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


I posted all I can say publicly at Skippy. And even that wouldn’t work at a family blog like this one.

The rest are jokes that I am told–undoubtedly correctly, but lapsed traders are difficult to retrain*–are “too soon.”

The Phantom Scribbler came out of her retirement (first post in more than eleven months), though, so you should Go Read Her.


As for the other Issue of the Day, I repeat what I said chez Duy (whose summary here is concise and informative):

If I told you just those three “Stylized Facts”:
1. Average of -0.1
2. Median of 1.0
3. Positive:Negative ratio is 5:2
would you (a) immediately start talking about the “clear lack of growth”? or (b) even more immediately say, “There must be an outlier in the data. What’s the kurtosis?
I don’t believe I know anyone who would do (a).

If I were teaching Econ 301 and someone presented R&R’s data–see the Konczal link above–and came to their conclusion, they would be lucky to be told to do the assignment over.

*What’s the difference between a bond and a bond trader?  A bond matures.

Wow. Seriously, Chris Cillizza and Sean Sullivan? Seriously??

Am I misunderstanding (certainly a possibility), or do the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza and Sean Sullivan write an entire article based on a really obviously ridiculous conflation of two separate concepts: what tax law is, and what tax law should be?

The article, titled “Mitt Romney was right (on taxes),” chastises the public for hypocrisy in believing, on the one hand, by wide poll margins, that people should do whatever they can to legally reduce their taxes as much as possible, yet on the other hand disapproving of politicians (especially wealthy ones) doing exactly that. These writers use two examples: the respective cases of Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, the latter who just released his newly-filed tax returns for last year showing that he and his wife paid federal income taxes at a rate of 18.4%.

About Romney, they write:

The two-time presidential candidate, whose considerable wealth made the release of his tax returns a focal point of the 2012 campaign, insisted that he paid what was required but no more.

“I pay all the taxes that are legally required and not a dollar more,” Romney said at a debate in January 2012 just prior to releasing his 2010 and 2011 returns. “I don’t think you want someone as the candidate for president who pays more taxes than he owes.”

Eighty-five percent of the American public should have agreed with Romney. But, of course, they didn’t. Romney was cast as trying to game the system for the benefit of he and his wealthy friends. In a February 2012 Washington Post-ABC News poll, two in three Americans said Romney did not pay his fair share of taxes (the public was split over the question in the fall). And a majority of voters in the 2012 exit poll said that Romney’s policies would generally favor the rich and he lost that portion of the vote overwhelmingly.

About Obama, they say, “The Drudge Report, a popular conservative-leaning aggregation site, quickly went with a banner expressing incredulity at the 18 percent rate. Conservatives on twitter were similarly disgruntled.”  As if it’s the general public rather than the far-right starve-the-beast crowd that’s shocked.  And as if it’s even clear that the Drudge Report writer’s incredulity is about Obama’s paying only the legally required amount rather than the lowness of the legally required amount.  The headline, which is not attached to a story, best as I can tell, but instead simply links to the Wall Street Journal news report about Obama’s tax return, reads, “Obama only pays tax rate of 18%?”

Well, yes.  That’s what Obama is actively trying to change: the lowness of the federal income taxes paid by the wealthy.

That much is obvious.  Obama campaigned on a promise to raise federal tax revenues obtained from the wealthy.  Romney campaigned on a promise to lower the tax revenues obtained from the wealthy, who are, y’know, jobs creators who took risks.  Risks!  Including, for many of them, such as Mitt and Ann Romney themselves and, especially, their sons, being born into a wealthy family.  Warren Buffett is not a politician, but it’s a safe bet that he paid no more income taxes than he owed under current tax law, even though he has been in the vanguard of high-profile people who openly plead with politicians to raise tax rates for the wealthy and also remove the outrageous loopholes available to them.

It’s also a safe bet–even safer than, say, betting on Berkshire Hathaway stock–that Warren Buffett has never had a retirement-savings account in a Cayman Islands bank that has between $20 million and $120 million (or the deflationary equivalent) in it, achieved almost certainly by stated initial gross devaluation of equities placed into the account.  And that he did not avail himself of the IRS’s 2009 tax amnesty program for people who were shielding income from the IRS in Swiss banks because he did shield income from the IRS in Swiss banks.  Romney likely did both, which probably is why he refused to release to the public tax documents that would dispel those inferences.  The only other reasonably possible motive for his failure to release those documents is that they would have highlighted the outrageousness of legal tax loopholes that Romney did not want to draw attention to–also a possibility, although, I suspect, not the actual, or at least not the predominant, one), but in any event not one that supports these journalists’ characterization of the public’s poll responses as hypocritical.

