Category Archives: Stimulus

Senate Shelves Build Back Better Spending Bill, For Now

The Senate will not vote on the Build Back Better (BBB) spending bill this year, though they might take it up again next year. It does not have 50 votes without Sen. Joe Manchin’s (D-WV) support, which appears not to be forthcoming. This is a good thing for two reasons. One is inflation. The other is that Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and unemployment numbers are well on their way to pre-pandemic levels. A stimulus bill was never needed in the first place. There are policies Congress and state governments should pursue, but more deficit spending is not one of them.

Monetary policy has a much bigger effect on inflation than does fiscal policy, such as stimulus bills. Even so, Build Back Better would likely have added between a quarter and a half a percentage point of inflation on top of what we are seeing now. And it might have lasted for a decade or more, depending on how many of its temporary spending programs would have later been made permanent.

Considering that the Federal Reserve has traditionally targeted 2 percent inflation, BBB would have eaten up a big chunk of its usual inflation “budget.” Inflation is currently at 6.8 percent, the highest since 1982. The Federal Reserve today announced it would taper money supply growth. It will slow down a bond purchasing program and end it altogether in March, and will likely enact a series of up to three interest rate increases during 2022.

Since money supply growth is inflation’s biggest component, high inflation will be with us well into 2022, no matter what Congress does. But BBB-caused inflation on top of that would have made a bad problem even worse.

Manchin, and likely other Senate Democrats, may realize this is not a good look going into the midterm elections. President Jimmy Carter made important accomplishments in trucking and airline deregulation, and he appointed Paul Volcker as Federal Reserve chair, who ultimately slowed down the monetary printing press. But in the popular mind, Carter’s legacy is stagflation. If President Biden wants to avoid sharing Carter’s legacy, he should be quietly happy that his signature legislation is now on ice. He should see to it that it stays that way.

Biden should also avoid interfering with the Fed as it works to taper down today’s inflation. Since inflation can spark a temporary boom, politicians have always been tempted to put pressure on the Fed to goose the numbers a little leading into an election. (Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were particularly egregious in this regard, as Peter J. Boettke, Alexander William Salter, and Daniel J. Smith argue in their book Money and the Rule of Law.) But the tradeoff of an inflationary boom now is a bust later.

There is no guarantee that Congress and President Biden will learn the right lesson. When inflation’s temporary stimulus effect wears off, policy makers are tempted to reach for the bottle again, rather than risk a hangover recession and hurt their chances for another term in office. This short-term thinking is what led to the 1970s stagflation. Had the process continued longer than it did, the result could have been Argentina-esque. It is crucial that today, Congress and President Biden respect the Fed’s nominal independence.

Fortunately, inflation is unpopular with the public. And economic fundamentals are in reasonably good shape, which means there is no need for inflationary stimulus. People hunkered down when COVID-19 hit, and are opening up when they feel safe—and when regulations allow them to. We aren’t through it yet, and it’s too early to tell how much effect the omicron variant will have. But the COVID recession had no stock market crash, no financial crisis, no housing bubble, no savings and loan scandal, or any other underlying economic illness. Traditional Keynesian stimulus does not apply to today’s economy. Build Back Better might be the biggest example of a #NeverNeeded policy yet.

The best thing that can be said about Build Back Better is that it was fighting the last battle, not the current one. Less charitably, Build Back Better was essentially a Democratic version of the PATRIOT Act, in which policy makers used a crisis as an excuse to put a bunch of longstanding wish-list items into a bill, and then market it as a must-pass crisis response. Not only would BBB have increased inflation, it would have used up more than $1 trillion dollars of resources that almost certainly have better uses than paying political favors—most of them COVID-unrelated.

GDP is already back to where it would have been had COVID never happened. Today’s ultra-low 4.2 percent unemployment rate looks better than it is, because many people are staying out of workforce, either for safety reasons or because they are content living off of savings for a little while longer. But even accounting for that, employment is in decent shape, and labor force participation is trending back to pre-COVID levels. Job openings are there for the taking—though rapid inflation is making it difficult for employers and employees to figure out fair wage rates.

Congress will instead turn its attention to other issues, such as voting rights. But it turns out there are policies Congress can pursue to fight inflation from the supply side. Money is growing faster than goods and services, causing higher prices. Removing regulatory obstacles to making goods and services will help to bring money and goods back into balance.

