Published for The Wall Street Journal, September 3, 2012
The unemployment rate has exceeded 8% for more than three years. This has led some commentators and policy makers to speculate that there has been a fundamental change in the labor market. The view is that today’s economy cannot support unemployment rates below 5%—like the levels that prevailed before the recession and in the late 1990s. Those in government may take some comfort in this view. It lowers expectations and provides a rationale for the dismal labor market.
Excuses aside, this issue is also important for central banks. The Federal Reserve and other central banks have some policy choices to make if the high rates of unemployment reflect cyclic phenomena. But if the problem is structural—perhaps reflecting a mismatch between skills needed by business and skills possessed by the unemployed—there is little the Fed can do.
Research I’ve done with James Spletzer of the U.S. Census Bureau shows that the problems in the labor market are not structural. They reflect slow economic growth, and the cure is a decent recovery.
In 2007, the unemployment rate was 4.4%. Two years later, it reached 10%. The structure of a modern economy does not change that quickly. The demographic composition of the labor force, its educational breakdown and even the industrial mix did not differ much between 2007 and 2009.
Discussion of the so-called fiscal cliff—the combination of tax increases and spending cuts that will come in 2013 if Congress and the president don’t act—confuses a number of different issues. The evidence suggests that we should fear the tax hikes, but not necessarily the spending cuts.
Anyone who uses the term “fiscal cliff” accepts a Keynesian view of the economy, knowingly or not. Both tax increases and constrained spending are assumed to be bad for the economy.
But there are two other views: that of the budget balancer and that of the supply-sider. Rather than term the impending changes that will occur in 2013 a “fiscal cliff,” the budget balancer thinks of this as “fiscal consolidation.” Tax increases reduce the deficit, as do cuts in government spending. Both are austerity measures that make the government more responsible and, therefore, both are conducive to long-run economic growth.
Those who support the Simpson-Bowles plan subscribe, at least in part, to this view. Various proponents of the plan may place different weights on the tax-increase side or the spending-decrease side because they believe the economic consequence of one or the other is more adverse. But fundamentally, the target is to decrease the deficit. The budget balancer regards both tax increases and spending cuts as moves in the right direction.
The supply-sider has a different view from both the Keynesian and the budget balancer. Fundamentally, supply-side advocates focus on the harmful effects of tax increases. Raising tax rates hurts the economy directly because tax hikes reduce incentives to invest and because they punish hard work. As such, tax increases slow growth. But budget cuts work in the right direction by making lower tax revenues sustainable. If spending exceeds revenues, then the government must borrow and this commits future governments to raising taxes in order to service the debt.
Published for The Wall Street Journal, October 31, 2011
It seems everyone is worried that problems in Europe will derail our fragile recovery. For this reason, markets breathed a sigh of relief when the Europeans came up with a plan to provide yet another reprieve to Greece. The main worry, now somewhat eased, was that a Greek default would spread to countries like Italy, Spain and Portugal.
Although there are legitimate concerns about contagion, the fundamental problem facing Europe is one of governments becoming too big to be supported by the economy. Unless Europe solves its fundamental problems with meaningful structural reform, a temporary debt restructuring, no matter how clever, will fail to right the ship. Closer to home, the same issues that threaten Europe may soon become immediate concerns to Americans.
To understand why, consider two theories of economic destruction, which can be labeled the domino theory and the popcorn theory. Everyone knows the domino theory; it is the analogy that is commonly used to denote contagion. If one domino falls, it will topple the others, and conversely, if the first domino remains upright, the others will not fall. It is this logic that underlies most bailout strategies.
The popcorn theory emphasizes a different mechanism. When popcorn is made (the old fashioned way), oil and corn kernels are placed in the bottom of a pan, heat is applied and the kernels pop. Were the first kernel to pop removed from the pan, there would be no noticeable difference. The other kernels would pop anyway because of the heat. The fundamental structural cause is the heat, not the fact that one kernel popped, triggering others to follow.