What’s really remarkable, in my opinion, is that at least one of these two Washington Post political writers, one of them very high-profile–and as a regular reader of their blog, The Fix, I suspect it is Cillizza, the high-profile one, rather than Sullivan–thinks that a poll question using the phrase “pay their fair share of taxes” references not preferred tax policy but instead actual, current tax policy. The poll question almost certainly was intended to reach, and was understood by the poll respondents to be asking, about the voter’s preferred tax law, not about how the voter thinks people should act, by choice, under current, existing tax law.  With the caveat, of course, that most people don’t think wealthy people such as the Romneys should violate tax law, as many, many people who followed the specifics of the Romney-tax-returns controversy last year did conclude.

There is, in other words, nothing even slightly hypocritical in believing that people are morally entitled to avail themselves of legal tax breaks but that tax law should be amended to remove some of those tax breaks, to raise tax rates on the wealthy, to tax investment income at the same or near-same rate as investment income, and to tax large estates.  Or to do at least some of these things.

The belief that the law in its current form does not exact payment of a fair share of tax revenues from the wealthy, and the belief that it’s fine for people to employ current tax law to lower their own taxes, irrespective of their views on what tax policy should be, are not contradictory. Unless, like one or both of these journalists, you think the phrase “fair share of taxes” means two distinct and contrary things at once.  But most people, I’m pretty sure, understand quite well what that phrase addresses.  And it’s only one of those two things, not both.


by Sandwichman  (re-posted with author’s permission):

In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, John Locke affirmed, “I do not question but that human knowledge, under the present circumstances of our beings and constitutions, may be carried much farther than it hitherto has been, if men would sincerely, and with freedom of mind, employ all that industry and labour of thought, in improving the means of discovering truth, which they do for the colouring or support of falsehood, to maintain a system, interest, or party, they are once engaged in.”

In Takings: Private Property and the Power of Eminent Domain, Richard Epstein, henceforth Professor Piestein, gave the quintessential demonstration of how to employ “all that industry and labour of thought… for the colouring or support of falsehood.” In his “philosophical preliminary” chapter, “A Tale of Two Pies” Professor Piestein purported to illustrate, with a drawing of two pies, a Lockean perspective on “how natural rights over labor and property can be preserved in form and enhanced in value by the exercise of political power.”

Here is what Professor Piestein’s pies looked like. Sandwichman coloured them in to make them prettier:

And here is what Professor Piestein wrote about his pies:

The larger pie indicates the gains that are possible from political organization. The outer ring represents the total social gains, while the dotted lines indicate the proportion of the gain received by each individual member. The implicit normative limit upon the use of political power is that it should preserve the relative entitlements among the members of the group, both in the formation of the social order and in its ongoing operation. All government action must he justified as moving a society from the smaller to the larger pie.

A couple of questions go unasked and, of course, unanswered by Professor Piestein.

Why should we assume that the unequal endowments are the consequence of natural rights rather than a backward projection of the inequalities imposed in political society by its rulers? Second, even if the unequal endowments had been present in nature, why should that make the more fortunate individuals entitled to a proportionately larger share of the social gains, since they are, after all, social gains? In The Natural and Artificial Rights of Property Contrasted (1832), Thomas Hodgson wrote:

Laws being made by others than the labourer, and being always intended to preserve the power of those who make them, their great and chief aim for many ages, was, and still is, to enable those who are not labourers to appropriate wealth to themselves. In other words, the great object of law and of government has been and is, to establish and protect a violation of that natural right of property they are described in theory as being intended to guarantee.

What would Locke say? I’ll not waste your time with a pile of extraneous exegesis and superfluous hermeneutics. Number VIII of Locke’s Essays on the Law of Nature was titled, “Is Every Man’s Own Interest the Basis of the Law of Nature? No.” Number VIII was the source for several of the arguments in Chapter Five, “Of Property,” in Locke’s Second Treatise on Civil Government.

What part of the word “no” did Professor Piestein not understand?

Saving, Investment, and Lending in the Real Economy (Graphs). S=I?

With all the chaff that’s been flying around (recently, and for years now) about saving and investment, dissaving, and lending/borrowing, I felt the need to go back to the numbers and see how they’ve played out over the decades in what we tend to call the “real” economy — domestic households and nonfinancial business. Click for larger:

Update: The signs were reversed for lending/borrowing. Graphs corrected and updated.

Screen shot 2013-04-16 at 7.17.56 AM

Here’s the lending/borrowing broken out for you:

Screen shot 2013-04-16 at 7.36.17 AM

This is all from the Fed FFAs. Saving is household/nonprofit net saving (after-tax/transfer income minus expenditures) + undistributed business profits (after-tax/transfer income minus expenditures and distributed profits [distributed profits are part of household income]). Details/spreadsheet on request.

