Economy

Sequestration Nation and Remembering Robert Kennedy

Flickr/Kemon01
With the sequester now beginning, I find myself thinking about Robert F. Kennedy—and 46 years ago when I was an intern in his Senate office. 1967 was a difficult time for the nation. America was deeply split over civil rights and the Vietnam War. Many of our cities were burning. The war was escalating. But RFK was upbeat. He was also busy and intense—drafting legislation, lining up votes, speaking to the poor, inspiring the young. I was awed by his energy and optimism, and his overriding passion for social justice and the public good. (Within a few months he’d declare his intention to run for president. Within a year he’d be dead.) The nation is once again polarized, but I don’t hear our politicians talking about social justice or the public good. They’re talking instead about the budget deficit and sequestration. At bottom, though, the issue is still social justice. The austerity economics on which we’ve embarked is a cruel hoax—cruel because it hurts those who are already hurt the...

The Maximum Impact of the Minimum Wage

AP Photo/Mike Groll
Cristina Romer, Berkeley economics professor and the former head of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, passed judgment on the merits of raising the minimum wage in Saturday’s New York Times , and in the process made clear why she wasn’t a member of the president’s de facto council of political advisers. She argued, as some mainstream economists do, that the merits of a heightened minimum wage were slight—that it may, for instance, raise prices, offsetting the gain to low-wage workers. The better solution, she argues, is to raise the earned income tax credit (EITC)—the government’s payment to the working poor—and to support universal pre-K education. “Why settle for half-measures,” she concludes (by which she means raising the minimum wage), “when such truly first-rate policies [by which she means the EITC and pre-K schooling] are well understood and ready to go?” Ready to go? Congressional Republicans are rarin’ to increase government spending on the working poor and...

Automatic Stabilizers: There When Congress Isn't

Flickr/JMazzolaa
As we approach sequestration today the dominant narrative continues to be that the huge run-up in the deficit since the Great Recession has been our greatest political—perhaps even a moral—failure. But it isn’t a failure. This is exactly how the system was designed to work if the economy ever saw a downturn on the scale of the 2008 financial crisis. The deficit is collapsing through the same planned process. As the economy recovers, it is falling quickly, down to 7 percent in 2012, and an estimated 5.3 percent in 2013. These are our "automatic stabilizers" at play. Though it sounds vaguely hydrologic or like a bad steampunk creation, it’s straightforward: The economy will naturally suffer from periods of slack demand in which there isn't enough purchasing power in the economy to produce goods and employ all of our resources, including people. Automatic stabilizers then kick into motion in to counteract this. One important automatic stabilizer is the tax code, which has people pay less...

Dear White House, You'll Regret This

Olivier Douliery/AP Images
The latest dust-up in the descent of Bob Woodward from fearless investigative reporter to manipulative media celebrity began with his contention in a Washington Post column that President Obama, by asking for revenue increases as part of a deal to defer the sequester, was “moving the goal posts” from the 2011 budget deal (in which Obama got thoroughly hosed by the Republicans). When the White House pushed back and an unnamed “senior official” told Politico that Woodward would “regret” those comments, someone, presumably Woodward, leaked an e-mail between himself and White House top economic strategist Gene Sperling. Since then, the political class has been abuzz with chatter about Woodward’s modus operandi, the ethics of burning a source, his longstanding strategy of trading access for friendly treatment, and so on. But far more revealing (and appalling) is the content of the e-mails . Here's what Sperling told Woodward: The idea that the sequester was to force both sides to go back...

The U.S. Budget, By the Numbers

AP Photo/Ed Andrieski
AP Photo/Ron Edmonds I n the argument over the "sequester," the across-the-board cuts to both domestic and military programs that are about to take effect, everyone in official Washington seems to agree that the government's budget is bloated. Despite the economists telling us that this is still a terrible time for austerity (just look how well it has worked out for Europe), the argument between Republicans and Democrats seems to be whether we need to just slash the budget mercilessly, or slash the budget somewhat less and raise some taxes. But is the federal budget really so big? Let's take a look at some graphs. If you look just at raw dollars, it's true that the size of government has increased steadily in recent decades (there are a lot of reasons why that's the case). It's also true that spending went up at the beginning of the Obama administration, but it's important to understand why and how. The answer to why is simple: the Great Recession. When a recession hits, government...

