The problem with the current structure of our safety net programs

All predominantly capitalist societies, in one form or another, have some type of safety net in place. The rationale for them are diverse, but nonetheless compelling. Most obvious is the safety net’s role in preventing citizens from experiencing the suffering of abject poverty, to the extent that their very survival is at stake. Besides this, safety nets play crucial roles in stabilizing the business cycle, reducing structural unemployment (arguably, by allowing people time to find jobs that best match their skill-sets), and boosting productivity by boosting citizen well-being.

America’s complicated web of social assistance programs also serve these crucial purposes, albeit oftentimes inefficiently and rather ineffectively. Multiple programs tend to overlap, and many are desperately under-funded and poorly designed. Yet arguably the most damaging aspect of America’s social safety model isn’t the public element; rather, its the usage of the private sector for purposes of social justice.

Take, for example, the current structure of our post-World War 2 healthcare system. Utilizing tax exemptions, the government essentially subsidizes employer-sponsored health coverage for employees, incentivizing employers and employees alike to obtain generous employer coverage. In other words, the government uses the private sector to achieve the goal of public health. The ACA worsens this via the “employer mandate”, forcing employers with 50 or more “full-time employees” to provide coverage to their employees or pay a penalty. Rather than ensuring skimpy but adequate government insurance for all citizens as a safety net baseline, the government uses the private sector to do its bidding so as to avoid the label of “government takeover of healthcare” and to give the appearance of limited government.

Arguably, the same might be said for the imposition of the minimum wage. Rather than guarantee its citizens a bare minimum financial safety net, it forces businesses to look after employee’s personal well-being themselves (which, obviously, one can make an argument that businesses looking out for their employees and not “taking advantage” of them is a good thing that is to be desired; but the point that the government seems to offload its responsibilities to its citizens by placing it on the shoulders of businesses shouldn’t be automatically ignored).

This (arguably, uniquely American) structure likely has many ill-effects. First, rightly or wrongly, it places the responsibility of minimum standards on institutions whose foremost goal is the achievement of profit (which is not a criticism; it is, rather, the natural aim of businesses) which, although oftentimes in alignment with the goal of worker well-being, is not always so, especially in industries with large quantities of lower-skilled labor. Second, this model inherently has rather large amounts of red tape imposed upon businesses that make it much more difficult to function efficiently and without liability. This can often create scenarios of costs vastly outweighing the benefits, hurting citizens more than it helps. Third, it is an incomplete safety net model, as many people are temporarily (or for longer periods of time) disenfranchised from the labor market, and therefore have little to no interaction with the businesses  the government attempts to use to achieve social goals.

None of this is to say there is zero need for internal regulation of businesses or that businesses can’t play a role in the social safety net. But we should consider the idea that there are many circumstances in which the government ought to play a role in provisioning social assistance that is entirely independent and separated from private business – both for the benefit of business, and the benefit of society as a whole. Right now, in my opinion, we have too much government manipulation of the private sector for social aims – and not so much to show for it.

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The Importance of Context

Harry Truman, in speaking about his frustrations with his economic policy advisers, once quipped “Give me a one-handed economist. All my economists say, ‘On the one hand…on the other…'”. Not only is this characterization of economics one of its more appealing features to me, but I think this “it depends” mentality needs to be adapted more widely in discussions of policy and politics. Too often, a culture of puritanical ideological dispositions with one-size-fits-all prescriptions for our problems dominates, when in reality, nothing is quite that simple.

Take taxes, for example. On one side, the drumbeat is that taxes must always be lower, as this will be “good” for the economy. On the other side, the drumbeat is that taxes (especially for the “rich”) must be higher, as this will be “good” for society. While these principles are fine as general rules, they become extremely problematic when they become the sole determinant of a policy decision, without taking into account other factors. For instance, tax cuts could be “good” for the economy, but it depends on the answers to several other questions, including “What are current levels of taxation, in a historical context?” “Are current levels of taxation “low” or “high”? How do we define those?” “Do current levels of taxation produce economic harms greater than any additional revenue generated?” “How would the economy respond in the short-run? Is this desirable, given current conditions?” “How would the economy respond in the long-run? Is this desirable, given expected conditions?” “Are the benefits of tax cuts of size x of greater utility than the costs (e.g. spending cuts, extra debt, etc.) of said tax cut?” “Are the opportunity costs of a tax cut (e.g. foregone investment, less debt, etc.) of greater value than the economic benefits of the tax cut?” Even more important are the answers to questions relating to values and goals. What are the outcomes we are trying to accomplish? Does the proposed solution help to generate that outcome? What can we consider as a “good” or “bad” outcome?

Politics boils down needed detailed discussion to basic slogans that are more easily understood by the public. This is good for getting people at least marginally involved in policy discussions, but the problem with this is that it can lead to solutions that are inappropriate for a given situation. You can generally be for certain policies based on certain principles, but I think it is unwise to glue yourself to specific policies based on principles without allowing for situational context to inform the creation of your solution. The same can be said for ideological labeling, which too often gives people the impression that ideas and solutions are always mutually exclusive from one another for a given person. For example, if someone either describes themselves as a “conservative” or a “liberal” (or is generally considered to be so), it is often assumed they will always be for specific policies all the time (e.g. lower taxes for the former, or universal healthcare for the latter) and never for things considered contrary to their ideology. While this isn’t entirely unrealistic (as many people do adopt such blunt thinking that consistently fits certain labels), it is not always the case, and certainly doesn’t have to be the case. A person can generally describe themselves as a conservative, but advocate for “liberal” positions on certain issues for specific situations (or even hold “liberal” positions on certain issues more generally). For example, a person can generally hold the belief that lower taxes are “good” for society, but support raising them or not cutting them in certain situations (e.g. if the’re already “low” as defined, to balance the budget, etc.). General support for a specific set of ideologies need not (and I argue should not) exclude any support for things considered contrary to their basic principles. A rigid adherence to principle is not efficient, nor optimal, for policy solutions, and divides people in ways that make it difficult to work together constructively. This is precisely why I think that there are really at least two different types of beliefs that ought to be recognized: general beliefs and principles, and positions for specific situations (that might seemingly run contrary to one’s general beliefs and principles). Not only does this describe reality a bit more accurately, but it should become ingrained in our politics. Instead of “I believe this which automatically= specific policy position”, it should be “I believe this in general, but it depends for specific issues and situations”.

To sum up: context is important. Without it, we cannot respond appropriately to certain problems, and if people are seen as strict adheres to principles regardless of the specifics of a given situation, divisions increase, and compromise is rendered impossible. Unfortunately for us, that far too often seems to be the case in the stunted world of modern politics.

