Tribalism and Taxes

Andrew Samwick:

I couldn't agree more with Pete on the discussions of tax policy that are now occurring as part of the Republican primary campaigns. The Republican primary campaign almost always gets sidetracked by some inane proposal for tax reform. This year it is the 9-9-9. And now we have another version of the flat tax, as if the crushing irrelevance of Steve Forbes to the primaries in 1996 and 2000 were not an indication of how unproductive the discussion will ultimately be. What are the prospects that a Republican President would actually be able to implement such a change if elected? They are equal to the chance that Republicans will both retain control of the House and secure a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate in 2012. In other words, absolutely zero.

True. But you have to look at this through a different lens. In the modern Republican Party, tax policy isn't really about tax policy anymore. It's mostly just meant to be evocative, a demonstration that you're really, truly part of the family. So the crazier it is, the better. Nobody—least of all Republican voters—seriously expects any of these proposals to become law.

What's really mind-blowing, though, is the precise nature of the tax policies that rich Republicans have so thoroughly succeeded in adding to the canon. Middle-class conservatives have become completely convinced that "good" tax policies include a flat tax, lower capital gains rates, and repeal of the estate tax, all of which are designed to benefit the rich almost exclusively. It would be as if Democrats had somehow convinced Wall Street that the key to prosperity was higher taxes on yachts, private jets, and Hamptons getaways.

Brad Plumer sends us to Michael Mandel, who reports:

Even as President Obama proposes some steps for student debt relief, real wages for college graduates continue to plunge. In the third quarter of 2011, full-time workers with a bachelor’s degree and no advanced degree earned 3.5% less, in real terms, than a year earlier. Male college graduates saw their real wages fall by 5.3% over the past year, while female college graduates had a 1.4% decline.

The charts below, also from Mandel, show the trend over the past decade. The net value of health insurance for these grads has increased about $2,000 in real terms since 1999, so even when you take that into account they're still seeing a steady drop in earnings.

College grads, of course, are still doing better than everyone else, both in terms of salary and levels of employment. Still, one of the big memes of the past decade has been about the growing complexity of modern jobs and the urgent need for more educated workers. More recently, this has sometimes turned into a story about structural unemployment: the Great Recession is all about the fact that we have too many of one kind of worker (mostly semi-skilled high school grads) and too few of another (knowledge-savvy, symbol-manipulating college grads). So we need to upgrade our educational system to provide us with more of the latter. But if there were really an urgent need for a more educated workforce, surely the salaries of college grads would be going up? Instead, they're going down. What exactly does this tell us about the demand for highly educated workers?

Bloomberg takes yet another crack at the idea that the Obama administration has unleashed a tsunami of regulations that are crippling the American economy:

Obama’s White House approved 613 federal rules during the first 33 months of his term, 4.7 percent fewer than the 643 cleared by President George W. Bush’s administration in the same time frame, according to an Office of Management and Budget statistical database reviewed by Bloomberg.

....The average annual cost of regulations under Obama [is] about $7 billion to $11 billion, compared with the $6.9 billion average from 1981 through 2008 in current dollars, according to the OMB data....Those numbers [...] encompass the expense of new regulations, and do not take into account the economic benefits of healthier children, safer roads or fewer industrial accidents.

....Of the 7,247 mass layoffs last year -- those involving at least 50 workers -- 18 were the result of government regulation, according to department data. Of the 3,114 mass layoffs in the first half of this year, 11 were related to government regulation. By comparison, 1,053 mass layoffs were attributed to business demand.

....“This is a perennial problem,” said [Sally] Katzen, a senior adviser at the Podesta Group in Washington, said in an interview. “When the Democrats are in the White House, the Republicans complain that there are too many costly, burdensome regulations inundating them.”

I'm not sure how many ways it's possible to debunk a single meme, but in this case it's a helluva lot. It turns out that (a) Obama has issued fewer regulations than Bush, (b) adjusted for inflation, they cost about the same as the average over the past 30 years, (c) this doesn't take into account the benefits of any of his regs anyway, and (d) only about 0.3% of mass layoffs during the Great Recession were related to new regulatory issues.

