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The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

What Will Dems Do When The GOP Says: “The Deficit Matters”?

The Daily Escape:

Big Ben being cleaned. In order to clean the four clock faces, every 5-7 years, skilled climbers hang down from the belfry on ropes, and they clean the front of each clock face. There is one removable panel of glass on each face, which is removed during the cleaning so that the clock maintenance staff can talk to the cleaners while they’re working. (“you missed a spot?”) Hat tip to Wrongo’s friends at the Goodspeed Opera House!

Yesterday we pointed out that there is a very large program that the country needs to fund if we are to maintain our position in the global superpower competition. The issue at hand is the stunning thought that we might lose up to 75 million jobs to automation in the next 13 years, and that we need to train the out-of-work unfortunates for new jobs in a different economy.

It’s highly unlikely that we would need to train that many, but it could be 25 million Americans. And we have no idea where the money would come from to accomplish that. After all, the Republicans now plan to reduce tax receipts bigly, thus adding to the deficit and thereby, to the total debt of the country.

We know that as soon as the new tax cuts begin accruing to their patrons, the GOP will start talking about reducing the budget deficit by cutting non-military expenses. Ron Brownstein conceives the Republican tax plan correctly:

Gaius Publius observes: (brackets and editing by the Wrongologist)

As they did in the 1980s, Republicans are laying a “deficit trap” for Democrats. As they did before, they’re blowing up the budget, then using deficit [fear] to force Democrats to “be responsible” about cutting social programs — “because deficits matter.”

In the 1980s Republicans ran up the deficit, then insisted that Democrats work with them to raise taxes on the middle class to over-fund the Social Security (SS) Trust Fund. This converted SS from a pay-as-you-go system that increased revenues as needed via adjustments to the salary cap, to a pay-in-advance system. That allowed any excess SS money to be loaned back to the government, partially concealing the large deficits that Reagan was running up.

Today, Republicans are expanding the deficit again, and are already starting to talk about deficits to argue for cuts in what they call “entitlements” — Medicare, Medicaid, and eventually Social Security, even though Social Security can be self-funding.

Fear of deficits is the go-to Republican ploy to try to maim or kill the FDR and LBJ-created social safety net. To the extent that Democrats are willing to accept the GOP’s argument that both parties need to be responsible to decrease the deficits, they will support cuts in social services. Even Obama was willing to consider doing just that in the name of “bipartisanship”. More from Gaius:

The reality — Deficits aren’t dangerous at all until there’s a big spike in inflation, which is nowhere near happening and won’t be near happening for a generation…

Do we want the US government to shrink the money supply year after year after year, by running budget surpluses, or do we want to grow the amount of money in the private sector, making more available for use by the middle class?  The trillions spent on the current GOP giveaway to the already-rich could have been given to college students in debt, or people still underwater in their mortgages since the Wall Street-created crash of 2008. It could have been used to build better roads, airports, seaports or a national high speed internet backbone.

What would be the effect of that re-allocation of money?

Back to Gaius Publius for the final words. Which of these three options would you rather the government choose:

  • Spend money on the already-rich?
  • Spend money on you and the country’s needs, ignoring the pleas of the already-rich?
  • Hoard as much money as possible in a vault and spend the least possible?

The first is the GOP’s current tax plan. The second is a plan for the many, an FDR-style economic policy. The third is the GOP’s wet dream, one that they will ask Democrats to help them accomplish once the already-rich have banked their share of our tax money.

Wrongo’s fear is that at some point down the road, a compromise will be offered up: Cuts to social programs in exchange for a repeal of some of the more onerous tax cuts. The only issue will be the extent of the cuts to social programs.

It will be celebrated as bipartisan sanity returning to Washington.

Our system is revolting. Why aren’t we?

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Reagan’s Tax Cuts Are No Model for Today’s GOP

The Daily Escape:

Colima Volcano, Mexico, December 2015 – photo by Sergio Tapiro, National Geographic 2017 photographer of the year

Republicans are patting themselves on the back about their coming tax cuts, comparing it to the famous (infamous?) Regan tax cuts, known as the Tax Reform Act of 1986. From the Economist:

During the three decades since its passage, Democrats and Republicans alike have hailed the law not only for overhauling the country’s tax system…but also for doing so with bipartisan support in both houses of Congress.

