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“Doesn’t Even Rise To The Level Of Pitiful”: Sorry, Republicans; The Keystone XL Pipeline Is Not A Jobs Agenda

In the new Congress, Republicans will have the majority in both the Senate and the House for the first time in eight years. As they get ready to take power, their rhetorical focus is clear: jobs, the economy, and more jobs.

So far, there are two main proposals on deck for the GOP. First, the Hire More Heroes Act, which would make it easier for small businesses that hire veterans to deny health care to their employees. Second, they want to immediately build the Keystone XL pipeline, a project that would transport oil from Canada to the Gulf Coast.

On their own, these are both extremely small-bore policies. But as a jobs agenda, this doesn’t even rise to the level of pitiful. It’s the latest evidence that Republicans continue to struggle with basic macroeconomics — and it does not bode well for the nation should they win the White House in 2016.

Let’s examine the Hire More Heroes Act first. ObamaCare requires that all businesses that have over 50 full-time employees provide health-insurance benefits. This law would exempt veterans from counting toward that cap, thus making it easier to expand a business over 50 employees if you hire veterans.

On its face, this might not even be a terrible idea. Health-care policy experts have long argued that funneling American health care through employer subsidies is bad, locking people into jobs they don’t like for fear of losing coverage, and increasing health-care spending. Rolling that system back very slightly might be a good thing. My problem is that there’s no reason to direct general social spending to veterans so preferentially.

But make no mistake, this is a tiny, tiny policy involving a relative handful of people and jobs.

Keystone XL is bigger in one respect. Generous estimates predict that the pipeline would create around 42,000 temporary jobs — about 2,000 construction jobs and the rest in supplying goods and services.

How many long-term jobs? Fifty. That’s right, 50 whole long-term jobs. (One more, and the pipeline would have to get health insurance for them! Unless they hired veterans, I suppose.)

Furthermore, the argument that Keystone XL would help by lowering gas prices just had the legs kicked out from under it, with the price of oil plummeting toward $50 per barrel with no sign of stopping. This was always a bogus argument, since the pipeline is a drop in the bucket compared with world supply, but now it makes even less sense.

To get a sense of the bigger picture, the U.S. economy pumped out probably close to 3 million jobs total last year. The GOP’s proposals, if enacted, will fail to make more than a small ripple in the job market.

The problem with the American economy is the same problem we’ve had since 2007: a lack of demand. With factories idle and workers unemployed, there’s not enough spending and not enough investment. Nations have two options for attacking this problem. First, spend money, through government investment in things like infrastructure, or handouts to citizens in the form of checks or tax cuts (fiscal policy). Second, use control of the money supply to ease credit and stimulate lending (monetary policy).

Republicans used to accept this framework, proposing a $713 billion government stimulus bill as recently as 2009. But they’ve since regressed intellectually to the pre–Great Depression era. The economic policy of the GOP today is almost indistinguishable from the days of Herbert Hoover and Andrew Mellon. Their platform is muddled on fiscal policy, proposing massive spending-side cuts coupled with large tax cuts for the rich — which in macro terms would cancel each other out. On monetary policy, they propose tighter money and reexamining the gold standard — which would slow the economy and throw people out of work. At best, it’s a large net negative for workers.

After the colossal failure of Hoover, when the Republican Party was largely locked out of national politics for a generation, they learned that parties ignore the lessons of Keynes at their peril. But it seems they will have to learn them again — and if they win full power in 2016, it will be at everyone’s expense.

 

By: Ryan Cooper, The Week, January 6, 2014

January 7, 2015 Posted by | Jobs, Keystone XL, Republicans | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Presidents And The Economy”: Serious Analyses Of The Reagan-Era Business Cycle Place Very Little Weight On Reagan

Suddenly, or so it seems, the U.S. economy is looking better. Things have been looking up for a while, but at this point the signs of improvement — job gains, rapidly growing G.D.P., rising public confidence — are unmistakable.

The improving economy is surely one factor in President Obama’s rising approval rating. And there’s a palpable sense of panic among Republicans, despite their victory in the midterms. They expected to run in 2016 against a record of failure; what do they do if the economy is looking pretty good?

Well, that’s their problem. What I want to ask instead is whether any of this makes sense. How much influence does the occupant of the White House have on the economy, anyway? The standard answer among economists, at least when they aren’t being political hacks, is: not much. But is this time different?

To understand why economists usually downplay the economic role of presidents, let’s revisit a much-mythologized episode in U.S. economic history: the recession and recovery of the 1980s.

On the right, of course, the 1980s are remembered as an age of miracles wrought by the blessed Reagan, who cut taxes, conjured up the magic of the marketplace and led the nation to job gains never matched before or since. In reality, the 16 million jobs America added during the Reagan years were only slightly more than the 14 million added over the previous eight years. And a later president — Bill something-or-other — presided over the creation of 22 million jobs. But who’s counting?

