Government Isn’t the Problem…and Austerity Isn’t the Answer

I have a friend who witnessed about half of the Supreme Court arguments on the Affordable Care Act. When he walked out of the courtroom, he wasn’t surprised to find a sea of people protesting the law. What did surprise him was how many of the protest signs were anti-Europe. Apparently, the protestors were worried that universal health insurance was the path to “becoming European” and all the nefarious consequences that implies.

If asked for their opinion on government spending to stimulate the economy, I imagine they’d give roughly the same answer.

But the truth is that fiscal irresponsibility has little to do with Europe’s current crisis.

Just before the recession hit, the European governments with the highest public social spending (relative to the size of their economy) were France, Austria, Belgium, and Germany — none of the so-called “PIIGS” nations that are in trouble. In fact, many conservatives have anointed Germany as the role model that its neighbors should emulate.

Even if you measure all government spending in the middle of the crisis, there is no correlation between a country’s public spending and the interest rates on its sovereign debt (which is the key indicator of financial distress).

From 1999 to 2007, the European government with the highest budget deficit (again, relative to economic output) was Slovakia, hailed by conservatives for its flat tax. France’s budget deficit was about as big as Italy’s, and Germany’s was close behind. Spain and Ireland actually had budget surpluses.

Besides, if government spending were the problem, then the crisis should be over by now. The EU and the IMF have forced the PIIGS nations to slash public expenditures — and the recession has only gotten worse.

Compare that strategy with what happened in the United States, where we took the opposite approach and increased public expenditures.

In the fourth quarter of 2008, real GDP contracted at an annual rate of 8.9 percent in the U.S. In January 2009, nonfarm employment declined by over 800,000. That was the lowest point both statistics — growth in economic output and jobs — would reach.

On February 17, 2009, President Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), better known as the “stimulus” package.

In the first quarter of 2009, real GDP contracted by 6.7 percent. In February 2009, nonfarm employment losses were closer to 700,000. The recession was clearly not over, but the bleeding had slowed.

On March 6, 2009, the Dow Jones reached its cyclical low of 6,626.94. The next day, it began a strong recovery.

By the third quarter of 2009, when the stimulus money was starting to be spent, the economy was growing again. By March 2010, job growth was positive again. (Job growth always lags behind economic output.) By February 2011, two years after Congress passed the ARRA, the Dow Jones cleared 12,000.

Clearly, the ARRA was the turning point. Its passage was the beginning of the end of the Great Recession.

Coincidence? Perhaps.

But isn’t it odd that none of the critics’ predictions came true? They warned that interest rates would skyrocket with the government borrowing so much money. Instead, interest rates plummeted. They warned that inflation would soar. Instead, it’s been low and stable.

And that’s not all. Several economists have measured the effect of the stimulus since it was spent. Two Dartmouth researchers, for example, compared jobs growth in each state and county to the amount of stimulus funds spent in that state or county. They found that every dollar spent on the poor yielded two dollars in increased economic output, and every dollar spent on infrastructure yielded $1.85 in output.

Another study compared jobs growth in each state to the amount of federal Medicaid matching funds spent in that state. They found that each dollar spent yielded two dollars in output. A similar study found that the ARRA “created or saved about 2 million jobs in its first year and over 3 million by March 2011.”

So it’s no surprise then that Europe continues to flounder while America continues to grow. You can’t beat a recession by cutting government spending. Even Mitt Romney said so.

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This op-ed was published in today’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

Reader Request: Do Lower Tax Rates Lead to Higher Tax Revenue?

A reader asks: If low tax rates lower income to the Treasury and cause deficits and lower economic growth, how do you explain how we ran deficits with a 70 percent top marginal tax rate in the 1970s and we ran surpluses for 1998-2001 with a 39 percent top marginal tax rate with almost identical average GDP growth for the periods? Doesn’t this fact give significant credence to the supply-side argument that lower tax rates increase tax revenue and cause surpluses?

Professor Chandra Mishra made roughly the same argument in our debate over the Bush tax cuts. I didn’t address it in my op-ed because I didn’t expect a tenured professor to advocate such a widely discredited position.

First, a clarification: I never said that “low tax rates…cause…lower economic growth.” On the contrary, the economic evidence indicates that tax cuts have a slightly positive effect in the short run.

In order for tax cuts to increase tax revenue, however, they would have to have such a large effect on economic growth that it outweighs the effect of the lower rates. Taking a smaller percent of a bigger number can yield more than taking a bigger percent of a smaller number, given the right numbers. At a certain point, if you keep raising taxes, people will stop working because it isn’t worth the effort. If enough people stop working, economic output decreases, and tax revenue shrinks despite higher rates. If you like graphs, you can visualize that “tipping point” as the top of the “Laffer curve,” named after economist Arthur Laffer who helped popularize the concept in the 1970s:   Continue reading “Reader Request: Do Lower Tax Rates Lead to Higher Tax Revenue?”

5 Ways to Sound Stupid When Discussing the Debt Ceiling

In the past week, I’ve had conversations with people who voiced the following myths. Read and learn, lest you embarrass yourself in the same way.

Myth #1: Federal debt has been increasing under all presidents since World War II.

Reality: Federal debt steadily declined from the mid-1940s to the early 1980s, then it increased dramatically (with a brief hiatus in the mid-to-late 1990s). Ronald Reagan reversed four and a half decades of safe, responsible fiscal policy, and every successor except Bill Clinton followed his lead. See for yourself:   Continue reading “5 Ways to Sound Stupid When Discussing the Debt Ceiling”