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Lid Blowing Off Romney Tax Secrecy

by Kenneth Thomas

Lid Blowing Off Romney Tax Secrecy

Gawker (via Eman at Daily Kos) dropped a bombshell yesterday when it released over 950 pages of confidential documents from 21 Bain Capital-related investment vehicles, all of which Mitt or Ann Romney invested in. It made all 48 documents into a single searchable one here so that others could take a look and see what nuggets it might contain.
 
Romney previously claimed that his Cayman Island funds had to be located there in order to attract foreign investors, who invested via the Caymans so they would not be subject to U.S. taxes on their earnings, and that he did not reduce his tax bill as a result of his Cayman holdings. The newly released documents confirm that among these 21 funds, two set up a total of five so-called “blocker corporations” which allow U.S. non-profit entities to legally pretend to be foreign (i.e., Cayman) corporations in order to avoid the 35% “unrelated business income tax, which was created to prevent nonprofit groups from undertaking profit-making ventures that compete with taxpaying companies,” as the New York Times reports. The still-unanswered question is whether Romney’s huge 401-k, valued between $20 million and $102 million on financial disclosure forms, is one of the entities that invested in a blocker corporation, which would then refute Romney’s assertion that his Cayman investments had not reduced his tax.
 
The two Bain funds with blocker corporations are Bain Capital Asia Fund LP (mentioned in the Times article; 3blockers) and Bain Capital IX Coinvestment Fund (2 blockers).
 
A second issue that has been raised is that various Bain entities converted management fees to carried interest (via Ryan Grim).

While people know that the carried interest loophole (which makes management compensation into capital gains) exists and is legal, the issue raised by Professor Victor Fleischer of University of Colorado Law School is that private equity firms have come up with a way to make fees that are unarguably management fees subject to ordinary income (35% tax) into capital gains (15% tax) by “waiving” the fees in exchange for virtually certain future profit, so that the extremely slight economic risk is disproportionately small compared to the tax gain. Fleischer argues that this is flat out illegal and concludes: “Mitt Romney has not paid all the taxes required under law.” Not all experts agree. We can look forward to more argument on this issue in coming days. Even if it is legal, it is morally even less defensible than the carried interest loophole.
 
In the end, we are still left with the fact that the tax system for the 1% is different from that for the rest of us. Whether Romney releases more tax returns or not, that issue is not going away. And the drip, drip, drip of new information makes me think he will eventually cave in.

cross posted with Middle Class Political Economist

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Most U.S. Trade Agreement Improve Trade Balance, but Effect Overwhelmed by NAFTA and China Trade

by Kenneth Thomas

Most U.S. Trade Agreement Improve Trade Balance, but Effect Overwhelmed by NAFTA and China Trade

The U.S. trade deficit figures heavily in the analysis of Jeff Faux’s new book, The Servant Economy. Faux, the founder of the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), was one of the most important voices speaking out against NAFTA when it was debated and ultimately passed by Congress in 1993.
According to EPI’s 2011 Annual Report,”Presently, the United States’ non-oil deficit alone costs more than five million U.S. jobs.” This underscores the importance of the deficit and what is at stake. In the book, Faux points out that the theoretical benefits of free trade assume full employment, but that is hardly ever the case. Thus, he argues, the trade deficit is indeed a job killer.

Yet, as David Cay Johnston notes, the United States continues to negotiate new trade agreements while government agencies and government officials from the President down, tout them as engines of job creation. Johnston points out that the government predicted that our small pre-NAFTA trade surplus would continue, when instead we quickly went into a deficit that in 2011 reached $64.5 billion. Similarly, he says, the U.S. International Trade Commission predicted that normalizing trade relations with China would lead to a trade deficit of just $1 billion, when in fact it grew by 2011 to $295 billion!

How have these trade agreements performed? At present, according to the U.S. Trade Representative, the U.S. has free trade agreements with 19 other countries, with a 20th (with Panama) approved but not yet implemented. The 19 countries are: Australia, Bahrain, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Israel, Jordan, South Korea, Mexico, Morocco, Nicaragua, Oman, Peru, and Singapore.
   
