The Ongoing Crisis Demands Jobs, Not Deficit Reduction

May 16, 2013David B. Woolner

Today's leaders must recognize that job creation is the key to boosting revenues for the government and the people.

Today's leaders must recognize that job creation is the key to boosting revenues for the government and the people.

Now, the rise and fall of national income—since they tell the story of how much you and I and everybody else are making—are an index of the rise and fall of national prosperity. They are also an index of the prosperity of your Government. The money to run the Government comes from taxes; and the tax revenue in turn depends for its size on the size of the national income. When the incomes and the values and transactions of the country are on the down-grade, then tax receipts go on the down-grade too. If the national income continues to decline, then the Government cannot run without going into the red. The only way to keep the Government out of the red is to keep the people out of the red. And so we had to balance the budget of the American people before we could balance the budget of the national Government.Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1936

The news that the nation added 165,000 jobs in April and that the unemployment rate has dipped to 7.5 percent—its lowest since December 2008—is of course welcome. It has eased the fears of many economists that recent cuts in federal spending might stall our somewhat anemic recovery, helped boost the stock market to record levels, and has been cited by Alan Krueger, the Chairman of the President’s Economic Advisors, as “further evidence that the U.S. economy is continuing to recover from the worst downturn since the Great Depression.”

But as many economists have also reported, the April rate of job growth is still far too low to bring about the level of re-employment needed to bring us back to full employment, and, worse still, the slight improvement in the overall unemployment rate masks a good many far more disturbing statistics. Many of the jobs acquired in April are low-skill and low-paying. Some of the drop in the unemployment rate can be attributed to the fact that millions of Americans have stopped looking for work and have dropped out of the work force all together—496,000 people in March 2013 alone. Then there are the under-employed, who also rank in the millions. If we add their ranks to those who are unemployed or have dropped out of the work force altogether, we arrive at an overall “underemployment rate” of 13.9 percent, up from the previous month’s rate of 13.8 percent. Taken together this means that roughly 22 million Americans are either unemployed or under-employed—a staggering figure, which after four years of so-called “recovery” has some economists predicting that long-term un-and under-employment may now be a permanent fixture of the American landscape.

What is even more shocking, however, is that in spite of all of these grim statistics, grim statistics that reflect the hardship and pain of millions, much of the political discourse in Washington—and in the media—remains fixated on the debt and deficit and the Republican demand for a balanced budget. It is almost as if Washington has all but given up on trying to take direct action to bring about a better employment picture. This realization is perhaps best evidenced by the fact that one of the more significant contributors to our persistently high unemployment rate in the past year has been public sector layoffs. 

Calls for the federal government to balance its books are not new, of course. Thanks to the extremely effective public persuasion campaign of the conservative right, we have heard this refrain time and time again. It has now become de rigueur for most politicians— no matter what their party—to pay lip service to the need to get “our house in order” and cut the deficit no matter what the consequences for the average American.

It wasn’t always this way, however. In the mid-1930s, when faced with a similar economic crisis and similar calls for cuts in federal spending, Franklin Roosevelt took an entirely different tack. He insisted that in the midst of a crisis where—much like today—we faced both declining federal revenues and increasing unemployment, “a national choice had to be made” between those who argued that the government should do nothing and “let Nature take its course” and those who argued for federal intervention in the economy, even if it meant running a deficit. As FDR saw it, what stood between his administration and a balanced budget were “millions of needy Americans, denied the promise of a decent American life.” In light of this, he argued that “to balance our budget in 1933 or 1934 or 1935 would have been a crime against the American people,” which would have required either “a capital levy that would have been confiscatory” or accepting “human suffering with callous indifference." "When Americans suffered,” he went on, “we refused to pass by on the other side. Humanity came first.”

And so the Roosevelt Administration launched programs like the Works Progress Administration that built much of the infrastructure we still enjoy today and which gave millions of Americans, from common laborers to structural engineers, the joy and dignity of work. FDR admitted that “this cost money”—and the American people understood that this would continue to cost money “for several years to come.” But given the dire state of the economy and the lack of demand in the private sector, the American people understood that it was the right thing to do.

Unlike today’s politicians, however, FDR refused to pander to the sky-is-falling rhetoric of the conservative right on the disastrous consequences that would accrue to the country by running a deficit in the midst of an economic crisis. For them FDR had a simple answer. He flat out rejected “this foolish fear about the crushing load the debt will impose upon your children and mine.” On the contrary, he went on:

This debt is not going to be paid by oppressive taxation on future generations. It is not going to be paid by taking away the hard-won savings of the present generation. It is going to be paid out of an increased national income and increased individual incomes produced by increasing national prosperity.

In other words, FDR understood that the real crisis the country faced in the Great Depression was an employment crisis—not a deficit crisis—and that in the long run the “only way to keep the Government out of the red” was, as he said, “to keep the people out of the red.” And so he set his priority on the one thing he knew would help bolster the revenue of both the American people and their government: millions upon millions of jobs.

Unfortunately, much of our leadership in Washington today seems to have lost sight of this fact, and instead of taking meaningful action to help grow the economy and alleviate the suffering of the millions of unemployed, would prefer to cut spending and engage in another endless round of bickering about the debt and deficit. Such “callous indifference” to the plight of millions of Americans is no way to bring about an end to the current crisis or build a better future for our children.

David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute. He is currently writing a book entitled Cordell Hull, Anthony Eden and the Search for Anglo-American Cooperation, 1933-1938.

For more on solutions to the ongoing unemployment crisis, join the Roosevelt Institute in Washington, D.C. on June 4th for A Bold Approach to the Jobs Emergency: Setting the Political Agenda for 2014 and 2016.

 

Unemployment line image via Shutterstock.com.

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Audacity, Audacity, Always Audacity: Why Obama and Baucus Should Push for a Carbon Tax

Apr 29, 2013Bo Cutter

A carbon tax would bring long-term rewards, but it will take leaders willing to make short-term sacrifices.

We are at an unacknowledged turning point for the economy and the environment. We could, right now, substantially reduce our debt and deficit projections, take a major step toward a better environment, create a simpler and fairer tax system, make job creation easier, and raise economic growth a bit. For all of these reasons, we could and should adopt a carbon tax.

A carbon tax would bring long-term rewards, but it will take leaders willing to make short-term sacrifices.

We are at an unacknowledged turning point for the economy and the environment. We could, right now, substantially reduce our debt and deficit projections, take a major step toward a better environment, create a simpler and fairer tax system, make job creation easier, and raise economic growth a bit. For all of these reasons, we could and should adopt a carbon tax.

Taking this step depends on two men: President Obama and Senator Max Baucus, chair of the Senate Finance Committee. Both men want to leave an important legacy, and both are in a unique political position: they still possess real political power, but neither will ever face another election. (Obama, of course, is limited to two terms, and Baucus has just announced that he will retire.) Acting together, the two of them could completely change the odds of enacting a carbon tax this year.

Right now, if you ask around, as I have, there are many across the ideological spectrum who agree that a carbon tax would help us solve a lot of problems, but they won't take a public step because they see no leadership support. My own gut feeling is that there would even be energy industry support for a carbon tax. President Obama and Senator Baucus could change this picture by making a carbon tax a priority and building bipartisan support for the project.

Why should we care? Let's look at four issues: federal revenues, the tax system, jobs, and – oh, yeah – the environment.

First, a carbon tax of $20 a ton would raise about $120 billion a year, or $1.2 trillion over a decade. Right now, everyone anywhere near the budget debates is in a convenient and delusional state of mind about revenues. The conventional wisdom is that we either do not need more revenues or they are easy to find. So here are some counter-assertions: (1) despite the right’s imaginations, we are not going to cope with the retirement of the boomers, the doubling of folks on Medicare, and our need for fundamental infrastructure investment without new revenues; (2) despite the speeches the left makes to itself, the problem won't be solved by taxing whomever the left decides is rich; (3) we aren't going to end the home mortgage and charitable deductions. There will come a point when $1 trillion in new revenue over the next decade that actually makes the economy and the world a little better will look pretty interesting, so why not try for it now?

Second, the tax system is a mess and more caught in a state of political gridlock than even the rest of the federal budget. The system is far too complicated, and it probably lowers economic growth and job creation. More practically, raising new revenues from this structure is next to impossible; the 40-year strategy of broadening the base and lowering rates (a strategy I agree with) has played itself out. With the carbon tax's $1 trillion, you could exempt low-income families, reduce the payroll tax, lower overall tax rates, and still bring down the debt and deficit. Sure, there would be fights about how to use the extra revenue, but those are fights the political system is supposed to have.

Third, jobs. We rely way too much on payroll taxes. They are very, very inefficient, and they directly and visibly add to the costs of job creation. Back when the U.S. economy was an unstoppable job machine, these taxes looked as though they were cost-free. Not anymore. I am optimistic about our long-term economic prospects, but I also think the jobs of the future will require much more education and training content than the jobs of the past, and therefore employers will be much more sensitive to other costs, i.e., taxes. Anything sensible we can do to make job creation easier and less costly is a step we should take.

Finally, the environment. A lot has been published recently about climate change and its sensitivity to greenhouse gases. Cutting through all of the models and the uncertainties, the net conclusion is that warming is probably a small bit less sensitive to greenhouse gases than we have thought. Climate change deniers have used this for the obvious purposes. But the actual end conclusions haven't changed much. At current rates, we will put half a trillion more tons of carbon into the atmosphere by 2045 and 1 trillion more by 2080. Because of this the Earth's temperature will probably warm about three-quarters of a degree in the next 30 years and 1.5 degrees over the next 50. (30 years may seem a long time to some of you; from my perspective, it's a blink of an eye away.) And the math keeps suggesting that the earth's sensitivity to extreme events is increasing more rapidly than global warming. So the future may be less hot but more dangerous.

Isn't it worth a small amount of political difficulty and a fairly small tax now to slow down these trends? Everyone in politics talks a lot about political courage – mostly their own. As far as I can tell, political courage normally consists of doing something your supporters love and your opponents hate and then bragging about it. But maybe the two leaders I mentioned at the start will realize that they can afford to change that definition and leave a real legacy.

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Bo Cutter is formerly a managing partner of Warburg Pincus, a major global private equity firm. Recently, he served as the leader of President Obama’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) transition team. He has also served in senior roles in the White Houses of two Democratic Presidents.

 

Melting Earth image via Shutterstock.com

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Reinhart-Rogoff a Week Later: Why Does This Matter?

Apr 24, 2013Mike Konczal

Retreat!

Well this is progress. We are seeing distancing by conservative writers on the Reinhart/Rogoff thesis. In Feburary, Douglas Holtz-Eakin wrote, “The debt hurts the economy already. The canonical work of Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff and its successors carry a clear message: countries that have gross government debt in excess of 90% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) are in the debt danger zone. Entering the zone means slower economic growth. Granted, the research is not yet robust enough to say exactly when and how a crisis will engulf the US, but there is no reason to believe that America is somehow immune." (h/t QZ.)

Today, Holtz-Eakin writes about Reinhart and Rogoff in National Review, but drops the "canonical" status. Now they are just two random people with some common sense the left is beating up. "In order to distract from the dismal state of analytic and actual economic affairs, the latest tactic is to blame...two researchers, Carmen Reinhardt and Kenneth Rogoff, who made the reasonable observation that ever-larger amounts of debt must eventually be associated with bad economic news."

That's not actually what they said, and if you read Holtz-Eakin in February Reinhart-Rogoff is sufficient evidence to enact the specific plans he wants. Now there's no defense of the "danger zone" argument; just the idea that the stimulus failed. Retreat!

This is getting a bigger audience. (If you haven't seen The Colbert Report on the Reinhart/Rogoff issue, it's fantastic.) But going foward, plan beats no plan. And a critique isn't a plan. So what should we conclude about Reinhart-Rogoff a week later, now that the critique seems to have won? How should the government approach the debt?

Cliffs and Tradeoffs

One thing about the "cliff" metaphor is that there's no tradeoff that would make it acceptable. If you are driving, there are all kinds of tradeoffs you make with your route, but you'd never agree to a tradeoff that has you driving off a cliff. There were numerous other ways of describing this scenario, either the technical "nonlinearities" or the "danger zone" of Eakin just a few months ago.

With the danger zone metaphor now out of play, perhaps economists can see the relevant tradeoffs more clearly. Reinhart-Rogoff stand with a small negative relationship between debt and growth, one that is likely driven by low growth rather than high debt. And despite what you've heard, there's no literature that shows the casuation in the other direction.

But let's say they found it. Well, what's the relevant tradeoff? If there's even a basic fiscal multipler at work, the upside more than compensates for the downside. As Brad DeLong notes, if you consider a multipler of 1.5 and a marginal tax share of 1/3, the small correlation people are finding - Delong uses 0.006 percent from an in-house estimate - are more than canceled. Spending 2 percent more causes a bump of 3 percent of GDP, while debt goes up 1 percent of GDP. As Delong notes, "3% higher GDP this year and slower growth that leads to GDP lower by 0.06% in a decade. And this is supposed to be an argument against expansionary fiscal policy right now?"

And as the IMF noted recently, "Studies suggest that fiscal multipliers are currently high in many advanced economies. One important implication is that fiscal tightening could raise the debt ratio in the short term, as fiscal gains are partly wiped out by the decline in output." Now is the time to move away from austerity and towards more expansion. There are costs (though debt servicing is at a historic low), but the benefits outweight them.
 
Right now people are debating what level of debt-to-GDP we should level out at and how quickly that debt should begin to come down. There's also the debt ceiling battle coming at the end of the summer. This new information will influence all these conversations.
 
Was it Important?
 
Meanwhile, Ryan Avent at The Economist's Free Exchange writes about Reinhart-Rogoff here. To address one of his points, Avent also thinks that the Reinhart-Rogoff cliff results are overplayed as something that actually impacted policy. This is always a tricky question to answer, but Reinhart-Rogoff certainly dominated the sensible, mainstream conversation over the deficit and was a favorite go-to for conservatives in particular. I also think it was popular among journalists, because it was a straight-line number that was supposed to not require complicated modelng. Media Matters put together this video of people discussing the Reinhart-Rogoff cutoff:

(Bonus fun: in the video, at the 1m20s, Niall Ferguson refers to the 90 percent result as "the law of finance.")

I think the ideas matter. (Why else would we do this?) I think it's important to understand this revelation in light of other players moving against austerity, including both the IMF and the financial industry. As people reposition themselves, understanding that one of the core old ideas is now out of play allows a different reconfiguration of power. Also, it's worth repeating, it's becoming harder to pretend that austerity hasn't failed. It didn't even do the actual goal, which was reduce the debt-to-GDP ratios of the countries that were being targeted.

Citizens across the world who were normally indifferent are realizing that they were sold a bad bag of goods when it came to austerity and belt-tightening. They are now trying to figure out what happened, and how things could be done differently. As these are such critical issues, this examination is important. It's great we are having it.

Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:

  

 

Retreat!

Well this is progress. We are seeing distancing by conservative writers on the Reinhart/Rogoff thesis. In Feburary, Douglas Holtz-Eakin wrote, “The debt hurts the economy already. The canonical work of Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff and its successors carry a clear message: countries that have gross government debt in excess of 90% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) are in the debt danger zone. Entering the zone means slower economic growth. Granted, the research is not yet robust enough to say exactly when and how a crisis will engulf the US, but there is no reason to believe that America is somehow immune." (h/t QZ.)

Today, Holtz-Eakin writes about Reinhart and Rogoff in National Review, but drops the "canonical" status. Now they are just two random people with some common sense the left is beating up. "In order to distract from the dismal state of analytic and actual economic affairs, the latest tactic is to blame...two researchers, Carmen Reinhardt and Kenneth Rogoff, who made the reasonable observation that ever-larger amounts of debt must eventually be associated with bad economic news."

That's not actually what they said, and if you read Holtz-Eakin in February Reinhart-Rogoff is sufficient evidence to enact the specific plans he wants. Now there's no defense of the "danger zone" argument; just the idea that the stimulus failed. Retreat!

This is getting a bigger audience. (If you haven't seen The Colbert Report on the Reinhart/Rogoff issue, it's fantastic.) But going foward, plan beats no plan. And a critique isn't a plan. So what should we conclude about Reinhart-Rogoff a week later, now that the critique seems to have won? How should the government approach the debt?

Cliffs and Tradeoffs

One thing about the "cliff" metaphor is that there's no tradeoff that would make it acceptable. If you are driving, there are all kinds of tradeoffs you make with your route, but you'd never agree to a tradeoff that has you driving off a cliff. There were numerous other ways of describing this scenario, either the technical "nonlinearities" or the "danger zone" of Eakin just a few months ago.

With the danger zone metaphor now out of play, perhaps economists can see the relevant tradeoffs more clearly. Reinhart-Rogoff stand with a small negative relationship between debt and growth, one that is likely driven by low growth rather than high debt. And despite what you've heard, there's no literature that shows the casuation in the other direction.

But let's say they found it. Well, what's the relevant tradeoff? If there's even a basic fiscal multipler at work, the upside more than compensates for the downside. As Brad DeLong notes, if you consider a multipler of 1.5 and a marginal tax share of 1/3, the small correlation people are finding - Delong uses 0.006 percent from an in-house estimate - are more than canceled. Spending 2 percent more causes a bump of 3 percent of GDP, while debt goes up 1 percent of GDP. As Delong notes, "3% higher GDP this year and slower growth that leads to GDP lower by 0.06% in a decade. And this is supposed to be an argument against expansionary fiscal policy right now?"

And as the IMF noted recently, "Studies suggest that fiscal multipliers are currently high in many advanced economies. One important implication is that fiscal tightening could raise the debt ratio in the short term, as fiscal gains are partly wiped out by the decline in output." Now is the time to move away from austerity and towards more expansion. There are costs (though debt servicing is at a historic low), but the benefits outweight them.
 
Right now people are debating what level of debt-to-GDP we should level out at and how quickly that debt should begin to come down. There's also the debt ceiling battle coming at the end of the summer. This new information will influence all these conversations.
 
Was it Important?
 
Meanwhile, Ryan Avent at The Economist's Free Exchange writes about Reinhart-Rogoff here. To address one of his points, Avent also thinks that the Reinhart-Rogoff cliff results are overplayed as something that actually impacted policy. This is always a tricky question to answer, but Reinhart-Rogoff certainly dominated the sensible, mainstream conversation over the deficit and was a favorite go-to for conservatives in particular. I also think it was popular among journalists, because it was a straight-line number that was supposed to not require complicated modelng. Media Matters put together this video of people discussing the Reinhart-Rogoff cutoff:

(Bonus fun: in the video, at the 1m20s, Niall Ferguson refers to the 90 percent result as "the law of finance.")

I think the ideas matter. (Why else would we do this?) I think it's important to understand this revelation in light of other players moving against austerity, including both the IMF and the financial industry. As people reposition themselves, understanding that one of the core old ideas is now out of play allows a different reconfiguration of power. Also, it's worth repeating, it's becoming harder to pretend that austerity hasn't failed. It didn't even do the actual goal, which was reduce the debt-to-GDP ratios of the countries that were being targeted.

Citizens across the world who were normally indifferent are realizing that they were sold a bad bag of goods when it came to austerity and belt-tightening. They are now trying to figure out what happened, and how things could be done differently. As these are such critical issues, this examination is important. It's great we are having it.

Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:

  

 

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Guest Post: The Time Series of High Debt and Growth in Italy, Japan, and the United States

Apr 22, 2013Deepankar Basu

Mike Konczal here. In light of the collapse of the argument for a "cliff" in debt-to-GDP ratio, the most pressing issue to figure out is what to make of any minor relationship between debt and GDP. Which way does the causation work? Arin Dube wrote about this last week. Today, Deepankar Basu, assistant professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, takes a deep dive into this data using time series methods. Though this will involve some complicated techniques and charts, this work is crucial for understanding the current situation. I hope you check it out!

Public Debt and Economic Growth in the Postwar U.S., Italian and Japanese Economies

Deepankar Basu

A recent paper by Thomas Herndon, Michael Ash, and Robert Pollin (HAP) has effectively refuted one of the most frequently cited stats of recent years: countries with public debt above 90 percent of GDP experience sharp drop offs in economic growth. This “90 percent” result was put into circulation in 2010 by a paper written by Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff (RR) and was heavily circulated by conservative policymakers, commentators, and economists.

I think the most important issue in the subsequent discussion in blogs and newspaper op-eds (for a quick rundown see here) is the question of causality. Does the negative correlation between public debt and economic growth rest on high levels of public debt causing low economic growth, as RR and other “austerians” claim (we borrow this term from Jim Crotty)? Or is the causation the reverse of what the austerians say, meaning low economic growth causes higher public debt? Using the HAP data set for 20 OECD countries, economist Arindrajit Dube of University of Massachusetts-Amherst has shown that (a) the negative relationship between public debt and growth is much stronger at low levels of growth, and (b) the association between past economic growth and current debt levels is much stronger than the association between current levels of debt and future economic growth. This is strong evidence for the second causation argument, where low growth leads to high debt.

