Finding the Right Wires

February 14, 2021

by Steve Stofka

Since WW2, households have traditionally held more debt than the federal government as a percent of GDP. I’ll call it %Debt. The biggest component of household debt is mortgages, and includes car loans, student loans, credit card debt, etc. A decade ago, Federal %Debt surpassed households, effectively allowing households to reduce their debt level and put it on the federal balance sheet.

Federal debt spiked during the pandemic while household debt levels have risen only 1.5%. For decades, deficit hawks have long warned that rising federal debt levels could cause an economic implosion that would make the Great Depression look tame by comparison. They may be right – finally.

There are two ways that the federal %Debt can go down. The first is to grow the economy; that’s the GDP in the denominator of Debt / GDP. The second way is to reduce the level of Debt, the numerator. It is unlikely that Congress is going to raise taxes enough to reduce the debt, so that leaves only one way to reduce %Debt – grow the economy faster than the growth in federal debt.

To do that, consumers need to spend money because their spending makes up 70% of GDP. There are three ways to increase spending. The first is to increase incomes faster than economic growth but that has not been happening for several decades. The real growth in middle class incomes over the past 30 years is only 15%, or 1/2% per year average.

The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office projects that total incomes will increase by an average of $33B per year over the next decade if the minimum wage is raised to $15 over the next five years (CBO, 2021). That increase of 1.5% in GDP will not change the federal %Debt by much.

The second way to increase GDP is for consumers to take on more debt. A rise in housing prices has lifted the net worth of many households, who can tap into that equity to increase their spending. However, households are already choked with debt. The two largest generations, the Millennials and the Boomers are offsetting each other’s spending. Older Boomers are reducing spending as Millennials increase their purchases. The Millennials have been crushed by the financial crisis a decade ago and again with the Covid crisis. Many feel like they came along at the wrong time in history and are cautious. When consumers pay down debt, they spend less and that lowers GDP growth.

The third way is probably the trend of the future. The federal government will continue to pile debt on its balance sheet and shift income onto households in the hopes that consumers will spend money and grow the economy faster than the rise in federal debt. There is a concept called the multiplier and economists argue over its value. It is the total effect of spending in an economy when the government spends $1. That depends on consumer and business confidence, which depends on the amount of debt each sector holds. The IMF estimates that the multiplier is about 1.5, so that $1 of spending equals $1.50. If so, deficit spending might grow the economy faster than the federal debt grows.

I’ll return to a proposal I discarded earlier – increasing taxes, particularly on the top 10% who don’t spend as much of their incomes on consumer goods as the bottom 90%. Under the Budget Reconciliation rule in the Senate, the Democrats could pass tax legislation that undoes the 2017 tax cuts that the Republicans passed using that reconciliation process. In his campaign proposals, President Biden limited any tax increases to those making $400,000 or more, a small sliver of the population.

Income distribution is skewed toward the upper 5%, who will fight vigorously to keep what they have. They will complain – and they have a point – that they are already paying higher taxes in the form of lost income because interest rates are so low. Those with savings are being paid a paltry amount in interest but the low rates reduce the interest on the debt that the federal government pays each year. Boomers on fixed incomes are having to reduce their savings faster  to meet monthly expenses.

The structure of income distribution is weak. No, it’s not a problem with capitalism, as some like to claim. This is a problem with political policy which pre-dates capitalism. A small group of people in a nation take command of the distribution levers and direct more of the nation’s income to themselves. In the 1700s, the problem was thought to originate with monarchy and aristocracy. Democracy was going to cure the problem, but it didn’t. Communism was going to cure the problem and it didn’t. Socialism – the middle way between capitalism and communism – was going to solve the problem, but the EU demonstrates that socialism simply slows growth, increases structural unemployment, and does little to solve the persistent problem of distributional inequalities.

Governments worry about exogenous factors like Covid, war, or a dramatic shift in commodity prices. While those do produce crises, they do so because of endogenous factors – weaknesses in a nation’s political and economic system that award property rights in such a way as to exacerbate social tensions. The Great Depression and Financial Crisis were examples.

Since the Financial Crisis a decade ago, people in nations around the world have been raising their fists and their voices. The productivity gains that capitalism promoted had ameliorated the centuries old problem of political oligarchies, but no economic system can solve what is fundamentally a political problem.

Those who voted for former President Trump in 2016 did so thinking that he was a political outsider who could “drain the swamp,” i.e., bust up the political oligarchy that controls Washington. He became part of that oligarchy, feeding the monster, because it relied on his lack of political expertise.

Those who voted for President Biden hope that his decency and moderation will help craft legislation that unlooses the grip that the oligarchy has on our political process. Which wires do we pull to disconnect the oligarchy?

