Bernanke: Budget Cuts Will Hurt the Economy

Fed chairman Ben Bernanke told Congress today that Republican budget cuts probably would have a modest negative effect on the economy:

Bernanke [] threw some cold water on recent studies by two leading economic forecasting groups that suggested Republicans' proposed $60 billion budget cut would be a major drain on the economy over the coming year....Responding to questions from Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Bernanke said that the Fed's analysis suggests smaller economic losses from the spending cuts, reducing GDP by several tenths' of a percent and the number of jobs by "certainly much less than 700,000."

Wait a second. According to Dana Milbank, Scott Lilly of the Center for American Progress estimates that the Republican plan would lead to the direct loss of 650,000 government jobs. If that's the case, surely total job losses can't be "much less" than 700,000?

In any case, it hardly matters. Maybe it's a million jobs, maybe it's half a million jobs. Maybe it will cost a point of GDP, maybe it will cost half a point of GDP. But considering that the economy is still sluggish and unemployment is extremely high, why are we considering budget cuts that will have any negative effect on jobs and growth? Especially cuts in the only part of the budget that isn't a long-term problem?

That's the big news from Bernanke's testimony: not that he thinks other estimates of job losses are too high, but the fact that he agrees the Republican budget plan will cost jobs and slow growth. That's coming from a Republican Fed chair! How much more evidence do we need that our current budget cutting mania is insane?

Tackling Government Waste

The GAO has released a 345-page report that identifies "federal programs, agencies, offices, and initiatives, either within departments or governmentwide, which have duplicative goals or activities." Ezra Klein complains that while conservatives trumpet the conclusions of reports like this endlessly, liberals don't:

That's a lost opportunity for liberals: It's the people who believe in government who should be angriest and most insistent on taking action when it fails to work, not the people who believe government can't work and see failure and inefficiency as proof for their argument.

Well, I want to do my part, so I direct your attention to page 59: "Duplicative Federal Efforts Directed at Increasing Domestic Ethanol Production Cost Billions Annually." The problem, says the GAO, is not just that ethanol subsidies are bad policy, but that they're literally useless. Since 2005 we've had a renewable fuel standard in place that requires increasing use of ethanol in gasoline, and that standard ensures a high demand for ethanol all by itself. The subsidy is just money down the drain:

If reauthorized and left unchanged, the VEETC’s annual cost to the Treasury in forgone revenues could grow from $5.4 billion in 2010 to $6.75 billion in 2015, the year the fuel standard requires 15 billion gallons of conventional biofuels. The ethanol tax credit was recently extended at 45-cents-per-gallon through December 31, 2011, in the Tax Relief, Unemployment Insurance Reauthorization, and Job Creation Act of 2010.

$5.4 billion! That's real money. And there ought to be unanimous bipartisan support for getting rid of this subsidy immediately. Let's do this thing!

Of course, getting rid of a tax credit, a tax increase, according to reigning Republican orthodoxy. So I guess this is out of the question. Which is too bad, because on page 75 GAO identifies the real killer app in the federal budget: "almost $1 trillion in federal revenue was forgone due to tax exclusions, credits, deductions, deferrals, and preferential tax rates— legally known as tax expenditures." No one wants to get rid of all these tax expenditures, and even if we did some of them would be replaced by normal spending programs. But there's real money there, unless you automatically equate removing a tax expenditure with raising taxes, and therefore won't consider it. Which, I'm pretty sure, describes most Republicans.

But there are other opportunities in the GAO report, though it's unclear just how much money most of them would save. If we combined DOD and USAID programs for Afghanistan, for example, would we actually save money, or just spend the same amount slightly differently? It's hard to say, and in most cases GAO doesn't have a good estimate for how big the savings are from combining duplicative programs. But I'll skim through the report in my spare time, and I urge you to do the same. You don't have to read the whole thing, just take a look at a few items and let us know in comments which ones look like good targets. We've got $5.4 billion for sure, and I'll bet there's at least $20-30 billion more that ought to be fairly noncontroversial. Unless you're from Iowa, of course.

