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The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

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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Trump’s Same ‘Ol GOP Tax Plan

Neil Irwin at the NYT compared the Clinton and Trump tax plans. Hillary’s raises taxes on the rich, and adds ~$1.1 Trillion to federal tax revenues over the next 10 years. The Pant Load’s plan is under revision (again), but, his old plan reduced revenues by ~$9.5 Trillion over the same period, and while his new plan will probably cost less, it will still create red ink.

Jared Bernstein had a few points which you might not have picked up on:

…the plan is pure, old-fashioned, supply-side, trickle-down orthodoxy. How that squares with Trump’s play for disaffected working class voters hurt by globalization is left as an exercise for the reader.

Bernstein’s best point is about the “pass-through” income loophole Trump creates. His new plan sets the top income tax rate at 33% but creates “a much lower rate than 33% for a substantial number of very-high-income households by allowing people to pay a new low rate of 15 percent on “pass-through” income (business income claimed on individual tax returns). According to the Tax Foundation, pass-through businesses now earn more net income than traditional “C” corporations (like GE or Ford). So of course, Republicans want to lower their tax rates. More from Bernstein:

More than two-thirds of all pass-through business income flows to the top 1 percent of tax filers.

And it will probably get worse: When you can pay a lower rate on a particular type of income, you will visit with a tax lawyer and set up a Limited Liability Corporation (LLC). Then off you go to the boss and say, as Bernstein points out:

“I’m no longer Joe Paycheck, I’m Joe Paycheck, LLC. Pay me the same salary but call it a consultant’s fee for services provided by my limited liability corporation”. Joe then passes that income through from the business to the personal side of the tax code and pays 15% on it.

Where Joe might have formerly paid as much as 39.5%. This will allow the hedge fund and private equity guys to move from paying a mere 24% that they pay on earnings today to 15%, if Trump gets the GOP-led Congress to go along.

Trump also wants to repeal the estate tax. Like the prior “improvement”, this one will benefit the Donald personally. The estate size that must pay estate taxes today is $10.9 million. So if a couple has an estate smaller than that, they pay no estate tax. How many are paying it? Only 0.2% of estates (that’s 2 in a 1,000) pay it today.

So none of these are the “small family businesses” and “family farms” that Republicans whine about. If you have the better part of $11 million in assets, you ain’t that small.

A minute more on the LLC: LLCs were created by Congress to give owners of businesses the ability to avoid “double taxation” on taxable income they receive from their businesses. The theory is, business income from a C corporation is taxed twice: once at the corporate level and again at the personal level when dividends are paid to owners. Businessmen could have avoided double taxation by simply operating their businesses as proprietorships or general partnerships. But then they would lose the limited liability protection from creditors that C corporations and limited partnerships provide.

So Congress created the LLC hybrid to enable businessmen to have their limited liability cake and eat it too. But you don’t get the same deal: Wrongo and Ms. Right have paid into Social Security for over a combined one hundred years. Along the way, we could not deduct our yearly SS contributions, which means we paid income taxes on the income that we used to make our contributions. Now that we are receiving Social Security payments, we pay federal and state income taxes again on the payments we receive.

If we use some of our Social Security income to buy gas, we are taxed again in federal and state motor fuel taxes. Same when we buy goods and services, and pay state sales taxes.

Double, triple and quadruple taxation are pervasive throughout our economy, but it’s only the average Joes that pay them. So no tears for Mr. Trump, the Kochs and “job creators” who say they need a break from double taxation.

Or maybe ask your Congressperson for a similar break for you.

Trump is cutting taxes for the rich. If you think he is gonna help the middle class, he is hoodwinking you. You may see a few pennies in tax cuts while the rich take in extra millions to buy bigger, better penthouse apartments.

Meanwhile, the roads and bridges that you use to get to work will crumble even further, because he’s planning to give away the store.

