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

Continuing Resolution (H.R. 1) links

The Continuing Resolution (H.R. 1) was introduced Friday night. Information about the bill (copy of the legislation, bill summary, list of program cuts, and the subcommittee savings tables) is linked here:

Appropriations Committee Introduces CR Containing Largest Spending Cuts in History
February 11, 2011

CR Spending Cuts to Go Deep
February 9, 2011

Rogers Announces Intent to Cut $100 Billion in the Continuing Resolution
February 10, 2011

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Simon Johnson on the apparent new deal in politics

Baseline Scenario links to Simon Johnson’s thoughts on current practice of politics. Well worth the time to read and comment.

Delusions Of Fiscal Grandeur
by Simon Johnson

If you honestly believe that investors will happily buy up any amount of US government debt (at low interest rates) for the indefinite future, then relax.  The tax deal passed yesterday should make you happy.

But if you fear that the US will soon be tested by financial markets – just as the eurozone is being tested today – then please read my column,”Voodoo Economics Revisited“, which is now on the Project Syndicate website.  There is a well-established tradition in the Republican Party of thinking that tax cuts cure all ills; many in the Democratic leadership have apparently now fallen into line.  We need to think hard about what our fiscal crisis will look like – and who will end up being hurt the most.

Another link to the column: http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/johnson15/English

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A Proposed Bet for Professors Bryan Caplan and David R. Henderson

by Mike Kimel

A Proposed Bet for Professors Bryan Caplan and David R. Henderson (and Anyone Else Who Believes Lower Taxes Generate Faster Economic Growth)
Cross posted at the Presimetrics blog.

Professors Caplan and Henderson,

Both of you have had recent posts that indicate you have some enthusiasm for betting on economic outcomes. (Your co-blogger at Econlog, Arnold Kling seems less enthusiastic about bets, and thus I have not addressed him by name here.) I have a few criticisms of your approach to betting. The first is that, frankly, y’all are betting on some rather peripheral issues. Why not cut to the chase? Why not propose a bet on something vital to your way of thinking but with which many people disagree? For example, as libertarians you believe that lower marginal tax rates on the “producer class” result in faster economic growth in a well-functioning, more or less market based economy, and that this outcome can be observed in the US economy. (Forgive the wordiness, but I want to be precise so you don’t think I’m trying to trap you up in a technicality or some oddball example.) I believe you are generally wrong, at least about the US economy. Many people share your beliefs, and many people share mine, so this would be an ideal topic on which to bet if your goal is to prove a point.

Another criticism I have of the bets I’ve seen you propose is that your bets tend to be based on a small number of events, typically one or a handful of observations occurring over ten years or less. But that is too short a period to leave out the effect of random fluctuations, acts of God, or long running conditions. For example, though I haven’t verified the data myself, I understand that it has been pointed out that had the Julian Simon bet (a favorite of Professor Henderson’s) occurred a few years later results would have been different. A truly fair bet would look at more data. In fact, an ideal bet would look at many different overlapping long time periods. Results over ten year windows, twenty windows, thirty year windows, etc., would all combined to ensure that the results aren’t just an artifact of the data.

Another safeguard which helps get at a “true outcome” rather than some random fluctuation is to consider whether the effect you are looking at can have lags of different lengths. For example, it may be that the marginal tax rate in 2010 might affect growth rates from 2009 to 2010, or from 2010 to 2011, or from 2010 to some later year. After all, as any libertarian would say, if you pay less in taxes this year, it means more money in your pocket this year. Since you spend more efficiently than the government, that creates more growth this year, and that additional growth has positive effects next year too. Of course, at some point, the future effects of today’s tax rates dissipate. Not having a precise theory, it probably pays to consider several of these “effect periods” to (perhaps) coin a term.

