The Start of the Beginning

April 7, 2019

by Steve Stofka

In 1971 former President Nixon announced that the U.S. was abandoning the gold standard of fixed exchange that had existed for almost thirty years. Within a short time, other leading nations followed suit. Each nation’s currency simply traded against each other on a global currency, or FX, market.

Since oil was priced in dollars and the world ran on oil, the U.S. dollar became the world’s reserve currency. Each second of every day, millions of US dollars are traded on the international FX markets. The demand for US dollars is strong because we are a productive economy. The euro, yen and British pound are secondary currency benchmarks.

When the U.S. wants to borrow money from the rest of the world, the U.S. Treasury sells notes and bills collectively called “Treasuries” to large domestic and foreign banks who “park” them in their savings accounts at the Federal Reserve (Fed), the U.S. central bank (Note #1). The phrase “printing money” refers to a process where the Federal Reserve, an independent branch of the Federal Government, buys Treasury debt on the secondary market. It may surprise many to learn that the Fed owns the same percentage of U.S. debt as it did in 1980. The debt in real dollars has grown seven times, but the percentage held by the Fed is the same. That is a powerful testament to the global hunger for U.S. debt. Here’s the chart from the Fed’s FRED database.

FedResHoldTreasPctDebt

In 1835, President Andrew Jackson paid off the Federal debt, the one and only time the debt has been erased. It left the country’s banking system in such a weak state that subsequent events caused a panic and recession that lasted for almost a decade (Note #2). Government debt is the private economy’s asset. Paying down that debt reduces those assets.

About a third of the debt of the U.S. is traded around the world like gold. It is better than gold because it pays interest and there are no storage costs. Foreign businesses who borrow in dollars must be careful, however. They suffer when their local currency depreciates against the dollar. They must earn even greater profits to convert their local currency to dollars to make payments on those dollar-denominated loans.

Each auction of Treasury debt is oversubscribed. There isn’t enough debt to meet demand. In a world of uncertainty, the U.S. government has a long history of respect for its monetary obligations. As the reserve currency of the world, the U.S. government can spend at will. Even if there were no longer a line of domestic and foreign buyers for Treasuries, the Federal Reserve could “purchase” the Treasuries, i.e. print money. Let’s look at the difference between borrowing from the private sector and printing money.

When the private sector buys Treasuries, it is effectively trading in old capital that cannot be put to more productive use. That old capital represents the exchange of real goods at some time in the past. In contrast, when the government spends by buying its own debt, i.e. printing money, it is using up the current production of the private sector. This puts upward pressure on prices. Let’s look at a recent example.

Quantitative Easing (QE) was a Fed euphemism for printing money. During the three phases of QE that began in 2009, the Fed bought Treasury debt. That was an inflationary policy that countered price deflation as a result of the Financial Crisis. In August 2009, inflation sank as low as -.8% (Note #3). It was even worse, but inflation measures do not include the dividend yield on money. To many households, inflation felt like -2% (Note #4). The Fed’s first round of QE did provide a jolt that helped drive prices up by 3% and out of the deflationary zone.

During the five years of QE programs, the Fed continued to fight itself. The QE programs pushed prices upwards. Near zero interest rates produced a deflationary counterbalance to the inflationary pressures of printing money. Because inflation measures do not include the yield on money, the Fed could not read the true change in the prices of real goods in the private sector. The economy continues to fall below the Fed’s goal of 2% inflation. There are still too many idle resources.

Leading proponents of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) remind people that yes, the U.S. can spend at will, but that it must base its borrowing on policy rules to avoid inflation. A key component of MMT is a Job Guarantee (JG) program ensuring employment to anyone who wants a job. A JG program may remind some of the WPA work programs during the Great Depression. Visitors to popular tourist attractions, from Yellowstone Park in Wyoming to Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, use facilities built by WPA work crews. Today’s JG program would be quite different. It would be locally administered and targeted toward smaller public works so that the program was flexible.

The U.S. government has borrowed freely to go to war and has never paid that debt back. Proponents of MMT recommend that the U.S. do the same during those times when the private economy cannot support full employment. That policy goal was given to the Fed in the 1970s, but it has never been able to meet the task of full employment through crude monetary tools. With an active program of full employment, the Fed would be left with only one goal – guarding against inflation.

There are two approaches to inflation control: monetary and fiscal. Monetary policy is controlled by the Fed and includes the setting of interest rates. If the Fed’s mandate was reduced to fighting inflation, it could more readily adopt the Taylor rule to set interest rates (Note #4).

Fiscal policy is controlled by Congress. Because taxation drains spending power from the economy, it has a powerful control on inflation. However, changes in tax policy are difficult to implement because taxes arouse passions. We are familiar with the arguments because they are repeated so often. Everyone should pay their “fair share,” whatever that is. Some want a flat tax like a head tax that cities like Denver have enacted. Others want a flat tax rate like some states tax incomes. Others want even more progressive income taxes so that the rich pay more and the middle class pay less. Some claim that income taxes are a government invasion of private property rights.

