Archive for the ‘Government Spending’ Category
The U.S. economy continues to stagnate and our political leaders continue to embrace austerity. One major reason for this policy stance is that stagnation has done nothing to dent the earnings of our top corporations and their owners.
The challenge for our political leaders is convincing the rest of us to accept this situation. For sometime now their strategy has been to predict recovery right around the corner. All we need, they say, is a bit more austerity to reassure financial markets and growth will naturally resume.
Their claims were initially buttressed by a few highly touted economic studies, but those studies have now been discredited. See here and here. Practice also makes clear that austerity is not the solution to our economic problems.
This strategy was tried first and most aggressively in Europe. The chart below, taken from a blog post by the economist Ed Dolan, provides one indicator of the self-reinforcing consequences of austerity. Half the countries in the euro zone are in recession, and several big ones are heading that way. For example, Germany’s average annual growth fell from 0.7 percent in 2012 to 0.4 percent in the first quarter of 2013.
The European experience holds another lesson for people in this country. It will take sustained popular organizing to get policy makers to change course.
If you were one of those people who were not persuaded that the U.S. debt level was reaching growth-threatening levels, pat yourself on the back.
One of the major studies supporting the austerity position was a 2010 paper titled Growth in a Time of Debt by two well-known economists, Carmen Reinhardt and Kenneth Rogoff (R & R). As Mike Konczal reports:
Their “main result is that…median growth rates for countries with public debt over 90 percent of GDP are roughly one percent lower than otherwise; average (mean) growth rates are several percent lower.” Countries with debt-to-GDP ratios above 90 percent have a slightly negative average growth rate, in fact.
This conclusion, that countries with debt-to-GDP ratios over 90 percent actually suffer negative growth, quickly became a staple in the arguments of those pushing for cuts in government spending.
Well, it turns out that R & R’s work was seriously flawed. Once the flaws are corrected, the conclusion no longer holds; growth remains positive even at debt ratios over 90 percent and the difference in growth rates for countries below and above that level is not statistically significant.
R & R finally agreed to share their data with three professors from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Thomas Herndon, Michael Ash, and Robert Pollin (HAP). HAP published their evaluation of R & R’s work in their recently published paper titled Does High Public Debt Consistently Stifle Economic Growth? A Critique of Reinhart and Rogoff.” As Konczal summarizes, HAP found three serious problems with R & R’s work:
First, Reinhart and Rogoff selectively exclude years of high debt and average growth. Second, they use a debatable method to weight the countries. Third, there also appears to be a coding error that excludes high-debt and average-growth countries. All three bias in favor of their result, and without them you don’t get their controversial result.
You can read Konczal or Michael Roberts for a fuller discussion of these points. However, just to give you a flavor of how poor R & R’s methodology was, let me briefly summarize the second point. R & R divided up each individual country’s data into several selected debt-to-GDP groupings, and then calculated an average real growth for all the years in the specific debt grouping. Then they determined a global average rate of growth for a given debt-to-GDP level by averaging all the growth rates across countries at that specific debt level.
Konczal gives the following example to illustrate how sloppy this approach is:
The U.K. has 19 years (1946-1964) above 90 percent debt-to-GDP with an average 2.4 percent growth rate. New Zealand has one year in their sample above 90 percent debt-to-GDP with a growth rate of -7.6. These two numbers, 2.4 and -7.6 percent, are given equal weight in the final calculation, as they average the countries equally. Even though there are 19 times as many data points for the U.K.
Now maybe you don’t want to give equal weighting to years (technical aside: Herndon-Ash-Pollin bring up serial correlation as a possibility). Perhaps you want to take episodes. But this weighting significantly reduces the average; if you weight by the number of years you find a higher growth rate above 90 percent. Reinhart-Rogoff don’t discuss this methodology, either the fact that they are weighing this way or the justification for it, in their paper.
As noted above, after HAP adjust for the errors they found, which include an Excel spread sheet error, R & R’s conclusion of negative growth at debt levels over 90 percent goes away. More specifically, they found 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 [R & R claim].”