The Five Most Terrifying Things about the Sequester

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
The latest fiscal showdown concerns the “sequester”—across the board cuts to (almost entirely) discretionary spending that will total just over $1 trillion in the next decade, and which are set to take effect on March 1. What should those who have better things to do with their life than follow fiscal policy debates know about the sequester? 1. The sequester will hurt job-growth As we pointed out during the debates raging in the run-up to the “fiscal cliff," the sequester was the second-most damaging component of the austerity bundle set to take effect on January 1, 2013. The worst component was the non-renewal of the payroll tax cut, which is already dragging substantially on the economy . All told, if the sequester kicks in the economy will likely end the year with roughly 500-600,000 fewer jobs than if it were repealed. These are jobs the economy desperately needs . To be clear, the sequester alone won’t drive the U.S. economy back into outright recession, but it surely will make...

Lockheed, Stock, and Barrel

Do we truly need brand new aircraft carriers? Nope, but try telling the Pentagon and their many contractor friends.

AP Photo/Northwest Florida Daily News, Devon Ravine
AP Photo/Eric Talmadge This is the third in a three-part Prospect series on what an ideal military budget might look like. Read Part One on the military's current responsibilities here . Read Part Two on the real threats that our military should be protecting our country from here . W hat stops the United States from crafting a military budget that makes sense? As this series has shown, to defend Americans and to protect American economic interests—even if broadly defined—the military would need vastly less resources than it currently enjoys. Sure, people in our defense establishment will complain about "bloat" and "waste" and "inefficiency," but when it comes to actual cuts, they just aren't done. "Now's not the time," they say, and considering the harm that sequestration cuts will likely do to many people's jobs and possibly to our economic recovery, there might be something to it—but they always say that. So, why do conversations about possible—and advisable—cuts always end up a...

The Sequestering of Barack Obama

AP Photo/Susan Walsh
AP Photo/Susan Walsh President Barack Obama urges Congress to come up with a plan to avert the automatic spending cuts set to kick in on March 1, 2013 last week. P resident Obama has miscalculated both the tactical politics of the sequester and the depressive economic impact of budget cuts on the rest of his presidency. The sequester will cut economic growth in half this year. But it’s now clear, one way or another, that we will get cuts in the $85 billion range that the sequester mandates this fiscal year. All that remains are the details. Obama’s miscalculation began in his fist term, with his embrace of the premise that substantial deficit cutting was both politically expected and economically necessary, and his appointment of the 2010 Bowles-Simpson Commission as the expression of that mistaken philosophy. Although the Commission’s plan was never carried out, its prestige and Obama’s parentage of it locked the president into a deflationary deficit reduction path. This past week,...

Save the Surpluses for Another Rainy Day

Guido Bergmann/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images
The last several years have been bleak for state governments. Most had to tap, if not drain, rainy-day funds—money set aside for emergencies. But that usually wasn’t enough to bridge shortfalls. Some raised taxes and other revenue, but for the most part, states relied on cuts. Since 2007, states have slashed nearly $300 billion from their budgets, with health care and education being hardest hit; according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), a progressive think tank, over the last five years 23 states have made deep cuts to pre-K and public school spending, while 20 have made major cuts to health care. But the economic recovery that began nearly four years ago is finally beginning to come to states, albeit slowly. Only eight states made emergency mid-year cuts to their budget, and others are finding themselves with more money than they’d budgeted. According to the National Association of State Budget Officers, 34 states wound up with revenues higher than expected. (...

Trading The Blame Game for The Bully Pulpit

Flickr/Neon Tommy
The White House apparently believes the best way to strengthen its hand in the upcoming “sequester” showdown with Republicans is to tell Americans how awful the spending cuts will be and blame Republicans for them. It won’t work. These tactical messages are getting in the way of the larger truth, which the president must hammer home: The Republicans’ austerity and trickle-down economics are dangerous, bald-faced lies. Yes, the pending spending cuts will hurt. But even if some Americans begin to feel the pain when the cuts go into effect Friday, most won’t feel it for weeks or months, if ever. Half are cuts in the military, which will have a huge impact on jobs (the military is America’s only major jobs program), but the cuts will be felt mainly in states with large numbers of military contractors, and then only as those contractors shed employees. The other half are cuts in domestic discretionary spending, which will largely affect lower-income Americans. There will be sharp...

