Report to Congress confirms large benefits, modest costs of new EPA rules

The Office of Management and Budget just posted a draft of its annual report to Congress on the benefits and costs of federal regulations. This official documentation of all major regulations reviewed by OMB includes an individual listing of the benefits and costs of all such rules finalized by the Obama administration through Sept. 30, 2011 (the end of fiscal year 2011). This listing, Table D-3 found on pages 126-128, includes nine final rules issued by the Environmental Protection Agency and two final rules issued jointly by EPA and the Department of Transportation.

If the monetized benefits and costs of these 11 individual rules are tabulated (hereafter referred to as the “Obama EPA rules”), the results are strikingly positive. As the table at the end of this post indicates:

  • The benefits of the finalized Obama EPA rules are valued at $98 billion a year (all figures in 2010 dollars).  Most of the benefits come from saving lives and other health benefits, but also include economic benefits such as reduced fuel expenditures by consumers or increased worker productivity.
  • The compliance costs of the Obama EPA rules amount to just $8.3 billion a year, or far below one one-thousandth of the economy.
  • The net benefits from these rules is $90 billion a year. The ratio between benefits and costs is 12-to-1.
  • Using methodology I wrote up previously, I estimate the economic benefits from the joint EPA/DOT rules alone, connected to fuel efficiency and greenhouse gas standards for cars, amount to about $13 billion a year, or more than the compliance costs for all 11 Obama EPA rules.

Since the OMB report is designed to cover data only through the end of the previous fiscal year, it does not include EPA’s “air toxics” rule that was finalized on Dec. 16, 2011. This rule has significant compliance costs, amounting to $10 billion a year, but much larger benefits, amounting to $64 billion a year (using the midpoint of the benefit range). Combining this rule with the rules in the OMB report, the benefits of Obama EPA rules finalized to date amount to $162 billion a year, compared to compliance costs of $18.3 billion a year (about one one-thousandth of the economy). The net benefit figure for this combination of EPA rules is $144 billion a year.

Cost-benefit data should not be considered precise, and there are many complexities to such analysis that have not been fully addressed (such as many benefits are not monetized). Nonetheless, the magnitude of the net benefits of the Obama EPA rules shown by this data indicates that they are likely to be of much value to the nation.

(continued)

Annual costs and benefits of major EPA rules finalized during the Obama administration, through Sept. 30, 2011 (in millions of 2010 dollars)

Rule Costs Benefits
Revisions to the Spill Prevention, Control, and Countermeasure -99
NESHAP: Reciprocating Internal Combustion Engines (Diesel) 380 1,604
Light-Duty Vehicles Greenhouse Gas Emission Standards and CAFÉ Standards* 4,060 14,574
Lead: Amendment to the Opt-out and Recordkeeping Provisions in the Renovation, Repair, and Painting Program 354 2,282
Review of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards for Sulfur Dioxide 836 12,860
NESHAP: Portland Cement Notice of Reconsideration 1,038 13,666
NESHAP: Reciprocating Internal Combustion Engines–Existing Stationary Spark Ignition (Gas-fired) 255 838
Water Quality Standards for Florida’s Lakes and Flowing Waters 171 28
SPCC milk amendments -147
Greenhouse Gas Emissions Standards and Fuel Efficiency Standards for Medium- and Heavy-Duty Engines and Vehicles* 606 3,129
Cross-State Air Pollution 843 48,926
           Total 8,297 97,907

*These rules are joint EPA/DOT rules

Source: Table D-3, Draft 2012 Report to Congress on the Benefits and Costs of Federal Regulations and Unfunded Mandates on State, Local, and Tribal Entitities.  EPI converted the data from 2001 dollars to 2010 dollars using the GDP deflator

Ryan’s budget cuts would cost jobs

All budget proposals should be evaluated first and foremost by how they address the most important problems facing the nation. Today that problem is joblessness. Unemployment is still elevated at 8.3 percent, the highest in a generation, while the average duration of unemployment is still at peak levels (about 40 weeks). Poverty rates for young children (under the age of 6) are at their highest recorded levels, while the number of households in extreme poverty (earning incomes of less than $2 per day) has doubled since the mid-1990s. Although the economy has added 735,000 jobs in the last three months, even at this rate it would still take five years before the labor market fully recovered. In short, any policy that fails to address job creation—or at least fails to extend the economic provisions that we’ve already put in place—should be rejected.

Paul Ryan’s latest budget doesn’t just fail to address job creation, it aggressively slows job growth. Against a current policy baseline, the budget cuts discretionary programs by about $120 billion over the next two years and mandatory programs by $284 billion, sucking demand out of the economy when it most needs it and leading to job loss. Using a standard macroeconomic model that is consistent with that used by private- and public-sector forecasters, the shock to aggregate demand from near-term spending cuts would result in roughly 1.3 million jobs lost in 2013 and 2.8 million jobs lost in 2014, or 4.1 million jobs through 2014.*

Of course, this leaves out taxes. Ryan’s proposal involves cutting taxes on corporations, eliminating the Alternative Minimum Tax, maintaining the Bush tax cuts and preferential rates on capital gains and dividends, and consolidating the rate structure into two brackets, 10 percent and 25 percent. He says he’ll pay for these tax cuts (excluding the Bush tax cuts, which are already currently in effect) by eliminating tax expenditures, so it won’t result in revenue loss.

Now, temporary tax cuts can create jobs because they pump more money into the economy and boost consumer and business spending. The payroll tax holiday is one such example. But the fact that Ryan’s tax proposal won’t change net revenue levels in the near-term means that its economic effects will be minimal – and it will certainly not materially offset the job declines stemming from spending cuts. Worse, the composition of Ryan’s tax-shift means that it will likely result in a small job loss because it shifts the tax burden from high-earners to middle-class households. Low-income households will also face higher taxes because Ryan would allow certain tax credits like the Earned Income Tax Credit, Child Tax Credit, and the American Opportunity Tax Credit to fall from their current levels. Redistributing money away from people who spend more of each marginal dollar of disposable income (low- and moderate-income households) to those with much higher savings rates (high-income households) is broadly recognized as leading to a decline in aggregate demand.

*2-year figure in job-years

What’s good for Apple is … just good for Apple

In a conference call with investors Monday, Apple CFO Peter Oppenheimer argued that the company could not repatriate its $65 billion (yes, with a ‘b’) in earnings and investments held overseas because the corporate income tax constituted too large a “disincentive” to do so. This was apparently the latest in a lobbying effort by Apple to have Congress institute a repatriation “tax holiday” similar to one passed in 2004, that saw hundreds of billions of dollars of foreign-held corporate earnings brought back to the country under preferential tax rates.

Calls for another corporate tax holiday have been growing in the past six months, with various pieces of legislation introduced in the House in 2011 that would reward companies that repatriate profits with a low tax rates. These calls for a repatriation holiday are often bipartisan (House legislation introduced in the summer of 2011, for example, is co-sponsored by Utah Democrat Jim Matheson and Texas Republican Kevin Brady).

It is important to note that a repatriation holiday solves no economic problem at all … unless one defines Apple investors’ obligation to pay taxes as a problem.

The best economic case made in favor of such a holiday is that by encouraging U.S. corporations to return their overseas holding to the domestic economy, this will greatly increase the supply of investment capital that can be mobilized to help businesses increase capacity.

But, as we’ve noted over and over again, U.S. businesses today still are not using anywhere near the full amount of capacity they already have. And access to cheap credit for corporations is historically easy. And business investment is the one area of the economy that is actually growing historically fast. And corporations are already sitting on historically large amounts of investable capital. In short, there is no plausible reason at all to think that repatriating foreign earnings provides any relief to the actual economic problems facing the U.S.

What a holiday would do, especially given the 2004 holiday, is convince U.S. corporations that profits earned abroad will always be given an opportunity to be brought home at very low tax rates in the future. And this will provide further incentives to firms to increase the share of their profits that are earned abroad, which means increasing the share of jobs and capacity that is held abroad.

Apple (and other multinationals) already has the chance to defer taxation on profits held overseas – this is a substantial tax benefit already. There is no public policy case at all for giving them and other multinationals another holiday from corporate taxes. Luckily, the Obama administration seems unswayed so far by Apple’s complaints.

State Department right to ban Alaskan fish processing jobs from J-1 visa Summer Work Travel program

Representatives of fish processing companies in Alaska are complaining about the possibility that they might lose access to 4,000 to 5,000 temporary guest workers they hire each year through the State Department’s “Summer Work Travel” (SWT) program, a part of the J-1 visa Exchange Visitor Program originally designed to facilitate a cultural exchange between Americans and citizens of other countries. The companies worry that they won’t be able to find enough workers this summer and that the whole industry will be negatively impacted as a result. The fundamental problem is that the industry has come to depend on an exploitable foreign workforce instead of hiring U.S. workers.

The J-1 SWT program was not designed to be a temporary foreign worker program. Its purpose is to facilitate a cultural exchange between foreign college students and American residents. If fish processors need a workforce, they should look to unemployed Alaskans and other Americans first, and if they still can’t find enough workers, there are other work visa programs that are more appropriate (for example, the H-2B program). Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the State Department should not be persuaded by the fish processors or the two U.S. Senators from Alaska, who have urged the secretary to spare the industry from a ban on using J-1 SWT student workers.