Now, have R & R backed off from their conclusion? Well, they admit the mistakes but still claim that the basic point is true. But as Dean Baker notes: “If R&R had produced the correct table in their initial paper no one would have taken seriously their claim that the 90 percent debt-to-GDP ratio presents some sort of cliff. The corrected table in no way supports that view.”
What we have here is politics in command. R & R, as well as other advocates of austerity, continue to argue for cutting government spending despite having based their position largely on a study that is now shown to be wanting. So, it goes.
David Broockman and Christopher Skovron, the authors of the paper, “surveyed every candidate for state legislative ofﬁce in the United States in 2012 [shortly before the November election] and probed candidates’ own positions and their perceptions of their constituents’ positions on universal health care, same-sex marriage, and federal welfare programs, three of the most publicly salient issues in both national-level and state-level American politics during the past several years.” They then matched the results with estimates of the actual district- and issue-speciﬁc opinions of those residing in the candidates’ districts using a data set of almost 100,000 Americans.
Here is what they found:
Politicians consistently and substantially overestimate support for conservative positions among their constituents on these issues. The differences we discover in this regard are exceptionally large among conservative politicians: across both issues we examine, conservative politicians appear to overestimate support for conservative policy views among their constituents by over 20 percentage points on average. . . . Comparable ﬁgures for liberal politicians also show a slight conservative bias: in fact, about 70% of liberal ofﬁce holders typically underestimate support for liberal positions on these issues among their constituents.
The following two charts illustrate this bias when it comes to universal health care and same sex marriage.
As Matthews explain:
The X axis is the district’s actual views, and the Y axis their legislators’ estimates of their views. The thin black line is perfect accuracy, the response you’d get from a legislator totally in tune with his constituents. Lines above it would signify the politicians think the district more liberal than it actually is; if they’re below it, that means the legislators are overestimating their constituents’ conservatism. Liberal legislators consistently overestimate opposition to same-sex marriage and universal health care, but only mildly. Conservative politicians are not even in the right ballpark.
The authors found a similar bias regarding support for welfare programs. Perhaps even more unsettling, the authors found no correlation between the amount of time candidates spent meeting and talking to people in their districts while campaigning for office and the accuracy of their perceptions of the political positions of those living in their districts.
One consequence of this disconnect is that office holders, even those with progressive views, are reluctant to take progressive positions. More generally, these results speak to a real breakdown in “the ability of constituencies to control the laws that their representatives make on their behalf.”
While some austerity advocates really fear (although incorrectly) the consequences of deficit spending, the strongest proponents are actually only concerned with slashing government programs or the use of public employees to provide them. In other words their aim is to weaken public programs and/or convert them into opportunities for private profit.
One measure of their success has been the steady decline in public employment. Floyd Norris, writing in the New York Times notes:
For jobs, the past four years have been a wash.
The December jobs figures out today indicate that there were 725,000 more jobs in the private sector than at the end of 2008 — and 697,000 fewer government jobs. That works into a private-sector gain of 0.6 percent, and a government sector decline of 3.1 percent.
In total, the number of people with jobs is up by 28,000, or 0.02 percent.
How does that compare? It is by far the largest four-year decline in government employment since the 1944-48 term. That decline was caused by the end of World War II; this one was caused largely by budget limitations.
The chart below, taken from the same post also reveals just how weak private sector job creation has been over the past 12 years.
What follows is a screen shot of a graphic in a New York Times Business Day post. It highlights just how significant the decline in public employment has been in this business cycle compared with past ones. Each line shows the percentage change in public sector employment for specified months after the start of a recession. Our recent recession began December 2007 and ended June 2009. As you can see, what is happening now is far from usual.
It is also worth noting that despite claims that most Americans want to see cuts in major federal government programs, the survey data show the opposite. For example, see the following graphic from Catherine Rampell’s blog post.
As Rampell explains:
In every category except for “aid to world’s needy,” more than half of the respondents wanted either to keep spending levels the same or to increase them. In the “aid to world’s needy” category, less than half wanted to cut spending.
Not surprisingly, this assault on government spending and employment will have real consequences for the economy and job creation. Binyamin Appelbaum writes in the New York Times:
The federal government, the nation’s largest consumer and investor, is cutting back at a pace exceeded in the last half-century only by the military demobilizations after the Vietnam War and the cold war.
