Economy

Save the Surpluses for Another Rainy Day

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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

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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

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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...

What We'll Be Talking about in 2016

AP Photo/Mark Hirsch
Yes, pundits of all stripes are already starting to handicap the presidential fields for 2016. Yes, that’s a long time from now … although we are under three years to the Iowa Caucuses, and probably just about two years from the first debates, so it’s not all that long. More to the point: as long as the candidates are running—and they are—there’s no reason to pretend the contest hasn’t started yet. While the identity of the next Democratic and Republican nominees is important, what’s even more important is what they intend to do if elected. Indeed: the nomination process is important because it’s how parties sort out their differences and make decisions about who they are, and what kinds of public policy they support. Moreover, the nomination process is the best chance for groups and individuals within the party to have a chance of affecting what the party will do if it wins. In general elections with huge electorates, there’s not much one person can do that makes any difference. In...

Still More BS

AP Photo/Alex Brandon
We all do things that we regret. President Obama must surely regret that he ever listened to the extreme deficit hawks back in early 2010, when he appointed the Bowles-Simpson Commission, the fiscal zombie that just won’t die. The commission is long defunct. The recommendations of its majority report never became law (because that required a super-majority). But the dreams and schemes of B-S have become the gold standard of deflationists everywhere. The test of budgetary soundness is: does it meet the recommendations of Bowles and Simpson? On Tuesday, the depressive duo were at it again, calling for additional deficit reductions of $2.4 trillion over a decade. This is almost a trillion dollars beyond what President Obama and Congress are considering. This clarion call was issued under the aegis of the corporate group, “Fix the Debt,” a bunch of millionaires and billionaires urging regular people to tighten their belts for the greater good. Quite apart from the impact of particular...

Why Republicans Should Want to Index the Minimum Wage

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If Republicans have any political sense at all, they’ll support not just raising the minimum wage, but indexing it. The economic case for raising the wage, at a time when economic inequality is rampant, working-class incomes are declining, and Wal-Mart sales are falling through the floor, is overwhelming. But while Republicans may blow off the economic consequences of not raising the federal standard, they can’t be so cavalier in dismissing the political consequences. The constituency that today’s GOP most desperately seeks to win, or at least neutralize, is Latinos—the ethnic group most clustered in low-wage jobs, and most certain to benefit from a minimum wage hike. In swing districts with substantial Latino populations, Democrats are certain to highlight Republican opposition to raising the wage in the 2014 elections. Nor is support for a higher wage limited to Latinos. On each occasion in the past decade that a state minimum wage increase has been put before voters as a referendum...

The No-Brainer Argument for $9 an Hour

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Raising the minimum wage from $7.25 to $9 should be a no-brainer. Republicans say it will cause employers to shed jobs, but that’s baloney. Employers won’t outsource the jobs abroad or substitute machines for them because jobs at this low level of pay are all in the local personal-service sector (retail, restaurant, hotel, and so on), where employers pass on any small wage hikes to customers as pennies more on their bills. States that have a minimum wage closer to $9 than the current federal minimum don’t have higher rates of unemployment than do states still at the federal minimum. A mere $9 an hour translates into about $18,000 a year—still under the poverty line. When you add in the Earned Income Tax Credit and food stamps it’s possible to barely rise above poverty at this wage, but even the poverty line of about $23,000 understates the true cost of living in most areas of the country. Besides, the proposed increase would put more money into the hands of families that desperately...

Pretty Words, Dismal Economics

AP Photo/ Evan Vucci
AP Photo/ Evan Vucci President Barack Obama at a pre-kindergarten classroom at College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center in Decatur, Georgia last week. The president is traveling to promote his economic and educational plan that he highlighted in his State of the Union address. B arack Obama’s State of the Union address last week—which called for, among other things, universal pre-K and raising the minimum wage—offered a bold program for rebuilding the middle class. But the president’s continuing commitment to budgetary austerity makes these commitments hollow, if not cynical. And just as Obama and the Democrats paid the price in the 2010 midterm election for excess caution and conciliation, the results of tokenism are not likely to be pretty in the midterms of 2014. Obama's plans for rebuilding the middle class will cost money. Universal pre-K alone would require upwards of $20 billion a year. Unless the president cynically imagines token “demonstration” programs, job training...

Minimum Wage 101

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In his 2013 State of the Union, President Obama proposed a $9 federal minimum wage, indexed to inflation. Here to discuss the minimum wage as a policy is Arindrajit Dube. Dube is a professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a widely respected scholar of labor markets and the minimum wage. Along with T. William Lester and Michael Reich, he is the author of Minimum Wage Effects Across State Borders: Estimates Using Contiguous Counties (2010), a major study that found no adverse employment effects of minimum wages increases by studying counties that cross state lines. Dube has written a summary back in 2011 on the state of this research here. Narrow, technical issues have dominated so much of the debate on the minimum wage, so I wanted to step back and get a better understanding of the minimum wage as a policy mechanism. These remarks are lightly edited. What does an introductory-level Economics 101 textbook tell us about the minimum wage, and how does that...

Be Like Janet, Dammit

AP Photo/Susan Walsh
AP Photo/Susan Walsh Homeland Secretary Janet Napolitano testifying on comprehensive immigration reform before the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing yesterday. S peaking about the U.S.-Mexico border in San Diego, California, on Monday, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano assured the audience that "the border is secure ... I believe it is a safe border," an assessment she reprised yesterday in a Senate hearing on immigration reform. "I often hear the argument that before reform can move forward we must first secure our borders, but too often the ‘border security first’ refrain simply serves as an excuse for failing to address the underlying problems," Napolitano said. "Our borders have, in fact, never been stronger." In advance of the administration's push for immigration reform, the secretary has quietly been making the case that after a decade-long ramp-up in investment, the wave of unchecked immigration that began in the 1990s has come to an end. Indeed, in the last...

Inaugural versus SOTU

Rex Features via AP Images
President Obama did not say last night that “the state of the Union is strong” a favorite phrase used in past State of the Union speeches. Instead he said, “The state of the Union is stronger.” That phrase points away from “the rubble of crisis” and toward a brighter future. In that respect, the address shared much in common with the president’s Inaugural, which presented a broad, liberal vision for Barack Obama’s second term and set policy goals for years down the road. In his address to the join session of Congress, the president was able last night to lay out more specific proposals than he could in his Inaugural speech. But did the president stay true to the ideals he set out in January while delivering his sometimes technical and wonky address last night? We investigate that question – point by point – below. Education During his Inaugural address President Obama said “a modern economy requires … schools and colleges to train our workers” suggesting we should improve schools by...

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