Andrew Fieldhouse

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Rigorous Research is Needed to Eventually Inform Better Economic Policy, Regardless of Political Realities

In his latest Bloomberg column, Ezra Klein has a nice feature of my recent paper on income inequality growth in the United States and the role of tax policy. Klein’s dichotomy of the income inequality debate splits the “fatalists” from the “redistributions,” with differing views on government’s role in widening income inequality. Downplaying government’s complicity and scope for policy, Klein’s fatalists chalk up income inequality growth to market forces and factors like globalization, technological change, and job polarization. (See Larry Mishel, John Schmitt, and Heidi Shierholz refute this latter argument.) The redistributionists, on the other hand, believe that government policy has contributed to income inequality and policy should be reoriented to instead push back against post-tax, post-transfer income inequality growth.

With regard to the fatalists, one cannot dispute on objective grounds that changes in federal tax and transfer policies between 1979 and 2007 have exacerbated post-tax, post-transfer income inequality growth, up 33 percent over this period, versus market-based income inequality growth of 23 percent (both measured by the Gini index). Moreover, the role of tax policy changes in exacerbating post-tax and post-transfer inequality is understated in these measures because of the phenomenon of “bracket creep”—top incomes rise faster than the inflation adjustment for tax brackets, subjecting more income to taxation at top rates—which innately increases the redistributive nature of the tax and transfer system over time. But while tax and transfer policy should have been pushing harder against inequality growth instead of exacerbating it, there are practical limits to how much increased redistribution can mitigate strong market trends.

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How much can tax policy curb income inequality growth? Maybe a lot

Since the late 1970s, the United States has experienced a sharp divergence in the distribution and growth of market-based income, with gains overwhelmingly skewed toward the very top of the income distribution and away from the bottom. This era of widening income inequality represents a sharp break from the first three decades following World War II, when the gains from growth were shared fairly equally across the income distribution, even tilted somewhat favorably towards lower-income over upper-income workers. The increasingly lopsided concentration of income growth at the top of the distribution comes at the expense of stagnant or falling living standards for working families.

Policymakers have lately taken more of an interest in curbing income inequality growth, and to that end, it is critical to understand the impact and scope of tax policy. Changes in tax and transfer policies are one of the more easily quantifiable contributors to income inequality, say compared with policies (or lack thereof) related to labor protections, collective bargaining, minimum wage erosion and trade.

While both tax and transfer policies can influence inequality growth, tax policy is particularly policy relevant. Tax policy can more easily be fitted to the upwardly skewed income distribution than transfer policy, and there is vastly more market-based income than transfer income at the top of the scale, so doing so would further advance Congress’s prioritization of deficit reduction. Additionally, changes in tax policy can be implemented faster than changes in many transfer benefits, as politicians are reluctant to change retirement benefits for those approaching retirement.

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Economic expansion versus economic recovery

Piggybacking on my colleague Josh Bivens’ recent post refuting claims that the economy is “holding up surprisingly well,” it seems some in the press corps could benefit from a primer on economic expansion versus economic recovery. Rebounds in certain economic indicators, particularly stock indices and housing prices—very incomplete metrics of overall health being buoyed by the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing asset purchases—are too often being conflated with or contributing to a “recovery” that presupposes the economy is recovering.

Part of this confusion likely reflects misidentification of the affliction at hand. The U.S. faces a sharp aggregate demand shortfall stemming from the housing bubble’s implosion and a jobs crisis that resulted from this pullback in spending by households, businesses and government. On these fronts, the U.S. is mostly oscillating between recovery and backwards progress, and “treading water” tends to be a better characterization than recovery since the end of 2010, after the Recovery Act’s boost faded and the federal government joined state and local governments on the austerity bandwagon.

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Economic policy is largely being driven by obstructionism, not economic advisers

President Obama is reportedly planning to nominate economist Jason Furman to replace Alan Krueger as the head of the Council of Economic Advisers. Like Krueger and, for that matter, Austan Goolsbee and Christina Romer who previously served this administration in the same capacity, Furman boasts an impressive resume, with a Harvard economics doctorate as well as stints at the Brooking Institution, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), and the CEA under President Clinton, among others. If you’re still of the incorrect belief that tax cuts largely pay for themselves (looking at you, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell), do yourself a favor and read his CBPP report explaining the mechanics and empirics of “dynamic scoring” (pdf) and why invoking it as a talisman doesn’t mean one can claim anything one finds politically expedient.

The Beltway coverage of this news is overly focused on the inside baseball politics between the CEA and the National Economic Council, where Furman has been serving as Deputy Director since January 2009. But it’s important to step back and remember that economic policy in recent years has been principally driven not by well-qualified economists with the CEA, NEC, or elsewhere in the executive branch, but instead by conservative congressional obstructionism. Jason Furman’s appointment to the CEA will not alter the troubling reality that the United States is on an autopilot course of premature, excessive austerity and intentionally poorly designed sequestration spending cuts. But even if the ghost of conservative saint Milton Friedman rose up and warned the GOP against such austerity, today’s conservatives in Congress would declare him an apostate and continue their destructive course.