The U.S. Census Bureau (then click on individual countries) has the answer to this. In 11 cases, the goods trade balance has improved from the year prior to the agreements’ coming into effect through 2011, in one case it’s too soon to tell (Colombia, effective May 15, 2012), and only in seven cases did the trade balance worsen.

Unfortunately, that’s the end of the good news, because our trade with most of these countries is relatively small: in six cases the improvement was under $2 billion dollars, which pales against the country’s overall goods deficit of $727.4 billion in 2011. The biggest gains have been with Singapore ($10.7 billion) and Australia ($9.1 billion).

The losses, on the other hand, have been huge, with the culprits being NAFTA and liberalizing trade with China (not even a full free trade agreement, just making it easier for U.S. firms to offshore their production to China). In the wake of NAFTA, the U.S. goods trade balance with Mexico has worsened by $66.2 billion, while our Canadian goods trade balance has worsened by $23.7 billion. Just since 2001, when China joined the WTO, and 2011, the goods trade deficit has increased from $83 billion to $295 billion. Robert E. Scott of the EPI estimates that this massive deficit has “eliminated or displaced nearly 2.8 million U.S. jobs since 2001.” In addition, our Israel free trade agreement has added about $10 billion more to the deficit.

As Faux argues, the trade deficit reduces demand for U.S. labor, and pushes wages down in the aggregate. Indeed, this is the tendency of trade in general for a labor-scarce country like the United States. Faux’s vision of where this is leading us in the long term is a depressing one, which I will discuss in more detail in a future column.

cross posted with Middle Class Political Economist

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It’s the Middle Class, Stupid! (Review)

by Kenneth  Thomas

It’s the Middle Class, Stupid! (Review)

When I saw that James Carville and Stan Greenberg had just published It’s the Middle Class, Stupid! (Blue Rider Press), I knew that I would want to read it. I had always liked Carville’s We’re Right, They’re Wrong and wanted to know his take on approaching the declining fortunes of the middle class.
 
While this book includes some diagnosis of the problems and has a very detailed and very good set of policy proposals, primarily it is a work on political strategy. Based on polling and focus groups the authors have conducted over the last several years (as well as their long experience running campaigns and polling), Carville and Greenberg analyze what they consider some of the political failures of the Obama Administration, particularly with regards to messaging.
 
For example, they argue that Americans are not persuaded by Team Obama’s continuing emphasis on the fact that the President inherited a mess from the Bush Administration (Chapter 11). Although voters place much of the blame for the Great Recession on President Bush, Greenberg reports that his focus groups reacted very negatively to President Obama’s car-in-the-ditch metaphor (“I’m still in the ditch!” many told Greenberg) and the participants expressed strong opinions that we needed to look forward, not backward.

As one said, “[Obama] is trying to say things are turning around, but the numbers are still bad.” The premature declaration of victory by the Administration described here has been strongly criticized by Paul Krugman, among others. Economically effective policy is the best talking point. Carville and Greenberg also give a compelling litany of sophisticated responses to even “good” job creation news on pp. 103-7.

The second big, non-obvious, point is that Americans really are concerned about the deficit and debt (Chapter 8). Again, even though they recognize the role of the Bush tax cuts and unfunded wars in creating that debt, they are still leery about the possibility of spending our way to more economic growth, though not by huge majorities. Too many of them are convinced of the false analogy between households and governments, although Paul Krugman is doing his best to convince them with his new book, End This Depression Now! The framing the authors found most persuasive to middle class voters was an emphasis on “investments that will get our country back on track.” Tellingly, as Carville and Greenberg note, their respondents did not see the debt as a reason to cut Social Security or Medicare.
 
Third, but more obvious, middle class voters don’t see government as the solution because they consider it to be captured by elite interests. The focus groups showed that this view led to some tendency to paralysis and disengagement from politics. It is from this point that Carville and Greenberg pivot to their most important policy recommendation: Amend the Constitution or obtain a Supreme Court that will overturn Citizens United and end corporate personhood. In addition, they call for public financing of elections, disclosure of campaign contributions, requiring broadcasters to cut the price of political ads, and ending the revolving door of office holders and lobbyists. All this is in support of a politics that makes rebuilding the middle class Job 1 for government, and for a consistent framing of all issues (including foreign policy) in terms of their impact on the middle class.
 