I hate to sound like a deficit hawk, but…

I’d like to elaborate on this post more soon with more detail (and fun graphs), but the topic of fiscal policy and continuing federal budget deficits has been on my mind lately. My thoughts are:

  1. The economy is operating close enough to full potential that any Keynesian deficit-financed stimulus would potentially be counterproductive at this point. Similarly, continued annual deficits increasingly run the risk of crowding out private sector spending as resources are used to fuller capacity. If crowding out were to occur, interest rates would almost certainly rise, hurting growth. Though economic slack does remain, we should be increasingly cautious about running large-ish deficits in the coming years.
  2. Our long-term debt sustainability issues (which are our actual problems) certainly are not helped by short-term debt accumulation. Though acceptable in times of economic downturn and during recovery, short-term debt accumulation is less acceptable when an economy is both growing and has almost returned to near full operating capacity. If we continue to run structural (e.g. cyclical = 0) deficits, as we have for the past four decades, even in good times, our capacity to deal with the coming surge of entitlement spending will be greatly diminished. In many ways, though, we’re already too late on this regard.
  3. It might even be optimal to try to run a balanced or even more than balanced (e.g. surplus) budget for a few years. Normally, the rule-of-thumb is that, in the long run, annual debt growth (which roughly equal annual deficits) must be equal to or less than annual economic growth in the long-run (indicating that even balanced budgets are technically required for sustainability). Though this is now the case at the moment, our current deficit of around 3% of GDP is only small enough to about stabilize our debt/GDP ratio of around 75%, not reduce it. And arguably, reductions in debt/GDP would be preferable soon to give us more room for the coming entitlement spending and any future recessions we might encounter (and also to reduce the risk of a debt crisis).
  4. At the very least, we should continue to try to reduce our structural budget deficits while promoting long-term government investments (for example, in infrastructure, R&D, etc.). At the present time, further fiscal stimulus would seem inappropriate; the window for action has passed.
  5. Reduction of budget deficits is not only about timing, but rates of change (which is where the calculus comes in). Any plan must not just offer targets and amounts, but how quickly those targets and amounts are to be achieved and any feedback loops that might ensue
  6. None of the presidential candidates offers a viable long-term deficit reduction/debt stabilization plan, which is appalling. Indeed, many (especially Trump and Sanders) would dramatically increase our rate of debt accumulation in a very unsustainable way. Though many candidates offer proposals for productive spending, both that spending and, more crucially, the coming increase in mandatory program spending should be at least partially paid for, via tax increases or spending cuts. None elaborate on such a plan.

In my world, the government would:

  1. Enact reforms to mandatory programs (e.g. Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid) that progressively reduced benefit growth and raised more dedicated revenue (for example, by increasing the payroll taxes’ income cap)
  2. Reduce wasteful spending in the form of corporate subsidies (e.g. agricultural, fossil fuel), DOD procurement waste, redundant programs (for example, many overlapping government assistance programs)
  3. Raise general revenue (via reductions in excludability of health insurance from taxation, gradual phase-out of mortgage interest deduction, caps on deductions/deductability of some items, etc.)
  4. Modestly raise spending on direct R&D and R&D tax credit, transportation (highway) funding, job training programs

A more detailed discussion of the fiscal situation and solutions I would endorse will follow soon. But I thought it would be good to write down my general thoughts on the matter.

Defining Definitions in our Election Discourse

This post’s main purpose is to serve as an outlet of frustration over the muddling of definitions that is particularly prevalent in this election cycle. Prior to 2015, Americans’ understanding of the meaning and beliefs of different political ideologies already seemed confused (in my opinion). However, the rhetoric of political candidates has not helped. In particular, my complaints lie mainly with Bernie (who, for some inexplicable reason, has still not conceded to Clinton’s insurmountable delegate lead in the Democratic nomination). People seem to think he has done a service for the country by helping to “de-stigmatize” the word socialism, which is considered to be a much more prevalent ideology and economic system in Western European countries. However, I think that he has actually made things worse for political discourse by 1) confusing people about what pure, traditional economic socialism really is 2) by confirming the false belief among many that American liberals are actually best defined as socialists, when I’d argued they’re much more pro-capitalism than pro-socialism and 3) Potentially de-emphasizing needed attention on the very real destructiveness that pure socialist economics has historically wrought on societies and the many lessons that they entail. I will begin by laying out the different terms and what I think the definitions truly are before proceeding to the other arguments noted above.

  1. Socialism: Bernie Sanders likens himself as a socialist at heart. But is he really best described as that? My definition of socialism falls along with the economic, traditional definition of socialism. Particularly, it entails the “common ownership and control of the means of production”, typically by the state (although historically, many variations of socialism have appeared in which other entities, institutions, or the masses themselves own and control the means of production). The means of production are any economic inputs (typically tangible and physical) used to create economic value or output. They can include machinery, factories, roads, infrastructure, educational institutions, etc. In my mind, if Bernie Sanders was truly a socialist, he would advocate for the government to both own and control virtually all of the means of production (including businesses, factories, etc.) This would entail a program of large-scale nationalizations of industry. Aside from “nationalizing” (better termed as a national replacement) of health insurance and 100% public funding/control of tertiary education, however, he has no such program, and largely keeps in place private ownership and control of the means of production (e.g., he allows for businesses to continue to be privately owned and operated). Consideration of the fact that all societies have different ratios of private and public ownership of the means of production leads to the important point that these ideologies and policies do lie along a spectrum. But in describing whether he better fits a socialist mold or a capitalist mold, he’s arguably more pro-capitalism than pro-socialism in general. Only his advocacy of nationalized health insurance and tertiary education would make him truly relativelymore socialist than other candidates, per my definition. Instead, his policies reflect interventionism within the confines of a predominantly capitalist economic framework that he’d like to keep intact (e.g. the taxation and regulation of a capitalist economy, with other interventions in the form of government spending). As a result, he’s much better described as a social democrat or an American liberal than a socialist…
  2. Social Democracy/American Liberalism: First, it’s important to note that these two terms are not the same. But they are quite similar. Essentially, both argue, in consideration of my definition of socialism, in a capitalist mixed economy with heavy amounts of government intervention (taxation, spending, regulation). Although these ideologies do entail some elements of pure socialism (e.g. public roads, public schools, national health insurance, etc.), they are far from pure USSR-style socialism, as private industry is still prevalent (indeed, dominate) within their prescribed economic systems. Now, granted, the taxation and regulation of capitalist institutions that they advocate for entails some control of these private means of production by the state. But not full control by any means, and certainly not actual ownership, as pure, traditional socialism would entail. It is also true that social democracy did start out as an ideology of gradual reform of capitalism into a system of socialism via democratic means over time. Now, however, like American liberalism, it’s essentially the definition stated above, with an emphasis on income redistribution and social justice. Therefore, in social democracy and American liberalism, capitalism still reigns, and given Bernie’s proposals, he best fits within these categories (which, by the way, I’m far from the first person to notice or argue).

A few things to derive from above:

1) These terms are all pretty vague and overlapping, even utilizing the narrowest of definitions. There’s technically no 100% correct description to be found for different candidates and economic systems.

2) Economic systems typically contain a mixture of capitalist and socialist elements. In my view, it’s the extent that some elements dominate that truly characterizes systems and people’s political ideologies (e.g., if more common ownership of the means of production prevails in an economy or a person advocates for mostly common ownership, it’s a socialist economy or the person is socialist, respectively). This observation of non-purity can also lend support for a dialogue of relativity (e.g., someone or some economy is relatively more socialist or relatively more capitalist than another).

3) In my opinion, the taxation, regulation, and spending of social democratic and American liberal policy aren’t exactly socialist elements (at least, not pure elements; perhaps quasi-elements). Rather, I would argue they are forms of interventionism within a fundamentally/overwhelmingly capitalist framework (private ownership of the means of production). Thus, Bernie is a social democrat/American liberal, and American liberals are not truly socialists.

4) It should be clear that, even in overwhelmingly capitalist America, true socialist elements do exist that actually serve useful functions. Public roads, public schools, public infrastructure, etc. are indeed prevalent in all overwhelmingly capitalist economies and can technically be characterized as true examples of socialist ownership and control. What really matters is what economic means of production are private versus public and balance of the ratios in determining economic and societal well-being.

All of this is also not to say that the taxation, spending, and regulation advocated for by social democrats and American liberals do not have some negative consequences, even if such interventions are not really “socialism” (e.g. system is still mostly privately owned/controlled). And it’s especially not to say that purely applied, across the board economic socialism is not destructive, when it clearly has been in the past (USSR, China, Vietnam, etc.) The economic misallocation of resources stemming from predominate state socialist ownership and control (and the ensuing incentive and signalling problems) brought upon massive economic hardship and destruction of human well-being in multiple countries throughout the 20th century. That’s what’s truly concerning to me. Although socialism shouldn’t be the taboo word it has been, considering it is found to be functioning within American society at this very moment, people should be very weary of the extent of its application and for which segments of the economy it is applied to. The very same can be said for capitalism, too. Thus, we need to shy away from puritanical, black versus white thinking – with its all-or-nothing propositions – and finally let informed, pragmatic thinking lead the way.