While Dube has worked in a single equation framework with a panel data set, in this article, I change gears and ask a time series question instead: what useful information, if any, can one extract about the relationship between public debt and economic growth from historical data for individual countries? In particular, I ask the following question: can data on historical coevolution of public debt and economic growth in the postwar U.S., Italian and Japanese economies tell us anything useful about possible causal relationships among these two variables? To briefly summarize the results, I find that the time series pattern of the dynamic relationship between public debt and economic growth in the postwar U.S., Italian, and Japanese economies is consistent with low growth causing high debt rather than high debt causing low growth.

Why I Chose the U.S., Italy, and Japan

As reported in Table A-1 of the HAP paper, there are only 10 countries in the sample of advanced economies from 1946-2009 that witnessed debt-to-GDP ratios above 90. These countries generally experienced years with debt/GDP above 90 consecutively, so they form easily observable episodes. However, in the postwar period very few of these episodes exhibit notably slow growth. The U.S. from 1946-2009 has already been explained in detail here as being caused by the reduction in government spending due to demobilization from World War II.

Mike Konczal here. In light of the collapse of the argument for a "cliff" in debt-to-GDP ratio, the most pressing issue to figure out is what to make of any minor relationship between debt and GDP. Which way does the causation work? Arin Dube wrote about this last week. Today, Deepankar Basu, assistant professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, takes a deep dive into this data using time series methods. Though this will involve some complicated techniques and charts, this work is crucial for understanding the current situation. I hope you check it out!

Public Debt and Economic Growth in the Postwar U.S., Italian and Japanese Economies

Deepankar Basu

A recent paper by Thomas Herndon, Michael Ash, and Robert Pollin (HAP) has effectively refuted one of the most frequently cited stats of recent years: countries with public debt above 90 percent of GDP experience sharp drop offs in economic growth. This “90 percent” result was put into circulation in 2010 by a paper written by Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff (RR) and was heavily circulated by conservative policymakers, commentators, and economists.

I think the most important issue in the subsequent discussion in blogs and newspaper op-eds (for a quick rundown see here) is the question of causality. Does the negative correlation between public debt and economic growth rest on high levels of public debt causing low economic growth, as RR and other “austerians” claim (we borrow this term from Jim Crotty)? Or is the causation the reverse of what the austerians say, meaning low economic growth causes higher public debt? Using the HAP data set for 20 OECD countries, economist Arindrajit Dube of University of Massachusetts-Amherst has shown that (a) the negative relationship between public debt and growth is much stronger at low levels of growth, and (b) the association between past economic growth and current debt levels is much stronger than the association between current levels of debt and future economic growth. This is strong evidence for the second causation argument, where low growth leads to high debt.

While Dube has worked in a single equation framework with a panel data set, in this article, I change gears and ask a time series question instead: what useful information, if any, can one extract about the relationship between public debt and economic growth from historical data for individual countries? In particular, I ask the following question: can data on historical coevolution of public debt and economic growth in the postwar U.S., Italian and Japanese economies tell us anything useful about possible causal relationships among these two variables? To briefly summarize the results, I find that the time series pattern of the dynamic relationship between public debt and economic growth in the postwar U.S., Italian, and Japanese economies is consistent with low growth causing high debt rather than high debt causing low growth.

Why I Chose the U.S., Italy, and Japan

As reported in Table A-1 of the HAP paper, there are only 10 countries in the sample of advanced economies from 1946-2009 that witnessed debt-to-GDP ratios above 90. These countries generally experienced years with debt/GDP above 90 consecutively, so they form easily observable episodes. However, in the postwar period very few of these episodes exhibit notably slow growth. The U.S. from 1946-2009 has already been explained in detail here as being caused by the reduction in government spending due to demobilization from World War II.

Other than the U.S., the only two countries with debt-to-GDP above 90 percent and average growth below 2 percent are Italy and Japan, with 1 percent and 0.7 percent respectively. With the inclusion of the earlier years from 1946-1949, New Zealand’s average growth increases from RR’s reported -7.6 percent to 2.6 percent. That is why I chose to focus in this article on U.S., Italy and Japan.

For the U.S. economy, federal debt declined from its high value (more than 100 percent of GDP) in the immediate postwar years to its lowest level in the mid-1970s (less than 25 percent of GDP), thereafter increasing till the mid-1990s and falling again over the next decade or so before picking up again with the onset of the global financial and economic crisis in 2007. The growth rate of real GDP has fluctuated a lot in the postwar period, with average values being higher in the two decades after the end of WWII than after the 1980s.

The Italian economy has experienced a different pattern: low levels of public debt till the early 1970s followed by a three-decade-long increase, with contemporary debt levels remaining at historical highs. Japan witnessed a very similar pattern: low levels of public debt till the mid-1970s followed by four decades of steady increase, with contemporary levels of debt hovering at historical highs. In terms of economic growth, both Italy and Japan witnessed a gradual slowdown, even as growth fluctuated at business cycle frequencies, over the entire postwar period. Thus, for all the three countries, there is large variation over time in both the variables (public debt and economic growth), which can be exploited to investigate their dynamic interrelationships. 

To motivate the analysis, in Figures 1.1, 1.2, and 1.3, I give time series plots of public debt and economic growth (year-on-year change in real GDP) for the three economies that I have chosen for this analysis: the U.S. economy between 1946 and 2012, the Italian economy between 1951 and 2009, and the Japanese economy between 1956 and 2009.

FIGURE 1.1  (USA): Time Series plots, for the period 1946-2012, of (a) federal debt held by public as a share of GDP (top panel), and (b) year-on-year change in real GDP (bottom panel). Source: data for debt is from Table B-78, Economic Report of the President, 2013; data for growth is from NIPA Table 1.1.1 

FIGURE 1.2  (ITALY): Time Series plots, for the period 1946-2012, of (a) federal debt held by public as a share of GDP (top panel), and (b) year-on-year change in real GDP (bottom panel). Source: Herndorn, Ash and Pollin (2013).

FIGURE 1.3  (JAPAN): Time Series plots, for the period 1946-2012, of (a) federal debt held by public as a share of GDP (top panel), and (b) year-on-year change in real GDP (bottom panel). Source: Herndorn, Ash and Pollin (2013). 

Why Use a Time Series Framework

Why do I adopt a time series framework? Adopting a time series lens allows one to use a vector autoregression (VAR) analysis, a popular time series methodology that is especially suitable for studying rich dynamic interactions among a group of time series variables. The pattern of dynamic interactions (allowing for complex lagged effects) can be nicely summarized through plots of orthogonalized impulse response functions, which trace out the effect of an unexpected change in a variable on the time paths of all the variables in the system (orthogonalizing the error makes sure that the effect of impulses to one error is not contaminated by cross correlation with other errors in the system).  In other words, this allows a researcher to address the following question: how would the variables in the VAR evolve over time when impacted by an unexpected change in one of the variables, holding other things constant? The key phrases here are “unexpected change in one of the variable” and “holding other things constant.” How do we interpret these key phrases?

Recall that in a VAR, every variable is explained by its past values and by past values of the other variables in the system. Each equation also has an unexplained part, the random error term. Thus an impulse imparted to the error (i.e., the unexplained part) in one of the equations in the VAR, can be understood as an “unexpected change,” or change in the variable that is not explained by its own past values and past values of the other variables in the VAR. Orthogonalizing the errors, on the other hand, implies that a change in one error is uncorrelated by changes in other errors in the system. Hence, when the researcher traces out the impact of an impulse to one error, she is confident that it is not picking up effects of changes in the other errors. This is a clear advantage over cross sectional analysis of correlations among variables, where distinguishing the effects of changes in one variable from the other might be difficult.  

In addition, a VAR allows each variable to be endogenous; i.e., it not only allows for lagged but also contemporaneous interaction among the variables. Thus, the researcher is not forced to take an a priori stand on whether a variable is exogenous (or not) as in a single equation estimation framework (where the dependent variable is, by assumption, endogenous, and some of the independent variables are exogenous).

Of course, a VAR will not, by itself, address the issue of causality; one needs to impose additional restrictions to distinguish causality from correlation (i.e., to tackle the so-called identification problem). A common identification strategy is to adopt a “causal ordering” of the variables in the VAR, which is a way to restrict some of the contemporaneous effects among the variables. If a variable is causally prior to another, this means that changes in the second variable cannot have any contemporaneous impacts on the first. In a two-variable vector autoregression (VAR), there are only two possible orderings: the first variable can be assumed to be causally prior to the second, or vice versa.

So, one can use both orderings (instead of taking a stand on which is the correct structural relationship) and see if the shape of the impulse response functions change according to the ordering adopted. If it does not, then the pattern of dynamic interaction captured by impulse response functions can be thought of as a reasonable approximation of underlying structural relationships. The point is this: if the impulse response functions display qualitatively similar shapes in both ordering of variables (and remember there are only two possibilities here), then the dynamic patterns of interaction are independent of the ordering. Either of them can be used to address the question: how does the system react to an unexpected change in one variable? This is a common empirical strategy in the time series literature, and as such we adopt it here. (This strategy becomes difficult to implement and interpret when there are more than two variables in the system, in which case theoretically motivated restrictions are imposed to get identification.)

Two-Variable VAR Analysis for Individual Countries

To investigate the debt-growth relationship, I estimate a two-variable VAR with an optimal number of lags (where public debt as a share of GDP and year-over-year change in real GDP are the two variables) for each of the three countries separately: the U.S. economy for the period 1946-2012, the Italian economy over 1951-2009, and the Japanese economy over the period 1956-2009. (I choose the “optimal” number of lags using the Akaike Information Criterion.) I find three interesting results.

First, the contemporaneous correlation between the errors in the two equations of the VAR is negative for each of the three countries (-0.56 for the U.S., -0.54 for Italy, and -0.30 for Japan). This suggests that unexpected changes in debt and economic growth move in the opposite direction in each of these countries. This finding is in line with existing results, both of Reinhart-Rogoff and their critics.

Second, I conduct Granger non-causality tests to understand lags of which of the two variables in the VAR better helps in predicting the other. Table 1 summarizes Granger non-causality test results for the three countries. The first column in Table 1 tests whether debt does not Granger-cause growth; i.e., the null hypothesis that all lags of debt enter the growth equation with zero coefficients. A high p-value indicates that the null hypothesis cannot be rejected; i.e., lags of debt do not help in predicting growth. The entries in the first column are all relatively large and show that lags of debt do not help in predicting growth with high levels of statistical significance. This is true for all three economies, and especially for Italy (which has a p-value of 0.81).