I’ve actually written at least three (long) posts on this in course of building out these graphs, but now that the graphs are complete I find myself fairly flummoxed. Saving seems to always be wildly insufficient to fund investment (and no, lending/borrowing + saving has no relationship either). S=I seems to provide exactly zero illumination here.

And the post-1990 lending/borrowing swings I see don’t fit with any real-sector saving/dissaving story I’ve heard (or can remember). We see borrowing spike during the internet boom, dive following the bust, then spike again during the real-estate bust.  ?

So I’m going to leave this open to my gentle readers for the moment. What in the heck is going on here? What story (or stories) would you tell to explain what you see?

If anyone wants to see earlier periods zoomed in to get a better feel what’s going on, let me know. I’m thinking 1946-1975 (to see what seems like a period of consistency), and 1970-1990 (from the fall of Bretton Woods to the start of the internet bubble and the Clinton surplus).

Cross-posted at Angry Bear.

Lifted from comments: Program sustainability is?

Lifted from comments comes a beginning thought on the term ‘sustainability’ for programs…Sustainability

Rusty asks:

Is there an accepted definition for “sustainability?”
I tend to think of it in an environmental context, but apparently it is used more broadly.
Your thoughts?

Bruce Webb’s quick reply:

STR, well in Social Security lingo ‘sustainable’ is mostly used in a hyper-specialized way. So to the extent that SS policy has injected the word into discourse it might not be fully representative. I’ll think about it.

Operationally ‘sustainable solvency’ for SS means not just being solvent (as defined) over the projection period (there 75 years) but having the metric of solvency (in this case Trust Fund ratio) trending up at the end of the period and so likely to be longer-term or permanent.

Rhetorically it is an argument against ‘patching up’ a problem or as the Fix the Debt people put it in their messaging “Kicking the Can (Down the Road)”. If the need is permanent so too should be the structure that provides it, come what may there will be some need to provide transit of goods and people from San Francisco to Oakland as long as those cities exist. Showing that both BART and the new Bay Bridge will proper maintenance will suffice for 35 years is not good enough, long range planners need to think about year 36 and year 50.

Now whether given all the uncertainties in the specific case of Social Security we should be worrying about years 76-100 (sustainable solvency) or all years to Heat Death of the Sun (unfunded liability over the Infinite Future Horizon), that is whether this is just reasonable prudence or pointless crisis-mongering to ‘sustain’ a ‘current’ ‘crisis’, is an open question. For example the current funding ‘crisis’ in the Post Office forcing shutdown in Saturday delivery is the result of a requirement to pre fund retiree health care for 75 years, or for the new hires of 2053.

Similarly Congressional restrictions on Social Security Administration have forced field office consolidation and early closing even though those expenses are billed back against a Trust Fund with $2.6 trillion in legally available assets (which presumably have to be paid back SOMEDAY, why starve SS today?)

I am not really aware of ‘sustainable’ being deployed in that many other policy areas, then again I have a certain amount of tunnel vision on this topic. So to the degree that SS has actually been the source of injection of this term into political discourse it’s precise usage may not be illuminating to your overall question.

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.

Obama caves yet again: offering Social Security cuts to appease the right…

by Linda Beale
Obama caves yet again: offering Social Security cuts to appease the right…

Obama’s budget isn’t even released yet and he’s already caving to the “let’s make the rich richer and forget the rest” crowd.  That crowd that claims that we need a capital gains preference so the rich can gather all that extra money to purportedly create jobs.  The crowd, that is, that fails to acknowledge that the rich tend to take all that extra money to Singapore, the Bahamas, or the Cayman Islands or hide it away in some Swiss bank, none of which does any good for our economy compared to what the government investing that money in infrastructure projects would do. See, e.g., David Leigh, Leaks reveal secrets of the rich who hide cash offshore, The Guardian (Apr. 3, 2013);  The corporatist crowd that refuses to admit the empirical evidence that says government investment is as important as private investment in creating jobs.  It is the government that makes the market go round.  And government money–our money–spent for schools, bridges, safer communities provides jobs and improves lives.  Without that government investment, there is no market, just barter.

President Obama seems to have forgotten that he was elected. as a Democrat, over the Republican candidate.  Obama has no business proposing cuts to Social Security benefits as part of a purported deficit reduction package.  Social Security is not a deficit driver: it is a social insurance program earned by those who receive it by payments over lifetimes of hard work.  It is the only stable retirement income most have.  The average Social Security beneficiary receives just short of $14,000 a year from Social Security–that’s just 125% of the poverty line, which of course is defined so low as to guarantee that anyone living at or below that line is indeed in abject poverty and unable to move out of it.

