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Monday, August 8, 2011

Five Left-Wing Myths About the Economy

The recent debate over the debt ceiling and fiscal issues in general provided ample opportunities for politicians and pundits alike to flood the airwaves/blogosphere/print media with their rhetoric. A few relied on objectively verifiable facts to bolster/support their arguments, but most stuck to their trusty talking points. I thought this would be as good a time as any to list, analyze and debunk some of the most salient (and, when believed, dangerous) falsehoods I've seen/heard propagated repeatedly.

1. The Bush tax cuts are the largest contributor to our deficit/debt.

I'm not sure where this one has its roots or when the Left first started chanting it, but it's demonstrably false. The number I keep hearing cited as the "cost" of the "Bush tax cuts" is $1.6 trillion. Simply put, that was the initial number used by the Bush Administration (!) when it pitched its proposal to a skeptical Congress and the American public. Before I go any further, it's important to recognize that there were actually two rounds of "Bush tax cuts," one enacted in 2001 (EGTRRA) and another in 2003 (JGTRRA). After the first round of tax cuts, which primarily benifitted middle- and lower-income Americans, was enacted in 2001, the CBO issued a report stating that the Economic Growth & Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001 ("EGTRRA") would "reduce surpluses by a total of almost $1.4 trillion from 2001 to 2011." (In the same report, it projected that real GDP would grow at average annual rate of 3.2% for 2003 through 2011. Nominal GDP was projected to grow by an average of 5.3% annually during the same period.)

Then came the devastating attacks of September 11, 2001, which were quickly followed by a rash of corporate scandals and the federal government's ill-conceived response to them (Sarbanes–Oxley). The combined effects of all these events were a prolonged recession and sluggish recovery. Of course, the CBO had not predicted any of this, so when it issued its Cost Estimate for the Jobs & Growth Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2003 ("JGTRRA"), many proponents of the new tax law (including yours truly) received it with a few more grains of salt. (To tell you the truth, I didn't even read the damn thing until I sat down to write this article.)

In its May 2003 report, the CBO projected that JGTRRA "would increase deficits by about $350 billion" through Fiscal Year 2013. The bulk of that $350 billion was the anticipated reduction in revenues, but some $39 billion would result from "outlays for refundable tax credits" and something called the "Temporary State Fiscal Relief Fund."

So, what actually ended up happening? Well, the deficit for FY2003 (which we were nearly eight months into when JGTRRA was enacted) came in at $377.6 billion. It peaked the following year at $412.7 billion, then started to come down. This is where the argument that the Bush tax cuts created huge deficits and added over a trillion dollars to our National Debt starts to break down. We all know that Congress and the president spent like drunken sailors during the last decade, and yet the deficit dropped sharply (from $412.7 billion for FY2004 to $160.7 billion in 2007, a 61% reduction in just three years). The manifest explanation is that revenues increased at a faster-than-expected rate. As I explain here, total budget receipts shot up 44% (from a low of $1.78 trillion in 2003 to nearly $2.6 trillion in 2007) after the second round of tax cuts. By comparison, total receipts under the old tax rate structure maxed out at $2.03 trillion in 2000, then plummeted because of the recession.

It's impossible to know what would have happened had the tax code gone unchanged, but it's clear that the original "estimate" of what the tax cuts would "cost" should not be cited as empirical data or anything other than what it was: an estimate based on projections that turned out to be wrong. As the CBO itself now admits:

In January 2001, CBO's baseline projections showed a cumulative surplus of $5.6 trillion for the 2002-2011 period. The actual results have differed from those projections because of subsequent policy changes, economic developments that differed from CBO's forecast, and other factors. As a result, the federal government actually ran deficits from 2002 through 2010 and will incur a deficit in 2011 as well. The cumulative deficit over the 10-year period will amount to $6.2 trillion, CBO estimates—a swing of $11.8 trillion from the January 2001 projections.

What is clear is that the federal government ended up collecting vastly more revenue after JGTRRA and EGTRRA were enacted (an average of $2.3 trillion per annum from FY04 through FY08) than it was before (an average of $1.6 trillion per annum from FY94 through FY00). Even adjusted for inflation, that's a BIG difference. Remarkably, some people are so obtuse as to not even acknowledge this when you lay it out for them in the simplest terms possible.

So, if EGTRRA and JGTRRA aren't the largest contributors to our staggering National Debt, then what is? Certainly the War on Terror stands out as the single largest budget-buster of the last decade. Add up all the expenditures on Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, the cost of veteran benefits for those who had not served prior to 2001, the newly-created Department of Homeland Security, and the additional billions spent on intelligence/counterintelligence after 9/11, and you'll come up with a lot more than $1.6 trillion. Yet, there are other factors worth mentioning here. As Kevin D. Williamson wrote for National Review Online in April:

The Department of Health and Human Services will see more than $900 billion in outlays in FY2011. About $83 billion of that is discretionary spending on things like the Centers for Disease Control. Almost all of the rest is Medicare and Medicaid — the two programs that President Obama has vowed to shield from substantial reform of the sort envisioned by Rep. Paul Ryan. The other big driver of spending, as the president himself acknowledged yesterday, is Social Security, meaningful reform of which he also promises to resist.

