Category Archives: Spending

Latest Producer Price Index Indicates Inflation Too High

This press release was originally posted on cei.org.

The government’s latest numbers on average changes in prices, as measured by the Producer Price Index (PPI), are up at an annualized rate of 8.3 percent – higher than the Consumer Price Index’s latest reading of 5.4 percent.

CEI Senior Fellow Ryan Young says the discouraging numbers indicate Congress should change course.

“The PPI is often seen as a leading indicator of what is to come, and today’s high reading indicates inflation is much higher than the Fed’s longtime target inflation rate of about 2 percent. High inflation is bad news for the near future. While a return to 1970s-era stagflation remains unlikely because the only damper on an otherwise-sound economy is the pandemic, today’s inflation is still cause for concern because policymakers may not learn the right lessons.

“The main causes of today’s inflation are heavy deficit spending and a loose Federal Reserve policy. The Federal Reserve indicated it will dial things back a bit on its end starting next year, but since there is a midterm election coming up, it will likely face political pressure to keep interests low. On spending, both parties are proving hopeless.

“Today’s inflation is preventable. People are opening up to the extent they feel safe doing so. Congress’ ongoing spending binge will have little or no effect on people’s safety decisions. Policymakers should instead encourage prudence in dealing with COVID risks without risking backlash by being too heavy-handed about it. The most useful actions policymakers could take would be passing non-spending stimulus measures such as loosening regulations on occupational licensing, trade restrictions, and excessive permit and paperwork burdens.”

Jobless Claims Are Down, but Tensions Remain in COVID Recovery

Jobless claims are at their lowest levels since the start of the pandemic; 310,000 people filed first-time claims last week, down roughly 95 percent from a peak of 6.1 million when the COVID shutdowns were at their worst.

The economic recovery is caught in a tug-of-war. On one side, COVID’s delta variant is slowing the recovery, as is the transformation of vaccines and masks into culture war issues. On the other side, economic fundamentals are in mostly good shape, aside from inflation. People are able to find work when they feel it is safe to, as shown in the all-time record 10.9 million job openings available right now. This back-and-forth tension will likely continue for as long as the delta variant or similarly harmful future COVID variants are widespread.

This week’s jobless claims were a swing to the good. The new school year has begun, and in most places, schools are back to in-person classes. This is freeing up a lot of parents who wanted to work, and felt safe doing so, but needed to stay home during last school year’s experiment in remote schooling.

Over the next several weeks, jobless claims may also decline as unemployment benefit extensions expire, prompting more people to reenter the workforce. Economists disagree over how large this effect will be, but no one seriously argues that unemployment benefit extensions have zero effect on people’s incentives to work or not. Whether this incentive effect will be strong enough to overcome delta variant fears remains to be seen.

As Congress follows up its trillion-dollar infrastructure plan with a $3.5 reconciliation bill and then a roughly $6 trillion budget, growth and employment could slow in the medium to long term as more resources get diverted to politicized spending projects, regulatory compliance, and paying off record levels of government debt.

Jobless Claims Drop to Pre-Pandemic Level but Congress Spending Binge Threatens Recovery

This news release was originally posted at cei.org.

The federal government today reported a drop in seasonally adjusted initial unemployment claims to the lowest level for this average since March 2020. CEI Senior Fellow Ryan Young expressed confidence that two pandemic recovery milestones will bring greater gains but also pointed to a big problem on the horizon: a spending binge by Congress.

Statement by Ryan Young, CEI Senior Fellow:

“Jobs are continuing to come back, and the near future also looks good, thanks to two milestones. One, the number of vaccinated Americans crossed 200 million, bringing the country closer to herd immunity. Two, the new school year is beginning, which will allow more parents to resume working if they choose; there are still plenty of openings. COVID’s delta variant clouds matters, but the more people who get booster shots, the less harm it should cause to people’s health and pocketbooks.

“The continued strength of the recovery continues to show how unnecessary Congress’ planned spending binge is. If Congress presses forward on the infrastructure bill and its other trillion-dollar plans, it will be less about doing good, and more about handing out political favors and not wanting to admit that their pet economic theories about stimulus are wrong.”

New Inflation Numbers: Still High, Still Fixable

July’s inflation numbers are out. The annualized Consumer Price Index came in at 5.4 percent, compared to a 2 percent target. The month-to-month increase was 0.5 percent, an improvement over June’s 0.9 percent. While a return to 1970s stagflation is almost certainly not in the cards, inflation is still too high. Congress and President Biden should act now to keep it in check.

