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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

Marco Rubio’s Radical Alignment With The Financial Industry

This article originally appeared with the Roosevelt Institute.

Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush have been fighting for months in the GOP primaries to be the candidate representing Wall Street, hedge funds and the financial sector. Headlines like “Bush and Rubio race for Wall Street cash” dominated the fall coverage of their campaign, right next to headlines like “Donald Trump terrifies Wall Street” with statements like “hedge fund guys didn’t build this country. These are guys that shift paper around and they get lucky.”

With Bush dropping out of the race this weekend, Rubio has won this contest. And with Bush leaving, anyone carrying a quasi-reformist message on the financial sector is also gone. Rubio is both much more in sync with finance on specific issues, and also far more ideologically extreme on issues surrounding the financial sector than Jeb Bush was.

Rubio now is the establishment consensus candidate and the best hope of stopping Trump for the GOP. This framing and coverage will mask how extreme Rubio’s agenda is. As Matt Yglesias describes, he’s running on “a platform of economic ruin, multiple wars, and an attack on civil liberties that’s nearly as vicious as anything Trump has proposed.” This also extends to finance, especially when compared against Bush on the financial crisis, Dodd-Frank, vulture funds, the Federal Reserve and taxes. According to Rubio…

The Crisis was Government’s, Not Wall-Street’s, Fault

Going back years, Rubio has a been a big proponent of the idea that government policies, usually ones associated with GSE goals, were responsible for the housing bubble and financial crisis (“In fact, a major cause of our recent downturn was a housing crisis created by reckless government policies”).

This argument is what Barry Ritholtz calls The Big Lie, and it’s the kind of argument that has the American Enterprise Institute denouncing the movie The Big Short as fiction. Here’s a summary of why this argument is wrong. For our purposes, less extreme conservatives have danced around this issue without trying to quash it. Keith Hennessey, Douglas Holtz-Eakin and Bill Thomas refused to endorse it while dissenting in the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission. Robert VerBruggen politely tries to throw cold water on it without actually burying it at RealClearBooks (this argument is “harder to believe, if ultimately nondisprovable”).

This may seem like an esoteric, academic debate, but if Wall Street played no role in the crisis, then there’s no need for any reforms. Which is where Rubio ends up.

Repeal Dodd-Frank with No Replacement 

Jeb Bush has argued that he would repeal Dodd-Frank if he could, but he was also promoting a plan for how to weaken and replace parts of it in accordance with conservative goals. He argued for more capital requirements for the largest banks (“What we ought to do is raise the capital requirements so banks aren’t too big to fail”) while weakening them for smaller firms. He wanted to target the management and funding structures from the CFPB for dismantling, and be harder on the regulators in general. It was easy to see Bush converging to the position of someone like Rick Perry, who had the most detailed (but still very general) outline for how he’d tackle regulating Wall Street, an outline that involved weakening Dodd-Frank rather than strictly repealing it.

Rubio has no financial reform plans. There are 36 [!] detailed “policy issues” on his website, and not a single one is related to financial reform. For someone who is trying to be the ideas-driven candidate, there’s simply nothing about how to regulate Wall Street. There’s simply a press release saying: “We need to repeal Dodd-Frank,” which he has voted to do numerous times. Each time he’d replace it with nothing. He is vocal in his policy issues section about having a plan to replace Obamacare after repeal; he has no such plan for Dodd-Frank. This makes perfect sense if you have a very distorted view of what happened in the crisis, one where Wall Street simply didn’t matter.

When we do find specifics, they are either more in sync with financial interests directly or reflect an extreme ideology far outside most conservatives’ points of view. This is clear when you compare it to Jeb Bush.

No Bankruptcy for Puerto Rico

Jeb Bush has argued that Puerto Rico, facing a debt crisis exacerbated by holdout vulture hedge funds, should be able to access bankruptcy. Marco Rubio argues they should not. As Casey Tolan of Fusion notes, according to “public campaign-finance documents, at least six executives of hedge funds that hold Puerto Rican debt have donated to Rubio’s presidential campaign.” According to the New York Times, Rubio “expressed interest this year in sponsoring bankruptcy legislation for the island […] Mr. Rubio’s staff even joined in drafting the bill. But this summer, three weeks after a fund-raiser hosted by a hedge-fund founder, Mr. Rubio broke with those backing the measure.” This is consistent with a much larger AstroTurf and lobbying campaign being waged by hedge funds and financial firms.

This is a very strong stance, one I believe no other person who has run for the 2016 nomination has taken. It’s also one that aligns with both the practical interests of the hedge funds and their ideological assertion that creditors must be paid in full no matter how much it destroys Puerto Rico, or any other place.

Austere Reworking of the Federal Reserve

But this is nothing compared to the Federal Reserve. Rubio has said that it’s “not the Fed’s job to stimulate the economy,” when that is exactly what a crucial part of the Federal Reserve’s job is. He went on to say that the Fed’s “job is [to] provide stable currency and I believe [it] should operate on a rules based system.  They would have a very simple rule that determines when interest rates go up and when interests rates goes down.”

Changing the Federal Reserve to a single mandate for stable currency, and not for full employment, is something Rubio has advocated since at least 2012. The appointments he’d place on the Federal Reserve would follow this, naturally, radically changing the nature of financial markets to terms far more favorable to those who only care about inflation. Note that this isn’t about “auditing” the Fed, or better governance reform, or an argument that policy should be tighter than it is, which are all things people are currently fighting about when it comes to the Federal Reserve. This would be a massive change to the mission of the Fed, one that would empower the financial industry, since it would align monetary policy directly with its interests and disempower anyone who cares about full employment.

I can’t find anything about Jeb Bush taking extreme opinions on the Federal Reserve and neither could other people looking for it. It’s certainly not the major focus it is for Rubio. No doubt Bush would have been more hawkish than the current situation, but being more hawkish and what Rubio wants to do are totally different projects.

Eliminate Taxes For Capital Owner

Marco Rubio’s original family-friendly tax cut policy was quickly expanded once questioned by the guardians of conservative supply-side orthodoxy. Most notably, he would eliminate all taxes on incomes from capital gains and dividends. This income from holding financial assets is incredibly concentrated at the top. As Josh Barro notes, Rubio’s tax plan “would raise incomes for the top one-thousandth of taxpayers by 8.9 percent — that is, an average tax cut of more than $900,000 per year — because of its sharp cuts in tax rates on business income and capital income.”

Besides the massive distributional implications, this has consequences for finance’s power over the real economy. A lot of people are looking at the influence of the financial sector and the issue of “short-termism,” or the extensive prioritization of dividend and buyback payments to shareholders over real investments. Independent of its effects in driving inequality, Rubio’s removal of any taxes on dividends and capital gains would certainly scale this issue. As Danny Yagan has found, the substantial cuts to dividends passed by the George W. Bush administration didn’t boost investment. It did, however, boost dividends, something other research in finance has found. If you are worried that corporations prioritizing payouts instead of investments is a challenge to our economy, taking the extreme act of eliminating taxes on dividends and capital gains would send that spiraling.

The establishment “lane” has gone to Marco Rubio. We’ll soon find out if he’s capable of beating Donald Trump. But either way, that lane has become far more radical, and far more in sync with financial wealth, than anyone should have expected a year ago.

(Image via: Matt A.J.)

Paul Ryan And The Voluntarism Fantasy

When I wrote a long piece about the Voluntarism Fantasy at Democracy Journal, several people accused me of attacking a strawman. My argument was that there’s an influential, yet never clearly articulated, position on the conservative right that we jettison much of the federal government’s role in providing for economic security. In response, private charities, churches and “civil society” will rush in and do a better job. Who, complained conservatives, actually argues this?

Well, here’s McKay Coppins with a quite flattering 7,000 word piece on how Paul Ryan has a “newfound passion for the poor.” What is the animating core and idea of his new passion?

Ryan’s broad vision for curing American poverty is one that conservatives have been championing for the last half-century, more or less. He imagines a diverse network of local churches, charities, and service organizations doing much of the work the federal government took on in the 20th century. Rather than supplying jobless Americans with a never-ending stream of unemployment checks, for example, Ryan thinks the federal government should funnell [sic] resources toward community-based work programs like Pastor Webster’s.

Many are rightfully pointing out that this doesn’t square with his budget, which plans to eliminate a lot of spending on the poor in order to fund tax cuts for the rich. But in the same way that budget shenanigans like dynamic scoring are supposed to make his numbers work, there’s an invisible work of charity that will simply fill in however much is cut from the federal budget.
There’s a dead giveaway here. Note the “in the 20th century” rather than the normal “since the War on Poverty” as when things went wrong. Ryan doesn’t think the War on Poverty is a problem, or doesn’t just think that. He thinks the evolution of the state during the entire 20th century is the problem, and wants to return to the freer and better 19th century.
But as I emphasized in the piece, this idea is not true in history, theory or practice. The state has always played a role in providing economic security through things like poorhouses and soldier pensions well before the New Deal. When the Great Depression happened, the old system collapsed. Service organizations called on the government to take over things like old-age pensions, unemployment insurance and income support because they realized they couldn’t do it themselves. Freed of the heavy lifting of these major pieces of social insurance, they could focus in a more nimble manner on individual and targeted needs.
And the reasons this doesn’t work out are quite clear — charity is uncoordinated, very vulnerable to stress (charitable giving fell in the recession just as it was most needed), and tied to the whims and interests of the rich. And charitable organizations aren’t calling for the Ryan Budget, and they don’t think that they’ll run better and with better resources if Ryan’s cuts happen. They know firsthand they won’t have the resources to balance out the gigantic increase in need that would result.
(Elizabeth Stoker has more on attempts to link this fantasy up with Christianity broadly and Catholic subsidiarity specifically.)
Ideas have consequences. The fact that Ryan’s are fundamentally flawed on so many levels will have consequences too for the poor if they come to pass. Mike Konczal is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.Cross-posted from Rortybomb

The Roosevelt Institute is a nonprofit organization devoted to carrying forward the legacy and values of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

What Are Conservative Experts Saying About Breaking Through The Debt Ceiling?

There was a fantastic piece in The Atlantic back in 2000 about psychiatrists dealing with people who wanted to have their limbs cut off because it would make them feel more like themselves to be amputees. The doctors’ big dilemma was whether or not to treat “apotemnophilia” as a diagnosable mental illness. If they engaged with it as a mental illness that existed and was recognized by the medical community, they ran the risk of encouraging more patients to identify with it.

I have the same feelings about engaging in a debate over whether or not breaching the debt ceiling matters. I don’t want it to become a debate that people have, because it will get coded as yet another partisan thing pundits fight about, and thus reduce the seriousness with which we should regard the situation. That, in turn, could make a default even more likely. This is a problem we face because of the he-said/she-said coverage of political topics in most U.S. media.

Right now, many House Tea Party members believe that a default is impossible because we can prioritize interest payments to go first. There have been really great pieces written lately about going through the debt ceiling and what it would mean for the economy; Kevin RooseGreg Ip, and Matthew O’Brien have pieces that are particularly worth your time.

At a baseline, what they tell us is that even if that kind of prioritizing is possible, the legality is in doubt, we could still miss a payment, the economy would go into a recession from the sudden collapse of spending, and even flirting with this possibility has a bad effect on the economy. We also simply don’t know if prioritizing would work.

But I wanted to get a sense of what the right wing is hearing on this topic. In order to do that, I contacted three major conservative think tanks to ask for a comment from their experts “about the economic consequences of the government defaulting on its debt if it goes through the debt ceiling.” Here’s what I got.

