February 17, 2015

In praise of “dynamic scoring”

Filed under: Economics, Government, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Dan Mitchell explains why there’s a need to change the way the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT) “keep score” on how proposed legislative changes will impact the US economy:

cartoon-cboThe CBO, for instance, puts together economic analysis and baseline forecasts of revenue and spending, while also estimating what will happen if there are changes to spending programs. Seems like a straightforward task, but what if the bureaucrats assume that government spending “stimulates” the economy and they fail to measure the harmful impact of diverting resources from the productive sector of the economy to Washington?

The JCT, by contrast, prepares estimates of what will happen to revenue if politicians make various changes in tax policy. Sounds like a simple task, but what if the bureaucrats make the ridiculous assumption that tax policy has no measurable impact on jobs, growth, or competitiveness, which leads to the preposterous conclusion that you maximize revenue with 100 percent tax rates?

Writing for Investor’s Business Daily, former Treasury Department officials Ernie Christian and Gary Robbins explain why the controversy over these topics – sometimes referred to as “static scoring” vs “dynamic scoring” – is so important.

    It is Economics 101 that many federal taxes, regulations and spending programs create powerful incentives for people not to work, save, invest or otherwise efficiently perform the functions essential to their own well-being. These government-induced changes in behavior set off a chain reaction of macroeconomic effects that impair GDP growth, kill jobs, lower incomes and restrict upward mobility, especially among lower- and middle-income families. …Such measurements are de rigueur among credible academic and private-sector researchers who seek to determine the true size of the tax and regulatory burden on the economy and the true value of government spending, taking into account the economic damage it often causes.

But not all supposed experts look at these second-order or indirect effects of government policy.

And what’s amazing is that the official scorekeepers in Washington are the ones who refuse to recognize the real-world impact of changes in government policy.

    These indirect costs of government, in particular or in total, have not been calculated and disclosed in the Budget of the United States or in analyses by the Congressional Budget Office. The result of this deliberate omission by Washington has been to understate many costs of government, often by more than 100%, and grossly overstate its benefits. …It is on this foundation of disinformation that the highly disrespected, overly expensive and too often destructive federal government in Washington has been built.

January 27, 2015

How to think like a government bureaucrat

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Government, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Robert Tracinski on the essential core of a control freak’s very being:

Here’s one of my favorite stories about how the mind of a government official works.

A few years ago, I was in a grocery store in Charlottesville when I overheard a conversation between two shoppers, one of whom was clearly in some position of authority (the City Council, I believe). This was right after the financial crisis. The real estate market had just collapsed, a whole bunch of local development project had just been canceled, and my wife was telling me about all the guys she knew in construction who were desperate for work. Yet here was this lady arguing for why the local government should not approve any new commercial building permits. The danger, she explained, was the prospect of “economic ghost towns,” retail areas where several shops had closed, hurting business for the others. Until these “economic ghost towns” were filled back up — whether anybody wanted them or not — there was no good reason to approve permits for new commercial construction.

I just couldn’t keep quiet and had to interrupt: Only in Charlottesville — a left-leaning university town — could an economic downturn be used as a reason to block new economic activity.

But you have to understand the outlook of those whose faith is the creed of government. Everything is proof of the need for more government power and control. The local economy is booming? Let’s hold back on building permits because we don’t want to grow “too fast.” The local economy is tanking? Let’s hold back on building permits because we don’t want “economic ghost towns,” or whatever. On the national level, in an economic collapse the government needs more money for “stimulus.” But if the economy is booming, that means we can afford higher taxes, right?

November 10, 2013

Growth forecasts continue to over-estimate Canada’s actual economic progress

Filed under: Cancon, Economics — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 12:12

In Maclean’s, Debbie Downer Colin Campbell takes a survey of the state of Canada’s economy:

A key qualification for landing a job at the Bank of Canada, it seems, is an unfailing sense of optimism. In 2009, the bank forecast the economy would grow 3.3 per cent in 2011. It grew 2.5 per cent. In 2011, it said the economy would grow 2.9 per cent in 2013. It will likely be just 1.6 per cent. Now it says the economy will grow 2.3 per cent next year. How likely is that? The bank has consistently viewed the economy through rose-coloured glasses in recent years, perhaps believing its low-interest-rate policy will eventually bear fruit. Rates have been held at one per cent for three years now. But the economy seems only to be getting worse.

