Do We Need a Social Welfare State?

One must evalulate all the trade-offs.

The following article in today’s NY Times asks the provocative question of whether we can afford a major shift to a social welfare state. One must also ask if the USA needs such a level of social welfare spending and what trade-offs it might impose. This is a question that must be answered through the democratic political process because the economic trade-offs are real.

See comments in RED.

Can America Afford to Become a Major Social Welfare State?

nytimes.com/2021/09/15/opinion/biden-spending-plan-welfare.html

By N. Gregory Mankiw

September 15, 2021

In the reconciliation package now being debated in Washington, President Biden and many congressional Democrats aim to expand the size and scope of government substantially. Americans should be wary of their plans — not only because of the sizable budgetary cost, but also because of the broader risks to economic prosperity.

The details of the ambitious $3.5 trillion social spending bill are still being discussed, so it is unclear what it will end up including. In many ways, it seems like a grab bag of initiatives assembled from the progressive wish list. And it may be bigger than it sounds: Reports suggest that some provisions will arbitrarily lapse before the end of the 10-year budget window to reduce the bill’s ostensible size, even though lawmakers hope to extend those policies at a later date.

People of all ages are in line to get something: government-funded pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds, expanded child credits for families with children, two years of tuition-free community college, increased Pell grants for other college students, enhanced health insurance subsidies, paid family and medical leave, and expansions in Medicare for older Americans. A recent Times headline aptly described the plan’s coverage as “cradle to grave.”

If there is a common theme, it is that when you need a helping hand, the government will be there for you. It aims to assist people who are struggling in our rough-and-tumble market economy. On its face, that instinct doesn’t sound bad. Many Western European nations have more generous social safety nets than the United States. The Biden plan takes a big step in that direction.

Can the United States afford to embrace a larger welfare state? From a narrow budgetary standpoint, the answer is yes. But the policy also raises larger questions about American values and aspirations, and about what kind of nation we want to be.

The issue Prof. Mankiw addresses here is the question as to whether the costs of such programs yield the benefits desired. There is a lot of talk on the left that Modern Monetary Theory demonstrates that deficits don’t constrain government spending so that politicians should spend what’s needed to achieve whatever objective they choose. This is a bit of wishful fantasy. What matters economically and financially is whether such spending yields a greater return in terms of freedom and quality of life for society as a whole. If such spending merely increases the deficit but does not invest in the productivity of the economy, then it is a dead weight upon society. It’s not much different than one’s personal desire to choose between buying a new car or instead investing in education. One must compare how each choice will yield in terms of financial freedom and happiness over the longer term.

The Biden administration has promised to pay for the entire plan with higher taxes on corporations and the very wealthy. But there’s good reason to doubt that claim. Budget experts, such as Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, are skeptical that the government can raise enough tax revenue from the wealthy to finance Mr. Biden’s ambitious agenda.

The United States could do what Western Europe does — impose higher taxes on everyone. Most countries use a value-added tax, a form of a national sales tax, to raise a lot of revenue efficiently. If Americans really want larger government, we will have to pay for it, and a VAT could be the best way.

The costs of an expanded welfare state, however, extend beyond those reported in the budget. There are also broader economic effects.

Arthur Okun, the former economic adviser to President Lyndon Johnson, addressed this timeless issue in his 1975 book, “Equality and Efficiency: The Big Tradeoff.” According to Mr. Okun, policymakers want to maximize the economic pie while slicing it equally. But these goals often conflict. As policymakers attempt to rectify the market’s outcome by equalizing the slices, the pie tends to shrink.

Mr. Okun explains the trade-off with a metaphor: Providing a social safety net is like using a leaky bucket to redistribute water among people with different amounts. While bringing water to the thirstiest may be noble, it is also costly as some water is lost in transit. 

In the real world, this leakage occurs because higher taxes distort incentives and impede economic growth. And those taxes aren’t just the explicit ones that finance benefits such as public education or health care. They also include implicit taxes baked into the benefits themselves. If these benefits decline when your income rises, people are discouraged from working. This implicit tax distorts incentives just as explicit taxes do. That doesn’t mean there is no point in trying to help those in need, but it does require being mindful of the downsides of doing so.

