Reports from the Economic Front

by Martin Hart-Landsberg

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Taxes and Militarism

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Tax day has come and gone.  And there is indeed a lot to complain about: our corporations and the wealthy have successfully minimized their own tax responsibilities, leaving us to support a powerful and profitable military-national-security-industrial complex at the expense of needed public services and social programs.

Let’s start with who pays taxes.  Individuals and corporations pay income taxes to the federal government.  However, as the chart below shows, corporations have been able to take advantage of increasingly lenient income tax laws and a corporate friendly globalization process to significantly lower their tax obligations.  If we add payroll taxes which are paid to support specific programs like Social Security and Medicare, the overall individual contribution is approximately 80% and the corporate share about 11%.

ind_and_corp_tax_line_chart_large

Lower corporate taxes were supposed to unleash the power of the market and make us all better off.  Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, all they have done is boost corporate profits at the public expense.

Of course, income tax burdens are not equally divided among individuals.  In fact, our federal income tax code has become increasingly favorable to higher income earners.  As the next chart shows, the top marginal income tax rate has been dramatically reduced.  The top marginal tax rate was 50 percent in the mid-1980s and even higher in the 1950s.  Currently, the top rate is 39.6 percent; it is paid by individuals making more than $406,750 and couples making more than $457,600.  And then there are tax breaks that disproportionately benefit top income earners.

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The combination of more income going to top earners, lower top marginal tax rates, and specially crafted tax breaks cannot help but reduce federal tax revenues and drive up our federal deficits.

The payment of income taxes is one thing—how the federal government uses the money it receives is another.  As we see next, military related activities absorb a heavy share of federal spending.

tax_dollor,_labels_edited_large

Direct spending on the military accounts for 27 cents of every federal tax dollar spent.  Including spending for veterans benefits and approximately two-thirds of the interest on the federal debt adds another 16.05 cents, which brings the overall military total to 43.05 cents out of every dollar spent.  This is a conservative estimate because it does not include spending on activities that fall under the broader heading of national security such as homeland security and certain “foreign aid” expenditures.  No wonder our infrastructure and social programs are starved for funds.

Federal spending can be divided into non-discretionary and discretionary items.  In the case of the former, spending is mandated by law, such as payment of the national debt.  In the case of the latter, the federal government has discretion in how it spends our tax money.  Looking just at discretionary spending reveals even more clearly the dominant position of the military in our budget priorities.

discretionary-desk

Moreover, political pressure keeps working to push the military share higher.  Both House and Senate budget proposals call for spending some $530 billion on defense in Fiscal Year (FY) 2016.  That is the most that can be spent without triggering automatic spending cuts due to sequestration.  But – happily for the military – there is an exception to the sequestration process.

This exception allows Congress to authorize unlimited spending for current military operations or what is officially known as Overseas Contingency Operations.  House and Senate proposals include more than $90 billion under this heading.  Significantly, there is no similar exception when it comes to spending on non-military, discretionary items.  Apparently our non-military needs don’t rise to the same level of urgency as our military ones.

A few key changes in the tax code and federal spending priorities and a better 2016 tax day is not hard to imagine.

The Rich Rule

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The dominance of the 1% is now widely accepted.  What is often missed is the fact that their dominance was built on a major transformation of the U.S. economy beginning in the early 1980s and that U.S. policy, which helped to usher in that transformation, has largely been committed to reinforcing it.  An NPR Planet Money post includes two charts that vividly highlight this transformation.

The chart below shows trends in the average inflation-adjusted pre-tax income for both the bottom 90% and the top 1% of the U.S. population.  From the early 1940s to the early 1970s, the bottom 90%—the great majority of the population—enjoyed a steady growth in their average real income while the top 1% saw little growth (to their already substantial total).

However, beginning in the early 1980s, thanks to the intensification of globalization, privatization, deregulation, and attacks on unions and social programs, things dramatically changed.  Now it was the top 1% that saw all the income gains.  In fact, as the chart makes clear, the real average income of the bottom 90% has actually been in decline.

Income inequality trend

 

The following chart offers an even more dramatic way to see this change in relative “fortunes.”  Each data point represents the average real pre-tax income of the bottom 90% and the top 1% for the given year.  The vertical greenish line illustrates the fact that between the early 1930s and 1970s only the bottom 90% saw income gains.  The horizontal red line illustrates how beginning in the early 1980s all the income growth went to the top 1%.

 

Inequality by year

 

One take away: no change in policy, no change in income distribution.

Written by marty

April 21st, 2015 at 5:24 am

Posted in Inequality

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The Disappearing State Unemployment System

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Business has failed to create the jobs we need and our public policies are failing to protect those who are unemployed.

As an Economic Policy Institute report explains:

The drop in the official unemployment rate overstates the overall improvements made in the underlying labor market. The United States lost 7.8 million jobs between December 2007 and October 2010 but the working-age population continued to grow over that period. As a result, even with steady job growth in recent years, the current labor market is still short 5.6 million jobs needed to keep up with the growth in potential labor force (see Figure A).

