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

U.S. Median Wealth Only 27th in the World

As I discussed last week, U.S. median wealth per adult is lower than many other countries. To be exact, it comes in at #27 for 2012, at $38,786 per adult. This is more than 1/4 lower than had been reported by Credit Suisse’s Global Wealth Databook for 2011. I contacted one of the authors, Professor James Davies of the University of Western Ontario, to find out the reason for the big change for the United States as well as the even bigger change for Denmark.

Professor Davies was kind enough to lay out the technical issues for me. First, of all, data for mean wealth is more reliable than median wealth. For rich countries like the United States, there is usually household balance sheet information which provides high-quality information on total wealth and, when combined with population data, wealth per adult.

Wealth distribution data is more difficult to estimate accurately, although it is known to be more unequally distributed than income for every country, as the 2012 Databook reports. The reason Denmark had such a sharp increase in its estimated median wealth is that its wealth distribution survey information was becomingly increasingly questionable, so the authors changed to a different estimation method that is not comparable with previous figures.

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“Technology Causes Inequality” Refuted

I’m getting to this a little late due to extensive travel (in South Africa now), but David Cay Johnston has a nice writeup of a recent paper on inequality based on the World Top Incomes Database. The paper, by Facundo Alvaredo et al., is important because it largely refutes the idea that technological change is the big reason for diverging incomes between skilled and unskilled workers. As Johnston writes:

That [sharply different levels of increased inequality] is significant because it means that new technologies and the ability of top talent to work on a global scale cannot explain the diverging fortunes of the top 1 percent and those below, since the Japanese have access to the same technologies and global markets as Americans. The answer must lie elsewhere. The authors point to government policy.

As the paper shows, the income share of the top 1% in the U.S. declined from a high of around 24% just before the Great Depression to a low of about 9% in the late 1970s. Since then, it has soared all the way back to about 23% just before the Great Recession, but falling back to 20% in 2010. Other English-speaking countries have had similar “U shaped” patterns, as the authors describe them (i.e., reaching Great Depression levels again), but the share of the 1% is much less in other countries. For example, in Australia, even though the 1% share is close to what it was in the 1920s, it is still only 10% of total income, compared to 20% in the U.S. This difference is part of the reason that median wealth is so much higher in Australia.

The paper gives examples of other countries where the 1% share is permanently below its 1920s level, such as Germany, Japan, France, and Sweden. In all four cases, that share is only about 10%. As Johnston emphasizes, these countries are all essentially equal to the U.S. technologically (remember back in the 1980s when so many people thought Japan was poised to eclipse the U.S. in technology?), so their substantially lower levels of inequality stand in direct contradiction to frequent economists’ claims that technology is the problem (Richard Freeman has a balanced analysis).

It is also important to point out, as Johnston does, that lower tax rates on the 1% have an impact on this. One suggestion the paper makes is that lower tax rates give CEOs and other top managers more incentive to bargain for higher income, so the effect even shows up in pre-tax income. Obviously, lower tax rates make post-tax income even more unequally distributed.

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“Libertarian Koch brothers have taken tens of millions in subsidies UPDATED

The Cato Institute, originally the Charles Koch Foundation, is one of the most influential libertarian think tanks in the country. With both Charles and David Koch on its board of directors, Cato has produced numerous studies on the evils of corporate subsidies (which it calls “corporate welfare“), dating back at least to the 1990s. Supposedly, Charles Koch himself (via Wikipedia) is opposed to “corporate welfare,” and plans to oppose it this year.

I guess I’ll believe it when I see it. As previously discussed in Dirt Diggers Digest, Koch Industries has received many subsidies over the years, and I doubt this leopard will change its spots. In fact, the full tally of giveaways they have received extends far beyond the article linked above.

The calculation below relies on Good Jobs First’s Subsidy Tracker database and the New York Times subsidy award database (not the program database). While 98% of the entries in the Times database come from Good Jobs First, reporter Louise Story took the first big step toward aggregating by standardizing company names. However, this still does not connect parent and subsidiary companies, so I carried out this step for the Kochs by using the Wikipedia entry for Koch Industries. With a quarter of a million entries and counting in Subsidy Tracker, I cannot imagine how long this would take if I had to do it for every company.

Here are the subsidies I was able to identify for Koch companies.

Flagship Koch Industries has taken over $16.5 million in subsidies from 11 different awards, none of which are sales tax breaks (which generally are not subsidies).

Subsidiary Georgia Pacific has received 72 subsidies worth over $43.9 million (none of these were sales tax breaks).

