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Previous posts on this blog have featured charts showing that Obama’s policies are not working (see here and here). I even showed a cartoon making the same point.And I cited a column with data comparing Reagan and Obama.

The Heritage Foundation has a very powerful addition to this genre, a chart comparing job performance during the Reagan and Obama Administrations.

This is a remarkable image, but let’s start with some disclaimers. There are lots of factors that impact economic performance, and many of them are outside the control of politicians. Moreover, it is impossible to know what would have happened in the past two years or in the early 1980s if Obama or Reagan had chosen different policies.

But even with these caveats, it is difficult to look at this chart and not conclude that Obama’s big government policies are much less successful than Reagan’s small government policies.

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I don’t now why I bothered spending all that time perusing the writings of Paul Krugman and Larry Summers in order to produce my previous blog post when this Michael Ramirez cartoon makes the same point in a much simpler way.

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The two main political parties are sniping at each other about the just-concluded tax deal, largely because Republicans are happy and Democrats are displeased that all of the 2001/2003 tax cuts are being extended for all taxpayers.

Almost nobody is paying attention to the new spending that is in the agreement, however, most notably the 13-month extension of unemployment benefits. And to the extent anybody is paying attention, a small handful of fiscal conservatives wanted to offset that new spending by reducing spending someplace else.

That sentiment is laudable, but somebody should be pointing out that this policy actually is bad news for workers. Here are some excerpts from a Wall Street Journal story, which reports on a study from the San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank.

A recent study by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco found the unemployment rate at the end of 2009 would have been nearly half a percentage point lower—9.6%, instead of 10%—if jobless benefits hadn’t been extended beyond their usual 26 weeks to as much as 99 weeks. …The extension of jobless benefits is likely to worsen that trend for at least several months. For one, individuals not actively searching for work or willing to take available jobs may claim they are unemployed in order to receive benefits. That could artificially boost the size of the labor force, which is used to determine the unemployment rate. Another concern, as the San Francisco Fed notes, is that the extension of jobless benefits may “reduce the intensity” with which the unemployed search for work. Longer term, this could lead to a higher level of structural unemployment in the economy as workers’ skills erode.

Some leftists may think this is propaganda from free-market purists, yet the San Francisco Fed certainly does not have a reputation for libertarian views. Nonetheless, perhaps it would be a good idea to see what some other people have to say. Here’s what one well-known economist wrote in a textbook.

Public policy designed to help workers who lose their jobs can lead to structural unemployment as an unintended side effect. . . . In other countries, particularly in Europe, benefits are more generous and last longer. The drawback to this generosity is that it reduces a worker’s incentive to quickly find a new job. Generous unemployment benefits in some European countries are widely believed to be one of the main causes of “Eurosclerosis,” the persistent high unemployment that affects a number of European countries.

Was this Milton Friedman? Ludwig von Mises? Nope, the author of this mean-spirited right-wing bile is Paul Krugman. And here’s something else written by an economist about the impact of unemployment benefits.

Empirical evidence shows that two causes are welfare payments and unemployment insurance. …unemployment insurance increases the measure of unemployment by inducing people to say that they are job hunting in order to collect benefits. The second way government assistance programs contribute to long-term unemployment is by providing an incentive, and the means, not to work. Each unemployed person has a “reservation wage”—the minimum wage he or she insists on getting before accepting a job. Unemployment insurance and other social assistance programs increase that reservation wage, causing an unemployed person to remain unemployed longer. …Unemployment insurance also extends the time a person stays off the job. Clark and I estimated that the existence of unemployment insurance almost doubles the number of unemployment spells lasting more than three months. If unemployment insurance were eliminated, the unemployment rate would drop by more than half a percentage point, which means that the number of unemployed people would fall by about 750,000. This is all the more significant in light of the fact that less than half of the unemployed receive insurance benefits, largely because many have not worked enough to qualify.

Who wrote this? A Tea Party fanatic? A knuckle-dragging GOP Congressman? Hardly, this passage was penned by Larry Summers, the outgoing Chairman of Barack Obama’s National Economic Council.

Given their partisan leanings, you won’t be surprised that Krugman and Summers now semi-disavow their academic writings on this issue, claiming that somehow their analysis does not apply in the current situation. But the bottom line is that incentives matter. If you pay people to remain unemployed, they will have less reason to find a job. The only real issue is the degree to which unemployment benefits increase joblessness.

This doesn’t imply that lawmakers should do nothing about unemployment, but it does suggest that their focus should be on pro-growth policies that will facilitate job creation. Permanently lower tax rates would help, as would reduction in government spending so that more resources would be available for the economy’s productive sector. Trade liberalization and deregulation also would be a good idea.

Unfortunately, all these ideas reduce the power of the political elite, so they are not nearly as popular in Washington as unemployment benefits.

