Category Archives: Economics

It’s Families Stupid

In Nate Silver’s recent post “What Do Economic Models Really Tell Us About Elections?” he argues that it’s not much. All in all I agree with his conclusions, but for different reasons. He takes a look at GDP growth and the margin of victory/loss in a presidential election, and shows when you take away inflation, 43 percent of incumbents win reelection. He admits these numbers don’t go into why, but that’s where I come in.

The fact is GDP doesn’t measure what voters really care about and can miss a lot of important aspects to a families quality of life. Pollster’s never ask how many people know how much the economy grew in the last quarter. Instead they ask how they feel it is going, and since the majority of voters aren’t economists, the only reference they can refer to is themselves. So they think about if they are able to pay the bills, put food on the table, and have healthcare for the members of their family. The reason why Nate’s formulas are so off is because GDP, like most macro data, doesn’t cover these things. Even basic data like average incomes still don’t tell you the whole story. Take a look at the average income for individuals:

Whether incomes have gone up or down, it hasn’t lead to a President, or his party, keeping the White House. This was the case in 1976, 1992, and 2000. While there wasn’t much change between 2004 and 2008,  there was a drop in 2009 because of the Great Recession, and we all know who won that year.

While pollsters try and figure out what’s on people’s minds, economists need to try and start doing the same thing. A Washington think tank called the Economic Policy Institute came out with a report titled The Rising Instability of American Family Incomes, 1969-2004. The authors point out that “Part of the reason why family economic instability—sometimes called “income volatility”—has not been extensively examined is that aggregate economic statistics have been relatively stable and favorable. Neither the 1991 nor the 2001 recessions were particularly deep, and inflation and unemployment have remained historically low. Yet.. these broadly stable and favorable aggregate indicators mask many signs of declining economic security among American families.”

The report came out in May of 2008, before the Great Recession, but some of the findings might surprise you. It turns out 15 percent of American’s saw their salaries decrease between 1969 and 2004, causing serious strain within the family. Right at the turn of the century, levels of family income were extremely violent, where over half of American families saw their earnings drop.

Just because incomes were rising and unemployment was low, didn’t mean all families were living the high life. Health care costs soared way over inflation, so even if there were two breadwinners per household, there was still a good chance they couldn’t afford health insurance. Not to mention most people received coverage through their job. And future problems are becoming apparent. As the price of food has gone up, it will eventually start affecting a large amount of families.

The unemployment numbers that came out last week weren’t good. And yes those and other macro indicators can show politicians where the state of the overall economy is right now. But if politicians want to actually do something about it, they need to look at the root causes of high unemployment, why food prices are rising, and figure out why the cost of health care has been rising. But they can’t do this without getting the right information. If a politicians job is to get reelected, they will start demanding the information that will show them how to help their constituents, and economists will start figuring out ways to calculate it.


1 Comment

Filed under Economics, Election, Families, Political Economy, Politics, Public Policy, Think Tank, Unemployment

Information Is Power

As a policy wonk, I was excited to see Ben Bernanke’s press conference, the first ever at the Federal Reserve. I know there aren’t a lot of us out there, but in a time where people are uncertain it is important to hear from the leaders who are supposed to be looking out for our best interests. I wrote a column for Government In The Lab about how these conferences came to form. Now, it wasn’t as entertaining as Donald Trump, but more importantly it wasn’t stupid.

While many people on Wall Street are very good at math, I kinda doubt many of them were history majors. After the Civil War, recessions were a pretty common occurrence and it hurt a lot of businesses around the country. The turn of the century was a time where the dollar was just starting to go into circulation, which meant when there was a slowdown in the north it affected the south and vice versa. But there was no Standard and Poors or Moody’s coming out with information where people can get a picture of what was happening. To stop these blips in the economy, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Federal Reserve Act in 1912. The central bank had two mandates which still drive its policy decisions today: 1) control America’s monetary policy and 2) create jobs.