Subsidizing Millionaires

In the LA Times today, Michael Kinsley rails against the modern version of "chasing smokestacks," namely states competing with each other to offer subsidies to film and TV companies who bring productions to their states:

New Mexico under [Bill] Richardson was a pioneer in this field. In 2002, it began offering a credit of 15% — later raised to 25% — toward the cost of making a movie in New Mexico (not counting star salaries and the mite paid to writers). Now, 42 states have followed its lead. New York has gone as high as 30%. These credits are generally transferable, savable and usable for other things, so it's no problem if the particular movie doesn't make money.

In less than a decade, the absurd notion of welfare for movie producers has evolved from the kind of weird thing they do in France to an unshakable American tradition. "I'm proud that New Mexico has been a leader in this effort," Richardson says.

Kinsley is right that this race to the bottom does nothing except reduce tax revenue for everybody. He's also right that the figures used to justify these subsidies (Movies bring a billion dollars a year into our economy! Movies create 5,000 jobs for our great state!) are almost certainly bogus. Ditto for the same kind of voodoo accounting used to pretend that massive subsidies to millionaire owners of sports teams pay for themselves in increased business.

This isn't the biggest deal in the world. But it's certainly ridiculous and we'd all be better off if it stopped.

Wisconsin and 2012

PPP has conducted a new poll in Wisconsin, and voters now say that if they had a second chance they'd elect Tom Barrett instead of Scott Walker. So what caused the change of heart?

The difference between how folks would vote now and how they voted in November can almost all be attributed to shifts within union households. Voters who are not part of union households have barely shifted at all- they report having voted for Walker by 7 points last fall and they still say they would vote for Walker by a 4 point margin. But in households where there is a union member voters now say they'd go for Barrett by a 31 point margin, up quite a bit from the 14 point advantage they report having given him in November.

For a long time, union households have voted in only moderately large numbers for Democrats. Nationally, they voted Democratic by a 61-43 margin in 2010. Some of this is because of social issues trumping pocketbook issues, but some of it is undoubtedly because lots of union members didn't really think Republicans were all that big a threat to their jobs. Sure, they talked a big game, but in office they never really carried through.

But however things turn out in Wisconsin, those days are probably over. Scott Walker's brand of hardball might easily bump up the Democratic share of the union vote to 70% or more in 2012, and that represents a gain of nearly two percentage points in the overall popular vote. Unless Republicans can somehow contrive an anti-union message that wins that back among non-union independents, their chances next year have suddenly gotten a whole lot longer.

Unions and Growth

Here is Robert Barro in the Wall Street Journal today making the case for anti-union policies:

There is evidence that right-to-work laws—or, more broadly, the pro-business policies offered by right-to-work states—matter for economic growth. In research published in 2000, economist Thomas Holmes of the University of Minnesota compared counties close to the border between states with and without right-to-work laws (thereby holding constant an array of factors related to geography and climate). He found that the cumulative growth of employment in manufacturing (the traditional area of union strength prior to the rise of public-employee unions) in the right-to-work states was 26 percentage points greater than that in the non-right-to-work states.

It's true that Holmes wrote this paper. You can read it here if you like, or you can read a shorter, more accessible version here. In a technical sense, it's an interesting bit of research. As Holmes says, "In state capitals throughout the country, proponents of pro-business policies routinely claim that state policies are an important determinant of business location. But this claim is open to debate. While there has been no shortage studies on the issue, there is a lack of consensus."

Well, guess what? Holmes concluded that if moving a few miles across a state border allows a manufacturing business to reside in a right-to-work state with low taxes, no unions, and lax environmental policies, lots of manufacturing businesses will jump at the chance. It's good to see some rigorous confirmation of this, I suppose, but let's face it: It's hardly a surprise, is it? It would be pretty shocking if it weren't true.

Still, does this say anything about the effect of unions on economic growth, as Barro implies? No. Not a single thing. All it says is that businesses prefer locating in states where costs are low and rules are lax — something I think we all knew already. Of course that's what businesses prefer. But it says literally nothing at all about whether the United States as a whole would have higher or lower growth if every state either did or didn't have right-to-work laws. Implying otherwise is a clever debating technique, but that's about all it is.