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Achieving a “2020” Vision

I wouldn’t be surprised if people on the internet have already used this play on words, but seriously – why isn’t this a major campaign slogan yet? Even if the vision is inarticulate and 2020 has nothing to do with the objectives, it’s still a catchy phrase.

But I take it one step further by integrating it into a neat little tax plan. Specifically: 20% flat rate. $20,000 standard deduction. By 2020.  It’s that easy.

Here’s how my dream plan would work:

  • Repeal the current income tax code.  Replace with a 20% flat rate applied to all taxable income (including capital income).  This provision contains a lot of benefits, with some amendable drawbacks.  A flat 20% rate would be fair and efficient.  Everyone could calculate it (exactly 1/5 of their taxable income), and its simplicity would destroy the artificial need for tax-preparation services.  This saves the economy billions in both dollars & hours.  It is reasonably fair – proportionally, everyone pays the same, but the rich still pay more in absolute amounts.  It would not change the tax owed by those with capital income too much (already, the top rate on capital gains is around 20%).  Additionally, its simplicity is pro-poor, who often lack the resources for tax consultation services.  Granted, it would represent, in some ways, a “tax hike” for many lower and middle-income people (who previously had lower rates applied to their incomes).  But this can be at least partially (if not fully) offset by a much higher personal exemption and preservation/improvement of a few antipoverty tax-credits (see below).
  • Introduce a $20,000 personal exemption for all households, indexed to inflation.  Starting in 2020, this generous exemption amount would be fully phased in.  It essentially means that not a penny of every dollar up to $20,000 per year will have the income tax applied to it.  In this way, people at or near poverty would not see their tax burdens increased (for many, potentially decreased compared to the current system).  Indeed, it’s at least five times larger than the current personal exemption ($4,000) and provides complete relief to people whose income is nearly twice the poverty line ($11,770/year in 2015).  The exemption amount would be adjusted for non-real increases in income (e.g. inflation) on an annual basis, chained to the index of the candidate’s choice.  Such a high exemption amount should help pave the way for elimination (or near-elimination) of any deductions (especially itemized deductions, such as the mortgage interest deduction, which primarily benefits wealthy taxpayers).  Among the biggest benefits in the vision’s exemption provision is that it allows for some continued progressivity in the tax code.  For example, a person with $20,000 in annual income would pay 0% in income taxes ($20,000 total income – $20,000 exemption = $0 in taxable income * 20% = $0 in taxes = 0% of total income); in contrast, someone with an income of $100,000 would pay about 16% in income taxes ($100,000 total income – $20,000 exemption = $80,000 in taxable income * 20% = $16,000 in taxes = 16% of total income).  So, the effective tax rate is progressive (increases by income), but it is proportionally the same for everyone above $20,000.

And there you have it.  Those two elements – the 20% rate with the $20,000 personal exemption – form the 2020 in the plan.  Benefits, already described somewhat above, include:

  • Simple calculation
  • Elements of fairness (combo of progressivity and equal proportionality)
  • Would likely boost growth & efficiency of tax collections
  • Could very well boost economic growth
    • simple calculation = less time & resources devoted to calculation = higher productivity, savings
    • lower rates boost economic demand and/or supply

Drawbacks include an uncertain impact on the federal budget and the tax burden of the poor/middle class.  For the former, there is reason to think that this plan could well boost tax revenues (thereby helping to close the annual deficit).  The simple calculation of the tax could boost compliance, and the higher growth it could produce would mean higher incomes = more revenues.  Additionally, the elimination of many deductions and credits would save a ton of money; currently, federal tax expenditures total around $1 trillion per year.  As for the burden on the poor/middle class, this plan could entail the loss of several tax credits or deductions that currently benefit them.  To mitigate the impact, some of these credits/deductions could be maintained, but at the threat of making the plan less fiscally sustainable.  Additionally, the impact on those whose incomes are not high but fairly above the poverty line (e.g. those above $20,000, but not too far above) is concerning; it’s unclear whether the proposed tax plan would represent a sizable increase in their tax burden relative to the current system (despite the $20,000 exemption).  People will also scream that this is a tax cut for the rich (who face marginal tax rates of up to almost 40% in the highest income quintiles).  However, it’s important to remember that even the effective income tax rate of the richest in America usually comes in around 20%.  With the 20% rate applied to all of the income of the super-rich (except the first $20,000), their effective rate will basically be 20%.  And with the elimination of some of their favorite deductions and loopholes, it could even represent a tax hike for them.

For too long, our political system has been paralyzed by short-term thinking and an unhealthy attachment to everyday opinion polls.  Now more than ever is the time for policymakers to start projecting clear, attainable visions for the future, with workable frameworks.  When it comes to the tax code, this plan isn’t anywhere near perfect; not by a long shot.  But it’s a place for them to start.

 

 

 

American Freedom: it’s time to put a ring on it

Well, this is it. Any day now (possibly within just hours of this posting), the Supreme Court will finally determine the constitutional status of gay marriage nationwide; and in the process, will likely end up overturning the few remaining barriers to a new era of positive freedom for the United States. Though being deliberated on by just nine elderly justices, I’m confident their determination will reflect both the overwhelming tide of public opinion and the true meaning of liberty as intended by the Constitution. It is something that is inevitable; it is something that is unprecedented; and simultaneously, at the same time, it is something that is long, long overdue.

To many, this will be a bitter pill to swallow (surprise!) . I know, because at one point, that would’ve been my situation. Social conservatism is a very powerful force in this country. That’s not at all inherently a bad thing (I’d argue much of that sentiment is actually a force for much good), and many well-meaning, good people, people whom I love very much, hold very traditional, socially conservative values.  And they have a right to do so.  But the ideology and core beliefs that they espouse has a tendency (sometimes, but not always) to overrule independent thinking, or the ability to think of different possibilities and to adapt accordingly (although to be fair, that’s generally true for all ideologies).  The value system that structures “traditionalists'” world, in reaction to a non-traditional concept, tells them no, or that it’s wrong, and that no other reality can or ever should exist.  Whether it be for moral or religious or status quo reasons, preservation of “tradition” (as constructed) is key.  Anything else is a threat, and is labeled as wrong and undesirable accordingly.

I deeply understand all of this; again, like I said, I was at that point once.  But I strongly challenge all those who still hold “traditional” views to seriously rethink their positions; if not on every social issue (which is understandable), then at the very least on this issue of gay marriage.  Because the arguments for gay marriage are simply overwhelming on all angles – from a societal, economic, and moral standpoint.  Now, it should go without saying I won’t be able to address anywhere near the full amount of arguments both sides pose (nor do I really want to), and I’m certainly not an expert on anything.  But here are a few brief things that I think people who oppose gay marriage should consider (and yes, full disclosure, my opinion is injected into many of these arguments):

1)  First and foremost, having “unconventional” attractions is simply NOT a choice.  Too many people, too many studies, too many instances in the animal kingdom confirm this.  And I have no idea why someone would EVER choose (given rampant societal discrimination) to have “unconventional” attractions.  It’s a perfectly natural thing that just is.  If this cannot be swallowed, spend some time on it (especially if you want to even begin considering gay marriage pros/cons).  If second-hand sources don’t suit you, then please, go out and meet people who have these “unconventional” attractions (there are many such people – more than you’d think – and whether they identify as LGBTQ or not).  Your perspective will be transformed; perhaps not instantly, but inevitably, it will be.

2) America is (quite simply) built for freedom (including religious) and the pursuit of happiness.  If you object to gay marriage, you can freely say so, refuse to endorse it, say you think it is wrong, etc.  Those are all legitimate beliefs you are entitled to personally have.  But America’s promise is to allow all people to live their lives as they see fit to pursue happiness (as long as they are not harming anyone else).  If you object on religious grounds, that’s fine; but America is not about forcing people (via the government, of all institutions) to be confined to your beliefs, or for you to be forced to follow theirs.  Let’s not deny any group of people their right to pursue happiness; especially those who are not harming others or infringing upon anyone else’s rights.

3) Gay marriage does NOT harm anything, including the institution of marriage.  Quite the contrary; it bestows countless benefits from almost every angle imaginable.  To put it in a rambling, incoherent sort of way: economically, expanded marriage rights increases people’s financial security, decreasing expenditures on social assistance programs. This reduces the budget deficit, resulting in lower-than-status-quo-trajectory debt levels.  Psychologically/economically, expanded marriage rights boosts happiness/self esteem, leading to higher productivity and more economic growth. This allows for more tax revenues/less social expenditures, again resulting in a lower budget deficit and lower-than-status-quo-trajectory debt levels.  Socially, expanded marriage rights helps to save (not destroy) the institution of marriage, which is already crumbling due to 50% + divorce rates among “traditional” marriages.  Socially again, expanded marriage rights helps to reinvigorate the nuclear family (again, crumbling largely due to high divorce rates).  Again from a social standpoint, marriage is not an unchanging institution (it has changed countless times over centuries and millenia).  Thus, the expansion of marriage rights does not constitute an attack on marriage.   Socially/morally, expanded marriage rights allows for continued/easier discussion on the inherent humanity and entitlement to equality of LGBTQ people, providing progress towards further acceptance and integration (among other economic, psychological, social benefits, etc.).  Morally, it also represents a basic expansion of positive freedoms (freedoms to do something, not from something), which, especially in this case , is a very good thing.    And the list can go on and on and on.

Nothing I’m writing here is in any way revolutionary, or is something that hasn’t been said before. Really, all I’m doing is simply adding my voice to the voices of millions of my (far more courageous) fellow millennials in calling for full marriage equality within the United States, and providing a short list of supporting rationales. But I felt like I should at least go on record expressing said support, mere hours/days before a ruling, even if it ultimately does nothing to change the minds of naysayers.  Because right now, fifteen years into the 21st century, it is time for American freedom to start reaching its fullest extent possible – and for us to finally do the right thing, and put a ring on it. Those who have been denied the right to marry whom they love, simply because of who they are, surely deserve nothing less than that.

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Not yet, Janet: America’s still not ready for a higher target rate

A common observation of my blog by readers is the fact that I don’t oftentimes take strong positions on the issues I discuss.  At first,  I took these comments with great pride, because being impartial and presenting multiple possibilities to a question is the defining hallmark of the economics profession.  President Harry Truman once remarked: “Give me a one-handed economist! All my economics say, ”On the one hand, on the other…”.  But, as the Truman quote suggests, this is not always a splendid thing.  People want precise answers and opinions; and although I do oftentimes think in ways that incorporates both sides of an argument, I am not without biases of my own.  So to mix it up a bit, I’m going to prominently infuse those biases into the posts I make.

And what a perfect time to do so, because policymakers (particularly of the monetary kind) have some big decisions to make soon.  The context can be painted as the following: the American economy is finally operating close to (or much closer to) its productive capacity.  Official employment is almost “full” (with U3 at 5.5% in May), and wages are finally beginning to rise at a faster clip (nominal wages are up 2.3% year-over-year in May, the fastest since 09′).  But inflation remains very subdued, with year-over-year core PCE and CPI inflation rates still hovering between 1 and 2% (below the Fed’s 2% target).  The Fed, under the direction of chair Janet Yellen, has indicated (currently and historically) that it’s target for the Federal Funds rate (the key rate on overnight bank loans) will be raised once these thresholds are approached.  But there’s a few reasons why I think it needs to wait longer:

1) Historically, inflation hasn’t spiked when unemployment fell below its estimated “NAIRU” rate.  As noted elsewhere on this blog, as the U.S. economy reaches it’s productive capacity (equilibrium), this is likely to push up wages as employers compete more for a scarcer supply of workers. This helps to produce “wage-push” inflation; businesses hike prices to pay for higher wages (at least partially), and workers use their higher wages to push up aggregate demand in an economy already producing at capacity.  These capacity constraints also help to produce the “too much money chasing too few goods” explanation of inflation.  This means that, theoretically, we should see a rise in inflation very soon.

Except we probably won’t.  Why?  Due to historical experience and the readings of several other economic indicators, I don’t think the economy is actually near full capacity yet.  In other words, our estimates of the non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment (NAIRU) are too high.  The experience of the 1990’s (as elaborated on by Jared Bernstein and Dean Baker) provides support for this view.  Near the end of the decade, unemployment plummeted – from 5.6% in 1995 all the way down to 4% by year 2000.  NAIRU estimates for the year 2000 were consistently higher than the actual unemployment rates achieved; starting at 5.4% in 1994, those estimates actually increased to 5.8% in 1996 before dropping back down to 5.2% by year 2000.  In other words, economists expected inflation to start accelerating once U3 unemployment reached and fell below these rates.  Yet, as the charts below demonstrate, inflation (especially PCE less food & energy) barely budged during the 1990s – and actual unemployment rates were far below NAIRU estimates!  Part of that was no doubt due to the late 90’s productivity spurt, but productivity is still growing at a decent (if not stellar) clip right now, meaning more output can be produced with a given (or less) amount of input.  As more output can be squeezed out of given inputs, there is less of a need to raise prices to maintain profitability.  If now is anything like the late 90’s, productivity growth can absorb wage growth/cost pressures for a while before businesses will have to raise prices to maintain profits.  In other words, unemployment could fall a ways further from its current 5.5% rate before we start to see inflationary pressures, which means that our current NAIRU estimates (around 5-5.5%) are too high.  This would make sense; I feel like, ever since the 1970s hyperinflation episode, policymakers have been overly cautious in making sure that policy tightening begins before inflation gets too high.  Thus the artificially high NAIRU estimates.

Source:

Source: “The Unemployment Rate at Full Employment: How Low Can You Go?” by Jared Bernstein and Dean Baker. http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/11/20/the-unemployment-rate-at-full-employment-how-low-can-you-go/?_r=1

Source:

Source: “The Unemployment Rate at Full Employment: How Low Can You Go?” by Jared Bernstein and Dean Baker. http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/11/20/the-unemployment-rate-at-full-employment-how-low-can-you-go/?_r=1

Additionally, there are the countless other indicators that suggest the economy is still being underutilized.  The more comprehensive U6 unemployment rate, which, as the BLS describes, measures “…total unemployed, plus all persons marginally attached to the labor force, plus total employed part time for economic reasons, as a percent of the civilian labor force plus all persons marginally attached to the labor force”, still stands at 10.8% in May 2015 (seasonally adjusted).  The employment-to-population ratio has also yet to recover from the recession, standing at 59.4% in May 2015 (down from a cyclical high of 63.4% back in December 2006).

