Mitt Romney's Economic Plan: Win, Then Do Nothing

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Romney's secretly taped comments weren't just embarrassing for the 47% comment. They also revealed a faith-based economic strategy

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(Reuters)

Mitt Romney has a secret economic plan. It's magic.

As far as backhanded compliments come, the conceit that Romney has a secret economic plan is up there. The idea is that Romney is too smart and too ideologically flexible, and his stated plans too vague and too mathematically incoherent for there not to be another plan -- a real plan. Josh Barro of Bloomberg View has speculated that Romney might actually go big on mortgage refinancing and bigger deficits -- thanks to unfunded tax cuts -- to get the economy moving again. It's certainly plausible. Romney adviser Glenn Hubbard has endorsed refinancing, and, as a practical matter, it's almost impossible to close enough loopholes to pay for Romney's proposed tax cuts. 

But is the secret economic plan real or is there really no secret economic plan? Let's go to the tape. Here's Romney talking about what he thinks will happen to the economy, courtesy of Mother Jones.


If it looks like I'm going to win, the markets will be happy. If it looks like the president's going to win, the markets should not be terribly happy. It depends of course which markets you're talking about, which types of commodities and so forth, but my own view is that if we win on November 6th, there will be a great deal of optimism about the future of this country. We'll see capital come back and we'll see -- without actually doing anything -- we'll actually get a boost in the economy.

In other words, Romney's secret economic plan to jumpstart the recovery is ... winning office. That's it. He thinks markets are scared of Obama, and an Obama loss would be enough to send markets racing up. This is aggressive nonsense. As Brad DeLong points out, the S&P 500 is up 10.9 percent since Romney said this, "despite" Nate Silver of the New York Times estimating Obama's odds of securing a second term jumping from 60 to 75 percent. There's just little reason to think that uncertainty, rather than lack of demand, is what's holding the economy back. Small businesses have consistently ranked "poor sales" -- i.e., poor demand -- as their biggest problem. Not so for uncertainty -- evidence of which is much harder to come by. The index conservatives like to tout as proof of uncertainty's insidious grip on the economy really only shows uncertainty's insidious grip on conservative thinking. As Mike Konczal of the Roosevelt Institute has pointed out, it's a fatally flawed measure that counts Republican talking points as proof of those talking points.

But let's play Devil's advocate. Maybe uncertainty is driving demand down. The economy is in the doldrums because investment is in the doldrums -- it's possible fear over potential tax increases and Obamacare regulations is keeping businesses from investing. How would we explain that real private fixed nonresidential investment has actually come back a bit, but real private fixed residential investment has not? The simplest explanation isn't the president, it's the housing market. The chart below takes a look at this latter measure since 1995. The collapse ended, but the recovery never began.

(Note: The yellow dot marks when Obama took office).

ResiInvestment.png

It's hard to tell a story about why uncertainty would hurt residential investment, but not nonresidential investment. It's not hard to tell a story about why a housing bust would hurt housing investment -- and drag down overall demand. Indeed, a paper by Michael Bordo and Joseph Haubrich of the Cleveland Fed found that housing recessions typically lead to slower recoveries for this very reason. Higher inflation, refinancings, or writedowns would speed up this deleveraging proces. A Romney -- or Obama -- victory alone would not.

Romney's magical thinking is the consequence of Republican obstruction. From the beginning, Republicans have been quite candid that their number one goal is making sure Obama is a one-term president. From the stimulus to Fed appointments to the abortive American Jobs Act, they have tried to block anything that might help the economy -- while decrying it all as dangerously outside the mainstream. There's a problem. It's not. The Obama administration has just followed textbook economics -- spending more and cutting interest rates amidst a slump -- much as a hypothetical McCain administration likely would have followed textbook economics. After denouncing these policies for years, the Republicans can't very well run on them. So they blame those policies for creating uncertainty, evidence be damned.

As for doing nothing, that's exactly what we've tried for the past two years. It hasn't worked. Now, eventually it will "work" -- in other words, housing will come back at some point, no matter what we do or do not do. It already might -- with the Fed giving it a kick as well. But believing that our problem is we have the wrong person doing nothing is strange. 

It's the new voodoo economics.
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Matthew O'Brien

Matthew O'Brien is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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