the month. Supply is now at its lowest level in 2-1/2 years.
Q3 earnings continue to impress, major firms are surprising to the upside, and markets are continuing their break-neck bounce. With second half growth coming on strong, an extension of the tax credit can mean nothing but good news for the 2010 housing market.
In his comments in “The Australian” (8 Sept. ’09) on Paul Kelly’s new book, “The March of Patriots”, Kevin Rudd attempts to make a distinction between the economic reforms of the Hawke-Keating Labor governments and those of the Howard conservative government. Rudd describes the Hawke-Keating reforms as “modernising our economy to make it more competitive in a rapidly globalizing world”. He describes the Howard reforms as “neo-liberalism” or “a form of free market fundamentalism that has little in common with the philosophy and policy of the reforming centre of Australian politics to which we belong”.
This attempt to associate the Howard government with free market fundamentalism is typical Rudd-speak. This time, however, Rudd seems to have spun himself into a corner by also claiming that the Howard government was lazy. Rudd states: “we would describe our opponents as indolent: perhaps not always opposing the great transformational reforms engineered by Labor during its 13 years in office but hardly adding to that reform agenda during their 12 years in office”. Can an indolent conservative government be guilty of excessive zeal in promoting market-oriented reforms?
Peter van Onselen noted this apparent contradiction (in an article in “The Australian” on 9 Sept. ’09). He also updated a table in a book by Andrew Charlton (senior economic advisor to the PM) to enable the economic reform records of the Hawke-Keating, Howard and Rudd governments to be compared. The table suggests that the Howard government made some substantial reforms and that the Rudd government has tended to roll back previous economic reforms. (Unfortunately the table does not seem to be available on line.)
The table prepared by van Onselen is informative, but it would be nice to be able to compare the economic reform efforts of the three governments quantitatively. This is attempted in the chart below using economic freedom indexes constructed by the Fraser Institute and Heritage Foundation.
The chart confirms that the Hawke-Keating governments had strong neo-liberal credentials, but the two indexes provide a somewhat contradictory picture of the Howard government. The Heritage Foundation index even suggests that the Rudd government has made positive contributions to economic freedom. It might be interesting if someone could investigate why this is so and why two indexes seem to tell different stories about the Howard government.
However, while the history is interesting, the future position of the Rudd government on economic reform will be far more important to the future well-being of Australians. The one hopeful sign in Kevin Rudd’s latest graceless contribution is his praise for the reforms of the Hawke-Keating era. When he was elected to government Rudd seemed to want to be indistinguishable from John Howard in all important respects. Then he wrote an essay in which he seemed to have adopted the attitudes and language of Hugo Chavez. Perhaps he has now recognized that it is not necessary to choose between John Howard and Hugo Chavez (to paraphrase some infamous Rudd-speak).
Would it be too optimistic to interpret Rudd’s latest spin as a signal that he has now adopted Paul Keating as his role model?