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

A Different Look at GDP and Inflation

At Illusion of Prosperity, Stagflationary Mark posted this scatter-graph of quarterly GDP YoY growth and CPI data from Q1, 1948 through Q4, 2011.  Each point represents the differences from the medians of each data set for each of the variables, respectively.  This gives you a picture of time spent above and below what might be considered normal performance.

I wondered how this would look if each point were identified by presidential administration, and if this would suggest any particular narrative.  So I redid the graph, data from FRED, using mean instead of median as the determinant.  It is presented here as Graph 1, with each data point (256 total) color-coded by presidential party; red for Republicans, blue for Democrats.  The calendar quarter of each president’s inauguration is allotted to the previous administration.

I’ve labeled the quadrants as follows, and indicated the frequency of data points populating each quadrant.

Here are the Mean and Standard Deviation values.


Graph 1  CPI and GDP, data from FRED

The GDP data has something close to a normal distribution, with approximate symmetry around the mean. The CPI data does not. For CPI, the highest frequency is 2 percentage points below the mean, and there is a long tail on the high side, so the distribution looks more like a Poisson type.

I’ve broken out presidential administrations, 3 or 4 to a graph, to avoid excessive clutter.  Graph 2 shows the administrations of Truman (light blue), Eisenhower (red), and Kennedy-Johnson (dark blue.)

Graph 2  CPI and GDP, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy-Johnson

Results during the Truman administration were erratic, with both inflation and deflation occurring, and GDP growth widely variable as the nation made post WW II adjustments, and several million G.I.’s reentered the work force.  Ike was an inflation hawk, and one of only two presidents to achieve below average inflation in every quarter of his administration.  (Take your guess now as to who the other might be.  All will be revealed in due time.)  Still, the road was bumpy, with GDP growth highly variable, and two rather severe recessions during his term.  The Kennedy-Johnson administration enjoyed superior economic performance and relatively low inflation, with only 6 quarters of below average GDP growth, and only five quarters of above average inflation during the entire 8 years.  This was one of only two administrations to avoid recession for an entire 8-year term.

Graph 3 shows the Nixon-Ford (orange), Carter (blue), and Reagan (red) administrations.

Graph 3  CPI and GDP, Nixon-Ford, Carter, Reagan

Here we find three increasingly extreme excursions into stagflationary territory, two under Nixon-Ford (remember Whip Inflation Now buttons?) and one under Carter. The first and mildest was in 1970, the second in 1974-5, and the last, in 1979-80 probably played a part in holding Carter to a single term.  Inflation far above average plagued both of those administrations.  Each spent time above and below average in GDP growth with term averages very close to the grand average.  However, Carter’s last two years were consistently below average, and coupled with high inflation, earning him his moribund reputation.  Early in Reagan’s first term, Volker finished slaying the inflation dragon.  But the cost was high in terms of depressed GDP growth, and during that time Reagan was extremely unpopular.  But, as the economy recovered, so did his reputation, and he is now remembered, for good or for ill, as one of America’s most beloved presidents.  The remainder of his presidency resided along at least one of the two average lines, including four consecutive quarters of exceptional GDP growth coupled with only slightly above average inflation, spanning 1983-4.

Graph 4 shows the Bush Sr. (orange), Clinton (light blue), Bush Jr.(red), and Obama (dark blue) administrations.

Graph 4  CPI and GDP, Bush Sr., Clinton, Bush Jr., Obama

During the Bush Sr. administration, 11 of 16 quarters had below average GDP growth, 10 quarters had above average inflation, 8 of these quarters had both.  Clinton’s term began and ended with below average GDP growth, but during his 8 years here were only 9 below average quarters.  Four of them occurred in sequence from Q2, 1995 to Q1, 1996, but the remainder of 1996 was quite strong, and Clinton was granted a second term. Clinton was both the other president who avoided having even a single quarter of above average inflation, and the other president who avoided having a recession during an entire 8-year term.  During the 8-year term of Bush Jr. there were only 4 quarters of only slightly above average GDP growth, occurring from 2003 to 2005.  There were 7 quarters of above average inflation, 3 of them just barely so in 2005-6, and the other 4 in 2007-8, just prior to the economic collapse.  The remainder of his term was in the mild doldrums region.  The collapse ushered in the Obama administration.  Within his first year, the economy was back into the mild doldrums area that has so far been typical of the current century. 

