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

Angry Bear Hits Continue to Grow

Wow, a link from Atrios can really drive a lot of traffic my way. Thanks Atrios, and welcome new readers!

But I wonder…is that too much power for one man or woman to wield?

AB

Coming soon: John Rawls, The Veil of Ignorance, Eric Alterman, Progressive Taxation, The West Wing (in particular, Will Baily), and how they all tie together.

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A New Trend?

Maybe this will lead to a First Amendment challenge of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). Here’s the highlight:

U.S. Justice Department said Wednesday it had seized a rogue Web site that offered information on bootlegged video games and movies, as the owner faces sentencing for copyright violations.

Note that the siezed site offers information on bootlegged games and movies, not the actual bootlegged games and movies. This is one of the more egregious consequences of the DMCA, making it illegal to talk about ways that copyrights can be broken. It’s long been legal to say “they sell crack down on 12th street” while being, of course, illegal to go down to 12th street and sell crack. The DMCA makes the online version of this speech illegal. This is problematic on principle (1st amendment) and problematic on practical grounds. A number of activities proscribed by the DMCA are “dual use”. For example, the controversial DeCSS program (code that hacks DVD encryption) was not originally written for piracy purposes, but rather because DVDs could only be played on PCs running MS Windows…a clever programmer wanted to play DVDs that he legally purchased on his Linux computer.

The recent Eldred Decision by the Supreme Court (ruling in favor of the Sonny Bony Copyright Extension Act) may not bode well for a challenge to the DMCA, but my lay opinion is that Eldred was less clearly based in free speech than something like this. (The cynical view of Eldred is that everytime Mickey Mouse is about to become part of the public domain, Congress extends the length of copyrights).

This may also represent a disturbing new trend in the seizure of web sites by the government, which then redirects visitors to a government site. As TalkLeft points out , redirecting visitors likely entails a log of all IP addresses that visit the original site. Nice.

AB

Postscript on Eldred:

Eldred was premised on the idea that “strong intellectual property rights encourage innovation”, but this argument only looks at half the equation, the marginal benefit of innovation. As Isaac Newton remarked once, “”If I have seen far it is by standing on the shoulder’s of giants”. Under a strict intellectual property rights regime, standing on giants’ shoulders becomes a much more expensive proposal (license fees, searches, tort exposure). So such a regime increases both the costs and benefits of creative activity; the net effect on innovation is therefore ambiguous. Given this ambiguity, maybe deference to the language in the constitution would be wise:

The Congress shall have the power. . . To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries]. . .[Art. I, Sec. 8, Clause 8].

I was suprised at the ruling because of the self-proclaimed “strict constructionalist” philsophy of the justices who ruled in favor of copyright holders (Stevens and Breyer dissented strongly). It’s very difficult for me to see life+70 years as satisfying the “for limited times” language.

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More on Mankiw

Before this announcment, Brad DeLong wondered why Mankiw (and others) signed the “Republican Economists’ Letter”:

I was slightly disappointed, second, to see Greg Mankiw’s, Mike Boskin’s, and Marty Feldstein’s names on the signature list. I don’t think the letter accurately reflects their views–meaning that if I held their views about how the economy works and what a good society looks like, and if I held their political allegiances, I would not have signed the letter.

Besides the economists DeLong mentions, I’d add that the only other economists of academic note that I found in a quick skim of the list are Ed Prescott, R. Hodrick, Allan Meltzer, and Michael Jensen (who I cited here, about 1/2 way down). By “academic note”, I mean their works are likely to appear in at least one first or second year PhD Economics or Business course. I probably missed one or two (apologies), but given the length of the list, the list is most noteable for the lack of signatures of top economists. Again, DeLong beats me to this punch:

Without their [Mankiw, Feldstein, Boskin] names, the signature list of the letter is not all that terribly impressive: the overall impression is of people who don’t know very much about the federal budget, old Republicans who should have known better, young Republicans who I hope will soon learn better, political hacks hoping for government jobs, lobbyists hoping to get their names on lists of people owed favors, and a smattering of True Believers with fringe views (not that there is anything wrong with having fringe views: my views on a number of important questions are “fringe”: truth is not always with the establishment consensus). Keeping Boskin, Feldstein, and Mankiw on board would have been a high priority.

