James Pethokoukis

Politics and policy from inside Washington

Obama, this is why America is not Europe

Oct 13, 2009 16:44 UTC

As usual, Joel Kotkin nails it:

In a rapidly aging society like Germany’s and those of other E.U. countries you can make a case for slow growth, limited work hours, early retirement and a strict regulatory regime. But for America, with its growing workforce and population, slow economic growth simply is not socially sustainable.

More broadly, we are talking about two different mindsets. As one writer puts it, Europeans “emphasize quality of life over accumulation” and “play over unrelenting toil.” In contrast, most Americans seem ill-disposed to relax their work ethic, which has been central to the national character from its earliest days.

Of course, the European approach is celebrated by some Americans, particularly those who already have achieved a high level of affluence. It plays very well in “little Europes” of America, cities like San Francisco, Portland and Boston, places with relatively few children and generally slow-growing populations.

Me: I wonder if eventually US political parties break down to a pro-growth, pro-family, pro-population party and a “sustainable,” growth, Euro-lite party.  Certainly, there are elements of the Democratic party which would fit into either.

Why the GOP shouldn’t embrace calls for a VAT

Oct 7, 2009 18:00 UTC

You can add New York Times economics columnist David Leonhardt to the parade of liberals, Democrats, Obama allies and fellow travelers — such as John Podesta, Nancy Pelosi, Paul Volcker, and Robert Rubin — calling for higher taxes, preferably a value-added tax.

But Leonhardt goes those folks one better in his new column. He extensively quotes conservative (and controversial) economic analyst Bruce Bartlett, a VAT proponent, who says Republicans are no longer credible on economic policy. That is, of course, another way of saying Leonhardt no longer thinks the GOP or conservative economics (hardly the same thing) are credible, assuming he ever did. And that seems unlikely given the tone and substance of his column.

Yes, let’s talk about credibility and start with a few howlers by Leonhardt:

1) “Most Democrats now acknowledge the central idea of supply-side economics: tax rates matter.” Have Democrats really conceded this point? Have they accepted the necessity of the Reagan supply-side tax cuts back in the 1980s? Doubtful. President Obama, for instance, has stated that he doesn’t think the high, unindexed-for-inflation tax rates of the 1970s were a disincentive to work, savings and investment. He concedes only that they may have “distorted” investment decisions by encouraging people to seek out tax-shelters. Not surprisingly, the Obama tax cuts were typically Keynesian, short-term and consumer demand focused.  The job tax credit that the White House is considering would be more of the same.

(And I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard Democrats and liberal economists get wistful about the 1950s and its 90 percent top marginal tax rate. These also tend to be the same folks who credit the 1980s economic boom to falling oil prices, Paul Volcker’s inflation fighting, Jimmy Carter’s deregulation and typical cyclical rebound after a deep recession. In short, every possible explanation other than Reagan’s tax cuts.)

2) “Taxes are supposed to rise as a country grows richer.” Ah yes, Wagner’s Law, named after 19th century economist Adolf Wagner. Smart guy. Except that Americans decided to break Wagner’s Law starting in 1978 with the property tax revolt in California and deep cuts in the national capital gains tax rate, followed by the Reagan tax cuts. You might say that Laffer’s Law (as in Arthur Laffer) and the experience of the 1970s superseded Wagner’s Law by demonstrating how high taxes rates can choke economic growth and productivity.

Wagner is probably correct that richer societies demand more services, but who says that government has to provide them? They can be privatized, such as Indiana did with its toll road. And there is scant evidence that American desire higher taxes, as evidenced by recent election results in California (voters rejected higher taxes) and little support for higher energy taxes.

3) “But some basic arithmetic — the Medicare budget, projected to soar in coming decades — suggests taxes need to rise further, and history suggests that’s O.K.” Or the government could cut spending. Pushing back the retirement age on Social Security and tweaking its benefits formula turns a $5 trillion present-value deficit into a $5 trillion surplus, for instance. That’s just one idea. It is not an unalterable, incontestable reality that government spending cannot be reduced.

Give voters a choice between a) more government programs and a 33-50 percent increase in their tax burden and b) low taxes and free-market approaches to problems like healthcare. Let’s see which they choose.

