Category Archive for: Politics [Return to Main]

Friday, November 27, 2015

'What Is Holding Back the Economy?'

The rise of the crazies is not unrelated:

What Is Holding Back the Economy?: ...for many if not most people, the standard of living that can be achieved by working has been permanently reduced — by long bouts of unemployment and underemployment, by unstable and insecure employment, by long-term stagnation of wages and, perhaps most significantly, by the failure of Congress to use fiscal policy, consistently and aggressively, to counteract the devastation of the recession and its corrosive effects on the economy.
For some people in some places, steady work is simply no longer a way of life, if it ever was. In several states where jobless rates have fallen to pre-recession levels, including Illinois and Ohio, the drop is due mainly to shrinking labor forces, not increases in hiring. When unemployment rates go down because people have despaired of ever finding a job, the economy is not really improving. Rather, it is downshifting to a less prosperous level.
There are two related ways to counter that downshift. One is to make productivity-enhancing investments that create jobs today and lay the foundation for future growth. Such investments would include bolstered spending for education, transportation, environmental protection, basic science and other fields that are the purview of government. The other is to enact policies to ensure that pay and profits from enhanced productivity are broadly shared, rather than concentrated at the top of the income-and-wealth ladder. Such policies would include strict anti-trust enforcement, steeply progressive taxes, a higher minimum wage and support for labor unions. ...
But for now, there is mostly talk..., and much of the talk, especially from Republicans, is about how government should not step up to the nation’s economic challenges. The economy has recovered from the worst and proven resilient, but it is being held back by what government at all levels has failed to do.

Not the first to say this, but the problem is that Republicans have misrepresented the causes of the distress so many households feel, in particular scapegoating those who have it even worse as somehow responsible for their problems (and the decline of America more generally). And then they sell the solutions as benefiting the middle class (trickle down anyone?) when they are really directed at reducing taxes for those at the top, and reducing the government services that people rely upon to survive in this economy to support the tax cuts.

But there is something else I'd like to note. The problem is blamed on government at all levels, and fiscal policy. We hear, when Republicans are named at all, that it is "especially" Republicans as though the balance only tilts in one direction. No, it's not especially Republicans, or even mostly Republicans that are standing in the way of doing more to help those who are struggling to make ends meet. It is Republicans. It's not congressional gridlock based upon reasonable differences over policy that cannot be resolved through compromise, it's an active attempt by one party to block anything the other party tries to do, even if it might help people economically. So long as the political benefits of this behavior -- benefits based upon selling snake oil for the most part -- exceed the economic costs of inaction, Republicans will stand in the way (all the while trying to convince those who are hurt the most by their actions that they will actually be helped). It's time to stop blaming "government" as though that is what is dysfunctional. The dysfunction, as evidenced by the slate of, and preferences over Republican presidential candidates, is in the Republican party. Their actions since the onset of the Great Recession have, in my view, hurt people who should have been helped, slowed the recovery, and diverted our attention from the true problems we face making it impossible to solve them (not that Republicans would have gone along with the solutions anyway). If this election tears Republicans apart and strips them of this ability to stand in the way of helping the working class, a dream I know, I will not be shedding tears. Quite the opposite.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

'Economists and the Eurozone: Wake Up Calls and Political Capture'

Simon Wren-Lewis:

Economists and the Eurozone: wake up calls and political capture: ... It is natural at this point to talk about Germany, and the fact that as a result of low wage increases undercutting Eurozone neighbours before the recession, Germany is not suffering as much from this recession as other countries. But I have often tried to avoid stopping there, and instead to ask whether Germany's strange stance on these macro issues simply reflects this different conjunctural position. I think the answer is no.

I'm increasingly drawn to the view that Germany's stance reflects similar political economy pressures as you will find in other OECD economies: there is no German exceptionalism, but rather that the forces that everywhere are pushing austerity and tighter monetary policy happen for various reasons to be stronger in Germany. From this perspective, this post from Frances Coppola is particularly interesting. Perhaps the problem at the heart of the Eurozone is that economic policy advice in Germany has been effectively captured by employers' interests, and perhaps the interests of banks in particular.

 Economic policy effectively captured by business and financial interests? That could never happen here...

Saturday, November 21, 2015

'The Political Aftermath of Financial Crises: Going to Extremes'

At Vox EU:

The political aftermath of financial crises: Going to extremes, by Manuel Funke, Moritz Schularick, and Christoph Trebesch: Summary Recent events in Europe provide ample evidence that the political aftershocks of financial crises can be severe. This column uses a new dataset that covers elections and crises in 20 advanced economies going back to 1870 to systematically study the political aftermath of financial crises. Far-right parties are the biggest beneficiaries of financial crises, while the fractionalization of parliaments complicates post-crisis governance. These effects are not observed following normal recessions or severe non-financial macroeconomic shocks.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Paul Krugman: The Farce Awakens

 Why do Republicans have so many panic attacks?:

The Farce Awakens, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: Erick Erickson, the editor in chief of the website, is a serious power in right-wing circles. ... So it’s worth paying attention to what Mr. Erickson says. And ... his response to the attack in Paris was a bit startling. The French themselves are making a point of staying calm, indeed of going out to cafes to show that they refuse to be intimidated. But Mr. Erickson declared on his website that he won’t be going to see the new “Star Wars” movie on opening day, because “there are no metal detectors at American theaters.”
It’s a bizarre reaction — but when you think about it, it’s part of a larger pattern. These days, panic attacks after something bad happens are the rule rather than the exception, at least on one side of the political divide. ...
But we shouldn’t really be surprised, because we’ve seen this movie before (unless we were too scared to go to the theater). Remember the great Ebola scare of 2014? The threat of a pandemic, like the threat of a terrorist attack, was real. But it was greatly exaggerated, thanks in large part to hype from the same people now hyping the terrorist danger.
What’s more, the supposed “solutions” were similar, too, in their combination of cruelty and stupidity. ...
What explains the modern right’s propensity for panic? Part of it, no doubt, is the familiar point that many bullies are also cowards. But I think it’s also linked to the apocalyptic mind-set that has developed among Republicans during the Obama years.
Think about it. From the day Mr. Obama took office, his political foes have warned about imminent catastrophe. Fiscal crisis! Hyperinflation! Economic collapse, brought on by the scourge of health insurance! And nobody on the right dares point out the failure of the promised disasters to materialize, or suggest a more nuanced approach.
Given this context, it’s only natural that the right would seize on a terrorist attack in France as proof that Mr. Obama has left America undefended and vulnerable. Ted Cruz ... goes so far as to declare that the president “does not wish to defend this country.” ...
The point is that at this point panic is what the right is all about, and the Republican nomination will go to whoever can most effectively channel that panic. Will the same hold true in the general election? Stay tuned.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

'A More Inflexible Fed Would Cause More Crises'

Adam Posen:

A More Inflexible Fed Would Cause More Crises: Having saved the US economy from a second Great Depression, the Federal Reserve has become a political scapegoat in the Congress for its own failures to secure the recovery. Rather than improving our tax code, investing in our future, or simply passing a budget that is little more than avoiding default, the House is prioritizing so-called “reform” of the Fed.  Just as throughout the global financial crisis and recovery, Congress is abdicating its economic responsibilities to the American people and attacking one of the few policy institutions that worked instead.
Both Republicans and Democrats have already curtailed the ability of the US central bank to respond proactively to any financial crisis... They have done this by restricting the Fed’s ability to lend to troubled institutions in a crisis—even though such lending is the very essence of why the central bank exists: ...
Now, there are new legislative efforts trying to force the Fed to follow strictly a narrow policy rule when setting monetary policy even in normal times—and report to Congress in a very literal-minded short-term way about any deviations from that rule. ...
More closely examined, any imposition of a simplistic rigid policy rule with mechanistic monitoring will only serve to politicize monetary policy to an unprecedented extent. And that, for good reason, is almost universally seen in the economics profession as something that would inevitably lead to ongoing higher inflation and bigger, more frequent boom-bust cycles. ...
Any effort to limit US monetary policy to an inflexible rule with politicized short-term oversight should be opposed..., doing so would bring severe harm to the workers, savers, and investors in the US economy.

Monday, November 16, 2015

'Clinton is Both Right and Wrong about Glass-Steagall'

Me, at MoneyWatch:

Clinton is Both Right and Wrong about Glass-Steagall: In the Democratic presidential debate, Hillary Clinton said she opposed the reimplementation of the Glass-Steagall act. The Act was repealed in 1999, and many people believe easing the restrictions the Act imposed on banks caused the financial crisis. As I will explain shortly, the evidence does not support this claim, but that doesn’t mean the repeal of Glass-Steagall was a good idea...

Friday, November 13, 2015

'Where Fed's Critics Got it Wrong in GOP Debate'

Couldn't resist commenting on this:

Where Fed's critics got it wrong in GOP debate, by Mark Thoma: The Federal Reserve was instrumental in easing the impact of the Great Recession. As bad as the downturn was, it could have have been worse if central bankers hadn't aggressively used monetary policy to curb the severity of the crisis and help put the U.S. economy on the path to recovery.
So it has been disappointing to hear Republican presidential candidates bash the Fed in their debates and on the campaign trail. ...

Paul Krugman: Republicans’ Lust for Gold

Why have Republican candidates for president embraced hard money policies?:

Republicans’ Lust for Gold, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: It’s not too hard to understand why everyone seeking the Republican presidential nomination is proposing huge tax cuts for the rich. Just follow the money...
But what we saw in Tuesday’s presidential debate was something relatively new on the policy front: an increasingly unified Republican demand for hard-money policies, even in a depressed economy. Ted Cruz demands a return to the gold standard. Jeb Bush ... is open to the idea. Marco Rubio wants the Fed to focus solely on price stability, and stop worrying about unemployment. Donald Trump and Ben Carson see a pro-Obama conspiracy behind the Federal Reserve’s low-interest rate policy.
And let’s not forget that Paul Ryan ... has spent years berating the Fed for policies that, he insisted, would “debase” the dollar and lead to high inflation. Oh, and he has flirted with Carson/Trump-style conspiracy theories, too...
As I said, this hard-money orthodoxy is relatively new. ... George W. Bush’s economists praised the “aggressive monetary policy”... And Mr. Bush appointed Ben Bernanke... But now it’s hard money all the way. ...
This turn wasn’t driven by experience. The new Republican monetary orthodoxy has already failed the reality test with flying colors... But years of predictive failure haven’t stopped the orthodoxy from tightening its grip on the party. What’s going on?
My main answer would be that the Friedman compromise — trash-talking government activism in general, but asserting that monetary policy is different — has proved politically unsustainable. You can’t, in the long run, keep telling your base that government bureaucrats are invariably incompetent, evil or both, then say that the Fed, which is ... basically a government agency run by bureaucrats, should be left free to print money as it sees fit. ...
The interesting question is what will happen to monetary policy if a Republican wins next year’s election. As best as I can tell, most economists believe that it’s all talk, that once in the White House someone like Mr. Rubio or even Mr. Cruz would return to Bush-style monetary pragmatism. Financial markets seem to believe the same. At any rate, there’s no sign in current asset prices that investors see a significant chance of the catastrophe that would follow a return to gold.
But I wouldn’t be so sure. True, a new president who looked at the evidence and listened to the experts wouldn’t go down that path. But evidence and expertise have a well-known liberal bias.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Trickle Down, Starve the Beast, Supply-Side, and Sound Money Fantasies

From the WSJ editorial page:

...On the other hand, Mr. Cruz’s pitch for “sound money” that helps the middle class stands out in the GOP field and deserves more elaboration. It’s also notable that nearly all of the GOP candidates identify the Federal Reserve’s post-crisis monetary policy as a source of rising inequality that has favored the wealthy. This is a populist note that has the added benefit of being true. ...