AB

P.S. Here’s the entire text of the letter, what could be more vacuous? There’s no how or why. Nor does it address deficits.

We enthusiastically endorse your economic growth and jobs proposal. It is fiscally responsible and it will create more employment, economic growth, and opportunities for all Americans. Moreover, it will improve corporate accountability and strengthen the nation’s international competitiveness.

Update: Tapped also has some good info on the “economists” signing the letter

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Now who do I pick on?

This just came across the wires: Hubbard leaves econ post. My theory: the barrage of critical analysis from Angry Bear became too much to bear. Note that the announcement hit the wires a scant 9 minutes after my More Glen “No connection” Hubbard and Taxes post.

Hubbard’s being replaced by N. Gregory Mankiw from Harvard. Note: Mankiw has also written a few books, including a Macroeconomics textbook. I advise keeping public pronouncements consistent with theories in the latest editions of those books.

Seriously though, Hubbard was a good economist and a reputedly very smart guy for 20 years, then had two rough years that were not 100% his fault, and now should be able to return to a productive career as an economist (rather than a political strategist). Good luck, Glenn.

AB

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More Glen “No connection” Hubbard and Taxes

I came across this very recent interview with Glenn Hubbard (chair of the President’s Council of Economic Advisors, in which Dr. Hubbard talks about “The Fundamentals of Tax Reform”. I first mentioned Hubbard and tax reform here, give links to other stories on Consumption and Income Taxes here , and give a more comprehensive summary here. Finally, my three part series on dividend taxes are (in order) here, here, and here.

Here are some quotes from Dr. Hubbard, with comments. Note that I am not familiar with The Library of Economics and Liberty, the organization conducting and publishing the interview, but I do characterize the interview as very sympathetic to Hubbard’s position.

Quote 1: …especially important in the wake of the recent corporate governance scandals, the tax code is biased in favor of retained earnings instead of a more transparent system and greater dividend pay-outs.

Analysis: The second half of the sentence is true, as I explained in the previous post. But it’s not causally related to the antecedent. Hubbard is trying to imply that if there were no dividend taxes then there would not be corporate fraud. I don’t see the mechanism for this. Independent boards, strong oversight, and independent auditors affect corporate scandals. The relationship to dividends is tenuous at best. For example, perhaps the second largest scandal (behind Enron) was Tyco International. As this chart shows, they regularly paid dividends over the last decade.

Quote 2: But on the issue of the dividend plan, if companies pay a dividend to a shareholder, the shareholder would not pay tax on the dividend, provided corporate tax had already been paid.”

Analysis: The last caveat is a big issue. A recent paper by a Finance Professor at Harvard Business School finds that the gap between the profit companies report to shareholders (“book income”) and the profits reported to the IRS (“tax income”) increased over the 1990s (for the wonks: well beyond that explained by the increased use of stock options over the same period). In the early 1990s both types of corporate income were pretty close to equal; by 1996, corporations were on average reporting profits 40% higher to shareholders than those reported to the IRS. (The vast majority of this is not corporate fraud, just using existing loopholes).

Quote 3: About ten years ago, the Treasury Department and the American Law Institute both did very significant studies of corporate tax integration, that is, removing the double tax on corporate source income. Both of those studies found quite significant effects on economic activity going forward so that one could raise the economy’s growth rate by a couple of tenths of a per cent over a very, very long period of time.”

Analysis: Great and probably true, but why use 10 year old studies? I’m not saying these studies are wrong, just a bit dated. This raises some skepticism because it excludes 1993 and after. Clinton’s 1993 Tax Plan imposed some very modest tax changes that increased corporate taxes, yet corporate profits went up. This might complicate the analysis. There are surely more recent studies.

Quote 4: We believe that the revenue feedback effects were they to be [dynamically] scored for the dividend piece could be as high as 40%.”