The third problem I have with your bets is that, frankly, it takes too long to find out who won. Professor Henderson indicates in one post that he’ll probably be settling up with the estate of fellow bettor. If bets are intended as a way to help move the field, not to say the bettors beliefs, forward, results have to come in more quickly to make an appreciable difference. Now, at first glance, this last complaint kind of clashes with my previous criticism that ten years of data is just not enough. But if you think about it, there’s an easy way to square the circle: the obvious solution is to bet on outcomes that occurred on the past.

Now, before you say that’s silly, hear me out. You wouldn’t (dare I say couldn’t?) be a libertarian if you didn’t believe that historically, economic growth in the US was faster when the marginal income tax rates on what you would term the productive class were lower than when they were higher. And in the unlikely event you’ve read anything I’ve written, whether on the Presimetrics or Angry Bear blogs, or the book I cowrote with Michael Kanell, you would be aware that I am pretty certain the US economy is not characterized by such a relationship between marginal tax rates and economic growth. Simply put, what each of us knows about the past contradicts what the other knows. At least one of us has to be wrong.

Given how bet-happy you all are, and your core beliefs, I would have expected you to propose this one (not necessarily to me, who you no doubt don’t know from Adam) a long time ago. To be precise, here’s the bet I would have expected you to issue:

For the vast majority (say, at least 70%) of overlapping windows, the correlation between top marginal individual income tax rate and the growth in real GDP will be negative. Windows of data to be considered are ten years long, twenty years long, etc., through sixty or seventy years long. Growth rates to be compared with marginal tax rates at time period t include t – 1 to t, t to t+1, t to t+2, t to t+3, t to t+4, and t to t+5.

Now, I could see variations of that bet. For instance, Professor Henderson has indicated in a recent working paper that he doesn’t believe National Accounts data for the WW2 years are accurate, so perhaps he would structure the bet to only use data from 1946 on, rather than the 1929 on which is possible with the official BEA data. Alternatively, perhaps t to t+5 might seem a little much to consider, or perhaps one would prefer to include t to t+x where x is something larger than 5. Nevertheless, this is very close to the bet I would have expected to be proposed from people with strong libertarian beliefs who like to engage in wagers on economic outcomes.

One other thing – notice that I indicate the correlations should be negative well over half the time. I have yet to hear a libertarian hedge when he/she tells me about the benefits of lower taxes. Getting a touch above 50% just doesn’t fit that with that sort of certainty, and is more akin to random fluctuation, is it not? (But don’t worry, where we’re going, the distinction between 50.00001% and something more appropriate to your level of certainty won’t matter.)

What is left is to consider – what should have been the size of the bet we should have expected to see. Now, Professor Caplan has recently noted:

But why are small sums enough to deter 95%+ of the people who disagree with me? I see two main reasons:

1. We aren’t just betting $100. We’re betting $100 plus reputation plus bragging rights. That’s why I prefer to bet the famous. The Simon-Ehrlich victory wouldn’t have been nearly as awesome if Simon bet a random Malthusian.

2. Many spouses, perhaps most, disapprove of betting. They think you’re irresponsible when you bet, and stupid when you lose. Imagine how badly they’d react if the stakes were $25k! Even the victor might find himself stuck in the doghouse.

So… $100 plus bragging rights is about right. Of course, I’m not famous, so I doubt the bet would have been issued to me. I would have taken the $100 bet, though, if offered. More – well, probably not, despite my certainty, given item number 2. Nevertheless, I am surprised that neither of you offered this bet to someone.

But here’s the thing. You would have lost that bet. And we’re not talking by a smidge, we’re talking by a country mile… or seventeen and a half.

Here’s what I get:


by Mike KimelFigure 1.

(Note – you might have to click on the figure to see it in full. It seems to cut off on my browser. The same is true of the next figure.)

The way to read this graph…. consider the cell with t to t+3 on the horizontal and 50 years on the vertical. That cell has 62.1% in it. That indicates that of the 29 fifty year windows in which you can measure the growth in real GDP from a given year to three years later, 18 of them (or 62.1% of them) show a positive correlation between the top marginal tax rate. That is to say, in 62.1% of those windows, growth is faster when top marginal tax rates are higher than when tax rates are lower.