Unlike the bi-partisan review of our tax system that occurred from 1984 to 1986, Donald Trump has promised to sign a bill by Christmas, just two months after the first legislative text was introduced.

Congressional Republicans originally promised that any reform would not reduce overall revenues. But they have flip-flopped: The current plan is expected to raise deficits by between $1.3 and $1.5 trillion over its 10-year life. And according to figures from the Joint Committee on Taxation, most of the benefits will go to the rich. Reagan’s reform did the opposite. The left hand chart below shows the Reagan tax cut in blue and the Trump tax cut in red. The x axis is annual income, while the y axis is the percentage of taxpayers receiving a tax cut:

Source: The Economist

The gaps in share of taxpayers receiving a cut are stunning. Between 35-55% of those under $40k in income will receive a benefit under the Trump plan, while between 70-80% of the same group received a cut under the Reagan tax plan.

It gets worse when we look at the right hand chart above. The x axis shows the percentage change in after-tax income by earnings level. Reagan’s cut gave those making between $10k-$50k an increase in take home pay by between 0.25% and 1.5%. Trump’s plan will leave them at ± 0% change in take-home income, while those who make from $50k to $200k will do significantly better under the Trump plan than under Reagan.

And an article of faith for the GOP is that the tax cut will stimulate the economy. Let’s unpack this a bit. The bill provides interim tax relief of about $1.38 trillion during 2018-2025 before the tax sunset provisions kick-in. That equals 4.2% of current tax revenue collections during the 8- year period, and only about 0.8% of GDP.

It’s hard to see how an 0.8% stimulus to GDP is going to bring on a growth tsunami, or add tons of new jobs.

Back to the Reagan tax cut, it had no measurable effect on the trend rate of economic growth, and when it was fully implemented, it amounted to 6.2% of GDP, not 0.8%, .

Finally, when the Tax Policy Center costed out the Senate Finance Committee bill, it showed that by year 10, not one of the 150 million individual filers will still be getting a tax benefit. And most importantly, the single tax cut item left in the statute, the 20% corporate rate, which stays in place permanently, costs America $171 billion in lost revenue in 2027. From David Stockman:

Likewise, the latest distributional analysis [probably from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities] shows that in 2025, before the sunset,-the bottom 30 million tax filers would get an average “tax cut” which amounts to the grand sum of $1.15 per week….the next 30 million filers would only get $7 per week; and the middle quintile—-the 30 million tax filers between $55,000 and $95,000 per year and the heart of the middle class—– would get just $17 per week of tax relief in 2025.

Hardly seems worthy of Paul Ryan’s gloating about how he’s helping the middle class. The people know that they have no control over what happens, they just want to see how much more they will have to spend (pay?) when the dust settles.

And that’s why Paul Ryan and Donald Trump gloat. They show the rubes a dollar, and then send $1000 to their corporate benefactors.

This will be the GOP’s paradise after they enact the Trump tax plan:

 

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Saturday Soother – November 25, 2017

The Daily Escape:

Blue Mosque, Istanbul -2013 photo by Wrongo

Wrongo planned on taking the rest of the week off, but couldn’t resist this:

We live in a time when inequality of wealth, income and influence is thought to be greater than at any time in history. Inequality strengthens social injustice and with it the existence of The Privileged and The Disadvantaged. Of those who have influence and feel they are entitled to everything, and those who expect little, receive even less but need most. Government policies are fashioned by The Privileged for their own benefit. The Disadvantaged, having little or no voice, are ignored, allowing the Cycle of Containment to be maintained, change to be suppressed and social divisions to deepen.

This is from a post entitled What Price Humanity? at Dissident Voice, and it is a pretty accurate description of where we are in America. More:

Sitting at the center of this socio-economic tragedy is an economic ideology that is not simply unjust, it is inhumane. Compassion and human empathy are pushed into the shadows in the Neo-Liberal paradigm, selfishness, division and exploitation encouraged. The system promotes short-term materialistic values and works against mankind’s natural inclination towards unity, social responsibility and cooperation, inherent qualities that are consistently made manifest in times of crisis, individual hardship and collective need.

Graham Peebles is asking what are We the People entitled to in 2017 America? And his answer is grim.

Wrongo thinks nothing is more appropriate to this discussion than FDR’s Second Bill of Rights as stated January 11, 1944 in his message to the US Congress on the State of the Union:

  • The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation;
  • The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;
  • The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;
  • The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;
  • The right of every family to a decent home;
  • The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;
  • The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;
  • The right to a good education.

