Comparison of Japan then and US now Reveals Weakness in Geithner Thinking
During last night’s news conference, I noted that President Obama erronously cited Japan in the 1990s as an example of a government not acting in the face of economic crisis, when in reality the opposite is true. Now that the transcript is available, I thought I’d offer some more context. The question comes from Jennifer Loven of the AP:
Q Thank you, Mr. President. Earlier today in Indiana, you said something striking. You said that this nation could end up in a crisis without action that we would be unable to reverse. Can you talk about what you know or what you’re hearing that would lead you to say that our recession might be permanent, when others in our history have not? And do you think that you risk losing some credibility or even talking down the economy by using dire language like that?
THE PRESIDENT: No, no, no, no — I think that what I’ve said is what other economists have said across the political spectrum, which is that if you delay acting on an economy of this severity, then you potentially create a negative spiral that becomes much more difficult for us to get out of. We saw this happen in Japan in the 1990s, where they did not act boldly and swiftly enough, and as a consequence they suffered what was called the “lost decade” where essentially for the entire ’90s they did not see any significant economic growth.
But this was an odd example for him to use, since the reality is the exact opposite of what Obama suggests. The Japan experience actually is a prime example of the futility of using government spending to stimulate the economy.
President Obama’s economic recovery package will actually hurt the economy more in the long run than if he were to do nothing, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said Wednesday.
CBO, the official scorekeepers for legislation, said the House and Senate bills will help in the short term but result in so much government debt that within a few years they would crowd out private investment, actually leading to a lower Gross Domestic Product over the next 10 years than if the government had done nothing.
CBO estimates that by 2019 the Senate legislation would reduce GDP by 0.1 percent to 0.3 percent on net. [The House bill] would have similar long-run effects, CBO said in a letter to Sen. Judd Gregg, New Hampshire Republican, who was tapped by Mr. Obama on Tuesday to be Commerce Secretary.
The House last week passed a bill totaling about $820 billion while the Senate is working on a proposal reaching about $900 billion in spending increases and tax cuts.
But Republicans and some moderate Democrats have balked at the size of the bill and at some of the spending items included in it, arguing they won’t produce immediate jobs, which is the stated goal of the bill.
The budget office had previously estimated service the debt due to the new spending could add hundreds of millions of dollars to the cost of the bill — forcing the crowd-out.
CBOs basic assumption is that, in the long run, each dollar of additional debt crowds out about a third of a dollars worth of private domestic capital, CBO said in its letter.
CBO said there is no crowding out in the short term, so the plan would succeed in boosting growth in 2009 and 2010.
The agency projected the Senate bill would produce between 1.4 percent and 4.1 percent higher growth in 2009 than if there was no action. For 2010, the plan would boost growth by 1.2 percent to 3.6 percent.
CBO did project the bill would create jobs, though by 2011 the effects would be minuscule.
In fact, stimulus may be precisely the wrong metaphor. Rather than getting jazzed up, we need to be calmed down and to take the time to learn from the Great Depression, a time when government did too much, not too little. Amity Shlaes makes the argument in The Forgotten Man, her book about the Great Depression, that the constant experimenting and meddling of the New Deal froze investors and business operators in fear: “Businesses decided to wait Roosevelt out, hold on to their cash, and invest in future years.”
Despite the warnings of Keynes, the experience of the past half-century indicates that today’s low interest rates will start having a positive effect, though it still will take many months. Meanwhile, left alone, what Hayek called “spontaneous order” will find its way forward. Using a different metaphor, James Grant, in his history of credit, Money of the Mind, wrote, “The cycle of decay and renewal is as much a part of capitalism as it is of the forest floor.” But, in the 1930’s, “something in the normal regenerative process was missing. There was no decisive recovery from the business-cycle bottom. People had lost their speculative courage, and the more government legislated and taxed, the more that credit sulked.”
Stimulus—that is, fiscal intervention with the express purpose of speeding up the normal regenerative process that Grant describes—is unnecessary and almost certainly harmful, a policy based on hubris and anxiety, rather than on history and good sense. Under such circumstances, the proper way to analyze discrete proposals today for spending or taxing is on their own merits, not on their supposed ability to stimulate something else. There may, in fact, be a good reason for government to spend billions of dollars today on building highways, and it has nothing to do with stimulus. It is that long-term interest rates are at historic lows and that the right highways can boost the economy in the long term. There also may be a good reason, again far apart from stimulus, for revising the tax code and reforming Social Security and Medicare. It is that Americans now understand that the economic future is not so assured as they believed a couple of years ago, and it is time for decisions to be made—in a manner careful, sensible, and unstimulated.
Geithner – Tax Chief or Tax Cheat?
2-10-09: KUSI San Diego