Presidents and the Economy

While early opinion polls show a number of possible Democratic candidates beating Donald Trump in the 2020 election, economic models of presidential elections are telling a different story. Some of the most reputable economic models show Trump winning reelection handily on the strength of strong economic fundamentals. Barring an unlikely recession, Trump will undoubtedly make his management of the economy the centerpiece of his reelection campaign.

Most voters seem to think that economic conditions are determined by presidential policies and attribute the strength or weakness of the economy to who’s in the White House. Indeed, questions about management of the economy are staples of political opinion polls. Economists, in contrast, see presidential policies as having relatively little effect on cyclical economic conditions, although they are more prone to believing that sound economic policies can have long-term effects that may manifest long after a president has left office.

Yet, it would be too sweeping to argue that presidents have no short-term economic influence. The effects of tax and budget policies can sometimes have short-term effects (as well as long-term effects that may be hidden from voters), and some regulatory policies may as well. But the biggest economic influence presidents can have usually comes at times of crisis, when the road forks and the consequences of wise or foolish decisions may be fateful. Franklin Roosevelt’s management of the 1930s economic crisis comes immediately to mind. Abraham Lincoln, too, should get more credit for his management of the economic stresses of the Civil War and for his tax and banking innovations. As I will argue, Barack Obama also belongs in that small club of great economic presidents for his handling of the financial crisis and the deep recession he inherited.

Some presidents deserve more criticism for their handling of the economy–Andrew Jackson, for instance–but that is a bit too remote from current concerns. This post will focus on how our past three presidents have affected economic performance, and on how the public ultimately perceived their stewardship.

George W. Bush

The younger Bush inherited from Bill Clinton a federal budget surplus and a minor recession, and he used the latter to justify eliminating the former. That is, he campaigned on and fully intended to give large tax cuts to the wealthy under the already-discredited Supply Side doctrine, but when it became evident that the economy was slipping into recession early in his presidency, he repositioned his tax cuts as counter-cyclical fiscal stimulus. That rationale was enough to give 12 Democratic senators cover to vote for the bill, which passed 58-33 in an evenly divided senate.

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Green Resolution

The “Green New Deal” resolution introduced last week by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Senator Edward Markey (D-MA) was a good idea. The Democrats needed to reestablish climate action as a governmental concern and inject it into the 2020 election. With her high visibility, appeal to young voters, and ability to get under the skin of conservatives, AOC could have been an ideal messenger. Like a football team throwing a bomb to its flashy rookie receiver on the first down of the first game, if executed successfully it could have rattled defenses throughout the season. Unfortunately, the pass was dropped and the Dems might now find themselves wishing they had called a more conventional play.

Sticking with the football analogy just a bit, Nancy Pelosi’s Democrats have been steadily grinding out the yardage but run the risk of being sucked into playing Trump’s game. Since possession of the House shifted to the Democrats, the political agenda and news has been entirely dominated by Trump’s boorish calls for his idiotic wall and his reckless government shutdown. Yes, Pelosi has outmaneuvered him at every step, but the Dems are not going to take back the Senate and White House in 2020 just by playing good defense. Meanwhile, their investigative committees have tread cautiously, partly for fear of interfering with the secretive Mueller investigation and partly for fear of appearing mere hecklers. With each passing week the presidential primary roster expands and, especially if Bernie Sanders enters the race, the risk grows that Medicare-for-All crowds out all other progressive issues. So the idea of AOC streaking down the sideline for a big gain on climate change made some sense.

One reason the play didn’t work as planned was that it wasn’t actually planned. Pelosi was forced to distance herself from it and did so in terms that were a little too dismissive for my taste. But who knows what really went on? Pelosi claimed that she hadn’t even seen the resolution before AOC’s press conference. If true, that’s a serious discourtesy. How is the Speaker supposed to support a resolution she hasn’t seen or apparently had any input into?

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Austin Debates Density

One of the most interesting urban planning debates going on in the country right now is happening in Austin, Texas. In 2012, the Austin City Council adopted the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan, a three-year effort that established priorities for the city’s growth and development for the next 30 years. Among the priority actions the plan identified were to invest in a compact and connected Austin, to grow and invest in the creative economy, and to develop and maintain household affordability. The next step in implementing the plan is to revise and modernize its zoning regulations. The city is now in the midst of that process, which it has dubbed CodeNEXT.

Austin, of course, is one of the fastest growing cities in the U.S.  From 2000 to 2017 the city’s population increased from 657,000 to 950,000, an annual rate of growth of 2.2%. It’s also gained a reputation as a fun place to live and has become a migration magnet for millennials; a Brookings Institution study found that Austin has the second-highest proportion of millennials in its population (27.2%) of the top 100 metro areas. With about 48% of its adult population holding a bachelor’s degree or higher, it also ranks among the nation’s most educated cities, comparable to Boston and Minneapolis.