Because tax changes are difficult to enact, Congress would be slow to respond to changes in inflation. The Fed’s control of interest rates is the more responsive instrument. The JG program would provide stability to the economy and reduce the need for corrective monetary action by the Fed. The program would help uplift those in marginal communities and provide much needed assistance to cities and towns which had to delay public works projects and infrastructure repair because of the Financial Crisis. As sidewalks and streets get fixed and graffiti cleaned, those who live in those areas will take more pride in their town, in their communities, in their families and themselves. This makes not just good economic sense but good spiritual sense. We can start small, but we must start.

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Notes:

1. Twenty to twenty-five times each month, the Treasury auctions U.S. government debt. Many refer to the various forms of bills and notes as “treasuries.” A page on the debt
2. The Panic of 1837
3. The Federal Reserve’s preferred measure of inflation is the Personal Consumption Expenditure Index, PCEPI series.
4. The annual change in the 10-Year Constant Maturity Treasury fell below -1% at the start of the recession in December 2007 and remained below -1% until July 2009. FRED series DGS10. John Maynard Keynes had recommended the inclusion of money’s yield in any index of consumer demand. In his seminal work Foundations of Economic Analysis (1947), economist Paul Samuelson discussed the issue but discarded it (p. 164-5). Later economists did the same.
5. The Taylor rule utility at the Atlanta Federal Reserve.

 

The Nature of Money

March 31, 2019

by Steve Stofka

Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) helps us understand the funding flows between a sovereign government and a nation’s economy. I’ve included some resources in the notes below (Note #1). This analysis focuses on the private sector to help readers put the federal debt in perspective. In short, some annual deficits are to be expected as the cost of running a nation.

What is money? It is a collection of  government IOUs that represent the exchange of real assets, either now or in the past. Wealth is either real assets or the accumulation of IOUs, i.e. the past exchanges of real assets. When a sovereign government – I’ll call it SovGov, the ‘o’ pronounced like the ‘o’ in love – borrows from the private sector, it entices the holders of IOUs to give up their wealth in exchange for an annuity, i.e. a portion of their wealth returned to them with a small amount of interest. A loan is the temporal transfer of real assets from the past to the present and future. This is one way that SovGovs reabsorb IOUs out of the private economy. In effect, they distribute the historical exchange of real assets into the present.

What is a government purchase? When a SovGov buys a widget from the ABC company, it also borrows wealth, a real asset that was produced in the past, even if that good was produced only yesterday. The SovGov never pays back the loan. It issues money, an IOU, to the ABC company who then uses that IOU to pay employees and buy other goods. A SovGov pays back its IOUs with more IOUs. That is an important point. In capitalist economies, a SovGov exchanges real goods for an IOU only when the government acts like a private party, i.e. an entrance fee to a national park. Real goods are produced by the private economy and loaned to the SovGov.

What is inflation? When an economy does not produce enough real goods to match the money it loans to the SovGov, inflation results. Imagine an economy that builds ten chairs, a representation of real goods. If a SovGov pays for ten people to sit in those ten chairs, the economy stays in equilibrium. When a SovGov pays for eleven people to sit in those ten chairs, and the economy does not have enough unemployed carpenters or wood to build an eleventh chair, then a game of musical chairs begins. In the competition for chairs, the IOUs that the private economy holds lose value. Inflation is a game of musical chairs, i.e. too much money competing for too few real resources.

A key component of MMT framework is a Job Guarantee program, ensuring that there are not eleven people competing for ten jobs (Note #2). Labor is a real resource. When the private economy cannot provide full employment, the SovGov offers a job to anyone wanting one. By fully utilizing labor capacity, the SovGov keeps inflation in check. The  idea that the government should fill any employment slack was developed and promoted by economist John Maynard Keynes in his 1936 book The General Theory of Employment, Money and Interest.

The first way a SovGov vacuums up past IOUs is by borrowing, i.e. issuing new IOUs. I discussed this earlier. A SovGov also reduces the number of IOUs outstanding through taxation, by which the private sector returns most of those IOUs to the SovGov.

Let’s compare these two methods of reducing IOUs. In Chapter 3 of The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith wrote that government borrowing “destroys more old capital … and hinders less the accumulation or acquisition of new capital” (Note #3). Borrowing draws from the pool of past IOUs; taxation draws more from the current year’s stock of IOUs. Further, Smith noted that there is a social welfare component to government borrowing. By drawing from stocks of old capital it allows current producers to repair the inequalities and waste that allowed those holders of old capital to accumulate wealth. He wrote, “Under the system of funding [government borrowing], the frugality and industry of private people can more easily repair the breaches which the waste and extravagance of government may occasionally make in the general capital of the society.”

Borrowing draws IOUs from past production, while taxation vacuums up IOUs from current production. Since World War 2, the private sector has returned almost $96 in taxes for every $100 of federal IOUs. Since January 1947, the private sector has loaned the federal government $371 trillion dollars of real goods, the total of federal expenditures (Note #4). What does the federal government still owe out of that $371 trillion? $15.5 trillion, or 4.17% (Note #5). If the private sector were indeed a commercial bank, it would expect operating expenses of 3%, or $11.1 trillion (Note #6). What real assets does the private sector have for the difference of $4.4 trillion in the past 70 years? A national highway system and the best equipped military in the world are just two prominent assets.

The federal government spends about 17-20% of GDP, far lower than the average of OECD countries (Note #7). That is important because the accumulated Federal debt of $15.5 trillion is only .9% of the $1.7 quadrillion of GDP produced by the private sector since January 1947. Our grandchildren have not inherited a crushing debt, as some have called it. In the next forty years, the U.S. economy will produce about $2 quadrillion of GDP (Note #8). If tomorrow’s generations are as frugal as past generations, they will generate another $18 trillion of debt.

Adam Smith called a nation’s debt “unemployed capital,” a more apt term. The obligation of a productive nation is to put unemployed capital to work for the community. Under the current international system of national accounting, there is no way to account for the accumulated net value of real assets, or the communal operating expenses of the private economy. Without a proper accounting of those items, we engage in noisy arguments about the size of the debt.

In next week’s blog, I’ll examine the inflation pressures of government debt. I’ll review the Federal Reserve’s QE programs and why it has struggled to hit its target inflation rate of 2%. We’ll revisit a proposal by John Maynard Keynes that was discarded by later economists.

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Notes:
1. A video presentation of SovGov funding by Stephanie Kelton . For more in depth reading,  I suggest Modern Monetary Theory by L. Randall Wray, and Macroeconomics by William Mitchell, L. Randall Wray and Martin Watts.

2. L. Randall Wray wrote a short 7 page paper on the Job Guarantee program . A more comprehensive 56-page proposal can be found here 

3. Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations was published in 1776, the year that the U.S. declared independence from Britain. Smith invented the field of economics. The book runs 900 pages and is available on Kindle for $.99

4. Federal Expenditures FGEXPND series at FRED.

5. At the end of 1946, the Gross Federal Debt held by the public was $242 billion (FYGFDPUB series at FRED). Today, that debt total is $15,750 billion, or almost $16 trillion dollars. The difference is $15.5 trillion. The debt held by the public does not include debt that the Federal government owes itself for the Social Security and Medicare “funds.” Under these PayGo pension systems, those funds are nothing more than internal accounting entries.

6. In 2017, the Federal Reserve estimated interest and non-interest expenses for all commercial banks at 3% (Table 2, Column 3).

7. Germany’s government, the leading country in the European Union, spends 44% of its GDP Source

8. Assuming GDP growth averages 2.5% during the next forty years.

9. International Accounting Standards Board (IASB) sets standards for public sector accounting.

 

The Green Divide

March 24, 2019

by Steve Stofka

Half of the country’s voters live on 80% of the land, which the political analysts color red. Half of voters live on the remaining 20% of land, which is colored blue. The needs, values and outlooks of those in the red are not the same as those in the blue. As the country’s population continues to migrate from rural to metropolitan areas, the country becomes ever more divided. As economist Paul Krugman wrote this week, no one knows how to fix the continuing economic decline in rural areas (Note #1).

A person’s views on an issue may depend on the state they live in. In the past several decades, immigration has had much more impact on California and the southern states. In 1980, 15% of California’s population was foreign born, almost four times the national average of 4.3%. In 2015, that share had doubled for both California and the nation as a whole. However, the national average is only a third of California’s numbers (Note #2). How does the nation adopt a single policy toward immigration when there are such differences in circumstances?

Regardless of our different experiences and outlooks, we are dependent on each other. 20% of Americans are on the Social Security and Medicare programs (Note #3). 24% are on CHIP and Medicaid (Note #4). 40% of the two million farms in America receive subsidies (Note #5). The transfers of money between Americans has reached 14% of GDP.

TransfersPctGDP

In 1962, Ronald Reagan took a stridently conservative tone when he warned that the Medicare program being developed in the Democratic Congress would lead to socialism and the destruction of American democracy (Note #6). Having married into wealth, he could afford a dramatic interpretation of social policy. Few Americans hold such extreme views today (Note #7).

The reasonable arguments of today might look oppressive to future generations, and progressive ideas seem natural to our descendants. Our ancestors had different views toward slavery, racism, voting rights and social programs than we have today. What has not changed is our distrust of those we regard as “other,” and our desire to make our principles universal for our fellow Americans. We want everyone to play by our rules, or our interpretation of the rules.

In the debates on the ratification of the US Constitution, some asked what the terms “provide for the …general welfare” meant (Note #8). Was the new government to become a national charity? The Federalists argued for the inclusion of the term to give the government a degree of latitude in changing circumstances. The anti-Federalists argued that this new government would eventually become the home of beggars and lobbyists wanting to promote their own welfare as the “general welfare.” In the past century, the phrase has become a constitutional bedrock of Supreme Court precedent underlying social programs. A person could argue that the size of social welfare spending and the extraordinary power of lobbyists in Washington has proven the anti-Federalist’s case.

America is the land of debate because the Constitution was structured to promote debate. While Americans had a platform to argue with each other, it was hoped that there would be less bloodshed, rebellion, and dictatorship (Note #9). Some days we might be less sure of that premise. As the circumstances of urban and rural America diverge further, we will struggle ever more to reach consensus. Each side will feel the need to impose its will on the other.  As we debate these issues, we should be just as careful of our own instincts as we are about the instincts of those on the other side of the debate.