Whatever Ben Bernanke said at the conference is on the record and can be held accountable too. For instance, one of the bigger items mentioned was the Quantitative Easing (QE) policy being implemented, and there is controversy over how effective it has been. Basically, the Fed is buying back the mortgages the banks sold before the recession thinking the housing bubble wouldn’t burst. The Fed claims this has allowed banks to clean their books giving them the ability to loan each other, small businesses, and individual’s money to keep the economy moving. The Fed claims this has worked because there has been growth since it has started. But critics point to the fact banks have not been lending a lot of money, the economy hasn’t grown all that much (GDP grew only 1.8% the first quarter of 2011), and job numbers are still at an all time low.

Bernanke is just like any other person in charge of a big institution, at certain times they need to cover their own behind. If it doesn’t seem like he knows what he’s talking about, or the facts don’t back up what he’s saying, he will lose legitimacy and trust. While addressing reporters’ questions yesterday, Bernanke said this about the steps the Fed, under his tenure, have done to help the economy recover:

I do believe that the second round of securities purchases was effective. We saw that first in the financial markets. The way monetary policy always works is by easing financial conditions, and we saw increases in stock prices. We saw reduced spreads in credit markets. We saw reduced volatility.

On certain parts there isn’t a lot of debate. The market is less volatile; we see this as the stock market has gone up, banks are no longer in need of extra money, and most companies are reporting strong profits this quarter. All good signs. So sure, it seems unlikely there will be another recession, but what about the jobs?

When one reporter asked about why there hasn’t been strong job growth all Bernanke could say is:

the pace of improvement is still quite slow and we are digging ourselves out of a very, very deep hole. We are still something like 7 million plus jobs below where we were before the crisis. So clearly, the fact that we are moving in the right direction even though that’s encouraging doesn’t mean that the labor market is in good shape. Obviously it’s not, we are going to have to continue to watch and hope that we will get stronger, increasingly strong job creation going forward.

Now if the reporter had the chance to follow up, he could have pointed out the unemployment number is actually around 11 or 12 million people. But this was Bernanke’s weakest point during the press conference. The person in charge of creating jobs in this country is “hoping” that the economy will pick up enough so more jobs can be created. Well, I feel more confidant, don’t you?

The money the Federal Reserve decides to spend, or not spend, has an effect on all of us. It controls our purchasing power affecting small businesses and their ability to sell their products abroad, and individuals who are having to choose between buying food and health insurance. But now that Bernanke has made these statements, at the next press conference reporters can ask him (after he has spent $600 billion helping the banks recover) why the economy still hasn’t picked up as much as he thought it would?

Bernanke did not just become Chairman on a whim. He was an economist at Princeton and his academic writings were very impressive. But even the best economists screw up. Bernanke was on the Board of Federal Reserve while there were signs the economy was declining. And even though the Fed was fully implemented in 1913, look up what happened on October 29th 1929. You can always find economists disagreeing with each other, like they did before and during the Great Depression. But now we can ask the person in charge what he/she thinks, which goes a long way to making sure the Fed is implementing the right policies, and will help businesses and families plan for their future.

Leave a comment

Filed under Banks, Ben Bernanke, Economics, Federal Reserve, Monetary Policy, Press Conference, Quantitative Easing

Protecting the Social Fabric

The International Labor Organization (ILO) has released a report titled Sharing Innovative Experiences. The eighteenth edition of the book gives examples of social protection programs, similar to what Social Security is for the US, that have helped to improve a developing nation’s economy. The focus is on eighteen countries that have implemented policies that created retirement plans, allowed children to go to school, and families to receive adequate health care. With these programs in place, thousands of people in developing countries were able to improve their living situation and lift themselves out of poverty.

As people who read this blog know, I am a fan of Amartya Sen’s Capabilities Theory. In fact, I wrote an entire thesis on it. It has been proven time and time again that raising a country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) does not mean the people living in that country will be able to live a better life. But the Capabilities Theory puts the emphasis back on the people and what they need to live. The ILO uses this theory in their research and promotes policies that will increase people’s quality of life, rather than increase a companies profit. The emphasis on Social Protection Programs is a direct result of this theory, and as I will show here, not only helps people live a better life but grows the countries economy as well.

