Economics – Growth & Decline

Not-So-Random Thoughts (VII)

UPDATED 07/14/13

In “The Reality of the Wartime Economy,” Steven Horwitz and Michael J. McPhillips bang the drum for Robert Higgs’s account of the role of World War II in ending the Great Depression. Horwitz and McPhillips conclude:

The debate over World War II’s role in ending the Great Depression has enormous relevance in connection with the current anemic recovery from the Great Recession. We have offered evidence to support Robert Higgs’s argument that the wartime macroeconomic data significantly overstated the degree of genuine economic recovery. Higgs’s evidence rests on his reinterpretation of several traditional macroeconomic indicators to compensate for the distinct features of a wartime economy. We show that if one digs below the aggregates and looks at how American households lived during the war, as shown in the media, letters, and journals, Higgs’s case appears to be even stronger. Whatever the war’s effects on seemingly booming conventional macroeconomic aggregates, it entailed a retrogression in the average American’s living standards, and that disconnect should alert us to those aggregates’ limitations. Whenever government commands resources, those who finance this acquisition, whether through taxation or purchase of government bonds, incur opportunity costs. Whether the diverted resources go toward building tanks and guns or toward repairing bridges and roads does not alter this fact. As we continue to debate the effectiveness of large-scale government expenditure to speed recovery from the Great Recession, we should not be looking at the wartime experience of the 1940s as a guide.

I quite agree with the bottom line. (See especially my posts “A Keynesian Fantasy Land” and “The Keynesian Fallacy and Regime Uncertainty.”) But there is reason to believe that the glut of saving during World War II helped to fuel the post-war recovery. (See my posts “How the Great Depression Ended” and “Does ‘Pent Up’ Demand Explain the Post-War Recovery?“)

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Highly recommended: “What Difference Would Banning Guns Make?” at Political Calculations. The answer is “not much, if any.” Violence will out, especially when the demographics are right (or wrong, if you will). Which leads to my post “Crime, Explained.”

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A Bipartisan Nation of Beneficiaries” (The Pew Report, December 18, 2012) suggests (unsurprisingly) that

a majority of Americans (55%) have received government benefits from at least one of the six best-known federal entitlement programs.

The survey also finds that most Democrats (60%) and Republicans (52%) say they have benefited from a major entitlement program at some point in their lives. So have nearly equal shares of self-identifying conservatives (57%), liberals (53%) and moderates (53%).

What choice is there when the state (a) robs us blind and (b) penalizes initiative and success? In those conditions, most of us respond as one would expect — by feeding at the public trough. See, for example, “The Interest-Group Paradox.”

*     *     *

An increasingly regulated economy, that’s what we have, according to “Counting All the U.S. Government’s Regulations” (Political Calculations, October 18, 2012). And a heavy price we pay for it, as I’ve documented in “The Price of Government, Once More,” and the many posts linked to therein.

*     *     *

UPDATES:

Rich Lowry of National Review, famous mainly for having fired John Derbyshire, continues his attack on what Timothy Sandefur calls “Doughface libertarians”:

… Lincoln said, “I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and black races.” How could he say such a thing? Well, he said it in his debates with Stephen Douglas, when he was playing defense…. (“The Rancid Abraham Lincoln-Haters of the Libertarian Right,” The Daily Beast, June 17, 2013)

Not so fast, Mr. Lowry. Lincoln wasn’t just playing defense. See “The Hidden Tragedy of the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln,” wherein Lincoln’s plan for the colonization of blacks is discussed.

*     *     *

From Michael Ruse’s “Does Life Have a Purpose?” (Aeon, June 24, 2013):

… Today’s scientists are pretty certain that the problem of teleology at the individual organism level has been licked. Darwin really was right. Natural selection explains the design-like nature of organisms and their characteristics, without any need to talk about final causes. On the other hand, no natural selection lies behind mountains and rivers and whole planets. They are not design-like. That is why teleological talk is inappropriate….

This reminds me of Sandefur’s post, “Teleology without God,” which I addressed in “Evolution, Human Nature, and ‘Natural Rights’” and “More Thoughts about Evolutionary Teleology.”

The Price of Government, Once More

I was pleased to read a recent post by Mark Perry, “Federal regulations have lowered real GDP growth by 2% per year since 1949 and made America 72% poorer.” It wasn’t the message that pleased me; it was the corroboration of what I have been saying for several years.

Regulation is one of the many counterproductive activities that is financed by government spending. The main economic effect of government spending, aside from regulation, is the deadweight loss it imposes on the economy; that is, it moves resources from productive uses to less productive, unproductive, and counterproductive ones. And then there is taxation (progressive and otherwise), which penalizes success and deters growth-producing investment.

All in all, the price of government is extremely high. But most voters are unaware of the price, and so they continue to elect and support the very “free lunch” politicians who are, in fact, robbing them blind.

Consider, for example, these posts by James Pethokoukis:
Is the Era of Fast U.S. Economic Growth Coming to an End?AEIdeas, July 13, 2013
My Counter: Why U.S. Economic Growth Doesn’t Have to Come to an End,” AEIdeas, August 23, 2012

Pethokoukis’s thesis, with which I agree, is that government — not lack of opportunity — is the main obstacle to the resumption of a high rate of growth.

For much more, see:
The Price of Government
The Price of Government Redux
The Mega-Depression
Ricardian Equivalence Reconsidered
The Real Burden of Government
The Rahn Curve at Work
The “Forthcoming Financial Collapse”
Estimating the Rahn Curve: Or, How Government Inhibits Economic Growth
The Deficit Commission’s Deficit of Understanding
The Bowles-Simpson Report
The Bowles-Simpson Band-Aid
The Stagnation Thesis
America’s Financial Crisis Is Now
Estimating the Rahn Curve: A Sequel
Lay My (Regulatory) Burden Down
More Evidence for the Rahn Curve

 

Taxes Matter

A recent story in The Telegraph (UK) leads with this:

Almost two-thirds of the country’s million-pound earners disappeared from Britain after the introduction of the 50 [percent] top rate of tax, figures have disclosed.

