Tower of Babel

October 23, 2022

by Stephen Stofka

This week’s letter is about taxes and income. Each month, the Federal Reserve (2022) releases an estimate detailing how people spend their money and the sources of their income. I was surprised that 17% of personal income is from government transfers like Social Security and other programs. This is 2% more than the income people receive on their assets. A bit of history for context.

In the 1960s, 2/3 of income was from wages and salaries. Each decade, the wages and salaries component declined 5% until this past decade when wages and salaries were just 50 cents out of every dollar of income.

A greater portion of employee compensation shifted from discretionary income to dedicated non-taxable benefits like health care insurance and pensions. In the early 1960s employer benefits were 10% of wages and salaries. Now they are 21%. Despite the rise in the non-taxable share of compensation, workers give up more out of their paychecks to taxes.

A growing share of income goes to FICA taxes

In 1960, workers paid 6% of their paychecks to FICA taxes. The Medicare program, about 20% of our FICA taxes today, would not be enacted until 1965 when President Johnson ushered in his Great Society programs. Within five years analysts realized that lawmakers had wildly underestimated the costs of the program. By 1980, increases in Social Security and Medicare taxes increased the FICA portion to 12% of paychecks. Today, workers pay 15% of their paychecks in FICA taxes (see note).

In 1960, all other taxes were 11% of total income in 1960, had climbed to almost 13% in 1980 then to over 14% by the year 2000 and are now 15% of total income. In the past twenty years, the rich have paid a growing share of income taxes but their effective tax rate has changed little. Why? When lawmakers put a heavier burden on rich people, they lobby for legal income exclusions and Congress obliges.

Top 10% pay a growing share of income tax

In 2001, the top 1% paid 33% of income taxes. In 2019, they paid 39% (IRS, 2022). In 2001, the top 10% (the Tennies, I’ll call them) paid 64% of personal income taxes. In 2019, they paid 71%. Whether it is the super-rich or the rich, their share of income tax has grown by 6 -7%. That’s not the end of the story.

Growth in incomes of the top 10% is far higher

The Tennies have seen their share of gross income increase from 42.5% in 2001 to 47.3% in 2019, a gain of almost 5 percentage points. They have paid a rising share of the nation’s income taxes but the rise in taxes is less than the rise in personal income (BEA, 2022). In the 2001-2003 period the income tax paid by the Tennies averaged 5.6% of national personal income. In the 2017-2019 period, that tax share was 6.3%, a difference of just .7%. It is a cheap price to pay for a 5% gain in the nation’s total income.

Effective Tax Rate of the top 10% is steady despite rise in Income

In the 2001-3 period the Tennies averaged an effective tax rate of 13.5%. In the 2017-19 period, that effective rate had declined to 13.2% despite a 2% rise in the top marginal tax rate from 35% in 2001 to 37% in 2019. Raising the marginal tax rate on the highest income brackets has little net effect yet it was a campaign issue for Mr. Biden and many Democrats. Political scientists call it position-taking.

The party of no taxes produces higher deficits

Despite their rhetoric about reducing the deficit, Republicans have adopted a no new taxes on anyone pledge that ensures the deficit will get worse. True to form, the budget deficit has grown more under Republican administrations over the past four decades. The party also has a record of slower economic growth but that is mostly due to the two terms of the George Bush administration. Mr. Bush’s failures caused many Republicans to abandon more mainstream Republican values and adopt a mean spirited attitude of radical defiance exemplified by the Tea Party and the Republican Study Committee.

Action requires Compromise

The “Just Say No” Republican factions permit little compromise so the party cannot get significant legislation passed. In the first year of Mr. Trump’s Presidency, Republicans held all three legislative bodies but were stymied by their internal squabbles. In November of 2017, they hastily assembled the corporate tax reform package, TCJA, to show their constituents that they were capable of legislating and to give Mr. Trump some accomplishment that he could tweet  about.

A look ahead

If Republicans take control of the House after the upcoming elections, we can expect more of the same dysfunction under Speaker Kevin McCarthy. Libertarians in the Republican Party want a limited role for the federal government as specified in Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution. They have little tolerance for national abortion laws and other bullying social legislation that Republicans have promised. The uncompromising factions within the Republican Party ensure that the party cannot govern. They are like drivers in a car with a manual transmission who don’t know how to clutch and shift. Democratic lawmakers, on the other hand, drive down the road, focused on staying perfectly centered between the white lane markers of equality and equity. The rich benefit when party leaders cannot assemble a cohesive coalition of interest groups and voters. The economic interests of the top 10% are protected when voters remain fragmented. Party elites and partisan interest groups speak in languages that are understandable only to a narrow constituency. By promoting dissension, social media has helped create a Tower of Babel.


Photo by Osman Rana on Unsplash

BEA: U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, Personal Income [PI], retrieved from FRED, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis;, October 19, 2022.

Federal Reserve. (2022). Personal income and its disposition. FRED. Retrieved October 19, 2022, from The FICA tax percentage includes the employer and employee portion of the tax. The employee effectively bears the burden of the entire tax.