It grew 0.3 per cent in August, Statistics Canada said last week — mostly attributed to a familiar crutch, the oil business. Elsewhere, things aren’t looking up. A new TD Bank report said corporate Canada is “in a slump,” with profits down 16 per cent from their post-recession peak in 2011. Some observers point out that Canada is still doing better than Europe and Japan. But so are most countries that aren’t in a recession, from South Africa and New Zealand to Equatorial Guinea and Guatemala. After breezing through the recession, Canada is back to old habits: hoping its fortunes (i.e., exports) will rise along with America’s comeback. But the U.S., too, is back in a rut. Last week, the Federal Reserve said it would continue with its $85-billion-a-month bond-buying stimulus program.

With the economy sputtering, Ottawa has meanwhile remained preoccupied with fiscal restraint and balancing the budget within two years. So, with neither low interest rates nor government spending providing a boost, the outcome seems predictable: Official growth forecasts will look nice, but will keep missing the mark.

February 21, 2013

The sequester rhetoric ratchets up: “By Friday, expect him to be invoking plagues of frogs and flaming hail”

Filed under: Economics, Government, Media, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 11:43

Nick Gillespie rounds up the latest batch of rhetorical shit being spewed by both sides over the looming sequester:

Here’s what President Obama is promising will happen if the sequester goes through as he wrote it (yes, it was his idea, as a way of forcing a compromise):

    “If Congress allows this meat-cleaver approach to take place, it will jeopardize our military readiness. It will eviscerate job-creating investments in education and energy and medical research,” Obama warned in a speech at the White House, flanked by emergency workers. “It won’t consider whether we’re cutting some bloated program that has outlived its usefulness or a vital service that Americans depend on every single day.”

By Friday, expect him to be invoking plagues of frogs and flaming hail. As I noted earlier this week, the $85 billion figure that gets invoked is wrong; cuts in fiscal year 2013 will amount to $44 billion or about 1.2 percent of all federal spending. We’ve been hearing for a long time that sequestration alone would kill about 700,000 jobs.

That’s a claim taken as gospel that is based on what can be called “ugly modeling” at best. Because virtually all government spending is counted by definition as adding to GDP, any cut thus means reductions in activity and jobs. Add to that the idea that projectionists routinely assign a multiplier of more than 1.00 to government spending, so that each dollar the feds spend magically creates more than $1 in economic activity.

The country’s experience with recent stimulus spending should give pause to all of us (if it doesn’t, watch this). When the stimulus manifestly failed to reduce unemployment by its own predictions, its architects and defenders in the press nonetheless pronounced it a success and claimed that it saved us from an ever bigger problem. The real problem, you see, was that the stimulus wasn’t big enough. All it takes is a government failure for stimulatarians to channel their inner Andrea True.

Yet there’s every reason to believe that stimulus spending has a multiplier that is well below 1.0, meaning that every dollar that’s spent generated less than a dollar of activity, resulting in a net drain on economic activity. Think about it in a different context: Virtually everybody understands that when local governments shell out massive tax money on sports stadiums, the local economy doesn’t see any net benefits. If you’re lucky, existing entertainment dollars may be spread toward sports facilities, but nobody seriously believes any more that such spending grows the overall economic pie or stimulates anything other than owners’ and players’ bank accounts (in fact, simply having a major professional team in your metro area shaves about $40 per person per year). If building white elephant stadiums and museums with public dollars worked, Cleveland would be the hottest town in the country.

May 31, 2012

QotD: A plague on both your houses!

Filed under: Economics, Government, Politics, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 00:02

Protestations from the Obama side that this is all just proof that recession/depression was so much worse than any of us knew that it’s a goddamn great and good thing that Obama is helming the ship of state because if it had been one of those idiot Republicans like George W. Bush we wouldn’t have had bailouts and a stimulus that was too small to really effect the economy — even smaller than the $150 billion tax thingamajig that Bush tried in early 2008 that was really pathetic because we now know that even Obama’s $800 billion attempt was obviously too small christ it should have been two or three or even four times bigger and for god’s sake can’t we just prepare for the alien invasion that Paul Krugman — he won a Nobel Prize so just shut up already! — says will create enough of a multiplier effect to finally restart the economy and screw the debt because we’ll have thousands of years to pay that down, especially now that thank Zardoz we’ve got universal health care that will be awesome if the d-bags on the SCOTUS don’t FUBAR it and Dodd-Frank means there won’t be any fraud or dumb lending!