The concern of the fish processors likely stems from an Associated Press story about a leaked memo outlining a number of changes to the SWT program the State Department might implement this year. This includes prohibiting the employment of SWT student workers in seafood processing plants and other potentially dangerous workplaces.

The following is an excerpt from the statement of purpose in the Fulbright-Hays Act, the legislation that created the J-1 Exchange Visitor Program which includes SWT. It clearly states what the program is designed to do:

The purpose of this chapter is to enable the Government of the United States to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries by means of educational and cultural exchange; to strengthen the ties which unite us with other nations by demonstrating the educational and cultural interests, developments, and achievements of the people of the United States and other nations, and … thus to assist in the development of friendly, sympathetic, and peaceful relations between the United States and the other countries of the world.

Even if you read the entire Fulbright-Hays Act, you won’t find anything that suggests a congressional intent to provide employers with a temporary workforce or to help them fill labor shortages. It’s clear the SWT program is not primarily a guest worker program; it is intended to facilitate a cultural exchange. The State Department’s new Guidance Directive outlines this clearly. The work component of this cultural exchange is designed to allow the SWT student worker to interact with Americans and to allow him or her to earn enough money to travel to and within the United States. This allows foreign students from lower-income backgrounds to visit the United States when they otherwise might not be able to afford it. From that perspective, it’s a good thing, but it’s impossible to argue with a straight face that J-1 student workers in Alaskan fish processing plants are experiencing the cultural exchange envisioned in the Fulbright-Hays Act.

A recent investigation revealed an example of what SWT recruiters for fish processing jobs tell potential participants about the cultural exchange program they offer:

“We’re looking for hard workers who are not afraid to work every single day, up to 16 hours a day,’’ said Sarah Russell of Leader Creek Fishing in the village of Nakenak [sic]. “You will make a lot of money in a very short period of time and you won’t spend it anywhere because there’s really nothing to do in Nakenak, other than work.”

That says it all.

Russell admits the J-1 SWT student workers will work long hours – double all-day shifts to be exact. If you work 16 hours a day, when will you have time to interact with other Americans? Perhaps in the workplace? Probably not, since the plant is likely to be staffed with many other SWT workers from around the world. Russell also notes that the job is located in an isolated location with nowhere to shop and nothing to do. I assume that also means there are no cultural or educational activities available locally. How are SWT student workers supposed to interact with Americans and learn about American culture if they live far from them and are working for two-thirds of the day? (Presumably they sleep during the eight hours they have all to themselves.) Quite simply, they can’t, and that’s why it doesn’t make sense to allow fish processing jobs in the SWT program. (more…)

Wisconsin one year later

We recently passed the one-year anniversary of the “uprising” in Wisconsin, which began with a governor allegedly trying to wrestle with state fiscal challenges, and quickly became the focal point for an outright attack on public sector workers. Underlying Gov. Scott Walker’s position was a belief that public sector workers were impeding the state’s economic performance. In the midst of draconian cuts to public sector employment, there emerged outlandish claims  that Wisconsin’s economy was leading the nation in job growth. No single month’s employment numbers should be relied on to tell the story of what’s happening in a state economy. But looking at the longer trend provided by year-over-year data is instructive.


Figure 1 Source:
EPI analysis of BLS data

EPI looks at state employment trends on a monthly basis (the most recent state level data are Jan. 2012 data). Looking comparatively at all states often tells an interesting story, but sometimes it’s good to drill a little deeper, or to look through a lens that examines regional trends.

As seen in Figure 1, overall non-farm employment since Jan. 2011 has rebounded in the Midwestern states surrounding Wisconsin, with Michigan leading the region with Jan. 2012 employment 1.6 percent higher than in Jan. 2011. Wisconsin stands out in the region, lagging with employment significantly lower — by 0.5 percent — in Jan. 2012 than a year earlier.


Figure 2 Source: EPI analysis of BLS data

While Figure 1 showed trends over the last year in overall employment, Figure 2 shows trends in private sector employment. Wisconsin appears to have returned to a “break even” point by Jan. 2012 (noting the caveat above that single month “trends” should be used with extreme caution), but it is still very clearly an outlier amongst its neighboring states.

Our colleagues at the Center on Wisconsin Strategy wrote in June that Gov. Walker should be neither credited (nor blamed) for employment trends that result from factors outside his influence. The trends we see above, however, are substantially within his influence.  We and others have cautioned repeatedly that states that close their budget gaps by laying off public sector workers do so at the peril of their overall economy. To be clear, we are not talking only of the fact that unemployed public sector workers will be added to state unemployment rolls (though they have been in states across the country), but that their ability to contribute to the economy is curtailed by their unemployed status. Because public sector workers are a vital part of every state economy—firefighters, teachers, police officers and department of health officials all buy clothing, groceries, and movie-tickets just like private sector workers—laying them off hurts us all by reducing economic activity, which holds back the recovery.

Fair-minded people would surely agree that we want our governments to make smart policy choices. The data above underscore the results of two policy choices. In one choice, the decision to rescue the auto sector, we see that the result is Michigan leading the region in employment growth. In the other choice, the decision to lay off thousands of public sector workers, we see that the result is Wisconsin lagging behind the region (indeed, the nation) in employment growth.

Public investment and the social contract

On Wednesday I participated in a panel discussion called Public Investment: Key to Prosperity, sponsored by Americans for Democratic Action. Leaving aside the broader case for public investments, I’d like to point out that this topic is important not just because we continue to underinvest in infrastructure, education, and innovation, but because public investments are a powerful messaging tool for progressives. The right is exceedingly effective at demonizing all government spending as wasteful and, in the era of deficit hysteria, greedy as well because it forces us to pass debt on to future generations.

But public investments, which make up about half of all domestic (non-security) discretionary spending, are exactly the opposite of this characterization—they are investments made now, but their benefits accrue to society over decades and sometimes centuries (the Erie Canal has been in operation for nearly 200 years!). The left does well talking about the importance of individual programs, but unless we can start linking it all (or at least many) together under a single conceptual umbrella, we’ll keep losing the budget battles that happen at the macro level.

This message gets to the broader social contract. Elizabeth Warren’s hyper-viral video is really about the role that public investments play in an individual’s success, and the debt that successful taxpayers owe back to society in the form of higher tax rates. For a deeper look at this, check out The Self-Made Myth, which shows how many successful business leaders—from Warren Buffet and Ben Cohen to Donald Trump and Ross Perot—owe their success to government’s investment in them.

China continues to lean against the wind on need for currency revaluation

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao claimed in remarks Wednesday that the yuan’s exchange rate may be close to an equilibrium level. Premier Wen claimed China has already achieved basic balance in international payment, which he defined as a current account surplus below 3 percent of gross domestic product. However, recent data and forecasts from the International Monetary Fund show that although China’s current account surplus is still recovering from the recession, it has never fallen below 5.2 percent of GDP. The IMF projects that China’s current account balance will increase to 7.2 percent of GDP by 2016.

Recent estimates by William R. Cline and John Williamson of the Peterson Institute show that China’s currency remains at least 24 percent undervalued relative to the U.S. dollar. Although China’s currency has been allowed to fluctuate against other currencies, China firmly controls the value of the yuan against the dollar, because the United States is the chief market for China’s exports. Recent appreciation in the yuan (also known as the renminbi) has not been sufficient to reduce China’s global trade surplus to a sustainable level. In 2011, the U.S. trade deficit with China reached $301.6 billion, 14.6 percent more than in 2010. In Jan. 2012, the monthly U.S. trade deficit with China increased again to $26.0 billion, an increase of 12.6 percent over levels in Dec. 2011.

China invested over $330 billion in purchases of new foreign exchange reserves in 2011, and historically about two-thirds of those reserves have been held in U.S.-dollar denominated assets. China is illegally intervening in foreign exchange markets to artificially suppress the value of its currency against the dollar and other currencies. This acts like a subsidy on all Chinese exports, and a tax on all U.S. exports to China. It also limits U.S. exports to every other country in the world because China is our top competitor in world export markets.

History demonstrates that China will not significantly revalue the yuan unless it is faced with threats of significant tariffs or other trade restraints. Congress threatened to impose tariffs in 2005, when the currency was even more undervalued, and China began to revalue but then stopped. Now, China is declaring the problem solved when in reality, it’s far from solved.

Paul Krugman has denounced China for its “predatory” trade policies. Fred Bergsten has described China’s currency intervention as the “largest protection measure adopted by any country since the Second World War – and probably in all of history.” Taking strong measures to end China’s currency manipulation will be good for Chinese consumers because it will lower prices of oil and other commodities in China. It will also create more jobs in the United States and other countries, because it will increase exports and shrink trade deficits. The time has come for the United States to declare China a currency manipulator and to threaten large, across-the-board tariffs unless and until they revalue enough to shrink their massive global trade surpluses.

U.S. sends the right message with WTO complaint on China’s illegal restrictions on rare earth exports

The Obama administration filed a complaint on Tuesday at the World Trade Organization challenging China’s restraints on its exports of rare earth minerals. This much-needed action will be good for both consumers and workers in the United States and other countries. China reacted immediately, promising to defend its actions and threatening that it could trigger further trade disputes. China’s export restraints are a clear violation of its WTO obligations, and it doesn’t have a leg to stand on in this dispute. Ending those restraints will lower prices for a wide range of high-tech products such as solar cells and hybrid and electric vehicles, and it will stimulate job creation in the United States.