2. Spending cuts will have a devastating effect on the economy.

This is a favorite old saw of the Left, and it's been repeated ad nauseum ever since Obama took office and, along with a willing Democratic Congress, kicked federal spending into hyperdrive. I'll refrain from a lengthy critique of Keynesian economics for the time being and stick to a brief rebuttal of this ridiculous argument. First, I must once again point out that it's crucial to distinguish between actual reductions in government spending and reductions in the growth of planned spending. (The latter are often referred to as "reductions in the baseline.") It is a very rare occurrence when total federal spending actually drops from one fiscal year to the next. That happened in 2010 (for the first time in 45 years), but only because we spent so G*d***n much in FY2009. However, when we actually spend less on certain programs/services, it's fair to call the decreases in spending on specific items real spending "cuts."

With that in mind, the most significant federal spending cuts in the last 60 years took place in the 1990s, the early 1980s and the mid-1960s. You'll notice that none of those dates coincides with the beginning of a recession. In fact, the spending cuts in the '60s and '90s took place amid historic economic boom periods that continued for years after the effects of the cuts were felt, if they were even "felt." The country was already in a deep recession when President Reagan took office and persuaded a divided Congress to slash the federal budget in nearly every department, and the economy was no worse for the wear. The last time a recession in this country was precipitated by deep spending cuts was 1945, when World War II ended and government spending appropriately cratered. (To give you an idea of how big the crater was, total outlays dropped from $92.7 billion for FY45, which at that time ended on June 30, to less than $30 billion for FY48.)

Let's pause here for a moment to note what exactly a "recession" is. Traditionally, we have recognized a "recession" in the U.S. as two or more consecutive quarters of economic contraction (meaning a decline in real GDP). Defining when a particular recession begins and ends has proven to be a much more controversial matter. The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) has become somewhat of an unofficial authority on the subject; it defines a recession as "a significant decline in economic activity spread across the economy, lasting more than a few months, normally visible in real gross domestic product (GDP), real income, employment, industrial production, and wholesale-retail sales." The definition of GDP is much less disputed. Simply put, our gross domestic product (GDP) is the sum total of all final goods and services produced in the U.S. during a given year. Government spending is part of GDP. So, it's technically possible for a recession to occur just because government spending drops. History reveals, however, that such an occurrence is very rare and usually coincides with the end of a war, which is actually what happened in 1945.

On paper, the Recession of 1945 looked to be a mild one. It lasted only eight months, and while GDP declined sharply, the unemployment rate (as it was then calculated) for 1945 ended up at only 5.2% or, as it’s now called, “full employment.” Getting back to the present, this bogus argument that even the mildest spending cuts are a bad idea given the current state of our economy has been advanced by so many individuals that it hardly seems worth it to cite anyone. However, the old saw appears to have spread beyond opinion commentators and politicians to previously objective journalists. Lex Haris of CNNMoney, for example, recently crowed that cutting spending by $111 billion in 2012 (the “Cut” in Republicans' “Cut, cap and balance” plan) was “just too much, too soon without risking another recession.” (For the record, the CBO currently projects outlays of $3.655 trillion for FY2012, so $111 billion would amount to a whopping 3% haircut off the baseline.) If our economy can't handle a 3% reduction in something that constitutes less than 25% of GDP without risking another recession, then we're in real trouble.

Though instances of true fiscal restraint by Washington are few and far between, history shows that austerity in the form of belt-tightening (which is necessary now more than ever) should not hurt our economy very much, if at all. Besides, it's not like the reckless spending of the past three years has created a robust economic recovery.

3. Many wealthy Americans want to pay higher taxes.

Of all the outrageous myths being pushed by the Left in America today, this one is probably the most laughable. It's impossible to know what's going on in someone else's mind, and I can't speak for the likes of Warren Buffett or George Soros, but the reality is that, no matter what these tycoons say, if they really wanted to pay more in taxes, then they would send bigger checks to the government. The fact that they don't is all the proof anyone should need that these proponents of higher taxes on "the rich" do not want to pay more. There is no law (and I've looked) that bars taxpayers from voluntarily paying the government more than they owe in federal taxes, nor is there any statute forbidding the U.S. Treasury from keeping the surplusage if one of these magnanimous fat cats decides to give Uncle Sam a bonus, with express indication that (s)he is aware of it and does not want a refund. In fact, the federal government welcomes contributions to reduce our staggering debt. You can make a contribution online at or write a check to the Bureau of the Public Debt. (Make sure to notate in the memo section that it's "a Gift to reduce the Debt Held by the Public.") These are the facts.