Analysis: Anyone remember the Laffer Curve? Not that the cuts aren’t stimulative, but the would-be cutters always exaggerate the stimulative effect. Remember “dynamic scoring” and the 2001 tax cut? Here’s a funny Bruce Bartlett quote from 1999:

Although dynamic scoring is no panacea for the Republicans’ budgetary problems [the problem being the inability to sell tax cuts to the public], it would make it easier to both cut taxes and still maintain a large surplus.

Quote 5: I’m not a very political person. But I have observed in this President a great concern about long-term growth.

Analysis: On the first part, ask what lead Hubbard to recently deny a connection between deficits and interest rates. For the second, see Alan Greenspan.

AB

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Dividend Taxes Part III: Empire-Building

This is long, but hopefully not too boring. If you are in a hurry, skip down to the bold-faced paragraph and read from there. Quoting from an earlier post, dividend taxes “do discourage firms from distributing profits to shareholders. And, as it turns out, when firms don’t distribute profits to shareholders they quite often do very silly things with the money. When this happens, it’s bad for the firm, bad for the shareholders, bad for the employees of the firm, bad for the stock market, and bad for the economy.”

What are these “very silly things” that firms (particularly, their CEO with the advice and consent of the board) do? Almost always, it is excessive acquisitions and unrelated diversification. Simply put, most firms are better when they center their activities around a small set of activities and then do that well. That small set of activities is what MBAs and consultants call a firm’s “core competency”. “Unrelated diversification” refers to a firm moving from it’s core competency—via acquisition or expansion—into areas not in the core.

We might say that, in 1998, AOL’s core competency was making the internet experience easy enough for your grandmother to use (and they were and remain quite skilled in the art of mailing me CDs). Similarly, Time Warner’s core competency was in something like content production and distribution. The important question for the owners of these two firms, the shareholders, is whether these two competencies go better together (the merger involves real “synergies” or “complementarities”) or whether they are best done separately (the merger is “unrelated diversification”).

Coming up with theoretical synergies between the two is not too tough: the web and TV will converge someday, AOL knows the web and Time-Warner knows TV. But watching AOL-TW in the post-merger years there were very few actual examples of synergies (Instant polls? Crawlers on Talkback Live of Instant Messages? Whoopee!). Instead, you had AOL people worrying about the TW business and TW people worrying about the AOL business. TW’s flagship, CNN, gets passed by FOX News. AOL’s growth rate stagnates, and the two are less valuable together than separate. Management’s focus is spread too thin.

An example of the phenomenon in reverse: when Lou Gerstner took over for IBM in the 1993, IBM was in a lot of trouble, business was lagging, and it faced a serious cash crunch. Part of the problem was that IBM was in hundreds of unrelated lines of business and there was no coordination across even the related lines of businesses. So Gerstner came in and sold off non-core businesses, reorganized around product lines instead of geography, implemented incentive pay, and cut costs. Note to Naderites, yes cutting costs means layoffs. In this case the alternatives were probably bankruptcy or a government bailout. By 1996, IBM was back on track .

How does all of this relate to dividends? The AOL-TW management expanded their empire, while Gerstner shrunk his empire. Broadly speaking, CEO’s are aggressive, confident, and competitive; they wouldn’t make the top levels of business if they were not. When a company has profits above those required to sustain core lines of business, the CEO and the board have to decide whether to “Empire-Build” in the style of AOL-TW or distribute those profits to shareholders in the form of dividends. If you look at mergers and acquisitions over time, you really do see too much “Empire-Building” and not enough “Value-Creation”. In most cases, the explanation is a combination of hubris and a misguided desire for diversification.

Here’s a nice excerpt from a randomly googled place (Jensen is a Harvard Business professor who spends a lot of time studying this issue):

Jensen believes that most current mergers undertaken to reduce excess capacity and combine related services (such as the recent Chemical/Chase merger in the banking industry) will ultimately be successful. Those associated with growth and so-called synergies – such as the Time Warner acquisition of Turner – will ultimately be viewed as unwise.

