economic stagnation

The Rahn Curve Revisited

REVISED 10/18/16, to report a new estimate of the Rahn curve after correcting a slight error in the previous estimate.

REVISED 10/20/16, to add a fourth explanatory variable, which improves the fit of the equation.

The theory behind the Rahn Curve is simple — but not simplistic. A relatively small government with powers limited mainly to the protection of citizens and their property is worth more than its cost to taxpayers because it fosters productive economic activity (not to mention liberty). But additional government spending hinders productive activity in many ways, which are discussed in Daniel Mitchell’s paper, “The Impact of Government Spending on Economic Growth.” (I would add to Mitchell’s list the burden of regulatory activity, which grows even when government does not.)

What does the Rahn Curve look like? Mitchell estimates this relationship between government spending and economic growth:

Rahn curve (2)

The curve is dashed rather than solid at low values of government spending because it has been decades since the governments of developed nations have spent as little as 20 percent of GDP. But as Mitchell and others note, the combined spending of governments in the U.S. was 10 percent (and less) until the eve of the Great Depression. And it was in the low-spending, laissez-faire era from the end of the Civil War to the early 1900s that the U.S. enjoyed its highest sustained rate of economic growth.

In an earlier post, I ventured an estimate of the Rahn curve that spanned most of the history of the United States. I came up with this relationship (terms modified for simplicity:

G = 0.054 -0.066F

To be precise, it’s the annualized rate of growth over the most recent 10-year span (G), as a function of F (fraction of GDP spent by governments at all levels) in the preceding 10 years. The relationship is lagged because it takes time for government spending (and related regulatory activities) to wreak their counterproductive effects on economic activity. Also, I include transfer payments (e.g., Social Security) in my measure of F because there’s no essential difference between transfer payments and many other kinds of government spending. They all take money from those who produce and give it to those who don’t (e.g., government employees engaged in paper-shuffling, unproductive social-engineering schemes, and counterproductive regulatory activities).

When F is greater than the amount needed for national defense and domestic justice — no more than 0.1 (10 percent of GDP) — it discourages productive, growth-producing, job-creating activity. And because government spending weighs most heavily on taxpayers with above-average incomes, higher rates of F also discourage saving, which finances growth-producing investments in new businesses, business expansion, and capital (i.e., new and more productive business assets, both physical and intellectual).

I’ve taken a closer look at the post-World War II numbers because of the marked decline in the rate of growth since the end of the war:

Real GDP 1947q1-2016q2

Here’s the revised result (with cosmetic changes in terminology):

G = 0.0275 -0.347F + 0.0769A – 0.000327R – 0.135P

Where,

G = real rate of GDP growth in a 10-year span (annualized)

F = fraction of GDP spent by governments at all levels during the preceding 10 years

A = the constant-dollar value of private nonresidential assets (business assets) as a fraction of GDP, averaged over the preceding 10 years

R = average number of Federal Register pages, in thousands, for the preceding 10-year period

P = growth in the CPI-U during the preceding 10 years (annualized).

The r-squared of the equation is 0.73 and the F-value is 2.00E-12. The p-values of the intercept and coefficients are 0.099, 1.75E-07, 1.96E-08, 8.24E-05, and 0.0096. The standard error of the estimate is 0.0051, that is, about half a percentage point. (Except for the p-value on the coefficient, the other statistics are improved from the previous version, which omitted CPI).

Here’s how the equations with and without P stack up against actual changes in 10-year rates of real GDP growth:

rahn-curve-model-actual-vs-estimates-with-and-without-p

The equation with P captures the “bump” in 2000, and is generally (though not always) closer to the mark than the equation without P.

What does the new equation portend for the next 10 years? Based on the values of F, A, R, and P for the most recent 10-year period (2006-2015), the real rate of growth for the next 10 years will be about 1.9 percent. (It was 1.4 percent for the version of the equation without P.) The earlier equation (discussed above) yields an estimate of 2.9 percent. The new equation wins the reality test, as you can tell by the blue line in the second graph above.

In fact the year-over-year rates of real growth for the past four quarters (2015Q3 through 2016Q2) are 2.2 percent, 1.9 percent, 1.6 percent, and 1.3 percent. So an estimate of 1.9 percent for the next 10 years may be optimistic.

And it probably is. If F were to rise from 0.382 (the average for 2006-2015) to 0.438, the rate of real growth would fall to zero, even if A, R, and P were to remain at their 2006-2015 levels. (And R is much more likely to rise than to fall.) It’s easy to imagine F hitting 0.438 with a Democrat president and Democrat-controlled Congress mandating “free” college educations, universal “free” health care, and who knows what else.

The Slow-Motion Collapse of the Economy

Robert Higgs asks “How Much Longer Can the U.S. Economy Bear the Burdens?” (The Beacon, a blog of The Independent Institute, January 30, 2015). Higgs explains:

These burdens take the form of taxes, regulations, and uncertainties loaded onto them by governments at every level. Each year, for example, federal departments and regulatory agencies put into effect several thousand new regulations. Only rarely do these agencies remove any existing rules from the Code of Federal Regulations. Thus, the total number in effect continues to climb relentlessly. The tangle of federal red tape becomes ever more difficult for investors, entrepreneurs, and business managers to cut through. Business people have to bear not only a constantly changing, ever more complex array of taxes, fees, and fines, but also a larger and larger amount of regulatory compliance costs, now estimated at more than $1.8 trillion annually. Governments at the state and local levels contribute their full share of such burdens as well.

