Taxes, Incentives, and Being Poor

Now Updated with proofreading!

Political debates about taxes and tax rates in the U.S. often focus on the rich and claims about the incentive effects of different tax rates. Rarely mentioned these days are the poor.  Indeed, the Republican demands in the last few years that tax rates should be cut  for the high-income rich are primarily about claims of incentive effects. And, no, high-income rich isn’t redundant; it’s precise.  There are at least two types of “rich”: High-income rich, which pay income taxes, and the high-asset, low income rich which pay much less. (I suppose there’s another type, the spiritually-rich, but that’s the domain of some other blog.) The claim is made that if tax rates are raised or raised too high, then that provides a disincentive to work and the rich will not work as much. It is often asserted that this is simple micro-economics–that people respond to incentives–and should be obvious.

There’s a problem with the claim, though.  Actually there are two problems. First, there’s very little empirical evidence of higher tax rates on the highest end, the rich, actually reducing their efforts to earn income.  Indeed, numerous studies (I don’t have time at the moment to look for citations) have found in “natural experiments” that the rich really don’t respond to higher tax rates by working less and earning less. Several studies have found that in situations where a large metropolis straddles two or more states, such as NYC, and different neighboring states changed their tax rates on the rich, the rich did not in fact do what they threatened or what would appear “rational”: move to the lower tax state in the same metro area.  There’s also substantial longitudinal evidence in the U.S. and other countries that shows when tax rates on the rich were a lot higher, such as in the 60’s and 70’s, effort and incomes were no less than in more recent times.

The other problem is the whole idea that the “rational” response to higher tax rates is to reduce one’s effort and income actually doesn’t hold microeconomic water.  It’s actually irrational to respond that way unless the marginal tax rate is truly so high that it approaches or exceeds 100%. The average tax rate, the percents you normally hear on TV, isn’t what affects incentives. Instead, it’s the marginal rate, or how much an extra dollar earned is taxed, that changes how we behave. Even then, a raising a marginal tax rate might reduce the incentive or attractiveness of additional effort and gross income, but won’t become a true dis-incentive until it becomes very, very high. An example:  Let’s suppose someone makes $1,000,000 a year and is taxed $400,000. Such a person is said to pay a 40% average tax rate or effective tax rate. But averages and effective rates tell us nothing about incentives.  Incentives deal with changes in behavior at the margins – the incremental changes.  If micro is clear about one thing and has been since the 1870’s, it’s that decisions and changes in behavior depend on changes in marginal costs and marginal benefits.  What matters is the taxes on the marginal, the incremental, change in income.  What matters is the marginal tax rate.  The only reliable way to figure the marginal tax rate is to compare two different amounts of income, preferably with only a small difference between them, the taxes paid and the after-tax-income that results.  What people work for is to get after-tax, spendable income.

So let’s continue the example.  Suppose the existing tax code, with all of its exemptions, deductions, rates, credits, etc, says that $1,000,000 income pays $400,000, but that $1,010,000 income pays $405,000 in taxes, then we have an increase in income of $10,000 of which $5,000 is used to pay the additional taxes. After-tax income rises from $600,000 to $605,000, leaving a net increase in after-tax income of $5,000. This means we have a marginal tax rate of 50%.  There be a disincentive effect only if opportunity cost (usually leisure) of the additional time/effort needed to generate the higher income is judged to be greater than the $5,000 increase in after-tax income.  Empirical evidence indicates that is not likely.  On the other hand, if the marginal tax rate were 100%, it would mean that $1,010,000 in income requires $410,000 in taxes. At a 100% marginal tax rate none of the additional effort results in more after-tax spendable income, so obviously it doesn’t make sense to exert the extra effort.

So what are the marginal tax rates for the highest brackets in the U.S.?  Even if all income comes from wages, the highest marginal rate is now around 38%.  Even if you include state or city income taxes, the marginal rates faced by the rich aren’t greater than 50% even in the most onerous tax-happy states. For the really rich, most income comes from capital gains and not wages.  Capital gains have a much lower marginal tax rate of close to 23-24% (including the 2013 Medicare tax on capital gains).  Evidence is pretty clear that such marginal rates do not provide a disincentive to additional work.

But, now I want to return to the poor.  We often assume that the poor don’t pay much in taxes.  That’s true in total  since they’re poor–there’s not much there to tax. But, marginal tax rates still exist. And they affect incentives.  In fact, it’s the working poor that face the most serious disincentives to work and earn income.  Our tax code is actually set up to make it rational for the poor to not try to earn more income!  As University of Southern Cal Professor Edward McCaffery notes on,

…some of the working poor face marginal tax rates “approaching 90% as they lose benefits attempting to better themselves.”

Readers were incredulous, asking how it could be that in a nation with a top federal income tax rate of 39.6% on individuals making more than $400,000 a year, anyone could face a 90% rate.

It is true. Marginal tax rates, especially for those below the top rate brackets, are chaotic, confusing, and all over the map.

