Finally Clarity on Wisconsin’s Real Objective: Bust Unions

Menzie Chinn reports more dispatches from Wisconsin, this time on recent Congressional testimony by Wisconsin’s Governor Scott Walker.  It’s clear the union-busting efforting in Wisconsin is NOT about the state budget or saving money.  It’s ideological. It’s opposition to unions period.  The budget is and was irrelevant. It was pure propaganda by Walker and the Wisconsin Republicans to cover their real objectives.  This is shock doctrine stuff.  Neo-liberals used to force this kind of undemocratic social change onto third-world and developing nations. Now they do it here.

That is Governor Walker’s answer to the question of how much money rescinding collective bargaining for public unions saves the state government. From the Capital Times:

Kucinich said he could not understand how Walker’s bill to strip most collective bargaining rights from nearly all public workers saved the state any money and therefore was relevant to the topic before the committee, which was state and municipal debt.

When Walker failed to address how repealing collective bargaining rights for state workers is related to state debt or how requiring unions to recertify annually saves money — one of the provisions in Walker’s amended budget repair bill — Kucinich tried one more time.

“How much money does it save Gov. Walker?” Kucinich demanded. “Just answer the question.”

“It doesn’t save any,” Walker said.

“That’s right. It obviously had no effect on the state budget,” Kucinich replied.

[Emphasis added — mdc]

Taxes and Unshared Sacrifice

It’s tax time so it’s appropriate to look at the fairness of the tax code.  One of the greatest beneficiaries of the Bush-era tax cuts were hedge fund managers.  Hedge fund managers are people on Wall Street who manage other people’s money, not primarily their own.  In return, they get paid fees for managing the money. The more money they make for clients/investors, they more they get paid.  Sounds like wages or income to me, and I suspect to you, too.  But not to Congress.  In 2001, they redefined things. The compensation these hedge fund managers is only taxed at less than half the rates other people pay for income.  This is despite these incomes being at astronomical levels.  Wonkroom puts things in perspective with a nice little graph.

CEO pay pales in comparison to that of hedge fund managers:

Last year was very lucrative for some of the biggest and best-performing hedge funds’ chiefs. Wealth was so concentrated that a mere 25 people pocketed a total of $22.07 billion, according to this year’s annual ranking by AR Magazine, which tracks the hedge fund industry. At $50,000 a year, it would take the salaries of 441,400 Americans to match that sum.

Making matters worse, hedge fund managers benefit from preferential tax treatment that middle-income Americans don’t. Due to what’s known as the carried-interest loophole, the income that hedge fund managers receive if their funds make money is treated as capital gains — rather than ordinary income — and gets taxed at the capital gains rate of 15 percent. Even though the pay is performance-based compensation (just like any other performance-based bonus made by any other worker), hedge fund managers receive a tax break on that income.

This results in hedge fund managers paying less in taxes on this income than middle-class workers, who are subject to a 25 percent top marginal tax rate:

Congress has debated closing this particular loophole over and over, but has never actually followed through. At a time when vital and popular programs are being placed on the altar of deficit reduction, removing this tax break for some of the richest people in the country seems prudent.

To be fair, the graph compares only the marginal tax rate each taxpayer faces.  The marginal tax rate is the tax rate on the next dollar of income earned after you’ve reached that level.  It is not the average tax rate paid. Average rate paid would be total taxes paid divided by income.  But, even if we went by average tax rates, these hedge fund managers pay a lesser tax rate than ordinary middle class or poor individuals.  Further, since this income is not considered by Congress to be wages or labor income, they don’t pay Social Security taxes on the additional income.  

BTW, there’s another way to look at the graph.  The firefighter, the teacher, the police officer, and the doctor all perform valuable services that improve the quality of our lives.  All four may occasionally screw up, but the damage done is isolated (although granted if it’s your home that burns or your body that’s hurt, you may feel differently).  Hedge fund managers, however, have been a key part of the Wall Street environment that sought more and more risky investments and complex financial schemes in the last decade.  The kind of stuff that blew up and created the Great Global Financial Crisis. 

What Budget Crisis? Let’s Do Nothing Now

My Mother was a big advocate of patience. She was the anti-crisis.  In response to any panicked concerns I had about the some “crisis” that was coming, we always counseled “we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it”.  And sure enough, there was usually either no problem eventuallly crossing the bridge or there was no river to cross.  I wish Congress and the President could heed the same counsel.

The last couple weeks have built on the hysterical “budget crisis” talk of the last few months.  Politicians of both parties have trotted out grand “plans” for how to “fix the budget” crisis. Of course, by “budget crisis” they claim to mean the deficits that the government is currently running. Make no mistake, the plans being proposed are radical changes to America’s social structure, safety net, and political economy. The Republicans in the House yesterday voted a budget to phase out Medicare. The cuts both parties are proposing will be drastic.  Education spending will be slashed. Let’s consider another approach though.  Let’s think of it as my Mother’s cross-that-bridge-when-we-get-to-it approach.  The essence of this approach is that if we do nothing at all right now or for the rest  of this decade, the problem will solve itself.  In other words, the current laws on the books will eliminate the problem.

I will explain, but first I want to make a disclaimer.  First, as an economist, I do not buy into the “budget crisis” rhetoric to begin with.  As I’ve tried to explain in other posts about MMT, fiscal policy, and the government budget, I’m not worried about the government’s current deficit at all.  In fact, if anything, I’m concerned that the deficit is too small right now.  The signs are clear that we need more government spending, not less right now.  I likewise do not think eliminating the deficit completely is a worthwhile goal. Such a goal is likely to be harmful.  

But, for the sake of argument and understanding, let’s assume for the moment that we should eliminate the deficit eventually.  What do we need  to do? Cut Medicare and let seniors eat up their entire limited incomes in healthcare costs? Hand Social Security over to Wall Street?  Close all the schools? None of this kind of radical nonsense is necessary. I will let Annie Lowery of Slate Magazine do the explaining with emphasis added by me:

 The overarching principle of the Do-Nothing Plan is this: Leave everything as is. Current law stands, and spending and revenue levels continue according to the Congressional Budget Office’s baseline projections. Everyone walks away. Paul Ryan goes fishing. Sen. Harry Reid kicks back with a ginger ale. The rest of Congress gets back to bickering about mammograms. Miraculously, the budget just balances itself, in about a decade.

I know. Your eyebrows are running for your hairline; your jaw is headed to the floor. You’ve had the bejesus scared out of you by deficit hawks murmuring about bankruptcy and defaults and Chinese bondholders. But don’t take it from me. Take it from the number crunchers at the CBO. Look at the first chart here, and check the “primary deficit” in 2019. The number is positive. The deficit does not exist. There’s a technicality, granted: The primary deficit is the difference between spending and revenue. The total deficit, the number more commonly cited as “the deficit,” includes mandatory interest payments on the country’s debt. Even so, the total fiscal gap is a whisper, not a shout—about 3 percent of GDP, which is what economists say is healthy for an advanced economy.

So how does doing nothing actually return the budget to health? The answer is that doing nothing allows all kinds of fiscal changes that politicians generally abhor to take effect automatically. First, doing nothing means the Bush tax cuts would expire, as scheduled, at the end of next year. That would cause a moderately progressive tax hike, and one that hits most families, including the middle class. The top marginal rate would rise from 35 percent to 39.6 percent, and some tax benefits for investment income would disappear. Additionally, a patch to keep the alternative minimum tax from hitting 20 million or so families would end. Second, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Obama’s health care law, would proceed without getting repealed or defunded. The CBO believes that the plan would bend health care’s cost curve downward, wrestling the rate of health care inflation back toward the general rate of inflation. Third, doing nothing would mean that Medicare starts paying doctors low, low rates. Congress would not pass anymore of the regular “doc fixes” that keep reimbursements high. Nothing else happens. Almost magically, everything evens out.

These are the CBO’s baseline projections. But, of course, Congress is not likely to let the Bush tax cuts fully expire, or slash doctors’ payments. So the CBO also prepares an “alternative fiscal scenario” that looks more like the path we expect Congress to take. It’s the alternative scenario that has the horror-show deficits. But Congress doesn’t have to act. It just has to do nothing. Or when it does do something, it has to pay for it.

That last bit is important: We want the numbers of the do-nothing path but not necessarily the policies. The fiscal future written in current law is hardly the best of all fiscal futures. For one, health care spending would comprise an enormous portion of overall spending. Right now, the United States spends about $1 in every $6 on health care. In a decade or two, based on the do-nothing plan, it would spend $1 in every $5, then $1 in every $4, and not get better health outcomes, either. Those dollars would be better spent in other industries or on other priorities. Moreover, under the do-nothing plan, the government would tax a much bigger share of GDP than it currently does, and the tax burden on the middle-class would be uncomfortably high.

But the do-nothing plan proves the point that the budget revolution does not need to be particularly revolutionary. Yes, the dollar figures are enormous, so big that it would appear to require “bold” plans that include massive new taxes or cruel new cuts. But, in fact, we don’t really need to end Social Security, sell Alaska, or ship the poor to Canada to get back in the black. We just need to stick to current law—particularly the tax and health care provisions—and then we can tinker our way toward a better, healthier economy.

That is because, by and large, the hard work of fixing the fat part of the the budget has already happened—through health care reform. The Social Security crisis you sometimes hear about is essentially a myth. The trust fund will run out in 2037, “at which point tax income would be sufficient to pay about 75 percent of scheduled benefits through 2084.” Full Social Security solvency would require only about 0.7 percent of GDP, which you can get to by exposing income above $107,000 to the payroll tax. There is no debt crisis, either, as long as the U.S.’s lenders remain confident in the country. The crisis lies in spiraling health care costs. The Obama health care reform bill might not work, but it does contain programs that could turn the tide over time. The big wheels of deficit reduction are already turning—and it might be better for Congress to step back, stick to pay-as-you-go, and let them turn.

Yes. Annie is right. And Mother was right.  If we do nothing, then the deficit disappears because of laws already on the books and what Annie doesn’t mention: regaining full employment.  The sooner we regain full employment, the sooner the deficit disappears, assuming we leave the tax code and Medicare and healthcare and Social Security laws as they are right now.

So why is everyone in D.C. all agitated about the “budget crisis”? Two reasons. First, what they really want to do is to continue to lower tax rates for the very rich and the wealthy. The rich, after all, pay for lavish parties through lobbyists and pay for campaigns.  You and I don’t.  Lowering tax rates for the rich will create larger budget deficits. The Republican/Ryan plan to end Medicare is not a plan to “save” Medicare or to “fix the budget”.  It’s  a plan to cut medical care for seniors so that taxes can be cut on the highest income bracket payers, the rich.  Second, some people, particularly the Republican/Tea Party/Libertarian side of the aisle are actually trying to accomplish an ideological agenda.  They don’t like the welfare state. They are ideologically opposed to government services for anyone other than elites and wealthy. They have no chance of getting political support if they actually tell the truth about their agenda.  So, we have a fake crisis to solve.