Tag Archives: fiscal policy

Exit, voice, and loyalty in cities

Economist Albert Hirschman’s 1970 book Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States presents a theory of how consumers express their dissatisfaction to firms and other organizations after a decline in product or service quality. In terms of interjurisdictional competition exit is demonstrated by migration: dissatisfied residents migrate to a community that better matches their preferences for local government services, externality mitigation, and fiscal policy. Voice, on the other hand, requires staying in place and is usually manifested through voting. Other methods such as protests, letters, and public comments directed at officials may also be effective ways to create change.

Loyalty plays a role in whether voice or exit is employed. Someone who is loyal to a city will be less likely to exit due to a given deterioration in quality. Hirschman argues that loyalty serves an important function by limiting the use of exit and activating voice. If exit is too easy, the quality-conscious people most capable of using voice to elicit change at the local level will tend to leave early, sparking a “brain drain” and generating cumulative deterioration. If some of the most quality-conscious residents are loyal they will remain in place, at least initially, and try to fix a city’s problems from within i.e. they will use some method of voice.

The presence of loyalty within a city’s population has implications for city population decline and growth. The diagram below, based on one from Hirschman’s book on p. 90, shows the relationship between city quality and population.

Exit and loyalty diagram

Quality deteriorates as one moves up the y-axis and population increases along the x-axis, which enables a depiction of the relationship between quality and population similar to that of a traditional demand curve.

The example begins at point A. If quality declines from Q1 to Q2, the population will decline from Pa to Pb. The relatively small population decline relative to the decline in quality is due to the presence of loyalty. Loyalty can be conscious, meaning that the loyal residents are aware of the quality decline and are staying to try to improve the situation, or it can be unconscious, meaning that some residents are unaware that quality is deteriorating. These unaware residents appear loyal to outsiders, but in reality they have just not perceived the decline in quality. Perhaps the decline has not impacted their particular neighborhood or is so gradual that many people don’t realize it is happening. Hirschman notes that unconscious loyalty will not spark voice since by definition the resident is unaware that decline is occurring.

As quality continues to decline from Q2 to Q3 it becomes more observable and even the most loyal residents accept the fact that voice will not save their city. Additionally, the unconscious “loyal” residents will finally notice the decline. Both groups of people will then exit the city in order to reside somewhere else. This leads to a larger drop in population and is shown in the diagram as a movement from Pb to Pc.

This pattern is repeated as a city recovers. An initial quality improvement from Q3 to Q2 induces a relatively small amount of migration back to the city (Pc to Pd), since most people will need confirmation that the city has actually started down a path of sustainable improvement before they will return. Further improvement from Q2 to Q1 will generate a larger increase in population, represented by a movement from point D to point A (Pd to Pa).

What is interesting about this theoretical analysis is that it generates two different populations for the same level of quality. At quality Q2 the city’s population will be relatively large (Pb) if the city is declining in quality and it will be relatively small (point Pd) if the city’s quality is improving. This means that a declining city such as Detroit, Baltimore, Cleveland, Buffalo, etc. will have to make substantial quality improvements before they will see a large influx of people. So even if a city such as Cleveland returns to its 1970 level of relative quality we shouldn’t expect a drastic increase in population, as this model predicts that its population will be less than its actual 1970 population since it will be on the returning curve (CDA) rather than the exiting curve (ABC).

A city that is consistently losing population over a long period of time faces a variety of problems such as increased crime, declining housing values, a decline in the quality of public services, and higher costs in the provision of public services. Fixing these problems is often expensive and this model implies that the costs required for increasing quality from Q1 to Q2 will not result in substantial population gain, which means per capita costs to taxpayers are unlikely to decline by much and may even increase as the city begins to improve. This model predicts that revitalizing America’s struggling cities is a more difficult task than many politicians and policy makers are acknowledging.

