Posts tagged ‘government spending’

Question for Keynesians: What Are You Doing To Prepare for the Next Cycle?

When I was in school learning macro 101 from Baumol and Blinder, my memory is that the theory of Keynesian stimulus and managing the economic cycle was that deficits should be run in the bottom part of the economic cycle, paid for with surpluses in the top half.   So we are now almost certainly in the top half of the cycle.  But I don't hear any Keynesians seeking to run a surplus, or even to dial back on government deficits or spending.  In fact, our Keynesian-in-chief says he is done with "mindless austerity" and wants to start spending even harder in 2015.

Its enough to make one suspicious that all the stimulus talk is just a Trojan Horse for a desire to increase the size and power of government.

But for Keynesians who really believe what they are saying, that deficit spending somehow saved us from a depression in 2009 and 2010, then I ask you -- what are you going to do next time?  It appears that when we enter the next recession in this country, that US debt as a percentage of GDP is going to be almost twice what it was entering the last recession.  Don't you worry that this limits your flexibility and ability to ramp up deficit spending in the next recession?

The situation in the US is the same as it is worldwide.  While those evil private short-term-focused private actors have used the improving economy to de-leverage back below 2007 levels, governments have increased their debt as a percentage of GDP by just over 50% since just before the last recession.

20150205_debt1

 

Since 2007, according to my old friends at McKinsey, global government debt has risen by $25 trillion since 2007.  If you really care about Keynesian stimulus in recessions, and not just "mindlessly" (I can use that term too) increase government spending, wouldn't you want to be building up some reserves for next time?

Infrastructure Bait and Switch

President Obama wants to spend something like a half trillion incremental dollars on "infrastructure".  I have found that these initiatives to sell infrastructure tend to be great bait and switch programs.  Infrastructure is generally the one type of government spending that polls well across all parties and demographics.  So it is used by government officials to pass big spending increases, but in fact what really happens is that the government takes a wish-list of stuff that most of the public would not be OK with increasing spending on, then they put a few infrastructure projects on top like a cherry to sell the thing.  They call it an "infrastructure" program when in fact it is no such thing.

Obama would never do that, right?  Hope and change?  In fact, he already has.  The first time around he sold the stimulus bill as mainly an infrastructure spending bill -- remember all that talk of shovel-ready projects?   Only a trivial percentage of that bill was infrastructure.  At most 6% was infrastructure, and in practice a lot less since Obama admitted later there were no shovel-ready projects.   (also here).  The rest of it was mainly stuff like salary support for state government officials.  Do you think he would have as easily sold the "wage support for state government officials" bill in the depth of a recession?  No way, so he called it, falsely, an infrastructure bill.

The other bait and switch that occurs is within the infrastructure category.  We have seen this at the state level in AZ several times.  Politicians love light rail, for some reason I do not understand, perhaps because it increases their personal power in a way that individual driving does not.  Anyway, they always want money for light rail projects, but bills to fund light rail almost always fail.  So they tack on a few highway projects, that people really want, call it a highway bill and pass it that way.  But it turns out most of the money is for non-highway stuff.  That is the other bait and switch that occurs.

Expect to see both of these with the new infrastructure proposal.

By the way, Randal O'Toole has a nice summary of the drawbacks of light rail and trolley spending

For the past two decades or so, however, much of our transportation spending has focused on infrastructure that is slower, more expensive, less convenient, and often more dangerous than before. Too many cities have given up on trying to relieve congestion. Instead, they have allowed it to grow while they spend transportation dollars (nearly all paid by auto users) on other forms of travel such as rail transit. Such transportation is:

  • Slower: Where highway speeds even in congested cities average 35 miles per hour or more, the rail transit lines built with federal dollars mostly average 15 to 20 mph.
  • More expensive: In 2013, Americans auto users spent less than 45 cents per vehicle mile (which means, at average occupanies of 1.67 people per car, about 26 cents per passenger mile), and subsidies to roads average under a penny per passenger mile. By comparison, transit fares are also about 26 cents per passenger mile, but subsidies are 75 cents per passenger mile.
  • Less convenient: Autos can go door to door, while transit requires people to walk or use other forms of travel, often at both ends of the transit trip.
  • Less safe: For every billion passenger miles carried, urban auto accidents kill about 5 people, while light rail kills about 12 people and commuter trains kill 9. Only subways and elevateds are marginally safer than auto travel, at 4.5, but we haven’t built many of those lately.

Keynesian Moving Target on What Constitutes Austerity

The other day I said I was confused by what exactly creates Keynesian stimulus, and in reverse, what constitutes austerity.  I had thought that it was deficit spending that creates the stimulus, but then sometimes it seems to just be spending and in the case of the Kevin Drum post I was discussing, he says it is not the level of spending but only the first derivative of per capita real government spending (with no reference to whether it is debt or tax funded) that matters.

I figured that I was just confused because I had not formally studied economics past my undergrad years, but apparently practicing economists are also confused.  Here is Scott Sumner:

What is the proper measure of austerity?  The textbooks talk about deficits.  But most of the Keynesian bloggers focus on government purchases.  So which is it?  And if it’s purchases, why did these same bloggers claim that austerity would result from big tax increases in the US in 2013, and a big tax increase in Japan in 2014?  And why does the measure chosen (ex post) usually seem to be the one that best supports their argument in that particular case?

As a postscript, I will add that every climate skeptic can totally empathize with this Sumner concern:

A number of Keynesian bloggers have recently expressed dismay that the rest of us don’t buy their model.  Maybe it would help if they’d stop ignoring our criticisms of their model, and respond to our complaints.

The Big Government Trap: Does Stimulus Require Government Spending to Continuously Rise?

There has been a lot of back and forth over the last few years about "austerity".  I have wondered how government spending levels over the last few years that dwarf any peacetime levels in history could be called "austerity", but that is exactly what folks like Paul Krugman have been doing.   Apparently, the new theory is that the level of spending is irrelevant to stimulus, and only the first derivative matters.  In other words, high spending is not stimulative unless it is also increasing year by year.   Kevin Drum provides an explanation of this position:

Austerity is all about the trajectory of government spending, and this is what it looks like. You can argue about whether flat spending represents austerity, but a sustained decline counts in anyone's book. The story here is simple: for a little while, in 2009 and 2010, stimulus spending partially offset state and local cuts, but by the end of 2010 the stimulus had run its course. From then on, the drop in government expenditures was steady and significant. It was also unprecedented. If you run this chart back for 50 years you'll never see anything like it. In all previous recessions and their aftermaths, government spending rose.

blog_total_govt_expenditures_per_capita_inflation

So, by this theory of stimulus, the fact that we spent substantially more money in 2010-2014 than in pre-recession years (and are still spending more money) turns out not to be stimulative.  The only way government can stimulate the economy is to increase year-over-year per capital real spending every single year.

I will leave macro theory (of which I am increasingly skeptical) to the Phd's.  In this case however, Drum's narrative is undermined by his own chart he published a few weeks ago:

blog_private_employment_2001_vs_2010

In his recent austerity article quoted above, he describes a sluggish recovery with a step-change in 2014 only after "austerity" ends.  But his chart from a few weeks earlier shows a steady recovery from 2010-2014, right through his "austerity" period.  In fact, during the Bush recovery he derides, we actually did do exactly what he thinks is stimulative, ie increase government spending per capita steadily year by year.  How do we know this?  From another Drum chart, this one from last year.  I changed the colors (described in this article) and compared his two charts:

click to enlarge

 

By Drum's austerity theory, the Bush spending was stimulative but the Obama spending was austerity.  But the chart on the right sure makes it look like the Obama recovery is stronger than the Bush recovery.

 

A better explanation of the data is that a recession driven by the highly-leveraged mis-allocation of too much capital to home real estate was made worse in 2008-2009 by a massive increase in government spending, which is almost by definition a further mis-allocation of capital (government is taking money from where the private sector thinks it should be invested and moves it to where politicians think it should be spent).  The economy has recovered as that increase in government spending has been unwound.

Kevin Drum Inadvertently Undermines His Own Keynesianism

This is a follow-up from a post this morning here.  Kevin Drum is a Keynesian who thinks that the government is committing economic suicide if it does not increase its spending substantially during and after a recession.  Kevin Drum is also a fierce partisan who wants to defend President Obama against his detractors.  Unfortunately, trying to do the two simultaneously has led to what I think may be an embarrassing result for him.

In the chart below, I combine two graphs of his.  The one on the left is a chart from last year in a Mother Jones cover story blasting "austerity" and lamenting how dumb it was to decrease spending in the years after a recession.  The chart on the right is from the other day, when Drum is agreeing with Paul Krugman that the recession recovery under Obama has been much stronger than the one under Bush II.  The result is a juxtaposition that seems to undermine his Keynesian assumptions - specifically, the recession where we had the "austerity" was the one with the better recovery.  The only thing I have done to his charts is removed lines in the left chart for other past recessions and changed the line colors on the two charts to match.   You can click to enlarge:

click to enlarge

The blue line is the Bush II recession, the red line is the Obama recession.  I believe the start dates are consistent in both charts.  All the numbers and choice of start dates and measurement scales are Drum's.  Don't yell at me for something in the chart construction being unfair -- they are his choices.

The conclusion?  Higher government spending seems to inhibit recovery.  Thanks Kevin!

Kevin Drum Undermines His Own Cover Story and Refutes His Own Keynesian Assumptions

Update:  I have posted an update with a side by side chart comparison here.

Last year, Kevin Drum wrote what I believe was the cover story of the September / October issue of Mother Jones (I read the online edition so exactly how the print version is laid out is opaque to me).  That article, entitled "It's the Austerity, Stupid: How We Were Sold an Economy-Killing Lie" features this analysis:

Click to enlarge

 

He described the chart as follows:

 In the end, for reasons both political and ideological, Obama decided that he needed to demonstrate that he took the deficit seriously, and in his 2010 State of the Union address he did just that. "Families across the country are tightening their belts," he said, and the federal government should do the same. To that end, he announced a three-year spending freeze and the formation of a bipartisan committee to address the long-term deficit.

The Beltway establishment may have applauded Obama's pivot to the deficit, but much of the economic community saw it as nothing short of a debacle. Sure, there were still a few economists who believed that even in a deep recession government spending merely crowded out private spending and thus did no good, but they were a distinct minority. Most economists acknowledged that deficit spending was appropriate at a time like this. Paul Krugman fumed that Obama was cravenly trying to score political points by doing a "deficit peacock-strut" that would be destructive in the wake of the financial crisis. Mark Zandi, a centrist economist who has advised leaders of both parties, used more judicious language, but likewise warned that spending cuts might "cost the economy significantly in the longer run."...