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Photo by Victor Barrios on Unsplash

Congressional Budget Office (CBO). (2021, February 08). The budgetary effects of the raise the Wage act of 2021. Retrieved February 13, 2021, from https://www.cbo.gov/publication/56975

Tax Policy Center. (2020, May). What is reconciliation? Retrieved February 13, 2021, from https://www.taxpolicycenter.org/briefing-book/what-reconciliation

Income Tax and the Constitution

The Constitution of the United States was designed to protect the individual states who feared the power of a large central government.  In keeping with that design, the Constitution enumerates the various powers of the Federal Government. This past week a majority of the Supreme Court decided that the health care law known as Obamacare was constitutional, basing its decision on the taxing power granted by the Constitution and the 16th Amendment.

A fundamental presumption of writing the Constitution is the self-preservation of the new nation as such.  Various powers of defense, the ability to make war and treaties with foreign countries are some of the enumerated powers granted to the Federal Government to ensure the country’s continued existence.  What is not enumerated but assumed is the right, the duty of the Federal Government to protect the country as a whole.  At a time of armed conflict within a fractured nation, President Lincoln understood this point more clearly than most – that the utmost responsibility of a President is not spelled out in the Constitution that he had sworn to uphold.

There are two common faults that have caused the downfall of all nations, particularly nation empires: 1) the internal struggle for power by factions; and 2) the inexorable concentration of wealth and property.  The second leads to the first.

In the Federalist Paper No. 9, Alexander Hamilton wrote “It is impossible to read the history of the petty Republics of Greece and Italy, without feeling sensations of horror and disgust at the distractions with which they were continually agitated, and at the rapid succession of revolutions, by which they were kept in a state of perpetual vibration, between the extremes of tyranny and anarchy.”  Periods of calm within those empires were short-lived, “soon to be overwhelmed by the tempestuous waves of sedition and party-rage.”  As we look at and listen to the debates regarding health care, what do we see?  Party-rage.  Day after day, proponents on both sides of the issue make claims that are either blatantly untrue or a tortured stretching of fact.  There are so many dubious claims that reporters at Politifact.org  can only examine the more widely spread claims.

In Federalist Paper No. 10, James Madison, the chief constructor of the Constitution, wrote: “Among the numerous advantages promised by a well constructed Union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction.”  Further, he writes “Complaints are every where heard … that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties.”  He explained what he meant by the word faction: “By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” 

What is to be done?  Madison wrote “There are two methods of curing the mischiefs of faction: the one, by removing its causes; the other, by controling [sic] its effects.  There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction:  the one by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.”  The first of these methods is undesireable; the second is impractical. Madison concluded “The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man.”  He does not condemn people for this tendency to form factions; a well constructed government must deal with this part of man’s nature.

Madison saw “A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning Government, …an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power [who] have in turn divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other, than to co-operate for their common good.  So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions, and excite their most violent conflicts.  But the most common and durable source of factions, has been the various and unequal distribution of property.  Those who hold and those who are without property, have ever formed distinct interests in society. [Many different interests] grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes, actuated by different sentiments and views.  The regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern Legislation, and involves the spirit of party and faction in the necessary and ordinary operations of Government.” [emphasis added]  These astute observations by Madison are true today just as they were two hundred years ago.

In its own self-preservation, a government must ameliorate the “unequal distribution of property” which Madison considers to be the chief cause of factions.  How is a government to do that and preserve the respect for property rights that Madison and the framers deemed essential to a free people?  Madison wrote “From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results: and from the influence of these on the sentiments and views of the respective proprietors, ensues a division of the society into different interests and parties.”  As with factions, this contradiction is an essential process of being a free people.  To use the same sentence construction as Madison: there are two methods for removing the causes of the concentration of wealth and property:  the one, by abolishing individual property rights which are essential to a nation of free people; the other, by giving every citizen the same amount of property.  The first is undesireable; the second invalidates the first principle and impractical, as Communist societies discovered.

A well constructed government uses its taxing authority to fund its operation and control the inevitable concentration of wealth and property. Many conservatives of today argue on principle that government’s role is not to transfer wealth from one person to the next.  They ignore the history of the decline of many nations whose wealth concentration reached a critical mass that ignited revolution.  They forget that the first principle of a nation is its own preservation; that a nation MUST transfer enough wealth to slow its concentration among a small portion of its citizens.  By its very nature, a property or income tax takes, by threat of force, the property of a person.  The principle of respect for individual private property rights can not be sustained in the ideal if a nation is to survive.