Here is one more graph, showing how each administration performed, as an average over its entire term.  Starting with Truman, the yellow line leads us to each successive administration, up to Obama.

Obama’s position suffers from the recession he inherited.  Whether he gets reelected or not, his average will move up each remaining quarter of his presidency.  If he gets a second term, we can expect more of the doldrums we have experienced over the last two years.

This clearly belies the Romney claim that Obama’s economic policies have failed.  His policies have moved us from near-depression to mere mediocrity.  That counts as some sort of success.

So, here is my narrative.  First off, one can argue that the president does not directly determine the economic fate of the country, and that is partly true.  The other part is that the president sets the policy and the tone, and that both of these things matter.

–  The only presidents to have achieved term averages in the prosperity quadrant were Democrats.
–  The only Republican to achieve above average real GDP growth was Reagan, and that was only by an increment.
–  The only president since Reagan to achieve higher GDP growth than his predecessor was Clinton, other than that, it’s been a downward spiral.
–   Carter had below average GDP growth by a slight margin, but he beat every Republican other than Reagan, and he didn’t trail him by much.
– The last 44 years have been characterized by secular decreases in both CPI inflation and GDP growth.
– They have also been characterized by Republican presidencies 64% of the time, decreasing regulation, lowered tax rates, safety net erosion, loss of labor union strength and participation, and the systematic undoing of of New Deal policies.

What I conclude is that New Deal (dare I say Keynesian?) policies were successful in generating real prosperity, and free market policies have been far less successful.  Over time, Reaganomic trickle-down, free market policies have given us first, the Great Stagnation, and ultimately the worst economic crisis in 80 years.  These policies were, by no coincidence at all, quite similar to those in effect when the Great Depression of the 30’s happened – and also all the other earlier depressions that are no longer very prominent in people’s memories.

As I said, policy matters – and it matters profoundly.

With that in mind, here is my question to the Fed:  Since the average of CPI inflation since WW II is 3.7%, and there is ample evidence that we can have very reasonable economic performance with inflation in that range, why have you set an inflation target that is effectively half of that level, while ignoring high unemployment –  the other half of your alleged dual mandate?

Of course, I’m being rhetorical.  It’s because they are bankers, and inflation favors creditors borrowers, not lenders.  The fact is they don’t care one whit about unemployment.


It matters.

Cross-posted at Retirement Blues.

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Whiny Apple Pioneered Avoidance Strategies, Books Fictional Tax Rates

by Kenneth Thomas

Whiny Apple Pioneered Avoidance Strategies, Books Fictional Tax Rates

If you haven’t yet seen The New York Times article on Apple, go read it. I’ll wait. It’s a blockbuster.
As I wrote last month, Apple whines about the fact that it has to pay taxes. But of course, it does much more than whine. It sets up subsidiaries in tax haven states like Nevada to avoid U.S. state taxes, and establishes foreign tax haven subsidiaries in order to avoid U.S. and other government’s taxes. Then, through the magic of transfer pricing, profits made in high-tax jurisdictions becomes taxable only in Nevada, Ireland, Luxembourg, etc. The Times reports estimates by Martin Sullivan that this saves Apple $2.4 billion a year in U.S. federal taxes alone, not to mention what it save in U.S. states or foreign countries. This is a conservative estimate, based on only 50% of its profits being due to U.S. operations. A more realistic 70% allocation of profits to the U.S. would mean that Apple’s federal tax bill would be $4.8 billion higher, according to Sullivan.