Surprise, surprise!

It happens here, too. For example, the net flow of persons among States (i.e., pattern of inter-State migration) is strongly determined by the relative tax burdens of the States (including taxes imposed by local governments).

The table below gives a hint of the strong relationship between tax burdens and inter-State migration. “In/Out represents the number of residents who moved into a State from another State, divided by the number of residents who moved out of the State to another State. The tax burden represents total State and local taxes levied on residents of a State, divided by income earned by residents of the State. (Sources and methods are discussed in the footnote to this post.)

In-out ratios and tax burdens of States

Green shading indicates States in the top (best) one-third of each distribution; gray shading indicates States in the bottom (worst) one-third. Alaska and the District of Columbia are omitted for reasons discussed in the footnote.  As it turns out, statistical analysis yields two significant determinants of a State’s In/Out ratio:

  • whether it is situated in the “Blue,” heavily unionized, North Central region of the United States, with its relatively high unemployment rate; and
  • the State’s tax burden.

Take California (please). In 2010 alone, the Golden State’s heavy tax burden — 11.2 percent vs. the national average of 9.5 percent — cost it 54,000 residents. And California is not the most repulsive of States (“tax-wise”). That “honor” goes to New York, with a burden of 12.8 percent in 2010 — a burden that cost the Empire State 66,000 residents in that year. Then there is Wisconsin — with only 1/6 the population of California — which lost 33,000 current and prospective residents because it is in the North Central region and has a tax burden of 11.1 percent.

When low In/Out ratios persist for years — as they have in California, New York, and most of the North Central States — the result is a massive reduction in the number of taxpaying citizens and businesses. Persistently low In/Out ratios lead to fiscal death-spirals:

  • Current and prospective residents and businesses are driven away by high taxes and other unfavorable conditions (e.g. unionization).
  • Instead of paring government and taking other steps to make the State more attractive (e.g., playing tough with public-sector unions), taxes are raised on remaining residents and businesses.
  • More residents and business are driven away.
  • Some amount of paring may eventually occur, but taxes remain disproportionately high (and other unfavorable conditions usually persist), so more residents and businesses are driven away.
  • And so on.

Detroit — which lost more than 60 percent of its population between 1950 and 2010 — is a prime example of a jurisdiction in a death-spiral, but it is far from the only one.

But voting with one’s feet, which works on the municipal and State levels, does not work on the national level. And the proponents of Big Government understand that. It is a sad fact that, for most citizens, the cost of fleeing the country for a better place (if one can be found) would far outweigh the additional burden of higher marginal tax rates, higher rates on capital gains, the perpetuation and expansion of “entitlements,” and the ever-growing volume of regulations (which are taxes in a different guise).

What the proponents of Big Government do not understand — or do not care about — is that they are killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. When people cannot reap the hard-won rewards of their labors and their investments, they labor and invest less. The result is slower and slower economic growth, and the imminent Europeannirvana” so devoutly wished by proponents of Big Government.

Related posts:
The Laffer Curve, “Fiscal Responsibility,” and Economic Growth
The Causes of Economic Growth
In the Long Run We Are All Poorer
A Short Course in Economics
Addendum to a Short Course in Economics
The Price of Government
The Price of Government Redux
The Mega-Depression
As Goes Greece
Ricardian Equivalence Reconsidered
The Real Burden of Government
The Illusion of Prosperity and Stability
Estimating the Rahn Curve: Or, How Government Inhibits Economic Growth
Taxing the Rich
More about Taxing the Rich
America’s Financial Crisis Is Now
A Keynesian Fantasy Land
The Keynesian Fallacy and Regime Uncertainty
Why the “Stimulus” Failed to Stimulate
The “Jobs Speech” That Obama Should Have Given
Say’s Law, Government, and Unemployment
Unemployment and Economic Growth
Regime Uncertainty and the Great Recession
Regulation as Wishful Thinking
The Real Multiplier
Vulgar Keynesianism and Capitalism
Why Are Interest Rates So Low?
The Commandeered Economy
Stocks for the Long Run?
We Owe It to Ourselves
Stocks for the Long Run? (Part II)
Estimating the Rahn Curve: A Sequel
In Defense of the 1%
Bonds for the Long Run?
The Real Multiplier (II)
Lay My (Regulatory) Burden Down
The Burden of Government
Economic Growth Since World War II
More Evidence for the Rahn Curve
The Economy Slogs Along
The Obama Effect: Disguised Unemployment
The Stock Market as a Leading Indicator of GDP
Government in Macroeconomic Perspective
Where We Are, Economically
Keynesianism: Upside-Down Economics in the Collectivist Cause
The Economic Outlook in Brief
Is Taxation Slavery? (yes)

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EXPLANATORY NOTE AND REFERENCES:

I began with Census Bureau estimates of State-to-State migrations in 2010. I derived estimates of in- and out-migration for each State and the District of Columbia. The “turnover” rates for Alaska and the District of Columbia proved to be much higher than the rates for the other 49 States. Preliminary analyses of the relationship between In/Out ratio and key variables (e.g., tax burden) confirmed that the inclusion of Alaska and D.C. in the analysis would bias the results, so I dropped those two entities from the analysis.

For the other 49 States, I considered the relationship between In/Out ratio and several variables:

  • population (from the same source as migration statistics);
  • regional effects, represented by dummy variables for Northeast & Mid-Atlantic (CT, DE, ME, MA, NH, NJ, NY, PA, RI, VT); North Central (IL, IN, MI, MN, OH, WI); South & Southeast (AL, AR, FL, GA, KY, LA, MD, MS, MO, NC, OK, SC, TN, TX, VA, WV); Plains & Mountain States (AZ, CO, IA, ID, KS, MT, NE, NV, NM, ND, SD, UT, WY); and West (CA, HI, OR, WA). (The statistical results are unaffected by reasonable variations in assignments — MD and VA to Northeast & Mid-Atlantic, TX to Plains & Mountain States, for example.)