IRS. (2022). SOI tax stats – individual income tax rates and tax shares. Internal Revenue Service. Retrieved October 19, 2022, from Table 4.2, Selected Descending Cumulative Percentiles of Returns Based on Income Size Using the Definition of AGI for Each Year.

A Global Wave

October 16, 2022

by Stephen Stofka

On Thursday, September’s CPI came out, showing an annual price increase of 8.2%. A quarter of that increase was housing costs – rent and owner equivalent rent. Price increases have decelerated this quarter. Remember that inflation is the change in prices. Acceleration (+) or deceleration (-) is the change of that change. Inflation is like the speed in a car. Acceleration is the change in speed. The graph below shows the acceleration for the past five years.

Notice the regular up and down in small increments before the pandemic. When we drive down the highway without cruise control, we experience the same minor variations in speed. After the pandemic, price acceleration became more erratic. Why?

Usually, we do not synchronize our spending and saving. During the pandemic in 2020, we began to coordinate our buying habits. The first round of stimulus checks went out in April 2020, shortly after the economy was locked down. We bought workout equipment, computers and peripherals, appliances for the home. The second round of stimulus went out in December 2020 and January 2021. President Biden was sworn into office in January 2021 and immediately began discussions of a third stimulus payment, part of the American Rescue Plan.

Critics say the third stimulus payment was too much, that it was the impetus to the recent inflationary surge. That is an ex-post or hindsight criticism. On December 18, 2020, Moderna was granted emergency approval by the FDA (2020) for its MRNA vaccine, a relatively new vaccine manufacturing technology. The Pfizer vaccine was the first to get such approval but its vaccine required a temperature of -94F. Moderna’s vaccine required a temperature of only -4F, about the same level as the freezer temperature in a home refrigerator. The vaccine was deemed safe but the drug makers did not know how long the vaccines would last. Secondly, they needed a booster shot as well. Moderna promised 100 million doses by March of 2021. What if the vaccines lasted only a few months and development of a better formulation was delayed another year? The third stimulus would have been entirely appropriate. Policymakers must make ex-ante decisions – before all the evidence is known or evaluated.

In 2021, some economists predicted higher inflation in 2022. They turned out to be right. Ten years ago, those same economists predicted higher inflation after the 2009 ARRA stimulus. They were wrong. Economists, like traders, are right sometimes and wrong sometimes. Like traders, the winning prediction rate is closer to 50-50 or pure chance. Others are likening this to the inflation of the 1970s. However, there is a big difference. In the 1970s, price acceleration kept rising like a car which is speeding up. Currently it is falling, like a car slowing down. Here’s a look price acceleration in the 1970s.

As I mentioned last week the Social Security Administration announces the yearly COLA for Social Security recipients after the September CPI figure is reported. The 2023 COLA adjustment will be 8.7%, adding $146 to the average $1673 monthly payment for retirees. As I discussed last week, worker’s wages have not kept up with inflation. They are more on a fixed income than retirees at this point.

The inflation is global – a first in economic history. Global market research company Ipsos (2022) survey people in 29 countries. Inflation has become the top concern for 40% of respondents. Here’s the chart I downloaded from their page. Look at the surge in inflation as a concern over the past year. Unemployment and Covid-19 were the top concerns in 2020. Stimulus assistance and monetary policy in the Eurozone countries helped relieve job concerns. Covid-19 became less worrying as more people got vaccinated and hospital admissions decreased. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, rising oil prices lifted inflation worries in many countries.

As the world becomes more integrated financially and economically, will we reach a self-destructive resonance? Our economic systems could become less stable as they synchronize. I hope not.


Photo by Providence Doucet on Unsplash

FDA. (2020, December 18). FDA takes additional action in fight against COVID-19 by issuing emergency use authorization for second COVID-19 vaccine. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Retrieved October 15, 2022, from

Ipsos. (2022, September 22). What worries the world – September 2022 . Ipsos. Retrieved October 14, 2022, from

The Old, Young and Middle

October 9, 2022

by Stephen Stofka

This week I’ll compare inflation-adjusted or real spending on Social Security and K-12 education with wage growth. I was surprised to learn that the number of people in both programs are the same. I’ll begin with Friday’s employment report because the market’s reaction to it indicates the erratic – but rational – thinking that higher inflation can trigger. Job gains of 263,000 were in line with expectations, but the unemployment rate went down by .1% because people stopped looking for jobs. Three years ago a .1% move would be discarded as a survey error. The unemployment rate is derived from a survey of households, not businesses, and often exaggerates any move up or down. In today’s volatile market, traders are skittish, employing algorithms that don’t care about the extent of a move, only whether it is up or down. Short term options trading leverages both money and time and they are now almost half of the options market. A minus sign might trigger a sell, a plus sign a buy. The number after that plus or minus is less important. A trader might have taken a position forecasting a slight uptick in the unemployment rate. No increase or a decrease = sell and minimize losses. This is reactive trading, not economic evaluation.

This week’s ADP report of private job gains showed a decline of 7,000. Averaged together job gains were only 116,000 in September and has shown a distinct downward response to the Fed’s raising of interest rates. The historical average of the two surveys has been the more accurate after revisions. More disappointing for workers is that wage growth has been more than 3% below the inflation rate.