Should Illinois be Downgraded? Credit Ratings and Mal-Investment

No one disputes that Illinois’s pension systems are in seriously bad condition with large unfunded obligations. But should this worry Illinois bondholders? New Mercatus research by Marc Joffe of Public Sector Credit Solutions finds that recent downgrades of Illinois’s bonds by credit ratings agencies aren’t merited. He models the default risk of Illinois and Indiana based on a projection of these states’ financial position. These findings are put in the context of the history of state default and the role the credit ratings agencies play in debt markets. The influence of credit ratings agencies in this market is the subject a guest blog post by Marc today at Neighborhood Effects.

Credit Ratings and Mal-Investment

by Marc Joffe

Prices play a crucial role in a market economy because they provide signals to buyers and sellers about the availability and desirability of goods. Because prices coordinate supply and demand, they enabled the market system to triumph over Communism – which lacked a price mechanism.

Interest rates are also prices. They reflect investor willingness to delay consumption and take on risk. If interest rates are manipulated, serious dislocations can occur. As both Horwitz and O’Driscoll have discussed, the Fed’s suppression of interest rates in the early 2000s contributed to the housing bubble, which eventually gave way to a crash and a serious financial crisis.

Even in the absence of Fed policy errors, interest rate mispricing is possible. For example, ahead of the financial crisis, investors assumed that subprime residential mortgage backed securities (RMBS) were less risky than they really were. As a result, subprime mortgage rates did not reflect their underlying risk and thus too many dicey borrowers received home loans. The ill effects included a wave of foreclosures and huge, unexpected losses by pension funds and other institutional investors.

The mis-pricing of subprime credit risk was not the direct result of Federal Reserve or government intervention; instead, it stemmed from investor ignorance. Since humans lack perfect foresight, some degree of investor ignorance is inevitable, but it can be minimized through reliance on expert opinion.

In many markets, buyers rely on expert opinions when making purchase decisions. For example, when choosing a car we might look at Consumer Reports. When choosing stocks, we might read investment newsletters or review reports published by securities firms – hopefully taking into account potential biases in the latter case. When choosing fixed income most large investors rely on credit rating agencies.

The rating agencies assigned what ultimately turned out to be unjustifiably high ratings to subprime RMBS. This error and the fact that investors relied so heavily on credit rating agencies resulted in the overproduction and overconsumption of these toxic securities. Subsequent investigations revealed that the incorrect rating of these instruments resulted from some combination of suboptimal analytical techniques and conflicts of interest.

While this error occurred in market context, the institutional structure of the relevant market was the unintentional consequence of government interventions over a long period of time. Rating agencies first found their way into federal rulemaking in the wake of the Depression. With the inception of the FDIC, regulators decided that expert third party evaluations were needed to ensure that banks were investing depositor funds wisely.

The third party regulators chose were the credit rating agencies. Prior to receiving this federal mandate, and for a few decades thereafter, rating agencies made their money by selling manuals to libraries and institutional investors. The manuals included not only ratings but also large volumes of facts and figures about bond issuers.

After mid-century, the business became tougher with the advent of photocopiers. Eventually, rating agencies realized (perhaps implicitly) that they could monetize their federally granted power by selling ratings to bond issuers.

Rather than revoking their regulatory mandate in the wake of this new business model, federal regulators extended the power of incumbent rating agencies – codifying their opinions into the assessments of the portfolios of non-bank financial institutions.

With the growth in fixed income markets and the inception of structured finance over the last 25 years, rating agencies became much larger and more profitable. Due to their size and due to the fact that their ratings are disseminated for free, rating agencies have been able to limit the role of alternative credit opinion providers. For example, although a few analytical firms market their insights directly to institutional investors, it is hard for these players to get much traction given the widespread availability of credit ratings at no cost.

Even with rating agencies being written out of regulations under Dodd-Frank, market structure is not likely to change quickly. Many parts of the fixed income business display substantial inertia and the sheer size of the incumbent firms will continue to make the environment challenging for new entrants.

Regulatory involvement in the market for fixed income credit analysis has undoubtedly had many unintended consequences, some of which may be hard to ascertain in the absence of unregulated markets abroad. One fairly obvious negative consequence has been the stunting of innovation in the institutional credit analysis field.

Despite the proliferation of computer technology and statistical research methods, credit rating analysis remains firmly rooted in its early 20th century origins. Rather than estimate the probability of a default or the expected loss on a credit instruments, rating agencies still provide their assessments in the form of letter grades that have imprecise definitions and can easily be misinterpreted by market participants.

Starting with the pioneering work of Beaver and Altman in the 1960s, academic models of corporate bankruptcy risk have become common, but these modeling techniques have had limited impact on rating methodology.

Worse yet, in the area of government bonds, very little academic or applied work has taken place. This is especially unfortunate because government bond ratings frame the fiscal policy debate. In the absence of credible government bond ratings, we have no reliable way of estimating the probability that any government’s revenue and expenditure policies will lead to a socially disruptive default in the future. Further, in the absence of credible research, there is great likelihood that markets inefficiently price government bond risk – sending confusing signals to policymakers and the general public.

Given these concerns, I am pleased that the Mercatus Center has provided me the opportunity to build a model for Illinois state bond credit risk (as well as a reference model for Indiana). This is an effort to apply empirical research and Monte Carlo simulation techniques to the question of how much risk Illinois bondholders actually face.

While readers may not like my conclusion – that Illinois bonds carry very little credit risk – I hope they recognize the benefits of constructing, evaluating and improving credit models for systemically important public sector entities like our largest states. Hopefully, this research will contribute to a discussion about how we can improve credit rating assessments.



“The last thing we can do is go back to the same failed policies that got us into this mess in the first place.”

I’ve heard this a great deal lately. I suspect I’ll hear it even more over the next three months. Whatever could it mean? Presumably, the speaker is worried about the sorts of micro and macro policies that were pursued in the years prior to the Great Recession:

  • Perhaps he thinks it was bad policy for federal spending as a share of GDP to leap from 18.2 percent in 2001 to 25.2 percent in 2009 (this was the largest such increase in ANY 8 year period since WWII).
  • Or perhaps he thinks it was bad that net federal debt went from 32.5 percent of GDP in 2001 to 54.1 percent of GDP in 2009 (a post WWII high).
  • Or maybe the speaker thinks it was ill advised for the Bush Administration to be far more aggressive than its predecessors in pursuing discretionary, Keynesian-style countercycle fiscal policy. There were no fewer than four such measures during the Bush years: cash rebates in 2001, investment incentives known as “bonus depreciation” in early 2002, tax rebates in 2003, and of course, the 2008 stimulus bill which included more rebates.
  • Perhaps the speaker thinks it was a bad idea for the Bush Administration to impose 30 percent tariffs on imported steel.
  • Or maybe he thinks it was bad for the Bush Administration to introduce (an unfunded) Medicare prescription drug benefit, the first major entitlement program since the Great Society.
  • Perhaps he thinks it was bad for the Bush Administration to reintroduce industrial policy by signing the Energy Policy Act of 2005, creating the Department of Energy loan program that ramped-up the government’s adventures in venture capitalism.
  • Perhaps the speaker thinks that in the years leading up to the crisis, monetary policy became unhinged from a restrained, rules-based approach?
  • Or perhaps the speaker thinks that the government sponsored enterprises, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, systematically encouraged over-leveraging in the housing industry?
  • Or maybe that capital requirements encouraged investors to load up on mortgage-backed securities.
  • Or maybe he thinks that, once the crisis hit, the Bush Administration shouldn’t have undertaken the most comprehensive and far-reaching bailout of private industry in U.S. history, one that resulted in the federal government buying stake in or bailing out hundreds of financial firms.
  • It must be that the speaker was worried that in aggregate these policies had seriously undermined the economic freedom of the U.S., as evidenced by the precipitous fall in measured economic freedom from 2001 to 2009:

If this is what the speaker was getting at, then I couldn’t agree more! Hopefully, he’s proposing ideas to reverse course: spending reductions to bring spending in line with taxation, entitlement reform to put the nation’s budget on a sustainable course, tax reform to close loopholes and reduce rates such as the corporate tax rate, financial reforms to finally end too big to fail, regulatory reforms to reduce distortions in the marketplace, health care reforms so that market forces can actually operate in that industry, and other economic reforms to restore a level playing field in American business.