FDR could foresee the end of WWII when he gave this speech. He concluded that: (emphasis by the Wrongologist)

All of these rights spell security. And after this war is won we must be prepared to move forward, in the implementation of these rights, to new goals of human happiness and well-being.

Sadly, on this 2017 Thanksgiving weekend, we remain very far from these goals.

The inequality and sense of entitlement we see today won’t be turned around without work. Financialization is a poisonous monster. It dictates government policy, and makes the rules about how our businesses and governments at all levels engage with our people and our environment.

People are little more than sources of revenue: Their capacity to spend, to invest and consume determines how they are valued. Driving virtually every decision within the suffocating confines of the ideal is an addiction to profit.

FDR’s ideas seem quaint in 2017. The US cannot even ensure basic civil rights such as racial equality, much less “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Most Americans have freely indentured themselves to the financial sector so that they can pretend to own a house in which to raise their kids, and a car to drive to work in order to earn income so they can make loan payments on the house and the pick-up.

Enough! Let’s forget about life for a while. Grab a cup of Climpson & Sons Signature Espresso that is 100% Adamo Sasaba from Ethiopia, and stay away from the turkey Tetrazzini at lunchtime.

Now, watch and listen to Narciso Yepes interpret Joaquin Rodrigo’s Concerto d’Aranjuez (Adagio) on his 10-string guitar. The 10-string was conceived in 1963 by Yepes, who ordered it from José Ramírez [III].

The conductor is Raphael Frübeck de Burgos with the Radio Symphony Orchestra of Frankfurt. It’s a lovely piece with a remarkable guitar:

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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Here Comes the Retail Apocalypse

The Daily Escape:

The Oberlausitzische Library of Science, Gorlitz Germany

There is a growing concern that the mall as we know it is in big trouble. RadioShack, The Limited, Payless, and Toys“R”Us were among 19 retail bankruptcies this year. From Dave Dayden: (brackets by the Wrongologist)

This story is at odds with the broader narrative about business in America: The economy is growing, unemployment is low, and consumer confidence is at a decade-long high. This would typically signal a retail boom, yet the [retail store] pain rivals the height of the Great Recession.

Many point to Amazon and other online retailers as taking away market share, but e-commerce sales in the second quarter of 2017 were 8.9% of total sales. There are three reasons for so many sick retailers.

First, while online sales are “only” 8.9% of total retail sales, these businesses have very high fixed costs and low net profit margins. The Stern School at NYU tracks net profit margins on thousands of businesses across many sectors, including retail. The margins for Specialty retail for the year ending January 2017 was 3.17%. It was 1.89% for Grocery and 2.60% for General retailers. If a high fixed cost business loses 9% of sales, it can easily wipe out the bottom line.

Second, many retail companies carry high debt levels. Bloomberg explains that private equity firms (PE’s) have purchased numerous retail chains over the past decade via leveraged buyouts, where debt is the primary source of the money used to buy the business. There are billions in borrowings on the balance sheets of troubled retailers, and sustaining that load is only going to become harder if interest rates rise.

Third, there are just too many stores in our cities and suburbs to sustain sales in a world where online shopping is growing rapidly.

Worse, billions of dollars of that PE-arranged debt come due in the next few years. More from Bloomberg:

If today is considered a retail apocalypse…then what’s coming next could truly be scary.

This chart shows what percentage of retail real estate loans are delinquent by area:

Source: Trepp

There are large areas of America where more than 20% of the loans are past due. More from Bloomberg: (emphasis by the Wrongologist)

Through the third quarter of this year, 6,752 locations were scheduled to shutter in the US, excluding grocery stores and restaurants, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers. That’s more than double the 2016 total and is close to surpassing the all-time high of 6,900 in 2008…Apparel chains have by far taken the biggest hit, with 2,500 locations closing. Department stores were hammered, too, with Macy’s Inc., Sears Holdings Corp. and J.C. Penney Co. downsizing. In all, about 550 department stores closed, equating to 43 million square feet, or about half the total.

This threatens the retail sales staff and cashiers who make up 6% of the entire US workforce, a total of 8 million jobs. These workers are not located in any one region; the entire country will share in the pain.