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The new unemployment data has been released and it’s not a pretty picture. Literally and figuratively. This image is all we need to know about the success of President Obama’s big-government policies. The lower line is from a White House report in early 2009 and it shows the level of unemployment the Administration said we would have if the so-called stimulus was adopted. The darker dots show the actual monthly unemployment rate. At what point will the beltway politicians concede that making government bigger is not a recipe for prosperity?

They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result. The Obama White House imposed an $800-billion plus faux stimulus on the economy (actually more than $1 trillion if additional interest costs are included). They’ve also passed all sorts of additional legislation, most of which have been referred to as jobs bills. Yet the unemployment situation is stagnant and the economy is far weaker than is normally the case when pulling out of a downturn.

But don’t worry, Nancy Pelosi said that unemployment benefits are stimulative!

 

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I’ve already commented on the Democrats deciding to wait until after the election before figuring out what to do about the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts. This was a remarkable development since failure to extend these pieces of legislation means a big tax increase next January. But this doesn’t mean the Democrats are sitting on their hands. The President has a proposal to significantly increase the tax burden on American companies that compete in world markets, and Democrats on Capitol Hill think this is a winning political issue. They think higher taxes will encourage companies to keep more jobs in America, and they hope voters agree. But as the Wall Street Journal opines, this is a recipe for undermining the competitiveness of American companies. This means fewer jobs, and probably less tax revenue.

…the President’s plan reveals how out of touch Democrats are with the real world of tax competition. The U.S. already has one of the most punitive corporate tax regimes in the world and this tax increase would make that competitive disadvantage much worse, accelerating the very outsourcing of jobs that Mr. Obama says he wants to reverse.

At issue is how the government taxes American firms that make money overseas. Under current tax law, American companies pay the corporate tax rate in the host country where the subsidiary is located and then pay the difference between the U.S. rate (35%) and the foreign rate when they bring profits back to the U.S. This is called deferral—i.e., the U.S. tax is deferred until the money comes back to these shores.

Most countries do not tax the overseas profits of their domestic companies. Mr. Obama’s plan would apply the U.S. corporate tax on overseas profits as soon as they are earned. This is intended to discourage firms from moving operations out of the U.S.

…Mr. Obama believes that by increasing the U.S. tax on overseas profits, some companies may be less likely to invest abroad in the first place. In some cases that will be true. But the more frequent result will be that U.S. companies lose business to foreign rivals, U.S. firms are bought by tax-advantaged foreign companies, and some U.S. multinational firms move their headquarters overseas. They can move to Ireland (where the corporate tax rate is 12.5%) or Germany or Taiwan, or dozens of countries with less hostile tax climates.

We know this will happen because we’ve seen it before. The 1986 tax reform abolished deferral of foreign shipping income earned by U.S. controlled firms. No other country taxed foreign shipping income. Did this lead to more business for U.S. shippers? Precisely the opposite.

According to a 2007 study in Tax Notes by former Joint Committee on Taxation director Ken Kies, “Over the 1985-2004 period, the U.S.-flag fleet declined from 737 to 412 vessels, causing U.S.-flag shipping capacity, measured in deadweight tonnage, to drop by more than 50%.”

…Now the White House wants to repeat this experience with all U.S. companies. Two industries that would be most harmed would be financial services and technology, and their emphasis on human capital makes them especially able to pack up and move their operations abroad. CEO Steve Ballmer has warned that if the President’s plan is enacted, Microsoft would move facilities and jobs out of the U.S.

I’ve commented on this issue before, but I think the best explanation is in this video, which makes the key observation that American tax law may be able to discourage U.S. firms from building factories in other nations, but that simply means that companies from other countries will be able to take advantage of those opportunities.

A lot of Democrats, at least in private, admit that going after “deferral” is bad policy. But this makes the current proposal especially disgusting. People in the White House and on Capitol Hill know it will hurt jobs and reduce competitiveness, but they don’t care. Or at least they put political ambition before doing what’s right for the American people.

If they really cared, the would fix what’s wrong with the current system. A very effective way to encourage more jobs and investment in America is to lower the corporate tax rate, which is the point I made in the Center for Freedom and Prosperity’s first video.

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A new study from the Small Business Administration’s Office of Advocacy concludes that annual regulatory costs jumped by nearly $600 billion between 2005 and 2008. Thanks to the Obama Administration’s big-government agenda, the burden of red tape today doubtlessly is much higher, but the 2008 estimate is enough to generate some very sobering numbers. A $1.75 trillion regulatory cost works out to be more than $15,500 for every household and more than $8,000 for every employee in the country. Red tape is especially challenging for smaller firms, as noted in these key findings from the summary:

The research finds that the total costs of federal regulations have further increased from the level established in the 2005 study, as have the costs per employee. More specifically, the total cost of federal regulations has increased to $1.75 trillion, while the updated cost per employee for firms with fewer than 20 employees is now $10,585 (a 36 percent difference between the costs incurred by small firms when compared with their larger counterparts).