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Capitalism, It’s Not You, It’s Me

There is a meme that has gone global since the early days of the Occupy movement. Here it is as a wall graffiti from Greece that uses the same meme we first saw in NYC in 2011:

Capitalism Lotek

Just kidding capitalism, it really is you.

The artist is a Greek who styles himself as Lotek. The name Lotek is derived from the short story (and later, a film) by William Gibson called Johnny Mnemonic. The story is set in 2021, in a world ruled by corporations. An anti-authoritarian gang that are called Lo-Teks, fight the power. They are in fact not low tech at all, but are high tech hackers. Sound familiar?

Greece is surely a place at war with neoliberalism and free market capitalism. So is it also time for us to reconsider capitalism?

Consider this from Mark Blyth in Foreign Affairs:

An inherent tension exists between capitalism and democratic politics since capitalism allocates resources through markets, whereas democracy allocates power through voting.

The compromises both systems have struck with each other over recent history shapes our contemporary political and economic world. Blyth observes:

  • In the three decades that followed World War II, democracy set the rules, taming markets with the establishment of protective labor laws, restrictive financial regulations, and expanded welfare systems.
  • Starting in the 1970s, a globalized, deregulated capitalism, unconstrained by national borders, began to push back.

And today, capital markets and capitalists are setting the rules, and democratic governments follow them.

Some background: Cutting taxes in the 1980s caused government revenues to fall. Deficits widened, and interest rates rose as those deficits became harder to finance. At the same time, conservative govern­ments, especially in the UK and the US, dismantled the regulations that had reined in the excesses of the financial service industry since the 1940s.

The financial industry began to grow unchecked, and as it expanded, investors sought safe assets that were highly liquid and provided good returns: the debt of developed countries.

This allowed governments to plug their deficits and spend more, all without raising taxes.

But the shift to financing the state through debt came at a cost. Since WW II, taxes on labor and capital had provided the foundation of postwar state spending. But, as govern­ments began to rely more on debt, the tax-based states of the postwar era became the debt-based states of today.

This transformation had pro­found political consequences. The increase in government debt has allowed capitalists to override the preferences of citizens:

  • Bond-market investors can now exercise an effective veto on policies they don’t like by demanding higher interest rates when they replace old debt with new debt.
  • Investors can use courts to override the ability of states to default on their debts, as happened recently in Argentina
  • They can shut down an entire country’s payment system if that country votes against the interests of creditors, as happened in Greece in 2015.
  • Citizens United dictates who runs for office in the US, and in many cases, who wins.

Now that the financial industry has become more powerful than the people, should we blindly follow capitalism’s meme as the only way forward?

Free-market rhetoric hides the dependence of corporate profits on conditions provided for, and guaranteed by, governments. For example:

  • Our financial institutions insist that they should be free of meddlesome regulations while they depend on continuing access to cheap credit from the Federal Reserve.
  • Our pharmaceutical firms have resisted any government limits on their price-setting ability at the same time that they rely on government grants of monopolies through our patent system.

To use a sporting metaphor, it’s as if the best football team purchased not only the best coaches and facilities, but also bought the referees and the journalists as well. Those responsible for judging economic competition have lost all authority, which leaves the dream of ‘meritocracy’ or a ‘level playing field’ in tatters.

In our country, the divide between the business oligarchs, the political class and “the people” increasingly appears unbridgeable, marked by hostility and deep distrust. When people are told for a generation that government mustn’t make decisions that interfere with free markets, it is inevitable that people will lose faith in democratic governance, and in government’s capacity to help them solve their problems.

Capitalism in its current form no longer works for the people. We have seen a reaction in the start of movements by Occupy, by Bernie, and by others in Europe.

Remember that the greatest prosperity in living memory in the US came during the brief social democratic moment, in the 1950s and 1960s, when the constraints on business were the greatest.

More democracy and more economic justice are the necessary foundations for the path to a more prosperous, and sustainable economy.

A reformed capitalism must be a part of what emerges from that fight.

