I’d like to associate myself with Dr. Charles Blahous’ endorsement of Dr. Keith Hall to be the new director of the Congressional Budget Office. Budget Committee Chairmen Tom Price and Mike Enzi made a strong pick by choosing Hall. I know him from his time at the Council of Economic Advisers and watched him from afar when he ran the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In particular I agree with this Blahous quote:
The chairmen needed to find someone with impeccable academic credentials, and they did (Hall not only has his economics PhD from Purdue, but also served as chief economist for the White House’s Council of Economic Advisors (CEA)). They needed to find someone with the demonstrated ability to manage CBO, and they did (Hall previously ran the Bureau of Labor Statistics). They needed someone manifestly even-tempered and evidence-driven, and they got that in spades. Hall will quickly come to be recognized more widely as the soft-spoken and objective analyst his associates already know him to be. He has been particularly good as a witness delivering congressional testimony, where his “just the facts” style suits what Congress needs from CBO.
I am optimistic that Dr. Hall will continue the excellent work of outgoing director Dr. Doug Elmendorf and further reinforce CBO’s role as a highly credible, nonpartisan, and unbiased referee in the budget process.
In his new budget President Obama once again proposes to flatten debt/GDP, to stabilize it over the next decade at a high level.
But wait, you say. That’s not stabilizing. That’s not “flat” debt/GDP, that’s a declining path. And it doesn’t look like a high level. If we zoom out we gain additional perspective. Let’s add 10 years of historical data and CBO’s projected long-term baseline forecast.
Now you see why I said “at a high level.” Under both a current policy baseline and the President’s budget, debt/GDP is in the mid-70s for the next five years, more than twice as large a share of the economy as it was pre-financial crisis. (The same is true if we go back even farther in time. The pre-crisis average debt/GDP varies between 34 and 40% of GDP for any start year from 1965 through 2007.) While the long-term baseline starts to climb about five years from now, the President proposes to keep it roughly flat through the next decade. (more…)
OMB Director Shaun Donovan criticized House Republicans today for their rule change on dynamic scoring. I’ll skip the preliminaries and offer responses to his main critiques.
OMB Director Shaun Donovan: “[U]sing dynamic scoring for official cost estimates would risk injecting bias into a broadly accepted, non-partisan scoring process that has has existed for decades.”
No, the new rule attempts to eliminate an oversimplifying assumption that we know is incorrect and biased in a limited number of cases where that bias is large enough to matter. We know that some policy changes can increase (or reduce) the size of the economy, and that to assume otherwise is wrong. The longstanding scoring process is biased against policies that would increase economic growth, and biased for policies that would shrink the economy. The size of the effect of large and broad-based reductions in tax rates is uncertain, but we’re pretty darn sure it’s not zero. Certain immigration reforms would increase domestic labor supply and increase economic growth. More accurate scoring would incorporate both types of effects.
Donovan: “[D]ynamic scoring requires CBO and JCT to make assumptions in areas with unusually great uncertainty.”
- Yes, these assumptions are uncertain. So were CBO’s estimates of short-term fiscal multipliers from the 2009 stimulus law. CBO assumed (guessed) that the effect on short-term GDP of increasing government of purchasing goods and services by $1 could range from 50 cents of increased GDP on the low end, to $2.50 of increased GDP on the high end. (See Table 2 here and this paper.) That’s a big range that didn’t dissuade Team Obama from arguing that fiscal stimulus would increase GDP growth.
- Is it better to be precisely wrong or imprecisely right? I’m generally for the latter, which is what this rule change would encourage. We know that assuming zero GDP effect from large fiscal policy changes is incorrect. I think it’s an improvement to move to a new non-zero point estimate even if that means we have to accept wider error bounds.
- The way you get better at narrowing these uncertainties is to do more estimates and to learn by doing.
Donovan: “Dynamic scoring would require CBO and JCT to make assumptions about policies that go beyond the scope of the legislation itself.”
- Yes, just like they had to do on fiscal stimulus in early 2009. They had to make an assumption then about how the $800+ B of increased debt would be financed in the future. They also had to make an assumption about whether the Fed would turn the monetary policy dial differently after Congress had pulled hard on the macro fiscal policy lever. Nothing new here, they’ll have to do for a few more bills what they have been doing elsewhere for quite a while.
Donovan: “Dynamic scoring can create a bias favoring tax cuts over investments in infrastructure, education, and other priorities. … The House rule would not apply to discretionary spending, ignoring potential growth effects of investments in research, education, and infrastructure.”