These American retail workers could see their careers evaporate, largely due to the PE’s financial scheme. The PE’s, however, will likely walk away enriched, and policymakers will share the blame since they enabled the carnage.

Our tax code makes corporate interest payments tax-deductible. So the PE kingpins load up these companies with debt and when they walk away, they get tax credits for any write-offs, incentivizing them to borrow and play the game again. The PE firm might lose some or all of its equity, but in most cases, it already drew cash out via special dividends and fees, so it has made its money.

The lenders, employees, state development authorities are the ones left holding the bag.

The GOP’s new tax plan proposes a cap on the deductibility of interest payments over 30% of a company’s earnings. But, the GOP left a loophole: Real estate companies are exempt from the cap.

Surprisingly, this benefits Donald Trump’s businesses! It also helps PE firms that split the operating side of the businesses they buy from the property side, as most do. They put the borrowing onto the property side, and continue to deduct the interest.

So financialization businesses like PE will continue to strip the value out of companies with hard assets.

Billions in asset-stripping and thousands of operations sent overseas. Labor participation rate is stagnant, yet we are assured that if we pass big corporate tax cuts, the US economy will grow fast enough to more than compensate for the losses.

What’s wrong with this picture?

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Here’s Who Benefits From Trump’s Tax Cuts

The Daily Escape:

Floating Village in Lan Ha Bay, North Vietnam – photo by Son Tong

Nobody knows what the final shape of the GOP tax plan will be, but we can see the financial implications of the current bill. Jill Schlesinger has a handy quick and dirty look at who benefits from the proposed cuts posted on her web site. Of the expected $1.5 trillion in tax cuts, only 15.2% will be for individuals. Schlesinger’s conclusion is that Republicans mainly want to help corporations:

  • $1 trillion will accrue to Corporations and Pass-through businesses
  • $228 billion accrues to Individuals
  • $172 billion accrues to Estates

Of the GOP’s $1.5 trillion government handout, corporations get two-thirds. Pass-through businesses are S-Corporations, LLCs, partnerships and sole proprietors. About 95% of businesses fall into this category. Many of these are professional service organizations (lawyers, doctors, accountants, consultants and architects) who otherwise are wealthy individuals, and those infamous hedge funds.

Estates will receive a Republican tax handout that is nearly as large as that provided to individuals. Today, roughly 5,000 people pay estate taxes under current law, but about 3,200 Americans would not have to pay the estate tax next year if the Republican tax bill is passed.

Think about that: 5000 individuals will split up $172 billion in tax relief due to Trump’s largesse!! In 2000, 52,000 estates had to pay the tax. Now it is down to 5,000.

Individuals include everyone who files a tax return. But even here, the WaPo says that the wealthy will do better:

Households with annual incomes over $1 million would see their after-tax incomes increase by 3.2%, 16 times the percentage increase for any income group in the bottom half of the income distribution. . . . (The disparity in average tax cuts measured in dollars would be even larger.)

About 45% of cost of the bill’s tax cuts would go to households with incomes above $500,000 (fewer than 1% of filers). About 38% of the bill’s cost would go to tax cuts for households with incomes over $1 million (about 3 out of every 1,000 filers).

What should the response of Democrats be? Democrats are correct in saying that the Republican plan is tilted too much toward the ultra-wealthy. They propose tilting it more toward the middle class.

Bruce Bartlett was a domestic policy adviser to Ronald Reagan and a Treasury official under George H. W. Bush. Bartlett says that Dems:

Should counter with a $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan and no tax cuts for anyone.

Bartlett points out that since the Clinton administration, Dems have tried to show fiscal responsibility, supporting tax increases and spending cuts. Meanwhile, Republicans abandoned any pretense of concern for the deficit, as their new budget shows.

Bartlett argues that a big infrastructure program will provide a payback for decades to come, just as Eisenhower’s highway program did. Importantly, he points out that building infrastructure will create vastly more jobs than any kind of tax cut, especially given the Republican proposal that largely benefits the wealthy, while providing no incentives for job creation or investment.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has routinely provided estimates to Congress showing that direct spending by government on infrastructure has a bigger multiplier effect on economic growth than any tax cut. Their February 2015 report showed that purchases of goods and services by the federal government raises GDP by as much as $2.50 for every $1 spent.

