Obama’s So-Called Keynesian Stimulus Efforts Aren’t Very

The simple version of Keynesian economics suggests that if the economy is suffering from too little economic activity and high unemployment there are some policy options.  Specifically Keynes suggests there are three general kinds of policy options:

  1. The central bank (The Fed in the case of the U.S.) could lower interest rates and create money by buying bonds on the open market.  This is called stimulative monetary policy. It is supposed to work by making private sector borrowing more attractive and more profitable so that businesses in particular increase their spending on business investment goods like equipment and factories.
  2. The government could increase it’s budget deficit by borrowing more money and cutting taxes.  This is fiscal policy by tax cuts. It works by putting more cash in the hands of households and firms (increases their after-tax income) who then increase their spending.
  3. The government could increase it’s budget deficit by borrowing more money and directly spending the money itself, either by direct transfer payments to needy individuals, or by buying things like new dams or construction projects, or by hiring the unemployed itself. This is fiscal policy by spending.

There’s nothing to stop a country from pursuing all the above options simultaneously if it chose.  But not all of these options are equal in either effectiveness.

NOTE: This is old-style John Maynard Keynes style Keynesianism, not the  “New Keynesian” theories that have dominated some academic circles in the last couple decades. It’s also based on the real thing, not the caricature that it’s opponents paint which is usually without foundation. 

NOTE 2: It’s really not a good idea to try to simplify Keynes.  When you do, you’re likely to over-simplify and really miss powerful insights and nuances.  Nonetheless, I will plunge ahead with full knowledge of the risk.

The real richness of Keynesian theory though lies not just in these prescriptions, but the analysis of when to use which one, whether it is likely to work, and under what conditions.  The first option, monetary policy, is to be preferred in cases of  mild recessions when interest rates are “normal” and the slowdown is largely for mild, temporary factors such as an outside economic shock. Monetary policy is quick and easy to implement. It’s also relatively easy to reverse course when the time comes.

Keynes had two key insights about monetary policy though that are highly relevant to our present situation.  Monetary policy can be become impotent if interest rates drop to near zero and we get into a liquidity trap.  This is when people and firms become fearful of the future and come to expect continued weakness or even GDP declines and deflation.  In a liquidity trap, people just sit on money rather than spend or invest it.  Monetary policy is relatively ineffective in such cases. We have been in a liquidity trap since late 2008 and that’s why the record 3 years of a virtually zero Fed Funds interest rate and The Fed’s QE1 and QE2 programs haven’t worked. Liquidity traps aren’t common, but they do exist and they aren’t extinct.  We were in one in the 1930’s Great Depression and Japan has struggled with one for the last 15+ years.

Keynes also had insights about the two fiscal policy approaches, tax cuts vs. increased spending.   In particular, tax cuts will only be effective to the degree that households and firms actually spend the money.  If they use the money to pay down debts or to save, then it really won’t improve conditions.  Later research in the 1950’s and 1960’s strengthened these insights. Later research showed that it also makes a big difference who gets the tax cuts and whether they think the tax cut is permanent.  Temporary tax cuts are much less effective than permanent ones because people tend to save them more.  Also, high-income individuals tend to save more of the tax cut (proportionally) than more desperate lower-income folks. Finally, later research showed that when a recession comes about because private debt got too high, then tax cuts are least effective.  Notice a pattern here?

The fiscal policy “stimulus” efforts that we have pursued since the Great Recession began have been very, very heavily tax-cut oriented.  Bush’s original stimulus effort in early 2007 in an effort to “nip the recession in the bud” was all tax cuts.  The Feb. 2009 stimulus bill of Obama (the ARRA) was between 40% and 50% tax cuts.  The meager effort passed in Dec 2010 was all tax cuts. And now, the proposal is again very tax cut heavy.  Not only have the fiscal stimulus efforts been heavily tax cut-based, but the cuts have temporary cuts targeted at either high-income folks or only offering a meager amount to low-income folks.  Further, we still have a huge private sector debt overhand that people want to pay down before they spend more. In sum, the dominant response which many have labeled as “Keynesian” really hasn’t been what John Maynard Keynes suggested. Many have asserted that “Keynesian policies don’t work” and cite our weak economy despite several fiscal policy stimulus attempts as proof.  But that’s not really a valid test.  It’s like claiming some physician is a total quack because you took pills like he recommended but you didn’t take the exact same pills as he recommended. You took something else. Now you’re still sick.  It’s not the physician’s prescription that failed, it’s your refusal to follow the prescription and the diagnosis that failed.

Critics will counter with a “yes, but there was still some spending stimulus in the Obama bills and our failure to fully recover is proof the fiscal spending as stimulus prescription is quackery.”  But have we really had an increase in government spending anywhere near large enough to fill the gap?   Let’s look at some trends (courtesy of Brad Delong):

We simply have not expanded government purchases as a share of potential GDP in this downturn:

FRED Graph  St Louis Fed 4

 

The graph shows the relative changes in share of GDP of four key portions of GDP: exports, business equipment investment, government purchases, and residential construction. (everything in the graph is scaled relative to 2005 -that’s why the lines all meet at o in 2005).  The whole Keynesian idea is that if exports, business equipment investment, or residential construction go down then government purchases should go up and vice versa.  That hasn’t happened at all.  Instead, government purchases has consistently declined since 1995!.  In other words, actual changes in government purchases have not only not been a stimulus, but they have been contractionary.  Government spending policy has been contractionary for over 15 years!  We didn’t notice it because strong increases in business equipment investment and housing were doing the stimulating prior to 2006. In the period 1995-2000, it was probably appropriate in a Keynesian sense to have declining government purchases and a contractionary policy – it was countercyclical to the dot-com boom and the housing boom.

But after 2007, residential construction collapsed. For awhile in 2009 both business equipment investment and exports declined sharply.  The only appropriate Keynesian response would have been a very, very large government purchases program.  But we didn’t do that.  Instead, the so-called 2009 stimulus bill was barely enough new spending at the federal level to offset the declines and cuts at the state and local levels. Overall, government spending did not increase. It went neutral for a couple years. But in late 2010, we resumed the march to contractionary policies.  The ARRA wound down.  State and local governments accelerated their budget cuts. And Washington became pre-occupied with imaginary threats of impossible debt crises at some point 10 years from now.

To continue the earlier physician and disease metaphor, we did try a little of the prescription but we took too little.  It’s as if we went to the doctor, the physician diagnosed a very severe infection and prescribed heavy doses of anti-biotics.  We went home took a lot of aspirin instead and only a couple of the anti-biotic tablets.  Now folks want to blame the doctor and his “failed prescriptions” when we didn’t take them.  None of this is what Keynes or 1960’s style Keynesians would have recommended. To conclude that Obama has tried Keynesian policies and they have failed is dead wrong.  The policies have largely failed to stimulate and re-ignite growth, but they weren’t Keynesian.

Politics and Job-Creation Policies – Disagreements and The Theories Behind Them

Blogging time has been in short supply lately.  To compound things, I’ve had a bunch of inter-woven ideas bouncing around in my head that I want to explain, but  I’ve been struggling to figure out how to do it.  I’ve been stuck in the “can’t explain this until I explain that which in turn needs this explained” circle.  Uggh.  So I’m going to just start taking a shot at it and write some posts that all relate one way or other.

What I want to talk about is why there’s so much disagreement among economists about policies, particularly when it comes to macroeconomic policies.

Few people, regardless of political ideology, dispute the idea that the U.S. economy needs to create more jobs.  It’s obvious to nearly all that persistent unemployment rates over 9% and an economy that month after month fails to create enough net new jobs to keep pace with population growth is problem in need of solution. Likewise, few dispute the idea that the solution will rely upon some sort of policy change.  Even the far-right wing, conservative economists and Austrian school economists argue for policy change. Virtually nobody argues that current policies are ideal.  The issue, then, is how to change policy.  In what direction should policy change so that the government can encourage job creation?

Like many things in political economy, there’s a range or spectrum of recommendations.  I personally don’t like the simple “right vs. left-wing” or “conservative vs. liberal progressive”* terminology. I think things are more complex and positions are richer than that.  But, for purposes of exposition here, I’ll go with it today.

If there are n politicians, there are probably at least n+1 different specific proposals of what to do to change policy to encourage job creation.  But today I’m not looking at specific proposals. Today I want to look at patterns, types, or categories of proposals.  I’m interested in the essence of the logic and economic models/ideas behind the proposals, the thinking that leads people to believe they’ll work.

Right now let’s say there are 4 different categories or generalized views, ranging from what might be called extreme right-wing or libertarian views through conservative views through mildly progressive views and finally a more radical or activist progressive view.  Let’s look at each one, the types of policies advocated and some comments on the economic thinking behind them.  I’ll offer my views afterward.