And as far as the impact of tax increases on economic growth, let me quote a paper co-written by Christina Romer, chair of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers: “Tax increases appear to have a very large, sustained, and highly significant negative impact on output … [and] tax cuts have very large and persistent positive output effects.” There you go.

4) “One of the country’s two political parties has no answer to an enormous economic issue — the fact that the federal government cannot pay for its obligations.” Must have missed the memo on how Democratic healthcare reform solves America’s deficit problems since, at best, the various plans are only roughly deficit neutral over the next decade. Also, Democrats have recoiled at the idea of taxing healthcare plans to pay for expanded coverage, an idea that many economists say also is necessary to reduce overuse of pricey, premium medicine.

And recall how Democrats harpooned Republican attempts to reform Social Security during the Bush administration, with many also refusing even to acknowledge that the system was in crisis.

Not that Republicans have much to crow about when it comes to spending. The GOP defense of out-of-control Medicare spending is completely political, as was the Bush administration’s decision to expand Medicare without paying for it.

Bottom line: Ultimately what tax-hike proponents fail to persuasively argue is why they believe that once government had access to greater revenue, especially via a VAT, it wouldn’t just spend the additional dough?

Americans know how that game works.

Moderate Democrats like Sen. Mark Warner have made the case that unless spending is cut and government reformed, big tax increases are fantasy policy. That’s right. First cut spending, then raise taxes if absolutely necessary.


Thank you for providing your perspective.

Here is a recent action alert, from Americans for Tax Reform, regarding this issue:

http://www.atr.org/tell-congress-dont-wa nt-vat-tax-a3991

IMF ups its estimate for 2010 global growth

Oct 1, 2009 11:44 UTC

Another unsurprising economic forecast that portends continued high US unemployment next year.



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The Fed as a growth driver

Sep 28, 2009 17:11 UTC

Does the Obama administration care more about creating wealth or redistributing wealth? Maybe the strategy is for the WH to worry about the latter and let the Fed take care of the former. Scott Grannis, the Calfia Beach Pundit, makes an interesting observation (bold is mine):

Many, including most Fed governors, fear that an early reversal of quantitative easing, which would undoubtedly require higher short-term interest rates, might jeopardize the economy’s nascent recovery. I think it makes more sense to worry about what might happen if the Fed waits too long. I seriously doubt that this economy is so fragile that it can’t support short-term interest rates of at least 2-3%. I really worry that an inflationary error from the Fed at this point, which would weaken the dollar and undermine confidence in the U.S. economy, would do far more damage. Far better to pursue a path that builds confidence in the strength of the dollar, rather than gambling everything to boost the economy. Monetary policy was never designed to be a tool for raising or lowering the economy’s growth rate.


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More evidence of rising trade protectionism

Sep 24, 2009 13:44 UTC

As Reuters reports it:

The United Steelworkers union, fresh from persuading President Barack Obama to restrict tire imports from China, filed a new case Wednesday asking for duties on coated paper from both China and Indonesia. The action came just one day after Chinese President Hu Jintao complained to Obama about the tires decision in a meeting on the sidelines of a United Nations summit in New York. … The steelworkers union, which represents workers in a number of industries, sees itself in a battle against what it believes are unfair foreign trade practices that have led to the loss of millions of U.S. manufacturing jobs. They are joined in their latest trade case by paper manufacturers NewPage Corp of Miamisburg, Ohio; Appleton Coated LLC of Kimberly, Wisconsin; and Sappi Fine Paper North America of Boston, Massachusetts, which together employ about 6,000 union workers at paper mills in nine states. … Unlike the steelworkers’ petition in the tires case, this complaint will not land on Obama’s desk. Instead, the U.S. International Trade Commission, a U.S. federal agency, will have the final word on whether anti-dumping and anti-subsidy duties will be imposed after an investigation by the U.S. Commerce Department.