The administration’s trade complaint covers tungsten and molybdenum (minerals used in steel production) in addition to rare earths, and includes over 100 specific products. Under the terms of its accession to the WTO, China was allowed to retain export duties at specified rates on 84 commodities. However, it maintains tariffs as well as quotas and other illegal restrictions on exports on rare earths and other metals. China controls 95 percent of the world’s production of rare earths minerals, which are critical ingredients in high-tech manufacturing of products ranging from smartphones to hybrid cars to missiles.  None of the items covered in the administration’s WTO complaint are included in the list of 84 items that China is entitled to restrict with export duties.

Production of rare earths can be damaging to the environment. In 2009, China stopped issuing new licenses for rare earth mines, closed some illegal mines and set domestic production caps. If applied with equal effect to domestic and export sales, such restrictions would be legitimate under the WTO. Higher prices for rare earths will eventually encourage production in other countries that have large deposits, such as Australia, Brazil, Canada, Greenland, South Africa and the United States, but new mines will take five or more years to develop.

By restricting and  taxing rare earth exports, China reduces the costs of these critical materials for their own domestic producers and raises the costs for producers in the rest of the world. Japan and the EU jointly filed the WTO case with the United States. Recent industry data show that the export price of a basket of rare earths from China was more than 120 percent higher than China’s domestic price for the same basket of minerals. Thus, China’s rare earth restrictions unfairly tilt the playing field in favor of its own domestic producers and raise the cost of high-tech products to consumers in the U.S. and other countries. Three U.S. manufacturers of photovoltaic cells, including Solyndra and Everygreen Solar,  have recently declared bankruptcy in the face of cut-throat, subsidized competition from Chinese manufacturers who benefit from plentiful access to cheap rare earths.

China’s illegal policy of restricting rare earth exports is just one of many examples of its unfair trade practices. Massive subsidies to key industries such as auto parts, glass and paper are also hurting domestic industries, and currency manipulation by China and other Asian countries has cost the United States millions of jobs. We applaud strong action by the administration in these cases and look forward to continued strong enforcement of all U.S. fair trade laws by the administration’s planned Interagency Trade Enforcement Center.

–The author thanks Monique Morrissey for comments

The myth of the rich, hungry Chinese consumer

The lead article in Monday’s business section of the Washington Post on the reported “boom” in U.S. exports to China painted an inaccurate and distorted view of U.S.-China trade. Headlined by a photo of Chinese Vice President Xi Ping visiting an Iowa family farm in February, the article claimed that a “richer China” has a “growing appetite for … American soybeans, cars, airplanes and medicine.” While the article does acknowledge the soaring U.S. trade deficit with China, it claims that such exports are a “bright spot.” In fact, those exports are swamped by soaring imports and trade deficits with China, which displaced 2.8 million U.S. jobs between 2001 and 2010 alone.

Review of actual trends in U.S. exports to China paints a very different picture than the one described in the Post article. Waste and scrap were the fastest growing U.S. exports to China, increasing $3.0 billion in 2011 (25.8 percent). The growth in agricultural products ranked a distant fifth on this list, increasing $0.9 billion (6.0 percent). Of the 10 fastest growing exports to China, seven were unprocessed commodities (as indicated by the black bars), including paper products, because 61.0 percent of U.S. paper exports to China in 2011 were unprocessed wood pulp. The vast majority of such exports are used as inputs for making paper and other products for export, not for Chinese domestic consumption.  Overall, although total U.S. exports to China increased $11.2 billion in 2011, imports increased by $34.4 billion and the trade deficit increased $23.3 billion. U.S. export of raw materials so that China, not the United States, can make higher value-added industrial products is an ongoing recipe for the decline of American manufacturing and for North American economic failure.

The Post cites unnamed experts who claimed that the main reason for the increased exports “is a booming China where wealthier tastes include an increased appetite for meat—and hence for soybeans used as livestock feed.” The growth in demand for grains pales in comparison to China’s voracious appetite for waste, paper and metal scrap, chemicals, minerals and ores and raw wood—commodities China turns into job-displacing exports. The rapid growth of Chinese exports to the U.S. and the world are the source of China’s growing wealth, and such wealth has not resulted in exports to China growing “exponentially” (e.g., faster and faster each year), another flawed claim from this report. Exports in 2011 increased at the third-slowest rate since China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001. Export growth was slower only in the recession years of 2008 and 2009. Sadly, our exports to China are more closely tied to China’s demand for U.S. raw materials for its own production and exports than to Chinese consumers’ appetites for our products.

This story would be a good candidate for review by the Post‘s Fact Checker. We give it three Pinocchios.

– The author thanks Ross Eisenbrey and Doug Hall for helpful comments and Hilary Wething for research assistance.

Charles Murray’s failure by design

It is not at all clear what problem Charles Murray is trying to solve in his New York Times piece Narrowing the New Class Divide. But it can’t possibly be the economic inequality that has been growing for the last 30 years. While it is important to equalize the opportunity to internships, no one serious about addressing economic inequality would put this as one of their top four policy recommendations. The same can be said about Murray’s other three ideas.

My colleague, Josh Bivens, presents real policies to address America’s economic inequality in his book Failure by Design. Any one of Biven’s policies listed below would have a larger impact on reducing inequality than all four of Murray’s “solutions.”

  • A higher and indexed minimum wage
  • Strengthening workers’ right to organize
  • Guaranteed retirement and health security
  • A national and more democratic response to globalization
  • Restricting the excesses of the financial sector
  • Managing international capital flows
  • Investments in infrastructure, including educational infrastructure
  • A national commitment to achieving full employment
  • A national commitment to addressing racial inequality

These are the proposals of someone seriously concerned about economic inequality. Murray, on the other hand, selects policies which he admits at the outset “would not do much good.”

Murray’s last book, The Bell Curve, argued that nothing could be done about inequality because it was all genetic. That argument did not go over too well. He has repackaged his thesis, but he is still arguing that nothing can be done to address inequality. But we know better.

High-scoring, low-income students no more likely to complete college than low-scoring, rich students

In the New York Times on March 7, Charles Murray offers some solutions to the class divide, then dismisses them nearly as quickly as he mentions them on the grounds that they wouldn’t actually work or aren’t necessary. Whether his facts on the class divide are accurate is not the subject of this post, but rather a closer look at a couple of his “solutions.”

Murray makes some decent points about the problems with unpaid internships and the benefits they may afford only those who come from families wealthy enough to allow such experiences. Aside from offering children of well-off parents the ability to pad their resume with unpaid internships , my colleague Ross Eisenbrey argues further that illegal unpaid internships are a scourge on the labor market. Murray rightly states that, “Internships that pay the minimum wage are still much more feasible for affluent students than for students paying their own way through college.”

The part of his article that I take issue with are his arguments about access to higher education. Murray suggests replacing ethnic affirmative action with socioeconomic affirmative action (an argument for another day), then later dismisses it as unnecessary, because “a high proportion of academically gifted children from the working class already get scholarships to good schools.”  Let’s take a look at the evidence.

The relevant issue is the quality of education accessible to children from families in different positions in the income scale. The figure below compares the family income of children in the entering classes at top-tier universities.  Nearly three-quarters of those in the top-tier universities come from families with the highest incomes, while 3 percent and 6 percent of the entering class come from the lowest and second lowest income groups, respectively – or, the bottom 50 percent of families.

Still, Murray might argue that those findings represent meritocracy at work, as those from high-income families have, perhaps through their privileged positions, acquired the intellectual tools to succeed at top schools. The second figure belies this argument. This figure shows that even after controlling for academic ability, higher income children are still more likely to complete college. Each set of bars shows the probability of completing college for children based on income and their math test scores in eighth grade. For example, the first set of bars (for the students with the lowest test scores) shows that 3 percent of students with both low scores and low incomes completed college, while 30 percent of low-scoring children from high-income families managed to complete college.

The fact that college completion is higher for each successive income group among similar scoring students is evidence against a completely meritocratic system. The pattern implies that at every level of test scores, higher income led to higher completion rates. The key comparison in this figure is the fact that high-scoring students from low-income families complete college at nearly the same rate as low-scoring, high-income students (29 percent vs. 30 percent). In other words, high-scoring, low-income children are no more likely to complete college than low-scoring, rich children.

In no way do these data suggest that a high proportion of children (gifted or not) from low-income families achieve placement or completion at universities (and definitely not top schools).

Are Liberal Arts majors dragging college grads down?

James Pethokoukis responds to the Wall Street Journal coverage of my analysis of entry-level wages of recent college graduates by implying that the erosion of wages earned by new college graduates is because there are too many Liberal Arts majors. Here’s the chart the Journal published:

The remarkable thing about recent college graduates is that the wages they earn early in their careers fell over the prior business cycle, 2000-07, as well as in the recession. This is the case for both men and women. As usual with Pethokoukis, he does not really supply any data directly on point. Instead, he lists a number of random items about college enrollment and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) degrees as reported by Alex Tabarrok in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education story. In the piece, Tabarrok asks, “If students aren’t studying science, technology, engineering, and math, what are they studying?”