Notice… most of the squares have numbers above 50% in them. That means, in most situations we considered, more often than not, the correlations between marginal tax rates and growth rates are positive, not negative. When the negative correlations do occur, they tend to occur over the very short term. Put another way – they have negative repercussions that hit later. (And yes, that is what the table indicates.) Over longer periods of time, the percentage of time positive correlations are observed approaches 100%. This cannot in any way be reconciled with libertarian theory.

FWIW, the table above represents a grand total of 1,652 observed correlations between the top marginal tax rate and growth rates of real GDP. 56.5% of those correlations are positive.

Note… I haven’t included it in the table, but for giggles I checked the t to t+10 results. For ten and twenty year windows, the percentages are below 50%. For thirty year windows and up, the percentages are above 50% and go above 70% at 40 year windows and hit 100% at the 70 year windows. Put another way… t to t+10 looks an awful lot like t to t+4.

Now, say you’re Professor Henderson and you want to discard the data through the end of WW2. In that case, you come out looking even worse:

Figure 2.

Now, 64.6% of all the correlations observed are positive.

Now, this post is starting to get awfully long, so let me wrap it up. I think you should offer this bet. In fact, my advice to any libertarian or conservative is to offer to make this bet. Sure, its easy for me to say, because the bet goes against you, but I promise if you offer the bet or something similar I will refrain from jumping in so I’m not making that suggestion for personal gain. The reason I think you should offer this bet is that, knowing you’d lose gives only a few options:

1. You can change your beliefs.
2, You can tapdance into the opposite result. To some extent, that’s where the economic profession is now. There are any number of studies by well known academics that show that cutting taxes lead to faster economic growth under some or most conditions, and they all require either weird special cases or assumptions that, frankly, could be used to show that a 400 year old sketch of a chicken is a nuclear submarine.
3. You can pretend none of this ever happened.
4. You can show there is a problem with what I have done or proposed.

Now, its possible I’ve made a mistake, but to repeat myself, if you’ve read anything I’ve written before, you’ll find that I’ve been on a “the data shows that lower taxes do not equal faster economic growth” kick for a long time. I’ve gotten here every which way, using data from all sorts of sources and at all levels of granularity. In this case, I’m guessing that if you included windows of 11, 12, 13, etc. years, you might push the percentage of positive correlations down. For all I know, with judicious fiddling, you might even get to a point where a slight majority of cases have a negative correlation. I don’t have an institute or a university paying me to make this sort of argument and I’m running out of spare time this afternoon. But even if you got that percentage down a bit – the libertarian position is not that lower taxes lead to faster economic growth somewhere around half the time, is it? And frankly, it would take a heck of a lot to get that number down for a Henderson post-WW2 look. And no matter what, you aren’t going to escape one more detail – over longer periods of time, the correlations are overwhelmingly positive. I’d hate be touting the benefits of lower taxes and having to explain that fact.

Moving on, the problem with option 2, the status quo, or option 3, is that its simple enough to show what I’ve shown. The results are there. As noted above, I’ve done this sort of thing so many times, so many ways, with so many different data sets, and at so many levels of granularity. Sooner or later someone that other folks do listen to will discover the same thing. Then what?

As to option 1, well, Upton Sinclair said it best a long time ago, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it.” And frankly, its hard to see GMU or the Mercatus Institute or Hoover or even the blog where you write keeping you on if you start telling people that higher top marginal rates are correlated with faster economic growth. You have a lot to lose if you change your beliefs.

So if you can’t take any of these options, you really need a different approach. And what’s better than going on the offensive? Offer up the bet. Sound confident- a true believer would insist that correlations between lower taxes and faster growth should be there 90% of the time, right? Heck, issue odds. Do that and people might assume you know the results favor your position. People are lazy, and they don’t check. That’s why so many people believe so many things that simply don’t hold up when confronted by data.