So it is scarcely a wild-eyed question if we ask, as economist Pierre Lemieux does in a probing article in the current issue of Regulation magazine, whether the U.S. economy is now reacting to these growing burdens by undergoing “a slow-motion collapse.”

The article by Lemieux (“A Slow Motion Collapse” (Regulation, Winter 2014-2015) ends with this:

The resilience of markets, especially in a rich and sometimes still flexible economy like the United States, has dampened the effect of regulation. However, it is reasonable to believe that, over the more than six decades since World War II, regulation has deleted a big chunk of potential prosperity. It has not actually cut into the average standard of living, but this is only a consolation prize, for worse could come if the regulatory bulldozer is not pushed back.

As Higgs suggests, the slow-motion collapse of the economy is due not only to regulation but also to taxation and what Higgs elsewhere calls “regime uncertainty.”

The combined effects of regulation, taxation, and regime uncertainty are captured in the Rahn curve, which depicts the long-term relationship between government spending (as a fraction of GDP) and the rate of economic growth. I say that because government spending and regulatory activity have grown apace since the end of World War II. That might be taken as certainty, of a perverse kind, but beleaguered entrepreneurs can never be certain of the specific obstacles that will be thrown in the path of innovation and investment.

The best evidence of the slow-motion collapse of the U.S. economy is the steady, long-run decline in the rate of economic growth, which is evident in the following graphs:

Real GDP 1947-2014

Year-over-year changes in real GDP

Annualized rate of real growth - bottom of recession to bottom of next recession
The graphs are derived from “Current dollar and ‘real’ GDP,” at the website of the Bureau of Economic Analysis of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

As the third graph suggests, the rate of growth has generally declined from business cycle to business cycle.* Thus:

Bottom-to-peak rates of growth

The “Obama recovery” is an anemic thing. Is it any wonder, given Obama’s incessant war on success?

It will take more than a “push back” to restore the economy — and liberty — to health. Obama and his ilk must be driven from office, and kept out of office for good.

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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
As Goes Greece
Ricardian Equivalence Reconsidered
The Real Burden of Government
The Illusion of Prosperity and Stability
Taxing the Rich
More about Taxing the Rich
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
The Commandeered Economy
We Owe It to Ourselves
In Defense of the 1%
Lay My (Regulatory) Burden Down
The Burden of Government
Economic Growth Since World War II
Obama’s Big Lie
Government in Macroeconomic Perspective
Keynesianism: Upside-Down Economics in the Collectivist Cause
Economics: A Survey (also here)
Why Are Interest Rates So Low?
Vulgar Keynesianism and Capitalism
Estimating the Rahn Curve: Or, How Government Spending Inhibits Economic Growth
America’s Financial Crisis Is Now
The Keynesian Multiplier: Phony Math
The True Multiplier
How Libertarians Ought to Thinks about the Constitution
Obamanomics: A Report Card
The Obama Effect: Disguised Unemployment
Income Inequality and Economic Growth
The Rahn Curve Revisited

___________
* Each business cycle runs from the bottom of a recession to the bottom of the next recession. Rather than rely on the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), I use my own own definition of a recession, which is:

  • two or more consecutive quarters in which real GDP (annualized) is below real GDP (annualized) for an earlier quarter, during which
  • the annual (year-over-year) change in real GDP is negative, in at least one quarter.

Unlike the NBER, I do not locate a recession in 2001. Real GDP, measured quarterly, dropped in the first and third quarters of 2001, but each decline lasted only a quarter.

My method of identifying a recession is more objective and consistent than the NBER’s method, which one economist describes as “The NBER will know it when it sees it.” Moreover, unlike the NBER, I would not presume to pinpoint the first and last months of a recession, given the volatility of GDP estimates.
Signature

Every Silver Lining Has a Cloud

Today’s big economic news is the decline in real GDP reported by the Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA): an annualized rate of minus 2.9 percent from the fourth quarter of 2013 to the first quarter of 2014. Except for times when the economy was in or near recession, that’s the largest decline recorded since the advent of quarterly GDP estimates:

Quarterly vs annual changes in real GDP - 1948-2014
Derived from the “Current dollar and real GDP series” issued by BEA. See this post for my definition of a recession.

What’s the silver lining? Quarter-to-quarter changes in real GDP are more volatile than year-over-year and long-run changes. Some will take solace in the fact that real GDP rose by (a measly) 1.5 percent between the first quarter or 2013 and the first quarter of 2014. (Though they will conveniently ignore the long-run trend, marked by the dashed line in the graph.)

What’s the cloud? Well, as I pointed out above, the quarter-to-quarter decline in the first quarter of 2014 is unprecedented in the post-World War II era. Unless the sharp drop in the first quarter of 2014 is a one-off phenomenon (as suggested by some cheerleaders for Obamanomics), it points two possibilities:

  • The economy is in recession, as will become evident when the BEA reports on GDP for the second quarter of 2014.
  • The economy isn’t in recession — strictly speaking — but the dismal performance in the first quarter presages an acceleration of the downward trend marked by the dashed line in the graph. (For those of you who care about such things, the chance that the trend line reflects random “noise” in GDP statistics is less than 1 in 1 million.)