Those living in the developing world (and are lucky enough to have a job) often do not earn enough to pay for themselves and their family’s medical needs. Not to mention the ability to save for retirement or pay for their children to go to school. The ILO looks at social protection programs as a way for governments to invest in their people (sound familiar?). But in the developing world, just 1 in 10 people have some sort of retirement pension, and even less (1 in 20) are enrolled in a health care plan. Social protection programs are needed so families can focus on their current situation, and in some countries have proven to reduce poverty in half. These policies make it easier for families to obtain food, an education, and health care, which not only make it easier for families to live their lives, but builds a stronger labor force for the future.

According to the ILO, over a billion people have been helped from Social Protection programs. It has been “one of the most impacting tools to change quality of life of the poor and vulnerable,” according to Francisco Simplisio head of the Division for Program and Knowledge Management at the United Nations Development Program. In an interview I conducted upon publication of the new update, Simplicio explained, “that’s the key portions of experience in collecting developing countries perspectives implementing it and making it possible for implementation. That’s one of the innovations of this book. And then of course it makes the case it’s possible, which is the second major step.”

The first example in the book comes from Argentina where there is the Universal Child Allowance (AUH). In 2002, 60 percent of Argentina’s children were living in households that were recognized as below the poverty line. This program covers children 0-18 years old where families are given allowances of $46.20 per month and must prove they are in school and registered for health care services. The program is divided by two subsystems called the contributory where all formal sector workers are registered in the system; and the non-contributory subsystem comprised of retirees.

Today, 85 percent of Argentina’s children are covered by AUH. To make sure the money was not being wasted, parents must sign affidavits, and letters must be signed by teachers and doctors affirming the child has been attending school and receiving treatment. Books, which are considered legal documents, are also kept by the government. Since the allowance is distributed through bank accounts, if a large amount of money is taken out at once it would be suspicious and violators risk not receiving allowances in the future and the possible facing prosecution. Nine million children and over two million retirees receive these benefits. With families receiving these allowances, they no longer have to worry about arbitrary policies that can force them to lose their home or job, and now have more certainty going into the future.

But in order to pay for these programs a combination of private and public sector investment is needed. The Director of the ILO’s Economic and Labor Market Analysis Moazam Mahmood told me, “the beginning of the report says demand issues are critical as well. So you need to generate the level of aggregate demand to generate employment.” Greater employment leads to more revenue and enables governments to expand their programs and cover more people. But the state still needs to lay a foundation for companies to invest in their country. “But it also has to come to from the public sector” Mahmood said “and we note the depressing statistics in terms of the production of the role of the public sector and much needed infrastructure because the report also notes the shortage of infrastructure has the potential to reduce GDP growth 2 percent a quarter.”

It is not expensive to implement these policies. Less than 2 percent of global GDP is needed to provide a basic set of social security benefits to the world’s poor. With over a billion people living on $1.25 a day, there is, of course, starvation. But several countries have implemented social programs that that allow families to buy food. The ILO has calculated an investment of 4 percent of the worlds GDP can reduce the food poverty rate in low income countries by 40 percent.

By investing in their people countries have been able to invest in their future. With their basic necessities in place, individuals can focus on obtaining better skills to get a better job. They are also able to work harder because they are well educated, plus physically and emotionally fit. When this is the case, multinational corporations are more willing to invest in a country because it will be easier to make a profit. And they’re right. The more education a population receives the more versatile they become for companies who are willing to pay them more.

I know, all this sounds simplistic, but there is vast amounts of evidence to show these policies work. Social Protection Programs are needed in all societies, and Sharing Innovative Experiences is meant to show developing countries a way to improve their economy while at the same time improving their citizens’ quality of life. There are a lot of lessons we can learn from the recession; one is that the fabric of society is delicate and it is important to protect the people in it. These programs help do that, and need to be promoted throughout the developing world.

Leave a comment

Filed under Amartya Sen, Capabilities Theory, Economics, global development, international development, International Labor Organization, Politics, Social Security

Add Value To Your Buck

It’s almost that time of year again, tax season! OK, maybe I’m exaggerating on how exciting this is. The US tax code is longer than War and Peace, but just like the classic book, almost no one can understand it, and almost no one today has read it. But someone has to read the code in order to figure out how much money people owe their government. If only there was a simpler way…

Debating tax policy is almost as bad as actually paying them, but here I go. The last time any serious tax reform occurred was during the Reagan administration. The Tax Reform Act of 1986 reduced individual and corporate taxes almost by half, and indexed those standards for inflation. The number of tax brackets were also reduced. But the Act also included the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) which only complicated the code more. The more complicated the code became, the more loopholes were there for people to take advantage of. While less money was coming in, the government was spending more, which increased the national debt. The code has become so complicated, and hard to enforce, only 47% of American’s who file for federal taxes actually pay them.