While workers’ wages are not keeping up with inflation, social security recipients will likely get a COLA (cost-of-living-adjustment) raise of about 8.6% this year. By law, the COLA calculation compares this year’s average third quarter CPI to last year’s third quarter average. September’s CPI report will be released Thursday, October 13th, finalizing this year’s 3rd quarter and the final adjustment percentage. It will be the largest increase since 1981’s adjustment of 11.3%, according to the Social Security Administration (2022).

An eternal theme in the Republican platform is the privatization of Social Security before it goes broke. A few weeks before the election, some Republicans will undoubtedly use the COLA adjustment to call for Social Security privatization. They will claim that higher payments will inevitably lead to the insolvency of the fund. Retirees will get partial payments or no payments.

Former House Speaker and Republican Vice-Presidential candidate, Paul Ryan once asked Alan Greenspan, then Chairman of the Fed and a fellow conservative, a leading question meant to demonstrate the insolvency of Social Security. Wouldn’t personal retirement accounts (privatized Social Security accounts) make the retirement system more financially secure? In his dry tone, Greenspan answered that “there is nothing to prevent the Federal Government from creating as much money as it wants and paying it to somebody” (C-Span, 2005). Ryan, a champion of privatization, was disappointed in the answer.

Why then do we have the trust funds? The Social Security system is “Pay-Go.” The taxes of current workers pay for the benefits to retired workers. When the program was created almost 90 years ago, President Roosevelt (FDR) thought that Republicans – and some conservative southern Democrats – would be more hesitant to cancel the program if funds were – on paper at least – dedicated to the program and called “insurance.” Republicans challenged the program up to the Supreme Court on the basis that the Federal government had no Constitutional right to force people to pay into a retirement program. The Court ruled that, even if the program was called “insurance,” it was a tax and the government had the right to tax incomes. Read the 16th Amendment. The unfairness in the system was that the first generation of recipients paid little into the system for the benefits they received when they retired. Today, the average retiree receives $1673 a month, or $20K per year (SSA, 2022). Let’s compare that to spending on K-12 education.

The U.S. has about the same number of K-12 students as it does retirees who are collecting Social Security – a bit more than 50 million. Social Security is a federal program. K-12 education is funded at the state and local level with only 8% federal funding. The federal government has deep pockets. State and local governments have shallow pockets with many demands from their constituents. In 2019, federal, state and local governments spent $765B, or $15,120 per pupil in 2019 (Hanson, 2022). That’s 75% of what we spend on retirees. Have we shifted too many resources to seniors from children?

Retirees have paid Social Security taxes for their entire working lives and feel that those funds have been set aside for them. The federal government doesn’t have to provide goods and services to retirees. Even the task of computing and remitting Social Security taxes is done by businesses – by law and for free. The accounting is a business expense. State and local governments must provide real resources. These include schools and facilities, teachers and lunches, school nurses and security guards.

Education competes with other essential services. The 2008 financial crisis and the slow recovery “put a hurt” in most state and local budgets. Since 2008, the national average of real per pupil funding has increased only 6% (Hanson, 2022). For most of that time, inflation has been low. Imagine what a sustained period of high inflation might do. Let’s look back at the last period – the 1970s and early 1980s.

Higher inflation wakes us up. Even when inflation is low, workers are squeezed, having to support children and retirees. Inflation increases the budget squeeze so workers pay closer attention to personal budgets and public policies. In the high inflation decade of the 1970s the public discovered that income and real estate taxes were not indexed to inflation. Rising wages caused people to go into higher tax brackets even when their real wages had barely moved. Tax laws were changed in the 1980s.

Ever rising real estate taxes in California made it difficult for retired homeowners on fixed incomes to stay in their homes. A growing taxpayer revolt rose up in many states. In 1978, California voters approved Proposition 13 which limited annual increases in taxes. Real estate taxes are the largest source of funding for schools so today California spends 10% less than the national average on K-12 students. Will today’s higher inflation provoke some sweeping policy changes?

Knowing past history, the Fed can’t let high inflation get entrenched in the economy for long. People will demand policy and institutional changes. Next week I’ll look at consumer psychology during high inflation periods.


Photo by CDC on Unsplash

C-Span. (2005, March 3). User Clip: Alan Greenspan answers Paul Ryan. C-Span. Retrieved October 7, 2022, from

Hanson, Melanie. “U.S. Public Education Spending Statistics”, June 15, 2022,

Social Security Administration. (2022). Cost of Living Adjustments. Cost-Of-Living Adjustments. Retrieved October 7, 2022, from

SSA: Social Security Administration. (2022, August). Monthly Statistical Snapshot, August 2022. Research, Statistics & Policy Analysis. Retrieved October 7, 2022, from



A Generation’s Legacy

October 24, 2021

By Steve Stofka

There are two types of federal benefit programs: those that require “dues” to qualify for benefits and those that are means-tested. Social Security is an example of the first type. With some exceptions recipients must contribute to the program to qualify for benefits. Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and the SNAP food program are examples of the latter. A person’s circumstances, not their contributions, determine their qualification for benefits. Because people think of Social Security as an insurance program, not a government charity, it is the “third rail” of politics. Voters feel that they have paid into the system and deserve their promised benefits. The Boomer generation points to the $2.9 trillion in the Social Security Trust Fund as evidence they have indeed paid into the system. Talk of cutting benefits can earn a politician the boot. The question is: have workers paid in enough?