- So you’re opposed to dynamic scoring for policies you don’t like, but OK with it for policies you do like? Hmmm…
- This is almost a conceptually valid critique but it’s a little hard to see how one would practically expand the new rule to apply to discretionary spending. The House rule would only apply dynamic scoring to big fiscal policy changes, those with an aggregate static budget impact bigger than 0.25% of GDP (>$45 B per year in 2015). That high de minimis threshold is a smart practical limitation so that CBO doesn’t have to worry about the growth impacts of the cars-for-crushers program or a $50M increase in spending for pet project X. But since nobody is proposing adding >$45B/year to discretionary spending, this limitation in the new rule has no practical impact.
- But the House rule doesn’t create a bias for tax cuts. It eliminates a pre-existing bias against very large policy changes that would expand the supply side of the economy, including but not limited to broad-based reductions in tax rates.
The Obama Administration’s position seems to be:
- We like incorporating the short-term growth effects of increased government spending (fiscal stimulus);
- In that case we’re OK with estimators making assumptions that go beyond the scope of the legislation (Fed reaction to fiscal stimulus);
- We’re OK with lots of estimating uncertainty when it applies to policies we like (big ranges for short-term fiscal multipliers);
- We’re happy to trumpet the growth benefits, as estimated by CBO, for policies we like such as the Senate immigration reform bill;
- But we don’t want to incorporate long-term supply-side effects from policies we don’t like (broad-based tax relief),
- And we will label any scoring change which incorporates (but is not limited to) those policies as “biased.”
- Their goal is to preserve a longstanding scoring bias that keeps taxes probably higher than they otherwise would be if scoring were more accurate and policy neutral.
In contrast, my view is:
- Scoring should be accurate, unbiased, and policy neutral.
- The “fixed nominal GDP” estimating convention is both inaccurate and biased.
- Estimates of very large fiscal policy changes should incorporate CBO and JCT’s best judgment (not Members’ of Congress best judgment) about both the short-term demand-side GDP effects and the long-term supply-side GDP effects.
- Relaxing this fixed nominal GDP assumption should apply to all types of fiscal policy changes exceeding a certain size, whether I like them or not. The House’s >0.25% of GDP seems like a reasonable threshold.
- CBO and JCT should explain their estimating ranges and uncertainty for these dynamic estimates, as they have for short-term fiscal multipliers in the past.
- The House rule is a responsible improvement in scoring policies that makes scoring more accurate by reducing a long-standing bias.The increased uncertainty that results is worth reducing the underlying bias.
The new four year term of the Director of the Congressional Budget Office begins soon. Now that Republicans will have majorities in the House and Senate, this job is entirely their call. The President is not involved. Incoming House and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price and Jeff Sessions will make this choice.
While at first blush it may seem counterintuitive, the best move for fiscal and economic conservatives is to reappoint Doug Elmendorf. If Chairmen Price and Sessions won’t do that, then I recommend they choose Kate Baicker. If any key Hill Rs want to know why I think Dr. Baicker is the best new candidate, please contact me privately. Here I’m going to focus on why I hope Chairmen Price and Sessions reappoint Dr. Elmendorf.
Dr. Elmendorf is not a conservative. He was originally chosen to head CBO by Congressional Democrats. He came from the left-of-center Brookings Institution. I think he is registered as an independent. I don’t know how he votes but I’d bet he’s a moderate/centrist Democrat.
I want to move economic policy to the right, not to the center-left. I think Dr. Elmendorf is the best pick for CBO because (a) he is unbiased and intellectually honest; (b) his background insulates his rulings and the Congressional Republicans who choose to reappoint him from accusations of bias; and, most importantly, (c) this combination greatly disadvantages the progressive Left who both dominate current economic debate within the Democratic party and who cannot refrain from intellectual overreach.
There are two ways to move economic policy debate to the right. One is to make stronger free market and small government arguments. The other is to rebut the wackiest arguments made by the Left. Congressional Republicans should do the former and lean on Dr. Elmendorf and CBO for help with the latter. Over the past few years an Elmendorf-led CBO has weakened a few key support pillars of the Left’s big government intellectual edifice, not because Elmendorf leans right but because the Left is dominant and nuts and their most outrageous arguments just beg to be debunked by a neutral referee.
- Team Obama overreached, arguing that a minimum wage increase would result in no job loss, that an increase to $10.10/hour would benefit millions and harm no one. Under Elmendorf CBO destroyed this claim, pointing out that the President’s favored policy would reduce the labor supply by about half a million workers. For once economic conservatives were on strong ground not just because we had facts and logic on our side, but also because the press repeatedly wrote that “the nonpartisan CBO said the President’s minimum wage increase would reduce the labor supply by half a million workers.” We won those debates in part thanks to an assist from a CBO that was and was described as unbiased and nonpartisan.