….Or, maybe the speaker is just focusing on one policy that marginally moved the nation in a market direction, the temporary reduction of all personal income tax rates, including the top marginal rate from 39.6 percent to (gasp!) 35 percent. And maybe the speaker is hoping that no one will notice that on just about every other policy dimension, the previous administration was anything but laissez faire.

State Revenue Uncertainty

Yesterday the National Conference of State Legislatures released its State Budget Update for 2012, projecting that states’ revenues are approaching levels not seen since before the recession. This means that the budget deficits that have been common in most states over the past few years will hopefully be rare this fiscal year. As Reuters reports:

The situation is now turning around. Only California and the state of Washington currently are projecting deficits for fiscal 2012, according to NCSL. At the same time, resource-rich states like Alaska, Wyoming and North Dakota expect big balances for fiscal 2012, which ended on June 30 for most states.

For fiscal 2013, none of the states are projecting deficits, with 10 states and Washington, D.C., eyeing balances equal to 10 percent or more of general fund spending, the NCSL reported. However, year-end balances of just 0.1 percent to 4.9 percent are projected in nearly a quarter of the states.

Not everyone is as optimistic about state budgets in the coming year. This new report contrasts sharply with a study from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which earlier this summer found that 31 states faced budget gaps in 2012, and that states face a combined $55 billion shortfall for 2013. However, if the NCSL findings are correct, this is very good news for states that have had to resort to midyear cuts and tax increases to balance budgets in the post-recession years.

If states can more easily meet their constitutionally required balanced budgets this year, policymakers should take this opportunity to look at their long-run debt challenges. As I wrote in a USA Today op ed last week, state debt levels are headed to levels that will threaten economic growth. Mounting interest costs will also mean that tax dollars increasingly go to pay for past services, rather than current services.

Whether or not states are in a better position for avoiding deficits in the current year, they need to address their debt levels for long run economic growth. Outspending current revenues is a constant temptation for elected officials who want to stay in office through public support of state programs. However, voters should demand responsible fiscal policy to address debt problems now, before this becomes even more difficult to do down the road.

To Regulate or to Tax

It has now been a week since the Supreme Court handed down its long-awaited ruling on the ACA. From an individual liberty perspective, it was either a dark cloud with a silver lining or a dark cloud with a dark lining.

I am not a constitutional scholar (though like many Americans, I have spent the last week playing one on Facebook), so I’ll spare you my legal interpretation. But what can we say about the political economy of the decision?

For one thing, the decision highlights the fact that fiscal and regulatory policies can be substitutes for one another. As George Mason University economist Richard Wagner put it some 20 years ago, “a central principle of public finance is that any statute or regulation can be translated into a budgetary equivalent.”

For example, Congress might have passed the individual procreation mandate. It might have fined every childless couple $3,000, every couple with one child $2,000, every couple with two kids $1,000 and every couple with three or more kids $0. Congress, of course, didn’t do this. Instead, they went the fiscal route and created the per-child tax credit, the marginal incentives of which are identical to what I have just described (up to the first three kids).

Alternatively, Congress might have imposed a tax on employers equal to $12,100 for each employee not paid $7.25 an hour. Instead, they went the regulatory route and created the federal minimum wage, the marginal incentives of which are identical to such a tax.