Even if there’s a rebound in the second quarter of 2014, the big picture is clear: The economy is in long-term decline, for reasons that I’ve discussed in the following 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
Taxing the Rich
More about Taxing the Rich
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
The Commandeered Economy
We Owe It to Ourselves
In Defense of the 1%
Lay My (Regulatory) Burden Down
The Burden of Government
Economic Growth Since World War II
The Economy Slogs Along
Government in Macroeconomic Perspective
Keynesianism: Upside-Down Economics in the Collectivist Cause
The Price of Government, Once More
Economic Horror Stories: The Great “Demancipation” and Economic Stagnation
Economics: A Survey (also here)
Why Are Interest Rates So Low?
Vulgar Keynesianism and Capitalism
Estimating the Rahn Curve: Or, How Government Spending Inhibits Economic Growth
America’s Financial Crisis Is Now
The Keynesian Multiplier: Phony Math
The True Multiplier
The Obama Effect: Disguised Unemployment
Obamanomics: A Report Card

See especially “Regime Uncertainty and the Great Recession,” “Estimating the Rahn Curve: Or, How Government Spending Inhibits Economic Growth,” and “The True Multiplier.”

Estimating the Rahn Curve: Or, How Government Inhibits Economic Growth

UPDATED 12/13/14 — This update consists of a comment about my estimate of the Rahn curve. I have just published a much better estimate of the curve for the post-World War II era.

UPDATED 12/28/11 — This update incorporates GDP and government spending statistics for 2010 and corrects a minor discrepancy in the estimation of government spending. Also, there are new, easier-to-read graphs. The bottom line is the same as before: Government spending and everything that goes with it (including regulation) is destructive of economic growth.

UPDATED 09/19/13 — This version incorporates two later posts “Estimating the Rahn Curve: A Sequel” (01/24/12) and “More Evidence for the Rahn Curve” (05/27/12).

*     *     *

The theory behind the Rahn Curve is simple — but not simplistic. A relatively small government with powers limited mainly to the protection of citizens and their property is worth more than its cost to taxpayers because it fosters productive economic activity (not to mention liberty). But additional government spending hinders productive activity in many ways, which are discussed in Daniel Mitchell’s paper, “The Impact of Government Spending on Economic Growth.” (I would add to Mitchell’s list the burden of regulatory activity, which accumulates with the size of government.)

What does the Rahn Curve look like? Daniel Mitchell estimates this relationship between government spending and economic growth:

Rahn curve (2)

The curve is dashed rather than solid at low values of government spending because it has been decades since the governments of developed nations have spent as little as 20 percent of GDP. But as Mitchell and others note, the combined spending of governments in the U.S. was 10 percent (and less) until the eve of the Great Depression. And it was in the low-spending, laissez-faire era from the end of the Civil War to the early 1900s that the U.S. enjoyed its highest sustained rate of economic growth.

Here is a graphic look at the historical relationship between government spending and GDP growth:

(Source notes for this graph and those that follow are at the bottom of this post.)

The regression lines are there simply to emphasize the long-term trends. The relationship between government spending as a percentage of GDP (G/GDP) and real GDP growth will emerge from the following graphs. There are chronological gaps because the Civil War, WWI, the Great Depression, and WWII distorted the relationship between G/GDP and economic growth. Large wars inflate government spending and GDP. The Great Depression saw a large rise in G/GDP, by pre-Depression standards, even as the economy shrank and then sputtered to a less-than-full recovery before the onset of WWII.

Est Rahn curve 1792 1861

Est Rahn curve 1866 1917

Est Rahn curve 1792 1917

Est Rahn curve 1946-2010

The graphs paint a consistent picture: Higher G/GDP means lower growth. There is one inconsistency, however, and that is the persistence of growth in the range of 2 to 4 percent during the post-WWII era, despite G/GDP in the range of 25-45 percent. That is not the kind of growth one would expect, given the relationships that obtain in the earlier eras. (The extrapolated trend line for 1946-2009 comes into use below.)

There are at least five plausible — and not mutually exclusive — explanations for the discrepancy. First, there is the difficulty of estimating GDP for years long past. Second, it is almost impossible to generate a consistent estimate of real GDP spanning two centuries; current economic output is vastly greater in volume and variety than it was in the early days of the Republic. Third, productivity gains (advances in technology, management techniques, and workers’ skills) may offset the growth-inhibiting effects of government spending, to some extent. Fourth, government regulations and active interventions (e.g., antitrust activity, the income tax) have a cumulative effect that operates independently of G/GDP. Regulations and interventions may have had an especially strong effect in the early 1900s (see the second graph in this post). The effects of regulations and interventions may diminish with time because of  adaptive behavior (e.g., “capture” of regulatory bodies).

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is the shifting composition of government spending. At relatively low levels of G/GDP, G consists largely of government programs that usurp and interfere with private-sector functions by diverting resources from productive uses to uses favored by politicians, bureaucrats, and their patrons. Higher levels of G/GDP — such as those we in the United States have known since the end of WWII — are reached by the expansion of the welfare state. Government spending (at all levels) on so-called social benefits accounted for only 7 percent of G and 0.8 percent of GDP in 1929; in 2009, it accounted for 36 percent of G and 15 percent of GDP. The provision of “social benefits” brings government into the business of redistributing income, which discourages work, saving, and capital formation to some extent, but doesn’t impinge directly on commerce. Therefore, I would expect G to be less damaging to GDP growth at higher levels of G/GDP — which is the message to be found in the contrast between the experience of 1946-2009 and the experience of earlier periods.

With those thoughts in mind, I present this empirical picture of the relationship between G/GDP and GDP growth in the United States:

Est Rahn curve 1792-2010

The intermediate points, unfortunately, are missing because of the chronological gaps mentioned above. But, as indicated by the five earlier graphs, it is entirely reasonable to infer from the preceding graph a strong relationship between GDP growth and changes in G/GDP throughout the history of the Republic.

