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Guest post: Social Security Hurt by Republican Jobs Obstructionism

Guest post by Kenneth Thomas 

Social Security Hurt by Republican Jobs Obstructionism

The Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) published its commentary on Monday’s release of the Social Security Trustees Report, which found that the Social Security trust fund would be exhausted in 2033. CEPR rightly blames the recession for the deterioration of Social Security’s finances. As I argued last September with regard to falling health care coverage, the new results from the Trustees show the need for a jobs agenda.

In fact, in just four years, the estimated trust fund exhaustion date (intermediate assumption) has gotten eight years closer. It was 2041 in the 2008 report, 2037 in the 2009 report, 2037 in the 2010 report, and 2036 in the 2011 report. Jared Bernstein charts these trends going back to 1985:

Source: Trustees Reports. via Jared Bernstein.

The CEPR analysis highlights just how crucial jobs are to Social Security’s solvency:

As workers have found themselves without jobs, Social Security has received fewer contributions. The 2007 Trustees’ Report projected 169.0 million workers in 2011 earning $6.5 trillion in taxable earnings. Last year, there were only 157.7 million workers earning $5.5 trillion.

In other words, there was a $1 trillion shortfall of income in 2011 alone compared to the pre-recession baseline. If this doesn’t highlight the need for much greater action on the jobs front, nothing does.
Yet what is the Republican response to this situation? At the federal level, there has been universal opposition to anything that might create more jobs as long as Obama is President. At the state and local level, as Paul Krugman points out, 70% of the decline in public sector jobs has come in Texas and in the states where Republicans took control of government in 2010.

What we see from the Trustees Report is that as jobs and income decline, Social Security is directly harmed. And I’m starting to have the feeling that for the Republicans, this is a feature, not a bug. crossposted with Middle Class Political Economist

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Guest post: Greg Mankiw doesn’t understand competitio​n for investment

by Kenneth Thomas of Middle Class Political Economy

Greg Mankiw doesn’t understand competitio​n for investment

Greg Mankiw’s column in Sunday’s New York Times makes the case that competition between governments is a good thing, that it makes them more efficient in the same way that competition among firms does. He paints it as also being about choosing re-distributionist policies or not, with Brad DeLong and Harold Pollack both ably making the case that of course governments should engage in redistribution.

As author of Competing for Capital, however, I am more interested in the question of whether government competition for investment leads to more efficient outcomes. The answer, in short, is that it does not. Indeed, competition for investment leads to economic inefficiency, heightened income inequality, and rent-seeking behavior by firms (a further cause ofinefficiency).

Mankiw claims:

…competition among governments leads to better governance. In choosing where to live, people can compare public services and taxes. They are attracted to towns that use tax dollars wisely….The argument applies not only to people but also to capital. Because capital is more mobile than labor, competition among governments significantly constrains how capital is taxed. Corporations benefit from various government services, including infrastructure, the protection of property rights and the enforcement of contracts. But if taxes vastly exceed these benefits, businesses can – and often – move to places offering a better mix of tax and services.

Mankiw doesn’t stop to think about what this competition looks like in the real world. To attract mobile capital, immobile governments offer a dizzying array of fiscal, financial, and regulatory incentives to companies in sums that have been growing over time for U.S. state and local governments, as I document in Competing for Capital and Investment Incentives and the Global Competition for Capital. His discussion centers on the reduction of corporate income tax rates, which is surely a part of the competition, but which is no longer an issue when an individual firm is negotiating with an individual government.

At that level, the issues then become more concrete: Can we keep our employees’ state withholding tax? Can we get out of paying taxes every other company has to pay? Will you give us a cash grant? The list goes on and on. As governments make varying concessions on these issues, you then begin to see the consequences: discrimination among firms (especially to the detriment of small business); overuse and mis-location of capital as subsidies distort investment decisions; a more unequal post-tax, post-subsidy distribution of income than would have existed in the absence of incentive use (a corollary of the fact noted by Mankiw that “capital is more mobile than labor”); and at times the subsidization of environmentally harmful projects. Moreover, many location incentives are actually relocation incentives, paying companies at times over $100 million to move across a state line while staying in the same metropolitan area, with no economic benefit for the region or the country as a whole (Cerner-OnGoal, now in Kansas rather than Kansas City, is a good case in point).