The report also says that a temporary tax cut for the wealthy, such as Republicans are now proposing, would create at most 60 cents of GDP for every $1 of foregone revenue. Corporate tax cuts are the worst, creating 40 cents of GDP for every $1 of revenue loss.

Our government is starved for revenue. This is not the time to even consider a tax cut for the wealthiest.

A true conservative tax policy would raise taxes to balance the budget, reduce deficits and debt, while investing in basic infrastructure, education, job training, research, technology and other drivers of growth.

That is the kind of conservatism we should get behind.

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Monday Wake Up Call – October 30, 2017

The Daily Escape:

Fall at the Statehouse in Augusta, Maine – photo by Robert F. Bukaty

Welcome to what we may start to call Robert Mueller Monday. Ray Dalio, the founder of the Bridgewater Associates, the world’s largest hedge fund has serious concerns about the uneven recovery of the US economy.

In a LinkedIn post, Dalio said that if politicians and business people look only at the economy’s average statistics about how Americans are doing, they could easily make “dangerous miscalculations” because the averages mask deep differences in how people in various income segments are doing.

Dalio divides the economy into two sections: the top 40%, and the bottom 60%. He then shows how the economy for the bottom 60% of the population, (that’s three in five Americans for you English majors), has been much less successful than for those in the top bracket.

For example, Dalio notes that since 1980, real incomes have been flat or down for the average household in the bottom 60%. Those in the top 40% now have 10 times as much wealth as households in the bottom 60%, up from six times as much in 1980.

Dalio says that only about one-third of people in the bottom 60% (20% overall) save any of their income. Only a similar number have any retirement savings. These three in five Americans are experiencing increasing rates of premature death. They spend about four times less on education than those in the top 40%. Those in the 60% without a college education have lower income levels, and higher divorce rates.

Dalio believes these problems will intensify in the next five to ten years. The inequality problem is caused by our politics and our fiscal policies, not by the Fed’s monetary policies.

OTOH, Dalio’s concerns aren’t a surprise to anyone who follows the political economy. In fact, it isn’t a surprise to anyone who has walked through any mid-sized American city, or driven through any small town in the heartland.

The problem is not low wage growth.

The problem is not long-term unemployment, as degrading and humiliating as that is.

The problem is that the US economy has been restructured over the past 30 years as an underemployment, low-wage economy in which most new jobs created are temporary jobs (whether you are a laborer, a technician, a service worker or a professional) with no job security, low wages and few benefits.

The real question is can we solve the problem? Many old lefties argue for a Universal Basic Income, (UBI), but Wrongo thinks that’s, er, wrong. If the UBI were high enough to provide even a subsistence living for every American, it would be massively inflationary. And it would merely allow businesses to pay lower wages, which is why some wealthy business people, like Peter Thiel, support a UBI.

Wrongo thinks we should support guaranteed work, not guaranteed income. Most people need and want to work in order to keep their place in our society. Getting a check just isn’t sufficient. If people matter at all, and if 95% of them lack the means to live without working, society must strive to employ all of those who have been deemed redundant by the private sector.

And there is plenty to do around America. Start with the 5,000+ bridges and dams that need replacing, or the 104 nuclear power plants that are falling apart.

We need real tax reform that can’t be loopholed. Corporations must pay more, not less. Stop the move to give corporations incentives to repatriate offshore earnings by lowering their effective tax rates. That only compromises our future tax stream. Corporations have to pay more in taxes, and agree to increase the wages of average workers.

Economically, we are in a pretty scary place. People across party lines and socio-economic levels are frightened for their financial security. We need a jobs guarantee, not a UBI.

So, wake up America! Letting corporations and the rich dictate our investment in human capital or infrastructure has us on the road to eclipse as a country. To help you wake up, here is Todd Snider performing “Conservative Christian, Right Wing, Republican, Straight, White American Male“, live at Farm Aid 2014 in Raleigh, North Carolina in September, 2014:

Why aren’t the Dixie Chicks singing harmony on this?

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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Saturday Soother – July 8, 2017

The Daily Escape:

Marble Caves, Patagonia – photo by Clane Gessel

Any idea which investor-types are the largest buyers of US stocks? It is the corporations themselves, buying back their own stock. They are followed by Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs). Here is a graphic:

From Bloomberg:

The entities shoveling more money into the stock market than any other this year, as has been the case for the past few years, remain corporations. Buybacks are on pace to reach nearly $550 billion, or $150 billion more than ETFs.