And the turn toward austerity is set to accelerate on Friday if the mandatory federal spending cuts known as sequestration start to take effect as scheduled. Those cuts would join an earlier round of deficit reduction measures passed in 2011 and the wind-down of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that already have reduced the federal government’s contribution to the nation’s gross domestic product by almost 7 percent in the last two years. . . .
Over the last two years, federal consumption and investment declined by 6.9 percent. Including state and local consumption, a larger category that has declined more slowly, the inflation-adjusted reduction since 2011 was 4.9 percent.
But Alec Phillips, an economist at Goldman Sachs, estimated that federal consumption could fall by another 11 percent over the next two years. Mr. Phillips also noted that those earlier rounds of cuts in the 1970s and the 1990s came primarily from the military budget. The sequester is designed to be indiscriminate, cutting everything from air traffic control to nursery schools.
That could increase the resulting pain, because economic research suggests that military cuts are less painful than other kinds of spending reductions.
“It is cutting some of the best spending that government does,” Professor Cowen said of the cuts that would fall on the domestic side of the ledger.
All of this takes us back to the starting point–we are talking policy here. Whose interests are served by these trends?
The so-called sequester appears likely to result in $85 billion in spending cuts this fiscal year. The cuts are ostensibly the result of a political battle over the budget deficit, with Republicans arguing that spending cuts are absolutely necessary to save the economy and the Democrats agreeing that the budget deficit does need to be reduced, but preferring a combination of tax/revenue increases and spending cuts.
The austerity drive appears back in full swing regardless of how the debate turns out. There was a brief period when the Occupy movement turned the spotlight on inequality and jobs, but powerful forces have succeeded in regaining control over the national debate on the economy.
Sadly those powerful forces tend to fly under the radar, with the media happy to portray concern about the deficit arising from the grassroots. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The sustained focus on the deficit and the need for spending cuts is to a considerable extent the result of huge spending by wealthy individuals and corporations on campaigns which give the appearance of public support.
Exhibit 1 is the Fix the Debt campaign. A recent New York Times article provides an interesting look into the workings and supporters of this campaign:
When Jim McCrery, a former Louisiana congressman, urged lawmakers last month to pursue entitlement cuts and tax reform, he was introduced on television as a leader of Fix the Debt, a group of business executives and onetime legislators who have become Washington’s most visible and best-financed advocates for reining in the federal deficit.
Mr. McCrery did not mention his day job: a lobbyist with Capitol Counsel L.L.C. His clients have included the Alliance for Savings and Investment, a group of large companies pushing to maintain low tax rates on dividend income, and the Win America Campaign, a coalition of multinational corporations that lobbied for a one-time “repatriation holiday” allowing them to move offshore profits back home without paying taxes. . . .
In recent days, Fix the Debt has redoubled its efforts, starting a new national advertising campaign and calling on Mr. Obama and Congress to revise the tax code and reduce long-term spending on entitlement programs. . . .
While Fix the Debt criticized the recent fiscal deal between Mr. Obama and lawmakers, saying it did not do enough to cut spending or close tax loopholes, companies and industries linked to the organization emerged with significant victories on taxes and other policies. . . .
Sam Nunn, a former Democratic senator from Georgia who is a member of Fix the Debt’s steering committee, received more than $300,000 in compensation in 2011 as a board member of General Electric. The company is among the most aggressive in the country at minimizing its tax obligations. Mr. McCrery, the Louisiana Republican, is also among G.E.’s lobbyists, according to the most recent federal disclosures, monitoring federal budget negotiations for the company.
Other board members and steering committee members have deep ties to the financial industry, including private equity, whose executives have aggressively fought efforts to alter a tax provision, known as the carried interest exception, that significantly reduces their personal income taxes.
Erskine B. Bowles, a co-founder of Fix the Debt, was paid $345,000 in stock and cash in 2011 as a board member at Morgan Stanley, while Judd Gregg, a former Republican senator from New Hampshire and a co-chairman of Fix the Debt, is a paid adviser to Goldman Sachs. Both companies have engaged in lobbying on international tax rules.