Based on extensive interviews with former Apple executives as well as accountants for other firms, Charles Duhigg and David Kocieniewski show that not only does the company practice extensive legal avoidance of its taxes, but that the firm pioneered several of the most important tax avoidance techniques out there:

Apple, for instance, was among the first tech companies to designate overseas salespeople in high-tax countries in a manner that allowed them to sell on behalf of low-tax subsidiaries on other continents, sidestepping income taxes, according to former executives. Apple was a pioneer of an accounting technique known as the “Double Irish With a Dutch Sandwich,” which reduces taxes by routing profits through Irish subsidiaries and the Netherlands and then to the Caribbean. Today, that tactic is used by hundreds of other corporations — some of which directly imitated Apple’s methods, say accountants at those companies.

Not only that: Apple paid, according to The Times article, $3.3 billion in “cash taxes” on its $34.2 billion of worldwide profits, for a 9.8% tax rate, as opposed to the $8.3 billion the company’s 10-K report said it paid. As the article notes:

“The information on 10-Ks is fiction for most companies,” said Kimberly Clausing, an economist at Reed College who specializes in multinational taxation. “But for tech companies it goes from fiction to farcical.”

Some commenters on my article last month actually cited these 10-K figures as proof that nothing was amiss at Apple. As it turns out, the company’s reporting has other major gaps. Its 2011 10-K Annual Report states that it has only two “significant” foreign subsidiaries, both based in Ireland. Apparently its Luxembourg subsidiary — with over $1 billion in 2011 sales, according to The Times — is not significant. Nor are its subsidiaries in the Netherlands and the British Virgin Islands, despite their importance in keeping Apple’s worldwide taxes low. Because Apple only deems its Irish subsidiaries “significant” and does not report on any others’ existence, the Government Accountability Office report of 2008 on tax haven subsidiaries was misled into saying that the company had only one such subsidiary. We can only wonder how many other tax haven subsidiaries are omitted from companies’ SEC filings.
Here’s the kicker: Even “cash taxes” is not a figure that accurately represents a given year’s tax payments, according to The Times.

As Richard Murphy points out, while Apple’s tax strategy is no doubt all legal (“perfectly legal,” as in the title of David Cay Johnston’s great book), “It’s also profoundly unethical.” Apple largely rejects its duty to help pay for living in a civilized society, even as state (like its home of California) and national governments flounder with debt. Its behavior forces one or more of three outcomes, as I have written many times before: shifting the tax burden to others, more government debt, or program cutbacks. Apple’s behavior shows that it’s clearly okay with that.

The solution starts with Murphy’s innovative “country-by-country” reporting, which does not require the tax havens to cooperate because all the information would be supplied by the company. Then, as I noted in November, we need worldwide unitary taxation to strip out the artificiality of companies’ allocation of assets and profits. We could treat Apple’s (and Microsoft’s, and…) “ownership” of patents in Ireland as the fiction it is, and force these companies to pay their fair share of taxes.

crossposyed with  Middle Class Political Economist

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Florida’s new voter-identification law leaves me … speechless.*

The new Florida [voter-identification] law requires that voter registration drives be conducted by third-party groups that are certified by the state and requires the groups to account for all forms that are checked out from the election division. Those rules are the centerpiece of a training effort this weekend by the Obama for America staff in the state.

— “Obama Campaign Confronts Voter ID Laws,” Michael D. Shear, New York Times, today

Wow.  Is it just me, or is it hard for you, too, to imagine a clearer violation of the First Amendment? I’d never heard of this law before, and I don’t know how long ago it was passed and what stage the court challenge to it is at, but …. yikes.


*POSTSCRIPT: Just imagine how quickly the Supreme Court would strike down as a First Amendment violation a similar requirement pertaining to petition drives to get candidates’ names on the ballot or to get a voter initiative (e.g., of the sort that the rightwing is so fond of) on the ballot.

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The Beginning of the End of Corporate Gaming of the Bankruptcy Laws?