Our choices today are constrained by the priorities and choices of past generations. The Social Security program was created in 1935 to relieve seniors burdened with crushing poverty. The failure of thousands of banks prior to that time had wiped out the lifetime savings of many workers. With a commanding majority in the House and Senate, Democrats responded to the plight of many seniors. Those first generations received far more in benefits than they paid in contributions and created what is called a “legacy debt.”

In 1965 the program was expanded and in 1975 benefits were indexed to inflation. By that time, the sum of contributions exceeded benefits paid so that the trust fund had a reserve of 56% of benefits expected to be paid that year. By 1983, the reserve stood at only 18% of that year’s anticipated benefits. High inflation during the 1970s and some miscalculations in computing inflation adjustments to beneficiaries had depleted reserves. At that time, the Boomer generation ranged in age from 20 to 37, about the same as the Millennial generation today. By 2008, the first of the Boomer generation would be eligible for benefits. A commission recommended accelerating tax increases to build up the trust fund in anticipation of this demographic bulge. When the great financial crisis hit in 2008, the trust funds had 358% in reserves. It should have been much more.

Economists and politicians have remarked on the slow wage growth of the past decades. The cause of that slow growth is a matter of political perspective, but one thing is certain. Labor productivity has slowed as well and there is no consensus on the cause of that. In the chart below, I’ve smoothed out some data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics on Labor Productivity to show the long term trends. I set the 70-year average of 2.2% annual growth at zero to show the periods of below average productivity. The chart shows the two decades of below average growth from 1975 to 1995.

Labor Productivity – 70 year average of 2.2% annual growth set to zero

In a 2001 paper William Nordhaus (2001, 2), a researcher at the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) noted “after growing rapidly for a quarter century, productivity came to a virtual halt in the early 1970s.” Nordhaus attributed the growth of the late 1990s to the “new economy,” the communications technology and software development at the dawn of the internet. The productivity surge lasted about a decade, succumbing to the drag of low productivity in the service sector in general.

Because many service jobs have low productivity growth, America has given up the robust growth of the modern industrial age in the post-WW2 period. Low wage growth means less taxes to fund benefits and political tension. Since 2010, Social Security has been tapping the trust funds to pay benefits as the Boomers retire. By 2034, the trust funds will be depleted and the trustees estimate that each year’s taxes will be enough to pay about ¾ of promised benefits unless taxes are raised or general taxes are used to pay benefits. As much as workers have paid in SS taxes, it wasn’t enough. The Social Security trustees estimate that an additional 2.83% in taxes would cure the problem for another 75 years but politicians don’t have the courage to push taxes higher.

The program was created during the depths of the Depression. The generation that enjoyed SS benefits far above their contributions has passed on, leaving their legacy debt with us. They believed that the future would be like the past, that strong productivity and wage growth could pay inflation adjusted benefits for 15-20 years of retirement. Across a divided country and a divided Congress, we must put down the word weapons and ask ourselves “What are we going to do?”


Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Nordhaus, W. D. (2001, January 01). Productivity growth and the New Economy. Retrieved October 24, 2021, from

SSA. (2021). Social Security – Trust Fund Ratios. Retrieved October 24, 2021, from

Bridge the Gap?

Photo by Ragnar Vorel on Unsplash

September 6, 2020

by Steve Stofka

What issues are your priorities this election? For more than thirty years Pew Research has surveyed people about their priorities. For the first time in 2019 a majority of 765 respondents answered that there is a “great deal” of difference in where each party stands, up from 25% in 1987 (Pew Research, 2020). I’ve included the full list at the end.

In January 2019, soon after the midterm elections Pew surveyed 1500 adults (Jones, 2020). I don’t know why the abortion/free choice debate is not on the issue list since that single issue may decide some voters. I’m particularly interested in the large gaps in those priorities among those who lean Democrat or Republican. I’ll start with gaps of 25%. For instance, terrorism is a concern for 80% of Republicans but only 55% of Democrats. Other Republican priorities are Immigration, the Military and Crime.

As you can see, these are fear issues. Should a person in a town of 2000 be more concerned about terrorism than a resident of NYC? Of course not, but it is what it is. People vote out of fear and hope, but fear probably wins the wrestling match, especially among Republican voters who are not hopey, changey voters, as former VP candidate Sarah Palin noted (Gonyea, 2010).

The issue of crime illustrates the conflicting complexities of these issues. It is a 60% priority for Republicans, who are in suburban and rural areas where there is less crime, and a 40% priority for Democrats, who are in dense urban areas where there is a higher incidence of crime. Because crime is much lower than in past decades, this issue has slipped as a priority for Democrats (FBI, n.d.).  

Two of the highest Democrat priorites – Cimate Change and the Environment – have a huge gap of 50% with Republican voters. Democrat politicians have not been able to make these two fear issues personal for Republicans. If they could, they would draw more voters to their side on this issue. 25% gaps exist on issues of the Poor and Needy, Health Care, Education and Race Relations. Rural Republican voters are more likely to be poor and needy, but this is not a fear issue for them (USDA, n.d.).

What strategy would a politician or political consultant advise? Run toward the base? If so, one would emphasize these issues where there are large gaps between the two primary factions in this country. The President has largely adopted this strategy. Republican voters are more inclined to fall in line and the President is relying on this party loyalty even if they don’t like him personally.

Some issues where there is a smaller gap between factions are the economy, the budget deficit, jobs, global trade, drug addiction, transportation, Social Security and Medicare.

A politician reaching out to voters on the fence in this election would focus on these issues. Joe Biden hits the jobs theme, the budget deficit, and protecting Social Security and Medicare to appeal to voters who have had their fill of the President’s divisiveness.

In the coming two months, candidates may adjust their strategies. In the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton may not have addressed these shared concerns as well and it cost her the election.  Governing comes after winning an election. In politics, winning is packaging the concerns and identities of voters into an appealing, if not attractive, box that will get them to come out and vote.

What are your priorities this election season? Are you a multi-issue voter, a single issue voter, a party voter regardless of the issues? Here’s the Pew survey list of 18 issues: terrorism, immigration, military, crime, climate change, environment, poor and needy, race relations, health care, education, economy, Social Security, Medicare, jobs, drug addiction, transportation, global trade, and the budget deficit.



FBI. (n.d.). Crime rates in the United States, 2008 – 2018. Retrieved September 05, 2020, from

Gonyea, D. (2010, February 07). ‘How’s That Hopey, Changey Stuff?’ Palin Asks. Retrieved September 05, 2020, from

Jones, B. (2020, August 26). Republicans and Democrats have grown further apart on what the nation’s top priorities should be. Retrieved September 05, 2020, from

Pew Research Center. (2020, August 21). Public’s 2019 Priorities: Economy, Health Care, Education and Security All Near Top of List. Retrieved September 05, 2020, from

U.S.D.A. (n.d.). Rural Poverty & Well-Being. Retrieved September 05, 2020, from

A Tug of War

June 7, 2020

by Steve Stofka

Is grandma your enemy? An uncomfortable thought. Different generations have different concerns. Funding a solution to one generation’s problem may take resources from other generations. Grandma wants to protect her Social Security and Medicare. Grandma votes her interests.

The introduction of Social Security eighty years ago marked an extraordinary shift in federal policy. For the first time in the history of this country the government took money from one set of people – those who were younger and working – and gave it to other people. This transfer was not a reward for military service – an old soldier pension – but a reward for getting old.  

During the Great Depression thousands of banks failed and millions of people lost their savings. That crisis called for a solution. Instead of addressing the problem, FDR and a super-majority of congressional Democrats created a permanent program that transferred money from people raising families to retired people. No military or community service required. The combined tax contribution to fund the program was 2%. It is now more than six times that.

In 1965, Democrats again enjoyed a super-majority in Congress and a Democratic President. Never waste a super-majority. There are no checks and balances. They passed the Medicare program, funded by a tax on working families who were ineligible for benefits under the program. In every election, old people vote to keep their benefits, and are the largest demographic of voters (Census Bureau, 2019). 

Younger voters change addresses more often. In dense urban areas with multiple voting districts, they are more likely to have out of date voter registration. Voters in rural districts remain in the same voting district when they move a few miles. Rural voters are predominantly older, white and conservative. In the first half of the 20th Century, rural populations migrated from the farm to the city. Rural voters controlled political power in many states because one rural vote counted far more than one urban vote. In two decisions in the 1960s, the Supreme Court interpreted the Constitution to mean one person, one vote (Mosvick, 2020).

As the children of farmers continued to move away in the last half of the century, rural voters adopted other strategies to control electoral power. Less funding for polling places in urban areas, claims of voter fraud, lifetime restrictions against voting by convicted felons, and locating prisons in rural areas where the prisoners are included in the county’s population, but the prisoners cannot vote. Groups like Judicial Watch initiate hundreds of lawsuits in Democratic leaning counties to invalidate the registrations of many voters (Lacy, 2020).

In 1965, a year after passage of the Civil Rights Act, President Johnson hoped that the newly instituted Medicare program would help stem the defection of Southern voters from the Democratic Party. It didn’t. The Party had successfully stifled the voting power of black people in the south for a century. The 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments which gave black people voting power and citizenship status had been forced on the Southern states after their defeat in the Civil War. Feeling that President Johnson and the party had betrayed them, voters sought a champion who could protect white voting power. 