Rising inequality for four decades can be blamed on the Fed's response to the financial crisis? Seriously? On taxes:

Then there’s tax policy, in which all of the candidates offered up reform plans that would be an improvement over the status quo.

But it has to be the right kind of tax policy (tax cuts or credits for the wealthy:

Marco Rubio was challenged on his child tax credit, which he would increase to $2,500 from $1,000. ... Mr. Rubio’s diagnosis of the changing economy has particular appeal to anxious voters. It’s too bad his tax credit is such an expensive political pander.

But of course cutting taxes on the wealthy is not an expensive pander, it will generate growth!!! Tax revenue will rise and the deficit will fall!!! The benefits will trickle down to the middle class (unless that evil Fed gets in the way decades later)!!! None of which has actually happened according to the empirical evidence. Republicans seem to have a talent for telling economic stories about how their policies will benefit the middle class all the while disguising the true intent of the legislation. So long as it can be true in theory (the confidence fairy comes to mind), the actual evidence doesn't matter.

James Pethokoukis says it's time to end the supply-side charade:

A last hurrah for Republican tax slashers: The Republican party’s raison d’être is cutting taxes. ... Republicans should pray for a new purpose. Their standing with middle-class voters is little improved from 2012. ... Their “supply-side” orthodoxy would merit much of the blame. Big tax cuts, particularly for the wealthiest, do not work in an age of high inequality and heavy debt. ...
Many of the party’s 2016 candidates seem to disagree that change is needed. ... Almost all have released economic plans built around “pro-growth” tax cuts costing trillions. ... But there are good reasons to view the next election as a last hurrah for Republican-style supply-side policy.
First, voters do not much care about taxes. ... Second, America’s fiscal situation makes deep tax cuts implausible. ... Third, tax cuts look like an answer desperately searching for a problem. Today’s top US marginal tax rate is 39.6 per cent...
There are signs candidates are starting to wriggle out of the supply-side straitjacket. At this week’s Republican presidential debate in Wisconsin, Marco Rubio said a larger tax credit for families was just as important as tax cuts for business. ... While 1980s-style supply-side doctrine still rules the Republican roost, it may not beyond November 2016.

There are also signs that these proposals, while perhaps helping candidates draw votes, have little chance of success in Congress. Republicans may need a new cover story -- a new "economic" argument or the middle class that obscures the true intent of the policy -- but it's not clear there's anything as magical as trickle down, starve the beast, supply-side, sound money fantasies that have served them so well.

Update: From Kevin Drum:

...Well, the Tax Foundation is a right-leaning outfit, so you have to figure they're going to give Republican plans a fair shake. And their distributional analysis of Rubio, Bush, Trump, and Cruz shows that their tax plans are all pretty similar: tiny gains for middle-income workers and huge gains for the top 1 percent. I've used the static analysis, since it's the most tethered to reality, but even if you use the magic dynamic estimates you get roughly the same result: the rich make out a whole lot better than the middle class.
That said, you really have to give Ted Cruz credit. When it comes to giving huge handouts to the rich, he's the true Republican leader.


'Friction is Now Between Global Financial Elite and the Rest of Us'

Robert Reich at Comment is Free:

Friction is now between global financial elite and the rest of us, The Guardian: The standard explanation for why average working people in advanced nations such as Britain and the United States have failed to gain much ground over the past several decades and are under increasing economic stress is that globalization and technological change have made most people less competitive. The tasks we used to perform can now be done more cheaply by lower-paid workers abroad or by computer-driven machines.
The left’s standard solution has been an activist government that taxes the wealthy, invests the proceeds in excellent schools and in other means that people need to become more productive, and redistributes to those in need. These prescriptions have been opposed vigorously by those on the right, who believe the economy will function better for everyone if government is smaller, public debt is reduced and taxes and redistributions are curtailed.
But the standard explanation, as well as the standard debate, overlooks the increasing concentration of political power in a corporate and financial elite that has been able to influence the rules by which the economy runs. ...

Monday, November 09, 2015

'Budgetary Sleight-of-Hand'

Congress enjoys a "political free lunch," budgetary illusions that make it appear that tax cuts, new spending -- whatever -- will not require cuts in other spending, an increase in taxes, or change the deficit. Ben Bernanke reveals the trickery behind the latest attempt at deception:

Budgetary sleight-of-hand: The House voted Thursday to pay for planned highway construction by drawing on the Federal Reserve’s capital. The idea of using Fed capital to pay for government spending, which comes up periodically, is a bad one, for several reasons. ... More substantively—and this is what I want to focus on in this post—“paying” for highway spending with Fed capital is not paying for it at all in any economically meaningful sense. Rather, this maneuver is a form of budgetary sleight-of-hand that would count funds that are already designated for the Treasury as “new” revenue.

To see why, first note that the Fed, as a side effect of its other activities, is already a major source of revenue for the federal government. The Fed earns interest on its portfolio of securities. This income, less the Fed’s operating expenses and interest paid on Fed liabilities, is sent to the Treasury on a pretty much continuous basis. These remittances are large: Over the past half dozen years the Fed has sent nearly half a trillion dollars to the Treasury, funds which directly reduce the government’s budget deficit. ... The Fed’s capital account provides a buffer that absorbs any losses on the Fed’s portfolio and allows the payments to the Treasury to be smoothed over time.

Unlike the Fed’s remittances, which are real resources whose availability reduces the burden on the taxpayer, drawing down the Fed’s capital provides no net new funding for the government. ...

Legislators who care about the integrity of the budgeting process should not support this budgetary sleight-of-hand.

Sunday, November 08, 2015

'Grasp the Reality of China’s Rise'

Larry Summers:

Grasp the reality of China’s rise: ...In the years ahead, China is likely to account for between one-third and one-half of growth in global incomes, trade and commodity demand, and its significance will only increase... I returned last week from a trip to China with the dispiriting conclusion that the world lacks shared understandings regarding goals for the evolution of the Chinese economy...
The first issue ... is whether it is the objective of the United States and the global community to see China succeed economically..., or whether it is our objective to contain and weaken China economically so that it has less capacity to mount global threats. This is seen in Beijing as a live question... The world cannot expect economic cooperation from Beijing if its objective is to inhibit Chinese economic performance. ... None of this is to say the United States does not have valid concerns...
Second,... the ... reforms that are necessary if China is to grow sustainably and strongly over the next decade ... will surely take a toll on growth in the short run. This ... will reduce demand for imports from the rest of the world and raise China’s trade surplus. ...
The world is likely to be well-served by recognizing that its deepest interests lie in China pursuing ... reform, even at the expense of modest reductions in China’s contribution to global demand ... and possibly more exchange rate depreciation than we would prefer. ...
Finally,... the United States’ failure to provide the necessary congressional approval to allow China’s voting power in the International Monetary Fund to rise above that of Belgium’s suggests a troubling indifference to global reality. ...
Today the perils of the future have much to do with China’s rise and with the worlds of commerce and economics. Let us hope that we find the wisdom to manage them well.

Saturday, November 07, 2015

'Economic Policy Splits Democrats'

Anyone think this is correct?:

Economic Policy Splits Democrats, WSJ: The old guard of a party that laid the groundwork for the election of a two-term president watches with unease at what’s happening to their electoral prospects and economic policy proposals. ...
That alarm shines through in a new 52-page report from centrist Democratic think tank the Third Way...
“The right cares only about growth, hoping it will trickle down,” says Jonathan Cowan, president of Third Way. The left, meanwhile, is too focused on “redistribution to address income inequality.”
Third Way says a better agenda focuses on growth by promoting skills, job growth and wealth creation without adding to deficits or raising taxes on the middle class. Its report outlines a series of policies it says can do this...
The gist of the report concludes that the economic problems facing the American middle class have less to do with unfairness—or the idea that the system is fundamentally “rigged” against workers—and more to do with technological and globalization forces that can’t be reversed.

[That statement will drive Larry Mishel nuts.]

The report spotlights a divide on the left in both substance and style. ...
Progressives want to see a more fundamental rewrite of the rules to break up political power, on par with President Theodore Roosevelt‘s “trust-busting” of a century ago. “This country is in real trouble,” Ms. Warren said at the May event. “The game is rigged and we are running out of time.”
That kind of rhetoric gives Mr. Cowan fits because he says it isn’t a winning political message. ...
He says that leading economic ideas on the left, including advocacy for a $15 minimum wage, expanded Social Security benefits and a single-payer health-care system, won’t play well with independent voters. The report cites focus group research in advancing its argument that Americans, particularly independents and moderate voters, are more anxious than they are angry about these changes.
Third Way cites the failures of main street icons such as Kodak, Borders Books and Tower Records as proof that new technologies and delivery systems, as opposed to a “stacked deck” in Washington, are primarily responsible for economic upheaval.

Tower Records explains inequality? Seriously? From Larry Mishel (linked above):

Many economists contend that technology is the primary driver of the increase in wage inequality since the late 1970s, as technology-induced job skill requirements have outpaced the growing education levels of the workforce. The influential “skill-biased technological change” (SBTC) explanation claims that technology raises demand for educated workers, thus allowing them to command higher wages—which in turn increases wage inequality. A more recent SBTC explanation focuses on computerization’s role in increasing employment in both higher-wage and lower-wage occupations, resulting in “job polarization.” This paper contends that current SBTC models—such as the education-focused “canonical model” and the more recent “tasks framework” or “job polarization” approach mentioned above—do not adequately account for key wage patterns (namely, rising wage inequality) over the last three decades.

So, should I adopt a message I don't think is true because it sells with independents who have been swayed by Very Serious People, or should I say what I believe and try to convince people they are barking up the wrong tree? (For the most part anyway, I believe both the technological/globalization and institutional/unfairness explanations have validity -- but how do workers capture the gains Third Way wants to create through growth and wealth creation without the bargaining power they have lost over time with the decline in unionization, threats of offshoring, etc.? That's the bigger problem.) It is unfair when, say, economic or political power redirects income away from those who created it to those who did not (I am using the normative equity principle that each person has a right to keep what he or she produces, to reap what they have sowed, and I have little doubt that workers have been paid less than their productivity, and those at the top more. That's unfair, and redirecting income -- redistributing if you will -- to those who actually earned it is not harmful. It is just, and it creates the correct economic incentives). Wealth creation/growth has not been the biggest problem over the last four decades (i.e. since inequality started to increase), it is how the gains have been distributed. I'd rather convince people of the truth that more growth and more wealth creation won't solve the problem if we don't address workers' bargaining power at the same time than gain their support by patronizing their views. In the meantime redistributing income from those who didn't earn it to those who did can serve as a temporary solution until we get the more fundamental underlying problems fixed (e.g. level the playing field on bargaining power between workers and firms).

Maybe politicians have to tell people what they want to hear, I'll let them figure that out, but I will continue to call it as I see it even if "independents and moderate voters are more anxious than they are angry about these changes." That won't change if we play into those anxieties instead of explaining why new approaches are needed, and explaining how they will benefit from a system that does a better job of rewarding hard work instead of ownership, connections, and power.

