Friday, October 5, 2012

The Cost of Balanced Budgets and a Longer View on Presidents and Jobs From Ike To 2012

I'd usually heard the 50s described as more or less a golden era of rising prosperity. But till recently I tended to skip over digging into that decade's economic data to focus on the Great Depression up through World War II (when not mucking about the peaks and valleys of more recent times). So I have to admit this chart surprised me.

Chart showing each President's rate of average job growth per month per 1000 people from Ike through Obama (last available data June 2012)
starting with Ike, the first President fully covered in the monthly POP data; to June 2012

I was expecting that adding in the Republican Presidents before Reagan would show that prior to Trickle-down / Supply-side economics / Reaganomics infecting the Republican party, they'd done better. I expected to be illustrating the post-Depression glory days of the Republican party via Ike, Nixon, and Ford. Instead, the data gave me what we see above. In jobs, Nixon and Ford both did worse than Johnson, Carter, and Clinton. While Nixon and Ford did better than Obama's marks for his full term so far, they each did worse than during his tepid recovery span from February 2010 on to the latest data. And then there's Ike -- whom we admire -- down there with the likes of the Bushes. I didn't want to see that. Frankly, I wanted to believe Ike pulled off the Clinton trick of balancing the budget while improving employment. But I can't deny the data.

If we look a bit further back, before the dates in the data used above to put payroll growth in perspective via population growth, we can at least compare Ike's raw payroll figures to those from FDR (since 1939) and Truman, but that only rules out claiming Ike's dismal jobs performance as part of a longer trend.

Average monthly private payroll growth under each President from January 1939 to September 2012
Ike's sad job numbers with context: at least he's not Bush II

It's not a pretty picture for Ike, which I'm sad to see. Thankfully there's still much to admire from President Eisenhower in the highway system and his work for civil rights. I still like Ike. I still think I'd have voted for him if I'd been old enough at the time. But his economic record is tarnished.

In his defense, President Eisenhower did start his term with a 2.6% unemployment rate during that first full month. It's hard to improve on 2.6% unemployment. Still, unemployment rose dramatically to 6.9% by the first full month of his successor's term. Ike's shift: +165% unemployment. That's a rather lousy fumble. And while the Eisenhower years saw increasing family incomes, the same can be said for the Kennedy / Johnson years except without the rising unemployment, as over the course of their span they reduced that rate from the 6.9% that Eisenhower left them back down to 3.4% by the end of Johnson's Presidency.

So what went wrong? Let's look at the modern history of balanced budgets:
  • At Republican urging, FDR tried to balance the budget with spending cuts and it brought us the Recession of 1937-38. 
  • After World War II we saw dramatic cutbacks in spending with balanced budgets in 1947 through 1949 and the recessions in 1945 and 1949. (Of course, the war spending was unsustainable; there was probably no way to avoid recession in the late 1940s.)
  • Truman balanced the budget in 1951. But like the later Clinton-era balanced budgets this one was done while expanding federal outlays ... rather swiftly increasing from the 1948 lows. Then after we slowed spending at the end of the Korean War, we got the recession of 1953.
  • Eisenhower balanced the budget in 1956 and 1957 and we got the Recession of 1957.
  • Eisenhower balanced the budget again in 1960 and we got the Recession of 1960.
  • Nixon balanced the budget in 1969 and we got the Recession of 1970.
  • While Clinton balanced the budget in 1998 lasting through Bush's first budget in 2001, the balancing in these years was done without reducing the growth of federal outlays but rather through moderate increase of tax rates. As such, this particular instance was thoroughly different from most previous balancing of the budget (except Truman's).
There were also some recessions that didn't correspond to these balanced budgets: the oil shock under Nixon, the extremely high interest rates under Reagan, the S&L crisis under Bush I, the Dot-Com crash under Clinton and Bush II, and the housing/finance crash under Bush II. I'm not suggesting that all recessions are caused by cutting to achieve balanced budgets. However, it would seem that balancing our national budget via cuts -- even if only in inflation-adjusted terms as in 1960 and 1969 -- tends to lead to recession.

The impact of Eisenhower's budget balancing exploits are particularly of interest for its parallel to job losses in the Great Recession. Private payrolls dropped by 2.385 million between August 1957 and June 1958, a 5.26% decline. By comparison, that's just barely below the 5.47% decline during the worst job-loss months of the Great Recession from August 2008 through June 2009. Remember that saying about doing the same thing and expecting different results. If we implement massive cutbacks like Eisenhower with our sequestration fiscal cliff, we can expect yet another massive fall just like the Eisenhower recession ... and we've not climbed far enough back from the jagged rocks as it is.

In case after case, budgets balanced with spending cuts have brought on recession. And now the Republicans are once again pushing us to balance the budget with dramatic spending cuts. Democrats may not be leading the charge, but Obama like FDR is far too willing to accept the Republican push for cuts. If we don't turn away from this push to slash budgets, previous experience shows us it will hurt the economy. When we make the debt more manageable by growing our economy such that the debt shrinks by comparison, that's tended to work out well. When we clumsily attempt to tackle the debt directly by slashing spending to balance the budget in the hopes a primary surplus, the records shows it tends to work out poorly.

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