‘Nonsense fact’ about union workers used in Super Bowl ad

That’s how the Washington Post fact checker, Glenn Kessler, put it in his review of the following assertion used in the Super Bowl ad (watch below) by the Center for Union Facts*: “Only ten percent of people in unions today actually voted to join the union.”

Kessler dug in to see where that came from and apparently it is an “estimate [of the] the proportion of employees who both would have voted for the establishment of a union at their companies and were still in their jobs.” As Kessler points out, this has no bearing on the extent to which workers currently covered by collective bargaining would vote to maintain collective bargaining. It is as relevant, as Jared Bernstein points out, as “saying Virginia isn’t a state because none of its current residents voted for statehood.”

What are the facts? Richard Freeman (Harvard University) and Joel Rogers (University of Wisconsin) report on page 69 in their book, What Workers Want, that 90 percent of union workers wanted to keep their union based on their answer to the question, “If a new election were held today to decide whether to keep the union at your company, would you vote to keep the union or get rid of it?”

Union workers have many special legal rights and protections. For instance, union workers by law have the right to vote for union officers and any dues increase, initiation fee or assessment. The laws protecting internal union democracy are far stricter than those for corporate governance and shareholder rights. Plus, workers also have clear rights to decertify unions. This ad and this “fact” do not capture what union worker rights are nor even attempt to reflect what union workers’ views are of collective bargaining.

In fact, a much larger share of the non-managerial workforce wants a union than has a union. Freeman wrote in 2007:

“Given that nearly all union workers (90%) desire union representation, the mid-1990s analysis suggested that if all the workers who wanted union representation could achieve it, then 44% of the workforce would have union representation.”

So, if workers could freely have a union when they wanted one, union representation in the United States would be on par with that of Germany.

*By the way, the CUF is just a small part of an array of misleading public relations efforts conducted by Richard Berman on behalf of special interests.

The tax expenditure of the 1%

The Tax Policy Center’s new report on the distribution of tax expenditures strengthens the case for increasing tax progressivity and raising needed revenue by ending the preferential treatment of capital income (subject to a 15 percent tax rate versus a top marginal income tax rate of 35 percent). TPC’s analysis looks at seven broad categories of individual income tax expenditures: exclusions, above-the-line deductions, the preferential treatment of capital gains and dividends, itemized deductions, nonrefundable tax credits, refundable tax credits, and other miscellaneous tax expenditures. Guess which category of tax expenditure provides by far the most lopsided benefit to upper-income households?

That would be the way the tax code preferences capital income over wage and salary income, compounded by the heavy concentration of capital income at the top of the earnings distribution. In 2011, the top 1 percent of households by cash income received a whopping 75.1 percent of the benefit from the preferential treatment of capital gains and dividends. The broad middle class—defined here as the middle 60 percent of households by cash income—received only 3.9 percent of that benefit. Upper-income households also do well by tax exclusions and itemized deductions, but the share of these tax expenditures accruing to the top 1 percent of households—at 15.9 percent and 26.4 percent, respectively—don’t come close to the windfall afforded by a 15 percent rate on capital income.

This should come as no surprise if you’ve read about the Buffett Rule and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s 13.9 percent effective tax rate: Capital income is terribly concentrated at the top of the earnings distribution and the preferential tax treatment of capital income even allows some millionaires and billionaires to pay lower effective tax rates than many middle-class households. Indeed, a recent Congressional Research Service report suggested that the tax reforms most consistent with implementing the Buffett Rule would be raising tax rates on capital gains and dividends. Additionally, TPC’s distributional analysis of taxes on long-term capital gains and qualified dividends shows that the top 1 percent of households by cash income (with income above $533,000) will pay 70.5 percent of capital gains and dividends taxes in 2011, contrasted with just 2.3 percent for the broad middle class (with incomes between $17,000 and $103,000).

Recently, the increasing concentration of capital income at the top of the earnings distribution has been the biggest driver of income inequality, followed by changes in tax policy. Since the mid-1990s, the biggest swing in tax rates has been dropping the top capital gains rate from 28 percent to 15 percent and slashing the top rate on qualified dividends from 39.6 percent to 15 percent. Today’s preferential treatment of capital gains is often considered the most regressive feature of the tax code; taxing capital income as labor income would be an extremely progressive way to raise revenue and push against after-tax income inequality.  Eliminating the preferential treatment of capital gains and dividends would raise effective tax rates by 4.5 percentage points for the top 1 percent of households, while raising effective tax rates by 0.1 percentage points or less for the middle class, according to TPC. Doing so would raise substantial revenue from those households best able to contribute to deficit reduction. Measured with interactions, TPC estimates that the preferential treatment of capital gains and dividends cost $77.7 billion in 2011.

Comprehensive tax reform will have to raise more revenue and restore a greater degree of progressivity to the tax code, so that effective tax rates continue to rise with ability to pay. Equalizing the tax treatment of ordinary income and capital income would substantially advance both objectives.

Unpaid internships: A scourge on the labor market

I was happy to see the New York Timesonline debate about unpaid internships, sparked by the latest lawsuit against a major corporation for exploiting an unpaid workforce. A recent graduate of Ohio State University, Ms. Xuedan Wang, is suing the Hearst Corporation for its failure to pay her during four months of work at Harper’s Bazaar, work that allegedly included directing the work of other interns, in addition to record-keeping and overseeing the pick-up and delivery of fashion samples.

As Steven Greenhouse reported in April 2010, it has become common for profit-making businesses to ignore the minimum wage and overtime laws and employ young workers without compensating them and, as Ms. Wang’s lawyers point out, without paying Social Security taxes, unemployment taxes, or worker’s compensation premiums. This not only deprives the so-called interns of coverage under these important programs, it deprives the trust funds of needed revenue. Four months of minimum wage work would cost a New York employer more than $400 in payroll taxes and several hundred dollars in worker’s compensation premiums.

Despite the magnitude of the tax losses nationwide, few state governments have tackled these illegal unpaid internships, and the federal government has failed to litigate a single enforcement case, although it might have settled enforcement actions without litigation or publicity. Given the hostile budgetary and oversight environment in Congress, I suspect the Labor Department has decided to avoid taking on the corporate interests that profit from this tax avoidance and unpaid labor. The chronically underfunded Wage and Hour Division still does not have a Senate-confirmed administrator, and the Republican members of the House Education and the Workforce Committee have made it clear that they frown on zealous enforcement of the law.

An earlier lawsuit against Fox Searchlight, another profit-making enterprise that exploited unpaid interns while making the movie Black Swan, reveals just how pernicious this practice really is. One plaintiff was a 2009 Wesleyan University graduate, but another was a 42-year old accountant with an MBA. The lesson? Once businesses get away with exploiting young people, it isn’t long before they treat older workers just as badly.

I first saw signs that the unpaid internship had slid far down the greasy slope when the Times and Wall Street Journal reported several years ago that adult dislocated workers, 30-somethings who had held jobs for many years, were reduced to doing significant, skilled work for free as “interns” in for-profit businesses while surviving on unemployment insurance.  Everything was wrong with this: there was no educational component, the “interns” worked for several months without pay, and the employers escaped all of their normal obligations to pay wages and taxes.

Back in 2006, Anya Kamenetz nicely summarized the key ways that unpaid internships damage the labor market and the ability of the 99 percent to earn a decent living. They undermine the meritocracy that allocates jobs and rewards people for their skills and gumption rather than for the wealth of their parents; they depress wages by creating an oversupply of people willing to work not just for low wages, but literally for nothing; they depress expectations and create an over-identification with employers; and – as compared with paid internships — they damage the career prospects of the young people who take them.  More recently, Kamenetz argued that the responsible institutions need to drag the unpaid internship mess out of the shadows and clean it up: “It’s time for employers, in cooperation with the government and colleges, to step up and create higher-quality apprenticeships, paid jobs, and co-op programs to replace the ill-defined, unpaid internship.” Given that many colleges and universities reportedly require students to take an internship before graduation, they do bear some moral responsibility for the educational content and legality of the experience. Apparently, however, they will be reluctant partners in this effort. When the Labor Department issued guidance on the six principles for a legal unpaid internship, a group of university presidents fired off a protest letter to Secretary Hilda Solis. The universities have a cozy deal collecting tuition for semesters in which their students get farmed out as free labor to employers, and they don’t want the government to interfere, no matter what the law requires.

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Romer argues against ‘special treatment’ for U.S. manufacturing (gasp, somebody smart is wrong on the Internet!)

Oh no, the economy’s “paging Dr. Romer” feature seems to have developed a glitch. For those who don’t know, Mike Konczal suggested the “PDR” feature a while back, noting that, “Anytime someone associated with the Obama Administration, past or present, says something that is probably wrong about the economy in 2011, we break out Christina Romer saying the correct thing in early 2009.”

And it’s true that on the most important questions of the past couple of years, Romer has been admirably correct and as loud as policymakers with real influence are generally allowed to be. This makes her recent column in the New York Times that much more disappointing. The problem starts and ends with the title – which normally isn’t the author’s fault but in this case actually encapsulates her argument pretty well: “Do Manufacturers Need Special Treatment?”

She argues that recent debates about the importance of helping the manufacturing sector (started in large part by President Obama’s calls to do so in the State of the Union address) are essentially about the costs and benefits of providing this “special treatment” to manufacturing.