2) It’d be good to have a long period of low unemployment after the disastrous labor market of the past few years.  As everyone (especially recent college graduates) knows, the job market hasn’t been stellar for a while; it’s only just getting back to “normal”.  U3 hit a 3-decade high of 10.0% as recently as late 2009, the U-6 measures were even higher, and worst of all, long-term unemployment as a share of the unemployed hit both a record high and stayed high for a record amount of time (see chart below).  Such high rates of unemployment for such long periods of time undoubtedly have helped destroy millions of household finances over the years while also threatening to create structural unemployment (as skills atrophy and people become less “employable”).  I think, like a yo-yo, such high and extended periods of unemployment should swing the opposite way: exceptionally low unemployment for an exceptionally long period of time.  This will aid households in naturally repairing their finances (which did appear to actually “improve” over the years, but it seems personal bankruptcy and/or exceptionally painful (destructive?) saving were the main reasons).  It will allow workers to practice their skills and boost their self-esteem (which can create a virtuous cycle of higher productivity).  Additionally, it can also help to generate wage pressures so wages can “catch up” the ground they lost (as in, the growth that would have occurred had the economy been operating at full capacity since 2007).  Some might argue that this could threaten profits too much; however, coming at the heels of several years of record profits and high volumes of cash reserves, I think employers would be able to healthy absorb wage hikes for a fairly long period of time before this became an issue.

3) Continued loose policy would help counteract an over-appreciation of the dollar.  The U.S. dollar has gained rapidly against a basket of currencies since last fall (up by a full 21% against the Euro since this time last year).  There are many reasons for its rapid rise – a collapse in oil prices, investor confidence in the strength of the U.S. economy, and – ironically enough – investor expectations of a target rate hike.  The concern is that either this appreciation continues or that its rapid rise has already done too much damage.  Stronger currencies make exports more expensive (by boosting the relative prices of exporters and decreasing their competitiveness) while simultaneously making it relatively cheaper to import.  Though the latter is good for consumers, the combination of lower exports and higher imports wreaks havoc on the trade balance (which, for America, is almost always in deficit), thereby lowering GDP growth.  Arguably one of the biggest forces restraining the dollar from rising much further is a continuation of loose monetary policy.  End it, and the dollar rise alone could stall a still rather mediocre recovery (by historical standards).  Along with the other reasons above, it’d be preferable to continue a low target rate at least until some of the other pressures are alleviated.

4) Even if it did threaten to raise inflation a bit above current targets, this wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.  Look, too much inflation is bad.  Everyone knows that rising prices squeeze family budgets and distorts economic decision making (shifting future demand into the present to avoid higher future prices, leading to a negative feedback loop of higher inflation).  It’s literally a hidden (or not-so-hidden) tax that eats up the purchasing power of savings and investments.  But a little bit of inflation is not a bad thing.  Stable, fairly low inflation can actually benefit an economy.  It makes wages less sticky by placing pressure on employers to raise them (so employees can maintain cost-of-living).  By lowering the purchasing power of dollars spent on repaying fixed-amount burdens, it also reduces the real debt of indebted consumers who, after becoming extremely over-leveraged during the 2000s, could still use some relief so they can resume healthy (but moderate) spending.  This reduction in real debt burdens also goes for the federal government (whose $18 trillion tab, while manageable in a $17 trillion economy, could still use some relief).  Inflation a bit above the current target of 2% (say, 3 or 4%) would still be manageable; and in my opinion, is absolutely worth it if low unemployment can be attained.  Now, this does present a credibility problem for the Fed; it’s consistently stated that 2% target figure, and if inflation were to rise higher than that, then it could spook investors and lead to concerns that the Fed will not contain it (and that another Weimar Republic-style meltdown is on its way).  So perhaps the Fed should inform investors of a new, slightly higher target rate, while making it clear that absolutely no higher rates will ever be tolerated.  It might help to remind economic agents that these targets didn’t even exist as recently as 40 years ago, so it’s hardly like they’ve remained consistent.

5) A recession can still be handled by both fiscal and monetary policy, even if rates start out at zero.  So what if the Fed can’t lower nominal rates any further?  They have Q.E. and a general unlimited capacity to purchase securities, emergency lending capabilities, operation twist, forward guidance, etc., etc.  And there are tens of thousands of governments in the United States that theoretically have the capability to engage in expansionary fiscal policy (though the Federal government, with its unique status of having no balanced operating budget requirement, will probably remain the most potent public sector actor).  If you raised rates now and caused a recession, you probably still wouldn’t be able to cut them that far anyway (since they probably won’t reach that high before equilibrium is breached).

6) Savings rates were plummeting anyway…and the boost to equities is (arguably) still good.  Due to a myriad of factors (wage stagnation, cultural shifts, a global savings glut, etc.), Americans no longer save the way they used to.  Indeed, in 2005, the savings rate went negative for the first time since the Great Depression, and in recent years has only climbed back up to around 5%.  Too many trends outside of the Fed’s control will continue to keep downward pressure on savings rates.  And there’s no guarantee that a rise in the effective Fed Funds rate would necessarily translate into higher interest rates for savers (in savings accounts, C.D.’s, etc.)  Additionally, the effect of the Fed continue to purchase securities to maintain a low effective Fed Funds rate is to lower the yield (and boost the price) of bonds/securities, making equities relatively more attractive (for their higher returns).  This has allowed the stock market to soar, bolstering the “wealth effect” for households (prompting them to spend more) and increasing the returns to retirement accounts tied to the equity markets.  And we can’t forget the impact of low rates making long-term borrowing (e.g. for mortgages) easier, translating into higher house prices (and thus greatly boosting the wealth-effect for the middle class).

Overall, then, the argument against raising rates now is clear.  Now granted, the target rate will have to be raised eventually (probably within the next year or so) – these positive effects will not last forever, and there is a risk of overshooting targets and objectives if rates stay low too long.  But it’s time to break from the past policy hyper-conservatism and boldly declare a new approach; today’s challenging economic environment requires nothing less.

A Spring Cleaning for American Monetary Policy

The past several months have witnessed profound transformations in the state of America’s economic outlook. Output growth has accelerated, with annualized GDP growth rates of 4.6%, 5.0%, and 2.2% in Q2, Q3, and Q4 of 2014, respectively.  This has been accompanied by similarly impressive gains in the pace of job creation, with a full year’s worth of monthly net employment gains of over 200,000, and an unemployment rate increasingly dipping into “natural rate” territory (estimated to be between 5.2 & 5.5%, though recently revised to around 5.1%).  Oil prices have plunged since late 2014, helping to spur aggregate demand.  And the FY 2016 budget released by the Obama administration in early February continued the turnaround in federal fiscal policy, with large increases in proposed discretionary spending initiatives promising to accelerate (if implemented) the transition towards a more accomodative policy stance.

Real GDP Growth has trended upward in recent quarters.  Photo courtesy of the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Real GDP Growth has trended upward in recent quarters. Photo courtesy of the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Monthly net payroll growth has steadily increased as output growth has accelerated

Monthly net payroll growth has steadily increased as output growth has accelerated

The U3 unemployment rate measure is slowly converging towards the estimated natural rate of unemployment (NAIRU).

The U3 unemployment rate measure is slowly converging towards the estimated natural rate of unemployment (NAIRU).

All of this points towards an economy that is rapidly strengthening and should continue to do so as the year continues.  The impacts of oil & natural gas price declines have yet to fully ripple through the economy in the form of increased manufacturing competitiveness and higher consumption.  Firming employment figures should boost aggregate demand as more earnings are recycled into discretionary household purchases.  Higher stock and housing prices will continue to translate into “wealth-effect” consumer spending.  And rising retail sales should further spur investment, boosting current and long-run growth in the process.  Ceteris paribus – all else held equal (such as geopolitical happenings) – and there is little reason to expect for strong economic growth not to continue.

With the arrival of Spring on March 20th and the accompanying wave of household cleaning, as well as this unexpected barrage of good economic news, it is a good time to take stock of the current policy trajectory.  Considering it is in the news so much, and bears so much direct import on the macroeconomy, of primary concern is the stance of monetary policy.  How soon should the Fed tighten?

Currently, the main policy tool that is modulated by the Federal Reserve, the Federal Funds Target Rate, is set in a range from 0 – 0.25% – the lowest levels in its history.  This has been the case since late 2008, and the 6+ years since then has likewise marked the longest period of accomodative policy in history.