The second column in Table 1 tests for the opposite direction of predictability: it tests whether growth does not Granger-cause debt; i.e., the null hypothesis that all lags of growth enter the debt equation with zero coefficients. A low p-value indicates that the null hypothesis can be strongly rejected; i.e., lags of growth do help in predicting debt. The entries in column 2 are all relatively small and show that lags of growth help in strongly predicting debt for all three countries (both U.S. and Italy have p-values of 0, and Japan has a p-value of 0.04).

This finding about Granger non-causality is in line with similar results reported in 2010 by Josh Bivens and John Irons for the U.S. economy. The fact that similar results hold for Italy and Japan, which have been witnessing relatively higher levels of public debt in the past few decades, is indeed a strong rebuttal of austerian claims. It demonstrates that low growth leading to (or helping to predict) high debt is more consistent with the time series data than high debt leading to (or helping to predict) low growth. Moreover, this is true not only for the U.S. economy but also for Italy and Japan. 

Third, I analyze plots of impulse response functions (IRF) to decipher possible directions of effects running between debt and growth for all three countries for the two possible “orderings” of the variables. Figure 2.1, 2.2, and 2.3 display the orthogonalized IRFs with the first “ordering,” where debt is assumed to be “causally prior” to growth (meaning changes in debt can have a contemporaneous impact on growth but not the other way around). Figure 3.1, 3.2, and 3.3 display the orthogonalized IRFs with the alternative ordering, where growth is assumed to be “causally prior” to debt (meaning changes in growth can have a contemporaneous impact on debt but not the other way around).

 

 

FIGURE 2.1. (USA): Orthogonalized impulse response functions using a Cholesky decomposition for a 2 variable VAR (debt and growth) with optimal number of lags (chosen with AIC). The recursive VAR is estimated with annual data for the U.S. economy for the period 1946- 2012 and 90 percent bootstrapped confidence intervals are included in the IRF plots. Ordering: Debt is causally prior to growth.

FIGURE 2.2. (ITALY): Orthogonalized impulse response functions using a Cholesky decomposition for a 2 variable VAR (debt and growth) with optimal number of lags (chosen with AIC). The recursive VAR is estimated with annual data for the Italian economy for the period 1951- 2009 and 90 percent bootstrapped confidence intervals are included in the IRF plots. Ordering: Debt is causally prior to growth.

FIGURE 2.3. (JAPAN): Orthogonalized impulse response functions using a Cholesky decomposition for a 2 variable VAR (debt and growth) with optimal number of lags (chosen with AIC). The recursive VAR is estimated with annual data for the Japanese economy for the period 1956- 2009 and 90 percent bootstrapped confidence intervals are included in the IRF plots. Ordering: Debt is causally prior to growth.

Impulse Response Function: Impact of Debt on Growth

Let us start with the first ordering. In the top panel (right) of Figure 2.1 (USA), a one standard deviation positive impulse to the debt shock (i.e., the error in the equation that predicts debt) reduces growth contemporaneously, but growth returns back to zero within a year and stays there after that. In the top (right) panel of Figure 2.2 (ITALY), a similar impulse to the debt shock reduces growth contemporaneously, and growth returns back to zero within the next two years and stays there after that (notice that the 90 percent confidence interval includes zero). In the top panel (right) of Figure 2.3 (JAPAN), a one standard deviation impulse to the debt shock reduces growth contemporaneously, but growth returns back to zero within a year and gradually falls over the next several years (though here, too, the 90 percent confidence interval includes zero).

What story do these pictures tell us? If debt has a contemporaneous effect on growth (but not the other way round), then an unexpected increase in the level of debt in any year (due, for instance, to an increase in the deficit of a government that has given a tax break) will reduce economic growth in that year, but the negative impact will be washed out relatively quickly. The system will return back to its original growth path within the next few years. The speed with which the system reverts back to its original state is quickest for the U.S, slower for Japan, and slowest for Italy.  

FIGURE 3.1. (USA): Orthogonalized impulse response functions using a Cholesky decomposition for a 2 variable VAR (debt and growth) with optimal number of lags (chosen with AIC). The recursive VAR is estimated with annual data for the U.S. economy for the period 1946- 2012 and 90 percent bootstrapped confidence intervals are included in the IRF plots. Ordering: Growth is causally prior to debt.

FIGURE 3.2. (ITALY): Orthogonalized impulse response functions using a Cholesky decomposition for a 2 variable VAR (debt and growth) with optimal number of lags (chosen with AIC). The recursive VAR is estimated with annual data for the Italian economy for the period 1951- 2009 and 90 percent bootstrapped confidence intervals are included in the IRF plots. Ordering: Growth is causally prior to debt.

FIGURE 3.3. (JAPAN): Orthogonalized impulse response functions using a Cholesky decomposition for a 2 variable VAR (debt and growth) with optimal number of lags (chosen with AIC). The recursive VAR is estimated with annual data for the Japanese economy for the period 1956- 2009 and 90 percent bootstrapped confidence intervals are included in the IRF plots. Ordering: Growth is causally prior to debt.

Let us now turn to the second ordering. In the top panel (right) of Figure 3.1 (USA), a one standard deviation impulse to the debt shock has no contemporaneous effect on growth, but there is a positive effect on growth for the next two years. In the top panel (right) of Figure 3.2 (ITALY), a one standard deviation impulse to the debt shock has no contemporaneous effect on growth, and a fluctuating (negative and positive) impact on growth which is not very precisely estimated (the 90 percent confidence interval includes zero). In the top panel (right) of Figure 3.3 (JAPAN), a one standard deviation impulse to the debt shock has no contemporaneous effect on growth, but growth experiences a positive impact for the next three years, after which it starts falling – all of which is estimated pretty imprecisely (the 90 percent confidence interval includes zero).

How should we interpret these pictures? In this case, only Italy displays a negative impact of debt on growth; both Japan and the U.S. show mildly positive impacts of unexpected changes in debt levels (though the effects are estimated pretty imprecisely). Thus, if it were the case that the contemporaneous effect between debt and growth runs from the latter to the former (as the second ordering assumes), then increases in levels of public debt might even have a positive impact on economic growth, as witnessed in the U.S. and Japan. Why might this be the case? This might be reflecting the positive multiplier effect on output growth of a boost to aggregate demand coming from an increase in the government’s deficit. Evidence for the U.S. and Japan suggests that this effect might be non-zero, at least in the short run.

Thus, for all three countries and in both orderings, an unexpected increase in debt in any year does not have any statistically significant negative effect on economic growth in future years. When I allow the contemporaneous effect to run from growth to debt, the short- to medium-term impact is positive for the U.S. and Japan, though the effects are not very precisely estimated. This evidence is contrary to RR’s claim that high debt leads to low growth.   

Impulse Response Function: Impact of Growth on Debt

Once again, let us start with the first ordering. In the bottom panel (left) of Figures 2.1 (USA), 2.2 (ITALY), and 2.3 (JAPAN), a one standard deviation impulse to the growth shock reduces debt unambiguously in the short and medium term. While debt starts returning to its initial level in the case of the U.S. economy after about five to six years, it keeps declining in the Italian and Japanese economies. (This seems to suggest that the impact of economic growth on debt levels is longer lasting in Italy and Japan than in the U.S.) The bottom panels (left) of Figures 3.1 (USA), 3.2 (ITALY), and 3.3 (JAPAN) display impulse response plots for a one standard deviation impulse to the growth shock for the second ordering. They paint a qualitatively similar picture to that seen for the first ordering.

So, what do these figures tell us? They show that an unexpected increase in economic growth (for instance, due to an increase in aggregate demand caused by expanding exports) will be associated with a decrease in levels of public debt. Hence, we can turn this picture around and infer the following: when there is an unexpected decrease in economic growth, it will be associated with an increase in the levels of public debt over the next several years. This is true for all the three countries and for both orderings of the variables in the VAR.

Moreover, unlike the effect of debt on growth (which we saw in the top panels of the figures), the effects of unexpected changes in growth on future debt levels are statistically significant (though imprecisely measured) up to about 10 years in the future. This evidence clearly supports the anti-austerian position that low growth leads to higher public debt.

Summary

To summarize, I find that the time series pattern of the dynamic relationship between public debt and economic growth in the postwar U.S., Italian, and Japanese economies is consistent with low growth causing high debt rather than the high debt causing low growth. I draw this conclusion from two types of analyses: Granger non-causality tests and an investigation of impulse response function plots.

Granger non-causality tests allow one to ask the following questions: (a) do debt levels in the past help in better predicting current economic growth, and (b) does economic growth in the past help in improving predictions of current debt levels? The evidence suggests that for the U.S., Italy, and Japan, the answer to the first question is a NO and the answer to the second is a YES.

Impulse response analysis allows one to address the following questions: (a) what is the impact of an unexpected increase in current debt levels on the future time path of economic growth, and (b) how does an unexpected decline in economic growth affect future levels of debt? The data suggests that an unexpected increase in debt levels has only a small effect on future economic growth but an unexpected decline in economic growth is associated with large and long-lasting increases in public debt levels.     

Thus, empirical evidence from time series analysis of the U.S., Italian, and Japanese economies seems to bolster the critique presented by our colleagues Herndon, Ash, and Pollin, as well as Dube and others, of the Reinhart-Rogoff claim that high public debt leads to low economic growth. If anything, the evidence supports causality running in the opposite direction: low growth causes higher public debt.

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If More Efficient Government is the Goal, Capping Revenues Isn't the Answer

Apr 18, 2013Joelle Gamble

Arbitrarily limiting revenues and cutting critical services doesn't boost efficiency; it just shifts the burden onto citizens.

Arbitrarily limiting revenues and cutting critical services doesn't boost efficiency; it just shifts the burden onto citizens.

The 2013 tax-filing deadline is just a few days behind us, but many Republican members of Congress have already started talking about this year’s revenue intake. Due to CBO projections that federal revenues in 2013 will be the highest in history, Republicans are arguing that the real issue with government is that it has a serious spending problem, and that it is too big and too inefficient to allow for domestic economic prosperity. Predictably, their solution to this problem is to cut taxes and spending. But this approach could actually create more of the inefficiency they claim to oppose.

If we want to build a more efficient government and increase economic prosperity, we should not slash critical government services or restrict revenues across the board. In fact, in a still weak and recovering economy, limiting revenues can heighten inefficiencies in government in a way that exacerbates resource inequalities. We can look to the effects of state property tax caps in Massachusetts and California as local-scale examples of what happens when we try to shrink government just for the sake of shrinking it.