Taken as a whole, these measures have cut the deficit by $3.9 trillion over the next 10 years. And that doesn't even count the expiration of desperately needed stimulus measures like the payroll tax holiday and extended unemployment benefits.

This was unprecedented, as the chart above shows. After every other recent recession, government spending has continued rising steadily throughout the recovery, providing a backstop that prevented the economy from sliding backward. It happened under Ronald Reagan after the recession of 1981, under George H.W. Bush after the recession of 1990, and under George W. Bush after the recession of 2001. But this time, even though the 2008 recession was deeper than any of those previous ones, it didn't.

 

I thought the choice of baseline dates for his charts was deceptive, but never-the-less for the moment lets accept this at face value.  Make sure to take a note of the red line, which is the current recession, and the brown line, which was the recovery from the recession in the late Clinton / early Bush years.  By Mr. Drum's earlier analysis, the earlier 1990 recession was better handled than the current one (against his Keynesian assumptions) by the government continuing to increase spending after the recession to keep the recovery going.   The point of Drum's earlier article was to say that Republicans in Congress were sinking the current economy by not increasing spending as was done after these earlier recessions.

So this is what Drum published the other day, I think based on a Paul Krugman article.

But I think Krugman undersells his case. He shows that the current recovery has created more private sector jobs than the 2001-2007 recovery, and that's true. But in fairness to the Bush years, the labor force was smaller back then and Bush was working from a smaller base. So of course fewer jobs were created. What you really want to look at is jobs as a percent of the total labor force. And here's what you get:

blog_private_employment_2001_vs_2010

The Obama recovery isn't just a little bit better than the Bush recovery. It's miles better. But here's the interesting thing. This chart looks only at private sector employment. If you want to make Bush look better, you can look at total employment instead. It's still not a great picture, but it's a little better:

Awesome, Kevin!  So I guess that austerity you were complaining about was the right thing to do, yes?

Seriously, in his article a year ago Drum argued that the Republicans in Congress were sinking the economy vis a vis the 1990 recession by not continuing to boost spending in the years after the recession.  Now, he admits  (though since he does not refer back to the original article I guess it is not an admission per se) that this "austerity" led to a stronger recovery than the spending-fueled 1990 version.  All hail smaller government, the solution to growing employment!

PS-  I wonder how much of this change in private employment since the last recession came in the oil and gas industry, whose expansion the Left generally opposes?  Well, they'll bash on oil tomorrow but today, they will take credit for the jobs added.

Update:  Here are the two charts combined, with other recessions removed and the colors on the data series set to match (click to enlarge)

click to enlarge

The Science of Complex Systems -- Economics and Climate

I saw two statements written about economics over the weekend that could easily have been written about climate as well.  These are both complex systems where researchers try to link one output variable (e.g. global average surface temperatures or economic growth) to one input variable (e.g. CO2 or government spending).

Via Cafe Hayek, here is Bob Gelfond discussing Keynesian multiples

When it comes to the “evidence” demonstrating the magic of the Keynesian Multiplier, what we see, in fact, is merely careful curation of statistical flukes on a grand scale over decades. Economist Ryan Murphy, who runs a project called govtmultiplier.com that attempts to catalog scholarly measurements of the Keynesian Multiplier, has categorized and analyzed 128 papers on the subject. Only four papers even attempt to include this kind of statistical test, and none of these validate the original results, meaning simply that none of them prove the Keynesian Multiplier actually leads to more dollar-for-dollar economic growth. And this is after these models are ginned up to make their theory look as good as possible. If attempts to employ macroeconomics purport to be science, they must boldly make predictions about the future, not rummage around for convenient data from the past. But no peddler of the Keynesian Multiplier has been able to make demonstrable predictions borne out by the test of time.

Morgan Housel on economic data, but applies to climate without changing a word.

Ideally we’d have 500 years of unimpeachably perfect data. In reality we have about 50 years of so-so data. If we had the former, we’d learn that so much of what we’ve learned from the latter is wrong and incomplete.

Update:  Here is a third bit from Arnold Kling in the same vein:

Sometimes, I think that there are macroeconomists (Krugman is not the only one) for whom there is no path of economic variables that could ever contradict their point of view. They remind me of the climate scientists who tell us that Buffalo’s Snowvember came from global warming.

Macroeconomics is infinitely confirmable because of its high causal density and lack of controlled experiments. The macroeconomist has enough interpretative degrees of freedom to twist any pattern of economic activity to fit his or her priors.

 

Eeek! Austerity! Oh, Never Mind.

Yesterday I challenged a graph by Kevin Drum in Mother Jones as being a disingenuous attempt to paint US government spending as some sort of crazed austerity program which is making the recovery worse.  He uses this graph to "prove" that our fiscal response to this recession is weak vis a vis past recessions.  The graph is a bit counter-intuitive -- note that it begins at the end of each recession.  His point is that Keynesian spending needs to continue long after (five years ?!) after the recession is over to guarantee a good recovery, and that we have not done that.

Click to enlarge

For anyone not steeped in the special reality of the reality-based community, it is a bit counter intuitive for those of us who have actually lived through the last 5 years to call government spending austere.

The key is in the dates he selects.  He leaves out the actual recession years.  So by his chart, responses that are late and occur after the recession look better than responses that are fast and large but happen during the recession.  This seems odd, but it is the conclusion one has to draw.