This appears unlikely at the moment. As of this writing, their latest trillion-dollar spending bill is in the process of clearing the Senate, though it will likely face friction and delay in the House. Assuming the bill does pass, it will nudge inflation upwards in future months while doing little to help the economy. Fiscal discipline in Washington is currently about as popular as the plague, but that does not change the need to reduce deficit spending. Economic recovery depends on increasing vaccination rates, not more politically motivated spending.

Politicians also need to respect the Federal Reserve’s independence. Higher interest rates are necessary to keep inflation low—but they also make government debt more expensive. President Biden and other political officials should resist the urge to pressure the Fed to keep rates low, and should spend less instead. Political meddling in central banks is how inflationary debacles like in Argentina happen. While the Fed has its flaws, it can do a good job of keeping inflation low—if it’s allowed to.

Other price increases have nothing to do with inflation (see my recent post on what inflation is, and what it isn’t). These price increases also deserve attention.

Trade barriers from both the Trump and the Biden administrations are upsetting supply chains. Above and beyond inflation, protectionist trade policies are increasing prices for cars and houses, and are largely responsible for computer chip shortages. Occupational licenses are keeping honest people out of work. Excessive regulations and permit requirements are blocking new ideas and projects that could push product prices down. Financial regulations are keeping capital away from small businesses that could use to it grow and compete against bigger companies. Energy policy restrictions are raising prices across the economy.

It is not enough to do simply do something. It is important to do the right things. Today’s policy mistakes are likely not enough to topple the COVID-19 crisis recovery, but they will slow it down, for no good reason. Fortunately, there are lots of sound policies that can hold down inflation while boosting the COVID recovery. Many of them are in CEI’s most recent Agenda for Congress.

July Jobs Analysis: More Spending, Restrictions from Congress Won’t HelpThe

This press release was originally posted at cei.org.

The U.S. economy added 943,000 jobs in the month of July, with a decline in unemployment to 5.4 percent according to government numbers released today. Competitive Enterprise Institute experts said lawmakers can aid further recovery not by spending or imposing mandates and restrictions but in finding ways to remove barriers to work.

CEI Research Fellow Sean Higgins:

“The Labor Department reported Friday that 5.2 million persons reported not working in July because their employer closed or lost business due to the pandemic, down from 6.2 million in June. It’s encouraging that the dramatic one-month decline in the number of people seeking unemployment benefits – one million fewer people – exceeds the 943,000 in new jobs the government reported for the month of June. The evidence is starkly clear that for the economy to recover we simply need to let people get back to work. Additional spending isn’t necessary and new restrictions to counter the Delta variant will only imperil the economy’s recent gains.

CEI Senior Fellow Ryan Young:

“Clearly, people do not need another spending binge from Congress to find work. If anything, Congress’ spending will cause active harm by using up investment capital that instead could have gone to startups that need it to grow, hire, and adapt to COVID-era conditions.

“The recovery’s biggest obstacle, besides Congress, remains vaccine hesitancy. While the vaccination rate is now over 70 percent, that is clearly not enough to keep the delta variant from spreading. Mandated or not, masks and various degrees of lockdown will simply be a part of life until people get vaccinated. That should be the top recovery priority.

“While there is only so much Congress can or should do to address vaccine hesitancy, there is plenty else they can do. Lawmakers should loosen occupational licenses, lift trade barriers, make project permitting requirements swift and reasonable, direct agencies to scrub outdated regulations, and keep inflation in check. These measures would help far more people than would adding to the national debt.”

Government Can Further Jobs Gain By Continuing to Ease Restriction and Not Spending

This news release was originally posted at cei.org.

The economy added 850,000 jobs in June, according to newly released numbers by the Labor Department. That exceeds the anticipated number of 700,00. And the biggest gains were in the leisure and hospitality sector. What can government do to help with even bigger gains as the economy continues pandemic recovery? CEI experts offer advice.

Ryan Young, CEI Senior Fellow:

“June’s jobs report is fresh evidence that the COVID economic recovery does not need more government spending. It needs more vaccinations and fewer regulatory obstacles. The boom in leisure and hospitality jobs shows that vaccination rates are now high enough for many people to feel safe going to events and summer vacations that last year would have been extremely dangerous. Deficit spending is already at a record high, and there is no need to add to it further. Policymakers should instead lighten permit and paperwork burdens, lower trade barriers, and allow easier access to capital so new businesses can start up, and existing businesses can adapt to the new conditions.”

Sean Higgins, CEI Research Fellow:

“June’s gain of 850,000 jobs can largely be attributed to the continued rollback of state and federal restrictions related to the Covid-19 epidemic. The Labor Department found that 6.2 million people reported in June that they were unable to work because their employer was closed or lost business due to the pandemic, down from 7.9 million reporting the same problem in May. The biggest gains were seen in the leisure and hospitality industry (343,000 jobs) and public and private education (269,000 jobs) both reflecting trends of people getting out of their homes and back out in public. The data shows that best remedy for the economy is to simply let it heal itself by having government get out of the way.”

CPI Inflation Indicator Hits 5 Percent: Not Stagflation, But a Useful Warning

The Consumer Price Index (CPI) for May came out this morning. At 5 percent, it was higher than expected. CPI has its flaws as an indicator, but the fact that it is now the highest it has been since the 2008 financial crisis still says something useful. We’re not going back to 1970s stagflation, so nobody needs to freak out, but today’s numbers are a warning. Policy makers should listen.

Trillions of dollars of proposed new deficit spending would further increase inflation, and would mostly stimulate the politically connected. The Federal Reserve should resist political pressure to further flood the money supply in hopes of stimulating a faster COVID recovery.

The timing is also off. Most projects would not kick in until the economy is already mostly recovered anyway. While there is still a way to go, unemployment is already below 6 percent, GDP is working its way back to trend, and the return of in-person schooling this fall will allow more parents to reenter the workforce. Continued progress depends on vaccination rates, not new political projects.

Rather than producing more cash, Congress should enable more production of actual goods and services with a deregulatory stimulus, lowering of trade barriers, and incentives for more vaccinations. Almost a third of occupations now require some sort of license. These keep thousands of would-be small entrepreneurs out of the market, and make it harder for workers to find or change jobs. Financial regulations make it hard for startups and struggling businesses to find capital to grow or stay open—and higher inflation would worsen the problem. Endless permits and years-long environmental reviews are blocking infrastructure projects that could already be underway.

Tariffs left over from the Trump administration, along with new ones the Biden administration is proposing, are making cars and houses more expensive at a lousy time, and could hit billions of dollars of other goods this holiday shopping season.

Vaccination rates are the single most important factor for reopening the economy. People are itching to get back to normal, but first they need to feel safe. Remember, people didn’t wait for governors’ orders to lock down in the first place. Opening back up is also a decision people are making for themselves. Lifting government restrictions might have some impact at the margin. Politicians are not in the driver’s seat here, but there are still things they can do. Some states have tried incentive programs, like lottery drawings and free goods. These are already having a positive impact in communities, saving lives and letting people open back up. More of these would speed the process more than inflation would.

An inflationary boost is tempting for politicians because it is easy. It takes hard work to make substantive reforms to regulation and trade policy and to reach out to vaccine-hesitant people and ask them to do the right thing. But what is worthwhile is rarely easy. While today’s inflation news is not doom-and-gloom, it is cause for concern. We are at an inflection point. Will Congress and President Biden do the right thing?

For more, see my recent explainer on how inflation works, and my recent op-ed on how to stimulate the economy without new spending.

Stimulating the COVID Recovery without Trillions in Spending

Over at Inside Sources, I make the case that deregulation, freer trade, and continued vaccinations will do more to open up the economy than the trillions of dollars of politicized spending Congress is lining up:

Federal, state, and local regulators eased more than 800 regulations last year that were blocking access to telemedicine, medical supplies, and food and grocery deliveries, along with unneeded occupational licenses that were keeping people out of work. We’ve already seen the benefits. Now policymakers need to continue this important work as entrepreneurs look for ways to adapt to the new normal but find themselves blocked because they don’t have the right permit.

Steel and aluminum tariffs left over from the Trump administration are adding hundreds of dollars to car prices and thousands of dollars to construction costs, at a time when housing prices are becoming unaffordable for many buyers. Congress could get rid of them today if it wanted to. Congress should also stop Biden’s proposed doubling of Canadian lumber tariffs, which would further increase housing prices while alienating an ally with whom we just signed the USMCA trade agreement. He has also proposed an additional $2 billion in tariffs against six mostly allied countries with whom we will be negotiating trade agreements in the near future. These would come into effect in the middle of the holiday shopping season.

My colleague Wayne Crews has a good term for this type of proposal: a deregulatory stimulus. Read the whole thing here.

Politics by Meme

Here is a political meme that has been making the rounds on social media:

No photo description available.