Regressions on various combinations of explanatory variables yielded one statistically significant equation:

In/Out = 1.60 – 0.21NC – 5.58TB

where NC is 1 if a State is in the North Central region (otherwise it is 0), and TB is the State’s tax burden (expressed as a decimal fraction). Each State’s tax burden includes local taxes and taxes imposed on the State’s residents by other States. (A person who lives in New Jersey and works in New York knows that one price of living in New Jersey is the payment of New York’s income taxes.)

The equation and its constant and coefficients are significant at the 1-percent level, and better. The standard error of the estimate is 0.15, against a mean for In/Out of 1.048. The residuals are randomly distributed with respect to the estimated values.)

According to the equation, a North Central State with a tax burden of 10.2 percent (the average for North Central States) would have an In/Out ratio of 0.82; the average for North Central States is 0.83. A State in another region with a tax burden of 9.4 percent (the average for all other States) would have an In/Out ratio of 1.08; the  average for States not in the North Central region is 1.08.

Here is a plot of estimated vs. actual In/Out ratios:

In-out ratios_estimated vs actual

The outliers — States with residuals greater than 1 standard error — are indicated by the green shading (good) and gray shading (bad):

Residuals for estimate of In-out ratio vs Ncent and tax burden

The top 6 States have something extra going for them; the bottom 9 States have something extra going against them. The extras could be an especially hospitable or inhospitable business climate, climatic and/or geographical allure (or lack thereof), cost of living, unemployment well above or below the national average, the political climate (“Blue” to “Red” shifts prevail), or something else. Whatever the case, I am easily persuaded that New York (where I have lived and run a business), Michigan (my home State), California (a well-known basket case), Nevada (ditto), New Jersey (ditto), and West Virginia (with which I am all too familiar) have a lot going against them, even when it is not an excessive tax burden.

Well-Founded Pessimism

I have never been more pessimistic than I am now about the future of the United States. Not even in the aftermath of 9/11, when the enemy was without and could be defeated, with persistence and resolve.

Patrick Buchanan observes that

Americans are already seceding from one another—ethnically, culturally, politically. Middle-class folks flee high-tax California, as Third World immigrants, legal and illegal, pour in to partake of the cornucopia of social welfare benefits the Golden Land dispenses.

High-tax states like New York now send tens of thousands of pension checks to Empire State retirees in tax-free Florida. Communities of seniors are rising that look like replicas of the suburbs of the 1950s. People gravitate toward their own kind. Call it divorce, American-style.

What author William Bishop called “The Big Sort”—the sorting out of people by political beliefs—proceeds. Eighteen states have gone Democratic in six straight presidential elections. A similar number have gone Republican.

“Can we all just get along?” asked Rodney King during the Los Angeles riot of 1992. Well, if we can’t, we can at least dwell apart.

After all, it’s a big country.

Buchanan has it right — until he counsels voluntary segregation as an antidote to statism. Liberty lovers cannot escape the dictatorial grip of the central government simply by living in a Red locale in a Red State. Big Brother is everywhere: carting off chunks of our income; dictating the manufacture of products that we use; dictating the wages and benefits that must be paid to the employees of companies that we patronize; driving up the cost of the health care that we need while driving providers and insurers out of the market for health care; subsidizing the follies of State and local governments through grants of “federal” (taxpayer) money; setting standards for education at local public schools; undermining the quality of the products and services we buy, locally and on the web, by dictating the racial and gender composition of workforces; driving the economy into stagnation (if not outright decline) through profligate spending on “entitlements”; and on an on.

The country is not big enough — not by a long shot — for voluntary segregation to work. Something has to give, and give soon, or those of us who prefer liberty to slavery will never escape the serfdom into which our “leaders” are marching us. What has to give, of course, is our attachment to the union that was preserved by the force of arms in 1865. As long as we cling to that union we remain subject to its now-irreversible statist commitments. At best, the election of conservative presidents and legislators will slow our descent into total statism, but it will not halt that descent.

Finally (for now), I am rightly pessimistic about the willingness of the left to allow a return to the true federalism that was supposed to have been ensured by the Constitution. The left’s mantra is control, control, control — and it will not relinquish its control of the machinery of government. The left’s idea of liberty is the “liberty” to follow its dictates. I will continue to point out the follies and fallacies of leftist policies, but I will not waste my time by dissecting the left’s specious arguments for its policies. Enough!

More to come.

Much Ado about the Price-Earnings Ratio

Does the long-term trend of the price-earnings ratio have an upward tilt? You might think so, if you encounter Robert Shiller’s Cyclically Adjusted Price-Earnings (CAPE) ratio for the S&P Composite. It looks like this:


Derived from Robert Shiller’s data set at http://www.econ.yale.edu/~shiller/data/ie_data.xls.

The plot begins in January 1881 and extends through October 2012. As explained here, CAPE is supposed to more accurately reflect the value of stocks:

Legendary economist and value investor Benjamin Graham noticed the … bizarre P/E behavior during the Roaring Twenties and subsequent market crash. Graham collaborated with David Dodd to devise a more accurate way to calculate the market’s value, which they discussed in their 1934 classic book, Security Analysis. They attributed the illogical P/E ratios to temporary and sometimes extreme fluctuations in the business cycle. Their solution was to divide the price by a multi-year average of earnings and suggested 5, 7 or 10-years. In recent years, Yale professor Robert Shiller, the author of Irrational Exuberance, has reintroduced the concept to a wider audience of investors and has selected the 10-year average of “real” (inflation-adjusted) earnings as the denominator. As the accompanying chart illustrates, this ratio closely tracks the real (inflation-adjusted) price of the S&P Composite. The historic average is 16.4. Shiller refers to this ratio as the Cyclically Adjusted Price Earnings Ratio, abbreviated as CAPE….