I took roughly the same data and started each line two years earlier, so that my first year is two years ahead of his graph and the zero year in my graph is the same as the zero point in Drum's chart.  His data is better in the sense that he has quarterly data and I only have annual.  Mine is better in that it looks at changes in spending as a percentage of GDP, which I would guess would be the more relevant Keynesian metric (it also helps us correct for the chicken and egg problem of increased government spending being due to, rather than causing, economic expansion).

Here are the results (I tried to use roughly the same colors for the same data series, but who in the world with the choice of the entire color pallet uses two almost identical blues?)

recession-redux2

You can see that Drum makes spending look lower in the current recession by carefully dating the data series to the peak of the spending, rather than comparing it to pre-recession levels.  The right hand scale is the difference in government spending as a percentage of GDP from the -2 year.  So, for example, in the current recession government spending was 34.2% in 2007 and 41.4% in 2009 for a reading of 7.2% in year 0.

Even with the flat spending over the last three or four years in the current recession (flat nominal spending leads do a declining percent of GDP) the spending increase from pre-recession levels is still about twice as high as in other recent recessions.

Does this look like austerity to anyone?

Deceptive Chart of the Day from Kevin Drum and Mother Jones to Desperately Sell the "Austerity" Hypothesis

Update:  OK, I pulled together the data and did what Drum should have done, is take the graph back to pre-recession levels.  Shouldn't it be even better if the increase in spending came during the recession rather than after?  See update here.

Kevin Drum complains about US government austerity (I know, I know, only some cocooned progressive could describe recent history as austerity, but let's deal with his argument).  He uses this chart to "prove" that we have been austere vs. other recessions, and thus austerity helps explain why recovery from this recession has been particularly slow.  Here is his chart

Austerity_2_WM_630

This is absurdly disingenuous.  Why?  Simple -- it is impossible to evaluate post recession spending without looking at what spending did during the recession.   All these numbers begin after the recession is over.  But what if, in the current recession, we increased spending much more than in other recessions.  We would still be at a higher level vs. pre-recession spending now, despite a lack of further increases after the recession.

In the time before this chart even starts, total state, local, Federal spending increased from 2007 to 2008 by 10.2%.  It increased another 11.1 % from 2008 to 2009.  So he starts the chart at the peak, only AFTER spending had increased in response to the recession by 22.5%.  Had he started the chart at the correct date and not at a self-serving one, my guess is that it would have shown that in this recession we increased spending more than any other recent recession, not less.  So went digging for some data.

I actually have a day job, so I don't have time to create a chart of total government spending since 1981, so I will look at just Federal spending, but it makes my point.  I scavenged this chart from Factcheck.org.  The purple bars are the year that each of Drum's data series begin plus the year prior (which is excluded from Drum's chart).  Essentially the growth in spending between the two purple lines is the growth left out just ahead of when Drum started each data series in his chart.  The chart did not go back to 1981 so I could not do that year.

click to enlarge

Hopefully, you can see why I say that Drum is disingenuous for not going back to pre-recession numbers.  In this case, you can see the current recession has an unprecedented pop in spending in the year before Drum starts his data series, so it is not surprising that post recession spending might be flatter (remember, the pairs of purple lines are essentially the change in spending the year before each of Drum's data series).  In fact, it is very clear that relative to the pre-recession year of 2008 (really 2007, but I will give him a small break), even after 5 years of "austerity" our federal spending as a percent of GDP will be far higher than in any other recession he considers.  In no previous recession in this era did post recession spending end up more than 2 points higher (as a percent of GDP) than pre-recession levels.    In this recession, we are likely to end up 4-5 points higher.

By the way, isn't it possible that he has cause and effect reversed?  He argues that post-recession recovery was faster in other recessions because government spending kept increasing over five years after the recession is over.  But isn't it just possible that the truth is the reverse -- that government spending increased more rapidly after other recessions because recovery was faster, thus increasing tax revenues. Congress then promptly spent the new revenues on new toys.

Let's look at the same chart, highlighted in a different way.  I will circle the 4-5 years included in each of Drum's data series:

spending-2

You can see that despite the fact that government spending in these prior recessions was increasing in real terms, it was falling in two our of three of them as a percentage of GDP (the third increased due to war spending in Afghanistan and Iraq, spending which I, and I suspect Drum, would hesitate to call stimulative, particular since he and others at the time called it a jobless recovery).

How can it be that spending was increasing but falling as a percent of GDP?  Because the GDP was growing really fast, faster than government spending.  This does not prove my point, but is a good indicator that recovery is likely leading spending increases, rather than the other way around.

This Was My Take As Well: Cut Farm Subsidies, Not Food Stamps

First, as many of you may have guessed, the "massive cuts" in food stamps over the next 10 years proposed by House Republicans are basically just a modest reduction in their rate of growth.  All attempts to slow the spending growth in any government program will always be treated by the media as Armageddon, which is why government spending seldom slows (see: Sequester).

But I have been amazed through this whole deal that Republicans want to extract a pound (actually probably just an ounce or so) of flesh out of the Food Stamp program but explicitly left the rest of the farm bill with all of its bloated subsidies alone.  Henry Olson asks the same question at NRO.

I will add one other observation about food stamps that is sure to have just about everyone disagreeing with me.  Of late, Republicans have released a number of reports on food stamp fraud, showing people converting food stamps to cash, presumably so they can buy things with the money that food stamps are allowed to be used for.