Heritage

The Heritage Foundation immediately responded with a quote from this post, stating, “Congress still has some time and options. Even if the debt limit is not raised by mid-October, Boccia writes, ‘the Treasury would not necessarily default on debt obligations,’ as it can ‘reasonably be expected to prioritize principal and interest payments on the national debt, protecting the full faith and credit of the United States above all other spending.’”

They added, “In other words, risk of a default is practically nil — unless the President and Treasury choose to default, an unprecedented and almost inconceivable course of action.”

In short, Heritage’s position is that if there’s a default, it will be because the president chooses to default.

Cato Institute

The Cato Institute put me in touch with their senior fellow Dan Mitchell, who said, “I think the likelihood of an actual default is zero, or as close to zero as you can possibly get, for the simple reason that the Treasury Department has plenty of competent people who would somehow figure out how to prioritize payments.”

But wait, does the Obama administration have the legal authority to do something like that? “From what I understand. I’m an economist, not a lawyer. It’s a gray area.”

But isn’t it complicated to prioritize debt payments? “Interest on the debt is paid out of a different account than other government spending. So the argument that there’d be a lot of difficulty and challenges to prioritizing most payments is true, because it’s automatic.” However, “interest payments on the debt are apparently out of a different account, which presumably means that that it would be relatively simple to make sure that happens.”

But certainly it would cause some financial panic, right? “Will there be some economic repercussions? Financial markets I’m sure would be worried as we’d be in uncharted territory… Yes, I’m sure there’d be some anxiety. Especially if Bernanke or Lew or somebody like that is saying something that triggers concern, and spooks the markets.”

American Enterprise Institute

Bucking the trend, the American Enterprise Institute put me in touch with Michael Strain. What happens if we go through the debt ceiling? “First thing I’d say is that nobody really knows, and that’s the scary thing,” he told me. He referenced and drew on an LA Times editorial he had just written.

“I think you’d see a spike in interest rates. Though others think interest rates might fall because people would be spooked. Either way, we should consider it a catastrophe. If there’s a default it could cause a credit crunch. If the repo markets don’t consider Treasuries good collateral anymore there could be a panic. There really could be something similar to 2008.”

Could we prioritize payments? “What I would caution is that it is not clear we could do that. So, for example, back in the 1970s Congress waited until the 11th hour to raise the debt ceiling, and we were put into default by errors in execution. I’d caution that if we try and do something cute things can go wrong. And we don’t want to invite error. We saw what happened in 2011 — even with a deal and no default, even doing that really hurts the economy in a measurable way.”

So why is there so much fascination on the right with going through the debt ceiling? “When I do interviews with right-wing media there does seem to be a story that goes like this: They said the sequester would be horrible and the sky didn’t fall, they said that the government shutdown would be horrible, and the sky didn’t fall, and now they are saying going through the debt ceiling date would be horrible and why would we believe them this time? I’ve been trying to push back against this.”

Add to that last part the idea that conservatives are “winning” the shutdown, so why not push their luck and go through the debt ceiling, too? Especially when the majority of people doing the intellectual, “expert” work on the right are describing it as either consequence-free or an opportunity to blame President Obama for something.

Mike Konczal is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.

Cross-posted from Rortybomb

The Roosevelt Institute is a nonprofit organization devoted to carrying forward the legacy and values of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Photo: Matthew Bisanz via Wikimedia Commons

Is There Really A ‘Conservative Reform’ Movement In Policy?

A few years ago, Freddie DeBoer argued that the terms “left” and “liberal” in the political blogosphere were really more descriptive of argument style and political strategy rather than any actual ideological differences. I think there’s a similar issue at play in the wave of articles about conservatives seeking to reform the movement.

As 2013 rolls on, we are seeing more and more articles about conservative reformers. Ryan Cooper had a list of “reformish conservatives” at the Washington Monthly, and now Jonathan Chait has a great profile of Josh Barro at The Atlantic. I understand why these articles are written — they profile interesting conservative writers that people should read more. But I don’t think they actually make their point.

Here’s how Chait sets it up: “conservative reformists… [argue] that the GOP’s product itself, not merely its marketing slogans, needs to change. Writers like David Brooks, Ross Douthat, Reihan Salam, and Ramesh Ponnuru have made versions of this case for several years.”

So there are two elements. First, reformers think that the GOP is currently on the wrong track with its policies, and second, they believe there need to be more “middle-class-friendly solutions” in new policy. This is different from saying that reformers don’t argue that the economy is a giant Randian morality play, or that President Obama is a left-wing radical; it’s about specific policies.

Are either of these things true? I don’t see it. Or, I see it more on the marketing end than on the policy end. I’m going to keep specific individuals vague here and generalize, because the arguments are predicated on a general move rather than any idiosyncratic argument. Here’s what I take to be the current conservative policy consensus:

1. Social Security and Medicare should be privatized. The word “privatization” is a complicated one with a lot of meanings, but generally competition should come to Medicare and private accounts to Social Security. This is for budgeting reasons, but also ideological ones. As Yuval Levin wrote, “the vision that has dominated our political imagination for a century — the vision of the social-democratic welfare state — is drained and growing bankrupt.”

2. Everything that isn’t nailed to the floor should be block-granted to the states. From there, funding should be slowed, and private agents should be emphasized at all points. Welfare reform, but for everything (especially Medicaid).

3. The tax code is too progressive, and that was true even before the changes in the fiscal cliff. The number of brackets should be reduced, perhaps even to two. Taxes in general should be lower, with some base-broadening to balance it.

4. The way to deal with health care is to allow insurance purchases across state lines while supporting state-level pre-existing condition pools. Ending Obamacare by itself is smart policy, even if something doesn’t “replace” it. And if push comes to shove, universal coverage is not a necessary goal.

5. Inequality is largely a non-issue, manipulated by liberals to justify their programs. The rich work harder in a global market that rewards skills and superstars. The middle class is only stagnating if you ignore health care costs and the fact that you can consume better technology cheaper. The economy works far better for average people than liberals understand.

6. Global warming, to whatever extent it is happening, should not have a government response to try and reduce carbon. Market signals, technology, migration, and adapting are better and cheaper options for even the gloomiest predictions. Or, looking at it in a different way, growth will ultimately solve the problem of global warming, and so any government policy that hurts growth (which they all do) is the wrong option.

I don’t think I’m making a strawman here. (1-3 is directly from Paul Ryan.) So the question is: How many of the reformers disagree with any of those? This is the core of current policy, and I don’t know if any of the reformish crew even disagree with these statements, much less want to spend the energy challenging them.

Now what about disagreements? What are they adding to the table? As far as I read what reformers bring to the table, it consists of:

a. Monetary policy shouldn’t adopt a price stability mandate (or a gold standard, for that matter), and in fact Ben Bernanke could and should be doing more to help the recovery with the powers he has available. (Fiscal policy like the stimulus, however, is a bad idea that largely fails.)

b. Tax credits, particularly the earned income tax credit and the child tax credit, are successful programs which might even be expanded. They’re good even though they mean 47 percent of Americans pay no federal income tax, which conservatives hate. (“Predistribution” means of boosting low-end wages, like a higher minimum wage, should be avoided though.)

c. Financial institutions should hold more capital, and perhaps we should apply a “structural” reform to the sector like a size cap or siloing of functions.

d. The government protects incumbent interests in industry, both with obvious subsidies but also with certain property rights, like copyright.

Am I missing more? These are important things, but it’s really tough to think of this as a general new direction in policy. Much of it is actually a defense and potential extension of already-existing policies against people further to the right. And even here you’ll have major disagreements. (It is amusing to think of Timothy P. Carney writing a column about how Ben Bernanke needs to “commit to being irresponsible.”)

A lot of the reformer articles posit more aggressive conservative reformers like David Frum, Bruce Bartlett, and now Josh Barro. What stands out to me is that these three write as if the Obama administration happened. The rest of the reformers write as if his first term never happened as a baseline, and crucially that they can’t write stuff seen as getting in the way of repeal.

They also understand that the Great Recession destroyed the previous consensus that we had solved the question of the business cycle. It’s tougher to argue that we should have a radically smaller federal government when it looks like the size of the government and automatic stabilizers helped keep the Great Recession from becoming a Great Depression-like collapse. The reformers have bounced around on this topic, but aside from the three mentioned, they haven’t had conversions. Mostly they believe the Great Moderation should have just tried harder.

I’d emphasize one last thing about the policy of conservative reformers: In practice it will likely be more gestural than substantive. I don’t know enough to mediate the health care battles, but I do know financial reform pretty well. And as financial reform is often brought out as an example of new reformers at work, it’s interesting to watch the lack of attention reformers pay to the actual nuts and bolts of the process.

I don’t see reformers call for getting the head of the CFPB appointed. I don’t see them arguing that repealing FDIC’s new resolution authority powers should be taken out of the Ryan Budget. I don’t see them arguing that efforts to repeal derivatives regulations already are premature or bad policy. I don’t see them angry about the mess of the securitization servicing system, which is creating a nightmare of law-breaking in the housing market. I also don’t seem them arguing the opposite either.

It’s focused on “break up the banks!” Crucially, this gets its energy from the idea that We Should Do Something Big about financial reform, rather than how it plays into a larger set of regulations, laws, and markets. It’s to position the Republicans as Doing Something where the Democrats haven’t. It’s sadly less policy and more political strategizing.

Mike Konczal is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.

Cross-posted from Rortybomb.

The Roosevelt Institute is a non-profit organization devoted to carrying forward the legacy and values of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File

Austerity Debunked? Math Is Dead Wrong In Major Study Cited By Deficit Hawks

In 2010, economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff released a seminal paper titled “Growth in a Time of Debt,” which had a significant impact on policy in Washington and elsewhere. Their paper’s most important finding was that “median growth rates for countries with public debt over 90 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) are roughly one percent lower than otherwise; average (mean) growth rates are several percent lower.”  Indeed, they found that countries with debt-to-GDP ratios above 90 percent have a slightly negative average growth rate.

For politicians and pundits hoping to discredit public spending, the implications of their paper were all too clear. Taken as an econometric justification for austerity, the Reinhart-Rogoff finding has been one of the most cited stats in the public debate during the Great Recession. Paul Ryan’s “Path to Prosperity” budget notes that their study “found conclusive empirical evidence that [debt] exceeding 90 percent of the economy has a significant negative effect on economic growth.” The Washington Post editorial board has quoted it as the sign of an economic consensus, stating that “debt-to-GDP could keep rising — and stick dangerously near the 90 percent mark that economists regard as a threat to sustainable economic growth.”

Are their findings truly conclusive? Some critics have argued that the causation is backwards, meaning that slower growth leads to higher debt-to-GDP ratios. Josh Bivens and John Irons made this case at the Economic Policy Institute. But their argument assumes that the data used by Reinhart and Rogoff are correct. From the beginning, however, others have complained that Reinhart and Rogoff weren’t releasing the data behind their results (e.g. Dean Baker). Without the data, it was impossible to test their results by replicating them.

In a new paper, “Does High Public Debt Consistently Stifle Economic Growth? A Critique of Reinhart and Rogoff,”  economists Thomas Herndon, Michael Ash, and Robert Pollin of the University of Massachusetts successfully tested the results. After trying to replicate the Reinhart-Rogoff results and failing, they reached out to Reinhart and Rogoff, who were willing to share their data spreadsheet. This allowed the UMass economists to see how how Reinhart and Rogoff’s data were constructed.

Three significant issues in the data stood out: First, Reinhart and Rogoff selectively exclude years of high debt and average growth. Second, they use a debatable method to weight the countries whose data they used. Third, an apparent coding error in their calculations excludes high-debt and average-growth countries. All three create a bias in favor of their result — and without them, the Reinhart-Rogoff study’s controversial result collapses.

Let’s investigate further:

Selective Exclusions. Reinhart-Rogoff use 1946-2009 as their period of measurement, with the main difference among countries being the starting year. In their data set, there are 110 years of data available for countries that have a debt/GDP over 90 percent, but they only use 96 of those years. The paper didn’t disclose which years they excluded — or why.

The UMass researchers reveal that the study excludes Australia (1946-1950), New Zealand (1946-1949), and Canada (1946-1950). Since these countries have high-debt and solid growth, the consequences of excluding them are clear. Canada had debt-to-GDP over 90 percent during this period — and 3 percent growth. New Zealand had a debt/GDP over 90 percent from 1946-1951. If you use New Zealand’s average growth rate across all those years, it is 2.58 percent; if you only use the last year, as Reinhart-Rogoff does, the Kiwi growth rate is -7.6 percent. That’s a big difference, especially considering how they weigh the countries.

Unconventional Weighting. Reinhart-Rogoff divides country years into debt-to-GDP buckets. They then take the average real growth for each country within the buckets. So the growth rates during the 19 years that England is above 90 percent debt-to-GDP are averaged into a single number. Those country numbers are then averaged, equally by country, to calculate the average real GDP growth weight.

If that is difficult to understand, here’s an example: England has 19 years (1946-1964) above 90 percent debt-to-GDP with an average 2.4 percent growth rate. New Zealand has only one year in the sample above 90 percent debt-to-GDP, with a negative growth rate of -7.6. In their final calculation, Reinhart and Rogoff give these two numbers, 2.4 and -7.6 percent, equal weight, as they average the countries equally — even though they have 19 times as many data points for England.

In their original paper, Reinhart and Rogoff don’t discuss or justify this methodology.

Coding Error. As the UMass economists note: “A coding error [in the Reinhart-Rogoff spreadsheet) entirely excludes five countries, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, and Denmark, from the analysis. [Reinhart-Rogoff] averaged cells in lines 30 to 44 instead of lines 30 to 49…This spreadsheet error…is responsible for a -0.3 percentage-point error in RR’s published average real GDP growth in the highest public debt/GDP category.” Belgium, in particular, has 26 years with debt-to-GDP above 90 percent, with an average growth rate of 2.6 percent (though this is only counted as one total point due to the weighting above).

Here is the Excel spreadsheet, with blue-box marking for formulas missing some data:

This error was essential to get the results published by Reinhart and Rogoff — and goes a long way toward explaining why other economists have been unable to replicate their results. If this error turns out to be an actual mistake made by Reinhart-Rogoff, all we can hope is that future historians will record that one of the core empirical points providing the intellectual foundation for the global move to austerity during this era was based on someone accidentally not updating a row formula in Excel.

So what do the UMass economists conclude in their critique of the Reinhart and Rogoff study? They find that “the average real GDP growth rate for countries carrying a public debt-to-GDP ratio of over 90 percent is actually 2.2 percent, not -0.1 percent as [Reinhart-Rogoff claim].”  That finding depends on including all the years, weighting by number of years, and avoiding that Excel error.  Going further into the data, they are unable to find a breaking point where growth falls quickly and significantly.

The lesson to economists here may be to release all data online, so it can be properly vetted. But beyond that, looking through the data and how much it can collapse because of this or that assumption, it becomes quite clear that there’s no magic number out there. The national debt needs to be thought of as a response to the contingent circumstances we find ourselves in — with mass unemployment, a Federal Reserve desperately trying to gain traction at the lowest possible interest rates, and a gap between what we could be producing and what we are producing.

The past may guide us, however — and what the past says is that right now, what would help is a larger deficit.

Mike Konczal is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.

Cross-posted from the Roosevelt Institute’s Next New Deal blog

The Roosevelt Institute is a nonprofit organization devoted to carrying forward the legacy and values of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Another Reason To Kill The Debt Ceiling: Conservative Think Tanks’ Responses To Default

House Republicans are looking to weaponize the debt ceiling again, while the Obama administration is trying to make removing the threat of default part of any agreement.

Here’s one reason why the debt ceiling needs to go: the conservative intellectual infrastructure cheered on a potential default. I had imagined that there would be a good cop/bad cop dynamic to the right. Very conservative political leaders would be the bad cop, saying that they weren’t afraid to default on the debt, while conservative think tanks would play a version of the good cop, warning of the dire consequences of a default for the economy if their bad cop friend didn’t get his way.

For instance, here’s bad cop Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) saying that the markets “would actually accept even a delay in interest payments on the Treasuries,” especially “if it meant that Congress would right this ship, address this fiscal imbalance, and put us on a sustainable path, and that the bond market would rally if it saw we were making real progress towards this.” Missing interest payments is fine; in fact, it is great for the country if it is used to pass the Ryan Plan.

Financial analysts, to put it mildly, disagreed. JP Morgan analysts wrote that “any delay in making a coupon or principal payment by Treasury would almost certainly have large systemic effects with long-term adverse consequences for Treasury finances and the US economy.”

Here’s where the think tanks are fascinating. You could imagine them saying “our partner Toomey is nuts, we can’t control him, and you’d better do what he says or there’s going to be real damage.” But that’s not what they did. It’s best to split the work they did on the debt ceiling in two directions:

1. Technical Default Ain’t No Thang. The first is arguing, like Toomey, that a “technical default” wouldn’t matter, and in fact it could be a great thing if the Ryan Plan passed as a result. How did James Pethokoukis, then of Fortune and now of AEI, deal with a Moody’s report arguing a “short-lived default” would hurt the economy? Pethokoukis: “I guess I would care more about what Moody’s had to say if a) they hadn’t missed the whole financial crisis, b) didn’t want to see higher taxes as part of any fiscal fix and c) if they made any economic sense.” Default doesn’t matter because Pethokoukis doesn’t want taxes to go up, and there’s no economic sense because of an interview he read in the Wall Street Journal.

Others went even further, arguing that the real defaulters are those who, um, don’t want to default on the debt. Here’s the conservative think tank e21 with a staff editorial arguing that “policymakers need to stay focused on the real default issue: whether the terms of the debt limit increase this summer will be sufficiently tough to ensure that the nation’s debt-to-GDP ratio is stabilized and eventually sharply reduced.” All these people who want a clean debt ceiling increase are causing the real default issue. As someone who used to do a lot of credit risk modeling, this is my favorite: “Indeed, those demanding the toughest concessions today actually have a strong pro-creditor bias.” S&P disagreed with whoever wrote that editorial and increased the credit risk (downgraded) based on the threat of this technical default.

The Heritage Foundation wrote a white paper saying that you could just “hold the debt limit in place, thereby forcing an immediate reduction in non-interest spending averaging about $125 billion each month,” and that “refusing to raise the debt limit would not, in and of itself, cause the United States to default on its public debt.” Dana Milbank noted that these kinds of shuffling plans would still leave the government short and likely cause a recession. Milbank: “Without borrowing, we’d have to cut Obama’s budget for 2012 by $1.5 trillion. That means even if we shut down the military and stopped writing Social Security checks, the government would still come up about $200 billion short.” The Cato Institute also jumped in with the technical default crowd here.

But that was the reaction from the number-crunching analysts. What about the bosses?

2. Civilization Hangs in the Balance of the Debt Ceiling Fight. Here’s the president of AEI, Arthur C. Brooks, in July 2011: “The battle over the debt ceiling…is not a political fight between Republicans and Democrats; it is a fight against 50-year trends toward statism…No one deserves our political support today unless he or she is willing to work for as long as it takes to win the moral fight to steer our nation back toward enterprise and self-governance.”

Even better, the president of The Heritage Foundation, also in July 2011, compares Democrats to Japan during World War II and then argues: “We must win this fight. The debate over raising the debt limit seems complicated, but it is really very simple. Look beyond the myriad details of the awkward compromises, and you see an epic struggle between two opposing camps….Congress should not raise the debt limit without getting spending under control.”

So the the conservative intellectual infrastructure, which consumes hundreds of millions of dollars a year, looked at the possibility of a debt default and determined it was both inconsequential and also the only way to stop statism in our lifetimes. No wonder the time period around the debt ceiling in 2011 was such a disaster for our economy, killing around 250,000 jobs that should have been created. There’s no reason to assume all the same players won’t play an even worse cop this time around.

There’s no good reason for the debt ceiling, and now there are really bad consequences for its existence. Time to end it.

Mike Konczal is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.

Cross-posted from Rortybomb

The Roosevelt Institute is a nonprofit organization devoted to carrying forward the legacy and values of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

How To Strengthen Financial Reform In The Next Four Years

As part of our series “A Rooseveltian Second-Term Agenda,” an outline of what needs to be done to build upon and safeguard Dodd-Frank.

One of the Obama administration’s biggest vulnerabilities when it comes to its first-term policy legacy was that the roots of the legislation it ushered through wouldn’t take hold until around 2014. Thus if a Republican president took office in 2013, there was a real chance that he could dismantle, or at least strongly interfere with, the new framework for health care and financial regulations. And it was clear by 2010 that movement conservatives would make the repeal or collapse of both bills a litmus test for all Republicans in office.

But with President Obama’s victory last week, the core framework of Dodd-Frank, the financial reform bill he signed in 2010, will become the law of the land. The question now is how to best push it forward in the coming months and years.

The most sensible, immediate reform would be to give regulators the adequate resources necessary to do their jobs. The Commodity Futures Trading Commission had its funding cut by both parties last year in a move that will make their crucial work even harder to accomplish. The GOP is aiming to remove the independent funding stream for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Without decent resources, it is unlikely that financial reform will be carried out effectively.

The next goal will require new reforms to draw some lines on the issues that haven’t been implemented well after the initial passage of the law. The Volcker Rule continues to be a mess while rules are being written. There isn’t a clear vision for what important new offices like the Office for Financial Research will set out to accomplish. These are major pieces of the legislation and are essential to creating fair, accountable, and transparent markets.

Fleshing out the post-Dodd-Frank agenda is also crucial. What should the proper regulations, if any, of high-frequency trading look like? Is breaking up the banks necessary for eliminating Too Big To Fail and the power of the financial firms over the markets, as a larger chorus of experts is starting to argue? How important is the government in preserving middle-class access to a 30-year fixed-interest-rate mortgage loan?

Fighting off a bipartisan effort to make Dodd-Frank more industry-friendly will continue to be a full-time battle. But even though we don’t have to worry about the party in power repealing what has already been put into place, there’s no excuse for neglecting to articulate a vision for a financial sector that serves the greater interests of the real economy.

Mike Konczal is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.

Cross-posted from The Roosevelt Institute’s Next New Deal blog

The Roosevelt Institute is a nonprofit organization devoted to carrying forward the legacy and values of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Photo by “mlmdotcom” via Flickr.com

Worried About ‘Too Big To Fail’ Banks? Ignore Romney’s Attacks In The Debate

The big question is not whether to dismantle Dodd-Frank, but whether it gets implemented correctly.