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Winning the intellectual debate on austerity while losing the policy debate

Recently, barely-perceptible cracks have started to appear in the political foundations of austerity. Prominent Democrats on Capitol Hill—not just progressives but moderates and those who have embraced the administration’s pursuit of a “Grand Bargain” on deficit reduction—have recently called for an implicit time-out on fiscal tightening. Some European policymakers have similarly argued that austerity has gone too far. And prominent financial market players have warned that the United Kingdom should reverse its rapid drive towards austerity. Perhaps most surprisingly, even John Makin from the conservative American Enterprise Institute has called for an end to tightening.

It’s about time. The intellectual foundations for austerity have always been fragile. The recent controversy that erupted over a group of University of Massachusetts economists highlighting the extreme weakness of an oft-cited justification (pdf) for keeping debt ratios below 90 percent is just the latest demonstration of this. The UMass paper was important, but is only the latest and most well-known of the many refutations (pdf) of the case (pdf) that contractionary fiscal policy would produce (pdf) anything but contraction in today’s economy.

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Building a Tax Code for Today

As Congress pursues comprehensive tax reform, policymakers have made numerous references the 1986 Tax Reform Act, which has been the principle framework for overhaul to date.

The 1986 reforms are revered because they succeeded politically, passing a divided Congress and enacted by a lame-duck president. Comprehensive reform today similarly would have to overcome major political hurdles, particularly Republican intransigence over raising revenue. Yet many policymakers today seem unaware that 1986-style reform is no longer viable.

The 1986 model was designed to be both revenue neutral and distributionally neutral—meaning that average tax rates would remain roughly unchanged across incomes. Replicating these objectives today would imprudently disregard shifts in the economic and budgetary landscape. The Bush-era tax cuts enacted a decade ago violated the spirit of the 1986 reforms by lowering revenue and shifting the burden of taxation further down the income scale. In so doing, they contributed to sizable structural budget deficits and revenue levels inadequate to support the baby-boomers’ retirement (an outlook essentially unchanged by the lame duck budget deal). And today, rising income inequality—exacerbated by reductions in top tax rates—has surpassed Gilded Age levels.

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Reinhart and Rogoff couldn’t justify austerity before it was debunked

Last week, The Century Foundation hosted a Twitter chat forum in which Mike Konczal of the Roosevelt Institute, TCF fellow Mark Thoma and I discussed the Reinhart and Rogoff kerfuffle and its implications for the policy debate over austerity (here’s the Storified “transcript”). Nearly every facet of this incident has been thoroughly covered in the blogosphere—see Mike’s post for a summary of the Herndon, Ash, and Pollin (2013) paper debunking R&R; Arindrajit Dube’s post on reverse causation; my colleague Josh Bivens’ post on R&R’s response to reverse causation criticism; Paul Krugman on R&R’s obfuscating rebuttal; and Dean Baker’s post on R&R’s purported role in the policy debate.

But what’s gone entirely missing, as far as I can tell, and what I struggled to explain in sub-140-character increments, is that R&R’s reported finding—that “median growth rates for countries with public debt over 90 percent of GDP are roughly one percent lower than otherwise; average (mean) growth rates are several percent lower [and slightly negative]”—couldn’t justify austerity even before it was debunked.

Back in early 2010, pundits and policymakers immediately seized on R&R’s now-invalidated results to justify austerity policies, so the paper’s methodological debunking has been correctly interpreted as a major defeat for the austerity movement. But the Beltway interpretation of R&R was based on a false premise from the get-go. Robert Samuelson’s predictably unhelpful addition to the R&R debate—his half-hearted defense of R&R’s “minor mistakes” is scattered with objectively inaccurate revisionist history—perfectly encapsulates this widely propagated false dichotomy: “It’s ‘austerity’ versus ‘stimulus.’ If debt exceeding 90 percent of GDP is hazardous, then the case for austerity seems stronger.” (Emphasis added.)

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Tax Day 2013: For the vast major, it’s all about the expired payroll tax cut

Around the enactment of the lame-duck budget deal, which permanently extended the Bush-era tax cuts and most  expiring income tax provisions for roughly 99 percent of households, policymakers were claiming to be preventing the largest tax hike in American history. Yet every worker saw their taxes go up between 2012 and 2013.

And during the “fiscal cliff” policy debates, some conservatives (wrongly) warned that full expiration of the Bush tax cuts would push the economy back into recession. Neither event occurred, but enough other fiscal retrenchment is slated for 2013 that the labor market will likely experience renewed deterioration—in large part because the expiring two-percentage-point Social Security payroll tax cut went ignored during the policy debate.

So with tax day upon us, here’s a brief overview of the budgetary and economic impacts of tax changes for 2013. Notably, the relatively well targeted payroll tax cut’s expiration is the tax change overwhelmingly felt by the vast majority of households, whereas other tax changes were rather progressively targeted. Correspondingly, the expiration of the payroll tax cut will exert a fairly sizable drag on economic growth in 2013, whereas tax changes more targeted to upper-income households pose only about one-fifth as much of a drag per dollar.

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How High Should Top Income Tax Rates Be? Getting the Fight Right

A version of this post originally appeared at the Fiscal Times.