Not everything in the book is persuasive. At one point Greenberg says the popularity of raising taxes on the rich “is as close to an absolute truth you can have in polling” (p. 144). I have two problems with this. First, you could say the same thing for other industrialized democracies. Sven Steinmo, writing in the early 1990s, has cited polling results for the U.S., U.K., and Sweden, all of which showed publics that thought the rich should pay more taxes, yet in none of these cases has that been the direction of policy over the last 30 years. To me, this suggests there is an international dimension that helped make government capture possible, but the book does not address globalization very much at all.
 
Second, the book devotes relatively little attention to another issue that also is overwhelmingly supported in poll after poll: raising the minimum wage. Yes, making work pay is an important theme in the book and the authors acknowledge that increasing the minimum wage is part of that, but they say nothing about how putting the issue on many state ballots helped increase Democratic turnout in 2006. In Missouri, for example, the minimum wage Proposition B passed by a 76-24 margin, helping Claire McCaskill squeak out a U.S. Senate win with less than 50% of the vote.
 
The other weakness of the book is that the authors are too close to President Clinton to give a completely objective view of his Presidency. While they make a single parenthetical reference about how NAFTA may not have been such a great idea for the middle class after all, they say nothing about how “ending welfare as we know it” was bad for the middle class. This can best be seen by thinking about income determination as a massive bargaining situation. Anything that takes away one side’s options reduces its bargaining power, and the 1996 welfare reform did just that. In addition, they seem blind to the fact that income inequality (top 1% vs. the 20th-80th percentiles) took off during the Clinton Administration far in excess of what had been seen under President Reagan, as a glance at their chart on p. 52 shows.
 
Finally, the book has no index, which is very annoying when you have 296 pages of text and 25 pages of endnotes.
 
Those caveats aside, this is a very good book that deserves a careful reading by progressive activists. I certainly learned something from it, and I’m sure you will, too.

cross posted with Middle Class Political Economist

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New Estimate of Offshore Wealth Shows Big Increase Since 2004

by Kenneth Thomas

New Estimate of Offshore Wealth Shows Big Increase Since 2004

A new report by the Tax Justice Network, “The Price of Offshore Revisited,” shows that the amount of wealth held in tax havens has increased enormously since 2004, and confirms what I previously wrote about the huge cost to tax coffers of money hidden offshore.

The report was authored by the former Chief Economist of McKinsey and Company, James Henry. Its findings advance our understanding of tax havens and demonstrate that typical estimates of wealth inequality are significantly understated.

The major finding is that offshore financial holdings now come to some $21-32 trillion, compared with the estimate in TJN’s 2005 report of $9.5 trillion (this excludes non-financial wealth, such as real estate). James makes a very conservative estimate of how much governments lose in taxes of $189 billion a year, based on earning just 3% on this $21 trillion, taxed at 30%. How conservative? This is actually less than the $255 billion annually estimated in the first TJN report, but that is based on earning 7.5% annually on offshore wealth. We can get an idea of how conservative this estimate of lost taxes by seeing how sensitive it is to changing the rate of return and wealth estimate used:

Rate of Return Wealth Estimate Lost Taxes
3% $21 Trillion $189 billion (Henry’s actual estimate)
4% $21 Trillion $252 billion
5% $21 Trillion $315 billion
6% $21 Trillion $378 billion
3% $32 Trillion $288 billion
4% $32 Trillion $384 billion
5% $32 Trillion $480 billion
6% $32 Trillion $576 billion

Note that none of these hypothetical estimates use an earnings rate for offshore wealth as high as the original TJN report’s 7.5%.

Since these assets are hidden, we of course have no way of knowing how much the money is earning. I think it is fair to say that Henry’s estimate is more likely low than high.

On the inequality of financial wealth, Henry says:

By our estimates, at least a third of all private financial wealth, and nearly half of all offshore wealth, is now owned by world’s richest 91,000 people – just 0.001% of the world’s population. The next 51 percent of all wealth is owned by the next 8.4 million, another trivial 0.14% of the world’s population.