Richard Nixon became their champion by default. In the 1968 race, the Republican candidate employed a “ southern strategy” that spoke to white voters worried that the recently passed Civil Rights Act would give blacks too much electoral power. In the spring, riots and demonstrations broke out after Martin Luther King’s assassination. At the Democratic Convention that summer, bloody conflicts broke out between Chicago police and anti-Vietnam War demonstrators. Nixon promised to be a law and order President, protecting the “old order,” older Americans and the white rural domination that had been the calling card of the Democratic Party in the South. When leading Democratic candidate Robert Kennedy was assassinated that summer, the party was too disorganized to mount a challenge to Nixon. He won by a convincing margin in the electoral college, but bested Hubert Humphrey by only ½% of the popular vote (Wikipedia, 2020). 9 million voters chose Independent Party candidate George Wallace, who appealed to disaffected conservative Democratic voters in the South (PBS, n.d.).

Some of us have supremacist attitudes, some of us condemn those attitudes. Some of us feel threatened at the sight of a black man and call the police. Some of us understand Black Lives Matter; others don’t. We all understand our point of view a lot better than our neighbor’s. We all want to be believed more than believe.

We grant police the sanctioned use of force but we require temperance in their use of it. Clearly, there are many officers who do not have a tempered behavior. The lie is that it is a few bad apples. Smart phones have become common only in the past decade and there are hundreds of videos of officers acting without restraint. In another ten years, there will be thousands.

 One person, one vote. This country has been engaged in a tug of war since its founding. Regional and generational interests pitted against each other. Rural against urban. Businesses vs workers. City governments vs. workers. States vs. citizens. Decide which end of the rope you are on and pull. Grandma grabs the rope. In every election, a lot of money and effort is spent to prevent people from voting. If you don’t vote you are doing those on the other end of the rope a favor and they thank you.



Photo by Arnaud Jaegers on Unsplash

Census Bureau. (2019, July 16). Behind the 2018 U.S. Midterm Election Turnout. Retrieved from

Lacy, A. (2020, May 28). Right-Wing Groups Aims to Purge 800,000 Voters in Pennsylvania. Retrieved from

Mosvick, N. (2020, March 26). On this day, Supreme Court reviews redistricting. Retrieved from  Also, see Stahl, 2015.

PBS. (n.d.). Thematic Window: The Election of 1968. Retrieved from

 Stahl, J. (2015, December 7). Baker v. Carr: The Supreme Court gets involved in redistricting. Retrieved from

Wikipedia. (2020, June 06). 1968 United States presidential election. Retrieved from

The Interest Rate Curve

August 4, 2019

by Steve Stofka

I was doing some work on various 1930s Depression era programs and ran across this precursor to Social Security call the Townsend Old-Age Revolving Pension. You can read more about it at the Social Security website in the notes below (Note #1).

The idea was to give people 60 years and older $200 a month. Pretty cool, I thought. Then I checked the BLS inflation calculator and found out that $200 at that time was equivalent to $3900 a month! That’s almost 2-1/2 times the average $1,461 a month that current Social Security recipients receive. The program was to be funded by a 2% national sales tax somewhat like the VAT tax in Europe. Seniors loved the program. They would be receiving twice what an average working person received each month.

A bill was introduced in Congress to adopt this plan; when the proponents of the program appeared at a Congressional hearing, it became apparent that they had not done any research on the amount of taxes needed to fund the program – more than half of the entire federal budget. The idea was shelved but inspired the creation of the Social Security program a few years later.

A unique feature of the plan was that recipients had to spend the money every month or lose whatever they did not spend. As the economy slowed down in early 2008, the Bush Administration sent out tax rebates to everyone in the hopes that the increased spending would stimulate the economy. A 2008 consumer confidence survey indicated that only a third of people spent the rebate (Note #2), but a 2009 Congressional Budget Office analysis indicated a higher percentage (Note #3).

In Obama’s first months in office after the 2008 Financial Crisis, the issue was a hot topic among policymakers and economists. The government could send out another round of rebate checks to people, but it couldn’t make them spend it to stimulate the economy. The Fed had cut interest rates to near 0%. What else could it do?

In an April 2009 NY Times op-ed, the prominent economist Greg Mankiw discussed a proposal that one of his students offered (Note #4). Essentially, the scheme was to announce a lottery that would invalidate 10% of all money. The nominal cost of holding money would go from 0% to -10%. By nominal, I mean excluding inflation which was zero or negative in early 2009. In advance of the lottery, people would want to hold as little money as possible. Would they spend it, or deposit it in the bank?  In today’s digital economy, most of us do not hold as much money as we did several decades ago. Would such a scheme encourage people to spend more?

I remember reading a suggestion at the time that the government should send credit cards to taxpayers instead of checks. The thinking was that people would have to spend the rebate instead of being saved or paying off debt. However, money is fungible, or interchangeable. After receiving my credit card loaded with $600, for example, I could pay my utilities or rent with that and put $600 in my savings account. I have spent nothing extra, which is what the government wants me to do.

If government can’t force people to spend money, then the government must spend the money directly to stimulate the economy during a downturn. But that leaves it to Congress to decide what to spend the money on and that is a long and difficult process of debate and competition for political and economic power.

It has been more than ten years since the financial crisis. That’s ten years of some very smart and experienced people trying to think of solutions to the next crisis, whenever it comes. No one has been able to come up with a workable solution. I think that’s why the Fed announced a small decrease in the prevailing interest rate this week. In the face of some weaker manufacturing data in this country and around the world, they are trying to steer the economy away from any rocky shore. 