Mr. Gregg also sits on the boards of Honeywell and Intercontinental Exchange, a company that has warned investors that a tax on financial transactions would lower trading volume and curtail its profits. The two companies paid Mr. Gregg almost $750,000 in cash and stock in 2011.
In all, close to half of the members of Fix the Debt’s board and steering committee have ties to companies that have engaged in lobbying on taxes and spending, often to preserve tax breaks and other special treatment. . . .
[S]o far, at least, the companies and industries most closely linked to Fix the Debt have been aggressive in defending their narrower legislative interests.
The fiscal deal preserved the carried interest loophole, eliminated most of a large prospective increase in dividends taxes and preserved a tax break, known as the active financing exception, that allows G.E. and other multinational companies to avoid paying United States taxes on overseas profits.
The deal also forestalled large automatic cuts in military spending, a boon to contractors like Honeywell. The company’s chief executive, David M. Cote, is a co-founder of Fix the Debt; the group’s “core principles,” which call for retrenchment in entitlement programs like Social Security, make no mention of military spending, which constitutes about a fifth of the federal budget.
A recent Democracy Now broadcast examined the link between this group and Pete Peterson. Peterson has long worked behind the scenes in an effort to dismantle earned benefit programs like Social Security and Medicare and has personally given almost $500 million to his foundation which attempts to shape popular thinking accordingly.
As John Nichols explains on the broadcast:
And at the core of this is changing the way that we look at retirement in this country, definitely undermining Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, changing those earned benefit programs into something very different than what they’ve been and something far less reliable, but also making an awfully lot of other cuts in programs that serve the great mass of Americans, while at the same time continuing and even advancing the tax breaks for billionaires and corporations that have helped to make Pete Peterson a very, very wealthy man.
He sold this idea to around 125 other CEOs and very wealthy people. They’ve all chipped in a whole bunch of money, millions and millions, perhaps as much as $60 million for the current campaign, to this “Fix the Debt” group. And this Fix the Debt group is the primary proponent in the United States today of austerity. They want to, quote-unquote, “cut our way to progress,” as President Obama suggested, but in reality, it’s cutting the way toward progress for them and cutting the way toward a real hard hit for the average working American and potentially a slowing of the economy that begins with the sequester but does not end there.
Peterson was also a key player behind the Simpson-Bowles Commission, which was established by President Obama. It was, in fact, President Obama that chose Simpson and Bowles to head the commission. In other words, it was President Obama that provided these people and their ideas with a platform and legitimacy that is undeserved. Now we are reaping the consequences—a policy debate in which the wealthy are likely to win and the people are likely to lose regardless of outcome.
See here for more on the Fix the Debt Campaign.
See here for more on Pete Peterson.
See here for a discussion on what sequestration will mean for people’s lives.
There is general agreement that the economy is not growing fast enough to boost employment. The question: What to do about it?
The response, at all levels of government, seems to be: increase corporate subsidies and lower corporate taxes in hopes that corporations will boost investment and, by extension, employment. Those who promote this response no doubt reason that corporations must be struggling along with workers and need additional incentives and support to become successful “job-creators.”
The chart below, taken from a Paul Krugman blog post, certainly raises questions about this rationale and response. It shows trends in corporate profits (in red) and business investment (in blue), both measured as shares of GDP.
As you can see, profits have clearly been trending upwards over time, especially during our current recovery. At the same time, business investment, although improving, remains historically quite low. It is hard to see a poor profit performance as the root cause of our slow growth and job creation.
Moreover, banks are sitting on record amounts of money. The chart below, from the St. Louis Federal Reserve, shows that banks are holding approximately $1.5 trillion in excess reserves. In the past, excess reserves averaged roughly $20 billion. In other words, our banks just aren’t motivated to make loans. And, instead of taxing these excess reserves to encourage loan activity, the Federal Reserve is actually paying the banks interest on their holdings.
Now, as noted above, it would not be fair to say that governments are not actively trying to create jobs. It is just that they are going about it in the wrong way, the wrong way that is, if their aim is to actually create jobs.