As a result, some of the working poor face extremely high rates on their next dollar earned. Tax scholars and economists have long known this. Dan Shaviro of NYU published a study in 1999 showing marginal tax rates above 100% on the working poor; specifically, he illustrated that a single parent earning $10,000 would lose over $2,500, after taxes, by earning another $15,000, pushing her income to $25,000.

Obviously, this is a policy failure.  We want to support the working poor, but we want them to be able to increase their incomes, join the middle class, and leave dependency behind.  Yet the way most welfare and aid to working poor programs are structured, a working poor person can find themselves in a situation where working additional hours or getting a modest raise in wage will actually result in less after-tax spendable money.

The problem is even worse, as Professor McCaffery points out.  The tax code exerts a genuine disincentive to getting married or to staying married if you are among the working poor.  Yet, we know that stable marriages and two-income households are often the key to escaping poverty for both the present and next generations .

It’s appropriate to talk about the incentive effects of tax rates.  Incentive effects should be part of the thinking when writing the tax code, just as reasons for government revenue should be a part.  But when we talk about incentive effects of tax rates, we must focus on the marginal rates and we really should be talking about the poor.  Not the rich.

Is “Right to Work” About Freedom?

It’s Rick Snyder’s incredible flip-flop here in Michigan on so-called “Right to Work” legislation and his claims that it’s about “freedom” that brings me back to blogging.  Lately I’ve been getting increased questions about what “Right to Work” really means.  So, let me try to cut through the Orwellian rhetoric and explain.

So called “Right to Work” laws have absolutely nothing to do with “freedom” for workers. The “freedom” talk is purely a made-up rhetorical lie intended to get gullible workers to support something that most likely is not in their personal best interest.  Supporters of  so-called “Right to Work” laws (RTW)  claim it’s about establishing the “freedom to not be forced to join a union”, that it’s about “freedom of association”.  But that is an absolute falsehood.  Forcing someone to join a union as a condition of employment is called a “closed shop” rules.  Ever since the 1948 Taft Hartley (a US law covering all states) “the closed shop” has been illegal. Let me repeat for clarity. Forcing someone to join a union as a conditon of employment has been illegal everywhere, including Michigan, since 1948.  RTW laws change nothing in this respect.

But Taft Hartley law also says that if a union is certified as bargaining representative, then the union must bargain on behalf of ALL employees, whether union members or not.  Further all employees are covered by the union-negotiated contract, whether members or not. A union becomes the certified bargaining representative by a vote of ALL employees at some point in time, with a majority necessary to cerify.  A union may be de-certified later by another majority vote of all employees (whether members or not).  Until the union is decertified, the non-member employees benefit from the contract and are covered by the contract.  If a union is certified to represent, non-members are not free to strike different deals or contracts.

Employees who choose to be union members pay dues.  In return for dues, members receive the benefits of bargaining, the contract, and due process representation. Members also get to vote on union leadership and maybe participate in social events put on by the union, depending on which union it is. Non-members do not get the social benefits or voting rights, but they DO get the benefit of the contract, bargaining, and due process.  In return, non-members do not pay “dues”. Rick Ungar in Forbes clarifies:

But did you know that Taft-Hartley further requires that the union be additionally obligated to provide non-members’ with virtually all the benefits of union membership even if that worker elects not to become a card-carrying union member?

By way of example, if a non-member employee is fired for a reason that the employee believes to constitute a wrongful termination, the union is obligated to represent the rights of that employee in the identical fashion as it would represent a union member improperly terminated. So rock solid is this obligation that should the non-union member employee be displeased with the quality of the fight the union has put forth on his or her behalf, that non-union member has the right to sue the union for failing to prosecute as good a defense as would be expected by a wrongfully terminated union member.

Obviously, the Taft Hartley law puts a burden on unions. A certified bargaining agent union must bargain on behalf of all workers, whether they are members or not.  That costs the union money and time.  Yet,the union may only collect “dues” from members.  Herein lies the difference between RTW states and the rest. The rest should properly be called “union shop” states.  In a “union shop” state such as Michigan was until yesterday (Dec 11, 20123), the certified union may charge “agency fees”, not “dues”, to non-member employees on whose behalf they bargain. Agency fees are required by law of non-member employees in union shop states. In RTW states, non-member employees do not have to pay agency fees. In RTW states, non-member employees are allowed to benefit from the contract and protections and bargaining power of the union without paying a dime to support the bargaining activities.  The agency fees are established in union shop states to reimburse the union for it’s costs of negotiating, bargaining, etc.  RTW laws are all about how much money gets paid to certified unions and have nothing to do with “freedom”.

How Much Are Dues vs. Agency Fees?  Enter the Supreme Court

For a few decades after passage of Taft Hartley in 1948, many unions set the agency fee at the same dollar amount per month as the dues.  Obviously this encourages membership since an employee faces a choice of same cost for non-membership vs membership, yet membership brings some marginal benefits beyond the bargaining and contract benefits.  But, a few decades ago (I forget exactly when – I think it was in the 1980’s), some non-members of unions in union shop states sued to not have to pay the agency fee, claiming a First Amendment free speech violation. The logic of their argument was essentially that:

  • union shop labor laws required non-members to pay agency fees to an organization, the union, of which they were not a member and with whom they may disagree politically
  • unions use some of their money for political “speech” purposes: campaign contributions, advertising, lobbying, etc.
  • Ergo, the laws were forcing the non-members to supoort political speech with which they disagreed and therefore should be considered unconstitutional under the US Constitution 1st Amendment.

Countering the non-member’s argument was the union position that the non-members benefit from the union’s activity (bargaining) and should be required to contribute their share to the costs.  If non-members were not required to monetarily support the union’s bargaining and other activities, then it would constitute an unfair burden on members (they would be forced to pay to provide union benefits to non-members) which is itself probably unconstitutional (see Beverly Mann about Article 1, Section 10)

The Supreme Court “split the baby” and developed a solution that acknowledged both sides.  The Supreme Court established that required agency fees are indeed constitutional (ie. “union shop” laws are constitutional).  But, it also said that requiring non-members to support political speech and activities with which they disagreed was not constitutional.  The solution lay in establishing that unions report the amounts they spend on political speech and adjust the agency fee to be some fraction of the dues.  In other words, if the dues for members were $40 per month and the union reported that 20% of it’s total expenses were for political speech activities, then the agency fee would have to be set at $32. This decision was one of a few public policy and economy changes that helped to reduce union influence in the political arena starting in the 1980’s.  There were other more significant ones such as the PATCO strike, but the Supreme Court decision did help reduce marginally some of the money and support unions could provide to union-friendly politicians.  The effect was most pronounced in private sector unions.

Indeed, the battle over RTW laws vs. union shops has nothing to do at all with “freedom for workers”.  It has everything to do with money for political campaigns and political activities.  Historically, most union political activities have been in support of Democratic candidates, but not always.  Republicans perceive they can gain a significant advantage and perhaps a permanent power majority if they can weaken unions and cut-off the political support unions provide to Democrats while simultaneously increasing their financial support from corporations and billionaires, neither of which face any limitations any more.  It is no accident that police unions are exempt from the new RTW law in Michigan.  Police unions such as the FOP can continue in Michigan to demand either dues or agency fees from all police officers.  Why?  Police unions have historically been the unions most likely to support Republican candidates, particularly for court judgeships.

NOTE: Despite continuing really heavy work duties, I am going to try to make posts in the next few days about “Whether and How RTW Laws Weaken Unions and Affect Workers” and “What the Evidence Shows on RTW Laws and Economic Growth”. 

Is The Fed Corrupt or Out of Control?

The Federal Reserve System is an extremely controversial and largely misunderstood institution. Senators on both the right (Ron Paul) and the left (Bernie Sanders) are highly critical of The Fed.   I’ve shied away from commenting on The Fed because it’s  a pretty complex subject. Every time I think there’s a point to be made, I find it requires explaining some other point, which leads to yet another, and on and on.  It’s always seemed too daunting.  I could never figure out where to start.  But a reader asked last week for my thoughts about The Fed audit, so I’ll make an effort:

What’s the meaning of the audit of the Federal Reserve Bank that has just been completed? I am hearing from friends that the revelation of loans made to banks by the Fed is evidence that they “are out of control” and doing something corrupt or dishonest. I find that hard to believe.

At the risk that I’ll have a few “I’ll explain this later” points in this post, let’s talk about The Fed and whether it’s corrupt.  Let’s start with the results of the audit of The Fed which were released in July 2011 in response to a Congressional bill requiring a one-time public audit of The Fed..  The Raw Story summarizes the report for us and also has an embedded copy of the audit results for those interested:

The U.S. Federal Reserve gave out $16.1 trillion in emergency loans to U.S. and foreign financial institutions between Dec. 1, 2007 and July 21, 2010, according to figures produced by the government’s first-ever audit of the central bank.

Last year, the gross domestic product of the entire U.S. economy was $14.5 trillion.

Of the $16.1 trillion loaned out, $3.08 trillion went to financial institutions in the U.K., Germany, Switzerland, France and Belgium, the Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) analysis shows.

Additionally, asset swap arrangements were opened with banks in the U.K., Canada, Brazil, Japan, South Korea, Norway, Mexico, Singapore and Switzerland. Twelve of those arrangements are still ongoing, having been extended through August 2012.

Out of all borrowers, Citigroup received the most financial assistance from the Fed, at $2.5 trillion. Morgan Stanley came in second with $2.04 trillion, followed by Merrill Lynch at $1.9 trillion and Bank of America at $1.3 trillion.

The audit also found that the Fed mostly outsourced its lending operations to the very financial institutions which sparked the crisis to begin with, and that they delegated contracts largely on a no-bid basis. The GAO report recommends new policies that would eliminate such conflicts of interest, and suggests that in the future the Fed should keep better records of their emergency decision-making process.