Once upon a time, about 50 years ago in this country, companies made their investment decisions based on their best estimate of the economic case for various locations without requesting subsidies. On the rare occasion when a company did ask for government support, it was at levels that would appear quaint today. For example, when Chrysler built its Belvidere, Illinois, assembly plant in the early 1960s, it asked for the city to run a sewer line out to the facility–and it even lent the city the money to do it.

Today, companies have learned that the site location decision is a great opportunity to extract rents from immobile governments, and invest considerable resources into doing just that. An entire industry has sprung up to take advantage of businesses’ informational advantages over governments–and, indeed, intensify that asymmetry–to make rent extraction as effective (not “efficient”!) as possible.

Finally, let’s reflect on the force that makes this process happen, capital mobility. The fact that capital has far greater ability to move geographically than labor does, and that governments of course are geographically bound to one place, is a source of power for owners of capital. Modern economists, especially conservatives and libertarians, often have great difficulty acknowledging the role of power in market transactions, though their ostensible hero, Adam Smith, did not. To treat this power as a natural phenomenon rather than a social one, as Mankiw does, is dangerously close to saying that might makes right. But that’s not the way things are supposed to work in a democratic society, or a moral one.

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Guest post: U.S. has 18th best unemployment benefits in OECD

Guest post by Kenneth Thomas of Middle Class Political Economist

U.S. has 18th best unemployment benefits in OECD; also trails 13 non-OECD countries

Tim Vlandas at EU Welfare States flags some important recent International Monetary Fund data on the generosity of a number of countries’ unemployment benefits. The metric used is the gross replacement rate (GRR) the ratio of unemployment benefits to a worker’s previous wages.

The United States gives, on average, a miserly 27.5% of previous wages in unemployment benefits, behind 17 OECD members, though ahead of 11 others (no data was given for OECD members Iceland, Luxembourg, Mexico, Slovak Republic, and Slovenia). Not only that, the U.S. falls behind 13 non-OECD members, including Algeria, Taiwan, and Ukraine, all of which have at least double the replacement rate of the U.S.

Why is this important? As Vlandas points out,

A high replacement rate…ensures that the negative effects of rising unemployment on aggregate demand are mitigated. It also prevents workers from falling into poverty when they lose their jobs.

Furthermore, the generosity of unemployment insurance interacts with the state of other employment protections. As regular readers of this blog will recall, the United States has the absolute worst employment protections in the OECD, by a large margin compared to most other members. As commenter Norm Breyfogle rightly noted in response to that post, if your protection from both individual and mass firings are weak, you really need good unemployment insurance. As the data here show, however, U.S. workers are not well-protected with unemployment insurance.

I won’t reproduce Vlandas’ entire table, but I will highlight the leaders and some other significant countries.

To compare it in another way, according to an IMF working paper (Figure 1, p. 21), the average GRR for high-income countries in 2005 was about 38%, compared to the United States’ 27.5%. U.S. workers get relatively low unemployment benefits compared to other industrialized countries.
Moreover, as I showed in February, the length of unemployment is at its longest since record-keeping started in 1947. The following FRED graph gives both the mean and median length of unemployment, both of which hit double their previous record in the current jobs recession.
FRED Graph
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Thus, in a country where employment protections are weaker than in any comparable nation, and which is still just below postwar records for length of unemployment, we face the additional problem of low unemployment benefits, a factor which exerts an additional drag on growth.