The income tax, or 16th, amendment was “sold” to the state legislatures as a way to tax corporations and very wealthy individuals.  For corporations, the income tax was to be an excise tax or a fee for the exemption from liability that a corporate structure afforded its stockholders.  Today many conservatives advocate a flat tax or a less progressive tax rate structure, citing the uneven distribution of the tax burden on the rich.  When the legislatures voted on this amendment, they did so on the premise that almost all people would not be subject to the income tax.   Corporations and those with extremely large incomes were to shoulder the entire burden of the income tax.  Those state house members who voted for ratification would be shocked that the top 1% of income earners paid only 38% of the personal income tax collected in 2008 (National Taxpayers Union).  They would be indignant that corporations paid only 22.1% of the combined total of personal and corporate income taxes collected in 2008 (IRS Statistics  Table 1).  When the 16th Amendment was sold to the American people in 1910 through 1913, these two groups combined were to shoulder most, if not the entire, burden of the income tax.  In 2008, they paid a little less than 52%.

In the coming months billions of dollars will be spent to sway or negate our vote.  The people and corporations who spend these vast amounts of money will try to convince us that we should vote a certain way on principle, out of loyalty to a particular ideal, party or policy.  Those who spend this money are not evil – they are simply promoting their own interests, hoping that they will convince each of us that we share an interest with theirs.  Given a choice of two competing parties, some voters will be undecided, feeling lukewarm or conflicted about the interests of either faction.  We may wish for some alternative to these dominant factions, or a menu where we could pick and choose the narrow interests that most closely align with ours.  It is the nature of mankind that we can not either live or vote in the ideal; that we must make compromises and choose the faction which most closely aligns with our interests.

From the beginnings of this nation, parties have arisen, trying to wrest control of the government, hoping to grab control of its power for their own self-interest.  For its own self-preservation, a well constructed government MUST constantly strive to distribute competing interests and power; since money and property form the core of power, a government must spread just enough money from the richest of its citizens and corporations to the rest of its citizens.   How well a government can do so determines whether the nation survives.

Personal Income

On Friday, the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) released their monthly report of personal income, the total of income from wages, salaries, government benefits, interest and dividend payments and rental income. 

Total personal income rose just .1% for the month of September but wages and salaries showed a more healthy .3% monthly increase after declining .1% in August.  Interest income and government benefits remained flat.  Year over year, income increased 4.4% – more than the seasonally adjusted 3.6% increase in inflation.

In this country there is a feeling that something fundamental is wrong. Many are waking up to the fact that the national myth of Equal Opportunity may be just that – a myth. For decades, people have started small businesses using the equity in their homes to survive the cash flow crunch of the first years of a small business. The decline in housing prices has left many without that traditional capital cushion.

A few weeks ago I wrote about the decline in the median income over the past decade.  Today, let’s look at the big picture of personal income.  Below is a Federal Reserve chart of inflation adjusted personal income for the past fifty years. (Click to enlarge in separate tab)

After a big dip in the past recession (shaded on the chart above), total personal income has returned to about the level it was at the start of the recession in December 2007.  Below is that same chart zoomed on the past five years of inflation adjusted income.

To see the underlying strength or weakness of income, we need to take out transfer payments, which are government checks for benefits of all types.  After all, this is just tax money taken from Paul to pay Peter. The Federal Reserve conveniently gives us that data.

A zoom in on the last five years of inflation adjusted personal income shows the economic sickness that many people vaguely know in their hearts.  After rising from a trough in the 3rd quarter of 2009, real personal income has stagnated the past year.

What this data doesn’t do is adjust for the increase in population.  Although the Federal Reserve charts per capita disposable personal income, they do not chart real personal income less transfer payments on a per capita basis.  Using population figures from the Census Bureau, I was able get a picture of the income data, one that has serious implications for the future.

In 2011, we have finally reached the 2001 level of income.  Despite all the productivity gains of the past decade, we are back to where we started.  As I have pointed out before, the productivity gains are going to the very top incomes.  Below is that same chart, but focused on the past ten years.

As the boomers retire in ever increasing numbers they will be receiving Social Security checks, a transfer payment, which will put downward pressure on personal income less transfer payments.  The long term chart of personal income less transfer payments reveals a familiar and disturbing pattern familiar to stock chart watchers – the head and shoulders pattern – which indicates a dramatic drop in the future.  Confirming this ominous sign are the uncompromising unemployment figures – over 16% of the working age population is either un- or under-employed.  How are these fewer workers with relatively stagnant real incomes in the production of goods and services going to generate enough tax revenues to pay for the increasing transfer payments?