The Republican Party has argued for cuts to Social Security benefits for decades, using whatever crisis of the momen they can engender to argue that we can’t afford the system in place.  They’ve invented the perjorative term “entitlement” to imply that those who rely on social insurance because of disabilities or old age are just ‘freeloaders’ who are mooching off others.   Not so, since Social Security is an earned benefit program like insurance: workers pay premiums throughout their working life, and then once they reach retirement age they may draw benefits.

There are a number of reasons for the amount of debt that the US government has–most of them related to the four-decade-long drive by the Republican Party to protect the wealthy and the corporations they own from much of a tax burden and to allow the accumulation of immense wealth by a few at the top of the income distribution.  Outsize military expenditures driven by Bush’s preemptive wars undertaken at the same time that the Bush Administration pushed through tax cuts that favored the rich are of course a big problem.  The Bush tax cuts threw us from surplus to deficit and we haven’t gotten beyond them yet.  The almost complete capture of the financial regulatory agencies by Wall Street, and the resulting financial crisis driven by casino capitalism spiked with the heady bubbles of derivative inflation is of course another part of the problem, and we haven’t gotten beyond that yet, as Big Banks still exercise far too much power over their own regulation, proven by the LIBOR scandal that demonstrated their ability to manipulate the purportedly objective market rate to suit their profit machines.

But Social Security is not one of those drivers of the debt.  And the debt is not so outsize that it merits sacrificing the most vulnerable amongst us to mollify the wealthy who merely want to avoid paying their fair share of the revenues needed to get rail service up to snuff, bridges safe, and public schools owned by the public again.

The average Social Security benefit is just under $14,000: the use of chained CPI will result in a loss to the average recipient of “$4,631 in Social Security benefits by age 75, $13,910 by age 85; and $28,004 by age 95″ (from release by Social Security Works, based on “Inflation Indexation in Major Federal Benefit Programs: Impact of the Chained CPI,” Alison Shelton, AARP Public Policy Institute, March 2013.).

Obama has no business facilitating the gluttony of the rich.  He should drop the proposal to use “chained CPI” that will  result in a cut benefits for Social Security recipients.

cross posted with ataxingmatter

Employment Situation

The headline numbers in the employment report were very weak as  payroll employment rose by only 88,000  and the household survey reported a -206,000 drop in employment while the labor force fell by -496,000.  The futures markets are reacting very badly.  But the workweek expanded and aggregrate hours worked increased 0.3% as compared to 0.5% last month.

Private payrolls grew  96,000  and government employment fell 7,000 implying that the sequester is not yet having a significant impact.

After falling to  below trend last year hours worked is now back on the 0.2% trend displayed earlier in the cycle.   So basically it looks like the headline numbers are overstating the weakness.

Interestingly, my bond valuation model still says that the 10 year T Bond yield should be about 1.5%.
 The model still has fed funds in it, but  nothing else to capture other measure of fed policy..

Average hourly earnings were essentially unchanged last month, but the smoothed data still implies that wage gains have bottomed.

Average weekly earnings also still looks like it has  bottomed.

Employment Situation

This was one of the better employment reports of this cycle.  Private payroll employment grew 246,00
while  government employment fell about 10,000 for a net gian of of 236,000.  The household survey also showed a nice gain of 170,000.


On a year over year change basis both series are showing nice gains.

You would never know it to listen to the news, but employment in this cycle continues to better than in the previous   cycle.

The workweek also increased 0.1% and the index of aggregate hours worked grew 0.5% of all workers and 0.9% for production workers.  The index is now back to the trend established early in the cycle.

Average hourly earnings growth has bottomed and are starting to move up very nicely.

And this is leading to an improvement in weekly earnings.

The employment situation

This was another tepid employment report not much different than the reports in 2012.

Payroll employment rose 168,000 and the household survey showed a gain of only 17,000


Private payrolls expanded 168,000 while government employment fell 9,000.

 Perhaps more importantly the year over year change in employment is showing significant signs of weakness,  Both the household survey and payroll data show that the year over year gain in employment has peaked.

 Moreover, this weakness is appearing despite the fact that the annual benchmark revisions showed stronger employment growth in 2012 than originally reported.

 The revisions also significantly changed the pattern of hours worked in 2012.  Originally, hours worked fell well below trend in mid-2012 and were strengthening back to trend at year-end.  Now
it appears that hours worked were not as weak as originally reported. But with the average workweek unchanged in January, the January hours worked fell 0.2%.


 On the other hand the apparent bottoming of average hourly earnings growth  is still intact and was actually strengthening in January. 

 The growth in average weekly earnings fell back to only 1.2%  versus 1.7% in December and the low of 1.0% in October.  It is going to be very hard for consumer to absorb the increase in payroll and income taxes in early 2013.  Prospects for consumer spending in early 2013 do not appear promising.