Friday, November 06, 2015

Paul Krugman: Austerity’s Grim Legacy

Austerity did not lead to prosperity:

Austerity’s Grim Legacy, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: When economic crisis struck in 2008, policy makers by and large did the right thing. The Federal Reserve and other central banks realized that supporting the financial system took priority over conventional notions of monetary prudence. The Obama administration and its counterparts realized that in a slumping economy budget deficits were helpful, not harmful. And the money-printing and borrowing worked: A repeat of the Great Depression, which seemed all too possible..., was avoided.
Then it all went wrong. ... In 2010, more or less suddenly, the policy elite on both sides of the Atlantic decided to stop worrying about unemployment and start worrying about budget deficits instead.
This ... was very much at odds with basic economics. Yet ominous talk about the dangers of deficits became something everyone said because everyone else was saying it, and dissenters were no longer considered respectable...
Yet there’s growing evidence that we critics actually underestimated just how destructive the turn to austerity would be. Specifically, it now looks as if austerity policies didn’t just impose short-term losses of jobs and output, but they also crippled long-run growth. ...
What this suggests is that ... austerity had truly catastrophic effects, going far beyond the jobs and income lost in the first few years. In fact, the long-run damage ... is easily big enough to make austerity a self-defeating policy even in purely fiscal terms: Governments that slashed spending ... hurt their economies, and hence their future tax receipts, so much that even their debt will end up higher...
And the bitter irony ... is that this catastrophic policy was undertaken in the name of long-run responsibility, that those who protested ... were dismissed as feckless.
There are a few obvious lessons from this debacle. “All the important people say so” is not, it turns out, a good way to decide on policy... Also, calling for sacrifice (by other people, of course) doesn’t mean you’re tough-minded.
But will these lessons sink in? Past economic troubles, like the stagflation of the 1970s, led to widespread reconsideration of economic orthodoxy. But one striking aspect of the past few years has been how few people are willing to admit having been wrong about anything. It seems all too possible that the Very Serious People who cheered on disastrous policies will learn nothing from the experience. And that is, in its own way, as scary as the economic outlook.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

'60% of Ted Cruz‘s Tax Cut Goes to the Top 1%'

James Kwak at The Baseline Scenario:

60% of Ted Cruz‘s Tax Cut Goes to the Top 1%: I haven’t been commenting on Republican tax plans this season because, well, it takes a lot to impress me when it comes to absurd tax cut proposals. Ted Cruz has done it. The major components of Cruz’s plan amount to this:

  • A flat 10% tax on individual income (labor and investments)—down from top rates today of 43.4% on labor and 23.8% on capital gains and dividends
  • No payroll taxes (15.3% for most people today), corporate income tax (average rate about 13% today), or estate tax
  • A 19% value-added tax (16% of gross business receipts, including the tax)

There are two big things that are crazy about this plan. The first is that it eliminates an enormous amount of tax revenue: $3.6 trillion over ten years, according to the right-wing Tax Foundation’s “static” analysis—that is, before the growth fairy waves her magic wand. To put that in context, that’s more than we plan to spend on the military over the next ten years.

The second is the astonishingly naked handout to the very rich:

60% of the tax cut goes to the top 1%.

That leaves only 40% for everyone else. This number is so embarrassing that you won’t find it in the Tax Foundation’s analysis. ...

Of course, none of this should be any surprise. Republican tax proposals became completely divorced from reality long ago. More importantly, the Republican nomination lies in the hands of a handful of donors who are in the 0.001%, so the rational thing for any candidate to do is pander to them as enthusiastically as possible.

The only policies we have that limit the transmission of wealth from generation to generation are the estate tax and taxes on investment income. Eliminating one and slashing the other, as Ted Cruz proposes, is the single biggest step we can take toward becoming an aristocracy of inherited wealth. As a member of the 1%, that would be good for my grandchildren—but it would be bad for the country.

[I left out quite a bit of the original post.]

Monday, November 02, 2015

Paul Krugman: Partisan Growth Gaps

The economy does better when the president is a Democrat:

Partisan Growth Gaps, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: Last week The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed article by Carly Fiorina titled “Hillary Clinton Flunks Economics,” ridiculing Mrs. Clinton’s assertions that the U.S. economy does better under Democrats. ...
Mrs. Clinton is completely right... Last year the economists Alan Blinder and Mark Watson circulated a paper comparing economic performance under Democratic and Republican presidents since 1947. Under Democrats, the economy grew, on average, 4.35 percent per year; under Republicans, only 2.54 percent. ...
Why is the Democratic record so much better? The short answer is that we don’t know. ... Certainly no Democratic candidate would be justified in promising dramatically higher growth if elected. And in fact, Democrats never do.
Republicans, however, always make such claims: Every candidate with a real chance of getting the G.O.P. nomination is claiming that his tax plan would produce a huge growth surge — a claim that has no basis in historical experience. Why?
Part of the answer is epistemic closure: modern conservatives generally live in a bubble into which inconvenient facts can’t penetrate. ... Beyond that..., Republicans need to promise economic miracles as a way to sell policies that overwhelmingly favor the donor class.
It would be nice, for variety’s sake, if even one major G.O.P. candidate would come out against big tax cuts for the 1 percent. But none have..., all of the major players have called for cuts that would subtract trillions from revenue. To make up for this lost revenue, it would be necessary to make sharp cuts in big programs — that is, in Social Security and/or Medicare.
But Americans overwhelmingly believe that the wealthy pay less than their fair share of taxes, and even Republicans are closely divided on the issue. And the public wants to see Social Security expanded, not cut. So how can a politician sell the tax-cut agenda? The answer is, by promising those miracles, by insisting that tax cuts on high incomes would both pay for themselves and produce wonderful economic gains.
Hence the asymmetry between the parties. Democrats can afford to be cautious in their economic promises precisely because their policies can be sold on their merits. Republicans must sell an essentially unpopular agenda by confidently declaring that they have the ultimate recipe for prosperity — and hope that nobody points out their historically poor track record.
And if someone does point to that record, you know what they’ll do: Start yelling about media bias.

'The Rigging of the American Market'

When I tweeted a link to this post by Robert Reich, it received an unusually large number of retweets:

The Rigging of the American Market: Much of the national debate about widening inequality focuses on whether and how much to tax the rich and redistribute their income downward.
But this debate ignores the upward redistributions going on every day, from the rest of us to the rich. These redistributions are hidden inside the market.
The only way to stop them is to prevent big corporations and Wall Street banks from rigging the market. ...

After explaining how concentrated many industries are, and the monopoly/pricing power that gives firms in these industries (which they exploit), he concludes:

... Add it up – the extra money we’re paying for pharmaceuticals, Internet communications, home mortgages, student loans, airline tickets, food, and health insurance – and you get a hefty portion of the average family’s budget.
Democrats and Republicans spend endless time battling over how much to tax the rich and then redistribute the money downward.
But if we didn’t have so much upward redistribution inside the market, we wouldn’t need as much downward redistribution through taxes and transfer payments.
Yet as long as the big corporations, Wall Street banks, their top executives and wealthy shareholders have the political power to do so, they’ll keep redistributing much of the nation’s income upward to themselves.
Which is why the rest of us must gain political power to stop the collusion, bust up the monopolies, and put an end to the rigging of the American market.

Sunday, November 01, 2015

'Defending The Bush Deficits'

This is telling, and kind of funny. This is how the National Review Online talks about budget deficits when a Republican is in office (this is from September, 2004 -- keep in mind that the recovery from the recession under Obama has been stronger than under Bush)

Defending The Bush Deficits, by Aman Verjee, NRO: It’s not hard to do if you look at the data.
Since President Bush took office in 2000, the economy has gone through at least three major shocks that were not of his making: a major terrorist attack that damped consumer confidence; the depression in business spending that followed the bursting of the stock market bubble; and a series of accounting scandals that afflicted some of the largest and most visible corporations in the United States.
Yet, the U.S. economy has outperformed that of every other G7 country since 2001. ... This remarkable record on the economy owes much to the pro-growth policies of the Bush administration. ...
Like Chicken Little, who caviled because she mistook a tumbling acorn for a crashing sky, President Bush’s critics are unjustified when they foretell of an impending economic doom. Alarmists who worry about the historical heights to which deficits have climbed need to review the historical data for some context. ...
At the end of 2003, federal debt stood at 36 percent of GDP. It is currently projected by the Congressional Budget Office to reach 40 percent of GDP by 2005 before it begins to decline again. By historical and international standards, these levels of debt are very modest. For instance, the debt burdens of Germany and France are over 60 percent of GDP; in Japan, debt is almost 150 percent of GDP. ... The president’s critics might suggest that economic growth should have been better in the low-debt years than in the high-debt years, but in fact, real GDP growth averaged 4.44 percent in the high-debt years and just 3.14 percent in the low-debt years. ...
Looking back at American history, it is apparent that economic prosperity can continue even if the federal government maintains a debt burden that is much higher than it is today as a percentage of GDP. ...
The lesson is clear: Economic prosperity can continue even if the federal government never balances its budget. ...

Saturday, October 31, 2015

A Very Scary Halloween Thought



'The GOP Circus: Truth-Defying Feats'

Rick Perlstein:

The GOP Circus: Truth-Defying Feats, by Rick Perlstein: ...Step right up! Be amazed, be enchanted, by the magic GOP unicorn-and-rainbow-producing tax cut machine!
It takes a lot of energy to sustain a lie. When enough people do it together, over a sustained period of time, it wears on them. It also produces a certain kind of culture: one cut loose from the norms of fair conduct and trust that any organization requires in order to survive as something more than a daily, no-holds-barred war of all against all. A battle royale. A circus, if you prefer.
And the act in the center ring? The Amazing Death Spiral. One performer does something so outrageous that anyone else who wishes to further hold the audience’s attention has to match or top it––even if they know it’s insane. Listen to the warning of the one guy who dares grab the ringmaster’s microphone and say that if this keeps on going everyone will end up dead. That’s what poor old John Kasich did. Hear him cry about his “great concern that we are on the verge, perhaps, of picking someone who cannot do this job. I’ve watched people say that we should dismantle Medicare and Medicaid. . . . I’ve heard them talking about deporting 10 or 11 [million] people from this country. . . . I’ve heard about tax schemes that don’t add up.”
And what happened to him? Read the snap poll from Gravis research. Only 3 percent of Republicans thought he won the debate. (First place was Trump with 26.7; second was Rubio with 21.1; third was Cruz with 17.3; and fourth was Ben Carson with 12.5.) Only 2.4 percent said they would vote for Kasich for president. When the clowns are running the show, of course it’s going to be in disarray.

David Brooks says not to worry if candidates are lying about their economic plans, they are just exaggerating to make themselves more attractive to conservative voters (they couldn't possible be lying about who their true allegiance, could they?):

At this stage it’s probably not sensible to get too worked up about the details of any candidate’s plans. They are all wildly unaffordable. What matters is how a candidate signals priorities. Rubio talks specifically about targeting policies to boost middle- and lower-middle-class living standards.

