Mitchell’s Musings 4-4-16: What is the Point?

05 Apr 2016 8:54 AM | Daniel Mitchell (Administrator)

Mitchell’s Musings 4-4-16: What is the Point?

Daniel J.B. Mitchell

The Mitchell’s Musings column resumes now that the UCLA winter quarter has ended along with the course I co-teach each winter with Michael Dukakis on California Policy Issues. UCLA’s winter quarter consists of ten weeks of instruction (plus a week for exams). Each week of the course is devoted to a different area of public policy, although there is often a significant overlap between the various subjects.

In particular, the topic of week 8 is California economic policy. Each year, I give a presentation in that week involving PowerPoint slides and videos on state economic policy. Although the presentations each year have been similar, they are updated and evolve as events change. You can find the latest version at the link below:  (About an hour and a half in five parts.)

There is a key point in the presentation: If you think of economic policy in the short-term macroeconomic sense (trying to flatten out the business cycle), there isn’t a great deal California can do.  The California business cycle is pretty much a reflection of the U.S. business cycle and the policy instruments needed to deal with that issue are largely in the hands of the federal – not the state - government. Much of the impotence at the state level lies with the fact that states do not have independent monetary policies since they don’t have their own currencies. The states of the United States are part of the larger U.S. dollar zone. What countries in the euro-zone have discovered, perhaps to their dismay, is that giving up their national monetary systems meant that they have become as limited in macro affairs as are states with the U.S.

However, despite the greatly constrained capacity of states such as California to deal with macroeconomic affairs, that fact has not limited the ability of the electorate to hold governors responsible for local economic conditions. It’s best not to be a governor during a downturn. Being a governor in the expansion phase is far more pleasant. As California governor Jerry Brown recently commented while reflecting upon the current state expansion:

"It's quite remarkable what California's been able to do. That won't always be, and when that turns around, I think the job [of governor] will be far more challenging than it is today."[1]

During Hard Times, despite the seeming unfairness of holding a governor responsible for something that ultimately has to be dealt with at a higher level, there is often some justice in it. When they stand for election, governors and other state and local officials often take credit for good economic conditions when those circumstances are present. If they are candidates for office (but not actually in office) during election campaigns, they may well blame incumbents for Hard Times and promise to do something about conditions. So voters can’t be faulted from attributing to governors more economic authority and control than they actually have.

There is an interesting question, one which is not raised in the class presentation since the course is confined to the state level. Numerous studies indicate that presidential elections are influenced by the state of the national macro-economy. And my presentation does note that the macro-economy is largely the province of the federal government which does have a monetary system and, thus, a monetary policy. State and local governments can’t create money; the federal government can. But in the American system, what exactly is the federal government?

It isn’t just the President (any more than a state within the U.S. is just the governor). There are three distinct branches of government and fiscal policy, even if the President can propose a particular fiscal approach, is largely a matter for the Congress (with the judiciary chiming in on whether what Congress did is constitutional). Apart from the three branches, the Federal Reserve is quasi-autonomous by design. The President cannot order up a particular monetary policy. But as at the gubernatorial level, that fact doesn’t prevent presidents from taking credit for good economic conditions. And it doesn’t prevent presidential candidates from claiming that they will unilaterally produce improved conditions.

In the class presentation, I note that there is a difference between macroeconomics in the short-term, business-cycle sense of the word - as we have been using it above - and long-term trends. Averaging out the business cycle, what is the underlying growth trend of a state? It could be faster, slower, or the same as the national trend of which it is a component. Obviously, there are external factors beyond state control that can affect the long-term trend. In the California case, from World War II until the end of the Cold War, the state growth rate was boosted by military-related expenditures from the federal government as can be seen in Appendix A. So world events were an important economic driver for California.

However, even though there was an outside boost to state growth, California took advantage of the tax revenues that the boost generated to build up its physical and educational infrastructure. Those investments were expenditures that helped reinforce the effect of the external stimulus. Indeed, one could argue that much of the challenge facing California after the end of the Cold War involved (and still involves) maintaining and expanding that Cold War-era infrastructure in a period when the pie is not expanding as fast as the old trend.

In short the lesson I hope the students in California Policy Issues take away is to be skeptical of candidates at the state and local level who promise quick economic miracles, particularly during periods of national economic difficulty. And while the federal/presidential story is more complex than the state and local version, at least I hope they will remember that under the U.S. system of governance, presidents cannot decree monetary and fiscal policies. They are not dictators, beneficent or not.


[1] Brown was governor in the 1975-83. In 2005, he was back in California state politics and joked and philosophized about the limits of the role of governor at a conference at UCLA:


Appendix A: California’s Post-Cold War Deviation from Cold War Employment Trend

Employment Policy Research Network (A member-driven project of the Labor and Employment Relations Association)

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The EPRN began with generous grants from the Rockefeller, Russell Sage, and Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundations


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