In my paper with Noel Johnson and Steven Yamarik, we explore the inherent substitutability of fiscal and regulatory instruments. Specifically, we look at state behavior in the presence of fiscal limits. We are interested in whether politicians substitute into regulatory policy when fiscal rules bind their decisions (we find evidence that they do). The ACA ruling essentially gets at the opposite phenomenon: the Court has ensured that Congress’s regulatory hands are relatively more constrained. Does this mean that Congress will substitute into fiscal policy, using taxes, tax credits, and spending to address questions that they might have addressed with regulatory instruments? My guess would be: yes.


Does UK Double-Dip Prove that Austerity Doesn’t Work?

The U.K. has slipped back into recession and Paul Krugman thinks this is evidence that austerity doesn’t work. Is it?

There are three questions with austerity:

  1. Will it work? Will it actually cut the debt?
  2. Will it hurt? Will it harm the economy or might it actually be stimulative?
  3. What mix of spending cuts and tax increases yield the best answers to questions 1 and 2.

Here is what the data says (and there is a lot of it):

  1. Sadly, most austerity efforts fail. According to research by Alberto Alesina, about 84 percent of fiscal reforms fail to substantially reduce a nation’s debt-to-GDP level.
  2. We’ve known for a while that austerity can be stimulative. Even left-of-center economists such as David Romer have acknowledged this possibility. But the evidence on this is decidedly mixed. As Alesina put it in his Mercatus working paper, austerity is about as likely to be stimulative as…well…stimulus. And we know the economics profession is quite divided on stimulus. So you shouldn’t hold your breath hoping austerity will boost economic growth. But remember, that’s not why we should be pursing austerity. We should pursue austerity because we know that we are on an unsustainable fiscal path and that in the long run, too much debt is very bad for growth. Furthermore, we know that the longer we put off reforms, the more painful they will have to be.
  3. Lots and lots of papers* have now studied this question and the evidence is rather clear: the types of austerity that are most-likely to a) cut the debt and b) not kill the economy are those that are heavily weighted toward spending reductions and not tax increases. I am aware of not one study that found the opposite. In fact, we know more. The most successful reforms are those that go after the most politically sensitive items: government employment and entitlement programs. Lastly, there is evidence that markets react positively when politicians signal their seriousness by going against their partisan inclinations. In other words, the most credible spending reductions are those that are undertaken by left-of-center governments. So slash away, Mr. Obama!

photo by: 401K/Flickr

I summarized these issues in this summary and in this presentation.

Given what we know about austerity, my advice to the UK would be: tweak your austerity measures so that they are more spending-cut-focused and less revenue-increase-focused. And go after the most politically-sensitive items. I wish I knew more about what they actually did, but my knowledge of this is limited and I’ve frankly heard conflicting reports (apparently in the UK, there are just as many arguments over the proper baseline as there are here in the U.S.!).


*Most of the following papers directly test the question of whether spending-cut-focused reforms or tax-cut-focused reforms are more successful and more expansionary. A few test related questions but provide corroborating evidence for this question. All of them suggest that spending-cut-focused reforms work better and are more likely to aid the economy. The papers are in chronological order, but I’d recommend starting with the latest:

Francesco Giavazzi and Marco Pagano, “Can Sever Fiscal Contractions Be Expansionary? Tales of Two Small European Countries,” NBER Macroeconomics Annual, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990), 95-122.

Alberto Alesina and Roberto Perotti, “Reducing Budget Deficits,” 1994-95 Discussion Paper Series No. 759 (1995);

Alberto Alesina and Silvia Ardagna, “Fiscal Expansions and Adjustments in OECD Countries,” Economic Policy, No. 21, (1995): 207-47;

Francesco Giavazzi and Marco Pagano, “Non-Keynesian Effects of Fiscal Policy Changes: International Evidence and the Swedish Experience,” Swedish Economic Policy Review, Vol. 3, No. 1 (1996): 67-112;

John McDermott and Robert Wescott, “An Empirical Analysis of Fiscal Adjustments,” International Monetary Fund Staff Papers, Vol. 43 (1996): 725-753;

Alberto Alesina and Roberto Perotti, “Fiscal Adjustments in OECD Countries: Composition and Macroeconomic Effects,” NBER Working Paper 5730 (1997);

Alberto Alesina, Roberto Perotti, and Jose Tavares, “The Political Economy of Fiscal Adjustments,” Brookings Papers on Economic Activity (1998);

Alberto Alesina and Silvia Ardagna, “Tales of Fiscal Adjustment,” Economic Policy, Vol. 13, No. 27 (1998): 489-545;

Roberto Perotti, “Fiscal Policy in Good Times and Bad,” The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol. 114 (1999): 1399-1436;

Juergen von Hagen and Rolf Strauch, “Fiscal Consolidations: Quality, Economic Conditions, and Success,” Public Choice, Vol. 109, No. 3-4 (2001): 327-46;

Alberto Alesina, Silvia Ardagna, Roberto Perotti, and Fabio Schiantarelli, “Fiscal Policy, Profits, and Investment,” American Economic Review, Vol. 92, No. 3 (2002): 571-589;

Juergen von Hagen, Hughes Halite, and Rolf Starch, “Budgetary Consolidation in Europe: Quality, Economic Conditions, and Persistence,” Journal of the Japanese and International Economics, Vol. 16 (2002): 512-35;

Silvia Adrian, “Fiscal Stabilizations: When Do They Work and Why?” European Economic Review, Vol. 48, No. 5 (2004): 1047-74;

Jose Tavares, “Does Right or Left Matter? Cabinets, Credibility and Fiscal Adjustments,” Journal of Public Economics, Vol. 88 (2004): 2447-2468;

Luisa Lambertini and Jose Tavares, “Exchange Rates and Fiscal Adjustments: Evidence from the OECD and Implicates for the EMU,” Contributions to Macroeconomics, Vol. 5, No. 11 (2005);

Boris Cournede and Frederic Gonand, “Restoring Fiscal Sustainability in the Euro Area: Raise Taxes or Curb Spending?OECD Economics Department Working Papers, No. 520 (2006);

Stephanie Guichard, Mike Kennedy, Eckhard Wurzel, and Christophe Andre, “What Promotes Fiscal Consolidation: OECD Country Experiences,” OECD Economics Department Working Papers, No. 553 (2007);

OECD, “IV. Fiscal Consolidation: Lessons from Past Experience,” in OECD Economic Outlook, 2007;

Andrew Biggs, Kevin Hassett, and Matthew Jensen, “A Guide for Deficit Reduction in the United States Based on Historical Consolidations That Worked,” AEI Economic Policy Working Paper No. 2010-04, (2010);

Ben Broadbent and Kevin Daly, “Limiting the Fallout from Fiscal Adjustment,” Goldman Sachs Global Economics Paper, No. 195 (2010);

David Leigh, Pete Devries, Charles Freedman, Jaime Guajardo, Douglas Laxton, and Andrea Pescatori, “Will It Hurt? Macroeconomic Effects of Fiscal Consolidation,” in World Economic Outlook: Recovery, Risk and Rebalancing (Washington, DC: International Monetary Fund, 2010);



Do Politicians Regulate When They Can’t Spend?

That is the question Noel Johnson, Steven Yamarik, and I examine in our latest Mercatus Working Paper: Pick Your Poison.

Relying on data from 48 states covering the years 1970 through 2009, we look at the relationship between fiscal rules, fiscal outcomes, and regulatory outcomes.  The specific fiscal rule that we examine is a so-called “no-carry” rule, present in about half of the states.  It forbids legislatures from carrying a deficit over from one year to the next.  A number of previous studies have examined the impact of these rules (some of which I have blogged on in the past) and generally find that they restrain spending and taxation. We ask whether politicians constrained by these rules attempt to attract votes by engaging in active regulatory policy instead.  We tackle this question in three stages:

1.      First, we quantify the different spending and taxing outcomes that obtain when one or the other party gains control of both the executive and the legislative branches of state government.  After controlling for a number of other factors that have been shown to impact fiscal outcomes, we find that Democrats tend to raise individual income taxes by about $66 per capita when they are in control, while Republicans tend to lower overall taxes by $265 per capita and income taxes by $99 per capita.  Republicans also reduce total spending by about $353 per capita, education spending by about $135 per capita, and welfare spending by about $113 per capita (all figures are in 2009 dollars).