This is set to change.

Rumor has it that a long-awaited hike in interest rates (read: Fed Funds Target Rate) will proceed by the middle to late-middle of this year, though the rate of increase will be fairly gradual, perhaps around 50 basis points to .75% by late this year.  This has been the assumption of investors for awhile now, and seems to be the likeliest course of action.  But is it a good course of action?

My views are mixed, but side with pessimists who feel that even these gradual steps are too rapid.  First among my concerns is that the American economy is still no where close to “full employment”, one of the key elements of the Fed’s dual mandate.  The Economic Policy Institute estimates that U3 rates closer to 4.0% (instead of 5 – 5.5%) are more consistent with NAIRU (n0n-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment).  This would make sense, for though unemployment is now within reach of the Fed’s estimates for NAIRU, inflation has continued to trend down (turning into outright deflation in recent months as lower oil prices feed into general prices), and wage growth remains stagnant (at 2% nominal growth, real wage growth is too low to feed into wage-push inflation).

fredgraph

Rates of inflation are well below the Fed’s 2% annual target

 

Nominal Wage Growth Tracker

As demonstrated by the Economic Policy Institute’s Nominal Wage Tracker, wages are rising too slowly to be consistent with target wage and inflation growth.

 

We would expect wage growth to strengthen as we near the natural full rate of unemployment.  Rising demand for workers while the labor supply becomes more scarce boosts the bargaining power of workers to negotiate higher wages.  This wage growth is partially a pre-requisite for higher rates of inflation (closer to the 2% target).  Higher wages means that prices usually must be increased for businesses to maintain profits, and these higher prices then necessitate further wage hikes, creating a positive upward spiral that feeds into rising inflation.  Since both nominal wage growth and inflation rates are well below target, it appears that full employment has not yet been reached.

Some will argue that the existence of monetary policy impact lags (how long it takes for a policy change to have an effect) would justify a rate increase now, as several months from now, it may well be that full employment is reached and wage and price increases are accelerating, to the point that tighter policy is needed to mitigate.  However, even if it were so that we reach full employment on current trajectory (which, if EPI is right and NAIRU is closer to 4.0%, will be a ways into the future), I still think holding off on an increase is justifiable.  For one thing, wage growth has been subpar for many years – allowing it to catch up back to pre-recession trends wouldn’t be a bad idea.  This is especially true if the Fed is worried about the sustainability of the expansion.  Wage increases are necessary for increases in consumer spending (the driving force of the U.S. economy) to be sustained.  Allowing for months, if not a few years, of above-average wage & inflation growth might not be a bad thing for the sake of sustainability.

Given the existence of multiple tools to combat inflationary pressures and to prevent higher inflation rates from being too ingrained, I think the biggest drawback of this proposal of delayed tightening is that the Fed risks overshooting its employment target (meaning that unemployment is below its natural rate for an extended period of time).  Technically, this would be a violation of its dual mandate.  However, invoking the argument about this policy helping to produce long-run economic sustainability (to maintain full employment and stable prices), a temporary overshooting of the dual mandate targets might be statutorily justified.  It all depends on the timeframe the Fed chooses to create policy, which historically has been rather short (within months/a few years).  This is the difficult balancing act the Fed must consider, and which is statutorily ambiguous.

If it were to think more of the possible long-run consequences of its policies (especially as it relates to the dual mandate), an already difficult task suddenly becomes much, much more complex.  Further thinking and a cleaning of its future policy stance is in order…

TBC

Building a New Era of Governance – Part 2

6) Continue with efforts to reform the healthcare system.  Love it or hate it, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA, e.g. Obamacare) is here to stay (sorry Project 2017); at the very least, the law will not in its entirety be repealed.  The myriad subsidies, tax credits, and benefit requirements are far too popular; to repeal them would be political suicide.  What Congress needs to do now is to focus on modulating and improving upon what already exists.  Obamacare goes a ways towards addressing the pre-existing deficiencies in the system (although in an arguably inefficient and potentially self-defeating, if not destructive, manner).  These deficiencies are not hard to identify.  American healthcare is outrageously expensive (see below), and too few people have access to the system (anomalies which are very much related, via the effects of adverse selection).  Those who do have access (especially those on employer-sponsored plans) then face rigidities such as a lack of portability and increased dependency upon a single employment setting.  Obamacare generally does a pretty good job at addressing the lack of access to care; already, it has significantly boosted insurance rates via expansions of Medicaid and the provision of individual and business tax credits/subsidies.  The renewed ability of individuals to purchase insurance has also addressed the portability issue.  However, its record on holding down long-run costs appears to be more mixed.  It has provisions that simultaneously place downward and upward pressure on costs.  For the former, the individual mandate should help by increasing the pool of healthy individuals contributing to the system (countering adverse selection), offsetting the costs of newly-enrolled less-healthy individuals.  Additionally, the law contains numerous “experiments” designed to hold down costs, such as the creation of “bundled payment plans” as opposed to the traditional fee-for-service payment model (which rewards doctors on quantity, not quality, of services rendered).  At the same time, the law contains many expensive provisions, such as the prohibition of lifetime caps on benefits and new restrictions on varying premiums based on certain risk factors.  Thus far, costs have leveled off in recent years; then again, we did go through a massive recession that put a dent in demand for health services, and spending growth has been rising as of late, albeit very modestly.  Regardless of Obamacare’s impact on cost growth in particular, an ageing populace and the continued existence of marketplace distortions calls for continued efforts to make health spending more efficient and cost-effective.  I think that Republicans in Congress can pursue policy options that are both effective and politically sustainable.  They include the following:

In both relative and absolute terms, the United States spends far more resources than other countries on healthcare (source: vox.com)

 

The growth in healthcare expenditures has slowed in recent years, though its permanence has yet to be determined

The growth in healthcare expenditures has slowed in recent years, though its permanence has yet to be determined

PPACA has had a dramatic impact on the nation's uninsurance rate

PPACA has had a dramatic impact on the nation’s uninsurance rate

a) Repeal the Cadillac Tax, replace with a gradual phase-out of the tax exclusion on employer-sponsored insurance premiums.  While FDR’s World War 2 wage and price controls arguably created the present-day Employer Sponsored Health Insurance (ESHI) system, this policy has no doubt been greatly aided by the Federal government’s decision to exclude employer sponsored insurance from taxation (and kudos to Ike for making it open-ended in 1954!).  By excluding fringe benefits from taxation, the federal government has virtually subsidized the provision of employer-sponsored insurance.  From both an employer and employee perspective, $1 in healthcare is much more cost-effective than an additional dollar in wages.  This has led to costlier plans, and an increasing proportion of overall compensation being dedicated to benefits (as opposed to wages).  Adding insult to injury, the same tax benefits do not apply to individual plans, which are typically purchased using after-tax income (although Obamacare has implicitly equalized this a bit via the provision of subsidies and tax credits for individual plans).  To try and further “equalize” treatment, the authors of PPACA included the phase-in of a 40% tax on “Cadillac” insurance plans, specifically the cost of plans that exceed pre-determined thresholds (about $10,200 for individual coverage and $27,500 for family).  I see this tax as very arbitrary – 40% on randomly selected amounts, that has no guarantee of “equalizing” tax treatment between ESHI plans and individual plans.  The thing is, we already have taxes in place (federal income & payroll taxes) that could apply to these premiums; it’s just that the government has exempted them completely.  In addition to its failure to equalize treatment and how unnecessary it is, it also does not raise anywhere near as much revenue as a hypothetical full repeal of the ESHI tax exemption would.  The Cadillac tax is estimated to raise about $80 billion between 2018 and 2023 – a six-year period.  Meanwhile, the ESHI exemption in totality costs the federal government a whopping $250 billion every single year.