Subsidiary Flint Hills Resources LP has received subsidies from Iowa, Kansas, Texas, and Michigan, according to the Good Jobs First Subsidy Tracker; the New York Times subsidy database, which omits Michigan but includes one more Iowa subsidy, puts the value of the Iowa and Kansas subsidies alone at just over $12.5 million (again, none of which were sales tax breaks).

Subsidiary INVISTA has received $217,504 in training grants from South Carolina, according to Subsidy Tracker. Several other subsidies appear to be connected to this subsidiary, but none have available subsidy amounts. Again, none were sales tax breaks.

To summarize:

Koch Industries: $16.5 million

Georgia Pacific: $43.9 million

Flint Hills: $12.5 million

INVISTA: $0.2 million

Total subsidies to the Koch brothers:$73.1 million

Remember, this is the minimum value of the Koch brothers’ subsidies. Some of the entries had no dollar figures available, and there is always the possibility that some incentives were missed entirely or that the awards above were only a part of a subsidy package, not the entire value. In particular, local subsidies are not well covered in either database; the same is true for my national estimates. The  data just isn’t widely available.

Meanwhile, Koch Industries is going to be the largest investor in the Big River Steel project in Osceola, Arkansas, which is expected to cost the state $132 million in incentives.

Like I said, when it comes to the Kochs fighting subsidies, I’ll believe it when I see it.

UPDATE: Yasha Levine tweeted me to let me know about two stories he did at Exiled Online in 2010 and 2011. While I focus above on state and local subsidies, Levine’s stories focus on federal and foreign subsidies received by Koch companies. The biggest takeaway is that the federal subsidies, especially the ethanol subsidy, dwarf what the Kochs have received at the state and local level, with the ethanol subsidy alone worth perhaps $1 billion a year. The mind boggles.

Check out Levine’s stories for the gory details. Thanks, Yasha!

Cross-posted from Middle Class Political Economist.

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Mississippi sets a record for unreported subsidies

As I have written before, when states announce a major new investment, it is far more likely that the announced subsidy is an underestimate than an overestimate. A new Good Jobs First study commissioned by the United Auto Workers unearths a new example of this, which I believe is the largest underestimate ever: Nissan in Mississippi.

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Four easy fixes for corporate taxation

Everyone “knows” that the corporate income tax is a mess. Ask any company. They pay too much in corporate income tax, face rates higher than in any other OECD country, and are just following the law when they use tax havens to keep profits eternally deferred from taxation and to perform general sleight-of-hand.

 

Don’t believe a word of it. While some economists believe we shouldn’t tax corporations at all, the corporate income tax (CIT) is a necessary backstop to the personal income tax (PIT). With no CIT or a rate lower than the PIT, individuals have an incentive to incorporate their economic activities so they aren’t taxed on them, or are taxed less. Needless to say, this is something an average wage or salary worker would not have the ability to do. This is another area where we have one tax law for the 1%, and different rules for the rest of us.

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Unemployment hits new highs in Spain and France

As if there were not already abundant proof of the failure of austerity in the eurozone, the BBC reported yesterday that both Spain and France have hit new unemployment milestones.

In Spain, unemployment has jumped from February’s 26.3% to a first-quarter rate of 27.2% (implying an even higher figure for March). In March 2012, it was “only” 24.1% (see source in table below).

In France, there are now 3.2 million unemployed, more than at any time since the country began keeping records in 1996. Complete EU unemployment data for March should be released in early May.

For a fuller picture of the continuing deterioration of the situation in the European Union and the eurozone, the unemployment rates tell a stark story.

Date     Eurozone     Spain     Greece     Portugal     Ireland     UK     USA   EU-27

3/2012   10.8%         24.1%    21.7%     15.3%      14.5%    8.2%  8.2%   10.2%

2/2013   12.0%         26.3%    26.4%     17.5%      14.2%    7.7%  7.7%   10.9%

Note: Greece and UK figures are for January 2012 and December 2012, rather than March 2012 and February 2013

Sources: Eurostat, 2 May 2012, for March 2012; Eurostat, 2 April 2013, for February 2013; Bureau of Labor Statistics for U.S.