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Notes:

1. Krugman op-ed on lack of solutions for the economic decline in rural America
2. Four decades of immigration numbers – pdf page 6
3. 62 million Americans on Social Security and Medicare – numbers here
4. 74 million Americans on CHIP and Medicaid – numbers here
5. 39% of 2.1 million farms receive agricultural subsidies
6. Reagan warns against Medicare
7. During the debate before the passage of Obamacare, some Tea Party members advocated a return to the days when we just let old people die.
8. U.S. Constitution, Section 8.1 “provide for the common Defence [sic] and general Welfare of the United States” http://constitutionus.com/
9. Former colonies of Great Britain have struggled with free speech issues. South Africans has only had freedom of expression for twenty years . Canada still does not have complete freedom of speech

 

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.

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Notes:

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.

Green Incomes

 

March 10, 2019

by Steve Stofka

Many Americans cross the street if they think a socialist program is walking toward them. We believe that the U.S.A. is the heart of capitalism, but recent history reveals that our financial and legal systems are based on socialism for the very, very rich.

In the past two weeks, I reviewed the infrastructure goals as well as the justice and education goals of the Green New Deal (Note #1). In Part Three this week, I’ll look at the income supports included in the resolution’s economic agenda.

“Guaranteeing a job with a family-sustaining wage.” This is yet another example of clumsy language used to state a goal that some might read as utopian. Some can group the first phrase as ” Guaranteeing a job with a family sustaining wage” meaning that all wages should have a certain minimum. That sounds like the language of Minimum Wage 2.0, but does that mean that each job should be able to support a family of four, or six, or eight?

Others might group the first phrase as “Guaranteeing a job blah, blah, blah” and read the intent as a platform point of a Socialist Manifesto. Is the government going to hand out jobs to everyone that wants one? Only if the government takes over some of the means of production and becomes the nation’s chief employer can it hand out jobs to anyone who wants one. That is the textbook definition of socialism. It is not enough to have good intentions. Clarity of language matters.

Why the clamor for more income redistribution? The real (after inflation) income of poor and working families has lost more than half since 1980. That might not surprise some readers. The trend is even broader and more insidious. Income data from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) shows that even the top 5% of real incomes have dropped 30%. The real income of a ¼ million families – the very, very rich – have grown in that time. Here are some highlights from the data.

In 2015 and 1980, the number of poor households, or bottom 20%, equaled the number of rich households, or top 20%. In 2015, the government took money from each rich household and gave it to 5-1/4 poor households to raise their income by 65% (Note #2). In 1980, the government took money from each rich household and gave it to 10-1/4 households to raise their income by only 25% (Note #3).

Why did poor households need so much more support in 2015 than they did in 1980? Because their real incomes before transfers and taxes (BTT) lost more than 50% (Note #4). The real BTT incomes of the top 5%, the very rich, have lost more than 30% . It is only the very, very rich, the top 1%, that have fared well in this fight against inflation. Their BTT income has grown 15% in the past 35 years. The bulk of those gains have probably come from the top .1%, or less than ¼ million families.

Why? Where has the money gone? The high interest rates of the 1980s made the dollar so strong that manufacturers began to move their operations to lower cost markets in Asia. Japan kept the value of the yen low relative to the dollar and attracted much of this investment. The Japanese economy and real estate boomed. American exports of manufactured goods declined, and commodity prices crashed, destroying a lot of income producing wealth, particularly in rural areas (Note #5). Bankruptcies during this decade far exceeded those filed during the Financial Crisis ten years ago (Note #6). Older readers may remember the charity concerts to raise money for farmers (Note #7). Today, many commercial buildings in small towns throughout the country stand empty. As rural clinics and nursing homes close, people must move to urban areas where medical services are available (Note #8).

As real incomes declined in the late 1980s, households and governments borrowed to make up for the loss of income. Who did they borrow from? Financial institutions who managed the assets of the very, very rich. As the financial sector grew in proportion to the size of the entire economy, the top managers of financial firms became very, very rich themselves (Note #9).

In the past twenty years, lobbying by the financial sector has quadrupled (Note #10). It paid big dividends during the latest crisis. After the initial bailout by the Bush administration in the fall of 2008, the Obama administration brought in a team led by Robert Rubin, Larry Summers, and Timothy Geithner. The first two helped dismantle the safeguards between deposit banks and investment institutions during the Clinton administration. Geithner was a protégé of Rubin. All were deeply embedded in the interests of the banks, not the creditors and governments who had trusted the judgment of financial managers.

The lack of separation between deposit banks and investment banks helped spread a cancer from the investment banks to banking institutions throughout the world. As Obama’s Treasury Secretary, Geithner continued to protect the bonuses of top managers despite massive losses. To preserve the wealth of the very, very rich, the Federal Reserve loaded up their own balance sheet with toxic bonds bought at full value.

After a 35-year period of rising real incomes and wealth because of favorable fiscal and monetary policy in Washington –
after Washington protected their wealth and income during the financial crisis at the expense of middle-class families who lost their savings and houses –
it is time for the very, very rich to pay taxpayers back.
You have eaten well. Here is the check.