First, let’s take what we can call the far-conservative view or libertarian (economic libertarian, not necessarily social libertarian).  In the U.S. today, this is represented by the Tea Party positions.  The view here is that it’s  government interference with the free market, private property, and private wealth that causes unemployment in the first place.  Therefore, what’s needed, they argue, is for minimal government with minimalist taxes and as little regulation as possible.  They argue that only the private economy creates jobs at all and that the government cannot by it’s nature create any jobs.  Their proposals will typically take the form of calls for tax cuts, government spending cuts, and repeal of regulations. They will oppose any government programs they see as “welfare” or “redistributionist” such as Social Security or Medicare. Their rhetoric will typically include phrases about “unleashing the private sector”.  In terms of economic theory, supporters of this view find support from what we call Austrian-school economists and the more strict Neo-classical macroeconomists (think University of Chicago school).   These schools of macroeconomics in many ways aren’t about macroeconomics at all.  The theories are heavily based on microeconomics, in particular, the models of pure utility-maximizing rational people interacting in unrestricted markets.  Much of this view in macroeconomics has been called rational expectations schoolefficient markets theory and real business cycle theory.

Next is a the conservative view.  Until the last few years, the milder conservative view was what was espoused mostly by Republican candidates such as both Bushes and Reagan.  In more recent years the Republicans (in general) have moved further toward the far-conservative/libertarian view.  The conservative view is likewise grounded in traditional microeconomic-based neoclassical models.  In many ways, the conservative view is very similar in thinking to the far-conservative libertarian.  They both derive their conclusions from a reliance and embrace of pure-utility maximizing rational micro models of markets.  Both will tend to advocate tax cuts, especially for high-income earners and for corporations. The idea is that high-income earners and corporations would normally create enough new jobs but that taxes discourage them from creating jobs by making business and investment look unprofitable.  The assumption is that if you eliminate or reduce the taxes, investment will naturally look profitable and attractive.  Private sector investment spending will then drive growth in the economy.  This view has also been called supply-side economics. The conservative view typically relies upon rational expectations, efficient markets, and real business cycle theory also, but it also takes a lot from the monetarist views of Milton Friedman and his disciples.

The major point of disagreement between regular conservatives and the far-conservative/libertarian views is really in the area of monetary policy.  Far-conservatives or libertarians dislike central banks (seen as government agencies) and often call for a return to some form of commodity-based money such as gold.  The regular conservative view instead believes that an independent central bank, like the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank, if it follows anti-inflation policies, can usually manage monetary policy and interest rates to encourage growth when needed.  In effect, far-conservative/libertarians believe that no type of government or central bank actions can achieve high employment and high growth by policies.  In effect, recessions are simply events we have to live through -they can only be made worse, not better by government policy.  Regular conservative-types favor using monetary policy, in particular interest rates, to manage the economy. And, if monetary policy is ineffective, then they advocate using tax cuts to stimulate the economy.  They have a strong bias against government spending, or at least spending that is used to stimulate the economy (spending for military and wars is usually OK though).

Next we move to views that owe a greater heritage to John Maynard Keynes, though Keynes is far from the only theorist contributing to the views.  We’ll call the next group of policy recommendations Keynesian.  Not surprisingly, this view owes a lot to Keynes.  But Keynesian theory and models have evolved a lot since Keynes’ time.  Some historians of economic thought have argued that, were he alive today, Keynes might not agree with what much of what today’s “Keynesians” argue.  Nonetheless, standard Keynesian models/theories differ from classical/neo-classical/supply-side theories (the ones that conservatives like) in that it focuses on aggregates in the economy like total demand and total spending.  Keynesian models also try to explain why in aggregate, the total economy doesn’t always behave as if it were a simply made of purely rational micro-markets.  Keynesian theory allows for more situations where markets don’t behave rationally all of the time.  Even more significantly, Keynesian theory observes that if we simply assume the economy is the sum of whatever happens in a bunch of micro-markets, we can commit the fallacy of composition.  Keynesian theory points out the cases where the paradox of thrift takes over or when monetary policy is not likely to be effective.

Despite the allegations of many critics, standard Keynesian theory allows for monetary policy to be effective.  But typically standard Keynesian theory says that when the crisis is big or when interest rates are very, very low, then only fiscal policy, increased deficits, will do the job.  Those deficits could be created by either tax cuts or increases in government spending. But, they won’t be equally effective in creating jobs. Basically what’s needed is more spending (demand for goods) in the economy. People need to be motivated to spend more money.  Tax cuts provide money for households and firms to spend, but they do so weakly.  First, people might not spend all the tax cut – they might save some.  Increased savings won’t increase total demand and therefore won’t create the need for new jobs. Further, firms will only spend if they expect future increases in demand.  They won’t spend and invest just because they have more cash in their hands.  Since we have no assurance that a tax cut will result in enough new spending in the economy, Keynesians are more likely to argue for increased government spending because government spending directly creates demand for goods and services.  Contrary to critics’ claims, Keynesian policies are not based upon any ideological desire for socialism or government control.