Today’s activity, he notes, is more like the “disastrous” merger wave of the 1960s, which saw “large firms run by managers who, with little of their own money at risk, were spending corporate resources on ill- conceived diversification and empire-building campaigns.” “Unfortunately,” Jensen concludes, “too much of the current M&A; activity falls into the latter category.”

A final example: Goodyear (Tires). In 1984, they were very profitable. They decided to take those profits and invest in a pipeline; over the next two years, they spent over $1 billion. They also tried twice to buy into the helicopter business. What possible skills did managers who know the tire business bring to either the pipeline or helicopter business? None. Goodyear never made money on the pipeline and eventually sold it for $420 million in 1995; while they were doing this (the late 1980s) their tire business went bad. No synergies were ever posited by management, only a (misguided, see the postscript) desire for diversification. This is about $1 billion that should have been paid out to shareholders.

What mechanisms exist to discourage empire-building? If a company commits to paying dividends, then there will be less money to spend on spurious mergers and acquisitions.

Hence the logic of eliminating the tax on dividends: Taxing dividends gives managers an incentive, even an excuse, to retain cash rather than give it to shareholders. Then, rather than let it sit, they spend it on acquisitions and diversification. More often than not, these go bad (Next time you see an acquisition announced, look what happens to the buyer’s stock price). If instead, companies pay profits out to shareholders in the form of dividends, those shareholders can invest it where they see fit.

Is eliminating the dividend tax the only way to discourage empire-building? No. Using incentive pay helps a lot because it ties compensation to the company’s stock price, so there’s less incentive for top management to engage in unrelated diversification (there are problems with stock options, but that’s another topic). Another way to limit empire-building is to have independent Boards of Directors—directors not chosen by or involved in any way with the CEO or other top managers. Because the board must approve the CEO’s major decisions, if the board is independent they will act more in shareholders interests. Increasing the independence of boards is one part of the post-Enron, post-crash, set of reforms. But nothing has yet passed on this front, to my knowledge.

Even Bush cited, or at least tried to cite, the empire-building issue:

“We may not be cash-flowing that much, but the sky’s the limit. Well, when you pay dividends, that sky’s-the-limit business doesn’t hunt.”

Translated into English, I suspect that this would be the first salient and accurate statement about dividends that I’ve heard from the President. Of course, given the choice of two ways to limit “sky’s the limit” businesses, one that disproportionately benefits the wealthy (eliminating dividend taxes) and one that benefits all shareholders (corporate governance reform), which do you expect this administration to pursue?

In summary, eliminating the tax on dividend income would improve the performance of companies, by limiting their follies. This would be good for employees, the shareholders, and the economy. And it could be done in a revenue-neutral fashion. I’m sure wiser proposals could be crafted, but here’s one off the top of my head: eliminate the dividend tax and impose offsetting tax increases on those who benefit from eliminating the tax. In this case, an increase in the corporate profit tax and/or an increase in the top marginal tax rates could be imposed to offset the revenue loss from not taxing dividend income. The wealthy lose money (more income taxes) and gain money (no dividend taxes), netting out near zero. But the incentive for corporations to waste money on unrelated diversification is reduced in the process!

AB

P.S. Isn’t diversification a good thing for firms to do? Don’t they reduce the volatility of earnings by operating in different lines of business? Yes, they do, but that is not a good thing for shareholders because shareholders can achieve their own diversification by, for example, buying mutual funds. Let the managers build the business and let the shareholders diversify.

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Exciting Opportunity

My contact email (angrybearblog@yahoo.com) has only existed for 10 days. In the entire Internet, it is only posted here. What is the third email I get?

That’s right, an exciting opportunity to help embezzle funds out of Nigeria!

FROM THE DESK OF:

BARRISTER SAMUEL BASSEY.

FAX: 234-1-ZZZZZZZZ.

E-MAIL: ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ@NETSCAPE.NET.

HELLO,

I SINCERELY HOPE THAT THIS LETTER WILL NOT COME TO YOU AS AN

EMBARRASSMENT BUT RATHER A SURPRISE SINCE WE NEITHER KNEW EACH OTHER BEFORE NOW

NOR HAVE HAD ANY PREVIOUS CORRESPONDENCE OR CONTACT.