None of that cash is going into new markets, new products, R & D, or innovation. The buyback is equivalent to the CEO saying: “I’ve got no idea what we should be doing to improve profits or market share”.  Arne Alsin at Forbes said this:

For most of the 20th century, stock buybacks were deemed illegal because they were thought to be a form of stock market manipulation. But since 1982, when they were essentially legalized by the SEC, buybacks have become perhaps the most popular financial engineering tool in the C-Suite tool shed. And it’s obvious why Wall Street loves them: Buying back company stock can inflate a company’s share price and boost its earnings per share — metrics that often guide lucrative executive bonuses.

Alsin suggests that buybacks are big because we’re in a period of technological disruption. New industries like cloud computing, electric cars, and streaming video are rapidly changing the world. But older companies are slow to adapt, and rather than investing in R & D (or simply holding onto cash) the corporate boards of legacy businesses are bolstering stock prices the only way they know how: buying back their stock.

Alsin offers Hewlett-Packard as an example:

In the last decade, the company has invested $47 billion in stock buybacks — which is nearly double the company’s current market capitalization. That risk is senseless. HP knows they are facing existential threats from upstart competitors, but instead of paying out dividends or letting cash accrue on the balance sheet, HP is choosing the riskiest option.

Buybacks are the result of several converging forces: pressure from activist shareholders; executive compensation programs that tie pay to per-share earnings and share prices that buybacks can boost; increased global competition; and fear of making bets on products and services that may not pay off.

This financialization of non-financial firms increasingly crowds out other types of investment, to the detriment of lower level employees, whose jobs are less secure. It can hurt long-term investors, who hold these stocks in their 401(k)s and pension plans.

Serving customers, creating innovative new products, employing workers, and taking care of the environment are not the objectives of these firms.

So think carefully about the companies you invest in, or buy from.

Enough worrying for this week! Time to unstress. Grab a cuppa Vermont Artisan Coffee & Tea Company’sDarkest Roast”, $11.25/lb. (It is available in decaf), settle into your favorite chair, and listen to “Ashokan Farewell” performed by Jay Ungar and Molly Mason Family Band, live in the Folk Alley studio at WKSU 89.7 FM. WKSU is Kent State’s college radio station:

Wrongo supports Folk Alley, and recommends that everyone should. Ungar composed Ashokan Farewell in 1982. It is written in the style of a Scottish lament. Ungar sometimes introduces it as:

A Scottish lament written by a Jewish guy from the Bronx.

Ungar says that Ken Burns heard the song in 1984, and asked to use it in his (then) upcoming PBS series, “The Civil War”. The original version and a few other versions are heard 25 times in the show, for a surprising total of 59 minutes and 33 seconds of the 11-hour series. For the non-math majors, that is 9% of the show!

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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Monday Wake Up Call – March 20, 2017

The Daily Escape:

(Restored American Cars at Jose Marti Airport, Havana Cuba. 2014 photo by Wrongo)

America is snoozing on the Republican effort to turn health insurance into a party for the powerful. The LA Times’ reporter Michael Hiltzik took a look at the back pages of Paul Ryan’s Trumpcare bill and found a loophole that allows health insurance companies to pay their CEOs more money:

It does so by removing the ACA’s limit on corporate tax deductions for executive pay. The cost to the American taxpayer of eliminating this provision: well in excess of $70 million a year. In the reckoning of the Institute for Policy Studies, a think tank that analyzed the limitation in 2014, that would have been enough that year to buy dental insurance under the ACA for 262,000 Americans, or pay the silver plan deductibles for 28,000.

This is the opposite of the executive pay strategy under Obamacare. The ACA decreed that health insurance companies could deduct from their taxes only $500,000 of the pay of each top executive.

That’s a tighter restriction than the limit imposed on other corporations, which is $1 million per executive. The ACA closed a loophole for insurance companies enjoyed by other corporations, which could deduct the cost of stock options and other “performance-based” pay; for insurance companies, the deduction cap is $500,000 per executive, period. The reduced deductions would have been the equivalent of raising $600 million in new taxes over 10 years.

