The Cliff the Keynesians Built

by alexvanbuskirk

The Cliff the Keynesians Built: Temporary tax cuts created the fiscal threat to growth

Review & Outlook @ WSJ (August 22, 2012)

Well, well. So the folks who have run U.S. economic policy since 2008 are alarmed about the peril of the 2013 “fiscal cliff.” Too bad they didn’t worry about that when they were creating the very ledge they now lament.

The latest warning comes from the Congressional Budget Office, which estimated in its mid-year budget outlook Wednesday that the economy will return to recession in 2013 if taxes rise and spending falls on schedule in January. “Such fiscal tightening will lead to economic conditions in 2013 that will probably be considered a recession,” say the CBO sachems, “with real GDP declining by 0.5 percent” from this year’s fourth quarter to the final quarter of next year and unemployment rising to about 9% from 8.3%.

One point to keep in mind is that CBO’s economists are as true-blue Keynesians as exist on the planet. Like the Obama White House and Treasury, they believe in the “multiplier” that $1 of federal spending somehow creates $1.50 in greater GDP. Thus they plug large spending cuts into their economic models, and, presto, they find a recession.

The larger policy point is that this is the fiscal cliff the Keynesians built. The 2008 quote above from Larry Summers, the Harvard economist who later became President Obama’s chief economic adviser, sums up the mindset that has dominated policy for most of the last decade and especially since 2008.

Rather than provide predictable, consistent policy for the long term, the Summers-Obama-Geithner-Krugman theory goes that government should jolt the economy with spending and tax cuts that are targeted and temporary. The jolt will drive the economy out of recession, rapid growth will resume, and the wizards of Harvard Yard can then tell us the precise moment when the stimulus can be withdrawn and taxes should rise again.

So here we are now facing the expiration of all of these temporary measures at the same time. And that’s not all. You have to add the higher tax rates that Mr. Obama has proposed in his budget, such as the 30% “Buffett rule” tax rate on capital gains. And don’t forget the new 3.8% surcharge on investment income that is part of ObamaCare and also starts in January.

Republicans are pointing to the CBO report as proof of Mr. Obama’s policy failure, and it is. But rather than gawking at the potential for another recession, they ought to explain the folly of “temporary, targeted” tax and spending stimulus. The fleeting tax elixir does little to change incentives to work or invest because everyone knows its impact is temporary. It also creates tremendous uncertainty as expiration nears, which can also harm incentives and growth.

The problem is political, but more important it is intellectual. The Keynesians and their allies who have dominated tax policy for most of the last decade (the 2003 bill excepted) need to be exiled back to Harvard, Princeton and Wall Street. And the Romney-Ryan Republicans need to understand and not repeat the Bush mistakes of 2001 and 2008.