Our Economy Stinks Because We’re Governed By Economic Illiterates

A couple of articles I ran across this morning were fairly instructive, I’d say.

First, George Mason University economics professor and collaborator on the brilliant Econ Stories project (that’s the one with the rap videos of Hayek and Keynes) Russell Roberts has a piece in the Wall Street Journal answering the ridiculous assertion by the President that ATM machines have cost the country jobs…

The story goes that Milton Friedman was once taken to see a massive government project somewhere in Asia. Thousands of workers using shovels were building a canal. Friedman was puzzled. Why weren’t there any excavators or any mechanized earth-moving equipment? A government official explained that using shovels created more jobs. Friedman’s response: “Then why not use spoons instead of shovels?”

That story came to mind last week when President Obama linked technology to job losses. “There are some structural issues with our economy where a lot of businesses have learned to become much more efficient with a lot fewer workers,” he said. “You see it when you go to a bank and you use an ATM, you don’t go to a bank teller, or you go to the airport and you’re using a kiosk instead of checking in at the gate.”

The president calls this a structural issue—we usually call it progress. And it isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. It’s been going on for centuries, and its pace has accelerated over the past 50 years. Businesses relentlessly look for ways to replace workers with machines. The machines get better and smarter. We go from spoons to shovels to excavators, not the other way around.

Roberts goes on to note that when fewer resources are required to make a product, competition drives prices down in short order. That leads to a higher standard of living – poor and middle class people soon can afford what were formerly luxury items. Which creates demand for products currently on the market, and inevitably products which don’t exist. New industries come about as a result of technology…

Somehow, new jobs get created to replace the old ones. Despite losing millions of jobs to technology and to trade, even in a recession we have more total jobs than we did when the steel and auto and telephone and food industries had a lot more workers and a lot fewer machines.

Why do new jobs get created? When it gets cheaper to make food and clothing, there are more resources and people available to create new products that didn’t exist before. Fifty years ago, the computer industry was tiny. It was able to expand because we no longer had to have so many workers connecting telephone calls. So many job descriptions exist today that didn’t even exist 15 or 20 years ago. That’s only possible when technology makes workers more productive.

It’s true, there are some structural issues in the labor market. New jobs are being created but not at the usual pace and not fast enough to soak up the unemployed. But President Obama is wrong to blame innovation. A bigger problem is housing, where hundreds of thousands of workers have lost their jobs. The source of that problem isn’t technology but an over-reaching housing policy and distorted finance. The solution is to let the housing market clear—let interest rates rise, stop subsidizing mortgages, and clean up the foreclosure mess. That would let housing starts return to something like normal.

The other challenge is simply confidence. Businesses aren’t hiring because they’re uneasy about the future. There’s no easy way to instill confidence, but we know how to kill it—create uncertainty about taxes and regulations. Reducing that uncertainty would certainly help.

In the meanwhile, enjoy the ATM machine and the kiosk at the airport with a clear conscience. Doing more with less is the road to prosperity. When confidence returns, even more Americans will share in the bounty from innovation.

Obama’s Luddite view – the inconsistency of which is in stark contrast to his repeated teleprompter readings about how innovation is key to economic growth – is by no means unique within the Democrat Party. Remember when Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. said that the iPad was killing American jobs?

And there’s another weird argument being made at present. The Heritage Foundation’s Morning Bell talks about the headache-inducing spin that tax cuts don’t stimulate economic growth…

All you are likely to hear about low tax rates from liberals and their echo chamber in the media is that they don’t work—that they fail to gin up economic or job growth. Exhibit A for this preposterous proposition is the Bush tax cuts. The left wants you to accept it as conventional wisdom that the policy was a bust.

Don’t believe it. The tax cuts enacted by the U.S. Congress in 2003 were an important cause of an economic expansion that roared for some 50 months and created 8.1 million jobs. The opposite philosophy—a stimulus that has crowded out private investment, plus an enormous health bill and a nightmarish financial regulatory package that are killing job creation—has only delayed recovery and left us with 9.1% unemployment.

You won’t hear this from liberals. What you hear instead is a straw man argument that the tax cuts failed to pay for themselves. The Bush Administration and congressional leaders at the time went out of their way to be clear that the tax cuts were not expected to pay for themselves.

Bereft of any other apparent principle, the liberal canon now includes one and only one organizing idea: government cannot be cut; it can only grow or stay at its current gargantuan size. For that to happen, liberals must use the concerns about massive deficits pushed up by a tremendous Obama spending surge to cow the nation into accepting big tax hikes and bigger government. Unfortunately, even some otherwise conservative stalwarts are falling for it.

