Reports from the Economic Front

by Martin Hart-Landsberg

Archive for the ‘Oregon’ Category

Election Thoughts

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President Obama had hoped that recent signs of economic strength would benefit Democrats in the recently completed election.  While it is true that job creation has picked up, the unemployment rate is falling, and growth is stronger, the reality is that most Americans have not enjoyed any real gains during this so-called expansionary period.

The following two charts highlight this on the national level.  The first shows how income gains made during the expansion period have been divided between the top 1% and everyone else.   There is not a lot to say except that there is not a lot of sharing going on.

income distribution

The second shows trends in real median household net worth.  While declines in median net worth are not surprising in a recession, what is noteworthy is that median net worth has continued to decline during this expansion.  Adjusted for inflation the average household is poorer now than in 1989.

Median-Net-Worth

Oregon provides a good example of state trends.  The chart below shows that the poverty rate in Oregon is actually higher now than it was during the recession.

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The poverty rate for children is even higher. In 2013, 21.6 percent of all Oregon children lived in families in poverty.

And, not surprisingly, communities of color experience poverty rates far higher than non-hispanic whites.

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Electing Republicans will certainly not improve things, but it is hard to blame people for feeling that the Democratic Party has abandoned them.  

More promising is movement building to directly advance community interests.  One example: voters in five states passed measures to boost minimum wages.   Another was the successful effort in Richmond, California to elect progressives to the city council over candidates heavily supported by Chevron, which hoped to dominate the council and overcome popular opposition to its environmental and health and safety policies.

Written by marty

November 6th, 2014 at 6:51 am

Corporations And The General Welfare

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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.

Profits and Investment

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.

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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?

Written by marty

February 9th, 2013 at 3:08 pm

Wage Inequality in Oregon

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The chart above comes from an Oregonian story by Jeff Manning.

It shows that average annual wages for Oregon’s top 2 percent of earners grew by 29.5 percent (adjusted for inflation) over the period 1990 to 2008.  By comparison, average annual earnings for those at the 50th percentile grew by only 2.5 percent over the same period.

And of course earnings inequality is far greater than these numbers suggest since they only include wage earnings.  The richer the person the more their earnings typically come from investment income.

The significance of these trends: our economy is structured so that only a very few enjoy the benefits of growth.  Our challenge then is not to renew existing economic patterns and relations (which is what current government policy seems designed to achieve, even if not very effectively), but rather to create a new economy.  And this will have to be an intentional restructuring.  Relying on market forces means relying on those who already dominate our economic lives, and it is pretty clear where their interests lie.

Written by marty

January 25th, 2010 at 8:34 am

The State Fiscal Crisis–Responses Needed

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A recent article by economist Rick Wolff highlights one of the many serious challenges facing the country–the growing fiscal crises that are hitting our states and municipalities.  He presents the following table from the work of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which shows the gap between the fifty states’ tax revenues and expenditures during the last (2001) and current (2007-?) recessionary periods.

As the chart makes clear, while a recession generates a budgetary shortfall, the shortfall extends for years after the recession is over.   In particular, the expected shortfall over the next two years will be very large–some $360 billion.   This shortfall will have to be closed through some combination of revenue increases or expenditure cuts.

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The CBPP has studied state responses to current budget shortfalls and reports the following:

  • 27 states have reduced health benefits for low-income children and families
  • 25 states are cutting aid to K-12 schools and other educational programs
  • 34 states have cut assistance to state colleges and universities
  • 26 states have instituted hiring freezes
  • 13 states have announced layoffs
  • 22 states have reduced state workers’ wages

With fiscal problems set to grow we need bold action.   If we do nothing budget cuts will only further weaken our economy (by reducing demand)  and worsen living and working conditions for the great majority of citizens.

Oregon is no exception.  In fact, according to a story in the Oregonian, a Pew Center on the States report “names Oregon as one of 10 states at greatest peril of following California over a state budget cliff.  Even though the national economy has started to rebound, Oregon is likely to have a harder time coming up with enough money to pay for schools and other public services — or finding enough places it can cut back its spending — than it did when patching together a balanced budget for 2009-10 said Susan Urahn, managing director of the Pew Center.”

One part of any rational response to this situation has to be increasing revenue by raising taxes on the wealthy and our large corporations.  Oregon is trying to do just that with Measures 66 and 67.  These measures–passed by the legislature but put on the January ballot by opponents–deserve our support.

Obviously significant national action is also needed to address what is a major structural problem.  One obvious response: cut military spending (which continues to grow) and channel some of the savings to state and local governments.

