Worrying About Long-Term Panic

Generally speaking, I'm part of the crowd that thinks we should be spending more now and tackling the deficit only in the long term. After all, as Paul Krugman and others point out endlessly, the "bond vigilantes" are nowhere to be seen. Interest rates are at historic lows and investors — as measured by their real-world actions — seem to have no concerns at all about America's ability to grow and service its debt.

However, there's one contrary argument that's long given me pause. Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, who have written the standard reference about the dangers of countries piling on too much debt, make it here:

Several studies of financial crises show that interest rates seldom indicate problems long in advance. In fact, we should probably be particularly concerned today because a growing share of advanced country debt is held by official creditors whose current willingness to forego short-term returns doesn’t guarantee there will be a captive audience for debt in perpetuity.

Those who would point to low servicing costs should remember that market interest rates can change like the weather. Debt levels, by contrast, can’t be brought down quickly. Even though politicians everywhere like to argue that their country will expand its way out of debt, our historical research suggests that growth alone is rarely enough to achieve that with the debt levels we are experiencing today.

Interest rates are low today. Consumer debt overhang continues to dampen demand and generate massive unemployment. Because of this, government borrowing now not only makes sense because it's cheap, it makes sense because it will put people back to work and help get the economy back to its long-term growth trend. Especially given the fragility of the world economy — including but not limited to the property bubble in China, the unsustainable flow of hot money into developing countries, and the crisis of the PIIGS in Europe — this is about the worst possible time to take any chances with economic recovery in America.

And yet. Still. Reinhart and Rogoff have a point: investors can get nervous and start fleeing with virtually no notice. One month they're fat and happy, the next they're running for the doors. Although we should be spending more now to get the economy back on track, this is why a long-term deficit deal with teeth is something that both liberals and conservatives ought to be willing to compromise to achieve.

Moody's Ups the Threat Level to Orange

Ratings agencies have started warning us that they'll downgrade U.S. debt from AAA if we don't get a debt ceiling agreement soon. But it's never really been clear to me why anyone should care about this, since no one thinks that Moody's or Standard & Poor's has any special insight into the creditworthiness of the U.S. bond market. If there's no debt ceiling deal, then Treasury rates will probably go up, but they'll go up because investors read the newspaper and think that things are getting dicey, not because they got a press release saying that one of the ratings agencies officially put America on credit watch.

But this is different:

At least 7,000 top-rated municipal credits would have their ratings cut if the U.S. government loses its Aaa grade, Moody’s Investors Service said. An “automatic” downgrade affecting $130 billion in municipal debt directly linked to the U.S. would occur if the federal level is reduced, Moody’s said yesterday in a report. Additionally, top-rated securities with no direct links to the national government will be reviewed for similar action.

....Issuers that are partially dependent on the federal government, such as states receiving Medicaid matching funds, also will be reviewed for vulnerability. Medicaid is a health- care program for the poor that is jointly funded by the states and the U.S. Moody’s said Aaa-rated states on average rely on the federal government for a quarter of total spending.

Investors do care about the credit ratings of state and municipal governments, and if a Moody's downgrade affects them, it will have an immediate effect on their ability to raise money. Moody's, I'm sure, knows perfectly well that their rating of federal debt doesn't really matter that much, so this sounds to me like a case of upping the ante. It's a clear threat to Washington to get a deal done or face consequences from Wall Street.

Protecting the Rich

Back in the late 80s, when I paid only passing attention to politcs, I had lunch once with a sales manager at the company I worked for. We got to talking about the economy, and after a few minutes his face lit up. "What we need to do is get rid of the capital gains tax!" he told me excitedly. The what? I thought. I happened to know that this guy spent pretty much his entire paycheck and probably had a few thousand dollars in his 401(k) and not much else in the way of serious investments. So why was he convinced that eliminating the capital gains tax, of all things, was the key to salvation?

I was young and naive back then, of course. What I didn't know was that although the 1986 Tax Reform Act had lowered a bunch of taxes, it had increased the capital gains rate — and rich people, who do have huge parts of their income dependent on capital gains, had immediately made reduction or elimination of the capital gains tax a right-wing hobbyhorse. Rush Limbaugh and his dittoheads talked about it endlessly, and obviously my friend had gotten sucked into the vortex. Elimination of capital gains taxes would save the country!