Wednesday’s presidential debate had a relatively detailed discussion of the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill. From a transcript, this is how President Obama described what the bill does:

We said you’ve got — banks, you’ve got to raise your capital requirements. You can’t engage in some of this risky behavior that is putting Main Street at risk. We’ve going to make sure that you’ve got to have a living will so — so we can know how you’re going to wind things down if you make a bad bet so we don’t have other taxpayer bailouts. […] And, you know, I appreciate and it appears we’ve got some agreement that a marketplace to work has to have some regulation. But in the past, Governor Romney has said he just want to repeal Dodd- Frank, roll it back.

And so the question is: Does anybody out there think that the big problem we had is that there was too much oversight and regulation of Wall Street? Because if you do, then Governor Romney is your candidate. But that’s not what I believe.

The sleepy delivery aside, this is a good description. I would have liked to have seen a reference to the CFPB (“cops on the beat protecting consumers”) and derivatives reform (“making sure our financial markets are transparent”), since they are both under serious attack by conservatives. But it’s not bad for a high-level overview.

What was Mitt Romney’s critique of Dodd-Frank?

One is it designates a number of banks as too big to fail, and they’re effectively guaranteed by the federal government. This is the biggest kiss that’s been given to — to New York banks I’ve ever seen. This is an enormous boon for them….We need to get rid of that provision because it’s killing regional and small banks. They’re getting hurt.

Let me mention another regulation in Dodd-Frank. You say we were giving mortgages to people who weren’t qualified. That’s exactly right. It’s one of the reasons for the great financial calamity we had. And so Dodd-Frank correctly says we need to have qualified mortgages, and if you give a mortgage that’s not qualified, there are big penalties, except they didn’t ever go on and define what a qualified mortgage was.

It’s been two years. We don’t know what a qualified mortgage is yet. So banks are reluctant to make loans, mortgages. Try and get a mortgage these days. It’s hurt the housing market because Dodd-Frank didn’t anticipate putting in place the kinds of regulations you have to have. It’s not that Dodd-Frank always was wrong with too much regulation. Sometimes they didn’t come out with a clear regulation.

First off, as Adam Levitin notes, the reason that we don’t have a QM definition is because that requires having a CFPB director. And who has been blocking a CFPB director consistently from the beginning? Senate Republicans. President Obama had to recess-appoint a director in order to get this rule started, much to the chagrin of Republicans. So it is a bit much to block the nominee necessary to start the agency and then complain the agency isn’t getting things done.

That said, there are two major complaints here. The first is that Dodd-Frank’s “resolution authority” and regulations for systemically important financial institutions (SIFI) are a “wet kiss” to the banks, and the second is that qualified mortgages are holding up the financial market. Let’s take them in turn.

SIFI and Too Big To Fail

Part of Dodd-Frank’s approach involves creating a graduated system of regulatory burdens for risky financial firms, combined with special resolution authority powers housed at the FDIC to resolve these firms when they fail. This gets attacked by conservatives, an attack Mitt Romney reiterated, because, they believe, it has three problems: (1) it picks a handful of winners, (2) protects those winners from competition through regulations that have no teeth, and (3) gives a signal to the market that these firms will be bailed out again in the future.

To address complaint (1), all bank holding companies with $50 billion or more in consolidated assets are included without a necessary designation, and systemically important financial institutions (SIFI) are included as well after a determination process. So it isn’t just the top five firms, but instead the 35-plus that are all larger in size. If it were an advantage to be declared systemically important, SIFI financial firms would be fighting to get the designation. By all accounts they are not, and indeed they are fighting against this status.

For (2), it makes sense that they are fighting the designation because Dodd-Frank requires more capital and includes more requirements for riskier firms. Take Sec. 165, which requires “large, interconnected financial institutions” to be subject to “prudential standards…more stringent than the standards and requirements applicable to non-bank financial companies and bank holding companies that do not present similar risks to the financial stability of the United States.”

Or Sec. 171, which requires that capital requirements scale with “concentrations in market share for any activity that would substantially disrupt financial markets if the institution is forced to unexpectedly cease the activity.” The idea is that if a firm wants to get bigger or engage in riskier activity, the normal prudential requirements to hold more capital and plan for a failure should scale as well.

For (3), the question is whether it will work or whether the market will think there will be endless bailouts. As I’ve described at length elsewhere, the resolution authority in Dodd-Frank is designed to precommit against bailouts. You need three institutions to approve resolution, who must consider the decision with a bias toward the market and the bankruptcy code. If there’s a liquidation, the FDIC has to wipe out shareholders, hit creditors, fire management and board members, and can’t buy equity in the firm to keep it alive. The problem we face isn’t Dodd-Frank, but Congress and the executive branch passing “TARP: Part Two.”

So how is the market reacting? Jennie Bai, Christian Cabanilla, and Menno Middeldorp of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York wrote a great paper recently that used “Moody’s KMV credit default swap (CDS) implied probability of default to gauge changes in the market perception of the risk that senior bondholders will not be completely repaid.” (Disclosure: In the past, I worked at Moody’s KMV, a well-regarded credit risk firm founded as KMV by three old-school quants, as a financial engineer. As a result, I’m biased towards their probability of default methodologies as a metric.)

What did they find?

Using the results from this regression and the shift in Bloomberg resolution news over our sample, we estimate that the anticipated and actual changes in resolution regime have increased the CDS market’s expectations of default by approximately 20 basis points, which is around a fifth of the average CDS-implied default probability for G-SIFIs in March 2012. While this doesn’t necessarily mean that markets are no longer pricing in any possibility of government support, it does suggest that the new laws have resulted in the CDS market taking into account the view that senior bondholders run a higher risk that they’ll need to share in the costs of bank resolution.

The market is starting to price in the risk that senior bondholders at risky, major financial firms will take hits, and those risks are priced in alongside movements in the resolution authority law. Given that the rules aren’t completed yet and that there are additional ways to bolster them, this is a good sign. Mitt Romney’s attack on the overall plan embodied in Dodd-Frank isn’t the right approach for people serious about tackling Too Big To Fail. The problems we should be worried about are whether there is a good implementation of the law and if it is sufficient for taking down a major firm.

QM

In addition to Adam Levitin’s piece, you should read John Griffith and Julia Gordon of Center for American Progress, writing over at ThinkProgress, who have a piece on the QM issue.

We’re thrilled to hear Romney give such a full-throated defense of the ability-to-repay rule. It’s a welcomed about-face from his recent calls to repeal Dodd-Frank and dismantle the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the federal agency that’s responsible for enforcing the rule. That said, Romney has a few key facts wrong.

As Romney points out, the ability-to-repay rule has not yet taken effect as regulators are still defining the “Qualified Mortgage” exemption. But the Republican candidate neglected to mention that the final rule isn’t due until January 2013 — a deadline regulators appear to be on pace to meet. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau submitted its proposed rule back in April and is currently hashing through public comments.

Romney seems to imply some sort of negligence or malfeasance from the Obama administration that is preventing the rule from being completed. Alas, no scandal here. The Dodd-Frank law is actually quite clear about what type of loan should be considered a “Qualified Mortgage.” The loan must be well-underwritten with verified income, employment, and debt information. Loan payments can’t exceed a certain percentage of the borrower’s net monthly income. The loan can’t contain risky features like negative amortization, interest-only payments, or balloon payments. The list goes on.

It’s a shame the debates didn’t include anything on foreclosures or the housing market more generally, but the Dodd-Frank discussion was a pleasant surprise.

Cross-posted from Rortybomb

Four Histories Of The Right’s 47 Percent Theory

As you’ve likely heard, Mitt Romney was recorded at a fundraiser saying “there are 47 percent who are with [President Obama], who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it […] These are people who pay no income tax.”

The right is splitting over whether or not the 47 percent argument is worth defending. It’s important to understand that, while it is true that 47 percent of households don’t pay federal income tax, the distribution of the tax burden isn’t what the 47 percent theory is about. The 47 percent theory is all about grand political battles. My colleague Mark Schmitt has one examination of where this theory comes from hereBrian Beutler also investigates the background of the 47 percent meme, and Kevin Drum offers a history of the Earnd Income Tax Credit here.

Digging into different arguments, there are two distinct parts to a good 47 percent theory. The first is who creates and sustains the 47 percent as a political agent. This can’t be the bipartisan set of policymakers who wanted to provide income support through work requirements as well as expand certain credits, particularly the child credit; it needs to be agents with specific, outside political goals. Those who pay little or no income tax are a coherent group that acts like a special interest or a class. Instead of the young and the old, as well as the working poor moving into and out of the EITC, this group of people is stable enough that it can act as a coherent political class, but it needs to be created and sustained. Who made it?

The second part of a good 47 percent theory is that the consequences need to be terrible because the stakes are so high. Rather than successfully transitioning people out of poverty and into work, the consequences are negative for our country. But how high are those stakes, and what do they represent?

Let’s start at the beginning. Where does this meme start?

1. Trickle On Trickle Down: The Lucky Duckies of the Wall Street Journal Editorial Page: Let’s look at the Wall Street Journal‘s opinion page, November 20, 2002, “The Non-Taxpaying Class: Those lucky duckies”:

“Who are these lucky duckies? They are the beneficiaries of tax policies that have expanded the personal exemption and standard deduction and targeted certain voter groups by introducing a welter of tax credits for things like child care and education […] The 1986 tax reform, for example, with its giant increase in the personal exemption and standard deduction, took six to seven million people off the tax rolls […] This complicated system of progressivity and targeted rewards is creating a nation of two different tax-paying classes: those who pay a lot and those who pay very little. And as fewer and fewer people are responsible for paying more and more of all taxes, the constituency for tax cutting, much less for tax reform, is eroding. Workers who pay little or no taxes can hardly be expected to care about tax relief for everybody else. They are also that much more detached from recognizing the costs of government.
All of which suggests that the last thing the White House should do now is come up with more exemptions, deductions and credits that will shrink the tax-paying population even further.”

This argument was developed in future editorals. A few weeks later, in  “Lucky Duckies Again: Look at who won’t pay taxes under Bush’s plan”, the Journal noted that “No doubt the Bush team proposed this tilt toward lower income taxpayers to mute the class-warrior critics, not that we’ve noticed any lower decibel level.”

Who? Interestingly enough, this looks like an internal fight among conservatives and Republicans. That’s how Krugman read it at the time, and it seems obvious from that last sentence. The Bush tax cuts are going to be across all families, and the editorial is warning that this is the wrong approach. It should focus just on the rich, corporations, and capital income holders. The editorial is clear that they don’t want to raise taxes on those who are exempted from the federal income tax; they just fear that these across-the-board tax cuts will knock a lot of people out of the system.

This was a correct assertion, as this number skyrocketed after the George W. Bush tax cuts. To whatever extent the Bush team didn’t want to do this, they felt boxed in politically. As a top Bush administration official later told Ezra Klein, “Do you think we wanted to include a welfare payment to people who don’t pay taxes and call it a tax cut? No. But that’s what we needed to do to get it done.”

Consequences? The editorial warned that this policy would buy them no room with the “class-warrior critics,” and that’s probably a fair assessment. Repealing the Bush tax cuts has been a consistent goal for Democrats, and their preferred approach is even worse than the Wall Street Journal could have imagined. The Journal just wanted tax cuts on those making over $250,000, and warned about cutting at the bottom end of the spectrum because of the lucky duckies. Now the situation is reversed, and President Obama is looking to keep the tax cuts for those making under $250,000 and repeal the rest.