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Guest post: Top 1% Reduced Taxes in Last 3 Years but Probably Gained Income Share

Guest post by Kenneth Thomas

Top 1% Reduced Taxes in Last 3 Years but Probably Gained Income Share

Citizens for Tax Justice came out with a nice report today showing that the overall U.S. tax system is just barely “progressive,” which is to say that as your income goes up, so does your tax rate. While the federal income tax is progressive in this sense, many state and local taxes, such as sales and property taxes are regressive in that lower income people pay higher percentages of their income than do higher income people. The following table from CTJ makes this crystal clear:

As the right-hand portion of the table shows, as income rises federal taxes (individual and corporate income, estate tax, etc.) increase as a percentage of income, from 5.0% of income for the lowest 20% of earners to 21.1% for the top 1% of taxpayers. Meanwhile, state and local taxes move in exactly the opposite direction, from 12.3% of income for the lowest 20% to 7.9% for the top 1%. As CTJ further points out, for every income group the share of total taxes they pay is extremely close to their share of total income (in fact, the biggest difference is 1.7 percentage points).

We already knew, thanks to Emmanuel Saez, that in 2010, the top 1% got 93% of all income gains. With the new 2011 data, we find that the top 1% has continued to make out like gangbusters. As I reported in August, using data from the conservative Tax Foundation, in 2008 the top 1% earned 20.00% of all income. As we see in the table above, just three years later that has grown to 21.0%. Considering that the 2011 data is estimated, perhaps this change is not too significant. But what is really striking is that the top 1% paid only 21.1% of its income in all federal taxes in 2011, whereas in 2008 it paid at a rate of 23.27% for personal income tax alone.

Since the top 1% gets an even more disproportionate share of corporate income and taxable estate income than it does of personal income, this is solid evidence that it’s a real reduction we are seeing. I hate to sound like a broken record, but it’s really true that there is one tax system for the 1% and another one for the rest of us.

crossposted with  Middle class political economist

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Guest post: America Shows No Increase in College Graduation Rates over the last 30 Years

Guest post by Kenneth Thomas

America Shows No Increase in College Graduation Rates over the last 30 Years

Jared Bernstein (via Paul Krugman) highlights an amazing breakdown in the prospects for reducing economic inequality any time soon. Over the last 30 years, the U.S. has made no progress whatsoever in increasing college graduation rates. To be specific, 25-34 year olds in 2009 had a college degree rate of about 40%, almost exactly the same as for 55-64 year old baby boomers. In the meantime, other industrialized countries were racking up substantial gains, most spectacularly in the case of South Korea where a little over 10% of 55-64 year olds have college degrees, but more than 60% in the 25-34 age group do. If you want to understand how South Korea has gone from a poor developing country to an industrial powerhouse within our lifetimes, this is one big reason.

Here are the overall results for OECD and select non-OECD countries for the two periods:

As we can see, the U.S. has fallen from a tie for second with Canada among current OECD members (Russia is not a member) to 15th in the OECD. The big question is why this is happening. One major reason is rising college costs, which have far outstripped overall inflation.

Note: Average annual rate of growth of published prices in inflation-adjusted dollars over a 10-year period. For example, from 2000-01 to 2010-11, average published tuition and fees at private four-year colleges rose by an average of 3.0% per year beyond increases in the Consumer Price Index. See link above for further data on tuition and fees plus room and board.

View Notes and Sources

As we can see, the rate of cost increase for public four-year universities was the most rapid of all. One big reason for that, of course, is reduced state support of higher education. Citing State Higher Education Executive Officers, the National Conference of State Legislatures reports that state appropriations per student, at $6928 in fiscal year 2009, was more than $1000 below its FY 2001 peak, and lower in real terms “than in most years since FY 1980” (p. 1).

As Bernstein argues, Pell grants are one way to offset this problem, and he points out that the Obama administration has strengthened the program. However, the Ryan budget would slash Pell grants, among many other programs, in order to fund a tax cut for millionaires of almost $400,000, per Bernstein.

As Alan Krueger noted in January, there is a strong relationship between higher inequality and lower social mobility. The OECD data show that the U.S. is making no progress on one of the most important tools for social mobility, college. If access to higher education in this country actually declines, as it is threatening to do, our inequality problem will become infinitely harder to solve.

crossposted with Middle Class Political Economist

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