It will take a few more months of legal maneuvering before American finally throws in the towel and agrees to a US Airways merger. American executives and directors will no doubt have to be bought off with golden parachutes, while trade creditors such as Hewlett-Packard and Boeing will likely be brought on board with promises of future contracts. That’s how things work in the bankruptcy racket. And all of it will be negotiated behind closed doors by legions of bankruptcy lawyers whose $1,000-an-hour fees make those $250-an-hour pilots look like pikers.

For years now, Corporate America has viewed the bankruptcy court as a blunt instrument by which failed executives and directors can shift the burden of their mistakes onto shareholders, employees and suppliers. The auto industry bailout orchestrated by the Obama administration posed the first challenge to that assumption. Now the unions at American airlines have taken another step in curbing this flagrant corporate abuse and restoring the rule of law.

— “Two can play the airline bankruptcy game,” Steven Pearlstein, Washington Post, Apr. 28 (Boldface mine)

Enough said.  I think. Except for this: I’d love to see Obama mention this and explain it during the campaign, and not fear that it’s too complicated to be explained briefly. It’s not.

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Consumption inequality and income inequality

From the same post at Taxprofblog, a different study presents data and definitions on a related issue, but focused on income, which is a somewhat separate and overlapping conversation:

Orazio Attanasio (University College London, Department of Economics), Erik Hurst (University of Chicago, Booth School of Business) & Luigi Pistaferri (Stanford University, Department of Economics), The Evolution of Income, Consumption, and Leisure Inequality in the US, 1980-2010 (NBER):

Recent research has documented that income inequality in the United States has increased dramatically over the prior three decades. There has been less of a consensus, however, on whether the increase in income inequality was matched by an equally large increase in consumption inequality. Most researchers have studied this question using data from the Consumer Expenditure Survey (CE)


All of our different methods yield similar results. We find that consumption inequality within the U.S. between 1980 and 2010 has increased by nearly the same amount as income inequality

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Real Estate Insanity…working off the excess inventory?

by Tom aka Rusty Rustbelt Real Estate Insanity So my son and me are thinking about buying a duplex in Ohio and fixing it up this summer. He would live in half and we would rent the other side. Given the number of foreclosures this should be an easy deal, right? Wrong. The realtors tell me no one will finance the properties, not even the banks that own them. Why? It seems many of the banks did not get around to assigning “asset managers” for a year or two, which means the water pipes froze in the winter, burst in the spring and destroyed the interior of the properties. Even when asset managers were promptly assigned, many were incompetent and/or corrupt. So there are many thousands of properties with reasonable looking exteriors but with ruined interiors. Even with sweat equity labor the fix up costs will be very high. This will eventually be fixed with bulldozers.

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Do the 1% Work Harder Than the 99%?

Taxprofblog offers two studies on income and leisure that should spark some discussion.  I have split the two studies out to two posts at Angry Bear as they are somewhat different conversations:

Income Inequality and Leisure Inequality: Do the 1% Work Harder Than the 99%?

Wall Street Journal Wealth Report, Do the Wealthy Work Harder Than the Rest?, by Robert Frank:

A new study [below] offers evidence that higher-educated (and therefore higher-earning) Americans do indeed spend more time working and less time on leisure than poorer income groups. In fact, while income inequality may be growing, “leisure inequality” – time spent on enjoyment – is growing as a mirror image, with the low earners gaining leisure and the high earners losing.

The more surprising discovery, however, is a corresponding leisure gap has opened up between the highly-educated and less-educated. Low-educated men saw their leisure hours grow to 39.1 hours in 2003-2007, from 36.6 hours in 1985. Highly-educated men saw their leisure hours shrink to 33.2 hours from 34.4 hours. … A similar pattern emerged for women. Low-educated women saw their leisure time grow to 35.2 hours a week from 35 hours. High-educated women saw their leisure time decrease to 30.3 hours from 32.2 hours. … (The study defines leisure as time spend watching TV, socializing, playing games, talking on the phone, reading personal email, enjoying entertainment and hobbies and other activities.) …

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Bait and Switch: Is Pope Benedict Really Against Raising Taxes On the Wealthy to Help Balance Government Budgets?