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Hillary Should Grab Populism and Run With It

The biggest change in our politics in the past 20 years is the rise of populism on the left and right. The populists believe that we are led by a selfish elite that cannot—or will not—deal with the problems of ordinary working people, and there is ample evidence that they are correct.

Trump and Clinton say they will bring back jobs that corporations have shipped offshore. They make China the scapegoat for lost economic opportunity, while the real causes are automation and the triumph of the spreadsheet in corporate strategy.

Those jobs are never coming back, and a candidate who says they can negotiate with foreign governments to bring jobs back demonstrates either their naiveté about the true cause of job loss, or a simple desire to BS the American public.

Voters can see through that.

Economic and cultural insecurity are the bedrock causes for populists. Unemployment and stagnant wages hurts working-class whites, while cultural issues are a top issue for older white Americans. The first group sees their jobs threatened by automation and globalization. They join with older whites in seeing immigrants as scroungers who work for less, grab benefits and if you believe Trump, commit crimes.

Both groups also believe that American society is being undermined by diversity and foreign-born citizens.

This is the battle line of the 2016 presidential election. The mediocre economy that has been with us for nearly 20 years has caused real harm. We remain a wealthy country, but certain groups now see their opportunity slipping away. Slow growth, or no economic growth, means only a few elites will do well, and most voters see the self-serving political class as siding with the elites.

So can a candidate unify an electorate that now plays a zero-sum political game?

  • The Pant Load has the better position in this game, since he can exploit pre-existing fears that are based in fact.
  • The Pant Suit must carefully calibrate her message, but she cannot be a “maintain the status-quo” candidate and win.

Clinton would do well to consider what William Berkson said in the WaMo:

If there is one national goal that Americans can agree on, it is opportunity for all.

Berkson makes the point that since President Reagan, Republicans have advocated a simple theory of how to grow the economy: The more you reduce government involvement in the economy and the more efficient markets become, the more the economy grows.

Sorry, but the simplistic theory of free market economics has been drowned in a tsunami of fact in the past 35 years. Berkson says:

Both Democratic administrations since Reagan—that of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama—have raised taxes, and under them, the economy grew more rapidly than under the tax-cutters Reagan and George W. Bush.

This opens a path for the Pant Suit. In order to win, she must assure voters that she will deliver more and better jobs. Family income must go up. But how to achieve this?

By advocating a policy of economic opportunity through public investment in infrastructure. It fulfills the promise of opportunity for all, a populist message that has proven to work throughout America’s past. And it allows Clinton to hammer the GOP Congress and Paul Ryan about the lack of any track record for laissez-faire policies, since they have never worked, not even once, as a miracle cure for jobs and income inequality. This would be an open return to Keynesian economics. Here is Eduardo Porter in the NYT:

The Keynesian era ended when Thatcher and Reagan rode onto the scene with a version of capitalism based on tax cuts, privatization and deregulation that helped revive their engines of growth but led the workers of the world to the deeply frustrating, increasingly unequal economy of today.

And led to the low growth economy that drives today’s populist anger.

How to fund that infrastructure expense? More revenue. For the last 40 years, Democrats have been unwilling to counter the conservative argument that higher taxes are a redistribution of wealth between classes. Clinton should argue that current tax policy is really a transfer of resources from tomorrow’s generation to today’s. This is a strong populist message.

Younger Millennials understand this clearly. They already believe Social Security will not be there when they need it. She can win them over if she makes a case for new jobs and new revenues.

When conservatives say that it is unfair for people in their highest earning years to pay more taxes on that income, Clinton can point out that this is a past-due bill that they need to pay just as their elders paid higher taxes that supported the current earners when they were starting out. It was that investment in public resources such as public education and infrastructure, and in research, technology and industry that enabled today’s peak earners to get where they are.

While the strategy opens Clinton to criticism from Grover Norquist and the right about fiscal irresponsibility, it pits Trump against the Tea Party and the GOP. He would need to choose between being a populist or a doctrinaire fiscal conservative. Either way, it will bleed votes from some part of his base.