Paul Krugman is, shall we say, unconvinced:

...My experience is that the best way to figure out a candidate’s true priorities — and his or her character — is to look hard at policy proposals.
My view here is strongly influenced by the story of George W. Bush. Younger readers may not know or remember how it was back in 2000, but back then the universal view of the commentariat was that W was a moderate, amiable, bluff and honest guy. I was pretty much alone taking his economic proposals — on taxes and Social Security — seriously. And what I saw was a level of dishonesty and irresponsibility, plus radicalism, that was unprecedented in a major-party presidential candidate. So I was out there warning that Bush was a bad, dangerous guy no matter how amiable he seemed.
How did that work out?
So now we have candidates proposing “wildly unaffordable” tax cuts. Can we start by noting that this isn’t a bipartisan phenomenon, that it’s not true that everyone does it? Hillary Clinton isn’t proposing wildly unaffordable stuff... And proposing wildly unaffordable stuff is itself a declaration of priorities: Rubio is saying that keeping the Hair Club for Growth happy is more important to him than even a pretense of fiscal responsibility. Or if you like, what we’ve seen is a willingness to pander without constraint or embarrassment.
Also, his insistence that the magic of supply-side economics would somehow pay for the cuts is a further demonstration of priorities: allegiance to voodoo trumps all.
At a more general level, I’d argue that it’s a really bad mistake to wave away policy silliness with a boys-will-be-boys attitude. Policy proposals tell us a lot about character — and the history of the past 15 years says that journalists who imagine that they can judge character from the way people come across on TV or in personal interviews are kidding themselves, and misleading everyone else.

"What matters is how a candidate signals priorities." Yes, and the priority seems to be lying is okay to get what you want. That's a great trait to have in a president who might fact the decision to send our kids to die in a war he or she wants. Oh wait.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Paul Krugman: Springtime for Grifters

Catherine Rampell blames the media for the behavior of Republicans during the debate (and more generally), but if the press called them on their "grifting,", would the Republican base listen?

Springtime for Grifters, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: At one point during Wednesday’s Republican debate, Ben Carson was asked about his involvement with Mannatech, a nutritional supplements company that makes outlandish claims ... and has been forced to pay $7 million to settle a deceptive-practices lawsuit. The audience booed, and Mr. Carson denied being involved...
As it happens, Mr. Carson lied. ... But the Republican base doesn’t want to hear about it... These days, in his party, being an obvious grifter isn’t a liability, and may even be an asset. ...
About the grifters: Start with the lowest level, in which marketers use political affinity to sell get-rich-quick schemes, miracle cures, and suchlike. That’s the Carson phenomenon, and it’s just the latest example of a long tradition..., a “strategic alliance of snake-oil vendors and conservative true believers” goes back half a century. ...
At a somewhat higher level are marketing campaigns more or less tied to what purports to be policy analysis. Right-wing warnings of imminent hyperinflation, coupled with demands that we return to the gold standard, were fanned by media figures like Glenn Beck, who used his show to promote Goldline, a firm selling gold coins and bars at, um, inflated prices. ...
Oh, and former Congressman Ron Paul, who has spent decades warning of runaway inflation and is undaunted by its failure to materialize, is very much in the business of selling books and videos showing how you, too, can protect yourself from the coming financial disaster.
At a higher level still are operations that are in principle engaging in political activity, but mainly seem to be generating income for their organizers. ... For example, only 14 percent of what the Tea Party Leadership Fund spends is “candidate focused.”
You might think that such revelations would be politically devastating. But the targets of such schemes know, just know, that the liberal mainstream media can’t be trusted...
Furthermore, the success of the grifters ... defines respectability down.
Consider Mr. Rubio... There was a time when Mr. Rubio’s insistence that $6 trillion in tax cuts would somehow pay for themselves would have marked him as deeply unserious... But the Republican base doesn’t care what the mainstream media says. ...
The point is that we shouldn’t ask whether the G.O.P. will eventually nominate someone in the habit of saying things that are demonstrably untrue, and counting on political loyalists not to notice. The only question is what kind of scam it will be.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

'The Republicans are Right. We in the Media Do Suck.'

Catherine Rampell:

The Republican presidential candidates are right. The media does suck.
But not for the reasons the candidates complained about Wednesday night.
We in the media suck because we have rewarded their rampant dishonesty and buffoonery with nonstop news coverage. Which, of course, has encouraged more dishonesty and buffoonery.
Hence the aggravating behaviors that candidates doubled-down on during the debate, based on lessons that we in the media taught them. To wit...

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

'A Strategy to Ignore Poverty'

Eduardo Porter:

A Strategy to Ignore Poverty, NY Times: Arizona, where I was born, in July became the first state to cut poor families’ access to welfare assistance to a maximum of 12 months over a lifetime. That’s a fifth of the time allowed under federal law, and means that 5,000 more people will lose their benefits by next June.
This is only the latest tightening of the screws in Arizona. Last year, about 29,000 poor families received benefits under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, 16,000 fewer than in 2005. In 2009, in the middle of the worst economic downturn since the Depression of the 1930s, benefits were cut by 20 percent.
And if Paul Ryan, the Republican lawmaker from Wisconsin who is expected to become speaker of the House, has his way, poor people in many other states can expect similar treatment in the years ahead. ...

Monday, October 26, 2015

Paul Krugman: Free Mitt Romney!

Mitt can't win:

Free Mitt Romney!, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: Sometimes I find myself feeling sorry for Mitt Romney. No, seriously. In another time and place, he might have been respected as an effective technocrat ... for his ability to get things done. In fact, that’s kind of how it worked when he was governor of Massachusetts...
But now it’s 2015 in America, and Mr. Romney’s party doesn’t want people who get things done. On the contrary, it actively hates government programs that improve American lives, especially if they help Those People. And this means that Mr. Romney can’t celebrate his signature achievement in public life, the Massachusetts health reform that served as a template for Obamacare.
This has to hurt. Indeed, a few days ago Mr. Romney couldn’t help himself: he boasted to the Boston Globe that “Without Romneycare, we wouldn’t have had Obamacare” and that as a result “a lot of people wouldn’t have health insurance.” And it’s true!
But such truths aren’t welcome in the G.O.P. ... Not surprisingly, then, Mr. Romney quickly tried to walk his comments back, claiming that Obamacare is very different from Romneycare, which it isn’t, and that it has failed.
But you know, it hasn’t. On the contrary, the Affordable Care Act has been a remarkable success, especially considering the scorched-earth opposition it has faced. ...
In short, President Obama, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, who pushed the Affordable Care Act through despite total opposition from the G.O.P., have a lot to be proud of. And so does Mr. Romney, who helped lay the foundation. Instead, however, he’s trashing the best thing he’s ever done.
You have to wonder: Does Mr. Romney really think that his party would look more favorably on Obamacare if it worked even better than it has, if it cost no money at all? If so, he’s delusional. After all, the great majority of Republican-controlled states have turned down free money, refusing to let the federal government expand Medicaid...
The point is that from the point of view of the Republican base, covering the uninsured, or helping the unlucky in general, isn’t a feature, it’s a bug...: the base is actually willing to lose money in order to perpetuate suffering. ...
Maybe Mr. Romney ... just can’t bring himself to admit that he picked the wrong group of people to hang out with. Either way, one hopes for his sake that he eventually gives up his illusions. Trust me, Mitt: it will be a liberating experience.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

'Uniting Behind the Divisive ‘Cadillac’ Tax on Health Plans'

Summers and Mankiw:

Uniting Behind the Divisive ‘Cadillac’ Tax on Health Plans: One of us, a former member of the Obama administration, remains a fan of the president. The other, not so much. But we agree on one thing: The excise tax on high-cost health care plans, the so-called Cadillac tax, is good policy. Congress should side with President Obama and resist calls to scrap it. ...

To some, the Cadillac tax is unpopular because unions oppose it, having negotiated especially generous health plans. But legislators should not let special interests stand in the way of a more rational health care system for all Americans.

To some, the Cadillac tax is unpopular because it was passed as part of the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare. But the Cadillac tax can be evaluated as a stand-alone measure. Both fans and critics of Obamacare should see the merits in a more level playing field between alternative forms of compensation.

One of us worked for President Obama when the Affordable Care Act was passed. One of us worked for President George W. Bush and supported John McCain and Mitt Romney in their attempts to defeat Mr. Obama. We disagree on many things, but we agree that health policy is too important to treat as if it were nothing more than another political battlefield.

Some policies deserve bipartisan support. The Cadillac tax is one of them.

'Are Canadian Progressives Showing Americans the Way?'

Miles Corak:

Are Canadian progressives showing Americans the way?: Reflecting on the recent outcome of the Canadian election, in which the Liberal Party of Canada cast itself as a progressive left of center party and reversed its fortunes in a major way to win a strong majority government, Larry Summers wrote in the Washington Post that “More infrastructure investment is not just good economics. It is good politics. Let us hope that American presidential candidates get the word!” ...
Paul Krugman echoes the same sentiment in a New York Times column entitled, somewhat inappropriately, “Keynes Comes to Canada.” ...
There is something ... that both countries share, and something they don’t, that sets an important backdrop.
Both countries have a significant need for important public sector investments in physical, and I would also say social, infrastructure. The populace sees this need as much in Canada as in the United States.
In Montreal, concrete slabs have fallen off of expressway overpasses, and killed unfortunate commuters. In Toronto, the gridlock associated with the commute to work is more than just a daily aggravation; it is a significant block to economic growth. In Vancouver, expansions in public transit are in need of significant funding. And the majors and city councils in countless municipalities battle with the need to update sewers and roads.
Both countries have this need, but in the US it is a harder sell. In a poll that I conducted with EKOS and The Pew Charitable Trusts, we found that the most significant difference in values on the two sides of the borders has less to do with philosophical issues associated with how to define a good life, but rather the role of government. Americans are much more likely to see government as hindering rather than helping them to achieve their personal goals.
My own view is that this comes down to a different view on the efficiency of government by a significant fraction of the population in the two countries. Canadians are much more likely to see government as a tool or a means to an end, Americans to see it as too inefficient and incapable of helping them accomplish their goals. A significant fraction of Canadians continue to have—in spite being told otherwise for a decade by their out-going conservative Prime Minister—a certain trust in the capacity for collective action through the public sector. Americans have seen too many failures to feel otherwise.
So in fundamental ways, Canadians may be more receptive to the message that Mr. Summers and Mr. Krugman would like to send Americans. ...

[In the full post, which is much longer, he discusses other important differences as well.]

