Capping federal spending at 20 percent of GDP would decimate state budgets

My colleagues Josh Bivens and Andrew Fieldhouse recently released a report finding that Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s budget plan would reduce employment by between 550,000 and 1.9 million jobs over the next two years relative to current policy, depending on whether his tax cut is deficit-financed or fully paid for with base-broadening. This job loss is overwhelmingly fueled by his proposal to cap federal spending at 20 percent of GDP.

But the impact of any fiscal plan goes beyond the job impact—after all, a little over 17 percent of non-interest federal spending flows directly to states (e.g., matching funds for Medicaid and unemployment insurance), and with a half trillion dollars in cumulative shortfalls that states have faced in the last few years and another $55 billion in shortfalls faced this year, states would have difficulty handling another blow to their budgets. So how would Romney’s proposed spending cap affect state budgets?

To make this calculation, I started with the U.S. Census Bureau’s Annual Survey of State Government Finances, which shows total expenditures and federal transfers to state governments, each by state. I then applied the Read more

What we read today

Here’s some of the thought-provoking content that EPI’s research team enjoyed reading today:


Barry Commoner, visionary environmentalist, teacher and activist dies at 95

Barry Commoner, path-breaking scientist and social activist, passed away yesterday at the age of 95. I was fortunate enough to work for Barry in the late 1970s as a research assistant on two of his books, The Poverty of Power (1976) and The Politics of Energy (1979). Commoner, a botanist and biologist, was a founder of the environmental movement, along with peers such as Rachel Carson (The Silent Spring, 1962) and Margaret Meade. He believed that scientists have an obligation to share scientific information with the general public to enable them to participate in public debate on scientific issues. His work on the effects of nuclear fallout, documented through the collection of baby teeth and reinforced by a petition signed by 11,201 scientists worldwide, provided the scientific foundation for the adoption of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963.

Commoner also helped establish the roots of today’s BlueGreen Alliance of labor and environmentalists. He first began working with Tony Mazzocchi, a longtime leader of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers in the 1950s, who collected baby teeth from the children of members of his Long Island local union. Commoner’s work showed the connections between the environmental crisis and social and economic issues such as “poverty, injustice, public health, national security and war,”  and that the roots of the environmental crisis lay in excessive corporate power and flawed systems of production. He argued that only by changing those systems—for example, by replacing nuclear power, coal and oil with renewable energy—could the root causes of our environmental problems be eliminated. Not coincidentally, these same policies would create millions of new domestic jobs, reducing pollution, inequality and our trade deficit simultaneously. As Commoner established in The Closing Circle (1971), the first of his “four laws of ecology” was, “Everything is connected to everything else.” Indeed.

What we read today

As you head into your weekend, here’s some of the thought-provoking content that EPI’s research team came across today:

Another right-wing attack on public workers

How does government pay compare with that in the private sector? The answer is pretty much what you’d expect: Wages and salaries are lower, but benefits are better. Overall compensation is, if anything, slightly lower, though this varies by class of worker; less educated workers are better paid in the public sector and more educated workers are better paid in the private sector. This again is not surprising when you consider that less educated workers in the private sector often earn poverty wages with no health benefits and government employers have little incentive to shift costs onto Medicaid and other government programs.

But anti-government ideologues have deep pockets, so a minor industry has sprung up trying to show that government workers are overpaid. The latest report in this genre comes from Citizens Against Government Waste, and is typical of its kind. The research was done by an outfit called John Dunham and Associates, a.k.a. It shows many of the tell-tale signs of shoddy research:

1. Anecdotal evidence. Somewhere, there’s a government worker making an obscene amount of money and abusing the system. But focusing too much on specific examples is a sure sign they aren’t representative. The CAGW report claims the average San Diego firefighter makes more than $180,000 per yearRead more

Romney heavily exploits tax loopholes while slamming others for not paying income taxes

A Bloomberg article from yesterday highlighted the fact that a trust set up by Mitt Romney to benefit his children and grandchildren relied heavily on tax loopholes for maximum returns. Romney was able to avoid gift and estate taxes by relying on a vehicle known as an “intentionally defective grantor trust,” or IDGT, which tax planners sometimes refer to as “I Dig It.” This type of trusts allow donors to gift unlimited amounts to their children and grandchildren free of gift or estate taxes (the top gift tax rate is scheduled to return to 55 percent in 2013, after being cut significantly by President George W. Bush). The value of the Romney family trust is not counted, according to the article, as part of the $250 million that Romney’s campaign cites as his net worth.

Tax avoidance such as this relies heavily on the preferential treatment of capital gains in the tax code. As the article highlights, when a trust such as the one set up by Romney sells assets at a profit, the donors are able to pay relatively low capital gains rates on behalf of the trust. A Tax Policy Center report earlier this year that looked at the distributional effects of tax expenditures found that “relative to the population as whole, high-income taxpayers would lose the most from eliminating special rates for capital gains and dividends.” Romney and his running mate Paul Ryan have ruled out closing this costly and lopsided loophole Read more


Multipliers, yet again

In a recent paper assessing the likely impact of President Obama and Mitt Romney’s budget plans if they became law, we applied standard macroeconomic multipliers to estimates of each plan’s fiscal impulse.

As always, the very term “multipliers” brings out critics, and the ones we used for this study (and have used often in the past)—those from Moody’s—seem to bring out even more. This is all very odd.

We often use the Moody’s multipliers because they’re transparent and slightly more detailed than many others that have been published. But, what drives our results in determining whose budget plans provide a bigger economic boost is simply the relative ranking of these multipliers; specifically the estimate that tax cuts (particularly for high-income households) provide less dollar-for-dollar economic support than do spending increases. This is not controversial at all. Both the Congressional Budget Office and the Council of Economic Advisers make similar relative judgments (see the tables here), and the general view that government purchases’ multipliers will lie above tax multipliers during economic circumstances like the present is buttressed by a number of academic papers in recent yearsRead more

Share of households owning stocks declined over the last decade

The recently released State of Working America, 12th Edition, documents in a variety of ways how the last decade in the United States has been a lost decade for all but the very well-off. One manifestation of this lost decade is the decline in the share of households owning stocks.

First, it’s useful to point out that even with the “401(k) revolution,” a surprisingly small share of households ever held any significant amount of stocks. As the figure shows, at its peak in 2001, just more than half (51.9 percent) of U.S. households held any stock, including stocks held in retirement plans like 401(k)s. Furthermore, many of that 51.9 percent held very small amounts—just over a third (37.8 percent) had total stock holdings of $10,000 or more. (Read this snapshot for more on the “democratization of the stock market” that never actually happened.) And even those modest shares have since lost ground. By 2010, less than half (46.9 percent) of all households had any stock holdings, and less than a third (31.1 percent) had stock holdings of $10,000 or more.

The strong rebound in stocks since 2009 amidst persistently high unemployment highlights the disconnect between Wall Street’s financial markets and most people. The stock market simply has little or no direct financial importance to the majority of U.S. households. Since 1989, the top fifth of households consistently held about 90 percent of stock wealth, leaving approximately 10 percent for the bottom four-fifths of households. If you want to assess how the economy is performing for most households in this country, don’t look to the stock market, look to the labor market, and measures of job opportunities like employment and wage growth.

Which candidate’s plans are more Keynesian?

Unemployment remains far too high, and the culprit is clearly deficient spending in the economy. Yet, a full-throated call for aggressive Keynesian remedies for this (i.e., something like another Recovery Act) is far from the top-shelf item on the agenda. Instead, most policy attention in the race centers on which candidate would more rapidly reduce projected budget deficits—a policy maneuver that, in the next couple of years, would be all but guaranteed to lead to higher unemployment rates. This move away from a defense of Keynesian cures for high unemployment started a long time ago and has codified by the 112th Congress (Jan. 2011–present), when federal budget policies pivoted sharply toward austerity.

Republicans have clearly led the charge away from Keynesianism, vociferously decrying the increase in budget deficits since the Great Recession began and demanding a dollar of spending cuts for every dollar increase in the statutory debt ceiling. Democrats have (generally) been more ambivalent—calling for (and passing) some fiscal support while often rhetorically privileging deficit reduction over other policy goals. Given this partisan pattern, it’s somewhat unexpected to hear some commentators speculate that a Mitt Romney administration Read more

Pension report misses obvious causes of underfunding

Yet another right-wing organization is attacking public employees and their pay. This time, it’s Citizens Against Government Waste, a corporate front for tobacco companies, defense contractors, Microsoft, and anyone interested in contracting out government services. Today, they issued a report card at the National Press Club that purports to grade states on public employee pay and argued that overpayments are the cause of unfunded pension liabilities.

These claims are bunk, and study after study has rebutted similar claims. If anything, public-sector workers, most of whom have college degrees or higher, are somewhat underpaid compared to comparable private-sector workers. EPI collected a series of such reports in Jan. 2011, but this has also been the finding of research from the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, the National Institute on Retirement Security, and the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

The CAGW paper also addresses public employee pension plans. Why are these plans underfunded? The biggest single reason is the stock market collapse of 2007–09. Read more


A ‘lost decade’ for nearly every state

EPI’s recently released The State of Working America, 12th edition, explains in detail how the past 10 years have been a “lost decade” of income growth for the bulk of American families. How has this played out at the state level? Last week’s release of the American Community Survey (ACS) provides excellent data with which to see these trends by state.

According to the ACS, from 2000 to 2011, real median household income—i.e., adjusted for inflation—declined in 41 out of 50 states across the U.S. Figure A illustrates this change. The dark blue bars represent 2011 median household income values. The grey sections show what household income was in each state in 2000. (The light blue sections are the rare instances of median income growth.)

As the figure shows, household incomes rose in only a handful of states in the west-north-central region where the shale gas boom has been driving growth, and in the region surrounding Washington, D.C (which some attribute, in part, to growth in the lobbying industry). Of the 41 states where household incomes fell, 13 states had declines greater than 10 percent, with Michigan (-18.9 percent), Georgia (-14.7 percent), and Mississippi (-13.7 percent) experiencing the largest declines.Read more

Obama’s budget policies would be better for growth than Romney’s

The most pressing economic challenges facing the United States remain stubbornly high unemployment and underemployment rates, a legacy of the Great Recession that began at the end of 2007 and from which the labor market has yet to fully—or even largely—recover. In today’s liquidity trap environment, and with further depreciation of the dollar seemingly unlikely, economic growth and employment overwhelmingly hinge on fiscal policy in the near term.

Both President Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney contend that they have plans to accelerate job creation, but their two approaches are diametrically opposed. Relative to current budget policies, Obama is essentially proposing to temporarily increase federal spending and give tax credits for employers expanding payrolls to boost employment (i.e., the American Jobs Act, or AJA, provisions that have stalled in the House of Representatives) and raise taxes on upper-income households. Romney is proposing to cut both federal spending and taxes—overwhelmingly for upper-income households—by capping federal outlays at 20 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) while reducing corporate income and individual income tax rates, as well as repealing the estate and alternative minimum taxes (AMT) in entirety. Timothy Noah prognosticates in The New Republic  that, “If any of Romney’s tax stimulus remained [after possible “base-broadening” and legislative sausage-making], it would be erased by cuts in government spending. … At this point it’s fair to conclude Romney’s machinations would actually be worsening the economy.” Read more

Social Security, Medicare and life expectancy

Two new studies find that unemployment at older ages may shorten life and that the gap in life expectancy between less and more educated workers is widening. Though neither result may seem surprising, the first is at odds with some previous research, while the second reinforces earlier findings but provides shocking new statistics—notably the fact that the least educated white women have seen their life expectancy at birth fall by five years since 1990, as highlighted in a recent New York Times article.

A seminal paper by Christopher J. Ruhm (2000) found that recessions were associated with lower mortality rates, a counterintuitive result confirmed by later studies. Ann Huff Stevens et al. (2011) identified a possible reason: Reduced employment opportunities in the broader labor market appeared to leave nursing homes better staffed, explaining why the pro-cyclical mortality effect was concentrated among seniors.

In other words, while higher unemployment may be associated with lower mortality, this doesn’t necessarily mean working is bad for your health. Later research focusing on workers who lost their jobs (as opposed to economy-wide unemployment rates) found Read more

Rare conservative-progressive agreement: Corporate capture of the government is a bad thing

Ross Douthat, a very conservative New York Times columnist, rarely writes anything—even a sentence—that I agree with. So I was surprised to find myself nodding my head as he pointed out the danger of having a capital region so much richer than the rest of the country that policymakers lose touch with the lives of the people their decisions affect.

Douthat writes that seven of the 10 richest counties in America are in the Washington, D.C. region and that Fairfax, Loudoun and Arlington Counties, all in Northern Virginia, have higher median incomes than every other county in the United States.

To his credit, Douthat does not use this as an opportunity to bash federal employees. Instead, he correctly points out that the big growth in numbers and incomes has come from the private-sector firms that feed off the federal government:

“Whence comes this wealth? Mostly from Washington’s one major industry: the federal government. Not from direct federal employment, which has risen only modestly of late, but from the growing armies of lobbyists and lawyers, contractors and consultants, who make their living advising and influencing and facilitating the public sector’s work.”

Douthat tries to make the concentration of wealth in the capital region into a case for Romney’s electionRead more

What we read today

Here’s some of the thought-provoking content that EPI’s research team came across today:

Recent federal regulation coincides with manufacturing employment gains

The National Association of Manufacturers is showing itself to be less a genuine representative of the nation’s manufacturing businesses than a political entity tied to the Republican Party. Despite the evidence that the Obama administration imposed fewer regulations in its first three years than the Bush administration, the NAM complains constantly about the regulatory burden Obama is imposing. In its own words: “New Survey Paints Bleak Picture Before 2012 Elections.”

This is especially surprising since we heard no such complaints at the end of George Bush’s first term.

It begins to look hypocritical and totally political when we consider that each year of the Bush administration resulted in a year-over-year loss of manufacturing jobs, a streak that ended only after Obama’s auto bailout and Recovery Act took effect. Over the last two years, manufacturing employment grew from 11,340,000 to 12,074,000, a gain of more than 700,000 jobs.

Looking at these data, it is hard to conclude that the increasing regulatory burden of the last few years—if there has been an increase, as NAM claims—has hurt manufacturing.

Video: Collective bargaining and shared prosperity in Michigan

The decline of collective bargaining and the erosion of middle-class incomes in Michigan, an EPI briefing paper published today, finds that the divergence between pay and productivity and the corresponding failure of middle-class incomes to grow is strongly related to the erosion of collective bargaining over the last 30 years in Michigan. Included in the paper is this video produced by Colin Gordon, Professor of History at the University of Iowa:

Nearly four years in, what do cost-benefit data show for the major Obama EPA rules, and what do they imply for the economy?

With the issuance in August of the fuel efficiency and greenhouse gas standards for cars for model years 2017–2025, the Obama administration may have now put forth the last major Environmental Protection Agency rule of its term. Starting with a comprehensive analysis in May 2011, EPI has issued a series of analyses which have found that contrary to much of the political commentary, these rules will be of great benefit to the nation, improving public health considerably without harming the economy or employment.

Altogether, under the Obama administration, 10 final major rules have now been issued by the EPA and three final major rules issued jointly by EPA and the Department of Transportation. To examine one way that the impacts on society of those rules are assessed, I add up their ultimate annualized cost and benefit figures. It bears mentioning that costs and benefits are phased in over time, can jump around for individual rules from year to year, and a considerable portion of the impact of the rules will not occur until five years or more from now. Thus it is best to think of the figures as annual averages over time, but not representative of a particular year.

The table below, using the official government data, indicates:

  • The benefits of the finalized Obama EPA rules are valued at $144 billion a year Read more

Retirement proposals a big step forward

Recent policy initiatives in the retirement arena, while they may not go far enough, would have an immediate impact on workers’ retirement security while pointing the way forward rather than closing off avenues for further reform.

A critical difference between these plans and more incremental reforms is that they don’t just focus on increasing retirement savings through automatic enrollment or reducing costs through fee transparency and other means, but also provide workers with a cost-effective way to insure against longevity and investment risks. While workers in 401(k) plans have always had the option of minimizing risk by investing conservatively and purchasing life annuities in the private insurance market, the cost is prohibitive—roughly double the cost of achieving a similar outcome through a traditional defined benefit pension (Morrissey 2009, Almeida and Fornia 2008).

At the federal level, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) has proposed a multi-pronged approach that would expand Social Security while creating USA Retirement Funds (U.S. Senate HELP Committee 2012). In addition to pooled and professionally managed retirement savings, which have been shown to significantly improve net risk-adjusted returns, USA Retirement Funds would provide lifetime pension benefits based on long-term market conditions. While participants as a group would still bear the risk of prolonged market downturns, this risk would be spread across generations of workers and retirees so that retirement outcomes wouldn’t vary dramatically based on whether a worker retired in the wake of a bull or bear market. Read more

What we read today

Here’s some of the thought-provoking content that EPI’s research team came across today:

Foxconn riot, strikes, coerced student labor, and more: All’s not well with iPhone 5 production

The latest red flag that all is not well with iPhone 5 production is the overnight riot that occurred at the dormitory of one of Foxconn’s plants in China that “makes parts for Apple’s iPhones and hardware for other companies” (quoting from NPR). According to Reuters, this riot involved 2,000 workers, was broken up by about 5,000 police, and the factory has been shut down for an indeterminate length of time.

The proximate cause of the riot is not yet clear; Foxconn said “the trouble started with a personal row that blew up into a brawl,” but Twitter-like postings claimed that “factory guards had beaten workers and that sparked the melee” (both quotes from the Reuters story). It is, of course, particularly difficult to obtain accurate, unbiased information of conditions at factories in China. At minimum, however, the severity of the riot demands an independent investigation and should give anyone pause before concluding that any worker rights concerns connected to the production of iPhones by Foxconn have been addressed.

Such pause is especially appropriate given other information that has come to light in the past two weeks. Read more

2011 American Community Survey shows continuing hardship throughout the U.S.

The results of the 2011 American Community Survey (ACS), released today by the U.S. Census Bureau, show that households across the United States are still coping with the damage wrought by the Great Recession.

Between 2010 and 2011, inflation-adjusted median household income either fell or stayed the same in every state except Vermont. Median household income significantly declined in 18 states, ranging from a 1.1 percent decline in Ohio to a 6 percent drop in Nevada. California (-3.8 percent), Georgia (-3.5 percent), Hawaii (-5.2 percent), Louisiana (-4.7 percent), New Jersey (-3.4 percent), and New Mexico (-3.1 percent) all experienced income declines of more than 3 percent. Thirty-one states showed no significant change in median household income. For the nation as a whole, median household income decreased by 1.3 percent.1

While overall household incomes declined, the distribution of income still became more inequitable. Twenty states saw a significant increase in income inequality as measured by the Gini index2: Arkansas, California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. Income inequality did not decrease in any states nationwide.

The survey’s poverty results show similar cause for alarm. At the state level, both the number and percentage of people in poverty rose significantly in 17 states, with the largest increases occurring in Louisiana (+1.7 percent), Oregon (+1.6 percent), and Arizona (+1.5 percent). Vermont (-1.2 percent) was the only state where the poverty rate declined. Read more

New evidence of disturbing working conditions in iPhone production

“It is disappointing that no matter how advanced the technology introduced by Apple is, the old problems in working conditions remain at its major supplier Foxconn.” — SACOM, Sept. 20, 2012

In Sept. 2012, researchers from the Hong Kong-based Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM) conducted off-site interviews at Foxconn’s plants in Zhengzhou, China; the sole product of these plants is the iPhone. SACOM just released the findings of its interviews, New iPhone, Old Abuses: Have Working Conditions at Foxconn in China Improved? The report (sometimes quoted verbatim below) indicates:

  • Overtime work is excessive, and well above that permitted by Chinese law. Monthly overtime hours have been between 80–100 hours in some of the production lines. This is two to three times the amount (36 hours) allowed by Chinese law. Workers often only get one day off every 13 days.
  • Overtime work is often unpaid. Workers have to attend the daily work assembly meeting without payment. Also, on some production lines, workers must reach their work quota before they can stop working even if that means working overtime without pay. Read more

Majority of elderly households fall into category maligned by Romney

As our blog noted Tuesday, the 47 percent of Americans that Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney dismisses as “dependent” on government because they don’t pay income taxes includes many elderly households. Romney concludes his remarks on the 47 percent by saying, “My job is not to worry about those people. … I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

Romney may not realize this, but a majority of the elderly fall into this category. The nonpartisan Tax Policy Center found that in 2011, 55.9 percent of elderly households paid no federal income taxes, compared to 43.9 percent of nonelderly households. In fact, as the graph below shows, at nearly every income level, the elderly are more likely to pay no federal income tax. Furthermore, nearly two-thirds of elderly units have cash incomes under $50,000, where the difference between the two groups is the greatest.

This largely reflects intentional features of the tax code to reduce elderly tax burdens. Read more

Romney’s regressive socioeconomic philosophy is nothing new

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney is taking much deserved flack for the leaked video of him professing—at a $50,000 a plate fundraiser—utter disdain for the less fortunate half of the population. The tax policy issues at stake have been well covered: my colleague Ethan Pollack and Ezra Klein both have graphical dissections of who the 47 percent of households are and why they do not earn enough to owe federal income tax liability, and Ruth Marcus poses four poignant questions deserving answers from the Romney camp on the tax policy implications of his remarks. I’ve explained in the past why this misleading conservative grievance is a red herring. And as Rob Reich points out, Romney’s remarks incoherently conflate the 47 percent not paying income taxes with “entitled” recipients of government programs, ignoring that “entitlements”—Medicare, Social Security, and unemployment insurance—are funded by payroll taxes. But there’s a much broader point than the tax policy issues being hashed out in the blogosphere and op-ed pages: Romney’s prior comments, budget proposals, and selection of running mate all suggest the same antipathy toward the poor and the middle class.

Romney landed himself in hot water last February when he shrugged off the plight of the poor alongside the fortune of the wealthy: “I’m not concerned about the very poor—we have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I’ll fix it. … We have a very ample safety net … we have food stamps, we have Medicaid, we have housing vouchers…” After widespread backlash for these remarks, Romney clarified what he meant: “My focus is on middle income Americans. We do have a safety net for the very poor and I said if there are holes in it, I want to correct that.” So how would his budget “repair” the safety net?Read more

Five facts about the 47 percent

For those of you that aren’t news junkies, Mitt Romney was caught on tape at a May 17 fundraiser proclaiming: “Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn’t connect. … My job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” Here’s a look at these 47 percent of Americans and why his suggestion that they don’t take personal responsibility for their lives is complete nonsense.

1) The 47 percent are mostly employed or elderly: More than 80 percent of the 47 percent that don’t pay federal income tax are either elderly or are employed (and thus still pay the payroll tax). The remaining tax units overwhelmingly make less than $20,000 a year (which is below the federal poverty line for a family of four).

Today’s nontaxpayers (federal income tax, that is) are tomorrow’s or yesterday’s taxpayers. Contrary to Romney’s implication, these are not two distinct groups; rather, people go back and forth between the two groups over their lifetime. In fact, most of the 47 percent are either seniors who already paid federal income taxes over the course of their working life or young people who will do so once they hit their mid-20s. By the time they reach 50, there’s a nearly 80 percent chance they’ll be paying the federal income tax.Read more

No, we’re nowhere close to the limits of effective fiscal stimulus

Robert Samuelson’s op-ed in Sunday’s Washington Post argues that the United States has reached or passed “the practical limits of ‘economic stimulus.’” He’s wrong, and much of the evidence he points to on the fiscal side ranges between grossly misleading and simply inaccurate. Several points:

  • More fiscal expansion—particularly deficit-financed spending on infrastructure, aid to states, safety net spending, and well-targeted tax cuts—would accelerate economic growth and boost employment. This may be disputed on editorial pages, but it is not disputed by economists paid for their economic analysis. See analyses from Moody’s Analytics, Macroeconomic Advisers, or EPI’s own analysis of President Obama’s American Jobs Act, most of which Congress has not acted upon. Claims to the contrary are also belied by concern about the so-called “fiscal cliff” professed by both sides of the political aisle; politicians are worried that budget deficits closing too quickly will push the economy into a double-dip recession, as the Congressional Budget Office has forecast under its current law baseline.
  • The point of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) and subsequent ad hoc fiscal stimulus was to boost aggregate demand, not primarily “to inspire optimism by demonstrating government’s commitment to recovery.” Increased aggregate demand from ARRA kicking in and ramping up was responsible for arresting the economy’s rapid contraction in 2009 and the simultaneous deceleration (and eventual reversal) of job losses, not the confidence fairy.Read more

Obama tackles illegal Chinese auto parts subsidies

The Obama administration announced another trade case against China, this one focused on China’s blatant, illegal subsidies to exporters of auto parts. These subsidies have helped China take a growing share of the huge U.S. auto parts market, at a cost of tens of thousands of good manufacturing jobs. EPI researchers reported on the breadth and depth of these illegal subsidies earlier this year and warned that they threatened to decimate employment in the U.S. industry just as it got back to its feet after the Great Recession. As EPI’s Rob Scott and Hilary Wething wrote in January: “Chinese auto-parts exports increased more than 900 percent from 2000 to 2010, largely because the Chinese central and local governments heavily subsidize the country’s auto-parts industry; they provided $27.5 bil­lion in subsidies between 2001 and 2010 (Haley 2012).” The U.S. trade deficit in auto parts with China reached $9.1 billion in 2010 and has continued to grow.

It’s great to see President Obama stand up for fair trade, even if the timing is provoking some skepticism in the media. As I’ve pointed out to several reporters, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has been calling on Obama to get tougher on China’s unfair trade practices. Romney can hardly complain when the president does exactly what Romney recommends. And with tens of thousands of good jobs at stake, it would have made no sense for Obama to delay this case until after the election; every month of delay would just mean more bankrupt manufacturers, more plant closings, and more jobs lost.

The administration, following its standard, cautious practice, has not tackled the full extent of illegal Chinese subsidies. Rather, it’s gone after the low-hanging fruit, the clearly prohibited, high-profile, publicly reported, targeted subsidies that depend on export volume. There’s much more to do. In a report for EPI, Usha Haley, Professor of International Business at Massey University in New Zealand, documented more than $27 billion in Chinese government subsidies to the auto parts industry from 2001 to 2011 and identified another $11 billion in subsidies planned for the future. Preventing this massive intervention will be critical if the U.S. auto parts industry is to get back on its feet, let alone to thrive and grow. The case announced today was a logical place to start.

One year of Occupy Wall Street

I’m told that it’s the one-year anniversary of the beginning of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) activities. Smarter political minds than mine can tell you why OWS either mattered or not, or matters still or not. My quick take on them (a wholly unoriginal one) is that they introduced an element into the economic conversation that was not simply obsessing about the size of the budget deficit and how to reduce it.

Given that this deficit conversation was  inane and destructive, the OWS movement deserves great credit for breaking it up. Further, given that the element OWS introduced in the nation’s conversation—the growth of inequality in recent decades—is the most important economic trend in the past generation, they deserve even further credit; they didn’t just interrupt a dumb conversation, they tried to start a relevant one.

We tried to argue that many of the claims of the OWS movement were well-supported by economic-data—see our paper here. Since then, we have released our newest edition of The State of Working Americasee the website (and data) here—which further cements the case that inequality was  the primary barrier to decent growth in low– and middle-income households living standards, and which links the growth of this inequality to intentional policy decisions made explicitly to redistribute income upwards. Read more

Items I wish the education pundits would read

Four years ago, we published Grading Education: Getting Accountability Right. We surveyed national samples of adults, school superintendents, state legislators and school board members and concluded that they all supported a balanced set of goals for public education, including not only basic skills but also reasoning, social skills, preparation for civic participation, a good work ethic, good physical and emotional health, and appreciation of the arts and literature. Accountability systems based heavily on basic math and reading skills will undermine these balanced goals by creating incentives to shift instruction towards those aspects of the curriculum on which the school or teachers are being evaluated.

You can read the introduction and summary of Grading Education for more. You can also look at a summary of the goals survey. In addition, a chapter summarizing how other fields—medicine, job training, law enforcement—have learned about the dangers of standardized accountability was published separately. And an appendix reprints a sample of letters and statements we have received from teachers describing how standardized testing, and preparation for it, has destroyed creative and successful curricula and instruction nationwide.

EPI assembled a group of prominent testing experts and education policy experts to assess the research evidence on the use of test scores to evaluate teachers.Read more