Yes, we must reconcile the trade-off, but I would also characterize it as freedom and liberty to pursue one’s personal happiness versus the promise of individual economic security promised by the collective. The fulfillment of that promise is often costlier than anticipated and the benefits disappointing.

Which brings us back to Western Europe. Compared with the United States, G.D.P. per person in 2019 was 14 percent lower in Germany, 24 percent lower in France and 26 percent lower in the United Kingdom.

Economists disagree about why European nations are less prosperous than the United States. But a leading hypothesis, advanced by Edward Prescott, a Nobel laureate, in 2003, is that Europeans work less than Americans because they face higher taxes to finance a more generous social safety net.

In other words, most European nations use that leaky bucket more than the United States does and experience greater leakage, resulting in lower incomes. By aiming for more compassionate economies, they have created less prosperous ones. Americans should be careful to avoid that fate.

The point of course, is not that leisure time is undesirable but that people can choose how they invest their time and energy, rather than have state policy reward or penalize that choice arbitrarily. In a free and just society, this choice should be left to the individual. Liberty and security are not mutually exclusive goals.

Compassion is a virtue, but so is respect for those who are talented, hardworking and successful. Most Americans descended from immigrants, who left their homelands to find freedom and forge their own destinies. Because of this history, we are more individualistic than Europeans, and our policies rightly reflect that cultural difference.

That is not to say that the United States has already struck the right balance between compassion and prosperity. It is a continuing tragedy that children are more likely to live in poverty than the overall population. That’s why my favorite provision in the Biden plan is the expanded child credit, which would reduce childhood poverty. (I am also sympathetic to policies aimed at climate change, which is an entirely different problem. Sadly, the Biden plan misses the opportunity to embrace the best solution — a carbon tax.)

But the entire $3.5 trillion package is too big and too risky. The wiser course is to take more incremental steps rather than to try to remake the economy in one fell swoop.

Actually, I would suggest that the choice between liberty and security is a false one and the assumption that security can only be secured for the individual by the state to also be false. The leftist assumption is that the state has to intervene to redistribute wealth after the fact when instead we can design policies that empower citizens to join in the distribution of that wealth by participating in the risk-taking venture before the fact. Then the distribution of resources in society will mostly take care of itself. As it is now, and with this social welfare expansion, we prevent most individuals who need to participate from participating, forcing them to depend on the largesse of the state or the dictates of the market. This is hardly optimal in the search for liberty and justice. In light of my preference to preserve my liberty and take care of my own security, my answer to Prof. Mankiw’s question would be NO.

N. Gregory Mankiw is a professor of economics at Harvard. He was the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President George W. Bush from 2003 to 2005.

QE4Ever

A bit like love, eh?

This article offers some good insights into monetary manipulation. The one thing I see missing is the recapitalization of assets based on depressed long-term interest rates, which is a result of Quantitative Easing and Zero Interest Rate Policy (ZIRP). So we have massive asset bubbles across many real asset classes as a result. No one seems to have any idea how this unwinds, but unwind it must.

‘Quantitative Easing’ Isn’t Stimulus, and Never Has Been

By Ken Fisher, RealClearMarkets

(AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Upside down and backwards! Nearly 13 years since the Fed launched “quantitative easing” (aka “QE”), it is still misunderstood, both upside down and backwards. One major camp believes it is inflation rocket fuel. The other deems it essential for economic growth—how could the Fed even consider tapering its asset purchases amid Delta variant surges and slowing employment growth, they shriek! But both groups’ fears hinge on a fatal fallacy: presuming QE is stimulus. It isn’t, never has been and, in reality, is anti-stimulus. Don’t fear tapering—welcome it.

Banking’s core business is sooooooo simple: taking in short-term deposits to finance long-term loans. The spread between short- and long-term interest rates approximates new loans’ gross profit margins (effectively cost versus revenue). Bigger spreads mean bigger loan profits—so banks more eagerly lend more.

Overwhelmingly, people think central banks “print money” under QE. Wrong. Very wrong. Super wrong! Under QE, central banks create non-circulating “reserves” they use to buy bonds banks own. This extra demand boosts bond prices relative to what they would be otherwise. Prices and yields move inversely, so long-term interest rates fall.