There’s the idea that as a policy matter workers will simply not care for cutting taxes or for tax reform more broadly. This is why Romney can say “So our message of low taxes doesn’t connect.” But this isn’t played up in apocalyptic terms. The editorials seemed more concerned that the federal tax code will retain its progressivity under this tax cut, rather than the lucky duckies initating a new culture war. This is in stark opposition to:

2. The Battle: Right Wing Think Tanks and the New Culture War: Let’s jump forward, and see how the expensive, Washington D.C. think tanks react to President Obama. President Obama is a wonky technocrat, and much of his policy borrows from conservative policy of the 1990s (health care) or bipartisan policy of the 2000s (cap-and-trade) or policy that was new and open to debate (post-crisis financial regulations). The new president of the American Enterprise Institute, Arthur C. Brooks, writes a book calledThe Battle: How the Fight between Free Enterprise and Big Government Will Shape America’s Future. How does he think of the 47 percent? Focusing on “long-term strategies to keep the young in the 30 percent coalition,” he writes:

Federal tax policies are ensuring that an increasing number of people in our society will never develop a pocketbook interest in free enterprise. Even as they grow older, develop their careers, and earn more money, many will never pay a dollar in federal income tax because they’ll never catch up with an increasingly progressive tax system.

To put a modern twist on an old axiom, a man who is not a socialist at 20 has no heart. But a man who is still a socialist at 40 has no head-or pays no taxes. The current trend will increase the percentage of Americans who are permanent net takers from our society, who use more in public resources than they contribute, and for whom a free-enterprise system of entrepreneurship and limited government holds few obvious personal rewards. In a nutshell, the strategy is to make fewer and fewer people pay all the taxes and bear the brunt of paying for a growing government […] After President Obama’s budget stimulus and the proposed tax changes of 2011 […] this proportion will increast to almost 47 percent. […]

Simply stated, in the future there will be fewer and fewer people with “skin in the game.” Nonpayers will outnumber the payers. We will enventually reach a threshold beyond which most Americans have no economic incentive to defend free enterprise because it is so far from their interest to do so. The young sympathizers of socialism today may be the grown-up defenders of socialism tomorrow.

As Mark Schmitt wrote, “this theory that we’re headed toward a radical egalitarian state is being developed is the American Enterprise Institute, the oldest of the conservative think tanks and one that, much like Romney, has forsaken the traditional business-minded conservatism of, say, the first President Bush, for hard conservatism in which everything is a grand showdown of incompatible worldviews.” And The Battlewas the first statement that President Obama was at the vanguard of a new culture war on economic issues. Instead of wanting a government that consumes 25 percent of GDP and has a public welfare state versus one that consumes 19 percent and has a private welfare state, he is the economic equivalent of Robert Mapplethorpe. The right takes this book seriously; the author of the most prominent critical review of the book from the right was canned from his think tank job a month after it came out.

Who? The “30 percent” are the ones behind this expansion of people who don’t pay federal income taxes, and they’ll continue to expand it. Now before you think you wandered into a Wu-Tang song, we should clarify Brooks’ definition of the 30 percent and the 70 percent. The 30 percent are a group of people who“reject the free enterprise system culturally.” The free enterprise system stands in “stark contrast to European-style social democracy.” The 30 percent “twists equality of opportunity into equality of outcome.” Any idea that American liberalism stands in contrast to free market laissez-faire and Marxism isn’t explored; the 30 percent are entirely the bad guys, waiting to fundamentally change the country. Jonathan Chait wrote an excellent review of the book here,

Consequences? The big consequence is that this locks young people into socialism and the intellectual space of the 30 percent coalition, building their power. Having never paid taxes, they and others who benefit will think of government as free. So the 30 percent are then capable of continuing to seize more centralized control of the economy and defeat the cultural forces of free enterprise. The Battle is obsessed with how President Obama won in 2008; one conclusion is that the 30 percent doesn’t need to win people over intellectually, but just needs to keep enough people not paying taxes so that they’ll form a coherent base, particularly the young. But the 30 percent culture allows Romney to note that those who oppose his message “are dependent upon government [and] believe that they are victims.”


3. The Hammock. During the Q&A part of this 2011 Paul Ryan speech at Heritage (19m35s), Ryan noted:

I think it’s 49 percent of people who don’t pay taxes today, though there are other taxes. Here’s the danger I think we have. We’re coming close to a tipping point in America where we might have a net majority of takers versus makers in society and that could become very dangerous if it sets in as a permanent condition. Because what we’ll end up doing is we will convert our safety net system – which is necessary I believe, to help people who can’t help themselves, to help people who are down on their luck get back on their feet – we could turn that into a hammock that ends up lulling people into lives of dependency and complacency, which drains them of the incentives and the will to make the most of their lives.

Who? The do-gooders who created the social safety net.  It’s too generous, too unconditional and not tied enough to work. In a practical way, it is the safety net itself that is creating this condition. Rather than the correct interpretation that people who are not paying taxes are receiving income support that requires work or various, purposely chosen tax credits, this indicts everything from health care to unemployment insurance (which, by definition, you needed to have worked to receive). This is a smart approach, because while going after the “30 percent” isn’t really a political platform, dramatically reducing the social safety net is.

Consequences? It’s not clear what “complacency” means in this condition, but dependency means that more and more income will come from the government. As this happens, their ability to take personal responsibility will fall apart. People will be beyond the ability to help themselves, hypnotized as they are by the siren’s call of the welfare state. This is why Romney can say “I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

4. Takers and Public Choice:

From Reason Magazine a while ago:

DeMint: Almost half of Americans are getting something from government, and the other half are paying for it. And we’re on a track where 60 percent are getting something from government and 40 percent are paying for it. You can’t sustain a democracy with that mix.

Reason: Because the 60 percent is going to be voting a bigger and bigger share of the 40 percent’s money?

DeMint: It’s hard to win elections when you’re talking about limited government if the constituents want more from government. You see that phenomenon on display in Greece. When the country is going down in flames, there are still people in the street, demonstrating for more government benefits. We’ve got to understand we’re in trouble, that we don’t have much time.

Or this from Steve Doocey on Fox and Friends: “Coming up! A controversial question. With 47% of Americans not paying taxes – 47% – should those who don’t pay be allowed to vote?”

Who? The 47 percent themselves. As predicted by Public Choice theory, those at the bottom half of the income scale vote into office people willing to take from the top half of the income scale. Since the average is above the median in income, there’s always redistribution from the average to the median to be done. Here the intellectuals of the 30 percent, or the welfare state, or GOP strategy are all secondary; the ravages of democracy are the culprit.

Consequences? The system eventually collapses into itself, as those at the margin work less and also join in demanding more. DeMint alludes to Greece, where the collapse of the government seems almost to be part of the plan to then take over the state, which is consistent with the right’s conspiracy theory of the Cloward-Piven strategy. But this focus on stop-gating the median voter allows for Romney to think “What I have to do is convince the 5 to 10 percent in the center that are independents.”
Presumably there are more. What else is missing?

Cross-posted from Rortybomb

Mike Konczal is a fellow with the Roosevelt Institute

How Republicans Would Gut Regulations That Guard Against Another Meltdown

Republicans might not repeal Dodd-Frank outright, but they’d eliminate the system of rules that make it work.

It was just announced that Tim Pawlenty will become the head of the bank lobbying group Financial Services Roundtable. The powerful financial lobbying group, which represents groups like JP Morgan and Bank of America among other big financial sector players, appears to be aligning itself more closely with the Republican Party and betting on the idea that Republicans will control at least part of Congress. But what do they want? Earlier in the year, I argued in Washington Monthly that they’d like to repeal the core parts of financial reform.

Recently, Phil Mattingly had an article at Bloomberg Businessweek about how the GOP and Mitt Romney would approach Dodd-Frank. This is with a hat-tip to Reihan Salam who notes that this article “has confirmed something I’ve heard from well-informed insiders” and makes additional arguments [1]. So it seems well-sourced.

Mattingly’s argument is that it is unlikely that the Republicans will outright repeal Dodd-Frank. “Instead, President Romney would likely try to give the financial industry something it wants more: a diluted financial reform law that would relax restrictions on some of its most profitable—and riskiest—investments but maintain enough government oversight to give the banks cover.”

So what would the Republicans try to dilute and remove? Mattingly:

“Wall Street wants to loosen rules governing the swaps market, which generated $7 billion in revenue in the first quarter of 2012, according to government records. The banks would also get rid of restrictions on bank investment in private equity and hedge funds, pare back the power of the new federal consumer protection agency, and block the Volcker Rule, which bars banks from trading with money from their own accounts, a practice that can put customer deposits at risk. […]

Wall Street doesn’t oppose everything in the law. Banks support the “resolution authority” that spells out how and when the government can seize and wind down struggling banks before they catastrophically fail.”

So they want to go after derivatives rules (swaps), the Volcker Rule and the related law on restrictions on hedge fund investments, and also the CFPB. It’s important to understand this isn’t like removing random parts of the bill, as strict as they may be, but is instead gutting the core logic of the law. It’s the equivalent of Republicans saying they’d keep the Obamacare bill, but stop the exchanges, remove the individual mandate, and lose the ban on pre-existing conditions while getting rid of the means-tested subsidies and Medicaid expansion. We’d understand that all of the parts of this system are interconnected and inseparable; the ban requires everyone to be in the market, which requires subsidies and well-developed markets.

Let’s make sure we understand how derivatives, the Volcker Rule, and the CFPB all work together. Imagine that we’re car engineers, and we want to design a car and road system so that if the car crashes, it does so as safely as possible. There are four things we can do. We can put airbags and seatbelts in the car and other cars so that when it does crash the damage is limited and controlled. We can design the car with things like a brake override system so that if it hits a rough patch the driver can keep control of it and make it less likely to crash.  We can put some speed limits on the road, as well as clear traffic signals to guide cars from running into each other. And we can have some protection for pedestrians, like cops watching for DUIs or barriers to prevent cars from driving into crowds of people. Easy, right?

Now let’s think of Dodd-Frank. There are the legal powers that deploy to resolve a firm if it fails, like an airbag, which are called resolution authority. This allows the FDIC to take down a failed financial firm as if it were a bank, subject to serious rules and restrictions.  And, like requiring certain car features, there are specific policies for large, systemically risky financial firms, like enhanced capital requirements, limits to investments in risky hedge-funds, and the Volcker Rule, which are designed to make it less likely for a firm to crash.

Dodd-Frank also introduces speed limits and rules of the road in the financial sector, designed to make the system as a whole less likely to crash or spiral out of control when a panic does happen. One primary place it does that is through derivatives regulations. And “cops on the beat” is the metaphor for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

So there’s Dodd-Frank law to allow a firm to fail, law to make it less likely a financial firm fails, laws to prevent the interconnected financial markets from going into crisis if a firm does fail, and law to gives consumers a representative in dealing with the regulatory field. This is like thinking of Dodd-Frank as a system of deterrence, detection, and resolution, a related model we’ve developed elsewhere.

If Wall Street and the Republicans are looking to seriously gut the Volcker Rule, derivatives, and the CFPB, then they’re looking to gut the entire logic of the bill. Interestingly, they are less interested in “resolution authority,” the legal process to fail a financial firm. This is evidently no problem with everything else removed, perhaps because they believe congressional bailouts will then happen. This should remind us that resolution authority is strengthened and made more credible by other strong regulations, including things not in Dodd-Frank, like size caps or Glass-Steagall. Preventing these dilutions is crucial to building a regulatory system for the financial sector that works in the 21st century.

