Mitt Romney's Economic Adviser Isn't Giving Very Good Advice

Repackaging the Bush agenda, just with austerity, is not the path to prosperity.


Romney economic adviser Glenn Hubbard apparently has a very short memory.

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed making the case for Romney's economic agenda, Hubbard presents a strikingly ahistorical account of the past few years -- not to mention sprinkling in one big questionable assumption. Let's take a tour of some of the lowlights.

"We are currently in the most anemic economic recovery in the memory of most Americans."

Does the memory of most Americans go back a decade? If it does, then they can remember a more anemic recovery -- at least when it comes to jobs. The post-2001 recovery had the slowest job growth of any postwar recovery. It also had the slowest private sector growth of any postwar recovery. It's puzzling that Hubbard doesn't remember this, considering that he was the chair of President George W. Bush's Council of Economic Advisors from 2001 to 2003.

Now, the economy did grow faster then than it has now. But that's because the government grew as much as it did then; it's shrinking now. Really. So why does this weak recovery feel weaker than that weak recovery? Well, the tech bubble recession was much milder than the housing bubble recession -- in other words, we're in a deeper hole this time around. All else equal, we would expect a better recovery from a worse recession, but all else is not equal. As Harvard professor Kenneth Rogoff has shown with over 800 years of data, recoveries from financial crises are long, slow slogs. It's doubtful that recycling Bush-era policies will get us out of this ditch faster. It didn't ten years ago.

"[U]ncertainty over policy--particularly over tax and regulatory policy--slowed the recovery and limited job creation. One recent study by Scott Baker and Nicholas Bloom of Stanford University and Steven Davis of the University of Chicago found that this uncertainty reduced GDP by 1.4% in 2011 alone."

Well, that certainly sounds bad. When did all of this uncertainty peak? Let's look at the paper. August of 2011. Hmmm. What happened in August of 2011? Oh, that's right. The debt ceiling debacle. Why don't we let the authors speak for themselves. Here's why they said uncertainty was so elevated in 2011:

A series of later developments and policy fights - including the debt- ceiling dispute between Republicans and Democrats in the summer of 2011, and ongoing banking and sovereign debt crises in the Eurozone area - kept economic policy uncertainty at very high levels throughout 2011.

In other words, a debt crisis the Republicans manufactured and a debt crisis the Europeans manufactured drove uncertainty in 2011. Granted, tax uncertainty has been bad -- but so has monetary policy uncertainty. And have you noticed what we haven't talked about yet? The authors conclude that healthcare and financial regulation uncertainty were "much less pronounced" than all of the above questions.

And according to the Congressional Budget Office, the large deficits codified in the president's budget would reduce GDP during 2018-2022 by between 0.5% and 2.2% compared to what would occur under current law. [...]

The governor's plan would reduce federal spending as a share of GDP to 20%--its pre-crisis average--by 2016. This would dramatically reduce policy uncertainty over the need for future tax increases, thus increasing business and consumer confidence. [...]

The Romney plan would reduce individual marginal income tax rates across the board by 20%, while keeping current low tax rates on dividends and capital gains. The governor would also reduce the corporate income tax rate--the highest in the world--to 25%. In addition, he would broaden the tax base to ensure that tax reform is revenue-neutral. 

Hubbard says that 1) Medium-run deficits are bad for medium-run growth, 2) Romney will cut public spending, which will increase private spending, and 3) Romney will lower tax rates and eliminate tax loopholes while keeping tax revenues the same. Individually, these might make sense. Together, they're the economic equivalent of saying two plus two equals five.

Let's unpack this fiscal mess. Romney wants to cut taxes, but he also wants to cut medium-run deficits too. That's a problem. His answer: He won't cut taxes, but tax rates -- while cutting spending too. But this creates new problems. For one, it means his tax plan will raise taxes on the bottom 95 percent, while cutting them for the top 5 percent. For another, it leaves Romney stuck embracing spending cuts that will hurt the economy.

Expansionary austerity is a myth, at least in the short-term. That was the conclusion the IMF reached in a 2011 paper that examined 173 cases of fiscal retrenchment over the past 30 years.  On average, cutting the deficit by 1 percent of GDP led to a 0.5 percentage point increase in unemployment -- with private spending falling in tandem with public spending. Austerity can work over the longer-term, as long as interest rates or the currency falls to offset the fall in government spending. But interest rates are already at zero, and Republicans aren't too keen about quantitative easing or that whole "dollar depreciation" thing. That leaves the Romney camp with one final reason why cutting government spending would lead to more spending overall: Ricardian equivalence. It's the idea that the private sector spends less when the public sector borrows more, because households know that eventually the government will have to raise taxes to pay for that borrowing. The empirical evidence on this is mixed -- after all, few households 1) know enough about the deficit to predict what will happen to their taxes, or 2) have enough disposable income or access to borrowing to smooth their lifetime spending. That's not to say that there isn't something to it, but that it's a flimsy hope for the catch-up growth we need.

I don't mean to pick on Glenn Hubbard. He has plenty of good ideas about how to get the economy moving again -- like mass refinancing for mortgages owned by Fannie and Freddie. But repackaging the Bush agenda, just updated with austerity, is not the path to prosperity.

We tried the Bush agenda and we've been trying austerity the past few years. Neither worked, and neither is what we need now.