Since Pethokoukis doesn’t supply it, here are data on the distribution of fields of study by young college graduates, ages 18-29, in 2001 and 2009 from the Census’ Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP):

Degree field  2001  2009
Business 17.9% 19.6%
Engineering 6.2% 5.9%
Education 9.5% 8.8%
Math/Science/Computer/Architecture 20.1% 19.7%
Liberal Arts/Social Science/Philosophy 12.4% 11.4%
Literature/Communications/Language 8.5% 8.3%
Other 17.9% 19.7%
Misc* 7.6% 6.6%
Source: Analysis of Census SIPP data for 2001 and 2009
*Population where highest degree is a bachelor’s degree

There’s been no big change in the distribution of fields between 2001 and 2009 that could have led to the fall in wages of recent college graduates relative to those in entry-level jobs in 2001. There are somewhat fewer STEM graduates in 2009. However, wages should have been lifted by the expansion of business majors. To see how all of the changes in composition might have affected wages, I did a shift-share analysis of the field distribution in 2001 and 2009, asking, ‘How has the change in the composition of fields affected the average wage?’ If the 2009 composition (across 18 different majors) of employment across fields prevailed in 2001 at the  wages of each  field in 2001, then the average wage would have been … drum roll … 0.1 percent higher. That is, the impact of changes in the composition of fields over the 2001 to 2009 period was ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. The drop in entry-level wages happened within the particular fields of study, not because of the fields that students studied.

Are Liberal Arts majors dragging everyone down? The SIPP tabulations provided by Census do not have wage data by field for young workers but they do for all workers. The monthly earnings of full-time workers (using Table 4C in 2001 and 2009) with a Liberal Arts degree grew 19.8 percent in inflation-adjusted terms from 2001 to 2009. I suspect that Liberal Arts majors aren’t sabotaging America’s wages.

Oddly enough, I sort of agree with Pethokoukis’ bottom line. He says:

“And rather than pushing students to attend a four-year, brick-and-mortar college in pursuit of the BA, how about business-backed training and apprenticeship programs leading to a high-skill technical degree just like in Germany and some other northern European nations? … More education for all. But not college for all.”

As I wrote in the New York Times’ Room for Debate last week, College Is Not Always the Answer. My bottom line: “We need a nation that has and values all sorts of work and skills, which means providing decent pay and benefits for many types of jobs.”

A jobs bill in substance or acronym only?

Earlier today, the House of Representatives passed the Jumpstart Our Business Startups (JOBS) Act in overwhelming bipartisan fashion (390-23). The JOBS Act is a package of six bills, four of which had already passed the House, and all of which would lift or relax Securities and Exchange Commission rules. The bill is intended to make it easier for small businesses to go public. But as the Washington Post’s Ed O’Keefe notes, “despite its name, Republican leaders couldn’t say how many jobs the bill would help create.” Why? Because cutting red tape doesn’t address the fundamental plight of the U.S. economy: a deep and prolonged aggregate demand slump.

As of Jan. 2012, the U.S. economy had fewer jobs than in Jan. 2001. More than 11 million jobs would be needed to return the unemployment rate to its pre-recession level (5.0 percent). Full employment would not be reached until 2019 if January’s pace of hiring (243,000 jobs added) continues. And the February employment report—due out tomorrow—is projected to show a deceleration in hiring. As of the fourth quarter of 2011, actual economic output fell $883 billion (5.4 percent) below potential economic output. Mass underemployment and a gargantuan output gap can’t be chalked up to red tape—this affliction is the byproduct of the housing market imploding (dragging down with it personal consumption and real estate investment) and fiscal contraction at the state and local level.

Before the administration rolled out the American Jobs Act—which would have substantively accelerated economic recovery—EPI President Larry Mishel spelled out four criteria for evaluating jobs plans:

  • Will the policy make a real difference in job creation in the next 24 months?
  • Is the policy effective and efficient?
  • How is the policy funded?
  • Is the policy at the appropriate scale to produce a substantial number of jobs?

How does the JOBS Act stack up? Well, it won’t make a real difference in near-term hiring. There’s no cost, bang-per-buck, or funding mechanism to be evaluated, period. And rather than being of the wrong scale to produce a substantial number of jobs, the policy is on the wrong scale altogether (the supply side rather than the demand side).

In a divided Congress, bipartisanship is certainly necessary to meaningfully address the jobs crisis at hand, but bipartisan support is hardly a sufficient condition. Restoring full employment requires much more than titling an uncontroversial bill so its acronym spells ‘jobs’ – substantive job creation legislation must noticeably lower the unemployment rate. Unfortunately, the JOBS Act misses that mark altogether.

Mankiw swings and misses in defense of Romney’s carried interest

A couple days ago, Harvard economist Gregory Mankiw tried his best to defend the carried interest tax loophole by blowing smoke at the debate and hoping no one would notice. The carried interest loophole allows hedge fund and private equity managers to reclassify their compensation for management services—a hefty slice of the return on their investors’ capital—as capital gains, which are taxed at a preferential 15 percent rate instead of the top marginal income tax rate of 35 percent. Mankiw is an economic adviser to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who inadvertently thrust the carried interest loophole into the spotlight with his 13.9 percent effective tax rate. But no amount of smoke or sand can cover up Romney’s tax return or a tax code that throws fairness out the window for the millionaires and billionaires in high finance.

Rather than defending carried interest outright, Mankiw muddies the water by leading readers through five examples of varying business arrangements and their respective tax treatment, attempting to illustrate that the line between labor and capital income is often blurred. Fair point. The tax code is complicated and similar modes of economic activity are often taxed differently, violating the principle of horizontal equity. Indeed, the tax code grossly violates the principle of horizontal equity when compensation is reclassified as investment income, as the carried interest loophole allows. Inadvertently, Mankiw is making a strong case for again equalizing the tax treatment of income derived from wealth and income derived from labor (as was done under the Tax Reform Act of 1986). After all, why should the tax code incentivize one compensation arrangement over another?

And Mankiw brushes off the second half of the fairness question: The carried interest loophole and the preferential treatment of capital gains it confers also violate the principle of vertical equity (the basic tenet of a progressive tax code that effective tax rates should rise with income). Instead, he compares Romney to a carpenter specializing in business fixer-uppers, implying that this tax question is about fairness to the middle class. But this is about someone with a net worth between $190 million and $250 million paying less than 15 percent on $21.7 million in income and the principle of vertical equity being undermined where it is most needed (where the money is).

This flaw in the tax code spans well beyond the presidential campaign trail: Private equity firm The Carlyle Group recently disclosed that its three founders each received in 2011 a $275,000 salary, a $3.5 million bonus, and roughly a $134 million share of investment profits, much of which is carried interest. Additional returns on their personal investments in Carlyle ranged from $57 million to $78 million. With so much income taxed at a 15 percent rate, it’s hard to imagine their effective tax rates landing in a different ballpark than that of Romney. The carried interest loophole helps the wizards of high finance to undermine the basic principles of fairness in the tax code. And unless repealed, this Wall Street subsidy will cost taxpayers $13 billion to $24 billion over a decade (the range of estimates in President Obama’s four budget requests, all of which have proposed repealing the carried interest loophole to no avail).

As Alec MacGillis notes, Mankiw’s half-hearted defense of the carried interest loophole is odd because he had previously concluded that, “Deferred compensation, even risky compensation, is still compensation, and it should be taxed as such.” But that was before he became an economic adviser to Romney. One of Mankiw’s famous “10 Principles of Economics” is that people respond to incentives, as he’s aptly proving.

The carried interest tax loophole is simply indefensible, as demonstrated by Mankiw’s fickle muddy-the-water defense. There are certainly gray areas in the tax code, but no amount of smoke can shroud this particular loophole as anything but an egregious subsidy to high finance.

Montana judge’s actions provide an opportunity to confront the origins of America’s racial divide

John Conyers, ranking Democratic member of the House Judiciary Committee, has called for hearings that could lead to the impeachment of chief federal district Judge Richard Cebull of Montana. Common Cause president Bob Edgar called for Cebull’s resignation last week. A New York Times editorial has now weighed in with a similar call. Cebull acknowledges having sent an email to friends with a racist “joke” about President Obama, suggesting that the president could well have been born from the union of a drunken white woman and a dog.

Whatever the future holds for the judge himself, the best broader outcome from these events would be congressional hearings or other national discussion about the country’s historic and ongoing racial segregation. Unless we can come to a national understanding of the public policies that have produced a segregated society, there is little chance of developing consensus around policies to address it.

Montana’s experience is on point. At a time when, as we have recently reported, racial segregation persists, and may even be intensifying, such discussion is urgently needed. It is unlikely that the country can address the twin and mutually reinforcing crises of economic and racial inequality if it fails to examine how we arrived at this juncture.

Few blacks now interact with Judge Cebull and his circle in Helena, Mont., or in the state as a whole. This is not because blacks never settled in Montana but because, early in the 20th century, African Americans in Montana and its neighboring states were forcibly removed by the formal and informal actions of public officials and an organized white community.

In Helena, Montana’s capital where Judge Cebull now holds court, there was a black literary society founded in 1906 that heard presentations by local black poets, playwrights, and essayists. The society’s weekly attendance of 100 was about as large as the entire black population of Helena today.

