Mitt Romney’s Economic Policy Address: Full of Factual Errors

On March 19, Mitt Romney presented at the University of Chicago a (mercifully short) policy address that laid out his criticisms of Obama’s economic policies (see here for a transcript).  The primary theme was that under Obama, high taxes and an overbearing regulatory burden have stifled “economic freedom” and that “The Obama administration’s assault on our economic freedom is the principal reason why the recovery has been so tepid”.

Romney’s address is interesting as it illustrates well how even such carefully prepared addresses in the current Republican campaign have been replete with factual errors.  A listener to such presentations will normally presume that the speaker will have gotten their facts right, and they will distinguish factual statements with statements of opinion.  The listners may or may not agree with the opinions, but they will normally give the speaker the benefit of the doubt on factual statements.  Unfortunately, political discourse in this Republican campaign has degenerated to the point where numerous statements, carefully prepared and presented as fact, are simply not true.  But by repetition, it is not surprising that many in the American public have become confused into thinking such statements are true when they are factually wrong.

Perhaps the most basic and glaring of the factual inaccuracies in Romney’s speech (and a cornerstone of his argument in the speech) is his statements that taxes (and tax rates) have risen under Obama.  But federal taxes have been repeatedly cut under Obama, at a total cost to the budget of close to $1.5 trillion (as estimated by the bipartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget):

Tax Cuts Signed Into Law by Obama
Date Signed Amount ($b)
A.  Tax Provisions in 2009 Stimulus Package 2/17/09 $420.0
B.  2010 Tax Cut Package 12/17/10 $880.9
C.  2012 Payroll Tax Cut Extension 12/23/11 and 2/22/12 $115.5
D.  Other – Various Dates in 2009 and 2010 various $64.2
TOTAL $1,480.6

$1.5 trillion in tax cuts is not small, and one would think hard to ignore, yet Romney asserts that big tax increases under Obama have stifled the recovery.  And in addition to the $1.5 trillion in tax cuts, there has not been a single tax increase under Obama.

In large part because of these policy actions cutting taxes, federal government revenue during the Obama presidency has been the lowest of any presidency since 1950.  Between 1951 and 2008, government revenues varied between a low of 16.1% of GDP and a high of 20.6%, and averaged 18.0%.  Revenues were 17.6% of GDP in 2008, the last year of Bush.  During Obama’s term, the share was 15.1%, 15.1%, 15.4% and a projected 15.8% for 2009 to 2012, respectively.  Yet Romney condemns increases in taxes as stifling the recovery.  It would be more accurate to say that major cuts in taxes have not led to a strong recovery.

It may well be the case that Obama would have preferred a better balance in the extensive tax cuts, and it is true that Obama has proposed selected tax increases (e.g. on those making more than $250,000, and a minimum tax rate on those making more than $1 million a year).  But these have not been enacted.  Yet Romney asserts that as a result of Obama, businessmen are facing a higher tax (as well as regulatory) burden, and that “those taxes and costs add up.  Businesses shut down.  Jobs disappear.  Entrepreneurs decide it’s too risky and too costly to invest and to hire.”

The other half of the Romney assertion (in addition to big tax increases), is that Obama has burdened businesses with stifling regulations.  Yet as has been noted before in this blog, productivity growth has in fact been quite strong during the Obama term.  Stifling regulations would have hurt productivity, yet multifactor productivity rose in 2010 by more than it had in any other single year since the data series began in 1987 (see here); labor productivity has increased in the current recovery at a pace similar to the highest it has in any recovery in the past four decades in the US (see here); and the increase in labor productivity under Obama while wages have been flat have in fact led to a sharp rise in profits of American businesses (see here).  None of this is consistent with Romney’s assertion that burdensome regulations under Obama have held back businesses.  Rather, businesses are not producing and employing more because there is not a demand for what they can produce (and profitably produce; see here).  And demand has been deficient in large part due to the reduction (not increase, as Romney asserts) in government demand (see here).

Romney supports his assertion that overbearing regulations under Obama have led to the slow recovery simply through several anecdotes.  But his choices of anecdotes are interesting, as the specific ones cited stem from cases that arose during the Bush administration.  Specifically, he asserts that over-reaching regulators “would have banned Thomas Edison’s light bulb”.  And then immediately says “Oh yeah, Obama’s regulators actually did just that.”  But actually, Obama’s regulators are enforcing a law passed and signed by Bush in 2007.  I assume that Romney would have complained even more loudly if Obama had chosen to ignore a law that is on the books, despite his constitutional requirement to enforce the laws.

Another example is of a case where the EPA was enforcing a law against development of land in a wetlands area, with Romney saying the regulators would not even allow the individuals to pursue a case in court against it.  But the Supreme Court in fact issued a decision on the case the same week as Romney’s speech in Chicago.  And most relevant is that the EPA originally moved to protect this wetland in 2005, in the first year of Bush’s second term.  This was not a case brought under Obama.  But Romney did not blame over-zealous regulators under a Republican administration.

Romney also makes the claim that the federal government has exploded under Obama, with 140,000 new federal employees hired.  But the figures on federal government employment issued by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (as part of their statistics on employment in all of the main sectors) shows that federal government employment only rose by about 30,000 between January 2009 and February 2012 (a total increase of 0.9% over a period of more than three years, or 0.3% per year).  Furthermore, if one excludes an increase of 60,000 in civilian Defense Department workers, federal government employment in fact fell by 30,000 over this period.  It appears that Romney is quoting a figure on federal employment that excludes US Postal workers, even though the official statistics of the BLS includes them.  Even if one makes this selective choice of what statistics to cite, an increase of 140,000 federal workers (excluding postal workers), is an increase at a rate of only 2.2% per year.  This is not an explosion.  And Romney ignores the sharp reductions of state and local government workers in recent years.  Total government workers (state and local, as well as federal) have fallen by 580,000 over this period, contributing directly to a substantial share of the unemployed.

Romney also criticizes Obama on some more substantive points, on which differences of opinion are fair.  Specifically, he criticizes the Dodd-Frank bill that changes regulation of the financial sector, which Obama signed into law, and he criticizes changes in regulation of oil and gas drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.  On matters such as these, there can be substantive differences, and political campaigns should center on such issues.  However, I would have thought it would be clear that after the biggest financial meltdown in US history, caused by absence of regulation to control the risks that built up in the financial system in the housing bubble, that better and smarter financial regulation was needed.  And after the Deepwater Horizon off-shore oil platform blew up in 2010, with loss of life and almost 5 million barrels of oil released to the sea, that better regulation of such drilling activities was needed.  Romney and other political figures may disagree, but that is what elections are for.