In other words, Sally Katzen is right: this is just something Republicans routinely gripe about whenever a Democrat is in the White House, much as they gripe about deficits and domestic spending, but only when a Democrat is in the White House. It's just a partisan scam. Time to move on.

UPDATE: I misread the Bloomberg piece and adjusted for inflation incorrectly. The Obama regs cost slightly more than the 1981-2008 average, not less. The text has been corrected.

From Matt Yglesias:

What if Mickey Kaus held some kind of patent on policy blogging?

The mind reels. I suppose we'd all owe him royalties and be forced to write a certain minimum quota of anti-union posts every month.

More realistically, of course, blogging never would have taken off and the world would have to continue making do with the likes of Tom Friedman and George Will. All of which is an excellent argument for not allowing the patent office to issue patents for vague, moderately obvious evolutionary trends expressed via software. Congress should get on that, since they don't really seem to have anything better to do at the moment.

Yesterday I proposed that we all spare a thought for whichever poor analyst at the Tax Policy Center got drafted to make sense of Rick Perry's flat-tax plan. Now we have a name: Roberton Williams, a senior fellow at TPC who crunched some numbers at the behest of the New York Times' Catherine Rampell. The chart on the right summarizes his handiwork.

As you can see, low-income taxpayers mostly do better under the current tax system. Middle-income taxpayers vary. High-income taxpayers mostly do better under Perry's plan. And very high-income taxpayers make out like bandits under Perry's plan.

No surprise there. What's underappreciated, though, is that this means the rich not only pay lower taxes, they also benefit from having simpler taxes. They do so much better under Perry's plan that they'll almost all just fill in his postcard without even bothering to calculate how much they might owe under the current regime.

Low and middle-income taxpayers, however, have no such luck. There's a pretty good chance they'll do better under the current system, which means they need to fill out Perry's postcard and fill out a current 1040 to see which one comes out better. No simple taxes for them.

In more ways than one, it's good to be rich in Rick Perry's America.

UPDATE: James Pethokoukis passes along a revenue analysis from John Dunham and Associates that was commissioned by the Perry campaign. It that says Perry's tax plan would raise $4.7 trillion less than current law over the six years from 2014-2020. Hello, bigger budget deficits! Under a dynamic scoring method that assumes Perry's plan would supercharge the economy, it would raise $1.7 trillion less. Of course, dynamic scoring is mostly a scam, so something in the range of $4 trillion is probably in the ballpark.

The Congressional Budget Office is out with a timely new report on income inequality, which you can find here. Nickel version: The rich are getting richer, and the rest of us are just kind of drifting along.

The main summary chart is the one on the right. Since 1979, adjusted for inflation, incomes of the broad middle class (solid blue line labeled "21st to 80th percentiles") have increased about 40 percent, which comes to a sluggish 1 percent per year. During the same period, the incomes of the richest 1 percent have increased about 280 percent, or 7 percent per year. This is a pretty familiar chart by now, but one thing to note is that the incomes of the rich are pretty volatile: They drop a lot during recessions, but they also bounce back pretty quickly and regain their high growth rates as soon as the recession is over. This chart only goes through 2007, but the same dynamic has been at work in the aftermath of the Great Recession: a steep drop followed by an equally steep recovery.

Another set of charts is below. These are a little less familiar and need a bit of explanation. They show Gini inequality coefficients for different kinds of incomes, and the more distorted the chart the higher the inequality.

The top left chart shows the inequality of labor income in 1979 (light blue) and 2007 (dark blue). As you can see, it's moderately unequal, and the level of inequality hasn't changed a lot over the years. Likewise, the bottom right chart shows the inequality of capital gains income. This is extremely unequal, but again, the level of inequality hasn't changed too much. Both the light blue and dark blue lines are pretty close to each other.

The other two charts show business income and capital income, and they're quite different. Both show a fairly heavy amount of inequality, and, more interestingly, they show that the level of inequality has widened dramatically over the past three decades. Business income, which means income going to owners of private businesses, has grown much more concentrated, probably due to the growth of high incomes among privately owned professional firms (law, medicine, and finance). And capital income, which is largely dividends and rental income, has become far more concentrated as well. I'm not quite sure what story this tells, but one thing it tells us for sure is that most of the growth in income since 1979 has been in nonlabor income. Which is to say, not the kind of income that people like you and I get much of.

Kelly Evans writes in the Wall Street Journal today that NGDP targeting might not be the monetary panacea its supporters suggest:

There are at least three problems with this strategy, however. First, it assumes that the Fed can sensibly determine the “right” trend for nominal GDP. Second, it isn’t clear that it can actually achieve any such target. And third, doing so would run a huge risk of conflicting with the Fed’s congressional mandate to promote “stable prices”—something that can’t unilaterally be rewritten.

Matt Yglesias is unimpressed:

The fact that this doesn’t state the statutory mandate correctly should tip you off that something has gone amiss. The Fed’s actual mandate is a mixed mandate to pursue stable prices and full employment. For decades, however, it’s been a little bit unclear what this should mean in practice. One of the great advantages of an NGDP target is that it combines prices and real output (which is to say employment) in a single index.

....The other objections are worse. Having the Fed do anything assumes that the Fed can sensibly determine the “right” trend for whatever it’s doing. Similarly, any institution with any prescribed mission might fail to achieve the mission. Deploying this as an objection would be like a universal solvent.

I guess I'd read Evans a little more sympathetically. She does mention the Fed's dual mandate (low inflation and low unemployment) in the second sentence of her piece, so the rest of the column should probably be read partly as an opinion about whether the Fed should allow higher inflation right now in order to bring down unemployment. Matt is right that one of the theoretical virtues of NGDP targeting is that it combines both employment and inflation into a single metric, which would make this question moot for policymakers, but it unquestionably does imply that during recessions the Fed would tolerate higher inflation. I think that's a good thing (as does Matt); Evans doesn't. But it's certainly a key issue that deserves plenty of public discussion.

Evans's other two points are worth thinking about too. It's true that the Fed has to pick a target no matter what it's doing, but NGDP is a new one with no track record. That makes it trickier to get a consensus about what the right figure should be, and consensus is important since the whole point of NGDP targeting is that everyone has to believe the Fed is really, truly committed to its target. And the question of whether the Fed can hit an arbitrary NGDP target is critical. Central banks have pretty time-tested mechanisms for hitting inflation targets, but growth targets are something different. There are plenty of economists who are skeptical that monetary policy alone can accomplish this. I'm a little skeptical myself, and as I wrote yesterday, I also feel like some caution is warranted here. Finding some kind of mechanical monetary rule that automatically produces stable growth is sort of the Holy Grail of monetary economics, and we should subject any new proposed rule to plenty of tough questioning.

In the end, I think that for lots of people the issue of NGDP targeting has become sort of a foil for a different question: should the Fed engage in massive monetary easing right now in order to get the economy back on track? NGDP targeting says yes, so those of us in favor of easing are likely to find it an agreeable idea. Conversely, those who are afraid of the consequences of massive easing are likely to play up its problems. That's human nature for you. But regardless, it's good to get all this stuff out in the open.

UPDATE: Bennett McCallum, who's been advocating the idea of NGDP targeting (aka nominal income targeting) since the 80s, has a pretty readable primer on the subject here. Worth a look.

I'm a huge fan of Benjamin Wallace-Wells, and this month he has a terrific profile of Mitt Romney in New York magazine. But it probably isn't really right to call it a profile of Romney per se. It's more a profile of the Romney method, the way that Bain Capital, the private equity firm he ran during the 80s, helped usher in the shareholder value revolution that made American businesses leaner and meaner; spurred mass layoffs in the name of efficiency; and made huge, performance-based compensation for executives a standard feature of American corporations.