CAPE can be quite misleading, however:

The problem with [the 10-year moving average of earnings] is that the typical or average business cycle has been significantly shorter than 10 years. According to data compiled by the National Bureau of Economic Research, economic contractions have become shorter and expansions longer in recent years. Furthermore, while the business cycle has lengthened in recent years, it is still considerably shorter than 10 years. Measured trough to trough, the average business cycle has been six years and one month for the most recent 11 cycles. Measured peak to peak, the average is five years and six months.

The problem with using a moving average that is longer than the business cycle is that it will overestimate “true” average earnings during a contraction and underestimate “true” average earnings during an expansion. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, the last recession ended in June 2009 and the U.S. economy is now in an expansion phase. Thus, the average earnings estimate used by the July 2011 CAPE is too low and produces a bearishly biased estimate of value.

Using Shiller’s data, a July 2011 CAPE based on the average of six years of real earnings is 21.26 and the long-term average CAPE based on the average of six years of real earnings is 15.78. Comparison to this average indicates that stocks are overvalued by 34.7%. While still signaling that stocks are overvalued, the degree of overvaluation is much less than the 42.3% estimate provided by the July 2011 CAPE based on a 10-year average of real earnings.

When viewed correctly, then, the long-term P-E ratio for the S&P Composite (based on current earnings) looks like this:


Derived from Shiller’s data set. The vertical bars show variations of 1 standard error around the means for each of the three eras.

If I had fitted a long-term trend line through the entire series, it would tilt upward, as it does for CAPE. But that trend would be misleading because it would give undue weight to the stock-market bubble of the late 1990s and the artificially high P-E ratios resulting from the earnings crash during the Great Recession.

In fact, a trend line for the period 1871-1995 would be perfectly flat. Moreover, as shown in the graph immediately above, there is little difference between the first half of that period (1871-1933) and second half (1934-1995). The standard-error bars for both eras are almost the same height and vertically centered at almost the same value. The second era is just slightly (but insignificantly) more volatile than the first era.

As indicated by the standard-error bars, the P-E ratio for 1996-2012 is markedly higher than for the earlier eras. But, of late, the P-E ratio shows signs of returning to the normal range for 1871-1995.

In sum — and contrary to the story that is peddled by “bulls” — I doubt that the real long-term trend of the P-E ratio is upward. Rather, the apparent upward trend reflects bizarre happenings in the past 16 years: an unprecedented price bubble and a brief but steep earnings crash. I would therefore caution investors not to buy stocks in the belief that the P-E trend is upward. For reasons discussed here, the long-term trend of stock prices is more likely downward.

Related posts:
The Price of Government
The Price of Government Redux
The Mega-Depression
Ricardian Equivalence Reconsidered
The Real Burden of Government
The Rahn Curve at Work
The “Forthcoming Financial Collapse”
Estimating the Rahn Curve: Or, How Government Inhibits Economic Growth
The Deficit Commission’s Deficit of Understanding
The Bowles-Simpson Report
The Bowles-Simpson Band-Aid
The Stagnation Thesis
America’s Financial Crisis Is Now
Stocks for the Long Run?
Estimating the Rahn Curve: A Sequel
Bonds for the Long Run?
The Real Multiplier (II)
Lay My (Regulatory) Burden Down
Economic Growth Since World War II
More Evidence for the Rahn Curve
Progressive Taxation Is Alive and Well in the U.S. of A.
The Economy Slogs Along
The Obama Effect: Disguised Unemployment
The Stock Market as a Leading Indicator of GDP
Where We Are, Economically

The Economic Outlook in Brief

I have elsewhere quantified the connection between government spending and economic growth (e.g., here and here).* I have also shown that stock prices indicate the direction of economic growth. It should not surprise you if I say that

  • the re-election of Obama portends further growth of government spending — specifically, the uncontrolled growth of entitlement spending, as accelerated by Obamacare;
  • the rate of economic growth will continue to decline for as long as entitlements grow as a percentage of GDP; and
  • in anticipation of slower economic growth, stock prices will continue to decline, in real terms.

You can follow the links in the first paragraph if you wish to learn more. Here is a bit of additional evidence for my gloomy outlook. The real value of the S&P Composite Index has fluctuated in trough-to peak-to trough cycles, four of which have been completed since the 1870s:


Derived from Robert Shiller’s data set at http://www.econ.yale.edu/~shiller/data/ie_data.xls.

We are now on the downside of the fifth cycle, which began in July 1982 and peaked in August 2000. If the present cycle follows the pattern of the other two long cycles, it may not bottom out until sometime after 2020  (though it may never end if economic growth continues to decline). And if it does bottom out then, the real value of the S&P composite will have risen only about two-fold from where its value at the start of the cycle in July 1982. In nominal terms, the S&P Composite will have dropped to about half its current level by 2020.

But, as I say, the stock market merely anticipates underlying economic conditions. Those conditions seem destined to worsen because the entitlements mess will not be dealt with for as long as there is gridlock in Washington.

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* See also the second graph in this post by James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute. The graph highlights the inverse relationship between entitlement spending and growth-producing innovation. Entitlement spending diminishes investments in innovation by (a) diverting resources from productive to unproductive uses and (b) penalizing (taxing) productive activities that fund innovation and its implementation.