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

'Central Bankers and Their Irrational Fear'

Quantitative easing has had a difficult time stimulating demand (which would put pressure on prices and raise inflation). The money mostly piles up in banks instead of turning into new loans and new spending. Helicopter money would, I think, do much better, especially if it was distributed to people with a very high propensity to spend the money (so it would have much better distributional consequences as well). But central banks seem afraid to try this, or even consider it seriously. Simon Wren-Lewis says those fears are unfounded:

Central bankers and their irrational fear: Mervyn King said
“Central banks are often accused of being obsessed with inflation. This is untrue. If they are obsessed with anything, it is with fiscal policy.”
As an academic turned central banker, King knew of what he spoke. The fear is sometimes called fiscal dominance: that they will be forced to monetize government debt in such a way that means inflation rises out of control.
I believe this fear is a key factor behind central banks’ reluctance to think seriously about helicopter money. Creating money is no longer a taboo: with Quantitative Easing huge amounts of money have been created. But this money has bought financial assets, which can subsequently be sold to mop up the money that has been created. Under helicopter money the central bank creates money to give it away. If that money needs to be mopped up after a recession is over in order to control inflation, the central bank might run out of assets to do so. A good name for this is ‘policy insolvency’. [1]
There is a simple way to deal with this problem. [2] The government commits to always providing the central bank with the assets they need to control inflation. If, after some doses of helicopter money, the central bank needs and gets refinanced in this way, then helicopter money becomes like a form of bond financed fiscal stimulus, but where the bond finance is delayed. In my view that delay may be crucial in overcoming the deficit fetishism that has proved so politically successful over the last five years, as well as giving central banks a much more effective unconventional monetary instrument than QE. [3] But central banks do not want to go there, partly because they worry about the possibility of a government that would renege on that commitment.
The fear is irrational for two reasons... [explains]...
Central banks overcame one big psychological barrier when they undertook Quantitative Easing. That was the first, and perhaps the more important, stage in ending their primitive fear of fiscal dominance. They now need to complete the process, so we can start having rational discussions about alternatives to QE.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

'The Myth of Welfare’s Corrupting Influence on the Poor'

Eduardo Porter tries to set the record straight on welfare's influence on behavior:

The Myth of Welfare’s Corrupting Influence on the Poor: ...Few ideas are so deeply ingrained in the American popular imagination as the belief that government aid for poor people will just encourage bad behavior.
The proposition is particularly cherished on the conservative end of the spectrum... But even Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the father of the New Deal, called welfare “a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit.” And it was President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, who put an end to “welfare as we know it.” ...
And yet, to a significant degree, it is wrong. Actual experience, from the richest country in the world to some of the poorest places on the planet, suggests that cash assistance can be of enormous help for the poor. And freeing them from what President Ronald Reagan memorably termed the “spider’s web of dependency” — also known as forcing the poor to swim or sink — is not the cure-all....
Abhijit Banerjee ... released a paper with three colleagues last week that carefully assessed the effects of seven cash-transfer programs in Mexico, Morocco, Honduras, Nicaragua, the Philippines and Indonesia. It found “no systematic evidence that cash transfer programs discourage work.” ...
Still, Professor Banerjee observed, in many countries, “we encounter the idea that handouts will make people lazy.”
Professor Banerjee suggests the spread of welfare aversion around the world might be an American confection. “Many governments have economic advisers with degrees from the United States who share the same ideology,” he said. “Ideology is much more pervasive than the facts.”
What is most perplexing is that the United States’ own experience with both welfare and its “reform” does not really support the charges. ...

A Plea to Free Marketers

David Beckworth:

A Plea to My Fellow Free Marketers: As a free-market loving individual, it pains me to see so many of my fellow travelers claim the Fed has artificially suppressed interest rates since the onset of the crisis. Recently, I was disappointed to see George Will and Bill Gross repeat these claims. They have made these claims before, but I was hoping after all these years they would begin to question the premise of their views. But alas, it did not happen. Here is George Will's latest volley on this issue :

[S]even years of ZIRP — zero interest-rate policy — have not restored the economic dynamism essential for social mobility but have had the intended effect of driving liquidity into equities in search of high yields, thereby enriching the 10 percent of Americans who own approximately 80 percent of the directly owned stocks. ...

And here is Bill Gross in his latest newsletter:

So the Fed has chosen to hold off on their goal of normalizing interest rates and... and the investment community wonders how long can this keep goin’ on. For a long time I suppose, as evidenced by history at least. Ken Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart have meticulously documented periods of “financial repression”[.]

There is no doubt the low interest rates over the past seven years has caused many problems: they have harmed individuals living on fixed income, incentivized unusual reaching for yield by investors, and made it easier to run large budget deficits. But are the low rates behind these developments really the Fed's doing?

What I wish George Will, Bill Gross, and other free market advocates would consider is the possibility that the Fed itself is not the source of the low rates, but simply is a follower of where market forces have pushed interest rates. That is, the Great Recession and the prolonged slump that followed  caused interest rates to be depressed and the Fed did its best to keep short-term interest rate near this low market-clearing level.

But there is more to this story. ...

Monday, October 19, 2015

'Ornithology: What is a ''Deficit Hawk''?'

Bill McBride at Calculated Risk wonders how "deficit hawk" is defined:

Ornithology: What is a "deficit hawk"?, by Bill McBride, Calculated Risk: Nick Timiraos wrote yesterday in the WSJ: Debt, Growth Concerns Rain on Deficit Parade...
I'd like to see the definition of a "deficit hawk"!
I'd think a true deficit hawk would be truly concerned about, uh, the deficit. So they'd support both tax increases1 and spending cuts to reduce the deficit. They'd oppose policies that increase the deficit (like the Bush tax cuts, and the war in Iraq). They'd also be concerned about policies that led to the financial crisis and a deep recession - since the deficit increases during a recession.

Maybe I'm talking my own position since I opposed the Bush tax cuts (that created a structural deficit). I opposed the Iraq war. I frequently talked to regulators about lax lending in real estate (and posted some of those discussion on this blog in 2005) that led directly to the financial crisis and large deficits. And I support both intelligent tax increases and spending cuts.

Unfortunately, my experience is that most people who claims to be "deficit hawks", are really pushing a different agenda.  I wish Timiraos would provide a few examples of deficit hawks!
Also the "red ink set to rise later this decade" is expected in increase the deficit from 2.5% of GDP to about 3.1% in 2020.
1 Note: Some people like to focus on "growth" to reduce the deficit, and they tend to focus on tax cuts to boost growth. However, all data and research shows that at the current marginal rates, tax cuts do not pay for themselves and lead to much larger deficits.

Paul Krugman: Something Not Rotten in Denmark

The important lessons we can learn from Denmark:

Something Not Rotten in Denmark, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: No doubt surprising many of the people watching the Democratic presidential debate, Bernie Sanders cited Denmark as a role model for how to help working people. Hillary Clinton demurred slightly, declaring that “we are not Denmark,” but agreed that Denmark is an inspiring example. ... But how great are the Danes, really? ...
Denmark maintains a welfare state ... that is beyond the wildest dreams of American liberals. ... To pay for these programs, Denmark collects a lot of taxes..., almost half of national income, compared with 25 percent in the United States. Describe these policies to any American conservative, and he would predict ruin. Surely those generous benefits must destroy the incentive to work, while those high taxes drive job creators into hiding or exile.
Strange to say, however, Denmark ... a prosperous nation that does quite well on job creation. ... It’s hard to imagine a better refutation of anti-tax, anti-government economic doctrine...
But ... is everything copacetic in Copenhagen? Actually, no..., its ... recovery from the global financial crisis has been slow and incomplete. ...
What explains this poor recent performance? The answer, mainly, is bad monetary and fiscal policy. Denmark hasn’t adopted the euro, but it manages its currency as if it had... And while the country has faced no market pressure to slash spending ... it has adopted fiscal austerity anyway.
The result is a sharp contrast with neighboring Sweden, which doesn’t shadow the euro (although it has made some mistakes on its own), hasn’t done much austerity, and has seen real G.D.P. per capita rise while Denmark’s falls.
But Denmark’s monetary and fiscal errors don’t say anything about the sustainability of a strong welfare state. In fact, people who denounce things like universal health coverage and subsidized child care tend also to be people who demand higher interest rates and spending cuts in a depressed economy. (Remember all the talk about “debasing” the dollar?) That is, U.S. conservatives actually approve of some Danish policies — but only the ones that have proved to be badly misguided.
So yes, we can learn a lot from Denmark, both its successes and its failures. And let me say that it was both a pleasure and a relief to hear people who might become president talk seriously about how we can learn from the experience of other countries, as opposed to just chanting “U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!”

Friday, October 16, 2015

Paul Krugman: Democrats, Republicans and Wall Street Tycoons

Financial tycoons broke up with Democrats. Now they ♥ Republicans (or maybe they are just using them with their money):

Democrats, Republicans and Wall Street Tycoons, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders had an argument about financial regulation during Tuesday’s debate — but it wasn’t about whether to crack down on banks. Instead, it was about whose plan was tougher. The contrast with Republicans like Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio, who have pledged to reverse even the moderate financial reforms enacted in 2010, couldn’t be stronger.
For what it’s worth, Mrs. Clinton had the better case. ... But is Mrs. Clinton’s promise to take a tough line on the financial industry credible? Or would she ... return to the finance-friendly, deregulatory policies of the 1990s? ...
To understand the politics of financial reform and regulation, we have to start by acknowledging that there was a time when Wall Street and Democrats got on just fine. Robert Rubin of Goldman Sachs became Bill Clinton’s most influential economic official; big banks had plenty of political access; and the industry by and large got what it wanted, including repeal of Glass-Steagall.
This cozy relationship was reflected in campaign contributions, with the securities industry splitting its donations more or less evenly between the parties, and hedge funds actually leaning Democratic.
But then came the financial crisis of 2008, and everything changed.
Many liberals feel that the Obama administration was far too lenient on the financial industry in the aftermath of the crisis. ... But the financiers didn’t feel grateful for getting off so lightly. ... Financial tycoons loom large among the tiny group of wealthy families that is dominating campaign finance this election cycle — a group that overwhelmingly supports Republicans. Hedge funds used to give the majority of their contributions to Democrats, but since 2010 they have flipped almost totally to the G.O.P. ... Wall Street insiders take Democratic pledges to crack down on bankers’ excesses seriously. And it also means that a victorious Democrat wouldn’t owe much to the financial industry.
If a Democrat does win, does it matter much which one it is? Probably not. Any Democrat is likely to retain the financial reforms of 2010, and seek to stiffen them where possible. But major new reforms will be blocked until and unless Democrats regain control of both houses of Congress, which isn’t likely to happen for a long time.
In other words, while there are some differences in financial policy between Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Sanders, as a practical matter they’re trivial compared with the yawning gulf with Republicans.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

'Fed Debates and the EMU Technocratic Illusion'

Francesco Saraceno:

Fed Debates and the EMU Technocratic Illusion, Gloomy European Economist: ...I have read with lots of interest the speech that newly appointed Federal Reserve Board Member Lael Brainard gave last Monday. The speech is a plea for holding on rate rises, and uses a number of convincing arguments. Much has been said on the issue (give a look at comments by Tim Duy and Paul Krugman). I have little to add, were it not for the point I made a number of times, that the extraordinarily difficult task of central bankers would be made substantially easier if fiscal policy were used more actively.
What I’d like to express here is my jealousy for the discussions (and the confrontation) that we observe in the US. These discussions are a sideproduct, a very positive one if you ask me, of the institutional design of the Fed. I just returned from a series of engaging policy meetings on central bank policy in Costa Rica, facilitated by the local ILO office, where I pleaded for the introduction of a dual mandate.
I wrote a background paper (that can be seen here) in which my main argument is that a central bank following a dual mandate will always be able to take an aggressive stance on inflation, if it deems it necessary to do so. ... No choice of weights, on the other hand, would allow a central bank following an inflation targeting mandate to explicitly target employment as well. Thus, the dual mandate can embed inflation targeting strategies, while the converse is not true. In terms of policy effectiveness, therefore, the dual mandate is a superior institutional arrangement.
I also cited evidence showing, and here we come at my jealousy for the Fed, that inflation targeting central banks, like the ECB, de facto target the output gap, but timidly and without explicitly saying so. This leads to low reactivity and opaque communication, that hamper the capacity of central banks to manage expectations and effectively steer the economy. I am sure that those who followed the EMU policy debate in the past few years will know what I am talking about.
One may argue that the cacophony currently characterizing the Federal Reserve Board is hardly positive for the economy, and that in terms of managing expectations, lately, the Fed did not excel. This is undeniable, and is the result of the Fed groping its way out of unprecedented policy measures. The difference with the ECB is that for the Fed the opacity results from an ongoing debate on how to best attain an objective that is clear and shared. We are not there yet, but the debate will eventually lead to an unambiguous (and hopefully appropriate) policy choice. The ECB opacity, is intrinsically linked to the confusion between its mandate and its actual action, and as such it cannot lead to any meaningful discussion, but just to legalistic disputes on the definition of price stability, of how medium is the medium term and the like.
And I can now come to my final point: a dual mandate has the merit to let the political nature of monetary policy emerge without ambiguities. It is indeed true that monetary policy with a dual mandate requires hard choices, as the ones that are debated these days, and hence is political in nature. The point is, that so is monetary policy with a simple inflation targeting objective. The level of inflation targeted, and the choice of the instruments to attain it, are all but neutral in terms of their consequences on the economy, most notably on the distribution of resources among market participants. Thus, an inflation targeting central bank is as political in its actions as a bank following a dual mandate, the only difference being that in the former case the political nature of monetary policy is concealed behind a technocratic curtain. The deep justification of exclusive focus on price stability can only lie in the acceptance of a neoclassical platonic world in which powerless governments need to make no choice. Once we dismiss that platonic view, monetary policy acquires a political role, regardless of the mandate it is given. A dual mandate has the merit of making this choice explicit, and hence to dispel the technocratic illusion.
I am not saying there would be no issues with the adoption of a dual mandate. The institutional design should be carefully crafted, in order to ensure that independence is maintained, and accountability (currently very low indeed) is enhanced. What I am saying is that after seven years (and counting) of dismal economic performance, and faced with strong arguments in favor of a broader central bank mandate, EMU policy makers should be engaged in discussions at least as lively as the ones of their counterparts in Washington. And yet, all is quiet on this side of the ocean… Circulez y a rien à voir

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

'The Waaaaah Street Factor'

101415krugman2-tmagArticlePaul Krugman notes the correlation between getting tough on the financial industry and the flow of campaign cash. Some people argue this money doesn't much matter in terms of influencing elections, but the people giving it -- the ones so lauded on the political right for their wisdom on business and financial matters -- sure seem to think it does:

The Waaaaah Street Factor: Following up on my point about how this is looking like a Dodd-Frank election: to understand what’s going on this election cycle, you really need to know about the dramatic shift in Wall Street’s political preferences.
There was a time when Wall Street was quite favorable to Democrats. ...
But that all changed in 2010, when Democrats actually pushed through a significant although far from adequate financial reform, and Barack Obama said the obvious, that some financial types had behaved badly and helped cause the crisis. The result was a great freakout — the coming of “Obama rage”.
Wall Street doesn’t like the regulations, which really do seem to have more or less eliminated the implicit too-big-to-fail subsidy. Beyond that, with great wealth comes great pettiness: financial tycoons are accustomed to constant deference, and they went berserk at even the mild criticism they faced.
You can see the result in the chart: a drastic shift of campaign giving away from Democrats toward Republicans. And this will have consequences: if a Republican wins, he or she will be very much in Wall Street’s pocket. If a Democrat wins, not so much.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Paul Krugman: The Crazies and the Con Man

Why is Paul Ryan under so much pressure to become speaker, and why would he be wise to resist?:

The Crazies and the Con Man, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: How will the chaos that the crazies, I mean the Freedom Caucus, have wrought in the House get resolved? I have no idea. But as this column went to press, practically the whole Republican establishment was pleading with Paul Ryan ... to become speaker. ...
What makes Mr. Ryan so special? ... To understand Mr. Ryan’s role in our political-media ecosystem, you need to know two things. First, the modern Republican Party is a post-policy enterprise, which doesn’t do real solutions to real problems. Second, pundits and the news media really, really don’t want to face up to that awkward reality.
On the first point, just look at the policy ideas coming from the presidential candidates, even establishment favorites like Marco Rubio... Josh Barro has dubbed Mr. Rubio’s tax proposal the “puppies and rainbows” plan, consisting of trillions in giveaways with not a hint of how to pay for them — just the assertion that growth would somehow make it all good.
And it’s not just taxes, it’s everything. ... Yet most of the news media, and most pundits, still worship at the church of “balance.” They are committed to portraying the two big parties as equally reasonable. This creates a powerful demand for serious, honest Republicans who can be held up as proof that the party does too include reasonable people making useful proposals. ...
And Paul Ryan played and in many ways still plays that role... This has been enough to convince political writers who don’t know much about policy, but do know what they want to see, that he’s the real deal. ...
Which brings us back to the awkward fact that Mr. Ryan isn’t actually a pillar of fiscal rectitude, or anything like the budget expert he pretends to be. And the perception that he is these things is fragile, not likely to survive long if he were to move into the center of political rough and tumble. Indeed, his halo was visibly fraying during the few months of 2012 that he was Mitt Romney’s running mate...
Predictions aside, however, the Ryan phenomenon tells us a lot about what’s really happening in American politics. In brief, crazies have taken over the Republican Party, but the media don’t want to recognize this reality. The combination of these two facts has created an opportunity, indeed a need, for political con men. And Mr. Ryan has risen to the challenge.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Just 158 Families Provided Nearly Half of Campaign Cash

In case you were wondering, yes, wealth from the energy and finance industries does dominate campaign spending early in campaigns, and flows mostly to Republicans:

Just 158 families have provided nearly half of the early money for efforts to capture the White House, NY Times: They are overwhelmingly white, rich, older and male, in a nation that is being remade by the young, by women, and by black and brown voters..., they reside in ... exclusive neighborhoods dotting a handful of cities and towns. And in an economy that has minted billionaires in a dizzying array of industries, most made their fortunes in just two: finance and energy.
Now they are deploying their vast wealth in the political arena, providing almost half of all the seed money raised to support Democratic and Republican presidential candidates. Just 158 families, along with companies they own or control, contributed $176 million in the first phase of the campaign... Not since before Watergate have so few people and businesses provided so much early money in a campaign, most of it through channels legalized by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision five years ago. ...
...the families investing the most in presidential politics overwhelmingly lean right ... contributing tens of millions of dollars to support Republican candidates who have pledged to pare regulations; cut taxes on income, capital gains and inheritances; and shrink entitlement programs. While such measures would help protect their own wealth, the donors describe their embrace of them more broadly, as the surest means of promoting economic growth and preserving a system that would allow others to prosper, too. ...
Most of the families are clustered around just nine cities. ...
Tend to Be Self-Made ...
A number of the families are tied to networks of ideological donors ...

Friday, October 09, 2015

Paul Krugman: It’s All Benghazi

Beat the press:

It’s All Benghazi, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: So Representative Kevin McCarthy, who was supposed to succeed John Boehner as speaker of the House, won’t be pursuing the job after all. He ... finished off his chances by admitting — boasting, actually — that the endless House hearings on Benghazi had nothing to do with national security, that they were all about inflicting political damage on Hillary Clinton.
But we all knew that, didn’t we?
I often wonder about commentators who write about things like those hearings as if there were some real issue involved... Surely they have to know better... Somehow, though, politicians who ... are obviously just milking those issues for political gain keep getting a free pass. And it’s not just a Clinton story.
Consider the example of an issue ... that dominated much of our political discourse just a few years ago: federal debt.
Many prominent politicians made warnings about the dangers posed by U.S. debt, especially debt owned by China... Paul Ryan ... portrayed himself as a heroic crusader against deficits. Mitt Romney made denunciations of borrowing from China a centerpiece of his campaign... And by and large, commentators treated this posturing as if it were serious. ...
Well, don’t tell anyone, but the much feared event has happened: China is no longer buying our debt, and is in fact selling ... U.S. debt... And what has happened is what serious economic analysis always told us would happen: nothing. It was always a false alarm. ...
 People who really worry about government debt don’t propose huge tax cuts for the rich, only partly offset by savage cuts in aid to the poor and middle class, and base all claims of debt reduction on unspecified savings to be announced on some future occasion. ... 
Sometimes I have the impression that many people in the media consider it uncouth to acknowledge, even to themselves, the fraudulence of much political posturing. The done thing, it seems, is to pretend that we’re having real debates...
But turning our eyes away from political fakery, pretending that we’re having a serious discussion when we aren’t, is itself a kind of fraudulence. Mr. McCarthy inadvertently did the nation a big favor with his ill-advised honesty, but telling the public what’s really going on shouldn’t depend on politicians with loose lips.
Sometimes — all too often — there’s no substance under the shouting. And then we need to tell the truth, and say that it’s all Benghazi.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

Wanted: Independent Evaluations of Government Programs

In case you are feeling Moody:

Timothy Geithner and the Auditors, by Dean Baker: Eduardo Porter had a good piece in the NYT pointing out the importance of having independent evaluations of government programs. The point is that the agencies undertaking a program have a strong incentive to exaggerate its benefits. ...
One of the areas noted by Porter is in the rating of mortgage backed securities (MBS). During the housing bubble years, the bond-rating agencies routinely gave investment grade ratings to MBS that were stuffed with junk mortgages. They ignored the quality of the mortgages because they wanted the business. They knew if they gave honest ratings, the investment banks would take away their business.
While Porter notes this is a problem with the issuer pays model (the banks pay the rating agencies), there actually is a very simple solution. In the debate on Dodd-Frank, Senator Al Franken proposed an amendment which would have the Securities and Exchange Commission pick the rating agency, instead of the issuer. The bank would still pay the fee, but since they were no longer controlling who got the work, it eliminated the conflict of interest problem. The amendment passed the senate 65-34, with considerable bi-partisan support.
Unfortunately, as Geithner indicated in his autobiography, the Obama administration apparently did not like the dismantling of the perfect system we have today. The Franken amendment was removed in the conference committee and the existing structure was left in place. This was possible because the bond-rating agencies and the banks have real lobbies, whereas the folks who like honest evaluations don't. Of course the news media didn't help much, giving the issue very little coverage. And what attention it did get largely reflected the views of the financial industry.
Anyhow, this is a good example of the difficulties in putting in place the sort of independent auditing process that Porter seeks.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

The Club for Growth, Equity, and Social Insurance

I have a new column:

Economic Growth vs. Social Insurance—Why Can’t We Have Both?: Why do Republicans on the campaign trail tend to emphasize policies that are focused on enhancing long-run economic growth while Democrats tend to focus more on immediate problems such as high unemployment? Republicans have a Club for Growth that grades politicians on their support of “free-market, limited government” policies they believe are the key to economic growth. Democrats are more likely to pay attention to institutions such as the Economic Policy Institute where “policies that protect and improve the economic conditions of low- and middle-income workers” are promoted. In general, Democrats seem much more focused on short-run economic problems than Republicans. Is there any basis within economics for this difference in emphasis on which type of policy is most important?
As I’ll explain shortly, there is, or more precisely, there was.
Some Republicans use the promise of economic growth as a ruse for their real goal, lower taxes on the wealthy. For them, it’s really a “Club to Lower Taxes and Cut Social Programs.” But today I want to focus on the economics rather than the politics.
What is the source of the idea that we cannot address both long-run growth and problems such as high unemployment and rising inequality at the same time? Why have economists and politicians chosen sides on which of the two is most important? There are two reasons for this. ...