Fed Chair Jerome Powell and the two preceding him wrongheadedly label QE stimulus, thinking lower rates spur borrowing—pure demand-side thinking. Few pundits question it, amazingly. But economics hinges on demand … and supply. Central bankers almost completely forget the latter—which is much more powerful in monetary matters. These “bankers” ignore banking’s core business! When short-term rates are pinned near zero, lowering long rates shrinks spreads (“flattening” the infamous yield curve). Lending grows less profitable. So guess what banks do? They lend less! Increase demand all you want—if banks lack incentive to actually dish out new loans, it means zilch.  Stimulus? In any developed world, central bank-based system, so-called “money creation” stems from the total banking system increasing net outstanding loans. QE motivates exactly the opposite.

Doubt it? Consider recent history. The Fed deployed three huge QE rounds after 2008’s financial crisis. Lending and official money supply growth shriveled. In the five pre-2008 US expansions, loan growth averaged 8.2% y/y. But from the Fed’s first long-term Treasury purchases in March 2009 to December 2013’s initial taper, loan growth averaged just 0.8% y/y. After tapering nixed the nonsense, it accelerated, averaging 5.8% until COVID lockdowns truncated the expansion. While broad money supply measures are flawed, it is telling that US official quantity of money grew at the slowest clip of any expansion in history during QE.

Now? After a brief pop tied to COVID aid, US lending has declined in 12 of the last 14 months. In July it was 4.7% above February 2020’s pre-pandemic level—far from gangbusters growth over a 17-month span.

Inflation? As I noted in June, it comes from too much money chasing too few goods and services worldwide. By discouraging lending, QE creates less money and decreases inflation pressure. You read that right: QE is disinflationary. Always has been. Wherever it has been tried and applied inflation has been fried. Like Japan for close to …ah…ah…ah….forever. Demand-side-obsessed “experts” can’t see that. But you can! Witness US prices’ measly 1.6% y/y average growth last expansion. Weak lending equals weak real money growth and low inflation—simple! The higher rates we have seen in recent months are all about distortions from lockdowns and reopenings—temporary.

The 2008 – 2009 recession was credit-related, so it was at least conceivable some kind of central bank action might—maybe kinda sorta—actually help. Maybe! But 2020? There was zero logic behind the Fed and other central banks using QE to combat COVID. How would lowering long rates stoke demand when lockdowns halted commerce?

It didn’t. So fearing QE’s wind-down makes absolutely no sense. Tapering, other things equal, would lift long-term rates relative to short rates—juicing loans’ profitability. Banks would lend more. Growth would accelerate. Stocks would zoom! Almost always when central banks try to get clever they wield a cleaver relative to what they desire.  A lack of FED action is what would otherwis be called normalcy.

Fine, but might a QE cutback still trigger a psychological freak-out, roiling markets? Maybe—briefly. Short-term volatility is always possible, for any or no reason. But it wouldn’t last. Tapering is among the most watched financial stories—has been for months. Pundits over-worry about it for you. Their fretting largely pre-prices QE’s end, so you need not sweat it. This is why Powell’s late-August Jackson Hole commentary—as clear a statement that tapering is near as Fed heads can make—didn’t stoke market swings. The ECB’s September 9 “don’t call it a taper” taper similarly did little. Remember: Surprises move markets materially. Neither fundamentals nor sentiment suggest tapering is bear market fuel.

Not buying it? Look, again, at history. The entrenched mythological mindset paints 2013’s “Taper Tantrum” as a game-changer for markets. Untrue! After then-Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke first hinted at tapering back in May 2013, long-term Treasury bond prices did sink—10-year yields jumped from 1.94% to 3.04% by that yearend. But for US stocks, the “tantrum” amounted to a -5.6% decline from May 21 through late June—insignificant volatility. After that, stocks shined. By yearend, the S&P 500 was up 12.2% from pre-taper-talk levels. Stocks kept rising in 2014 after tapering began. 10-year yields slid back to 2.17%. My sense is even tapering’s teensy impact then is smaller this time because, whether people consciously acknowledge it or not, we all saw this movie before.

Taper terror may well worsen ahead of each coming Fed meeting until tapering actually arrives. Any disappointing economic data will spark cries of “too soon!” Tune them down. History and simple logic show QE fears lack the power to sway stocks for long.