It is possible to obtain a rough estimate of the downward sloping portion of the Rahn curve by focusing on two eras: the post-Civil War years 1866-1890 — before the onset of “progressivism,” with its immediate and strong negative effects — and the post-WWII years 1946-2009. Thus:

Est Rahn curve rough sketch

My rough estimate is appropriately “fuzzy” and somewhat more generous than Daniel Mitchell’s, which is indicated by the heavy black line. In light of my discussion of the shifting composition of G as G/GDP becomes relatively large, I  have followed the slope of the trend line for 1792-2010; that is, every 1 percentage-point increase in G/GDP yields a decrease in the growth rate of about 0.07 percent. That seemingly small effect becomes a huge one when G/GDP rises over a long period of time (as has been the case for more than a century, with no end in sight).

For the record, the best fit through the “fuzzy” area is:

Annual rate of growth = -0.066(G/GDP) + 0.054.

[A revised and more realistic estimate for the post-World War II era is

Real rate of growth = -0.372(G/GDP) + 0.067(BA/GDP) + 0.080 ,

where the real rate of growth is the annualized rate over a 10-year period, G/GDP is the fraction of GDP spent by government (including social transfers) over the preceding 10-year period, and BA/GDP represents business assets as a fraction of GDP for the preceding 10-year period.]

Again, it’s the annualized rate of growth over a 10-year span, as a function of G/GDP (fraction of GDP spent by governments at all levels) in the preceding 10 years. The new term, BA/GDP, represents the constant-dollar value of private nonresidential assets (i.e., business assets) as a fraction of GDP, averaged over the preceding 10 years. The idea is to capture the effect of capital accumulation on economic growth, which I didn’t do in the earlier analysis.

Maximum GDP growth seems to occur when G/GDP is 2-4  percent. That is somewhat less than the 7-percent share of GDP that was spent on national defense, public order, and safety in 2010. The excess represents additional “insurance” against predators, foreign and domestic. (The effectiveness of the additional “insurance” is a separate question, though I am inclined to err on the side of caution when it comes to defense and law enforcement. Those functions are not responsible for the economic woes facing America’s taxpayers.)

If G/GDP reaches 55 percent — which it will if present entitlement “commitments” are not curtailed — the “baseline” rate of growth will shrink further: probably to less than 2 percent. And thus America will remain mired in its Mega-Depression.

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Source notes:

Estimates of real and nominal GDP, back to 1790, come from the feature “What Was the U.S GDP Then?” at MeasuringWorth.com.

Estimates of government spending (federal, State, and local) come from USgovernmentspending.com; Statistical Abstracts of the United States, Colonial Times to 1970: Part 2. Series Y 533-566. Federal, State, and Local Government Expenditures, by Function; and the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), Table 3.1. Government Current Receipts and Expenditures (lines 34, 35).

I found the amount spent by governments (federal, State, and local) on national defense and public order and safety by consulting BEA Table 3.17. Selected Government Current and Capital Expenditures by Function.

The BEA tables cited above are available here.

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ADDENDUM: THE RAHN CURVE: A SEQUEL

In the original post (above) I note that maximum GDP growth occurs when government spends two to four percent of GDP. The two-to-four percent range represents the share of GDP claimed by American governments (federal, State, and local) throughout most of the 19th century, when government spending exceeded five percent of GDP only during the Civil War.

Of course, until the early part of the 20th century, when Progressivism began to make itself felt in Americans’ tax bills, governments restricted themselves (in the main) to the functions of national defense, public order, and safety — the terms used in national-income accounting. It is those functions — hereinafter called defense and justice — that foster liberty and economic growth because they protect peaceful, voluntary activity. Effective protection probably would cost more than four percent of GDP in these parlous times. But an adequate figure, except in the rare event of a major war, is probably no more than seven percent of GDP — the value for 2010, which includes the cost of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In any event, government spending — even on defense and justice — is impossible without private economic activity. It is that activity which yields the wherewithal for the provision of defense and justice. Once those things have been provided, the further diversion of resources by government is economically destructive. Specifically, from “Estimating the Rahn Curve” (above):

It is possible to obtain a rough estimate of the downward sloping portion of the Rahn curve by focusing on two eras: the post-Civil War years 1866-1890 — before the onset of “progressivism,” with its immediate and strong negative effects — and the post-WWII years 1946-2009. Thus:

Est Rahn curve rough sketch

My rough estimate is appropriately “fuzzy” and somewhat more generous than Daniel Mitchell’s [in “The Impact of Government Spending on Economic Growth”], which is indicated by the heavy black line. In light of my discussion of the shifting composition of G as G/GDP becomes relatively large, I  have followed the slope of the trend line for 1792-2010; that is, every 1 percentage-point increase in G/GDP yields a decrease in the growth rate of about 0.06 percent. That seemingly small effect becomes a huge one when G/GDP rises over a long period of time (as has been the case for more than a century, with no end in sight).

The following graphs offer another view of the devastation wrought by the growth of government spending — and regulation. (Sources are given in “Estimating the Rahn Curve.”) I begin with the share of GDP which is not spent by government:

Est Rahn curve sequel_priv GDP as pct total GDP

A note about my measure of government spending is in order. National-income accounting purists would insist that transfer payments (mainly Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid) should not count as spending, even though I count them as such. But what does it matter whether money is taken from taxpayers and given to retired persons (as Social Security) or to government employees (as salary and benefits) or contractors (as reimbursement for products and services delivered to government)? All government spending represents the transfer of claims on resources from persons who earned those claims to other persons, who either did something of questionable value for the money (government employees and contractors) or nothing (e.g., retirees).

