No More Uncertainty: It’s Demand

Catherine Rampell, of the Economix blog at the New York Times, shows what “the biggest single problem facing America’s small businesses” is right now.

Much of the debate about how to spur growth and encourage hiring has focused on making the tax picture temporarily more business-friendly. But as you can see, the portion of small businesses citing taxes as their superlative problem has remained about the same — mostly in the 17-22 percent range, say — for about a decade. (my emphasis)

It’s clear that “poor sales” is what has changed (look from Sep ’07 on) and why employers aren’t hiring right now. That’s not to say that taxes aren’t a concern – of course they are a concern – but if you’re trying to argue that small businesses aren’t hiring now because of the increased weight of Obama’s Marxist regulations (dark orange), new crushing tax increases, the recent Nazi-like health insurance scheme (light orange), or because evil unions are keeping wages artificially high (light blue) you might reexamine those views in light of the, you know, evidence. 

Note to policymakers: craft policies that best increase aggregate demand. 

Moreover this demonstrates the continued lack of evidence for the argument from uncertainty (i.e. policy uncertainty is causing businesses not to hire) (see: here, here). Yglesias also asks proponents of that argument to justify their argument from history.

I’d be fascinated to hear Otellini describe to me the past era in which firms knew exactly what their health care, energy, and tax costs were going to be. This was a time in which the future trajectory of oil prices was entirely predictable, and it was clear that congress would never again alter the tax code. A time when general macroeconomic conditions were not subject to any vagaries of fortune. A magical time.

The biggest uncertainty to businesses right now is whether their sales will grow. They don’t see consumers demanding more goods so if they think sales will stay low they won’t hire new workers to supply for that demand. Welcome to Econ 101.


[update 09/18]: I got in a little debate on this topic over at Rick MacDonald’s blog. I’ll crosspost it here but I encourage readers to check out the original post and following discussion at the source. Enjoy. I threw in a couple more links and a graph so readers have an easier time following what I’m referring to. 




Dan:  I’m sympathetic to the argument that we should make tax policy simple, clear, and as least burdensome as possible for the engines of economic growth – businesses. But I have to say I’m completely unpersuaded that the primary trouble for our businesses right now is taxes or policy uncertainty. There just doesn’t seem to be much of any evidence that demonstrates that either of these are unique or major problems to our current economic climate. It seems you’re a proponent of this view and I’ve tried to find some evidence to support those positions (especially the latter). I was wondering if you could respond to my questions regarding this theory. It seems to me that the real problem for small businesses is lack of aggregate demand manifesting in poor sales.


Rick: I’ve provided interviews with Donald Trump, Jim Rogers, T. J. Rodgers and Steve Wynn…if the direct statements of billionaires can’t convince you about the importance of unpredictability and their view that the uncertainty of markets, tax policy and government intervention are inhibitors; it would seem that you are content to remain unconvinced. The consensus as stated by these gentlemen is the consensus on Wall Street among the majority who are holding onto their capital reserves and only betting on the short term.


Dan:  It’s not that I’m content to remain unconvinced, it seems you’ve mistaken some anecdotes for data. In the link I provided survey evidence (close to 4,000 businesses were surveyed) from respected National Federation of Small Businesses, and policy uncertainty doesn’t show up – or at the least isn’t nearly as big a concern as other issues. Poor sales seems to be the overriding concern. Also, I linked to a graph of recent major legislation paired with the stock market and the passing of the bills never seems to greatly affect the stock market in a negative way. Even with healthcare where you’d suppose the most uncertainty resides, that industry has seen the most job growth out of the major sectors of our economy. Furthermore, it’s not clear that if uncertainty is a problem that it’s a major problem (I’m not saying that it’s not a problem AT ALL, even slightly) or that it’s uncertainty with policy rather than run of the mill economic uncertainty. Consider that quote from Matthew Yglesias I referenced, where he makes the point (I made it to you before myself in a previous exchange) that there is no time in history where there is complete economic certainty. Therefore, how can anyone say now that it is a special problem? 

So in light of all this (survey data from thousands of small businesses, stock market/legislation comparative analysis, the case of the healthcare industry, and the general historical perspective) what can you point to that demonstrates that uncertainty is a MAJOR problem? A few businessmen just saying so isn’t especially persuasive – if a few other extremely rich businessmen said the opposite would you find that convincing of my case? If all this doesn’t make you question your case, maybe it is you who “are content to remain unconvinced.” Notice I am just merely asking you to provide some evidence to support your position aside from a few anecdotal statements you have already quoted. I didn’t think it was absurd to ask you to justify your claims or respond to my counter-evidence.