Why bring this up? Because apparently this is a sticking point in the debt ceiling negotiations. Conservatives have long since gotten their capital gains preference restored (the rate is currently 15%, compared to a top rate of 35% for ordinary income), but a tax reform deal that broadens the tax base threatens to increase that rate. According to Politico's David Rogers, "there’s resistance from wealthy interests who fear the president will gain too much leverage to impose tougher standards of progressivity in the tax code — and thereby crimp their capital gains tax breaks." Jon Chait comments:

The broader problem here is that Obama seems to be taking Republicans at their word. He wants shared sacrifice, and they say they want to avoid high rates. Tax reform is a way to accomplish both. But Republicans don't just want to avoid high marginal tax rates. They want rich people to pay low taxes, period. It's not clear Obama understands that.

I suspect that Obama understands this just fine. It's not rocket science, after all. Basically, he's calling their bluff, forcing them to publicly oppose literally every tax break the rich currently enjoy. Get them to pound the table and say nyet often enough, and eventually even the vast huddled masses will finally figure out what really motivates the GOP. Maybe.

The Implosion of Eric Cantor

Here's a prediction: when all's said and done and the debt ceiling fight is finally over, Eric Cantor is going to be a lot further away from becoming Speaker of the House than he was six months ago. Every days he's looking more and more like a petulant child playing media games and less and less like a principled statesman working in the best interests of the country. He thinks he's being clever and savvy, but the rest of the country is seeing a grasping, opportunistic politician who thinks that posturing for Fox News is more important than facing up to serious problems. He's setting his career back a decade.

UPDATE: Greg Sargent points out that Democrats are apparently doing everything they can to speed up Cantor's demise. Harry Reid lit into him pretty harshly a few minutes ago, but Greg isn't sure this is going to hurt Cantor: "If his intransigence on revenues is earning him high profile criticism from Beltway journalists and from the Senate Majority Leader and even the President, this will only turn him into more of a crusading anti-tax hero in some people’s eyes." Maybe so. But unless he changes his tune pretty quickly, I think he's losing the support of all but the hardest of the hard core.

Republicans in Disarray! Film at 11!

What really happened at Wednesday's debt ceiling talks? It's hard to say for sure, but apparently Eric Cantor repeatedly proposed some kind of short-term extension of the debt ceiling that President Obama had already said he wouldn't support, and then interrupted to propose it yet again as Obama was wrapping up the meeting. Depending on who you listen to, Obama either "stormed out," or left "angrily," or left "abruptly," or simply left after telling Cantor they'd meet again tomorrow. One way or another, though, it looks like Obama finally got fed up with Cantor's antics and warned him not to try calling his bluff. Joe Klein provides narration:

David Rogers over at Politico, who has been doing this — extremely well — for about as long as I have, has word that the President of the United States monstered down on Representative Eric Cantor in Wednesday’s deficit ceiling squabble. This is so refreshing on so many levels. Cantor has been using this crisis to undermine his leader John Boehner, by playing the Tea Party/Grover Norquist recalcitrance card. The boy badly needed someone to get up in his face and Barack Obama, of all people, apparently did, telling Cantor, in no uncertain terms, that he’d veto any short term deficit ceiling fix or, indeed, any plan that did not include revenue increases. Then Obama walked out, or the meeting ended, depending on whom you talk to.

So what we have now is the Republican party in, yes, disarray — a word used to describe Democrats almost exclusively, back in the day before the crazies took over the GOP store. You have Cantor and the House Teasies opposing any revenue increases, including a tax loophole closing plan that Ronald Reagan and Edmund Burke would have smiled upon. You have Boehner, struck dumb apparently, after his attempt at bipartisan statesmanship with the President was greeted by tossed shoes and catcalls from the Teasies. You have Mitch McConnell, well, I’m speechless about Mitch McConnell….

Republicans in disarray! And apparently even Lindsey Graham agrees. Here he is admitting to reporters that Republicans have been playing games all along:

Our problem is we made a big deal about this for three months. How many Republicans have been on TV saying, "I’m not going to raise the debt limit." You know, Mitch [McConnell] says, "I’m not going to raise the debt limit unless we talk about Medicare." And I’ve said I’m not going to raise the debt limit until we do something about spending and entitlements. So we’ve got nobody to blame but ourselves. We shouldn’t have said that if we didn’t mean it.

Republicans now seem to be a hair's breadth away from outright panic. Graham is right: at this point, no matter how desperately they try to pretend that it's Obama standing in the way of a deal (and that's clearly the conservative talking point of the day), it's simply too obvious that it's Republicans who are unwilling to say yes. Obama is almost embarrassingly eager for a deal, but they won't agree to send him a clean debt ceiling increase, they won't agree to a grand bargain, they won't agree to a medium-sized bargain, and they won't agree to revenue increases even in the form of closing virtually indefensible loopholes on hedge fund moguls and other assorted members of the millionaire class. Hell, a sizeable chunk of the GOP's tea party faction actively thinks that default would be a great thing. They're practically slavering over the possibility while their leaders watch slack-jawed, wondering just how you explain to these guys that, yes, pressing that red button over there would be really, really bad.

The tea party was pretty useful to the GOP leadership for a while. But now it's gone from being a handy campaign tailwind to a Force 5 hurricane on a path to destroy the country, and they don't know what to do about it. Under other circumstances it might be fun to watch them all get their comeuppance over this, but not if it means turning America into a banana republic along the way. They better figure out what to do with their problem children, and they better figure it out fast.

Over at FiveThirtyEight, Bryan McCabe takes on the mortgage interest deduction:

Commentators often talk about the mortgage interest deduction as a prized middle-class benefit that enables households to achieve the American dream of homeownership. But despite their strong support for the deduction, middle-class Americans are not the primary beneficiaries of this federal tax subsidy. Instead, wealthy Americans take home a disproportionate share of the deduction’s benefits.

....It’s not surprising that the wealthy benefit disproportionately from the mortgage interest deduction....What is surprising, however, is that Americans continue to support a housing subsidy that distributes benefits so disproportionately.

I think this is a lot less mysterious than McCabe makes it out to be. It's true that high-income taxpayers get a bigger absolute benefit from the mortgage interest deduction than low-income taxpayers. Of course they do: they have bigger mortgages. But I've added a column to the JCT report that produced the numbers McCabe uses in his post. The extra column shows roughly how big the mortgage interest deduction is as a percentage of income at various levels:

As you can see, it comes to about 2% of income for everyone. (I used the midpoint of each income group for the calculation. The top income group is blank because "average" income is a little tricky to compute for this group.) What's more, although homeownership rates are obviously higher at higher income levels, the homeownership rate is 60% even at incomes as low as $25,000.

So why is the mortgage interest deduction so popular? Because homeownership is pretty widespread even at low incomes and the amount of the deduction is about the same for everyone as a percentage of income. $283 may not seem like much, but to someone with an income of $10-20,000, it's as valuable as $2,856 is to someone with an income of $100-200,000. Result: everyone loves the mortgage interest deduction.

"We have a spending problem, not a revenue problem." This is the usual Republican mantra, but is it true? As Jared Bernstein points out, a simple look at spending and revenue really doesn't back this up:

There’s obviously much more to this analysis then a couple of lines on a graph, but the history of structural [] deficits in recent decades is that they are largely the result of cutting revenues rather than raising spending.

....That doesn’t imply that spending shouldn’t be on the table in the budget talks—though the real pressures come in the future, through health care—whacking food stamps, education, and so on is just plain mean. But it’s awfully hard to look at this graph and see support for that Republican mantra.

I've added some handy lines to show the general trajectory of spending and taxes over the past three decades. Putting aside the Great Recession, which has temporarily cratered revenues and imposed a burst of stimulus spending, the trend is clear: spending has generally gone down, but so have taxes. Future healthcare expenses are a big issue, but the current deficit just hasn't been primarily a spending problem. It's been a tax cut problem.

Yes, the Tea Party is Insane

Jon Chait points me to Robert Draper's profile of Republican Whip Kevin McCarthy in the New York Times today. The subject at hand is the hardline group of tea party freshmen elected last November:

McCarthy informally polled them when they first came to town in November for orientation. All but four of them said they would vote against raising the ceiling, under any circumstances....The whip recognized that it would be counterproductive to lecture the freshmen about the economic hazards of not raising the debt ceiling.... And so McCarthy has urged them to consider raising the ceiling under certain conditions and thus to view this moment as a golden opportunity to force significant changes from the White House. “We all ran for a reason,” he tells them. “What’s most of concern to you? What is it that we think will change America?”

As a result, the freshmen have begun to move away from a hard “no” on raising the debt ceiling to a “yes, if.” In the conference room, several freshmen have said they’ll vote to raise the ceiling only if the president agrees to repeal his health care legislation. Or if Obama signs into law a constitutional amendment to balance the budget, after all 50 states have ratified it. Or if he’ll agree to mandatory caps on all nondefense spending. Or if he’ll enact the Ryan budget. The whip writes down all their ideas on a notepad.

None of these things, of course, are even remotely within the realm of reason, so they don't provide Republicans with any kind of improved negotiating position. As Chait says, "the evidence that's leaked out about internal Republican deliberations suggests the Republicans are not shrewdly trying to maximize their leverage. They're just barking mad." It's hard to disagree.

The Rise and Fall of Sarah Palin

Paul Waldman on the slow but steady demise of Sarah Palin:

I'll go so far as to predict that this issue of Newsweek is the last time she'll appear on the cover of a news magazine. Ever. The "Gosh, what's Sarah Palin gonna do?!?" period has come to its end. She'll probably try to produce the same media interest four years from now, but it won't be nearly as successful. There are only so many times you can write that story.

