Republican politicians and business groups keep telling us that business investment and hiring is being held back by uncertainty over future regulations and taxation. For instance, Maine Senator Susan Collins said in introducing her bill to put a moratorium on all new regulations:
“Businesses, our nation’s job creators and the engine of any lasting economic growth, have been saying for some time that the lack of jobs is largely due to a climate of uncertainty, most notably the uncertainty and cost created by new Federal regulations.”
Her view has been repeated by others – like House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and the Chamber of Commerce. This story is also being told by some of the dissenters on the Federal Reserve Board’s Federal Open Market Committee, as Mike Konczal recently reported. Nobel Laureate Robert Lucas just made this argument in a Wall Street Journal interview, but he at least had the decency to note, “I have plenty of suspicions but little evidence.”
In a recently released paper, I present evidence that if you examine what employers are actually doing in terms of hiring and investment, this story about regulatory (or tax) uncertainty driving current job trends does not hold up. Private sector job growth has been weak in each of the last three recoveries and the current recovery’s private job growth matches up with the early 1990s recovery and is far better than that of the 2001 recovery. Investment in equipment and software has been stronger in this recovery than in the prior two recoveries. Last, weekly work hours are still substantially below those prior to the recession: uncertainty about future regulations cannot explain why employers do not increase work hours of currently employed workers to meet current demand for goods and services. A reasonable explanation for this work hours puzzle is that those sales opportunities do not actually exist, i.e., demand is lacking.
If you also examine what employers and their economists are saying in private surveys, you find that what businesses actually identify as their challenges does not fit this story either. In other words, what the heavily politicized trade associations in Washington (like the Chamber) are saying does not correspond to the real challenges facing both large and small businesses.
The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), which describes itself as “the leading small business association representing small and independent businesses,” does a regular survey of small businesses. One question that has been asked since 1973 is, “What is the single most important problem your business faces?” The answer choices are inflation, taxes, government regulation, poor sales, quality of labor, interest costs, health insurance costs, the cost of labor, and other matters. Interestingly, the single largest response is “poor sales,” the choice of 30 percent of respondents since President Obama was sworn in (averaging the 10 quarters between early 2009 and Spring 2011). That seems to accord with slack demand as the key concern of small businesses.
However, I was on a radio panel discussion with an economist from the Heritage Foundation who acknowledged this fact, but then highlighted that taxes and regulation were the next highest concerns identified in the NFIB surveys—evidence, he claimed, that tax and regulatory uncertainty were also preeminent. And, he correctly cited the data. In the Obama years, some 13.9 percent of small businesses identified government regulation and another 20.8 percent identified taxes as their primary problem, the leading answers after “poor sales.” I was fortunate enough to obtain the entire historical series (back to the fourth quarter of 1973) on this question from the NFIB so I could put this in historical perspective, constructing the averages for each presidential term as shown in the figure below:
It turns out that small businesses have always complained about regulation and taxes and not especially so under Obama. For instance, the share concerned about regulation under Obama (13.9 percent) is not substantially higher than under George W. Bush (9.9 percent and 11.0 percent) or Ronald Reagan’s second term (12.8 percent). There is also less concern about regulation under Obama than under Bill Clinton or George H.W. Bush. Recall also that there was rapid employment growth in the second Clinton term, so high concerns about regulation (which rose steadily from Reagan’s first term to their highest level in Clinton’s first term) are not necessarily associated with poor employment growth.
There’s a similar story on taxes. Sure, there are 20.8 percent of respondents on average in the Obama years who see taxes as the primary problem facing their business. Yet, that intensity of concern about taxes is not all that different than under George W. Bush and is less than the presidential terms from the first Reagan term through Clinton’s second term. It is hard to find a recent spike in concern about regulations or taxes that supports a story of escalating uncertainty or fears of regulations holding back the economy.