Have policymakers unwittingly crafted a financial world that can no longer cope with the normal downs in a business cycle? There are imbalances that build up during an expansion. A downturn is a correcting mechanism. After ten years, the Fed hasn’t been able to raise rates to a normal 3-4%. Because developed countries around the world have large debts that they must service, central banks are pressured to keep interest rates low.  The low rates entice companies to borrow money to buy back their own stock to make their future earnings more attractive to equity buyers. The low rates fuel robust credit growth among consumers who feel more confident in the future as stock prices continue to rise. The money spent spurs more growth. Eventually, the growth rate of employment and house prices and credit slows to zero. Then comes the downhill part. I think the Fed knows that the brakes on this economy are not working very well and are taking us down a road where the downhill might be more gradual. I hope.



  1. The Townsend Old-Age Pension program
  2. A preliminary analysis 2008 tax rebate
  3. A CBO analysis of the 2008 tax rebate
  4. Greg Mankiw’s NY Times op-ed “It May Be Time for the Fed to Go Negative.”

Marching Forward

April 28, 2019

by Steve Stofka

When former President Obama took the oath of office, the economy was in the worst shape since the Great Depression 75 years earlier. Tax receipts plunged and benefit claims soared. Millions of homes and thousands of businesses fell into the black hole created by the Financial Crisis. In sixteen years of the Bush and Obama presidencies, the country added $16 trillion to the public federal debt, more than tripling the sum at the time Clinton left office in early 2001.

Although growth has remained slow since the financial crisis (see my blog last week), the economy has not gone into recession. Despite the fears of some, a recession in the next year does not look likely. The chart below charts the annual percent change in real GDP (green) against a ratio called the M1 money multiplier, the red line (Note #1). Notice that when the change in GDP dips below the money multiplier for two quarters we have been in recession.

The money multiplier seems to act like a growth boundary. While some economy watchers have warned of an impending recession, GDP growth has been above 2.5% for more than a year and is rising. In 2018, real disposable personal income grew nearly 3%. This is not the weak economic growth of 2011 or the winter of 2015/16 when concerns of recession were well founded.

The number of people voluntarily quitting their job is near the 1999 and 2006 highs. Employees are either transferring to other jobs or they feel confident that they can quickly get another job. An even more important sign is that this metric has shown no decline since the low point in August 2009.

In 2013, the Social Security disability fund was in crisis and predicted to run out of money within a decade. As the economy has improved, disability claims have plunged to all-time lows and the Social Security administration recently extended the life of the fund until 2052 (Note #2).

Approximately 1 in 6 (62 million) Americans receive Social Security benefits and that number is expected to grow to 78 million in a decade. However, the ratio of workers to the entire population is near all time highs. The number of Millennials (1982-1996) has surpassed the number of Boomers. This year the population of iGen, those born after 1996, will surpass the Millennial generation (Note #3). Just as a lot of seniors are leaving the work force, a lot of younger workers are entering. The ratio of worker to non-worker may reach 1 to 1. 45 years ago, one worker supported two non-workers.

As the presidential cycle gets into gear, we will hear claims that there are not enough workers to pay promised benefits. Those claims are based on the Civilian Employment Participation Rate, which is the ratio of workers to adults. While the number of seniors is growing, the number of children has been declining. To grasp the total public burden on each worker, we want to look at the ratio of workers to the total population. As I noted before, that is at an all time high and that is a positive.

Raising a child is expensive. The average cost of public education per child is almost $12K (Note #4).  Public costs for housing, food and medical care can push average per child public cost to over $20K annually.

Let’s compare to public costs for seniors. The average person on Social Security receives $15,600 in benefits (Note #5). In 2018, the Medicare program cost an average of $10,000 per retiree (Note #6). The public cost for seniors is not a great deal more than those for children.

As a society, we can do this.



  1. The M1 money multiplier is the ratio of cash and checking accounts to the amount of reserves held at the Federal Reserve.
  2. SSDI solvency now extended to 2052. Here’s a highlight presentation of the trustee’s report.
  3. Generation Z will surpass the numbers of Millennials in 2019. Report
  4. Public education costs per pupil
  5. Social Security costs
  6. Medicare program cost $583 billion. There are approximately 60 million on the program. CMS


April 14, 2019

by Steve Stofka

In the current housing market, there are .4 new homes started for every 100 people, near century long lows. The Millennials (1981-1996) are now the largest generation in history but home builders are not responding to the population boom (Note #1). In the 1970s, home builders started triple that number of homes in response to the swelling number of Boomers coming of age.

Have you heard that there won’t be enough workers to support Social Security and Medicare payments for the retiring Boomer generation? Here’s the ratio of seniors to the core work force aged 25-54. Yes, it has gone up since the Financial Crisis.

Here’s the ratio of seniors to all workers. Each worker’s social security taxes are “funding” benefits for three seniors. The Social Security fund was never a separate fund, only an accounting gimmick that politicians enacted eighty years ago. As former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan explained, the federal government can continue to make payments to seniors (Note #2).

