Glenn Kessler Gets It Mostly Right on Budget History

Print
Thursday, 07 March 2013 08:07

Glenn Kessler used his Factcheck column to take Senator Barbara Boxer to task for giving the Democrats credit for the budget surpluses at the end of the Clinton administration. Kessler rightly points out that the spending cuts and tax increases put in place by the Clinton administration would not have moved the budget to a surplus had it not been for the boom that was driven by the stock bubble. I have made the same point in other contexts.

There is one important part of the picture that Kessler leaves out. In the 1995 projections that he cites, it was assumed that the unemployment rate could not fall below 6.0 percent. The idea was that in order to prevent inflation, the Fed would slam on the breaks by raising interest rates. This would slow growth and prevent the unemployment rate from getting or staying below this target unemployment rate.

The budget projections might have been right if someone other than Alan Greenspan had been at the Fed at the time. Greenspan, who is not an orthodox economist, decided to let the unemployment rate fall below the 6.0 percent target because he saw no evidence of inflation. He had to argue with the Clinton appointees to the Fed who wanted to raise interest rates to head off inflation.

It was really due to Greenspan's policies that the unemployment rate was allowed to fall to 5.0 percent and eventually to 4.0 percent as a year-round average in 2000. This allowed millions of people to work who would not have otherwise had a job. The tight labor market also allowed for large gains in real wages for workers at the middle and bottom of the wage distribution for the first time in a quarter century. Oh, and for the DC policy wonks, it also gave us a budget surplus.

Anyhow, if we want to give credit to someone for the budget surpluses at the end of the Clinton administration it really should be Alan Greenspan (who I trash every other day of the week). It was only because he was willing to ignore the dogma in the economics profession that we were allowed to see what the world looks like when we have something resembling full employment.