In that same year, Helena’s chief county prosecutor told a jury, “It is time that the respectable white people of this community rise in their might and assert their rights.” Such incitement was successful in Helena, elsewhere in Montana, and throughout the nation during the first few decades of the 20th century.

As blacks were driven from towns in Montana and elsewhere, a series of federal, state, and local policies reinforced their concentration in urban ghettos. The public has largely forgotten this history of segregation that has bequeathed us, in the words of a 1968 presidential commission, “two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” Unless we can come to a national understanding of the public policies that have produced a segregated society, there is little chance of developing consensus around policies to address it.

Read more on this issue in my commentary published earlier today.

Cuts to state and local governments are particularly hard on women

Paul Krugman and Jared Bernstein have written recently of the seemingly contradictory forces at work today in government policy. On the one hand are the stimulus efforts of the Obama administration and the federal government, which have had a measurable impact in reducing unemployment and aiding the recovery. On the other hand are the dramatic cuts to state and local budgets that these governments have made in the wake of the Great Recession. States have had to deal with the largest drop in state revenues ever recorded, and the resulting deficits have meant huge jobs losses among state and local workers.

I have commented on these job losses a few times before, so this time around I want to highlight the gender dynamics a bit. These cuts to state and local government workforces, while a significant drag on the economy as a whole, are particularly damaging for women. In 2011, women made up 46.6 percent of the overall labor force, but among state and local workers, about 60 percent are women. Because women are so disproportionately represented in state and local jobs, they also have taken the brunt of the job losses in state and local governments. Of the net change in total state and local employment between 2007 and 2011—a decline of roughly 765,000 jobs—70 percent of the drop is from female employees. Today, there are about 540,000 fewer women in state and local jobs than in 2007, compared with about 225,000 fewer men.

One other way to look at this is through the proportion of people from state and local jobs currently unemployed.  According to the Current Population Survey, in 2011 women made up about 62 percent of those who reported that they were unemployed and that their most recent job was from the state or local government sector. This is lower than the female share of the net change in state and local jobs mentioned above, suggesting that some of the women who lost state and local jobs since the recession have either found private sector work or exited the labor force.   Nevertheless, it is still larger than the overall female share of state and local employees.

It’s worth noting that since the recession began, men have faced larger job losses than women in the private sector. But as of Jan. 2012, the overall unemployment rate for both genders is the same at 8.3 percent. In fact, when you look at the gender breakdown of the employment to population ratio—the proportion of the total population currently employed—the most recent figures show improvement only for men. The ratio for men declined from 69.8 percent in 2007 to a low of 63.3 percent in Dec. 2009. It has since risen a bit, up to 64.5 percent in Jan. 2012 (still one of the lowest percentages on record.) For women, however, the employment to population ratio in 2007 was 56.6 percent and it has fallen virtually every month since then, hitting 52.9 percent in Jan. 2012. It has not been that low since 1987.

The top 1% recoups lost ground

Emmanuel Saez updated his valuable series on income trends to include 2009 and 2010 and finds, not surprisingly, that those in the top 1 percent started seeing a strong recovery in 2010 and have recouped some of the ground lost in the downturn.

I reached the same conclusion a while back based on my analysis of wage data for the top 1 percent through 2010 which showed: the recession and financial crisis crunched the wages at the top from 2007 to 2009 but the top 1 percent experienced wage gains in 2010 while the bottom 90 percent actually saw losses. (See the graph.)

The trends in capital gains is another important piece of all this. In response to the misguided claim that the financial crisis ended concerns about income inequality (“We don’t want to spend years focused on income inequality, only to learn that the financial crisis fixed it for us,” said one observer), Nicholas Finio and I showed that realized capital gains trends are volatile and correspond to the stock market. This historic pattern would have led top incomes to fall over 2007-09 and then start recovering in 2010. So, with wages of the top 1 percent recovering and the stock market growing, it makes sense that the incomes at the top fared well in 2010 as the Saez data show, regardless of whether the income measures include or exclude realized capital gains.

Paul Krugman has already commented and Mike Konczal  has offered his analysis. I am going to focus on what segments of the income distribution have recovered and by how much, as the following table does, showing the income shares of the top 1 percent and the rest of the top 10 percent for the recession years and for 1979, which is a useful historic benchmark.

Household Income Shares
Top 1% Bottom
Year Top 0.1%  Next 0.9% All top 1%  90-99 %  0-90
Income excluding capital gains
1979 2.2 5.9 8.0 24.3 67.7
2007 8.2 10.2 18.3 27.3 54.3
2008 7.8 10.1 17.9 28.1 54.0
2009 7.0 9.6 16.7 28.8 54.5
2010 7.5 9.9 17.4 28.8 53.7
Change
2007-09 -1.1 -0.5 -1.6 1.5 0.2
2009-10 0.5 0.3 0.7 0.1 -0.8
Income excluding capital gains  
1979 3.4 6.5 10.0 24.3 65.8
2007 12.3 11.2 23.5 26.2 50.3
2008 10.4 10.5 20.9 27.3 51.8
2009 8.3 9.8 18.1 28.4 53.5
2010 9.5 10.3 19.8 28.1 52.1
Change
2007-09 -4.0 -1.4 -5.4 2.1 3.2
2009-10 1.2 0.4 1.7 -0.3 -1.4
Source: Mishel analysis of Piketty and Saez. 2012

The top panel shows the changes in income shares using an income measure that does not include realized capital gains. Note the income share of the top 1 percent fell 1.6 percentage points between 2007 and 2009 with the largest fall among the very top 0.1 percent. Equally interesting is that almost of the income share lost by the top 1 percent was captured by the next 9 percent, those in the 90th to 99th percentiles. That is, the great redistribution that occurred happened almost totally among the top 10 percent and did not benefit the bottom 90 percent of households. From 2009 to 2010, the top 1 percent recouped almost half the income share lost in the downturn (gaining 0.7 percentage points of the 1.6 percentage points lost) and the 90-99th percentiles gained a bit more, up 0.1 percentage points. That means, by the way, that the bottom 90 percent saw their income share fall by 0.8 percentage points from 2009 to 2010. As for inequality reversing itself, note that even at the low point following the recession, 2009, the income share of the top 1 percent was 16.7 percent, still more than double the share in 1979 of just 8.0%. Not quite a reversal.

Income losses for the top 1 percent when realized capital gains are included in the income measure (in the bottom panel) were steeper. This follows from the fact that the top 1 percent receives a huge share of all capital gains. Using this measure, the lower income shares of the top 1 percent corresponded to an increased share among both the next 9 percent and the bottom 90 percent (seen by the fact that not all of the losses of the top 1 percent were gained by the next 9 percent). With this more inclusive income measure, the top 1 percent has recouped in 2009-10 only about 30 percent of what was lost from 2007 to 2009. Even with a shrunken income share in 2009 of 18.1 percent, however, the top 1 percent still has a substantially higher income share than 1979′s 10.0 percent. Again, not quite a reversal.

The top 1 percent may not regain the extraordinary income shares obtained in 2007 or in 2000, so it may be that income inequality peaked in those earlier years. Nevertheless, we can count on a few things. One is that the top 1 percent will see its share of income expand in the current recovery. A second is that income inequality, at least as measured by the income shares at the very top, will remain very high and much greater than what prevailed at the end of the 1970s. The forces at work driving up income inequality are still in place.

Economic growth will not come to Mitt Romney’s rescue

Last year, Mitt Romney released a budget plan that achieved a remarkable trifecta: massive cuts to the social safety net, higher taxes on low-income households, and a roughly $2 trillion increase in debt over 10 years relative to a continuation of current policies. He pulled this off by boosting defense spending by $1.6 trillion and cutting taxes (mostly for high-income taxpayers) by $1.4 trillion, which together were so costly that they consumed all of the aforementioned savings and then some.

Last month, he revised this proposal. Did he pull back on his tax cuts, realizing that they’re too expensive and unfair in light of the huge sacrifices that he’s demanding of middle- and lower-income Americans? Or perhaps he reversed his defense build-up, now cognizant of the fact that the international challenges of tomorrow will have more to do with economic competitiveness than the size of the Seventh Fleet?

Hahahaha… no. Instead, he concluded that his tax cuts for high earners weren’t enough. So he doubled down—actually, tripled down—by proposing another $3.4 trillion tax cut, reducing marginal income rates by 20 percent (the top rate would fall from 35 percent to 28 percent) and eliminating the Alternative Minimum Tax, which is mainly paid by high earners.

From Flickr Creative Commons by NewsHour

His campaign states that this new tax cut will be fully paid for with a combination of tax expenditure limitations on high earners, spending cuts, and economic growth. We don’t know the details of the tax expenditure limitations, but we do know that the Feldstein proposal—popular in conservative circles—would only cover about 15 percent of the cost of these new tax cuts, and likely less. His spending cuts are already more than offset by his previous tax cuts, so that’s out. That leaves economic growth.