Related posts:
The Laffer Curve, “Fiscal Responsibility,” and Economic Growth
The Causes of Economic Growth
In the Long Run We Are All Poorer
A Short Course in Economics
Addendum to a Short Course in Economics
The Price of Government
The Price of Government Redux
The Mega-Depression
As Goes Greece
Ricardian Equivalence Reconsidered
The Real Burden of Government
The Illusion of Prosperity and Stability
Estimating the Rahn Curve: Or, How Government Inhibits Economic Growth
Taxing the Rich
More about Taxing the Rich
America’s Financial Crisis Is Now
A Keynesian Fantasy Land
The Keynesian Fallacy and Regime Uncertainty
Why the “Stimulus” Failed to Stimulate
The “Jobs Speech” That Obama Should Have Given
Say’s Law, Government, and Unemployment
Unemployment and Economic Growth
Regime Uncertainty and the Great Recession
Regulation as Wishful Thinking
The Real Multiplier
Vulgar Keynesianism and Capitalism
Why Are Interest Rates So Low?
The Commandeered Economy
Stocks for the Long Run?
We Owe It to Ourselves
Stocks for the Long Run? (Part II)
Estimating the Rahn Curve: A Sequel
In Defense of the 1%
Bonds for the Long Run?
The Real Multiplier (II)
Lay My (Regulatory) Burden Down
The Burden of Government
Economic Growth Since World War II
More Evidence for the Rahn Curve
The Economy Slogs Along
The Obama Effect: Disguised Unemployment
The Stock Market as a Leading Indicator of GDP
Government in Macroeconomic Perspective
Where We Are, Economically
Keynesianism: Upside-Down Economics in the Collectivist Cause

“Redness,” Unemployment, and the Election

“Redder” is better, generally speaking. For many reasons, including economic health. Using Bush’s average margin of loss or victory in 2004 and 2008 as an index of “redness” (and disregarding the anomalous 2008 race), here is the relationship between unemployment and a State’s degree of “redness”:


Derived from Bureau of Labor Statistics, Unemployment Rates for States (preliminary September estimates, issued 10/19/12), and official tabulations of popular votes by State. The correlation, though not strong, is statistically significant (less than 1-percent probability of occurring by chance).

The “outlier” on the left is the District of Columbia. DC, despite its predominantly black population, does not have an exceedingly high unemployment rate because the federal government and its contractors are havens of patronage and reverse discrimination. In any event, the omission of DC would strengthen the correlation, and would yield a more pronounced negative relationship between “redness” and unemployment: y = -0.0386x + 7.6566; R² = 0.1434.

I have seen some “news” stories which suggest that lower unemployment in swing States will help Obama. Such speculation strikes me as wishful thinking by left-biased media. In fact, of the  four States that seem to have swung to Romney — Florida, Missouri, North Carolina, and Virginia — the first three experienced better-than-average improvements in unemployment from a year earlier. A possible reason for this apparent anomaly is that voters know that there has been little change in the real rate of unemployment. Further, they also know that unless Obama is kicked out, things will not get better very soon, if ever.

Making a Worse “Mess”

Obama and his pet grinning baboon VP like to claim that the economy is still in bad shape because of the “horrific mess” that they inherited from Bush. That the mess wasn’t Bush’s is lie number 1. That Obama’s policies would have “worked” but for Republican intransigence is lie number 2. There are many more lies lying around the Obama White House, but a distaste for nausea prevents me from detailing them.

I will give Obama the benefit of the doubt by measuring the effectiveness of his “stimulus” not by the current state of the economy, but by how far it has advanced the economy since the depth of the Great Recession. As it happens, the Great Recession bottomed in the second quarter of 2009. The latest estimates of real GDP, 12 quarters later, indicate real growth since the bottom of 2.2 percent a year. How does that stack up against previous post-WWII recessions? Here’s how:

Even the short-lived recoveries from the 1958 and 1980 recessions were more robust than the Obama recovery of 2009-2012. Enough said.

Related posts:
Economic Growth Since World War II
The Economy Slogs Along
The Obama Effect: Disguised Unemployment
Obama’s Economic Record in Perspective
Where We Are, Economically
Keynesianism: Upside-Down Economics in the Collectivist Cause

Keynesianism: Upside-Down Economics in the Collectivist Cause

A recent post, “Government in Macroeconomic Perspective,” is dauntingly long and replete with equations. The equations are simple ones, but may be off-putting to readers who are allergic to mathematical notation. Herewith is an abridged version of the post. Please refer to the original for details of the argument and references to supporting material.

A nation’s aggregate economic activity usually is measured by its Gross Domestic Product (GDP). I accept GDP as an aggregate, monetary measure of national output. But it is impossible to sum the true value of the myriad economic transactions that GDP is supposed to represent because each transaction means something different to the participants in the transaction; that is, the true value of economic goods is subjective.

GDP, nevertheless, affords a rough measure of the general level of a nation’s material well-being. All things being the same, a large fraction of a nation’s citizens — but certainly not all of them — will be better off materially if GDP is growing and worse off if it is shrinking. Governmental activities have led to an economy that produces a small fraction of its potential output. And yet, the true believers in big government seek to make it larger and ever more destructive.

Government spending – beyond a certain level — does not increase GDP, but generally redistributes and decreases it. Government spending is beneficial up to the point where it becomes a drain on GDP; that is, at the point where government exceeds a minimal, protective role and acts in ways that discourage productive effort.

Government spending enables governmental activities of five types:

  1. transfer payments to individuals (e.g., Social Security), which impose costs because the payments transfer income to those who did not earn from those who did;
  2. de facto transfer payments, namely, the compensation of government employees, and the compensation that flows to the employees, shareholders, and creditors of government contractors – all of which must be financed by private-sector entitites;
  3. purchases of consumables and capital that are used directly by government in the provision of government services (e.g., fuel for government vehicles, electricity for government buildings, government vehicles, and government buildings);
  4. the continuation, initiation, modification, and enforcement of tax codes, regulations, administrative procedures, statutes, ordinances, executive orders, and judicial decrees; and
  5. the financing of items 1 – 4.

The net effect of items 1 and 2 is almost certainly a reduction of GDP. Why? The diversion of income to the unproductive (e.g., persons on Social Security) and counterproductive (e.g., government employees who write and enforce regulations) – by whatever means (taxing or borrowing) is bound to disincentivize work, saving, innovation, and investment. That causes GDP to be lower than it otherwise would be, but the effect is multiplicative, not merely a matter of addition or subtraction. (A Keynesian would argue that the actions encompassed in item 1 tend to raise GDP because the recipients of nominal transfer payments probably have higher marginal propensities to consume than do the persons from whom the transfer payments are exacted. This facile claim overlooks the disincentivizing effects of taxation on the more productive components of an economy, and on the resulting reduction in work effort and growth-producing investment.)