In the companion report on inequality by Nicholas Shaxson et al., the authors asked a number of well-known experts on inequality if they thought these data showed inequality has been underestimated. The answer from Thomas Piketty (of Piketty and Saez, the most widely quoted set of papers on inequality that I know of) was blunt: “Yes, definitely.”

Despite Felix Salmon’s characterization of the report as “long on hyperbole,” I find no reason to disagree with its conclusion that tax havens are a “black hole,” one which costs the middle class (through uncollected taxes on the super-rich) untold billions of dollars and increases inequality around the world.

cross posted with Middle Class Political Economist

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U.S. Trails at Least 15 OECD Countries in Median Wealth

by Kenneth Thomas

U.S. Trails at Least 15 OECD Countries in Median Wealth

Via @exiledonline, I learned today (July 18) that Canadians are richer than Americans. This is rather surprising, since GDP per capita is higher in the U.S than in Canada.: $48,100 vs. $40,300 (at purchasing power parity or PPP), according to the CIA World Factbook. But in fact things are much worse than that, as 15 OECD countries (plus Singapore and Taiwan) have higher median wealth than the U.S. does. There may even be more, as the Credit Suisse report I discuss below does not give median wealth data for several countries with higher mean wealth than the U.S.

Most reporting has been based on a story that was run in the June 30th Globe and Mail claiming that average (mean) Canadian household wealth had reached $363,202 vs. just under $320,000 in the U.S. This is not a particularly informative statistic, however, since wealth is even more unevenly distributed than income, and income in the U.S. is already highly unequally distributed. What we really need is median net worth, i.e. the level at the exact middle of the net worth distribution in a country. G&M commenter “TJMone” picks up that point, receiving an answer from “porkbarrel pundit”: a Credit Suisse report from October 2011 (via LSM Insurance), shows that the median net worth per adult in Canada was $89,014, compared to just $52,752 in the U.S. (all figures in U.S. dollars).

American reporting based on the study in the G&M did not start until 18 days later, when an article in U.S. News & World Report picked it up (Canadians are right: no one in the U.S. is paying attention to them). Moreover, no one picked up on the much better data in the Credit Suisse report until later in the day, when Dylan Matthews at Wonkblog wrote a great story on it (there are many high-quality comments, too). It turns out that lots of OECD countries, including economic basket cases Italy, Spain, and Ireland, have higher median wealth than we do. See the chart below:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/ezra-klein/files/2012/07/medianwealth.jpg
Source: Dylan Matthews, based on data from Credit Suisse

It is mind boggling that median Australian net wealth per adult is four times that of the U.S., and Italy is three times as high. Ireland and Spain, meanwhile, are also higher despite having housing busts similar to that in the United States. What is going on here?

Part of the answer is more equal income distribution. According to the Credit Suisse report, mean wealth per adult is just shy of 5 times median wealth in the U.S., whereas in Canada it’s a little less than a 3:1 ratio (see Table 7-1). Other countries with higher median but lower mean net worth per adult are Taiwan, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Israel, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and Spain. Australia has a higher mean net worth than the U.S., but its ratio of mean to median net worth per adult is less than 2:1.

Another part of the answer may be that in many other wealthy countries, households have less debt. If you remember Michael Moore’s movie Sicko, in one scene he interviews an upper-middle class French family and asks them what debt they have. Their only significant debt is their mortgage, because they didn’t have to take out loans to go to college. The Credit Suisse report finds this pattern (unfortunately, only mean debt, not median debt). Mean debt per adult (see Table 2-4) is $59,362 in 2011 for the United States, whereas for France it is $40,873, Germany $33,424, and Italy only $24,291. Of course, this isn’t true of all countries: Ireland and Switzerland both have much higher mean debt per adult, but they also have about twice the median wealth per adult of the U.S.

This analysis is hardly exhaustive; I bet a good book could be written on the subject.

One final point: Matthews skewers the claim by Globe and Mail author Michael Adams (whose firm conducted the study discussed in his article) and later commenters on both sides of the border who accepted Adams’ claim that this was a historical first. As he shows with U.S. and Canadian government data, Canada’s median household net worth was significantly higher in 2004-5, before the crisis, than here in the U.S. Given the huge disparities between the United States and some of the other countries, it is likely that net worth per adult has been higher in a number of these countries for quite some time. These data reflect trends that have been developing for a long time, and are not purely driven by the economic crisis or by any single set of policies. But they make for sobering reading, and deserve more than the superficial analysis most of the U.S. press has given them so far. Bravo to Matthews for a great piece of analysis.