Problem is, there’s no way his tax cuts can generate enough additional economic growth (and associated revenue) to cover anywhere near 85 percent of these tax cuts’ price tag. Even the most favorable studies, with the most favorable assumptions, find that economic growth effects may offset a maximum of 10-20 percent of tax cuts’ static cost. Under the George W. Bush administration, the Treasury Department found that the Bush-era tax cuts recouped only 7-10 percent of their cost through macroeconomic effects. The Congressional Budget Office, under noted Republican and supply-sider Douglas Holtz-Eakin, found that the economic impact of a hypothetical across-the-board tax cut could only cover 19 percent at best (more if it were financed by tax increases after 10 years, but Romney’s anti-tax pledge rules that out) and -3 percent at worst (in this case, the tax cut would be a net drag on the economy). Most tellingly, Romney’s own economic advisor, Greg Mankiw, found that a hypothetical cut to ordinary income rates would offset less than 15 percent of its own cost over 10 years.

And each of those estimates assumes that households have unlimited foresight (likely false) and ignore the long-run impact of budget deficits on the economy by magically assuming that the deficit is stabilized. Estimates using more realistic assumptions often find that permanent, deficit-financed tax cuts skewed to high-income taxpayers actually slow long-run growth.

In Romney’s Wall Street Journal editorial accompanying his tax plan revisions, he stated that “offering gimmicky proposals that rely on implausible levels of economic growth and blow huge holes in the budget is easy. Fixing our very serious problems is not.” Clearly, he’s taken the easy route.

Pushing back against illegal unpaid internships

My appearance on The Colbert Report and an earlier blog post about unpaid internships have generated a lot of thoughtful comments and some heartbreaking stories about how hard it is to find a paying job today, even with a graduate degree. I’d like to respond to some of the comments, remind readers that this is an international problem, and point out some resources for interns who feel abused by their employers.

First, the comments. A few readers were still confused about what is legal and what isn’t, and about what legal changes I am advocating.

Certain nonprofits do not have to pay volunteers, including interns. I think there are ethical problems with nonprofits that pay their executives hundreds of thousands of dollars a year but can’t scrape up the funds to pay their interns the minimum wage. And I think it limits access to full political participation and social mobility when entry-level positions in government or nonprofits are taken by the sons and daughters of well-off parents, who support them while they work unpaid. Working class and poor kids don’t have that option and will be denied important opportunities if congressional and executive branch internships or internships in nonprofit organizations that are pre-requisites for formal, paid employment are unpaid. But I am not advocating changes in the law.

Rather, I am calling for enforcement of the law as it already is and for employers to abide by the law, which says that work performed for the benefit of a private sector, for-profit business must be paid at no less than the federal minimum wage ($7.25/hour). In the District of Columbia, Santa Fe, N.M., San Francisco, and in many states, the minimum wage is higher than $7.25 an hour. Unpaid internships in for-profit businesses are already illegal unless they meet every element of the strict six-part test provided by the U.S. Department of Labor.

My blog post sparked a lively debate about the role of universities in promoting unpaid internships. One commenter, Heather Krasna, disagreed strongly with my statement that “universities have a cozy deal collecting tuition for semesters in which their students get farmed out as free labor to employers.” Heather’s response? The fault lies with employers, not the schools:

“The deal with college credit is not that it benefits universities. It absolutely does NOT benefit the universities. The reason students have to take credits for internships is that employers believe that it absolves them of the 6 prong minimum wage test– i.e. if a student gets college credit for their work, they are no longer an unpaid slave laborer, instead they are a “trainee” and the internship is proven to be a “learning experience” (i.e. college credit=proof the internship is not a job). So, the reason universities often allow/accept students’ getting credit for unpaid internships is that the university is being directly and loudly pressured by students who want desperately to get work experience and are being told by an employer that they can’t work for free unless they get credit. Universities, rather than telling their students that they are not going to be allowed to get relevant work experience, cave in and push their faculty to offer credit to avoid students (and their parents) from making a fuss that the university “is standing in the way” of the students’ career experience.”

But another commenter, FiredCareerCounselor, disagrees and puts the blame squarely on the schools:

“Make no mistake that unpaid internships are advocated by institutions of higher education as a means of generating huge revenue by exploiting students.  The college where I work recently mandated internship for ALL students. When I expressed concern about the legal and ethical ramifications, I was replaced. Even at our small, public university, students leave with staggering student-loan debt.  To think we’re MANDATING a work-for-free policy, is shameful.  Here’s hoping for precedent-setting in the Hearst case, so students can earn tuition money via internship, and career centers can return to the business of getting students jobs, not volunteer positions!”

Ross Perlin, in his seminal book, Intern Nation, cites Gina Neff, a professor at the University of Washington who has studied communications internships and calls internship tuition credits a significant revenue stream for colleges and universities. “It’s a dirty little secret” that internships represent “a very cheap way to provide credits…cynically, a budget balance.” But whether universities are being thrown into the briar patch or climbing in themselves, the result is the same: Students are effectively forced into paying for work (by paying for course credits) that they ought instead to get paid for doing. (more…)

Reagan, Keynes, government spending, jobs. Redux.

The blogosphere has batted around a good graph recently (from Antonio Fatas to Mark Thoma to Paul Krugman) showing the weakness of direct government spending (i.e., not including transfers) in the current recovery.

This is worth repeating, and not just because I said it a while back, but because the economic implications are huge. If government spending after the 2007 business cycle peak had seen the 19 percent cumulative growth that characterized the 16 quarters after the 1981 recession, this would have led to government spending that was higher by 3.2 percent of overall GDP by the end of 2011. Assume a reasonable multiplier of around 1.25 for government purchases (it’s probably higher than that) and you get a 4.1 percent boost to GDP. This translates into over 4 million jobs, or, more than a third of the total “jobs gap” that remains today after the Great Recession.

There are plenty of lessons to be learned from the rapid recovery after the early 1980s recession (among them – start with short-term interest rates at over 15 percent, so there’s lots of room to cut, rather than starting from right around zero), but one that is too often missed is that big government spending contributed a lot. That’s right, Reagan was a big Keynesian after all.

The myth of rising domestic spending strikes again!

I happen to love Kevin Drum’s blog, so I hope he takes this as a helpful correction. In a post yesterday, he echoed the very important point from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities that there hasn’t been an “explosion of government’s size,” but rather that over the last few decades, health costs and demographics have driven primary (i.e., non-interest) spending trends. But then he went on and veered toward an issue very near and dear to my heart: domestic spending. Quote:

“Assuming I did my sums properly, federal spending on ‘everything else’ — that is, everything except Social Security, Medicare, and interest on the debt — has indeed gone down from 15.2% of GDP in 1962 to a projected 11.3% of GDP in 2017. (That’s from Table 3.1 here.) However, the national defense piece of that has declined from 9.2% to 2.9%, while the nondefense piece has increased from 6.0% to 8.4%. There are some arguments to be had about whether the defense piece of the budget is calculated correctly (it doesn’t include veterans benefits, for example), and it’s worth noting that healthcare costs are part of the nondefense picture too (mostly due to rising Medicaid expenditures). Still, the basic shape of the river doesn’t change much. Most of the downward slope in spending is due to lower defense spending. Domestic nondefense spending hasn’t gone up a lot, but it has gone up.

Actually, the shape of the river changes pretty significantly if you take Medicaid, veterans benefits, and other security spending (i.e., homeland security, international affairs, and nuclear weapons security, which oddly enough is embedded in the Department of Energy) out of the domestic spending category. Throw Medicaid in with Medicare and Social Security (all part of the “health care costs and demographics” thesis) and include veterans benefits and other security spending in with the defense budget, and you get a very different picture. Yes, defense/security fell from nearly 11 percent of GDP in 1962 to 5.7 percent in 1979, but guess where it’s at now? About 6 percent of GDP. Domestic spending climbed from a little more than 4 percent in 1962 to about 7.7 percent in the late ’70s, but over the last few decades it’s actually fallen: Before the recession, domestic spending had actually declined to under 5 percent. It’s risen a bit because of the recession (e.g., more people qualifying for food stamps and unemployment insurance) and the Recovery Act, but by 2017 it is projected to fall to a near 40-year low.

In other words, there was a story to tell of defense/security spending falling and domestic spending rising, but all that happened before 1980.  Since then, defense/security went up a bit during President Reagan’s Cold War build-up, down in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s dissolution, and up again post-9/11 (wars aren’t cheap).  As for domestic spending?  It’s been pretty flat.

Nation, you’ll want to watch this

Update (2/29 10:18 a.m.): Watch video of Eisenbrey’s appearance on Colbert below.

***

Original post: Tonight’s episode of Comedy Central’s Emmy and Peabody Award-winning The Colbert Report will feature EPI Vice President Ross Eisenbrey. In what is sure to be a memorable and entertaining exchange, host Stephen Colbert and Eisenbrey, a labor and employment law expert, will talk about the troubling proliferation of unpaid internships in the workforce. Tune in at 11:30 p.m./10:30 p.m. CDT (check local listings) to watch Eisenbrey discuss the negative impacts of this growing labor practice.

Over the past decade, the illegal use of unpaid interns has exploded with little protest. Unpaid internships don’t fairly reward hard work, block economic mobility and leave young workers in danger of exploitation.

EPI has highlighted the inadequate regulation of student internships and detailed why it is wrong, particularly with respect to for-profit employers not paying interns for their work. Serving as a crucial voice, our research and advocacy has garnered attention from government enforcement agencies, universities, and multiple major media outlets.

