I’ve been thinking a lot about the job problem in this country. Jobs are the problem right now. One in eleven Americans is unemployed, the knock-on economic effects are making a bad deficit situation worse and a long-term culture of dependence is being created. I am under no delusion that a blog post will change anything. But I thought I’d write up about 2000 words of thoughts on the subject so you’ll know where I’m coming from.
The fundamental problem with fixing the job situation is that we have two parties absolutely devoted to failed policy. On one side we have the Republicans insisting that just a few more rounds of Bush-style demand-side tax cuts will get things moving. However, there is very little evidence that these would help, even if we could afford them. We know what the Bush tax cuts did for jobs: jack.
The Bush tax cuts were followed by low GDP growth, negative median wage growth, and little job growth. Even before the Great Recession, growth in the Bush business cycle was the weakest since World War II. And the cuts cost about $2.6 trillion between 2001 and 2010, according to the Economic Policy Institute—adding to a debt future generations of taxpayers will pay for, plus interest.
To be fair, Sarbanes-Oxley played a role here as well. But the record is stark — one of the weakest economic booms since World War II and the tax cuts distinctly failing to “pay for themselves”. Tax cuts can pay for themselves when you’re cutting a marginal rate of 97% (Kennedy) or 70% (Reagan). The don’t pay for themselves when the marginal rate is in the 30’s or lower. No one is quite sure where the Laffer Curve turns over, but it’s not at 0.
On the other hand, we have a bunch of Democrats calling for more stimulus spending under the Keynsian theory that … actually I’m not sure what the Keynsians are on about. The stimulus failed and their response is to claim it wasn’t big enough — the equivalent of saying we’ll really really fly if we just jump off a taller building. Will Wilkinson called it a religion, a belief that government can create an infinite multiplier of loaves and fishes. Given the immunity of the Keynsians to fact, that’s a fair description.
So what do we need to do to get the economy moving?
Deficit Reduction: Bruce Bartlett:
Government mainly affects savings not so much through tax rates as through the budget deficit, which constitutes negative saving. When government borrows, it takes funds out of the economy that would otherwise be available to finance domestic investment. Alternatively, the U.S. must borrow more from foreigners, which increases the trade deficit. In the national income and product accounts, the trade deficit is subtracted from GDP, thus lowering growth.
The bottom line is that neither taxes nor spending by themselves are the most important government contribution to the investment climate; it’s the budget deficit. Consequently, a reduction in tax revenue which raises the deficit is unlikely to stimulate domestic investment because more money will have to be borrowed from abroad. Conversely, a tax increase dedicated to deficit reduction could well be stimulative, as was the case with the 1982 and 1993 tax increases. Contrary to Republican dogma, rapid growth followed on both occasions.
But, scream the Keynesians, austerity kills! Look at Ireland! Look at the UK!
OK, assholes. Let’s look at Ireland:
Ireland was the first of the debt-plagued European countries to cut government consumption significantly in 2009, mainly by reducing government paychecks from 12.3% of GDP in 2009 to 11.8% in 2010.
While such gestures toward fiscal frugality lasted, the country was rewarded with a tolerable risk premium on government bonds. The yield on 10-year Irish government bonds was still 5.3% as recently as last August, compared with 10.7% in Greece. This May, the interest on Irish bonds reached 17.6%. What went wrong?
Back in June 9, 2010, I wrote that “unlike Greece, the Irish economy is showing encouraging signs of recovery.” Ireland’s real GDP had increased by 1.7% in the first quarter, with an 11.7% quarterly rise in industrial production. Manufacturing output increased 29% from November 2009 to July 2010, thanks to growing exports.
Ireland tanked shortly after, which the Kenysians blame on austerity. To them, the logic is inescapable — Ireland cut spending, the economy crashed, QED. They leave out the intermediate step, when Ireland did was Iceland refused to do — bailed out foreign investors in their banks and quadrupled their debt overnight. It was an incredibly stupid move that the EU bullied them into. Claiming that austerity caused Ireland’s ongoing economic woes is like claiming that Mexico won World War II. Yeah, they contributed, a little. But let’s not ignore the bigger players.
OK, OK. But certainly the UK is fucked because of … what was that?
Unemployment is falling at its fastest pace in a decade, official figures reveal, in a boost for George Osborne as he prepares to deliver his Mansion House speech. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) said the number of people unemployed fell by 88,000 in the three months to April, to 2.43 million — the largest drop since the summer of 2000. The unemployment rate was 7.7%, down from 8% three months earlier.
The UK has gained 100,000 private sector jobs even as the government has cut 24,000. The recovery is still fragile and could crumble underneath them. But if we had similar numbers in the United States, the President would be turning cartwheels on the White House lawn and prank-calling Mitt Romney (“Hey Mitt, heard you’re unemployed, hahaha.”). Canada and Puerto Rico have followed this model as well.