Not surprisingly, Austin’s economic prosperity has entailed some costs. In particular, during this century it has had one of the fastest rates of housing price increase in the country. According to the Freddie Mac House Price Index, home prices in Austin have increased at about a 5.0% average annual rate since 2000, which is on a par with the Fresno, Salt Lake City and Washington D.C. metro areas. Since much of the city and the surrounding areas are zoned for single-family homes, growth has mostly taken the form of low-density sprawl. The developed land area of the metro area increased from just 53 square miles in 1970 to 372 square miles in 2016.

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Transparency in Trumpland

A little juxaposition of news items reveals how the Trump administration views transparency in government.

First comes Scott Pruitt’s announcement that EPA will seek to implement a regulation that will require all EPA rulemaking to be based only on scientific evidence for which the underlying data is publicly available. That will prevent the EPA from formulating regulations based on medical data that is confidential.

According to Pruitt, “The science that we use is going to be transparent, it’s going to be reproducible.” Junk science purveyor and member of Trump’s transition team Stephen J. Milloy added, “This will really open up EPA science to public scrutiny.”

Meanwhile, over at the American Bankers Association conference, Mick Mulvaney, interim director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, announced that the CFPB would cut public access to the bureau’s database of consumer complaints.  Mulvaney explained: “I don’t see anything in here that says I have to run a Yelp for financial services sponsored by the federal government.”

Evidently, transparency is good when it hinders regulations to protect the public health, but bad when it helps to protect consumers.

Making Deficits Great Again

After 2010, when Republicans gained control of the House of Representatives and later the Senate, the U.S. essentially pursued a policy of fiscal austerity.  President Obama sought to roll back the Bush-era tax cuts for wealthy households and was partially successful during the “fiscal cliff” standoff at the end of 2012. Meanwhile, the Republican Congress steadfastly refused to allow Obama to stimulate the economy with federal spending.  As a result, total federal budget outlays (including Social Security) grew at only a 1.9% annual rate from 2010 to 2016, far slower than the 6.5% annual rate of increase during the Bush years.

That American-style austerity was an under-appreciated contributor to the slow recovery from the Great Recession. However, the budget deficits of the U.S. government fell in both absolute dollars and as a percentage of GDP during most of Obama’s tenure, in 2014 and 2015 even reaching a level that produced stability in the ratio of overall debt to GDP. There was some slippage in the deficit at the end of Obama’s tenure, primarily because of a lapse in the economic growth rate in 2016. Responsible fiscal management would have suggested an attempt by Obama’s successor to get the deficit back to parity with the rate of economic growth, which would have required shaving it by about one-third, or by $250 billion.

Of course, after the Republicans held on to both houses of Congress in 2016 and unexpectedly found themselves with a Republican President to work with, there was no reasonable prospect that stabilization of the debt-to-GDP ratio would be made a policy priority. It is undeniable that cutting taxes, regardless of the fiscal implications, is the core policy goal of the modern Republican Party. Two intertwined factors are behind that inversion of Republican political philosophy. First is the widespread acceptance among conservatives of the “starve the beast” strategy for reducing the size of government.  The second was the creation of a much more cohesive, purposeful and sophisticated political apparatus by conservative mega-donors to the Republican Party, who out of ideological conviction and personal self-interest orchestrate anti-tax pressure and insist that their  elected dependents deliver. The two previous times Republicans took over the White House (Reagan and George W. Bush) they immediately enacted huge tax cuts and the deficits swelled. There was never any chance that, in the unlikely event Trump was actually elected, this time would be any different.

So the tax reductions Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan engineered in December were entirely out of the Republican playbook and should have been fully priced in to any economist’s or investor’s forecasts.  If there was anything surprising about the tax changes, it was the gratuitous and vindictive targeting of voters in high-cost, coastal Democratic strongholds (by imposing new limits on the mortgage tax deduction and the state and local tax deduction), an unprecedented use of the federal tax code to punish political opponents.

The McConnell-Ryan tax cuts will raise the cumulative federal deficit by $1.268 trillion over 10 years, according to Tax Policy Center estimates.  That represents a 14.8% increase over the CBO’s June 2017 baseline estimates. 

Then in early February things took an unexpected turn. Instead of pressing for more spending stringency, a smiley McConnell suddenly agreed to a two-year budget deal with Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer that called for large increases in both defense and non-defense discretionary spending. The deal, subsequently approved by Congress and signed by the President, is expected to add another $419 billion to the cumulative deficits through 2027.

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The Perils of Private Infrastructure

It is becoming increasingly obvious that the Trump Administration is incapable of pursuing any coherent, sustained legislative strategy. The Administration was unable to play any useful role in fashioning a viable “repeal and replace” health care bill, and it seems equally clueless on the other big agenda item, tax reform. Seeing the Republican legislative machine stall out on those two priority items does not auger well for a third Trump initiative that was once thought to hold some bipartisan appeal: infrastructure spending. That is probably just as well, since any wide-ranging infrastructure bill coming from this Administration and Republican congress would likely be an ideological monstrosity that would entice little Democratic support.