In 1978, at the height of an anti-tax wave, California voters passed proposition 13, a cap on residential and commercial property taxes. Under the new law, increases in tax rates on assessed real property values essentially cannot exceed 2 percent per year. In addition, the law imposed two strict requirements for how new state and local revenues can be raised: State taxes can only be increased either by ballot or with a supermajority vote in both houses of the state legislature, and special-purpose taxes by local governments can only be increased by a supermajority of votes in a local election.

Similarly, Massachusetts’ proposition 2 ½, passed in 1980, limited property tax revenues to 2.5 percent of an area’s assessed property value while also capping growth in revenue from those assessments to 2.5 percent per annum.

Arguments in favor of these initiatives assert that caps on taxes are a needed move to increase government efficiency and to relieve strained families from the economic burden of higher taxes. Essentially the same ideas are permeating the national debate around the federal budget and deficit reduction as deficit hawks claim that government is too big and its spending is too much of a burden on the economy. Recently, as Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konzcal notes, evidence has been growing that this argument is built on shaky ground.

Caps on annual property assessments, which had been a statistically stable source of revenue, forced municipalities to scramble to adjust to the permanent loss of resources, resulting in haphazard cuts and unreliable financial decision-making. Coupled with the movement to give more direct power over taxation to the voters (see CA proposition 218, the Right to Vote on Taxes Act), this state of uncertainty has only calcified – and uncertainty does not breed the efficient government systems that anti-tax advocates have promised.

Furthermore, instead of providing “efficiency savings” to state and local government, reduced revenues have simply shifted the burden of providing services from a stable entity onto the backs of the affected communities. The price of basic government operations doesn’t suddenly get cheaper because there is less revenue. It forces officials to sacrifice important programs to cover basic operational costs, and often the people who relied on those programs are those who can least afford to take the sudden hit. For local low- and middle-income communities in California and Massachusetts, this meant school funding shortages that exist to this day. At the federal level, the mounting effects of sequestration on various services and workers are setting up similar long-term problems.

Everything is amplified in a weak or recovering economy. Direct cuts to services that low- and middle-income communities rely on only exacerbate economic inequality and further hamper future prosperity. Families who already are having difficulty paying bills will be forced to deal with new challenges, from cuts to student aid and Medicaid to being laid off or furloughed.

In setting our fiscal course for the next several years, Congress should take a hard look at the risks taken by the states and avoid caving into the idea that revenue is a necessary evil to be restricted as much as possible. We can agree that our common goal is a smarter, more efficient government; however, cutting revenue streams to force reform is not the smartest, most efficient policy to achieve that goal.

Joelle Gamble is Deputy Field Director of the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network.

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Guest Post: Reinhart/Rogoff and Growth in a Time Before Debt

Apr 17, 2013Arindrajit Dube

[Mike Konczal here.  Yesterday I wrote about a paper by Thomas Herndon, Michael Ash and Robert Pollin of University of Massachusetts, Amherst. They replicated the influential Reinhart/Rogoff paper Growth in a Time of Debt. There were many responses on the internet, including Jared Bernstein, Matt YglesiasDean Baker, Paul Krugman, and many, many others. Reinhart and Rogoff have since responded with a statement. They believe that the findings do not "affects in any significant way the central message of the paper or that in our subsequent work." What is that message? That higher debt is associated with lower growth.

From the beginning many economists (Krugman, Bivens and Irons) have argued that their paper probably has the causation backwards: slow growth causes higher debt. But now that Herndon, Ash and Pollin have made the data used public, perhaps a talented econometrician could actually answer this? Arindrajit Dube was up for the challenge. Dube is an assistant professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.]

Growth in a Time Before Debt…

Recent work by my colleagues at UMass Thomas Herndon, Michael Ash and Robert Pollin (2013)—hereafter HAP—has demonstrated that in contrast to the apparent results in Reinhart and Rogoff (2010), there is no real discontinuity or "tipping point" around 90 percent of debt-to-GDP ratio.

In their response, Reinhart and Rogoff—hereafter RR—admit to the arithmetic mistakes, but argue that the negative correlation between debt-to-GDP ratio and growth in the corrected data still supports their original contention. Taking the Stata dataset that HAP generously made available as part of their replication exercise, I first reproduced the nonparametric graph in HAP (2013) using a lowess regression (slightly different than the specific method they used). The dotted lines are 95 percent bootstrapped confidence bands.

There is a visible negative relationship between growth and debt-to-GDP, but as HAP point out, the strength of the relationship is actually much stronger at low ratios of debt-to-GDP.  This makes us worry about the causal mechanism. After all, while a nonlinearity may be expected at high ratios due to a tipping point, the stronger negative relationship at low ratios is difficult to rationalize using a tipping point dynamic.

In their response, RR state that they were careful to distinguish between association and causality in their original research. Of course, we would only really care about this association if it likely reflects causality flowing from debt to growth (i.e. higher debt leading to lower growth, the lesson many take from RR's paper).

While it is difficult to ascertain causality from plots like this, we can leverage the time pattern of changes to gain some insight. Here is a simple question: does a high debt-to-GDP ratio better predict future growth rates, or past ones?  If the former is true, it would be consistent with the argument that higher debt levels cause growth to fall. On the other hand, if higher debt "predicts" past growth, that is a signature of reverse causality.

Below I have created similar plots by regressing current year's GDP on (1) the next 3 years' average GDP growth, and (2) last three years' average GDP growth. (My .do file is available here so anyone can make these graphs. After all, if I made an error, I'd rather know about it now.)

Figure 2:  Future and Past Growth Rates and Current Debt-to-GDP Ratio

As is evident, current period debt-to-GDP is a pretty poor predictor of future GDP growth at debt-to-GDP ratios of 30 or greater—the range where one might expect to find a tipping point dynamic.  But it does a great job predicting past growth.
 
This pattern is a telltale sign of reverse causality.  Why would this happen? Why would a fall in growth increase the debt-to-GDP ratio? One reason is just algebraic. The ratio has a numerator (debt) and denominator (GDP): any fall in GDP will mechanically boost the ratio.  Even if GDP growth doesn’t become negative, continuous growth in debt coupled with a GDP growth slowdown will also lead to a rise in the debt-to-GDP ratio.
 
Besides, there is also a less mechanical story. A recession leads to increased spending through automatic stabilizers such as unemployment insurance. And governments usually finance these using greater borrowing, as undergraduate macro-economics textbooks tell us governments should do. This is what happened in the U.S. during the past recession. For all of these reasons, we should expect reverse causality to be a problem here, and these bivariate plots are consistent with such a story.
 
Of course, these are just bivariate plots. To get the econometrics right, when looking at correlations between current period debt-to-GDP ratio and past or future GDP growth, you should also account for past or future debt-to-GDP ratio.
 
A standard way of doing this is using a "distributed lag" model - which just means regressing GDP growth on a set of leads and lags in debt to GDP ratio, and then forming an "impulse response" from, say, a hypothetical 10 point increase in the debt-to-GDP ratio (where 100 is when the debt level is equal to GDP).
 
Figure 3 below reports these impulse responses. What we find is exactly the pattern consistent with reverse causality.
 
The way to read this graph is to go from left to right. Here “-3” is 3 years before a 10 point increase in the debt-to-GDP ratio, “-2” is 2 years before the increase, etc.   The graph shows that GDP growth rates were unusually low and falling prior to the 10 point increase in the debt-to-GDP ratio.  If you average the growth differentials from the 3 years prior to the increase in debt, (i.e., the values associated with -3,-2,-1 on the X-axis), it is –0.6 (or 6/10 of a percent lower growth than usual) and statistically significant at the 5 percent level. In contrast, the average growth rates from years 1, 2 and 3+ after the 10 point increase in debt-to-GDP ratio is 0.2 (or 2/10 of one percent) higher than usual. 
 
Figure 3: Impulse Response of GDP Growth from a 10-point increase in Debt-to-Income Ratio

So what does this all show?  It shows that purely in terms of correlations, a 10 point increase in the debt-to-GDP ratio in the RR data is associated with a 6/10 of a percentage point lower growth in the 3 years prior to the increase, but actually a slightly larger than usual growth in the few years after the increase. During the year of the increase in debt-to-GDP ratio, GDP growth is really low, consistent with the algebraic effect of lower growth leading to a higher debt-to-GDP ratio.

All in all, these simple exercises suggest that the raw correlation between debt-to-GDP ratio and GDP growth probably reflects a fair amount of reverse casualty. We can’t simply use correlations like those used by RR (or ones presented here) to identify causal estimates.

[Aside:  For those who are more econometrically inclined, here is the picture with country and year fixed effects to soak up some of the heterogeneity.  Not much different. By the way, the standard errors in the panel regressions are clustered by country.]

----
Addendum.
 
Labor economists have long recognized that falling values of the outcome can sometimes precede the treatment. In the job training literature this is known as an "Ashenfelter dip." Those with a fall in earnings are more likely to enter training programs, creating a spurious negative correlation between training and wages. This has similarity to the problem of debt and growth studied here.
 
One way in which economists control for such dips is by including the lagged outcome as a control.  In this case, we can control for a 1-year lagged GDP growth using a partial linear model. This still allows for a nonlinear relationship between GDP growth and debt-to-GDP ratio like in the bivariate case, but in addition controls for last period's growth.
 
Here's the picture:
Controlling for the previous year's GDP growth largely erases the negative relationship between debt-to-GDP ratio and GDP growth, especially for the range where debt is 30 percent or more of GDP.  This is because a fall in GDP precedes the rise in Debt-to-GDP ratio. This is yet another demonstration that the simple bivariate negative correlation is driven in substantial part by reverse causality.

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[Mike Konczal here.  Yesterday I wrote about a paper by Thomas Herndon, Michael Ash and Robert Pollin of University of Massachusetts, Amherst. They replicated the influential Reinhart/Rogoff paper Growth in a Time of Debt. There were many responses on the internet, including Jared Bernstein, Matt YglesiasDean Baker, Paul Krugman, and many, many others. Reinhart and Rogoff have since responded with a statement. They believe that the findings do not "affects in any significant way the central message of the paper or that in our subsequent work." What is that message? That higher debt is associated with lower growth.

From the beginning many economists (Krugman, Bivens and Irons) have argued that their paper probably has the causation backwards: slow growth causes higher debt. But now that Herndon, Ash and Pollin have made the data used public, perhaps a talented econometrician could actually answer this? Arindrajit Dube was up for the challenge. Dube is an assistant professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.]

Growth in a Time Before Debt…

Recent work by my colleagues at UMass Thomas Herndon, Michael Ash and Robert Pollin (2013)—hereafter HAP—has demonstrated that in contrast to the apparent results in Reinhart and Rogoff (2010), there is no real discontinuity or "tipping point" around 90 percent of debt-to-GDP ratio.