Have you heard that the interest on the debt is going to grow so large that it will crowd out all other spending? As a percentage of total expenses, it is at a low level.  Each year the federal government runs a deficit of about 2.4% (Note #3). Can it continue to do that indefinitely? Yes.

Each day we hear a lot of half-truths and outright lies. As the 2020 Presidential election gets nearer, half-baked versions of reality will grow like mold on bread. The Constitution was structured to encourage debate as an alternative to war among ourselves. The 1st Amendment guarantees everyone a right to spout half-truths and lies. Two dominant political parties compete for our belief in their version of the truth. This is the land of argument.


  1. Pew Research has redefined the Millennial generation as those born 1981-1996.
  2. YouTube video of Alan Greenspan explaining to Representative Paul Ryan that the Federal Gov’s checks are good
  3. The 80-year average of deficits is 2.4%. Not including debt for wars, it is 2.2%, per Steve Keen, author of Debunking Economics.

Green Debt

March 17, 2019

by Steve Stofka

Imagine a world where, each year, the U.S. government (USG) gave $1000 to each of it’s approximately 300 million citizens (Note #1). The annual cost of the program would be $300 billion, about $120 billion more than the 2017 tax cuts (Note #2). As it does every year, the USG would borrow the money and issue Treasury bills, which are traded around the world. Although there is more than $23 trillion of Treasury debt – a plentiful supply – there is not enough to meet world demand.

Let’s say that the American people spent 80% of that $300 billion each year and saved the rest (Note #3). Let’s also calculate a multiplier of 1.5 so that the extra $240 billion of spending generates $360 billion of GDP (Note #4), about 1.7% of last year’s GDP. The increase in GDP would return about $60 billion to the USG in tax revenues (Note #5). The net cost to the USG is $300 billion less $60 billion in additional tax revenue = $240 billion.

Will the slight increase in GDP each year generate higher inflation? Inflation occurs when too much money chases too few goods and resources. Efficiencies in world production of goods and services has caused a continuing deflation in developed economies. Against those headwinds, inflationary pressures will be modest.

At the end of ten years, this program would create an additional $3.5 trillion in U.S. debt, the same amount of debt that the Federal Reserve accumulated in 2008 to protect the jobs and bonuses of Wall St. bankers. The Fed still owns most of that debt (Note #6). Which is fairer? A program to distribute money equally to everyone or a program to distribute the same amount to a select few?

Implementation of such a program is unlikely but illustrates the lack of a moral rudder in our Congress. Self-branded fiscal conservatives in both parties promote the fiction that the Social Security and Medicare funds will “run out of money” at a certain date in the future. These funds are part of the Federal government and are nothing more than bookkeeping entries on the Federal government’s books. The Social Security Administration explains this: “[the funds] provide 1) an accounting mechanism for tracking all income to and disbursements from the trust funds, and (2) they hold the accumulated assets. These accumulated assets provide automatic spending authority to pay benefits” [my emphasis] (Note #7). The accumulated assets are paper IOUs from the government to itself so that Social Security benefits are beyond the reach of Congressional infighting and debate each year. When it was created, President Roosevelt called Social Security an insurance program because it was insured against Congressional tampering.

Republicans propose to privatize Social Security while Democrats propose additional taxes to “fully fund” Social Security. These schemes are built on accounting fictions and sold to the general public as prudent solutions. Will the trust funds run out of money? Congress can change this with a stroke of a pen. Just as they “borrowed” from the funds, they can “loan” to the funds (Note #8). Both parties are trying to convince voters that big changes must be made because Congress is too incompetent to make a small legislative change. Will voters buy this nonsense and let them keep their jobs?

Around the world, the value of US Treasury debt is more trusted than gold. It is more than a bond because it trades among commercial banks like currency. The U.S. enjoys a unique position. Its debt is a trusted part of the world’s savings. This country has worked hard and prudently to make the U.S. dollar the world’s money. Over the past century, the U.S. has managed its economy and debt better than other large developed countries. Let us take advantage of that position. Let’s stop the political ploys around Social Security and other federal entitlement programs. Let’s have a serious discussion about investing in building new schools and transportation solutions, as well as needed infrastructure repairs. Let’s stop posturing like buffoons and start behaving like the leader we are.


1. Census Quick Facts
2. Annual loss of tax revenue about $180 billion times 10 years = $1.8 trillion per CBO estimate 
3. Americans usually save about 5% of income.
4. More on fiscal multipliers. 1.5 is an average of various multipliers.
5. USG revenues average 17% of GDP.
6. Fed’s balance sheet over time. The Fed buys Treasury debt in the secondary market from large banks that buy the debt at Treasury auctions. The Fed continues to hold $1.6 trillion of mortgage-backed securities, the same kind of debt that led to the Financial Crisis. Current balance sheet.
7. Social Security Administration FAQ #1 on the nature of the funds . Also, see their page debunking SS myths promoted on the Internet
8. The Federal government pays below market interest rates for the money that it “borrowed” from the SSA funds. Decades ago, the interest rate was set at approx. the five-year average for funds “borrowed” for several decades. If 20 or 30 year rates had been used, the SS funds would be much larger. There would be no “crisis” to argue about.