Governments continue to shovel huge subsidies and tax breaks at our major corporations. This, despite the fact that most studies find little evidence that they help promote investment or employment. What they do, of course, is enhance corporate profits. They also force cutbacks in public spending, which does have negative effects on the economy and social welfare. Ironically, these negative effects then cause corporations to shy away from investing.
The New York Times recently ran a good series on state and local tax deals and subsidies written by Louise Story. She wrote:
A Times investigation has examined and tallied thousands of local incentives granted nationwide and has found that states, counties and cities are giving up more than $80 billion each year to companies. The beneficiaries come from virtually every corner of the corporate world, encompassing oil and coal conglomerates, technology and entertainment companies, banks and big-box retail chains.
The cost of the awards is certainly far higher. A full accounting, The Times discovered, is not possible because the incentives are granted by thousands of government agencies and officials, and many do not know the value of all their awards. Nor do they know if the money was worth it because they rarely track how many jobs are created. Even where officials do track incentives, they acknowledge that it is impossible to know whether the jobs would have been created without the aid. . . .
A portrait arises of mayors and governors who are desperate to create jobs, outmatched by multinational corporations and short on tools to fact-check what companies tell them. Many of the officials said they feared that companies would move jobs overseas if they did not get subsidies in the United States.
Over the years, corporations have increasingly exploited that fear, creating a high-stakes bazaar where they pit local officials against one another to get the most lucrative packages. States compete with other states, cities compete with surrounding suburbs, and even small towns have entered the race with the goal of defeating their neighbors.
These subsidies can dominate state budgets. The Times reports that they were equal to approximately one-third the budgets of Oklahoma and West Virginia and almost one-fifth of the budget of Maine.
Here in Oregon, we continue to struggle with budget shortfalls. And, fearful of losing corporate investment, the state legislature is doing what it can to keep corporate costs down. In December 2012, Governor John Kitzhaber called the state legislature into special session to pass a bill specially designed to help Nike.
Nike had privately told the Governor that it planned to spend at least $150 million in an expansion which it claimed would create at least 500 jobs over a five year span. If the state wanted that expansion and those jobs to be in Oregon, it had to reassure the company that its current favorable tax treatment would remain unchanged far into the future.
Although state legislators were not pleased to be presented with a major tax bill with little if any time to study its terms, they passed it. The new bill guarantees Nike that the state of Oregon will not change how it calculates the company’s state taxes for the next 30 years, regardless of any future changes in the state’s tax policy. More specifically, it gives the Governor power to offer such a deal to any major company that plans to invest at least $150 million and create at least 500 jobs over a five year span. It just so happened that Nike is the only company, at least for the moment, receiving this benefit.
To appreciate what is at stake in this deal a little background on how Oregon taxes multi-state corporations like Nike is helpful. Prior to 1991, Oregon taxed Nike using a formula that considered the state’s share of Nike’s total property, payroll, and sales, with each weighted equally. In 1991, Oregon double weighted the sales component. This greatly reduced Nike’s state tax bill, since while its property and payroll are concentrated in Oregon, only a small share of its sales are made in the state.
Then in 2001, Oregon began introducing a “single-sales factor” formula. As Michael Leachman of the Oregon Center for Public Policy explains:
Under this formula, only in-state sales relative to all US sales matter in determining how much of a company’s profits are apportioned to and thus taxable by Oregon; it doesn’t matter how much of their property or payroll is based in Oregon. The Legislative Assembly in 2005 cut short the phase-in process and fully phased-in the “single-sales” formula for tax years starting on or after July 1, 2005.
The Oregon Department of Revenue estimates that using the single-sales factor formula instead of the double-weighted sales formula is costing Oregon $77.6 million in the current 2005-07 budget cycle, and will cost another $65.6 million in the upcoming 2007-09 budget cycle. The projected decline in the cost of “single-sales” in the upcoming budget cycle is temporary. It is due primarily to a corporate kicker that will slash corporate tax payments by two-thirds this year. In subsequent budget cycles, the revenue hit from “single-sales” will return to a higher level. . . .