MORE: EPI’s work on unpaid internships

Rein in the debt tax preference, raise some revenue

As a follow-up to my earlier post on the revenue implications of the Obama administration’s corporate tax reform framework, there is a major escape valve for turning at-best revenue-neutral tax reform into appropriately revenue-positive reform. In its framework, the administration singled out the deductibility of interest payments as one of the key imbalances in the tax code, along with distortions across industries’ effective tax rates, distortions among businesses’ organization (i.e., pass-through entities versus C-corporations), and distortions favoring offshoring. (The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ Chuck Marr has a good overview of this part of the framework.) These are all key areas for improvement in the tax code, but the deductibility of interest payments also has serious potential for raising revenue and curbing systemic financial risk.

This feature of the tax code distorts corporate financing decisions by pushing the effective tax rate on debt-financed investment well below the effective tax rate on equity-financed investment. The Treasury Department estimates that the effective marginal tax rate on debt-financed corporate business investment is -4.4 percent (a subsidy), versus a 36.8 percent for equity-financed investment – quite the tax wedge. Profits from equity-financed investment will be taxed at the effective corporate rate (26 percent on average), and after-tax profits will be taxed when disbursed to shareholders as dividends or realized as capital gains, both at the 15 percent rate. Conversely, Treasury notes that “profits from the same investment funded by debt will only be taxed to the extent they exceed the associated interest payments” and the interaction with the accelerated depreciation deduction results in a big tax subsidy. This is a huge boon to industries reliant on debt, notably the highly leveraged financial sector, although the value of the so-called “debt tax shield” weighs against the costs of financial distress associated with indebtedness.

We previously proposed limiting the deductibility of interest payments in our budget blueprint Investing in America’s Economy, with emphasis on reining in financial sector leverage. (This progressive budget report was a collaboration of Demos, EPI, and The Century Foundation.) The tax code should not subsidize systemic financial risk in the form of high leverage ratios (in balance-sheet terms, the ratio of assets to net worth). Emerging from the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, curbing the debt tax shield should be a no-brainer: Lehman Brothers was leveraged 30-to-1 when it collapsed in Sept. 2008. This concern should have been addressed after hedge fund Long-Term Capital Management went bust in Sept. 1998 with a balance-sheet leverage ratio over 50-to-1. (LTCM was deemed systemically important, and the New York Fed organized a bailout by private investors.)

The administration proposed “reducing the bias toward debt financing,” which, while lacking specificity, could be a major revenue source. The deductibility of interest payments is not considered a “tax expenditure” (it’s not a deviation from the tax code, it is the tax code) so this isn’t included in the Joint Committee on Taxation’s estimate that revenue-neutral tax reform could only lower the corporate rate to 28 percent rate. (As I noted, the administration wants this 28 percent rate and permanent tax breaks for manufacturing, drawing into question whether these tax changes will result in reform or a tax cut.) Broadening the tax base into interest payments could help lower the corporate rate to the targeted 28 percent, fund the proposed continuation of the research and experimentation credit, level the playing field across financing decisions, and contribute to deficit reduction. There is a huge sum of money at stake here.

The Federal Reserve’s Flow of Funds data show $11.5 trillion in outstanding non-financial business debt and $13.7 trillion in outstanding domestic financial-sector debt as of the third quarter of 2011. It doesn’t take a leap of the imagination to conclude that there is real revenue potential in curbing the tax code’s debt-financing preference. Doing so could ensure that tax reform helps restore revenue adequacy while mitigating the subsidization of systemic financial risk.

Arne Duncan’s policies have yet to match his rhetoric

In a recent speech, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan rejected “either-or” approaches, saying support was essential for both in-school reforms, and for improvements in the social and economic conditions that bring so many disadvantaged children to school unprepared to learn. For example, Duncan said he is a “huge fan” of programs like school-based health centers.

Yet his rhetoric has not been supported by his policy. To qualify for Race to the Top funds, and for waivers from No Child Left Behind requirements, states have been required by the Obama administration to change laws and policies so that teachers could be evaluated by their students’ test scores, and so that more charter schools would be authorized. States faced no similar requirements to change laws and policies to remove impediments for school-based health centers.

This can be fixed. Duncan can rescue his reputation as a “both-and” leader by using his powers to leverage an increase in children served by school-based health centers. For example, states could remove requirements for children to get pre-authorization from managed care organizations for routine and preventive visits to their school clinics. States could permit school-based health centers to bill Medicaid directly for services. Some states already have such policies, so it not unreasonable to expect all states to have them.

For more, read my commentary from yesterday morning.

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Post editorial criticizes Md. schools, public pensions, school boards, teacher unions, and Gov. O’Malley — but misses all targets

An editorial in the Washington Post today caught my attention. Entitled The buck stops nowhere and subtitled Gov. O’Malley’s teachers’ pension plan would hurt counties without curing fundamental problems, the editorial suggests teachers get paid too much, pension costs are too high, and government is irresponsible. No evidence is provided for the first two propositions, and the editorial attacks a reasonable attempt by Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley to bring about greater accountability.

Instead of evidence that teacher pay and pensions are too rich, the Post slides from complaining about how sympathetic school board members are to teachers unions to a complaint that “those pensions have become a crushing burden, amounting to about $1 billion annually.” Well, teacher pensions don’t cost nearly that much; that’s the cost of all state employee pensions, including state police, highway department, the parks department, etc. Does the Post not know that or was the writer just trying to throw dust in our eyes?

The editorial makes things worse in the next sentence: “That’s more than Maryland spends on the state police, housing, economic development or many other government functions.” This makes no sense. State employee pensions are a fundamental part of the cost of all of those state functions. Employees get deferred compensation – a promise of retirement benefits in the future instead of higher pay now. The Post apparently wants its readers to think that teacher pensions are stealing money that could have funded more police or economic development staff, but they are precisely what that $1 billion annual pension contribution pays for.

Are Maryland’s teachers overcompensated? The Post insinuates that it must be so because the school boards have no reason to restrain teacher salaries, but the editorial doesn’t cite a shred of evidence, and EPI research shows otherwise. The Post has talked endlessly about the need for better public school teachers and claims to believe in the magic of the free market, but the thought that you get what you pay for doesn’t seem to have occurred to them.

The investments are paying off. Maryland students’ performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress has steadily improved over the last decade. In 2000, 35 percent of 8th graders tested below basic in math; last year, it was only 26 percent. Only 28 percent were proficient or advanced in 2000, but 41 percent tested at these higher levels in 2011. As recently as 2005, 31 percent of 8th graders tested below basic in reading. Last year, that number fell to 20 percent, an achievement by teachers and administrators the Post should celebrate.

The O’Malley plan that the Post attacks would transfer some of the cost of teacher pensions to the counties where the compensation decisions get made, rather than passing it on automatically to the state. The local residents who want to increase teacher pay and benefits will have to assume direct responsibility for more of those costs. If the Post is narrowly concerned about cost and accountability, it should be applauding. But the Post isn’t satisfied because the county in which each school board resides will be responsible for the cost, but the school boards are separate political entities. So what? Both are elected bodies, and voters can balance their preference for lower taxes against a desire for good schools and vote accordingly.

The Post never says it clearly, but accountability isn’t really its concern. The paper won’t be satisfied until education spending is cut. Maryland, in the Post’s view, spends too much on its schools. What is their evidence? Other unnamed programs have been cut “by $456 million while increasing aid to schools by an almost identical amount.” Unless the Post provides evidence that these programs were more critical or less well funded than schools, this is a meaningless point.

If education is crucial to the nation’s future, we should all be grateful that the Post’s editors are only criticizing the government and not running it.

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CBO shows ARRA’s continued positive impact

Last week, I wrote a blog post marking the third anniversary of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) and highlighting ARRA’s pivotal role in turning the economy around. Numbers crunched for the Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO) latest report on the legislation emphasize the same takeaway. Since ARRA was enacted in Feb. 2009, CBO has published periodic reports on the macroeconomic impact of ARRA; their latest looks at employment and economic output from Oct. 2011 through Dec. 2011. CBO finds that in the fourth quarter of calendar year 2011, ARRA’s successes included:

  • Raising real GDP by between 0.2 percent (low estimate) and 1.5 percent (high estimate);
  • Lowering the unemployment rate by between 0.2 and 1.1 percentage points;
  • Increasing the number of people employed by as low as 300,000 and as high as 2 million; and
  • Increasing the number of full-time equivalent jobs (which assume a full-time schedule worked by employees) by between 400,000 and 2.6 million.

Furthermore, CBO projects that ARRA will raise real GDP by between 0.1 and 0.8 percent and will increase the number of people employed by between 200,000 and 1.1 million in 2012, compared to the counterfactual without passage.

The two charts below show ARRA’s quarterly impact (both low and high estimates, as well as midpoints) on real GDP growth and the unemployment rate. The data include projections through 2013. Note that the majority of the impact occurred between Q3 2009 and Q4 2011. The subsequent waning is due to the fact that around 90 percent of ARRA’s budgetary impact was realized by the end of December 2011.

Where is the ‘shared sacrifice’ in this framework for corporate tax reform?

Earlier this week, the Obama administration and Treasury Department unveiled a “framework” for corporate tax reform. Like the rest of the tax code, the corporate income tax has been riddled with ever-more loopholes since the Tax Reform Act of 1986—the last significant scrubbing of the tax code. Here’s my distilled version of their five-point framework:

  1. Eliminate loopholes to broaden the tax’s base, coupled with a cut to the statutory corporate rate from 35 percent to 28 percent.
  2. Reinstate tax expenditures for domestic manufacturers, lowering their effective tax rate from 28 percent to 25 percent.
  3. Establish a new minimum tax on foreign earnings.
  4. Ever-present nod to small businesses concerns.
  5. Restore fiscal responsibility and not add a dime to the deficit.”