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Notes:

1. Politifact article
2. In 2015, the bottom 20% of households (24.3 million) averaged $20,000 in income before taxes and transfer payments. The top 20% (25 million) earned almost $300,000. After taxes and transfer payments, the incomes of the bottom 20% rose 65% to $33,000. CBO report on household income in 2015, updated Nov. 2018
3. Number of households underlying CBO report is in Sheet “1. Demographics” of Supplemental Data spreadsheet linked on last page of report. Dollar amounts are in Sheet “3. Avg HH Income”, of same spreadsheet.
4. The impact of high interest rates on investment and commodities during the 1980s Secrets of the Temple pp.590-604
5. Using BLS calculator to compare CPI January 1980 to January 2016 prices, $1 in 1980 = $3.05 at the end of 2015. Average income amounts from Sheet 3. See Note #3 above.
6. Four decades of bankruptcies chart at Trading Economics
7. Farm aid timeline
8. Nursing centers in rural areas are closing NYT
9. The financial industry’s increasing share of GDP
10. Increase in financial lobbying since 1998

Green Goals

March 3, 2019

by Steve Stofka

Last week I reviewed the infrastructure goals of the Green New Deal (Note #1). In Part Two this week, let’s look at the resolution’s re-commitment to justice and education, time honored themes of American life. Next week, I’ll review the income and health care proposals of the Green New Deal.

“Promote justice for all people.”
What Lincoln and the Reconstruction Republicans began in the 19th Century, President Lyndon Johnson (LBJ) hoped to fulfill in the 20th Century. President and Mrs. Johnson started the LBJ foundation in 1971, three years after he left office. In an ongoing commitment to the goal of justice for all, the foundation honors individuals who have demonstrated a dedicated pursuit of those values. Last year’s recipient of the foundation’s Liberty and Justice For All award was former Arizona Senator John McCain. (Note #2).

During his life growing up in Texas, LBJ witnessed the class/race warfare that many white Southerners took for granted. The un-Christian racism apparent for all to see in the southern states was almost as prevalent in northern states but cleverly disguised by implicit understandings among white Northerners. Urban housing maps were “redlined” to confine blacks to small sections of a city where they could purchase or rent housing. During his presidency, LBJ signed the Fair Housing Act to outlaw, if not stop, the practice (Note #3). Many Northerners who had adopted the moral high ground in their criticism of white Southerners continued to flee toward the suburbs (Note #4).

LBJ had to overcome opposition in his own Democratic Party to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Note #5). The Act struck down employment, credit and some housing discrimination prevalent throughout the country at the time. This point in the resolution is a reaffirmation of last century’s aspirations and legislation.

“Providing resources training and high-quality education to all people of the United States.”
This goal, first stated in the middle of the 19th century, led to the adoption of public education by all states shortly after the Civil War. By the end of World War 1 in 1918, all states had adopted compulsory education laws. During the first half of the 20th century, the country began Ed 2.0 as many states built secondary schools. When America declared war on Japan after Pearl Harbor in 1941, half of all young people had high school diplomas (Note #6).

After the war, the Federal government’s G.I. bill expanded access to college for veterans. This marked a new phase Ed 3.0 in American education, in which the Federal government took a greater role. During the post-war thirty-year period, the federal government and states expanded funding to traditional four-year colleges and universities.

In the last forty years, Ed 4.0 has been marked by the growth of community colleges within the states. This allowed more students affordable entry to a college education and promoted two-year degrees in applied training.

In Germany, where the government provides low cost or free higher learning, one third of high school students attend college. In Britain, the rate is one-half (Note #7). In the U.S., 2/3rds of high school students attend college (Note #8).

This goal in the Green New Deal marks a new phase in American Education: Ed 5.0. In the first two stages, the states were responsible for the development and funding of K-12 schools. The growing role of the Federal government in phases Ed 3.0 and 4. 0 worry those who have a well-grounded suspicion of the Federal government. In most areas, it is inefficient, slow to respond to a changing environment and dismissive of local concerns and standards.

These concerns should inform, not impede, this new phase of American education. Most states do not have the resources to build and maintain educational institutions that are global leaders. The Federal government must take the lead because the need is urgent. Mechanical Automation has replaced many blue-collar jobs but many of these jobs are still not cost effective to automate. Artificial Intelligence, or Intellectual Automation, is the greater threat and it affects low to medium skilled white-collar jobs.

Trends in Financial Sector employment illustrate the growing threat. A steady increase in employment from the end of World War 2 through the middle of the 1980s hit a ceiling as affordable computing became more available. Since that time, the percent of jobs in the financial sector has declined.

FinEmpPctTotEmp

A sharp mind, attention to detail and a knack for customer service are no longer a path into this sector. Programming jobs that paid the equivalent of $70,000 twenty years ago have been replaced by jobs paying $50,000. Common programming tasks have been automated. White collar employees will compete against AI systems that can be situated in any country. To compete against other industrialized nations, the white-collar workers of tomorrow will need to develop the magical talents of the human brain that are difficult to automate. That will require a large national re-commitment to education.

The high unemployment that characterized the Great Recession and Financial Crisis of 2007-2009 made it apparent to many job seekers that they needed some post-secondary education. Millions signed up for classes in community colleges, private colleges and public universities. Many took advantage of federally insured loans. Since 2006, student loan debt has almost quadrupled to its current level of approximately $1.6 trillion (Note #9). More than 11% of loans are delinquent (Note #10). Current law prevents the discharge of student debt in bankruptcy. Payments in default can be withheld from federal benefits like Social Security.

As the nation enters Ed 5.0, there will be much discussion and dissension over student loan forgiveness. Is it right that one person should receive an advantage over another person in the job market at taxpayer expense? These involve questions of moral hazard and fairness that provoke instinctual reactions in all of us. Compromises may include a debtor paying an additional percentage in taxes on wages above a certain threshold. We must not sacrifice the pragmatic concerns of a nation competing in the global workforce on the altar of our righteousness toward the actions of others.