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Alabama’s Airbus Subsidy Eerily Reminiscent of Auto "Transplants"

by Kenneth Thomas

Alabama’s Airbus Subsidy Eerily Reminiscent of Auto “Transplants”

The July 2 announcement that Airbus would begin assembly of its A-320 airliner in Mobile, Alabama, may be good for Alabama, but whether it’s good for the country as a whole is dubious. Indeed, it most reminds me of the subsidized arrival of foreign auto “transplants” that helped undermine Detroit’s Big 3 as well as the unionization of the auto industry.

The new $600 million facility is projected to create 1000 jobs. Initial reports put subsidies to the company as $158.5 million from the state and various local governments (thanks to @varnergreg for pointing out this article). Remember, though, that initial reports are more likely to underestimate subsidies than overestimate them, as in the case of Electrolux in Memphis. However, if this is remotely near accurate, Alabama got a much better deal for Airbus than did Washington state for the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, which was 220% of the investment and $1.65 million per job (according to my calculations for Investment Incentives and the Global Competition for Capital), more than 10 times the per job cost in Alabama.

Unfortunately, this development could repeat the example of the subsidization of foreign automakers that hastened the decline of Detroit’s Big Three. According to economic geographer James Rubenstein (1992, Table 1.1), from 1979 to 1991 there was a 1 to 1 correspondence in the opening and closing of new automobile and truck assembly plants in the U.S. and Canada: 20 new ones were built, 20 old ones were closed. Every one of the new facilities received subsidies from state and local (or federal and provincial, in Canada) governments. Given that the automobile industry was in a position of overcapacity for much of that period, it is no surprise that new production simply displaced older production.

Will the same thing now happen in the aircraft industry? Globally, Airbus has been putting market share above profits since the early 2000s. With its current move to Alabama, CEO Fabrice Brégier said the company hoped to grow its U.S. market share for single-aisle planes (the A-320 competes mainly with the Boeing 737) from 17% to 50% over the next 20 years. If Airbus is successful, it would be bad for the 80,000+ employees in Boeing’s Commercial Airplanes group.

Of course, there is growing global demand for airliners, especially in Asia. But China has already developed its own competitor in the single-aisle market and Airbus is building A-320s in Tianjin, China, making it unclear how much of the global growth can translate into increased U.S. employment.

As was the case with foreign automakers, this is a case where a market-seeking investment was clearly coming to the United States, but the competition for the facility allowed Airbus to extract rents through the site selection process. By repeating this process for projects large and small, state and local governments deprive themselves of as much as $70 billion per year in revenue, enough to hire all state and local employees laid off since the recession began in December 2007. At the same time, over the long haul, the process in the auto industry replaced well-paid unionized workers with less well-paid, non-union workers. The prospect that this evolution could be repeated in the aircraft industry is a pretty depressing one, when all is said and done.

crossposted with Middle Class Political Economist

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What is Mitt Romney Hiding?

by Kenneth Thomas

What is Mitt Romney Hiding?

Mitt Romney has so far released only one year of tax returns (2010), plus an estimate for 2011. This stands in stark contrast to his father, Michigan Governor George Romney, who released 12 years of tax returns when he began running for President in 1967. As his father said at the time, “One year could be a fluke.” So the questions remain about what is in Romney’s older returns.
 
Two stories this week and last have ratcheted up the pressure. One is a recent web exclusive for “The Last Word with Laurence O’Donnell” where David Cay Johnston has five questions for Romney that can only be answered with his tax returns. The other is a blockbuster story by Nicholas Shaxson (h/t TPM) in the new Vanity Fair on the shadowy world of Romney’s tax havens. Together, they put a laser-like focus on the finances of the man who could become our 45th President.
 