The strategy could work in down ballot races as well, particularly in the Rust Belt. Maybe working class conservatives will hear her, and not vote against their economic interests for once.

We’ll see if she will move from status quo, to “let’s go” as a campaign strategy.

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It’s Always Groundhog Day in America

Do Conservatives Have a Learning Disability? A few who read the Wrongologist are convinced that Wrongo is just a clueless, woolly-headed Progressive who hates America and the baby Jesus. None of that is true, except for the Progressive part.

From Krugman’s Monday column:

Marco Rubio has yet to win anything, but by losing less badly than other non-Trump candidates he has become the overwhelming choice of the Republican establishment.

PK points out that Rubio:

• Proposes tax cuts, like completely eliminating taxes on investment income — which would mean, for example, that Mitt Romney would end up owing zero in federal taxes.
• Proposes tax cuts that would be almost twice as big as George W. Bush’s as a percentage of GDP, despite the fact that Republicans have spent the Obama years warning incessantly that budget deficits will destroy America, any day now.
• Insists that his tax cuts would pay for themselves, by unleashing incredible economic growth. Never mind the complete absence of any evidence for this claim, or that the last two Democratic presidents, both of whom raised taxes on the rich, presided over better private-sector job growth than Mr. Bush did.
• Called for a balanced-budget amendment, which makes no sense, since he is calling for budget-busting tax cuts. Also this amendment would have been catastrophic during the Great Recession, when deficit spending helped bring us out of a crash.

Finally, Marco Roboto said a few days ago that it’s “not the Fed’s job to stimulate the economy” (although the law says that it is precisely their job). Krugman closes with: (brackets by the Wrongologist)

In short, Mr. Rubio is peddling crank economics. What’s interesting, however, is…he’s not pandering to ignorant voters; he’s pandering to an ignorant [GOP] elite.

It doesn’t require a Nobel Prize in Economics to see the entrenched divisions in our politics. But let’s focus today on the great coup by American Conservatism, convincing its followers that personal opinion counts for as much as any fact.

We live in an America that Conservatives have turned into an oligarchy. The system has been gamed to support the interests of the wealthy. Politicians are able to choose their voters through a cynical, manipulative gerrymandering re-redistricting process. The idea of “one man, one vote” has, via Citizens United, been turned into a largely meaningless exercise in which those with big bucks and an agenda pay to propagandize the American voter, many of whom are far more comfortable reacting emotionally, than thinking critically.

Conservatives like Rubio (and the rest of the GOP) have retreated into a content-free bubble, where they manufacture truth on the fly to suit their purpose. You know this since few on the Far Right put forward cogent, supportable arguments for their ideas, instead lazily relying on a smug arrogance which allows them to laugh off opposing ideas, as does Mr. Rubio.

The problem is, the vast majority of our electorate are largely oblivious to the nuances of the underlying issues. What information they have is derived from main stream media, or right wing propaganda organs, or social media.

Data are boring and unacceptable: My belief is superior to your data or to my own education. It is easier to just vote for the candidate promising to make America Great Again, ignoring the reality of the deep and nuanced causes of our problems.

The rigidity of the Republican doctrine on taxes as outlined by Rubio looks like an alternate version of the movie, “Groundhog Day“, where Bill Murray experiences a time loop in which he repeats his experience until he corrects the problems that had landed him in limbo.

Sadly, in the GOP alternative version, they begin every presidential election cycle with a demand for lower taxes. The tax policy of the previous four years has no effect on this mantra. Nor do the economic trends of the time alter their robotic claim that lower taxes will cure all difficulties. In the Conservative view, a smaller tax bite will trigger an economic boom that offsets the costs of GOP tax cuts to our budget.

In the GOP version of “Groundhog Day”, the GOP doesn’t learn from its mistakes. Unfortunately, this means the entire country suffers from the inability or unwillingness of Republicans to learn from experience.

