Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

Oh, look! The uninsured rate fell again!

As any conservative can tell you, Obamacare is a job-killing “train wreck.” Not only is it a job killer, there is no way that it could possibly work. Except, of course, it does.

When I last visited this issue, the percentage of adults without health insurance had fallen from its peak of 18.0% in the third quarter of 2013 to 13.4% in the second quarter of 2014. Now, as Gallup (via Matt Yglesias) shows us, it continues to fall, dropping to 11.9% in the first quarter of 2015, based on over 43,000 interviews throughout the quarter. This is a drop of exactly one percentage point from the fourth quarter of 2014, or about 2.4 million adults.

The gains that we have seen now through two enrollment cycles (Q4 2013 through Q1 2015) affect every major demographic group, as the following table from Gallup shows.

 

Percentage of Uninsured Americans, by Subgroup

 

Especially notable are the gains for minorities (8.3 percentage points for Hispanics and 7.3 for African-Americans), those with income below $36,000 per year (8.7 points) and adults from 26-34 (7.4 points). But notice that even Americans making over $90,000 annually have seen their uninsured rate fall by 2.3 points, meaning that 40% of this group is no longer uninsured. This is actually the biggest percentage gain among any of the demographics Gallup surveyed.

As Gallup and Yglesias both point out, part of the reason for the improvement is the declining unemployment rate. But Yglesias is right on the money that this undermines the “job-killer” meme. In fact, as he shows, 2014 was “the best year of job creation since 1999.”

This is one argument conservatives aren’t going to win. In fact, it looks like they’ve already lost the vote of one Tea Partier who was able to retire early because of Obamacare.

Cross-posted from Middle Class Political Economist.

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Good Jobs First reveals top federal subsidy recipients: Subsidy Tracker 3.0

Slow to be getting to this, but I have to come back to such a major development. Good Jobs First, a national non-profit best known for its work on state and local subsidies to business, unveiled in March its Subsidy Tracker 3.0. This work differs from previous publications on federal subsidies by being project-based/firm-based, rather than program-based. This lets us know which companies have received the most federal subsidies over the years.

“Uncle Sam’s Favorite Corporations” finds that the federal government has awarded $68 billion in “grants and special tax credits” in the last 15 years. 2/3 of this has gone to large corporations. This is on top of hundreds of billions of dollars given to the banking sector during the financial crisis. One advantage of using Subsidy Tracker 3.0 is that it incorporates previous work by Good Jobs First tracking parent/subsidiary relationships.

One substantial finding is that:

Six parent companies have received more than $1 billion in grants and allocated tax credits (those awarded to specific companies), 21 have received $500 million or more, and 98 have received $100 million or more. Just 582 large companies account for 67% of the $68 billion total.

All six of the billion-recipients are in the energy sector: Spanish company Iberdrola tops the list with $2.2 billion, followed by NextEra Energy, NRG Energy, Southern Company, Summit Power, and SCS Energy. And five companies were on all three of the top 50 federal subsidy recipients list, the top 50 bailout list, and the top 50 state & local subsidy list: Boeing, Ford, General Electric, General Motors, and JPMorgan Chase.

It’s important to recognize that project-based and program-based subsidy databases serve two functions that that do not reduce to each other. If you want to know the total amount of money governments give in incentives, you need program-based reporting. This is because many subsidy programs provide benefits automatically to all investors meeting certain criteria and they rarely list all the automatic recipients. In that case, you need to know what the program as a whole is spending. This is the approach I have taken in my subsidy estimates in Competing for Capital and Investment Incentives and the Global Competition for Capital, and Louise Story took in the New York Times program database (“State Money Flow”) in its December 2012 series “The United States of Subsidies.” To understand the overall scope of the problem, you need program-based reporting.

Of course, program-based reporting can have its flaws. A number of think-tanks with widely varying ideologies have produced these reports over the years, and they appear to give dramatically different answers. In fact, as I showed in Competing for Capital (pp. 152-158), the answers are all highly consistent, as they are based on a handful of federal studies (the Joint Committee on Taxation’s Tax Expenditures reports, the Congressional Budget Office’s Reducing the Deficit: Spending and Revenue Options, and the CBO’s occasional publication, Federal Financial Support of Business). The differences, even when they are seemingly vast, stem from clear ideological choices by think-tank researchers.