In their response, Reinhart and Rogoff—hereafter RR—admit to the arithmetic mistakes, but argue that the negative correlation between debt-to-GDP ratio and growth in the corrected data still supports their original contention. Taking the Stata dataset that HAP generously made available as part of their replication exercise, I first reproduced the nonparametric graph in HAP (2013) using a lowess regression (slightly different than the specific method they used). The dotted lines are 95 percent bootstrapped confidence bands.

There is a visible negative relationship between growth and debt-to-GDP, but as HAP point out, the strength of the relationship is actually much stronger at low ratios of debt-to-GDP.  This makes us worry about the causal mechanism. After all, while a nonlinearity may be expected at high ratios due to a tipping point, the stronger negative relationship at low ratios is difficult to rationalize using a tipping point dynamic.

In their response, RR state that they were careful to distinguish between association and causality in their original research. Of course, we would only really care about this association if it likely reflects causality flowing from debt to growth (i.e. higher debt leading to lower growth, the lesson many take from RR's paper).

While it is difficult to ascertain causality from plots like this, we can leverage the time pattern of changes to gain some insight. Here is a simple question: does a high debt-to-GDP ratio better predict future growth rates, or past ones?  If the former is true, it would be consistent with the argument that higher debt levels cause growth to fall. On the other hand, if higher debt "predicts" past growth, that is a signature of reverse causality.

Below I have created similar plots by regressing current year's GDP on (1) the next 3 years' average GDP growth, and (2) last three years' average GDP growth. (My .do file is available here so anyone can make these graphs. After all, if I made an error, I'd rather know about it now.)

Figure 2:  Future and Past Growth Rates and Current Debt-to-GDP Ratio

As is evident, current period debt-to-GDP is a pretty poor predictor of future GDP growth at debt-to-GDP ratios of 30 or greater—the range where one might expect to find a tipping point dynamic.  But it does a great job predicting past growth.
 
This pattern is a telltale sign of reverse causality.  Why would this happen? Why would a fall in growth increase the debt-to-GDP ratio? One reason is just algebraic. The ratio has a numerator (debt) and denominator (GDP): any fall in GDP will mechanically boost the ratio.  Even if GDP growth doesn’t become negative, continuous growth in debt coupled with a GDP growth slowdown will also lead to a rise in the debt-to-GDP ratio.
 
Besides, there is also a less mechanical story. A recession leads to increased spending through automatic stabilizers such as unemployment insurance. And governments usually finance these using greater borrowing, as undergraduate macro-economics textbooks tell us governments should do. This is what happened in the U.S. during the past recession. For all of these reasons, we should expect reverse causality to be a problem here, and these bivariate plots are consistent with such a story.
 
Of course, these are just bivariate plots. To get the econometrics right, when looking at correlations between current period debt-to-GDP ratio and past or future GDP growth, you should also account for past or future debt-to-GDP ratio.
 
A standard way of doing this is using a "distributed lag" model - which just means regressing GDP growth on a set of leads and lags in debt to GDP ratio, and then forming an "impulse response" from, say, a hypothetical 10 point increase in the debt-to-GDP ratio (where 100 is when the debt level is equal to GDP).
 
Figure 3 below reports these impulse responses. What we find is exactly the pattern consistent with reverse causality.
 
The way to read this graph is to go from left to right. Here “-3” is 3 years before a 10 point increase in the debt-to-GDP ratio, “-2” is 2 years before the increase, etc.   The graph shows that GDP growth rates were unusually low and falling prior to the 10 point increase in the debt-to-GDP ratio.  If you average the growth differentials from the 3 years prior to the increase in debt, (i.e., the values associated with -3,-2,-1 on the X-axis), it is –0.6 (or 6/10 of a percent lower growth than usual) and statistically significant at the 5 percent level. In contrast, the average growth rates from years 1, 2 and 3+ after the 10 point increase in debt-to-GDP ratio is 0.2 (or 2/10 of one percent) higher than usual. 
 
Figure 3: Impulse Response of GDP Growth from a 10-point increase in Debt-to-Income Ratio

So what does this all show?  It shows that purely in terms of correlations, a 10 point increase in the debt-to-GDP ratio in the RR data is associated with a 6/10 of a percentage point lower growth in the 3 years prior to the increase, but actually a slightly larger than usual growth in the few years after the increase. During the year of the increase in debt-to-GDP ratio, GDP growth is really low, consistent with the algebraic effect of lower growth leading to a higher debt-to-GDP ratio.

All in all, these simple exercises suggest that the raw correlation between debt-to-GDP ratio and GDP growth probably reflects a fair amount of reverse casualty. We can’t simply use correlations like those used by RR (or ones presented here) to identify causal estimates.

[Aside:  For those who are more econometrically inclined, here is the picture with country and year fixed effects to soak up some of the heterogeneity.  Not much different. By the way, the standard errors in the panel regressions are clustered by country.]

----
Addendum.
 
Labor economists have long recognized that falling values of the outcome can sometimes precede the treatment. In the job training literature this is known as an "Ashenfelter dip." Those with a fall in earnings are more likely to enter training programs, creating a spurious negative correlation between training and wages. This has similarity to the problem of debt and growth studied here.
 
One way in which economists control for such dips is by including the lagged outcome as a control.  In this case, we can control for a 1-year lagged GDP growth using a partial linear model. This still allows for a nonlinear relationship between GDP growth and debt-to-GDP ratio like in the bivariate case, but in addition controls for last period's growth.
 
Here's the picture:
Controlling for the previous year's GDP growth largely erases the negative relationship between debt-to-GDP ratio and GDP growth, especially for the range where debt is 30 percent or more of GDP.  This is because a fall in GDP precedes the rise in Debt-to-GDP ratio. This is yet another demonstration that the simple bivariate negative correlation is driven in substantial part by reverse causality.

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Researchers Finally Replicated Reinhart-Rogoff, and There Are Serious Problems.

Apr 16, 2013Mike Konczal

In 2010, economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff released a paper, "Growth in a Time of Debt." Their "main result is that...median growth rates for countries with public debt over 90 percent of GDP are roughly one percent lower than otherwise; average (mean) growth rates are several percent lower." Countries with debt-to-GDP ratios above 90 percent have a slightly negative average growth rate, in fact.

This has been one of the most cited stats in the public debate during the Great Recession. Paul Ryan's Path to Prosperity budget states their study "found conclusive empirical evidence that [debt] exceeding 90 percent of the economy has a significant negative effect on economic growth." The Washington Post editorial board takes it as an economic consensus view, stating that "debt-to-GDP could keep rising — and stick dangerously near the 90 percent mark that economists regard as a threat to sustainable economic growth." 

Is it conclusive? One response has been to argue that the causation is backwards, or that slower growth leads to higher debt-to-GDP ratios. Josh Bivens and John Irons made this case at the Economic Policy Institute. But this assumes that the data is correct. From the beginning there have been complaints that Reinhart and Rogoff weren't releasing the data for their results (e.g. Dean Baker). I knew of several people trying to replicate the results who were bumping into walls left and right - it couldn't be done.

In a new paper, "Does High Public Debt Consistently Stifle Economic Growth? A Critique of Reinhart and Rogoff," Thomas Herndon, Michael Ash, and Robert Pollin of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst successfully replicate the results. After trying to replicate the Reinhart-Rogoff results and failing, they reached out to Reinhart and Rogoff and they were willing to share their data spreadhseet. This allowed Herndon et al. to see how how Reinhart and Rogoff's data was constructed.

They find that three main issues stand out. First, Reinhart and Rogoff selectively exclude years of high debt and average growth. Second, they use a debatable method to weight the countries. Third, there also appears to be a coding error that excludes high-debt and average-growth countries. All three bias in favor of their result, and without them you don't get their controversial result. Let's investigate further:

Selective Exclusions. Reinhart-Rogoff use 1946-2009 as their period, with the main difference among countries being their starting year. In their data set, there are 110 years of data available for countries that have a debt/GDP over 90 percent, but they only use 96 of those years. The paper didn't disclose which years they excluded or why.

Herndon-Ash-Pollin find that they exclude Australia (1946-1950), New Zealand (1946-1949), and Canada (1946-1950). This has consequences, as these countries have high-debt and solid growth. Canada had debt-to-GDP over 90 percent during this period and 3 percent growth. New Zealand had a debt/GDP over 90 percent from 1946-1951. If you use the average growth rate across all those years it is 2.58 percent. If you only use the last year, as Reinhart-Rogoff does, it has a growth rate of -7.6 percent. That's a big difference, especially considering how they weigh the countries.

Unconventional Weighting. Reinhart-Rogoff divides country years into debt-to-GDP buckets. They then take the average real growth for each country within the buckets. So the growth rate of the 19 years that the U.K. is above 90 percent debt-to-GDP are averaged into one number. These country numbers are then averaged, equally by country, to calculate the average real GDP growth weight.

In case that didn't make sense, let's look at an example. The U.K. has 19 years (1946-1964) above 90 percent debt-to-GDP with an average 2.4 percent growth rate. New Zealand has one year in their sample above 90 percent debt-to-GDP with a growth rate of -7.6. These two numbers, 2.4 and -7.6 percent, are given equal weight in the final calculation, as they average the countries equally. Even though there are 19 times as many data points for the U.K.

Now maybe you don't want to give equal weighting to years (technical aside: Herndon-Ash-Pollin bring up serial correlation as a possibility). Perhaps you want to take episodes. But this weighting significantly reduces the average; if you weight by the number of years you find a higher growth rate above 90 percent. Reinhart-Rogoff don't discuss this methodology, either the fact that they are weighing this way or the justification for it, in their paper.

Coding Error. As Herndon-Ash-Pollin puts it: "A coding error in the RR working spreadsheet entirely excludes five countries, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, and Denmark, from the analysis. [Reinhart-Rogoff] averaged cells in lines 30 to 44 instead of lines 30 to 49...This spreadsheet error...is responsible for a -0.3 percentage-point error in RR's published average real GDP growth in the highest public debt/GDP category." Belgium, in particular, has 26 years with debt-to-GDP above 90 percent, with an average growth rate of 2.6 percent (though this is only counted as one total point due to the weighting above).

Being a bit of a doubting Thomas on this coding error, I wouldn't believe unless I touched the digital Excel wound myself. One of the authors was able to show me that, and here it is. You can see the Excel blue-box for formulas missing some data:

This error is needed to get the results they published, and it would go a long way to explaining why it has been impossible for others to replicate these results. If this error turns out to be an actual mistake Reinhart-Rogoff made, well, all I can hope is that future historians note that one of the core empirical points providing the intellectual foundation for the global move to austerity in the early 2010s was based on someone accidentally not updating a row formula in Excel.