'Marco Rubio is Insisting That His Massive Tax Cuts Will Pay for Themselves'

Ezra Klein:

Why Marco Rubio is insisting that his massive tax cuts will pay for themselves, explained: On Tuesday, Marco Rubio told CNBC's John Harwood that his massive tax cuts — which estimates have found would blow a roughly $4 trillion to $5 trillion hole in the deficit — creates a surplus "within the 10-year window."
It is worth slowing down to make clear exactly what Rubio said there. Rubio's plan cuts corporate taxes, capital gains taxes, taxes on the rich, taxes on the middle class — it cuts taxes on everyone. The cuts are so large that the New York Times called it "the puppies and rainbows plan." And what Rubio is saying is that his massive tax cut is actually going to mean more tax revenue for the government — that two minus one will equal four. ...
Rubio's assurance will, to most tax analysts, sound like nonsense. And it is nonsense. A plan that massively cuts taxes isn't going to lead to budget surpluses. But it's nonsense that has been validated by an important conservative tax group, that shows the kind of candidate Rubio is looking to be, and that speaks to why the debate over taxes in Washington has become so dysfunctional. ...


'TPP Take Two'

Paul Krugman:

TPP Take Two: I’ve described myself as a lukewarm opponent of the Trans-Pacific Partnership; although I don’t share the intense dislike of many progressives, I’ve seen it as an agreement not really so much about trade as about strengthening intellectual property monopolies and corporate clout in dispute settlement — both arguably bad things... But the WH is telling me that the agreement just reached is significantly different from what we were hearing before, and the angry reaction of industry and Republicans seems to confirm that.
What I know so far: pharma is mad because the extension of property rights in biologics is much shorter than it wanted, tobacco is mad because it has been carved out of the dispute settlement deal, and Rs in general are mad because the labor protection stuff is stronger than expected. All of these are good things from my point of view. I’ll need to do much more homework once the details are clearer. ...

'Demand Deniers'

Chris Dillow:

Demand deniers: The Tories seem ... oblivious to problems of weak demand. ...
Jeremy Hunt tries to justify cutting tax credits by claiming that he wants to create a culture of hard work.
Let's leave aside the fact that working long hours is often a sign a economic failure - of low productivity - and ask: what would happen if people offered to work longer?
The answer is that, in many cases their employers would reject their offers. There are already 1.28 million people who are working part-time because they cannot find full-time work. This tells us that, for very many people, the problem isn't a lack of culture of hard work but a lack of demand for their services. ...
These ... examples raise the question: why are the Tories demand-deniers? Alex offers one answer: it's because they still believe that poverty is the fault of the individual - they are committing the fundamental attribution error.
The counterpart to this is a perhaps willful failure to see that there are also systemic reasons for low pay - not just bad policy, but fundamental properties of the capitalist economy.

Monday, October 05, 2015

Is Donald Trump Right to Call NAFTA a ''Disaster''?

At MoneyWatch

Is Donald Trump right to call NAFTA a "disaster"?: Recently, Donald Trump made a strong claim about the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in an interview on CBS 60 Minutes:
"It's a disaster. ... We will either renegotiate it, or we will break it. Because, you know, every agreement has an end. ... Every agreement has to be fair. Every agreement has a defraud clause. We're being defrauded by all these countries."
Is he right? Was NAFTA a disaster? ...

I also talk about immigration.

Paul Krugman: Enemies of the Sun

Why are Republicans hostile to initiatives that promote wind and solar energy?:

Enemies of the Sun, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: Does anyone remember the Cheney energy task force? Early in the George W. Bush administration, Vice President Dick Cheney released a report that was widely derided as a document written by and for Big Energy — because it was...
But here’s the thing: by the standards of today’s Republican Party, the Cheney report was enlightened, even left-leaning. One whole chapter was devoted to conservation, another to renewable energy. By contrast, recent speeches by Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio — still the most likely Republican presidential nominees — barely address either topic. When it comes to energy policy, the G.O.P. has become fossilized. That is, it’s fossil fuels, and only fossil fuels, all the way.
And that’s a remarkable development, because ... we’re ... living in an era of spectacular progress in wind and solar energy. Why has the right become so hostile to technologies that look more and more like the wave of the future? ...
Part of the answer is surely that promotion of renewable energy is linked in many people’s minds with attempts to limit climate change — and ... the association with climate science evokes visceral hostility on the right.
Beyond that,... follow the money. We used to say that the G.O.P. was the party of Big Energy, but these days it would be more accurate to say that it’s the party of Old Energy. In the 2014 election cycle the oil and gas industry gave 87 percent of its political contributions to Republicans; for coal mining the figure was 96, that’s right, 96 percent. Meanwhile, alternative energy went 56 percent for Democrats.
And Old Energy is engaged in a systematic effort to blacken the image of renewable energy, one that closely resembles the way it has supported “experts” willing to help create a cloud of doubt about climate science. An example: Earlier this year Newsweek published an op-ed article purporting to show that the true cost of wind power was much higher than it seems. But ... the article contained major factual errors, and its author had failed to disclose that he was the Charles W. Koch professor at Utah State, and a fellow of a Koch- and ExxonMobil-backed think tank. ...
While politicians on the right may talk about encouraging innovation and promoting an energy revolution, they’re actually defenders of the energy status quo, part of a movement trying to block anything that might disrupt the reign of fossil fuels.

Friday, October 02, 2015

Paul Krugman: Voodoo Never Dies

Why do Republican politicians support tax cuts for the wealthy despite their unpopularity (as documented in a part I left out), and their failure to spur economic growth?:

Voodoo Never Dies, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: So Donald Trump has unveiled his tax plan. It would, it turns out, lavish huge cuts on the wealthy while blowing up the deficit.
This is in contrast to Jeb Bush’s plan, which would lavish huge cuts on the wealthy while blowing up the deficit, and Marco Rubio’s plan, which would lavish huge cuts on the wealthy while blowing up the deficit.
For what it’s worth, it looks as if Trump’s plan would make an even bigger hole in the budget than Jeb’s. Jeb justifies his plan by claiming that it would double America’s rate of growth; The Donald, ahem, trumps this by claiming that he would triple the rate of growth. But really, why sweat the details? It’s all voodoo. The interesting question is why every Republican candidate feels compelled to go down this path.
You might think that there was a defensible economic case for the obsession with cutting taxes on the rich. That is, you might think that if you’d spent the past 20 years in a cave (or a conservative think tank). ...
True, you can find self-proclaimed economic experts claiming to find overall evidence that low tax rates spur economic growth, but such experts invariably turn out to be on the payroll of right-wing pressure groups (and have an interesting habit of getting their numbers wrong)... There is no serious economic case for the tax-cut obsession.
Still,... every Republican who would be president is committed to a policy that is both demonstrably bad economics and deeply unpopular. What’s going on?
Well,..., it’s straightforward and quite stark: Republicans support big tax cuts for the wealthy because that’s what wealthy donors want. No doubt most of those donors have managed to convince themselves that what’s good for them is good for America. But at root it’s about rich people supporting politicians who will make them richer. Everything else is just rationalization.
Of course, once the Republicans settle on a nominee, an army of hired guns will be mobilized to obscure this stark truth. We’ll see claims that it’s really a middle-class tax cut, that it will too do great things for economic growth, and look over there — emails! And given the conventions of he-said-she-said journalism, this campaign of obfuscation may work.
But never forget that what it’s really about is top-down class warfare. That may sound simplistic, but it’s the way the world works.

Thursday, October 01, 2015

'Marx on Peasant Consciousness'

Daniel Little:

Marx on peasant consciousness: One of Marx's more important pieces of political writing is the The Eighteenth maire of Louis Bonaparte (1851) (pdf). Here is his analysis of the causes of the specific nature of peasant political consciousness leading to the election of Napoleon III:

The small-holding peasants form an enormous mass whose members live in similar conditions but without entering into manifold relations with each other. Their mode of production isolates them from one another instead of bringing them into mutual intercourse. The isolation is furthered by France‘s poor means of communication and the poverty of the peasants. Their field of production, the small holding, permits no division of labor in its cultivation, no application of science, and therefore no multifariousness of development, no diversity of talent, no wealth of social relationships. Each individual peasant family is almost self-sufficient, directly produces most of its consumer needs, and thus acquires its means of life more through an exchange with nature than in intercourse with society. A small holding, the peasant and his family; beside it another small holding, another peasant and another family. A few score of these constitute a village, and a few score villages constitute a department. Thus the great mass of the French nation is formed by the simple addition of homologous magnitudes, much as potatoes in a sack form a sack of potatoes. Insofar as millions of families live under conditions of existence that separate their mode of life, their interests, and their culture from those of the other classes, and put them in hostile opposition to the latter, they form a class. Insofar as there is merely a local interconnection among these small-holding peasants, and the identity of their interests forms no community, no national bond, and no political organization among them, they do not constitute a class. They are therefore incapable of asserting their class interest in their own name, whether through a parliament or a convention. They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented. Their representative must at the same time appear as their master, as an authority over them, an unlimited governmental power which protects them from the other classes and sends them rain and sunshine from above. The political influence of the small-holding peasants, therefore, finds its final expression in the executive power which subordinates society to itself.

This a particularly interesting analysis of the social psychology of group solidarity, and one that has contemporary significance as well. It sheds a lot of light on how Marx thinks about the formation of class consciousness -- even as it significantly misunderstands the agency of rural people.

What are the limitations of the French peasantry, according to Marx here? They are isolated, burdened, unsophisticated, primitive, apolitical, and ignorant of the larger forces around them. Therefore, Marx says, they cannot constitute a unified and purposive political force. (The photo of a battalion of Vietnam Minh troops in Indochina just a century later refutes this conception.)

From this description we can draw several positive ideas about the foundations of collective solidarity. Here are the elements that Marx takes to be crucial in the formation of collective consciousness in this passage:

  1. The group needs to possess "manifold relations" to each other.
  2. There needs to be effective communication and transportation across space, not just local interaction.
  3. There needs to be a degree of economic interdependence.
  4. There need to be shared material conditions in the system of production.
  5. There needs to be an astute appreciation of the social and economic environment.
  6. There needs to be organization and leadership to help articulate a shared political consciousness and agenda. 

And Marx seems to have something like a necessary and sufficient relation in mind between these conditions and the emergence of collective consciousness: these conditions are jointly sufficient and individually necessary for collective consciousness in an extended group.

There are several crucial ideas here that survive into current thinking about solidarity and mobilization. So Marx's thinking about collective consciousness was prescient. It is interesting to consider where his thoughts about collective solidarity came from. How did he come to have insightful ideas about the social psychology of mobilization and solidarity in the first place? This isn't a topic that had a history of advanced theory and thinking in 1851.

Two sources seem likely. First is the tradition of French socialist thought in which Marx was immersed in the 1840s. French socialist thinkers were in fact interested in the question of how a revolutionary spirit came to be among a group of people. And second is Marx's own experience of working people in Paris in 1843-45. He writes of his own observations of working people in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts in 1844:

When communist artisans associate with one another, theory, propaganda, etc., is their first end. But at the same time, as a result of this association, they acquire a new need – the need for society – and what appears as a means becomes an end. In this practical process the most splendid results are to be observed whenever French socialist workers are seen together. Such things as smoking, drinking, eating, etc., are no longer means of contact or means that bring them together. Association, society and conversation, which again has association as its end, are enough for them; the brotherhood of man is no mere phrase with them, but a fact of life, and the nobility of man shines upon us from their work-hardened bodies.