To take the most obvious example, when the Cato Institute estimates “corporate welfare,” it does not include the value of subsidies which take the form of tax expenditures. This give a much smaller number than estimates that follow the JCT/CBO methodologies closely, since tax expenditures easily total 2/3 of federal subsidies (and often 90% of state and local subsidies). In Cato’s 2012 estimate of federal corporate welfare, author Tad DeHaven admits (p. 12) that tax expenditure are a “form” of corporate welfare, but he does not include them in his claimed total of $98 billion in federal “corporate welfare” annually. On the flip side, for any federal agency Cato wants to see privatized, it counts the entire budget as “corporate welfare.” This inflates the Cato estimates relative to those which stick closer to the JCT/CBO methodologies, such as Citizens for Tax Justice.

Project-based reporting, like Good Jobs First does with Subsidy Tracker and Megadeals, can find large individual recipients and projects, but it does not get you anywhere near the total amount of subsidies given by an individual government. As mentioned above, many programs with automatic tax breaks for investors do not give individualized listings of their recipients. (Hopefully this will change when the Government Accounting Standards Board releases its final tax incentive rules.) But because you can document every single individual award, you can derive an absolute baseline which is irrefutable.

The inauguration of Subsidy Tracker 3.0 is a great addition to the transparency tools brought to us by Good Jobs First.

Cross-posted from Middle Class Political Economist.

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Wikileaks releases Trans-Pacific Partnerhip investment chapter

Via Daily Kos, we learn that Wikileaks has released the investment chapter of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). This is a critical chapter, as it was in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), because it establishes investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) mechanisms.

Despite its neutral-sounding name, ISDS is actually a radical concept. Instead of using the courts to settle disputes, which have appeals procedures and build up case law via precedent, ISDS allows companies to take governments to arbitration, where neither precedent nor appeals exist.

Susan Sell gave several examples of ISDS in her guest post in February, which illustrate the dangers well. Eli Lilly had two of its pharmaceutical patents invalidated in Canada; the company appealed both of these decisions to the Canadian Supreme Court, and lost both times. Then the company turned to investor-state dispute settlement under NAFTA to receive $500 million in compensation for the Supreme Court decisions. That case is still ongoing.

In an example also noted by Wikileaks, Sell points out that U.S. tobacco maker is using ISDS against Australia because the country mandated plain packaging on cigarettes to make them look less attractive. This should not be possible, because the U.S.-Australia Free Trade Agreement does not include investor-state dispute settlement provisions. Instead, the company is using a subsidiary in Hong Kong, which has a free trade agreement with Australia that does include ISDS, to bring the complaint. Indeed, the government alleges that Philip Morris Asia bought the Australian subsidiary, already owned by the parent company, so that it could bring this complaint.

Unsurprisingly, Australia is opposed to including ISDS in the TPP agreement, and in the current draft has excluded itself completely from ISDS. However, the draft also shows that Australia might end its objection “subject to certain conditions.” Since the negotiation is being conducted in strict secrecy, there is no way to find out what those conditions might be, unless someone leaks them to the press.

The Obama administration continues to seek “fast track” negotiating authority from Congress for the TPP. This would allow the agreement to be voted on only as negotiated, with no amendments allowed. Note that this also means that the TPP would be incorporated as a U.S. law rather than as a treaty. As a law, it only needs a majority in both Houses of Congress. If it were to be offered for approval as a treaty, it would need a 2/3 majority in the Senate, with no House vote. Both NAFTA and the World Trade Organization agreements were passed as laws rather than treaties.

Don’t forget that ISDS is also on the negotiating table in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the European Union. ISDS is also under fire in the European Union. In an ironic twist of events, the European Commission, a supporter of ISDS (h/t Washington Post) so far in the negotiations, has ruled in a state aid case involving Romania that paying an ISDS award (Micula v. Romania) to a company whose subsidies were terminated due to EU law, would itself be an illegal state aid! The Commission’s effort to effectively nullify the decision (further irony: brought under the Sweden-Romania bilateral investment treaty, so both EU members) is not sitting well with proponents of ISDS. Too bad!