4. Free trade costs American jobs.

Unfortunately, the Left is not alone in propagating this one. There has been a disturbing strain of protectionism spreading throughout the country of late, fueled by a number factors (not the least of which is the understandable anxiety over our economic conditions and the bleak forecast of things to come). Sadly, many on the Right have now jumped on the anti-free trade bandwagon. Some, like Lou Dobbs, have been beating the protectionist drums for a while now. Others, such as a number of Tea Party activists, joined the march more recently.

So, what's the rap on free trade? Well, for starters, there's this growing notion that it's made America less competitive globally. Apparently, more and more Americans are rejecting the general principle that free trade agreements prove mutually beneficial to the countries that enter into them. Sara Murray and Douglas Belkin of the Wall Street Journal report:

The rising hostility seems a delayed reaction to a slow economic recovery and high unemployment. To many, China has replaced Wall Street as the villain du jour. Opposition to trade is fueled by reports that many U.S. multinational companies, sitting on huge stockpiles of cash, are reluctant to invest in the U.S. and are looking overseas, and by the fact that China has pulled out of the global slump much faster than the U.S.

John Wallis, 50 years old, blames imports for the 2001 death of his 12-employee business that made small electronic prototypes for the telecommunications industry and the subsequent loss of his Chicago-area home. "Trade is fine and dandy in a scenario where everybody wins," Mr. Wallis said. But the U.S. isn't winning, he said. Mr. Wallis now works in programming and design for an international manufacturer in Rhode Island, but doubts he'll ever be able to repay debts from his old business. "Financially we've never recovered," he said.

That whiny Chicagan's sob story about losing his business reminded me of something. It took me more than a week to find it (which is why this is the first post on my blog in a week), but I finally came across an old edition of National Review with an article I remember reading more than three years ago. The whole thing is really a pretty good read, but here's a little preview: According to Standard Textile’s Gary Heiman ("the upstart competition in his old-line industry"), the notion that the U.S. has lost jobs due to trade with other countries “is nonsense.” Trade takes the blame when people lose their jobs because it’s an “easy target,” Heiman says, absolving shortsighted industry leaders and labor unions when companies run into financial trouble and jobs are eliminated. Rather than take responsibility for failing to adapt, he says, “it’s much easier to say, ‘It’s their fault. It’s China’s fault. The Chinese are taking away our jobs,’ when in fact, that’s just not the case.”

Another riff against free trade is that it sucks capital out of the U.S. and into foreign markets, throwing our current account balance out of whack, but the numbers suggest something different. At year’s end 2009, the value of foreign investments in the United States exceeded the value of U.S. investments abroad by some $2.4 trillion, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Granted, we have a huge trade deficit, but we don't seem to have a problem attracting foreign capital; the BEA's preliminary numbers show that, in 2010, net investment in the U.S. continued to increase.

Getting back to the big lie, protectionists want people to think that free trade agreements make it easier for American companies to "ship jobs overseas." There's no truth to this whatsoever. Last fall, I spotted an opinion piece in the New York Times by none other than Robert Lighthizer. Yes, that Robert Lighthizer. The former deputy U.S. trade representative pointed out that, during the last decade, our trade deficit in manufactured goods was “about $4.3 trillion,” and “the country lost some 5.6 million manufacturing jobs.” But don’t confuse correlation with causation. The fact of the matter is that free trade agreements make American goods cheaper overseas, increasing the market for our goods abroad. Ask any devout protectionist to explain how NAFTA and other free trade agreements are responsible for the loss of American jobs in any sector, and all but the most erudite scholars are quickly exposed as hacks.

Back when he was alive, William F. Buckley, Jr. took note of the increasingly conspicuous protectionist rhetoric in America and exposed its absurdity in an online article that doubled as a defense of free trade from a nationalist standpoint (something very few men could pull off). More than two centuries ago, “Adam Smith was resoundingly correct in laying down the law that both parties benefit,” Buckley wrote, “giving us the benefit of exposure to Lou Dobbs, and the freedom to reject his counsel.”

5. We were heading into a depression in 2009, and President Obama's policies saved the economy.

The second half of this conjunction has been bandied about considerably less of late, probably because enough Democrats and their surrogates in the media have realized that Americans don't appreciate being told how the president "saved" the economy when everything seems to be getting worse. Yet, many left-wing apparatchiks are still singing the first half of this tired old song. (As this video shows, some of the people who like to say we were headed for another Great Depression when Obama took office don't know what they're talking about.)

