Monday, April 4, 2016

Growthmanship: The Rock and the Hard Place

President Obama:
Now, if we can't grow our economy, then it is going to be that much harder for us to reduce the deficit. The single most important thing we could do right now for deficit reduction is to spark strong economic growth, which means that people who've got jobs are paying taxes and businesses that are making profits have taxes -- are paying taxes. That's the most important thing we can do.
Yes, what Obama says is correct, as far as it goes. Let us not forget, though, that the "9-point-something trillion- dollar" debt (not "deficit") got racked up on the premise that this year's deficit would stimulate sufficient economic growth to enable "siphoning off" enough of the growth dividend in tax revenues to repay the deficit. The siphoning off phrase comes from NSC-68. We're living in the perpetual growth Utopia conceived by Leon Keyserling: debt requires growth, growth requires deficits, deficits accumulate debt, debt requires growth... The only thing "siphoned off" in this vicious circle is the option of taking a portion of productivity gains as increased leisure.

As Eugene McCarthy and Bill McGaughey pointed out in their 1989 book, Nonfinancial Economics: The Case for Shorter Hours of Work,

"The main reason that leisure is in disrepute among Treasury Department officials is that they can't tax it. A proposal such as the shorter workweek, which would redistribute the burden of work and its income more evenly, would reduce the tax collector's take from a given volume of economic activity. Therefore it cannot be."
Few people recall that the "voodoo" of supply-side economics was supposed to be that it would induce (or compel?) people to WORK MORE HOURS. This was clearly stated by Paul Craig Roberts, Reagan's Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for economic policy in a Wall Street Journal oped published on March 19, 1981.
"For the supply-side policy to work, taxpayers don't have to respond to lower marginal tax rates by giving up vacations, going on a double shift and saving all their income. When you have a work force of more than 100 million people, small individual responses result in a large aggregate effect. If the average number of hours worked per week rises from 35 to 35.5, GNP rises by $24 billion."
Well, folks, supply-side economics "worked" in the sense that it ratcheted up the working hours. It didn't work in the sense of generating a revenue dividend large enough to pay for the lower marginal rates. Oh, well. C'est la vie, eh?

Given the 'choice' between the guns-and-butter swindle of Keyserling and NSC-68 and the Reagonomics supply-side swindle, I'd opt for none of the above. There IS an alternative. But it requires valuing people more over money and time over tax revenues. So it won't happen. Or it will only happen over the dead bodies of most economists. "In any highly developed discipline," McCarthy and McGaughey wrote,
"there is a tendency to become so specialized and refined that its respected practitioners appear to lose common sense. If medieval philosophers counted the number of angels that could dance on the head of a pin, some contemporary economists deal in equally strange and fictitious concepts. To many of them, it would seem, money is reality, while leisure is an empty spot in time devoid of wealth-producing activities. Although U.S. economists in the postwar period have paid much attention to the techniques of financial manipulation by which governments might keep the economy on a prosperous course, they have paid far too little attention to the way people actually work and live. That approach has produced its own set of problems, more than a few of which appear now to be coming home to roost."