[1] Reihan notes that banks “also understand that [Dodd-Frank] favors incumbents over new entrants, particularly incumbents with the legal acumen and lobbying resources to shape the emerging regulatory regime. My strong preference, very much in line with conservative and libertarian sensibilities, would be for a financial reform that would aim to facilitate rather than stymie entry.”

I’d like to see more on how Dodd-Frank as blocking new firm entry works. While this is a generic complaint of regulations in general, I’m not sure in what ways it applies to Dodd-Frank. Parts of Dodd-Frank actually are designed to scale up with size and risk, e.g. Sec. 171 requires capital requirements to scale with “concentrations in market share for any activity that would substantially disrupt financial markets if the institution is forced to unexpectedly cease the activity,” which is not for new entries. The idea is to hold larger and riskier firms to tougher standards and higher capital, which is regulation that scales with size.

Cross-Posted from Rortybomb

Mike Konczal is a fellow with the Roosevelt Institute

Should We Stop Referring To Student Loans As ‘Financial Aid’?

Students who take out loans aren’t receiving special favors. They’re making financial transactions like any other.

Do we make both a conceptual and analytical mistake when we refer to student loans as a form of “financial aid”? Should that term be something to be resisted? Demos’ Tamara Draut brought up this point in a conversation recently, and I think it needs to be explored further, because it frames how we speak about student loans.

The government records and documents student loans as a form of aid. Here’s a list of the “amount of financial aid awarded to full-time, full-year undergraduates, by type and source of aid,” and loans are listed right next to grants. When pundits say that “student aid” has exploded over the past decade, and argue that aid is driving increases in tuition, it disguises that the aid that has exploded is a signficant amount of debt for young people.

I’ve taken out loans and received gifts. When I’ve signed up for, say, a car loan, I never went “oh you shouldn’t have” afterwards, like when I’ve received a really nice birthday gift. I understood that the creditor wanted to lend me a certain amount of money at a certain rate, and I wanted to borrow it. Full stop. Unless the interest rate charged is purposely manipulated for some reason [1], there’s no reason to think of this as aid at all.

Student loans are an economic transaction, the same as if the government contracted out to build a bridge, or hired a person to serve in the military or police force or be a teacher. The money spent here isn’t “aid.” Hiring someone to build a bridge exchanges labor for cash. Student loans exchange cash now for cash later plus interest. Those student loans would be underprovided without the government, certainly, but in the same way that bridges and law enforcement and other goods would also be underprovided if they weren’t done by government.

I think this clarifies some of the issues and responses I’m seeing in the discussion about whether or not higher education is driven by increases in so-called “aid.” Megan McArdle wrote in Newsweek, “In a normal market, prices would be constrained by the disposable income available to pay them. But we’ve bypassed those constraints by making subsidized student loans widely available.” Let’s leave aside the issue that the vision of education constrained by disposable income is Mitt Romney’s vision that students should get “‘as much education as they can afford.” There’s a bigger issue.

I’m not sure what “normal market” means here, but many kinds of markets, perhaps even all of them, aren’t constrainted by disposable income. Major, long-term debt fuels all kinds of important purchases, from houses to cars to health care to big-ticket durable goods. Events like retirement or having kids are dictated by longer-term savings decisions. Much of your monthly spending, like your rent or your cell phone, is in a contract that stipulates some future payments must be made regardless of your disposable income. There’s a reason economists talk about spending as influenced by lifetime incomes.

Student loans are a way of mitigating a credit constraint, which is different than providing aid. Here it reflects not subsidized demand, but actual demand smoothed over a long time period. That’s going to put a lot of demand into play. It shouldn’t surprise us that demand is very high when credit constraints are removed. Higher education is one of the most important mechanisms of social and economic mobility we have, and it is also one of the primary ways we have for people to fully develop their talents and capabilities.

If actual demand overwhelms the supply of the system, that’s a problem of supply, not demand. And the obvious solution is to increase the supply. Throughout our country’s history we’ve done that in landmark bills that do it through public provisoning paid for by taxation, bills like the Morrill Act and California Master Plan. Now, as that system is left to crumble, we are looking to the private, for-profit sector to fill that gap. I fear that will only exacerbate the cost problems we’ve seen so far, and the data is looking that way too.

But if not as a form of financial “aid,” how should we refer to student loans?

[1] There’s a narrow, though important, question about whether or not student loans are a “subsidy” because their interest rates are too low or too high. The Department of Education found that (R-10) for ”Direct Loans, the overall weighted average subsidy rate was estimated to be -13.91 percent in FY 2011; that is, the overall program on average was projected to earn about 13.91 percent on each dollar of loans made, thereby providing savings to the Federal Government.” What’s a good word for the opposite of a subsidy? Whatever it is, student loans are that. Others argue that there needs to be a higher discount rate used to calculate this, and then you would see a subsidy. Let’s assume for this post that the interest rate is seen to be fair by all parties.

Cross-Posted From Rortybomb

The Chicago Teachers Union Strike Viewed From The Local Level

As of 10 p.m. Sunday night, the Chicago Teachers Union has gone on strike. Here is a webpage for why they are striking, complete with the one-page explanation and the 46-page one. Here’s PCCC’s summary. Here’s a local teacher explaining why he is on strike.

As Bill Barclay at Dissent Magazine noted, there was a special bill passed last year that required 75 percent of teachers to vote — with absentees counted as no votes! — to strike. Stand For Children CEO Jonah Edelman said at the Aspen Ideas Festival that “the unions cannot strike in Chicago” because that requirement, only required of teachers, was so restrictive. Turns out that this strike got 90 percent of teachers (and 98 percent if you exclude the absentees).

I reached out to two Chicago journalists and writers – Yana Kunichoff and Micah Uetricht – who are covering the situation locally to get their on-the-ground perspectives. A lightly edited transcript of the interview with each follows. I hope to have more coverage of this very important event in the days to follow.

Mike Konczal: Please introduce yourself.

Yana Kunichoff: My name is Yana Kunichoff. I’m a journalist for Truthout, which is a progressive online news magazine. I’ve written for a lot of independent media, where my focus has been immigration, investigative issues, and social justice activism. I’ve been living in Chicago for four years now.

Why is a strike happening?

YK: There are several layers to why this strike is happening. The shallowest, headline news one is because the Chicago Teachers’ Union (CTU) and Chicago Public Schools (CPS) were not able to agree to a contract. A deeper reason is because this is one of the first times that an education public sector union has resisted and pushed back against the privatization and changes that have been happening in the education sector.

Looking back at bills passed last year and before, they all narrowed what the teachers’ union is allowed to strike over. On paper, the biggest questions are on merit pay and seniority rights. But there are all these other points. Rahm Emanuel said in his press conference after the strike was declared that the two points under debate “are not financial.” The two big issues under debate, from Emanuel’s point of view, are teacher evaluation and principals having the full ability to hire and fire teachers.

What’s it like for Democrats in Chicago?

YK: I don’t know how much I can speak to the battle in the Democratic Party. There’s an interesting contradiction that exists in Chicago. If you are a liberal in Chicago you support Obama, but at the same time there’s a possibility you support the union. I know people supporting the campaign that support the teachers’ union, even though someone associated with the administration is trying to smash it.

How is the Chicago community as a whole reacting?

YK: Chicago is a pretty divided city, with neighborhoods divided by class. I spent today riding my bike around Latino, working-class neighborhoods — Pilsen, Little Village, and North and South Lawndale. These are areas that aren’t doing well in this economy.

I’m seeing a lot of cars honking their horns, and police running their siren while they go by a school picket. The people that have to deal with the daily reality of school cutbacks, or mental health clinic shutdowns, or how’ll they get home in winter with less public transit, the people who deal with austerity budgets, are in support of the teachers’ strike.

Chicago is becoming increasingly gentrified, though, with more people who don’t rely so much on public services. I’m not sure what they think of the strikes yet.

Most people will get their news from nationally-targeted coverage of the strike. As someone from Chicago, covering it locally, what would you like people to know?

YK: The charter system is something that started in Chicago but has since been brought national. These kinds of policies that work against teachers aren’t going to stay contained to one city. This trend will continue into other cities and states, especially where unions are weak. So this is where the fight is happening. When you are here on the ground, it feels like a strong line of opposition. Opposition to policies that aren’t just national but international – think of places like Greece and the more general fights against austerity happening across Europe here.

The national coverage will watch the specific contract terms, though they’ll miss that 10 years from now, the specific, narrow terms will matter less than whether or not a union in an American city will have been successful in pushing back in this way. This is a fight over public resources, public jobs, and the idea of a public that isn’t discussed by national media as if it exists. Will there be public schools as we understand them in 10 years?

I also spoke with Michah Uetricht separately.

Mike Konczal: Please introduce yourself.

Micah Uetricht: I’m Micah Uetricht, and I’m an organizer for a group called Arise Chicago as well as a freelance writer. I’ve been covering the teachers’ strike in Chicago from the ground.

What is the core of this strike about?

MU: Last night, at the conference announcing whether or not the teachers were going to go on strike, several reporters asked CTU President Karen Lewis and Vice President Jesse Sharkey about what the core issues were. Both repeatedly emphasized that there weren’t one or two core issues but it was instead about the total package. The package included wages, compensation, and benefits, but also the vision of what school reform looks like. CTU started talking about school reform that actually makes schools work for kids.

So there are traditional things that unions go on strike for, like wages and benefits, but also the bigger picture vision of what school reform is going to look like.

What’s the energy like covering this strike from the streets in Chicago?

MU: I’ve been around a lot of strikes and labor actions, but this is totally like nothing I’ve seen before. I’m about five miles north of Chicago, and I’ve been on my bike going from actions to picket lines. Every public school I passed had crowds of 40, 50, 60 teachers. The energy is incredible. People were up at 5 in the morning to picket at their school, and then move to phone bank. It’s a big feat of organizing that CTU has pulled off.

How is the Chicago community as a whole reacting?

MU: The community support piece of the strike has also been incredible as far as I’ve seen. There’s a lot of support from parents, community members and others. There’s a group called Parents for Teachers that has been active, and a very vibrant Chicago Teacher Solidarity Campaign. Both have done an amazing job organizing before and during the strike. People beyond the usual suspects are getting involved in this fight.
The city has worked really hard to try and divide parents against teachers, painting teachers as overpaid and greedy and harming students. So I was expecting to see some hostility from people on the streets, but all morning long I saw no stories of negativity or hostility. I’m looking for signs that average Chicagoans are annoyed or angry, but I haven’t seen any yet. People I’ve talked to haven’t seen any yet either.

Most people will get their news from nationally-targeted coverage of the strike. As someone from Chicago, covering it locally, what would you like people to know?

MU: CTU is very vocal in saying that the Democratic Party in Chicago and Rahm Emanuel are not serving their interests. In Chicago the Democratic Party is the major party, and they are pushing this austerity agenda, and so a lot of the future of whether or not unions are afraid of calling out Democrats will be determined here.

This is a fight over public sector workers, and we’ve seen that a lot over the past several years. We saw it in Wisconsin under Governor Walker, for instance. In that fight, the labor movement and the left in general made some serious missteps, and suffered a pretty crushing defeat with the law and the loss of the recall.

In Chicago, I haven’t seen anyone say this explicitly, but my sense is that they learned from that fight that you have to be in the streets to win these fights. The CTU is incredibly well organized, especially down at the rank-and-file level. That shows when you are wandering around Chicago today, where 40 or 50 people are on every line and more in the streets. The recent laws that push against public sector unions have forced them to organize the entire organization, keeping their membership involved the whole way, and it is paying off today.