Sincerely,

Mike Kimel

PS. The Excel file containing the data and analysis that went into this post is published as a webpage here. I’m not quite sure why but the ten year results seem to have acquired an error upon uploading into google. Everything else seems OK, but should anyone want the original Excel file, drop me a line at mike period and my last name, all at gmail dot com.

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Carried Interest: Senate Getting Swayed by Lobbyists

by Linda Beale

Crossposted with Ataxingmatter

Carried Interest: Senate Getting Swayed by Lobbyists

The Senate started discussion of the “extenders” legislation on Tuesday. IN the House version, HR 4213, there is finally a carried interest provision, though it is a weak one. (Recall that carried interest is the amount that managers of hedge, equity and other partnerships charge for managing assets of the partnerships, so it is compensation income but these “profits” partners claim that their allocations of capital gains from sales of partnership assets should retain capital gain treatment as such allocations do to partners who have contributed capital to a partnership, even though it is a payment for the managers’ services. See earlier postings on A Taxing Matter, here and here (JCT reports) and here (Weisbach study). ) After several years of attempts to tax wealthy fund managers on their compensation the same way that others are taxed–i.e., at ordinary income rates–the House included a revenue offset provision in the extenders bill that will eventually tax 75% of the carried interest at ordinary income rates.

Lobbyists responded that they would work on the Senate to make the bill less distasteful to their clients. So they are lobbying for even lower rates in the Senate. And they are focusing on what they think will be a sympathetic case–family partnerships that run family real estate businesses. A substitute amendment is under consideration, which would change the percentages and grant even more favorable preferential treatment to fund managers for their compensation for services–65% generally, with an even more favorable 45-55 split if the assets are held by the partnership for at least seven years. Text of the substitute amendment, a summary and other information is available at the Senate Finance Committee website on HR 4213.

Just a few comments:

1) the purported economic justification for privileged treatment of fund managers–that there won’t be as much management of funds or funds that invest–is absurd. Fund managers were making money head over heels but still will make most of that money even if they pay taxes on their services income the same way ordinary folks do. They won’t stop acting as fund managers if they have to pay ordinary income rates on their income. There will not be any fewer funds if the managers don’t get the special privileged tax rates that they claim for carried interest. There won’t be any less investing activity. There won’t be any great harm to family partnerships or real estate partnerships or hedge funds or private equity funds. None of the managers of any of these funds merit the exceptionally lucrative tax break that they have been claiming in the carried interest mechanism, and none of them will receive so low a return that they will quit the business if they have to pay the same tax rates that ordinary Americans pay on their services income.

2) Any provision that splits the rate structure is arbitrary, makes the tax Code more complex, invites gamesmanship on holding periods, and will be passed only as a way to appease wealthy donors so that they will continue contributing lots of funds (that should have been paid to We the People as taxes) to individual House and Senate campaign chests of those that are holding out for a “softer” bill.

3) there is no justification whatsoever for a half-way measure in which fund managers are privileged to pay low rates on a substantial part of their income from services, while ordinary taxpayers continue to pay ordinary rates. That sort of “compromise” merely proves that the House and Senate are willing to sell out ordinary taxpayers and continue to favor the wealthy and that fairness loses when the House or Senate is thinking about campaign contributions. The split just proves the outsize influence that lobbyists for the shadow banking system still hold over Congress, even though the unregulated shadow banking system (including hedge and private equity funds and real estate partnerships) was a significant cause of the financial crisis.

4) Accordingly, the House compromise, and the Senate substitute, make a mockery of the basic fairness concept in taxation. The problem with carried interest is that it allows a few financial managers a preferential tax break on their compensation income. The entire Congress is now aware of the fairness problem. In spite of their awareness that there is no justification for the tax break that these wealthy fund managers have claimed for years, lobbyists for the privileged few who have enjoyed this tax break are pushing to retain the break. Since we know that the Senate and House understands that this is an unfair tax break that ordinary Americans do not enjoy and that cannot be justified in any way as a necessary tax expenditure to encourage an activity, then it must mean that the House and Senate are too corrupt to pass decent legislation that treats these wealthy fund managers like ordinary people.

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