Well, that was more than the executives and their bought and paid for Congress critters could stand, so buried in the 123 pages of the House Republican bill repealing the Affordable Care Act, Hiltzik found that:

The House Republican bill repeals the compensation limit as of the end of this year. The GOP hasn’t exactly trumpeted this provision; it’s six lines on page 67 of the measure, labeled “Remuneration from Certain Insurers” and referring only to the obscure IRS code section imposing the limit. Repeal of the provision apparently means that the insurers will be able to deduct $1 million in cash per executive, plus the cost of “performance-based” stock awards and options, like other corporations.

So now, insurance companies’ executives will have a level playing field with other CEO’s. This fits in with the rest of the GOP bill: It does nothing to bring coverage to more Americans or make it cheaper. But it does help to further line the pockets of the privileged, and maybe that’s the point.

Wake up America! As Don Henley once said, “The large print giveth, and the small print taketh away”. We need to read what the GOP is really doing on the back pages of their legislation. To help us wake up, let’s pay tribute to Chuck Berry. To call him a legend of American musical history is an understatement. He received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and Kennedy Center Honors. Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” was the only rock-and-roll song included on the Voyager Space Probe Record.

Among the bands in which you hear his influence are The Rolling Stones and The Beatles. Both recorded his songs, and John Lennon said this:

If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry.

Berry played a Gibson model ES350. Sadly, while many great Rock and Roll guitarists have signature Gibsons, there is no Chuck Berry model. Here is Berry with a live version of “Roll Over Beethoven” from 1956. While the video isn’t the best, check out his guitar work on the intro:

Chuck probably duck-walked up to the Pearly Gates.

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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Is Taxing Robots a Solution to Fewer Jobs?

The Daily Escape:

(Slot canyon with dust devil – photo by Angiolo Manetti)

Yesterday, the Dutch voted in an election pitting mainstream parties against Geert Wilders, a hard-right, anti-Islam nationalist whose popularity is seen as a threat to politics-as-usual across Europe, and possibly, as an existential threat to the EU.

Wilders, who wants to “de-Islamicize” the Netherlands and pull out of the EU, has little chance of governing, as all of the mainstream parties have already said they won’t work with him. Given Holland’s complicated form of proportional representation, up to 15 parties could win seats in parliament, and none are expected to win even 20% of the vote. OTOH, polls show that four in 10 of the Netherlands’ 13 million eligible voters were undecided a day before voting, and there is just 5 percentage points separating the top four parties, so Wilders could surprise everyone.

As Wrongo writes this, the Dutch election results are not known, but PBS NewsHour coverage on Tuesday surfaced a thought about taxing robots. PBS correspondent Malcolm Brabant was interviewing workers in Rotterdam:

Niek Stam claims to be the country’s most militant labor union organizer. He says the working class feel insecure about their prospects because of relentless automation and a constant drive to be competitive. The union is campaigning for robots to be taxed.

Brabant then interviewed a worker:

Robots do not buy cars. Neither do they shop for groceries, which leads to a fundamental question: Who’s going to buy all these products when up to 40% of present jobs vanish?

This isn’t an entirely new idea. Silvia Merler, blogging at Bruegel, says:

In a recent interview, Bill Gates discussed the option of a tax on robots. He argued that if today human workers’ income is taxed, and then a robot comes in to do the same thing, it seems logical to think that we would tax the robot at a similar level. While the form of such taxation is not entirely clear, Gates suggested that some of it could come from the profits that are generated by the labor-saving efficiency…and some could come directly in some type of a robot tax.

The main argument against taxing robots is made by corporations and some economists (Larry Summers), who argue that it impedes innovation. Stagnating productivity in rich countries, combined with falling business investment, suggests that adoption of new technology is currently too slow rather than too fast, and taxing new technology could exacerbate the slowdown.

It can be argued that robots are property, and property is already taxed by local governments via the property tax. It might be possible to create an additional value-added tax for robots, since an income tax wouldn’t work, as most robots are not capable of producing income by themselves.

Noah Smith at Bloomberg argues that the problem with Gates’ basic proposal is that it is very hard to tell the difference between new technology that complements human work, and new technology that replaces them. Shorter Noah Smith: Taxation is so hard!

Why are Western economies stagnant? Why has wage growth lagged GDP growth? Automation is certainly a key factor, but rather than point the finger at the corporations who continually benefit from government tax policies, let’s just assign blame to an object, a strawbot, if you will. That way, we won’t look too carefully at the real problem: The continuing concentration of economic and political power in the hands of fewer and fewer corporations.