President Obama has said he wants to reform the tax code to make it easier for Americans. But what’s the best way to do this? There are a lot of ideas out there. Some say there should be a flat tax where everyone pays the same amount. But that’s not progressive. It can also hurt those who do not have a lot of money, while people who earn more won’t be paying their fair share. Another idea is to eliminate loopholes and certain credits. This could work, but doesn’t go at the heart of the problem, which seems to be the way we calculate how much American’s need to pay.

One idea that works for forty other countries (mostly in Europe) is the Value Added Tax (VAT). Instead of pushing a sales tax onto the consumer, items are taxed at a percentage as the product is put together. So if the VAT was 10% it would work like this:

– The manufacturer pays $1.00 for the raw materials, certifying it is not a final consumer.

– The manufacturer charges the retailer $1.20, checking that the retailer is not a consumer, leaving the same gross margin of $0.20.

– The retailer charges the consumer $1.50 + ($1.50 x 10%) = $1.65 and pays the government $0.15, leaving the gross margin of $0.30.

The government gets paid each step of the way, and it is clear how much everyone owes so it is easy to enforce. Overall this reduces the costs to the consumer because they don’t have to pay so much at the end. The French implemented a VAT in 1954 and today it counts for half of the government’s income.

But there are opponents. People argue implementing a VAT can cause large amounts of fraud such as false claims. There have been instances where the individual or business argues that they did not know they had to pay a tax on a certain item. Then of course there is the old fashion “hidden sale” where the consumer is charged something that is completely made up.

Despite those concerns, studies show that if a 5% VAT was implemented, and covered 80% of goods people consume, it could generate roughly $260 billion. The Virginia Tax Review estimates that a VAT of 25% could pay for health care reform, exempt millions of American families from income taxes and still raise the revenues necessary to cut into the budget deficit.

One of the reasons American’s are less inclined to pay taxes now is because we became a individualistic society. When FDR was President, there was a “we are in this together” philosophy. But that has gone away. The book Bowling Alone explains it pretty well. But when you are paying taxes, you are paying for the freedoms that people in the Middle East and North Africa are fighting for. Whether you are rich or poor, everyone benefits one way or another, and those who don’t pay their taxes are cheating their fellow citizens.

Just because something is European doesn’t make it scary. Paying taxes is important. It goes to Veteran Hospitals, public parks, schools, and keeps our food and water clean. But paying for these services doesn’t have to be a burden. Instituting a VAT could bring in more money for areas that all Americans use, and everyone could get a bigger bang for their buck.



Filed under Economics, Obama, Public Policy, taxes, Value Added Tax, VAT

Egypt’s Capability

Friday morning I was completely off the grid. I had a appointment downtown, went on the subway to get back to my place so I wasn’t checking my cell phone, Twitter, or Facebook. It was just the like the 90’s but better because Destiny’s Child wasn’t playing in the background. When I got back to my apartment I checked to see what was going on in the world and saw a peaceful revolution coming to a peaceful end, and a new beginning for the people of Egypt. There are no words that can describe what was being shown on television, but the word that can’t be used enough is incredible.

When the first round of protests started on January 25th, it seemed to catch many people by surprise. Either people at the CIA don’t have Facebook or Twitter accounts, or their efforts were focused on something else. But with all the countries in the middle east, why even worry about Egypt? With Mubarak in charge the country had been stable for 30 years, a peace treaty with Israel that it wasn’t breaking, and it’s GDP was growing at a higher rate than any other nations in Africa, and 25th in the world. So, what do Egyptians have anything to worry about?

