Sunday, September 23, 2007

Bush can't be Keynesian supply-sider

The following appeared in the Sept. 23, 2007 issue of the St. Paul Pioneer Press and was written by Ed Lotterman. A link to the story may be found here.

It is too bad the Old Testament prophet Elijah never passed through Washington, D.C. His challenge to the Israelites in 1 Kings 18, "Choose ye this day whom ye will serve," is a powerful argument against holding two diametrically opposed positions at the same time. Unfortunately, that is a common occurrence in our nation's capital.

Confusion is evident in the White House response to Alan Greenspan's criticism of administration fiscal policies. Defending President Bush, Press Secretary Dana Perino said, "in late 2000, we were headed into a recession, and tax cuts were the prescribed remedy."

Perino is correct. Tax cuts are a prescribed remedy for a recession - if you are a Keynesian. But George W. Bush did not run for office as a Keynesian. He ran as a supply-sider. Supply-side economists are the most diametrically opposed to Keynes of any school of economic thought. The very name "supply-side" is a rejection of the demand-side jockeying John Maynard Keynes advocated.

Supply-side economists argued that trying to micro-manage an economy by manipulating consumer spending was short-sighted and counterproductive. Keynesian tromping of economic gas and brake pedals to regulate demand harms rather than hurts, they said.

Focus instead on the supply side of the economy, they argued. Reduce regulation of economic activity. Increase incentives for saving and investment. That means lowering high marginal income tax rates and taxes on investment earnings from interest, dividends and capital gains. The object is to increase investment. That requires more savings and, thus, less current consumption.

That was the platform on which George W. Bush ran for office in 2000 and was his rationale for tax cuts in 2001. But by the 2004 election, his arguments had changed. Cutting taxes was needed to spur household consumption. That is back to pure Keynesianism.

The problem is that if you cut taxes to spur demand because the economy faces recession, you have to raise them to curtail demand when it really gets rolling. That should have happened two years ago, but the administration showed no willingness to implement the other half of Keynes' prescription.

Just as ancient Israelites could follow Yahweh or Baal, you can be a Keynesian or a supply-sider. But you cannot be both.

Confused economic policy is not original to the Bush administration.

Jimmy Carter's economic advisers were dyed-in-the-wool Keynesians.

But the Carter White house never could decide if it needed to spur the economy to lower unemployment or retard it to cut inflation.

We ended up with the worst combination of both inflation and unemployment in decades.

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