Over at Forbes, Tim Worstall didn’t take kindly to an op-ed I authored for The Fiscal Times pointing out that research by two economists, Peter Diamond and Emmanuel Saez, indicates that individual income tax rates are currently well below their revenue-maximizing rates. He accuses me of misrepresenting their work … by completely misrepresenting their work, as well as mine. The crux of his ire with my “propaganda” is this paragraph in my piece:

“Most importantly, recent economic research has shown that productive economic activity is relatively unresponsive to increases in the top income tax rate, and the top income tax rate is well below the levels where it maximizes revenue. Economists Peter Diamond and Emmanuel Saez estimate that the revenue maximizing income tax rate is 73 percent (combing federal, state and local taxes).”

Worstall: “No, that is not what that paper says. What it does say is that in a tax system with no allowances then that peak of the Laffer Curve, that revenue [maximizing] rate, is 73 percent. What it also says is that the peak in a system with allowances is more like 54 percent.”

Nope, that’s totally wrong. What the paper says — it’s on page 7 — is that in today’s system the best estimate of the revenue-maximizing rate is 73 percent. Period.

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The Obama budget’s misguidedly lower revenue target

President Barack Obama’s fiscal year 2014 budget request, released Wednesday, is a more centrist blueprint than his fiscal 2013 request—which was the most progressive and ambitious with regards to job creation and taxation to date. As I argued in a U.S. News debate club series, the contrast is most conspicuous and consequential on three fronts: proposing less ambitious revenue targets, largely abandoning the American Jobs Acts, and identifying benefit cuts (not just efficiency savings) in social insurance programs that the president would exchange for the more modest revenue increases.

Of these, the pre-compromise on Republicans’ third rail—raising new revenue—is perhaps the most perplexing, because unlike scaling back stimulus or cutting Social Security benefits it works directly against the administration’s prioritization of deficit reduction (a priority regrettably at odds with ensuring faster economic recovery). Remember that the “ten dollars in spending cuts for a dollar in revenue” formulation—an empirical policy slam-dunk for the GOP and twice as conservative as the five-to-one ratio for deficit-reduction measures enacted in the 112th Congress—was heretical during the GOP presidential primary campaign. The political hurdle on taxes is getting Republicans to accept the first penny of revenue and buck Grover Norquist’s Taxpayer Protection Pledge. Given this, scaling back revenue proposals accomplishes nothing.

At first blush, the president’s budget doesn’t appear to have given away much on the revenue front. The OMB Summary tables show revenue averaging 19.1 percent of GDP over FY2014-2023, seemingly roughly in line with revenues at 19.2 percent of GDP over FY2013-2022 in his previous budget request (and revised to 19.1 percent in the Mid-Session Review). But it’s important to dig deeper and figure out what’s going on here.

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No, New Tax Cuts Will Not Pay for Themselves

If the Laffer curve hypothesis is the first commandment of the modern conservative movement, then its economist namesake, Arthur Laffer, is its chief apostle. Laffer argued that it is theoretically possible to raise more government revenue by lowering tax rates, thereby offering a “free lunch” for legislators. The understandable political allure of Laffer’s suggestion is directly responsible for a three-decade experiment with “supply-side” economics, an experiment whose failure has eroded inflation-adjusted incomes and living standards of the vast majority.

But the Laffer curve is merely an economic model, one originally sketched out on a napkin. The model has zero scope for informing good public policy without rigorous, accompanying empirical research on behavioral responses to tax changes.

And modern economic research isn’t on Laffer’s side.

Laffer’s proposition is based on the simple observation that the government will collect zero revenue if the tax rate is at either zero or at 100 percent. A revenue maximizing rate must lie between these bounds, and the Laffer curve is typically depicted as a symmetrical, concave function between these revenueless rates (implying a revenue maximizing rate of 50 percent).Read more


Senate Democratic budget overly focused on deficit reduction

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray (D-WA) introduced, and the Senate passed, a Senate Democratic FY2014 budget resolution, which would purportedly place the public debt ratio on a more-than-sustainable trajectory down to 70.4 percent of GDP by fiscal 2023. The Murray budget deserves credit for mitigating the macroeconomic drags posed by sequestration, modestly increasing infrastructure investment and proposing substantial revenue increases. But in the end, the budget’s fixation with ten-year deficit reduction targets would result in premature near-term austerity.

The Murray budget proposes to raise an additional $923 billion in revenue over the next decade relative to current law. It also assumes that temporary tax provisions that would cost $954 billion to continue over the decade will either expire or be paid for—so against a current policy baseline in which these “tax extenders” are continued, the budget would raise $1.9 trillion.1 Revenue increases exert an economic drag, particularly while the economy remains weak, but are much less damaging per dollar than spending cuts. The Murray budget would use these revenue increases to partially replace the front-loaded, poorly designed sequester; in that context, the tax increases would help avert near-term austerity that is much more damaging. The budget would also slightly increase government spending in 2013 and 2014 relative to current policy—which assumes the sequester is repealed—and raise tax revenues in 2014.2Read more

Aggressively targeting a full recovery is the least risky thing you can do: Back to Work Budget edition

A common theme has emerged in recent punditry and economic analysis: policymakers should begin withdrawing support for growth and jobs because the economy is rapidly improving. In recent months one can find several examples of commentators urging the Federal Reserve to abandon its efforts to boost activity and jobs and begin tightening to forestall (so far completely hypothetical) inflation. And any call for fiscal support for job creation on a real scale is greeted with hand-wringing about its riskiness—as can be seen in much reaction to the  Congressional Progressive Caucus’s “Back to Work” fiscal 2014 budget alternative (BTWB, henceforth), which would invest $2.1 trillion in job creation measures over 2013-2015.