If we’re lucky, the combined opposition of Germany, a large part of the EU public, some parts of the European Commission, and a growing portion of the U.S. public will kill off ISDS in the TTIP. We need to make sure it disappears from the TPP as well, even if that means rejecting the TPP. And we may well want to reject the TPP anyway over its provisions on medicines and other intellectual property issues.

Cross-posted from Middle Class Political Economist.

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More evidence low taxes didn’t create the Celtic Tiger

The Tax Justice Network has just inaugurated a new blog, Fools’ Gold. It just came out with an excellent piece on taxes and Irish economic success in the “Celtic Tiger” era, written by Nick Shaxson. As I argued in 2011 and in my book Investment Incentives and the Global Competition for Capital, Ireland had low taxes for decades with nothing to show for it, with no improvement relative to EU-15 GDP per capita in 1958-87.

The Fools’ Gold piece updates the data to 2013. Take a look at its Chart 1, which provides a great visualization of Irish income per capita, tax rates, and developments in the European Union.

Chart 1: Ireland’s GNP per capita, relative to European GNP per capita, 1955-2013. 

invisible hand

 

In addition, the chart shows the significance of EU funds flowing into the country, though it only covers the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) monies. It does not include the Structural Funds, which Frank Barry (via Shaxson) puts at almost 3% of gross domestic product from 1989 to 1999, or about the same as the CAP. The importance of the European Union, in terms of both trade access and transfers, is hard to understate.

Unfortunately, as Shaxson writes, true believers in the low tax myth, and the architects of its tax haven policies, are still in control of Irish policy. So we have scores of billions of dollars of profits hidden in Ireland and continuing pressure to lower tax rates in the rest of the European Union, and the United States, too, despite the fact that low taxes didn’t cause Irish economic success at all.

Don’t forget to follow Fools’ Gold!

Cross-posted at Middle Class Political Economist.

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Shocking incentive failure rate in North Carolina

@sandymaxey points me to a new report from the North Carolina Justice Center that is making my head spin. Picking Losers shows that the state’s flagship development program, the Job Development Investment Grant (JDIG), has seen 62 of its 102 projects fail in the period from its inception in 2002 until 2013. That is, 60% of the projects failed to meet either their job, investment, or wage goals, and had to have their awards canceled.

60%! This isn’t baseball, where a .400 batting average is outstanding, a feat that hasn’t been accomplished since Ted Williams in 1941. Let me tell you about a different failure rate: Investment Quebec takes equity stakes in a number of tech start-ups and other new companies. When I interviewed the director in Montreal in 2007, their failure rate was only 20%, a figure he considered needed to be reduced. In North Carolina, we are talking about a failure rate three times as high, despite giving the awards to firms that should not be nearly so risky.

One such firm was Dell Computers. In 2004, the company conducted a bidding war for a new computer manufacturing plant between Virginia and North Carolina. But North Carolina’s analysis of the project was so out of whack that in nominal dollars it offered almost $300 million ($174 million present value) compared to Virginia’s offer of $37 million. The plant shut down completely in 2010.

Here’s the paradox: North Carolina has some of the best taxpayer protections in the country; indeed, state and local governments lost only a few million dollars when Dell failed. The state is rigorous about canceling awards and clawing back monies already paid out. But the problem is that the state’s economic analysis of potential projects is simply atrocious. The 60% failure rate is one sign of this. The Dell fiasco, analyzed by the NC Justice Center and the Corporation for Enterprise Development in 2007, shows another aspect of fanciful economic modeling.