Ken Fisher, the founder, Executive Chairman and co-CIO of Fisher Investments, authored 11 books and is a widely published global investment columnist.

Modern Monetary Fantasies 2

The Myth of Big Government Deficits – A TED Talk

This is quite the tale. I’m sure Ms. Kelton studied her economics but here with MMT she takes a few basic truths and spins an elaborate fantasy. Essentially her argument is that debt is no obstacle to economic policy and economic outcomes. You want a Ferrari? No problem, the Fed can write a check and it’s yours, no taxes, no worries. Advocates will hate this simplification but that’s essentially what Ms. Kelton is selling. (You can substitute free healthcare, free college, whatever you want, but I’d go with the Ferrari 365GT.)

MMT is utopian economics. Yes, in theory it can make sense, just don’t go too far down that rabbit hole. Govt debt is not like private debt because it never has to be paid back, only serviced and rolled over. So the debt in $ terms doesn’t matter, but the productivity of that debt matters a lot (the debt to GDP ratio is a good indicator – it looks worse every day).

She lauds the pandemic stimulus because that essentially was an MMT experiment. Look, no recession! But recessions are measured in monetary terms (not value), and if the Fed keeps pumping out money, voila! No recession. But value creation matters and in value terms, we are suffering an extreme recession and stagflation. How many small businesses have closed in the past 2 years? How much price inflation are we experiencing? 5-9%? Have you tried to buy a house lately? 20% price increases. Tried to get a plumber or electrician?

Yes, when the government spends $28 trillion, that money goes somewhere in the private sector. And yes, we’ve seen it skimmed off by the banking industry, the asset-rich who have merely leveraged 3% debt, and the securities markets that have bubbled up even as production has declined. This is what is driving inequality to new heights as the global elites suck up this cheap credit courtesy of the central banks. Check out the number of mega yachts plying the oceans.

Yes, we’ve seen the fantasy of MMT in action and that’s why we’re having a political revolution. Kelton and the handful of economists selling MMT are assuming a utopian political world where everybody always does the right thing. Ultimately, intellectual dishonesty like this is extremely damaging.

Read her book, there’s nothing there that will address these false assumptions. Credit and debt are tools that the market uses to restrain profligacy. Without those restraints, the party will eventually implode.

Modern Monetary Fantasies

I read this comment to an article on cultural conflict and politics (the article was a UK perspective and not that insightful – see link below). I was struck by this reader’s comment because it hits the nail on the head, despite its rudimentary tone and language. I could write an empirical and theoretical analysis that would bore readers to tears but it would all support this view.

It’s US$ monetary policy that is driving the distributional consequences of deficit spending along with globalization and technology into the cul-de-sac we find ourselves in. Think about it: when the government borrows and spends $28 trillion, where do we think it goes? Into private pockets controlled by those at the top. (All those real estate assets we own are merely keeping pace – it’s still the same four walls and roof.)

There’s probably not more than a handful of politicians in Washington DC that could explain this well or understand it, but they’re all setting the policies in ignorance.

Money Printing, the ability to spend more than is taken in has had a vast set of consequences – and almost all the problems can be laid at its feet. Really Nixon in 1971 taking US off the ‘Gold Standard’ to fund Johnson’s ‘Great Society’ and the Vietnam War. Both these make the rich richer. The Military-Industrial Complex goes directly to the wealthy, and the increased Social Spending $ always trickle-up while paying the poor to be poor traps them in poverty.

And so it has progressed till the National debt is 28$ Trillion! About equal to 8 years of all USA’s tax revenues. At the current ZERO percent interest rate it takes 1.5$ Trillion to service the debt! About half of all the Fed Tax revenues! Biden wants to add 4.5$ Trillion on human infrastructure (waste, pork, corruption, and free money to minorities, to trickle to the super-rich (and China, via Amazon and Walmart)). This on top of the monthly 120$ BILLION purchases of Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities the Fed buys – and the 1-3$ Trillion budget deficit! (If, when, interest rises to 5% it will take all the gov tax revenue just to service the national debt – )

Anyway, the printed $ all rise to the super wealthy, they get all of it. The poor just get addicted to the drug of the Welfare Trap, and become multi-generational poor. The working class and middle class have all their savings and pensions harvested by the stealth Tax called Inflation (now officially 5%, but really 9) because interest must be kept at Zero for the debt to be serviced. So all workers’ savings get eaten up by inflation Tax of 5% – (minus the bank and bond interest of 1% = MINUS 4% savings growth). Their pensions and savings melting like snow as the printing inflates the money supply….