Similarly, the diversion of resources to items 3 and 4 cannot be thought of as additions to or subtractions from GDP, but as multiplicative, because of the same kind of disincentivizing leverage. For example, one effect of item 4 is the unobserved but very real burden placed on the private sector by federal regulations. It has been estimated, reliably, that those regulations impose a hidden cost greater than 15 percent of GDP.

Then there is item 5: financing. In the end, it matters not whether governmental activities are financed by borrowing or taxation, and if by borrowing, whether the lenders are domestic or foreign. This is because it is government spending that diverts resources from private uses, and it is government spending that enables destructive governmental activities (e.g., the writing and enforcement of regulations).

Government long ago became larger than necessary to perform its minimal protective functions. Consider what has happened since 1890, when the early legislative “accomplishments” of the Progressive Era – the establishment of the Interstate Commerce Commission in 1887 and the passage of the Sherman Antitrust Act in 1890 – began to weigh on the economy.

Real GDP (in year 2005 dollars) was $319 billion in 1890; it had risen to $13.3 trillion in 2011 — a compound growth rate of about 3.1 percent. But real GDP in 2011 would have been more than $104 trillion had growth continued at an annual rate of 4.9 percent after 1890 (the rate of growth from 866 through 1890). What happened? The heavy hand of government (at all levels) — especially after 1929 — made itself felt by discouraging work, discouraging the saving that makes investment possible, discouraging innovation, and (even to the extent that innovation persists) discouraging the investments required to bring innovation on line. How? It begins with the diversion of resources to governmental activities, and is compounded by the cumulative disincentivizing effects of taxes, regulations, administrative procedures, statutes, ordinances, executive orders, and judicial decrees.

Defenders of big government will say that the rate of growth could not have been sustained at something like 5 percent. But such an assertion, if it is based on anything other than ignorance, is based on a simple, sub-exponential model of growth, where returns on investment are diminishing. This model overlooks the effects of innovation and recombination (the use of previous innovations in new ways). If the model of ever-diminishing growth were correct, the U.S. economy would not have experienced rising growth in the first 20 to 25 years after the end of World War II. No, the defenders of sub-exponential growth must look to the Great Society — and to the continuous expansion of the regulatory-welfare state — if they wish to understand the artificially low rate at which the economy is growing: currently about 2 percent a year.

Despite what I have said here about the deleterious effects of bigger-than-minimal government, there are true believers who maintain that the greater the scope and scale of government, the better and richer America will be. These true believers evidently have not considered the cumulative effect  of big government on the incomes and wealth of Americans. As the preceding analysis suggests, those relatively few Americans who would not be better off with minimal government would be the beneficiaries of a pool of charitable giving that is vastly greater than the present pool.

That big government might be harmful, even to the “little people” who are its supposed beneficiaries, is of no account to its worshipers – as long as they run it, advise in the running of it, profit by it, or simply enjoy watching it run roughshod over the lives and fortunes of others. Power and the vicarious enjoyment of power are habit-forming drugs.

The ranks of true believers are peopled such left-wing economists as Brad DeLong, James K. Galbraith, and Paul Krugman. They adhere to and popularize two major rationalizations of big government — the Keynesian fallacy and the myth that government is the same as community.

In “A Keynesian Fantasy Land” I discuss six reasons for the ineffectiveness of Keynesian “stimulus”; in summary:

1. The “leakage” to imports

“Part of the extra spending stimulus fails to stimulate domestic income because as much as 0.3 of the multiplier might leak out through extra imports.” (Anthony de Jasay, “Micro, Macro, and Fantasy Economics,” Library of Economics and Liberty, December 6, 2010)

2. The disincentivizing effects of government borrowing and spending

Even if additional debt does not crowd out private-sector borrowing to finance business expansion, it will nevertheless inhibit investments in business expansion. This inhibiting effect is compounded by the reasonable expectation that many items in a “stimulus” package will become permanent fixtures in the government’s budget

3. The timing-targeting problem

The lag between the initial agitation for “stimulus” and its realization. In the extreme, the lag can be so great as to have no effect other than to divert employed resources from private to government uses. But even where there is a relatively brief lag, “stimulus” spending is essentially wasted if the result is simply to divert already employed resources from private to government uses.

4. Inadequate Aggregate Demand (AD) is a symptom, not a cause

A drop in AD usually is caused by an exogenous event, and that exogenous event usually is a credit crisis. Pumping money into the economy — especially when it results in the bidding up the prices of already employed resources — does not reinflate the punctured credit bubble that caused the slowdown.

5. Inequity, moral hazard, and their consequences

Favorable treatment of defaulters and failing companies generates considerable popular resentment, which — in the present instance — has found a vocal and politically potent outlet in the Tea Party movement. Favorable treatment of defaulters and failing companies also creates moral hazard; that is, it encourage unwise risk-taking that can (and probably will) spark future crises, leading the government to assume more obligations and impose more regulations, in a futile effort to change human nature.

6. The human factor

Those who cling to the Keynesian multiplier would like the world to comply with it. But the world does not because it is filled with people, whose behavior is not determined (or described) by a simplistic model but by their responses to incentives, their political predispositions, their informed and reasonable skepticism about the consequences of government intervention in economic matters, and — above all else — their fallibility.

In truth, the Keynesian multiplier is a mathematical fiction, as explained here, and government spending is in fact destructive of economic growth, as discussed here and in some of the posts listed at the end.

“We owe it to ourselves” is a phrase used by Paul Krugman (among others on the left). It is a variant of the stock rationale for socializing gains and losses: “We’re all in this together.” As if the citizens of the United States were members of an extraordinarily large community, with a perpetual town-hall meeting conducted by the government of the United States.

Consider the intellectual dishonesty of Krugman’s claim that “we” owe the debt of the U.S. government to “ourselves.” Who are “we”? If government borrows money and spends it on goodies for Congressman X, Y, and Z’s districts, how do I get my cut? Or does the happiness generated in Congressman X, Y, and Z’s districts simply radiate in waves across the country, eventually reaching me and making me feel better?