Automation isn’t the issue, tax laws that allow economic treason by corporations in their home countries are the issue.

Why is nationalism on the march across the globe? Because fed-up workers see it as possibly the only answer to the neoliberal order that is destroying the middle class in Western democracies.

Let’s find a way to tax robots. Something has to offset Trump’s tax breaks for the rich.

Now, a musical moment. Did you know that “pre-St. Patrick’s Day” was a thing? Apparently, some dedicated celebrators prepare for the day itself by raising hell for up to a week beforehand. With that in mind, here is some pre-St. Pat’s Irish music, with Ed Sheeran singing “Nancy Mulligan” a love song about his grandparent’s marriage during WWII, against the wishes of her parents, and despite their Catholic/Protestant differences:

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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How Do You Solve a Problem Like Ohio?

Our industrial heartland has withered away, in that there are fewer manufacturing jobs than ever, while manufacturing revenues have never been higher. Forty years of promises by politicians have come to nothing: These people are victims of a world order in which corporations have either exported or automated those jobs, with no responsibility to workers. It is left to the towns of Middle America and the federal government to clean up their mess.

This world order we live in today was born in 1980, with Thatcher and Reagan. According to Ian Welsh, the world order made a few core promises:

If the rich have more money, they will create more jobs.

Lower taxes will lead to more prosperity.

Increases in housing and stock market prices will increase prosperity for everyone.

Trade deals and globalization will make everyone better off.

Those promises were not kept, and in America’s Midwest, economic stress is now the order of the day. That stress has contributed to rising rates of drug addiction and falling life expectancy.

Understandably frustrated, Ohioans and other Midwesterners gave Donald Trump a victory in November. His win has refocused attention by pundits and pols on the plight of our failing de-industrialized areas. While we have economic growth, we also have growing inequality. Here is a graphic illustration of the problem, comparing the US with the EU:

The Economist reports that from 1880 to 1980, the incomes of poorer and richer American states tended to converge, at a rate of nearly 2% per year. The chart above shows that the pattern no longer exists. This causes us to ask if the shift of resources and people from places in decline to places that are growing is simply taking longer to adjust, or has the current world order failed our people? In econo-speak, the gains in some regions should compensate those regions and towns harmed by the shift, leaving everyone better off.

But that is a political and financial lie promulgated by the very corporations that benefited, and by their political and economist cheerleaders.

With economic decline, some towns and cities became poverty traps. A shrinking tax base means deterioration in local services (think Detroit). Public education that might provide the young with new skills and thus opportunities, fails. Those that remain are on government subsidies or hold low-wage service jobs, or both. It is impossible to tell these citizens that the decay of their home town is an acceptable cost of the rough-and-tumble of the global economy.

Politicians are short on solutions. Since housing costs have risen sharply in towns and cities that are growing, underemployed Americans are less likely to move, and those who do, are less likely to head for richer places. Enrico Moretti of the University of California, Berkeley and Chang-tai Hsieh of the University of Chicago argue that our GDP could be 13.5% higher if this wasn’t the situation in America.

But if moving isn’t an option, what can be done to improve the outlook for those who are left behind?

Would more government subsidies help? Prosperous tax payers already support poorer ones. Subsidies for health insurance costs with Obamacare, as well as industrial tax incentives provide some cushion, but they are not likely to deliver long-run economic recovery, and they have not stemmed the growth of populist political sentiment.

To be fair, many people in Ohio and elsewhere want good jobs, but without having to move too far to get them. That may be impossible.

In the 19th century, the federal government gave land to states, which they could sell to raise proceeds for “land-grant universities”. Those universities, including some that are among our finest, were given a practical task: to develop and disseminate new techniques in agriculture and engineering. They went on to become centers of advanced research and, in some cases, hubs of local innovation and economic growth.

Politicians and academic economists might disdain a modern-day version of the program, one that would train workers, foster new ideas, and strengthen weakened regional economies.

But if our politicians do not provide answers, our populist insurgents will.

Time for a Christmas song. Here is Elvis with “Santa Claus Is Back in Town & Blue Christmas”, from his comeback special on NBC. This was recorded over six days in June, 1968 and aired on December 1, 1968. Elvis flubs “Santa Claus is Back in Town”:

Despite his flub, he does get this line right:

You don’t see me comin in no big black Cadillac

Kind of like out-of-work Ohioans.

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