President Bush is leaving office amid the worst recession in 5 years, and naturally his economic policies are getting the blame. But before we move on to the era of Obamanomics, it's important to understand what really happened during the Bush years -- not least so we don't repeat the same mistakes.
Mr. Bush has tried to explain events with one of his populist aphorisms: "Wall Street got drunk and we got a hangover." The remark is ruefully amusing and has an element of truth. But it also reveals how little the President comprehends about the source of his Administration's economic undoing. To extend his metaphor, Who does Mr. Bush think was serving the liquor?
Democrats like to claim the 1990s were a golden age while the Bush years have been disastrous. But as the nearby chart shows, Mr. Bush inherited a recession. The dot-com bubble had burst in 2000, and the economy was sinking even before the shock of 9/11, the corporate scandals and Sarbanes-Oxley. Mr. Bush's original tax-cut proposal was designed in part as insurance against such a downturn.
However, to win over Senate Democrats, Mr. Bush both phased in the tax rate reductions and settled for politically popular but economically feckless tax rebate checks. Those checks provided a short-term lift to consumer spending but no real boost to risk-taking or business investment, which was still recovering from the tech implosion. By late 2002, the economy was struggling again -- which is when Mr. Bush proposed his second round of tax cuts.
This time the tax rate reductions were immediate, and they included cuts in capital gains and dividends designed to spur business incentives. As the tax cuts became law in late May 2003, the recovery began in earnest. Growth averaged nearly 4% over the next three years, the jobless rate fell from 6.3% in June 2003 to 4.4% in October 2006, and real wages began to grow despite rising food and energy prices. The 2003 tax cut was the high point of Bush economic policy.
Mr. Bush's spending record is less admirable, especially during his first term. He indulged the majority Republicans on Capitol Hill, refusing to veto overspending and giving in to their demand that the Medicare prescription drug benefit include only modest market reforms. Even those reforms have helped to restrain drug costs, but now Democrats are set to repeal them and the main Bush legacy will be the new taxpayer liabilities.
Nonetheless, the budget deficit did fall mid-decade, as tax revenues soared with the expansion. In fiscal 2007, the deficit hit $161 billion, or an economically trivial 1.2% of
GDP. That seems like a distant memory after the bailout blowout of the last few months, but the point is that the Bush tax cuts aren't responsible for the deficits. Before the recession hit, federal tax revenues had climbed above their postwar average of 18.3% of GDP.
Which brings us back to Mr. Bush's "hangover." While his Administration was handling the fiscal levers, the Federal
Reserve was pushing the monetary accelerator to the floor. In reaction to the dot-com implosion and the collapse in business investment, Alan Greenspan rapidly cut interest rates to spur housing and consumer spending. In June 2003,
even as the tax cuts were passing and the economy took off, he cut the fed funds rate to 1% and kept it there for a year.
His stimulus worked -- far too well. The money boom created a commodity price spike as well as a subsidy for credit across the economy. Economist John Taylor of Stanford has analyzed the magnitude of this monetary mistake in a new paper that assesses government's contribution to the financial panic. The second chart compares the actual fed funds rate this decade with what it would have been had the Fed stayed within the policy lanes of the previous 20 years.
"This extra easy policy was responsible for accelerating the housing boom and thereby ultimately leading to the housing bust," writes Mr. Taylor, who worked in the first-term Bush
Treasury, though not on monetary affairs, and is known for the "Taylor rule" for determining how central banks should adjust interest rates.
By pushing all of this excess credit into the economy, the Fed created a housing and mortgage mania that Wall Street was only too happy to be part of. Yes, many on the Street abandoned their normal risk standards. But they were goaded by an enormous subsidy for debt. Wall Street did get "drunk" but Washington had set up the open bar.
For that matter, most everyone else was also drinking the free booze: from homebuyers who put nothing down for a loan, to a White House that bragged about record home ownership, to the Democrats who promoted and protected Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. (Those two companies helped turbocharge the mania by using a taxpayer subsidy to attract trillions of dollars of foreign capital into U.S. housing.) No one wanted the party to end, though sooner or later it had to.
While the Fed is most to blame, the Administration encouraged the credit excesses. It populated the Fed Board of Governors with Mr. Greenspan's protégés, notably Ben Bernanke and Donald Kohn, who helped to create the mania and even now deny all responsibility. Meantime, Mr. Bush's three Treasury Secretaries knew little about the subject, and if anything were inclined to support easier money and a weaker dollar in the name of reducing the trade deficit. We know because numerous Bush officials sneered at the monetary warnings in these columns going back to 2003.
When the bust finally arrived with a vengeance in 2007, the political timing couldn't have been worse. Mr. Bush tried to rally with one more fiscal "stimulus," but he repeated his
2001 mistake and agreed to another round of tax rebates. They did little good. The Administration might have prevented the worst of the panic had it sought some sort of TARP-like financing for the banking system months or a year earlier than it did last autumn. But neither the Treasury nor the FDIC seemed to appreciate how big the banking system's problems were. Their financial triage was well meaning but came too late and in a frenzy that invited mistakes.
This history is crucial to understand, both for the Democrats who now assume the levers of power and for Republicans who will want to return to power some day. Mr. Bush and his team did many things right after inheriting one bubble. They were ruined by monetary excess that created a second, more
dangerous credit mania. They forgot one of the main lessons of Reaganomics, which is the importance of stable money.
Sunday, January 18, 2009
The Bush Legacy
The Wall Street Journal assesses the Bush Economy, about which the MSM and the Neo-Socialists will lie and misinterpret on their way to complete government control of our economic lives: