How Federal Budget Policy Affects Generations

Today I’m giving a public talk to and for the Michigan Intergenerational Network. I’ll be discussing how government budget policies and priorities are affecting the generations. This is a topic worthy of an entire college course or even a MOOC, but unfortunately I’ve only got a couple hours at most.  This post isn’t a full explanation and is far from a script for that presentation.  I’m only going to try to list some of the highlights and give the slides.

Budget & Intergenerational Issues

This time it’s different

diagram of earning power vs age for typical person. earning power is concentrated in middle age and transfers needed to childhood and old ageIntergenerational transfers are social programs (usually governmental for good reasons) that collect resources from the working generation(s) in a given year and transfer that value to generations at either end of the lifespan – seniors or children.

In the past when I’ve discussed intergenerational transfers in the Federal budget, I’ve emphasized how the hype about the “insolvency” of Social Security or its supposed impending bankruptcy was overblown. There is no real economic or necessary budgetary/monetary reason why Social Security or Medicare or public education or any of the other intergenerational programs should be in jeopardy.  Things are different now. I wasn’t wrong then. Financially, the system is operating fairly well. As I’ve said for years, there’s a strong chance of needing to make some minor tweaks in maybe 5-10 years, but it’s nothing that should cause us to panic and cut benefits now.  There still isn’t a financial reason.

Instead of keep calm and look at the facts, a sign for "be concerned and get active"But there’s political reasons for fear now. So instead of keeping calm (always good advice, BTW) I’m switching to “be concerned and get active”.

To understand why we need to get active and be concerned, we need to understand how political budget rhetoric and processes suck us into a big game, a game that pits each generation against the others instead of bonding.

Budget and Policy

There’s a gap between the supposed process for creating the federal budget and the actual process. Supposedly,  both houses of Congress, reacting to a recommendation proposal from the President, create a budget resolution that sets out spending and tai xing parameters and goals. Then many committees in both houses of Congress spend most of each year preparing detailed appropriations bills that eventually the President signs and then federal agencies are authorized to spend the money.

In reality, there’s increasingly a heated rhetoric amongst politicians using emotionally-laden trigger words to posture for political advantage. Meanwhile high-paid lobbyists work with Congressional staffers behind closed doors and craft the actual language of the spending bills. Usually Congress can’t get this done in time and kicks the can down the road with short-term “continuing resolutions” until, like this 2018 fiscal year, it finally passes an “Omnibus” spending bill for 2018 almost half-way through the year. When they vote on the bill virtually no one is able to read the actual language of the 2000 plus bill before voting.

All this matters because we really only have 3 broad categories of policy with which the government can strongly affect macroecomomics performance: fiscal spending, tax, and monetary (interest rates) policies.  The budget covers fiscal spending and taxing. The Federal Reserve handles monetary.

Taxes for 2018

The big news for 2018 was the comprehensive, or at least wide-ranging, tax reform bill passed in December 2017 for effect in calendar year 2018. This bill continues and greatly accelerates a long-run trend dating back to the sixties of decreasing corporate taxes and a significant shift towards regressive, payroll taxes.  In 1967, corporations paid as much as in taxes, approximately 24% as workers did via payroll taxes. In addition, workers also shouldered  42% of federal revenues via income taxes.  Today, corporations are well below 10% and dropping.  Meanwhile the workers now pay for over 80% of federal taxes via a mix of income and payroll taxes.

Tax policy long ago ceased to be a highly effective macroeconomic growth tool. This is because tax rates were repeatedly lowered over 4 decades to the point where tax rates really don’t effect growth-related investment or consumer spending decisions as they once might have. Yet political rhetoric remains that somehow tax cuts and tax rate cuts in particular for the wealthy and for corporations are somehow growth inducing.  They are not anymore. We’d have to go back to the fifties or sixties to see that.

Instead, tax cuts are about redistribution. While claiming this tax bill will stimulate growth, the reality is it won’t. Even the very conservative, free-market, neo-classical model-based forecasts of Barro and Furman foresee only a +0.4% increase in real GDP over 10 years. Real GDP growth rate only increases 0.04 percentage points.  Not much.

Instead, this tax bill is about redistribution. It overwhelmingly shifts money towards the very wealthy and towards corporate owners. Tax breaks are now the larger than federal discretionary spending.

Spending – Ok this year, but….

The Omnibus Spending Bill for 2018 was just passed a couple days ago and signed yesterday to cover $1.208 in discretionary spending. This is an increase over 2017 of 12.9% and it largely reflects two political realities.  Despite having majorities in both houses and controlling the White House, Republicans cannot assemble the votes necessary to implement the domestic spending cuts they have been pushing.  Both parties are now looking to the 2018 midterm elections and spending cuts won’t get anybody re-elected.

The military, homeland security, state, foreign operations, and energy (think nuclear weapons) are the biggest winners with increases in the 12-15% range, but even domestic programs and agencies such as Labor, HHS, and Education manage to get a 10% increase.   Essentially, 2018 is similar to the spending budgets of the last few years in terms of priorities.  No particular major cuts. Yet.

However, the 2018 budget proposal that President Trump put forward last year has now pretty much become the 2019 budget proposal.  We will get more details in coming weeks.  This budget proposal is indeed drastic. It calls for very serious, very deep cuts in a wide range of discretionary programs that are important intergenerational transfers, such as education, Medicare and Medicaid information and research, senior housing support, senior nutrition, and non-entitlement health spending.

Whether or not the 2019 Trump budget priorities become the 2019 federal budget depends more than ever on political activism.  The election of 2018 and the polls leading up to it will drive a lot of what actually happens.

The Deficit and The Game

As bad as the 2019 budget proposals are for discretionary intergeneration transfer programs, the rhetoric and political objectives of the currently ruling Republican leaders in Congress portend an even worse possibility.  For generations, the idea of cutting Social Security or other significant transfer entitlement programs was considered political suicide.  As Speaker of the House Paul Ryan’s comments openly targeting reductions in Social Security and Medicare benefits indicate, political leaders are now trying what was once considered unthinkable:  cutting, eliminating, or privatizing Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and public education.

This is where an enormous rhetoric game ensues. Politicians such as Ryan drove the large tax cuts.  Ryan and Company falsely claimed the tax cuts wouldn’t cut Federal revenues because they supposedly would spur dramatic growth. But they weren’t structured to do that. The tax cuts were really massive redistribution of income to the wealthy.  In the process, the reduced tax revenues open a larger federal deficit. Ryan and Co. then use the increased deficit to argue that we must cut entitlement spending in order to balance the budget.  They depend on people being both afraid of the concept of government deficits and confusion between deficits-debt and between public and private debt.

The reality is that the federal deficit doesn’t really need to be closed. In fact, a balanced federal budget (i.e. no deficit) means the private sector, households and firms, will not in aggregate be able to accumulate risk-free financial assets like government bonds for pensions. Deficits and public debt aren’t really problems as long as the economy has the real resources to produce. They are actually a reflection of a growing, healthy economy with a bright future.  Growth of private debt, however, can be risky problem for the macroeconomy as it was in 2007-08. But cutting federal spending and entitlements long run will not fix Social Security solvency issues. It will, however, create risky private debt problems.  The federal government is not a household and such analogies fail and misguide policy.

An Alternative:  Build Intergenerational Productivity

picture of a cat reading newspaper saying "I should increase my factors of production"

The current political rhetoric which is based on fear- and a false, but emotion-laden analogy of the government’s budget to a household budget ultimately pits one generation against another.  Millennials see baby boomers as taking their future SS benefits. Boomer seniors tend in increasing numbers to vote for cuts in schools because they don’t have school kids themselves.

There is a way out.  Every generation works its way through its lifespan. When young, it needs subsidies. When middle-aged it works and generates the economic value that supports everybody at the time. When aged, they need support again – even if only to have a younger generation work and generate profits to pay the dividends for a private pension scheme.

If people want to insist on thinking of the federal budget as a “household” then we need to see all the generations as equal members of a dynamic family – our national family.  That means we need the intergenerational transfers. But transferring economic support from a working generation to either children or seniors doesn’t have to mean the working generation does with less.

Rather if we support the working generation and the soon-to-be-working generation, we can make our collective production greater, boosting the welfare of all generations.

