Even the Shutdown Can’t Kill Old Republican Fallacies

Annualized Growth in Real GDP per Capita, by President

Old fallacies die hard.

You would think, for instance, that Americans wouldn’t trust Republicans anymore. Poll after poll has shown that the American public holds them responsible for the government shutdown — and the American public hated the shutdown. Their approval rating plummeted to 21 percent, while President Obama’s held steady at 42 percent.

And yet, according to a Pew Research survey released at the end of the shutdown, Americans still believe that Republicans do a “better job dealing with the economy” than Democrats.

Clearly, it will take more than a two-week shutdown to kill the myth that simply won’t die.

And it is a myth. Since the government started collecting economic data around World War II, we have accumulated plenty of evidence to measure each party’s success at “dealing with the economy” — and none of it makes Republicans look good.

In their book Presimetrics: What the Facts Tell Us About How the Presidents Measure Up on the Issues We Care About, economist Mike Kimel and journalist Michael E. Kanell use this data to calculate the performance of the economy under every president from Dwight D. Eisenhower to George W. Bush. Here’s what they found…

Real GDP per capita. The most basic measure of economic success is the growth of output per person, adjusted for inflation. The fastest growth came in the Kennedy/Johnson years, when “real GDP per capita” grew 3.48 percent per year. The second-fastest came in the Clinton years, a strong 2.49 percent per year. Compare those numbers to laggards like Eisenhower and Bush Sr., who oversaw annual growth of 1.11 percent and 0.93 percent, respectively. When you add up all the Democratic years and all the Republican years, you find that the economy grew 2.82 percent per year under Democratic presidents and 1.54 percent under Republicans.

You may say, “What about the Great Depression? Aren’t they cherry-picking numbers by excluding the biggest economic event of the 20th century?” Actually, if you add Hoover, Roosevelt, and Truman, the Democrats’ average score goes up, and the Republicans’ goes down.

Another common criticism is that presidents inherit the problems of their predecessors. Should we really hold them responsible for the beginning of their term, when the economy’s fate is decided largely by the last guy’s policies? Fair enough. Let’s exclude the first year of each president’s term and recalculate the numbers. Guess what? Again, the Democrats’ score goes up, and the Republicans’ goes down.

Employment-to-population ratio. Instead of focusing on output, we could focus on jobs. Is the economy creating enough jobs to employ the same percentage of the population? Under Democrats, the employment-to-population ratio increased. Under Republicans, it decreased.

Real average weekly earnings. Often, economic growth doesn’t translate into the average American’s pocketbook. Why not look at weekly wages? Okay. Under Democrats, average weekly earnings, adjusted for inflation, increased. Under Republicans, they decreased.

Real median income. But wages only tell part of the story. Maybe Americans work more hours or get more income from investments. Let’s look at the average household — the “median” — and see how their inflation-adjusted income changed: Under Democrats, it increased much faster than it did under Republicans.

Real net average disposable income. But Democrats are known for raising taxes (and, indeed, Kimel and Kanell find that the tax burden went higher under Democrats than Republicans). What if all that income growth winds up in the government’s pocket, negating the gains? Let’s measure average income after taxes: Still, the Democrats oversaw much faster income growth than Republicans!

Poverty rate. Under Democrats, the poverty rate decreased. Under Republicans, it increased.

Real adjusted S&P 500. The stock market grew much faster during Democratic administrations than it did during Republican presidencies.

Value of the dollar. Under Democrats, the dollar appreciated, as foreigners invested more in us. Under Republicans, the dollar depreciated, as foreigners invested less.

Of course, the picture is incomplete. Someday, we will add the completed Obama presidency to the list, and the numbers will change. But already GDP growth under Obama is faster than it was under George W. Bush, and it’s only improving. The stock market is surging up, and the shutdown confirmed what the data has proven: Republicans do not do a “better job dealing with the economy.”

The longer we believe that fallacy, the more shutdowns and recessions we will invite.


This op-ed was published in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

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.


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?”

What to Read on Rick Perry and the “Texas Miracle”

State Growth Rates: How Was Your Recession? — Ryan Avent

Perry’s Growth Failure in Texas — Dean Baker

A Short Course in Miracles — Paul Krugman

Yes, Texas has added more jobs — but it has to, to keep up with population growth. And bear in mind that if you lose your job in Texas, there isn’t much of a safety net.

The Texas Omen — Paul Krugman

[The] Texas budget gap is worse than New York’s, about as bad as California’s, but not quite up to New Jersey levels.

Among the states, Texas ranks near the bottom in education spending per pupil, while leading the nation in the percentage of residents without health insurance.

Behind the Population Shift — Edward L. Glaeser

If economic productivity — created by low regulations or anything else — was causing the growth of Texas,…then [it] should have high per capita productivity and wages.

Low incomes and productivity in [Texas] strongly suggest that [its] expansion is not driven by outsize economic success.

More on the Texas Story — Paul Krugman

What could be causing that? [There] are two, not mutually exclusive stories: immigration and high birth rates among immigrants, leading to rapid population growth; and workers moving to Texas despite low wages because of cheap housing and a generally low cost of living.