The whole thing is well worth reading, but if it's Romney himself you want some insight about, it mostly comes at the end. After retailing an anecdote about how Romney's interest in healthcare reform in Massachusetts was spurred by a short conversation with one of his former Bain partners, we get this:

What separates Romney’s plan from Obama’s—and gives some clues about his potential presidency—is its almost-accidental origin. Romney did not begin with a philosophical quest to improve American health care. He began with the idea of himself as a problem solver and asked those around him for a problem that he might usefully solve. I remembered, when I was told this story, an anecdote I’d heard from a former political staffer of Romney’s. On even basic philosophical questions like abortion, the staffer said, Romney did not try to resolve the question in the abstract, as a matter of principle, and would consider instead various hypothetical cases—for instance, a late-term abortion—and build from them a politics. The line that Romney is a flip-flopper may vastly understate the depth of the condition.

It is arresting to imagine a Romney White House, inevitably filled with as many former Bain colleagues as each of his other public ventures have been: The PowerPoints, the 80-20 jargon, the clinical separation of decision-making from ideology, the detachment of those decisions from moral consequence, a persistent blind spot for people as people. It would represent the final ascension of a perfectly American type, one that has already remade the culture of business. I once asked a Bain colleague of Romney’s how Romney thought of his own core competence. “I think Mitt thinks he’s good at being Mitt Romney,” the colleague said.

It's hard not to think of Robert McNamara and the whiz kids when you read that, and hard not to wonder if Romney's updated version would be equally disastrous. It would probably depend on circumstances. In Massachusetts it basically worked out OK. But if something like the Vietnam War crops up during a Romney presidency, it might not.

Anyway, read the whole thing. Immersing yourself once again in the LBO fever of the 80s and its consequences might or might not make your day, but it does give some real insight into Mitt Romney's character. Since he might very well be your next president, that's worth knowing.

In a Gallup poll released yesterday, 22% of small business owners said their most important problem was "complying with government regulations." That's not really surprising. What's surprising, frankly, is that it's taken so long for the number to rise even that high. Given the 24/7 blitzkrieg about "job killing regulations" from Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, and Republican politicians of all stripes, I'm surprised the number didn't pass 50% months ago. If you hear something often enough, it takes on a life of its own.

The truth, of course, is that business regulation hasn't changed all that much in the Obama era, and that's especially true for small businesses. There are some regulations in the pipeline for the future, but even there, most of the big ones — Obamacare, Dodd-Frank, new EPA regs — hardly affect small businesses at all. And most of the ones that would — dust rules, new licensing rules for farm vehicles — are myths.

You can see this for yourself if you read further in the Gallup poll. When they're asked about "problems," many small business owners immediately make an association with "government regulations." But when Gallup asks "what would you need to see in order to feel that your business will thrive in 2012?" that association goes away and you get a truer picture of what's really bothering them. This time, only 12% mention government regulations and a full 42% respond with some version of an improved economy. And it's really more like 59% if you include fundamentally economic complaints like "cash flow" and "availability of credit."

Everybody hates regulations, and small businesses have some legitimate gripes about overregulation. Right now, though, their real problem is crystal clear: the economy sucks and they need more customers. That's just a big fat reality, and there's nothing much that Fox News can do to change that no matter how much they try.

From Rick Perry, after John Harwood of the New York Times notes that his tax plan will mean huge tax cuts for the rich in an era of already skyrocketing income inequality:

But I don’t care about that.

I suppose there's something oddly refreshing about that response. There's also this:

Q. Why did you choose to keep the birther issue alive?

A. It’s a good issue to keep alive. You know, Donald [Trump] has got to have some fun. It’s fun to poke him a little bit and say “Hey, let’s see your grades and your birth certificate.” I don’t have a clue about where the president — and what this birth certificate says. But it’s also a great distraction. I’m not distracted by it.

I wonder what he thinks those last two sentences mean? Or is it just word salad, like much of the rest of the (short) interview, which is mostly just a core dump of the conservative id? It's hard to tell.