UPDATE: Ed Kilgore has more on this in the New Republic today:

Students of economic development will recognize [this] as the “smokestack-chasing” model of growth adopted by desperate developing countries around the world....And students of American economic history will recognize it as the “Moonlight and Magnolias” model of development, which is native to the Deep South.....This was the default model of economic growth in Southern states for decades—as the capital-starved, low-wage region concluded that the way it could compete economically with other states was to emphasize its comparative advantages: low costs, a large pool of relatively poor workers, “right to work” laws that discouraged unionization, and a small appetite for environmental or any other sort of regulation.

....The problem with this Southern theory of growth is that it won’t work: Economic development experts usually deride “Moonlight and Magnolias” approaches to job creation, noting that they track the outmoded first and second “waves” of basic economic development theory—which emphasized crude economic races to the bottom—as opposed to third and fourth “waves” that focus on worker skills, quality of life, public-private partnerships, innovation, and sustainability. If Wisconsin and other states—not to mention the country as a whole—end up adopting these atavistic economic ideals, they will simply begin to resemble the dysfunctional Old South societies that spawned them in the first place.

So what is at stake in Wisconsin, and across the country, is not just the pay and benefits of public employees, or their collective bargaining rights, or the specific programs facing the budgetary knife. We are contesting whether Americans who are not “job creators,” by virtue of wealth, should be considered anything more than cannon fodder in an endless war between states—and countries—over who can attract the most capital by slashing the most regulations. In this sense, standing up to Scott Walker is a truly worthy fight.

As they say, read the whole thing.

Quote of the Day: White Collar Crime

From Felix Salmon, on white-collar crime:

The fact is that white-collar criminals are, in general, incredibly good at deluding themselves that they’re good people, even when they clearly aren’t.

True! And true of lots of white collar not-quite-but-probably-ought-to-be criminals too.

Looking Glass Economics

So far austerity isn't working out too well for Britain and Germany. But how about America? How will it work out here? Well, as you'll recall, Goldman Sachs thinks the Republican budget cutting plan would reduce economic growth by two percentage points. Mark Zandi of Moody's Analytics figures the loss at 0.5 percentage points this year and another 0.2 next year. Economists at the Center for American Progress estimate the cuts would lead to nearly a million jobs lost. Steve Benen is nonplussed:

How is it this isn't at the heart of the debate over the budget? How far off track is the public discourse when an entire chamber of Congress, in the midst of a jobs crisis, approves a plan to make the crisis much worse, and this is considered only tangentially relevant?

I just spent the past hour on a call-in show out of New Orleans, and it was pretty clear that the callers didn't think too highly of my claim that income distribution depends not just on the economy, but also on deliberate political decisions. And I admit that it's a hard point to get across in a concrete way. But how much more concrete could our current situation be? Republicans — and, unfortunately, some Democrats too — are pushing for an economic austerity plan that will keep unemployment high and the job market loose. The result is downward pressure on wages, which keeps middle-class incomes stagnant and corporate profits high. This benefits the executive and investor class, and while it's a shortsighted benefit, it's a benefit nonetheless. And it's not thanks to globalization or returns to education or anything like that. It's due to a deliberate political decision that favors the rich at the expense of everyone else. That's as concrete as Hoover Dam.

Obama Calls the Republican Healthcare Bluff

The New York Times reports that President Obama plans to endorse a change to the healthcare reform law that would allow states to opt out from the start, rather than having to wait three years:

Senior administration officials said Mr. Obama would reveal to the National Governors Association in a speech on Monday morning that he backs legislation that would enable states to request federal permission to withdraw from the law’s mandates in 2014 rather than in 2017. The earlier date is when many of the act’s central provisions take effect, including requirements that most individuals obtain health insurance and that employers of a certain size offer coverage to workers or pay a penalty.