In any event, it is obvious that Americans enjoyed minimal government until the early 1900s, and have since “enjoyed” a vast expansion of government. Here is a closer look at the trend from 1900 onward:

Est Rahn curve sequel_private GDP pct total GDP since 1900

This is a good point at which to note that the expansion of government is understated by the growth of government spending, which only imperfectly captures the effects of the rapidly growing regulatory burden on America’s economy. The combined effects of government spending and regulation can be seen in this “before” and “after” depiction of growth rates:

Est Rahn curve sequel_growth rate of private GDP

(I omitted the major wars and the Great Depression because their inclusion would give an exaggerated view of economic growth in the aftermath of abnormally suppressed private economic activity.)

The marked diminution of growth  after 1900 has led to what I call America’s Mega-Depression. Note the similarity between the downward path of private sector GDP (two graphs earlier) and the downward path of the Mega-Depression in the following graph:

Est Rahn curve sequel_mega-depression

What is the Mega-Depression? It is a measure of the degree to which real GDP has fallen below what it would have been had economic growth continued at its post-Civil War pace. As I explain here, the Mega-Depression began in the early 1900s, when the economy began to sag under the weight of Progressivism (e.g., trust-busting, regulation, the income tax, the Fed). Then came the New Deal, whose interventions provoked and prolonged the Great Depression (see, for example, this, and this). From the New Deal and the Great Society arose the massive anti-market/initiative-draining/dependency-promoting schemes known as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. The extension and expansion of those and other intrusive government programs has continued unto the present day (e.g., Obamacare), with the result that our lives and livelihoods are hemmed in by mountains of regulatory restrictions.

Regulation aside, government spending — except for defense and justice — is counterproductive. Not only does it fail to stimulate the economy in the short run, but it also robs the economy of the investments that are needed for long-run growth.

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ADDENDUM: MORE EVIDENCE FOR THE RAHN CURVE

Here:

[W]e have some new research from the United Kingdom. The Centre for Policy Studies has released a new study, authored by Ryan Bourne and Thomas Oechsle, examining the relationship between economic growth and the size of the public sector.

The chart above compares growth rates for nations with big governments and small governments over the past two decades. The difference is significant, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The most important findings of the report are the estimates showing how more spending and more taxes are associated with weaker performance.

Here are some key passages from the study.

Using tax to GDP and spending to GDP ratios as a proxy for size of government, regression analysis can be used to estimate the effect of government size on GDP growth in a set of countries defined as advanced by the IMF between 1965 and 2010. …As supply-side economists would expect, the coefficients on the tax revenue to GDP and government spending to GDP ratios are negative and statistically significant. This suggests that, ceteris paribus, a larger tax burden results in a slower annual growth of real GDP per capita. Though it is unlikely that this effect would be linear (we might expect the effect to be larger for countries with huge tax burdens), the regressions suggest that an increase in the tax revenue to GDP ratio by 10 percentage points will, if the other variables do not change, lead to a decrease in the rate of economic growth per capita by 1.2 percentage points. The result is very similar for government outlays to GDP, where an increase by 10 percentage points is associated with a fall in the economic growth rate of 1.1 percentage points. This is in line with other findings in the academic literature. …The two small government economies with the lowest marginal tax rates, Singapore and Hong Kong, were also those which experienced the fastest average real GDP growth.

My own estimate (see above) for the United States, is that

every 1 percentage-point increase in G/GDP yields a decrease in the growth rate of about 0.07 percent. That seemingly small effect becomes a huge one when G/GDP rises over a long period of time (as has been the case for more than a century, with no end in sight).

In other words, every 10 percentage-point increase in the ratio of government spending to GDP causes a not-insignificant drop of 0.7 percentage points in the rate of growth. That is somewhat below the estimate quoted above (1.1 percentage points), but surely it is within the range of uncertainty that surrounds the estimate.

Why Are Interest Rates So Low?

A REISSUE (WITHOUT UPDATES) OF THE ORIGINAL POST DATED DECEMBER 7, 2011

Interest rates reflect the supply of and demand for funds. Money is tighter now than it was in the years immediately before the onset of the Great Recession. Tim Congdon explains:

In the three years to October 2008, the quantity of money soared from $10,032 billion to $14,186 billion, with a compound annual growth rate of just over 12 per cent. The money growth rate in this period was the highest since the early 1970s. Indeed, 1972 and 1973 had many similarities to 2006 and 2007, with bubbling asset markets, buoyant consumer spending and incipient inflationary pressures. On the other hand, in the three years from October 2008 the quantity of money was virtually unchanged. (It stood at $14,340 billion in October 2011.) In other words, in the three years of the Great Recession the quantity of money did not increase at all.

But if money is relatively tight, why are interest rates so low? For example, as of October 2011, year-over-year inflation stood at 3.53 percent (derived from CPI-U estimates, available here). In October, Aaa bond yields averaged 3.98 percent, for a real rate of about 0.4 percent; Baa bond yields averaged 5.37 percent, for a real rate of about 1.8 percent; and conventional mortgages averaged 4.07 percent, for a real rate of about 0.5 percent. By contrast, in 1990-2000, when the CPI-U rose at an annual rate of 3.4 percent, real Aaa, Baa, and conventional mortgage rates hovered in the 4-6 percent range. (Real rates are derived from interest rate statistics available here.)

The reason for these (and other) low rates is that borrowers have become less keen about borrowing; that is, they lack confidence about future prospects for income (in the case of households) and returns on investment (in the case of businesses). Why should that be?