(Reuters) – Invoking Pope Benedict, Republican Representative Paul Ryan defended his budget plan on Thursday at Georgetown University, where a group of the Jesuit institution’s faculty has accused him of misusing Catholic teachings to push cuts to programs that serve the poor.

“The overarching threat to our whole society today is the exploding federal debt,” Ryan said, speaking in a Gothic, oak-paneled auditorium on the Georgetown campus.

“The Holy Father, Pope Benedict, has charged that governments, communities, and individuals running up high debt levels are ‘living at the expense of future generations’ and ‘living in untruth.'”

— “Republican Ryan cites popeto defend budget cuts,” David Lawder, Reuters, Apr. 26

The overarching threat to our whole society today is the exploding federal debt?  Well, maybe. But this is an argument against raising revenues by raising taxes on the wealthy?  Or, for that matter, on anyone?
What’s most angering is this deliberately disorienting, gimmicky refusal by these pols—Ryan and Romney, in particular—to acknowledge that raising revenue through taxes reduces the government’s budget deficit and debt; that lowered tax rates in the last 11 years have significantly increased budget deficits and the debt (and that that also happened in the 1980s); that budget deficits and the national debt decreased during the 1990s after tax rates were raised during the G.H.W. Bush administration; and that Ryan’s and Romney’s tax-reduction plans would, according to (apparently) all projections except their own, substantially increase the national debt. 
It’s one thing to argue for a substantial reduction or elimination of the national debt, but quite another to pretend that raising tax revenues isn’t one possible way to help do that.  
These people do make Ayn Rand philosophical arguments to support their policy proposals, but the claim that the pope “has charged that governments, communities, and individuals running up high debt levels are ‘living at the expense of future generations’ and ‘living in untruth,’” is a non sequitur to the question of how we reduce the national debt.  

It appears, though, that this particular bait-and-switch—Ryan’s claim that the pope supports his budget proposals because the pope has expressed concern about high debt levels of governments, communities and individuals—is causing outright revulsion among both mainstream media pundits and the general public once they hear about it.  The pope as Ryan’s budget guide?  Really?  Comments posted to an article about it yesterday on Slate, titled “Paul Ryan Cites Pope In Defense of Budget Plan,” almost universally express disgust and dismay at Ryan’s claim.  The pope as Ryan’s budget guide?  

The beauty of Ryan’s statement is that it helpfully highlights that, Romney’s insistence to the contrary, this election is not about the present and future economy—will cutting taxes for the wealthy by 20% and eliminating the EPA and banking regulations really spur the economy and lower the national debt?—but instead about the very structure and purpose ofgovernment itself.  And because Ryan has now invoked the pope as supposed political supporter of Ryan’s budget, the real Republican intent will likely gain widespread attention.

Halleluiah.  And praise the pope.

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Ayn Rand v. Thomas Aquinas in Paul Ryan’s Mind

by Mike Kimel

Ayn Rand v. Thomas Aquinas in Paul Ryan’s Mind

Think Progress piece on Paul Ryan.

Think Progress has a post noting that though Paul Ryan used to go around telling people he got into politics because of Ayn Rand, and he required all his aides to read Atlas Shrugged, now he tells the National Review:

“I reject her philosophy,” Ryan says firmly. “It’s an atheist philosophy. It reduces human interactions down to mere contracts and it is antithetical to my worldview. If somebody is going to try to paste a person’s view on epistemology to me, then give me Thomas Aquinas,” who believed that man needs divine help in the pursuit of knowledge. “Don’t give me Ayn Rand,” he says.