The Fed agreed to “strongly consider” the recommendations, but as it is not a government-run institution it cannot be forced to do so by lawmakers. The seven-member board of governors and the Fed chairman are, however, appointed by the President of the United States and confirmed by the Senate.

The audit was conducted on a one-time basis, as mandated by the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, passed last year. Fed officials had strongly discouraged lawmakers from ordering the audit, claiming it may serve to undermine confidence in the monetary system.

The big news, judging by both Ron Paul’s and Bernie Sanders’ reactions is the three-fold fact that The Fed provided loans (or their equivalent in asset swaps) to large banks and governments to the tune of $14.5 trillion “in secret”.  The first concern is the size of the actions. The second concern seems to be that some of these banks and governments were foreign. And the third is that the loans were secret. I think the conflicts of interest and poor decision making processes are bigger issues uncovered by the audit. But I’ll get to that later in this post.

Before we can conclude The Fed is “out of control” or corrupt we need to look at what The Fed is supposed to do.  The Fed, being the central bank for the U.S., is responsible for:

  • maintaining the health of the U.S. banking and financial system and institutions.  It does this by regulation of those institutions and by being lender of last resort in a crisis.
  • conducting monetary policy. Legally, The Fed has a “dual mandate” on monetary policy. It is supposed to:
  1. maintain price stability (in other words, avoid inflation or deflation)
  2. maintain full employment

The critics from the right tend to be followers of Austrian economics (Ron Paul) or far-conservative and libertarian. These are the ones most likely to claim The Fed is “out of control”.  What they generally mean (a typical example is here) is they think The Fed has created too much money and is debasing the currency.  There’s very little The Fed can do that would satisfy most of these people other than to shut down and ask the government to return to a gold standard.  Their concerns about the $14 trillion in loans being inflationary and “newly printed money” reveal deep misunderstandings about the nature of money (a post yet to be written), the functioning of the financial system, and even the nature of inflation.  They make a big deal of the size of the loans by comparing them to real GDP.  That’s apples to oranges.  To figure out if the $14 trillion in loans was large, it should be compared to the total balance sheet of the banking system, not GDP.   Yes, the loans The Fed made were of record amount, but so was the crisis. The Fed has a duty to act as lender of last resort in a financial crisis.  It did that. And it largely avoided the scale of disaster that occurred in 1929-1933 when The Fed failed to act as lender of last resort and was complicit in creating The Great Depression, snuffing out thousands of banks in the U.S. and depositors’ savings with it.  So if “out of control” means The Fed is wildly “printing money”, creating inflation, and debasing the currency, then, no, The Fed is not out of control.

A second charge that both the right and left have leveled is that The Fed shouldn’t have made loans to foreign banks and governments.  In a pure-thought fantasy world of theoretical political economy, I suppose The Fed would be a nationalist institution.  Certainly we expect the central bank of any other nation to be dominated by solely by protecting their own nation’s interests. (in the case of the Eurozone, it would be a great improvement if the ECB gave a hoot about even it’s own).  But reality has to intrude.  The U.S. dollar is the world’s reserve currency. We wanted it that way. More than half of all U.S. money is outside the U.S.  The world’s trading and financial systems depend on the dollar. Given the scale and scope of the crisis in 2008, The Fed had little practical alternative to making loans to some large foreign banks and even some nations.  Nobody else could do it.  The alternatives were too nasty.  Should it be regular practice? No. Should it be encouraged? No. Should we second guess the middle of the crisis when nobody else was stepping up?  Probably not.  Should we think about how to handle it better in the future so we don’t have to rely on The Fed?  Yes.  Have we thought about it and changed? No.  So the second charge of being “out of control” as evidenced by making foreign loans doesn’t really hold up.

The third charge, the question of “secrecy” in the loans is more difficult.  On the one side, it is unseemly for The Fed to be able to make large loans on favorable terms to banks, loans that save those banks’ managers from failure, without any sunshine or transparency.  It makes fertile ground for corruption.  On the other hand, banking is a confidence game. Publicizing loans to banks, even when part of the normal course of affairs, can be misinterpreted by the public, fund managers, or other banks.  It alone could spark a run on a bank. The run then creates the very crisis the loan was intended to avert, turning temporary liquidity crisis into permanent bank failure.

Some fear of the secrecy of these loans is driven by a misunderstanding of what The Fed loans and where it comes from.  Again, this arises from common misunderstandings of what money really is or where it comes from.  Many fear the “money” The Fed lends is money that had to come from somewhere (they suspect taxpayers) or diverted from some other useful purpose.  Not so.  The Fed doesn’t actually lend “money” in the sense that you and I have “money” to spend.  The Fed creates new bank reserves out of thin air.  It’s not spending money and it’s not scarce. The Fed can as easily remove these reserves later in the future.

So, is The Fed “out of control”?  I don’t think so in the way that many critics make the accusation.  Just because I don’t think The Fed is some “out of control money printing machine” doesn’t mean I think The Fed is innocent or doesn’t need to be changed.  The audit revealed other issues regarding decision-making and transparency that I find much more troubling.  They reveal that The Fed has fallen into a kind of “group think” that doesn’t serve the nation well.  I think The Fed is both misguided and poorly structured.  But I’ll deal with that in tomorrow’s post.