- Elmendorf’s CBO analyzed the reduced labor supply that would result from ObamaCare, a 1.5-2 percent reduction in hours worked. CBO applied routine analysis straight out of a microeconomics textbook. In doing so they rebutted absurd free lunch claims made by the Obama White House and their allies on the Left. And again, the press (even all the biased ones) had no choice but to report these findings as definitive, since they had no opportunity to accuse the director of Republican bias.
Had CBO been led at the time by a director chosen by Republicans, the exact same conclusions would have been dismissed or caveated by many (most?) of the press. The press coverage and public debate would have instead been about how “Congressional Republicans and their hand-picked conservative CBO Director said ______________.” The identical conclusions from a director chosen by Republicans would have had far less impact on the public debate. That is unfair. It is also an unavoidable consequence of a biased press corps that free market and small government conservatives would be foolish to ignore.
I am not arguing that Republicans should always choose a Democrat to run CBO, or that only a Democrat can have this public credibility, or that the press credibility of choosing a Democrat is worth appointing someone biased to the left. I think Dr. Kate Baicker would quickly build Elmendorf-like credibility if chosen to lead CBO. And I think Dr. Peter Orszag, chosen by Democrats to head CBO before he became President Obama’s OMB Director, ran CBO as an advocate and policy entrepreneur, not as a neutral referee.
Just as I sometimes disagree with and even yell at the fairest football and basketball refs, I disagree with some of the judgment calls Dr. Elmendorf and CBO have made. But I don’t want the ref to be biased right or left. I don’t even think a right-leaning ref would be that valuable to winning these debates, given the higher press hurdle that would be set by a biased press corps. I also think fiscal and economic conservatives benefit from an institutionally strong CBO, as the Left far more often wants to ignore arithmetic and cost-benefit tradeoffs than do the Republicans now taking the helms of the key economic committees in Congress.
I think CBO is too wedded to assuming large and unproven short-term Keynesian multipliers, but their approaches to estimating long-term tax, debt, labor, and health insurance policy changes support those of us who prioritize increasing the supply of labor and capital. As I noted earlier, an Elmendorf-led CBO showed that ObamaCare and a minimum wage increase would both reduce employment. Under Elmendorf, CBO said that increasing marginal tax rates dampens economic growth because it reduces incentives to work, save, and invest. Elmendorf’s CBO said that transfer payments reduce work incentives and shrink the labor force. In contrast to President Obama and Dr. Krugman, Elmendorf’s CBO warned that high and rising debt levels will lower future income, increase pressure for higher taxes or less defense spending, and increase the risk of a fiscal crisis at some uncertain future date. In contrast to the Piketty Fan Club, CBO’s distributional analysis showed that the burden of financing government is even more distributed toward the high end than is income, and they integrated into their analysis the effects of both taxes and transfer payments.
Many Congressional Republicans need to learn how to use CBO better. They need to actually read what CBO writes and to figure out how to ask questions of CBO and of Dr. Elmendorf that will highlight the ways in which left-wing dogma contradicts straight-up-the-middle economic analysis. If Hill Republicans learn how to do this more effectively, the debate will move rightward as the Left’s case weakens.
I hope Congressional Republicans who want smaller government and freer markets think strategically about this post. Keep CBO strong and unbiased both in fact and in appearance. Win the economic policy debate by keeping the valuable asset they now have, the public and press credibility of a fair ref who often rebuts wacky dangerous arguments made by the Left. Learn to use CBO’s analyses more effectively and to ask them the right questions. Reappoint Dr. Doug Elmendorf to head the Congressional Budget Office.
A few days ago I wrote about MIT’s Dr. Jonathan Gruber’s honesty about lying to enact ObamaCare. Today I want to focus on a different part of this quote, his reference to “the stupidity of the American voter.”
In terms of risk rated subsidies, if you had a law which said that healthy people are going to pay in – you made explicit healthy people pay in and sick people get money, it would not have passed… Lack of transparency is a huge political advantage. And basically, call it the stupidity of the American voter or whatever, but basically that was really really critical for the thing to pass.
In 14 years of policymaking I encountered this word “stupid” and this attitude many times. I am certainly not arguing that all Democrats or all progressives think like this. I hope it’s only a tiny fraction. In my experience it’s a mindset that reveals itself every once in a while from a small but influential set of progressive policymakers and outsiders who participate in and comment on the policy process.