Once upon a time, maybe 30 years ago in my more Conservative days, I would get all worked up by the same things.  Look at those guys, we give them money for food and they buy booze with it!  It must be stopped.  Since that time, I suppose I never really revisited this point of view until I was watching the recent stories on food stamp fraud.

But what I began thinking about was this:  As a libertarian, I always say that the government needs to respect and keep its hands off the decision-making of individuals.  If people make bad choices, paraphrasing from the HBO show Deadwood, then let them go to hell however they choose.  And, more often than not, it turns out that when you really look, people are not necessarily making what from the outside looks like a bad choice -- they have information, incentives, pressures, and preferences we folks sitting in our tidy Washington offices, chauffeured to work every day, may not understand.

So if we are going to give people charity - money to survive on when poor and out of work - shouldn't we respect them and their choices?  Why attach a myriad of conditions and surveillance to the use of the funds?  Of course, this is an opinion that puts me way out of the mainstream.  Liberals will treat these folks as potential victims that must be guided paternally, and Conservatives will treat them as potential fraudsters who must be watched carefully.  I think either of these attitudes are insidious, and it is better to treat these folks as adults who need help.

For One Brief Moment, I Thought Reason Might Enter the Discourse on Budgets

Kevin Drum quoted this from James Fallows in a post labelled "threat inflation"

As I think about it this war and others the U.S. has contemplated or entered during my conscious life, I realize how strong is the recurrent pattern of threat inflation. Exactly once in the post-WW II era has the real threat been more ominous than officially portrayed

I thought, "wow, someone from the Coke or the Pepsi party is finally going to call BS on all the apocalyptic forecasts from both parties over the sequester."  But alas, he was just discussing foreign policy.  That is not to say I don't agree with the basic point, that foreign policy prescriptions are often accompanied by exaggerated horror stories of imminent threats -- I just wish they would recognize the same dynamic on the domestic front, whenever the smallest cut in government spending growth rates suddenly mean we are are going to put grandma out on an ice flow to freeze.

Sequester Fear-Mongering, State Version

The extent to which the media is aiding and abetting, with absolutely no skepticism, the sky-is-falling sequester reaction of pro-big-government forces is just sickening.  I have never seen so many absurd numbers published so credulously by so much of the media.  Reporters who are often completely unwilling to accept any complaints from corporations as valid when it comes to over-taxation or over-regulation are willing to print their sequester complaints without a whiff of challenge.  Case in point, from here in AZ.  This is a "news" article in our main Phoenix paper:

Arizona stands to lose nearly 49,200 jobs and as much as $4.9 billion in gross state product this year if deep automatic spending cuts go into effect Friday, and the bulk of the jobs and lost production would be carved from the defense industry.

Virtually all programs, training and building projects at the state’s military bases would be downgraded, weakening the armed forces’ defense capabilities, according to military spokesmen.

“It’s devastating and it’s outrageous and it’s shameful,” U.S. Sen. John McCain told about 200 people during a recent town-hall meeting in Phoenix.

“It’s disgraceful, and it’s going to happen. And it’s going to harm Arizona’s economy dramatically,” McCain said.

Estimates vary on the precise number of jobs at stake in Arizona, but there’s wide agreement that more than a year of political posturing on sequestration in Washington will leave deep economic ruts in Arizona.

Not a single person who is skeptical of these estimates is quoted in the entirety of the article.  The entire incremental cut of the sequester in discretionary spending this year is, from page 11 of the most recent CBO report, about $35 billion (larger numbers you may have seen around 70-80 billion include dollars that were going away anyway, sequester or not, which just shows the corruption of this process and the reporting on it.)

Dividing this up based on GDP, about 1/18th of this cut would apply to Arizona, giving AZ a cut in Federal spending of around $2 billion.  It takes a heroic multiplier to get from that to  $4.9 billion in GDP loss.  Its amazing to me that Republicans assume multipliers less than 1 for all government spending, except for defense (and sports stadiums) which magically take on multipliers of 2+.

Update:  I wrote the following letter to the Editor today:

I was amazed that in Paul Giblin’s February 26 article on looming sequester cuts [“Arizona Defense Industry, Bases Would Bear Brunt Of Spending Cuts”], he was able to write 38 paragraphs and yet could not find space to hear from a single person exercising even a shred of skepticism about these doom and gloom forecasts.

The sequester rhetoric that Giblin credulously parrots is part of a game that has been played for decades, with government agencies and large corporations that supply them swearing that even trivial cuts will devastate the economy.  They reinforce this sky-is-falling message by threatening to cut all the most, rather than least, visible and important tasks and programs in order to scare the public into reversing the cuts.  The ugliness of this process is made worse by the hypocrisy of Republicans, who suddenly become hard core Keynesians when it comes to spending on military.

It is a corrupt, yet predictable, game, and it is disappointing to see the ArizonaRepublic playing along so eagerly.

Where Did the Last Batch Go?

Obama and the Left want a big new infrastructure spending bill, based on twin theories that it would be a) stimulative and b) a bargain, as needed infrastructure could be built more cheaply with construction industry over-capacity.

Since this is exactly the same theory of the stimulus four years ago, it seems a reasonable question to ask:  What happened to the damn money we spent last time?  We were sold a 3/4 of a trillion dollar stimulus on it being mostly infrastructure.  So where is it?  Show us pictures, success stories.  Show us how the cost of construction of these projects were so much lower than expected because of construction industry over-capacity.  Show us the projects selected, to demonstrate how well thought-out the investment prioritization was.  If their arguments today have merit, all these things must be demonstrable from the last infrastructure bill.  So where is the evidence?