Again, it's impossible to know what would have happened if Obama and the Democrats had taken a hands-off approach in 2009 or if the GOP's alternative stimulus plan had been enacted, but the sobering reality remains: the economy has only gotten worse on President Obama's watch. The unemployment rate for January of 2009 was 7.8%, a far cry from Depression-era levels. That same month, Christina Romer (incoming chair of the president's Council of Economic Advisers) and Jared Bernstein (Joe Biden's "top economic adviser") released this report on the pending stimulus legislation. The report contained this now-infamous graph: Wow. Boy, was that wrong. Then the CBO came out and projected the unemployment rate would climb to 8.3% in 2009 and peak at 9% in 2010. In February, CBO Director Doug Elmendorf sent a letter to Sen. Judd Gregg (R-NH). According to the CBO's revised analysis, the unemployment rate would hit 9% in 2009 without the stimulus, which at that point had already passed both houses of Congress but had yet to be signed into law by President Obama. With the stimulus, the CBO projected the unemployment rate for 2009 would be anywhere from 7.7 to 8.5 percent.

By October of 2009, the unemployment rate had shot up to 10.1%. That may sound like a very steep climb in a very short period of time, and it is. Look, the easiest part of this myth to debunk is the notion that Obama's agenda prevented the economy from getting worse. One thing that economists on the Left and Right agree on is that the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), enacted under President George W. Bush and expanded by the Obama Administration, acctually did more to save us from "a second Great Depression" than any other government action since 2008. As Danielle Kurtzleben of U.S. News & World Report reported a few months ago:

In propping up major financial institutions, TARP provided relief from the immediate problem of frozen credit markets, according to James Gattuso, a senior fellow in regulatory policy at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank: "It served a critical function in terms of providing liquidity at a time that it was needed to counter a panic in financial markets," he says. Doug Elliott, a fellow at the liberal Brookings Institution, believes that without government support of financial institutions, the financial crisis would have taken on far greater proportions. "The recession we had would have been substantially worse; millions of people would have been out of work," he says.
(In fairness, Kurtzleben's article also explained why critics of TARP say it was a flop. Follow this link to read the entire article.) Obama may have voted for TARP, but it was not his brainchild. He also played no integral role in crafting the legislation that created the program, so if you think that TARP rescued the economy, then don't give Obama any credit for averting a worse recession.

I don't expect to convince anybody who thinks otherwise that we were not headed for another Great Depression in 2009. What I can do is present the data and offer my own analysis to explain why I think what I think. If anyone feels my arguments lack cogency or thinks they could be stronger, then please comment below. I realize the preceding list is by no means exhaustive; there is an abundance of left-wing mendacity out there, and it's not just limited to economics. When I sat down to decide what "myths" I would attack in this piece, I purposefully omitted such oft-repeated claims as "the rich aren't paying their fair share of taxes" because those are technically opinions, and "fair" is a relative term. Also, I realize that I could have developed my arguments more thoroughly/extensively, but I didn't want this column's length to discourage people from reading it and actually taking its content to heart. Thank you for reading it, and I look forward to hearing the response, if there is one.


  1. Your premise is, that what was done was not necessary and/or hurtful. You base this on what you believe to have been in place at the time (not heading for a depression) and what you also believe would have happened had the opposite of what Obama did was instead done.

    There are certain truths but not certain outcomes. To have let the banks fail would have changed the dynamics in play creating a whole new set of outcomes. The same can be said with keeping GM and Chrysler afloat. Whether these outcomes would have made our economy better or worse is anyone's guess. It cannot be known since it did not go down that path.

    There are positive outcomes that have resulted from Obama's model. Unemployment is down, American Auto manufacturing is on the rebound, our banking system did not fail, and there are strong indicators that our recovery is real.

    It's not perfect but it is also not a catastrophe. We are at this point because of decisions - good and bad - made by both Bush and Obama. That's the thing about the future, it is a result of things put in play sometimes years earlier and may, or may not, result in the way expected (think chaos theory).

    You can hypothesize about what outcome you think would have resulted, but the results will always - always - be unknown until it plays out. To think you somehow have the correct answer to what should have been done is folly on your part.

    I came here from the Daily Show btw. I also know what it is like to write what you think is well researched and sound and have no one reply. I may not agree with you, but I respect your effort.


  2. For myth number one, why did you decide to only use current dollars when talking about receipts and outlays instead of constant dollars or dollars as %of GDP?

    1. Because the figures from CBO and OMB were in current dollars, and it didn't seem necessary to convert everything to constant dollars. Also, quantifying all these figures as a percentage of GDP would have confused a bunch of people. Had I been trying to debunk the myth that EGTRRA & JGTRRA "cost" the gov't money, then I probably would have adjusted for inflation.

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