Elmendorf for CBO

Elmendorf for CBO

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.

I’m with Stupid —>

I’m with Stupid —>

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.

  1. “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.
  2. “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.
  3. “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.
  4. “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?
  5. “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.
  6. “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)

Dr. Gruber’s honesty about lying

Dr. Gruber’s honesty about lying

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:

  1. Is Dr. Gruber right that lack of transparency was a huge political advantage in enacting ObamaCare?
  2. 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?
  3. 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?
  4. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

I disagree.

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 odd economic campaign message

President Obama’s odd economic campaign message

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.”

    1. Overseas uncertainty: ISIL + ebola + Russia/Ukraine;
    2. “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.”
    3. “[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)

Return of the low down payment zombie

Return of the low down payment zombie

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)

Defense v. ObamaCare

DEFENSE SECRETARY HAGEL: To close these gaps, the President’s budget will include an Opportunity, Growth and Security Initiative.  This initiative is a detailed proposal that is part of the President’s budget submission.  It would provide an additional $26 billion for the Defense Department in Fiscal Year 2015.

defense v obamacare v2

Source for $88 B number: Congressional Budget Office, “Insurance Coverage Provisions of the Affordable Care Act–CBO’s February 2014 Baseline,” Table 1 (Net cost of coverage provisions for FY 2015).

Message to Governors: Biden v. Obama

Here is VP Biden, speaking this morning to all Governors:

THE VICE PRESIDENT:  It’s great to see you all.  And I don’t know about you all, I had a great time last night and got a chance to actually do what we should be doing more of — talking without thinking about politics and figuring how we can solve problems.

And here is President Obama, speaking at a dinner last Thursday night to just the Democratic Governors:

THE PRESIDENT: Now, unfortunately, state by state, Republican governors are implementing a different agenda.  They’re pursuing the same top-down, failed economic policies that don’t help Americans get ahead.  They’re paying for it by cutting investments in the middle class, oftentimes doing everything they can to squeeze folks who are bargaining on behalf of workers.  Some of them, their economies have improved in part because the overall economy has improved, and they take credit for it instead of saying that Obama had anything to do with it.  I get that.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  But they’re making it harder for working families to access health insurance.  In some states, they’re making it harder even for Americans to exercise their right to vote.

 

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