By re-committing to traditional American values and ideals, this resolution can engage the public in a lively debate. What are our values? How do we attain our ideals in a practical and equitable manner? Do Americans need the passage of a resolution to spark argument? Heck no. This country was founded on argument and a consensus over how we should argue. The Civil War was our one horrible failure to argue with words. Thousands died in an argument using guns and cannons, not debate. Let’s hope that was our last failure to debate.

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Notes:

1. Politifact article on Green New Deal
2. Liberty and Justice For All award
3. Fair Housing Act 
4. White Flight to the suburbs
5. Civil Rights Act of 1964 
6. Education in the U.S.
7. 49% of British high school students attend college – Guardian article
8. 2/3rds of American high school students attend college – BLS data
9. Student loan debt series at FRED database
10. Student debt delinquency – Minneapolis Fed Reserve article

Not Easy Being Green

February 24, 2019

by Steve Stofka

Newly elected Democratic Rep Alexandria Ocasia-Cortez has introduced a House resolution that details a broad basket of long-term infrastructure and humanitarian goals titled a Green New Deal. Connecticut Senator Ed Markey has introduced the resolution in the Senate. Whether it makes it to the floor of either chamber for a vote is uncertain. Some of the attacks on the resolution have been on points that were rejected from the resolution but were raised in a Q&A passed around to some House members in the building of a political consensus (Note #1).

The aspirations behind these improvements echo the infrastructure dreams of a post-World War 2 America. Politifact recently summarized the various points (Note #2). The key characteristics of the infrastructure goals are “safe,” “efficient” and “clean.” Those characteristics are embedded already in thousands of laws and regulations – but with practical limitations. A flexible approach is key to achieving these goals.

This week, I’ll focus on the infrastructure goals, starting locally at the granular level. “Upgrading all existing buildings in the United States and building new buildings to achieve maximum energy efficiency, water efficiency, safety, affordability, comfort, and durability, including through electrification.”
Someone clumsily attached those last three words, but they are critical. The words may be read to include an electrical upgrade of all buildings. They may be understood to include all buildings which could be improved with new electrical service. The language may be interpreted as a call for building retrofits for solar power.

These are expensive retrofits, so it is important that this clumsy language be sold as an aspirational guide, not the model language of a law or an agency rule. Local building regulations often “grandfather” older buildings so that they do not have to meet more recent building guidelines if they passed existing codes when they were built or remodeled. Anything other than a gradual approach in this area will be doomed.

“Universal access to clean water.”
Shortly after WW2, the Federal government took an increasing role in regulating local water supplies and sanitation, while helping to fund improvements (Note #3). This Green resolution is a reaffirmation of those goals. After seventy years, many existing water systems need massive and costly improvements. A contaminated water supply forced the residents of Flint, Michigan to use bottled water for more than three years.

The key word in this goal is “universal” and how that word is read. An exodus of residents and industry from poorer rural communities have crippled their budgets and resources. Who will pay to rebuild the aging plumbing systems of these hollowed out communities? Within many thriving metro areas are rural communities who do not have a central water system or sanitation. Homeowners and commercial buildings rely on private wells and are responsible for the maintenance of their wells and septic systems. Poorer residents may not have the means to service their systems properly. Will proposed legislation subsidize those residents? Since the Clean Water Act was passed fifty years ago, state and local governments have been fighting a legal battle with the Federal government over improvements to the water supply. Without a deft approach, legislation would continue to keep the lawyers busy.

Smart grids, a more efficient electrical delivery system, is a regional goal that is a restatement of the EISA law created in 2007 (Note #4). Our existing grids are more than fifty years old and need upgrading to a system that senses and adjusts to the changes in the system load. It would enable more clean power alternatives. Federal legislation which mandates upgrades to existing buildings to implement this vision will be met with impassioned resistance. Shall all power lines and power stations throughout the country be upgraded to meet new standards?

In conjunction with a transition to smart grids, this Green resolution restates an earlier vision: “eliminating pollution and greenhouse gas emissions as much as technologically feasible.” In the years after WW2, there was talk that the country would transition to nuclear power plants, a source of clean, cheap energy. The accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in 1979 disrupted that vision (Note #5).

“Clean, affordable, and accessible public transit, and high-speed rail.”
This was a 20th century goal whose implementation stumbled. In 1960, my family traveled by train from Chicago to Dallas. We enjoyed the passing countryside from the upper deck of an observation car on the train. When Amtrak was created in 1971 (Note #6), there was going to be a highly efficient and affordable rail network built throughout the country. We are still waiting. After 9-11, let’s face it – plane travel sucks. The U.S. has the finest rail transport for goods in the world. Why are we so bad at moving people by rail?

There are many reasons. Following WW2, America invested more in highways than railroads. Families fell in love with the individual freedom of their automobile. The public is more resistant to the Federal government’s exercise of eminent domain. When the Civil War Republican Congress passed the Railway Act in 1862, the Federal government took what land it needed, and gave vast tracts to railroad companies who became rich selling off the land after laying the rails (Note #7). The Federal government played a key role in creating the corporate America that now wields an extraordinary amount of political and economic control of our daily lives. The public is weary and wary of large Federal projects.