For example, David Brooks criticized the BTWB on the (incorrect) grounds that the economy “is finally beginning to take off…[as there is no longer] a large and growing gap between the economy’s current output and what it is capable of producing.” And a recent column by Ezra Klein contained concerns from Moody’s Analytics chief economist Mark Zandi that the BTWB  targets job growth too aggressively, meaning that: (a) the overall economy has recovered enough (or surely will) that it doesn’t need this boost; and (b) that recovery has been and will be sufficiently fast that even the estimates of how much fiscal support will boost jobs and growth are overstated.

We strongly disagree. The economy remains deeply depressed, and the coming year will see a significant drag on already inadequate growth from further fiscal contraction (sequestration on top of deepening discretionary spending cuts and expiration of the payroll tax cut). Given this, there’s no reason at all to think that fiscal expansion would be less effective than in the past 3-4 years, and there is certainly no reason to gamble on a robust recovery without policy help.Read more

House Democratic budget would also boost employment

House Budget Committee Ranking Member Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) has introduced the House Democratic FY2014 budget alternative, which would lessen the near-term economic drags left in place by the lame-duck budget deal. While understandably less ambitious in terms of job creation than the Congressional Progressive Caucus’s “Back to Work” budget, the Van Hollen budget deserves credit both for financing some renewed fiscal expansion to boost growth and for fully averting the macroeconomic drags posed by sequestration.

The Van Hollen budget adopts job creation proposals from the president’s jobs package (in his fiscal 2013 budget request), financing $174 billion in stimulus spending over fiscal 2013—2015.1 These stimulus provisions include $55 billion for rehiring teachers and modernizing K-12 schools, $37 billion in infrastructure investments, and $19 billion for a targeted tax credit for businesses that increase payroll, among other policies. Relative to current budget policy (which assumes the sequester is repealed), the Van Hollen budget would increase government spending in fiscal 2013 and 2014, as well as cut taxes in 2013.2

On net, we estimate that the Van Hollen budget would boost GDP growth by 0.4 percent and increase employment by roughly 450,000 jobs in 2013, relative to current policy. A smaller economic boost of 0.1 percent of GDP and roughly 110,000 jobs would be expected in 2014. Note that CBO’s baseline forecast shows employment rising by 1.5 million jobs between the fourth quarter of 2013 and the fourth quarter of 2014; these estimates do not suggest that 340,000 jobs would be lost between 2013 and 2014, simply that employment would rise faster and higher than otherwise projected over the next two years.

The Van Hollen budget also replaces sequestration, whereas the current policy baseline presupposes the repeal of sequestration—in keeping with budgetary scorekeeping conventions of the past two years—but which is by no means certain. We previously estimated that sequestration would reduce growth by 0.6 percent and employment by 660,000 jobs in 2013, with the drag growing to 0.8 percent and 910,000 fewer jobs in 2014. So relative to a world in which sequestration remains in effect, the Van Hollen budget would boost employment by more than 1.1 million jobs in 2013 and just over 1.0 million jobs in 2014.Read more

Ryan proposes another path to fewer jobs and slower growth

Earlier today, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis) released his Fiscal Year 2014 House Budget Resolution, The Path to Prosperity: A Responsible, Balanced Budget. Like Ryan’s fiscal 2012 and fiscal 2013 budget resolutions, this latest iteration is an austerity budget—it proposes aggressive near- and long-term spending cuts, which come on top of the austerity from sequestration spending cuts (which would be continued), the ratcheting down of discretionary spending caps, and the recent expiration of the payroll tax cut.

Ryan’s budget would reduce near-term primary spending (excluding net interest) by $42 billion in fiscal 2013, $121 billion in fiscal 2014, and $343 billion in fiscal 2015, all relative to CBO’s alternative fiscal scenario (AFS) current policy baseline.1 The fiscal 2013 spending cut represents the remainder of sequestration cuts scheduled for this year. Additionally, the Ryan budget would increase revenue by $58 billion in fiscal 2014 and $98 billion in fiscal 2015 by allowing the “business tax extenders” to expire. While tax increases have a much smaller drag per dollar than government spending cuts, this still contributes to the economic drag from the Ryan budget.

On net, we estimate that the Ryan budget would decrease gross domestic product (GDP) by 1.7 percent and decrease nonfarm payroll employment by 2.0 million jobs in calendar year 2014 relative to current policy. We estimate that the Ryan budget would increase the unemployment rate by between 0.6 percentage points and 0.8 percentage points. The Ryan budget would push the output gap—the difference between actual output and non-inflationary potential output, which registered $985 billion (5.9 percent of potential) as of the fourth quarter of 2012—from 4.4 percent under the AFS baseline back to 5.9 percent. By proposing a budget that would leave the output gap unchanged from 5.9 percent of potential GDP by the end of 2014, Ryan has essentially proposed that for at least two years the U.S. economy make zero relative progress in emerging from the current adverse economic equilibrium of depressed economic output, slow growth, high unemployment, and large cyclical budget deficits.Read more

Sequestration was never about fiscal responsibility

As a follow-up to my earlier blog post on the responsibility for and consequences of sequestration, I want to underscore that the entirety of the Budget Control Act (the resolution to the 2011 debt ceiling crisis, which created the sequester) was about shrinking government, not fiscal responsibility. As I previously noted, sequestration will harm the economy, and perversely increase the debt-to-GDP ratio to 76.3 percent by the end of fiscal 2013, from 76.1 percent without sequestration. And by defunding public investment (a key driver of long-run economic growth) and delaying economic recovery, thereby incurring more long-run economic scarring, sequestration will leave a poorer country to service larger relative debts.

But even ignoring the macroeconomic damage wrought by sequestration, this across-the-board meat cleaver approach to cutting spending is often fiscally imprudent even on a programmatic level.

For instance, the Office of Management and Budget estimated that the Internal Revenue Service tax enforcement department would see $436 million dollars of budget authority sequestered in fiscal 2013. (This estimate predates the lame duck deal’s two-month delay, although the fiscal 2014 cut would be larger.) But by all estimates, marginal increases in funding for tax enforcement pay for themselves multiple times over. In fiscal 2012, IRS enforcement raised $50.2 billion in revenue, or $2.3 million per enforcement agent. Former George W. Bush administration IRS Commissioner Mark Everson estimated that every additional dollar spent would return $4 in revenue, for $3 in deficit reduction (Sawickey et. al 2005). That would imply that the full fiscal 2013 cut could add $1.3 billion to the budget deficit.Read more

GOP sequester position derails recovery (again)

As “sequestration” spending cuts seem increasingly likely to take effect tomorrow, and the blame game escalates over responsibility for the fallout, some incorrect revisionist history as well as (silly) pox-on-both-houses punditry merit comment.

If sequestration takes effect, it will be because congressional Republicans put draconian spending cuts in play, and have subsequently refused to replace those cuts with more sensible deficit reduction. And should sequestration take effect, this would not be an isolated case of economic policy malpractice: Congressional Republicans have consistently hamstrung efforts that economists overwhelmingly agree would have meaningfully helped lower the unemployment rate and instead advanced policies projected to decelerate near-term growth.

My colleague Josh Bivens and I recently chronicled at length the numerous, varying ways Congressional Republicans have deliberately obstructed a stronger economic recovery over the past four years. 1 This economic and budgetary obstructionism, in turn, has been a considerable factor explaining why U.S. economic growth has decelerated since mid-2010 and is currently far too slow to push the economy back to full health in the next few years, already more than five years after the start of the Great Recession.

What follows is a not-so-quick history of how we got to this week’s deadline.Read more

The Progressive Caucus’s sensible approach to sequestration: Prioritizing jobs and growth

Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) Co-Chairs Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) and Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) have introduced the Balancing Act of 2013 (H.R. 505) which presents an evidence-based approach to two imminent challenges actually facing policymakers: preventing what is intentionally terrible budget policy from taking effect, and preventing budget policy from exacerbating the jobs crisis and counterproductively delaying a return to full employment.

Broadly speaking, their bill would replace the entirety of the pending automatic “sequestration cuts”—now legislated to commence March 1—with $948 billion in progressive revenue (much of which was proposed in the CPC’s budget fiscal 2013 alternative, the Budget for All) coupled with $276 billion in near-term economic stimulus, paid for with $278 billion in cuts to spending by the Department of Defense. Replacing the sequester with revenue would bring net spending cuts and revenue increases roughly to a 1:1 ratio, and the DOD spending reductions would bring nondefense and defense discretionary spending cuts to a 1:1 ratio (measuring deficit reduction since the start of the 112th Congress, notably $1.5 trillion in discretionary spending cuts and $633 billion in policy savings from the lame duck budget deal). And most critically, the bill would balance deficit reduction with near-term measures boosting growth and employment, while making the composition of deficit reduction less economically damaging than scheduled.Read more

When and what kind of deficit reduction matters most: The danger of aggressive 10-year deficit targets in the current budget debate

In the aftermath of the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 (i.e., the lame-duck budget deal, ATRA for short), many in Washington have urged 10-year deficit reduction targets that are trillions more than the $600 billion reduction already locked in by ATRA. While many of these calls for increased deficit reductions have been inchoate (as noted here), others have been more reasonably grounded. Yet, we think that nearly all demands for specific, ambitious 10-year deficit reduction targets are likely to be terribly counterproductive in the current debate

The primary reason for this is simple: Without a sharp focus on when and what kind of deficit reduction should happen, these calls can easily lead policymakers to embrace measures that will surely hamper economic recovery. And this recovery should be the primary focus of these policymakers. The output gap in 2012—essentially the difference between actual economic output and output that would have been produced had all productive resources in the economy been put to work—will likely register just shy of $1 trillion, or 5.6 percent of the economy. This is $1 trillion in national income that the country is forfeiting each year simply due to the continued weakness in aggregate demand—weakness that would likely be exacerbated by any aggressive deficit reduction in the next few years. This depressed state of the economy makes the timing and composition of any proposed deficit reduction crucial. And yet these crucial details are generally not a primary focus in 10-year deficit reduction targets that are dominating the debate.