Johnston is a well-known former New York Times reporter, Pulitzer Prize winner, and the author of the major books Perfectly Legal and Free Lunch. If you don’t have time to watch his 3:45 video, here are the five questions:
 
“1. Did you buy any illegal or gray area tax shelters?
“2. Did an IRS audit ever uncover serious problems with any of your tax returns?
“3. Did you make use of offshore vehicles to defer, or avoid paying, federal income taxes?
“4. Did you take advantage of any tax strategies that the IRS did not uncover in audits?
“5. Did you fully tithe to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints every year and take a deduction on your tax return that shows that?”

These are important questions. We know that Governor Romney has had a Swiss bank account, as well as money in other tax havens like the Cayman Islands, Luxembourg, Bermuda, and Ireland. Romney’s answer to any question about his taxes has basically been, “Trust me.” But the guy’s running for President, for Pete’s sake. He owes us more than that.
 
Shaxson, a researcher for the Tax Justice Network and author of the book Treasure Islands, asks us to consider the possibility that maybe not everything Romney has done tax-wise has been legal. He opens with a story told by a former Bain employee about how Romney encouraged him to lie to get secret information on competitors. There is, of course, the fact that Romney has funds parked in numerous tax havens and the fact that his supposedly “blind” trust invested in a business started by Romney’s son Tagg, and the fact that he has $102 million in his IRA despite a contribution limit of $2000 per year for the entire 15 years Romney ran Bain. Obviously nothing to see here…
 
The standard answer of the Romney campaign to all this is that he always followed the law. As Jon Stewart had to point out since the major media did not, Romney did plenty to affect the law he was supposedly “just following,” including his defense of the “covered interest” tax loophole that let him treat his fees at Bain as if they were capital gains (15% tax) rather than wages (35% tax). All perfectly legal and as Johnston points out in his book by that name, that is the real scandal.
 
Further, Shaxson reveals that an early filing of the original Bain Capital fund in 1984 showed that many of its foreign investors were routed through tax havens and that at least one was a notorious financial criminal, Robert Maxwell. Thus, Bain helped foreigners take advantage of the fact that the United States has set itself up as a tax haven for non-citizens (see also Jason Sharman’s paper on setting up anonymous companies in the U.S. and elsewhere; h/t Robert Kudrle). Shaxson quotes Rebecca Wilkins of Citizens for Tax Justice, “It is shocking that a presidential candidate should think that is O.K.” for Bain to service the likes of Robert Maxwell.
 
The bottom line is that there is a lot of unsettling information in what investigators have so far been able to piece together about Romney’s finances. The easiest way for Governor Romney to put to rest what his campaign described to Shaxson as “unfounded allegations and insinuations” would be to release his tax returns. Yet he has not done so and shows no sign of changing his mind. Josh Marshall calls the questions “kryptonite” and thinks Romney will come under a lot of pressure to release more tax returns. Let’s hope so. The guy’s running for President, for Pete’s sake.

Middle Class Political Economist

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Guest post: Health Insurance Rebates Show How Bad Insurers and State Regulators Can Be

There is and will be a lot of conversation about the efficacy of the ACA (Affordable Care Act), whether it is a step to deal with the health care cost juggernaut or mostly a boon to private insurers.  What is true is that ‘medical inflation’ has resumed to previous levels of year to year increase after a lull during the last two years, except for Medicare, which comes in at about 3% and not the 9% for the commercial market. (post to come).  

Bruce Webb pointed to the medical loss ratio as a way to help control some costs several years ago. Kenneth has his own take on these issues.

Update 2:   Links repaired

by Kenneth Thomas

Guest post: Health Insurance Rebates Show How Bad Insurers and State Regulators Can Be

Health Insurance Rebates Show How Bad Insurers and State Regulators Can Be

Thursday’s health care ruling was a surprising victory for the middle class. I went to bed Wednesday dreading waking up, only to be awakened by a phone call that the law had been upheld. Most of the story is well-known, and summarized in the President’s speech: six million young adults under 26 who have gained insurance, children now (and adults starting in 2014) can no longer be denied insurance due to pre-existing conditions, an end to terminating people’s insurance when they get ill, closing the Medicare donut hole, etc. I want to focus on one provision the President mentioned in passing, the $1.1 billion in insurance rebates that 12.8 million Americans will be receiving August 1.