What can be done? I’ve written before about the weakness of economic development cost-benefit analysis. Even by that low standard, North Carolina’s performance is breathtaking. Report author Alan M. Freyer suggests that the Legislature needs to resist calls to expand JDIG or create another fund with the same purpose, maintain its jobs standards, focus on expanding industries, vastly improve its evaluation of potential projects, and focus help on rural counties. I would add that the state should reverse its cuts to education, one of North Carolina’s economic development crown jewels to date, and restrict its subsidies only to those types shown to have a positive national impact, primarily customized training for companies and generalized training for individual workers. Improving skills increases workers’ income, and it also strengthens the U.S. economy as a whole, as opposed to simply building up a company’s bottom line.

Cross-posted from Middle Class Political Economist.

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Third Way trade agreements study leaves out a lot

Third Way (h/t TPM), a Democratic pro-trade think tank, has released a new study, “Are Modern Trade Deals Working?” It examines the various “free trade” deals the U.S. has signed since 2000 to conclude that 13 of 17 have led to an improvement in our goods (not including services; see more below) trade balance with the countries involved, giving a net improvement over the 17 agreements studied of $30.2 billion per year.

I did a similar analysis of this very question (though in less detail than the Third Way study) in 2012. Unlike the Third Way report, my post included all U.S. free trade agreements (rather than starting in 2001 like Third Way) as well as the effect of the 2000 agreement for Permanent Normalized Trade Relations (PNTR) with China. So, compared to the Third Way study, my post includes the FTAs with Israel, Canada, and Mexico, but did not consider the Panama FTA, which had not yet come into effect when I posted. My conclusion was essentially the same as Third Way’s, that the effects of the agreements on our trade in goods were usually positive, but of small size (the effect of the Israel FTA was also small). Because the Third Way study begins in 2001, however, it omits the impacts of NAFTA and PNTR with China. However, as my post showed, they are the most important by far.

This fact is not lost on opponents of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). Lori Wallach of Public Citizen Global Trade Watch told the Associated Press that “studies such as Third Way’s make a big deal out of modest trade improvements with countries like Panama, and gloss over huge trade deficits with major trading partners such as South Korea, Mexico and Canada.” She’s right.

In 1993, the year before NAFTA went into effect, the United States had a surplus with Mexico on trade in goods of $1.7 billion. In 1995, it went to a deficit of $15.8 billion, and in 2014 the goods trade deficit was $53.8 billion, down from 2007′s peak of $74.8 billion. This was in sharp contrast with the analysis of Gary Hufbauer and Jeffrey Schott, who predicted trade surpluses on the order of $9-12 billion through the 2000s, even as they admitted that the peso was overvalued (it collapsed in value in the December 1994 “Tequila crisis”).

Meanwhile, the balance of trade in goods with Canada went from a deficit of $10.8 billion in 1993 to $34.0 billion in 2014. Note that the U.S. had a peak deficit of $78.3 billion in 2008, which collapsed to  $21.6 billion in 2009.

In 2000, the year PNTR was adopted, the United States had an $83.9 billion goods trade deficit with China. In May of that year, the International Trade Commission (h/t David Cay Johnston) released a report estimating that the trade balance would worsen by a further $4.3 billion. According to the article, the U.S. Trade Representative and the White House both criticized this study strongly. And in fact, the 2001 deficit fell to $83.1 billion. However, in 2002 it was $103.1 billion, an increase more than four times the ITC prediction, and by 2014 it had grown to $342.6 billion.

By including trade in goods but not trade in services, Third Way is admirably the stacking the deck against its own position. It points out that the U.S. has a global surplus in trade in services of $232 billion in 2014, including a $45 billion surplus with Canada and Mexico. However, it doesn’t mention that the U.S. goods trade deficit was $737 billion in 2014, or that the country’s overall 2014 trade deficit was $505 billion, up from $477 billion in 2013.

The ultimate question is whether TPP and TTIP are going to be more like the U.S.-Australia Free Trade Agreement, or more like NAFTA and PNTR. Considering that the TPP includes all the NAFTA countries, Australia, Chile, Japan, and six others, comprising “nearly 40 percent of global GDP,” I think it’s safe to assume that it will have a much bigger impact than the FTAs with Australia or Chile, for instance. Similarly, since the European Union has an economy about the same size as the U.S. economy, I believe the TTIP will also have big consequences.