For example, three proposals that at first glance appear to be irrelevant or even budgetarily competitive for seniors and children are anything but.  Seniors and children should actively support the following proposals:

  • Immediate boost of the minimum wage to at least $15 per hour and to restore the real purchasing power of minimum wage to late 1960’s levels.  How would this help seniors?  It is estimated that as much as 31% of the workforce would see a payroll boost from this proposal.  Empirical studies in the last 30 years of minimum wage boosts indicate that product prices and inflation would not follow.  Rather, the higher payrolls would mean greater Social Security and Medicare payroll tax collections.  Some analyses have indicated that the minimum wage boost alone might be enough to prevent the medium-scenario projected depletion of the SS Trust Fund in the 2030’s.   Workers win. Seniors win.
  • Free college or at least free Community College.  Making it easier for more people to get college degrees and certificates will dramatically boost workforce productivity. Productivity increases, over time, boost GDP and boost tax collections. More importantly, they increase the real resources and capacity available in the economy, making intergenerational transfers more feasible.
  • Student Loan forgiveness. While at first glance, this proposal sounds like a give-away to the Millennial generation, the generation most saddled with the greatest student loan debt, it’s actually win-win.  The Millennial generation is having difficulty with household formation and home buying. This is largely due to heavy student loan repayment burdens.  Eliminating that burden will boost spending and aggregate demand, increasing GDP – and payroll taxes with it.  It will also increase home buying and house construction, which in turn, will strengthen property values. Stronger property values and stronger household formation each, in turn, lead to greater property tax collections and more support for schools.  Kids win too.  Then those kids become highly productive adults and fund the next generation after them.

Our ability to fund intergenerational transfers is limited only by the availability of real resources and will, not by current year government budget policies and rhetoric.

Slides for the Presentation.

If these slides do no display properly here, feel free to open the Google Slide file in a new window.

Additional links to some selected budget resources for 2018-19:

 

OER, CARE, Stewardship, and the Commons

 

Lisa Petrides, Douglas Levin, and C. Edward Watson recently released the CARE Framework, but apparently some people, David Wiley in particular, don’t care for the framework.  Stephen Downes has already I think responded in two brief posts here and here. Stephen’s posts are brief and I think pretty spot-on. Nonetheless, I’ll soldier on and try to use a couple thousand words to say the same thing.

I find the Framework both exciting and timely. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been making up for lost time studying the economics of the commons. In particular, I’ve been deep into Elinor and Vince Ostrom’s work, as well as David Bollier’s work.  The Framework doesn’t explicitly state that it is about a “commons” but that’s what they are describing. A commons. A true commons as Elinor and Vince Ostrom would describe it.

OER Stewardship consists of Contributing, Attributing, Releasing, and Empowering

The CARE Framework for OER Stewardship

People serving as OER stewards pursue a wide variety of strategies and tactics relevant to their specific context to improve access to education and opportunity over time. Yet, what all good OER stewards should have in common is a commitment to practices that serve to demonstrate their duty of care to the broader OER movement.

The Framework is a great start towards a community definition of our own Open Education Commons. I hope to make more contributions along these lines this year. It’s part of what I will talk about at OER18 and OE Global18, and it’s what I’m drafting papers and posts about.

The CARE Framework emphasizes “membership” and “stewardship”.  It uses words like contribute, attribute, release, and empower.  These are verbs.  The commons is a verb.  A commons is all about governance, behavior, social norms, production, and usage. It is a social-economic system. It is not a pool of objects or nouns that a bunch of people share.

Wiley dismisses this. He makes a nod towards Elinor Ostrom and tries to cite her work on the commons as supporting his.  He misses. It may be a compliment to Ostrom.

The CARE Framework attempt to define membership boundaries in what I’ll call the open education commons (I have good reason to say OE commons, not OER commons – bear with me).  Wiley admits that defining group boundaries is Ostrom’s first principle of managing a commons. But he dismisses the Framework and any effort to define group membership, and thereby any behavioral norms, by denying that we should even consider OER as a commons. It’s here where he abandons Ostrom and returns to the old “tragedy of the commons” analogy. He invokes the idea that commons thinking and commons ideas only apply if we’re discussing physical, natural common pool resources. He asserts that rivalrous goods are necessary for such common pool resources and then asserts OER are not rivalrous goods.

Indeed, he sets up a straw man using the old Garrett Hardin story of the tragedy of the commons wherein a “commons” is defined to be  = open, unlimited access to a scarce, limited natural resource.  The analysis is static and he gets lost in the terminology.

The first problem is that common pool resource(s) are not the same as a commons. That’s Ostrom 101. It’s difficult to read Ostrom or listen to her (fortunately there are many extant videos online of her lectures) and not discover the fatal flaw in Hardin’s “tragedy of the commons” story of over-grazing (or over-fishing or over-hunting). Hardin’s “tragedy” describes a common pool resource where there was no commons structure or social norms governing behavior.  It did not describe real-life commons scenarios.  Ostrom studied real-life cases. In the Hardin “tragedy” it’s unlimited access by strictly self-interested, socially-detached, profit-maximizing individuals that did not practice stewardship. Interestingly, Wiley denies there’s any possibility of “tragedy” of OER commons while he advocates for OER precisely the hypothetical regime of Hardin’s “tragedy”: unlimited use of CC licensed educational materials without consideration for community norms or commons governance or stewardship or recognition of being in a “community”.

The second problem is Wiley’s assertion that OER materials are “non-rivalrous”. Wiley supposes lack of rivalry in OER goods inoculates OER from any of the risks of unsustainabilty or failure of what I’ll call the OE commons. Here we’ve got three sub-issues: Are non-rivalrous goods exempt from concerns of sustainability?  Are OER non-rivalrous and cost-free to reproduce? And finally, just what is the scarce resource jeapardizing sustainability?

Wiley is dead wrong in his assertion that non-rivalrous goods are the only subjects of common pool resource concerns or commons concerns. He implies that Ostrom and her work on the commons only applies to rivalrous goods like natural resources (even here, not all natural resources are rivalrous. Rivalry in goods is contextual and depends on demand, supply, and property regimes). It is true that knowledge and ideas are non-rivalrous. But even non-rivalrous goods can be managed quite successfully as a commons and can also face challenges of sustainability and governance. Ostrom co-authored and co-edited Understanding Knowledge as a Commons. Her work inspired the Workshop on Governing Knowledge Commons. It’s a gross misrepresentation to suggest that Ostrom’s work on commons governance and membership applies only to natural resource pools that are rivalrous. Even non-rivalrous goods face challenges of sustainability that need to be addressed by commons stewardship.

But let’s look at Wiley’s assertion that OER materials are non-rivalrous. His evidence for this is based on the tired canard that making digital copies is virtually free and we can make unlimited copies.  But even in an all digital document file world (and not all OER are digital document files) the cost of copying is not zero. Disks, networks, computers, software all have costs of both acquisition and maintenance. They also bring questions of privilege and access. The marginal cost of copying may be very, very small. But marginal cost isn’t the end all of the analysis as any good economist knows. OER reproduction is not cost-free. To have a very, very low marginal cost still requires substantial investment in infrastructure, fixed costs, and sunk costs. Further, just how does one costlessly copy a digital OER resource and avail themselves of all the 5 R’s when the source code files for the website aren’t provided or come in such a format that discourages it. Ask the many faculty who have tried to download, edit, and remix some OpenStax texts. Time is a cost too. Wiley himself sees this when elsewhere he argues that very few have the resources or luxury to contribute to the “hard, frequently painful, and seldom recognized work associated with stewardship.” Clearly OER materials are not cost-less to reproduce and that alone means we must be concerned with sustainability and behavioral norms of stewardship.

A great deal of confusion in thinking about OER sustainability – or what I prefer to think of as sustainability of the OE commons – comes from confusion in terms. In particular we’re confused about “resources”.  We use the word resource in OER and then we encounter research about the commons and CPR’s, common pool resources, and confusion ensues. Economically, a resource is something that is necessary for the production of other more economically valued goods or experiences. Resources do not have to be physical objects. The traditional taxonomy is land, labor, and capital, although I think most economists today would not object to adding knowledge in some form to that mix. In economic terms, what we call OER’s are resources used as part of the teaching process that produces some learning.

Note: Please bear with me, my critical pedagogy folk. I’m applying economics to teaching here at a very abstract, general level. I am not embracing learning outcomes, learning analytics, or engineered corporate “learning” experiences. Teachers who  engage pedagogies and activities that result in student agency or transformation can still be viewed as a production process in the abstract even if it’s artisanal, unpredictable, and unmeasurable.