Published for The Wall Street Journal, May 16th, 2011:
Why don’t American workers feel that the labor market is on the mend? After all, the May 6 jobs report could suggest that the labor market is improving. Nonfarm employment rose by 244,000 and employment growth over the last three months is averaging over 200,000 per month. With unemployment at 9%, employment is still down many millions from where it should be, but up from its recession lows.
The fact is the jobs numbers that create so much anticipation from the business press and so many pundit pronouncements do not give a clear picture of the labor market’s health. A better understanding requires an examination of hires and separations, or what the Bureau of Labor Statistics calls Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS) data. Here are some surprising facts:
First, the increase in job growth that occurred over the past two years results from a decline in the number of layoffs, not from increased hiring. In February 2009, a month during which the labor market lost more than 700,000 jobs, employers hired four million workers. In March 2011, employers hired four million workers. The number of hires is the same today as it was when we were shedding jobs at record rates.
We added jobs because hires exceeded separations, not because hiring increased. There were 4.7 million separations in February 2009. In March 2011 that number had fallen to 3.8 million. The fall in separations reflects a decline in layoffs, which went from 2.5 million per month in February 2009 to 1.6 million per month in March 2011. One small piece of good news is that the just-released April data showed hires up about 2% over last year’s average and 12% above the low reached in January 2010.
Published for The Wall Street Journal, September 27th, 2010:
Limiting spending increases to inflation minus 1% would balance the budget in less than a decade.
As Washington debates the fate of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, many lawmakers have fallen into a logical trap of their own making. Although they recognize that tax increases hurt the economy, they argue that our huge deficit requires Congress to raise revenue through a tax hike.
This argument rests on the flawed premise that we can reduce the deficit only by increasing taxes, as if high levels of spending are a given. Not so.
To reduce spending and reignite growth, this Congress or its successor should take two actions. First, immediately cut the level of spending that has been increased so dramatically since 2008. Second, institute an “inflation-minus-one” rule to constrain future spending increases.
Much public discussion focuses on the deficit, which is indeed at critical levels of around 10% of GDP. But even if President Obama succeeds at lowering the deficit to 4% of GDP by 2013, our public-debt-to-GDP ratio will still be dangerously high, at over 70%, or nearly twice what it was during the Bush years. As the economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff have shown in the journal American Economic Review, such high debt-to-GDP ratios are associated with low growth.
Tax increases—which some suggest in order to reduce the deficit—also impede growth. But Americans don’t have to choose between an enormous deficit or high taxes. If we returned to the relative fiscal restraint that prevailed during the Clinton and Bush years, when spending was 19.7% and 19.6% of GDP, respectively, we could avoid the entire mess.
As published for The Wall Street Journal on January 28th, 2010:
Since 2008, the ratio of outlays-to-GDP has risen by about 14%.
In last night’s State of the Union address President Obama proposed a three-year “spending freeze” on what amounts to one-sixth of the federal budget. Our biggest entitlement programs, Social Security and Medicare, would be excluded. These changes are optical rather than substantive. Given the spending agenda that is already in place, we can expect to see large increases in the proportion of GDP that is spent by our government for years to come.
Since 2008, the ratio of federal spending-to-GDP has risen by about 14%. From 2008 to 2009 we saw the greatest annual increase in spending in the last 30 years. In the name of stimulating job growth, the share of federal spending is now 24% of the economy, up from 21% in the last year of the Bush administration.
My analysis of data from 1950 to the present shows that periods with high tax-to-GDP ratios exhibit much slower economic growth than lower tax ratio periods. The GDP growth in high tax years (defined as years during which the ratio of tax-to-GDP was above 18%, the 60-year average) was about 1.5 percentage points lower than the growth rate in low-tax years.
High taxes are clearly bad for the U.S. economy. For example, were we to tax above the 18% tax-to-GDP ratio over the next 25 years, GDP per capita in 2035 would be about 50% less than if we were to tax below the 18% ratio. A 50% per capita GDP differential is about as large as the difference between the U.S. and Greece today.
The recent growth in spending has been camouflaged by a focus on deficits. Budgets and proposed legislation, like that on health care, are being judged not by their impact on spending and taxation, but by their projected effect on the deficit. Equal increases in spending and taxes reduce economic growth, even if they do not alter the deficit.