The Fed is a Rorschach test.

Politics and Job-Creation Policies – Disagreements and The Theories Behind Them

Blogging time has been in short supply lately.  To compound things, I’ve had a bunch of inter-woven ideas bouncing around in my head that I want to explain, but  I’ve been struggling to figure out how to do it.  I’ve been stuck in the “can’t explain this until I explain that which in turn needs this explained” circle.  Uggh.  So I’m going to just start taking a shot at it and write some posts that all relate one way or other.

What I want to talk about is why there’s so much disagreement among economists about policies, particularly when it comes to macroeconomic policies.

Few people, regardless of political ideology, dispute the idea that the U.S. economy needs to create more jobs.  It’s obvious to nearly all that persistent unemployment rates over 9% and an economy that month after month fails to create enough net new jobs to keep pace with population growth is problem in need of solution. Likewise, few dispute the idea that the solution will rely upon some sort of policy change.  Even the far-right wing, conservative economists and Austrian school economists argue for policy change. Virtually nobody argues that current policies are ideal.  The issue, then, is how to change policy.  In what direction should policy change so that the government can encourage job creation?

Like many things in political economy, there’s a range or spectrum of recommendations.  I personally don’t like the simple “right vs. left-wing” or “conservative vs. liberal progressive”* terminology. I think things are more complex and positions are richer than that.  But, for purposes of exposition here, I’ll go with it today.

If there are n politicians, there are probably at least n+1 different specific proposals of what to do to change policy to encourage job creation.  But today I’m not looking at specific proposals. Today I want to look at patterns, types, or categories of proposals.  I’m interested in the essence of the logic and economic models/ideas behind the proposals, the thinking that leads people to believe they’ll work.

Right now let’s say there are 4 different categories or generalized views, ranging from what might be called extreme right-wing or libertarian views through conservative views through mildly progressive views and finally a more radical or activist progressive view.  Let’s look at each one, the types of policies advocated and some comments on the economic thinking behind them.  I’ll offer my views afterward.

First, let’s take what we can call the far-conservative view or libertarian (economic libertarian, not necessarily social libertarian).  In the U.S. today, this is represented by the Tea Party positions.  The view here is that it’s  government interference with the free market, private property, and private wealth that causes unemployment in the first place.  Therefore, what’s needed, they argue, is for minimal government with minimalist taxes and as little regulation as possible.  They argue that only the private economy creates jobs at all and that the government cannot by it’s nature create any jobs.  Their proposals will typically take the form of calls for tax cuts, government spending cuts, and repeal of regulations. They will oppose any government programs they see as “welfare” or “redistributionist” such as Social Security or Medicare. Their rhetoric will typically include phrases about “unleashing the private sector”.  In terms of economic theory, supporters of this view find support from what we call Austrian-school economists and the more strict Neo-classical macroeconomists (think University of Chicago school).   These schools of macroeconomics in many ways aren’t about macroeconomics at all.  The theories are heavily based on microeconomics, in particular, the models of pure utility-maximizing rational people interacting in unrestricted markets.  Much of this view in macroeconomics has been called rational expectations schoolefficient markets theory and real business cycle theory.

Next is a the conservative view.  Until the last few years, the milder conservative view was what was espoused mostly by Republican candidates such as both Bushes and Reagan.  In more recent years the Republicans (in general) have moved further toward the far-conservative/libertarian view.  The conservative view is likewise grounded in traditional microeconomic-based neoclassical models.  In many ways, the conservative view is very similar in thinking to the far-conservative libertarian.  They both derive their conclusions from a reliance and embrace of pure-utility maximizing rational micro models of markets.  Both will tend to advocate tax cuts, especially for high-income earners and for corporations. The idea is that high-income earners and corporations would normally create enough new jobs but that taxes discourage them from creating jobs by making business and investment look unprofitable.  The assumption is that if you eliminate or reduce the taxes, investment will naturally look profitable and attractive.  Private sector investment spending will then drive growth in the economy.  This view has also been called supply-side economics. The conservative view typically relies upon rational expectations, efficient markets, and real business cycle theory also, but it also takes a lot from the monetarist views of Milton Friedman and his disciples.

The major point of disagreement between regular conservatives and the far-conservative/libertarian views is really in the area of monetary policy.  Far-conservatives or libertarians dislike central banks (seen as government agencies) and often call for a return to some form of commodity-based money such as gold.  The regular conservative view instead believes that an independent central bank, like the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank, if it follows anti-inflation policies, can usually manage monetary policy and interest rates to encourage growth when needed.  In effect, far-conservative/libertarians believe that no type of government or central bank actions can achieve high employment and high growth by policies.  In effect, recessions are simply events we have to live through -they can only be made worse, not better by government policy.  Regular conservative-types favor using monetary policy, in particular interest rates, to manage the economy. And, if monetary policy is ineffective, then they advocate using tax cuts to stimulate the economy.  They have a strong bias against government spending, or at least spending that is used to stimulate the economy (spending for military and wars is usually OK though).