The reasons for Egypt’s revolt are complex, there are so many directions a writer can take in describing the events that lead up to January 25th. But what they all have in common is the Egyptians wanted to be free and have a democratic government working for them. I have written in the past about standard economic models and how they are inadequate assessments. The reason: they don’t assess what people need or care about. Economists should look at what happened in Egypt and realize if the measurements they use do not change, the whole practice is in danger of becoming obsolete.

Before the recession in 2008 Egypt’s GDP grew 7.2%, in 2009 it still grew another 4.6% (when most economies shrunk), and in 2010 it contued upward at 5.3%. Part of the growth was drilled from the oil in the country’s vast dessert in the west, but its leading industry is in textiles, which grew at 5.5% just last year. But despite this improvement in production, it did not lead to people’s lives being improved. Unemployment was still at 9.7% and over 14 million people were living below the poverty line.

Nobel laureate Amartya Sen developed the Capabilities Theory, an alternative to standard economic models. Instead of focusing on GDP as the primary factor in development, he argues economists should focus on social programs such as education and health care, which enable people to live their lives to the fullest extent possible. An important part of this theory is strong democratic governance where people can make their grievances known and work to expand their freedom. The theory calls for redistributive policies to be enacted through social programs, similar to Social Security and Medicaid, which give people the resources and skills they need.

If economists are going to solve this problem, they have to understand what’s important to Egyptians, and people living around the world. There have been tons of stories written about the importance of bread, and all the people who have gone hungry (and I make no apologies for saying mine is the best) because they are not able to afford it. What’s also important to the Egyptians is their health. When Mubarak first came into power in the 1980’s he expanded health care by building hospitals and providing beds across the country. But despite the fact all Egyptians are eligible for health insurance, the government was refusing to pay for it (sound familiar?). The Ministry of Health owes $270 million dollars to health care providers across the country. But because they don’t have the money, hospitals have had to delay or refuse people treatment because they can’t afford to take them in.

Much of the talk has been about the smart, young people, who organized the protests through Facebook and Twitter. While this is true, the facts don’t speak well for Egypt’s education system. In the past, Egypt did have a good education system. But in recent years, as the population grew, more students were attending schools but were not receiving a good education. These children became disenfranchised only to drop out. Most of them tried to get the few jobs that were available, or went to a life in crime. This can lead to future economic stagnation because young Egyptians won’t know how, or have the will, to start or run a business. More schools needed to be built and more teachers needed to be hired, both of which would have reduced the unemployment rate and brought brighter prospects for Egypt’s future and the people who started the revolution.

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace released a study on how hard it was to start a business in Egypt. This only empowered the rich and leaving behind the rest. While money was being given to the growing industries like textiles, this only enabled the rich and the businesses they own. Money wasn’t being spent on other areas where the majority of the people needed it. Overall investment by the government was only 18% of GDP. This is despite the fact Egypt’s purchasing power grew by $25 billion each year between 2008-2010.

The Capabilities Theory allows economists to focus on the areas of an economy that is most important to people, and their welling being. Providing for areas such as education, health care, housing, and food, provides security and stability allowing people to live their lives and pursue the areas they choose. Egyptians wanted access to better education and health care, among other things, and because they were being ruled instead of governed, they had to take to the streets in order to attain these freedoms.

February 11th 2011 is a day that my generation will ask itself “where were you?” when Egyptians took their country back? Now that it is in their hands, Egyptians will be able to elect officials that can enact policies which will help those desperately in need, and build a better stronger country for future generations.


Leave a comment

Filed under Amartya Sen, Capabilities Theory, Economics, Egypt, Mubarak, Political Economy, Politics

Place Your Bets (carefully)!

What probably should have been bigger news than has been reported is the Consumer Price Index (CPI). It’s fascinating! Really! Just hear me out. The CPI comes out every month from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It is a short term indicator on how strong or weak the economy is. The Federal Government puts out household surveys around America asking them what they bought in the past month, compares it to last month, and sees which prices rose and which ones fell. Economists need this information to determine the inflation rate, and people on Wall Street need it so they know what areas of the economy to bet on.