If the post-World War II trend is any indication — and I believe that it is — the American economy is sinking into stagnation. Here is the long view:

  • 1790-1861 — annual growth of 4.1 percent — a booming young economy, probably at its freest
  • 1866-1907 — annual growth of 4.3 percent — a robust economy, fueled by (mostly) laissez-faire policies and the concomitant rise of technological innovation and entrepreneurship
  • 1970-2010 — annual growth of 2.8 percent – sagging under the cumulative weight of “progressivism,” New Deal legislation, LBJ’s “Great Society” (with its legacy of the ever-expanding and oppressive welfare/transfer-payment schemes: Medicare, Medicaid, a more generous package of Social Security benefits), and an ever-growing mountain of regulatory restrictions.

(From this post, as updated in this one.)

And here is the post-World War II view:

Annual change in real GDP 1948-2011

This trend cannot be reversed by infusions of “stimulus spending” or “quantitative easing.” It reflects an underlying problem that cannot be cured by those simplistic macroeconomic “fixes.”

The underlying problem is not “tight money,” it is that American businesses are rightly pessimistic about an economic future that is dominated by a mountain of debt (in the form of promised “entitlements”) and by an ever-growing regulatory burden. Thus business investment has been a decline fraction of private-sector GDP:

Non-household GPDI fraction GDP - G
Derived from Bureau of Economic Analysis, Table 1.1.5. Gross Domestic Product (available here). The numerator is gross private domestic investment (GPDI, line 7) less the residential portion (line 12). The denominator is GDP (line 1) less government consumption expenditures and gross investment (line 21).

As long as business remains (rightly) pessimistic about the twin burdens of debt and regulation, the economy will sink deeper into stagnation. The only way to overcome that pessimism is to scale back “entitlements” and regulations, and to do so promptly and drastically.

In sum, the present focus on — and debate about — conventional macroeconomic “fixes” (fiscal vs. monetary policy) is entirely misguided. Today’s economists and policy-makers should consult Hayek, not Keynes or Friedman or their intellectual descendants. If economists and policy-makers would would read and heed Hayek — the Hayek of 1944 onward, in particular — they would understand that our present and future economic morass is entirely political in origin: Failed government policies have led to more failed government policies, which have shackled both the economy and the people.

Economic and political freedoms are indivisible. It will take the repeal of the regulatory-welfare state to restore prosperity and liberty to the land.

Not-So-Random Thoughts (VIII)

Links to the other posts in this occasional series may be found at “Favorite Posts,” just below the list of topics.

I begin with a post of mine, “Civil Society and Homosexual ‘Marriage’“:

[A]s sure as the sun sets in the west, the state will begin to apply the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment in order to protect homosexual “marriage” from its critics. Acting under the rubric of “civil rights” — and  in keeping with the way that anti-discrimination laws have been applied to date — the state will deal harshly with employers, landlords, and clergy who seem to discriminate against homosexual “marriage” and its participants.

And right on schedule:

[T]he New Mexico Supreme Court has found that a photographer who declined to photograph a gay “wedding” was at fault… (Tom Trinko, “New Mexico Takes a Stab at Nullifying the Constitution,” American Thinker, August 25, 2013)

See also my post “Abortion, ‘Gay Rights,” and Liberty.

*****

Keir Maitland nails the pseudo-libertarian mentality:

Libertarians are being torn apart from within. Two groups are responsible for this: the libertines and the liberal bigots. ‘Liberal bigots’ is a phrase that I have stolen from Peter Hitchens and I am using it to describe a group within the libertarian movement who are more concerned about being politically correct than defending anybody’s right to discriminate. By libertines, I mean simply those who view libertarianism as a rebellion against tradition, hierarchy, morality and authority….

The former, the liberal bigots, in my view are often ‘thin libertarians’ of the worst kind: libertarians who believe in the nonaggression axiom and nothing else. These people can only think in terms of libertarian legal theory and, as cultural Marxists, will defend anybody’s way of life, except, oddly enough, a traditionalist and antiegalitarian way of life. The latter, however, are usually ‘thick libertarians’…. Thick libertarians are libertarians who, in addition to being well-versed in libertarian law, think about how a libertarian society would, could and should function. Thick libertarians judge not only whether or not something is legal, but whether it is conducive to libertarian ends. However, sadly, the modal thick libertarian is a libertine: someone who believes that prosperity, happiness and other good ends, for which we all strive, are achieved not through a ‘sensible’ lifestyle but through a relatively reckless one. (“Libertines and Liberal Bigots,” Libertarian Alliance Blog, August 22, 2013)

Maitland’s assessment harmonizes with my own, which I’ve expressed in several posts, including “Defending Liberty against (Pseudo) Libertarians“:

(Pseudo) libertarians like to demonstrate their bogus commitment to liberty by proclaiming loudly their support for unfettered immigration, unfettered speech, unfettered abortion, unfettered same-sex coupling (and legal recognition thereof as “marriage’), and unfettered you-name-it.. In the minds of these moral relativists, liberty is a dream world where anything goes — anything of which they approve, that is….

Another staple of (pseudo) libertarian thought is a slavish devotion to privacy — when that devotion supports a (pseudo) libertarian position. Economists like Caplan and Boudreaux are cagy about abortion. But other (pseudo) libertarians are less so; for example:

I got into a long conversation yesterday with a [Ron] Paul supporter who took me to task for my criticisms of Paul’s positions. For one thing, he insisted, Paul’s position on abortion wasn’t as bad as I made it out, because Paul just thinks abortion is a matter for the states. I pointed out that in my book, saying that states can violate the rights of women [emphasis added] is no more libertarian than saying that the federal government can violate the rights of women.

Whence the “right” to abort an unborn child? Here, according to the same writer:

I do believe that abortion is a liberty protected by the Fourteenth Amendment….