In any case, however, serious analyses of the Reagan-era business cycle place very little weight on Reagan, and emphasize instead the role of the Federal Reserve, which sets monetary policy and is largely independent of the political process. At the beginning of the 1980s, the Fed, under the leadership of Paul Volcker, was determined to bring inflation down, even at a heavy price; it tightened policy, sending interest rates sky high, with mortgage rates going above 18 percent. What followed was a severe recession that drove unemployment to double digits but also broke the wage-price spiral.

Then the Fed decided that America had suffered enough. It loosened the reins, sending interest rates plummeting and housing starts soaring. And the economy bounced back. Reagan got the political credit for “morning in America,” but Mr. Volcker was actually responsible for both the slump and the boom.

The point is that normally the Fed, not the White House, rules the economy. Should we apply the same rule to the Obama years?

Not quite.

For one thing, the Fed has had a hard time gaining traction in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, because the aftermath of a huge housing and mortgage bubble has left private spending relatively unresponsive to interest rates. This time around, monetary policy really needed help from a temporary increase in government spending, which meant that the president could have made a big difference. And he did, for a while; politically, the Obama stimulus may have been a failure, but an overwhelming majority of economists believe that it helped mitigate the slump.

Since then, however, scorched-earth Republican opposition has more than reversed that initial effort. In fact, federal spending adjusted for inflation and population growth is lower now than it was when Mr. Obama took office; at the same point in the Reagan years, it was up more than 20 percent. So much, then, for fiscal policy.

There is, however, another sense in which Mr. Obama has arguably made a big difference. The Fed has had a hard time getting traction, but it has at least made an effort to boost the economy — and it has done so despite ferocious attacks from conservatives, who have accused it again and again of “debasing the dollar” and setting the stage for runaway inflation. Without Mr. Obama to shield its independence, the Fed might well have been bullied into raising interest rates, which would have been disastrous. So the president has indirectly aided the economy by helping to fend off the hard-money mob.

Last but not least, even if you think Mr. Obama deserves little or no credit for good economic news, the fact is his opponents have spent years claiming that his bad attitude — he has been known to suggest, now and then, that some bankers have behaved badly — is somehow responsible for the economy’s weakness. Now that he’s presiding over unexpected economic strength, they can’t just turn around and assert his irrelevance.

So is the president responsible for the accelerating recovery? No. Can we nonetheless say that we’re doing better than we would be if the other party held the White House? Yes. Do those who were blaming Mr. Obama for all our economic ills now look like knaves and fools? Yes, they do. And that’s because they are.

 

By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, January 4, 2015

January 5, 2015 Posted by | Economic Policy, Economic Recovery, Financial Crisis | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Making Stuff Up”: A Republican Ruse To Make Tax Cuts Look Good

As Republicans take control of Congress this month, at the top of their to-do list is changing how the government measures the impact of tax cuts on federal revenue: namely, to switch from so-called static scoring to “dynamic” scoring. While seemingly arcane, the change could have significant, negative consequences for enacting sustainable, long-term fiscal policies.

Whenever new tax legislation is proposed, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office “scores” it, to estimate whether the bill would raise more or less revenue than existing law would.

In preparing estimates, scorekeepers try to predict how people will respond to a new tax law. For example, if Congress contemplates raising the excise tax on cigarettes, scorekeepers consider existing trends in cigarette consumption, the likelihood that the higher taxes will induce some smokers to quit, and the prospect that higher prices will increase incentives for cigarette smuggling. There are no truly “static” revenue estimates.

These conventional estimates do not, however, include any indirect feedback effects that tax law changes might have on overall national income. In other words, they do not incorporate macroeconomic behavioral changes.

Dynamic scoring does. Proponents point out, correctly, that if a tax proposal is large enough, then those sorts of feedback effects can aim the entire economy on a slightly different path.

Such proponents argue that conventional projections are skewed against tax cuts, because they do not consider that cutting taxes could lead to higher economic output, which would make up at least some of the lost revenues. They maintain that dynamic scoring will, therefore, be both more neutral and more accurate than current methodologies.

But the reality is more complex. In order to look at the effects across the entire economy, dynamic modeling relies on many simplifying assumptions, like how well people can predict the future or how much they care about their children’s future consumption versus their own.

Economists disagree on the answers, and different models’ predicted feedback effects vary wildly, depending on the values selected for those uncertain assumptions. The resulting estimates are likely to incorporate greater uncertainty about the magnitude of any revenue-estimating errors and greater exposure to the risk of a political thumb on the scale.

Consider the nonpartisan scorekeepers’ estimates of the consequences of a tax-reform bill proposed last year by Representative Dave Camp, Republican of Michigan. Using different models and plausible inputs, the scorekeepers estimated that, under the bill, total gross domestic product might rise between 0.1 percent and 1.6 percent over the next decade — a 16-fold spread in projected outcomes. Which result should be the basis of congressional scorekeeping?

But the bigger problems lie deeper. Federal deficits are on an unsustainable path (as it happens, because of undertaxation, not excessive spending). Simply cutting taxes against the headwind of structural deficits leads to lower growth, as government borrowing soaks up an ever-increasing share of savings.

The most optimistic dynamic models get around this by assuming that the world today is in fiscal equilibrium, where the deficit does not grow continuously as a percentage of gross domestic product. But that’s not true. If you add the reality of spiraling deficits into those models, they don’t work.

To make these models work, scorekeepers must arbitrarily assume either that we tax more and spend less today than is really the case — which is what they did for the Camp bill — or assume that a tax cut today will be followed by a spending cut or tax increase tomorrow. Economists describe such a move as “making counterfactual assumptions”; the rest of us call it “making stuff up.”

In practice, these models are political statements. They show the biggest economic effects by assuming that tax cuts are financed by unspecified future spending cuts. The smaller size of government, not the tax cuts by themselves, largely drives the models’ results.

Further, the models are not a step toward more neutral revenue estimates, because they assume that, while individuals make productive investments, government does not. In reality, government spending contributes significantly to economic output. Truly dynamic modeling would weigh the forgone economic returns of government investments against the economic gains from lower taxes.

The Republicans’ interest in dynamic scoring is not the result of a million-economist march on Washington; it comes from political factions convinced that tax cuts are the panacea for all economic ills. They will use dynamic scoring to justify a tax cut that, under conventional scorekeeping, loses revenue.

When revenues do in fact decline and deficits rise, those same proponents will push for steep cuts in government insurance or investment programs, because they will claim that the models demand it. That is what lies inside the Trojan horse of dynamic scoring.

 

By: Edward D. Kleinbard, Law Professor at the University of Southern California and a former Chief of Staff of the Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation; Op-Ed Contributor, The New York Times, January 2, 2015

January 4, 2015 Posted by | Dynamic Scoring, Federal Budget, Republicans | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Minimum-Wage Increases; The Justice Of Redistribution”: To Not Be Victims, Workers Must Be Compensated For Value Of Their Work

As we enter the new year, 3 million low-wage workers in 21 states will gain a small increase in their wages, thanks to increases in state minimum wages. People you know will see a wage increase — your neighbor, your teenage kid, the person who serves you coffee and donuts.

The minimum-wage increase is a good thing because it increases income in a small way to the workers on the low rungs of our economy. A stagnant minimum wage redistributes income from workers to owners and managers and, ultimately, shareholders and customers. As the minimum wage has failed to keep up with inflation and productivity increases, our political economy has redistributed significant income from low-wage workers to owners over the past 40 years. One reason this happened is that workers have no leverage vis-à-vis corporations. They are price takers for their labor.

Minimum-wage increases reverse this redistribution so that workers win back a little bit of what they have lost. Minimum wages should be associated with value added instead of the powerlessness of workers to demand higher wages. But minimum-wage workers are not compensated for the value of their work for their employers. Raising the wage begins to remedy that undercompensation. If the wage goes too high, then employers will not hire workers, because their compensation exceeds the value of their work. But as we have seen, this is not the case with minimum-wage increases, which simply means that for the past decades workers have been paid less than the value of their work for employers.

How does increasing the minimum wage redistribute income? An increase in the wage results in a decrease in the payments to managers and profits for the establishment. That’s redistribution. We can argue that this might not happen because of productivity increases by the worker, but that merely means that the productivity increases (or a portion thereof) that might have gone to the employer instead go to the employee — hence redistribution from owners to workers. Redistribution also can occur between worker and customer. If a restaurant increases prices due to an increase in the minimum wage, in an attempt to avoid a decrease in profits, then the customers pay more. These customers have the disposable income to patronize restaurants. We can make the assumption that the customers have greater incomes than the people who wait on them. Thus, an increase is again redistributive, with the increase coming from increased prices paid by customers. Imagine: In Seattle an Amazon IT person goes out to lunch. (It feels like they all do.) Instead of paying $15 at the Skillet truck, they pay $17. They have lost $2, and the Skillet truck workers will have seen an increase in their wages. Redistribution to minimum-wage workers is good for them and pushes up the floor for the bottom half of all wages.

We too often equate increasing the minimum wage with living standards and poverty levels. This is dangerous for several reasons, including the fact that it sets a precedent for slicing and dicing the minimum wage: Do you have dependents? Do you pay for your own health insurance? How old are you? Are you paying for tuition yourself? All these are important questions, but taken to their logical conclusion, they move the minimum wage into welfare policy, so that an 18-year-old student could get paid less than a 25-year-old who is on her parents’ health insurance, and she might get paid less than a single mom with one kid, who could get paid less than a spouse in a household with three kids, etc. These are life situations best handled by social policy, social insurance and the appropriate provisions of public goods and services. But a focus on the minimum wage as welfare policy debases the fact that we should be raising the minimum wage because we should be insuring that workers are paid the value of their work. That is, such a focus disrespects workers as workers.

A lot of liberals don’t want to call increases in the minimum wage “redistributive.” It brings the reality of class conflict too close to the surface, apparently, and portrays workers as workers, not as victims. But in order for workers to not be victims, they must be compensated for the value of their work. That is not happening now, not in these United States. These state minimum-wage increases begin to reverse the damage, precisely because they are redistributive, from the owners of capital to the workers they employ. That is a good thing — and an excellent beginning for the new year!

 

By: John R. Burbank, Executive Director, Economic Opportunity Institute; The Blog, The Huffington Post, December 31, 2014

January 3, 2015 Posted by | Economic Inequality, Minimum Wage, Workers | , , , , , | 4 Comments

“To A Healthier Democracy”: Ending Armageddon

Meg Greenfield, the late Post editorial page editor, counseled against writing in “High C” all the time. By this she meant that an editorialist or columnist who expressed equally noisy levels of indignation about everything would lack credibility when something truly outrageous came along that merited a well-crafted high-pitched scream.

We now seem to be living in the Age of High C, a period when every fight is Armageddon, every foe is a monster, and every issue is either the key to national survival or the doorway to ruin.

This habit seems especially pronounced in the way President Obama’s adversaries treat him. It’s odd that so many continue to see Obama as a radical and a socialist even as the Dow hits record levels and the wealthy continue to do very nicely. If he is a socialist, he is surely the most incompetent practitioner in the history of Marxism.

The reaction to Obama is part of a larger difficulty that involves pretending we are philosophically far more divided than we are. In all of the well-off democracies, even people who call themselves socialists no longer claim to have an alternative to the market as the primary creator and distributor of goods and services. The boundaries on the left end of what’s permissible in the public debate have been pushed well toward the center. This makes the hysteria and hyperbole all the more incomprehensible.

But let’s dream a little and assume that the American left signed on to the proposals put forward by Lane Kenworthy of the University of California-San Diego in his challenging (and, by the way, very pro-market) book “Social Democratic America,” published this year. Kenworthy’s argument is that we can “successfully embrace both flexibility and security, both competition and social justice.”

His wish list is a straightforward set of progressive initiatives. A few of them: universal health insurance and early education, extensive new help on job searches and training, a year of paid parental leave, an increased minimum wage indexed to prices, expansions of efforts that supplement wages such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, and the government as an employer of last resort.

His program, he says, would cost around 10 percent of our gross domestic product. Now that’s a lot of money, and the debate about whether we should spend it would be anything but phony. Yet would such a level of expenditure signal the death of our constitutional system? Would it make us like, say, Cuba? No and no. It might make us a little more like Germany, the Netherlands or the Scandinavian countries. We can argue if we want to do this, but these market democracies happen to share with us an affection for freedom and enterprise.

And when it comes to High C, there’s nothing quite like our culture wars, in which disagreements about social issues are seen as battles between libertines and bigots. When I look around, I see a lot of liberals who live quite traditional family lives and even go regularly to churches, synagogues and mosques. I see a lot of conservatives who are feminists when it comes to their daughters’ opportunities and who oppose bigotry against gays and lesbians.

The ideological resolution I’d suggest for the new year is that all sides stop fighting and pool their energies to easing the marriage and family crisis that is engulfing working-class Americans.

This would require liberals to acknowledge what the vast majority of them already practice in their own lives: that, all things being equal, kids are better off with two loving and engaged parents. It would require conservatives to acknowledge that many of the pressures on families are economic and that the decline of well-paying blue-collar work is causing huge disruptions in family formation. I’d make a case that Kenworthy’s ideas for a more social democratic America would be good for families, but let’s argue it out in the spirit of a shared quest for remedies.

Maybe it’s asking too much, but might social conservatives also consider my friend Jonathan Rauch’s idea that they abandon their campaign against gay marriage in favor of a new campaign on behalf of the value of committed relationships for all of us?

Disagreement is one of the joys of freedom, so I am all for boisterous debate and tough political and philosophical competition. It’s how I make my living. But our democratic system would be healthier if it followed the Greenfield rule and reserved the harshest invective for things that are genuinely monstrous.

 

By: E. J. Dionne, Jr., Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, December 28, 2014

December 31, 2014 Posted by | Democracy, Democrats, Republicans | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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