Tag Archives: recession

Where’s the Austerity?

Here’s a letter I recently sent to The Economist:

SIR – you write that the “collective obsession with short-term austerity across the rich world is hurting” the prospects for global economic recovery; be afraid.

May the data allay your fears. From 2000 to 2010, the UK’s government spending boomed from 36.6 percent of GDP to 51.0 percent. France’s spending went from 51.6 percent to 56.2 percent. Even sober Germany grew its government from 45.1 percent of GDP to 46.7 percent.

When Bill Clinton left office, total U.S. government spending was 33.9 percent of GDP. It has blossomed to 42.3 percent under Presidents Bush and Obama.

If the rich world is indeed austerity-obsessed, it is no more than talk. That’s why this writer is afraid.

Fellow in Regulatory Studies
Competitive Enterprise Institute

*All data from OECD, downloadable at http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/888932443396

My colleague Greg Conko pointed out that the letter might be more persuasive if it used data from 2008-2010, to isolate government growth since the Great Recession’s start.

It’s a good point, so I looked it up. And the song remains the same. France’s government grew from 52.9 to 56.2 percent; Germany’s grew from 43.8 to 46.7 percent; the UK’s grew from 47.4 to 51.0 percent; and the U.S. grew from 39.0 to 42.3 percent. All that in three short years.


Financial Fiasco

I recently finished reading Swedish economist Johan Norberg‘s book about the financial crisis, aptly titled Financial Fiasco. It’s both short and informative. Six chapters and 155 pages, all of them worth reading.

The first two chapters are about the two big regulatory causes of the recession. One, monetary policy that was too easy for too long. The price system works. When the Fed messes with that price system, prices send out the wrong signals. People behave accordingly. Two, a decades-long drive to raise homeownership rates caused a lot of people to take out loans they couldn’t afford. It was only a matter of time before the consequences would come to bear.

Chapters 3 and 4 are about how the private sector reacted to the incentives regulators gave them. Let’s just say they acted badly. If people can game the system, they often will. Norberg’s criticism of overly-complicated securitized mortgage packages is both shocking and infuriating.

Chapter 5 is about how the government and private sector reacted to the crisis once the housing bubble popped. The $700 billion bailout program to reward bad behavior comes under fire.

Norberg is in top form in Chapter 6. Having looked at the causes and consequences of the crisis, now he offers a way out. One lesson is that politicians will always behave badly. “Politicians who distribute pork they cannot afford are reelected; butcher shops that sell pork they cannot afford go bankrupt. (p. 150)” Politicians are just like you and me. They go wherever their incentives lead them. We need to approach them accordingly.

The way to a full recovery is not bailouts. It is letting bad companies fail. And just as important, letting good ones prosper. “Government support for companies is thus not a way to save jobs, as politicians try to make us believe. It is a way to move jobs from good companies to bad companies.” (p. 151) In the long run, bailouts keep the economy down by keeping jobs and resources away from where they would do the most good.

Financial Fiasco has echoes of Tocqueville; a foreigner is trying to figure out how America works. Norberg, like Alexis de Tocqueville, is uncommonly perceptive. His experience living under an economy more thoroughly mixed than America’s allows him to see things that have escaped American commentators. This is extremely valuable. The fact that his book is concise, well written, and accessible to those of us who don’t have economics Ph.Ds makes it even moreso.

Did Deregulation Cause the Great Recession?

Over at RealClearMarkets, I explain why the answer is a resounding no:

Rep. Phil Hare argues that “reckless deregulation” is one of the causes of the current economic crisis. That isn’t actually true. This year’s edition of the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Ten Thousand Commandments report found that 3,830 new regulations came into effect in 2008 alone.

Over 30,000 total new rules passed during the Bush years. Hardly any were repealed. Businesses currently dole out the equivalent of Canada’s entire 2006 GDP – about $1.2 trillion – just to comply with federal regulations.

Where is the deregulation?

263,989 people make their living working for federal regulatory agencies, according to research from the Mercatus Center. That’s an all-time high.

12,190 of them regulate financial markets from Washington. More are based in New York and other financial centers. None of these figures include state and local rules and regulators. Those cost extra.

Bernanke Says Recession Likely Over

Wonderful news if he’s right. We won’t know for sure until the GDP figures come out for the third quarter. Or the fourth quarter, depending on when the growth started and how fast it is. But leading indicators have been looking good for some time, so Bernanke’s guess seems reasonable.

Just beware of any declarative statements that come out before the data do.