This train of “logic” is in accord with the U.S. Supreme Court’s manufactured “right” to an abortion under the Fourteenth (or was it the Ninth?) Amendment, which I have discussed in various places, including here. All in the name of “privacy.”…

It is no wonder that many (pseudo) libertarians like to call themselves liberaltarians. It is hard to distinguish (pseudo) libertarians from “liberals,” given their shared penchant for decrying and destroying freedom of association and evolved social norms. It is these which underlie the conditions of mutual respect, mutual trust, and forbearance that enable human beings to coexist peacefully and cooperatively. That is to say, in liberty.

*****

A recent foray into constitutional issues unearthed this commentary about the opinion delivered by Chief Justice Roberts in the case of Obamacare:

Oh, how far we’ve deviated from our Founders in just over 200 years.

The entire country is pouring over an incoherent, internally contradictory, ill-conceived and politically motivated decision by Chief Justice Roberts, which grants Congress the power to regulate anything that moves and the power to tax anything that moves and anything that doesn’t move….

If we take the reasoning of Roberts to its logical conclusion, Congress would be able to coerce individuals to buy broccoli once a week, so long as they levy a tax on those who fail to comply with the law.  Putting aside the facial absurdity of Roberts’s tax power jurisprudence, his opinion on the Commerce Clause is nothing to cheer.  While Roberts clearly stated that the Commerce Clause does not grant the federal government the right to regulate inactivity (although it can evidently tax inactivity), he obliquely upheld their authority to regulate any activity under that misconstrued clause.

Amidst the garrulous analysis from the conservative pundit class on the Roberts decision, there is a one-page dissent from Justice Thomas (in addition to his joint dissent with the other 3 conservatives) that has been overlooked….

Take a look at this paragraph from Thomas’s dissent (last two-pages of pdf):

I dissent for the reasons stated in our joint opinion, but I write separately to say a word about the Commerce Clause. The joint dissent and THE CHIEF JUSTICE cor­rectly apply our precedents to conclude that the Individual Mandate is beyond the power granted to Congress under the Commerce Clause and the Necessary and Proper Clause. Under those precedents, Congress may regulate“economic activity [that] substantially affects interstate commerce.” United States v. Lopez, 514 U. S. 549, 560 (1995). I adhere to my view that “the very notion of a ‘substantial effects’ test under the Commerce Clause is inconsistent with the original understanding of Congress’ powers and with this Court’s early Commerce Clause cases.” United States v. Morrison, 529 U. S. 598, 627 (2000) (THOMAS, J., concurring); see also Lopez, supra, at 584–602 (THOMAS, J., concurring); Gonzales v. Raich, 545

….

Justice Thomas is hearkening back to the Founders.  Not only is every word of Obamacare unconstitutional and an anathema to every tenet of our founding, most of the other programs created in recent years are as well.  The fact that Roberts said the Commerce Clause and the Necessary and Proper Clause don’t apply to inactivity is not a victory for constitutional conservatives.  The implicit notion that the federal government can regulate any activity is appalling to conservatives.

Here’s what James Madison had to say about the Commerce Clause in a letter to Joseph C. Cabell in 1829:

For a like reason, I made no reference to the “power to regulate commerce among the several States.” I always foresaw that difficulties might be started in relation to that power which could not be fully explained without recurring to views of it, which, however just, might give birth to specious though unsound objections. Being in the same terms with the power over foreign commerce, the same extent, if taken literally, would belong to it. Yet it is very certain that it grew out of the abuse of the power by the importing States in taxing the non-importing, and was intended as a negative and preventive provision against injustice among the States themselves, rather than as a power to be used for the positive purposes of the General Government, in which alone, however, the remedial power could be lodged.

….

The reality is that not only is Obamacare unconstitutional, almost every discretionary department, welfare program, and entitlement program is unconstitutional…. (Daniel Horowitz, “Thomas Dissents: It’s All Unconstitutional,” RedState (Member Diary), June 29, 2012)

On the general issue of the subversion of constitutional limits on governmental power, see “The Constitution: Original Meaning, Corruption, and Restoration.” Specifically related to Obamacare and the individual mandate: “The Unconstitutionality of the Individual Mandate,” “Does the Power to Tax Give Congress Unlimited Power?,” “Does Congress Have the Power to Regulate Inactivity?,” and “Obamacare: Neither Necessary nor Proper.”

*****

Also from RedState, a story that reads in part:

Sadly, we have deviated from our constitutional form of government over the past century.  That’s why Mark Levin has written The Liberty Amendments, a set of proposed constitutional amendments that will unambiguously downsize the federal government by targeting specific loopholes that have allowed the statists to adulterate our Constitution.  Far from this being a radically new vision, Levin proves – through founding documents and floor debates at the Constitutional Congress – how his ideas are in line with what the Founders envisioned in our Federal government.  It’s just that after years of deviating from the Constitution, it has become clear that we need very specific limitations on federal abuses – abuses that have gone far beyond the imagination of our Founders – in order to restore the Republic. (Daniel Horowitz, “Mark Levin’s Liberty Amendments,” Red State (Member Diary), August 13, 2013)

The story includes a good summary of Levin’s amendments. Recommended reading.

A New, New Constitution” covers the same ground, and more. It’s long, but it closes a lot of loopholes that have been opened by legislative, executive, and judicial action.