So what do Herndon-Ash-Pollin conclude? They find "the average real GDP growth rate for countries carrying a public debt-to-GDP ratio of over 90 percent is actually 2.2 percent, not -0.1 percent as [Reinhart-Rogoff claim]." [UPDATE: To clarify, they find 2.2 percent if they include all the years, weigh by number of years, and avoid the Excel error.] Going further into the data, they are unable to find a breakpoint where growth falls quickly and significantly.

This is also good evidence for why you should release your data online, so it can be properly vetted. But beyond that, looking through the data and how much it can collapse because of this or that assumption, it becomes quite clear that there's no magic number out there. The debt needs to be thought of as a response to the contingent circumstances we find ourselves in, with mass unemployment, a Federal Reserve desperately trying to gain traction at the zero lower bound, and a gap between what we could be producing and what we are. The past guides us, but so far it has failed to provide evidence of an emergency threshold. In fact, it tells us that a larger deficit right now would help us greatly.

[UPDATE: People are responding to the Excel error, and that is important to document. But from a data point of view, the exclusion of the Post-World War II data is particularly troublesome, as that is driving the negative results. This needs to be explained, as does the weighting, which compresses the long periods of average growth and high debt.]

[UPDATE: Check out the next post from this blog on Reinhart-Rogoff, a guest post by economist Arindrajit Dube. Now that 90 percent debt-to-GDP is no longer a cliff for growth, what about the general trend between the two? Dube finds significant evidence that reverse causation is the culprit.]

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In 2010, economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff released a paper, "Growth in a Time of Debt." Their "main result is that...median growth rates for countries with public debt over 90 percent of GDP are roughly one percent lower than otherwise; average (mean) growth rates are several percent lower." Countries with debt-to-GDP ratios above 90 percent have a slightly negative average growth rate, in fact.

This has been one of the most cited stats in the public debate during the Great Recession. Paul Ryan's Path to Prosperity budget states their study "found conclusive empirical evidence that [debt] exceeding 90 percent of the economy has a significant negative effect on economic growth." The Washington Post editorial board takes it as an economic consensus view, stating that "debt-to-GDP could keep rising — and stick dangerously near the 90 percent mark that economists regard as a threat to sustainable economic growth." 

Is it conclusive? One response has been to argue that the causation is backwards, or that slower growth leads to higher debt-to-GDP ratios. Josh Bivens and John Irons made this case at the Economic Policy Institute. But this assumes that the data is correct. From the beginning there have been complaints that Reinhart and Rogoff weren't releasing the data for their results (e.g. Dean Baker). I knew of several people trying to replicate the results who were bumping into walls left and right - it couldn't be done.

In a new paper, "Does High Public Debt Consistently Stifle Economic Growth? A Critique of Reinhart and Rogoff," Thomas Herndon, Michael Ash, and Robert Pollin of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst successfully replicate the results. After trying to replicate the Reinhart-Rogoff results and failing, they reached out to Reinhart and Rogoff and they were willing to share their data spreadhseet. This allowed Herndon et al. to see how how Reinhart and Rogoff's data was constructed.

They find that three main issues stand out. First, Reinhart and Rogoff selectively exclude years of high debt and average growth. Second, they use a debatable method to weight the countries. Third, there also appears to be a coding error that excludes high-debt and average-growth countries. All three bias in favor of their result, and without them you don't get their controversial result. Let's investigate further:

Selective Exclusions. Reinhart-Rogoff use 1946-2009 as their period, with the main difference among countries being their starting year. In their data set, there are 110 years of data available for countries that have a debt/GDP over 90 percent, but they only use 96 of those years. The paper didn't disclose which years they excluded or why.

Herndon-Ash-Pollin find that they exclude Australia (1946-1950), New Zealand (1946-1949), and Canada (1946-1950). This has consequences, as these countries have high-debt and solid growth. Canada had debt-to-GDP over 90 percent during this period and 3 percent growth. New Zealand had a debt/GDP over 90 percent from 1946-1951. If you use the average growth rate across all those years it is 2.58 percent. If you only use the last year, as Reinhart-Rogoff does, it has a growth rate of -7.6 percent. That's a big difference, especially considering how they weigh the countries.

Unconventional Weighting. Reinhart-Rogoff divides country years into debt-to-GDP buckets. They then take the average real growth for each country within the buckets. So the growth rate of the 19 years that the U.K. is above 90 percent debt-to-GDP are averaged into one number. These country numbers are then averaged, equally by country, to calculate the average real GDP growth weight.

In case that didn't make sense, let's look at an example. The U.K. has 19 years (1946-1964) above 90 percent debt-to-GDP with an average 2.4 percent growth rate. New Zealand has one year in their sample above 90 percent debt-to-GDP with a growth rate of -7.6. These two numbers, 2.4 and -7.6 percent, are given equal weight in the final calculation, as they average the countries equally. Even though there are 19 times as many data points for the U.K.

Now maybe you don't want to give equal weighting to years (technical aside: Herndon-Ash-Pollin bring up serial correlation as a possibility). Perhaps you want to take episodes. But this weighting significantly reduces the average; if you weight by the number of years you find a higher growth rate above 90 percent. Reinhart-Rogoff don't discuss this methodology, either the fact that they are weighing this way or the justification for it, in their paper.

Coding Error. As Herndon-Ash-Pollin puts it: "A coding error in the RR working spreadsheet entirely excludes five countries, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, and Denmark, from the analysis. [Reinhart-Rogoff] averaged cells in lines 30 to 44 instead of lines 30 to 49...This spreadsheet error...is responsible for a -0.3 percentage-point error in RR's published average real GDP growth in the highest public debt/GDP category." Belgium, in particular, has 26 years with debt-to-GDP above 90 percent, with an average growth rate of 2.6 percent (though this is only counted as one total point due to the weighting above).

Being a bit of a doubting Thomas on this coding error, I wouldn't believe unless I touched the digital Excel wound myself. One of the authors was able to show me that, and here it is. You can see the Excel blue-box for formulas missing some data:

This error is needed to get the results they published, and it would go a long way to explaining why it has been impossible for others to replicate these results. If this error turns out to be an actual mistake Reinhart-Rogoff made, well, all I can hope is that future historians note that one of the core empirical points providing the intellectual foundation for the global move to austerity in the early 2010s was based on someone accidentally not updating a row formula in Excel.

So what do Herndon-Ash-Pollin conclude? They find "the average real GDP growth rate for countries carrying a public debt-to-GDP ratio of over 90 percent is actually 2.2 percent, not -0.1 percent as [Reinhart-Rogoff claim]." [UPDATE: To clarify, they find 2.2 percent if they include all the years, weigh by number of years, and avoid the Excel error.] Going further into the data, they are unable to find a breakpoint where growth falls quickly and significantly.

This is also good evidence for why you should release your data online, so it can be properly vetted. But beyond that, looking through the data and how much it can collapse because of this or that assumption, it becomes quite clear that there's no magic number out there. The debt needs to be thought of as a response to the contingent circumstances we find ourselves in, with mass unemployment, a Federal Reserve desperately trying to gain traction at the zero lower bound, and a gap between what we could be producing and what we are. The past guides us, but so far it has failed to provide evidence of an emergency threshold. In fact, it tells us that a larger deficit right now would help us greatly.

[UPDATE: People are responding to the Excel error, and that is important to document. But from a data point of view, the exclusion of the Post-World War II data is particularly troublesome, as that is driving the negative results. This needs to be explained, as does the weighting, which compresses the long periods of average growth and high debt.]

[UPDATE: Check out the next post from this blog on Reinhart-Rogoff, a guest post by economist Arindrajit Dube. Now that 90 percent debt-to-GDP is no longer a cliff for growth, what about the general trend between the two? Dube finds significant evidence that reverse causation is the culprit.]

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Disillusioned with Congress? Participatory Budgeting is For You

Mar 27, 2013Emily Apple

Americans are getting fed up with government. It's time to get them directly involved.

It has been nearly a month since the sequester went into effect, yet little is being done to reverse the deep cuts. It is a sad fact that our new normal is the inability to come to a compromise in Washington.

Americans are getting fed up with government. It's time to get them directly involved.

It has been nearly a month since the sequester went into effect, yet little is being done to reverse the deep cuts. It is a sad fact that our new normal is the inability to come to a compromise in Washington.

Washington has failed the American people over and over again, and yet at each manufactured crisis we cross our fingers and hope that things will be different the next time. With such intense gridlock, it's no wonder that Americans have thrown up their hands. According to a 2011 CBS News poll, 80 percent of those surveyed believe that Congress is more interested in serving the needs of special interest groups than the constituents they purport to represent.

So why do Americans simply hope for the best? Why do we not stand up and demand a change? Perhaps it is because the idea of changing the culture of Washington is too daunting, too impossible. But Americans can start building a new system from the ground up that incorporates their voices into the political process.

New York City is entering its second year of a new democratic experiment called participatory budgeting. Participatory budgeting is exactly what it sounds like: the community is given a chunk of public money and gets to vote and decide how this money will be spent to better the community. The project began in four city council districts in 2011 and is expanding to four more in the upcoming cycle. The process engaged participants who had not previously participated in the political process, and many who were disillusioned with politics–two out of three participants felt that our political system needed a major overhaul, compared with one out of three in the general population. People of color also participated at higher rates than in general elections. The process is founded in the belief that community members know best how to help their community and their voices should be valued above all else in the political process.

The result? Over 7,000 citizens selected 27 projects, totaling $5.6 million. These projects included everything from playground improvements in neighborhood housing projects, vehicles for the local “Meals-on-Wheels” program, and new computers for the local public library. These were projects chosen by and developed by district residents. The number of participants and the amount spent might pale in comparison to New York City as a whole, a city of 8.2 million people with an operating budget of over $65 billion, but we still must value the process of citizen engagement and the lessons we can learn from it.

Participatory budgeting echoes the core values identified in the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network's new blueprint, Government By and For Millennial America. To create the document, conversations were conducted with over 1,000 students across the country. From those conversations, the three chief values that Millennials identified as most important for government are transparency, equality, and fairness. All of these values are embodied in the participatory budgeting process and hopefully can serve as a model for how this country can continue to improve and engage its citizens.

