Sunday, November 11, 2007

Reagan Was Worse

In Vanity Fair, Joe Stiglitz makes the argument that, in terms of economic policy, George W. Bush is the worst president ever. In an essay titled "The Economic Consequences of Mr. Bush,"* he begins:
When we look back someday at the catastrophe that was the Bush administration, we will think of many things: the tragedy of the Iraq war, the shame of Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib, the erosion of civil liberties. The damage done to the American economy does not make front-page headlines every day, but the repercussions will be felt beyond the lifetime of anyone reading this page.

I can hear an irritated counterthrust already. The president has not driven the United States into a recession during his almost seven years in office. Unemployment stands at a respectable 4.6 percent. Well, fine. But the other side of the ledger groans with distress: a tax code that has become hideously biased in favor of the rich; a national debt that will probably have grown 70 percent by the time this president leaves Washington....

Up to now, the conventional wisdom has been that Herbert Hoover, whose policies aggravated the Great Depression, is the odds-on claimant for the mantle “worst president” when it comes to stewardship of the American economy. Once Franklin Roosevelt assumed office and reversed Hoover’s policies, the country began to recover. The economic effects of Bush’s presidency are more insidious than those of Hoover, harder to reverse, and likely to be longer-lasting. There is no threat of America’s being displaced from its position as the world’s richest economy. But our grandchildren will still be living with, and struggling with, the economic consequences of Mr. Bush.

Stiglitz makes a number of strong critiques Bush's stewardship (or lack thereof), but his historical comparison neglects a much more consequential Presidency, that of Ronald Reagan. There are some definite parallels between the two administrations - fiscal policies centered around "supply side" tax cuts which primarily benefited people with high incomes, a deteriorating fiscal situation (i.e. growing deficits) and low priority on traditional government functions (e.g. investment in infrastructure and research).

The parallels should not be taken too far - Reagan inherited an economy reeling from the "stagflation" of the 1970's, with a federal reserve determined to put an end to inflation, notwithstanding the "short run" consequences (arguably the Reagan fiscal policies forced the Volcker Fed to slam the monetary brakes even harder, worsening the recession). When Bush took office, unemployment and inflation were low, and the federal budget was in a rare state of surplus. Because of the differing circumstances, and because much is beyond the influence of the President, it would indeed be unfair to compare the two on a cyclical measures like unemployment (though it should be noted that the 1982 recession was much, much worse than 2001 - the unemployment rate reached 10.8% in 1982).

Although macro data miss many important nuances, here are some data on 3 issues raised in Stiglitz's critique: (i) tax code bias, (ii) the deficit and investment and (iii) fiscal priorities:

Distribution of the Tax Burden: From the CBO's data on effective federal tax rates, here are the effective tax rates on the highest-income 1%, from 1979 through 2004 (the last year available):

Although the Bush years have seen a dip in the tax burden on the richest, its much smaller than the plunge in the early 1980's (partly reversed by the tax reform act of 1986). Another way to look at the distribution of the tax burden is the ratio of the effective tax rate on the top 1% divided by the effective rate faced by the middle 20% of the income distribution:

Here again, the Reagan administration is where the big shift occurs. In 2000-03, while the richest received far larger tax cuts in terms of the dollar amount, the percentage change was actually bigger for middle-class households, so, by this measure, the relative burden on the rich actually rose.

The Federal Deficit and Investment: Relative to the size of GDP, the federal deficits of the 1980's were much bigger than those of recent years. According to the CBO's historical budget data, the federal deficit peaked at 6% of GDP in 1983 during the Reagan administration, and at 3.4% of GDP in 2004 (to be fair, there was a 2.7% deficit already in 1980, and a surplus of 2.4% in 2000, so the Bush administration saw a bigger swing in the fiscal position). One reason to worry about the deficit is if the indebtedness of the federal government is exploding relative to the size of the economy:

While the Bush administration has reversed the positive trend of the Clinton years, relative to GDP our federal debt has basically leveled off, but it has not resumed the explosive path of the 1980s (I should note this is publicly-held debt, and does not include the debt owed to the social security trust fund).

Another reason to fret about the deficit is that it may be bad for investment ("crowding out"), leading to a smaller capital stock and lower output in the long run. According to the BEA, here's nonresidential fixed investment as a % of GDP (1979-2006):

The Reagan and Bush eras have both seen sharp decreases in investment - the Bush-era decrease is sharper, but there are signs of a bit of a recovery already, while the Reagan trend only reversed after the Clinton administration took office (and raised taxes).

Fiscal Priorities: Several of Stiglitz's points relate to neglect of domestic priorities, like education, research and infrastructure. These all fall under the heading "domestic discretionary outlays" in the federal budget numbers. Lots of other things also show up in this category, so this is a very blunt measure, and doesn't tell us anything about how well the money is being spent. Nonetheless, the data are indicative a sharp fall in the early 1980's, with only modest changes since:

Although the Reagan administration did not really reduce the size of government, it did induce a significant reallocation, spending a larger share on the military and interest payments, and less on discretionary programs.

Ok, "worse" is very much a normative term, and whether and to what extent one views these shifts negatively is a matter subjective judgment. But the facts indicate that, compared to the Bush administration, the Reagan era saw bigger changes in the distribution of the tax burden, the growth rate of the national debt and in federal spending priorities.

*The title of his article is an allusion to Keynes, who penned "The Economic Consequences of Mr. Churchill," in criticism of the British government's decision to return the pound to its pre-WWI value of $4.86 (Churchill was Chancellor of the Exchequer, which is British for "finance minister"). Keynes was referencing his own famous critique of the Versailles treaty ending WWI, "The Economic Consequences of the Peace."

PS Stiglitz's article came to my attention via the invaluable Economist's View.

Update: Marginal Revolution's Tyler Cowen sees some inconsistencies in Stiglitz's argument.

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