Take Nike, for example. Nike lobbied for the switch to single-sales factor apportionment and it’s easy to see why. At the Oregon Center for Public Policy, we conservatively estimate that Nike’s 2006 tax cut from “single-sales” was over $16 million. Other prominent, profitable firms such as Intel also received a massive tax break from “single-sales.”
As Michael Munk points out:
The governor’s deal is also particularly cynical when at a time of declining public services desperate politicians are dragging out a regressive sales tax out of mothballs and The Oregonian’s “fact checker finds “mostly true” a finding that Oregon’s existing tax breaks (including almost $900B a year in corporate welfare) exceed tax collections.
Of course, this stance towards the needs of Oregonians is nothing new for Nike. In 2010, Oregonians voted in favor of two measures (66 and 67) which temporarily raised taxes on the very wealthy and corporations. Phil Knight, the Nike CEO, not only gave $100,000 to the anti-Measures campaign, he also wrote an article published in the Oregonian newspaper in which he said:
Measures 66 and 67 should be labeled Oregon’s Assisted Suicide Law II.
They will allow us to watch a state slowly killing itself.
They are anti-business, anti-success, anti-inspirational, anti-humanitarian, and most ironically, in the long run, they will deprive the state of tax revenue, not increase it.
The current state tax codes are all of those things as well. Measures 66 and 67 just take it up and over the top.
Knight even threatened to leave the state. He didn’t, but I guess the last laugh is his, now that his company’s tax situation is secure for the next 30 years.
So—what lies ahead—more counterproductive state policies and head scratching about why things are going poorly for working people, or a change in strategy?
Considering the enormous time spent debating tax policy, it is easy to imagine that the U.S. must have one of the high tax rates in the world. Well, that is not the case.
The following graph is one of them. It shows the personal tax rate paid by people making the equivalent of $100,000 a year in 2012. The U.S. is the 55th ranked country out of 114 in terms of tax rates.
The next graph shows the same thing but for those earning the equivalent of $300,000 a year. The U.S. ranking is similar for this upper income group, 53rd highest out of 114.
Moreover, as Derek Thompson, the author of the Atlantic post, notes:
But these numbers might understate how low taxes have been in the U.S. Unlike most advanced economies, the U.S. don’t supplement personal income taxes with a national sales tax, or value-added tax (VAT). Consumption taxes accounted for about a fifth of total U.S. revenue in 2008 (mostly at the state and local level) compared to an OECD average of 32 percent. In other words, the U.S. relies uniquely on personal tax rates to raise revenue — and we have relatively low personal tax rates.
Finally, here is a look at the U.S. ranking among OECD countries for taxes as a share of GDP in 2008.
So, given that the U.S. doesn’t seem to be a high-tax rate country, why is tax policy so contentious? No doubt the answer has a lot to do with who actually pays the taxes and, perhaps even more importantly, what the revenue is used for.
The media continues to direct out attention to deficits and debt as our main problems. Yet, it does little to really highlight the causes of these deficits and debts.
The following two figures from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities help to clarify the causes. It is important to note that the projections underlying both figures were made before the recent vote making permanent most of the Bush-era tax cuts.
Figure 1, below, shows the main drivers of our large national deficits: the Bush-era tax cuts, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and our economic crisis and responses to it. Without those drivers our national deficits would have remained quite small.
Figure 2, below, shows the main drivers of our national debt. Not surprisingly they are the same as the drivers of our deficits.
Significantly, the same political leaders that scream the loudest about our deficits and debt have little to say about stopping the wars or reducing military spending and are the most adamant about maintaining the Bush-era tax cuts. That is because, at root, their interest is in reducing spending on non-security programs rather than reducing the deficit or debt.
Some of these leaders argue that the tax cuts will help correct our economic problems and thereby help reduce the deficit and debt. However, multiple studies have shown that tax cuts are among the least effective ways to stimulate employment and growth. In contrast, the most effective are sustained and targeted government efforts to refashion economic activity by spending on green conversion, infrastructure, health care, education and the like.
While Republicans and Democrats debate the extent to which taxes should be raised, both sides appear to agree on the need to reign in federal government spending in order to achieve deficit reduction. In fact, federal government spending has been declining both absolutely and, as the following figure from the St. Louis Federal Reserve shows, as a share of GDP.