I agree with this one of this meme’s main points–the federal government spends too much on corporate welfare. But its numbers are way off.

  • The biggest tax most $50,000 earners pay is the 15.3 percent FICA tax, which pays for Social Security and Medicare. That’s $7,650 on a $50,000 income, and it isn’t in the meme’s list.
  • Medicare, at 2.9 percentage points of the 15.3% FICA tax, costs $1,450 on a $50,000 income, not $235.81–plus premiums, if applicable. The meme is wrong here by more than six-fold. Not six percent, six-fold.
  • Spending $4,000 on corporate welfare implies that about 8 percent of national income goes to corporate welfare, or about $1.7 trillion. The actual figure is likely between $100 and $200 billion–a precise figure is impossible due to a lack of government transparency, and disagreements over definitions. Even allowing for substantial wiggle room, here the meme is off by as much as 10-fold. That is an entire order of magnitude.
  • A $50,000 earner spending $247.75 on military spending implies a military that spends more than $1 trillion. That is about $300 billion higher than the actual figure. The meme is wrong here by almost half. Though to be fair, much military spending is corporate welfare, and is unnecessary for national security besides.

Again, this meme makes a point I agree with about corporate welfare. It confirms my priors. But it does so dishonestly. Its numbers are wrong, often by multiples. And its errors all favor the point it tries to make. That one-sided tilt means its mistakes are probably not just random error. Whoever made it is hurting a good cause.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Politics-by-meme is harmful. Do not engage in it. Political memes are as bad as cable news. Their numbers are often dodgy. Their primary accomplishments are feeding confirmation bias while intensifying people’s unhealthy tribal tendencies to affirm one’s in-group affiliation while vilifying out-groups. Political memes add heat without light at a time when the opposite approach is badly needed.

Keynes – The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money

Keynes – The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money

My undergrad macroeconomics teacher was an avowed Keynesian. Most of what he taught was in this book, except in the forms of Marshallian geometric analysis and Samuelsonian algebra. I could have saved 19-year old me a great deal of time and anguish by simply reading Keynes’ original, mostly verbal explanations of his ideas. In fact, that pedagogical experience was one reason I switched my undergrad major from economics to history, despite my much greater enthusiasm for economics. Depending on who teaches intro classes, economic ideas are sometimes taught more clearly outside of economics departments.

People often forget that Keynes worked from the same quantity theory of money framework his rivals Friedman and Hayek relied on—an insight I was never taught in undergrad, thanks in part to poor standard pedagogical practices.

Nearly all economists, regardless of ideology, agree that tinkering with the money supply can induce temporary booms and busts. Where they differ is that for monetarists and other free-market types, the fact that policymakers can mess with the price system does not imply that they should. There are tradeoffs a boom now comes at the price of a bust later. Picking up one part of the economy comes at the cost of dragging down other parts. Moreover, unintended consequences can be unpredictable, and harder to manage than the original problems.

Keynes and many of the economists he has influenced instead work with idealized models of economics and government. Economists, using increasingly sophisticated techniques, are increasingly able to foresee and adapt to changing circumstances and unintended consequences to maintain economic stability. Fiscal and monetary policies will never be perfect, but with careful management they can outperform unmanaged markets. Also in this model, politicians actually listen to economists. Even more fantastically, politicians use their boom-and-bust power in the public interest. They do not use it to influence their electoral prospects, or give favors to rent-seekers.

On the positive side, Keynes’ remarks about animal spirits remain insightful, though underappreciated. Here Keynes shared important common ground with economists from Adam Smith on down to his rough contemporaries such as Philip Wicksteed, Frank Knight, and F.A. Hayek, who all emphasized human psychology in their works over formal modeling.

Keynes’ followers pursued a different path after Paul Samuelson, preferring instead to confine themselves to quantifiable models, and to study Homo economicus rather than Homo sapiens. The old joke about Keynesians being more Keynesian than Keynes ever was is often true. Fortunately, the behavioral economics movement has done much to revive animal spirits in the wake of MIT-Harvard-Princeton’s sterilizing the profession, though many of them forget that human frailties also apply to policymakers and the policies they make.

This is not Keynes’ fault. But his unintentional legacy has harmed economics as a discipline, which has missed out on important insights and discoveries by largely walling itself off from other, less quantitative disciplines for several decades. Keynesian models have also acted as enablers for policymakers eager to hear justifications for things they want to do anyway, and for excuses to forget that can does not always imply ought.