I AM BARRISTER SAMUEL BASSEY, LAWYER TO THE ABACHA’S FAMILY. YOU MIGHT

HAVE HEARD A LOT OF THE CHANGES THAT IS CURRENTLY TAKING PLACE IN

NIGERIA SINCE THE DEMISE OF MY CLIENT, THE LATE HEAD OF STATE, GENERAL SANI

ABACHA.

And so forth….By now, you would think there would be no money left to embezzle from Nigeria. More dividend taxes stuff today, really.

AB

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And on Ted Barlow, I caught this gem regarding the Presden’t recent speech in Georgia, which I mentioned here. Barlow refers to a Newsday story that leads with

There was only one problem with President George W. Bush’s claim Thursday that the nation’s top economists forecast substantial economic growth if Congress passed the president’s tax cut: The forecast with that conclusion doesn’t exist.

AB

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This AP story is somewhat amusing. Bush uses the press quite masterfully, but he really (1) doesn’t seem willing to answer unscripted questions (based on the paucity of press conferences) and (2) doesn’t want to be seen answering unscripted questions, as this quote illustrates:

White House officials promised a wide-ranging exchange, and as Monday’s meeting began Bush repeatedly said he wanted to work with the governors. As the meeting ended, he [President Bush] asked “Questions?” and then stopped as reporters were still filing out of the room before the meeting began. “Not yet, get the press out.”

Historically, the press does stay for the Goivernors’ Q&A with the president. In this case, the governors’ questions were not even unscripted:

Kempthorne, vice chairman of the National Governors Association, said he was confident the meeting would be open and constructive. He said he was asked to give the administration his question beforehand “so no one’s caught flatfooted.”

Just curious, but who is “no one”? How could anyone in the room other than the person answering, or attempting to answer, questions be caught flat-footed? In this case, the President’s strategists likely feared tough questions from governors facing massive budget shortfalls and, given the federal deficits, little prospect of a federal bailout (Federal bailouts may be a bad idea–why should any state ever balance it’s budget if the federal government will bail them out? But I digress). Bush gets positive coverage from the press, not just the op-ed pages, but in news pages. The New York Times’ Frank Bruni stands out as one of the more sycophantic, but in every story, the tone and tenor just feel positive as I read them. That’s subjective and you may disagree, but certainly it’s hard to argue that the press is hard on Bush. The point is that Bush gets good press while holding almost no press conference and while sending Ari Fleischer out for exchanges like this (I saw this on Alas A Blog):

Mokhiber: You said last week that, “Every step will be taken to protect civilian and innocent life in Iraq.” But Pentagon officials have said that under a battle plan called ‘shock and awe,’ “there will not be a safe place in Baghdad when we attack.” Baghdad is a city the size of Paris, with five million residents. If there will not be a safe place in Baghdad when we attack, then how do you plan to protect every civilian life?

Ari Fleischer: First of all, I think that any construing of any statements that are made by anybody at the Pentagon to suggest that the Pentagon does not and will not take every step to protect innocent lives is an unfair representation of what the Pentagon would say. It’s well-known how the United States conducts itself in military affairs. We are very proud of the fact that any time force is reluctantly used, the force is applied to military targets and innocents are protected.

The exchange comes from “Ari & I, White House Press Briefing with Ari Fleischer” by Russell Mokhiber. Here’s one more:

Mokhiber: Ari, two questions. Why is the President appointing convicted criminals like Eliot Abrams to policy positions at the White House?

Ari Fleischer: Russell, you asked that question last week.

Mokhiber: I did not ask that question last week.

Fleischer: You asked it about somebody else. I dispute the premise of your question.

Mokhiber: I have a second question.

Fleischer: I dispute the premise of your second question (laughter.)

As you can see, it’s an amusing read, and Fleischer and Mokhiber seem to enjoy (at least in print) the sparring. But the substantive point of all of this is that Bush doesn’t interact directly with the press, and Ari Fleischer just doesn’t give straight answers, and the press (except Helen Thomas) doesn’t complain.

AB

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