What we read today

Fox News wannabe: Washington Post disses France

In a story headlined, “France Drowning in Rules and Regulations, critics say,” WaPo writer Edward Cody presents a caricature of a country with one of the highest standards of living in the world. Based on little more than interviews with disgruntled officials in one small town, Cody variously describes France’s regulatory regime as “strangling,” “smothering,” or “burying” the economy. For example:

“France and its southern European neighbors, such as Italy and Greece, are increasingly being buried in such norms, rules and directives. In the past two decades, the number of legal do’s and don’ts has become so great that businessmen and economists1 warn that it is smothering growth just as the continent tries to dig out of its worst slump in a generation.”

But France is not Italy or Greece, and the truth is almost the opposite of Cody’s claim that, compared with the Scandinavian countries, France discourages business. In fact, the World Bank measures the nations of the world on the ease of starting a new business, and France ranks well above all four of the Scandinavian countries. France also ranks about 80 places ahead of Europe’s economic powerhouse, Germany.

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More on missing downward price pressure (hint, blame corporate profits)

Paul Krugman has been writing (and linking to helpful pieces) about the “missing deflation” of recent years. Despite lots of hand-wringing that activist macroeconomic policy (especially the large degree of easing done by the Federal Reserve) is laying the powder for an explosion of inflation, it’s clear that this is the wrong worry and that the extraordinary degree of economic slack actually argues that disinflation is much more likely, and is actually a problem (by the way, Ken Rogoff is totally right about this one).

But Krugman notes it’s actually a puzzle that disinflation (a reduction in the rate of price-growth) has not been ongoing and has not pushed over into outright deflation (falling prices) like in Japan. And even in Japan, prolonged economic weakness has not led to accelerating deflation, instead their deflation has been slow and steady. So what’s happening?

Krugman and others have usefully pointed to downward nominal wage rigidity as the key reason—for whatever reasons, workers seem to really not like, and employers seem to indulge their preference for, outright nominal wage cuts. Wages holding steady while inflation reduces their purchasing power? That happens—and it’s happening a lot these days. But outright nominal wage reductions are rare, and this rarity could well be providing a (useful) floor to disinflation.

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Kids vs. seniors: an Urban myth

Are we spending too much on seniors and too little on kids? Many will recognize this as a classic either-or fallacy (what about tax breaks for the wealthy…?) But with Ron Brownstein, Ezra Klein and Charlie Cook all repeating the Urban Institute statistic that federal spending on seniors is nearly seven times that on children, the idea that seniors are crowding out children’s programs is catching on in Washington. Meanwhile, Urban’s estimate that state and local governments spend nine times more on kids than on seniors hasn’t gotten the same attention. Overall, it appears that government spending on seniors is roughly double (or less) that on children, though this measure includes Social Security, which is almost entirely funded through worker contributions.

Few progressives would dispute the need to spend more on children, especially low-income children. This should be the take-away from the Urban Institute’s “Kids’ Share” reports, the latest of which was published last July but is still frequently cited. Unfortunately, its findings are used mainly to justify cuts to Social Security and Medicare rather than expanding worthy kids’ programs.

Reporters love the generational warfare angle, which Urban isn’t above exploiting. The report is rife with selective comparisons to federal spending on elderly and disabled adults, as if there were only three groups of recipients of government spending and the size of the government pie was, by necessity, fixed or shrinking.

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A slight bit of substance on the Reinhart and Rogoff 90 percent debt threshold

Three quick notes on the debate over the Reinhart and Rogoff kerfuffle.

First, in their response, they move far from what has been interpreted (often with their encouragement) as the key claim of their paper—that there exists a clear, well-defined threshold for a nation’s public debt (90 percent of total gross domestic product) above which debt exerts a “secular drag on growth.” In commenting on the Herndon, Ash and Pollin (HAP) paper which demonstrates that a few improvements to the paper’s methodology (including correcting a coding error) makes this well-defined threshold disappear, Reinhart and Rogoff (R&R, hereafter) point to the HAP finding that as debt ratios rise in their sample, growth rates are slightly (and not statistically significant) lower. R&R try to cast this as somehow supportive of their own original finding. But it’s really not. Nobody has denied that there could be a statistical association between high levels of debt and slow growth—the key argument was that the causality could easily run from slow growth to higher debt ratios. What R&R claimed, and more importantly what became crucially important in fiscal policy debates, was that 90 percent was a bright line of debt that policymakers dare not flirt with. In some arenas they have been more judicious than that, but in others they wrote things like:

“…we find that very high debt levels of 90% of GDP are a long-term secular drag on economic growth.”