 Jobs

And, as of December 2014, only 23.1 percent of unemployed workers received any state unemployment benefits (see Figure B).  One reason is the nature of many of the recently created jobs: they are short term and low paying; this leaves workers without the work record or earnings necessary to draw benefits.  Another reason:

since 2011 nine states have cut the maximum available number of weeks of regular UI benefit duration [to below the long-accepted norm of 26 weeks] : Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, North Carolina, and South Carolina. Except Illinois, all these states made other legislative changes to their programs which may have reduced benefit recipiency.

 Unemployment

Times are not easy even for those lucky enough to receive the benefits they earned:  As the Economic Policy Institute report notes:

Many states pay low benefits. There were 11 states with maximum weekly benefit levels of $350 or less in 2014, meaning that workers earning more than $700 a week (well below the median weekly earnings) do not get half their pre-layoff wages replaced by UI benefits. Average benefits overall were only $315 a week in 2014 with average weekly benefits below poverty levels in the poorly performing states.

Written by marty

April 13th, 2015 at 4:37 am

Corporations in Control

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President Obama continues to press for a form of fast track approval to ensure Congressional support for two major trade agreements, the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership Agreement with 11 other countries (Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam) and the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership Agreement with the entire European Union.

Both agreements, based on leaks of current negotiating positions, have been structured to promote business interests and will have negative consequences for working people relative to their wages and working conditions, access to public services, and the environment.

These agreements are being negotiated in secret: even members of Congress are locked out of the negotiating process.  The only people that know what is happening and are in a position to shape the end result are the U.S. trade representative and a select group of 566 advisory group members selected by the U.S. trade representative.

Thanks to a recent Washington Post blog we can see who these advisory group members are and, by extension, whose interests are served by the negotiations.  According to the blog post, 480 or 85% of the members are from either industry or trade association groups.  The remaining 15% are academics or members of unions, civil society organizations, or government committees.  The blog post includes actual names and affiliations.

Here we can see the general picture of corporate domination of U.S. trade policy as illustrated by the Washington Post.

color codes

distribution

committee structure

In short, corporate interests are well placed to directly shape our trade policies.  No wonder drafts of these treaties include chapters that, among other things, lengthen patent protection for drugs, promote capital mobility and privatization of public enterprises, and allow corporations to sue governments in supra-national secret tribunals if public policies reduce expected profits.

Written by marty

March 15th, 2015 at 3:18 pm

The Long Wait for Wage Gains

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Officially, the U.S. economy has been in expansion since June 2009.  Many people find this hard to believe. One reason is that wages have either been flat or falling for much of the period.

A recent study of real hourly wage trends over the period 2007 to 2014 by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) documents this reality. The 2007 period marks the end of the previous expansion; the recession started in December 2007.  The charts below highlight the results of their study.

This first chart shows that only those in the top wage percentile have enjoyed an increase in real hourly wages since 2007.  Moreover, almost all groups are currently experiencing real declines in earnings. The exception is the bottom percentile and, according to the EPI, “a series of state-level minimum wage increases” is the main reason for their recent gains.

real wages

The following two charts separate the labor force by gender.  Again, we see gains only for the top percentile.  Men have experienced steeper declines in hourly earnings than women, although male wages remain higher than female wages.

Male wage trends

Female wage trends
The last chart looks at real wage trends by education.

Education trends

As the EPI study explains:

It is clear that those in every education category experienced falling or stagnant wages since 2007. In fact, real hourly wages have declined for 90 percent of the workforce with four-year college degrees since 2007 (not shown). From 2000 to 2014, real wages of the 90th percentile of this group only increased 4.0 percent cumulatively.

The data do show that college graduates have fared slightly better than high school graduates since 2007. This is not because of spectacular gains in the wages of college graduates, but because college-graduate wages fell more slowly than the wages of high school graduates. Notably, despite wage declines in both 2013 and 2014, those with advanced degrees are the only ones who have returned to their 2007 real wage levels.

 These trends only highlight the mean spirited nature of current attacks on unions and resistance to raising minimum wages.

 

Written by marty

February 27th, 2015 at 7:49 am

The Federal Budget In Pictures

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The following charts, taken from a National Priorities Project post, highlight our federal budget priorities.

As the post explains:

President Obama recently released his fiscal year 2016 budget proposal. Budgets are about our nation’s priorities: What are we going to spend money on? How are we going to raise the money we want to spend?

Though the budget ultimately enacted by Congress may look very different from the budget request released by the president, the president’s budget is important. It’s the president’s vision for the country in fiscal year 2016 and beyond, and it reflects input and spending requests from every federal agency.

