Mighty, Mighty Voodoo

Martin Wolf at Financial Times:

To understand modern Republican thinking on fiscal policy, we need to go back to perhaps the most politically brilliant (albeit economically unconvincing) idea in the history of fiscal policy: “supply-side economics”. Supply-side economics liberated conservatives from any need to insist on fiscal rectitude and balanced budgets. Supply-side economics said that one could cut taxes and balance budgets, because incentive effects would generate new activity and so higher revenue.

The political genius of this idea is evident. Supply-side economics transformed Republicans from a minority party into a majority party. It allowed them to promise lower taxes, lower deficits and, in effect, unchanged spending. Why should people not like this combination? Who does not like a free lunch?

How did supply-side economics bring these benefits? First, it allowed conservatives to ignore deficits. They could argue that, whatever the impact of the tax cuts in the short run, they would bring the budget back into balance, in the longer run. Second, the theory gave an economic justification – the argument from incentives – for lowering taxes on politically important supporters. Finally, if deficits did not, in fact, disappear, conservatives could fall back on the “starve the beast” theory: deficits would create a fiscal crisis that would force the government to cut spending and even destroy the hated welfare state.

In this way, the Republicans were transformed from a balanced-budget party to a tax-cutting party. This innovative stance proved highly politically effective, consistently putting the Democrats at a political disadvantage. It also made the Republicans de facto Keynesians in a de facto Keynesian nation. Whatever the rhetoric, I have long considered the US the advanced world’s most Keynesian nation – the one in which government (including the Federal Reserve) is most expected to generate healthy demand at all times, largely because jobs are, in the US, the only safety net for those of working age.

True, the theory that cuts would pay for themselves has proved altogether wrong. That this might well be the case was evident: cutting tax rates from, say, 30 per cent to zero would unambiguously reduce revenue to zero. This is not to argue there were no incentive effects. But they were not large enough to offset the fiscal impact of the cuts (see, on this, Wikipedia and a nice chart from Paul Krugman).

Indeed, Greg Mankiw, no less, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under George W. Bush, has responded to the view that broad-based tax cuts would pay for themselves, as follows: “I did not find such a claim credible, based on the available evidence. I never have, and I still don’t.” Indeed, he has referred to those who believe this as “charlatans and cranks”. Those are his words, not mine, though I agree. They apply, in force, to contemporary Republicans, alas,

Kevin Drum:

You should read the whole post. It’s mostly a recap of the past 30 years of Republican economic nihilism, but it’s a very clear, crisp recap. Wolf’s conclusion is sobering:

This is extraordinarily dangerous. The danger does not arise from the fiscal deficits of today, but the attitudes to fiscal policy, over the long run, of one of the two main parties. Those radical conservatives (a small minority, I hope) who want to destroy the credit of the US federal government may succeed. If so, that would be the end of the US era of global dominance. The destruction of fiscal credibility could be the outcome of the policies of the party that considers itself the most patriotic.

Our best hope, I think, is that Republicans nominate a Palin/Ryan ticket in 2012 and then go down to such an epic defeat that they finally get some sense knocked into them. On the other hand, the last time that happened we got Richard Nixon out of the deal. So maybe we’re just doomed no matter what.

Brad DeLong:

Like Paul Krugman, Martin Wolf is (almost) always right. And as in the case of Paul Krugman, given that Martin Wolf is (almost) always right I really really really wish he would be a little more optimistic. Perhaps if he drank more expensive wines at dinner?

Here Martin makes the case that America’s future depends on the rapid destruction of the Republican Party and its replacement by an alternative opposition party to the Democrats

Paul Krugman:

Wolf’s argument and main points are similar to those I made in a recent column; that’s not a criticism, because we need more people saying this.

Martin ends on a deeply pessimistic note. I wish I could disagree.

Doug J.:

I’m not sure that I agree that supply-side economics was the dominant factor in transforming Republicans from a minority party into a majority party; I don’t think the Republicans have been a majority party for many of the past 30 years and, to the extent that they have been, regional realignment based on opposition to civil rights has been the most important factor, IMHO.

That said, the supply side myth is, truly, economic crack cocaine that has the potential to bring about something as cataclysmic as a US government default—something many conservatives say they would welcome. The only thing that is likely to stop it is a demographic trend that may marginalize the Republican party.

Henry Farrell:

Martin Wolf in the FT today

Whatever the rhetoric, I have long considered the US the advanced world’s most Keynesian nation – the one in which government (including the Federal Reserve) is most expected to generate healthy demand at all times, largely because jobs are, in the US, the only safety net for those of working age.

I’m not sure I agree (or more precisely: your level of agreement with this statement will depend on exactly how you want to define Keynesianism) – but it’s worth pointing out that this is at the least quite consonant with Tyler Cowen’s arguments about Germany. On the one hand, this intellectual convergence could be taken as suggesting that Tyler’s case suggests that German-style social democracy works better than US style Keynesianism (an argument which I think Tyler agrees with, at least with respect to Germans). On the other, it could be taken as suggesting that despite Wolf’s frequent minatory statements about the external consequences of the German model, he believes that it works better in relative terms than US-style Keynesianism in providing internal economic security and political stability. Certainly, he is quite skeptical about the prospects of the US economic system given Republicans’ role as a blocking minority and perhaps majority in the near future (his most provocative suggestion is that Republicans are a perverted species of Keynesians).

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