At the same time, the progressive idea of “stupid Americans justify paternalism” is a composite concept. Let’s try to unpack that composite. Here are six variants I have seen expressed by some of my policymaking counterparts who reside on the far left of the spectrum.
- “The American voter is stupid because he is less well educated or less credentialed than I am.” This one is self-explanatory, a combination of arrogance + entitlement. Educational credentials are of course highly imperfect measures of intelligence. False positive and false negative errors abound. This variant is sometimes combined with a regional component, a coastal big city elitism embodied in snarky terms like “fly-over country” and bias against those with rural upbringings or southern accents.
- “The American voter is stupid because she ignores scientific evidence by opposing progressive policy X.” Popular discussion of this variant often begins with the progressive habit of seeing scientific ignorance only on the right, ignoring parallel problems on the left from those who reject scientific consensus on, among other issues, the safety of vaccines and of genetically-modified food and the environmental safety of fracking. While the issues and causes differ, scientific ignorance exists across the full range of the policy and political spectrum. A deeper flaw occurs when some progressives reframe a value difference as a rejection of a scientific conclusion. I can accept certain widely held scientific conclusions about greenhouse gas emissions and still believe that a particular cap-and-trade proposal is bad policy. This doesn’t make me anti-science or stupid, it just means that my values lead to a different view on what is good policy.
- “The American voter is stupid because he doesn’t know what’s in his own best interest. I, the progressive policymaker, therefore must enact a policy that will give me the power to make decisions for him.” This logic underlies many paternalistic expansions of government–benefit mandates in ObamaCare, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, outlawing Super Big Gulps in New York City. Sometimes using behavioral economics as intellectual cover, this logic creates a slippery slope whereby progressives start imposing policies that represent not just what they think is best for us stupid people, but what they think is best for us even when we might disagree if fully informed. The policy question is not whether people make stupid decisions every day. Many do. The policy questions are whether substituting a centralized, bureaucratic, and politicized authority subject to interest group pressure will result in fewer mistakes than we would make on our own, and whether we value the freedom to control our own lives, even when that freedom will lead us to make mistakes. I am for letting the American people make their own mistakes.
- “The American voter is stupid because, if he had the same information and understanding of the situation as I do, he would support less redistribution of society’s resources than I would.” This, of course, is not stupidity, it’s simply a different value choice. And it provokes a hard question for honest, well-intentioned and ethical progressives who believe in democracy: Are you willing to tell the truth to, honestly inform, and then accept the will of the American people, as expressed though our highly imperfect representative democracy, if it results in less redistribution than you would prefer? Which is more important to you: democracy or redistribution? Are American voters stupid if they don’t want quite as much redistribution as you?
- “The American voter is stupid because she was unable to see through my efforts to obfuscate the true redistributive effects of my policies.” It’s not just the malevolence behind this view that frustrates me. It’s the arrogance. Dr. Gruber may be the only one to have admitted to this line of thinking, but he is far from the only policymaker to use it.
- “The American voter is stupid for trusting that I believe in democracy, that I will use the policy power I am granted only to enact policies that reflect broad American values when they differ from my own.” This is why Dr. Gruber and those who think like him should not be trusted with power. It is especially true for those who hold power but were not elected by a popular vote: staff, appointed officials, and outside advisors. It is also an argument for smaller government. The greater the reach of government into our lives, the more tools and opportunities exist for those who cannot be trusted with power to abuse it.
If American voters are stupid because they think academic credentials do not perfectly equate with intelligence…
If they are stupid because they think policy decisions should be informed both by sound science and values…
If they are stupid because they would rather let people make their own mistakes than allow government to make different mistakes for them…
If they are stupid because they support less redistribution than certain progressive policymakers and their allies in academia…
If they are stupid because they don’t spend all their time trying to sift through policies intentionally designed to deceive them…
If they are stupid because they trust that elected and especially appointed American officials will not abuse the power temporarily granted to them…
… then I’m with stupid.
(photo credit: Andres Musta)
MIT Economist Dr. Jonathan Gruber, widely cited as “the architect of ObamaCare,” recently committed a Kinsley gaffe, “when a politician tells the truth – some obvious truth he isn’t supposed to say.”
This bill was written in a tortured way to make sure CBO did not score the mandate as taxes. If CBO scored the mandate as taxes, the bill dies. Okay, so it’s written to do that. In terms of risk rated subsidies, if you had a law which said that healthy people are going to pay in – you made explicit healthy people pay in and sick people get money, it would not have passed… Lack of transparency is a huge political advantage. And basically, call it the stupidity of the American voter or whatever, but basically that was really really critical for the thing to pass. It’s a second-best argument. Look, I wish Mark was right that we could make it all transparent, but I’d rather have this law than not.