In regards to timing, deficit reduction that imposes a drag on growth really should not begin at all until the economy moves much closer to full employment. Read more

The importance of revenue revisited: Minimizing the drag of austerity

Via Ezra Klein comes a must-read leaked memo from Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) to Senate Democrats ahead of fashioning a Senate Budget Resolution. It’s an excellent chronology of the deficit reduction enacted in the 112th Congress—a hefty $2.4 trillion expected to take effect and $3.6 trillion if sequestration goes into effect—and the looming phases of the Beltway budget fights following the American Taxpayer Relief Act (i.e., the lame-duck budget fight, or ATRA for short).1

Klein hones in on tables depicting the fundamentally unbalanced nature of deficit reduction in the 112th Congress: Ignoring sequestration, 70 percent of policy deficit reduction measures (i.e., excluding additional debt service savings) enacted came from spending cuts as opposed to revenue, and if sequestration takes effect as scheduled, the share of spending cuts ratchets up to 80 percent. Murray’s memo contrasts these ratios with a 51 percent revenue share proposed by the Simpson-Bowles Co-Chairs’ report and 52 percent in the Senate’s bipartisan “Gang of Six” proposal. Hence Murray’s conclusion:

Revenue Must be Included in Any Deal. Tackling our budget challenges requires both responsible spending cuts and additional revenue from those who can afford it most.”

She’s absolutely right, but the memo hits only on the budgetary half of why compositional balance is important. Accepting on face value that the 113th Congress will pursue more deficit reduction measures (more forthcoming from us on this premise)—at the very least replacing sequestration in chunks or entirety—including progressive revenue is critical for minimizing the economic drag of austerity. Read more

The congressional GOP has smothered a more rapid economic recovery

PBS’ Frontline has an interesting piece on the GOP response to President Obama’s election in 2008, reporting that, “After three hours of strategizing, they decided they needed to fight Obama on everything.”

Part of this “everything” was the efforts of the new administration to end the Great Recession and restore the economy back to full health. From the start, the GOP sought to block measures that a wide swath of economists agreed would provide help to boost the economy and bring down unemployment. This obstructionism has been a constant theme throughout the past four years, and it continues today.

Congressional Republicans have made it clear that they intend to use every bit of leverage they can to force cuts to domestic spending in the coming year. This leverage includes threats to not raise the statutory debt ceiling and/or force a federal government shutdown after March 27, when the standing appropriations continuing resolution (CR) expires. This, of course, would represent the long-promised repeat of the spring and summer of 2011, when congressional Republicans secured over $500 billion in domestic spending cuts in CR fights and another $2.1 trillion in spending cuts in exchange for incrementally raising the debt ceiling by an equivalent amount—better known as the Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011.

The BCA cuts have already done damage, and will all-but-surely slow growth in the rest of 2013 as well. The various components of the BCA accounted for about one-third of the total fiscal drag exerted by the major components of the “fiscal cliff” that was facing Congress ahead of the lame duck budget deal. And the components of the BCA account for 48 percent of the remaining fiscal drag unaddressed by the deal—a drag that is poised to shave 1.0 percentage point from real GDP growth in 2013. House Republicans have voted to replace the Defense cuts contained within the sequester—again rapidly approaching, following its postponement to March—in it with deeper domestic spending cuts, leaving a drag of 0.8 percentage points from the BCA for 2013, all while threatening to use the debt ceiling and CR as leverage to get their way.

If this ideologically driven objective of deeply cutting spending is met, this will represent just one more way that the GOP Congress has managed to delay full recovery from the Great Recession. The evidence continues to pile up Read more

At best, budget deal suggests decelerating anemic growth, labor market deterioration

Yesterday, my colleague Josh Bivens outlined the contours of this weekend’s 11th hour budget deal, concluding that Congress mostly monkeyed around with upper-income taxes—a politically contentious “fiscal cliff” component, but the least economically significant—leaving large swathes of scheduled fiscal restraint in place (or merely delayed a few months). For months, Josh and I have been arguing that the only real challenge facing Congress is the reality that the budget deficit closing too quickly—as it has been since mid–2010—threatens to push the economy into an austerity-induced recession. To this effect, “cliff” was a doubly misleading metaphor, as there was no single economic tipping point (underscored by President Obama signing the deal on Jan. 2, after the misguidedly hyped Jan. 1 “cliff plunge” had passed) and the legislated fiscal restraint was comprised of fully separable policies rather than an all-or-nothing dichotomy.

Viewed through the proper lens of avoiding premature austerity instead of compromising over tax policy for the top 2 percent of earners, Congress predictably failed to adequately moderate the pace of deficit reduction; short of sharply reorienting fiscal policy to accommodate accelerated recovery, U.S. trend economic growth will continue decelerating into 2013—slowing to anemic growth insufficient to keep the labor market just treading water.1 Absent substantial (seemingly remote) additional spending on public investment and transfer payments, the labor market will almost certainly deteriorate this year, regardless of what happens with sequestration and the pending debt ceiling fight. Read more

Boehner’s ‘Plan B’ would result in an austerity-induced recession

With headlines like “Boehner drops effort to avoid ‘fiscal cliff’” saturating the Internet today, a little clarification is sorely needed: Speaker of the House John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) so-called “Plan B” may have been many things, but it was certainly not a plan to avoid an austerity-induced  recession in  2013—which is what people should be talking about, anyway, when they refer to “avoiding the fiscal cliff.” The plan would have mitigated less than one-third of the pending fiscal drags from the various components of the fiscal obstacle course (our preferred alternative to the doubly-misleading “cliff” metaphor). For the millionth time: The fundamental challenge facing policymakers is that budget deficits closing too quickly in the next couple of years will kill the anemic economic recovery, so the pace of deficit reduction must be moderated. But Boehner’s failed plan was instead fixated on accelerating the pace of deficit reduction relative to current policy.