Income Disparity

Beth referred me to a Slate article by

This article has a decided “liberal” slant.  The graph showing disparities in income leaves out “transfers of income”.  In July 2010, the BEA reported that transfer payments were 1/6 of total personal income, or about 30% of what people got paid in wages and salaries.  Transfer payments include Social Security, unemployment insurance, back to work welfare programs, pell grants, etc, etc.  There is disparity of income but Paul Krugman and others who have a strong political agenda pick out the data that most strongly shows their case.  Income is income.  In the early part of the 20th century there were no social safety net programs and few transfer payments.  Now, they comprise a significant part of income for a growing part of the population and should be included for comparison.

A final note:  There will always be disparities in income, disparities in circumstance, disparities in ability.  James Madison, the primary architect of the Constitution, was well aware of this and wrote in Federalist #10:
 

The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government. From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results; and from the influence of these on the sentiments and views of the respective proprietors, ensues a division of the society into different interests and parties.

Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society. Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination. A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes, actuated by different sentiments and views. The regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation, and involves the spirit of party and faction in the necessary and ordinary operations of the government.

The violence of factions had brought down previous republics like Greece and Rome.  What can remedy this natural tendency of people to form factions?

There are two methods of curing the mischiefs of faction: the one, by removing its causes; the other, by controlling its effects.
There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.

Realizing that the cures for faction are worse than the disease of faction, Madison constructed a Constitution by which the different factions in this country would push and pull for power.  Unlike utopians who dream of a better world if only people weren’t so self-interested, Madison understood that self-interest was natural to people and developed a legislative structure that could hopefully balance those competing interests.
Today we have become a country of factions fighting for federal largesse:  farmers who want price supports, the unemployed who want benefit extensions, students wanting more generous student loan programs and grants, industrial towns wanting government support to bring businesses to their area, banks and car companies wanting bailouts, consumers wanting ever more protections, seniors wanting generous cost of living adjustments to their pensions, people wanting more regulations, people wanting less regulations, etc, etc.  We are turning into a country of supplicants raising our voices in a cacophony of “Gimme” and “It’s mine.” 
And we call ourselves a great nation.

The Tax Divide

Continuing my review of 20 years of tax data from the IRS, I’ll look at incomes vs income taxes paid.  As the chart below shows, the top half of households in this country pay all the personal income taxes collected. (Click graph to enlarge)

In 2000, net tax rates for the top half of households topped out at about the same level of the mid 80s – just under 20%.  The Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 lowered net tax rates for the top half of household to under 15%.

The top half of households are making 90% of the personal income in this country and paying almost 100% of the personal income tax.  The top 25% of households are making 70% of the income and paying about 83% of personal income taxes.

Half of households pay the bills both for themselves and for the other half. In a democratic society, those on the lower half of the economic ladder will vote for politicians who promise more programs to help them out.  Those on the upper half will vote for politicians that promise to reduce their tax burden.

The core of the problem, however, is not tax rates or taxes paid but the rising gaps between economic groups, particularly those households at the very top of the economic ladder and the rest of the population.  Until that inequity in income is reduced, the top 25% of households will pay an ever increasing share of the tax burden.  Policymakers in Washington have been and continue to create a two tiered society.

What are some solutions to reduce the income gaps?   We have found that we can not have a healthy economy which is based almost entirely on the service sector.

1) Encourage businesses to relocate manufacturing facilities back to the U.S.  This can be done with tax incentives for those businesses that hire American workers.  Where will we get the money to afford these tax incentives?  The only place possible – those in the top 10% of households.  Increase the tax rates on those in the upper income brackets but target the additional money specifically for tax breaks for small manufacturing businesses – those with 100 employees or less – that hire American workers.  In Obama’s 2010 budget, he proposes to let the Bush era tax cuts expire for upper income taxpayers and use the additional tax money to reduce the country’s deficit.  It is a noble goal but it does not address the long term structural defects in this economy.  Right now, deficit reduction is a temporary bandaid on a much larger problem that will make large budget deficits a structural component of our economy in the coming decades.

2)  Relax some of the stringent environmental codes enacted over the past several decades which drove up costs for U.S. based manufacturers and hastened their departure for other countries with cheaper labor costs and less onerous environmental requirements.  This may upset some people who want a perfect world.  We can’t have a perfect world.  We never could. 

3)  Manufacturing requires capital and will absorb some of the excess money reserves that are looking for a return.  Too much U.S. savings is being used to invest in the manufacturing output of other countries.  Too much U.S. savings is being used to buy federal, state and local debt, all of which will continue to increase as the tax base decreases.  Let’s get our savings to work producing.

4)  Have a minimum tax that all but the poorest households pay each year – even if it is only $100 a year.  25% of households in this country have no “skin in the game.”  Target that tax money for those in the helping professions who are generally paid less for the work they do and the education they work hard to achieve.  That includes social workers, LPNs, nurses aides and counselors.

Any other ideas?