Rick: It’s my view that you are content to remain unconvinced. The “anecdotes” come from 4 major investors and holders of wealth in the form of fixed capital.


As to statistics; many on the left claim that we are not suffering inflation. If you’ve been shopping on your own for a while, you will notice that prices (especially food prices) have been steadily rising even though interest rates remain low. Jobs are still disappearing at over 400,000 a week, wages are beginning to fall as well and credit is tighter than ever in spite of the government spending the wealth of 2-3 generations or more. As I’ve said before, I have too much to do to debate on line via a blog.


The Keynesians say this and the Austrians say that…I tend to agree with the Austrian economists and see hope that Keynesian economics will soon be tossed aside as a failed system and buried in a grave alongside communism. I know, the video is all ancedotal, but it’s also true.

Dan: Well if you’re not interested in convincing people who don’t already share your views that’s your choice I suppose. I know you’re not interested in debating this and that’s fine, I’ll just make a few points and I’ll end my side of the conversation if that’s your preference. First, it’s not just a “claim” on the left that we’re not suffering from inflation. We’re actually not suffering from inflation. I mean honestly, in the past 2 or 3 years has your money really lost all its value? When was the last time you took a wheelbarrow to the store to buy stuff? We’re not even suffering from moderate inflation. The BLS’s core inflation rate is slightly above zero right now
Your example of food prices is especially dubious because that’s not even included in the rate because prices for things like food and energy are very volatile. Even still it’s not like food or energy prices have jumped very much either.
The video you linked is interesting and I’m slightly familiar with Peter Schiff. Just realize that the idea that because 1 austrian economist predicted a few things correctly than the entirety of mainstream economics has been overturned is preposterous and borderline delusional. You realize Keynesian economists make correct predictions too, right? Has an austrian economist ever got anything wrong? If so, does that invalidate the entirety of the discipline for you? He seems to be getting the whole hyperinflation thing wrong – but I guess we’ll just have to see. Another thing, maybe I’m missing it, but nothing he said in the video seems to directly contradict much of anything in new Keynesian economics. I mean it’s not like mainstream economics doesn’t recognize the possibility of housing bubbles or think that selling toxic financial gimmicks are a good thing for the economy.
Also understand that I’m not saying Schiff’s perspective isn’t informative or impressive. I fully concede that mainstream economics may be able to learn from some of the insights of the Austrian school. But your hyperbole about Keynesian economics belonging in the dustbin of history is too much – as if 80 years or so of economic research has been entirely fruitless. Please.
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that you’d punt rather than grapple with any of my challenges. The Austrian School which you find so persuasive seemingly rejects the whole concept of empiricism and the scientific method. Peter Schiff didn’t bury Keynes, and his shovel hasn’t even broken ground on the Enlightenment.


Rick: Opinions vary, and it’s not that I’m not interested; as I stated earlier, I have little time for long pedantic discussions via comments.

As to the “scientific method” of Keynes, that is all well and good; however, Keynesians leave out the inate tendany of people in power abusing power and acting in ways that are irrational and anti-scientific. They leave behind common sense and ignore corruption and other human factors that one can’t chart except, perhaps, with a Ouija board.
President Obama claims the economy is improving, yet the evidence in housing, unemployment, and contraction of businesses and investment say otherwise. I would tend to call the administration’s opinions more delusional than appreciating what one experiences at the cash register during checkout more so than the comments by the President’s economic team, or his own mouth. Wasn’t it President G. H. W. Bush’s appearance in a store where he couldn’t come close to pricing items? That was the beginning of his reform, and Obama’s “willful suspension of disbelief (H.T. to Hillary Clinton) that will ultimate end his tenure in a vein similar to Jimmy Carter’s.
Of course Austrian economists make mistakes, but they have yet to put the entire global economy in jeopardy to the extent Keynesians have in our current fiasco. I’ll take my chances siding with people like Peter Shiff over others like Art Laffer and Krugman (Keynesians both by definition and admission, but on opposite sides of the Keynesian fence that segments his pragmatic followers according to how much “science” they choose to apply to their “methods”.
Thanks for commenting. Hopefully, you now have a clearer expectation as to what this blog is about and to the audience it tries to serve. Best wishes.

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