Boehner’s Plan B consisted of two bills. The first, the Spending Reduction Act of 2012 (H.R. 6684), which narrowly passed 215-209 yesterday, would replace scheduled sequestration spending cuts for fiscal year 2013 to the Department of Defense budget with deeper sequestration cuts to nondefense discretionary spending as well as a host of mandatory spending cuts, including: Read more

Obama’s opening bid is both familiar and sound

President Obama’s opening bid for negotiations resolving the “fiscal cliff” has surfaced, and the contours are both familiar and sound. The Washington Post and an unofficial outline drafted by Republican aides both suggest that the administration has essentially proposed its budget request for fiscal 2013. And the president’s latest budget offers a solid framework for navigating the fiscal obstacle course, as it would substantially moderate the pace of deficit reduction while making a responsible down payment on longer-term deficit reduction. Relative to current policy, the contours are shaping up roughly as follows:

  • Allow the upper-income Bush tax cuts to expire (+$850 billion)
  • Restore the estate and gift taxes to 2009 parameters (+$120 billion)
  • Curb tax expenditures (+600 billion)
  • Stimulus spending (-$50 billion)
  • Extend emergency unemployment benefits (-$30 billion)
  • Extend or replace the payroll tax cut (-$110 billion)
  • Continue AMT patch, “doc fix,” and tax extenders (-$240 billion)
  • Defer sequestration (?)

Most critically, the Obama framework includes a variation of his American Jobs Act, proposing increased near-term government spending on infrastructure and state fiscal relief while maintaining the ad hoc stimulus set to expire at year’s endRead more

True deficit hawks would be worried with jobs and recovery first

In a recent blog post, we made the point that the debate over the “fiscal cliff/obstacle course/austerity crisis” is fixated on the too-modest goal of avoiding outright recession in the coming year, rather than actually pushing the U.S. economy back to full economic recovery. This latter goal—actually ending the economic slump that began with the Great Recession in late 2007—is obviously politically unrealistic (which, by the way, should be sign one of just how deranged D.C. policymaking has become), but we should be clear that it’s the right thing to do.

FULL ANALYSIS FROM EPI: Budget battles in the lame duck and beyond

The U.S. economy has already forfeited literally trillions of dollars in national income by not pushing the economy back to full health after the Great Recession. Knock-on effects of this policy failure include damage to future potential income from economic “scarring;” to put it simply, allowing productive economic resources (both people and capital) to sit idle and atrophy is exceptionally inefficient. A less important knock-on effect of this continuing slump is that it will predictably cause future projected budget deficits to balloon. Yet far too many self-proclaimed deficit hawks among D.C. policymakers seem strangely unconcerned about this particular driver (continued economic weakness and unemployment) of future budget deficits, and too many are instead advocating near-term fiscal contraction that will further delay recovery.

The U.S. economy is running $973 billion (5.8 percent) below potential economic output—what the economy could produce with higher (but noninflationary) levels of employment and industrial capacity utilization. Cumulatively, these output gaps imply that the U.S. has forgone roughly $3.6 trillion of national income over 2008—2011, projected to hit $4.6 trillion by the end of 2012.

Moreover, the Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO) economic baseline shows output gaps persisting into 2018: Under current law, another $3.5 trillion worth of cumulative output gaps are projected over 2013–2017. These forecasts are likely overstated in the near term, as Congress probably won’t actually allow all the fiscal contraction baked into current law to actually come to pass. Still, CBO’s current economic forecast indicates a decade-long economic slump, in which the United States will forgo $8.1 trillion of national incomeRead more

Since when do we congratulate ourselves just for not going over a cliff?

Washington is fixated with the so-called “fiscal cliff” of legislated spending reductions and expiring tax cuts scheduled for 2013, which are projected to induce a recession if they materialize. As my colleague Josh Bivens and I have repeatedly explained in a series of recent papers and blog posts, this “cliff” simply represents the macroeconomic reality that budget deficits closing too quickly—thus public debt accumulating too slowly—will, if left unaddressed deep into 2013, push the U.S. economy into an austerity-induced recession. Last week, we released a paper, Navigating the fiscal obstacle course, offering our policy recommendations for moderating the pace of deficit reduction and sustaining recovery by reshuffling various components of the fiscal obstacle course (cliff is a terrible metaphor as it implies a false dichotomy). Now it’s worth zooming out and placing this debate in its proper context: in a depression.