Yes, teaching materials such as textbooks, quizzes, images, and software are resources in the teaching or educational process. They are one of the resources. If those materials are free to access, to use, to revise, to adapt, etc, then we call them OER.  The use of the word “resource” is legit in this context. However, are these resources fit for purpose? And by fit for purpose, I mean are do they synergistically amplify the most critical resource of the process, the labor and knowledge of the teacher?  To make them truly fit for purpose requires engaging the 5 R’s. We must remix, revise, redistribute, and edit. It is not enough to have or use an OER with permissions for 5 R’s if we do not or cannot actually do them. I may have the right or permission to vote, but if I do not actually vote that right is meaningless.  To actually revise, remix, redistribute, or edit OER’s requires additional resources.

The critical resources necessary for OER are people’s time and expertise. This is true for both the creation of those mass distribution OER’s such as general ed course textbooks and the materials as used in each class. I think of the textbooks as wholesale or bulk OER’s that need further processing and supplementation to be most effective in any particular course. And who provides these critical resources of time and expertise for creation, editing, remixing, revising, and redistribution? The most critical source is faculty.  Is faculty time non-rivalrous? Hardly.

Accepting the economics definition of scarcity as “unlimited wants and limited resources”, we must conclude faculty time is scarce. It is valuable. Faculty make choices of how to use their time. They can choose to spend time creating, editing, revising, remixing, and sharing OER materials, or they can spend their time in a myriad of other ways.

While OER materials are indeed resources in the context of teaching, in the context of our discussions of sustainability, they are not. OER materials are not resources and not the commons or the CPR itself. OER are the fruits of the an open education commons that utilizes a common pool resource of faculty time and expertise to produce them.  If we think of it this way, we see why stewardship, the CARE Framework, and Ostrom’s principles are so important.

OER materials are not some static, ever growing pool of materials that can endlessly and costlessly be copied, reproduced, and used. That OER textbook written two years ago? It might be out of date now. Who is going to edit and update it? Who cares if I can copy that text from a decade ago? Maybe OER’s cannot be over-used as David Wiley states, but they can certainly be under-produced. Under-production will lead to tragedy of the open education commons as surely as over-grazing might lead to failure of a pasture commons.

Why would faculty devote their scarce time to OER? Why should they take time to attribute (and trust me attribution takes time)? Is it only because of threats of legal action should they not comply with copyright licenses?  Hardly. That’s never stopped faculty before. It’s because they are convinced that they are part of a community, a commons, wherein this is the norm. Attribution is what good people do. As Downes put it, they want to respect, protect, and further the collective enterprise in which they are a part.

Why would faculty devote scarce time to sharing and contributing their content or materials? All teachers have materials they’ve created for classes. Not all OER’s must be 300 page textbooks. There’s a wealth of unshared teaching materials sitting in faculty drawers in the form of handouts. Only a small portion get shared or contributed to others, partly because sharing and making available to others is not always easy. Time. Resources. Scarcity. Again, they share when it’s part of the social norm.

What might discourage faculty from attributing or contributing? Faculty will not share, will not contribute, and will not attribute when they see that their efforts and time get abused by others who don’t adhere to the social norms.

It’s not just over-use that can doom a commons. Enclosure and extraction can destroy a commons just as well.

Another Ostrom principle of commons management is fairness. Faculty and all members of the open education commons need to perceive that fairness reigns. There’s been a steady drumbeat that says CC-BY license is the “most free” (how is it more free than CC0, I wonder?). But when I’ve worked with faculty to help them create, share, publish, revise, or remix their OER materials, their gut preference is typically for CC-NC, CC-SA, or CC-NC-SA.  Why? Because they perceive those licenses as more fair. The NC and SA licenses make statements about “I’m contributing to the OER community. I expect fair reciprocity. I expect you to be a good steward too.”  Faculty react quite negatively to organizations who charge for access to CC-BY materials. Faculty perceive those organizations as using legal technicalities to abuse the good faith efforts of the community.

I haven’t yet presented the CARE Framework to faculty. My expectation is it will be warmly accepted and greeted with a kind of “well, of course”.  I thank Petrides, Levin, and Watson for their work on it. While in many ways the framework simply captures what I think most faculty think and feel already, making the framework and its emphasis on stewardship explicit is a major step forward for the open education commons.