This provokes four questions:
- Is Dr. Gruber right that lack of transparency was a huge political advantage in enacting ObamaCare?
- Do Dr. Gruber’s allies in Congress and the Obama White House agree that ObamaCare cross-subsidies were intentionally obscured to avoid politically unpopular votes?
- Do they agree with the more general principle, that some large, explicit, and transparent subsidies will be unpopular, and that the only way to enact them is to hide and obscure them?
- If so, is it ethical to hide and obscure large cross-subsidies (or large costs), in ObamaCare and elsewhere, so they can be enacted into law? Does the end of greater redistribution justify the means of obfuscation, of lying to voters?
Here are my answers.
- Yes. Dr. Gruber is right that lack of transparency provided a huge political advantage in enacting ObamaCare. He is correct that the cross-subsidies within that bill would have doomed it had they been explicit, transparent, and well understood. If your goal is to enact unpopular subsidies then hiding them is an effective means to doing so.
- Yes. I would bet heavily that both Team Obama and key Congressional Democrats involved in enacting the Affordable Care Act intentionally obscured these policies as Dr. Gruber described and for the reasons he gave. I think this logic permeates the construction, drafting, and enactment of this law.
- Yes. I think this tactic is core to progressives’ long-term success in expanding government’s function as a massive income redistribution machine. This logic underlies hidden cross-subsidies in many of our largest government programs and the taxes imposed to finance them. It is on occasion embraced across the political spectrum, but it’s a tool used far more often by the Left to redistribute society’s resources behind our backs.
- No. I think this tactic is repulsive and unethical in a representative democracy.
Here are a few areas where American economic policy hides or obscures subsidies or costs, I believe intentionally.
- As Dr. Gruber points out, in ObamaCare the healthy cross-subsidize the sick. He does not point out that embedded within this the healthy subsidize the sick for the portion of their sickness related to unhealthy behaviors. A Congressional floor vote to defend such a value choice, if made transparent and explicit, would certainly fail.
- ObamaCare also forces young people to subsidize older people by limiting the width of premium “rating bands” for insurance sold in the individual market. This was the result of closed-door lobbying by AARP. This one might pass Congress if voted upon explicitly, but the ACA’s architects hid it to avoid admitting that they were shafting young people.
- Social Security conflates forced individual retirement saving, insurance programs, and massive cross-subsidies, in part to hide the latter.
- So does Medicare. The biggest cross-subsidies are across birth year cohorts but there are plenty of others as well. Don’t get me started on trust fund accounting.
- The employer-side half of FICA payroll taxes that finance most of Social Security and part of Medicare are often framed as if they “are paid by the employer” when their true economic burden is borne by the employee in the form of lower wages. If all FICA taxes were imposed on the employee-side they would be more transparent and less popular.
- A minimum wage increase forces low-skilled unemployed workers to subsidize the wages of the low-skilled employed. Expanding the earned income tax credit is a more transparent way to help the low-skilled unemployed but it puts the costs on budget and in full view. The Left pushes to hide the costs and lies, claiming it’s a free lunch.
- CAFE fuel economy requirements are less transparent than a gas tax that would achieve a similar goal. But gas tax increases are wildly unpopular while raising CAFE standards appear only to make things harder “on the auto companies.”
- A global CO2 cap-and-trade system would have obscured the redistribution of global economic growth from developed economies to developing economies. An explicit and transparent carbon tax imposed only on developed economies would achieve a similar endpoint but would have made explicit this massive proposed global redistribution.
- For years policymakers used Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to subsidize homeowners through hidden credit subsidies. The Left pushed this for low-income homebuyers through affordable housing goals, while elected officials across the political spectrum supported the same thing for all homebuyers through special advantages conferred by government on these two firms.
I could go on. Corporate incomes taxes hide the costs imposed on the people who work for, own, and buy from these firms. Many agricultural subsidies are intentionally obfuscated to enhance their bipartisan support.
Apparently Dr. Gruber thinks it’s OK to lie to American voters when his allies are in power to enact policies that he wants but the voters wouldn’t. He then says American voters are “stupid” both for not agreeing with his value choices and for not figuring out the deception.
When you strip away all the complexity, economic policy is ultimately an expression of elected officials making difficult value choices. If over time these officials make value choices that do not reflect the values of the people whom they represent, they can, should, and will be replaced.
When these same elected officials, and those who advise them, deliberately construct policies to hide value choices that would be unpopular were they transparent and explicit, we end up with two terrible outcomes. We get policies that do not reflect our values, and we re-elect representatives who are lying to us.