More generally, we need a government-directed, integrated industrial and employment program.  For example, our government owns large holdings in major auto and finance enterprises.  Rather than remain passive owners, we should take control over the firms we own and redirect their activity.  We should start producing mass transit vehicles and require that the banks direct needed funds at reasonable rates to support that production.  And we should direct federal transportation spending to state and local governments so that the new vehicles can be purchased.

We should do the same for the production of needed technology and equipment to develop and expand alternative energy sources like wind and solar power.

At present, federal stimulus money is being used to encourage private firms to retrofit buildings to improve energy efficiency.  Instead, we should encourage the establishment of local publicly owned enterprises to carry out this work, with the profit earned from the work redirected back to local government budgets to support desired social programs.  And all publicly organized production should guarantee living wages and encourage democratic unionization.

Much more could be done—including the cancellation of so called free trade agreements which encourage capital flight and the pitting of workers in one country against another.

The point is that we need a dramatic rethinking and reorganization of how our economy works.  There are plenty of good ideas available—at issue is the political organization and will.

Written by marty

November 14th, 2009 at 1:22 pm

Tax Fairness in Oregon

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Oregon faces a severe fiscal crisis.  In short, the state is just not taking in enough money to fund all the services needed by people.  In response the 2009 Legislature passed two measures (66 and 67) that will raise $733 million in new revenue in the 2009-11 biennium.  While not a solution to the crisis, this extra money will help reduce cuts in spending on education, health and public safety.  These measures also help produce a more equitable tax structure.

In brief, Measure 66 raises taxes on high income Oregonians—couples earning over $250,000 a year and individuals earning over $125,000 a year.  Measure 67 raises taxes on profitable corporations. (More details on both measures here).

Perhaps not surprisingly, there are those that oppose any tax changes, even ones as important, needed, and justifiable as these.  They succeeded in putting these measures on the January ballot, hoping to get voters to reject them.

One of their arguments is that the tax increases are unfair.  But really what is unfair is the unbalanced nature of our existing tax system (see table below).  For example, as the Oregon Center for Public Policy explains:

Today, low-income Oregonians pay a larger share of their income in state and local taxes than wealthy Oregonians. In fact, the highest-income Oregonians pay the lowest share of their income in state and local taxes. . . . After accounting for the deduction of state income taxes on federal tax returns, the lowest-income Oregonians currently pay 8.7 percent of their income in taxes, the highest share among all income groups. Middle-income Oregonians pay 7.9 percent. The wealthiest 1 percent — households with income in excess of $410,000 and averaging over $1 million — pay only 6.1 percent of their income toward state and local taxes.

The passage of Measure 66 will help move things in a more equitable direction:

The lowest-income Oregonians will still pay the same 8.7 percent of their income in state and local taxes, but the share will increase for those at the highest levels of the income scale. For the wealthiest 1 percent, for example, state and local taxes will increase from 6.1 to 6.6 percent of their income. For the next highest 4 percent of taxpayers, taxes will increase from 7.0 to 7.1 percent of income. These slight changes for those at the top 5 percent of the income scale constitute a small but important step toward making our tax system better based on ability to pay.

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Other opponents are calling these measures “job-killer tax increases,” especially Measure 67.  The recently established Oregonians Against Job-Killing Taxes (OAJKT) argues that “Oregon government doesn’t even need the new taxes. They already have the money sitting in bank accounts.”  Their website says that if the measures are defeated “no services have to suffer.”

In a recent Oregonian column, Steve Duin examines those behind the OAJKT effort to overturn Measures 66 and 67.  He concludes as follows:

As Chuck Sheketoff at the Oregon Center for Public Policy noted, these riffs are necessary because only 3 percent of Oregonians will pay higher taxes if Measures 66 and 67 pass. . . .

Tis the season. I’ll end with this. The OAJKT website insists that “the most damaging” tax increase for business would require that a C-corporation with $25 million-$50 million in Oregon sales will now pay a gross sales tax of $30,000.

That’s all? Less than one-tenth of 1 percent? For many companies that, for years, have paid the $10 minimum? Who in the world considers that unreasonable?

A number of economists teaching and working in Oregon have recently published a statement in defense of Measures 66 and 67.   You can read it here.

Written by marty

October 31st, 2009 at 1:47 pm

The Oregon Economic Experience

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It is often hard to know how our fellow Oregonians are doing — for a good look check out “Survey shows how recession has hit Oregon households” by Richard Read in The Oregonian, September 17, 2009.