FULL ANALYSIS FROM EPI: Budget battles in the lame duck and beyond

Paul Krugman’s latest book, End This Depression Now!, wasn’t hyperbolically titled—the United States truly is in a depression. U.S. economic output is currently depressed $973 billion below potential economic output—what the economy could produce with higher (but noninflationary) levels of employment and industrial capacity utilization. The U.S. economy has operated at 5 percent or more below potential output since Read more

Five job creation policies for handling the fiscal obstacle course and slowing deficit reduction

Piggybacking on my earlier post, this post outlines the five job creation proposals in our new paper, Navigating the fiscal obstacle course, which offers policymakers a realistic blueprint for moderating the pace of deficit reduction to boost growth and employment. These job creation policies are also adopted in a comprehensive federal budget proposal that EPI will release on Friday as part of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation 2012 Solutions Initiative.

FULL ANALYSIS FROM EPI: Budget battles in the lame duck and beyond

Relative to current policy, our paper recommends investing roughly $600 billion over the next decade, mostly over the next three years, in emergency unemployment benefits, aid to state governments, infrastructure investment, investing in teachers and school modernizations, and a one-year targeted tax rebate.1 These are all cost-effective ways to boost demand, and EPI endorsed variations of each of these proposals in our Sept. 2011 paper Putting America back to work: Policies for job creation and stronger economic growth. Note that any purported “resolution” of the fiscal obstacle course (e.g., a “grand bargain”) that omits these or similar proposals for increasing near-term budget deficits relative to current policy unequivocally fails the challenge actually facing policymakers, which is to sustain and accelerate the recovery.

Emergency Unemployment Compensation

We propose restoring the Emergency Unemployment Compensation program to again support up to 99 weeks of benefits in high unemployment states Read more

Recommendations for successfully navigating the fiscal obstacle course

Yesterday, my colleague Josh Bivens and I released a paper, Navigating the fiscal obstacle course, intended to offer a realistic blueprint—one that accounts for the constraints regrettably imposed by the current political climate—for how policymakers should navigate the so-called “fiscal cliff” of legislated spending reductions and expiring tax cuts scheduled for 2013. At its core, the fiscal cliff reveals the macroeconomic reality that budget deficits closing too quickly—thus public debt accumulating too slowly—will, if left unaddressed deep into 2013, push the U.S. economy into an austerity-induced recession. Contrary to the misplaced but pervasive inside-the-Beltway hand-wringing of recent years about rising public debt, this outlook implies that big budget deficits and rising public debt have been sustaining growth and economic recovery in recent years. The only way for policymakers to successfully navigate the scheduled fiscal restraint is to substantially moderate the pace of deficit reduction while the economy remains depressed—meaning for several years at minimum.

FULL ANALYSIS FROM EPI: Budget battles in the lame duck and beyond

Our recommendations build on our analysis from a recent paper, A fiscal obstacle course, not a cliff, which argued that “cliff” is a terrible metaphor because it implies Read more

Boehner’s talking about accelerating deficit reduction, not avoiding the fiscal obstacle course

Piggybacking on my colleague Josh Bivens’ previous post regarding the unfounded but pervasive political view that any near-term stimulus be conditioned on long-term deficit reduction, I want to clarify that Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) isn’t even talking about this “knife-edge” tradeoff between near-term stimulus and long-run deficit reduction—he’s only talking about the misplaced deficit-reduction plunge. Recent reporting (e.g., the New York Times) has described Boehner as striking a “conciliatory” tone in pledging to resolve the so-called “fiscal cliff,” but there’s a huge difference between professed willingness to compromise and talking policies to address the actual economic challenge facing Congress. Here’s Boehner at a press conference on Friday:

“Now, 2013 should be the year we begin to solve our debt through tax reform and entitlement reform, and I’m proposing that we avert the fiscal cliff together in a manner that ensures that 2013 is finally the year that our government comes to grips with the major problems that are facing us … [and later in Q&A:] Clearly the deficit is a drag on our economy.”

As I explained recently, the only way a deficit reduction “grand bargain” could successfully navigate the fiscal obstacle course is Read more

What does President Obama’s re-election mean for the ‘fiscal cliff?’

This post originally appeared in The Century Foundation’s series “What’s Next? TCF Fellows Look Ahead at President Obama’s Second Term.”

With the end of the 2012 election, policymakers’ focus will pivot to the so-called “fiscal cliff” of legislated spending reductions and expiring tax cuts scheduled for 2013, which are projected to induce a recession if they materialize. So what does President Barack Obama’s re-election imply for navigating the “fiscal cliff,” both in terms of his budgetary proposals’ economic impacts and their political viability?

FULL ANALYSIS FROM EPI: Budget battles in the lame duck and beyond

The “fiscal cliff” exposes that the pace of deficit reduction must be moderated to sustain economic recovery. “Cliff,” however, is a terrible metaphor because it implies a false dichotomy; we prefer “obstacle course” as the numerous separable policies should be weighed on their merits. A recent paper I coauthored with my colleague Josh Bivens concluded that the upper-income Bush-era tax cuts and recent estate tax cuts fail any reasonable cost-benefit analysis and should expire; these policies are the least supportive of jobs of all fiscal obstacle course components. Expiration of remaining stimulus measures—notably the payroll tax cut and emergency unemployment benefits—and looming spending cuts from last summer’s debt ceiling deal actually pose the gravest economic drags.Read more