An infrastructure program is, however, more suitable to a piecemeal approach than is health care or tax reform, so it is likely that some sort of  new infrastructure policy emerges over the next eighteen months. Trump’s first budget programmed $200 billion over ten years to implement his infrastructure program (while cutting the Department of Transportation’s budget for the coming year by 13 percent). A fact sheet outlined some of the principles that will guide infrastructure policy.

The Trump infrastructure program will invariably seek to maximize the private-sector role, although the Administration’s fact sheet only hints at that direction with proposals such as removing the cap on private activity bonds. Administration officials are also touting the concept of “asset recycling,” whereby government agencies sell existing public infrastructure to private operators and use the proceeds to invest in new infrastructure projects.

The notion of private firms providing public infrastructure is polarizing, with conservatives portraying public agencies as inherently corrupt and inefficient and the left portraying private operators as inevitably predatory. In reality, the economic infrastructure of the United States has always been a patchwork of private and public operations and whatever prevails in a particular region tends to be taken by its residents as the natural state of affairs. Most passenger rail transportation, for example, was originally developed by private firms but virtually all of it was eventually taken over by government entities. Similarly for water supply systems, although about one-quarter of the U.S. population is still served by private water. Conversely, about 70 percent of American households buy their electricity from private, investor-owned firms. Roads and highways, and commercial airports, have always been developed and operated primarily by governments.

In recent years governments have explored privatizing, or re-privatizing, some infrastructure or contracting with private firms to operate it. Encouraging privatization appears to be a key part of the Republican infrastructure agenda, and that will be controversial enough. Even more problematic, though, will be efforts to incentivize the private creation of new economic infrastructure. In that regard the development of Florida’s long-distance passenger rail network is instructive, highlighting both the opportunities and perils of relying on private firms to develop new infrastructure.

The Florida High Speed Rail Project

Efforts to reestablish intercity passenger rail links in Florida have a  checkered history reaching back decades. In 2000, Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment mandating the establishment of a high-speed intercity rail system. In order to implement that mandate, the Florida legislature established the Florida High Speed Rail Authority (HSRA) in 2001. However, Florida Governor Jeb Bush was opposed to the idea of a constitutional mandate for transportation infrastructure and was skeptical of the endeavor’s cost. He managed to get the rail mandate repealed in 2004, although the HRSA remained in existence and oversaw the completion in 2005 of an EIS for the Tampa-Orlando segment of a proposed system that was envisioned to eventually run from Tampa to Miami.

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The Los Angeles Homeless Housing Bond

In few cities has homelessness been as contentious an issue as in Los Angeles. The residents of the city have long displayed a live-and-let-live attitude toward the homeless, and in one recent survey of Los Angeles County residents homelessness was cited as the second-most important problem facing the county. Yet, the city has often resorted to a strong-arm law enforcement approach to the street homeless; in 2009 two national advocacy groups anointed it the “meanest” city in the country for its criminalization of homelessness.

In November, Angelenos will have an opportunitunity to express which side of the street they are on, as a referendum authorizing the city to issue $1.2 billion in general obligation bonds to provide supported housing for the homeless will be on the ballot.

Los Angeles has by far the largest population of street homeless in the country.  According to the city’s estimates complying with HUD’s Point in Time enumeration, there were 17,687 unsheltered homeless people residing on the city’s streets in 2015. That compares to 3,200 in New York, 2,000 in Chicago and 500 in Washington DC.  Even allowing for errors in the count, the scale of the problem is severe.  With about 4.5 street homeless per 1,000 housed residents, Los Angeles is second only to San Francisco in terms of the intensity of the problem.

In 2002, under the direction of Police Chief William Bratton, the city began enforcing, especially in the “Skid Row” district near downtown, a 1968 ordinance that prohibited sleeping in or upon a street, sidewalk or public way.  The ACLU of Southern California filed suit on behalf of six homeless individuals, but a district court upheld the city’s sleeping ban. However, in Jones v. The City of Los Angeles the following year, a panel of Ninth Circuit judges reversed the district court’s ruling, finding that the plaintiff’s may have become homeless involuntarily and their choice to sleep on the street was “involuntary and inseparable from their status.”

In 2014, a federal appeals court also struck down a Los Angeles law prohibiting people from living in vehicles, and in 2016 the city was ordered to stop seizing and destroying the property of homeless people left unattended on the street.

In the Jones decision the appeals court ruled that the city could not enforce the prohibition on sleeping on public sidewalks as long as the number of homeless persons exceeded the number of available shelter beds.  At that time, and still, the city has nowhere near the number of shelter beds necessary to accommodate its homeless population, although the shelters that it does provide are rarely used to capacity.

In 2007, the City and the ACLU reached a settlement agreement stemming from the Jones suit, whereby the city pledged not to enforce the sleeping ban until at least 1,250 units of additional permanent supported housing are constructed for current or formerly chronic homeless persons. Although the city has supported construction of some excellent facilities, nearly 10 years later the City has not completed building all of the promised units and the exact count is a matter of dispute.

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