So what do Keynesian policy proposals for creating more jobs look like?  Increased government spending is the answer.  In particular, while any spending will help, the most desirable forms of spending are public goods, things like infrastructure and schools, and also on social safety nets, things like unemployment compensation, social security, and Medicare. If a proposal calls for more infrastructure spending or extensions/increases in unemployment compensation, it is clearly inspired by theories/models with Keynesian roots.

Finally, there’s proposals that are inspired by the most progressive branches of modern macroeconomics.  Let’s call these proposals the Progressive proposals. Proposals in this area would involve would build upon the ideas of Keynesian group, but go further.  The spending would be greater and on a larger scale. Proposals in this area would call for programs where the government doesn’t just fund projects and buy goods, it actually creates programs that directly hire the unemployed.  Typically such programs are proposed to be temporary or designed in a way to only hire when the private sector won’t (see Bill Mitchell & Randy Wray’s Jobs Guarantee proposals).  These are not socialist or communist proposals.  That’s a whole different thing.  Often Progressive jobs-creation proposals include having the government initiate and fund large-scale infrastructure projects during periods of high unemployment.   This group, which has little popular voice among modern U.S. politicians, is inspired by what’s called Post-Keynesian and Modern Monetary Theories.   In many ways, the original Keynesian proposals for dealing with unemployment are closer to this group than to what we call Keynesian today.  Today’s Keynesians are actually pretty conservative when compared to historical policies.

So there we have it.  Four schools of thought and proposals for how to create jobs in the economy.

Despite the labels attached and misused by politicians, the reality is that the political discussion and policy recommendations of today, the ones with supporters in Congress or the White House, are actually quite conservative.  Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal in the 1930’s was actually rather Progressive.  In the 1950’s, 60’s, and 70’s, the dominant thinking in Washington was Keynesian.  In fact  a”centrist” politically in that era would have still been somewhat Keynesian on our scale above.  In the 1980’s though today, the “center” of mainstream politics has increasingly moved towards conservative thinking.  Today, for example, President Obama is actually pretty conservative.  He is certainly more conservative than the Republican Richard Nixon was in the 1970’s.

Let’s look at the latest proposal from the Obama administration for stimulating the economy to create jobs. It’s actually quite conservative and it’s not very Keynesian at all.  In fact, of the proposed $447 billion effort, less than 1/4 involves more spending for infrastructure or unemployment benefits.  That’s less than 1/4 of the proposal is basic Keynesian.  Instead, it’s overwhelmingly focused on tax cuts and business tax credits/incentives.  These are the policy proposals of a conservative.  Even the original 2009 “stimulus bill” was heavily oriented towards tax cuts and tax incentives.  Despite what critics said, less than half of it was traditional Keynesian stimulus. It’s a sign of how the U.S. political dialogue has shifted towards the conservative/far-conservative end that the Obama proposals have been challenged as “Keynesian” and Obama himself accused of being “socialist”.

* The word “liberal” is particularly problematic. The positions argued by today’s “conservatives” in the U.S. are in fact the positions that were historically identified as “liberal” going back to the 1800’s.  In the 1800’s “liberal” meant anti-government and pro-free market.  Yet, thanks to the power of talk radio and Republican presidential campaigns since the 1980’s, the word liberal has come to be used an epithet to describe opponents of conservatism.  I’ll stick with progressive to label this more left-wing end of the political spectrum to avoid the emotional taint that liberal carries these days.

The Public Debt Is Rising Because Of Tax Cuts and Wars

In past posts, I’ve emphasized that tax cuts don’t really generate greater revenues for the government except under the most unusual circumstances.  Tax cuts do exactly that, they cut the taxes available to the government.  And that is one of the three big reasons why the U.S. government is running large deficits today and has a rising public debt.  The three big reasons are Bush-era tax cuts, wars, and an economic recession which cuts revenue. It wasn’t the stimulus spending or the bailouts.  From Chad Stone at the CBPP:

As we’ve noted, my colleagues Kathy Ruffing and Jim Horney have updated CBPP’sanalysis showing that the economic downturn, President Bush’s tax cuts, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq explain virtually the entire federal budget deficit over the next ten years.  So, what about the public debt, which is basically the sum of annual budget deficits, minus annual surpluses, over the nation’s entire history?