If the borrowed money makes (some) people in Congressman X, Y, and Z’s districts better off, why is it that “we” (i.e. the rest of us and/or our descendants) end up repaying the debt that made those others better off? I do not understand how I “owe it to myself” when (a) I didn’t ask to borrow the money and (b) I gained nothing as a result of the borrowing.

You might claim that my personal wishes are of no account because Congress and the president are duly elected by majorities of voters. But that is tantamount to saying that Congress and the president possess a kind of omniscient super-consciousness that somehow overrides the harm, hate, and discontent that flow from their acts.

The left succeeds, in large part, because apologists for big government — from Krugman to Obama — are skillful practitioners of slippery logic. An assumption here, an assumption there, and government spending is made out to be a source of enrichment. The hard truth is that government spending — and the big government that it supports — is the source of America’s impending impoverishment.

Related posts:
Trade Deficit Hysteria
Trade, Government Spending, and Economic Growth
The Causes of Economic Growth
In the Long Run We Are All Poorer
A Short Course in Economics
Addendum to a Short Course in Economics
The Price of Government
Gains from Trade
The Price of Government Redux
The Indivisibility of Economic and Social Liberty
Trade
The Mega-Depression
As Goes Greece
Ricardian Equivalence Reconsidered
The Real Burden of Government
Toward a Risk-Free Economy
Enough of “Social Welfare”
Subjective Value: A Proof by Example
Microeconomics and Macroeconomics
The Illusion of Prosperity and Stability
Society and the State
I Want My Country Back
Estimating the Rahn Curve: Or, How Government Inhibits Economic Growth
Our Enemy, the State
“Intellectuals and Society”: A Review
Subjective Value: A Proof by Example
The Stagnation Thesis
Taxing the Rich
More about Taxing the Rich
Does World War II “Prove” Keynesianism?
Money, Credit, and Economic Fluctuations
A Keynesian Fantasy Land
The Keynesian Fallacy and Regime Uncertainty
Creative Destruction, Reification, and Social Welfare
Why the “Stimulus” Failed to Stimulate
The “Jobs Speech” That Obama Should Have Given
Say’s Law, Government, and Unemployment
Regime Uncertainty and the Great Recession
Regulation as Wishful Thinking
The Real Multiplier
Vulgar Keynesianism and Capitalism
Why Are Interest Rates So Low?
Merit Goods, Positive Rights, and Cosmic Justice
The Commandeered Economy
We Owe It to Ourselves
Estimating the Rahn Curve: A Sequel
The Real Multiplier (II)
Lay My (Regulatory) Burden Down
The Burden of Government
Economic Growth Since World War II
More Evidence for the Rahn Curve
“Big SIS”: A Review
The Capitalist Paradox Meets the Interest-Group Paradox
Progressive Taxation Is Alive and Well in the U.S. of A.
The Obama Effect: Disguised Unemployment
Some Thoughts about Leftist Hypocrisy
The State as Jailer
Where We Are, Economically

Where We Are, Economically

UPDATED (10/26/12)

The advance estimate of GDP for the third quarter of 2012 has been released. Real growth continues to slog along at about 2 percent. I have updated the graph, but the text needs no revision.

*  *   *

It occurred to me that the trend line in the second graph of “The Economy Slogs Along” is misleading. It is linear, when it should be curvilinear. Here is a better version:


Derived from the October 26, 2012 release of GDP estimates by the Bureau of Economic Analysis. (Contrary to the position of the National Bureau of Economic Research, there was no recession in 2000-2001. For my definition of a recession, see “Economic Growth Since World War II.”)

The more descriptive regression line underscores the moral of “Obama’s Economic Record in Perspective,” which is this:

The claims by Obama and his retinue about O’s supposed “rescue” of the economy from the abyss of depression are ludicrous. (See, for example, “A Keynesian Fantasy Land,” “The Keynesian Fallacy and Regime Uncertainty,” “Why the “Stimulus” Failed to Stimulate,” “Regime Uncertainty and the Great Recession,” The Real Multiplier,” “The Real Multiplier (II),”The Economy Slogs Along,” and “The Obama Effect: Disguised Unemployment.”) Nevertheless our flannel-mouthed president his sycophants insist that he has done great things for the country, though the only great thing that he could do is to leave it alone.

Obama is not to blame for the Great Recession, but the sluggish recovery is due to his anti-business rhetoric and policies (including Obamacare, among others). All that Obama can rightly take “credit” for is an acceleration of the downward trend of economic growth.

Related posts:
Are We Mortgaging Our Children’s Future?
In the Long Run We Are All Poorer
Mr. Greenspan Doth Protest Too Much
The Price of Government
Fascism and the Future of America
The Indivisibility of Economic and Social Liberty
Rationing and Health Care
The Fed and Business Cycles
The Commandeered Economy
The Perils of Nannyism: The Case of Obamacare
The Price of Government Redux
As Goes Greece
The State of the Union: 2010
The Shape of Things to Come
Ricardian Equivalence Reconsidered
The Real Burden of Government
Toward a Risk-Free Economy
The Rahn Curve at Work
The Illusion of Prosperity and Stability
More about the Perils of Obamacare
Health Care “Reform”: The Short of It
The Mega-Depression
I Want My Country Back
The “Forthcoming Financial Collapse”
Estimating the Rahn Curve: Or, How Government Inhibits Economic Growth
The Deficit Commission’s Deficit of Understanding
The Bowles-Simpson Report
The Bowles-Simpson Band-Aid
The Stagnation Thesis
America’s Financial Crisis Is Now
Understanding Hayek
Money, Credit, and Economic Fluctuations
A Keynesian Fantasy Land
The Keynesian Fallacy and Regime Uncertainty
Why the “Stimulus” Failed to Stimulate
The “Jobs Speech” That Obama Should Have Given
Say’s Law, Government, and Unemployment
Regime Uncertainty and the Great Recession
Regulation as Wishful Thinking
Vulgar Keynesianism and Capitalism
Why Are Interest Rates So Low?
Don’t Just Stand There, “Do Something”
The Commandeered Economy
Stocks for the Long Run?
We Owe It to Ourselves
Stocks for the Long Run? (Part II)
Bonds for the Long Run?
The Real Multiplier (II)
The Burden of Government
Economic Growth Since World War II
More Evidence for the Rahn Curve
The Economy Slogs Along
The Obama Effect: Disguised Unemployment
Obama’s Economic Record in Perspective

