The Bush administration's other revolutionaries.

The search for better economic policy.
May 10 2004 2:17 PM

The Neoconomists

The Bush administration's other revolutionaries.

While neoconservatives in the Bush administration remake American foreign policy, another cadre of ideologues—call them the neoconomists—is busy attempting to transform American society. 

The revolution in economic policy is not being televised. There was no big speech by President Bush to mark its birth, no "Axis of Evil" catchphrase designed to capture headlines. Yet it is every bit as dramatic and risky a change.

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The neoconomists have one goal: to increase the rate at which the economy grows by changing how the nation uses its resources. It is a worthy goal, too. Following such as path could lead to a period of untold prosperity, with living standards rising faster than ever before. Or it might not. But even if the plan works, it might just lead to the collapse of the capitalist system.

The nation's current economic policy came to Washington in care of R. Glenn Hubbard and Lawrence B. Lindsey, who spent roughly the first two years of the Bush administration as the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers and chairman of the National Economic Council, respectively.

For years, both men had been ardent supporters of the notion that income from savings and wealth was taxed too much. In 1990, Lindsey wrote that "with only a very modest loss of tax revenue, the tax system can be reformed to substantially encourage the savings we need to sustain our investment in a more productive economy." A decade later, Hubbard and a co-author wrote that savings and wealth had "long and widely been acknowledged as especially impaired by taxation."

Hubbard and Lindsey saw cutting taxes on savings and wealth as a recipe for faster growth. Their plans were consistent with supply-side economics, which had dominated Republican policy for decades, since they targeted the economy's long-run potential to grow rather than short-run fine-tuning of demand. But the focus on savings was a departure from earlier conservative doctrine.

During the Reagan administration, most talk about tax cuts centered on removing disincentives to work. In the years that followed, though, academic economists began to favor a new set of theoretical models where the savings rate took a more prominent role as a determinant of economic growth. In addition, the models suggested that the pace of technological change depended on changes in the size of the capital stock, which can only grow if investors save more. The neoconomists didn't invent these models—that was the job of theorists whose work sometimes looked more like physics than economics—but they quickly grasped the implications for policy. They used the models to postulate the following chain reaction:

1.      Government cuts tax rates on savings and wealth.

2.      Saving by households—bank accounts, stocks, bonds, etc.—increases.

3.      More money becomes available to American businesses, since they're the ones offering the bank accounts, stocks, bonds, etc.

4.      Businesses spend more on machinery, software, and other capital, as well as on research and development.

5.      The nation's output of goods and services grows, and technological innovation accelerates.

6.      Incomes and living standards rise more quickly for several years and perhaps forever.

With George W. Bush's cooperation, the first steps have already been taken. So far, the president has signed bills eliminating the estate tax, lowering the tax rates on dividends and capital gains, and helping companies to reduce the tax they pay on their profits. In addition, by cutting rates for "ordinary" income, the Bush administration has lowered taxes on interest payments, rental income and income from mutual funds, and pensions and retirement accounts. (Though slated to be temporary, the Bush administration is campaigning to make its tax breaks permanent.) All of these changes make it relatively more attractive to accumulate wealth than to spend money. 

In addition, the White House is pushing for an initiative that would almost single-handedly accomplish Hubbard and Lindsey's goal: a huge expansion of tax-free savings accounts. And the growth of these tax-free savings accounts would dovetail well with the White House's plan for reforming Social Security, which calls for the creation of another type of tax-free investment account for every working American.

Hubbard and Lindsey's agenda is long-term, but it has already incurred some substantial costs. In the short term, their focus on savings has offered relatively little stimulus to the economy. Had the White House directed more incentives toward spending, the lag between recession and recovery might have been shorter.

In the long term, the cost of the Bush administration's policy has been forgone opportunities. The combination of the weak economy and the White House's decadelong schedule of tax cuts has left future administrations with little room to maneuver. Forecasts for budget balances from 2002 to 2011 have dropped from $5.6 trillion in surpluses to $2.9 trillion in deficits in the past three years. In the coming years, the federal government will have little money to invest in economic growth directly, by spending money on education, worker training, or basic research, which generate reliably high returns to society in the long run.

This latter cost is particularly germane, since there is no assurance that the positive chain-reaction the neoconomists envision will actually occur. Hubbard and Lindsey's strategy has never been tried in a large, wealthy economy. One flaw in the theory is that American savings do not always stay in America for use by American companies. In the past two decades, the share of savings sent abroad appears to have risen from about 10 percent to at least 40 percent. And when the Treasury borrows to make up for large deficits, more American savings will end up in the hands of government and less in investments by businesses. 

The speedy growth of the economy in the last three quarters—averaging more than 5 percent at an annual rate—could signal impressive things to come. And the experience of the Clinton administration proved that even the biggest deficits can disappear given a broad enough expansion in the economy. But even if the Bush administration succeeds, its policies could create two problems that could undo all their positive effects: rising inequality and a drastic change in incentives.

Wealthier people derive more of their income from returns on saving—both in dollar terms and as a proportion of income—than poor people do. When taxes on the return from savings suddenly disappear, the wealthy benefit the most. It may be that people who depend on their jobs for income will benefit, too, in the long run, thanks to an expanding economy and rising wages. But for several years, in all likelihood, the income gap will continue to widen.

That income gap poses some real dangers to the economy and even to the earnings of the wealthy. With rising inequality, it's harder for poor people to obtain economic opportunities, because chances to get education and training, or to bring ideas to market, depend on money as well as talent, and because the number of these opportunities is limited.

The Bush administration has done little to alleviate either of these conditions. So, when income gaps widen, more of the potential of poor people—even the smartest and most innovative poor people—will inevitably be wasted. The wealthier people who own America's companies won't have as skilled a workforce, or as fast a flow of new ideas, as they might have had otherwise.

Perhaps more important, abolishing taxes on saving would give people every incentive to receive all their income from financial assets rather than wages and salaries. For some, spending all day adjusting one's portfolio might make more sense than taking a job. Even people who work will seek ways to avoid taxes, for example by being paid solely in stock options or high-interest bonds.

Of course, those people would probably be chief executives and other financial sophisticates, rather than home health workers, call-center operators, and short-order cooks. Eventually, the new incentives could lead to a whole new way of classifying people: working and upper-class would be replaced by taxpayer and free-rider. Titans of industry, heirs and heiresses, and wizards of Wall Street wouldn't pay for national defense, cancer research, or President Bush's trip to Mars. All those costs would be borne by America's breadwinners.

It sounds like a recipe for the kind of social unrest that can make an economy stagger, stagnate, or worse. A political backlash would seem almost inevitable. And something worse—like a riotous manifestation of anticapitalist sentiment—would become a real possibility for the first time in decades. And that's what could happen if the theory works.

Daniel Altman is the author of Connected: 24 Hours in the Global Economy andNeoconomy. He is also the global economics correspondent of theInternational Herald Tribuneand a Sunday economics columnist for the New York Times.

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