The articles makes clear that there is a lot of suffering going on in Oregon, even more than in the nation as a whole.  Some highlights:

  • “Almost a third of Oregonians polled recently say they or a family member in their household have been laid off or lost a job in the past year.”
  • “Forty-one percent say they or a family member at home have had work hours cut during the recession. Nearly a third have housed a family member or friend because of money.”
  • “In other responses, 40 percent of Oregonians interviewed say they worry all or most of the time that their total family income will not be enough to meet expenses. That’s 6 percentage points higher than nationally and 9 points higher than last year, when the question was asked in Oregon during a similar survey.”
  • “More than a quarter of Oregonians say they or a household member have had problems paying for necessities such as mortgage, rent, heating or food during the past 12 months. Fifty-six percent say that if they were suddenly unable to pay for necessities, they wouldn’t know where to go for help from the government or a charity.”

Written by marty

September 21st, 2009 at 10:57 am

Why The Status Quo Is Unacceptable

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The table above comes from the Oregon Center for Public Policy report by Joy Margheim entitled Labor Day Woes and Wishes.

Consider the table carefully—among other things it shows that over the period 2000-2007, the bottom 60% of state income earners actually lost money (in real terms).  Only the top 20% gained, and most of that gain went to the top 1%.  This outcome represents a sharp challenge to our media and elected officials who talk about overcoming the Great Recession and returning to “normalcy.”  Is a return to a political economy in which the majority actually suffers an income loss really our goal?

Clearly, we need to transform the way our economy works and our economic policies should be judged accordingly.  At the same time, a look at the enormous gains enjoyed by those at the very top of the income distribution speaks volumes about the source of resistance to the needed changes.

Written by marty

September 6th, 2009 at 12:18 pm

Unemployed Councils: Lessons For Today

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Economic conditions are bad; what should we do?  In many ways the problem is not a lack of ideas—if we had power we could strengthen labor laws making it easier for workers to defend their rights; implement a single payer health system; nationalize the banks and re-direct funds to priority areas like mass transit and green technology; raise taxes on corporations and the wealthy to fund vital social services and programs; change trade laws to undercut corporate power.  The list goes on.

No, the problem is more a lack of political power and will.  People feel isolated and discouraged.  How do we overcome that problem?  History offers some important examples that deserve serious study.  One is the experience of the 1930s Unemployed Councils.

By the end of 1931, Unemployed Councils in Portland had more than 3000 registered members.  When individual efforts to work within the system failed, the Councils often took direction action in defense of their member’s interests. For example, after some 400 unemployed stormed City Hall, the city agreed to provide housing and shelter for over 1000 unemployed working people.  [The picture below illustrates the work of the unemployed councils in Portland “reversing” an eviction]

If unemployed workers could come together in the midst of the depression and form a powerful national organization to fight for meaningful social changes for themselves and others,  why can’t we help today’s hungry, homeless, and unemployed (modern day victims of social forces beyond their control) organize and work with other movements to demand change?

Here are some places to learn more about the Unemployed Councils:

The Pacific Northwest Labor History Project

KBOO’s Labor Radio

“Organize among Yourselves”: Mary Gale on Unemployed Organizing in the Great Depression

“I’m Going to Fight Like Hell”: Anna Taffler and the Unemployed Councils of the 1930s

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Written by marty

August 16th, 2009 at 6:50 am

Labor Radio Interview

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On Monday (August 10), Labor Radio–a weekly program that airs on KBOO radio (90.7 FM)–played an interview of me by hosts Deborah Schwartz and Al Bradbury.  We discussed a variety of topics, including the effectiveness of the stimulus, the outlook for the economy, the alleged social security crisis, and the need for structural change in our economy.

You can hear the interview (followed by another that was done by the hosts with Henry Huerta, Campaign Director of the CLEAN Car Wash Campaign, about the unionization efforts of more than ten thousand Los Angeles car washers) at:  http://kboo.fm/node/15826

You can hear an extended (and unaired) version of my interview at: http://kboo.fm/node/15788

Unemployment hits 23.5% in Oregon–

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How bad is the unemployment problem in Oregon (and the rest of the US)?

The New York Times offers a graphic that allows you to see the value of the two main unemployment indicators (U-3 and U-6) for every state in the country.  U-3 is the official rate; it is 9.5% nationally and 12.2% in Oregon.  U-6 is the adjusted rate (which means it takes into account involuntary part-time employment and discouraged workers).  It is a crushing 16.5% nationally and an even higher 23.5% in Oregon.

That’s right—23.5% in Oregon.

According to the Times, the U-6 rate “was 21.5 percent in both Michigan and Rhode Island and 20.3 percent in California. In Tennessee, Nevada and several other states that have relied heavily on manufacturing or housing, the rate was just under 20 percent this spring and may have since surpassed it.”

I think we are moving beyond the “Great Recession” to the “Great Depression 2.”

Those arguing about whether we need a bigger or smaller stimulus are missing the point–we need a new economy.

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Written by marty

July 15th, 2009 at 3:59 pm