Moreover, we have to remember that these are much more than trade agreements. Both of them have increased protections for investors, patents, trademarks, and other intellectual property, and in both of them the U.S. is advocating the inclusion of investor-state dispute settlement so companies can sue governments through arbitration rather than courts, something that has proven more favorable for companies vis-a-vis both governments and consumers. So, in addition to the negative effects on U.S. workers that we would expect on the basis of the Stolper-Samuelson Theorem, all signatory countries are likely to suffer from higher prices for medicine and assaults on their regulations through investor-state dispute settlement.

Thus, while the Third Way study is right as far as it goes, what it leaves out is far more significant and worrisome.

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US 76, EU 6

No, it’s not a sports score. It’s the number of $100 million incentive packages offered in each place beginning in 2010. This is based on my first paper to use the February 2015 update of Good Jobs First’s Megadeals database (you can download the entire update in spreadsheet form).

I’ve said before that U.S. investment incentive use is totally out of control. The new paper confirms this beyond my worst nightmares. Think about it: The United States and the European Union have comparably large economies, yet U.S. state and local governments have put together an average of 15 $100 million packages per year in 2010-2014, compared to 1.2 per year in the EU. Yes, more than ten times as many per year in the U.S.!

The U.S. incentive packages are bigger, too. The largest of the six EU packages (Global Foundries in Dresden, Germany, in 2011) comes to about $285 million at an exchange rate of $1.35 per euro (and the euro is down to less than $1.15 now). Boeing, Sempra Energy, Intel, Cerner Corporation, Cheniere Energy, Shell, Tesla, and Chrysler all received packages worth over $1 billion. Moreover, Boeing’s incentives were accompanied by substantial retirement and other benefit concessions from its workers.

How does this happen? Governments in the European Union and the United States both face the same need to attract investment, but the EU has a binding legal framework that restricts what Member States can do. Every subsidy program or large individual subsidy must be notified in advance to the European Commission, and only implemented if the Commission approves. Every region in the EU has a maximum subsidy level it can give, with a limit of 0 for the richest regions and only 50% (subsidy/investment) for the poorest regions, mostly in the former Communist countries. Finally, investments larger than €50 million have their maximum allowable subsidy cut sharply, by 50% on the amount between €50 million and €100 million, and by 66% for the amount over €100 million.

Because of the lack of a framework in the United States, state and local governments spend almost $50 billion per year just to attract investment, and up to a further $20 billion in subsidies not even requiring investment, according to my estimates. This is more than enough to rehire every state and local employee who lost their job since the recession. All other things equal, subsidies make the economy less productive, and these subsidies transfer money from average taxpayers to the far richer subsidy recipients. In other words, they slow economic growth and contribute to economic inequality.

Changing this is a huge job. The first step is simply knowing what the stakes are, achieving transparency in how much governments give to business. Things are improving on the transparency front, but we still have a long way to go. Then we’ve actually got to change the rules…

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What is Noah thinking? Part 2

Noah Smith has replied to my recent post criticizing his use of median household income to measure middle class living standards. He raises some interesting questions, but some of them still leave me scratching my head.

Smith writes:

I don’t understand the idea that “households have had to” compensate for lower weekly wages (also the choice of weekly over hourly wages continues to mystify me, since long workweeks suck, but OK).

Of course, no one literally had to compensate for the fact that their wages were falling, but people do prefer to maintain (if not improve!) their current level of consumption. So, if wages are falling, and you want to maintain your standard of living, you have to adjust something.

Let’s make no mistake, real wages were falling (see Table B-15), and even today remain below their all-time peak. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) likes to use the period 1982-84 as its base period for inflation calculations, so the numbers that follow are in 1982-84 dollars to adjust for inflation. Smith likes to talk about 1980-2000, working from one business cycle peak to another, but he ignores the previous business cycle peak, 1973, which is a very interesting and important one since that is the year of peak real hourly wages (equal to 1972) and real weekly wages were just 37 cents less than 1972. It seems to me that it’s more interesting to ask if middle class workers are as well off as they were at their peak than to ask if they are as well off in 1979 or 1980.