2.      Next, we show that when states have rules that restrict the legislature’s ability to carry a deficit into the next year, most of these partisan differences in fiscal policy disappear.  (There are exceptions, however; Democrats continue to increase individual income taxes and Republicans continue to reduce total taxation).

3.      Lastly, we look at the impact of these fiscal rules on regulatory behavior and find that they actually seem to be associated with more partisan regulatory outcomes.  In particular, Democrats appear to be more-likely to raise the minimum wage when no-carry rules restrict their ability to spend and tax more.  They are also less-likely to adopt right-to-work statutes (i.e., they are more-likely to favor a closed union shop than they otherwise would be).  Among Republicans, fiscal no-carry provisions tend to enhance their likelihood of adopting right-to-work statutes outlawing closed union shops.  We corroborate these results using Jason Sorens’s and William Ruger’s measure of paternalistic regulations.  These are regulations that are not easily justified on economic grounds.  They include things such as home schooling regulations, alcohol regulations, marriage and civil union laws, gun laws, and marijuana laws.  We find that, here too, the no-carry provisions seem to make Democrats more-likely to regulate and Republicans less-likely to regulate.

As we write in the paper:

Our results suggest political actors will use whatever policy instruments are available to them to achieve their ends.  If they are constrained along one dimension, they will substitute into more-partisan activities along the other dimension.

The implication for those who are trying to restrain spending is this: Institutions such as strict balanced budget requirements can be useful tools to restrain the fiscal size of government, but they may lead to an expansion in the regulatory state.

Thanks to my excellent coauthors, I learned a lot in researching and writing this piece.  It is still a working paper, so we would be grateful for any comments readers might have.

Great Myths of the Great Depression

The New Deal deficit spending helped boost the economy and bring the unemployment rate down to single-digit levels, but fear of deficits limited the scale of New Deal programs and caused Roosevelt to reverse course and cut back on spending in 1937, just as the economy was gaining momentum.

So writes Dean Baker in the New Republic. This is marginally better than the myth I learned in high school: FDR saved capitalism from itself by embracing the wisdom of Keynesian economics. He “primed the pump” with massive deficit spending and lifted the economy out of the Great Depression.

My high school story was a tad inconvenient for those who are fans of both Keynes and FDR: In 1940—7 years after the New Deal had begun—the unemployment rate still hovered at an astounding 14.6 percent.

But the high school myth turned out to be wrong: Keynesian economics didn’t end the Great Depression because Keynesian economics was never tried. Keynes, remember, called for deficit-financed spending during downturns (and surpluses during times of plenty to pay off the debt). The data show that FDR (and Congress) implemented half of the Keynesian stratagem: real spending dramatically increased throughout the Great Depression. 

The problem—from a Keynesian perspective—is that they also massively increased (already-high) taxes so that, even as the economy collapsed, revenue soared.  



A seminal piece in the American Economic Review by Cary Brown exploded the myth that Roosevelt was a Keynesian:

The primary failure of fiscal policy to be expansive in this period is attributable to the sharp increases in tax structures enacted at all levels of government.  Total government purchases of goods and services expanded virtually every year, with federal expansion especially marked in 1933 and 1934.  [But] the federal Revenue Act of 1932 virtually doubled full employment tax yields.

But notice, Brown doesn’t say that FDR failed to be Keynesian because he stopped spending; he failed to be Keynesian because he also raised taxes. But that doesn’t stop many in the punditry from claiming that, in his later years, FDR was converted into some sort of proto-Paul Ryan.

See this excellent post by Alex Tabarrok on the subject. See, also, these posts by Tyler Cowen.