In reality, our main challenge is not reducing our deficit or debt but rather strengthening our economy, and cutting government spending is not going to help us overcome that challenge. As Peter Coy, writing in BusinessWeek explains:
It pains deficit hawks to hear this, but ever since the 2008 financial crisis, government red ink has been an elixir for the U.S. economy. After the crisis, households strove to pay down debt and businesses hoarded profits while skimping on investment. If the federal government had tried to run balanced budgets, there would have been an enormous economy wide deficit of demand and the economic slump would have been far worse. In 2009 fiscal policy added about 2.7 percentage points to what the economy’s growth rate would have been, according to calculations by Mark Zandi of Moody’s Analytics. But since then the U.S. has underutilized fiscal policy as a recession-fighting tool. The economic boost dropped to just half a percentage point in 2010. Fiscal policy subtracted from growth in 2011 and 2012 and will do so again in 2013, to the tune of about 1 percentage point, Zandi estimates.
If we were serious about tackling our economic problems we would raise tax rates and close tax loopholes on the wealthy and corporations and reduce military spending, and then use a significant portion of the revenue generated to fund a meaningful government stimulus program. That would be a win-win proposition as far as the economy and budget is concerned.
The New York Times published a very interesting article on taxes. Most importantly it is accompanied by great graphics illustrating the changing tax burden of households by income bracket over the period 1980 to 2010. The taxes covered include federal taxes, payroll taxes, state and local taxes, and corporate taxes.
The screen shot below highlights the share of yearly income paid in combined federal and state and local taxes by households in different income brackets. As one can see, the tax burden fell for every income bracket, with those at the top enjoying the greatest reduction. There is no getting around the fact that tax rates, at least for the wealthy, must go up if we are to adequately fund necessary programs.
This combined view of our tax burden masks a striking difference between the trends in federal and state and local tax burdens. While the federal tax burden went down over the period 1980 to 2010 for households in every income group, the state and local tax burden rose for households in every income group.
Significantly, and perhaps explaining the strength of the anti-tax movement, state and local tax burdens rose most for households in the lowest income brackets. The same is true for the payroll taxes. The screen shot below shows the trends in both state and local and payroll tax burdens for all income groups.
As the Times article notes, “Public debate over taxes has typically focused on the federal income tax, but that now accounts for less than a third of the total tax revenues collected by federal, state and local governments.” Clearly, tax reform needs to take place at all levels of government. But that is only one side of the picture. Attention must also be given to the pattern and beneficiaries of government spending.
With the election over, the news is now focused, somewhat hysterically, on the threat of the fiscal cliff.
The fiscal cliff refers to the fact that at the end of this calendar year several temporary tax cuts are scheduled to expire (including those that lowered rates on income and capital gains as well as payroll taxes) and early in the next year spending cuts are scheduled for military and non-military federal programs. See here for details on the taxes and programs.
Most analysts agree that if tax rates rise and federal spending is cut the result will be a significant contraction in aggregate demand, pushing the U.S. economy into recession in 2013.
The U.S. economy is already losing steam. GDP growth in the second half of 2009, which marked the start of the recovery, averaged 2.7% on an annualized basis. GDP growth in 2010 was a lower 2.4%. GDP growth in 2011 averaged a still lower 2.0%. And growth in the first half of this year declined again, to an annualized rate of 1.8%.
With banks unwilling to loan, businesses unwilling to invest or hire, and government spending already on the decline, there can be little doubt that a further fiscal tightening will indeed mean recession.
So, assuming we don’t want to go over the fiscal cliff, what are our choices?
Both Republicans and Democrats face this moment in agreement that our national deficits and debt are out of control and must be reduced regardless of the consequences for overall economic activity. What they disagree on is how best to achieve the reduction. Most Republicans argue that we should renew the existing tax cuts and protect the military budget. Deficit reduction should come from slashing the non-military discretionary portion of the budget, which, as Ethan Pollack explains, includes:
safety net programs like housing vouchers and nutrition assistance for women and infants; most of the funding for the enforcement of consumer protection, environmental protection, and financial regulation; and practically all of the federal government’s civilian public investments, such as infrastructure, education, training, and research and development.