Of course, absolutely no one who wants to sell stimulus 2 (or 3?) wants to go down the path of investigating how well stimulus 1 was spent.  Instead, here is the argument presented:

Much of the Republican opposition to infrastructure spending has been rooted in a conviction that all government spending is a boondoggle, taxing hard-working Americans to give benefits to a favored few, and exceeding any reasonable cost estimate in the process. That's always a risk with new spending on infrastructure: that instead of the Hoover Dam and the interstate highway system, you end up with the Bridge to Nowhere and the Big Dig.

In that sense, this is a great test of whether divided democracy can work, and whether Republicans can come to the table to govern. One can easily imagine a deal: Democrats get their new infrastructure spending, and Republicans insist on a structure that requires private sector lenders to be co-investors in any projects, deploying money based on its potential return rather than where the political winds are tilting.

This is bizarre for a number of reasons.  First, he implies the problem is that Republicans are not "coming to the table to govern"  In essence  then, it is up to those who criticize government incremental infrastructure spending (with a lot of good evidence for believing so) as wasteful to come up with a solution.  Huh?

Second, he talks about requiring private lenders to be co-investors in the project.  This is a Trojan horse.   Absurd projects like California High Speed Rail are sold based on the myth that private investors will step in along side the government.  When they don't, because the project is stupid, the government claims to be in too deep already and that it must complete it with all public funds.

Third, to the extent that the government can sweeten the deal sufficiently to make private investors happy, the danger of Cronyism looms large.  You get the government pouring money into windmills, for example, that benefits private investors with a sliver of equity and large manufacturers like GE, who practically have a hotline to the folks who run programs like this.

Fourth, almost all of these projects are sure to be local in impact - ie a bridge that helps New Orleans or a street paving project that aids Los Angeles.  So why are the Feds doing this at all?  If the prices are so cheap out there, and the need for these improvements so pressing, then surely it makes more sense to do them locally.  After all, the need for them, the cost they impose, and the condition of the local construction market are all more obvious locally than back in DC.  Further, the accountability for money spent at the Federal level is terrible.  There are probably countless projects I should be pissed off about having my tax money fund, but since I don't see them every day, I don't scream.  The most accountability exists for local money spent on local projects.

The Sequester if Falling, The Sequester is Falling

I cannot believe the sky-is-falling panic around the sequester.  It is all so much BS.  The sequester represents a trivial percentage reduction in spending down to levels we have not seen for, like, 2 years or so.  But apparently everyone is getting into the act claiming the world will end if we cut a couple of percent from the growth rate of government spending.  As an illustration, this is the over-wrought absurd email I just recieved:

If implemented, the US Navy directed cancellation of ship repair and maintenance due to lack of an approved Defense budget and sequestration will have a drastic impact on the commercial ship repair industry across the nation.   The more than 150,000 expert ship repair professionals that have been cultivated across the nation cannot be easily replaced by a new workforce.    In addition, many of our yards nationwide do both defense and commercial work.  The Navy cancellations would severely undermine their ability to continue operating in a high quality, efficient  manner.

The Virginia Ship Repair Association urges you to learn more and voice your concern. We have provided templates for mailing  letters to your members of Congress, as well as contact lists to make phone calls. Please join us in this effort to preserve our maritime interests, protect our shipyards and secure the future of our workforce.

US Shipyards among the great pork-barrel spending stories in this country's history.  Show me a shipyard with lots of defense business (e.g. Ingalls in Pascagoula) and I will show you a Senator from that state who wielded immense power on Congressional defense committees.

Why the Government is Bankrupt

I couldn't resist clicking through to this article supposedly laying out a "trend" that increasing numbers of women were finding "sugar daddies" to pay for college.  I was considering an article calling BS on the whole trend when my attention was diverted.  I found the best single-statement illustration of the attitude that is bankrupting this nation.   First, the basic story:

Nearly 300 NYU co-eds joined the site’s service last year seeking a “mutually beneficial” arrangement with rich older men — a 154 percent jump over 2011.

It was the second-highest number of new members for any college in the country.

Hundreds more young women from Columbia, Cornell and Syracuse universities also have recently signed up for the service, the site said.

“I’ll admit that I’ve thought about doing something like that,” said a Columbia junior who gave only her first name, Karen.

“It would be easier in some ways than working, taking classes and then spending years paying back loans.”

The writer is obviously trying to get me to be outraged, but all I can do is shrug.  There are a lot of worse things in the world to worry about than people entering into "mutually beneficial relationships."   But this is the line that stopped me short:

“Clearly, we need more financial aid if those are the lengths people are going to pay for school,” sniffed Ashley Thaxton, 20, an NYU theater major.

God, is there ever going to be  a non-problem that doesn't require more government spending.  How about lowering tuition?  Cutting back on bloated administrative staffs?  Eliminating useless academic departments?  Channeling less money to the football team?  Or how about we just accept that some people make personal choices that might be distasteful to us, but are really their own god damned business.

Words That Have Been Stripped of Any Meaning: "Spending Cuts" and "Austerity"

I have already written that the supposed European austerity (e.g. in the UK) is no such thing, and "austerity" in these cases is being used to describe what is merely a slowing in spending growth.