Sweeping Federal legislation to achieve these goals must overcome the constitutional design of the country which gives those in rural areas a greater say in policy than their numbers warrant. This design was a 19th century compromise between agricultural and industrial states. Until a Supreme Court decision in 1964, many rural states did not redraw their state electoral maps after each census. In some states, one rural vote counted the same as forty urban votes (Note #8). Fifty years later, the structure of many state houses is designed to weaken the power of urban voters within the state.

The infrastructure goals contained in this resolution are essentially Infrastructure 2.0, an update of 20th century dreams. As in the past, economic and political realities will present formidable obstacles. Next week, I’ll look at the humanitarian goals contained in the resolution.

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Notes:
1. Green New Deal article at the Hill
2. Green New Deal article at Politifact
3. Water and sanitation regulation after WW2
4. Smart grid
5. Three Mile Island 
6. Amtrak history
7. Pacific Railroad Acts 
8. Reynolds v. Sims reinforced the idea of one person, one vote

 

Economic Cracks

February 17, 2019

by Steve Stofka

As the recovery enters its tenth year, there are signs of strain. As debtors struggle to pay their loans in a weakening economy, the percentage of non-performing loans increases.  The current rate of one percent indicates a healthy economy (Note #1). When the annual change in the rate of delinquency increases, that has been a reliable indicator that the economy is growing stagnant. Here’s a chart of the percent change in non-performing loans. A change above zero has preceded the last three recessions.

Non-PerfLoansChange

Let’s add one more series to the graph to help us understand the cycle of consumer credit. In the graph below, the red series is the percentage of banks tightening lending standards. Notice how the banks respond to a rise in delinquencies by being more selective in their credit criteria. Eventually, this tightening of credit leads to a recession. The cycle is as natural as the ocean currents that distribute heat around the planet.

NonPerfBankTighten

The financial news agency Bloomberg reports that delinquent auto loans are the highest since 2012 (Note #2). Bankrate reports that credit card debt has risen since last year. Less than half of people surveyed have emergency funds (Note #3).

December’s retail sales report, released only this week because of the government shutdown, showed a surprising decline of 1% from November. Have some consumers reached their limit? Retail sales, adjusted for inflation and population growth, does not show the strain so far. Look at the period from late 2015 through late 2016 when sales growth consistently slowed below 1%. That was a key factor that cost Hillary Clinton the election. Trump turned voter dissatisfaction into an electoral victory in the Midwest.

RetailRealAdjPop

Politicians ride to power on the anger of voters. In 1994, Republicans overcame forty years of Democratic rule in the House by promising less regulation and lower taxes in a “Contract with America.” When the Supreme Court decided the 2000 election in favor of a Republican president, they enacted tax cuts to reverse the tax increases passed by Democrats in 1993. In 2006, voters were angry with the incompetent Bush administration and reinstalled Democrats in the House.

In the depths of the Financial Crisis in 2008, Democrats rode a wave of anger, despair and hope to take the White House and command a filibuster proof majority in the Senate for the first time since the post-Watergate Congress thirty years earlier. Such a rare majority indicated that voters strongly wanted a solution to the crisis (Note #3). The Obama administration and Democratic Congress protected the financial and insurance industries while ordinary people lost their homes and their savings. The one piece of legislation that emerged from that majority was Obamacare, the bastard child of back alley compromises between mainstream Democrats and the health care industry. Few who voted for it knew what was in the bill.

In 2010, Republicans rode the anger wave of the Tea Party caucus to retake the House. With an equal number of Senate seats up for re-election, Republicans took six seats from Democrats and ended their filibuster proof majority (Note #4). In 2014, voters handed the Senate back to Republicans, then gave the reins entirely to the Republicans with the election of Donald Trump to the presidency in 2016.

In 2018, Democrats rode a wave of anger to take back control of the House. Social media campaigns whip up indignation to fan the flames of voter anger in the hopes that Democrats can at least take back the presidency in 2020. Voters may not be in enough economic distress to give Democrats control of the Senate in 2020, but it is the Republicans who have the most seats up for re-election this coming Senate cycle (Note #4).

Credit expands and contracts in a seasonal multi-year cycle. Banks are tightening in response to higher delinquencies. Will the timing of the credit cycle coincide with the 2020 election?

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Notes:
1. In 2016, China, Japan and Germany had rates below 2%; the U.K. and Canada had less than 1%. On the high side, Greece had 36%; Italy had 17%, and Spain had 7%.
2. Why are so many people delinquent on auto loans? Bloomberg
3. In 1964, the Supreme Court forced the states to redistrict their state legislatures based on population changes. For fifty years, Democrats were sometimes able to forge filibuster proof Senate majorities because racist Southern states were effectively one party Democratic states. Reynolds v. Sims . Since the ratification of the 17th Amendment in 1914, Republicans have never had a filibuster proof majority
4. A third of Senators are up for election every two years so party advantage shifts with every election cycle.

Pay Up

February 10, 2019

by Steve Stofka

When I was growing up in New York City, each kid’s name was shortened to one syllable, two at the most. New York is a busy town; people didn’t have time to pronounce long names. Guillermo became Will or Bill.  An exotic name like Anastasia was shortened to a rather pedestrian Ann. Melodic names like Florinda became Flo. In a sign of the changing times, N.Y. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has became known as AOC. That’s a generous three syllables!