Moreover, it is important to note that despite drastic budget-slashing, in none of the EU countries did debt come under control, even for Ireland and the UK, which have managed some slight growth over the 11-month period. Using this handy BBC interactive tool, we can see that Spain’s debt/GDP ratio increased from 69.3% in 2011 to 84.2% in 2012 (Wait, that’s under 90%! What’s happening?), Greece declined from 170.3% to 156.9%, Portugal increased from 108.3% to 123.6%, Ireland increased from 106.4% to 117.6%, and the U.K. increased from 85.5% to 90%. In fact, just six short years earlier, Ireland had a debt/GDP ratio of just 24.6%. The Celtic Tiger, favorite of conservatives everywhere, has truly crashed and burned.

Given the Spanish and French figures, look for bad news for EU unemployment next week. Despite the continuing austerity fail, Republicans and some Democrats continue to push for deficit cutting here, and will maintain a steady drumbeat. But, like Reinhart and Rogoff, they all deserve the Colbert treatment.

Cross-posted from Middle Class Political Economist.

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German tax enforcement paying dividends

I have long advocated that the United States should follow Germany’s example of aggressive pursuit of tax evasion, in particular its practice of paying informants for account information from secrecy destinations like Liechtenstein and Switzerland. The German Parliament’s upper house (Bundesrat) rejected a deal in November that Prime Minister Angela Merkel was willing to sign with Switzerland that would have allowed German account holders to pay tax anonymously. (As I reported on April 12, automatic exchange of information is rapidly becoming the standard to which even Luxembourg will adhere, so Switzerland will come under great pressure to do the same, thus ending bank secrecy.)

Now, Naomi Fowler of Tax Justice Network points me to new enforcement actions based on leaked account information. Last week the southwest German state of Rhineland-Palatinate conducted searches of over 200 homes in connection with alleged tax evasion. The raids were based on a CD with data on thousands of German citizens with Swiss bank accounts, for which the state had paid an informant 4 million euros ($5.2 million). However, tax authorities estimated that they would have an over 100-fold return on this investment, expecting to collect 500 million euros ($654 million) as a result of the investigation.

Investigators in Rhineland-Palatinate stated that they were investigating Credit Suisse and its German subsidiaries for assisting in tax evasion as a result of data on the CD. This comes on top of a 2011 settlement by the bank to pay 150 million euros for facilitating German tax evasion.

How often do governments get a 100-fold return on investment? The U.S. routinely pays drug informants; it should be more aggressive in finding tax evasion informants.

Cross-posted at Middle Class Political Economist.

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Reinhart/Rogoff Shot Full of Holes Updated X3

This story has rapidly made the rounds in the blogosphere, and it is indeed a big deal. One of the most significant economics papers underlying the argument for why high government debt (especially over 90% of gross domestic product) is bad for growth was published in 2010 by Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, “Growth in a Time of Debt” (ungated version here).

The basic finding of this paper was that if debt exceeds 90% of GDP, then on average growth turns negative. But as Thomas Herndon, Michael Ash, and Robert Pollin report in a new paper (via Mike Konczal at Rortybomb), there are substantial errors including data omitted for no reason, a weighting formula that makes one year of negative growth by New Zealand equal to 19 years years of decent growth by the UK, and a simple error on their spreadsheet that excluded five countries from their analysis altogether (see Rortybomb for the screen shot).

The authors say that with these errors corrected, the average growth rate for 20 OECD countries from 1946 to 2009 with debt/GDP ratios over 90% is 2.2%, not the -0.1% found by Reinhart and Rogoff. This is a huge difference. We still have a negative correlation between debt/GDP and growth rate, but it is much smaller, as we can see from Figure 3 from their paper:

Debt/GDP Ratio     R/R Results     Corrected Results
Under 30%            4.1%               4.2%

30-60%                 2.8%               3.1%

60-90%                 2.8%               3.2%

Over 90%             -0.1%               2.2%

As Paul Krugman (link above) argues, what we are likely seeing is reverse causation: slow growth leads to high debt/GDP ratios. That is certainly what EU countries are finding as they implement austerity measures and slip back into recession. But even if high debt/GDP did cause slower growth, we can see it is nowhere near the crash that Reinhart and Rogoff’s paper made it out to be.

The bottom line here is simple: the focus on deficits and debt that have dominated our political discourse is completely misplaced. We need to do something about the unemployment crisis by increasing growth, something that is even truer in the European Union where the unemployment rate in Spain and Greece exceeds 26%.

Update: Reinhart and Rogoff have responded in the Wall Street Journal. They emphasize that there is still a negative correlation, and that having debt/GDP above 90% for five years or more reduces growth by 1.2 percentage points in developed countries, which is still substantial for developed economies.