To be sure, some forms of regulation, such as environmental protection, generate benefits. There generally are not good estimates needed to produce cost-benefit analyses, but it is quite likely that the costs are much higher than necessary – particularly for economic regulation, the burden of which is more than three times larger than the costs of environmental regulation.

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Like other forms of so-called stimulus spending, the money devoted to supposed ”green” energy programs has been a net drain on the economy. This is hardly a surprise, particular since the much-trumpeted Spanish experiment turned out to be a flop, destroying two jobs elsewhere in the economy for every green job created. But what is surprising is that the political crowd in Washington seems to be getting the message. The Washington Times reports that even the left if backing away from flushing more money down this hole.

Noticeably absent from President Obama’s latest economic-stimulus package are any further attempts to create jobs through “green” energy projects, reflecting a year in which the administration’s original, loudly trumpeted efforts proved largely unfruitful.

The long delays typical with environmentally friendly projects – combined with reports of green stimulus funds being used to create jobs in China and other countries, rather than in the U.S. – appear to have killed the administration’s appetite for pushing green projects as an economic cure.

…Peter Morici, a business professor at the University of Maryland, said much of the green stimulus funding was “squandered.”

“Large grants to build green buildings don’t generate many new jobs, except for a few architects,” he said. “Subsidies for windmills and solar panels created lots of jobs in China,” but few at home.

…Despite the massive infusion of government funding in recent years, renewable technologies have captured only a tiny share of the energy market and remain heavily dependent on government funding to be viable. Because of the need to constantly renew government funding, private investors remain skittish about committing to new projects.

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One of the main factors determining incumbent election success is economic performance. When disposable income is rising and people feel good about the future, it is difficult for an incumbent to lose. So why, then, is Obama pursuing policies that are undermining growth? Sure, it is in the interests of the left in the long run to create more dependency on government. That’s one of the reasons why there is nothing resembling a free market party in most European nations. But America isn’t at that stage yet (thankfully). And as John Stossel writes, Obama’s bad government policy is causing joblessness and uncertainty. This is going to hurt Democrats this November and may linger until 2012, when Obama would suffer the consequences (in the unlikely event that Republicans put forth a semi-decent candidate).

Why isn’t the economy recovering? After previous recessions, unemployment didn’t get stuck at close to 10 percent. If left alone, the economy can and does heal itself, as the mistakes of the previous inflationary boom are corrected.

The problem today is that the economy is not being left alone. Instead, it is haunted by uncertainty on a hundred fronts. When rules are unintelligible and unpredictable, when new workers are potential threats because of Labor Department regulations, businesses have little confidence to hire. President Obama’s vaunted legislative record not only left entrepreneurs with the burden of bigger government, it also makes it impossible for them to accurately estimate the new burden.

In at least three big areas — health insurance, financial regulation and taxes — no one can know what will happen.

…Nothing more effectively freezes business in place than what economist and historian Robert Higgs calls “regime uncertainty.”

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Michael Fleischer is a brave man. He exposed himself and his company to retribution and attack by explaining how Obama’s policies are discouraging job creation in a column for the Wall Street Journal. Let’s hope he doesn’t mysteriously get audited, because he provides valuable real-world insight into how taxes and other forms of government intervention hinder job creation (and reduce take-home pay for those lucky enough to still have jobs).

Employing Sally costs plenty too. My company has to write checks for $74,000 so Sally can receive her nominal $59,000 in base pay. Health insurance is a big, added cost: While Sally pays nearly $2,400 for coverage, my company pays the rest—$9,561 for employee/spouse medical and dental. We also provide company-paid life and other insurance premiums amounting to $153. Altogether, company-paid benefits add $9,714 to the cost of employing Sally.

Then the federal and state governments want a little something extra. They take $56 for federal unemployment coverage, $149 for disability insurance, $300 for workers’ comp and $505 for state unemployment insurance. Finally, the feds make me pay $856 for Sally’s Medicare and $3,661 for her Social Security.

When you add it all up, it costs $74,000 to put $44,000 in Sally’s pocket and to give her $12,000 in benefits. Bottom line: Governments impose a 33% surtax on Sally’s job each year.

Because my company has been conscripted by the government and forced to serve as a tax collector, we have lost control of a big chunk of our cost structure. Tax increases, whether cloaked as changes in unemployment or disability insurance, Medicare increases or in any other form can dramatically alter our financial situation. With government spending and deficits growing as fast as they have been, you know that more tax increases are coming—for my company, and even for Sally too.