This is a very odd read of the current situation. The main problem facing U.S. manufacturing today is a value of the dollar that leads to mammoth trade deficits in the sector. This problem in turn stems largely from the policy of many of our important trading partners to peg the value of their currency at levels that insure very large deficits; as well as from our own policy of not doing anything about this unbalanced trade. Correcting this currency misalignment would provide large benefits to U.S. manufacturers, would reduce the foreign debt of the U.S., and would boost living standards in our trading partners. It’s not clear why calling to undertake this extremely obvious policy intervention is akin to arguing for “special treatment for manufacturers.”

And yes, it’s getting old saying this again and again. But, not as old as people debating issues of trade and manufacturing without wrestling with what is by far the most important policy angle of it.

Lastly, just as a data note, Romer repeats what is a very common canard about manufacturing employment: “Unemployment today is high, but not because of a decline in manufacturing. That decline has been going on for 30 years…”

Depends on what you mean by “decline.” Manufacturing as a share of total employment has been shrinking for decades – and this is not necessarily a terrible thing, so long as it simply reflects faster productivity growth in this sector. But, for 35 years, between 1965 and as recently as 2000, manufacturing employment never dipped below 16 million (and never got above 19.5 million), meaning that it was actually quite stable and not in obvious decline. Then, the sector lost 3 million jobs in the 2000 recession and never recovered them, largely because of subsequent very large increases in manufacturing trade deficits. The sector today employs less than 12 million workers:

Is it unreasonable to expect manufacturing to reach the share of overall employment it last attained in 1965 (27 percent – which would be 36 million jobs)? Yes. But, given a real recovery and intelligent exchange-rate policy, is it unreasonable to expect that it could reach its overall employment level of 1965 (around 16.5 million)? Not at all.

And it wouldn’t even require “special treatment.”

And look, Romer knows all of this. See? But given that no administration in recent decades has done anything about chronic dollar overvaluation – a clear policy failure – is it a shock that many have decided to try to advocate for help for manufacturing through other means? Of course not – but surely the right move here is not arguing against help for manufacturing based on a hypothetical that assumes status quo policy is mostly neutral towards the sector. Instead it’s providing those rightly concerned that current policy is damaging the the sector with the strongest arguments to end this damage.

Another win for the 1%: ‘Right to work’ signed into law in Indiana

When Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels signed a “right-to-work” bill into law on Wednesday, working people and unions lost another battle in the relentless war the 1 percent have been waging against the 99 percent. Right to work (RTW) does not guarantee anyone a job. Rather, it makes it illegal for unions to require that each employee who benefits from a union contract pays his fair share of the costs of administering it. By making it harder for workers’ organizations to sustain themselves financially, RTW aims to undermine unions’ bargaining strength and eventually eliminate them.

MORE: See EPI’s recent research on RTW

Twenty-two states—predominantly in the South —already had right-to-work laws, mostly dating from the McCarthy era. But since the Republican sweep of state legislatures in 2010, a coalition of corporate lobbies, right-wing ideologues and conservative operatives have seized the moment to push RTW into traditionally union-friendly parts of the country. They’ve targeted Minnesota, Ohio, Michigan and New Hampshire for their next campaigns.

RTW is sold as a job creation strategy, but as Gordon Lafer and Sylvia Allegretto have shown, it’s a big lie. In fact, it’s all about cutting wages, which is what happens when unions are weakened or eliminated. The Chamber of Commerce is almost honest about this wage-cutting goal: They explain that “unionization increases labor costs,” and therefore “makes a given location a less attractive place to invest new capital.” Unfortunately, workers do get lower wages from RTW, but the jobs never come. As EPI has shown, the impact of RTW laws is to lower average income by about $1,500 a year and to decrease the odds of getting health insurance or a pension—for both union and non-union workers. Yet when Oklahoma (the last state before Indiana to pass RTW) passed RTW in 2001, the jobs never materialized. The number of companies coming into the state—supposed to increase by “eight to ten times”—instead decreased by 30 percent.

Gov. Daniels and his right-wing allies want workers to believe that RTW will be a big draw for companies making relocation decisions, but surveys show it’s irrelevant, ranking 16th on a list of factors small manufacturers consider. And for higher-tech, higher-wage employers, nine of the 10 most favored states are non-RTW, led by liberal, pro-union Massachusetts.

Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. warned against “false slogans such as ‘right to work’… . [Whose] purpose is to destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining by which unions have improved wages and working conditions of everyone.”

The U.S. economy has been squeezing the middle class for decades, with wages stagnating and median household income actually falling over the last decade. RTW is a factor in this decline. It’s time to stand up for decent wages and benefits, to stand up for unions, and to stop the RTW virus from spreading any further.

The ‘end of the segregated century?’

In a study released this week, two Manhattan Institute researchers heralded the “end of the segregated century.” But their report used a measure of segregation that masks important demographic and economic trends. A measure of segregation that is more relevant for policy and more intuitively reasonable reveals that the neighborhood exposure of African Americans to whites is no greater today than it was 60 years ago, and is considerably less than it was in 1940.

In some respects, racial residential segregation continues to get worse, not better. Low-income African Americans are more segregated from upper-income African Americans, leaving more poor black households in “truly disadvantaged” neighborhoods where educational success of children is nearly impossible. And we can also expect segregation to increase, even by the Manhattan Institute’s overly optimistic measure, as the foreclosure crisis forces more black families into more racially homogeneous and poorer neighborhoods.

For more, read this detailed critique of the Manhattan Institute study that EPI published today.

On Brooks’ muddled defense of the top 1%

Yesterday, we critiqued an essay by James Q. Wilson on income inequality. Today, it’s New York Times columnist David Brooks’ turn. Brooks presents another defense of the top 1 percent, one that is just plain wrong about income trends and the income divide in America. And if he got his facts from Charles Murray, then Murray is wrong too. I just can’t let this one slide:

“Democrats claim America is threatened by the financial elite, who hog society’s resources. But that’s a distraction. The real social gap is between the top 20 percent and the lower 30 percent. The liberal members of the upper tribe latch onto this top 1 percent narrative because it excuses them from the central role they themselves are playing in driving inequality and unfairness.”

Brooks would have us believe that there’s commonality among the top fifth and the only losers are those in the bottom 30 percent. So, let’s examine how the various slices of the population have fared to see whether: the 1 percent sticks out, whether trends for the rest of the top 20 percent are more closely aligned to the top 1 percent or to the bottom 80 percent, and whether the bottom 30 percent fares differently from the rest, especially the middle. The simple answer is that the top 1 percent enjoyed far superior wage and income growth than every other segment of the population and that the lowest 30 percent does not stick out as faring worse than the broad middle class. The mantra of the top 1 percent and the other 99 percent corresponds to the actual facts, as we have pointed out before. So has the Congressional Budget Office. In this post, I will present data from the end of the 1980s recovery, 1989, until the end of the last recovery in 2007.

Here’s a look at inflation-adjusted hourly wage trends for each decile from 1989 to 2007, using computations of the Current Population Survey, which unfortunately does not allow us to examine the 1 percent—I do so below with other data. For the uninitiated, the 20th percentile is those who earn more than 20 percent of the workforce but less than the other 80 percent.

In terms of wage growth, the bottom 20 percent saw faster growth than the middle, the entire middle from the 30th to the 70th percentiles saw comparable wage growth of about 10 percent, and the best wage growth starts at the 90th percentile and is even better at the 95th percentile (growing 26.7 percent). So, if there’s a divide here, it starts at the upper 10 percent and there’s a great commonality among the bottom 90 percent. By the way, almost all of the wage growth for the bottom 90 percent occurred in the late 1990s boom from 1995 to 2000. Last, there was a period when the fortunes of the bottom 20 percent (not 30 percent) fared far worse than the broad middle, but that was in the 1980s.

But what about the top 1 percent? For that we need to look at Social Security wage data which allows us great detail at the top but not much within the bottom 90 percent. These are inflation-adjusted annual wage trends from 1989 to 2007:

Looks to me like the top 1 percent fared remarkably better than everybody else and that the top 0.1 percent, with 106.5 percent wage growth really distinguished themselves. These wage trends put the top 1 percent with wages 20 times that of those in the bottom 90 percent, up from ratios of 15-to-1 in 1989 and 9.4-to-1 in 1979.

Perhaps Brooks was referring to household incomes and not to individual workers’ wages, so let’s turn to CBO data on income growth (pre-tax) between 1989 and 2007. (CBO provides income levels for each fifth and the top 10 percent, top 5 percent and top 1 percent, and I have deduced the trends for other categories to flesh out the picture).

The income trends for the bottom 95 percent vary but look pretty similar across the bottom 80 percent (from 16.5 in the lowest fifth to 20.2 percent in the fourth fifth, with the middle fifth faring essentially the same as the bottom). If anything sticks out, it’s the 118.5 percent income growth of the top 1 percent, whose incomes grew four times as fast as those in the bottom three-fourths of the group Brooks wants to label privileged—the top fifth. The income divide that Brooks sees does not appear in our world, at least from what we can learn from wage or income data.

‘Increase and Index the Minimum Wage Week’

It’s not easy to have a week named in honor of a worthy cause, but this week has turned into “Increase and Index the Minimum Wage Week.” In Connecticut, House Speaker Chris Donovan has announced his support for a two-step increase in the state’s minimum wage to $9.75, with indexing after that. In New York, Speaker Sheldon Silver introduced a bill to raise the minimum wage there to $8.50 with indexing after that. And here at EPI, my colleague Mary Gable and I released a paper documenting the positive economic impact of a proposed increase in the Illinois minimum wage. A 2011 proposal to increase the Illinois minimum wage over a four-year period to $10.65 would have put nearly $4 billion in the hands of minimum-wage earners in Illinois, in turn creating approximately 20,000 new jobs (similar forthcoming 2012 legislation would do the same). As if all that wasn’t enough, yesterday we had GOP presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, speaking in favor of indexing the minimum wage.

Of course, this is not a new suggestion. EPI Economist Heidi Shierholz wrote in 2009 that we should Fix it and Forget it.” And the concept is pretty simple: Rather than having earnings of minimum-wage earners eroded by inflation, let’s put a mechanism in place to ensure that our lowest-paid workers keep up with the increased costs of meeting basic needs. (As seen in the figure, the minimum wage doesn’t have a very good track record of even meeting the federal poverty level, which we know to be a very inadequate measure of what it takes to make ends meet.)

Ten states already have some sort of indexing, including eight states that had automatic increases Jan. 1. Given the disconnect between wages (generally stagnant at the lower end) and both corporate profits and productivity (both doing very well, thank you), it seems that increasing the minimum wage and indexing it to inflation is a very modest proposal. It’s also a small step that can be taken to address the growing income disparity that has drawn so much attention in recent months.

Tracking GDP and jobs: When repeating the same thing over and over actually provides useful information

Following the release of last week’s report on GDP growth, I wrote the following for a press advisory:

“Gross domestic product grew in the fourth quarter of 2011 at the fastest rate since the first half of 2010 – but any celebration should be muted. The 2.8% growth rate for the quarter was well below expectations and the year-round growth rate for 2011 was only 1.7%, a rate that would not generate reliable declines in unemployment should it continue…”

And the GDP report before that one I wrote*:

“The Bureau of Economic Analysis reported today that the economy grew by 2.5% in the most recent quarter – meaning that it has grown by only 1.6% over the last full year – this sluggish growth is the root cause of the stubbornly high unemployment rate we’ve seen over that time. While a double-dip recession does not seem to be in the cards, this does not by a longshot mean that the economy is healthy.”

And the one before that one I wrote:

“Gross domestic product grew at a 1.3% rate in the second quarter of 2011 and has averaged just 1.6% growth for the entire first half of 2011. This anemic growth is why the unemployment rate stopped falling and actually began rising during these same six months. Worse, the rush to fiscal austerity will make the problems of slow growth and joblessness even worse.”

In short, I’ve been pretty boring over this time in my reactions to subsequent data releases. Take a look at the jobs day releases from my colleague Heidi Shierholz and you’ll see a similar blizzard of same-old-same-old calls that job growth is positive but not fast enough blah blah blah.

But, this week’s update by the Congressional Budget Office of their potential GDP series lets me show why this unvarying string of negativity is actually informative; we just aren’t recovering. The figure below plots the ratio of actual GDP to potential GDP – with potential GDP being the amount of economic output we’d be producing if all workers and factories were fully employed. The gap between these two series (creatively named “the output gap”) is a measure of how far away we are from full recovery. And for the past year or more we have made essentially no progress on this front. Another way to put this is “zero is not the magic number” – GDP (or employment) growth can come in positive forever without actually moving the economy any closer to full recovery. And each month/quarter/year that we do not close the gap between actual and potential GDP is another month/quarter/year that we’re simply leaving hundreds of billions of dollars on the table (cumulatively around $3 trillion and counting since the start of the recession).

So, given this, would writing more unpredictable reactions to each new data release over the past year actually have been informative? Or misleading?

*Note that these “quick takes” were reactions to “advance” estimates of GDP – the growth rates for these quarters have since been revised by BEA.

SNAP for the economy

Today, Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro held a press conference to discuss food stamps and the critical role they play in our economy. She asked several experts, including myself, to discuss the role of food stamps in helping people and helping the economy. I’ve summarized my comments below:

First, food stamps help people. About 46 million people participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which translates into over 1 in 7 Americans who use food stamps. Nearly 75 percent of SNAP participants are in families with children, and more than one-quarter of participants are in households with seniors or people with disabilities. Food stamps primarily help children – roughly 50 percent of those on food stamps are under the age of 18. Over 40 percent of all recipients live in households where family members are employed.

Food stamps go to people truly in need. To be eligible, households have to make a gross income below 130 percent the poverty line and a net income (once all deductions are applied) of less than 100 percent of the poverty line. The average monthly allowance is about $130 per person. In 2010, these modest payments kept over 5 million people out of poverty.

Second, food stamps provide extremely effective support for the overall economy. Food stamps go to people that are cash strapped, by definition, which means they spend the money right away, putting the cash received directly back into local businesses and grocery stores. Nearly all macroeconomic forecasters agree that food stamps are among the most effective forms of fiscal support to create economic activity and jobs.

Third, SNAP is a very efficient program, with 92 percent of SNAP benefits going directly to people to spend on food (the remainder is low administrative costs of running the program, determining eligibility, and the like, and other food assistance). When the money goes to people, they spend it and stimulate the economy on the order of $1.5 to 1.7 for every dollar spent. This means that the $78 billion spent on food stamps in 2011 led to $115 billion in overall economic activity.

Finally, SNAP swelled because the economy entered the worst recession since the Great Depression and remains severely depressed even 18 months after the official recovery began. And this expansion of SNAP was a good thing – benefits keep 5 million people out of poverty and are universally considered some of the most effective fiscal support available to help an economy that is projected to see unemployment rates above 8 percent until 2015. Cutting these benefits would simply be a mistake for families and a mistake for the economy.

Jobs are a top priority in this country at this time. If our main goal is to create jobs, we need to stimulate demand. To stimulate demand, we need to put money in the hands of people who will spend it.  One of the more efficient and effective ways to put money in the hands of people who will spend it is food stamps.

Obama’s SOTU claim is right: Regulations can improve the free market

Rules to prevent financial fraud or toxic dumping or faulty medical devices — these don’t destroy the free market.  They make the free market work better. — President Obama, State of the Union Address, 1/24/12

Over the past year, discussion over regulations has frequently been distortedly one-sided, as if their only possible effect on the economy and markets is to cause damage. The Obama administration itself has often failed to add balance to this conversation, so it was heartening to see the president lay out a more comprehensive assessment in his State of the Union address.

In the address, President Obama focused most on the financial crisis and regulations. He, appropriately, stated that the roots of the economic collapse and ongoing economic troubles included regulatory inadequacy:  “In 2008, the house of cards collapsed.  We learned that mortgages had been sold to people who couldn’t afford or understand them.  Banks had made huge bets and bonuses with other people’s money.  Regulators had looked the other way, or didn’t have the authority to stop the bad behavior.”

So the effective implementation of strong financial regulations can not only provide needed protections to individual borrowers and savers, they can also abet financial stability, in all these ways making the free market “work better.”

A fuller version of the President’s claim would also include the following reasons why regulations can help the free market work better and help the economy.

  • Even outside of the financial sector, weak or absent regulations can be a direct threat to the economy and employment. Inadequate regulation contributed to the BP oil spill and its substantial economic costs. Inadequate regulation can also undercut the faith of consumers in an industry’s products because when dangerous products are being produced the public is naturally less likely to buy them. This story recently applied to the food industry. In the wake of too many product horror stories and weak regulation, the food industry supported stronger regulations in the form of the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2010.
  • Regulations can have broad economic benefits that may not be apparent at first blush. Clean air regulations, for instance, significantly improve the health of workers and children, resulting in lower health care costs and more productive workers.
  • Regulations often spur technological innovations that boost productivity. Michael Porter of Harvard Business School—a self-described Republican and an eminent specialist on how companies and nations compete—has hypothesized that properly designed environmental regulations can lead to so much innovation that they completely offset the costs of compliance.
  • Regulations ensure that firms do not act in ways that place unacceptable costs on those outside the firm, or on the society as a whole; these “externalities” are themselves a form of “market failure.” For example, economists would say that much of the externality (or external costs) of air pollution has been overcome with regulations designed to correct this market failure (a term which refers to any market result that does not result in optimal results for society).  Once, manufacturers could pollute the air at will. With regulations, laws now require manufacturers to reduce pollutants and to incorporate into their production processes the costs of disposing of waste. This has benefited both the public at large as well as the private sector (companies benefit, for instance, when their workers are not breathing polluted air caused by other firms).
  • The direct cost of complying with regulations translates into increased employment. For example, an environmental regulation will mean more jobs for those engaged in pollution abatement. Further, it is possible that regulations may produce more labor-intensive production processes.  Compliance can particularly benefit job creation when labor markets are slack, and companies generally have substantial surplus cash, as is now the case; companies do not have to divert such spending from other investments, and plenty of workers are available to meet any increases in demand.

This isn’t to suggest that the only potential effect of any regulation is to improve free markets, but it is to suggest that the relationship between regulations and the market is a complicated one, and frequently positive. For those interested in more detail, please see this report from a year ago on the role of regulations and the economy.


Bush-era tax cuts remain the obstacle to fiscal sustainability

Earlier this week, the Congressional Budget Office released its Jan. 2012 Budget and Economic Outlook, which showed a sustainable fiscal outlook over the next decade provided Congress leaves the budget on autopilot. The current law baseline—the legislated status quo—depicts the budget deficit averaging only 1.5 percent of GDP over the next decade (fiscal years 2013-22), public debt peaking at 75.1 percent of GDP in FY2013, and the public debt-to-GDP ratio gradually falling to a more-than-sustainable 62.0 percent of GDP by FY2022. This picture is not perfect—the fiscal drag from the debt ceiling deal and expiring tax provisions is projected to slow growth to an anemic 1.1 percent of GDP in 2013 (and unemployment projections were raised half a percentage point across the decade)—but it is certainly fiscally sustainable in the out years, after the economy has recovered.

And the single biggest policy threat to this sustainable fiscal outlook? Congress might extend all the George W. Bush-era tax cuts over the next decade, to the tune of $4.4 trillion over a decade. That’s $3.8 trillion (-9.1 percent) in revenue loss and $657 billion (+15.5 percent) in additional debt service. Yes, deficit-financed tax cuts increase spending. CBO’s current law baseline projects cumulative budget deficits of $3.1 trillion, so continuing the Bush-era tax cuts would more than double the scope of fiscal stress.  (These calculations assume that Congress will continue patching the alternative minimum tax and attribute a $1.1 trillion interaction between the policies to the Bush tax cuts, which pushed more households into the AMT, significantly increasing the cost of the AMT patch.) Measured differently, the hefty opportunity cost of the Bush-era tax cuts averages 1.9 percent of GDP in revenue loss and another 0.3 percent of GDP in increased interest spending over 10 years.

Under current law, the budget will begin running sustained primary surpluses (where revenue exceeds non-interest spending) starting in FY2015. If Congress patches the AMT, primary surpluses begin in 2017. If the Bush tax cuts are extended, the budget never reaches primary balance. (Primary balance is a common metric for sustainability: while it does not necessarily stabilize debt as a share of GDP—which depends on interest rates, outstanding debt levels, and GDP growth—it’s a decent approximation.)

The Bush tax cuts remain expensive, ineffective, and unfair, and permanently extending even a portion of them—which President Obama proposes to do for 98 percent of households—makes it difficult to adequately fund public investments, economic security programs, and national security spending. Congress and the public have to accept that the federal government must either collect significantly more revenue (above that projected under current law) or renege on commitments insuring that seniors, the poor, and the disabled are provided with health care and a degree of retirement security. Like it or not, we can’t afford the New Deal, the Great Society, and the Bush tax cuts.

On Wilson’s muddled defense of the top 1%

Last week, the Washington Post published an essay by James Q. Wilson that’s bound to generate controversy. While Wilson acknowledges rising income inequality, his analysis of the factors driving the trend is seriously flawed. Furthermore, he belittles the need to tax the rich more in order to help the poor or to address overall inequality.

Wilson rightly acknowledges the growth of income inequality and correctly notes:

“The mere existence of income inequality tells us little about what, if anything, should be done about it. First, we must answer some key questions. Who constitutes the prosperous and the poor? Why has inequality increased?”

It is after this point that his argument goes off track. While there is much to comment on, I will only address a few issues, starting with Wilson’s explanation of rising inequality. He writes, “Affluent people, compared with poor ones, tend to have greater education and spouses who work full time.” Wilson then suggests that if these are the drivers of inequality, then it is best not to do anything about the problem, since, in his words, “We could reduce income inequality by trying to curtail the financial returns of education and the number of women in the workforce—but who would want to do that?”

It is true that those at the top have more education and are more likely to have a working spouse, but this hardly explains the large increase in inequality over the last 30 years. Let’s start with the role education plays in growing wage inequality. Wilson points out that those with at least a college degree saw wage growth far greater than those lacking a high school degree. While Wilson cites the data incorrectly (he cites Bureau of Labor Statistics data on “hourly” wages when they are actually median weekly earnings of full-time workers, and he flips the genders for college-educated wages), his point holds true: Wages have risen more for the college-educated (increasing 20 percent for men and 33 percent for women) over the last three decades than for those lacking high school degrees (with the wages of these workers falling 31 percent for men and 9 percent for women).

However, these data essentially compare the top 30 percent or so to the bottom 10 percent. In terms of explaining the surge in wages for the top, his analysis mostly misses the mark. After all, what we really need to explain is why the top 1 percent of wage earners saw their annual wages rise by 131 percent from 1979 to 2010—and why the top tenth of the top 1 percent saw their wages grow 278 percent—while wages for the bottom 90 percent increased just 15 percent (see the graph below).

Moreover, noting someone’s education does not explain why their wages rose or fell. After all, the reason why CEO pay has exploded in the last few decades is not because most CEOs happen to have college degrees. Rather, it’s due to a self-serving system that ensures CEOs reap the fruits of their company’s rewards.

As for Wilson’s point on working spouses, I’ll leave it to him to prove that this is a major driving factor behind the trends starkly depicted in the graph above.

Another serious flaw in Wilson’s argument is his contention that the existence of some economic mobility somehow negates the need to be concerned about high and rising income inequality. He illustrates mobility by pointing out that within nine years one can rise from being a business school student to earning a big Wall Street salary and a hefty yearly bonus. While this is true enough, Wilson misses the point yet again; business school students have traditionally been upwardly mobile. Instead, what is useful to know is whether someone from a poor or lower-middle-income family has the same or better chance of attaining such a position than in an earlier generation. The answer is quite clear that mobility within one’s lifetime (the chance of becoming that Wall Street banker) is no greater now than in the past. Moreover, the earning potential of today’s young workers is more tightly linked to their parents’ income than before. The existence of some mobility (and some variability from year to year) does not lessen the concern about inequality. (Also, see Dean Baker’s critique of the mobility data Wilson uses.)

In short, Wilson’s dismissal of inequality based on who the rich are, and why inequality has grown, is not very persuasive. However, the most curious part of Wilson’s piece is his contention that taxation is not relevant to income inequality:

“Making the poor more economically mobile has nothing to do with taxing the rich and everything to do with finding and implementing ways to encourage parental marriage, teach the poor marketable skills and induce them to join the legitimate workforce. It is easy to suppose that raising taxes on the rich would provide more money to help the poor. But the problem facing the poor is not too little money, but too few skills and opportunities to advance themselves.”

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Are federal workers overpaid?

The Congressional Budget Office released a report today claiming that “the federal government paid 16% more in total compensation than it would have if average compensation had been comparable with that in the private sector, after accounting for certain observable characteristics of workers.” Specifically, the report finds that average wages were roughly the same in both sectors, but that the value of benefits was almost 50 percent higher in the public sector (the overall difference comes to 16 percent because the bulk of compensation takes the form of wages).

CBO cautions, however, that “estimates of the costs of benefits are much more uncertain than its estimates of wages, primarily because the cost of defined-benefit pensions that will be paid in the future is more difficult to quantify and because less-detailed data are available about benefits than about wages.” This a serious understatement. In fact, the results appear to hinge entirely on the interest rate used to discount pension benefits, which isn’t even mentioned in the report.

Though the report itself provides no useful information about how the cost of particular benefits was estimated, a working paper by the same author indicates that CBO probably used a 5 percent rate of return to discount the value of future pension benefits (in other words, $105 in pension benefits next year is valued at $100 today). In practice, this means that if the rate of return on pension fund assets turns out to be higher than 5 percent, which is very likely, the present cost of funding future pension benefits will be lower than CBO estimated.

Where does the 5 percent discount rate come from? CBO based this on a 4 percent “risk-free” yield on Treasuries, with a little wiggle room to account for the fact that pension benefits aren’t quite risk-free (“federal pension obligations are not protected by the Constitution, and the pension obligations of private-sector employers are only partially covered by the Pension Benefits Guarantee Corporation”). If you’re wondering why the riskiness of pension benefits matters rather than the expected return on pension fund assets, that’s a very good question.

With compounding, using a nearly risk-free discount rate can double or even triple the cost of pensions compared to using expected returns on actual pension fund assets. Admittedly, expected returns are uncertain, and the uncertainty itself imposes an indirect cost on pension sponsors. But if you’re going to consider indirect costs like uncertainty, you should also factor in indirect advantages for employers, like reduced turnover.

The experts consulted by CBO for this report include my EPI colleague, Heidi Shierholz, as well as two researchers on the other end of the political spectrum, Andrew Biggs of the American Enterprise Institute and Jason Richwine of the Heritage Foundation (Biggs and Richwine were also consulted for the working paper). Though it’s nice that CBO considered a range of opinions, it’s a shame that Biggs, Richwine and others have been successful in convincing CBO and others to use low Treasury yields to estimate the cost of future pension benefits. A paper to be released next week by EPI also shows that Biggs and Richwine use highly unorthodox methods in comparing public- and private-sector pay. Among other things, they ignore enormous differences in educational attainment between teachers and private-sector workers.

It’s not time to cut back on extended unemployment insurance

Congress is debating whether to renew legislation that has extended unemployment insurance benefits for the long-term unemployed for up to 99 weeks (73 weeks of federal benefits beyond the regular 26 weeks of state-financed benefits). The decision should be consistent with the original decision to extend benefits, based on the condition of the economy and the likelihood that jobless workers will be able to find paid employment.

The unemployment rate, which was 8.3 percent in Feb. 2009 when the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) was enacted, and was 8.5 percent in Dec. 2011, is one measure, but not the best measure, of the need for extended benefits. The best measure is probably the ratio of long-term job seekers – the population that receives extended benefits – to available job openings. That ratio was 1.1 to 1 when ARRA put the 99 weeks of benefits in place and was still a much higher 1.8 to 1 in Nov. 2011.

This very high long-term job-seekers ratio indicates that the economy has not recovered enough yet to reduce the number of weeks of unemployment insurance benefits the jobless may receive. There are still more than 5.5 million Americans who have been seeking work for 27 weeks or more. Their ability to find work, to find employers willing to hire them after they have been unemployed for 6 months or a year, is greatly reduced.

Congress should reject Congressman Dave Camp’s (R-Mich.) legislation to eliminate 40 weeks of potential benefits or even 20 weeks, which some reports have mentioned as a compromise. Rep. Camp is off-base when he claims that 59 weeks of benefits is “a level consistent with prior recessions.” There has not been a single recession in the last 70 years that approached today’s levels of long-term joblessness. Both the number of long-term unemployed and the share of the unemployed who have been unemployed for more than 27 weeks are about double the levels of any other post-war recession.

Congress should renew the program of extended benefits as it is until the end of 2012.

Record low capacity utilization in electric sector inconsistent with “regulations kill jobs” mantra

The rate of capacity utilization in the electric utility sector dropped below 80 percent in 2011. This is the lowest level on record, with data going back to 1967, or nearly a half-century ago. The figure is far below the average utilization rate of 89 percent over this period.  (See figure below.)

The exceptional degree to which there is unused capacity in the electric utility industry (or the “electric power generation, transmission, and distribution” sector as defined by Federal Reserve Board data) is entirely at odds with the notion that new regulations finalized or proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency are holding back job growth. To the contrary, this trend is consistent with the theory that such regulations can lead to modest increases in employment, since the compliance costs they lead to would not compete with other investments by this sector.

If regulation was holding back investment in the utility sector, one would expect there to be high capacity utilization rates. Companies would be relying heavily on existing capacity rather than investing in new capacity because they would be deploying investments on regulatory compliance, or because they were fearful new regulations would undercut their return on new investments.

While the existence of large, unused capacity is thus inconsistent with the notion that regulations are thwarting job creation in the electric utility industry, it is completely consistent with the notion that the lack of stronger demand is holding back increased investments in facilities or more hiring. Why make such investments when current resources are far from being fully utilized? The data suggest that until demand picks up more rapidly and cuts into excess supply, accelerated investments will not occur.

The broad attacks on regulation advanced over the past year have consistently featured the supposedly dire consequence of EPA regulations on the utility industry. The capacity utilization data for all of 2011 provide additional evidence that these attacks have been misplaced. Instead, the data are consistent with earlier EPI work finding that lack of demand, not regulations or regulatory uncertainty, underlie the modest pace of job growth and that now might be an especially timely moment to advance new regulations.


A minimum-wage increase in Illinois: Helping working families in the Land of Lincoln

The Illinois state legislature begins its next session this week and will likely debate a bill that will raise the state minimum wage from $8.25 to $10.65 over four years—providing a substantial boost to the state’s lowest-paid workers and the economy. The measure will mirror a similar proposal from last year, S.B. 1565, which would have raised the minimum wage in four steps and, after reaching $10.65, would have tied future increases to inflation. That measure would give 1.1 million low-wage workers a raise, providing more than $3.8 billion in increased wages for directly affected workers.

During the last 30 years, the real value of the Illinois minimum wage has eroded and working families’ incomes have essentially stagnated, reflecting the rest of the nation’s growing wage inequality. Restoring Illinois’ minimum wage to its pre-erosion level would help to return it to its original intent as a policy that sets wage standards for low-wage workers at a level that is high enough to be meaningful. Restoring the value of the minimum wage through incremental annual increases will ensure that it never again strays from its original purpose as a basic protection of fair wages.

We know that a minimum-wage increase will boost the earnings of working families in Illinois—an added bonus is that it’s a tool for economic growth. It spurs spending by the workers who get the raise, thereby increasing economic activity and, in turn, creating jobs. It’s time that the American worker starts to share in the prosperity that corporate America has enjoyed—thanks to the growing productivity of workers—since the 1970s. A minimum-wage increase in Illinois would mean a shift from corporate profits to the America worker and would start to reverse the trend of increasing inequality evident since 1973. While corporate America enjoyed more than 200 percent growth in profits from 1973 to 2006, the real value of the Illinois minimum wage in 2010 was only 14 percent higher than it was in 1973. During the same period, American workers’ productivity increased almost 100 percent. The graph below shows this overwhelming disconnect:

Keeping the real value of the Illinois minimum wage at a level that allows low-wage workers to afford basic necessities is  a policy that Illinois families cannot afford to lose—most minimum-wage workers are at least 20 years old and have total family incomes of less than $45,000. The consumer spending of workers affected by this increase will create a direct stimulus effect, pumping more than $2 billion into the economy and creating 20,000 jobs.

Amid persistently high unemployment (9.8 percent in Illinois), a resulting lack of wage growth, and a severe jobs deficit in Illinois, there will be no upward pressure on wages for a very long time. Since raising the minimum wage helps working families, does not cause job loss, and is a boost to the economy, now is exactly the time to increase the minimum wage.

Austerity’s effect on state job growth

David Leonhardt of the New York Times has a chart on the Economix blog today that shows how austerity measures at the federal, state, and local levels have held back growth in the U.S. economy over the past year and a half. As the blue line from his chart indicates, despite gains in the private sector, public sector growth was negative every quarter since Q3 2010.

What does this look like in terms of jobs? As you can guess, it isn’t pretty. In a blog post last September, I noted that government job losses are at the heart of overall job losses in numerous states since the recession officially ended in June 2009. Just to coincide with the timeframe I’ve noted from Leonhardt’s chart, the table below shows the change in government employment, total job losses for industries that lost jobs, and government losses as a percentage of total losses by state since Aug. 2010. The Dec. 2011 state unemployment rates and net change in employment figures are shown as well.

The numbers are pretty explicit: For the United States as a whole, every major industry except for government has gained jobs since Aug. 2010. Federal, state, and local governments have lost 440,000 jobs over that timeframe, accounting for 100 percent of losses for industries that lost jobs. Just to clarify, this does not mean that only government workers lost their jobs, but for every non-government worker in the country that lost a job over the past four months, at least one more job was created someplace else in that industry.

At the state level, government accounted for more than half of all job losses for industries that lost jobs since Aug. 2010 in 27 states, and made up 100 percent of losses for industries that lost jobs in Arizona, Idaho, Massachusetts, North Dakota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Texas. Government losses also made up more than 50 percent of losses in seven of the 10 states with the largest number of jobs lost, and six of the 10 states with unemployment rates above 9.5 percent.

Of course, the private sector will absorb some of these losses and thankfully we have seen a positive net change in employment for most of these states since Aug. 2010.  But make no mistake, the idea that drastic cuts to public budgets would somehow spur private-sector growth is a myth that has undermined recovery efforts both in the United States and in Europe. In reality, cuts to public-sector budgets have a significant negative private-sector impact. As my colleague Ethan Pollack has demonstrated, “for every dollar of budget cuts, over half the jobs and economic activity will be lost in the private sector.” Net change in employment since Aug. 2010 may be positive for most states, but it’s frustrating to think how much better these job numbers might be if we hadn’t spent the past 16 months shooting ourselves in the foot.

Research assistance by Natalie Sabadish

Massive tax cuts don’t square with professed concerns about public debt

The Washington Post editorial board astutely notes that the budget busting tax plans of the GOP presidential candidates contradict purported concerns about the budget deficit and national debt. Relative to the inadequate revenue levels collected by current tax policies, the tax plans would lose between $180 billion and $900 billion in 2015 alone—or between 1.0 percent and 4.9 percent of GDP. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s tax plan and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum’s tax plans, respectively, represent the low and high end of this range, but former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich gives Santorum a run for his money with a tax plan that would lose $850 billion, or 4.6 percent of GDP, in 2015.

Under an extension of current policies, the budget deficit is projected to average around 4.3 percent of GDP over the next decade, which is unsustainable in the sense that debt as a share of the economy will continue to rise instead of stabilizing in the second half of the decade. Despite all the fear mongering rhetoric about Washington’s fiscal malfeasance heard from the GOP campaign trail, some of the candidates’ tax plans would more than double the budget deficit over the next decade.

The Post’s editorial board notes that the revenue loss estimates (calculated by the Tax Policy Center) are static scores, meaning that they don’t include growth effects (i.e., dynamic scores). Yet the growth legacy of the last round of deficit-financed, regressive tax cuts—the kind supply-siders love and the kind being floated on the campaign trail—proved a massive flop. This new round of massive tax cuts would either be deficit financed—trading public (di)savings for private savings—and/or financed with deep cuts to public investments and economic security programs, which would drag on growth (among other adverse economic outcomes). Mr. Santorum’s proposed balanced budget amendment, for instance, would force unfeasibly draconian spending cuts across the entire federal budget. His tax plan wouldn’t raise anywhere close to 18 percent of GDP, where he has proposed capping federal spending—current tax policies will raise only 17.6 percent of GDP over the next decade.

The distributional implications of these tax plans are just as concerning as their revenue impact and are amplified by their budgetary impact, which will force spending cuts that don’t show up in TPC’s distributional table. As the Post notes: “It makes no sense to further benefit the wealthiest taxpayers at a time when spending programs for the most vulnerable would be on the chopping block — of necessity, given the candidates’ pledges to cap spending. In their fiscal consequences these cuts would be disastrous; as a matter of fairness, even more so.”

Massive tax cuts don’t square with fiscal responsibility, as aptly demonstrated during the George W. Bush administration. Massive tax cuts targeted toward upper-income households will, however, exacerbate income inequality and undercut the middle class by defunding public investments and economic security programs. But the fiscal debate is not about the budget deficit, the public debt, or the middle class: It is about federal revenue and spending levels as a share of the economy, as epitomized by Grover Norquists’ Taxpayer Protection Pledge. Until conservatives reenter the realm of reality and acknowledge that revenue levels must go up, not down, fiscal responsibility and a sustainable trajectory for debt will remain unattainable.

Maybe Reagan was onto something…

Paul Krugman makes some good points about “post-modern” recessions (i.e., the last three, starting in 1990, 2001, and 2007, and which have all been followed by agonizingly slow recoveries) and then ends by asking, “And what about Reagan? Reagan who?” in making the point that very fast recovery following the 1981 recession was largely driven by monetary policy decisions.

This is mostly right, but, let’s look at the behavior of government spending following the last four recessions (i.e., the 1981 recession as well as the three “post-moderns”). The graph below measures real government spending relative to the previous business cycle peak.

So, 16 quarters after the start of the 1981 recession government spending was up nearly 19 percent relative to the pre-recession peak, while 16 quarters after the Great Recession of 2007, it’s up less than 1 percent. Let’s do some quick math. If we mimicked government spending growth from the 1981 recovery, government spending today would be about 18 percent higher than it was in the last quarter before the recession began – adding about $440 billion (in $2005) to overall GDP. This would lead to a roughly 3 percent boost to GDP and more than 3 million extra jobs not including any multiplier effects. Put a run-of-the-mill 1.4 multiplier on this and you have well over 4 million extra jobs – or roughly 40 percent of the entire “jobs gap” caused by the Great Recession that would now be filled.

Yeah, this is one thing about the 1981 recovery I’d like to replicate.

The Fed’s longer-run goals: Defining success down?

Yesterday, the Federal Reserve released a statement regarding its “longer-run goals and monetary policy strategy.” What seemed to the biggest news for most covering the release was the Fed’s identification of an explicit inflation target: 2 percent annualized growth in the personal consumption expenditures’ price index (oddly, they don’t specify just the “core” price index that removes more volatile items – not sure why).

This is pretty big news – and pretty bad news. While they leave themselves plenty of wiggle room to go above this target during particular circumstances, the economy could benefit greatly from an inflation target substantially above this 2 percent for the next several years, and it’s hard to see how yesterday’s statement makes this much easier. One could argue that by establishing a “long-run target” of 2 percent, the Fed could then justify shorter-term inflation targets above this level to make up for particularly disinflationary periods (like, say, the past four years), but again, the statement was pretty explicit about the 2 percent long-run target and not explicit at all about going above this in the near-term.

Bigger news, perhaps, was the statement’s identification of the “longer-run normal rate of unemployment” as being between 5.2 and 6 percent. This was always going to be the danger of a deep, drawn-out recession – policymakers will be tempted to declare “mission accomplished” well before unemployment has reached pre-recession levels (5 percent in Dec. 2007, 4.6 percent for the annual average of 2007), let alone before reaching levels that actually sparked widespread (and non-inflationary) wage-growth (the 4.1 percent average for 1999 and 2000, for example).

This is an old story – policymakers, particularly at the Fed, have for much of the past 30 years preemptively moved against higher rates of inflation by slowing the economy as unemployment has reached predetermined “longer-run normal” rates (the exact jargon and acronym for this magical rate that the economy allegedly cannot go below without sparking runaway inflation varies). Through much of the 1980s and early 1990s, economists more concerned with lower rates of unemployment than battling incipient inflation (sometimes called “inflation doves,” though I prefer “unemployment hawks”) argued that the Fed should at least test the limits of lower unemployment before short-circuiting recovery. And the late 1990s expansion proved them right – unemployment fell far below the contemporaneous estimates of the “longer-run normal rate” and yet inflation failed to accelerate.

Failing to heed this lesson and declaring that the best possible outcome that can be reached is an unemployment rate up to 1.5 percent higher (translating to three million extra unemployed workers) than what prevailed in the year before the Great Recession hit will just constitute one more severe casualty of this episode.

Discriminatory mortgage lending intensifies racial segregation

On December 21, Bank of America settled a Justice Department complaint alleging racial discrimination in mortgage lending by its Countrywide subsidiary. But underlying issues are far from resolved. Longstanding federal inaction in the face of widespread discriminatory mortgage lending practices helped create, and since has perpetuated, racially segregated, impoverished neighborhoods. This history of “law-sanctioned” racial segregation has had many damaging effects, including poor educational outcomes for minority children.

Bank of America’s Countrywide subsidiary was not alone in charging higher rates and fees on mortgages to minorities than to whites with similar characteristics, or in shifting minorities into subprime mortgages with terms so onerous that foreclosure and loss of homeownership were widespread. Racially discriminatory practices in mortgage lending (known as “reverse redlining”) were so systematic that top bank officials as well as federal and state regulators knew, or should have known, of their existence and taken remedial action.

Such complicity in racial discrimination by federal and state banking and thrift regulators is nothing new; in the past, they were complicit in “redlining”—the blanket denial of mortgages to minority homebuyers.

In the cases both of redlining and reverse redlining, regulatory failure has been destructive to the goal of a racially integrated society. Redlining contributed to racial segregation by keeping African Americans out of predominantly white neighborhoods; reverse redlining has probably had a similar result. Exploitative mortgage lending has led to an epidemic of foreclosures among African American and Hispanic homeowners, exacerbating racial segregation as displaced families relocate to more racially isolated neighborhoods or suffer homelessness.

The legal settlement requires Bank of America to spend $335 million to compensate victims of Countrywide’s discriminatory lending practices. This sum, while the largest fund to date for compensation of victims of discriminatory subprime lending, is still insufficient to restore their access to homeownership markets and to middle-class neighborhoods. In consequence, it will also do little to address the comparatively poor educational outcomes of children who are now more likely to grow up in racially segregated communities, nor the damage to learning that results when schooling has been disrupted by an unstable housing situation.

MORE: A comment on Bank of America/Countrywide’s discriminatory mortgage lending and its implications for racial segregation

SNAPSHOT: Good credit didn’t protect Latino and black borrowers

State of the Union: Manufacturing a Better Future

In his State of the Union Speech last night, President Obama outlined a blueprint for rebuilding the economy the right way, by rebuilding American manufacturing, expanding clean energy investments and by fixing our broken infrastructure. Kudos to him for continuing to highlight this important issue, but he failed to mention the main cause of our manufacturing woes in the first place: currency manipulation.

First, some background. China currently engages in massive intervention in currency markets, buying U.S. dollar-denominated assets to boost the value of the dollar and keep their own currency artificially cheap. This acts as a subsidy to U.S. imports from China, and it raises the cost of U.S. exports — both to China and to every country where U.S. exports compete with goods coming from there. Of the nearly 6 million manufacturing jobs we lost between Jan. 2000 and Dec. 2009, 2.8 million jobs were displaced by growing trade deficits with China between 2001 and 2010.

Manufacturing employment is growing again, with 322,000 jobs added in the past two years. But millions of jobs have been left on the table. By ending currency manipulation with China and other Asian countries, we could create up to 2.25 million jobs over the next 18 to 24 months, boost GDP by up to $285.7 billion, and reduce the federal budget deficit by up to $857 billion over the next 10 years.

The president proposed some well-intended changes in tax policy designed to reduce incentives for manufacturing firms to outsource production abroad and to encourage them to bring jobs home. But tax policies only work around the margins of manufacturing employment. We need to go after root causes of manufacturing job loss such as currency manipulation by China and other Asian nations.

The Senate passed a bill last fall that would allow the Commerce department to penalize imports from China that have benefited from illegal currency manipulation. But House leaders will not allow the measure to come to a vote.  The Obama administration has failed to do its part as well. Six times they have refused to identify China as a currency manipulator, denying the elephant in the room.

There are certainly other unfair trade practices beyond currency manipulation worth fighting.  China provides illegal subsidies to domestic and foreign firms in a wide range of industries including steel, glass and paper. It also subsidizes clean and green technology industries, and maintains extensive barriers to imports of manufactured goods from the United States and other countries. The president announced important steps to create a new trade enforcement unit to bring together resources from across the government to attack unfair trade practices. This will allow the government to initiate new unfair trade cases against China and other unfair traders.

But with a gridlocked Congress held hostage by the Republican controlled House that has refused to compromise with the Senate or the administration, President Obama’s hands are tied on new initiatives that require congressional approval. Certainly, there is more that he could do to fight unfair trade, for example by confronting China over currency manipulation. But the administrative measures outlined in his SOTU address will begin to make a difference.

Mitch Daniels, deficit peacock

In issuing the Republican rebuttal to the State of the Union address, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels had the audacity to present himself as a fiscal conservative and lecture President Obama on economic policy. Daniels presenting himself as a fiscal conservative is farcical: The tax cuts he pushed through for President George W. Bush as director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) are responsible for roughly half of today’s structural budget deficit and half the public debt accumulated last decade. And as expensive as they were, those tax cuts failed to spur even mediocre job growth; Daniels and Bush presided over the weakest economic expansion since World War II, leaving Daniels with a dismal legacy as an economic policymaker.

Daniels ran OMB from Jan. 2001 to June 2003; during his tenure, he helped craft the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts. (Later tax acts accelerated implementation of some of these tax cuts, but this is when the real fiscal malfeasance occurred.) When Daniels took charge of OMB, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) was projecting a $5.0 trillion (4.0 percent of GDP) budget surplus over the next decade. When he left office, CBO was projecting a $1.4 trillion (-1.0 percent of GDP) budget deficit over the next decade. Roughly $4.8 trillion of the fiscal deterioration resulted from legislation enacted over 2001-2003; the tax cuts alone added $2.6 trillion to the public debt over 2001-2010. (The other major drivers of this fiscal deterioration were the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which Daniels didn’t bother to pay for or even put on budget.) The 2001 recession certainly contributed to the emerging deficits—just as half of this year’s deficit can be chalked up to economic weakness—but the Bush administration’s economic policies ensured a mediocre economic recovery.

From Flickr Creative Commons by republicanconference

Though this supply-side snake oil was peddled as economic stimulus, the Bush-era tax cuts failed every test of good stimulus: They were gradually phased-in, they were targeted to upper-income households likely to save rather than spend, and they were intended to be permanent. Better economic policy could have alleviated the ensuing ‘jobless recovery.’

These tax cuts were the dominant economic policy during the worst economic expansion since World War II, measured by economic growth, employment, or compensation (trough-to-peak from 4Q2001 through 4Q2007). Real GDP growth averaged only 2.7 percent annually, the slowest of all the post-war expansions (averaging 4.8 percent economic growth annually). The economy only gained 97,000 jobs a month on average—not even enough to keep pace with population growth. (By contrast, job growth averaged 237,000 per month under President Clinton, when we had higher tax rates.) Real total employee compensation grew only 2.3 percent annually, contrasted with average annual compensation growth of 5.0 percent growth in post-war expansions.

Instead, the Bush tax cuts exacerbated inequality with a huge giveaway to those who didn’t need it: The top 1 percent of earners received 38 percent of the Bush tax cuts even though these households captured 65 percent of income gains during this expansion, leaving just scraps for the middle class. The Bush-era tax cuts can only be characterized as a costly economic policy failure.

Michael Linden of the Center for American Progress coined the phrase “deficit peacock” for self-purported deficit hawks interested in attention but uninterested in fiscal responsibility. Paraphrasing Linden’s birding guide, these deficit peacocks: 1) Never mention revenues; 2) Offer easy answers; 3) Support policies that make the long-term deficit problem worse; and 4) Think our budget woes appeared suddenly in January 2009. This summarizes Daniels to a tee. For him to lecture President Obama on fiscal responsibility is shameful.

Obama’s State of the Union speech sends the right signals

President Obama’s State of the Union address builds on his speech in Osawatomie, Kan. in December and that is a very good thing. That speech identified “whether this will be a country where working people can earn enough to raise a family, build a modest savings, own a home, and secure their retirement” as the key issue and argued against “you’re-on-your-own economics,” the economic perspective that says everyone should fend for themselves. We have increasingly followed such a vision over the last few decades and the results are clear, “fewer and fewer of the folks who contributed to the success of our economy actually benefitted from that success. Those at the very top grew wealthier from their incomes and investments than ever before.”

In contrast, the SOTU speech said, “We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by. Or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.”

Obama pointed the way with a “blueprint for an economy that’s built to last – an economy built on American manufacturing, American energy, skills for American workers, and a renewal of American values.”

This is a much more encouraging policy vision than that offered by any of the president’s possible political opponents in the upcoming election; their policies are various versions of cutting taxes, especially on incomes obtained from wealth, redistributing the tax burden onto middle-class and low-income families and generating large permanent deficits. This is doubling down on the failed policies of the past.

Of course, whether Obama’s plan can lead to the desired results will depend on a political configuration that allows such policies to be legislated. It also depends on having a budget policy that actually delivers on the expanded public investments in innovation, education, infrastructure and manufacturing that are central to this strategy. That requires reversing the current course of budgets which imply major retrenchment of public investments over the next 10 years. The president’s establishment of the Buffett rule can help in this regard, especially since the SOTU clarified it as, “If you make more than $1 million a year, you should not pay less than 30 percent in taxes.” It would be stronger and more effective if we just taxed earned and unearned income at the same rate.

Last, as the president has noted at other moments, the typical working family has not benefited from productivity gains and economic growth over the last three decades. His pillars of growth (clean energy, infrastructure, innovation, education and skills) will strengthen productivity growth but do not directly address the need to reconnect pay and productivity growth. That requires low unemployment, a much higher minimum wage, better and actually enforced labor standards, and establishing in practice the ability of workers to conduct collective bargaining. It requires a trade policy (and exchange rate policies) that does not undercut our manufacturing sector. It requires the administration to stop its silly mantra of doubling exports and ignoring imports since the reality is that it is the ‘net’ of these two that affects growth and jobs. It requires building an economy where the financial sector is not dominant. And, that will require policies opposed by wealthy interests, a difficult trick in the age of Citizens United. That means we will need to weaken the impact of money in our democracy. There’s nothing easy about this path, but there is no alternative if we truly seek a democracy and an economy that work for everyone.

Apple execs (like everyone else) overlook global exchange rates

Charles Duhigg and Keith Bradsher have a justly buzzed-about article in the New York Times this week on how the production of the iPhone (and Apple products more generally) has become almost completely globalized. A quick but important addition to their story, though, is the role of exchange rates. Yes, I’m getting boring on this topic, but, exchange rates are by far the single most important determinant of U.S. trade performance, so if the question is “why isn’t X made in the US anymore,” it’s very likely that the answer remains “the dollar is overvalued.”

And, strikingly, even the Apple-specific timeline fits the data regarding the biggest exchange rate development – China’s mammoth intervention in international currency markets to keep their own currency from rising vis-à-vis the dollar. This is how Duhigg and Bradsher write it up:

“In its early days, Apple usually didn’t look beyond its own backyard for manufacturing solutions. A few years after Apple began building the Macintosh in 1983, for instance, Mr. Jobs bragged that it was “a machine that is made in America.” In 1990, while Mr. Jobs was running NeXT, which was eventually bought by Apple, the executive told a reporter that “I’m as proud of the factory as I am of the computer.” As late as 2002, top Apple executives occasionally drove two hours northeast of their headquarters to visit the company’s iMac plant in Elk Grove, Calif. But by 2004, Apple had largely turned to foreign manufacturing….”

So, after 2002 Apple more and more turns to China for manufacturing? Huh. Not surprising – the graph below shows that the pace of Chinese accumulation of U.S. reserves (which leads inexorably to rising pressure on the dollar’s value, keeping Chinese products more competitive in U.S. and global markets) coincides with an accelerating increase in the U.S./China trade deficit around this time as well.

There is, after all, a reason why economists harp on the importance of the exchange rate – it drives lots and lots of hugely important economic decisions. As China intervenes to keep the value of its currency from rising against the dollar, this gives them an ever-increasing cost advantage versus the United States. The result is lots and lots of individual firm-level decisions (like Apple’s) to produce in China rather than the United States (because the exchange rate makes it cheaper) and the sum of these individual decisions cumulate to a huge aggregate trade deficit. The macro downsides of this trade deficit have been documented plenty of places, but if you’re writing about any feature of the US/China economic relationship and not mentioning this currency issue, you’re essentially writing Hamlet without the prince.

It’s frankly kind of amazing that Apple executives quoted in the article tell stories about how their global sourcing shifts are really about American skills, while managing to not mention global exchange rates. After all, there is an obvious trend in exchange rates and currency intervention that hamstring American competitiveness vis-à-vis China in the early-to-mid 2000s – but it’s awfully hard to make the case that American workers just got a lot dumber at the same time. But maybe blaming American workers can get some government subsidies for Apple to hire and train people in the U.S., while pointing out the effect of exchange rates might just lead to calls to rebalance the status quo U.S./China trade relationship – a status quo that has served Apple (and many other global manufacturers) very well.

A firewall has risen

It’s a pretty cool name for an otherwise drab concept. Yet, firewalls should matter to anyone who cares about government’s ability to promote economic growth, broadly shared prosperity, and social justice. Let’s start from the beginning, with the entire budget at $3.5 trillion (budget authority in 2011). Set aside mandatory programs—such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment insurance, and other social safety net programs—and interest payments. All told, that’s about $2.1 trillion of the budget, or two-thirds of the total. The remaining third of the budget is discretionary spending, about 58 percent of which is defense and war spending. The rest (the green slice) is everything else: homeland security, veterans benefits, roads and bridges, education, energy , health, and environmental research, consumer protection, law and order, community development… it’s all in there. This portion of the budget, which comprises a paltry 14 percent of the total, is referred to with the exciting name “non-defense discretionary.”

Because discretionary spending is appropriated each year, Congress can only cut it for the current or upcoming budget year. Instead, it can cap discretionary spending, as it did last August when it passed the Budget Control Act (BCA). These caps act as procedural obstacles to appropriating more than a specified amount in future years (also known as “out-years”). BCA institutes caps on the out-years, but only a single discretionary cap (excluding war spending). This worried progressives because it could allow conservatives in Congress to increase spending on the Department of Defense and pay for the increase with even further reductions in non-defense. In other words, it would provide conservatives with a double-win: They get to spend more on the Department of Defense even as the rest of the government faces cuts, and they get to use those defense increases to their advantage, to force even larger cuts to the non-defense budget than would otherwise be required if the entire discretionary budget were cut proportionately. This is where firewalls come in. Earlier this month, the Office of Management and Budget and the Congressional Budget Office each released an update on what happens next now that the Super Committee has failed. Most people have been focused on the sequestration provisions, which don’t take effect until 2013 (and will be heavily impacted by the election outcome). But, quietly, something else happened: As per the BCA law, automatic firewalls between defense and non-defense are now the law of the land. We should always be worried that conservatives will play the defense budget against the non-defense budget, but the new caps, which put separate limits on defense and non-defense, will make that eminently more difficult. And without further ado, here are your new budget caps!

And a little historical context…

Obviously, this isn’t exactly shared sacrifice. Non-defense discretionary, at 3.2 percent of GDP, is already below the 35-year average of 3.9 percent. Yet these caps cut this portion of the budget by almost $100 billion more than the defense budget, bringing it down to 2.5 percent of GDP, the lowest level in more than 35 years (as far as the budget authority data extends).

‘Reformers’ playbook on failing schools fails a fact check

Education “reformers” have a common playbook. First, assert without evidence that regular public schools are “failing” and that large numbers of regular (unionized) public school teachers are incompetent. Provide no documentation for this claim other than that the test score gap between minority and white children remains large. Then propose so-called reforms to address the unproven problem – charter schools to escape teacher unionization and the mechanistic use of student scores on low-quality and corrupted tests to identify teachers who should be fired.

The mantra has been endlessly repeated by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and by “reform” leaders like former Washington and New York schools chancellors Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein. Bill Gates’ foundation gives generous grants to school systems and private education advocates who adopt the analysis. In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emmanuel makes the argument, and in New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has frequently sung the same tune.

And now, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has joined in. On Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday last week, the governor cast attacks on unionized teachers as a defense of minority students against the adult bureaucracy. “It’s about the children,” Mr. Cuomo said. Because of failing public schools, “the great equalizer that was supposed to be the public education system can now be the great discriminator.”

But this applause line about school failure is an “urban myth.” The governor, mayor and other policymakers have neglected to check facts they assume to be true. As a result, they may be obsessed with the wrong challenges, while exacerbating real, but overlooked problems.

Careful examination discloses that disadvantaged students have made spectacular progress in the last generation, in regular public schools, with ordinary teachers. Not only have regular public schools not been “the great discriminator” – they continue to make remarkable gains for minority children at a time when our increasingly unequal social and economic systems seem determined to abandon them.

We have only one accurate performance measure. The government administers periodic reading and math tests to samples of fourth, eighth and 12th graders. Called the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP, pronounced “nape”), it is less subject to corruption than standardized tests now legally required of all schoolchildren.

NAEP samples are only large enough to produce reliable national and (for fourth and eighth graders) state estimates, but not for classrooms or schools. Thus, principals or teachers suffer no consequences for poor NAEP scores, giving them no incentive to steal time from instruction to drill on NAEP-type questions.

Not every selected student gets identical NAEP questions. Scores aggregate answers from different students’ booklets, covering different topics from the math and reading curriculums. In contrast, state and city standardized tests change little each year; teachers can predict which of many topics will likely appear, and focus instruction on those.

Here’s what NAEP shows: Average black fourth graders’ math performance in regular public schools has improved so much that it now exceeds average white performance as recently as 1992. The improvement has been greatest for the lowest achievers, those in the bottom 10 percent. Eighth graders show similar, though less dramatic trends. The black-white gap has narrowed little because whites have also improved.

These irrefutable facts characterize both the nation as a whole, and New York State specifically. In fact, New York State’s black children made enormous gains in the 1990s, and much slower gains once the federal No Child Left Behind, and Mayor Bloomberg’s and Chancellor Klein’s test-based reforms kicked in. From 1992 to 2003, for example, black fourth graders’ math performance jumped 22 scale points (about two-thirds of a standard deviation). From 2003 to 2011, the gain was only 5 scale points.

There is something perverse about using Dr. King’s  birthday as the occasion for an accusation that schools have been the “great discriminators” when those schools have been boosting the achievement of African Americans at a far more rapid rate than they’ve been able to boost the achievement of whites.

Overall, the national and New York State data are hard to reconcile with a story that schools are filled with teachers having low expectations, poor training, and complacency arising from excessive job security, and the way to fix public schools is more accountability for student test scores.Read more


You can’t measure tax progressivity while ignoring income trends

Mark Thoma does a terrific job explaining why the purported measure of tax progressivity favored by many conservatives doesn’t measure tax progressivity. Former George W. Bush Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, the inspiration behind Thoma’s post, insinuated that those lucky duckies at the bottom and middle of the earnings distribution should be paying more because their share of federal taxes paid has been falling while that of the top earnings quintile has risen substantially since 1979. As Thoma elucidates, Fleischer’s captious reading of the Congressional Budget Office’s series on average federal taxes by income group ignores the heavily skewed income trends of the last 30-plus years.

This State of Working America chart depicts just how lopsided those gains have been: The top 10 percent have captured 64 percent of economy wide income gains, while the bottom 60 percent of earners received only 11 percent of income gains.

Data compiled by economists Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty show that this trend intensified during the Bush economic expansion, when the top 1 percent of households captured a stunning 65 percent of income gains, leaving just 13 percent for the bottom 90 percent of households. (The top 1 percent of households was simultaneously rewarded with 38 percent of the Bush-era tax cuts, when fully phased in.) These data don’t square with calls to shift the tax burden from capital to labor, and correspondingly from upper-income households to the middle class.

A progressive tax system embodies the principle that groups with more resources should pay a higher portion of their income in taxes than groups with fewer resources; taxes as a share of income—or effective tax rates—are intended to rise with income. Ignoring income necessitates disregarding this proper measure of tax progressivity. By Mr. Fleischer’s concept of tax fairness, Mitt Romney’s 15 percent preferential tax rate is a non-issue and there’s no need for a Buffett Rule. Similarly, ignoring effective tax rates is terribly convenient for conservatives attempting to shift the distribution of taxation down the income distribution, as proposed in many of the former and current GOP presidential candidates’ tax plans.

Without looking at taxes paid relative to income, one ignores ability to pay and progressivity, period. This may be politically expedient for those who want to abolish the Sixteenth Amendment and replace it with a regressive flat tax, but it’s intrinsically problematic when income inequality has returned to Gilded Age-levels. A greater degree of progressivity must be restored to the tax code, which must also raise more revenue for the realities of an aging population, spiraling health care costs, and a large structural budget deficit. Specious concepts of tax fairness cannot be condoned; they mask deep, growing inequities and provide cover for regressive tax plans that would further exacerbate income inequality.

Don’t blame the robots: It’s not productivity growth that’s holding job growth back

The Wall Street Journal ran an article a couple of days ago implicitly arguing that accelerating productivity growth is a prime reason why labor market recovery from the Great Recession has been so sluggish. Another reporter asked me about it yesterday, so I figured I’d write up a couple of thoughts on it.

First, we should be clear that the pace of labor market recovery since the Great Recession has not been uniquely bad; since the trough of the recession, private sector employment growth has actually been exactly in line with the (admittedly too-slow) recoveries from the recessions of the early 1990s and 2000s. Overall employment growth has actually outperformed the recovery from the early 2000s recession. Figure A below shows the trends for private sector employment. Note that the jobs lost during the latest recession dwarf those lost during other recessions – but since the official recovery began, job growth has been on-par with recent recoveries. Note that policymakers should not be graded on this generous curve – it’s a disaster that we haven’t had a better recovery from that perspective. But one doesn’t need to generate new theories to explain this allegedly atypically bad recovery – it just hasn’t been atypically bad.

Second, and in line with Dean Baker’s response to the article, productivity growth has not been particularly fast since the Great Recession. Figure B below shows the behavior of productivity averaged over all recessions between 1947 and 1981, the average of the early 1990s and early 2000s recoveries, and growth since the Great Recession. So, again, one cannot argue that fast productivity growth presents unique challenges in the current recovery since its performance just hasn’t been all that unique.

Lastly, and maybe wonkiest, fast productivity growth doesn’t change the validity of Keynesian diagnoses of what the economy needs at all. In fact, it would just strengthen them. The root of the Keynesian diagnosis is that there is a large gap between aggregate demand and potential supply in the economy – or, a large “output gap.” Figure C below shows the problem – the large output gap between actual and potential GDP is the reason why we have such high unemployment today. Productivity growth just pulls the potential GDP curve upwards, which means, all else equal, that the output gap will rise (on the chart I illustrated this with the “actual, if productivity growth accelerated” line).

But, the obvious solution to this problem is simply to push up demand to make actual GDP equal potential GDP again. Basically, accelerating productivity growth would just make measures to boost demand more necessary, and would insure that no adverse supply-side response (say accelerating inflation or rising interest rates) would kick-in.

The root cause of today’s underperforming economy remains insufficient spending by households, businesses and governments to fully employ all those who want a job. And the cure for this is simply policy measures to boost spending. Yes, I’m sure this has gotten boring for many economy watchers who want newer and more exciting diagnoses and cures, but sometimes what’s true is pretty boring.

One quick thought on why explanations based on productivity growth can sound convincing: At any point over the past century you could have walked into a factory and been told about the big technological improvements that had been made over the past four years. If you’re a business writer who walks into a factory today looking for a root cause of the labor market’s doldrums, guess what? You’ll be told about the big technological improvements made over the past four years, and then you might think, “hey, that’s why the jobs aren’t here!” But, if you had walked into a factory in 2000 – when the unemployment rate reached 3.8 percent – You also would’ve been told about an amazing four-year run of technological advance. In the end, high rates of unemployment are about demand falling short of supply, period.