 Here’s a look at the overall proposed budget:

2016-budget-chart-total-spending2_large

 

2016-budget-chart-discretionary-mandatory-interest-on-debt2_large

 

Here’s a look at the allocation of discretionary tax dollars:

2016-budget-chart-discretionary_large

 

Here”s a look at the relative balance of military and non-military discretionary spending over time:

2016-budget-chart-military-non-military-discretionary_large

 

Here’s a look at the structure of taxes supporting federal spending:

2016-budget-chart-individual-corporate-tax-line-chart_large

Written by marty

February 9th, 2015 at 9:16 am

Taxes and Politics

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Americans have become increasingly critical of public policy as a means of addressing social problems.  Many believe that public policies do not work but the reality is that public policies are often subverted in ways that make them ineffective or even counterproductive.

Take taxes and inequality.  As Danny Vinik, writing in the New Republic explains:

The vast majority of Americans—both liberals and conservatives—believe that state and local taxes should also be progressive. That’s the finding of a new report released by WalletHub Monday. The researchers surveyed 1,050 Americans on what they thought the combined rate of state and local taxes should be at various income levels. Not surprisingly, liberals want the rate structure to be a bit more progressive than conservatives do, but their responses [as the following chart shows] were relatively similar:

2014s_most_least_fair_state_tax_systems_wallethubr

However the reality is quite different.  State and local taxes are actually quite regressive.  The Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy studied the “fairness of state and local tax systems by measuring the state and local taxes that will be paid in 2015 by different [non-elderly] income groups as a share of their incomes.”  They did this state by state and, as presented below, on an overall basis.  As we can see, the lower the income, the greater the state and local tax burden.

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Here are some of the report’s key findings:

  • Virtually every state tax system is fundamentally unfair, taking a much greater share of income from low- and middle-income families than from wealthy families. The absence of a graduated personal income tax and overreliance on consumption taxes exacerbate this problem.
  • In the 10 states with the most regressive tax structures (the Terrible 10) the bottom 20 percent pay up to seven times as much of their income in taxes as their wealthy counterparts. Washington State is the most regressive, followed by Florida, Texas, South Dakota, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Arizona, Kansas, and Indiana.
  • Heavy reliance on sales and excise taxes are characteristics of the most regressive state tax systems. Six of the 10 most regressive states derive roughly half to two-thirds of their tax revenue from sales and excise taxes, compared to a national average of roughly one-third . Five of these states do not levy a broad-based personal income tax (four do not have any taxes on personal income and one state only applies its personal income tax to interest and dividends) while four have a personal income tax rate structure that is flat or virtually flat.
  • States commended as “low tax” are often high tax states for low-and middle-income families. The 10 states with the highest taxes on the poor are Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, and Washington. Seven of these are also among the “terrible ten” because they are not only high tax for the poorest, but low tax for the wealthiest.

In short, we know how to construct tax policies that can boost equality or at least minimize inequality.  The reason the overwhelming majority of state and local governments preside over regressive tax systems is primarily explained by politics, and those who benefit from those systems are more than happy to have us believe that governments are incapable of serving the public interest.

Written by marty

January 25th, 2015 at 7:23 am

Minimum Wages and Unemployment

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One of the arguments against an increase in the minimum wage is that it will lead to higher unemployment.  One can make theoretical arguments for and against this proposition.  And, of course, the income gains from an increase in the minimum wage are likely to produce overall benefits for both low wage workers and the economy as a whole even if there is a rise in unemployment.

Economists have tried to estimate the employment effects of a rise in the minimum wage.  As a Vox article describes, two of them, Hristos Doucouliagos and T.D Stanley, looked at almost 1500 estimates of the effects of minimum wage increases on employment and found that the estimates “clustered right around zero effect, but with more of those estimates showing a slight downward pressure on employment.”

employment and minimum wages

They concluded, “with sixty-four studies containing approximately fifteen hundred estimates, we have reason to believe that if there is some adverse employment effect from minimum wage rises, it must be of a small and policy-irrelevant magnitude.”

Written by marty

December 27th, 2014 at 1:25 pm

US Policies Are Relatively Ineffective At Reducing Inequality

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Government tax and spending programs can help reduce inequality—unfortunately US policies leave a lot to be desired.

One of the most common measures of income inequality is the gini index.  The index runs from zero to one, with higher values signifying greater inequality.  

The following two charts come from a Christian Science Monitor infographic on myths about inequality. The first shows that while income inequality, as measured by the gini coefficient, is high in the US, it is higher in nine other countries.  

inequality pre government programs

The second shows the degree to which tax and assistance programs do actually lower rates of income inequality.  It also shows that U.S. programs perform relatively poorly; using this adjusted measure, the U.S. trails only Chile for the dubious distinction of having the highest rate of income inequality.

inequality after government programs

Written by marty

November 15th, 2014 at 7:37 am

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.

fs20141106graphicviewofpoverty_graph1_small

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.

fs20141106graphicviewofpoverty_graph5_small

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