Worried about how this sort of thing will affect the economy recovery both in the US and globally? Ed Yardeni is:

But what about Art Laffer’s warning about how rising taxes and protectionism could still cause another Great Depression?” …  He observed: “While Fed policy was undoubtedly important, it was not the primary cause of the Great Depression or the economy’s relapse in 1937. The Smoot-Hawley tariff of June 1930 was the catalyst that got the whole process going. It was the largest single increase in taxes on trade during peacetime and precipitated massive retaliation by foreign governments on U.S. products. Huge federal and state tax increases in 1932 followed the initial decline in the economy thus doubling down on the impact of Smoot-Hawley. There were additional large tax increases in 1936 and 1937 that were the proximate cause of the economy’s relapse in 1937.”

I completely agree with Art that the Smoot-Hawley tariff was the major cause of the Great Depression. So it is certainly disturbing to see the Obama Administration pander to the United Steelworkers by slapping a tariff on tires imported from China. This morning’s WSJ reports that three paper companies and the United Steelworkers filed an antidumping case Wednesday against China and Indonesia, making good on the union’s threat to protect other US industries after winning a recent trade decision against China. We’ve seen plenty of similar trade flare-ups in the past even during the Reagan and Bush Administrations. Nevertheless, they can spin out of control. More importantly, now is not a good time to resort to protectionism given that the global economic freefall earlier this year was mostly attributable to a collapse in exports as trade credits froze up.

A bigger and more likely threat to a sustainable recovery is the sun-setting of the Bush tax cuts after 2010. This will amount to a major tax increase that could send the economy back into a recession in 2011. I don’t think this will trip up the bull market any time soon. But it is likely to become a big issue by the second half of next year.


High taxes and restrictions in free trade are good for economic growth. Everybody knows that.

Posted by Tom Nail | Report as abusive

The mild ‘W’ scenario

Sep 16, 2009 15:22 UTC

Yardeni sketches it out, though he thinks a “muddling along” is more likely:

1) Actually, the Petering Out scenario could start before yearend. Auto sales were clearly boosted during July by the Cash for Clunkers program. Congress expanded the program by an additional $2bn in August, and auto sales continued to rebound. Auto sales will probably weaken again unless it is renewed. Also, an $8,000 tax credit for first-time homebuyers will expire in November.

2) Furthermore, tax hikes are coming. The good news is that the Obama Administration hasn’t endorsed Charlie Rangel’s proposal to slap a big tax surcharge on high incomes as a way to pay for more government spending on health care. The bad news is that a massive tax increase is coming in 2011 after the Bush tax cuts expire next year. It is conceivable that consumers might cut back their spending in 2010 in anticipation of higher taxes.

3) Another concern is that the government will exit its various rescue programs prematurely. For example, last October, the FDIC provided temporary insurance guaranteeing the new debt of banks. Debt issued under the program is insured in some cases through June 30, 2012, and through December 31, 2012, in others. As of September 4, $304.1bn in debt was outstanding under the program. Ninety-four financial institutions have used it to issue debt.

4) The global economic recovery might also be at risk if Chinese authorities step on the brakes. During August, a few of them indicated that they are not happy to see that too much of bank lending has gone into real estate and stock market speculation. So they are leaning on the banks to lend less for such activities. Indeed, bank loans rose $60bn and $55bn during July and August, down from $181.5bn on average from January-June.

In conclusion, my sense is that a W-shaped economic pattern is widely expected. As the focus of investors extends beyond 2010, there are mounting concerns about the likelihood of the second recovery in this scenario, especially during 2011, if the Bush tax cuts are allowed to expire.

A case for long-term high unemployment in America

Sep 11, 2009 14:30 UTC

A fantastic article by Joshua Cooper Ramo looking at whether the US is doomed to years of high unemployment. Read the whole thing, but this a key bit:

Many of the ideas Summers developed were codified in a 1986 article titled “Hysteresis and the European Unemployment Problem.” Even today it’s a piece he’s proud of: “Ah, yeah, the hysteresis article,” he interjects when it’s mentioned. Hysteresis is a word that you (and the rest of us) should hope we don’t hear too much of in the coming months. It comes from the Greek husteros, which means late. It refers to what happens when something snaps in such a way that it can never be put back together. Bend a plastic ruler too far, drop that lightbulb — that cracking sound you hear is the marker of hysteresis. There’s no way to restore what has just been smashed.

