One recent example comes from the cement industry, which now warns that new regulations limiting emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide could close as many as 18 of the 100 cement plants in the United States, resulting in the direct loss of 13,000 jobs.
Then again, where do you think all those customers of the 18 plants will get their cement? Do you think they might get some of it from the other 82 plants, which in turn might have to add a few workers to handle the additional volume? Or that a higher price for cement might induce somebody to build a modern plant to take advantage of the suddenly unmet demand? Or perhaps that higher prices for cement will lead some customers to use another building material produced by an industry that will have to add workers to increase its output? And what about the possibility that the regulation will encourage some innovative company to devise emissions-control equipment that will not only allow some of those plants to remain open but generate a few thousand extra jobs of its own as it exports to plants around the world.
Such possibilities are rarely, if ever, acknowledged in these “job-scare studies.” Also left out are any estimates of the benefits that might accrue in terms of longer, healthier lives. In the Republican alternative universe, it’s all costs, no benefits when it comes to government regulation. As they see it, government regulators wake up every morning with an uncontrollable urge to see how many jobs they can destroy.
If consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds, then these Republican presidential candidates are big thinkers, particularly on fiscal issues.
In the Republican alternative universe, allowing an income tax cut for rich people to expire will “devastate” the U.S. economy, while letting a payroll tax cut for working people to expire would hardly be noticed. Cutting defense spending is economic folly; cutting food stamps for poor children an economic imperative.
My favorite, though, is a proposal, backed by nearly all the candidates along with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, to allow big corporations to bring home, at a greatly reduced tax rate, the more than $1 trillion in profits they have stashed away in foreign subsidiaries.
“Repatriation,” as it is called, was tried during the “jobless recovery” of the Bush years, with the promise that it would create 500,000 jobs over two years as corporations reinvested the cash in their U.S. operations. According to the most definitive studies of what happened, however, most of the repatriated profits weren’t used to hire workers or invest in new plants and equipment. Instead, they were used to pay down debt or buy back stock.
But fear not. In a new paper prepared for the chamber, Republican economist Douglas Holtz-Eakin argues that just because the money went to creditors and investors doesn’t mean it didn’t create jobs. After all, creditors and shareholders are people, too — people who will turn around and spend most of it, in the process increasing the overall demand for goods and services. As a result, Holtz-Eakin argues, a dollar of repatriated profit would have roughly the same impact on the economy as a dollar under the Obama stimulus plan, or in the case of $1 trillion in repatriated profit, about 3 million new jobs.
It’s a lovely economic argument, and it might even be right. But for Republican presidential candidates, it presents a little problem. You can’t argue, at one moment, that putting $1 trillion of money in the hands of households and business failed to create even a single job, and at the next moment argue that putting an extra $1 trillion in repatriated profit into their hands will magically generate jobs for millions.
It took a while, but even Richard Nixon came around to declaring himself a Keynesian. Maybe there is still hope for Perry and the gang.