When the Obama administration enacted a new stimulus package in the form of tax breaks, I wrote a post explaining why stimulative was too strong of a word. The reality was that Americans were going to use the tax breaks on the basic items that they have to pay for like rent/mortgage, health care, and food. Spending is a major part of America’s economy, especially since we are not building as much as we used to. While the tax cuts will help the overall economy because people will be spending money, the important thing is people won’t feel they have to choose between the items they need to live. Last month the CPI rose 0.5 percent, and the three main areas where people put their money was on energy (to heat their homes), food (to put in their stomachs), and health care (so they won’t get the flu).

When stock brokers look to make money, they look to invest in areas of the economy they think people will be spending their money. Some of these areas are obvious. As the weather gets colder people are going to heat their homes. Since the employment rate fell more people could afford to buy health insurance, and while people always bought food, the reason why the amount of money people spent on it went up is because the price of food went up. But sometimes it’s not so obvious, and looking at a short history of the CPI you can see why.

The chart above shows the average change that the CPI occurred every year from 2000-2010. What sticks out to me here is how volatile it is. From 2002 to 2003 there was a full percent increase, and in real monetary terms we are talking about hundreds of millions of dollars. The highest point, probably not coincidentally, was in 2008, before the financial crisis in 2009, where the CPI turned negative. While the CPI isn’t the only analysis Wall Street looks at, it is an important one. The figures they see here are what give them the confidence to bet with people’s money. But as you can see, because the consumer market is so volatile, it is hard to guess which areas of the economy will be earning money.

Now people may argue the turn of the century is an unfair time to use because the economy wasn’t strong. So let’s take a look back when America turned to Nirvana, the 90’s.


Today, the stock market ended on the highest note in the past two years. That tells me people who look at this data feel confident that the economy is going in the right direction. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be so willing to invest so much money, in any area. Markets went up because they saw overall manufacturing go up, which means there is a high demand for products and more people will be spending money. Now, it’s just matter of figuring out where.

What gets me is how some conservatives argue that the better the Wall Street is doing, the better America does. That simply isn’t true. If you are lucky enough to have the money to buy stocks right now, yes, you are doing well. But millions of American’s don’t and are choosing to keep a roof over their families, get their family food, or give them health insurance. Fortunately last month, according to this CPI, most families were able to do all three.

The truth is some people are better than others determining which stocks are worth your money. Anyone who tells you they know exactly what will happen in the future is lying. There were people who knew the financial crisis was coming, but even those people couldn’t say when. As the market has been fluctuating since Washington bailed it out, it is important to remember to learn the game before you play, to do your homework and then place your bets carefully.

Leave a comment

Filed under America, Consumer Price Index, CPI, Economics, economy, Obama, President Obama, Wall Street

The Politics of Budgets

Did you know that America doesn’t actually have a budget? It’s true. Congress does not pass one big bill where all the spending is voted on. Instead, all the appropriations are voted on separately and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) adds them all up. There are so many convoluted ways in which Congress creates America’s spending it is no wonder how it has a debt of thirteen trillion dollars.

Every year, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) reports to the President on spending levels, the debt, and what economists are predicting for the coming year. After this analysis is complete, the President makes his priorities known. Decisions are made on what the tax levels should be, where spending should be cut, and where spending should be increased. Then the president starts pushing these ideas at the State of the Union address.

The CBO and OMB can sometimes come up with different numbers for how much a program can cost, how much the debt will be, or how much the economy will grow, but there usually isn’t that big of a difference. The CBO is a non-partisan office, and because of that, their recommendations carry a lot of weight. During the healthcare debate, the CBO estimated that if the healthcare bill passed Congress it would reduce the deficit. The Democrats jumped on this and the Republicans had no reason or will to fight this fact. Of course, they still managed to find other things to complain about.

In Congress, the appropriations committees are filled with members who have a direct interest in seeing money going to their districts. For instance, the House committee on Science and Technology (which oversees NASA), had to deal with one of President Obama’s priorities this past year. The president wanted to cut NASA’s budget in order to reduce the deficit. But the members of that committee refused to let it happen, and it didn’t. NASA was still fully funded for years to come, and for the members whose constituents didn’t have a direct effect on the vote, they got a big IOU from those that it did. Needless to say, it is very hard to reduce the deficit this way.

