The NYT Wants the U.S. to Have Slower Growth

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Sunday, 31 July 2011 07:12

That would seem to be the implication of the advice in an article that we should follow Canada's model for dealing with our deficit. According to the NYT, Canada did things right when it decided to get its deficit down in 1994, doing a comprehensive review of its spending.

Since that was almost 20 years ago, we have some basis for assessing how things turned out. According to the OECD's data on productivity growth (the main determinant of living standards), it doesn't seem that Canada has done very well. Its productivity growth has averaged just 1.0 percent annually from 1994 to 2010. This compares to 1.8 percent in the United States. Canada's rate of productivity growth is behind the 1.5 percent rate for Greece and Portugal and even behind the 1.1 percent rate for Japan, although it is better than the 0.7 percent rate for Spain.

If the United States had experienced the same productivity growth as Canada over the last 17 years, we would be on average 12.6 percent poorer today. Insofar as the weaker growth can be attributed to Canada's fiscal consolidation we can say that the path advocated by the NYT is equivalent to imposing a 12.6 percentage point income tax increase on the United States.

The article also refers to the surpluses at the end of the Clinton years and the expectation that the United States would pay off its debt. Economists who know national income accounting (an essential part of economics that unfortunately seems little known by economists) did not believe that the United States would pay off its debt.

The large budget surpluses projected by the Congressional Budget Office in the context of continuing trade deficits implied large dissaving by the private sector. (This is an accounting identity -- it must be true.) It was very unlikely that either households would have large negative savings rates, especially as the baby boom cohorts were approaching retirement. And, it was also very unlikely that there would be an enormous investment boom even as the country was sending much of its manufacturing sector overseas.

Therefore, it was easy to predict that we would not see the surpluses that were projected at the end of the Clinton years. Unfortunately, economists never suffer any career consequences for being completely wrong. Therefore most still have not learned the basic national income accounting that is taught in every introductory class.