....The legislation would allow states to opt out earlier from various requirements if they could demonstrate that other methods would allow them to cover as many people, with insurance that is as comprehensive and affordable, as provided by the new law....If states can meet those standards, they can ask to circumvent minimum benefit levels, structural requirements for insurance exchanges and the mandates that most individuals obtain coverage and that employers provide it.

Italics mine. I suspect this is not as big a deal as it seems. Basically, Obama is calling the bluff of Republicans who insist that they can build a healthcare system that's as extensive and affordable as PPACA using some combination of tea party-approved "free market" principles. He's telling them to put their money (or, rather, money from the feds) where their mouths are, which will probably demonstrate fairly conclusively that they can't do it. It's possible that a state like Oregon might enact a more liberal plan that meets PPACA standards, but I doubt that Alabama or Tennessee can do it just with HSAs and high-deductible health plans.

Still, we'll see. This is a chance for conservatives to show that they have a better healthcare answer in the real world, not just as talking points at a tea party rally. Obama is betting they'll fail, and he's also betting they'll tear each other apart arguing over details while they do it. Life is easy when all you have to do is yell "Repeal Obamacare!" but it gets a lot harder when you have to produce an actual plan.

UPDATE: Ezra Klein suggests that Republicans have no intention of supporting this legislation: "Now that Obama has admitted it's not a threat to the Affordable Care Act, a lot of the appeal for Republicans dissipates." But it does become a way for Obama to demonstrate how reasonable he is. See, we gave them a chance to implement their own policies, but they turned us down. Maybe so.

Chart of the Day: The Real Pension Story

Via Paul Krugman, Dean Baker has a paper out today that explains why state pension funds are in trouble: It's the recession, stupid. The entire shortfall can be attributed to stock market losses and underfunding in just the past four years:

Figure 1 below projects pension fund assets if pensions had continued to earn on average a 4.5 percent nominal rate of return in the period since the end of 2007. Under this  assumption, state and local pension fund assets would have been $857 billion higher at the end of the third quarter of 2010.

.... In the period since the beginning of the recession, annual payments into state and local pension funds have averaged $6.9 billion less than withdrawals. By contrast, in the three years prior to the downturn, payments averaged $18.4 billion more than withdrawals. If state and local governments had continued to contribute to their pensions at the same rate as they had in the prior three years, then the total assets of these funds would be $77 billion higher than was reported at the end of the third quarter of 2010. Adding this to the $857 billion figure above results in an additional $934 billion in pension funds, a figure far higher than most estimates of the size of state and local government shortfalls.

Dean calculates that if pension funds continue to invest in a basket of assets that includes equities, and economic performance remains at historical levels, most states have a pension shortfall of less than 0.2% of income. If this is right, then either modest changes in state contributions or modest changes in employee contributions (or a combination of both) are all that's necessary to eliminate the pension shortfall entirely. It's just not as big a problem as critics are suggesting.

Hating on Vegetables

James Oliphant's piece in the LA Times today tells you everything you need to know about what's wrong with movement conservatism in America today:

Former First Ladies Barbara and Laura Bush worked to end illiteracy. Nancy Reagan famously took on teenage drug use. Lady Bird Johnson planted flowers. But none of them have been seared for something as seemingly benign as calling for kids to eat more vegetables, as Michelle Obama has.

Radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh....remarked on her waistline....Critics have carped about Obama's spread at her Super Bowl party....the end of school bake sales....government takeover of business....increase in pedestrian deaths....Mitt Romney...."Let them eat cake"...."I'm sorry," he crowed. "Organic cake."....encouraging mothers to breast-feed their newborn babies...."very consistent with where the hard left is coming from," [Rep. Michele] Bachmann said....Conservative blogger Jenny Erikson....Obama's efforts were "incredibly insulting to parents."

So that's where we are. A first lady campaigning against obesity and in favor of breast feeding is now the target of all-out war from the right. I imagine that if she were taking on illiteracy, teenage drug use, or planting flowers, the Republican Party would suddenly find itself opposed to reading, defending Mexican drug cartels, and in favor of vacant lots. And yet we're supposed to take these people seriously.