President Obama’s economic campaign message is odd. Here is what he’s saying at most campaign events.
“There’s almost no economic measure by which we’re not doing better than we were when I took office.”
“But people are still anxious. And they’re anxious for three reasons.”
- Overseas uncertainty: ISIL + ebola + Russia/Ukraine;
- “Although the economy is doing better, wages and incomes have not gone up. And the vast majority of growth, productivity increases, profits, wealth has accrued to folks at the very top of the economic pyramid, and we have not seen wages and incomes for ordinary folks go up for a couple of decades. And that makes people feel, even if things have gotten better, that they’re still concerned about not only their future but their children’s futures.”
- “[T]here’s a sense that things simply don’t work in Washington, and Congress, in particular, seems to be completely gridlocked.”
While true, his first point is a self-centered perspective for someone whose job this month is to support the reelection of his party’s Congressional candidates. If President Obama were running for re-election it might be important to compare today’s economy to that when he first took office. But your typical Democratic candidate for Congress isn’t running on President Obama’s economic record, and that six year time frame is irrelevant to candidates like Michelle Nunn and Alison Lundergran Grimes who have not been part of the past six years of governance+stalemate in DC. President Obama’s analysis centers on progress made during his tenure, while many Democratic Congressional candidates want this campaign to be about anything other than him.
President Obama also implies that because the economy is stronger than it was six years ago it is strong today. That does not necessarily follow, especially given the depth of the 2008-2009 recession. The U.S. economy has been climbing out of that hole for five years but it still has a long way to go.
From the President’s perspective, voters feel economic anxiety principally (only?) because of the decades-long maldistribution of economic growth. But if these distributional trends have been building for decades then it is unlikely they can explain a recent change in sentiment.
I suggest instead that voters’ economic anxiety is justified.
- In my judgment the U.S. economy is still quite weak (I won’t get into a statistical cherry-picking battle here) and voters know or can sense it. It can of course be simultaneously true that the economy is at the moment weak and that it is nevertheless stronger than it was six years ago. I think that’s the case.
- The rate of economic recovery over the past five years has been tepid and voters can feel it. Macroeconomists (including President Obama’s first NEC Director Larry Summers) are debating why the rate of recovery has been so surprisingly slow while the President is boasting about the length of the recovery but ignoring its abnormally slow pace.
- While GDP growth accelerated significantly in Q2 of this year to a 4.6% annual rate, that’s after a 2.1% decline in Q1. Should a simplistic straight-line projection of the trend assume the 4.6% rate will continue? If so then the future GDP path should look much brighter than it has over the past five years. Should it instead assume the 2.5% average rate over the past two quarters will continue? That would be moderate growth but nothing to write home about given how far we still are from our maximum potential output. Should we be even more pessimistic as Europe and China weaken? Voters might not be as willing to assume strong growth going forward as a President trying to draw an economic happy face the month before Election Day.
I think voters are anxious about the economy because despite five years of GDP growth the recovery has been too slow to make voters feel good. Today the economy is still weak, employment is still low, real wages aren’t growing rapidly, and stronger future growth, while possible, is by no means certain. In short, voters have good reason to feel economic anxiety.
The upside of all this is that ongoing economic weakness creates an opportunity for sound policies to substantially improve medium- and long-term U.S. economic growth. Policymakers have lots of room to improve policy and plenty of upward potential for a much stronger economy if only we can get the right combination of leaders in Washington and policies in place. The downside is we probably have to wait two more years to have a shot at such a leadership arrangement no matter what happens this November 4th.
(photo credit: The White House)
Mr. Melvin Watt runs FHFA, the Federal Housing Finance Agency charged with regulating Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Yesterday Mr. Watt said:
To increase access for creditworthy but lower-wealth borrowers, FHFA is also working with the Enterprises to develop sensible and responsible guidelines for mortgages with loan-to-value ratios between 95 and 97 percent. Through these revised guidelines, we believe that the Enterprises will be able to responsibly serve a targeted segment of creditworthy borrowers with lower-down payment mortgages … [this] is yet another much needed piece to the broader access to credit puzzle.
Mr. Watt wants to return to the good old days when you could buy a house with 3% down, and in particular he wants poor people to be able to buy a house leveraged 33:1.
This is the return of a terrible idea, a zombie I thought was destroyed when the housing bubble burst. Many homeowners, of all income levels, were too highly leveraged and bought more home than they could afford. They gambled that housing prices would rise forever. Many lost that gamble. They were hurt, their neighbors were hurt, and the financial institutions that held their mortgages were hurt. When the housing bubble burst and financial institutions collapsed, the global economy tanked. Over leverage and tiny down payments (and not just for the poor) contributed significantly to the housing bubble, the financial crisis, and the resulting severe recession.