It is naive to think that a such a small scale project will fundamentally change the way we approach democracy overnight. But projects like these sow the seeds of civic participation and greater engagement in the democratic process across the country. Thousands of projects like these can shift the way we approach democracy and maybe make our senators and representatives take notice. Civic engagement won’t completely solve the seemingingly impossible problem of congressional gridlock, but maybe it can be a much needed antidote. In order to improve the state of our democracy, we must invest in new mechanisms, like participatory budgeting, to engage citizens in the democratic process. It is only then that we can truly be a government by the people and for the people.

Emily Apple is a junior at CUNY-Hunter College and member of the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network.

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Defunding Political Science Research is the Wrong Kind of Big Government

Mar 26, 2013Elizabeth Pearson

By cutting off research funding for ideological reasons, Republicans in Congress have turned themselves into thought police.

By cutting off research funding for ideological reasons, Republicans in Congress have turned themselves into thought police.

In a vote last Wednesday, the U.S. Senate took the unprecedented step of prohibiting the National Science Foundation (NSF) from funding political science research, except on topics “promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States.” The amendment’s sponsor, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, frames the defunding of political science research as part of a broader deficit-reduction agenda, but in fact his approach to shrinking government only perpetuates the worst sort of big government: the kind that polices the ideas it doesn’t like.

Although the amendment’s passage came as somewhat of a surprise to observers — Republicans in Congress are long-time foes of political science, but previous efforts to limit NSF funding have been unsuccessful — scientists from a host of disciplines have been quick to condemn the dangerous implications of the vote.

The arguments against this assault on basic science research are many. The funding is a tiny portion of the federal budget but supports a huge portion of political science work. NSF-funded research in political science supports robust public debate by collecting comprehensive, high-quality data that is then accessible to the public and journalists. And, although some political scientists have expressed optimism that almost any piece of research could be framed to fall under the new mandate, Gregory Koger noted in a piece on The Monkey Cage the particular irony that “in order to receive support for careful scientific testing of causal claims one might have to make unsubstantiated claims about how one’s research is linked to U.S. economic or security interests.”

But the greatest harm done by the Senate’s approval of this amendment comes in the type of government that it promotes. The National Science Foundation represents exactly the type of “big government” worth embracing: a government that champions robust public investment in the advancement of knowledge while demanding that these knowledge claims be rigorously tested and peer-reviewed in order to deserve public dollars. NSF grants in political science clearly meet these standards, even funding the work of Nobel Prize laureates such as Elinor Ostrom. In an ironic testament to their democracy enhancing effects, NSF political science grants even helped produce some excellent research on congressional oversight cited by none other than Tom Coburn, who is apparently a fan of federally funded political science research when it serves his interests.

In fact, Coburn’s anti-science agenda represents the sort of big government actually worth fighting against. While cloaking their effort to starve political science research funding as a struggle against wasteful spending, Coburn and other Republicans who share his agenda promote a government that polices knowledge production and attacks ideas it finds threatening. (Coburn is particularly opposed to research on American’s attitudes toward the Senate, which he seems to think require no additional study, stating in his own press release on the amendment’s passage, “There is no reason to spend $251,000 studying Americans’ attitudes toward the U.S. Senate when citizens can figure that out for free.”)

Of course, Republicans attacking political science are quick to claim they support government investment in other types of science — the kind that can cure cancer and doesn’t criticize Congress in the process. This selectivity about which ideas should be supported and which are simply wasteful is short-sighted given the practical benefits of such research. But singling out specific types of research for divestment is more troubling for its ideological implications than for its practical flaws.

As a Nature editorial from last summer argued, when moves to cut off political science funding sponsored by Representative Jeff Flake were making their way through the House, “The fact that he [Flake] and his political allies seem to feel threatened by evidence-based studies of politics and society does not speak highly of their confidence in the objective case for their policies. Flake's amendment is no different in principle to the ideological infringements of academic freedom in Turkey or Iran. It has nothing to do with democracy.”

There are debates worth having about the value of academic research in society, and even about the merits of publicly funding particular research agendas. Clearly policymakers have a responsibility to argue over how to invest public funds most effectively. But let’s be clear: politicians are not interested in engaging in such a debate. The amendment cutting off NSF political science funding was included in a continuing resolution passed to avoid a government shutdown and passed by a voice vote. The whole story would be comical — Congress using arcane procedure studied only by political scientists to defund political science research — if it weren’t so troubling.

Such a move isn’t part of Congress’s legitimate role overseeing federal spending. Rather, it speaks to a willingness on the part of politicians to let ideological opponents of important research strengthen the kind of government we should all be worried about: one that decides in advance what kinds of ideas are worth public investment.

Elizabeth Pearson is a Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline Fellow and a PhD candidate at UC Berkeley.

 

Capitol dome image via Shutterstock.com.

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The Budget Wars: An Outbreak of Sanity or the Foundations for a New Offensive?

Mar 18, 2013Bo Cutter

The partisan divide over the budget may seem unbridgeable, but there's a deal to be had if both sides want it.

I'll open by acknowledging a considerable difference between my budget/fiscal policy hopes and my actual predictions. My hopes for the emergence of a doable centrist budget strategy from the Obama administration have never come close to reality. My predictions that nothing much will happen have mostly been correct. So where are we now?

The partisan divide over the budget may seem unbridgeable, but there's a deal to be had if both sides want it.

I'll open by acknowledging a considerable difference between my budget/fiscal policy hopes and my actual predictions. My hopes for the emergence of a doable centrist budget strategy from the Obama administration have never come close to reality. My predictions that nothing much will happen have mostly been correct. So where are we now?

We're in the middle of the clash of ideology, reality, what Edward Luttwag calls "the autism of great powers" applied to domestic politics, and an organizational-bureaucratic brain freeze. Both the left and right are deeply mired in the ideologies of another time and another universe. Reality has played out contrary to all expectations. The "great powers" keep saying the same things because that's what they said yesterday. And the various bureaucracies are all essentially impermeable to new strategies and have no idea what steps to take now.

There are some parallels here to Bill Clinton and the spring of 1995. (Just to be clear, I was an enthusiastic part of that administration.) In the 1994 congressional elections, the Clinton administration had been clobbered. For the first time in 40 years, the Republicans won both houses of Congress, gaining eight seats in the Senate and 54 seats in the House. It was a grim time in the White House, made grimmer by the standoff over 1994-95 spending and the government shutdown that then ensued. Bill Clinton won the public relations battle around the shutdown but, in retrospect, clearly began to be uneasy over how dug-in over budget/deficit issues his own White House was. And it was Bill Clinton, acting on his own, who moved his administration toward a balanced budget as a goal, toward the political center, and toward a huge victory in 1996.

Is something similar happening now?

The circumstances are obviously not exactly the same today. President Obama has won his second term and is now trying to establish the basis for a successful second term and a legacy for the ages.

Just a few weeks ago, the second-term strategy, clearly signaled by the White House, was to run against the Republican House and focus almost completely on turning the House in the 2014 elections. Not that anyone asked, but I thought this was a terrible strategy. (And no, the Truman 1948 "Do-Nothing Congress" campaign is not even remotely an analogue.) Winning the House in 2014 is an uphill fight with the odds very much against the president. If you as the president try and then lose, you can be certain that you will get nothing in your last two years -- because you invested your first two in depicting your political opponents as the nation's enemies. If you try and actually win, you won't win much because your power ebbs so rapidly in those last two years. All those House seats you won will be filled by moderates who are looking to a future when you won't be there.

I saw this as the common problem of poker players who don't understand the central issue of money odds versus card odds. It's okay to draw to inside straights if the pot is giving you money odds that are more in your favor than the card odds are against you. Which is to say low-probability strategies are fine if you really know the odds and the payoff is big enough. The problem in this specific case is that the odds are worse and the payoff for success less than the enthusiasts believe.

But suddenly we're in the middle of a charm fest, filled with dinners and meetings and discussions, all about the budget, that were never anticipated. What happened? Reality happened.

I think there is at least a chance that President Obama noticed developments out there in the real world, saw that his own White House was dug in on a low probability/low return strategy and unlikely to change, and moved on his own.

What, possibly, did the president see?

The end-of-the-year tax increases on upper-income families did not lead to the uprising Republicans expected. But they also did not spark the public expressions of devotion that the White House wanted.

Then sequestration happened, which no one expected, and it was a political non-event. The public did not turn against Republicans because of the budget cuts. But it also became obvious to everyone that sequestration makes all of government a bit worse, and is more than anything else a sign of an utter absence of political leadership or comity.

Then the picture of the economy became a bit clearer. Here's my view: enjoy this nice employment bump we've had and the decent first quarter (which is basically over), because it's the last of the good news. The rest of the year will probably be pretty slow, and the sequester will probably cost us about 500,000 jobs, mostly in the private sector. If you're President Obama, you know one thing for certain: any chance you have of building a great second-term legacy will be sunk if the economy stays mediocre and you're spending your time entrenched in the budget wars.

Finally, the polls began to tell a story. In the most recent Washington Post - ABC News poll, President Obama's approval ratings have dropped 5 points to about 50 percent since his reelection. And the 18-point advantage the president had over the Congress regarding whom the public trusted more to handle the economy has fallen to 4 points. 50 percent of independents now have a negative view of the president's performance compared to 44 percent with a positive view. Since the end of World War II, only two second-term presidents, Obama and George W. Bush, have had approval ratings this low this early. (This is not good company.)

Meanwhile, of course, the ongoing public debate involves all of the normal agita. Representative Paul Ryan and the Republican House have put out a House budget that progressives hate. And Senator Patty Murray and the Senate Democrats have offered a counter-budget that conservatives hate. The two, of course, have nothing to do with each other, and cannot possibly be used as the basis for a true compromise or "deal." I think they are like the cans of sardines in the joke: they're there for trading, not eating. Judging by the mail I keep getting telling me breathlessly there is a desperate need for me to give money to save us from Paul Ryan (I'd bet the conservative side is raising money to save us from Patty Murray), I sometimes suspect that the left and right got together and agreed to put out two undoable budgets as organizing and fundraising mechanisms. Thankfully, we really do not have to spend a dime to defend ourselves against either Ryan or Murray. Both of their efforts are basically sideshows.

What I hope is happening -- and a few friends in various places think is happening -- is that both sides are looking at all this and concluding they can't be at all confident they have winning hands, and maybe it's better to see if there's a deal to be had. It will be hard to do anything else of real importance until this issue is settled; it will just sit there offering opportunities for completely unproductive fights several times every year. President Obama has a much lower chance of building a real legacy unless the issue is settled. And the hell of it is that if you decide to solve the problem over a decade, it actually isn't that hard.

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Bo Cutter is formerly a managing partner of Warburg Pincus, a major global private equity firm. Recently, he served as the leader of President Obama’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) transition team. He has also served in senior roles in the White Houses of two Democratic Presidents.

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