Update 2: Paul Krugman’s response to Reinhart and Rogoff is here.  He pronounces it very disappointing, saying they are “evading the critique.”

Update 3:  Reinhart and Rogoff have a new response in the Financial Times (registration required). Here, they admit they committed the Excel error, but claim there was nothing nefarious in their disputed data choices:

The ‘gaps’ are explained by the fact there were still gaps in our public debt data set at the time of the paper. Our approach has been followed in many other settings where one does not want to overly weight a small number of countries that may have their own peculiarities.

This is a very odd response from two authors who equated one year of New Zealand to 19 years of the far larger UK economy. Worse still when you add the fact that by excluding several years when New Zealand had a debt/GDP ratio over 90%, they got an “average” (actually only one year) growth rate of -7.6%, when the correct average, with all relevant years over 90% included, was 2.58%, a 10.18 point swing!

It’s obvious that the austerity crowd is still going to defend this paper, but that doesn’t mean anyone else should be taken in by them.
Cross-posted from Middle Class Political Economist.

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How high does senior poverty have to go?

It’s official: President Obama has proposed cutting Social Security by replacing the program’s current inflation adjustment with the stingier “chained” Consumer Price Index. As I’ve discussed before, this risks undoing all the progress made against senior poverty since the passage of Medicare and Medicaid in 1965. 25% of seniors were poor according to official poverty line in 1968, compared to just 9.4% in 2006. Note, however, that the Supplemental Poverty Measure, which includes things like out of pocket health care expenses which hit seniors disproportionately, already shows a 16.1% rate by 2009. And our senior poverty rate, measured by the international standard of 50% of median income, is already 25%, much higher than most developed countries, more than three times Sweden’s rate and over four times as high as Canada.

Why is Obama doing this? We just rejected the candidate who wanted to cut Social Security and Medicare. Perhaps, as Krugman (link above) suggests, he chasing the fantasy of “being the adult in the room,” but this is a losing proposition. As Brian Beutler points out:

Just like that, Chained CPI morphs from a thing President Obama is willing to offer Republicans into a thing Republicans dismiss as a “shocking attack on seniors.”

We’ve seen this game before. The Heritage Foundation’s health care plan became “death panels” when President Obama endorsed it.  And, as Beutler’s title makes clear, we have plenty of examples of the President negotiating with himself to bad effect, most notably in the 2011 debt ceiling battle.

If this cut really happens, Social Security benefits will steadily fall in true inflation-adjusted terms due to the magic of compounding. Moreover, with 49% of the workforce having no retirement plan at work and another 31% with only a grossly inadequate 401(k), the cuts will worsen the coming retirement crisis. The only question will then be: how high will senior poverty have to go before we do something about it?

Cross-posted from Middle Class Political Economist.

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Trans Pacific Partnership Bad for the Middle Class, but How Bad? UPDATED

What you don’t know can hurt you. I think that’s a clear lesson of some so-called trade agreements the United States has signed over the last 20 years, and illustrated further by the few that have been defeated, most notably the Multilateral Agreement on Investment, negotiated by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development from1995 to 1998, but then abandoned in the face of ever growing protests.

Haven’t heard of the Trans Pacific Partnership? That’s no surprise: while the negotiations are not really being conducted in secret (the Office of the US Trade Representative provides periodic updates here), the level of disclosure from the USTR office rarely ventures beyond bland statements like this:

On November 12, 2011, the Leaders of the nine Trans-Pacific Partnership Countries – Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam, and the United States – announced the achievement of the broad outlines of an ambitious, 21st-century Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement that will enhance trade and investment among the TPP partner countries, promote innovation, economic growth, and development, and support the creation and retention of jobs.

The USTR website continues by claiming that the agreement will be “increasing American exports, supporting American jobs.” This is all too similar to the Clinton administration’s reporting on NAFTA, which would point out all the gains from increased exports while omitting any mention of increased imports (Journal of Commerce, Nov. 18, 1994, via Nexis, subscription required) which quickly turned a small trade surplus with Mexico into a huge trade deficit. Recent evidence suggests this may already be happening with Korea (thanks to Daniel Becker in private correspondence).

How do we evaluate the TPP? We have to see it as having at least three major elements: a trade agreement, an investment agreement, and an intellectual property agreement.

From the trade agreement alone, we can conclude that it is a bad deal for the middle class. As I explained last year, the Stolper-Samuelson Theorem in economics tells us that more trade is actually bad for labor in this country, because by global standards, the U.S. is labor-scarce (low population density), meaning that we expect trade to lead to more intense competition in labor-intensive goods, putting downward pressure on wages. Alas, that isn’t the end of it.