The complementary chart, below, shows that the Bush-era tax cuts and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — including their associated interest costs — account for almost half of the projected public debt in 2019 (measured as a share of the economy) if we continue current policies.

Tax Cuts, Wars Account for Nearly Half of Public Debt by 2019

Altogether, the economic downturn, the measures enacted to combat it (including the 2009 Recovery Act), and the financial rescue legislation play a smaller role in the projected debt increase over the next decade.  Public debt due to all other factors fell from over 30 percent of GDP in 2001 to 20 percent of GDP in 2019.

If we just let the Bush-era tax cuts expire on schedule and nothing else, we can get the public debt stabilized relative to GDP.  If we also end these multiple wars (Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, where else?), things get much better.  We could easily afford to stimulate the economy back to full-employment.  We could pay for everybody’s healthcare bills into old age.  Just sayin’.

 

Gov. Rick Snyder Invokes the Magic Job Genie

The mantra of Republican governors (and in Congress) has been that taxes must be cut in order to create jobs.  In previous posts I’ve dealt with the confusion about how federal level changes income taxes  might or might not affect the strength of the economy. Most of the federal tax discussion focuses on individual income taxes.  But at the statehouse level, Republican governors have been pounding a theme that claims business tax cuts will drive economic growth in general and job creation in particular.

In Michigan, Republican Governor Rick Snyder has just pushed through a massive restructuring of Michigan taxes.  The old Michigan Business Tax (a complicated scheme applying to all businesses) was repealed.  In it’s place is a new corporations-0nly 6% profits tax. The new tax collects only a small fraction of the revenue the old tax did, so individual tax burdens have been increased, particularly on seniors and low-income folks.  In summary, it is a giant tax shift: lower taxes for businesses and higher taxes for individuals, especially the poor and seniors.

Why?  Jobs, we’re told. The Governor, a self-proclaimed very smart person (“nerd”), keeps telling people that Michigan needs new jobs and the way to create them is to cut business taxes.  Even before the new tax cuts were officially passed, the evidence is starting to come in that the idea doesn’t work, as shown here.  But the governor continues to claim jobs will result if we only cut business taxes.  I’m skeptical, but willing to listen.  After all, he’s a really smart person (his campaign ads keep telling us that, so it must be true, right?)  So I was very excited this morning as I’m driving to work  and listening to Michigan Public Radio  (recording of program as MP3 available here) to hear the Governor would be on the show live.  Maybe he could enlighten me about how this “tax cuts create jobs” stuff works.

The very first question was fantastic.  An alert listener asked (I’m paraphrasing from memory): “Precisely what empirical evidence exists that your business tax cuts will create additional jobs and just how many jobs should we expect?”  Snyder couldn’t give a straight answer.  He immediately responded with “It’s just a matter of basic economics. When a business have more money or resources it can create more jobs” (again paraphrase).

Unfortunately for the people of Michigan, Snyder has it all wrong.  That’s not basic economics.  He’s thinking basic accounting.  Basic economics says businesses will hire more workers when they perceive there’s demand (spending) for their product at profitable prices.  Taxes don’t really enter into it.  That’s not just basic economics theory, it’s also confirmed by repeated surveys of business managers.  Tax rates, particularly state tax rates, are waaaaay down the list of factors important in deciding on hiring and staffing levels.  Snyder should know better.  He himself, when he was CEO of Gateway Computers, moved the company from South Dakota, a low tax state, to California, a very high tax state?  Why would he have done that if taxes were so important?

The moderator, Rick Pluta, to his credit, didn’t bail out Snyder but moving quickly to the next question.  Instead we were treated to the Governor claiming that “it’s not possible to pinpoint exactly how many or which jobs might be created by the tax cuts, but we believe it will happen”.  That’s my point here. There is no evidence. There is no sound theory.  Instead, what we have is a faith-based policy.  We cut taxes for businesses in total and eliminated them completely for thousands of businesses in belief  that jobs will be created.  There’s no real evidence.  There’s just a belief in the magic jobs genie*.  The jobs genie only comes out when taxes are cut.  And when taxes are cut, the genie just magically appears and inspires businesses to go crazy and say “Hey let’s hire people. Let’s create jobs!”

