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Saturday, January 10, 2015

Policy Uncertainty

This is silly (it's from a discussion of the costs of policy uncertainty from the Becker Friedman Institute):

If the Affordable Care Act has taught us anything, it’s this: A party in power can push through a major policy initiative in the teeth of strong political opposition, but it probably shouldn’t. A better strategy is to secure some support across the political aisle, even at the cost of compromise. Persistent attacks on the Affordable Care Act continue to generate uncertainty about its political durability and raise doubts about what the healthcare delivery landscape will look like in the U.S. for many years to come.

That simply wasn't a choice. Securing support across the political aisle was not an option. No amount of compromise would have mattered. Would the millions who now have health insurance, those who now have the option to change jobs without losing insurance, people with pre-existing conditions, etc., etc. be better off if the law had not passed? Because that was the choice Democrats faced, a highly imperfect bill that would do quite a bit of good even with its imperfections, or no bill at all. Bipartisan support for policy is surely a worthy goal, and sometimes a bit of compromise can bring it about. But other times there is no choice except to ram through legislation that one side believes has the potential to do considerable good.

Interesting that the authors didn't pick tax cuts for the wealthy as their example of policy uncertainty. The future prospects for this policy were just as uncertain under Obama, the policy had a high degree of opposition from the other side of the political aisle, and the tax cuts did far less good than the ACA beyond reducing the tax payments for a group of wealthy individuals who didn't need the help. And unlike the ACA and its documented success (if you look past Fox News), the promised trickle down and economic growth miracle never materialized. If we are looking for a case where the harm from policy uncertainty exceeds the benefits of the policy, this is a much better candidate than the ACA.

I do like some of their other recommendations though, e.g. to use automatic stabilizers:

Automatic stabilizers—unemployment insurance spending that goes up when employment falls, for example—offer some advantages over discretionary measures. The fiscal equivalent of an “advance directive,” they kick-in quickly in real time as economic fundamentals change. They don’t need to wait for a legislative act. And while every distribution of federal dollars involves some political infighting, a policy response developed in advance of actual need is more likely to be evaluated primarily on its economic rather than political merits. Finally, those bearing the brunt of the shock—wage earners and  businesses—aren’t left wondering when or if some help is on the way.

And:

Take some of the politicking out of policymaking. A Congress that indiscriminately exercises its right to debate, amend, and delay can produce excessive tug-of-war policymaking that comes with the cost of heightened uncertainty. Asking Congress to skip the dickering and bind itself to a simple up or down vote, as it already does with military base closures and fast-track trade authority, could minimize the drama—and cost—of indecision.

Though taking the politicking out of policymaking is probably wishful thinking, and it's hard to imagine Republicans going along with any expansion of automatic stabilizers (their proposals are likely to run in the other direction, reducing support for programs such as food stamps).

So long as we have political parties with differing ideological views, there will always be policy uncertainty. One side will always want to undo what the other puts into place. They will rarely agree, and a call for bipartisan support before anything can be done is a call to do nothing. I don't think that's the best approach.

But so long as we are engaged in wishful thinking, let me add to the list. What I'd add is more honesty in evaluating programs after they are put into place. More attention and responsiveness to the empirical evidence. If tax cuts don't trickle down or create growth, if austerity actually makes things worse, if fiscal policy multipliers are non-zero in deep recessions when we are stuck at the zero bound, if the ACA is working to provide health services to millions of people who dearly needed such help, etc., etc., then accept the evidence and adjust policy accordingly. I suppose it's too much to expect politicians to do this, but can we at least get economists to treat these issues honestly (and maybe the media would do better as a consequence)? I'd settle for that.

    Posted by on Saturday, January 10, 2015 at 10:45 AM in Economics, Policy, Politics | Permalink  Comments (6)


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