But the above just scratches the surface of the harm. USA will eventually lose ‘Reserve Currency Status’ over this. The foreign trade deficit is a Trillion – how can that continue – the hard assets and Equities so inflated – and the wealthy own them. The rich have hard assets which appreciate, they carry HUGE debt at 3% interest while inflation eats the debt basis away – and Dividends, so make money while everyone goes broke.

This is what Lefty/Liberal MMT is doing – the death of America. The Left economics is always same – all the money to the elites, and the rest go broke.

Why Does America Hate Itself?

Bretton Woods – #10 of Series:

Beyond Bretton Woods: Remember Rueff

Part Ten of Our Series on the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Collapse of the Gold Exchange Standard

By RALPH BENKO, Special to the Sun | August 21, 2021

There is “no surer means of overturning the existing basis of society than to debauch the currency in a manner which not one man in a million is able to diagnose.”

– John Maynard Keynes, The Economic Consequences of the Peace

Bretton Woods – #8 of Series:

Honest Money Will Require Rediscovering America’s Founders

Richard Salsman, in Part Eight of Our Series on the 50th Anniversary of the Collapse of Bretton Woods, Marks the Importance of Limited Government

By RICHARD SALSMAN, Special to the Sun | August 15, 2021

The problem is that central banks exist precisely to accommodate public profligacy; they won’t vanish anytime soon, to the extent fiscal profligacy persists–and it not only persists but intensifies the longer we lack a gold money.

Not necessarily “gold money,” but monetary discipline through credit discipline. This can be established through hard and fast rules. As individuals we face these constraints every day with hard budgets. Politicians need to be subject to the same.

Bretton Woods – #7 of Series:

As Close to Economic Nirvana as Could Be Imagined

Beyond Bretton Woods — Part Seven in Our SeriesBy ART LAFFER, Special to the Sun | August 14, 2021

I think Laffer is a bit too sanguine here. The 20 year rebound from 1980 to 2000 was really only a 7 year rebound that got propped up by Greenspan’s money printing absorbed by a technology wave in the 1990s. It was unsustainable, as Greenspan proved in 2000 and again in 2008.

Bretton Woods – #6 of Series:

Now Is a Moment for New Leaders To Point the Way to Ending America’s Monetary Mistakes

Beyond Bretton Woods — Part Six of Our Series

By STEVE FORBES, Special to the Sun | August 11, 2021

We are still suffering today from the baleful consequences of August 15, 1971, when President Nixon ended the convertibility of United States dollars into gold.

If after that fateful day the United States had maintained the average rate of economic growth that it had achieved over the previous 180 years, when it operated under a gold standard, the economy would be at least 50% larger than it is today.

Economies can’t grow without investment. You get more long-term, productive investment when the value of money is not constantly fluctuating. Investing is risky enough, but if you don’t know what the value of the dollar will be in the future, time horizons shorten. Hedging and currency speculation become endemic. The average daily turnover of currency trading is now more than $5 trillion, far in excess of what is needed to efficiently finance global trade.

Ever wonder where the hedge fund industry came from?

Bretton Woods – #5 of Series:

‘Nixon Shock’ Was Really a Coup de Grace on Destruction Others Started

Beyond Bretton Woods — Part Five of Our Series

By JAMES GRANT, Special to the Sun | August 10, 2021

[Under] the classical gold standard, gold did not “back” the currency; it defined it. Anyone could exchange gold for paper currency, and vice versa, at the statutory rate, on demand. It was the right of conversion that checked the tendency of banks, their customers, and governments alike to run riot.

And now we have run riot:

[Nixon’s]successors, Democrat and Republican alike, would demonstrate the possibilities for money-printing, interest-rate suppression, public spending, and international payments imbalances in the absence of fixed exchange rates and a convertible dollar.

Nixon merely finished the monetary destruction work that others had started. In that sense, August 15, 1971, was the coup de grace.