Apparently the same Newspeak is being applied to spending cuts in the US.  How else  can one match this data:

With these words from President Obama (my emphasis added)

"If we're going to raise revenues that are sufficient to balance with the very tough cuts that we've already made and the further reforms in entitlements that I’m prepared to make, then we’re going to have to see the rates on the top two percent go up"

Seriously?  The only small reductions in the budget were because some supposedly one-time expenses (like TARP bailouts, war costs, and stimulus spending) were not repeated.  Allowing one-time costs to be, uh, one-time does not constitute "tough cuts."

Tough cuts are when we knock government spending back down to 19-20 percent of GDP.  Clinton level spending in exchange for Clinton tax rates.   That's my proposed deal.

Government Spending Ratchet

In 2010, Arizona v0ters passed proposition 100, a 1% "temporary" sales tax increase that was meant to help fill in the budget hole created by the recession.  The tax was only to last 3 years.

It is pretty clear that by the end of 2013, when the tax expires, the rationale for the temporary tax cut will have passed.  Already the state's finances are improving and all signs are that by 2014 the economy and real estate market should be greatly recovered.

But, having got taxpayers used to paying the higher tax, supporters of big government and public employees unions have put a proposition on the ballot this year (204)  to make the 2010 tax increase permanent.  The tax extension will go to a mish-mash of new programs.

This is how the government spending ratchet works.  A "temporary" tax increase is justified in a fiscal emergency to fill in a recession-created hole.  Government insiders decide they like having more money, and make the tax permanent.  The new money is used to create brand new programs.  Then, in the next recession, when all these brand new programs are now "essential" and "beyond the reach of even the worst austerity", a new, even higher "temporary" tax increase is necessary.

Savage Austerity

It seems very popular to publicly declare, even continually reiterate, that there is a trend without actually, you know, showing the trend data.  I won't declare this to be a media trend, but this summer we were plagued with news reports about the drought "trend" when in fact no such trend exists in the US data  (NOAA data from this article). Something similar holds for the supposed British austerity.  Here is British government spending in real dollars (via here)

It's A Mystery Why the European Economy is Not Growing

European economic problems must be due to the "austerity" (which means, in popular Leftist use, not growing government spending faster than the rate of inflation).  I am sure this kind of thing has nothing to do with high unemployment rates.  I would certainly be really excited to hire more employees under these conditions:

For most Europeans, almost nothing is more prized than their four to six weeks of guaranteed annual vacation leave. But it was not clear just how sacrosanct that time off was until Thursday, when Europe’s highest court ruled that workers who happened to get sick on vacation were legally entitled to take another [paid] vacation.

“The purpose of entitlement to paid annual leave is to enable the worker to rest and enjoy a period of relaxation and leisure,” the Court of Justice of the European Union, based in Luxembourg, ruled in a case involving department store workers in Spain. “The purpose of entitlement to sick leave is different, since it enables a worker to recover from an illness that has caused him to be unfit for work.

Government Spending Bait and Switch

New taxes are frequently sold as protecting police, fire, and education, though these together represent barely 25% of all US government spending.  Where does the rest go?  It's a giant bait and switch, made worse by the fact that even within these categories, new headcount is more likely to be added in administrative and overhead roles rather than in promised functions such as "teachers".  This is the subject of my Forbes column this week:

There is a way to reconcile this:   While increases in education spending are sold to the public as a way to improve results in the classroom, in reality most of the new money and headcount are going to anything but increasing the number of teachers.

Let’s start with an example from the city of Phoenix, New York.  Why this town?  Am I cherry-picking?  In fact, I was looking for data on my home town of Phoenix, Arizona.  But I have come to discover that while school districts are really good at getting tomorrow’s cafeteria menu on the web, they are a little less diligent in giving equal transparency to their budget and staffing data.  But it turns out that Phoenix, New York, which I discovered when I was looking for my home town data, publishes a lovely summary of its budget data, so I will use it as an example that helps make my point.

The city’s budget summary for 2012-2013 is here.  Overall, they are proposing a 0.4% increase in spending for next year, which initially seems lean until one understands that they are projecting a 4% decline in enrollment, such that this still represents an increase in spending per pupil faster than inflation.  But the interesting part is the mix.

What are the two things politicians are always claiming they need extra money for?  Classroom instruction and infrastructure.  As you can see in this budget, only two categories of spending go down:  classroom instruction and facility maintenance and cleaning.  Administrative expenses increase 4% (effectively 8% per pupil) and employee benefits expenses increase just under 1% despite a total decline in staffing.  Though I am not very familiar with the program, one irony here is that the fastest growing category is the 8.7% growth (nearly 13% per pupil) in spending with BOCES, a New York initiative that was supposed to reduce administrative costs in public schools.  In other words, spending increases are going to everything except the areas which politicians promise.

I don’t think these trends are isolated to this one admittedly random example.  The Arizona auditor-general recently did a study on trends in education spending in the state.  They found exactly the same tendency to reduce classroom spending to pay for increases in administrative headcounts.

Read it all, as they say.

If You Disagree With My Economic Policies, It Must Be Because You Are Trying to Wreck the Economy

Kevin Drum is back on his "because Republicans won't agree to more massive deficit spending, they must be purposefully trying to destroy the economy."   Literally.  He translates Republican opposition to Obama's proposed stimulus packages as being explained by this strategy:

Basically, the Republican strategy for the past three years has been this:

  1. Do everything humanly possible to prevent the economy from recovering.
  2. Wait for 2012.
  3. Run a campaign focused on the fact that the economy is lousy.