President Trump doubled tariffs, and President Biden is pursuing nearly identical trade policies. Scrapping those barriers alone would help unclog supply networks while lowering prices on hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of goods, from big items like cars and houses to children’s toys and clothing.

There is no good reason for truckers to have a minimum age of 21 during a shortage when there are 18-year-olds perfectly able to do the job well.

U.S. ports operate at roughly half the efficiency of more modern ports like Rotterdam, which is open 24/7 and is heavily automated. While there isn’t much Congress can do about this, the biggest obstacle here are labor union contracts. These need to be modernized to avoid another supply network crisis and keep the U.S. shipping industry up to global standards. However, Congress can repeal the 1920 Jones Act, which attempts to protect the U.S. shipping industry but instead has reduced it to an uncompetitive rump of its former self.

Similar Buy American-style regulations requiring U.S.-flagged ships to dredge U.S. ports are why many ports are badly behind on dredging projects, and are unable to host many modern container ships.

Over a quarter of U.S. jobs now require some sort of occupational license from the government. Sixty years ago, it was 5 percent. Federal, state, and local governments need to get rid of unnecessary licenses that prevent willing people from creating more goods and services. Besides being the right thing to do, it would help to fight inflation.

None of these policies has the attention-grabbing cachet of a trillion-dollar piece of legislation. But unlike the BBB, they would stimulate new economic growth and help get inflation back under control.

Thankful for Good Economic News on Jobs, Consumer Spending: More to Do

This statement originally appeared on cei.org.

During Thanksgiving week, jobless claims dipped to 199,000, their lowest level in 52 years, when the country’s population was less than two thirds of what it is today. October consumer spending grew 1.3 percent, leading to optimism about a strong holiday season. CEI senior fellow Ryan Young comments:

“It’s nice to have two bits of good news going into Thanksgiving. Jobless claims are back below 2019’s pre-COVID levels, and consumer spending increased in October enough for retailers to expect a healthy holiday season. This provides more evidence that the economy is mostly healthy, but for COVID. The more we beat back the disease with vaccines, the more people feel safe opening up. Washington’s big spending bills, which won’t begin spending money in earnest until next year, were never needed in the first place.

“There are still notes of caution. Inflation remains high, and all that deficit spending will likely make it a few tenths of a percentage point worse for several years going forward. This will make the Fed’s inflation-fighting job even more difficult. It is also possible that October’s big consumer spending increase was a reaction to clogged supply networks. People may be doing their holiday shopping early in anticipation of longer shipping times and possible shortages. To the extent this is the case, people aren’t necessarily spending more, they’re just spending earlier. In the meantime, Congress and President Biden can help by spending less, and removing trade barriers and regulatory sludge that are distorting supply networks and clogging ports.”

Statement on Reconciliation Bill

Several of my colleagues and I issued statements about the reconciliation bill Congress is currently considering. The full statement is here. My contribution is also below:

Senior Fellow Ryan Young said:

“There are two reasons for passing the infrastructure and reconciliation spending bills: fighting COVID and helping the economic recovery. They fail on both counts. Congress should turn to other policies instead. These include speeding up the FDA’s approval process for medical treatments, and lifting regulations, tariffs, permits, and licenses that are sludging up supply networks.

“Federal regulations currently cost more than $14,000 per household. Lightening that load by as little as ten percent would be an enormous stimulus that requires no new deficit spending.

“Most of the 1,684 page reconciliation bill consists of COVID-unrelated wishlist items such as more than $14 billion for forest restoration; $50 million for water research; $1 billion for antitrust enforcement; and billions of dollars in subsidies for private businesses with the right political connections.

“Because all that money has to come from somewhere else, stimulus is at best a zero-sum game. The spending bills are not creating new wealth, they are reshuffling existing wealth. Since funding is decided by politics rather than merit, the bills are almost certainly a net loss to the economy, even compared to doing nothing.

“The spending bills will use up nearly $3 trillion in capital that instead could have helped struggling businesses take loans to stay afloat or grow; that could have gone towards adapting supply networks to post-COVID conditions; and that people could have invested in themselves to improve their future prospects.”

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 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.