What happened to real wages? In inflation-adjusted dollars, the hourly wage peak of 1972-73 was $9.26 per hour; in 1980 it was $8.26 per hour, in 2000 it was $8.30 per hour, and in 2013 it had increased to $8.78 per hour.

But it’s actually worse than that. Unlike professors, whose working time is pretty much their own as long as they teach well enough and publish enough to get tenure, most people cannot choose how much they work: Their employer decides that for them. Your paycheck is hourly wage times hours worked, and hours worked by production and non-supervisory workers has fallen from 36.9 in 1972 and 1973 to a low of 33.1 in 2009 and in 2013 was 33.7 hours per week. That is why we can’t look at just the hourly wage, but need to use the weekly wage (hours per year would be an even better metric, but BLS does not publish the data that way). By the way, this category of workers is no small slice: It makes up about 62% of the entire non-farm workforce and 80% of the non-government workforce.

Because both hourly real wages and hours per week fell, real weekly earnings fell even more: From $341.73 (again, 1982-84 dollars) in 1972 to $290.80 in 1980, $284.78 in 2000, and $295.51 in 2013. If you’re keeping track at home, that’s a fall of 15% from 1972 to 1980, a 16.67% fall from 1972 to 2000, and still 13.5% below the 1972 peak in 2013.

But wait! After directly quoting and discussing what I said about real weekly wages, Smith suddenly, with no documentation, rejects that premise: “So, median real wages in America stayed roughly flat in America in 1980-2000, and people worked more – actually, what happened is that many women stopped being housewives and began working.” Nothing I said in my post was about median real wages, but weekly real wages of production and non-supervisory workers. And he knows this is my view, because he clicked through, and even linked to, my much longer post, “The best data on middle class decline.” He suddenly introduces a different measure entirely, and gives no argument for why it’s better.

That’s not to say there’s no argument one could make for that measure. In fact, Dean Baker in an email a few years back pointed out to me that the real weekly wage measure I have used does not include McDonald’s supervisors, who certainly are not well paid by any stretch of the imagination. But likewise, it does not include everyone from CEO on down. To clarify the difference, my preferred measure is the average (mean) of what’s close to the bottom 62% of workers, while the median is of course the median of everyone. Which better captures the situation of the middle class?

I submit that my measure is better. Smith is right that real median wages have stayed fairly flat from 1980 to 2000, and in fact they have also varied little from 2000 to 2013. But that does not seem consistent with increasing cries of economic distress, as people have lost jobs, homes, and, too often, their pensions. I have always thought that declining real wages were fairly invisible at first: People might have made less than the previous generation, but for any given individual, that effect was offset by their increasing experience over time, leading to a slightly higher  real income for that person. It was only when large numbers of people began to lose jobs, and could not find anything that paid as much as their old job, that the issue of middle class decline rose more to public consciousness.

Having shifted measures in midstream, Smith’s final comments are rather less compelling. He has via  this shift precluded the answer that women entered the workforce in large numbers from 1980 to 2000 to help maintain consumption, a position buttressed by the finding of Elizabeth Warren and co-researchers that private debt has increased sharply. I would also point out that women entered the workforce more rapidly in the 1973-79 period (when incomes were falling the most consistently) than in 1980-2000, as a close inspection of this FRED chart will show. Finally, going back to Warren’s work, she argues that the rapid rise of home prices swallowed up the nominal income increase due to women entering the workforce, and that the average house grew in size by less than half a room in over 20 years, even while new single-family houses were growing by the much larger percentages Smith gave in his initial article.

Hence, Smith’s claim that I’m saying increased women’s labor force participation “represents a deterioration in the living standards of the average American” is mistaken, based on his using a different measure of middle class income than I do. I have tried to indicate why I think my measure is better, which would make women’s labor force participation indeed at least in part a response to the falling incomes his measure doesn’t show.

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What is Noah thinking?