Threat versus "Threat"

The second entry in our series on how to fix the Pentagon budget

flickr/zennie62
AP Photo This is the second in a three-part Prospect series on what an ideal military budget might look like. Read Part One here . Read Part Three on what's keeping us from a more perfect military budget here. A bout a year ago, Army General Martin Dempsey went to Capitol Hill trying to defend $55 billion in annual budget cuts by sequestration. With a straight face, the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman testified to a panel of the House Appropriations Committee: “In my personal military judgment, formed over 38 years, we are living in the most dangerous time in my lifetime right now ." It's the kind of thing that makes a person alternately question the judgment and the honesty of our military leaders. It's obvious nonsense , just another ludicrous statement in the campaign mounted by the military, industry, and Congress in their effort to fight sequestration. That said, Dempsey raises a good question: Do we live in a dangerous world? Are there threats out there that might be the sort of...

Leaning Out—of This Fight

AP Photo/Keystone, Laurent Gillieron, File
I am leaning in just a little as I write this. OK, I’m not. But I am feeling a little sick as I ponder the next unpleasant installment of the “mommy wars” that’s hurtling toward us. This past Friday, The New York Times’ Jodi Kantor assembled the ingredients for yet another bitter and prolonged back-and-forth about women and work. At its center is Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead , a new book that purports to show American women the way out of our relative powerlessness. In it, Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, gives women advice on how to assume leadership roles by, among other things, understanding our strengths and reassessing how we hold our bodies in business meetings. On the other side of the ring, we have Anne Marie Slaughter , the Princeton Professor and former Obama Administration official, who with her viral “we can’t have it all” essay in The Atlantic this past summer, can serve as a foil to the first. Finally, critically, we have the media , who (myself...

Fix the Economy, Not the Deficit

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak
AP Photo/Charles Dharapak President Obama discuses the sequester last week surounded by emergency responders, whom the White House says could be affected if state and local governments lose federal money as a result of budget cuts. I t’s hard to be happy about the prospect of the sequester—the huge, automatics cuts to domestic spending set to take place if lawmakers can't reach a long-term budget deal—going into effect at the end of the week. Not only will it will mean substantial cuts to important programs; it will be a further drag on an already weak economy, shaving 0.6 percentage points off our growth rate. The end of the payroll tax cut, which expired on January 1, has already pushed it down to around 2.0, but the sequester cuts will depress it below the rate needed to keep pace with those entering the labor market. As a result, we are likely to see a modest increase in unemployment over the course of the year if the cuts are left in place. Of course, it could be worse. Half of...

Happy Birthday, Dear Income Tax

Five lessons for progressives from our first century of income taxes. 

flickr/jpconstantineau
flickr/jpconstantineau I n February 1913, exactly a century ago, the Sixteenth Amendment gave Congress a constitutional green light to levy a federal tax on income. Later that same year, lawmakers made good on that opportunity. An income tax has been part of the federal tax code ever since. So what can we learn, as progressives, from this first century of income taxation? Lesson One Steeply graduated income tax rates can help societies do big things. A half-century ago, America’s federal income tax rates rose steadily—and quite steeply—by income level, with 24 tax brackets in all. On income roughly between $32,000 and $64,000, in today’s dollars, couples in the 1950s faced a 22 percent tax rate. On income that today would equal between $500,000 and $600,000, affluent Americans faced a tax rate of 65 percent. The highest 1950s tax rate, 91 percent, fell on annual income that would today exceed $3.2 million. Today, o ur federal tax rates rise much less steeply. The current top rate? The...

Financial Reform's Triple "F" Rating

In current practice, banks pay agencies to assess their financial products favorably. Why hasn't this system of kickbacks been eliminated?

Flickr/The Truth About
E arlier this month, the Justice Department and 16 state attorneys general sued the Standard and Poor’s (S&P) credit-rating agency, accusing the company of improperly inflating the ratings of 40 collateralized debt obligations (CDOs)—essentially, securities made up of other mortgage-backed securities—at the height of the housing bubble. According to the suit, S&P misled investors by rating the risky securities as "triple-A," super-safe investments. But the purchases turned into massive investor losses when the bonds failed after the bubble collapsed. Using emails and other communications, state, and federal prosecutors will seek to prove that S&P knew the securities were junk but rated them highly for the most obvious of reasons: to make more money. The lawsuit gets at a major problem at the heart of the credit-rating business: Rather than investors paying rating agencies to assess the value of securities it is the issuers of the securities themselves who pick up the tab...

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