Saturday, May 20, 2006

Fun in the nation's capital

I was in Washington for the spring meeting of the National Tax Association this past Thursday, and the lunch talk was given by Ed Lazear, the labor economist and recent Tax Reform Panel member who is now on Bush's Council of Economic Advisors. Though I realize the job puts pressure on one's public utterances, I was dismayed by the level of sales pitch that I was hearing, all this stuff about how the Administration's tax policy has wonderfully boosted economic growth, increased national saving, etc., etc. E.g., attributing the recent economic growth rate to the tax cuts, rather than to the recessionary trough that the growth came from, and not acknowledging the fairly obvious point that there were also high growth rates after the 1993 tax increases. Claiming that the dividend tax cuts will create vast increases in national saving and economic growth, as predicted by economic theory, blah blah blah.

With no ill will towards Lazear, I must say I found it a bit stomach-turning, even more so than the cardboard cheesecake with raspberry sauce that was sitting in front of me. So I waved my hand like a first grader so I would get to ask the first question, and was I suppose a bit blunt. I noted that economic theory can't predict the consequences of a tax cut in isolation; it needs to be a balanced-budget exercise that includes the offset. I noted that the Administration has vastly increased the fiscal gap, with huge likely negative effects on national saving even if there is no catastrophe. I noted the immense transfers to older generations, from unsustainable tax cuts that will have to be reversed later on plus the Medicare prescription drug benefit, likely to reduce national saving due to the income effect (seniors save less than younger people for lifecycle reasons). Maybe I had one or two more points before I subsided and let Lazear have at it.

I wouldn 't say he answered me, though I can't say I blame him. At some point he started saying something about how, with just a little economic growth, all the deficits will totally disappear. This was a bit thick. So I started to cut in: "There isn't a single reputable expert in the country who believes - "

"I've got the floor now!" was his answer, so I subsided again. He did acknowledge sharing some of my concerns.

No hard feelings, but a job in the Council of Economic Advisors really isn't very good for one's reputation these days.

UPDATE: A Washington Post editorial on Lazear's speech said it all: "Down Is Still Up; The White House continues to tax reality."

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