Noah Smith put up a post Sunday purporting to show that things aren’t so bad for the middle class. Then he immediately shows us a chart of median household income. Stop right there. As I have argued before, this is always going to give you a rosier picture than reality. We need to look at individual data, aggregated weekly (because average hours per week have fallen for non-supervisory workers), to know what’s going on.

Because the individual real weekly wage is still below 1972 levels, households have had to compensate by having more incomes and going into debt. They have traded time and debt for current consumption. This is not an improvement in the middle class lifestyle. Commenter Richard Serlin points out that we also need to consider risk as well as average incomes, and he is right. The middle class is less secure than it was in 1972.

Noah has lots of interesting things to say, and you should check out his blog if you haven’t already. But this is an error on his part, and I don’t understand what he’s thinking.

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My GASB comments

Well, I should have taken my own advice and not waited until the last minute to submit my own comments on the proposed standards for government accounting of subsidies. But, at long last, they are in. Below please find them in their entirety.

Director of Research and Technical Activities

Project No. 19-20E

Government Accounting Standards Board

January 14, 2015

Dear Director:

I am writing to comment on the proposed standards for reporting the “tax abatements” given by state and local governments as part of their Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports (CAFRs). Let me begin by saying that I welcome this proposal and want to urge the Board to be sure these standards are truly comprehensive.

I write from a unique vantage point because my best-known academic work consists of making estimates of the value of subsidies given to companies by state and local governments. This includes two books: Competing for Capital: Europe and North America in a Global Era (Georgetown University Press, 2000) and Investment Incentives and the Global Competition for Capital (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011). In my latter book, I estimate that in 2005 state and local governments gave just under $50 billion in business attraction subsidies and perhaps another $20 billion in subsidies not tied to making an investment. In addition, I have written numerous journal articles and book chapters on tax incentives and other forms of subsidies to attract investment. The proposed standards, if done correctly, would put me out of the estimation business, and that would be a great thing. In the United States, there is a terrible lack of transparency in the use of these incentives, which makes informed policy analysis very difficult and, in some cases, impossible. Not only that, the lack of transparency hinders the ability of bond and other financial analysts to determine the true long-term financial position of a government entity that may be seeking to borrow through the bond market.

I am regularly interviewed by, and have my work cited in, well-known publications such as The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Los Angeles Times, etc. I have consulted on these issues for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the International Institute for Sustainable Development, the North Carolina Budget and Tax Center, and the Missouri chapter of the Sierra Club. I hold the position of Professor of Political Science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, where I have taught for 23 years. Let me note for the record that the comments which follow are my own personal recommendations and my views are not necessarily shared by my employer or consulting clients.

Let me begin by highlighting an important terminological problem caused by the Board’s use of the term “tax abatement” as its catch-all term for the policies under discussion. In fact, a “tax abatement,” properly so called, is only one form of subsidy to attract investment to a state or locality, and most likely not the most important one, depending on the governmental entity in question. A true tax abatement relieves its recipient from having to pay certain taxes that would otherwise be due, most usually the local property tax. It is merely one form of a broader category of support for business investment that I generally call an “investment incentive,” “location incentive,” or “location subsidy.” I define all three of these terms as “a subsidy to affect the location of investment.”

What, then, is a “subsidy”? To answer this question, we can turn to the “Final Act Embodying the Results of the Uruguay Round of Multilateral Trade Negotiations, April 15, 1994,” which was adopted into U.S. law via Public Law no. 103-465. Thus, the definition of a “subsidy” established in the Uruguay Round’s “Agreement on Subsidies and Countervailing Measures” (SCM) is in fact a provision of U.S. law. This is important to keep in mind in the discussion that follows.

Article 1 of the SCM defines a subsidy as follows:

1.1 For the purpose of this Agreement, a subsidy shall be deemed to exist if:

(a)(1) there is a financial contribution by a government or any public body [note that his means this section applies to all state and local governments within the United States] within the territory of the Member (referred to in this Agreement as “government”), i.e. where

(i) a government practice involves a direct transfer of funds (e.g. grants, loans, and equity infusion), potential direct transfers of funds or liabilities (e.g. loan guarantees);

(ii) government revenue that is otherwise due is foregone or not collected (e.g. fiscal incentives such as tax credits); [footnote omitted]

(iii) a government provides good or services other than general infrastructure, or purchases goods;

(iv) a government makes payments to a funding mechanism, or entrusts or directs a private body to carry out one or more of the type of functions illustrated in (i) to (iii) above which would normally be vested in the government and the practice, in no real sense, differs from practices normally followed by governments; [an anti-evasion rule]

Or

(a)(2) there is any form of income or price support in the sense of Article XVI of GATT 1994;

And

(b) a benefit is thereby conferred.