Next we move to views that owe a greater heritage to John Maynard Keynes, though Keynes is far from the only theorist contributing to the views.  We’ll call the next group of policy recommendations Keynesian.  Not surprisingly, this view owes a lot to Keynes.  But Keynesian theory and models have evolved a lot since Keynes’ time.  Some historians of economic thought have argued that, were he alive today, Keynes might not agree with what much of what today’s “Keynesians” argue.  Nonetheless, standard Keynesian models/theories differ from classical/neo-classical/supply-side theories (the ones that conservatives like) in that it focuses on aggregates in the economy like total demand and total spending.  Keynesian models also try to explain why in aggregate, the total economy doesn’t always behave as if it were a simply made of purely rational micro-markets.  Keynesian theory allows for more situations where markets don’t behave rationally all of the time.  Even more significantly, Keynesian theory observes that if we simply assume the economy is the sum of whatever happens in a bunch of micro-markets, we can commit the fallacy of composition.  Keynesian theory points out the cases where the paradox of thrift takes over or when monetary policy is not likely to be effective.

Despite the allegations of many critics, standard Keynesian theory allows for monetary policy to be effective.  But typically standard Keynesian theory says that when the crisis is big or when interest rates are very, very low, then only fiscal policy, increased deficits, will do the job.  Those deficits could be created by either tax cuts or increases in government spending. But, they won’t be equally effective in creating jobs. Basically what’s needed is more spending (demand for goods) in the economy. People need to be motivated to spend more money.  Tax cuts provide money for households and firms to spend, but they do so weakly.  First, people might not spend all the tax cut – they might save some.  Increased savings won’t increase total demand and therefore won’t create the need for new jobs. Further, firms will only spend if they expect future increases in demand.  They won’t spend and invest just because they have more cash in their hands.  Since we have no assurance that a tax cut will result in enough new spending in the economy, Keynesians are more likely to argue for increased government spending because government spending directly creates demand for goods and services.  Contrary to critics’ claims, Keynesian policies are not based upon any ideological desire for socialism or government control.

So what do Keynesian policy proposals for creating more jobs look like?  Increased government spending is the answer.  In particular, while any spending will help, the most desirable forms of spending are public goods, things like infrastructure and schools, and also on social safety nets, things like unemployment compensation, social security, and Medicare. If a proposal calls for more infrastructure spending or extensions/increases in unemployment compensation, it is clearly inspired by theories/models with Keynesian roots.

Finally, there’s proposals that are inspired by the most progressive branches of modern macroeconomics.  Let’s call these proposals the Progressive proposals. Proposals in this area would involve would build upon the ideas of Keynesian group, but go further.  The spending would be greater and on a larger scale. Proposals in this area would call for programs where the government doesn’t just fund projects and buy goods, it actually creates programs that directly hire the unemployed.  Typically such programs are proposed to be temporary or designed in a way to only hire when the private sector won’t (see Bill Mitchell & Randy Wray’s Jobs Guarantee proposals).  These are not socialist or communist proposals.  That’s a whole different thing.  Often Progressive jobs-creation proposals include having the government initiate and fund large-scale infrastructure projects during periods of high unemployment.   This group, which has little popular voice among modern U.S. politicians, is inspired by what’s called Post-Keynesian and Modern Monetary Theories.   In many ways, the original Keynesian proposals for dealing with unemployment are closer to this group than to what we call Keynesian today.  Today’s Keynesians are actually pretty conservative when compared to historical policies.

So there we have it.  Four schools of thought and proposals for how to create jobs in the economy.

Despite the labels attached and misused by politicians, the reality is that the political discussion and policy recommendations of today, the ones with supporters in Congress or the White House, are actually quite conservative.  Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal in the 1930’s was actually rather Progressive.  In the 1950’s, 60’s, and 70’s, the dominant thinking in Washington was Keynesian.  In fact  a”centrist” politically in that era would have still been somewhat Keynesian on our scale above.  In the 1980’s though today, the “center” of mainstream politics has increasingly moved towards conservative thinking.  Today, for example, President Obama is actually pretty conservative.  He is certainly more conservative than the Republican Richard Nixon was in the 1970’s.

Let’s look at the latest proposal from the Obama administration for stimulating the economy to create jobs. It’s actually quite conservative and it’s not very Keynesian at all.  In fact, of the proposed $447 billion effort, less than 1/4 involves more spending for infrastructure or unemployment benefits.  That’s less than 1/4 of the proposal is basic Keynesian.  Instead, it’s overwhelmingly focused on tax cuts and business tax credits/incentives.  These are the policy proposals of a conservative.  Even the original 2009 “stimulus bill” was heavily oriented towards tax cuts and tax incentives.  Despite what critics said, less than half of it was traditional Keynesian stimulus. It’s a sign of how the U.S. political dialogue has shifted towards the conservative/far-conservative end that the Obama proposals have been challenged as “Keynesian” and Obama himself accused of being “socialist”.