The table below shows the various programs/budgets that make up the non-security discretionary budget and their relative size. The chart that follows shows how spending on this part of the budget is already under attack by both Democrats and Republicans.
Unfortunately, the Democrat’s response to the fiscal cliff is only marginally better than that of the Republicans. President Obama also wants to shrink the deficit and national debt, but in “a more balanced way.” He wants both tax increases and spending cuts. He is on record seeking $4 trillion in deficit reduction over a ten year period, with a ratio of $2.50 in spending cuts for every $1 in new revenue.
The additional revenue in his plan will come from allowing tax cuts for the wealthy to expire, raising the tax rate on the top income tax bracket, and limiting the value of tax deductions. While an important improvement, President Obama is also committed to significant cuts in non-military discretionary spending. Although his cuts would not be as great as those advocated by the Republicans, reducing spending on most of the targeted programs makes little social or economic sense given current economic conditions.
So, how do we scale the fiscal cliff in a responsible way?
We need to start with the understanding that we do not face a serious national deficit or debt problem. As Jamie Galbraith notes:
. . . is there a looming crisis of debt or deficits, such that sacrifices in general are necessary? No, there is not. Not in the short run – as almost everyone agrees. But also: not in the long run. What we have are computer projections, based on arbitrary – and in fact capricious – assumptions. But even the computer projections no longer show much of a crisis. CBO has adjusted its interest rate forecast, and even under its “alternative fiscal scenario” the debt/GDP ratio now stabilizes after a few years.
Actually, as the chart below shows, the deficit is already rapidly falling. In fact, the decline in government spending over the last few years is likely one of the reasons why our economic growth is slowing so dramatically.
As Jed Graham points out:
From fiscal 2009 to fiscal 2012, the deficit shrank 3.1 percentage points, from 10.1% to 7.0% of GDP. That’s just a bit faster than the 3.0 percentage point deficit improvement from 1995 to ’98, but at that point, the economy had everything going for it.
Other occasions when the federal deficit contracted by much more than 1 percentage point a year have coincided with recession. Some examples include 1937, 1960 and 1969.
In short, we do not face a serious problem of growing government deficits. Rather the problem is one of too fast a reduction in the deficit in light of our slowing economy.
As to the challenge of the fiscal cliff—here we have to recognize, as Josh Bivens and Andrew Fieldhouse explain, that:
the budget impact and the economic impact are not necessarily the same. Some policies that are expensive in budgetary terms have only modest economic impacts (for example, the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts aimed at high-income households are costly but do not have much economic impact). Conversely, other policies with small budgetary costs have big economic impacts (for example, extended unemployment insurance benefits).
In other words, we should indeed allow the temporary tax rate deductions for the wealthy to expire, on both income and capital gains taxes. These deductions cost us dearly on the budget side without adding much on the economic side. As shown here and here, the evidence is strong that the only thing produced by lowering taxes on the wealthy is greater income inequality.
Letting existing tax rates rise for individuals making over $200,000 and families making over $250,000 a year, raising the top income tax bracket for both couples and singles that make more than $388,350, and limiting tax deductions will generate close to $1.5 trillion dollars over ten years as highlighted below in a Wall Street Journal graphic .
However, in contrast to President Obama’s proposal, we should also support the planned $500 billion in cuts to the military budget. We don’t need the new weapons and studies are clear that spending on the military (as well as tax cuts) is a poor way to generate jobs. For example, the table below shows the employment effects of spending $1 billion on the military versus spending the same amount on education, health care, clean energy, or tax cuts.
And, we should also oppose any cuts in our non-security discretionary budget. Instead, we should take at least half the savings from the higher tax revenues and military spending cuts–that would be a minimum of $1 trillion–and spend it on programs designed to boost our physical and social infrastructure. Here I have in mind retrofitting buildings, improving our mass transit systems, increasing our development and use of safe and renewable energy sources like wind and solar, and expanding and strengthening our social services, including education, health care, libraries, and the like.
Our goal should be a strong and accountable public sector, good jobs for all, and healthy communities, not debt reduction. The above policy begins to move us in the right direction.