To sum all this up, the Agreement on SCM establishes a definition of “subsidy” that includes any potential subsidy mechanism, carried out by any level of government (for example, the Washington B&O tax reduction that was a major element of the European Union’s complaint against subsidies to Boeing, a case the EU won), one not evaded by simply claiming that it was a private body carrying out the subsidy. In effect, if the subsidy exists in law or in fact, the subsidy rules come into play.

This principle that a subsidy existing in law or in fact must be counted is an important one when examining the Board’s proposed rules. Some tax measures that are obviously subsidies under the SCM definition (again, something incorporated into U.S. law) might not be considered “tax abatements” using a strict reading of the definition of that term. Consider the case of tax increment financing (TIF). In the states with which I am most familiar, a TIF recipient is legally considered to have paid its property tax even though its payment flows immediately back to its own benefit. If the entity has legally paid its property tax, how can one say that government has “foregone” the revenue? The answer, of course, is to look at the facts as well as the law. GASB’s rules must ensure that they follow the facts and ignore legal fictions. Otherwise, huge swathes of tax-based subsidies will not be counted, and bond analysts and other researchers will not have the facts they need to establish the true financial situation of a government. This is similarly true of situations where the tax foregone is not due from the subsidy recipient. For example, many states allow companies to keep personal income tax withholding from their employees. In Missouri, local taxing districts called transportation development districts collect an extra sales tax from customers, but keep the money until they have received the entire subsidy they negotiated from a municipal government. It does not matter whose taxes are foregone; the rules must capture the subsidy itself in order to be useful. These are not small programs, either. In California, by 2010 TIF was generating $8 billion a year in tax increment for local governments, which was largely plowed back into paying the subsidies they were tied to (or equivalently, paying off bonds which funded the subsidies). In the much smaller Missouri economy, both TIF and transportation development districts see hundreds of millions of dollars of new subsidies committed annually by municipal governments.

In light of the fact that investment incentives may not be entirely tax-based, I believe it to be important to at least cross-list cash grants paid to companies with the “tax abatement” they receive. From anecdotally talking to reporters calling me about various incentive packages they are covering, it appears to me that there is an increasing trend for cash to make up a significant chunk of these packages. If the new rules require such cross-listing, we can then see in one place how much money a state or local government is committing in subsidies to attract businesses. This information gives us important clues about future fiscal trends from a government, as heavy users of incentives tend to remain such well into the future; however, there is no telling from one year to the next what the split will be between cash and tax-based subsidies.

On a related point, the rules absolutely need to include future amounts committed for tax incentives. Once again, without such transparency it is impossible for bond or other analysts to derive a true financial picture for a particular government.

Last, I would urge that the reporting of location subsidies be made on a firm-specific basis. If a single company is receiving tens of millions of dollars in tax breaks per year from a given municipality, with many more tens of millions committed in the future, it could signal that the municipality is highly vulnerable to anything which adversely affected the recipient. A city like Flint, Michigan, was devastated when the numerous subsidized General Motors facilities in the city began to go out of business in the 1980s.

In summary, then, the most important principle to consider is that transparency must be comprehensive. If the rules have loopholes allowing governments to not report certain types of subsidies, those subsidies will not be reported, and everyone relying on data reported under the new rules for accurate financial information – from citizens to investors – will be misled by numbers that don’t reveal a government’s true financial situation. Please require the most comprehensive reporting possible, for your efforts to live up to their potentially game-changing value.

Sincerely,

Kenneth P. Thomas

Professor of Political Science

University of Missouri-St. Louis

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