The tax exclusion of employer-sponsored health insurance is by far the most costly federal tax expenditure

The tax exclusion of employer contributions to ESHI is by far the most costly federal tax expenditure

I see this as a prime opportunity for Republicans to claim credit for killing a tax (the Cadillac tax) while simultaneously making the tax treatment of healthcare more sane and raising the government badly needed revenue.  What they could do is enact legislation that repeals the Cadillac tax in its entirety, but simultaneously places caps on the tax exclusion equal to the thresholds imposed by the Cadillac tax.  In this way, benefit amounts exceeding $10,200 for individual coverage and $27,500 for family coverage will be subject to normal taxable income.  Unlike other proposals, though, I would move for these threshold amounts not to be indexed to price changes whatsoever – be it a measure of inflation, a flat rate, etc.  In this way, more and more plans will gradually be subject to the tax (much like bracket creep of the 1970s) so that the discretionary impact of the exclusion can be tempered over time.  Better yet, have the thresholds lowered on an annual basis so that eventually all “fringe” benefits will be taxed, and there will be no implicit subsidization of ESHI.  Of course, an elimination of the biggest single tax break in the federal tax code would produce enormous backlash in and of itself; indeed, it would be rather hefty tax hike.  That’s why I think the Republicans should also consider using some of the revenue generated to lower marginal tax rates (one of their favorite pastimes); any potential revenue left over could be used to lower the deficit and perhaps expand insurance subsidies for the poor and middle-class elsewhere (which would be especially appealing to Democrats).  Combined with a repeal of the (more visible and unpopular?) Cadillac tax, I think this could be a politically palpable solution.  It will help eliminate artificial demand for healthcare and give the many types of insurance options equal – as opposed to preferential – treatment.

b)  Force (or nudge) states to dismantle barriers for the purchase of insurance across state-lines.  This is an area where federalism & devolution has failed – and the federal government ought to step in.  Other than for the appeasement of insurance companies, there is no reason states should restrict consumers from purchasing policies from out-of-state companies.  This has had the effect of creating localized insurance monopolies that have artificially driven up costs.  Sure, it will take time for interstate insurance provider networks to materialize; but it’s better to start now than to continue with the status quo.  Republicans really shouldn’t encounter as much resistance from Democrats with this measure; after all, Obamacare intentionally created state-level exchanges where consumers can “shop” for different policies, with the intent that (perhaps one day) a single national exchange or market could be created.  However, Republicans may run into arguments that this will cause a decline in benefit standards as consumers seek the most cost-effective policies; however, shouldn’t Obamacare’s minimum benefit provisions (that differentiate plans into bronze, gold, silver, etc.) create a floor on a substantial portion of policies?  And if not, Congress could always mandate a bare minimum of standards to create a floor under state floors (though this would probably lead to a conservative backlash; the party establishment must proceed with caution).

c) Medical malpractice reform.  Yup, it’s a relatively small part of the overall cost picture, but even Democrats have to admit that $45 billion a year in defensive medicine is a bit much (even if a portion of it is “worthwhile”.  Although it might work better at a state-level, federal policies such as enacting caps on total payouts, raising the thresholds to file suit and concepts such as “loser pays” could all do their bit to reigning in excessive medical malpractice costs.

d) Promote cost transparency.  Obamacare has already done a wonderful thing by mandating that employers report insurance costs on employee’s W-2 forms.  This has helped in the process of getting employee’s “skin in the game”, so that they are congnizent of costs that otherwise feel disconnected  from them (what a revolutionary concept).  Congress ought to expand the variety of benefits that require W-2 reporting, and could try to find additional means for cost information to reach consumers directly.  Of course, it must be mindful of the unintended consequences of such mandates, as reporting consumes time & resources in and of itself.  Again, since transparency provisions already passed Obamacare in its original form by an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress in 2010, I don’t see why further transparency provisions can’t be a bipartisan effort.

e) Temporarily increase Disproportionate Share Hospital (DSH) payments to hospitals.  Right now, hospitals across the nation are straining to provide uncompensated emergency care for millions of uninsured Americans, care that the federal government partially pays for via DSH payments.  Unfortunately, these payments are usually not enough, forcing costs onto general insurance premiums.  As Obamacare expands and insures more people, this problem should theoretically ease somewhat, and the strains on DSH should ease.  Nonetheless, this insurance expansion in incomplete (especially since not all states are on board with expanding Medicaid), and may not be enough to substantially reduce the strains on the already overburdened DSH payment system.  So why would conservative Republicans have an incentive to increase federal spending?  Quite simply, higher DSH payments could indirectly ease insurance premiums for millions of people (allowing for less private-level “redistribution” from the insured to the uninsured”, and costs could be lowered for the federal government too in a way that offsets the increased spending on DSH.  Expanded DSH would also be appealing to Democrats, as it would serve to benefit one of their core constituencies (the uninsured poor).  It is one of those times when less requires more.

f) Loosen federal restrictions on Health Savings Accounts (HSAs).  I see HSAs as a part of the solution to get people to have skin in the game when it comes to healthcare spending.  When combined with high-deductible health plans, HSAs establish a connection between medical spending and personal savings that can help to curb the consumption of excess medical care.  The Federal government should lift existing statutory contribution limits and abolish all taxes that apply to HSA withdrawals, including for so-called “non-qualified” withdrawals.  The latter option, in addition to being more fair, would help to eliminate distortionary tax-minimizing behavior that could actually inflate health spending.  HSAs go along with the conservative notion of individual responsibility (which might explain their strong support by Republicans), and certainly Democrats shouldn’t be opposed to an increase in savings accounts (especially considering Obama’s proposed myRA retirement accounts).

g) Eliminate the Employer Mandate.  One of Obamacare’s most controversial provisions is that employers with 50 or more “Full Time Employees” (FTEs) provide them with health insurance or pay a penalty.  An FTE is defined as someone who works 30 hours or more.  This has lead to huge disagreements over the provision’s impact on the labor market, with critics claiming that this provision is weakening the 40-hour workweek by incentivizing employers to cut back on workers’ hours to avoid the mandate and associated penalties.  Proponents have countered that most workers already work more than 40 hours a week, and thus are at little risk having their hours drastically cut to below 30/week.  In response to a recent bill to move the threshold from 30 hours to 40 hours, these proponents have also said that this bill makes cuts in workers’ hours much more likely, as so many work 40 hours (or a little more) per week.  Both sides have points; but really, it almost doesn’t matter.  The employer mandate, like much of Obamacare, creates arbitrary thresholds that threaten to severely distort the economy and strangle business decisions.  The 50 FTE threshold has already led to an increase in “49er” businesses, who artificially limit their employee count to less than 50 to avoid the mandate and payment of penalties.  Additionally, I feel the employer mandate exacerbates an existing major problem with American healthcare: the very fact that so much of it is provided by employers!  This 4th-party payment system is incredibly non-transparent and non-portable, disregarding the economies of scale it provides via pooling, and explains a major part of the cost dilemma.  As such, I think the mandate deserves repeal.  Since Republicans will obviously fail at repealing the law, they might as well go after a single provision of it to incrementally enact positive change.  Although repeal of the mandate is also likely to fail, it is still worth a shot, especially considering how the new 114th Congress has already decided that targeting the mandate will be one of its first legislative acts.  Perhaps this will also give some Democrats who are weary of the net impact of Obamacare to finally demonstrate their political independence from a surprisingly unpopular law.