One of the most effective ways the deficit was reduced occurred was when President Nixon was in office. When Nixon was living in the White House, he had the ability to cut spending that he did not think was necessary. Similar to a line-item veto but after the budget was passed. However, while he was in office Democrats controlled Congress, and eventually took this ability away from him, and claiming he wasn’t cutting funding in Republican districts.

Before Obama introduces his budget and sets his priorities at the State of the Union, Congress is going to have to vote on its debt ceiling. A lot of pundits are making a big deal out of this because the debt was a big issue in the last election. But this same vote has happened every year for as long as there has been a deficit. And every year the minority party blames the majority party for increasing the deficit. But really, the ceiling is based on the coming years interest on what the government owns. So if a member voted for an appropriation last year that the CBO said would increase the deficit, they only have themselves to blame.

But that does not make it any less important for the debt ceiling to be raised. If it is not, the Treasury will be forced to default on the loans from China and other countries around the world. If you thought the financial crisis was bad, this will be one-hundred times worse. If the United States defaults (which amounts to claiming bankruptcy) the entire world economy will go into an unprecedented tail spin. It won’t be just where people invested that will be hurt, this time it will be all the businesses that borrowed money from banks (which is all of them) from all around the world.

If John Boehner wants to give a fight about this, he will be playing a very dangerous game. I know he will be all high and mighty after Pelosi hands him the gavel, but unless he wants to be responsible for what I just described, he will raise the roof.


Leave a comment

Filed under appropriation, bills, Boehner, Budget, budget ceiling, Congress, debt, Deficit, Economics

Tax Cuts Don’t Stimulate The Economy

I hate leaving things for the last minute. Having something hanging over my head just bothers me to no end it always get to the point where I can’t sleep until it’s done. The political problem for the tax cuts was that the White House waited until the last minute to deal with it, but probably for the right reasons. President Obama has had major legislative victories which will help a lot of people. Making sure women are paid equally, allowing students to stay on their parents insurance after college, and expanding scholarship opportunities to pay for college, just to name a few. As we’ve all seen those victories didn’t just come over night, and unfortunately for Mr. Obama, there was still one last thing he had to get done.

The latest round of tax cuts which will soon be passed by the Senate is being sold so that it will help everybody, the middle class, working class, and of course the rich. The Center for American Progress is defending the tax cuts and claim it will create 2.2 million jobs. What their analysis assumes though is that businesses will spend money and there will be a demand for their products. But if you look at recent experiences, you should know there is no guarantee that businesses will spend more money just because they have it. In these uncertain times, they are more likely to keep it in case the economy goes even more down hill, just like the banks are doing since they received the bailout money. The business cuts aren’t even targeted anywhere which proves there is no strong demand for anything right now. Otherwise, policies could be enacted to create more of a demand to help a strong area grow even more, which could help overall growth. That absence is just more proof the economy is really up in the air.

The Center got these numbers from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and used their numbers to create their analysis. The CBO however, assumes that the tax cuts will be offset by increasing taxes later so we won’t have to worry about deflation. And it does not even take into account that Social Security taxes are being lowered.

But then there are some analyses I just don’t get at all. The Heritage Foundation argues that only tax cuts can stimulate the economy. They try and differentiate between “Disposable Personal Income” and “Personal Spending.” Now if you’re a middle income family earning $150,000 a year, you have enough to go out to dinner, a movie, and keep up with your mortgage payments. But this family is not going to spend money on anything extravagant. They will not be buying a new house, car, or plan a expensive vacation in this time of uncertainty. So when they receive a tax cut, they will not be spending in the areas where it MIGHT help the businesses feel a demand for their products. And if you are working class family, you are more worried about feeding your children and keeping a roof over your head, and that’s where they will spend the money. Again, not creating a huge demand for anything, and not beneficial to helping the economy. Families don’t think of their money as “disposable” or “personal,” and neither should economists.

Instead, programs should have been created to help families cope with the new economic realities. The best part of the package was getting unemployment benefits extended for a year. For middle class families though, there should have been money spent to pay for their children’s college, or help lower their payments if the banks unexpectedly raised the interest rates. But if you don’t believe me, you can listen to President Reagan’s former budget director David Stockman, who helped invent trickle down economics.