Here Marx gives as much importance to the substantive relations of friendship and everyday association as he does to shared material interests in the formation of the class consciousness of French workers.

Marx's misunderstanding of the political capacity and consciousness of peasant communities has been noted by many scholars of rural revolutions. James Scott once opened a public lecture on the revolutions of the twentieth century by saying that his lecture would only treat the peasant revolutions of the century. But he then paused and laughed, and said, this isn't much of a limitation, because they were all peasant revolutions! Marx's assumption that only urban workers were capable of revolutionary consciousness was a serious misreading of the coming century of anti-capitalist and anti-colonial struggles. (Here is an earlier post on Scott's studies of peasant politics. Scott's accounts can be found in Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance and The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia. Eric Wolf's Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century picks up similar themes.)

Also interesting in the Eighteenth Brumaire is Engels' statement on the law of history as class struggle in his preface to the third edition of the book:

In addition, however, there was still another circumstance. It was precisely Marx who had first discovered the great law of motion of history, the law according to which all historical struggles, whether they proceed in the political, religious, philosophical or some other ideological domain, are in fact only the more or less clear expression of struggles of social classes, and that the existence and thereby the collisions, too, between these classes are in turn conditioned by the degree of development of their economic position, by the mode of their production and of their exchange determined by it. This law, which has the same significance for history as the law of the transformation of energy has for natural science -- this law gave him here, too, the key to an understanding of the history of the Second French Republic. He put his law to the test on these historical events, and even after thirty-three years we must still say that it has stood the test brilliantly.

Engels plainly endorses the idea of laws of motion of society and the idea of class conflict as the primary motor of historical change. "History is a history of class struggle." There is not much room for contingency or conjunctural causation here! But this is a dimension of Marxist theory that is plainly incorrect. Far better is to understand history in a more multi-factoral way in which contingency, conjunction, and agency all play a role.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

'Jeb Goes Galt'

Paul Krugman:

Jeb Goes Galt: This is amazing:

“I think the left wants slow growth because that means people are more dependent upon government,” Bush told Fox Business’ Maria Bartiromo.

Remember, this is the establishment candidate for the GOP nomination — and he thinks he’s living in Atlas Shrugged.

Back when Romney made his "47 percent" remark, Rich Lowry of the National Review Online responded:

...The contention is that if people aren’t paying federal income taxes, they are essentially freeloaders who will vote themselves more government benefits knowing that they don’t have to pay for them. As NR’s Ramesh Ponnuru has pointed out, there’s no evidence for this dynamic. ...
Fear of the creation of a class of “takers” can slide into disdain for people who are too poor — or have too many kids or are too old — to pay their damn taxes. For a whiff of how politically unattractive this point of view can be, just look at the Romney fundraising video.

Bush didn't learn a thing from Romney' venture down this road. "There's no evidence" for the charge itself, it's a political loser except with a certain population that would vote Republican in any case, and it falsely asserts that Democrats are opposed to policies that spur economic growth (hence our repeated calls for things like infrastructure to provide jobs, get the economy ready for a highly competitive international economy, and avoid the potential for secular stagnation?).

What we are opposed to, or what I am opposed to -- guess I should speak for myself -- is growth where all the benefits are captured by those at the top. Imperfections in economic institutions along with changes in the rules of the game pushed forward by those with political influence have caused those at the top to be rewarded in excess of their contribution to economic output, while those at the bottom have gotten less than their contribution. It's not "taking" to increase taxes at the top and return income to those who actually earned it, to the real makers who toil each day at jobs they'd rather not do to support their families. It's a daily struggle for many, a struggle that would be eased if they simply earned an amount equivalent to their contributions. That's why it's so "politically unattractive", people explicitly or implicitly understand they have been, for lack of a better word, screwed by the system. The blame is sometimes misplaced, but that doesn't change the nature of the problem. They don't want "free stuff," they want what they deserve, and there is nothing whatsoever wrong with that.

The other thing I'm opposed to is tax cuts for those at the top that make this problem even worse without delivering any corresponding benefits. These tax cuts redistribute income upward and cause the income received by workers to fall even further below their contribution, and there's no corresponding benefit to economic growth (or if there is, it's very, very small). We keep hearing that putting money in the hands of the "makers' at the top will produce magical growth, but the reality is that these are the true takers, the ones who are receiving far more from the economy than they contribute, while those who actually work their butts off each day to make the things we all need and enjoy struggle to pay their bills.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

'Trump World and the Fed'

Magic plans meet the reality called the Fed:

Trump World and the Fed, by Dean Baker: ...Suppose that Donald Trump's tax cut really is the magic elixir that would get the economy to 6.0 percent annual growth. But what if the people at the Fed's Open Market Committee (FOMC) don't recognize this fact? Suppose the FOMC thinks the economy is still bound by the pre-Trump tax cut rules and believes that inflation will start to accelerate out of control if the unemployment rate falls much below its current 5.1 percent level.
In this case, we would expect to see the Fed raise interest rates sharply as they saw the Trump tax cuts boosting growth. ... If the Fed raises interest rates high enough, it could fully offset the boost that Trump's tax cut is giving to the economy. In this case, even though the Trump tax cuts might have been the best thing for the economy since the Internet (okay, better than the Internet), we wouldn't see any dividend because the Fed would not allow it.
For this reason, the Fed's likely response to a tax cut is a fundamental question that reporters should be asking. If the Fed is likely to simply slam on the brakes to offset any possible stimulus, then a tax plan will have little prospect of providing a growth dividend.

Maybe they aren't asking because they know in their heart of hearts that the plan will be lucky to boost growth at all.

'And Then There Were None'

Paul Krugman:

And Then There Were None: ...I ... want to weigh in for a minute on Donald Trump’s tax plan — which would, surprise, lavish huge cuts on the wealthy while blowing up the deficit. That’s in contrast to Jeb Bush’s plan, which would lavish huge cuts on the wealthy while blowing up the deficit, and Marco Rubio’s plan, which would lavish huge cuts on the wealthy while blowing up the deficit.
At this point there are no Republican candidates deviating at all from the usual pattern. Why, it’s almost as if nobody in the party ever cared about deficits except as an excuse to slash social spending, and is totally committed to redistributing income upward.
And there is, of course, no evidence — zero, nada, zilch — that cutting taxes on the rich will yield large economic benefits.
What we’re seeing here is a party completely incapable of reforming …

'The Political Economy of Liberal Democracy'

Sharun Mukand and Dani Rodrik at Vox EU:

The political economy of liberal democracy, Vox EU: There are more democracies in the world today than non-democracies, according to data from Polity IV.1 Yet, few of those are what we would call liberal democracies – regimes that go beyond electoral competition and protect the rights of minorities, the rule of law, and free speech and practice non-discrimination in the provision of public goods.

Hungary, Ecuador, Mexico, Turkey, and Pakistan, for example, are all classified as electoral democracies by the Freedom House.2 But in these and many other countries, harassment of political opponents, censorship or self-censorship in the media, and discrimination against minority ethnic/religious groups run rampant. Fareed Zakaria coined the term ‘illiberal democracy’ for political regimes such as these that hold regular elections but routinely violate rights (Zakaria 1997). More recently, political scientists Steve Levitsky and Lucan Way (2010) have used the term ‘competitive authoritarianism’ to describe what they view as hybrid regimes between democracy and autocracy.

Democracy developed in Western Europe out of a liberal tradition that emphasized individual rights and placed limits on state coercion (Ryan 2012, Fawcett 2014, Fukuyama 2014). In Britain, France, Germany, and even the US, mass enfranchisement arrived only after liberal thought had become entrenched. Most of the world’s new democracies, by contrast, emerged in the absence of a liberal tradition and did little to foster one. As the shortcomings of these democracies have become more evident, it has become commonplace to talk about a ‘democratic recession’ (Diamond 2015). ...

Circumstances supporting civil rights But liberal democracies do exist, and the question is how they can ever be sustained in equilibrium. We discuss several circumstances that can mitigate the bias against civil rights in democracies.

  • First, there may not be a clear, identifiable cleavage – ethnic, religious, or otherwise – that divides the majority from the minority.

In highly homogenous societies, the ‘majority’ derives few benefits from excluding the ‘minority’ from public goods and suffers few costs from providing equal access. This may account for the emergence of liberal democracy in Sweden during the early part of the 20th century or in Japan and South Korea more recently.

  • Second, the two cleavages that distinguish the majority from the minority and the elite from the non-elite may be in close alignment.

In such a case, the elite will seek both property and civil rights as part of the political settlement with the majority. Think, for example, of the position of the white minority government in South Africa prior to the transition to democracy in 1994.

  • Third, the majority may be slender and need the support of the minority to mount a serious challenge to the elite.

Or there may be no clear-cut majority, with society characterized by a preponderance of cross-cutting cleavages. In these cases, repeated game incentives may ensure that each group recognizes the rights of others in return for its rights being protected by them. Lebanon’s ‘consociational’ democracy may have been an example of this, before differential population growth and outside intervention upset the pre-existing balance of power among different religious denominations.

The role of societal cleavages As these examples make clear, two societal cleavages play a crucial role in our story.

  • First, there is the divide between the propertied elite and the poor masses.

This is largely an economic divide and is determined by the division of land, capital and other assets in society, as well as access to the opportunities for accumulating those assets. Standard class-based accounts of the dynamics of political regimes emphasize primarily this cleavage.

  • Second, there is a cleavage between what we call a majority and a minority.

This particular divide may be identity based, deriving from ethnic, religious, linguistic, or regional affiliations. Or it may be ideological – as with secular modernizers versus religious conservatives in Turkey, and Western-oriented liberals versus traditionalists in Russia. (We will call this second cleavage an ‘identity’ cleavage for short, but it should be kept in mind that the relevant majority-minority cleavage will run often on ideological lines.) These two cleavages may align, as they did in South Africa, but more often than not, they will not. Their divergence is what allows us to make an analytical and substantive distinction between electoral and liberal democracy.

In our formal model, the majority-minority split exerts a variety of influences on the prospects for liberal democracy. First, and most crucially, it makes the majority favor electoral over liberal democracy. By discriminating against the minority, the majority can enjoy more public goods for itself. But there are effects that go in the opposite direction too. Under some circumstances, the split can make the elite favor liberal democracy. We identify two such consequences. First, the rate of taxation is generally lower under liberal democracy as the majority reap fewer benefits from redistributive taxation when they have to share public goods with the minority. So the elite may support liberal democracy when the income/class cleavage is very deep. Second, when the elite’s identity aligns with that of the minority, the elite have a direct stake in civil rights too. These channels can produce a rich mix of results.

Concluding remarks We suggest that the differential fortunes of liberal democracy in Western Europe and the developing world are related to the nature of dominant cleavages at the time of the social mobilization that ushered in democracy. In the West, the transition to democracy occurred as a consequence of industrialization at a time when the major division in society was the one between capitalists and workers. In most developing nations, on the other hand, mass politics was the product of decolonization and wars of national liberation, with identity cleavages as the main fault line. Our framework suggests that the second kind of transition is particularly inimical to liberal democracy. ...