Cross-Posted from
Rortybomb

Romney Will Solve The Crisis With The Exact Same GOP Plan Of 2008, 2006, 2004..

Romney’s five-point plan to adress the specific aspects of our current jobs crisis recycles, nearly word for word, plans from far different economic times.

I’ve been watching the 2012 Republican National Convention, trying to get a sense of what the conservative diagnosis is for our weak economy and what they’d do in response. Is it the bizarro stimulus of raising interest rates, balancing the budget, and forcing foreclosures? Is there a secret housing plan? Or will it be a program of Reactionary Keynesianism, with an expanded military, massive tax cuts for the rich, and a SuperDuperCommittee to recommend tax expenditures that will go nowhere?

I take these arguments seriously — I actually really enjoy making maps to help explore them. One argument worth bringing up is the idea that they are just proposing to do the policies they want all the time anyway — the policies they wanted in 2008, or 2006, or 2004 — but are pretending there’s a reason it would be extra important given our current recession.

So on August 30th, 2012, with unemployment at 8.3 percent and with a serious long-term unemployment problem, Mitt Romney gives the RNC acceptance speech. He outlines a plan to create 12 million jobs in the next four years. As Jared Bernstein pointed out, that’s what Moody’s says will be created anyway. But forget that. How will Mitt Romney do this? He has a five point plan (numbers in [brackets] here and in the rest of the post are added by me):

And unlike the president, I have a plan to create 12 million new jobs. It has 5 steps.

[1] First, by 2020, North America will be energy independent by taking full advantage of our oil and coal and gas and nuclear and renewables.

[2] Second, we will give our fellow citizens the skills they need for the jobs of today and the careers of tomorrow. When it comes to the school your child will attend, every parent should have a choice, and every child should have a chance.

[3] Third, we will make trade work for America by forging new trade agreements. And when nations cheat in trade, there will be unmistakable consequences.

[4] Fourth, to assure every entrepreneur and every job creator that their investments in America will not vanish as have those in Greece, we will cut the deficit and put America on track to a balanced budget.

[5] And fifth, we will champion SMALL businesses, America’s engine of job growth. That means reducing taxes on business, not raising them. It means simplifying and modernizing the regulations that hurt small business the most. And it means that we must rein in the skyrocketing cost of healthcare by repealing and replacing Obamacare.

So his plan focuses on domestic energy production, school choice, trade agreements, cutting spending, and reducing taxes and regulations. This must be a set of priorities reflecting our terrifying moment of mass unemployment, right?

Let’s flash back to September 4th, 2008, at the RNC where John McCain is giving his speech accepting the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. Unemployment is 6.1 percent, though the Great Moderation is coming to an end; within a year it’ll be close to 10 percent. Two weeks later, as Lehman Brothers was collapsing, McCain would say “the fundamentals of our economy are strong.” What were his recommendations for the economy in that nomination speech?

I know some of you have been left behind in the changing economy, and it often sees that your government hasn’t even noticed… That’s going to change on my watch…

[3] I will open new markets to our goods and services. My opponent will close them…

[4] I will cut government spending. He will increase it…

[5] We all know that keeping taxes low helps small businesses grow and create new jobs…

[4] Reducing government spending and getting rid of failed programs will let you keep more of your own money to save, spend, and invest as you see fit…

[2] Education — education is the civil rights issue of this century. Equal access to public education has been gained, but what is the value of access to a failing school? We need to shake up failed school bureaucracies with competition, empower parents with choice…

[1] We’ll attack — we’ll attack the problem on every front. We’ll produce more energy at home.. Senator Obama thinks we can achieve energy independence without more drilling and without more nuclear power. But Americans know better than that.

It’s the same exact agenda. Specifically, the Romney agenda for job creation in 2012 is stuff that John McCain wanted to do anyway in 2008.

Let’s go back further. On September 2nd, 2004, George W. Bush is at the RNC, giving his speech accepting the nomination to run for a second term as President of the United States. Unemployment is 5.4 percent. A major housing bubble is kicking into high gear, and the country is debating the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq and the future of the War on Terror. A few months later, people will be talking about a permanent Republican majority. What are some priorities for a second George W. Bush term in creating jobs?

To create more jobs in America, America must be the best place in the world to do business.

[5] To create jobs, my plan will encourage investment and expansion by restraining federal spending, reducing regulation and making the tax relief permanent.

[1] To create jobs, we will make our country less dependent on foreign sources of energy.

[3] To create jobs, we will expand trade and level the playing field to sell American goods and services across the globe.

[5] And we must protect small-business owners and workers from the explosion of frivolous lawsuits that threaten jobs across our country. Another drag on our economy is the current tax code, which is a complicated mess…

[4] To be fair, there are some things my opponent is for. He’s proposed more than $2 trillion in new federal spending so far, and that’s a lot, even for a senator from Massachusetts.

It’s the same agenda, mentioned back to back almost in the same order. Bush mentioned No Child Left Behind several times, though I’m not sure if that matches up with the school choice of [2] in Romney’s economic plan for school choice, so I excluded [2]. It’s always time for cutting spending, more oil drilling, free trade, and lower taxes and regulation to fix the economy.

Let’s do one last one. January 31st, 2006, George W. Bush is giving his State of the Union address. Unemployment is 4.7 percent. With the economy healthy and growing (in Bush’s mind), now is the time to build on the strengths and address the weaknesses of the economy. What does he suggest?

Our economy is healthy and vigorous, and growing faster than other major industrialized nations…

[5] Because America needs more than a temporary expansion, we need more than temporary tax relief. I urge the Congress to act responsibly and make the tax cuts permanent.

[4] Keeping America competitive requires us to be good stewards of tax dollars. Every year of my presidency, we’ve reduced the growth of nonsecurity discretionary spending. And last year you passed bills that cut this spending.

[3] Keeping America competitive requires us to open more markets for all that Americans make and grow… With open markets and a level playing field, no one can out- produce or out-compete the American worker…

[1] Breakthroughs on this and other new technologies will help us reach another great goal: to replace more than 75 percent of our oil imports from the Middle East by 2025.

Again, President Bush mentions No Child Left Behind, but I’m not sure whether it overlaps with [2].

But the same exact playbook is there in 2006, as it was in 2004 and 2008, and as it is in 2012. Domestic oil production, school choice, trade agreements, cut spending and reduce taxes and regulations — it’s been the conservative answer to times of deep economic stress, times of economic recovery, times of economic worries, and times of economic panic. Which is another way of saying that the Republicans have no plan for how to actually deal with this specific crisis we face.

Cross Posted From Rortybomb

Why Romney’s Tax Plan Is Mathematically Impossible

Last week’s big news in campaign policy was the Tax Policy Center’s white paper by Samuel Brown, William G. Gale, and Adam Looney, arguing that it is mathematically impossible for the Romney tax plan to meet its described goals. Ezra Klein has write-ups here and here, and James Pethokoukis has a contrary analysis here. Since Romney hasn’t released his plan, Brown, Gale, and Looney cleverly put together the best case scenario and crunch the numbers — and conclude they don’t work.

Romney’s plan has three goals: It starts by lowering tax rates by 20 percent. It then seeks to keep raising the same amount of tax revnues as before by removing tax expenditures, or the variety of exemptions, deductions, or credits in the tax code that function as government spending. As the wonks would say, it wants to “lower the rates and broaden the base.” However, and this will be crucial, it excludes expenditures related to investment income and savings from these cuts. Finally, it attempts to maintain the current level of progressivity by making sure that the top one percent pays no less in taxes and everyone else pays no more.

The Tax Policy Center analysis shows that it is impossible to do all three, however. To enact the Romney plan requires cutting taxes on the top one percent — and raising them on everyone else.

In order to better understand why Romney’s aims are incompatible,  we need a quick, back-of-the-envelope class and distrbutional analysis of how tax expenditures work in the United States. Tax expenditures are thought to be regressive, benefitting those with more resources. The general argument says that because tax expenditures are closely linked with employment compensation or spending, those who have jobs and get paid more or spend more will benefit more. Being able to pay less in taxes disproporationately benefits those who are better off — and also can take advantage of often complicated tax planning. A privatized welfare state administered through these coupon-like mechanisms, compared to public programs, involve less compulsory risk-pooling and more individualized risk-bearing, which also tend to benefit more affluent citizens.

Let’s take a closer look, using this great New York Times chart based on Tax Policy Center numbers, at who gains from different types of tax expenditures in the United States.

This chart examines five types of tax expenditures and the distributional consequences for each class. But it also shows which tax expenditures benefit three classes of people.

The first are tax expenditures that go to the working poor. These are focused on refundable credits, where almost 60 percent of them go to the bottom 40 percent of Americans. These tax expenditures are meant to help boost wages at the struggling bottom end, notably the Earned Income Tax Credit, which is a credit for low-income workers. The Tax Policy Center analysis shows EITC “on the table” to be cut under Romney, and it is telling that the Repbulican leaders haven’t said whether they want to cut the credit and seem to be dropping hints that they may go after those working-class “lucky duckies.”

The second set go to the middle class and upper-middle class, meaning people whose work requires at least some college education, often defined by longer-term employment or middle management positions. These expenditures largely represent itemized deductions and tax exclusions. As seen in the chart, over 50 percent go to taxpayers between the 80th and 99th percentile of income.  These underpin the mainstays of middle-class existence:  health care provided by employers and a home mortgage, both subsidized through tax deductibility.

Finally the third set go to the top one percent, focused on special treatment for capital and dividend income, which are taxed at a lower rate than wages.  As those forms of incomes are predominately earned by the top one percent, the tax benefits mostly benefit that group. The top 0.1 percent earn more than half of this expenditure, with the top one percent taking home a total of 75 percent of the benefit. People working in elite financial positions often claim that their income derives from money rather than labor to qualify for this exemption.

Tax policy helps sustain each of these groups. Making low-wage work pay more, keeping the middle class in long-term employment relationships and making sure they are property-owning members of their communities, and increasing the financialization of the economy and the explosive wealth of the top one percent all are boosted by the government’s system of taxation.

With this framework in mind, what’s wrong with Romney’s plan? What the plan seeks is to reduce taxes on each group and make up the difference by reducing the tax expenditures received by each group. But remember that Romney doesn’t want to touch the tax expenditures in the third set — those aimed at savings, capital gains, and dividends, which go overwhelmingly to the top one percent. So he wants to lower taxes on the one percent, but he has to make the lost revenue up by cutting a set of tax expenditures that largely benefit either the working poor or the middle class.

So if you are going to “lower the rates and broaden the base” for the rich, you need to actually broaden the base for the tax expenditures that the rich receive. This will be true for all of these plans going forward, and especially for Romney’s. Otherwise, as the Tax Policy Center found, the exercise can’t actually work.

One question that the Tax Policy Center paper doesn’t address is whether the Romney plan is mathematically impossible, period. Would broadening the base on the third set of savings and investment income actually make the plan work? The 99 to 99.9 percent gain an average change in after-tax income of 3.5 percent, and the top 0.1 percent gain 4.4 percent, while everyone loses 1.1 percent under the Romney plan.

