Josh Barro: We Need a New Supply Side Economics—Here Are 8 Things We Can Do


Noah Smith and Christopher Cordeiro tweeted that Josh Barro’s column “We Need A New Supply Side Economics — Here Are 8 Things We Can Do” sounded like ideas I would favor. They are right. 

I fully agree with Josh’s lead-in:

Demand stimulation remains the right goal today, but it’s not going to be the right goal forever. …

We’re going to need a new supply side economics that encourages people to work, invest and innovate.

Some of Josh’s proposals cost money, for which he proposes more progressive income taxes as a revenue source (as his 8th point). I have proposed tapping the resources of the rich in a different way. I want to  finance an expansion of the nonprofit sector (see the links in “The Red Banker on Supply-Side Liberalism”). To get there politically, I enunciated the principle of “No Tax Increase Without Recompense.” So I cannot go along with Josh’s proposal raise income taxes at the upper end in a conventional way. (Also see the Twitter discussions “Daniel Altman and Miles Kimball: Should We Expand Government or Expand the Nonprofit Sector?” and “Daniel Altman and Miles Kimball: Is It OK to Let the Rich Be Rich As Long As We Take Care of the Poor?”) The expansion of the nonprofit sector that I propose will help the poor tremendously in many ways beyond the dimension Josh is focuses on.

More generally, I think it is better to build progressivity into the spending side of the government’s activities–including transfers–than into the tax side. Instead, I think Josh’s proposed enhancements of programs to direct more resources toward the poor can also serve as ways to compensate the poor for increases in increases in taxes on externalities such as carbon dioxide emissions and the consumption of soft drinks and junk food that affect the behavior of all those around us through not-fully-conscious social influences

Here is Josh’s list, minus the income tax increase, with my comments:

1. Invest in smart infrastructure, ideally without building much.

Yes! Noah and I have an column on infrastructure investment. And I agree with Josh that it is a bad habit to get into to think of infrastructure investment as a demand-side thing. We need to keep in our sights getting supply-side benefits from the infrastructure investments that we make. 

I would emphasize government support for basic research in the same breath as infrastructure investment. Indeed, I think there is even more supply-side benefit to be had from government support for basic research than from additional infrastructure investment. 

2. Reform means-tested entitlements without soaking the poor.

Josh wants to phase out aid to the poor more slowly with higher income, in order to avoid discouraging people from working hard and avoid discouraging people from building their careers through education and other means. This is great, but it will cost the government more money. I would like to reward healthy eating and not contributing too much to global warming across the whole population, as well as rewarding the poor for working hard and getting an education. That combination can finance itself.    

3. Move the deregulatory agenda down to the state and local level.

This is one of Josh’s points that I think needs to be shouted from the rooftops. Here is the full text of what he said on this point:

In the 1970s, the big deregulation fights were properly at the federal level. Then the government deregulated airlines and trucking. Though technological change, regulation has become less important in broadcasting and telecommunications. Bank deregulation has been a mixed bag over this period; people talk about it as a cautionary tale, but some of the deregulations (such as ending the limit on savings account interest and allowing interstate banking) have served consumers very well.

The big federal regulatory fights that remain are in mostly areas where the federal government properly uses a heavy hand: banking and securities, and environmental protection.

The next round of big deregulation fights should be at the state and local level. Governments impose pro-incumbent regulations on a variety of industries from barbering to interior design to medicine to restaurants. These rules raise incomes for existing practitioners, but they make it difficult for new practitioners to enter the fields, and they raise consumer prices.

State and local governments should stop doing this.

In the interest of promoting interstate commerce, the federal government should pre-empt many of these regulations. For example, states should be forced to allow a broad scope of practice for nurse practitioners so they can serve as independent primary care providers. This would reduce doctors’ incomes, but it would reduce the cost of health care, raise patients’ real incomes and help to control government expenditure.

What I have said on this topic can be found in my post

4. Deregulate America’s most overregulated industry: real estate.

Here, Josh is on the same side as Matthew Yglesias, who wrote the book on this issue: The Rent is Too Damn High. I am part of the cheering section for their efforts. Given the fraction of household budgets spent on housing, this is a huge issue.  

5. Reform intellectual property — by weakening it.

I endorse this idea in my link post “The Wonderful, Now Suppressed, Republican Study Committee Brief on Copyright Law.” I also muse on how much protection is necessary in my post “Copyright.” Wonderful, amazing new things will happen if we shift to less restrictive intellectual property rules. And if we overshoot in a way that undercompensates creators, that can easily be fixed later. It is high time we experimented with more fluid rules. 

Given the pace of innovation and the rate at which things become obsolete, one change that almost certainly a winner is to shorten the term for patents and copyrights. The only place this seems problematic is in retaining adequate incentives for the development of new drugs. There, combining a shorter period of exclusivity with the government paying for half of the cost of drug trials would probably keep just as much innovation while still helping the government budget, since the government pays for drugs as part of Medicare now.  

6. Improve education, somehow.

I have written a fair amount about education. Improving education will be an ongoing theme for me. Here is a link to my sub-blog on education, and here are some of the most important posts:

7. Admit more high-skill immigrants.

More open borders is something I am passionate about. But I would not limit it to high-skill immigrants. Helping the poor who are currently in other countries is also important. Here are some of my more important posts in that vein: