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

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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…exceeding $3 million in such accounts is not very difficult for an individual

Greg Mankiw suggests a part of the new budget proposed by President Obama affects 401k and IRA accounts. Some comment in general retirement accounts from AB starts here.

Apparently, President Obama’s budget is going to include some kind of penalty for people who have accumulated more than $3 million in retirement accounts.  The details are not yet known, but I think we know enough to say that this is a terrible idea. A sizable body of work in public finance suggests that consumption taxes are preferable to income taxes.  Completely replacing our tax system with a better one is, however, hard.  Retirement accounts, such as IRAs and 401k plans, are one way our tax code has gradually evolved from an income tax toward a consumption tax.  The use of these accounts should be encouraged, not discouraged.

By the way, exceeding $3 million in such accounts is not very difficult for an individual who is financially successful and frugal.  Under current law, a self-employed person can put about $50,000 a year in a SEP-IRA.  If he does that every year for 40 years, and his savings earn a return of 5 percent per year, he will retire with about $6 million.

 Pro Growth Liberal notes another aspect of Greg Mankiw’s outlook:

Greg explains by noting some folks can readily put away $50,000 a year. The median worker, however, cannot. But there may be something else afoot here as Brian Beutler explains: 

One way experts believe financial managers avoid the current annual contribution limit to IRAs is by using IRAs to participate in investments and assigning those investment interests a nominal value vastly below fair market. 

Brian cites as an example some clever tax planning done by a chap named Mitt Romney.

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Saving and "Government Saving"

Steve Randy Waldman and Scott Sumner (plus many others, linked from Steve’s post) wade in on notions of saving and investment.

(I’m endlessly amazed that the best econothinkers on the web — add Nick Rowe, Andy Harless, David Beckworth, Josh Mason, and many others to the list — constantly feel the need to think, re-think, and debate this fundamental economic concept. Economists haven’t figured this out yet?)

I’d like to reply to one assertion of Scott’s, because I think it cuts to the crux. This time I’ll keep it brief, at risk of obscurity. Scott:

In every case where an individual seems to be saving more and yet investment doesn’t rise, someone else is dissaving.

Scott’s far from alone in asserting this; it’s central to Krugman’s thinking.

But: This only seems right if you’re imagining an isolated private domestic nonfinancial sector, in which no new financial assets can be created. (Essentially the “loanable funds” notion.)

If you bolt on a (international) financial sector that constantly creates new/additional financial assets, and (especially) a sovereign fiat-money-issuing government sector (with the arabesques of bond issuance and OMOs), and other sovereign- (and bond-)issuing governments worldwide, and account for flows to and from those sectors, I don’t think the statement is true.

Because: “government saving” (in particular) is a meaningless concept, akin to a bowling alley “saving” points.

Cross-posted at Asymptosis.

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Do policymakers listen to macroeconomists?

Ex Macroeconomist Noah Smith argues that it is a good thing that there are professional macroeconomists.  He has two arguments

So does this mean that macro research is useless for policymaking? No! Not at all!! Because here’s an interesting thing about policymaking: No matter who advises the policymakers, policy is going to get made. That includes economic policy. So if there were no academic and Fed macroeconomists around to advise policymakers, who would policymakers listen to on economic matters?

My guess: Some very dangerous people.

2) useful things have been learned from empirical macro including stuff you see with half an hour of FREDing and “slightly less than half of people seem to be “hand-to-mouth” consumers who don’t obey the Permanent Income Hypothesis.”

My rude comments:

1) A world without macroeconomists wouldn’t be a world without economists who talk to journalists about the macroeconomy.  The risk is that the voice of the economics profession will be trade theorists, economic historians, behavioral economists and finance economists such as Krugman, DeLong, C Romer, Goolsbee, Fama and Cochrane (note ex macroeconomist Smith decided to go into finance).
I actually think that macroeconomists have very little influence on macroeconomics as perceived by policy makers and the public.  Summers is influential.  He is also a total heretic (he didn’t leave the field, the field left him).  Blanchard and Woodford are influential macroeconomists and reasonable people.
The world has chosen not to benefit from the insights of the most influential academic macroeconomists Robert Lucas and Edward Prescott.  I don’t think you think this is a bad thing.
2) On consumption and the PIH the data suggest that somewhat less than half of consumption is by hand to mouth consumers.  They don’t suggest anything about the rest.  The rest of fluctuations in consumption can’t be predicted by predicting current GDP.  Also radioactive decay can’t be predicted by predicting current GDP.  The PIH is not a good theory of radiactive decay.
The (representative agent with an additively separable utility function and no liquidity constraint version of the PIH) glass is not much more than half full.  I am not aware of evidence that it isn’t empty.

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My Patriotic Millionaires Pitch

Erica Payne sent out a request for writeups from Patriotic Millionaires members, and I provided this. I hate not to re-use perfectly good copy…

I live (quite well) off financial investments — no need to work any more — and my taxes every year are ridiculously, embarrassingly low. Meanwhile tens, hundreds of millions of hard workers who spend all their money — enriching entrepreneurs like me, and spurring economic growth — are throttled by tax bites that far exceed mine.

This tax structure and its terrible incentives are destroying, for my children and grandchildren, the opportunities for personal fulfillment and enrichment that America provided me. I wholeheartedly support the specific initiatives of Patriotic Millionaires, but I think far more is needed to create a national tax structure that actually is progressive above $60 or $80K a year in income. Us rich folks aren’t paying nearly our share of the bill — paying for what we receive — or re-investing in the country that gave us such remarkable opportunities. Don’t we care about our kids?

Americans have told us what they want — rich and poor, tea partiers and raging liberals (the polls aren’t hard to read) — and we need to pay for it. True conservatives pay their bills.

Cross-posted at Asymptosis.

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Does Reduced Consumption, and Increased "Saving," Result in "Capital" Formation?

Matthew Yglesias riffs off my recent post, “Saving” ≠ “Saving Resources,” and there’s been quite a bit of commentary there, plus on Asymptosis and Angry Bear (plus a bit of twitter talk that I can’t figure out how to link to easily and usefully).

There are a dozen things I want to discuss on the topic, but I’d like to address the key belief underpinning much of the commentary (including Matthew’s). In my words:

If you don’t spend all your income, the unspent part is used by others to produce/purchase* “fixed” or “real” or “productive” assets. More money gets spent on investment, and less on consumption.

There are all sorts of problems with this notion, empirical and theoretical (notably the confusion of an accounting identity, “S is identical to I,” with economic incentives). I want to try and cut to the crux, with this:

A. If I transfer $100K from my bank to yours to purchase goods or labor, is there more money to produce/procure productive assets?

B. If I (or all of us) instead transfer $75K, leaving (“saving”) $25K in my bank, is there more money to produce/procure productive assets?

The answer to B is obviously “no.”

I hope not skipping too many steps here, so as to render this incomprehensible, I think Dan Kervick makes the key point in his comment on Matthew’s post:

a significant portion of monetary saving is just used to purchase government bonds

I would add, “directly or indirectly.” And: government bonds are only part of it.

This imparts the crucial understanding of aggregate, inter-sectoral balances that people lose sight of when thinking in terms of personal, individual “saving” of “money.” (Usually, implicitly, people are thinking about an isolated, domestic, private, non-financial sector — U.S. households and non-financial businesses.)

The financial system (including treasury and Fed) is constantly creating new, more, financial assets. New government bonds and currency, in particular, have no direct relationship to real investment. When you (or your bank) buy(s) a newly-issued government bond, you’re not funding/financing/incentivizing real private-sector investment in productive/useful capacity. (Though in one accounting view, you could argue that you’re “funding” government investment.)

So in a very real sense those financial assets (and arguably many [private-though-not-necessarily-“real”-sector] others) “absorb” “money” without creating new productive capacity. (This does not imply “crowding out.” Interest rates are at historic lows, and corporate cash hoards are at historic highs, even while government bond issuance has also been at historic highs.)

Funds flow from the private domestic nonfinancial sector into the the financial and government sectors (in return for an increased stock of IOUs). But absent intentional action (lending by the banks, deficit spending by government), they don’t flow back into the private domestic nonfinancial sector — and even less certainly into investment by that sector.

This is greatly simplified, and there’s much more I’d like to say, but I’m hoping to impart a straighforward (though incomplete) understanding of this view.

Here’s how I see it (this is the most important part of this post):

Production produces surplus. Output > Input.

That aggregate surplus is monetized by trade and a financial system (including treasury and fed), in a stunningly complex process that I won’t detail here. That’s why the quantity of financial assets (“money”) keeps increasing — because the surplus increases the stock of real assets, and the stock of financial assets (loosely) represents the value of those real assets.

If producers can’t sell (trade) their goods — in the process monetizing the value of the surplus created — they don’t produce them (as a successful serial entrepreneur, I’m here to tell you…), and you get less surplus. So less saving. My saving happened because people spent.

Spending causes saving. (Counterintuitive, huh?)

Though I prefer the term “accumulation.” The moral valences associated with “saving” — and the misunderstandings of its technical meaning(s?) in the national accounts — have resulted in no end of economic confusion (and confution*).

And yes: spending — and the production/trade/surplus-creation it spurs — causes monetary saving. The creation of surplus effectively forces the financial system to create new financial assets, so the producers of that surplus (workers and businesses) can monetize that surplus, and store it in their accounts. If the financial system doesn’t effectively monetize workers’ and producers’ surpluses via wages and profits, they have less incentive to work and produce, so a weak economy/slow growth results. Fed governors get replaced, politicians get voted out, and banks lose money or at least lose out to competitors who are willing to monetize the surplus.

I really have to finish this up by citing Dan Becker again, in a response to Pete Petepete at Angry Bear:

As I read your postings, it seems you are moving the discussion toward the chicken or the egg type.