It's been a crazy and often fascinating ride, but Palin really has little more to offer as a politician or cultural figure. What's she going to do next — say something ignorant? Complain about liberals? Provide some unseemly family drama? We've seen it all before, and it gets less interesting every time. Unless she goes on trial for murder, most Americans just aren't going to care.

Since Paul was agreeing with something I said yesterday, obviously I agree with him as well. But with a caveat: Joe McGinniss's book about Palin, The Rogue, comes out in September. Maybe it'll be great, maybe it'll be crap. Who knows? But it's possible it will be good enough to rekindle a momentary, if unflattering, last hurrah for Palin. The fat lady might not have quite sung her last note yet.

Economists on both left and right mostly agree that the current standard measure of inflation, CPI-W, slightly overstates the actual growth in the cost of living. The reason is something called "upper level substitution bias," which means that instead of always buying a standard basket of goods and services, people change their buying habits over time as prices change. When the price of hamburger goes up, they eat more chicken. When the price of chicken goes up, they switch back to hamburger.

A version of CPI that takes this into account is called chained CPI, and overall it's considered a more accurate reflection of actual inflation. But technical merits aside, there are always winners and losers when you make changes to statistics like this. One big loser would be Social Security beneficiaries. Initial Social Security benefits upon retirement are calculated based on wage levels, so they'd be unaffected by a switch to chained CPI. But annual COLA increases would be affected, and they'd be lower than they are now. Michael Hiltzik suggests two reasons this is unfair. First:

It's not at all certain that elderly persons on fixed incomes can make the sort of lifestyle changes contemplated by the chained CPI....That's because a larger portion of seniors' spending is concentrated in medical goods and services, which aren't as amenable to substitution as, say, oranges for apples.

....Indeed, the BLS has recognized that elderly consumers are a special case by developing an experimental CPI, known as the CPI-E, just for those 62 and older. Among other differences, the index overweights medical care as a factor in seniors' spending....The CPI-E rose nearly 7% faster than the standard CPI from 1998 through 2009, according to government estimates. It also tells you why, from the standpoint of seniors' real cost of living, the chained CPI is a rip-off.

No measure of CPI is perfect for everyone: if the price of gasoline is skyrocketing and you have a long commute, then your personal cost of living will rise faster than official inflation figures. Likewise, because healthcare costs are rising faster than most other goods, people with a lot of medical problems face higher inflation than those who are healthier. From a statistical point of view, then, the best you can do is choose a measure of CPI that's most accurate in general.

Still, the CPI-E issue is a serious objection: it applies to a very large group, and it applies to a large group that typically has modest incomes. Ideally, it would be handled by broadening the scope of Medicare, not by deliberately using an innacurate measure of general inflation, but broadening the scope of Medicare is hardly on the table right now. Given that reality, the net result of this change would be to cut Social Security benefits by calculating inflation less accurately for seniors.

The second objection to chained CPI is more frivolous:

If you use the chained CPI instead of the standard CPI for the annual adjustment in income tax brackets, over time that will create an effective tax increase, especially for wealthier taxpayers....What do the agents of the wealthy say about that? Let's ask the right-wing Cato Institute, which cherishes both a sedulous admiration for free enterprise and a long-standing hostility to Social Security. Cato last year called switching to the chained CPI for Social Security a "sound and overdue reform." But when it came to using the chained CPI to adjust tax brackets, Cato called that "a very bad idea."

....It's a measure of the cynicism that guides debate in the nation's capital that an "overdue reform" that would take $112 billion from the needy can be regarded as "a very bad idea" if it costs the rich $72 billion — and that no one pauses to ponder the rank injustice involved. Must be that they can't make out their own words over the purring of those Mercedes engines.

Obviously Michael is right about this. If BLS adopts chained CPI as its new official measure of general inflation, then the change should be global throughout the government. Anything else is just obvious special pleading.

On a broader note, regular readers know that I'm generally in favor of Social Security reform. But I'm in favor of it only in the context of a broad-based reform that includes a mix of small, phased-in benefit cuts and small, phased-in revenue increases. A move to chained CPI could be part of that — one that has the benefit of also affecting the current elderly, instead of dumping the entire burden only on future generations — but no one should favor it in isolation. If this is something we end up doing, it has to be done as one piece of a complete package. Otherwise we'll get the benefit cuts, Republicans will refuse to pass the corresponding revenue increases, and Social Security will remain fiscally unbalanced and endlessly under attack. A complete deal to fix Social Security all at once is the only kind of deal anyone should countenance. Piecemeal "reform" is a chimera.