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Monday, May 12, 2008

"McCain's Economist Supporters vs. Facts"

Jonah Gelbach is puzzled by "prominent, right-leaning economists" who have endorsed John McCain's economic proposals:

McCain's Economist Supporters vs. Facts, by Jonah Gelbach: Over at MarginalRevolution, Tyler Cowen has posted the text of an email he received recently. It seems a number of prominent, right-leaning economists have endorsed John McCain's stated economic proposals. The list includes many of the usuals (e.g., Becker, Hassett, McCain chief economic adviser Doug Holtz-Eakin, Taylor, Harvey Rosen, Meltzer, etc.); the list is chock full of prominent economists who have earned their academic reputations. Here's the text that Cowen excerpted in his main post (the rest of the letter is posted in his comments section):

We enthusiastically support John McCain's economic plan. It is a comprehensive, pro-growth, reform agenda. The reform focuses on the real economic problems Americans face today and will face in the future. And it builds on the core economic principles that have made America great.

His plan would control government spending by vetoing every bill with earmarks, implementing a constitutionally valid line-item veto, pausing non-military discretionary government spending programs for one year to stop their explosive growth and place accountability on federal government agencies.

I've previously discussed the enormous increase in deficits that would be caused by McCain's tax proposals, as scored by Len Burman and Greg Leiserson of the Tax Policy Center. So let me focus on the second paragraph above, which is uniformly contradicted by both facts and experience:

  1. His plan would control government spending by vetoing every bill with earmarks, Well, this one has already been repudiated by....John McCain's chief economic adviser, Doug Holtz-Eakin. I've already posted on this issue:
    • McCain has already had to change his "definition" of those nasty earmarks he'll eliminate (somehow, without a line-item veto). According to this story by the Politico's Ben Smith, Holtz-Eakin initially claimed that there were $100 billion in earmarks in the current budget... After a former senior Democratic staffer, Scott Lilly, pointed out that many of these earmarks included stuff McCain supports, like money for Israel, Egypt and U.S. military construction, Holtz-Eakin stated that in fact the real amount of money associated with earmarks ... was only $16-18 billion.
  2. implementing a constitutionally valid line-item veto... Clearly, this one is there to allow them to respond to criticisms ... based on the fact that under current law, the President has no capacity to pick and choose which items to fund. President McCain will have to sign or veto actual statutes, not their components. Back in the first Clinton Administration, Congress enacted and President Clinton signed the Line Item Veto Act (LIVA) to change all this. Lawsuits ensued... In Clinton v. City of New York, the Court struck down LIVA as a violation of the Constitution's Presentment clause. ... I am not a constitutional lawyer, but given my understanding of the Court's language in Justice Stevens's opinion for the Court, I find it very difficult to imagine that McCain and his lawyers (much less his economists) will be capable of "implementing a constitutionally valid line-item veto".
  3. pausing non-military discretionary government spending programs for one year to stop their explosive growth... Gee, I hardly know where to begin on this one. First off, a one-year pause would do nothing to stop "explosive growth". It would reduce the level of spending, to be sure, but then that "explosive growth" would go right on happening. This is a mathematical principle of which each of the economist-letter's signatories no doubt is aware.

    That said, this post over at CBPP is worth a look [Update: I see that Mark Thoma posted much of the CBPP post, which I should have noted was written by Richard Kogan, back in March]. It shows the following:

    1. Domestic discretionary spending fell from 18.4% of all non-interest federal spending in 2001 to (an estimated) 14.7% in 2008. By comparison, defense and security spending (in which the CBPP includes DHS and Veterans' spending) rose from 21.7% to 29.2%.
    2. The real, i.e., inflation-adjusted, growth rate of domestic discretionary spending over this period was 1.3%. That's hardly an "explosive growth" path; by comparison, defense/security increased 9.1%, while SS/Medicare/Medicaid increased 3.8%.
    3. As a share of GDP, domestic discretionary spending actually fell, from 3.1% to 2.8%. That means that this category of spending has been becoming less, not more, burdensome. Defense/security rose from 3.6% to 5.6% of GDP over this period, while SS/M/M rose from 7.7% to 8.4%.

    I am frankly baffled as to what my colleagues on the right are talking about when they discuss "explosive growth" in "nonmilitary discretionary government spending". The real money on the spending side is in the military and entitlement categories. ...

    It is inconceivable that McCain will cut military spending substantially... Moreover, even after we "win" or leave Iraq, one legacy of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will be substantial future expenditures to care for wounded and disabled Veterans.

    Perhaps McCain does intend to broadly slash future entitlement spending; the economists' letter refers to "plans to address entitlement programs--especially Social Security, Medicare and other government health care programs". But apart from the Part D income-testing he has proposed, neither McCain nor these economists have said how or how much he will "address" entitlement programs. No one covering this race should grant a pass either to McCain or to his economist fans concerning this issue. ...

  4. That leaves "place accountability on federal government agencies." Frankly, I have no idea what this means, or how it would save any money at all, much less the hundreds of billions of dollars needed to make up for McCain's extension of the Bush tax cuts.

Politics is tough arena for economists. Few of us, myself included, have ever seen a candidate whose policies all comport with our professional judgments, much less our personal preferences. I certainly won't claim that I agree with absolutely every economic policy proposal that Obama has made, and I dislike gratuitous accusations of either incompetence or dishonesty.

But it is difficult for me to believe that people who promote John McCain's economic policies on the basis of the second paragraph of the letter above can simultaneously be aware of the facts and providing honest assessments. Perhaps I am wrong. I hope so.

    Posted by on Monday, May 12, 2008 at 12:24 AM in Economics, Politics | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (17)


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