The rebates are due to the medical loss ratio or “80/20” rule that insurance companies cannot spend more than 20% of premium dollars on “administration, CEO pay, and profits,” as Health Care for America Now (HCAN) summarizes it. The requirement is 85% spent on actual medical care for firms in the large group market, according to healthcare.gov.(via HCAN). Of the $1.1 billion in rebates, $393.9 million will be in the individual market, $386.4 million in the large group market, and $321.1 million in the small group market.
Although $1.1 billion in rebates is not a lot of money in the multi-trillion U.S. health care system, it is enough to provide noticeable rebates to millions of consumer before the November election. Consumers Union has a state-by-state breakdown of which insurance companies owe rebates in each state, and how much. Three patterns emerge from these data: First, some companies routinely failed to meet the 80/20 rule in state after state after state. Second, Blue Cross/Blue Shield companies, which were once largely non-profit but were converted to for-profit corporations mostly in the 1990s, are now frequent violators of the medical loss ratio rule. Third, some states, most notably Texas, have such lax insurance company regulations that violations of the rule are rampant. The data below come from the Consumers Union link above.

1) Multiple violations by individual companies: The poster child for gouging consumers and spending premium dollars on things other than health care is Golden Rule Insurance Company (since 2003 a subsidiary of UnitedHealthcare), which operates solely in the individual market, and not in either the small group or large group health care markets. According to the Consumers Union data, Golden Rule owes rebates in 23 states where it operates. Comparing the CU data with Golden Rule’s website on where it operates, we find that in only nine states where it operates does it not owe rebates. We also learn that two Golden Rule subsidiaries also owe rebates, American Medical Security Life Insurance Company in Utah in the individual market, and Oxford Health Plans of New Jersey Inc. in the large employer market, bringing Golden Rule’s total to fully 25 states where it owes rebates under the medical loss ratio rule. In a number of states (Alabama, Florida, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, and West Virginia) , Golden Rule owes more money than any other insurer in the individual market.

Furthermore, UnitedHealthcare subsidiaries carrying the UHC name owe rebates in 28 states in the small business market, large business market, or both.

I don’t mean to single out UnitedHealthcare for overcharging: depending on the state and the market, Aetna, Connecticut General, and Time Insurance Company, among others, owe substantial rebates to their customers as well. But Golden Rule and UnitedHealthcare failed to meet their 80/20 tests in so many states that they really stand out.

2) In many states in which Golden Rule does not owe the highest rebates in the individual market, Blue Cross/Blue Shield does. This includes states like Arizona, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and most notably, Texas. This represents a complete repudiation of the historical BC/BS ethos, which included non-profit incorporation and community rating (i.e., not penalizing people for getting sick). But that’s what happens when you turn non-profits into for-profits in health care.

3) This brings us to lax insurance regulation, as in Texas. Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Texas owes $89.9 million in refunds, all of it in the individual market, which by itself exceeds all the refunds in the much bigger California economy, where total refunds only amount to $73.9 million. Total rebates in Texas will total $167.0 million. The only other state with rebates exceeding $100 million this year is Florida, at $123.6 million. However, a number of states have higher average rebates, led by Vermont at $807. I believe both the total and average rebates should be examined for evidence of weak insurance regulation.

To summarize, the Supreme Court’s decision was a great one for the middle class. On top of all the provisions that expand coverage and economic security, 12.8 million consumers will see refunds from their insurers to pay back for their price gouging.

This is not to say that we don’t have a long way to go to complete health reform. As Aaron Carroll points out, there is a great deal more that needs to be done to our $2.7 trillion health system, including making coverage universal and getting cost increase under control. But upholding the Affordable Care Act is a step in the right direction.

crossposted with Middle Class Political Economist

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Lost Output Over $3 Trillion And Rising

by Kenneth Thomas

Lost Output Over $3 Trillion And Rising

Still traveling, so just a quick post, but this really can’t be emphasized enough. Andrew Fieldhouse at the Economic Policy Institute reports that the Congressional Budget Office now has cumulatively reduced its estimate of 2017 gross domestic product by 6.6% since the beginning of the recession in December 2007. As Fieldhouse points out, that doesn’t sound like much, but when it’s 6.6% of a $15 trillion economy, we are looking at about $1 trillion (with a “T”) of lost income in 2017. To put it another way, that is well over $3000 of income per person that year. That is on top of $3 trillion in potential GDP already lost since the recession began, according to Fieldhouse.