The idea that hysteresis happens to economies is one that economists don’t like to think about. They prefer to consider economies as yo-yos tethered to the sturdy string of the business cycle, moving up and down from growth to slowdown and back. But from time to time, things do snap. And Summers’ argument in 1986 was that unemployment in Europe, the sort that might persist in the face of growth, was an expression of an economy that had snapped. Europe’s economy was hit not only by shocks like an oil-price spike, a productivity collapse and rocketing tax rates but also by stubborn unions that made hiring, firing and adjusting payrolls near impossible.

Hysteresis, Summers explained, could come from all sorts of shocks like this. And that may be what is playing out in the U.S. If you look at the three great job busts of the past 100 years — the 1930s, the early 1980s and today — you find an important difference. The Reagan recession ended with workers returning to jobs that were the same as or similar to the ones they had lost. But 1930s joblessness was structural. The jobs people lost — largely in agriculture — never came back. Workers had to move to the industrial sector, a transition helped by the demands of a war. It was massive national hysteresis. Sound familiar?

Is there where economic growth will come from?

Sep 11, 2009 14:15 UTC

Barry Ritholtz ticks off ten technologies:

My top 10 list (in order of biggest near term potential):

1. Nano Technology (Think of the line “Plastics” in The Graduate).

2. Green (low carbon) Energy  (generation)

3. Battery technology  (storage)

4. Genomics/Stem Cell Research

5. Web 2.0/3.0 — smaller, niche companies using increased bandwidth

6. Robotics — the continued replacement of humans by machine, for both labor and judgement

7. Life extension Technologies (not disease cures, but actual extension technology)

8. Bio-Agriculture (GMF, etc.)  Feeding 15 billion people will require some technological breakthroughs.

9. Atmospheric Engineering — modifying Earth’s biosphere to keep it hospitable to Humans in the face of an ice age or global warming;

10. Terra forming/Extra Planetary Colonization (uh-oh, time to go)


I like the list. Although, I would place Robotics/AI higher on the list. I would also place green energy and Genomics/Stem Cell lower.

My reasoning is this. Robotics/AI/UAV are going to dominate the future US military- that is a lot of R&D and spending. They will also continue to remake manufacturing efficiency. They will become more human like, and there will be greater human-Robot/AI interaction. AI will also factor heavily in advanced web. Matrix here we come!

While green energy is currently the rage, we do not have an energy shortage per-se in this country currently, and not globally except for China & India. It will be a self-sustaining industry, but I doubt it will be a major player.

I also downgrade genomics/stem cell technology, because of the inherent weaknesses in the pharma industry and the fact that the tech is still in infancy. We discovered how to clone years ago, but this has yet to develop into a behemoth industry. There will be a lot of trial and error, and moral/ethical debates. However, genomics/stem cell technologies will contribute to, and advance life extension technology. Really, they should be one category.

Otherwise, a very interesting list. Thanks for posting it!

Posted by greg harkness | Report as abusive

Obama stimulus: promises vs. reality

Sep 4, 2009 13:40 UTC

This from the WaPo:

IHS Global Insight, an economic consulting firm, estimates that the stimulus has increased the 2009 gross domestic product by about 1 percent over what it otherwise would have been, with the benefit almost entirely in the second half of the year.

The firm also forecasts that the package will, in total, result in about 2 million more jobs than otherwise would have existed at the end of 2010. Moody’s Economy.com estimates that the initiative will increase employment by 2.5 million jobs. Both estimates are below the 3 million to 3.5 million jobs the Obama administration estimated the package would create or save …

Me: Again, arguing that the economy would have been worse without the stimulus plan is not as helpful as arguing the plan has restored prosperity.

The consequences of massive budget deficits

Sep 3, 2009 12:38 UTC

The Cleveland Fed gives the bad news:

First, without a correction on the spending side, more tax revenue will need to be raised, with the consequence of subjecting the economy to greater tax-associated inefficiencies.

The risk of default may also increase, leading to higher risk premiums, higher interest payments, and a greater cost to be sustained in the future to address the fiscal imbalance.

In addition, a sustained demand for funds by the government sector will likely put upward pressure on future real interest rates, with adverse consequences for private investment and growth.

The increase in domestic interest rates will likely attract further financial flows from countries with higher saving rates, which may lead to a dollar appreciation and a worsening of our current account deficit.