* The word “liberal” is particularly problematic. The positions argued by today’s “conservatives” in the U.S. are in fact the positions that were historically identified as “liberal” going back to the 1800’s.  In the 1800’s “liberal” meant anti-government and pro-free market.  Yet, thanks to the power of talk radio and Republican presidential campaigns since the 1980’s, the word liberal has come to be used an epithet to describe opponents of conservatism.  I’ll stick with progressive to label this more left-wing end of the political spectrum to avoid the emotional taint that liberal carries these days.

The Mean and the Median Tell Two Different Stories

Averages, if you’re not careful, can as easily mislead as enlighten.  It matters a lot which statistical measure of the “average-ness” that’s used.  A good example comes in the case of the U.S. long-term trend of economic growth.  What we’re interested in is to what degree the amount of GDP the average household has available has increased over time.  It’s the prime way economists measure whether not living standards are improving.  GDP, of course, is the measure we use to count output in the economy.  GDP is the total market value of all goods and services produced for final demand in a year.   Real GDP is the inflation-adjusted version of it so we can compare GDP from different years.   But of course, just because total GDP, or even real GDP, is going up from year to year is no assurance that living standards are generally increasing.  After all, if real GDP grows by 1% per year but the population grows by 2% per year, there’s less per mouth each year.

So we need to adjust the real GDP measure to account for population growth. We want a measure of average GDP per person or average GDP per household.  Those readers who didn’t fall asleep in statistics class might recall that technically “average” isn’t a statistical measure.  Instead there are several different ways of calculating what statisticians prefer to call “central tendency” instead of “average”.  The two most common calculations in economics are the mean and median.  And there’s a huge difference between them.  The mean is  what you probably learned in primary school as the “average”.  To calculate it we take the total and divide by the number of people in the population.  When economists cite GDP per capita, we are, in fact, calculating the mean Real GDP per person.  The mean, the real GDP per capita for the U.S. over the last 34 years has grown at around a 1.9% annual rate.  That might not sound like much, but remember the power of compounding means that at 1.9%, mean real GDP per person will double in less than 40 years – one working lifetime.  Sounds good, right?  Sounds like the American dream in action, right? Wrong.

Real GDP per capita when looking at the U.S. is highly misleading because most of the growth only goes to the top 1% income folks.  The vast majority of Americans, the other 99% of us, haven’t experienced anything like that growth.  To see the difference let’s consider real income of the median household.  Remember Gross Domestic Income is the same as Gross Domestic Product.  It’s just counted differently by counting income available to spend instead of actual spending.  Long run, they are the same.  Now let’s quick review what the median is. The median is the middle observation. It means that there’s as many observations with a lesser value as there are with a greater value.  In this context it means that there are exactly as many households with a smaller income as there are households with a larger income.  It’s another way of looking at the average.  In this case we’re looking for the most typical household.  Statistics note:  mean will equal median if both sides of the distribution are identical, but in income this isn’t true – millionaires, billionaires, and rich households are a lot richer than the $49,700 median income but the poorest households can only $49,700 poorer at most.

In the U.S. over the last 34 years, the median household income has only grown at less than 0.5% per year despite increases in education.  So real GDP per person grows at 1.9% per year, but real median income only grows less than 0.5% per year.  At 0.5%, it will take 150 years for income to double.  End of the American dream of doing a lot better than your parents. What accounts for the difference?  It’s the upper 1% of the income distribution, the rich folks, millionaires and billionaires, that have skimmed off the 65% of all of the GDP gains for 34 years.

Princeton economics professor Uwe Reinhardt explains in the NYTimes Economix blog:

So if an American macroeconomist — a specialist who tends to think of nations as people — or high-level government officials or politicians mimicking a macroeconomist boasted on a television talk show that “average family income grew by 3 percent during 2002-7, more than in most European economies,” about 99 percent of American viewers, reflecting on their own experience, would probably scratch their heads and wonder, “What is this guy talking about?”

The third chart, below, exhibits the growth path of real G.D.P. per capita in the United States over the period 1975-2009 and the corresponding path of real median household income. The data show that over the 34-year period, real G.D.P. per capita rose by an annual compound rate of 1.9 percent. Those data come from the Economic Report of the President to the Congress (Tables B-2 and B-34).

Sources: Economic Report of the President to Congress (G.D.P.); Census Bureau (income)

According to the Census Bureau data (see Table H-6), however, median household income in the United States rose by less than 0.5 percent a year. Other than national pride in league tables, that 1.9 percent average economic growth does not mean much for the experience of the median household in the United States.

GDP and GDI: Two Sides of the Same Coin (Theoretically)

One of the starting points for understanding macroeconomics is to understand basic measures of the economy and what we call the “circular flow” of goods and services.  The “circular flow” refers to the idea that firms are the economic “agents” who produce and sell all our goods and services for sale, and that households are the folks who consume those goods.  Of course in reality, both groups are made up of the same people, but we divide up the activities into firms and household consumption.  Given this division of activities into two groups, the circular flow is the idea that the groups both buy and sell to each other.  Households buy the products sold by firms, but households also sell their labor to the firms.  This is all good and it shows how interdependent firms and households are.  Firms can’t hire and pay if they don’t sell products, but households can’t buy those products unless they are able to sell their labor to the firms.