It’s time to turn off Fox News and set out on a walkabout in the reality-based world.

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Pope Francis on Capitalism

With the Pope starting his visit to the US, most focus will be on Conservatives’ support for the Catholic Church’s views against abortion and gay marriage. Conservatives are far less enthusiastic about Francis’ views about climate change and capitalism, both of which are covered in Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si’.

While the Wrongologist has not read Laudato Si´, he did read an extensive and thoughtful review by William Nordhaus in the NY Review of Books, who says the Pope thinks that the degradation of our environment is a symptom of deeper problems: rapid change, unsustainable over-consumption, indifference to the poor, and the decay of social values.

Nordhaus notes that the encyclical contains an extensive discussion of the features of markets and modern capitalism. It emphasizes dysfunctional tendencies and distortions, witness his criticism of excessive consumption:

Since the market tends to promote extreme consumerism in an effort to sell its products, people can easily get caught up in a whirlwind of needless buying and spending. Compulsive consumerism is one example of how the techno-economic paradigm affects individuals. [Paragraph 203]

And Francis’ criticism of the distorting effect of the drive for profit:

Once more, we need to reject a magical conception of the market, which would suggest that problems can be solved simply by an increase in the profits of companies or individuals. Is it realistic to hope that those who are obsessed with maximizing profits will stop to reflect on the environmental damage which they will leave behind for future generations? [Paragraph 190]

Nordhaus quotes Francis, who argues that profit-seeking is the source of environmental degradation:

The principle of the maximization of profits, frequently isolated from other considerations, reflects a misunderstanding of the very concept of the economy. As long as production is increased, little concern is given to whether it is at the cost of future resources or the health of the environment; as long as the clearing of a forest increases production, no one calculates the losses entailed in the desertification of the land, the harm done to biodiversity or the increased pollution. In a word, businesses profit by calculating and paying only a fraction of the costs involved. [Paragraph 195]

Francis singles out financiers for special disapproval:

In the meantime, economic powers continue to justify the current global system where priority tends to be given to speculation and the pursuit of financial gain, which fail to take the context into account, let alone the effects on human dignity and the natural environment…. [Paragraph 56]

The Pope criticizes capitalism’s push to make ultra-consumers of everyone:

This paradigm [consumerism] leads people to believe that they are free as long as they have the supposed freedom to consume. But those really free are the minority who wield economic and financial power. [Paragraph 203]

Pure capitalism ignores two major shortcomings of those economies run by Mr. Market: The first is the emergence of monopolies, or things like unregulated pollution, which distort market outcomes. The second is inequality of opportunities and income. And much has been written about rising income inequality, particularly by Seitz and Piketty, and Joseph Stiglitz.

However, it would be inaccurate to point solely to the depletion of resources or pollution as major causes of rising poverty. Instead, it is forces such as the labor-saving nature of new technologies like robots, rising imports from low- and middle-income countries, and the capture of our income taxing system by corporations and the wealthy that have distorted our markets.

Specifically, as economist Arthur Okun has written, markets do not have automatic mechanisms to guarantee an equitable distribution of income and wealth:

Given the chance, [the market] would sweep away all other values, and establish a vending-machine society. The rights and powers that money should not buy must be protected with detailed regulations and sanctions, and with countervailing aids to those with low incomes. Once those rights are protected and economic deprivation is ended, I believe that our society would be more willing to let the competitive market have its place.

So, as this week rolls out, expect to hear many voices on the right argue that Francis is an unrealistic economic fool. In particular, expect to hear George Will’s arguments this week in the National Review echoed by the media. Here is a representative quote from Mr. Will: (emphasis by the Wrongologist)

Francis’s fact-free flamboyance reduces him to a shepherd whose selectively reverent flock, genuflecting only at green altars, is tiny relative to the publicity it receives from media…He stands against modernity, rationality, science and, ultimately, the spontaneous creativity of open societies in which people and their desires are not problems but precious resources. Americans cannot simultaneously honor him and celebrate their nation’s premises.