Companies have also been pressed into serving as providers of health insurance. In a saner world, health insurance would be something that individuals buy for themselves and their families, just as they do with auto insurance. Now, adding to the insanity, there is ObamaCare.

Every year, we negotiate a renewal to our health coverage. This year, our provider demanded a 28% increase in premiums—for a lesser plan. This is in part a tax increase that the federal government has co-opted insurance providers to collect. We had never faced an increase anywhere near this large; in each of the last two years, the increase was under 10%.

To offset tax increases and steepening rises in health-insurance premiums, my company needs sustainably higher profits and sales—something unlikely in this “summer of recovery.” We can’t pass the additional costs onto our customers, because the market is too tight and we’d lose sales. Only governments can raise prices repeatedly and pretend there will be no consequences.

And even if the economic outlook were more encouraging, increasing revenues is always uncertain and expensive. As much as I might want to hire new salespeople, engineers and marketing staff in an effort to grow, I would be increasing my company’s vulnerability to government decisions to raise taxes, to policies that make health insurance more expensive, and to the difficulties of this economic environment.

A life in business is filled with uncertainties, but I can be quite sure that every time I hire someone my obligations to the government go up. From where I sit, the government’s message is unmistakable: Creating a new job carries a punishing price.

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I’m still dealing with the statist echo chamber, having been hit with two additional attacks for the supposed sin of endorsing Reaganomics over Obamanomics (my responses to the other attacks can be found here and here). Some guy at the Atlantic Monthly named Steve Benen issued an critique focusing on the timing of the recession and recovery in Reagan’s first term. He reproduces a Krugman chart (see below) and also adds his own commentary.

Reagan’s first big tax cut was signed in August 1981. Over the next year or so, unemployment went from just over 7% to just under 11%. In September 1982, Reagan raised taxes, and unemployment fell soon after. We’re all aware, of course, of the correlation/causation dynamic, but as Krugman noted in January, “[U]nemployment, which had been stable until Reagan cut taxes, soared during the 15 months that followed the tax cut; it didn’t start falling until Reagan backtracked and raised taxes.”

This argument is absurd since the recession in the early 1980s was largely the inevitable result of the Federal Reserve’s misguided monetary policy. And I would be stunned if this view wasn’t shared by 90 percent-plus of economists. So it is rather silly to say the recession was caused by tax cuts and the recovery was triggered by tax increases.

But even if we magically assume monetary policy was perfect, Benen’s argument is wrong. I don’t want to repeat myself, so I’ll just call attention to my previous blog post which explained that it is critically important to look at when tax cuts (and increases) are implemented, not when they are enacted. The data is hardly exact, because I haven’t seen good research on the annual impact of bracket creep, but there was not much net tax relief during Reagan’s first couple of years because the tax cuts were phased in over several years and other taxes were going up. So the recession actually began when taxes were flat (or perhaps even rising) and the recovery began when the economy was receiving a net tax cut. That being said, I’m not arguing that the Reagan tax cuts ended the recession. They probably helped, to be sure, but we should do good tax policy to improve long-run growth, not because of some misguided effort to fine-tune short-run growth.

The second attack comes from some blog called Econospeak, where my newest fan wrote:

I’m scratching my head here as I thought the standard pseudo-supply-side line was that the deficit exploded in the 1980’s because government spending exploded. OK, the truth is that the ratio of Federal spending to GDP neither increased nor decreased during this period. Real tax revenues per capita fell which is why the deficit rose but this notion that the burden of government fell is not factually based.

Those are some interesting points, and I might respond to them if I wanted to open a new conversation, but they’re not germane to what I said. In my original post (the one he was attacking), I commented on the “burden of government” rather than the “burden of government spending.” I’m a fiscal policy economist, so I’m tempted to claim that the sun rises and sets based on what’s happening to taxes and spending, but such factors are just two of the many policies that influence economic performance. And with regard to my assertion that Reagan reduced the “burden of government,” I’ll defer to the rankings put together for the Economic Freedom of the World Index. The score for the United States improved from 8.03 to 8.38 between 1980 and 1990 (my guess is that it peaked in 1988, but they only have data for every five years). The folks on the left may be unhappy about it, but it is completely accurate to say Reagan reduced the burden of government. And while we don’t yet have data for the Obama years, there’s a 99 percent likelihood that America’s score will decline.

This is not a partisan argument, by the way. The Economic Freedom of the World chart shows that America’s score improved during the Clinton years, particularly his second term. And the data also shows that the U.S. score dropped during the Bush years. This is why I wrote a column back in 2007 advocating Clintonomics over Bushonomics. Partisan affiliation is not what matters. If we want more prosperity, the key is shrinking the burden of government.

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