Government in Macroeconomic Perspective

 I. INTRODUCTION

A nation’s aggregate economic activity usually is measured by its Gross Domestic Product (GDP). I accept GDP as an aggregate, monetary measure of national output. But it is impossible to sum the true value of the myriad economic transactions that GDP is supposed to represent because each transaction means something different to the participants in the transaction; that is, the true value of economic goods is subjective. (See, for example, Peter Boettke’s “Austrian School of Economics,” at The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics., and my posts, “Subjective Value: A Proof by Example” and “Microeconomics and Macroeconomics.”)

GDP, nevertheless, affords a rough measure of the general level of a nation’s material well-being. All things being the same, a large fraction of a nation’s citizens — but certainly not all of them — will be better off materially if GDP is growing and worse off if it is shrinking. But no one who is paying attention to the state of the nation should mistake material progress for real progress. (See, for example, “I Want My Country Back.”)

The usual way of representing GDP is called the expenditure method. In simple form, it expresses GDP this way:

GDP = private consumption + gross investment + government spending + (exportsimports), or

GDP = C + I + G + (X – M)

Note: “Gross” means that GDP measures production regardless of the various uses to which that production can be put. Production can be used for immediate consumption, for investment in new fixed assets or inventories, or for replacing depreciated fixed assets. “Domestic” means that GDP measures production that takes place within the country’s borders. In the expenditure-method equation given above, the exports-minus-imports term is necessary in order to null out expenditures on things not produced in the country (imports) and add in things produced but not sold in the country (exports). (Taken from “Gross domestic product” at Wikipedia. See also Mack Ott’s “National Income Accounts” at The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics.)

This equation has become so familiar that its correctness is taken for granted. But a bit of reflection reveals it as a model of inconsistency. The dichotomy between consumption and investment is sensible. But the goods acquired and sold in international trade are of the same two types; there is no reason to segregate them from consumption and investment. This is especially true because the sum of consumption and investment is greater than it would be in the absence of international trade. Government, on the other hand, is a net consumer of economic output, not a net producer of it, as the “+ G” term might suggest.

With that background, I will offer an alternative to the standard expenditure method of describing GDP. The journey is step-wise: from a closed economy without international trade or government to an economy with international trade, but without government, to an economy with both international trade and government. Along the way, I fully acknowledge the importance of government as a contributor to GDP, as long as its role is to foster beneficial exchange by maintaining the rule of law and defending Americans from predators, at home and abroad.

That said, government activities (as reflected in total government spending) have led to an economy that produces a small fraction of its potential output. And yet, the true believers in big government seek to make it larger and ever more destructive. I expand on these points at length in Part II, An Alternative Expenditure Model; Part III, The High Cost of Big Government; and Part IV, The Heart of the Problem: Big-Government Worship and Pseudo-Intellectualism. (Continued below the fold.) (more…)

The Stock Market as a Leading Indicator of GDP

Stock prices are notoriously volatile, even when measured by a broad index like the S&P Composite. You might think that the S&P Composite is sensitive to broad changes in economic activity, as measured by GDP, for instance. But, as it turns out the S&P Composite, despite its volatility, is a leading indicator of GDP.

I begin with this graph:


Sources: The index of real GDP is derived from estimates of real GDP available at MeasuringWorth.com. The index of the value of the S&P Composite index is derived from Robert Shiller’s data set at http://www.econ.yale.edu/~shiller/data/ie_data.xls.

It is not apparent in the preceding graph, but GDP lags the S&P Composite. The correlation between the percentage change in real GDP and the percentage change in the real S&P composite in the same year is 0.43 (r-squared = .19). The correlation between the change in GDP and the change in the S&P a year earlier is 0.36 (r-squared = 0.13). That correlation is considerably stronger than the correlation between the change in GDP and the change in the S&P a year later (-0.10; r-squared = 0.01), which suggests that the S&P index is a leading indicator of GDP, not the the other way around.

In graphs:


Notes: Both correlations are significant at the 0.1-percent level. The years 1941-1946 are omitted because of the abrupt and largely artificial changes in GDP that arose when the U.S. government commandeered the economy and diverted vast resources to the war effort during World War II.

It seems unnecessary to point out that the correlations are not strong enough to derive precise predictions of GDP from changes in the S&P. However, one could do worse than rely on simple correlations, given the poor track record of complex macroeconomic models (e.g., see this).

It is unsurprising that the stock market has been heading downward since 2000 (despite occasional rallies). Investors know that economic growth is sagging under the pressure of government spending and regulation.

Related posts:
The Price of Government
The Price of Government Redux
The Mega-Depression
Ricardian Equivalence Reconsidered
The Real Burden of Government
The Rahn Curve at Work
The “Forthcoming Financial Collapse”
Estimating the Rahn Curve: Or, How Government Inhibits Economic Growth
The Deficit Commission’s Deficit of Understanding
The Bowles-Simpson Report
The Bowles-Simpson Band-Aid
The Stagnation Thesis
America’s Financial Crisis Is Now
Stocks for the Long Run?
Estimating the Rahn Curve: A Sequel
Bonds for the Long Run?
The Real Multiplier (II)
Lay My (Regulatory) Burden Down
Economic Growth Since World War II
More Evidence for the Rahn Curve
Progressive Taxation Is Alive and Well in the U.S. of A.
The Economy Slogs Along
The Obama Effect: Disguised Unemployment