*****

I turn, finally, to a pair of items by James Pethokoukis with self-explanatory titles: “The Great Stagnation: JP Morgan Declares US Potential GDP Growth Just Half of What It Used to Be” (AEIdeas, August 12, 2013) and “Why Wall Street Thinks the Future Isn’t What It Used to Be” (AEIdeas, August 13, 2013). Read those pieces, and then go to “The Stagnation Thesis” (and follow the links therein) and “Why Are Interest Rates So Low?” (which is replete with more links). The latter post concludes with this:

As long as business remains (rightly) pessimistic about the twin burdens of debt and regulation, the economy will sink deeper into stagnation. The only way to overcome that pessimism is to scale back “entitlements” and regulations, and to do so promptly and drastically.

In sum, the present focus on — and debate about — conventional macroeconomic “fixes” (fiscal vs. monetary policy) is entirely misguided. Today’s economists and policy-makers should consult Hayek, not Keynes or Friedman or their intellectual descendants. If economists and policy-makers would would read and heed Hayek — the Hayek of 1944 onward, in particular –  they would understand that our present and future economic morass is entirely political in origin: Failed government policies have led to more failed government policies, which have shackled both the economy and the people.

Economic and political freedoms are indivisible. It will take the repeal of the regulatory-welfare state to restore prosperity and liberty to the land.

Amen.

As for how the regulatory-welfare state might be repealed, read “Restoring Constitutional Government: The Way Ahead.

Economic Horror Stories: The Great “Demancipation” and Economic Stagnation

UPDATED 08/03/13

Alternate title: “What We Can Learn from the Labor-Force Participation Rate”

The wholesale entry of women into the labor force after 1960 was considered (and still is, by many) to be a key sign women’s “emancipation.” Because of the baleful effects of that “emancipation,” I prefer to call it “demancipation.” What baleful effects? I begin with this, from a post that I wrote more than eight years ago:

Monetary measures of GDP exclude a lot of things that might be captured in the term “quality of life”; for example:

[F]ailing to account for the output produced within households may lead to misleading comparisons of economy-wide production, as conventionally measured. The female labor force participation rate in the United States has grown enormously since the early part of the 20th century. To the extent that the entry of women into paid employment has reduced the effort women devote to household production, the long-term trend in output, as measured by gross domestic product (GDP), may exaggerate the true growth in national output. [Committee on National Statistics (CNSTAT), Designing Nonmarket Accounts for the United States: Interim Report (2003), p. 9 in HTML version]

The “effort that women devote to household production” involves a lot more than shopping, cooking, cleaning, and all of the other activities usually associated with the term “housewife.” Not the least among those activities is the raising of children. Child-rearing (a quaint but still meaningful phrase) includes more than feeding, bathing, and toilet training. Parents — and especially mothers — impart lessons about civility — lessons that are neglected when children are left on their own to disport with friends, watch TV, and imbibe the nihilistic lyrics that pervade popular music.Yet, the apparently robust growth of real GDP per capita between owes much to the huge increase in the proportion of women seeking work outside the home. The labor-force participation rate for women of “working age” (14 and older in 1900, 16 and older in 2000) grew from 19 percent in 1900 to 60 percent in 2000, while the rate for men dropped only slightly, from 80 percent to 75 percent. Who knows how much damage society has suffered — and will yet suffer — because of the exodus into the workforce of women with children at home?

I went on, in that post and in later ones, to address the damage.

As it turned out, both the female participation rate and the overall rate peaked around 2000 (details here, Table 585). Here is a picture of the overall rate since 1960:

Labor force participation rate_Jan 1960 - Jul 2013
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey, Civilian Labor Force Participation Rate (LNS11300000).

The end of demancipation around 2000 wasn’t necessarily an unmixed blessing. Why? Because the graph points to another horror story: economic stagnation.

Look at relationship of the labor-force participation rate and recessions, which are represented by the gray columns in the chart. (The recessionary periods are those defined by the National Bureau of Economic Research, here.) Each recession has marked a reduction or leveling off of the labor force participation rate. This is an unsurprising relationship because dimmed prospects for employment will deter persons from joining or rejoining the labor force.

But the decline since 2000 — and especially since 2009 — is eloquent testimony to a growing lack of faith in the country’s economic prospects. That lack of faith is entirely justified, as I have explained in many of the following 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
Estimating the Rahn Curve: A Sequel
In Defense of the 1%
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
Obamanomics: A Report Card

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

 

The Shape of Things to Come

Given the “State of the Union: 2010,” you may wonder how much worse things can get in this land of the once-free. Here are some very real possibilities:

  • More curbs on freedom of speech, in the name of “protecting” certain groups (e.g., homosexuals, immigrants, Muslims) and “preserving public order” (i.e., protecting government and government officials from criticism).
  • A complete government takeover of medical services (a U.S. National Heath Service), with no provision for opting-out to private care.
  • Environmentalism and warmism rampant, with draconian restrictions on everything from where we live, the design of our housing, and the range of products and services we are allowed to buy.
  • A stagnant economy — crushed by the weight of entitlement programs, environmentalism, warmism, and income equalization — affords a lower quality of life (on a par with the U.S. of the 1950s), and is unable to support a robust defense against foreign enemies.
  • Further reductions in quality of life, brought about by economic isolation, arising partly out of protectionism, partly out of voluntary withdrawal from overseas interests (in the name of self-sufficiency), and partly out of our unwillingness and inability to defend our overseas interests in the face of superior Chinese and Russian forces.
  • The erosion of traditional morality — aided by governmental endorsement of moral relativism — leading to the increasing brutalization of the citizenry and an eventual police-state response.

I could expand the list, but it is already depressing enough.

If you cannot participate in the efforts of the Tea Party movement, the American Conservative Union, and the Club for Growth to roll back the forces of oppression in this land, support those organizations with your dollars. Every little bit helps.