The culprit, of course, is the lack of further stimulus to the economy. After the totally inadequate $800 billion stimulus package in 2009, we have had essentially nothing. At the end of 2011, Republicans had to be shamed into approving a payroll tax cut they previously favored. Indeed, as Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institute and the Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute have pointed out, it is not the case that both parties are getting more partisan. As they put it, “Let’s just say it. The Republicans are the problem.” It is the Republicans in Congress who are blocking further stimulus measures. Electing a new Congress that will not pass a stimulus bill will cost Americans thousands of dollars out of their pockets.

We are a long way away from George Wallace Will Roger’s famous claim that there was not “a dimes’ worth of difference” between the two parties.

crossposted with Middle Class Political Economist

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Why the World Should Care About America’s Middle Class

by Kenneth Thomas

Guest post: Why the World Should Care About America’s Middle Class

Tim Worstall, in his Forbes blog, attacks my series (here and here) on whether globalization is good for America’s middle class. Not on the basis that he disagrees with my conclusion (though he does), but because, he argues, there are much more important facts about globalization than a decline in the economic well-being of the middle class in America and Europe. In particular, he points to the great decline in poverty among developing nations that have embraced globalization:

This growth in incomes, in wealth, has been uneven, this is true. Largely speaking those places which have been taking part in globalisation, Indonesia, China, India, have been getting richer. Those that have not been, Somalia perhaps as an example, have not been.

Let’s leave aside the fact that these successful countries are hardly poster children for the kinds of so-called “free-market” policies that Worstall espouses, a point made particularly well by Dani Rodrik. And in the spirit in which Worstall granted my claims for the sake of argument, let’s grant his as well. (But if you want to get down into the weeds on the extent to which poverty reduction claims may be overstated, take a look at Robert Wade’s work.)

Here is the crux of Worstall’s argument:

So I would actually posit that whether the American, or European, or rich world, middle class benefits from globalisation is actually an incomplete question. Incomplete enough to be the wrong question. Almost to the point that the answer is “who cares?”.

The correct question is what is the distribution of all of the costs and all of the benefits of globalisation? To which my answer would be that a generation, perhaps even two generations, of stagnating lifestyles for the already rich, those middle classes, looks like a reasonable enough cost to pay for the other thing that is happening: the abolition of absolute human poverty in the rest of the world.

First, I think we should certainly care when hundreds of millions of people are suffering unnecessarily. Yes, unnecessarily, because contrary to Worstall’s claim, we are not trading off reduced economic well-being for hundreds of millions of middle class people for the lessened poverty of billions of other people. Indeed, the two are happening simultaneously, but as Ronald Rogowki pointed out in Commerce and Coalitions, it is perfectly feasible to have rich country winners compensate rich-country losers and still have all of them be better off from trade.

Politically, it is a hard row to how, as Rogowki pointed out: the winners from expanding trade increase their political power as a result of their increased income, making compensatory policies less likely. But ending globalization’s harm to the middle class in rich nations does not require us to take anything away from poorer people, not if you accept the theory of comparative advantage and the Stolper-Samuelson Theorem. It does require us to figure out a political solution to the problems faced by the losers, which as we can see in the United States is made more difficult by the decline of unions and by the Citizens United Supreme Court decision.

And second, we should care about the U.S. middle class (and Europe’s, for that matter) because how they react to their situation politically will have enormous consequences for the world economy and world politics. If the U.S. comes up with a “Smoot-Hawley” response to its economic problems, that would undo a lot of the gains Worstall sees as flowing from globalization, a point made recently by Dani Rodrik (via Mark Thoma). Even more ominously, in both the U.S. and Europe, we see increasing political polarization and the rise of nationalist political parties and movements, as noted by Paul Krugman. Economic decline is a scary thing, and people’s reactions to it can get downright ugly, to put it mildly.

For both of these reasons, then, what happens to the middle class in the U.S. and Europe will have repercussions far beyond those acknowledged by Worstall.

crossposted with Middle Class Political Economist

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