There is a lot of controversy about the investment side of the agreement. As discussed here by Daniel Becker, the investment chapter was leaked and published by the Citizens Trade Campaign. Before I discuss the TPP investment provisions, a little context on investment agreements first.

According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD),at the end of 2011 there were 3190 international investment agreements, of which 2860 were between two countries, usually known as bilateral investment treaties or BITs. Investment agreements can also be part of larger agreements, such as the investment chapter of NAFTA, the WTO’s Agreement on Trade-Related Investment Measures (TRIMS), and various regional trade agreements. Since the TRIMS agreement, in force since 1995, applies to all WTO members, it is a global benchmark; thus, people will refer to agreements with stronger provisions as “TRIMS+.”

The purpose of investment agreements is to protect foreign investors, which are by definition multinational corporations (MNCs). At the same time, they place no corresponding duties on investors, only on the host government. Most significantly, these agreements remove dispute settlement from the host country’s court system to binding arbitration in an outside body, most commonly the World Bank’s International Center for the Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID). As with domestic arbitration clauses, this removal from the courts favors the business interests involved. So the investment agreement element of the TPP will tend to be bad for host governments (the U.S. is host to more foreign investment than any other potential TPP country) and by extension the middle class.

But “how bad” is the question. This depends on what restrictions the agreement puts on governments. Originally, MNCs wanted to be protected against having their property nationalized (“expropriated”) by the host, but more recent agreements such as NAFTA’s investment chapter (Chapter 11; text here) have opened the way to defining “expropriation” in ways that include regulatory actions that may reduce the value of the investment, even if they are non-discriminatory among firms and taken in the public interest. This is why I say above that investment agreements are bad for the middle class, because it normally benefits from public interest regulation.

For these reasons, there is in fact significant pushback regarding the content of investment agreements. Three good sources for this are UNCTAD, the Vale Columbia Center on Sustainable International Investment, and the International Institute for Sustainable Development.

So what’s in the TPP investment chapter? As far as I can tell, nothing that isn’t already in NAFTA, other U.S. free trade agreements, or a U.S. bilateral investment treaty. The problem is, that’s bad enough. Under NAFTA, for example, Metalclad won a dispute against Mexico over a local government’s refusal to grant it a permit to open a hazardous waste facility, and was awarded $16.7 million. Ethyl Corporation successfully challenged a Canadian ban on the import of gasoline additive MMT, leading Canada to withdraw the ban and pay the company $13 million in compensation. To have unelected bodies that (in the words of Citizens Trade Campaign) “would not meet standards of transparency, consistency or due process common to TPP countries’ domestic legal systems” overturning democratically adopted laws or regulations is profoundly undemocratic.

At the same time, I think Becker reads a little too much into some of the language. He quotes section 12-6bis (Becker’s emphasis):

Notwithstanding Article 12.9.5(b) (Non-Conforming Measures, subsidies and grants carveout), each Party shall accord to investors of another Party, and to covered investments, non-discriminatory treatment with respect to measures it adopts or maintains relating to losses suffered by investments in its territory owing to armed conflict or civil strife.

 He goes on to speculate that this could give rise to compensation claims due to interpreting protests against the Keystone pipeline, or even strikes, as “civil strife.” However, the exact same language is in NAFTA’s investment chapter, and there have been no such claims in its entire history. Moreover, this is what we would expect since the language only pertains to government behavior (“it adopts”), not private behavior.

So, that’s two strikes against the agreement. The third strike is intellectual property, something Matt Yglesias caught over a year ago. As I analyzed then, the TPP “would ban government health services from negotiating prices with pharmaceutical companies.” Given that many countries already do this and the U.S. ought to do it to help rein in health costs, if these provisions stay in the final agreement it will be a very bad development.

Hooray for baseball season, but that’s three strikes against the TPP. This is a bad deal that will put further downward pressure on real wages which have gone 40 years since reaching their peak, that will undermine governments’ ability to regulate, and will strengthen a small group of pharmaceutical, software, entertainment, and publishing companies at the expense of the rest of us.

Update: Citizens Trade Campaign reports that  the U.S. has listed numerous target policies among its TPP negotiating partners, including everything from health care policies in New Zealand to Malaysia’s ban on imports of pork and alcohol, both of which are forbidden to the Muslims who make up the majority of the population.

Original article cross-posted at Middle Class Political Economist.

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