Snyder then proceeded to offer his only empirical evidence. “We have some surveys where many of these small and medium businesses say they would consider creating new jobs in response to this bill”.  The Governor’s a lousy social scientist and economist.  Contrary to Snyder’s claims, it is possible to study and quantify this stuff.  Applied economists have done this stuff for decades. It’s our bread-and-butter.  There are  many studies on the jobs impact of state business tax cuts.  The evidence does not support Snyder’s position.  Indeed, contrary to his claims that they don’t know how many jobs will be created, the state treasurer and budget office must necessarily make estimates of state employment under different tax schemes in order to make budget forecasts.  Snyder is hiding because the evidence doesn’t support what he wants to claim.  He prefers to conjure magic beings like the jobs genie.

Snyder did say that employment is how he should be measured as governor.  What he didn’t say is that the appropriate measure is how much Michigan’s employment grows relative to the national average.  If the U.S. as a whole simply manages to not have a major recession while he’s in office, then Michigan employment will grow.  The U.S. economy as a whole is the dominant influence on Michigan employment, not what the state government does.  But, the policies of the state government have a major influence on whether the state does better or worse than national average.  For the last approx. 15 months, Michigan has performed significantly better than the national norm, albeit Michigan started in the worst condition.  (Nevada has that title now).  The clock is ticking now.  It’s up to Snyder to prove that, contrary to historical evidence and his own prior business decisions, that state business tax cuts will create faster than national average job growth.

* The magic Jobs Genie is only one of a pantheon of magical creatures that animate the economic theories of many politicians these days.  There’s also the Banking Unicorn and the Investment Confidence Fairy and others.  I’ll talk about those in future posts.

Tax Cuts and Economic Growth, Once More – the Corporate Tax Version

The issue of tax cuts and economic growth, which I’ve discussed recently here and here, looks like it’s going to be an important topic for some time now judging by this week’s announcement from Paul Ryan, one of the Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives.  While all the attention in the media has been focused on the proposed changes to Medicare and Medicaid (I’ll get to those soon), that’s not really where the deficit reduction is supposed to come from in their plan.  When you look at the plan and their projections, it’s really a dramatic improvement in the health of the economy and employment that drives their projected budgetary improvement.  And what do they propose will instantly get this slow-growth economy to dramatically improve immediately?  Why tax cuts of course!  I’ll have more on the specifics of the Republican proposal soon, but for now I want to note the experience of our polite neighbors to the north with regard to this issue of tax rate cuts and economic growth.

In Canada’s case, they bought into the rhetoric of “tax rate cuts” will grow the economy ten years ago.  But the Canadians bought the corporate version.  Specifically, the cut corporate tax rates dramatically over the past decade.  The goal was to growt the economy.  This is the exact same strategy that Rick Snyder, Scott Walker and a host of other Republican governors are now trying to implement in different states in the U.S.  So it should be enlightening to see what happened when somebody else did it.  What happened?  Let’s turn to the Globe and Mail today (emphasis is mine):

Canadian companies have added tens of billions of dollars to their stockpiles of cash at a time when tax cuts are supposed to be encouraging them to plow more money into their businesses.

Corporate tax cuts are becoming a major issue in the federal election campaign. The Conservatives, arguing that they are the best custodians of an economy that remains fragile after the recession, say tax cuts are crucial to stimulate job creation and make Canada more competitive on the global stage.

But an analysis of Statistics Canada figures by The Globe and Mail reveals that the rate of investment in machinery and equipment has declined in lockstep with falling corporate tax rates over the past decade. At the same time, the analysis shows, businesses have added $83-billion to their cash reserves since the onset of the recession in 2008.

Infographic

In other words, the corporate tax rates did not increase corporate spending on investment.  In fact, the corporate tax rates actually coincided with lower corporate spending on investment.  It’s corporate spending on investment that is what generates and contributes to GDP growth.  So lower corporate tax rates simply functioned to increase profits but those profits are sterile.  They became piles of cash.  Cash that might be used to buy another existing company (and then layoff people) or just allowed to sit idly in the money and bond markets earning more interest.  What lower corporate tax rates do not do is create jobs.

So back to an earlier discussion – does this mean we should stop saying in principles classes that “tax cuts are stimulus”?  No.  It means we have to be more careful in what we say.  A better and more true statement is that:

Tax cuts for middle- and low-income individuals that result in more consumer spending, and tax cuts that are accompanied by deficits (meaning the tax cut isn’t offset by lowered govt spending) will stimulate an economy and grow jobs while tax rate cuts for corporations and high-income individuals won’t.

Unfortunately that’s 50 words long.  That’s way beyond the attention span or understanding of most politicians and media commentators.