To lower the tax rate to 28 percent and yet keep the corporate income tax changes revenue-neutral, the framework proposes eliminating a handful of specific business tax expenditures—oil and gas subsidies, carried interest, last in, first out inventory accounting, special depreciation rules—repeatedly proposed in budget requests (summary of most of these can be found here). But the Joint Committee on Taxation recently estimated that revenue-neutral corporate tax reform could only be consistent with a top statutory rate of 28 percent if all major tax expenditures were eliminated.

The administration framework falls shy of that mark, and instead proposes new manufacturing tax incentives and a permanent extension of the research and experimentation credit (which is renewed annually as part of the “business tax extenders”). In the president’s FY13 budget, these “incentives for manufacturing” totaled $121 billion in revenue loss over a decade. The administration claims their plan will raise $250 billion—beyond offsets for the rate reduction—to pay for the permanent extension of these tax credits. JCT’s math, however, implies this figure may come from a current policy baseline assuming some of the “business tax extenders” (tax breaks which are not part of the permanent tax code but which are allegedly temporary yet extended by Congress like clockwork every year) are continued. Full continuation would reduce revenue by a hefty $839 billion over a decade.

On one hand, using this baseline seems odd; scoring any “savings” relative to current policy appears to give businesses credit for 25-plus years of successful lobbying. The bill of tax extenders includes the alcohol fuel credit, special depreciation rules for favored industries (e.g., restaurants, ethanol, race horses), special expensing rules for favored industries (e.g., film and TV production), and special foreign income deferral for the financial sector (e.g., Subpart F exception for active financing).

On the other hand, ending annual budget gimmicks (the extenders) does constitute a step toward responsible budgeting, and the depressing politics of tax reform suggests that these extenders will only be vanquished in some sort of bargain like that proposed by the administration.

But relative to current law (which does not assume the annual extension of these targeted tax breaks), Citizens for Tax Justice Director Bob McIntyre estimated that the president has proposed $1.2 trillion in tax cuts and only $0.3 trillion in offsetting loophole closers, leaving a gap of $0.9 trillion. This is hard to square with the administration’s professed intent not to add a dime to the deficit. And since when does restoring fiscal responsibility mean not adding a dime to the deficit?

Broadening the tax base and eliminating egregious preferences that have been lobbied into the tax code is good policy. But there is no reason a priori that tax reform be revenue-neutral. Indeed, the clearest flaw in the current tax system is that it simply doesn’t raise enough revenue to pay for government’s commitments. As CTJ spells out, it would be much more appropriate for corporate tax reform to be revenue-positive, relative to the much more stringent current law baseline.

Purported concern about the budget deficit always seems to vanish when it comes to tax cuts and vested business interests. “Shared sacrifice” is all the rage when it comes to reducing Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security benefits, or raising taxes on the individual income side; where is the “shared sacrifice” in this framework for corporate income tax overhaul?

A closer look at Asian-American income

In her blog post on the earnings differences among interracial couples, the New York Times‘ Catherine Rampell concludes:  “So basically, what these numbers are reflecting is that Asians earn more money, period, which is generally true across the population of Asian-Americans and has been the case for a while.” This is true when looking at household and family income, but there is a different and more complicated story underneath these numbers.

It is important to recognize that many more Asian Americans have college degrees than whites. This 2010 EPI report found that nearly 60 percent of Asian American workers have a bachelor’s or higher degree compared to about 40 percent of white workers. College-educated workers tend to earn more than less-educated workers and this pulls up the median Asian American earnings.

When one compares the annual personal income of Asian Americans and whites of the same gender and educational level, Asian Americans do not always come out on top. The figure below shows these comparisons for workers with a high school diploma and with a bachelor’s degree. In 2010, among workers with a high school diploma, white men earned about $11,000 more than white women and Asian American men and women.

Among workers with a bachelor’s degree, white men remain the highest earners, but their earnings advantage over Asian American men is only about $5,000. In this comparison, Asian American and white women earn significantly less than Asian American men. Asian American women earn about $11,000 less than Asian American men, and white women earn about $13,000 less than Asian American men. This puts Asian American and white women at about $16,000 and $18,000 behind white men, respectively.

Another issue to consider is that Asian Americans are more concentrated than whites in high-cost-of-living areas. Asian Americans are overrepresented in expensive metropolitan areas like Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, and Honolulu. Given this fact, controlling for educational attainment, Asian Americans should earn more than whites, but as the figure illustrates, they often don’t.

Coordinated investment as an alternative to doubling down on austerity’s failure

Former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has a terrific piece in today’s Washington Post on European policymakers’ “fundamental miscalculation: a wrong-headed conviction, widely held across Europe, that if austerity is failing, it is because there is not enough of it.”

The failure of the “expansionary austerity” hypothesis has been growing increasingly apparent for quite some time, most recently highlighted by the euro zone economy falling back into contraction in the fourth quarter of 2011. More and more countries—including Italy and Spain—are projected to slide back into full-blown recessions. Via Ezra Klein, it’s clear to see that industrial production indices in the U.S. and the euro zone were closely tracking one-another until starkly diverging in the summer of 2011: U.S. production has continued to rebound and European output has fallen markedly.

But beyond this fiasco, Brown’s policy prescription is worth highlighting. Along the lines of advanced economies’ central banks coordinating monetary loosening and liquidity infusions during the financial crisis, Brown proposes coordinated fiscal expansion: “Europe and America should expand investment in infrastructure.” Now that would actually begin to address the global aggregate demand slump. This isn’t just Brown taking cheap political shots at Prime Minister David Cameron; this is sound macroeconomics. A massive U.S. public infrastructure project ($1.2 trillion) is also favored by prescient economist Nouriel Roubini, who similarly pegged “a front-loaded fiscal austerity that will sink us in a severe recession,” as the worst economic policy idea currently being floated.

Congress should be learning from Europe’s experience before we stray too far down the austerity path, as federal fiscal policy is all too set to do (state and local governments have already been down this path for years).

The Recovery Act: Evidence of success three years out

Today marks the three-year anniversary of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). Despite overwhelming evidence of ARRA’s pivotal role in turning the economy around and boosting employment (including reports from the Congressional Budget Office, economists Alan Blinder and Mark Zandi, and the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, among others), a vocal—mostly politically motivated—minority continues to misinform the debate, trying to convince the public that the stimulus failed.

That couldn’t be further from the truth.

As this recent video from the Center for American Progress nicely depicts, ARRA kept our economy from swerving over the cliff’s edge. In the video, Michael Linden of CAP uses three measures to demonstrate that the stimulus stopped the economy’s bleeding: He looks at annualized GDP growth, the monthly change in non-farm payroll employment, and monthly private-sector layoffs. As the housing collapse and financial crisis spread to the rest of the economy, these three indicators all grew dramatically worse, culminating in a dire situation in the fourth quarter of 2008—when GDP was plunging at an 8.9 percent annual rate—and the early months of 2009. After ARRA was enacted in mid-February, things started to turn around. In fact, here is what happened:

  • In the second quarter of 2009—the first full quarter after the stimulus was passed—GDP declined at a much slower pace (0.7 percent), and growth resumed in the third quarter;
  • Job losses slowed dramatically throughout 2009 and the economy started adding jobs in early 2010; and
  • Private sector layoffs, which had peaked in Feb. 2009, began a rapid decline and returned to pre-recession levels by early Feb. 2010.

Now don’t get me wrong, ARRA wasn’t a cure-all (nor was it designed to be). The $831 billion 10-year cost of ARRA was smaller than the 2009 output gap and nowhere near the $3.0 trillion cumulative output gap since the start of the recession (which would be even bigger without ARRA). Unemployment remains unacceptably high, long after the official end of the recession. The economy needs 11 million more jobs to return to its pre-recession unemployment rate and the job seekers ratio has been higher for the last three years than it was at any point during the downturn of the early 2000s. Still, the stimulus prevented the situation from arguably being much worse than it otherwise would have been. Critics of the stimulus fail to recognize just how big of a hole ARRA was up against. As my colleague Josh Bivens explains in Failure by Design:

“The unemployment rate without the Recovery Act would have reached nearly 12%, not the 9% foreseen by the Obama administration. A good metaphor for this controversy is the temperature in a log cabin on a cold winter’s night. Say that the weather forecast is for the temperature to reach 30 degrees Fahrenheit. To stay warm, you decide to burn three logs in the fireplace. You do the math (and chemistry) and calculate that burning these three logs will generate enough heat to bring the inside of the cabin to 50 degrees, or 20 degrees warmer than the ambient temperature.

But the forecast is wrong—and instead temperatures plummet to 10 degrees outside and burning the logs only results in a cabin temperature of 30 degrees. Has log burning failed as a strategy to generate heat? Of course not. Has your estimate of the effectiveness of log burning been wildly wrong? Nope—it was exactly right—it added 20 degrees to the ambient temperature. The only lesson from this one is a simple one: since the weather turned out worse than expected, you need more logs.”