But it’s not just Pete Petepete. We’re all really rehashing the old Say’s Law argument here: does production cause consumption (“demand creates its own supply”), or the reverse? The obvious answer is “Yes. Both.” But I think it’s clear which side I fall on, and I fall on that side because we have a sovereign-currency-issuing government, and a massive financial system which also constantly creates new financial assets. Say’s Law only makes sense if 1. there’s full employment***, and 2. there are no new financial assets to monetize/store/”hoard” the surplus from production and trade.

If all the “so-called” quotation marks in this post are driving you batty, my apologies. So many of the key terms in economics are used so sloppily and in so many ways, I often find it impossible to talk about the subject without constant parenthetical definitions of terms — which definitions themselves often deserve full blog posts. I hope this post will at least encourage my gentle readers to think very carefully about what I (and they) mean when using these terms.

* The produce/purchase distinction is conceptually problematic in itself (and as it’s tallied in the national accounts), as made clear by discussions among Kuznets and company back in the days when they were creating the national accounts; trade is the juncture where real surplus from production is monetized, which drops us into the thorny theoretical thickets of “value,” “capital,” and the mysteries of “money profits.”

** Yes I know that’s not a word. But it should be. Hey: good name for a new blog?!

*** Full employment is another problematic concept. Are there realistically imaginable scenarios — i.e. wage inflation without commensurate price inflation — in which large numbers of permanent non-workers would be coaxed into the work force, increasing employment without changing the percent “unemployed”? Full employment compared to what?

Cross-posted at Asymptosis.

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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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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.

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The Tax Free Tour; a look at the offshore tax haven system

We’ve all talked and read about the idea and practice of offshore accounting to reduce taxation. Here is an article produced by a show called Backlight.  Backlight appears to be a news journal show in the idea of Frontline by a Dutch public broadcasting organization known as VPRO.

This episode is titled: The Tax FreeTour.  To date it has only just over 22 thousand hits.  Considering the effect offshoring plays in everyone’s life, I think more people need to see it.   It is about 1 hour long taking a look at the places of tax havens and the structures to get there. I found it very interesting and highly encourage you to watch the entire episode.  I have not seen another presentation as complete as this on the issue of off shore tax havens and the system.
They interview international experts including one who worked for KPMG: Richard Murphy, accountant. He notes you need 3 things, banks, accountants and lawyers to have a tax haven and thinks accounts have gotten off easy.  A past chief economist for the McKenzie Consultancy James S. Henry who quantified the amount of capital parked in the off shore industry, $21 to $32 trillion year end 2010.  Business Intelligence Investigator William Brittian Catlin who’s job is to sort out the offshore links for investors. Ava Joly, former French Judge, currently EU Parliamentarian investigating $1 trillion in lost EU tax revenue.
I did not realize, but these big corporations have special deals with nations such as the Netherlands regarding their taxation that they are not allowed to talk about. How convenient.  The Netherlands has the most tax treaties in the world. Walmart has 6 entities there all with completely different unrelated names, yet does no physical business related to their core activity of retail sales in the Netherlands. Trust companies are the structures involved as they hold the mail boxes. $11 Trillion is routed through the Netherlands every year. Up to 20 times the Dutch GDP.  0.14% of the world’s population controls about 95% of the offshore money.

Do watch the entire show to get the full appreciation. There is so much more in it than what I highlight here. If your time is short then: To get a quick overview of the game, watch starting at 9:35 through 14:48 of the show and 32:24 to 33:00. To know about the people watch 20:00 to 22:54. To understand tax free zone use watch 25:40 to 26:50 and 27:19 to 28:00.

Here are four cuts from the show. The first two are to let people know what our Senate Banking committee hearings would look and sound like if there were more than just Elizabeth Warren.

These two get at the effects on our ability to govern our self.

These two get at the effects on our ability to govern our self.

My thought after watching The Tax Free Tour? What we are experiencing here in the US when companies go shopping and pit one part of the nation, state or town against another is the same model including the government responses that is the off shore industry. Globalization is the scaling up of home developed systems that have proven successful in reducing taxation via government rule changes ultimately maximizing profit with no regard toward anything beyond the need of the one’s money. The “one” being an entity or an individual. Globalization means more than just out sourcing manufacturing. Globalization is the expansion to the globe of money management systems developed over time designed to segregate the rich in the major aspect of their lives from the rest of the people of the world; the wealthy’s connection with the rest of humanity via national identity.  The systems are designed to assure the wealthy are guiltless in the presence of harm. Kind of a plausible deniability?

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The Great Recession captured in 1 minute of comedy

Just watch this.  It is 1 minute long.

Could it be anymore surreal?


Obviously, the lesson has not been relearned since at least sometime before 1992.  If it had been relearned, we would not be here still proposing solutions that sound just like, almost word for word like the 1920’s.  (start reading at 1920) I mean, it’s not like people haven’t been sounding the horn on what the results would be from the proposed solutions in 1992.   Nope, it’s the same proposals as in 1992, which will produce more of the same.


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