I’d be inclined to believe him if he started handing out copies of the Summa Theologica (in the original Latin, of course) to his aides and requiring them to read them as he did with Atlas Shrugs. But seriously, Aquinas? On the plus side, what he wrote is free today. (Here’s the Summa Theologica, considered his greatest work, in English.) I’ll be honest – I tried to stumble through the Summa Theologica in my youth, but with no success. That said, I don’t I’d pay to hear Ryan explain Aquinas’s work (provided it was a truthful and honest explanation) and how he plans to implement it to the American public. I’d especially love to hear him explain this to the banking community:

Consequently, just as it is a sin against justice, to take money, by tacit or express agreement, in return for lending money or anything else that is consumed by being used, so also is it a like sin, by tacit or express agreement to receive anything whose price can be measured by money. Yet there would be no sin in receiving something of the kind, not as exacting it, nor yet as though it were due on account of some agreement tacit or expressed, but as a gratuity: since, even before lending the money, one could accept a gratuity, nor is one in a worse condition through lending. On the other hand it is lawful to exact compensation for a loan, in respect of such things as are not appreciated by a measure of money, for instance, benevolence, and love for the lender, and so forth.

Of course, if Bank of America did start making loans simply out of benevolence or to encourage love for the lender, perhaps they’d make a lot fewer loans of the type that later require the benevolence of the Treasury and the Fed to bail them out.

Here’s more from the Summa Theologica

Things which are of human right cannot derogate from natural right or Divine right. Now according to the natural order established by Divine Providence, inferior things are ordained for the purpose of succoring man’s needs by their means. Wherefore the division and appropriation of things which are based on human law, do not preclude the fact that man’s needs have to be remedied by means of these very things. Hence whatever certain people have in superabundance is due, by natural law, to the purpose of succoring the poor. For this reason Ambrose [Loc. cit., 2, Objection 3] says, and his words are embodied in the Decretals (Dist. xlvii, can. Sicut ii): “It is the hungry man’s bread that you withhold, the naked man’s cloak that you store away, the money that you bury in the earth is the price of the poor man’s ransom and freedom.” Since, however, there are many who are in need, while it is impossible for all to be succored by means of the same thing, each one is entrusted with the stewardship of his own things, so that out of them he may come to the aid of those who are in need. Nevertheless, if the need be so manifest and urgent, that it is evident that the present need must be remedied by whatever means be at hand (for instance when a person is in some imminent danger, and there is no other possible remedy), then it is lawful for a man to succor his own need by means of another’s property, by taking it either openly or secretly: nor is this properly speaking theft or robbery.

Like I said, I’d love to hear Ryan explain this stuff to the American public. But somehow I don’t think this is what Ryan had in mind when he says “give me Thomas Aquinas.” I’d be willing to bet he read less of Aquinas than I did. Hat tips to both Paul Krugman and TBogg (great minds think alike?).

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Cross-conflicting regulations health facility edition

by Tom aka Rusty Rustbelt

Health care thoughts: Cross-conflicting regulations health facility edition

The most recent regulatory question I had trouble answering. The situation is as follows (the state will remain nameless):

State nursing home inspectors: certain antibiotics cannot be administered for certain conditions without a three day lab culture being done first; if the nursing home administers certain antibiotics without the three day culture the facility, administrator and nurses are subject to citations and penalties.

State physician licensing board: physicians can order the administration of medications including antibiotics within the standards of practice, failure to do so may be considered malpractice State nurse licensing board: a nurse is to follow the orders of a licensed physician (or PA or NP supervised by a licensed physician) unless the orders fall outside the standards of practice or treatment is contraindicated (medication conflict for example); failure to do so may be subject to disciplinary proceedings

State nursing home inspectors: failure to follow physician orders makes the facility, administrator and nurses subject to citations and penalties, and possible referral to various licensing boards Office of the Inspector General: treatments which violate state or federal regulations (even unintentionally) may make the billing for such treatments an act of fraud.

So, a physician orders an antibiotic for a patient to be started immediately, in violation of the three day rule…….. the correct answer is?

(We did get a solution, sorta, will share that later.)

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