At the Power Line blog, Steven Hayward takes the argument even further, wondering if economic growth is actually a partisan idea nowadays…

…Governor Tim Pawlenty’s goal of a sustained 5 percent economic growth rate is being met with derision practically across the political spectrum but especially from the know-it-all left, and yet the 1960 Democratic Platform called for exactly that same target: “We Democrats believe that our economy can and must grow at an average rate of 5% annually, almost twice as fast as our average annual rate since 1953. We pledge ourselves to policies that will achieve this goal without inflation.” And for the first half of the 1960s, the U.S. did indeed achieve this rate.

That was back in the heyday of “growth liberalism,” which was the particularly American form of Keynesian “fine-tuning” of the economy. Lyndon Johnson’s budget director, Charles Schultze, said, “We can’t prevent every little wiggle in the economic cycle, but we now can prevent a major slide.” It is important to recall that this was liberalism in its most optimistic phase, and two aspects of that long-ago liberal optimism are worth keeping in mind. One of the ironies of Paul Krugman and other liberals who now celebrate the 1950s as the economic golden age for the American middle class is that the growth liberals of that time, especially John F. Kennedy, were scornful of the Eisenhower Administration’s economic record. Recall Kennedy’s campaign slogan: “Let’s get the nation moving again.” Today that is Pawlenty’s de facto slogan.

Hayward notes that JFK’s central economic premise, that high tax rates stifle economic growth and hurt everybody, was accepted by the Left as gospel until the 1970’s – when Democrats shifted away from “growth liberalism” as an animating principle and toward Jimmy Carter’s malaise and have never really recovered despite four specific examples of tax cuts spurring economic growth – under Warren Harding, Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush…

Any Democrat who talked this way today would be drummed out of the party, and would make Krugman’s head explode. (Hey, there’s. . . never mind.) Instead, Krugman, Robert Reich, and company are starting to wax nostalgic about the 70 to 90 percent marginal income tax rates of the 1950s, which they argue didn’t retard economic performance at all, thereby willfully forgetting the critique the growth liberals made of the slow-growth Eisenhower years.

That’s only the beginning of the contrast. To be sure, those growth liberals of the 1960s had a redistributionist itch–it was after all the beginning of the Great Society misadventure. But the growth liberals thought faster growth would make more redistribution possible by expanding the pie; in other words, their redistributionism was based on the idea of surplus. Today’s liberals think redistribution is necessary because of scarcity and the lack of economic growth.

So what the heck happened to liberalism? Here’s how one author described it:

By the end of the 1970s, however, liberalism had come to embrace the polar opposite–the limits to growth. The supposed scarcity of oil and natural resources of the 1970s was merely symptomatic of a new era of low or no growth that constricted the hitherto broad horizons of liberalism. Indeed, it might be said that within the space of a single decade, the central governing challenge of liberalism changed from allocating abundance to rationing scarcity. Jimmy Carter had ratified this thinking in his infamous Camp David retreat in the summer of 1979, where he told one group of visitors that “I think it’s inevitable that there will be a lower standard of living than what everybody had always anticipated, constant growth. . . I think there’s going to have to be a reorientation of what people value in their own lives. I believe that there has to be a more equitable sharing of what we have. . . The only trend is downward.” Within this newly constricted horizon, liberalism’s redistributionist impulse, never far below the surface, metastasized into a zero-sum mentality that believed anyone’s gain must entail someone else’s loss.

The author he’s talking about is himself, as Hayward’s quoting his book The Age Of Reagan. And there is unquestionably a Malthusian bent to current Democrat policies in the Age Of Obama; the president’s campaign speeches decrying a “waste” of resources which must be atoned for made that clear

Pitching his message to Oregon’s environmentally-conscious voters, Obama called on the United States to “lead by example” on global warming, and develop new technologies at home which could be exported to developing countries.

“We can’t drive our SUVs and eat as much as we want and keep our homes on 72 degrees at all times … and then just expect that other countries are going to say OK,” Obama said.

“That’s not leadership. That’s not going to happen,” he added.

How do you grow an economy without producing or consuming more resources? It’s impossible. It’s impossible to grow an economy without using more energy, or steel, or concrete, or food.

Or technology.

We’re governed by people who think that somehow you can grow an economy by redistributing wealth from the people who run companies to the people who lobby government successfully.

There’s a cynicism and a stupidity at work here which explains a great deal. It also indicates that there will be no improvement in our economy until this crowd is back at their Soros-funded sinecures and out of power.



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