And of course the Republicans will counter with: See, none of this would have happened if we’d only followed George W. Bush’s disastrous big-government spending ways and expansion of major entitlements and a defense buildup because sharia law is taking over whole hamlets in Oklahoma and our plan to increase annual spending over the next decade by just $1 trillion is so much better than the Prez’s to spend $2 trillion more, especially after increasing federal outlays by 60 percent or more over the previous decade when we controlled things is exactly the tonic the economy needs right now! But seriously folks, what do you expect when you let gay marriage happen? No economy can recover from that!

Nick Gillespie, “Is the Obama Recovery Over? Or Has it Not Really Started Yet?”, Hit and Run, 2012-05-30

May 22, 2012

Reason.tv: Is Austerity to Blame for Europe’s Economic Woes?

Filed under: Economics, Europe, Government, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 11:50

May 2, 2012

Jim Flaherty on why the IMF should not go too far to rescue the Eurozone

Filed under: Cancon, Economics, Europe, Government — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 08:44

As I’ve mentioned before, Jim Flaherty is the federal finance minister and also my local MP. I don’t always agree with him (especially around budget time when he channels his inner spendthrift), but he makes some excellent points in this article at The Telegraph:

At the meeting of the International Monetary Fund recently, Canada decided against contributing more resources to support the eurozone. We also argued that all countries borrowing from the IMF should be treated equally. We took these positions because we believe they are in the best interests of the eurozone, of the IMF, and of the international community.

We have always supported the IMF’s important systemic role in promoting economic stability by providing loans to countries that have exhausted their domestic options, and placing these countries on a path to sustainability through time-limited interventions. But it is not the IMF’s role to substitute for national governments.

[. . .]

Ultimately, the adequacy of the actions taken will be judged by the markets. Repeated expressions of confidence by politicians are futile if the markets continue to cast their vote of non-confidence. The markets’ confidence in political leadership will only be restored when it is clear that politicians are willing to see the full scope of the problem, to focus on the key issues instead of pursuing sideshows such as the financial transactions tax, and to set out and implement a plan for tackling these issues.

[. . .]

We cannot avoid the question of fairness. Eurozone members benefit from increased exports and price stability. Spreading the risks of the eurozone around the world, while its benefits accrue primarily to its members, is not the way to resolve this crisis. We cannot expect non-European countries, whose citizens in many cases have a much lower standard of living, to save the eurozone. Further, the IMF, with roughly $400 billion, already has adequate resources to deal with imminent needs.

H/T to Elizabeth for sending me the link.

April 5, 2012

Why government stimulus is usually a bad idea

Filed under: Cancon, Economics, Government — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 09:12

Mike Milke of the Fraser Institute:

Frum’s praise for Ottawa’s go-slow approach on balanced books is premised on the perception that if Ottawa actually cut spending (as opposed to slowing the rate of growth) such actions would endanger our prosperity: “If you reduce spending too fast, you crimp your economy,” wrote Frum.

But that’s a mistaken notion.

To use just one example from a large body of research, in 2009, leading fiscal policy expert and Harvard University professor Alberto Alesina and his colleague Silvia Ardagna reviewed stimulus initiatives in Canada and 20 other industrialized countries from 1970 to 2007. In the 91 instances where governments tried to stimulate the economy, it turned out the unsuccessful attempts generally were the ones based on increased government spending. Alesina noted that “a one percentage point higher increase in the current [government] spending-to-GDP ratio is associated with a 0.75 percentage point lower growth.”

In other words, stimulus spending doesn’t increase economic growth; it harms it.

To see how Ottawa’s own stimulus spending was unnecessary, consider how Canada emerged from the last recession and how government stimulus spending had nothing to do with it. Our recession ended in mid-2009; it was only about then that federal and provincial governments started spending extra (borrowed) stimulus cash.

To credit stimulus spending for the end to Canada’s recession, one must argue that extra (borrowed) dollars mostly spent after June 2009 somehow magically rescued the Canadian economy before June 2009.

All the borrowing did have one effect: It added to the existing large federal debt mountain, forecast to hit $614-billion in 2015, up from $457-billion in 2008.

The government’s stimulus spending was demanded by the opposition, but evidence since then indicates that the minority Tories would probably have passed a stimulus budget even if the opposition didn’t give them political cover.

March 10, 2012

Canadian Conservatives: “You are not that party”

Filed under: Cancon, Economics, Government, Liberty — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 12:27

Andrew Coyne’s presentation to the Manning Centre conference in Ottawa:

What I believe in are a set of principles having to do with the freedom of the individual, the usefulness but not infallibility of markets, and the legitimate but limited role of the state. There are, in brief, a few things we need government to do, based on well-established criteria on which there is a high degree of expert consensus. The task is simply to get government to stick to those things, rather than waste scarce resources on things that could be done as well or better by other means: that is, government should only do what only government can do.