We generally measure the size of an economy by adding up the total value of all the goods and services that are produced and then sold.  This is what we call GDP – Gross Domestic Product.  GDP is the accepted way to measure the size of an economy.  The GDP number as observed and estimated each period is what should technically be called Nominal GDP.  It’s the starting point for estimating Real GDP.  Real GDP is GDP adjusted for changes in the overall level of prices – it takes the inflation/deflation out of the GDP numbers so we can compare GDP from different time periods.

The GDP numbers as reported by the government agencies is generally computed by observing and at times estimating how much spending happened.  In other words, it’s an attempt to add up the value of all final sales by firms of the products they produced.  A “final” sale means the product has been sold to someone who intends to use it up or consume it as opposed to reselling it or making it into an even better product.

There is however another way to estimate GDP.  Since the total value of what firms produce is the money the firms receive, then we could look at how that money is disposed of by those firms.  Put in other words, instead of looking at what households spend to buy goods and services, we can look at the income households received.  We could look at the other side of the circular flow.  When calculated this way, we give it a slightly different name: Gross Domestic Income or GDI.  Because of the circular flow, the two sides shoudl be the same.  In other words, in theory GDP should equal GDI.  In general and over the long haul they do.

Of course theory and practice sometimes differ.  On a quarter-by-quarter basis, GDI and GDP differ slightly because of difficulties in measuring precisely – what we call statistical discrepancy.  Occasionally the discrepancy is bigger than other times for reasons economists don’t fully understand.  The first half of 2011 was one of those periods.  So was 2007.  But as you can see from this graph (thanks to James Hamilton at Econbrowser), in general GDP does equal GDI.


US Government Bond Market & Interest Rate Watch – No Signs of Worry Over Deficits, Inflation, or Default

Just a quickie to bring your attention to this, yesterday’s close on the U.S. Government bond market as reported by Google Finance. Note the 10 year bond – less than 2%.

Bond Maturity Yield (effective interest rate) change in points(percent)
3 Month 0.01% 0.00 (0.00%)
6 Month 0.04% +0.01 (33.33%)
2 Year 0.19% +0.01 (5.56%)
5 Year 0.86% 0.00 (0.00%)
10 Year 1.99% -0.07 (-3.40%)
30 Year 3.30% -0.11 (-3.23%)

Why does this matter?

There’s two reasons.  First, the politicians and economists who have been opposed to stimulus efforts, either deficit spending increases or monetary stimulus, have been screaming for well over three years now that  these policies were “reckless” and going to lead to inflation.  Some of the more shrill have been seeing “hyperinflation just around the corner”.  They’ve been saying this for a long time but the inflation and hyperinflation simply aren’t happening.  Why?  Well they’ve argued this because they subscribe to economic theories such as quantity theory of money, crowding out, efficient markets, and a whole host of other neo-classical/neo-liberal theories.  These are the same people that claim Keynesian or post-Keynesian or Modern Monetary Theory is totally wrong.  But the data disagree.  These same critics were the ones pushing Washington to cut the budget and not raise the debt-ceiling limit.  They put concerns about the deficit ahead of concerns about jobs or growth rates despite having over 9% unemployment and over 16% slack in the system. They’re wrong. The data and investors in markets are showing them wrong.  Bond buyers aren’t worried about the U.S. becoming another Greece because they know it’s not possible.  Instead the big money is worried about the lack of economic growth and the potential for banking failures in Europe, and that leads them to want to park their money in the safest thing around: U.S. bonds.

The second reason is because these rates are so low, it’s foolish for the government to not borrow more money and invest it in the country’s future. Readers of this blog and my students should know that the U.S. government is not like a household and doesn’t  face the same budget constraints.  But even if you do believe that, why wouldn’t you borrow money at less than 2% and invest it in projects like infrastructure, innovation, and education that bring a rate of return well above that?  There’s no evidence that the private sector is doing any of this investing and the nation has plenty of idle capacity and idle workers that the private sector has shown it won’t hire.  Why shouldn’t a rational government borrow and invest in growing future GDP?  There’s no reason not to as long as you are sincerely committed to economic growth.

If we consider the real rate of interest (the nominal or face rate of interest minus the expected inflation rate) we get pretty much 0%.  The money is being offered to the government essentially for free, yet opponents of stimulus don’t want to borrow it. Proof of this is that TIPS bonds, which are a variety of U.S. government bond where the interest payments and principle is indexed for inflation, are trading with a negative interest rate these days.  The ironic part is that the very people opposed to government borrowing in this environment are often the same people who claim government should act more like a business.  Any rational business that had profitable investment opportunities and also had access to borrow at essentially 0% would rush to say “where do I sign to borrow?”