No, he can’t

Not a great slogan when there’s a pile of crap up ahead

November 6, 2012 gave generations of American history students yet unborn a new standard exam question: how did one of the most ineffectual presidents in US history get re-elected?

Across the OECD countries since the financial crisis hit in 2008 incumbents have had a tough time. Britain, Spain, France, Italy Greece and Ireland have ditched leaders. How did Barack Obama buck this trend?

The pattern has been that economic realities have forced big-spending, heavily-indebted Western governments of whatever stripe to adopt some measure of spending restraint. Even when, as in Spain and France, parties have been elected in opposition to so-called austerity they have been forced into it once in office by the remorseless reality of economics.

Electorates haven’t liked this. They still appear to believe, as the current travails of Britain’s coalition and plummeting popularity of President Hollande show, that there is a magic money tree somewhere, that plenty can return and cruel financial reality be banished simply by ticking a different box on a ballot paper.

Whereas other elections since 2008 have pitched an “austerity incumbent” against a “fantasyland challenger”, in America the roles were reversed. Obama, the incumbent, peddled fantasy; his challenger, Mitt Romney, offered some semblance of reality. Looked at this way the post-2008 pattern was maintained: the fantasy candidate won.

But it won’t make any difference. The people who celebrated Obama’s victory, thinking they had saved entitlement programmes like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security from Republican cuts, are deluding themselves. America’s unfunded liabilities, including these programmes, rose by $11 trillion last year to $222 trillion. To put that in context, the entire US economy is just $15 trillion, of which $3 trillion a year is paid in tax. If you expropriated all the wealth of the richest 400 Americans, as some Obama supporters appear to suggest, the $1.7 trillion you would get wouldn’t make a dent.

Those programmes will not be saved by Obama’s waffle. They will die because there is no money to pay for them and there won’t be, no matter which box you tick. That is the lesson of the last few years and it is one the US is going to learn. The laws of economics have a habit of being enforced with the doggedness of Inspector Javert and the merciless brutality of Dirty Harry.

This article originally appeared in Standpoint

A profligate president

“C’mon, let me drop you home”

Bearing epithets such as “prudence”, “capability”, and “the Iron Chancellor”, there was once a time when Gordon Brown was taken very seriously indeed. Now, an economic collapse later, his reputation is shot and his book about the global economy after the credit crunch can be found at the bottom of bookshop bargain bins for a distinctly deflationary £2.99.

George W. Bush, by contrast, was rarely taken seriously. Bush himself was aware of his limitations (and to preempt the obvious jokes, that’s something more politicians could do with) and gave a longer leash to subordinates like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld than either his predecessor or successor.

The same applies in The 4 per cent Solution: Unleashing the Economic Growth America Needs. Bush has not written a book about the global economy after the credit crunch; instead, ever the CEO, he has assembled a collection of leading economists and got them to write one. So we have Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Lucas on economic growth past and present, fellow Nobel laureate Gary Becker on immigration (and Standpoint contributors Amity Shlaes and Michael Novak on, respectively, Calvin Coolidge and the moral superiority of free markets).

The puzzling thing is why Bush ignored all this when he was in office. There is a chapter on sound money when, with White House encouragement, base money in the United States grew by more than 33 per cent between 2001 and 2005, fueling the housing boom. There is a chapter on sound government finances when Bush turned Clinton’s budget surpluses into deficits with the largest expansion in Federal entitlement spending since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.

The irony is that Brown, a man once taken so seriously, produced such a squib of a book, while Bush, a man widely seen as a nincompoop, has produced something much more substantial. If only he’d acted on this wisdom before the event.

This article originally appeared in Standpoint

Overrated: Paul Krugman

“Snake oil, £14.99!”

When Friedrich von Hayek became a Nobel Laureate in economics in 1974 he said: “The Nobel Prize confers on an individual an authority which in economics no man ought to possess.” The truth of this is demonstrated daily by the case of Paul Krugman.

Krugman and his supporters whip out his Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences like a Top Trump of Diego Maradona. It is awarded annually — so why the special fuss about a prize Krugman won four years ago? His Nobel is being used to intimidate opponents. Any opposition to Krugman with his Nobel Prize is opposition to science itself.

Why Krugman generates so much opposition isn’t hard to fathom. From his perch in the New York Times he says one ridiculous thing after another. In the British context Krugman’s risible thesis is that the economy is struggling because the government isn’t spending enough money, that austerity is driving us back into recession, and that the solution to our debt crisis is to borrow and spend even more money.

But there is no austerity. British government spending has fallen from record highs by only about 1 per cent since the coalition took office. This has tipped us back into recession? Most private sector companies could save that by switching to cheaper copier paper.

Krugman argues that we need vast government spending to get us out of the recession. But Britain is running a budget deficit of more than 8 per cent of GDP, one of the highest in the developed world. The government is spending more than 400 million borrowed pounds every day; the national debt is increasing by more than £5,000 every second.

And yet, with all this extra borrowing and all this spending Britain’s economy is still tanking. Perhaps this suggests that massive deficit spending isn’t the answer. That’s one interpretation. Not for Krugman. To him the problem is that even the record levels of borrowing which will see Britain’s national debt increase by 60 per cent, from £1 trillion to £1.6 trillion, by the next election, are not enough. We need to borrow more. That, he claims, would solve our debt crisis.

Krugman’s new book (its recommended retail price an aggregate demand boosting £14.99) is called End This Depression Now! (Norton) as though that hadn’t previously occurred to anyone else. Indeed, it’s possible that if George Osborne decided to increase borrowing to 10 or 12 per cent of GDP we might have a quarter or two of growth. Labour managed to boost GDP growth to 1 per cent by dumping £160 billion of borrowed money into the economy.

But after that? Don’t ask Krugman. He follows John Maynard Keynes who, accurately but none too helpfully, observed: “In the long run we are all dead.” Actually, if you did ask Krugman, you might get a response like the one he gave when the dot com bubble burst: “To fight this recession the Fed needs . . . soaring household spending to offset moribund business investment . . . Alan Greenspan needs to create a housing bubble to replace the Nasdaq bubble.”

That worked out fine, didn’t it? Well yes, in Krugman’s terms it did. Sure, we are now living with the effects of the bursting of that bubble but we did get a few good years of rocketing property prices which made us all feel as though we were getting richer just by sitting in our homes. And now that bubble has burst we just inflate a new one somewhere else. And when that bursts we inflate a new one. And when that bursts . . .

This is where the Keynesian ignorance of the long run demonstrated by Krugman leads you: lurching from one catastrophe to the next with a series of increasingly expensive quick fixes of ever shorter duration which do nothing to address the underlying problems.

The economic problems of Greece, Spain, and Britain are not that the deficits of 7 per cent, 7 per cent and 8 per cent their governments are respectively running are not high enough. Greek labour costs are higher than elsewhere and Greece doesn’t export very much. Spain has unemployment of 24 per cent thanks to a labour market which makes job creation almost impossible. Britain is  already one of the most indebted nations on the planet.

These fundamental problems are ignored by Krugman and his followers. In his 1994 book Peddling Prosperity Krugman accused the supply-side economists of the 1980s of being “cranks” selling “snake oil” because, he said, they offered politically expedient economic non-remedies with no   basis in fact. Hypocrisy, thy name is Krugman.

As for that Nobel Prize, Paul Krugman won it for his work on international trade patterns, not his crackpot Keynesianism. Sir Paul McCartney won an Ivor Novello award for writing “Yesterday”. That doesn’t mean sentimental schlock like “Mull of Kintyre” is worth listening to.

This article originally appeared in Standpoint