The ultimate example here, of course, is Germany, which refused to engage in a stimulus despite pressure from the Administration. I’ll have more to say on them later. But I want you to savor this — at least two, possible more European welfare states have righted the ship while keeping their deficit under control. According to both the Keynsians and the Norquistians out there, this should be impossible. Without stimulus spending or tax cuts, you can’t get an economy moving. But the example of these countries belies this. Hell, the example of our own country in the 80’s and 90’s show this to be false. Both decades saw tax hikes; neither saw any stimulus (the GOP filibustered Clinton 1993 stimulus bill). And yet — miraculously — we recovered. Recovered enough that we could later ease the tax burden.
The Tax Code: Despite my aversion to yet more tax cuts, overhauling the tax code would help a great deal. The tax code, because of its complexities, imposes $200-300 billion of deadweight loss on our economy every year. Cutting that in half would be the equivalent of a permanent and massive tax cut. Reagan’s 1986 tax hike was eased by tax reform, which more than compensated for the economic hurt of higher rates. American corporations spend more time figuring out the tax implications of their business decisions than the business implications of their business decisions. Does this strike anyone as healthy?
The most important thing is to broaden the tax base. Our income tax has become highly dependent on the top earners, who now pay almost all of the tax. This is a problem because when the economy is doing well and the rich are getting seven figure bonuses, revenues boom and governments spend like mad. Then the economy stalls, the rich make less and revenues crash, creating a gaping budget hole. Coburn’s idea of increasing revenue by closing loopholes and tax credits is the right one. It’s not just that it bring in more revenue, it stabilizes the revenue by making it less dependent on a few key economic sectors.
The tax code has also contributed to numerous bubbles, especially the housing bubble through the mortgage interest deduction and the home buyer tax credit. The last thing we need is the government stimulating another bubble — this time in green tech — through either direct spending or tax breaks.
There are other anchors on American business as well — notably the failure of the Administration to enact free trade agreements and the hideously awful Sarbanes-Oxley law. Both need to be dealt with as well.
Our regulatory structure also needs help. How do we expect to build a green economy when it takes a decade just to get the paperwork done for a new power line? Congress should create an agency specifically designed to identify regulatory problems. The idea is that a business could go to this agency and say: “Here — this is the law that’s holding everything up. This is why it’s taking us two years to start a business instead of two minutes. This needs to be fixed.” And Congress would fix these not with waivers doled out to powerful industries but with a repeal that benefits everyone. The most important business to help are the ones that don’t have lobbyists.
The German Model: You can read here about what Germany did to make their economy healthy. It’s a long post, but the gist is that Germany made jobs their sole focus. They enacted provisions to make sure that people stayed working. This meant reforming their unemployment system so that people had to take any job they could find, even if it was “beneath” them. Their unemployment system focused on finding people jobs — any jobs. They also made it easier to hire and fire workers.
I’m not so sure how well this would work here. Our unemployment benefits aren’t as generous and a government job-matching service isn’t that useful in the internet era (and our government would inevitably find a way to fuck it up). But the philosophy — a focus on jobs — is the right one.
One thing we should do it make it easier and cheaper to hire people. The problem is that everything this Administration has done has made it more expensive to hire people. From health insurance mandates to supporting Davis-Bacon mandates to raising the federal minimum wage, they have made it more and more expensive to hire people. And they’re surprised that people aren’t hiring.
The solution seems simple. First, suspend Obamacare provisions or lighten them by allowing cheap high-deductible insurance and HSA’s to qualify (the latter, in my opinion, having the added benefit of fighting rising healthcare costs). Second, suspend Davis-Bacon provisions in federal spending. The Democrats seem to think that 100 jobs at union wages is better than 120 jobs as sub-union wages. I don’t see that. The other thing we could do is lower the “employer contribution” on Social Security and Medicare. Obama almost did this, but decided to cut the employee contribution instead — yet another failed supply-side tax cut.
If you make it easier to hire people, more people will be hired. Take it from a rocket scientist — this isn’t rocket science.
So to sum:
- Close the deficit, even if it means broadening the tax base.
- Overhaul the tax code.
- Repeal Sarbanes-Oxley.
- Sign the pending free trade agreements.
- Create a process to identify and remove the most damaging regulatory provisions.
- Suspend Obamacare or allow HSA’s to qualify.
- Suspend Davis-Bacon provisions.
- Reduce the employer contribution on payroll taxes.
I’m not a complete moron. I don’t expect all of the above to happen, certainly not on my suggestion. But we are moving on the first goal. There are rumblings on the second and fourth. And each goal we move on multiplies the effect of the others. If you close the deficit, signs the FTAs and overhaul the tax system, the combined effect will be greater than any of them.
Anyway, those are my thoughts. And I’m judging candidates based on them. Mindless anti-tax rhetoric doesn’t impress me — Pawlenty’s proposal is especially ridiculous. What impresses me is someone looking directly at the issue — thinking in terms of how we make it easier for jobs to be created. When one of our six hundred Presidential candidates gets there, I’ll let you know.