Clive, don’t change the subject

Clive Crook blogs on my paper, Regulatory uncertainty: A phony explanation for our jobs problem, and finds it “clever and interesting but not all that persuasive.” He reports that the paper finds “Trends in investment (this recovery, weak as it may be, has been “investment-led” by historical standards), in hiring, and in hours worked all suggested that lack of overall demand is the problem,” and does not dispute any of the conclusions. Crook just thinks I should have written a different paper:

“First, the focus on regulatory uncertainty seemed too narrow. What about other kinds of policy-induced uncertainty? Second, its target–the idea that regulatory uncertainty as opposed to weak demand is the cause of slow growth–is a straw man. Who is denying that weak demand is a factor, or even the larger factor of the two?”

Well, I do think there are a ton of important people denying that there is any demand problem whatsoever, or at least one that can be addressed by policy. How else can there be an essentially uniform view among the Republicans that the initial stimulus had zero effect? How else to explain that the program of each candidate for the Republican presidential nomination has an exclusively ‘supply-side’ approach which basically boils down to fiddling with the structure of taxation? How else to explain the recent contention by the top four Republican leaders in Congress that the Federal Reserve should take no further policy actions to expand demand? It is hard not to notice that conservatives and Republicans are seeking immediate reductions in federal spending, which can only exacerbate any demand-side problem. Perhaps Crook should supply some examples of leading conservative economists and Republican leaders saying there is a demand problem, that it is a ‘larger factor’ than uncertainty, and of the proposals they are advancing to address the demand shortfall.

That my analysis focused on regulatory and tax uncertainty was not arbitrary, of course; this is what conservative economists, business trade associations and Republican politicians are saying is the sole reason for high unemployment, and I offered several (of numerous possible) examples. They do not talk about other types of uncertainty when trying to explain persistent high unemployment and slow job growth. They focus on regulations and taxation because they are claiming that Obama administration policies and proposals are inhibiting job growth. In fact, just last week, House Republicans “dared President Obama and other Democrats to support two bills that would delay two pending Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules, a move they said would have a more immediate effect on jobs than anything Obama has proposed.” I am confused why Crook does not understand that examining the employment and investment impact of tax and regulatory uncertainty is a key question in current policy debates.

Crook suggests a broader uncertainty lens, which to me is changing the topic. He points to a recent paper by Scott Baker, Nicholas Bloom and Steven Davis which attempts to measure uncertainty and finds:

“Index values are high in recent years and show clear jumps associated with the Lehman bankruptcy, the 2010 midterm elections, the Euro crisis and the U.S. debt-ceiling dispute. … Greater policy uncertainty in 2011, relative to 2006 levels, lowers GDP by about 1.4 percent and employment by about 2.5 million…”

I am not persuaded that the measurement of uncertainty in this paper is worthwhile since their metric relies heavily on news citations; consequently, when the conservative echo chamber screams about a topic their index captures these claims as real economic concerns. Nevertheless, it is interesting that the paper’s results in no way support the conservative/Republican/business association claim that Obama’s policies have inhibited job growth. Note that the paper’s conclusion estimates the impact of uncertainty from 2006 to the first half of 2011, so it covers much ground before Obama was even elected. If you look at the paper you will see that the main spikes in policy uncertainty (see their Figure 1 below) are due to the Lehman implosion, the TARP legislative debate and the banking crash, all of which pre-date Obama, and that by far the largest spike in uncertainty under Obama was the ‘debt ceiling dispute.’

Click to enlarge

Now, in my view and I think in most objective observers’ views, the debt ceiling fiasco was a crisis totally manufactured by Republican politicians. So, if uncertainty hurt job growth, then one should point at those responsible for the financial crisis and the debt ceiling debacle. Crook has clarified one thing for me. Anyone claiming uncertainty is holding back the economy needs to identify the particular types of uncertainty and who’s responsible for those uncertainties—Obama, Republican policymakers, both or neither. The case that Obama’s policies are generating job-killing uncertainty has not been substantiated and the intense emphasis by conservative/Republican/ business association leaders on tax and regulatory uncertainty is a counterproductive distraction from advancing the demand-side policy changes necessary to move the economy forward.