As I say, these ideas are not novel, or controversial. Indeed, you would find support for them, to a greater or lesser degree, across the political spectrum.

Nevertheless, there was a party, once, that believed in these things, to a somewhat greater extent than the other parties. That party called itself conservative, whether with a small or a large C, so I suppose you could call the things it believed conservatism. But you are no longer that party.

For example, that party favoured balanced budgets. But you are not that party. In fact, you boast of how your decision to add $150-billion to the national debt saved the economy.

That party favoured cutting or at least controlling spending, after the massive spree of the Liberals’ last years. But you are not that party. In fact, you boast of how you have increased spending by 7% per year — $37-billion in one year!

That party favoured a simpler, flatter tax system, that left people free to decide how to spend, save or invest their money for themselves. But you are not that party. In fact, you boast of the many gimmicks and gew-gaws with which you have festooned the tax code.

That party favoured abolishing corporate welfare. But you are not that party. In fact you boast of the handouts you make, often accompanied by ministers or indeed MPs bearing outsized novelty cheques. In some cases, you even put the Conservative logo on them.

The story of the last decade is how the rock-ribbed small-c conservatives of the old Reform Party were tamed, neutered, and blinkered into becoming a blue-painted Liberal Party. It worked, in the sense of getting their hands on the levers of power, but their souls were tainted, corrupted, and eventually disposed of in the process.

February 21, 2012

Greece: “now officially a ward of the international community”

Filed under: Economics, Europe, Government — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 10:40

Felix Salmon on the dire Greek financial future:

Greece is now officially a ward of the international community. It has no real independence when it comes to fiscal policy any more, and if everything goes according to plan, it’s not going to have any independence for many, many years to come. Here, for instance, is a little of the official Eurogroup statement:

    We therefore invite the Commission to significantly strengthen its Task Force for Greece, in particular through an enhanced and permanent presence on the ground in Greece… The Eurogroup also welcomes the stronger on site-monitoring capacity by the Commission to work in close and continuous cooperation with the Greek government in order to assist the Troika in assessing the conformity of measures that will be taken by the Greek government, thereby ensuring the timely and full implementation of the programme. The Eurogroup also welcomes Greece’s intention to put in place a mechanism that allows better tracing and monitoring of the official borrowing and internally-generated funds destined to service Greece’s debt by, under monitoring of the troika, paying an amount corresponding to the coming quarter’s debt service directly to a segregated account of Greece’s paying agent.

The problem, of course, is that all the observers and “segregated accounts” in the world can’t turn Greece’s economy around when it’s burdened with an overvalued currency and has no ability to implement any kind of stimulus. Quite the opposite: in order to get this deal done, Greece had to find yet another €325 million in “structural expenditure reductions”, and promise a huge amount of front-loaded austerity to boot.

February 3, 2012

New economic ideas on employment and stimulus

Filed under: Economics, Government — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 10:03

Arnold Kling, writing in the Wall Street Journal, explains why (if his new theories are validated) governments have been doing exactly the wrong things to help the economy recover:

… I believe that the process of creating employment is explained not by the theories of Keynes, but rather by the theories of Adam Smith and David Ricardo. Smith famously described the advantages of specialization and division of labor. Ricardo pointed out the gains from trade that come from consuming goods that others produce more efficiently. From the perspective of Smith and Ricardo, real jobs emerge in the context of patterns of sustainable specialization and trade.

Unfortunately, the patterns of specialization and trade that had emerged five years ago were not sustainable. Many jobs in home construction, durable-goods manufacturing and distribution, and mortgage finance were dependent on housing markets with ever-rising prices. In the U.S. and the U.K. in particular, the finance industry expanded well beyond its true economic value. Once the property bubbles burst, these jobs were exposed as not viable. Meanwhile, ongoing creative destruction brought about by the Internet and globalization have continued to allow substitution of capital and emerging-market labor for industrialized countries’ labor in many sectors. Together, these phenomena have caused widespread dislocation.

More government spending will not bring back the days when supposedly triple-A-rated mortgage securities could be fashioned out of dodgy loans to unqualified borrowers. Doing so would not halt the ongoing improvements in productivity in manufacturing and retail trade. It would not facilitate the adjustments that are needed in the mix of skills in the labor force. The necessary adjustments can only be made by the decentralized efforts of entrepreneurs.

[. . .]

The word “sustainable” in “patterns of sustainable specialization and trade” refers to profitability. Patterns that are profitable can be sustained. Patterns that are not profitable must eventually be shut down. That is the problem with patterns of trade created by government borrowing and spending: They are not sustainable, as has been illustrated in the U.S. by the failure of many of the “green energy” companies supported by President Obama’s stimulus package. Moreover, as European policy makers have discovered, there are limits to how much governments can borrow to fund their experimentations in specialization and trade.

January 25, 2012

The Cato Institute response to the State of the Union 2012

January 9, 2012

Calling it “austerity” doesn’t make it so

Filed under: Economics, Government, Media, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 10:11

Nick Gillespie provides a reality check on some particularly imaginative use of “austerity” in describing the end of the Bush administration and the start of the Obama administration:

In constant 2010 dollars, the federal government spent about $2.3 trillion in 2001. By 2010, the total was around $3.6 trillion. And though the federal government has not passed (and will not pass) a budget for a third straight year, the two plans currently on the table envision spending either $4.7 trillion or $5.7 trillion in 2021. The lowball figure comes from the budget that passed the GOP-controlled House last spring. The higher number comes from President Obama’s budget proposal.

If austerity is the new black, the news has yet to reach the people who actually wield power in the capital. And if the Washington elite aren’t serious about cutting spending, they sure aren’t hell-bent on cutting red tape and regulations either.

For self-evident reasons, George W. Bush and the Republicans soft-pedaled the fact that, over the course of his presidency, he hired 90,000 net new regulators, signed the Sarbanes-Oxley bill that radically complicated corporate accounting practices, passed a record number of “economically significant” regulations costing the economy $100 million or more and, says economist Veronique de Rugy, spent more money issuing and enforcing federal regulations than any previous chief executive.

Obama is continuing the trend by increasing employment at regulatory agencies by more than 13 percent and issuing 75 major rules in his first two years.

All this happened during what Frank calls “the golden years of libertarianism.” So I have problems understanding what he is talking about when he issues dicta such as “free-market theory has proven itself to be a philosophy of ruination and fraud.”

December 31, 2011

A billion here, a trillion there, pretty soon you’re talking about imaginary money

Filed under: Economics, Government, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 11:35

Mark Steyn on the crossing of the psychological Rubicon:

At the end of 2011, America, like much of the rest of the Western world, has dug deeper into a cocoon of denial. Tens of millions of Americans remain unaware that this nation is broke – broker than any nation has ever been. A few days before Christmas, we sailed across the psychological Rubicon and joined the club of nations whose government debt now exceeds their total GDP. It barely raised a murmur — and those who took the trouble to address the issue noted complacently that our 100 percent debt-to-GDP ratio is a mere two-thirds of Greece’s. That’s true, but at a certain point per capita comparisons are less relevant than the sheer hard dollar sums: Greece owes a few rinky-dink billions; America owes more money than anyone has ever owed anybody ever.

Public debt has increased by 67 percent over the past three years, and too many Americans refuse even to see it as a problem. For most of us, “$16.4 trillion” has no real meaning, any more than “$17.9 trillion” or “$28.3 trillion” or “$147.8 bazillion.” It doesn’t even have much meaning for the guys spending the dough: Look into the eyes of Barack Obama or Harry Reid or Barney Frank, and you realize that, even as they’re borrowing all this money, they have no serious intention of paying any of it back. That’s to say, there is no politically plausible scenario under which the 16.4 trillion is reduced to 13.7 trillion, and then 7.9 trillion and, eventually, 173 dollars and 48 cents. At the deepest levels within our governing structures, we are committed to living beyond our means on a scale no civilization has ever done.

November 22, 2011

Another case where “spending cuts” still mean increased spending

Filed under: Britain, Economics, Government — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 09:40

No, not the US government, even though the media will be talking up the “savage” spending cuts coming because of sequestration (which will only reduce the rate of increase, not actually reduce spending). In this case it’s Britain:

Why is Britain growing more slowly than other developed nations? Why have we been outperformed over the past 12 months by every EU state except Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Romania?

Let’s start by dismissing the Labour-Guardian-BBC explanation: the idea that the economy is shrinking because of ‘the cuts’. As this blog never tires of pointing out, net government expenditure is higher now than it was under Gordon Brown. We are set to borrow at least £122 billion this year. Spending is above 50 per cent of GDP. How much more ‘stimulus’ do critics want?

What the international league tables show is that the countries which decreed the biggest bailouts experienced the sharpest contractions. Far from ‘stimulating’ the economy, these various programmes have taken money out of the productive sector. If stimulus spending worked, the Soviet Union would have won the Cold War.

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