Tax Cuts, Tax Revenues, and Growth: Reconciling Theory with Evidence

Yesterday I made a post about how federal tax revenues have not increased as a result of the Bush tax cuts from 2001. Actually much of the post is based upon an analysis of official data that David Cay Johnston did.  In the comments though, William Sullivan asks:

I realize that economic growth, as measured across the last decade, is anemic at best. I think it is abundantly clear that our employment situation is awful. What I don’t understand is how these issues can be attributed to lower taxes. I recognize that ECON 202 is not the end of economic learning but Johnston’s statement seems to be at odds with what we’ve learned.

I thought his question was excellent. It’s the type of question people and principles students should ask in response to an article.  Since I think my response will be useful for future students I decided to answer Mr. Sullivan with a new post (I can find it easier in the future then).

Initially, a quick read of both my post and Johnston’s article does leave the impression that we’re saying “tax cuts don’t stimulate the economy”. Yet we (I) teach in principles of macro classes that “tax cuts are one way of implementing fiscal policy to stimulate the economy”.  So how do we reconcile the theory with the evidence?

Here’s how I do it.  We need to be more precise in both what’s being measured and in what claim or theoretical assertion is being tested.  First let’s look at the linguistics of the three variables of interest here. The controversy or confusion is about the relationship between these 3 variables are:

  • tax rates – the % of income that by law needs to be paid as income (in more sophisticated analyses we should distinquish between marginal rates, the rate paid on additional income vs. average or effective rates, which is tax $ paid divided by income. For now, tax rates are sufficient.
  • tax revenues – the total dollars of taxes collected by the government in a particular year.
  • GDP – the total size of the economy.  Since GDP is roughly equal to gross domestic income, we can basically say this is what the economy earned each year. For our purposes here, we’ll call this “the economy”.

The first issue is lazy semantics that politicians and sometimes economists often use.  They often will use the phrase “tax cuts”. But what does “tax cuts” mean?  We always have to careful about what’s meant when somebody says “tax cuts”.  It could mean “reduction in tax rates” or it could mean “reduced tax revenues”.  We really have to look at context to see what’s meant as I’ll illustrate a little later.

Now the next question is what are the different propositions or assertions that are made about the relationships between these variables.  The first relationship is the purely accounting, definitional relationship and shouldn’t be controversial at all. Namely, in any given year, the average tax rates times GDP = tax revenues.  This is really the idea that taxes are basically income taxes. We earn income as a nation (GDP) and we pay a percentage (tax rates) of it to the government (tax revenues).

Now let’s look at the claims that have been asserted.  Roughly put, there are two separate questions or assertions to be tested here:

  1. Lower tax rates will stimulate the economy (GDP) so much that tax revenues will rise (or at least not fall).  In other words, if tax rates are cut, both GDP and tax revenues will increase.
  2. Lower tax rates will stimulate the economy (GDP) but tax revenues will drop.  In other words, if tax rates are cut, GDP will grow but not grow enough to keep tax revenues from falling.

The difference is important.  If #1 is true, then we don’t have to worry about increasing the federal deficit when deciding to cut taxes. This is what Bush and Republicans asserted to be true in 2001 and most recently in 2010 and 2011. Republicans in Congress have been arguing recently that tax cuts won’t make the deficit worse.  They only way that can be true is if #1 holds true. The essence of the data that David Cay Johnston presented and that I quoted was in response to this assertion.  The data clearly shows that tax rates were cut and tax revenues fell.  They not only fell, they fell by a lot. It’s important to note that tax revenues fell even in the “growth” years before the Great Recession hit in 2008.  One implication of this is that assertion #1 is clearly false. Tax rate cuts do not stimulate the economy enough to keep federal tax revenues from falling.  Therefore, anytime tax cuts are proposed we need to realize they will add to the deficit.  Tax rate cuts make the deficit worse.

Now let’s consider assertion #2 above.  This is really a simplified version of what we teach people in principles classes:  tax cuts can stimulate the economy. This is simple Keynesian theory.  I think, though, that economists have been too lax in how we state this idea  (myself included – I ask for forgiveness!). We don’t clarify what’s meant by “tax cuts” and we don’t clarify the mechanism.  Strictly speaking, the idea is that tax rate cuts will reduce the taxes collected by government (revenues) and if they result in increased spending (aggregate demand) then GDP will increase. The trick here is that tax rate cuts will allow households/corporations to have more after tax income (also called disposable income). Then, if they spend that additional after-tax income, then GDP will rise.  In this sense, when Keynesian economists say “tax cuts” they’re usually meaning lower tax revenues, which most probably happened by tax rate changes.