The answer may be found in another Tax Policy Center paper, “Distributional Effects of Individual Income Tax Expenditures: An Update” by Eric Toder and Daniel Baneman (p. 7), which indicates that eliminating tax preference for capital gains and dividends would reduce after-tax income by an average of 4.5 percent for the top 1 percent. That would get Romney most of the way to his goal, and perhaps removing exclusions for savings would make the entire plan work. If he lowered rates while broadening the base, however, reducing tax expenditures brings in less money. So even cutting the tax expenditures for the top one percent may still not make his plan work. It’s likely that these exclusions for savings and investments would be expanded, not cut, under any plan promoted by Romney and House  Budget Committee chair Paul Ryan, but it is worth analyzing whether Romney’s plan could work at all, under any circumstances.

Mike Konczal is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.

Cross-Posted From Rortybomb

The Roosevelt Institute is a non-profit organization devoted to carrying forward the legacy and values of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Public Sector Layoffs And Obama’s Fight Against Red States

The government job losses that are holding the recovery back are directly related to the Republican state legislators who were swept to power in 2010.

Last Friday, both presidential candidates had a back-and-forth over the issue of public sector jobs. President Obama said that the private sector is doing fine but the public sector needs help and is threatening the recovery, and Mitt Romney attacked the idea that “we need more firemen, more policemen, more teachers.”

This has lead to new interest in the decline of public sector workers over the past three years. Two major economists from Yale, Ben Polak and Peter K. Schott, just wrote a post at at Economix titled “America’s Hidden Austerity Program.”

Polak and Schott argue that “there is something historically different about this recession and its aftermath: in the past, local government employment has been almost recession-proof. This time it’s not… Without this hidden austerity program, the economy would look very different. If state and local governments had followed the pattern of the previous two recessions, they would have added 1.4 million to 1.9 million jobs and overall unemployment would be 7.0 to 7.3 percent instead of 8.2 percent.”

But why is this happening? Polak and Schott:

One possibility is that we are witnessing a secular change in state and local politics, with voters no longer willing to pay for an ever-larger work force. An alternative explanation is that even though many state and local governments are constrained not to run deficits, they can muddle through a standard recession without cutting jobs. But when hit by a huge recession like that of 1981 or the latest one, the usual mix of creative accounting and shifting in capital expenditures cannot absorb the shock, and jobs have to go.

This drop in public-sector workers is well documented, and it is great to get more economists ringing the bell on it. But I think there needs to be more research into how this has happened. As my colleague Bryce Covert notes over at The Nation, “the massive job loss we’ve been experiencing in the public sector is no random coincidence or unfortunate side effect. It is part of an ideological battle waged by ultra conservatives who were swept into power in the 2010 elections.”

As we’ve written before (article, white paper), the 11 states that the Republicans took over during the 2010 midterm elections – Alabama, Indiana, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin – account for 40.5 percent of the total losses. By itself, Texas accounts for an additional 31 percent of the total losses. So these 12 states account for over 70 percent of total public sector job losses in 2011. This is even more important because there was a continued decline in public sector workers in 2011 even though the economy was no longer in free fall.

The 11 states that the Republicans took over in 2010 laid off, on average, 2.5 percent of their government workforces in a single year. This is compared to the overall average of 0.5 percent for the rest of the states. So while it is a nation-wide event, it is concentrated in states that went red in 2011:

Wisconsin, for instance, lost nearly 3 percent of its workforce in 2011 alone, which shows how high the stakes are. Conservatives are tearing down and rebuilding state governance during this Great Recession. There is an element of state and local layoffs that is strictly budgetary, as the average for all the groups is negative. But there is also an element that is about a face-off between President Obama and new conservative state legislatures.

There’s two things worth considering about this dynamic. The first is that any stimulus offered from the federal government could be refused or re-directed to other purposes by state governments. The fighting over getting conservative states to accept stimulus money, which was a battle in 2009-2010, would have been much more heated after the 2010 election. And if money did come in under the rubric of helping retain teachers it may, without a political battle, just go to reducing corporate taxes. We are already seeing this with the AG foreclosure fraud settlement money, which is being redirected to other purposes in many states.

The other is that this should be viewed through the lens of the series of standoffs the administration has with conservatives at the state level. The administration has been fighting with Arizona over its “papers please” immigration law, Florida over voter record purges, and several states in battles over GLBTQ rights and reproductive freedom. Trying to keep red states from slashing their workforces in a time of economic weakness is another front in this battle for those trying to steer the economy toward full employment.

Mike Konczal is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.

Cross-Posted From The Roosevelt Institute’s Next New Deal Blog

The Roosevelt Institute is a non-profit organization devoted to carrying forward the legacy and values of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

The Insane Idea Hidden In The Debate Over Obama’s Spending

Instead of debating whether Obama is responsible for a spending surge, we should ask why anyone expects the ratio of spending to GDP to remain constant in a recession.

There’s a recent debate about whether or not a federal government spending boom has happened on President Obama’s watch. This was kicked off two days ago by Rex Nutting’s post at MarketWatch, “Obama spending binge never happened.” Nutting notes that “federal spending is rising at the slowest pace since Dwight Eisenhower brought the Korean War to an end in the 1950s.” He argues that the 2009 fiscal year, outside the stimulus spending, belongs to President Bush, as it was four months into that budget when Obama entered the presidency. He draws on OMB’s numbers, which you can access here.

As you can imagine, the right wing has gone into action. Here’s “Actually, the Obama spending binge really did happen” by AEI’s James Pethokoukis, which argues that you must look at the government spending as a percentage of GDP to see the increase. Now there’s a technical debate about how to approach the numbers in the 2009 fiscal year, and there’s a fair debate on how to understand the increase in automatic stabilizers, such as unemployment insurance. Do they “belong” to Obama, given that they were already starting up due to a recession that started in December 2007? And then there’s the economic debate: shouldn’t the proper response have been to run a much larger federal government spending program?

But underneath it is an insane debate about an insane idea — that the government should keep a consistent ratio of government spending to GDP in a recession. The attack on Obama is focused on this number without acknowledging the crazy part of what this number actually does in a recession.

Let’s run through a quick example to show why I think this is insane. Imagine a government spends 20 percent of GDP this year, there is no expected GDP growth in the next year, and the government will spend the same exact amount of money next year. And then imagine that GDP drops 2.7 percent for the year, as it did from 2008-2009, for this hypothetical economy.

Now even though there is no additional money spent, government spending as a share of GDP will go up. The number goes up if the numerator increases (governments spend more) or the denominator decreases (GDP falls in a recession). It goes up to 20.6 percent in this hypothetical example. If the government wanted to keep the 20 percent ratio consistent, it would have to cut spending. But in a weak economy, in the middle of a recession, the last thing you want to do is cut government spending — that will make the recession worse, which will decrease GDP further. Then you have to cut government spending even further, which creates a nasty loop.

Federal government spending as a percentage of GDP went from 20.8 percent in 2008 to 25.2 percent in 2009. How much was GDP falling? If GDP had grown 3.4 percent as it had done the year before, instead of dropping 2.7 percent, spending as a percentage of GDP would have gone to 23.7 percent. That means a third of the rise in government spending as a percentage of GDP is a mechanical effect of GDP falling in the Great Recession. And if GDP didn’t fall in the Great Recession, automatic stabilizers wouldn’t have kicked in and there wouldn’t have been the stimulus bill, meaning less spending.

It is worth noting that one reason why the Great Recession wasn’t a Great Depression was likely because of the increased size of government spending in the economy compared to the 1920s. Here’s Josh Mason in a great post:

We always ask, why was the Great Recession so deep? But you could just as well turn the question around and ask why, despite initial appearances, did it turn out to be not nearly as deep as the Depression?
I can think of four families of answers….The second answer would be that the sheer size of government makes a Depression-scale collapse of demand impossible, regardless of policy. In 1929, with government final demand only a couple percent of GDP, autonomous spending basically was investment spending, especially if we think at the global level so exports wash out. Today, by contrast, G is significantly larger than I (about 20 vs 15 percent of GDP), so even if private investment had collapsed at the same scale as in 1929-1933, the percentage fall in autonomous demand would have been much less. (And of course that fact alone helped keep private investment from collapsing.) Interestingly, despite Hyman Minsky’s association with stories about finance, this, and not anything to do with the financial system, was why his answer to the question Can “It” Happen Again was, No. Policy is secondary; big government itself is the ballast that stabilizes the economy.

And, for the record, it’s a massive shame that government spending didn’t go up more, reducing unemployment, getting the economy back on track, and ultimately really bringing down the debt-to-GDP ratio.

Mike Konczal is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.

Why A Strong Middle-Class Is Necessary For Growth

It’s great to get to watch the arguments against inequality in the United States being built in real time. In spaces ranging from political corruption to a lack of a serious, sustained response to the economic crisis, people are telling sharper and more critical stories about why inequality should be a concern for the country. Which is important, as inequality is not going away.

One of the spaces where this has been lacking is long-term economic growth. The research has been substantial, but few have collected and curated it into a set of arguments for why inequality is bad for the health of our economy. This is one of the more important battles. The normal assumption is that inequality helps everyone by allowing the economic pie to grow as big and as quickly as it possibly can. The background thought animating this is that there’s a serious tension between efficiency and equality – to support equality is to necessarily sacrific economic efficiency.

Heather Boushey and Adam S. Hersh from the Center for American Progress have a new paper out, The American Middle Class, Income Inequality, and the Strength of Our Economy New Evidence in Economics, that summarizes the case for why inequality can damage the economy. They start by reviewing the literature trying to link income inequality and growth, and find that the link is, if anything, in the other direction. “Roland Benabou of Princeton University surveyed 23 studies analyzing the relationship between inequality and growth. Benabou found that about half (11) of studies showed inequality has a significant and strongly negative affect on growth; the other half (12) showed either a negative but inconsistently significant relationship or no relationship at all. None of the studies surveyed found a positive relationship between inequality and growth.”

But why should this be? If the long-term health of the economy is driven by human capital, savings and technology, what does inequality have to do with anything? Here is where they create a map of the arguments through which a strong middle class and a more egalitarian distribution of income can build long-term growth:

We have identified four areas where literature points to ways that the strength of the middle class and the level of inequality affect economic growth and stability:

•A strong middle class promotes the development of human capital and a well educated population.
•A strong middle class creates a stable source of demand for goods and services.
•A strong middle class incubates the next generation of entrepreneurs.
•A strong middle class supports inclusive political and economic institutions, which underpin economic growth.

They pull together the current research, as well as the range of supporting evidence, for each point. They focus on how educational attainment is becoming more tied to parent’s income, as well as the instability of growth and macroeconomic risks to weak middle-class demand, to the fact that the Kauffman Foundation found that less than 1% of entrepreneurs come from extremely poor or extremely rich backgrounds to the way inequality is involved with our polarized politics. All of these have consequences for our economy.

The research will continue to move forward here. There’s a lot of fascinating work done on the relationship between inequality, balance-sheet recessions and slow recoveries right now. I’m interested in the way the government creates and enforces property changes under massive, entrenched inequality. Does exclusive, 1% dominated, political and economic institutions produce property regimes – high rents from patents, repressive creditor/debtor relationships, all labor income from finance viewed as capital income for tax/regulatory purposes, privatization of public goods, corporation structures predisposed for financialization – terrible for growth?

This paper gives us the best up-to-date arguments that progressives discussing inequality should understand inside out. I thought I was fairly versed in these arguments, and I learned a ton from it. As they say, read the whole thing.

Cross-Posted From The Roosevelt Institute’s Next New Deal Blog

The Roosevelt Institute is a non-profit organization devoted to carrying forward the legacy and values of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.