In May of last year I wrote:
By nominating Mr. Watt the President signals a return to the pre-crisis philosophy of regulating housing finance risk. That is a huge mistake. Mr. Watt should not be confirmed to head the FHFA.
There is a tradeoff you get when policies encourages expanding credit. More people are able to buy things they could not otherwise afford, but at the same time more people end up in credit trouble. This balance clearly went too far in the easy credit direction in the late 90s through the late 00s.
In their never-ending quest to be “pro homeownership,” for more than two decades policymakers and elected officials on both sides of the aisle took every opportunity to expand credit and subsidize home buying. The GSEs’ regulatory structure allowed them to ignore the costs and risks of these actions until it all imploded.
The usual left-right DC housing debate centers on whether one should distort policy to give preferential treatment to poor borrowers. The far left says yes, and many on the right say no. Mr. Watt’s announcement is consistent with the left’s view in that he appears to be considering lowering the down payment requirement for poor borrowers (technically “lower-wealth” borrowers, who will be highly correlated with lower-income borrowers).
But many on the right (including those who opposed aggressive GSE reforms and were quite friendly with Fannie and Freddie pre-crisis) were just as supportive of low down payments as long as they were available to middle- and upper-income homebuyers as well. Think carefully, Congressional Republicans, before you cast stones at your progressive friends on the left. Mr. Watt wants to make it easier for poor people to buy too much house. The problem is the too much house part, not the poor part.
My complaint is not particularly with lowering the GSEs’ down payment requirement for poor borrowers, it’s making this policy change for any borrowers. Policy should not be encouraging or subsidizing (explicitly or implicitly) anyone who buys a house leveraged 33:1, whether he is poor or rich. If policymakers want to encourage homeownership they should encourage responsible homeownership, which means that you have been patient and wise enough to save for a significant down payment.
For many poor people a larger down payment requirement will mean that they either have to buy a smaller house, or work and save longer to afford a bigger down payment, or rent rather than buy. I think all three outcomes are better than encouraging people to buy homes they cannot afford, than gambling (again) that housing prices will always go up, than inflating a new housing bubble, and than creating a new batch of toxic housing-related financial assets based on bad mortgages.
Mr. Watt’s announcement reinforces my view that the GSEs and their regulatory structure should be completely replaced by a purely private housing finance market. Any replacement regulatory structure that allows the government a role in determining the structure of mortgages will be subject to distortion like that which Mr. Watt is about to revive. If the balance of legislative power requires that housing for poor people be subsidized, then the right way to do it is to combine a free market in mortgages with explicit on-budget subsidies for the poor, and with those subsidies targeted at income rather than at making down payments cheaper.
Let’s remember the recent past and not repeat those mistakes anew.
(photo credit: Andrew Becraft)
Imagine the Chinese government decides to help the people of Kenya. To do this the Chinese government buys 5,000 wheeled loaders and excavators from Liugong Machinery and gives them for free to the Kenyan government, Kenyan construction firms, and groups of Kenyan citizens who want to build roads and stuff.
(Real world export subsidies are much smaller, of course, but the principle is the same. Foreign customers of a domestic exporter get taxpayer-subsidized discounts, not totally free stuff.)
Who wins? Kenyan customers and Liugong’s owners and employees, who now have a huge increase in demand for their product.
Who loses? Chinese taxpayers, who must foot the bill, and the owners and employees of Liugong’s Chinese and foreign competitors, who don’t have this generous taxpayer-subsidized benefit and can’t possibly compete with free.
Now let’s journey to America to meet an (imaginary) executive from Caterpillar, an American firm competing with Liugong to sell wheeled loaders and excavators to Kenyans. Caterpillar can’t give their product away, they need to sell it. This executive goes to a U.S. policymaker and asks for a similar export subsidy to what Liugong received from the Chinese government.
Imaginary Caterpillar executive: “Caterpillar is losing business in Kenya to our Chinese competitor Liugong. The Chinese government buys equipment from Liugong and gives it to Kenya. The U.S. government needs to do the same for us. If they don’t we’ll completely lose the Kenyan market to the Chinese. American taxpayers need to put up money to buy Caterpillar wheeled loaders and excavators and then give that machinery to Kenyans. If you don’t, we’ll lose that export business and American jobs.”
American policymaker: “Let me get this straight. We should take money from American taxpayers, use it to buy equipment from your company, and then give that equipment to the Kenyans, all because the Chinese are doing the same thing with your competitor?”