Dog Bites Man: Politicians are Interested in Politics, Not Policy

Yesterday Vero testified before the House Ways and Means Committee. The topic was “Impediments to Job Creation.” The other witnesses were Stanford Professor Edward Lazear, AEI Resident Scholar Andrew Biggs, and Center for American Progress Senior Economist Heather Boushey.

All of the witnesses, I thought, did an excellent job. But Vero was particularly good.

Politicians on both sides seemed keen to establish that the economy was healthy when their guy was in the White House and unhealthy when the other guy was in (nevermind that no serious macroeconomist would argue that it is ever this simple). This put Democrats in the awkward position of extolling the virtues of the Clinton Administration’s economic policies. It is true, of course, that the 1990s were a prosperous time. But does it matter to these Democrats that—comparatively speaking—the policies that emerged when Clinton was in office were significantly more market-friendly than those that have characterized the last twelve years? Consider:

Arguably, the most-significant anti-market policy of the Clinton years was the 1993 marginal income tax hike. But just to put that in perspective, recall that this legislation raised the top marginal rate by 8.6 percentage points from 31 percent to 39.6 percent. Now recall that Reagan had lowered it over 40 percentage points from 70 percent (!) to 28 percent.

On balance, it is hard to characterize the Clinton years as anything but a marginal improvement in economic freedom (indeed, that’s what the data show).

Why, again, were Democrats so eager to remind us of the prosperity of the Clinton years?

Oh yeah, because their guy was in power. Which brings me to the Republicans. For their part, they were eager to defend the Bush record. Never mind that during that presidency:

  • Spending as a share of GDP rose from 18.2 percent to 25 percent.
  • The president pushed, and got, the first new entitlement—Medicare prescription drug benefits—in nearly half a century.
  • The president imposed steel tariffs as high as 30 percent.
  • No fewer than FOUR countercyclical fiscal policy measures were undertaken: cash rebates in 2001, countercyclical investment incentives known as “bonus depreciation” in early 2002, tax rebates in 2003, and more rebates in the 2008 stimulus bill (it is seldom remembered that Obama’s 2009 stimulus bill was the second such bill during the Great Recession).
  • Congress passed and the president signed a sweeping and wholly-unprecedented bailout of hundreds of financial firms (prompting the president to acknowledge that he had “abandoned free-market principles.”).

Against this backdrop, politicians of both parties seem obsessed over the Bush tax cuts. Nevermind the fact that they were temporary, that they only reduced the top rate by 4.6 percentage points, and that they did not coincide with concomitant reductions in spending.

Does that sound like a strikingly free-market record to you? Indeed, the data show that it is not.

Why, again are Republicans so eager to remind us of the good-ol’ Bush years?

What if Stimulus Works, But Government Can’t Get the Timing Right?

As of September 3, 2010, about $154.8 billion of the approximately $282 billion of total funds made available by the Recovery Act in 2009 for programs administered by states and localities had been paid out by the federal government.

That’s the conclusion of a new GAO report, out this week. Similarly, the Wall Street Journal reports this morning that:

[S]pending stimulus dollars fast has turned out to be surprisingly hard.

This reminds me of a point that Megan McArdle raised a few weeks back:

[W]hat if Keynesian stimulus works, but no one can ever actually afford to do it, short of something like World War II, where the government can tap into a patriotic outpouring of national savings by issuing bonds with negative real yields.

She was talking about the sheer size of the stimulus. But we could ask a similar question: What if Keynesian stimulus works, but the machinery of government is so slow and inept, that it is impossible to effectively implement it in time to be effective?

This, of course, was the (near) consensus view among macroeconomists just a little over a decade ago. Writing in the American Economic Review in 1997, Martin Eichenbaum wrote:

[T]here is now widespread agreement that counter cyclical discretionary fiscal policy is neither desirable nor politically feasible.

Perhaps the current struggles to effectively administer stimulus will one day cause that consensus to re-emerge.