This 90 percent line has been hugely influential—fears of debt stabilizing at some higher ratio essentially drive the now-ubiquitous calls for aggressive 10-year deficit reduction targets.

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Gang of Eight bill delivers on bold, broad legalization of undocumented workers

Over the next several days and weeks, I’ll be reviewing the provisions of the 844-page comprehensive immigration reform bill, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act, with an eye on those elements that will particularly affect the operation and outcomes of the labor market.

Let’s start with the most important provision first. Secure Borders delivers on its most important goal: granting legal status to almost all of the eleven million immigrants currently here without authorization to work. Every undocumented immigrant who came before January 2012, who passes a criminal background check and pays $500 will be given a provisional status that will allow them to work.

That single, dramatic step will change their lives for the better, improve the labor market prospects of every other legal resident with whom they compete for jobs, and free their employers from the taint and guilt of an illegal employment relationship. It won’t make these immigrants full citizens or give them the full rights of other residents of the United States, but it will remove them from the precarious status of working illegally, with the terrifying threat of discovery and deportation always hanging over their heads. They will be free to join unions, to ask for, demand, or strike for higher pay, and will be free to quit and look for a better job with another employer. The job lock and fear that keep so many of the undocumented underpaid or underemployed will end immediately.

For that, I take my hat off to the Gang of Eight.

The Reinhart and Rogoff magical 90 percent threshold loses its magic?

One of the most influential findings in the never-ending debate over American fiscal policy came from a 2010 paper by economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff—“Growth in a Time of Debt.” They claimed to have identified a clear debt ratio (total public debt divided by  gross domestic product) threshold above which countries’ economic growth would significantly slow. This 90 percent debt ratio has been referenced by budget writers, policymakers and others arguing for steep reductions in budget deficits soon.

We didn’t buy it. In the same year their paper was released, I co-authored a paper (along with John Irons) looking at the historical record for the U.S., and found very little evidence that such a threshold existed (and we weren’t alone in our skepticism). Further, we noted that the causality of any such finding was deeply in doubt—slow growth could lead to high debt as surely (actually, much more surely) as high debt could impede growth.

Most importantly (if not most thrillingly), we argued (in the first bullet-point!) that “there is no compelling theoretical reason why the stock of debt at a given point in time should harm contemporaneous economic growth.”

And it turns out that there is no longer any compelling empirical reason to think that the 90 percent threshold is operable any more either, as a new working paper by Herndon, Ash and Pollin makes clear. After receiving the original Reinhart and Rogoff data set (collegially provided by the original authors), they found a number of errors that, when corrected, essentially overturn the finding that debt ratios of over 90 percent are associated with slower growth. Mike Konczal reviews the paper in some detail here.

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The Working Families Flexibility Act is a fraud

The Republican majority on the House Education and Workforce Committee could raise the minimum wage, cover more employees with overtime protection, pass paid sick days legislation, pass a paid family leave bill, or do a host of other things to make life easier for America’s working families. Instead, as Judith Lichtman of the National Partnership for Women and Families testified last week, they have chosen to weaken overtime protections and shift more power from employees to their bosses.

The Republicans have trotted out a bill introduced back in 1995 and unsuccessfully pushed again by business lobbyists in 2003. They call H.R. 1406 the Working Families Flexibility Act, apparently because it will bend and twist working families even more than they already are as they try to balance the needs of home and work. Rather than give employees the flexibility to take a paid day off when they or their kids are sick, the bill gives their employers the flexibility not to pay them overtime when it is earned.

Lichtman does a great job of pointing out what a sham the bill is, and the National Partnership has also published a good fact sheet that points out that the bill greatly increases the risk that employees will work overtime but never get paid for it. The chance that thousands of businesses will fail each year while holding millions of dollars of unpaid overtime credits in leave banks is very real. Half a million businesses fail in an average year.

Judy Lichtman politely calls H.R. 1406 “smoke and mirrors.” I think it’s fair to call it a fraud, for the truth is that the law already permits the only benefit the bill claims to provide, time off for employees who work overtime. Nothing in current law prevents an employer that makes an employee work overtime from paying for that overtime and then providing unpaid compensatory time off to the employee at a later date.

What we read today (Tax Day edition)

Happy tax day! Here are a few stories we found interesting in the past couple weeks:

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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Dark Age budgeting: Social Security back on the table

There was once a time in the mid-2000s—a golden era, if you will—when it finally seemed widely recognized that long-run federal spending trends were driven near-entirely by rising health care costs. An equally important corollary recognition was that these health care costs were driven in turn near-entirely by rising per beneficiary cost-growth, a function of our dysfunctional health system and not a function of demographics. Lots of people deserve credit for getting this truth out, and Peter Orszag’s tenure at the Congressional Budget Office was especially useful in drumming this truth home to the Very Serious People™. Figures and bullet-points like this one seemed to help…

health care

Recognizing that demographics alone do not constitute a coming budget crisis was hugely important, because it was (a) correct and (b) focused attention on where it belonged in budget issues: reforming health care. It also relieved pressure stemming from efforts to cut Social Security. This is crucially important because Social Security is the only leg of our retirement system that is not a frank disaster, so defanging efforts to chip away at it was a huge policy win.

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Will the birthday bump prevent an increase in senior poverty from the chained CPI?

The president has proposed cutting the cost-of-living adjustment for Social Security by tying it to a “chained” consumer price index that rises more slowly than the current one, but with a partially offsetting benefit enhancement intended to protect vulnerable beneficiaries. In a fact sheet about the chained CPI belatedly released by the Office of Management and Budget, the White House claims: “Because of the benefit enhancement for the very elderly, the Budget proposal would not increase the poverty rate for Social Security beneficiaries, and would slightly reduce poverty among the very elderly according to SSA [Social Security Administration] estimates.”

This claim deserves scrutiny, since the SSA estimates aren’t shown and the description of the “benefit enhancement” was slow to be released and remains sketchy. While we await further information, a quick look at the benefit enhancement casts some doubt on this claim, since retirees with average benefits would see a benefit cut until their late 90s, and few retirees live that long.1

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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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President’s budget “compromises” on job-growth too

Yesterday the president released his FY2014 budget request. While there is a lot to be commended in the budget (canceling sequestration cuts, calling for an (admittedly insufficient) increase in the minimum wage, infrastructure investment, creating a “Buffett rule”) there is also plenty to dislike. Perhaps the most controversial measure is the inclusion of the chained CPI to measure the cost of living adjustment for Social Security (and to index tax brackets and other programs). This is a not a policy favorite of EPI’s (see here and here for why).

Less commented on is the dramatic scaling back of stimulus efforts in this year’s budget relative to previous versions. In last year’s FY2013 budget request, the president included a section within his proposals dedicated to “temporary tax relief and investments to create jobs and jumpstart growth.” While perhaps not as robust and exhaustive as we would like to see in an effort to insure a full economic recovery, last year’s budget was not too shabby on stimulus. It included $178 billion in stimulus proposals for FY2012, and $355 billion over FY2012-2022. Examples of stimulus in the FY2013 request included a two-year payroll tax holiday, an extension of unemployment insurance benefits, some business and energy tax credits, investment in surface transportation priorities, and a number of different policies aimed on hiring and supporting teachers and first responders and rehabilitating and rebuilding neighborhoods and schools (many of these policies were seen in his September 2011 American Jobs Act proposal).

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Leaked ESPN memo asks employees to take one for the team

Sports website Deadspin just published a leaked internal memo circulated by ESPN that gives us a small window into the sports entertainment giant’s questionable (at best) labor practices.

ESPN staffers are currently preparing to put on a new international X Games competition in Foz do Iguaçu, Brazil. In advance of their trip, ESPN operations manager Severn Sandt sent out a memo outlining ESPN’s expectations of its staff.

Citing extreme budget constraints, ESPN is asking its employees to take one for the team on their time sheets. Singling out hourly employees, the memo encourages,

“…Don’t push OT. If it’s 9:10, take the 9:00 out – don’t push for 9:30.”

The legality of this admonition aside, let’s put it into a broader business context. ESPN is owned mostly by The Walt Disney Company, and accounts for almost half of the entire value of the Disney empire. With a valuation of $40 billion, according to Wunderlich, ESPN is by no means suffering from prohibitive financial constraints.

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How to stomp on promising developments in the economy: Austerity

Luckily people seem to be taking the correct lesson from Friday’s job report: the economic recovery is (yet again) assuredly not on track. The first three months of 2013 saw average job gains of 168,000, down from the 183,000 monthly average for 2012.

This is a real shame, because there are some real reasons to think that 2013 could have turned out better than 2012 in the economy. Housing has stopped dragging on growth, and the state and local sector has gone from utter freefall to almost-stabilization.

Take the improvement from 2011 to  2012 in both of these—this combined boost was roughly 0.5% of GDP. Imagine for a second that this rate of improvement characterized 2013 as well—we’re a full half-point of GDP ahead of the game, right?

                           The Good News: Housing and SL Spending Improve
2010 2011 2012 2011-2012 swing
Residential investment -0.14 0.09 0.34 0.25
State and local spending -0.47 -0.33 -0.13 0.20
Source: BEA NIPA table 1.1.2

Sadly, we have DC policymakers who have decided to stomp on any improvement with steep cuts and the repeal of the payroll tax cut without any useful replacement. As we estimated here, the combined effect of the payroll tax cut ending and the sequester (and spending cuts baked into the cake even before the sequester kicked in) are likely to subtract more than 1.5% off of GDP growth for the year.1

Frustrated about the slow pace of recovery? Blame those in Congress insisting on damaging cuts.

1 Note that the number for the sequester in that table is slightly high—the 2-month deferral negotiated in December will slightly reduce its drag in 2013).



These days, Republicans in Congress jostle for the right flank like crazed jockeys determined to race as fast as possible even if showboating by the outer rail costs them the prize. They often appear to be paying more attention to upcoming horse auctions (Republican primaries) than winning the purse.

If Republicans’ mix of grit and speed at the expense of strategy has its opportunity costs, the Democrats’ habit of playing follow-the-leader has them tripping over themselves while failing to notice how far they drifted rightward as they try to cajole Republicans to join them in what they still believe to be the center of the track.

Hasn’t anyone noticed that the shortest route is by the inner rail, which is wide open? Especially when it comes to popular social insurance programs, good progressive policy also happens to be good politics. Well, Bernie Sanders has figured this out, but he can’t be everywhere.

Now that the president’s plan to offer up Social Security cuts in his budget has been officially “leaked,” it’s too late to get him to change his mind and time to revolt. There’s not much new to say on the topic of a chained CPI, since even supporters have all but conceded that it’s a benefit cut rather than a technical fix, as Larry Mishel recently noted. But if progressives need a prod to break their habit of loyalty to a misguided but beleaguered president, Dean Baker at CEPR has pointed out that a COLA cut would have a bigger impact on low-income beneficiaries than the recent tax increases in the American Taxpayer Relief Act had on the wealthy. If Democrats go along with this, progressives need to break with the party and follow Senator Sanders’ independent lead.

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


What we read today

Why the 400,000 new ‘low-skilled’ work visas business wants is a ridiculously high number

As I wrote earlier, one of the great things about the Chamber of Commerce and AFL-CIO agreement on a new W-visa program is that it doesn’t open up a large flow of indentured workers as other programs do. Those brought in work under the same laws and have the same rights as other workers, and they are able to obtain legal status and a path to citizenship. They can also switch jobs so they’re not indentured to one employer. Now the comments are coming in that the caps on the number of visas are too low. There will be 20,000 in the first year rising to 75,000 in the fourth year, and thereafter determined by a commission staffed by labor market experts but capped at 200,000.

Rick Newman, Chief Business Correspondent at U.S. News & World Report, writes that these limits are too strict and cites an American Enterprise Institute expert saying, 200,000 is “a really, really low number.” Newman explains:

“Some context explains why. There are roughly 135 million working Americans, so 200,000 immigrants per year would amount to a tiny fraction of the total labor force. Construction alone employs about 5.8 million people, with peak employment hitting 7.7 million in 2007.”

It is easy to see why this analysis is wrong. The comparison should not be to the total workforce but to those who are similarly skilled and working in the same occupations as the W-visa workers. Even more important, the flow of new workers each year should be compared to the newly available jobs for such workers each year.Read more

New hope for workers in immigration deal between AFL-CIO and Chamber of Commerce

A number of reports this weekend revealed that the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have come to an agreement on a new foreign worker program to be included in comprehensive immigration legislation being drafted in the Senate. I applaud the months of hard work by business and labor, who managed to negotiate a deal that will, on balance, be fair to both foreign workers recruited to work in the United States as well as workers already in the country.

If the agreement becomes law, a new foreign worker program—the “W” visa program—will be created for lesser-skilled, non-seasonal occupations that don’t require a college degree. But unlike current U.S. temporary foreign worker (“guestworker”) programs, it will include many new and necessary worker protections. Also, a new Bureau of Immigration and Labor Market Research will be established to inform Congress about the impact of immigration on the labor market. As Matt Yglesias pointed out yesterday, many aspects of the agreement are exactly what the Economic Policy Institute has been proposing for years.

Here are some of the key components of the proposed program:Read more

Why the W-Visa agreement should be welcomed

There are reports that the AFL-CIO, representing all unions, and the Chamber of Commerce have reached an agreement on a new temporary foreign worker visa program to be included in the comprehensive immigration package being negotiated in the Senate. The new W-Visa will be created for employers to petition for foreign workers in lesser-skilled, non-seasonal non-agricultural occupations. This is a good thing, and not simply because the framework for the program draws heavily on the policies developed by former Secretary of Labor Ray Marshall working with my EPI colleague Ross Eisenbrey and others at EPI.

There was always a danger that business groups would be successful in their efforts to vastly expand programs that exploit temporary guestworkers and depress wages and labor standards for all workers. In fact, that’s the way current programs work. Another danger was that disputes in this arena would derail the broader immigration reform effort, particularly when it comes to regularizing the undocumented workforce.

Many details are not available or will have to be developed. Nevertheless, what we do know suggests that this will be a modestly scaled program that protects the workers involved and does not undercut wages. Indeed, the program is not for “temporary” workers or for “guests” at all: rather, workers (not their employers!) will be able to petition for permanent status after one year. This is a huge improvement, since current procedures for green cards give a key role to the employer, which obviously gives them great power over a worker seeking permanent resident status. Providing a path to permanent status—and eventually citizenship—makes sense to me because I always wondered why, if there’s a shortage, we need a “guest” rather than a worker?Read more

What we read today

Kerry drinks the trade Kool-Aid, but trade agreements do NOT create jobs

Secretary of State John Kerry bought into the hype around trade in a speech this week in Paris when he claimed that the proposed U.S.–EU trade and investment agreement could help Europe emerge from the economic crisis. Kerry claimed that the proposed U.S.–EU trade agreement “may be one of the best ways of helping Europe to break out of this cycle [and] have growth.” As I’ve explained before, trade agreements do not create jobs. This is not some proprietary EPI view on trade – it is a standard view straight out of economics text books.

The issue is simple: it is trade balances—the net of exports and imports—that can affect jobs. Unless trade agreements promise to reduce our too-high trade deficit, they will have no positive effect on jobs. Even worse, past trade agreements have actually been associated with larger trade deficits in their aftermath.

This is mainstream (neo-classical) trade theory, as explained by Paul Krugman in “Trade Does Not Equal Jobs.” Responding (in 2010) specifically to claims that the Korea–U.S. trade agreement could be a driver of recovery, he pointed out that in macroeconomic terms, the United Sates had too little spending on domestically-produced goods and services, with spending defined by:

Y = C + I + G + X –M

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The sequester, the Ryan budget and practically all other spending cuts actually make the debt situation worse

It’s clear that the sequester will do plenty of damage to domestic priorities like education, R&D, national parks, regulatory agencies, etc by bringing non-defense discretionary spending down to historic lows. But at least it will begin reducing the debt right away and help put the federal government on a more sustainable fiscal path, right?

Unfortunately, no. It turns out that the sequester will likely cause the debt ratio (public debt as a share of GDP) to rise rather than fall in the next couple of years. This is because there is a strong interaction between fiscal policy and the economy when the economy is weak and underperforming (i.e. operating below potential output), which the Congressional Budget Office projects it will be until mid-2017. A weak economy means a higher deficit: a high level of unemployment both depresses tax revenue and forces more people to rely on the social safety net (e.g. unemployment insurance, Medicaid, food assistance, etc). As the economy expands closer to potential output, the deficit falls because people move from the social safety net back into employment, resulting in lower spending and higher revenues.

This relationship also works in reverse: fiscal policy choices have a significant impact on the economy when it is operating below potential. Expansionary fiscal policy (i.e. spending increases or tax cuts) injects demand into the economy, causing a boost of economic activity and job creation. Contractionary fiscal policy, such as spending cuts or tax increases, drains demand from the economy and creates a drag on growth.Read more

Working as designed: High profits and stagnant wages

Newly released data on corporate profitability for 2012 show the continuation of historic levels of profitability despite excessive unemployment and stagnant wages for most workers. Specifically, the share of capital income (such as profits and interest, which are hereafter referred to as ‘profits’) in the corporate sector increased to 25.6 percent in 2012, the highest in any year since 1950-51 and far higher than the 19.9 percent share prevailing over 1969-2007, the five business cycles preceding the financial crisis.

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Time to end the reign of terror of scary upward-sloping graphs

Once a year, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) publishes long-run debt projections under their assumptions about budget policy under future Congresses, known as the alternative fiscal scenario (AFS). It is used extensively by many—including House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.)—to argue that we face a catastrophe that can only be solved by effectively dismantling the social safety net and retirement systems that we have in place. But it’s also misleading.

Michael Linden at the Center for American Progress recently released a great analysis showing that this scary long-run debt projection is only scary because CBO assumes that future policymakers will make policy decisions that will make the deficit much worse. If you remove those assumptions to arrive at a more honest baseline, then the problem of an unsustainable rising debt mostly disappears.


But let’s back up a bit and marvel at the absurdity of long-term debt projections. Remember, these projected deficits are largely the product of CBO’s economic and demographic projections, coupled with assumptions about decisions made by future policymakers and long-term health costs. Moreover, economic, demographic, and other budgetary projections are most reliable in the near-term, and their margin of error compounds with time.
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What we read today

The Murray budget falls short on funding domestic programs

In a previous blog post, my colleague Andrew noted the encouraging revenue targets in Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray’s (D-WA) Senate Democratic FY2014 budget resolution—revenue that would partially replace sequestration and minimize the per dollar drag of total deficit reduction. But unfortunately the budget, like many others before it, strives to hit stringent deficit reduction targets and in the process ends up having an adverse impact on the economy and job growth by 2014 relative to current policy. This focus on deficit reduction targets likely led to another unfortunate aspect of the Murray budget: its surprisingly large cuts to non-defense discretionary (NDD) programs.

The NDD budget is vitally important to the country, and includes security funding for areas like homeland security, veterans’ affairs, nuclear weapons and foreign operations; safety net programs including housing vouchers and nutrition assistance for women and infants; most funding for the enforcement of consumer protection, environmental protection and financial regulation; and practically all of the federal government’s civilian public investments, such as infrastructure, education, training, and research and development.Read more