So, in looking at the data, should we reject or accept the idea of assertion #2.  In this case, I think it’s important to look at a broader historical record than just the Bush tax cuts of 2001. What we see is that tax cuts (as in lower tax revenues) tends to have a stimulating effect on GDP, but the strength of the effect varies widely.  In other words, reducing tax collections (lower tax revenues) will sometimes grow the economy strongly and at other times it will barely have any effect.  If virtually never has a negative effect, unless it was combined with spending cuts.  What makes the difference?  A lot depends on how the taxes are cut and for whom they are cut.  This is because the critical linkage is whether they tax cut will increase spending.  To the extent a tax cut is just saved by the household or used to pay down debt, it doesn’t help the economy grow. This is the difference between the Bush tax cuts and say an earlier, more successful tax cut like the Kennedy-Johnson tax cuts in 1964. The Bush tax cuts were overwhelmingly targeted at top-bracket, high-income individuals and corporations.  Instead of spending the tax savings, these people largely saved the money and converted it into financial assets. Spending in the economy did not get much of a boost.

So in conclusion, I think we can say assertion #2, what we teach in class, is viable, but we really need to be clearer:

tax cuts will stimulate the economy and grow GDP if we implement the tax cuts in a way that they get spend and not saved, but they will worsen the deficit.


 

What we have here is really three different variables that we need to keep track of

 

Pity the Rich. It’s So Hard to Get By.

A couple of items that remind me of the discussions last year about tax cuts.  The major bone of contention in last December’s tax cut deal was over whether the Bush era tax rate cut for the top income bracket should be extended. You may remember that it the Bush tax cuts were originally scheduled to expire January 1, 2011. But Republicans in Congress refused to renew extended unemployment benefits for the unemployed unless the tax cuts for the upper income bracket was extended.  The top bracket starts taxing income above $209,000 (married, file jointly) at 33% and 35% for income above $373,000. ( source). Note only income above these limits gets taxed at these rates.  Income up to this limit pays lower rates like everybody else.  The debate was partly framed as a question about whether “the rich” should pay higher taxes.

At the time there was a lot of complaints from people who were in these brackets, making this kind of money. They complained that they were “not rich”, they certainly didn’t “feel rich”, and that they too had a “hard time making ends meet.”  What they didn’t understand is that “rich” is a relative term. It’s how much money you make (or wealth you possess) relative to everybody else.  It is not a question of whether you “have everything you want” or whether you can manage your budget to make sure expenses are less than your income.  Everybody has that problem with the possible exception of those religious types that have managed to totally transcend their human material wants.  Others claimed that somehow “living in New York/Beverly Hills/Washington means that a high income isn’t rich.  I even had a lobbyist for the insurance industry try to tell me in a televised debate that people making $250,000 in Beverly Hills were not rich.  But it is.

The plain truth is that very few people make that kind of money.   Yes, $250,000 isn’t much if you compare yourself to Wall St. execs that pay themselves more than $20 million per year. But you’re still rich compared to the entire population.

The confusion still exists. Ezra Klein of the Washington Post points out:

Even in New York City, $250,000 is rich

income_distribution_in_new_york_city.png

Arguments over income taxes tend to get bogged down in arguments about who is really “rich.” And what you hear then is that rich in Ohio and rich in New York City are different. But how different?

According to the Census Bureau, only 6.3 percent of New York City’s households pulled in more than $200,000. So if you’re a household making $250,000 or more, you’re easily in the top 5 percent — even in New York City.

Now, it’s true that those people might not “feel” rich. There’s lots of stuff to buy in New York City. It’s pretty easy to construct a lifestyle where you spend $250,000 a year. In Columbus, Ohio, only 1.3 percent of households make more than $200,000, so there’s less stuff for them to buy and fewer rich people for them to try to keep up with. But what you buy and whether you try to keep up with the people in the penthouse is a personal decision, not an objective economic necessity. The fact of the matter is that a household making $250,000 in New York City is making more than pretty much anyone else in the city. Being rich is more than just a feeling.

Yes, even in New York City. A joint household income of over $250,000 is rich. It puts you in the top 5%. That means for every household with more money, there are 19 with less.  A lot less.  Nationwide, such an income puts you in even more rarified company because more rich people live in New York.  There was no reason to cut taxes for these people.

Note: No I am not hypocritical or simply jealous.  My spouse and I, both being college professors, easily make a combined income that reaches into very low 6 figures. That makes me rich.  We’re in the top 10% or so and we know it.