James Pethokoukis

Politics and policy from inside Washington

A chat with economist Glenn Hubbard

October 13, 2010

In their must-read policy manifesto, “Seeds of Destruction,” Glenn Hubbard and Peter Navarro outline the biggest economic problems facing America and what can be done about them. Hubbard is the former head of the Council of Economic Advisers under George W. Bush and is now dean of Columbia Business School. Navarro, a Democrat, is a business professor at the University of California, Irvine and author of  ”The Coming China Wars.” Here are some excerpt from a chat I had with Hubbard:

What could we have done back in 2009 to put the U.S. economy on a better growth trajectory today?

One, not introduce a lot of policy uncertainty — not have healthcare mandates that raise the cost of hiring, threaten tax increases on small  business — but more positively, if one wanted to do stimulus, things you could have done included a payroll tax cut, investment incentives and perhaps even a corporate tax cut.

In the book, you mention trade reform to deal with China’s weak currency and protectionist limits on market access. But what should be done beyond more talks with Beijing?

We have to remind the Chinese leadership that it is in their self-interest to increase domestic consumption. Our self-interest is just the opposite, we need to be saving more. For that environment to be successful, we still need to open markets between the two countries. And where we do see unfair practices, we continue to call attention to them. The currency is not the top thing I am worried about.

You have an idea for a flexible carbon tax. Why would Republicans go for that?

I am not a politician, but I think a couple of things might attract Republican interest. We’re not trying to raise revenue with this. The revenue should be recycled through tax cuts. The point here would be to solve the uncertainty problem in the private sector. You want to promote innovation, but you don’t want something like cap and trade.  But [with really low oil prices], you won’t have the innovation. But if you can go to businesspeople and say I guarantee you [big price swings] won’t happen, then you will get the innovation.

Did we really need to put taxpayer money into the bank back in 2008?

I do think we needed to recapitalize some of the banks. TARP got off to a rocky start because that is not where the Bush administration started. They sort of wound up in a good place but it was a rocky road. The other issue at the time that made is hard was the seeming capriciousness of how each bank failure was handled. That kind of policy uncertainty was chilling.

What would be the best way to deal with the housing market?

I would try to do what we can promote overall economic growth and do what we can to aid consumers in the housing market without subsidizing housing, the plan that Chris Mayer and I put out.  It’s actually a pretty simple solution. Normally a recovery would be helped by a lot of refinancings given the very low mortgage interest rates. But that isn’t happening. And I think if we took away some of the structural impediments and allowed more refinancings, more people could stay in their homes. It would be like a long-term tax cut, and it wouldn’t cost the treasury a dime.

What are the political and economic risk to more quantitative easing by the Federal Reserve?

Quantitative easing still probably has the capacity to lower long-term rates a bit, but it’s only a bit. If the Fed did another trillion dollars of quantitative easing, maybe 20 or 30 basis points in the ten-year rate — but is that what’s really holding back investment? I don’t  think so, and it raises the risk of a very large balance sheet being hard to pull back, politically. So personally I wouldn’t do it. And it also complicates the recapitalization of the banks because currently banks are recapitalizing themselves by borrowing money from the Fed at zero and buying government bonds. The flatter the slope of the yield curve, the lower the profitability. I am just mystified why people think this is a silver bullet.

How long before the U.S. debt burden begins to cause an adverse market reaction?

I think as soon as a real recovery takes hold, we are going to see some real uncertainty being created in the bond market. The U.S. fiscal situation is really perilous. It’s not a new story, but the political unwillingness to deal with it will finally start to really trouble people. In order to head that off, we need to do something. Personally, I would start with Social Security since it something we know how to do and shouldn’t be that controversial.

Does America need to pay more in taxes?

I think it’s a question for the American people about what they want government to do. If we want a government [where spending as a percentage of GDP] is rising into the mid [20 percent range], then the easy answer to your question is “yes.”  But if we want a government that is more along traditional lines, then we don’t need to do that. That is really the first order question, and once we decide the answer to the that question, we need to pick a tax system that raises revenue at the lowest cost. But the big thing is “What government do you want?” and this is what voters will have to decide.

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