See what George Will did there? He says that climate denialism is pro-science, while belief in climate change is anti-science.

Know the enemy by their arguments.

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End Government Subsidies of Private Equity

We have written about taxpayer-funded corporate subsidies this week. Let’s talk about the Private Equity (PE) industry, where profit margins are pretty high. By PE we mean investing in assets that include equity securities and debt of operating companies that are not at the time of the investment, publicly traded. PE is a re-branding of leveraged buyouts (LBOs) which were the way Wall Streeters built wealth in the 1980s.

In the past 35 years, we have seen a finance-led revolution that has generated fantastic wealth for PE managers. PE has in large part, helped create the growing chasm between America’s most wealthy and everyone else. This is shown in the disproportionate numbers of private equity and hedge fund principals in the top .1% of American wealth. That wealth doesn’t only come from just making a killing when the target company goes public or is acquired, it also comes from favorable tax treatments for the PE company principals and investors.

Although the PE industry is often held up as an exemplar of free-market capitalism, it is surprisingly dependent on government subsidies for its profits. In a typical deal, a PE firm buys a company, using some of its own money and some borrowed money. It then tries to improve the performance of the acquired company, with an eye toward cashing out by selling it, or taking it public.

The key to this strategy is debt: the PE firms borrow to invest since, just as with your mortgage, the less money you put down, the bigger the potential return on investment. But debt also increases the risk that companies will go bust, so early on, the amount of debt PE firms employed was conservative.

That has changed in the last 10 years. After using debt to buy them, many PE funds now have their portfolio companies borrow even more. They then use that money to pay themselves “special dividends.” This allows them to recoup their initial investment while keeping the same ownership stake.

Before 2000, big special dividends were not common. But between 2003 and 2007, PE funds took more than $70 billion out of their companies. These dividends created no economic value—they just redistributed money from the company to the private-equity investors.

As an example, in 2004, Wasserstein & Company bought the mail-order fruit retailer Harry & David. The following year, Wasserstein and other investors took out more than $100 million in dividends, paid for with borrowed money. In 2011, Harry and David defaulted on its debt and dumped its pension obligations on the US government. And when an investment goes bankrupt, there are more fees, and maybe more tax write-offs for the PE partners.

Taxpayers are left on the hook. Interest payments on that debt are tax-deductible, and when pensions are dumped, a federal agency, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) picks up the company’s pension liability. That means taxpayers are on the hook for those unfunded pensions.

And the money that PE dealmakers earn is taxed at a much lower rate than normal income, thanks to the US tax code’s carried interest loophole, which permits that income to be taxed at capital gains rates.

Most do not know that the single largest source of investment capital in PE funds is government pension funds. According to Preqin, a database company that tracks investment in PE, approximately 30% of capital in US PE funds is contributed by government pension funds. Government pension funds are usually called “public” pension funds, administered by government employees and governed by officials who are directly elected by the public or appointed by elected officials.

A key point about the power and reach of PE. They have more than $3.5 trillion under management. Assuming normal leverage (30% equity) that gives them $11.7 trillion in buying power. That’s about 40% of the value of publicly-traded firms in the US. Think about the political clout they have by investing government pension money. Not only do PE firms own a huge portion of America’s productive businesses, unlike the diffuse ownership of public companies, they control them outright.

So, PE is a government-sponsored enterprise, both via tax subsidy and via funding. We taxpayers are helping them to fabulous paydays, thanks to our Congress Critters.

If PE firms are as good at remaking companies as they claim, they shouldn’t need tax loopholes to make their money. If we capped the deductibility of corporate debt, and closed the carried-interest loophole, it would not prevent PE firms from buying companies or improving corporate performance.

But it would add to our tax revenues, and that might keep a bridge or two from falling into a river during rush hour somewhere in America.

The American Dream: You have to be asleep to believe it.” -George Carlin

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