She has proposed a 70% Federal income tax on Adjusted Gross Income over $10 million. That’s a straight 70% haircut on only the income above that threshold. Deductions, credits and favorable tax treatment for capital gains could apply to income below $10 million but everything above that is a bada-bing-bada-boom 70%.

How much revenue would that generate? I used IRS sample data from 2016, the latest available (Note #1) and calculated an extra $218 billion collected on 15,000 returns for tax year 2016 (Note #2). This would have been an additional 14% over the $1550 billion collected in individual income taxes that year (Note #3). It would make up for the corporate taxes that are not being collected because of the 2017 Tax Act.

If AOC’s proposal were passed by the House, it would not make it out of the Senate Finance Committee, which is controlled by Republicans. If it did become law, it would incentivize the accountants and lawyers of the super-rich to craft clever solutions to avoid the tax. Most of them can buy citizenship in another country. They can put income in tax havens (Note #4). They can make hefty political campaign contributions to buy loyalty in Congress.

The rich complain about taxes. Yes, they do pay much of the income taxes collected. It should be all of the income taxes. The 16th Amendment was “sold” to the American people as a tax that would apply only to the rich, the top 1% of incomes. When the amendment was passed in 1913, half of the population worked in farming and thought that the tax would never impact their lives. It didn’t until a few months after the U.S. entered World War 2.

Under FDR, the tax base increased ten-fold and now affected 42% of the population. FDR called it the “greatest tax bill” (Note #5). The American people didn’t think so. Many were not paying their income taxes. As the fate of nations lay bloody on the altar of history, FDR regarded tax delinquency as a personal disloyalty. He turned to economist John Kenneth Galbraith who suggested that employers should be forced to become the tax collector for the government. In 1943, Congress passed legislation requiring that employers withdraw taxes from their employees’ paychecks. Employing more than 7% of the workforce, the Federal government was the largest employer (Note #6). Before employees could feed their families or pay their rent, the government had its taxes.

It’s time for Democrats and Progressives to undo what they did under FDR. World War 2 ended 75 years ago. Let’s return to the original intent of the 16th Amendment and impose most of the income tax burden on the rich.

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Notes:
1. 2016 IRS tax data by adjusted gross income
2. A screenshot below of the IRS spreadsheet with my calculations of revenue collected.
3. A breakdown of 2016 federal revenue
4. The Rolling Stones, Bono, and Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits took advantage of tax havens to avoid paying hefty U.K. taxes on royalties
5. Highlights of IRS history
6. Federal Employees CES9091000001 series / PAYEMS (All employees) series in the FRED database

IncTaxbyAGI2016.xls

The Tug of History

February 3, 2019

by Steve Stofka

As we receive our income tax forms, we can be reminded of the reach of history into our daily lives. Over a hundred years ago, the 16th Amendment was passed as a way of paying Civil War debts and pensions. We are paying income taxes because of a horrific war that occurred 150 years ago (Note #1).

Since the recession, politicians on both sides of the political aisle have proposed some version of a universal basic income (UBI) that would replace many individual federal assistance programs. New idea? No. Fifty years ago, President Nixon and more than a thousand economists proposed an income plan to replace the existing welfare plan (Note #2). Democrats opposed the idea because they feared that the proposal would divert some aid from black families in the North, who were Democratic constituents, to white families in the South. Many southern Democrats switched parties in reaction to the “imposition” of civil rights legislation passed by northern Democrats in the 1960s (Note #3). The North and South have traded political parties since the Civil War but the animosities of that war guide current legislation and the fortunes of American families.

The recent government shutdown halted paychecks for many thousands of federal employees. The legislation that enables Congress or the President to shut down government was a budget act passed in 1974 by a Democratic Congress. Following President Nixon’s refusal to spend money allocated by a Democratic Congress, Democrats wanted more control of the budget process. Nixon was afraid that the additional spending would further fuel inflation (Note #4).

Two years later, Jimmy Carter was elected President and had to fight with his own Democratic party for budget control. The government was shut down five times during Carter’s four-year tenure, the most of any President. The legislation that emerged from a battle between a Republican President and a Democratic Congress 45 years ago laid the groundwork for today’s battle between a Republican President and a Democratic House. As the families of some Federal workers waited in line at food pantries last month, they might not have appreciated being victims of a historical political feud.

Prompted by the prejudices, concerns and animosities of past generations, we walk through our lives with a legal leash tied around our necks. According to the utopian rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence, our leashes should all be same length. Political and economic realities contradict those sentiments, and underlie the long history of housing, job, voting and regulatory discrimination in this country.

If my family or group enjoys a longer leash, another group must endure a shorter leash. Any equality we reach is a temporary balance in the tug of war for a longer leash. Equality is a happenstance, not a permanent right we have. “But it shouldn’t be that way!” an idealist might protest. It is that way. That’s history.

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Notes:
1. A history of 19th century income tax legislation following the Civil War, and the court decisions which nullified them.
2. Family Assistance Program proposed by Nixon. He and other economists like Milton Friedman called it a “negative income tax”
3. A timeline of the Presidential electoral map
4. A short account of the political impetus behind the act . A summary of the 1974 Budget Act.