The problem with both of these analyses is that they argue broadly about policies that need to be looked at in a more specific design. As I’ve argued in the past, current economic models do not allow economists to take into account what really matters to families. The tax cuts families receive will be spent on areas that will ensure the families stability. President Obama could have made a strong argument to raise taxes on the wealthy to ensure programs like Social Security and Medicare stay intact. Many people rely on these programs, especially the baby boomers. Who, by the way, will be retiring soon and who will vote in 2012. But by waiting this long to deal with the Bush tax cuts he had no time. The consequences, politically and economically, would have been worse if he allowed everyone’s taxes to be raised. He had to let high income earners taxes stay low. It was a classic no win scenario.

All in all, no harm was done, but unfortunately not a lot of good was done either. So lesson learned, don’t wait for the last minute to get your ducks in a row.






1 Comment

Filed under Economics, economy, lame duck, President Obama, stimulus, tax cuts, taxes

>Capability vs. GDP


Goals are important. They give us something to strive for, get us to make the tough decisions that life requires to accomplish them, and in an ever complicated world, can help keep us focused on what is really important. For public policy purposes though, determining how to assess goals can be controversial. How can you count for hundreds of millions of people, and still implement public policies without interfering on what those same people want to accomplish for themselves?

Coincidently, in a time where many people are saying how economists are failing us, I completed my thesis on how new economic methods need to be used to assess a countries development. What economists are currently accounting for are inputs and outputs, how much it costs to produce the product, and how much money can be made by selling it. I don’t want to say this is a bad thing. There are legitimate arguments out there on why these numbers are important. For businesses to hire people, they need an estimate how much they are going to make, and how much of a loan they need from a bank.

But while the Great Recession has been over for a year, the poverty rate in the United States has dramatically increased. The organization that punched these numbers is highly respected, and all they did was their job. They saw Gross Domestic Product (GDP) went up three quarters in a row and declared everything was fine. Unfortunately, there are millions of people out there who would tell these economists differently.

GDP only accounts for the health of businesses, not the population that keeps them thriving. Instead of assuming that if businesses are prosperous the people are too, economists need to develop new goals that take into account for what people need in order for them to achieve what they are working towards. My thesis focused heavily on the work of Amartya Sen and his Capabilities Theory. This theory focuses on human development, bringing it back to the basics of education, health care, housing, freedom, democracy, and other factors, in order to ensure people are given a chance to accomplish the goals they set for themselves.

In his recent struggles to get the democratic base out to the polls, President Obama stated that during the Bush administration personal family incomes had fallen. But still, most economists thought the economy was good because GDP was going up. The fact is recessions happen, whether in a time of strong regulations or weak ones. You just have to hope they’re not as bad as the one we are in now and they don’t turn into a depression. What is great about the Capabilities Theory is that when recessions do happen, policies are already in place to make sure people are protected. By having economists measure basic goals that all people need, individuals will still have the opportunity to decide what they want to accomplish for themselves because they were given the capability to do so.

Of course, while democracy is a important for the Capabilities Theory, there are numerous examples that can be used to show how politics can be really stupid. Gail Collins had a good piece today on how some of the major races in the coming election have been outright dirty, where the candidates have resorted to political mudslinging. While the politicians and their advisors may see attack ads necessary to get their base out, it turns just as many people off, and doesn’t get any more people to vote for the person who put out the commercial. Even the numbers that economists come out with are at times manipulated to further a public officials agenda. But if new assessments of goals based on the Capabilities Theory were implemented, it would be harder to spin how many people are receiving a strong education, living in a safe neighborhood, and have what they need to support their families.

Elected politicians don’t get reelected on what they say about their opponent, it’s on their own record. By focusing on the people, instead of the corporations, elected officials will know what areas to focus on and try to do something about it. Then, it would be a lot harder for their opponent to come up with legitimate attacks.

This post may seem like a utopia to some people, but I am well aware there will always be socio-economic differences. But when I first learned about the Capabilities Theory, it was one of those things that just made sense, and hopefully after going through this tough time, more people will think it makes sense as well.


Leave a comment

Filed under Amartya Sen, Capabilities Theory, Economics, Politics, President Obama, Public Policy