Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Honey, Who Shrank the Economic Pie?


Last week the White House released the latest Economic Report of the President that, following both statute and tradition, begins with a short letter to Congress from President Trump, followed by the detailed annual report of his Council of Economic Advisers.

The period from 2010 should have had relatively rapid growth as the economy recovered from the 2008-09 recession, but it did not. Both the president's letter and the CEA annual report blame the slow growth on federal policy failures during the previous administration.

A lot of research backs up their claim and suggests that higher growth rates are forthcoming if only some of those failures are reversed and not too many new ones are created.

First is the high statutory corporate tax rate that had prevailed for decades prior to 2017 (yes, the "effective rate" was not as high, but a low effective rate is just a symptom of some of the growth-retarding effects of corporate-income taxation.)

The Obama administration agreed that America would benefit if the federal statutory rate were reduced, saying that a reduction would be "as close to a free lunch as tax reformers will ever get."
But they were not enough interested in corporate tax reform to reach a deal with Congress, so the long-overdue rate cut has President Trump's signature on it and is expect to add to economic growth over the next several years.

Second was the so-called federal "stimulus" law of 2009 that was supposed to jumpstart the recovery. But, unlike the stimulus laws in some other countries, such as the United Kingdom, our stimulus did not expand the economic pie by enhancing incentives.

Instead, our stimulus was a redistribution exercise that eroded incentives to work and earn income by expanding food stamps, mortgage subsidies, health insurance assistance and unemployment assistance primarily for people who were unemployed or otherwise had low incomes (the end of the Bush administration did some of this too). The result was less work and less national income for as long as the stimulus lasted.

Third, very soon after the stimulus expired, a new permanent redistribution began to take effect in the form of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Indeed, the health-insurance assistance provisions of the ACA were presaged in the 2009 stimulus.

As its authors attempt to target assistance to people who they thought needed it most, the ACA unleashes a host of unintended consequences that shrink the economic pie in the process of redistributing it.

Businesses are encouraged to forgo hiring in order to keep their employment below 50 full-time equivalents and to cut workers' hours in order to keep the workweek less than 30 hours. Productive and knowledgeable employees are encouraged to retire early in order to be eligible for taxpayer-funded assistance.

The ACA is also remarkably uneven in its treatment of different sectors, regions and workplace circumstances. Another result is therefore a misallocation of resources away from the most penalized activities to the most favored ones, thereby depressing productivity; i.e., the amount of value that workers create in the marketplace.

Most businesses and households did not react to these incentives because other considerations were dominant, but it only takes a small percent of them who do to make a noticeable dent in the growth rate. If and when the federal government can repeal the ACA or relax its growth-retarding provisions, that will add to the growth rate.

Fourth, other regulations came into effect during the Obama years. Perhaps the leading instance is the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial regulation law. The law is so remarkably complicated that research on its effects will be ongoing for years, and massive complexity is hardly the leading ingredient for economic growth.

But it is likely that new financial regulations have reduced the willingness of banks to lend to small and medium-sized businesses, which further restrains economic activity.

The national economic pie has been smaller due to Obama-era policies, leaving opportunities for subsequent federal policies to enhance economic performance.

Casey Mulligan is a professor of economics at the University of Chicago. His recent research has focused on non-pecuniary incentives to save and work and how the economy affects policy. His two recent books are, "The Redistribution Recession: How Labor Market Distortions Contracted the Economy," and "Side Effects: The Economic Consequences of the Health Reform."

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