Building a New Era of Governance – Part 1

*Note: the views expressed in this posting are my own, and do not in any way represent the views of any other group or institution, public or private


Last Tuesday, November 4th, it is fair to say that the second Republican “wave” since 2010 swamped Congress and state governments across the nation. In Congress, the GOP managed to pick up at least 7 seats in the Senate (giving them a majority of 52, over the key threshold of 51), as well as at least 12 seats in the House (increasing their majority to at least 244). Gubernatorial elections also proved to be a route for the Democrats, as the Republicans snatched up another 3 governor-ships from the Democrats.

Despite these impressive gains, however, they will prove to be utterly meaningless unless Republicans in Congress can seize this opportunity to act in a bold, pragmatic, and bipartisan manner to go about conducting the nation’s business. More than anything, people are simply disgusted and fed up with what is shaping up to be (by many measures) one of the least productive governmental terms in American history (see chart).  While some may view inaction as a good thing (less activity means a smaller government = good, right?) I do not see this stagnation as benefiting anyone.  Even if few bills are passed, old ones already enacted are left to atrophy and will not be updated regularly to adapt to changing circumstances, creating new problems.  Additionally, it takes legislation to repeal legislation; inaction does not mean the government is in fact getting any smaller (and assuming a smaller government is even desirable in the first place).

Overall, as many pundits have noted, it is best to view the results of this election as an expression of disillusionment with a lack of leadership on either side of the aisle and a desperate plea for governance, as opposed to an endorsement of some ideological mandate. Especially when it comes to Congress, people are incredibly irritated that its members are well-paid, work part time (with much of their time spent campaigning), and yet very little of the country’s increasingly urgent problems are attended to. It is true, what many business-minded people would say: if the government were a private entity, they would’ve pushed out of the market a long, long time ago.

4.10.14.2

In terms of bills passed per legislative session, the 113th Congress is shaping up to be among the least productive in recent history

It is true that the outlook for an increase in Congressional productivity remains bleak, at least for the next two years. It’s a well-established pattern by now that American government doesn’t do too much unless a single political parties occupies both the Whitehouse and controls both chambers of Congress. However, this need not be an excuse for inaction; in fact, it cannot. The following is an agenda that I think Republicans can pursue that will not only help to solve the problems the public wants solved (and in a way that is congruent with the wishes of the electorate), but to help to build a new era of lasting American governance.

1) Lengthen the terms of the President, House, and Senate.  Of the many issues facing the country, this one (along with the next two agenda items) may seem like one of the least deserving of our attention.  However, relatively short Senate, Presidential, and (especially) House terms I believe has had a dramatic impact on the productivity of individual members.  Since elections come so frequently, many in the federal government must be in a near constant campaign mode that not only distracts them from legislative work but serves to polarize their “views”, making bipartisan consensus much more difficult.  At least attempting a Constitutional amendment, though quite unlikely to pass, could get the ball rolling on a future reform down the road.  Enactment of this reform, along with the following agenda item, could help to address the entrenched legislative paralysis.

2) Find a way to tie Congressional & Presidential pay to performance.  This one would be tough to implement (requiring another Constitutional amendment) and to find sufficient political support for, but I think it is an absolute must if we are to make meaningful legislative activity a core incentive for our politicians.  In my view, an independent committee (much like a state-level Civil Service Commission) would simply be given power to set Congressional & Presidential salaries and benefits upon a non-biased, impartial “performance review”.  This commission would be made up of individuals equally divided between the main political parties and would themselves be subject to background checks to ensure institutional independence

Many other potential reforms, such as a partial or complete scrapping of First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) representation in favor of more proportional representation and the outsourcing of congressional redistricting to independent commissions could help to both decrease the partisanship of the federal legislature and increase the “representative-ness” of individual members of Congress.  Ironically, the prospects of these reforms passing is weak at best; nonetheless, they would be crucial for the government to enact productive agendas in the future, and thus should be given priority in the agenda of the 114th Congress, even if chances of passage are slim.

As for other politically-feasible policy objectives that should be on the Congressional calendar:

3) Immigration reform.  No, seriously.  As discussed in more detail in my post “Why Republicans Should Embrace Comprehensive Immigration Reform”, the United States is in desperate need of both low and high-skilled labor, especially as the population ages in the coming decades.  Allowing in more immigrants (especially high-skilled) is not only politically reachable but is in line with a Republican emphasis on supply-side economic reforms.  Emphasis on increased border security (which is a prerequisite for any action for the party base, even if redundant and impractical) could be combined with reforms and/or increased funding to streamline the legal naturalization process.  At the very least, both Democrats and Republicans agree on the need for more high-skilled immigrants and an increase on the cap for H-1B work visas.  Increasing visa caps could help stem the tide of illegal immigrants (which Republicans are more concerned about anyway) via the substitution effect.  For best chances of passage, I would leave out measures that deal with illegal immigrants currently residing in the U.S. – a piecemeal, incremental approach would work best here.  Overall, immigration reform is an almost cost-free method to spur the economy in both the short and long-term, and considering how long it has been on the national agenda, it is incomprehensible that some sort of agreement cannot occur.

Due in part to an aging population, the U.S. Labor Force Participation Rate has reached levels not seen since 1978, increasing the need for new sources of labor

4) Corporate tax reform 

Again, opportunities for bipartisan agreement are rife here.  Everyone knows the corporate tax code is an unmitigated disaster, with high rates, too many loopholes, lost revenue, and distorted economic activity.  Make the system more territorial, modify depreciation schedules, scale down MNC deferral opportunities, eliminate tax expenditures, and reduce marginal rates.  Specific expenditures that are especially worthy of the chopping block are special preferences for oil & gas operations, insurance companies, corporate jets.  This operation need not be revenue-neutral, either; although this would technically constitute a tax “increase”, the removal of distortions and tax compliance hurdles will act as a counter-acting tax cut.  The government can gain revenue by increasing effective rates while simultaneously increasing growth and leaving businesses feeling better off than they do under the current tax regime.

5) Replace the sequester with targeted cuts & incremental, implement long-term reforms

The era of yawning short-term fiscal deficits is over – temporarily, at least.  Indeed, America has witnessed its fastest pace of fiscal consolidation since World War 2, with deficits as a percentage of GDP falling from 9.8% of GDP in FY 2009 to 2.8% of GDP in FY 2014 – a swing of 7% in just 6 fiscal years.  This has come about due to a variety of factors, including economic growth, slightly higher taxes and broad-based cuts to discretionary outlays.  It is this last option that is cause for concern, however, as the cuts initially enacted in the Budget Control Act of 2011 (the founding legislation of the so-called “sequester”) are quite blunt.  They also come at a time when discretionary spending is approaching record lows as a percentage of GDP, and arguably when increased federal spending on items such as infrastructure are desperately needed and interest rates remain at historic lows.  Additionally, they have subtracted from economic growth in the short-term, lengthening the time needed to close the output gap between real and potential GDP.  As has been projected for decades now, the biggest threat to American fiscal sustainability is the coming explosion in mandatory spending.  Therefore, the new GOP-led Congress must enact gradual but effective entitlement reform now – the longer it waits (as past Congresses have), the more abrupt the future adjustment.

Fiscal policy has not been this contractionary since the end of World War 2

Fiscal policy has not been this contractionary since the end of World War 2

Economic growth since 2009 has increased revenues and decreased "automatic stabilization" spending.  Meanwhile, higher taxes have also increased revenues, and new spending cuts have been enacted.

Economic growth since 2009 has increased revenues and decreased “automatic stabilization” spending. Meanwhile, higher taxes have also increased revenues, and new spending cuts have been enacted.

Non-defense discretionary spending has fallen to record lows as a percentage of the American economy

Non-defense discretionary spending has fallen to record lows as a percentage of the American economy…

...even as interest rates remain at record lows

…even as interest rates remain at record lows

Debt Held

The true threat to America’s finances comes from the coming explosion in mandatory “entitlement” spending. Congress much enact tough reforms now to stem this tide of red ink.

 

To be continued…