This is such a shabby bit of false logic it is amazing anyone even attempts this any more, or more accurately, it's amazing that folks continue to buy it.  Is it really so impossible to believe that there are actually people of goodwill who wish to see the economy improve but disagree with Drum and Obama as to the correct course to achieve that?  Apparently not  (I suppose the last stimulus was so wildly succesful that it is impossible to doubt the success of another trillion or so of deficit spending?)

The irony is that for some reason I simply cannot fathom, from a political tactics point of view, he points to this chart when talking about Truman and his "do-nothing" Congress:

 

He's is trying to make some political tactical point, but he is so blinded by his own assumptions that he misses the real point -- that the American economy grew at records rates through a "do-nothing" Congress.  Now, I suppose Drum might argue that this was an accident of timing, but in fact Truman inherited what should have been, by Drum's Keynesian thinking, the worst economic situation ever since an enormous amount of government spending was going away after the war and new workers were simultaneously flooding back into the job market.  If any time in recent history should have demanded Keynesian stimulus, this was it, and yet a do-nothing Congress led to a massive expansion.  Hmmmm.

OMG, Austerity!

via here

The UK line is particularly interesting, since that is the country that Krugman has declared is austerity-izing itself into a depression. As I have pointed out before, real government spending in UK has been and is still rising.  The percent of GDP of this spending has fallen a bit, but there is nothing about Keynesian stimulus theory that says changes in the percentage of government spending is stimulative, only its absolute value.

Here is one thing I would love to here Krugman et. al. opine on -- at what percentage of government debt to GDP does additional deficit spending become counter-stimulative.   I imagine there is an inverse relationship for deficit-funded stimulus, such that it has a larger effect at lower debt levels with a zero to negative effect at higher interest levels.

Update:  From another source, here is the UK in real $

Myth-Making By the Left on Europe Continues

The Left continues to push the myth that government "austerity"  (defined as still running a massive deficit but running a slightly smaller massive deficit) is somehow pushing Europe into a depression.  Well, this myth-making worked with Hoover, who is generally thought to have worsened the Depression through austerity despite the reality that he substantially increased government spending.

It is almost impossible to spot this mythical austerity beast in action in these European countries.  Sure, they talk about austerity, and deficit reduction, and spending increases, but if such talk were reality we would have a balanced budget in this country.  If one looks at actual government spending in European nations, its impossible to find a substantial decline.  Perhaps they are talking about tax increases, which I would oppose and have been occurring, but I doubt the Left is complaining about tax increases.

Seriously, I would post the chart showing the spending declines but I can't because I keep following links and have yet to find one.  I keep seeing quotes about "commitment" to austerity, but no actual evidence of such.

Let's take Britain.  Paul Krugman specifically lashed out at "austerity" programs there are undermining the British and European economy.  So, from this source, here is actual and budgeted British government spending by year, in billions of pounds:

2007: 544.0

2008: 575.7

2009: 621.5

2010:  660.6

2011:  683.4

2012:  703.4

2013: 722.2

Seriously, I will believe the so-called austerity when someone shows it to me.  And this is not even to mention the irresponsibility of demanding more deficit spending without even acknowledging the fact that whole countries already have so much debt they are teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.

Here is the European problem -- they are pouring hundreds of billions of Euro into bailing out failed banks and governments.  They are effectively taking massive amounts of available resources out of productive hands and pouring it into failed institutions.   Had they (or we) let these institutions crash four years ago, Europe would be seeing a recovery today.  The hundreds of billions of Euros used to keep banks on life support could have instead been used to mitigate the short term effects of bigger financial crash.

Thinking About Medicare and Social Security

Neither Medicare nor Social Security should be government programs.  The government essentially takes on two roles in these two insurance programs:  1) To subsidize the premiums of low income Americans; and 2) To use its power of coercion to force everyone to participate.  I have no stomach for the latter role and the former could be much more cheaply achieved with some sort of voucher or credit program.

But these programs are not going away.  While both need reform, it may turn out to be politically impossible to even reform them.

But if we take off the table for a moment their existence and their basic structure, there is still an enormous problem we might fix:  pricing.  There is absolutely nothing more deadly to an economy than a false or corrupted pricing signal.  But that is clearly what we have with these two programs.  The Medicare "premium" (tax) taken out of every paycheck is clearly way too small to cover true actuarial costs of this program.  And while Social Security rates may have been set right if the premiums were really being kept in escrow for the future, the fact is that the so-called trust fund has been raided into oblivion by past government spending programs  -- Social Security taxes need to be reset to reflect that fact.

The result, of course, will be a substantial increase in both payroll taxes.  I am not a big fan of tax increases, and find taxes on labor to be among the worst.  But as long as we hold on to the collective notion that these are insurance programs and the taxes we pay are premiums, its time to stop fooling Americans into thinking that the premiums they are paying are truly sufficient to fund their benefits.  Maybe after we reprice the "premiums" to their true actuarial value, we can then have a real debate about the structure and existence of these programs.

Rioting for More Charity

I get grief in hard core libertarian circles for supporting a basic, no-frills government safety net.  However, in watching Europe right now, I may change my opinion.  Folks in this country use the European rioting as a sort of threat to warn us that we need to continue to be profligate in government spending or else face the same kind of riots here.  I come to the opposite conclusion -- if people are going to riot when the charity they receive has to be reduced, isn't that a reason not to get them hooked on the charity in the first place?