Cat exec: “I agree it sounds silly, but if you don’t do this we’ll lose American jobs. It would be better if neither China nor the U.S. did this, but as long as the Chinese do, you have to as well. Unless you want to put America at a competitive disadvantage and lose the Kenyan heavy equipment market…”
American policymaker: “There’s a difference between what’s good for America and what’s good for one firm in America. China’s policy puts one American company (yours) at a tremendous disadvantage in winning business in one foreign market. I feel bad about that, but I’m not sure the solution you propose makes things better for America as a whole. For instance, while I like Kenya, aren’t you asking me to have American taxpayers subsidize your Kenyan customers? That’s not my policy goal. If I wanted to help Caterpillar owners and employees, wouldn’t it be more efficient to just have the U.S. government write a check to Caterpillar? That way we wouldn’t dilute the help by giving most of it to foreigners.”
Cat exec: “Yes, that would be more efficient, but we both know there’s no way you could sell that to Congress or the American public.”
American policymaker: “So you want me to support a less efficient policy because the more efficient one would be unpopular. What about your American competitor John Deere? Wouldn’t I be giving you an unfair advantage over them?”
Cat exec: “Well, technically, yes, but…”
American policymaker: “Technically nothing. You’re asking me replace one tilted playing field with another. And what if China decides to do the same thing for the Rwandans? Do I have to match those subsidies as well?”
Cat exec: “Unless you want us to lose that business, sure…”
American policymaker: “What if Liugong got its subsidy from the Chinese government through less-than-noble means? What if a Liugong executive’s brother-in-law’s cousin is the guy who works for the key Chinese decision-maker? Are you saying that U.S. taxpayers should target American subsidies for American firms to match foreign subsidies determined by cronyism in a foreign government? Is that right? Where does it end?”
Cat exec: “Well, when you put it that way it doesn’t sound quite as attractive. But surely you don’t want America to unilaterally disarm.”
American policymaker: “Sorry, but I don’t buy your ‘disarmament’ analogy. China’s export subsidies of Liugong don’t only hurt Caterpillar, they also hurt Chinese taxpayers and Liugong’s Chinese competitors. They distort decisions and redistribute economic resources in China in ways that make their economy less efficient. While they undoubtedly help Liugong’s owners and employees, China’s export subsidies harm other parts of the Chinese economy. You’re asking me in turn to help your firm’s owners and employees at the expense of American taxpayers and the owners and employees of your American competitors. I don’t see why I should replicate their mistake here, even the alternative is that your firm loses the Kenyan market to Chinese subsidies. Seems to me the alternative you propose is better for Caterpillar but worse for America as a whole. A better analogy would be if you said I should not quit smoking until all my friends also quit. I should quit smoking if it’s healthier for me even if my friends continue to smoke. If China wants to harm itself, there’s no reason I should do the same just to match their mistake.”
Cat exec: “And therefore you’re going to force Caterpillar to compete on an unlevel playing field with Liugong. You’ll be responsible for the layoffs at Caterpillar that result because you refused to help us.”
American policymaker: “The alternative is that you want me to force American taxpayers to subsidize foreign consumers and the owners and employees of one American firm, and to create a new titled playing field at the expense of the owners and employees of your American competitors, based in part upon decisions made in foreign capitals that may have been determined by cronyism. You agree that this policy is less efficient than one that would be unpopular in the U.S., and you’re advocating this one because you think you can disguise that it’s a worse policy. No thank you.”
Cat exec: “How about if, rather than buying the equipment in total, you just give us a partial taxpayer subsidy? We can make it either a direct subsidy or a taxpayer-backed loan guarantee, and we can do it through the government run Export-Import Bank. That way nobody will understand it.”
The U.S. government should not engage in industrial policy, choosing to help certain American firms and thereby indirectly punishing other American firms. Government should not be picking winners and losers.
American taxpayers should not be subsidizing any particular subset of American business owners and/or workers. American taxpayers should also not be subsidizing foreigners, even when they are foreign consumers of American exports.
Export subsidies are bad policy. Even when well-intentioned and designed to “level the playing field” to match other countries’ export subsidies, they create other tilted playing fields and do more harm to the economy as a whole than the problem they purport to solve for one firm. They also create opportunities for cronyism and other forms of influence-based rent-seeking.
Deep and liquid private credit markets exist today that did not exist when the Export-Import Bank was created in the 1930s. Ex-Im’s primary function now is to pass though implicit taxpayer subsidies to a select group of American firms.
Export subsidies should be eliminated and the Ex-Im Bank should be killed. Export credit finance should be done, without subsidies, by private markets.