The Mismanagement of Fiscal Policy Under Trump: Deficits When There Should be Surpluses

A.  Introduction

Since World War II, the US has never run such high fiscal deficits in times of full employment as it will now.  With the tax cuts pushed through by the Republican Congress and signed into law by Trump in December, and to a lesser extent the budget passed in March, it is expected that the US will soon be running a fiscal deficit of over $1.0 trillion a year, exceeding 5% of GDP.  This is unprecedented.

We now have good estimates of how high the deficits will grow under current policy and in a scenario which assumes (optimistically) that the economy will remain at full employment, with no downturn.  The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) published on April 9 its regular report on “The Budget and Economic Outlook”, this year covering fiscal years 2018 to 2028.  In this report to Congress and to the public, the CBO assesses the implications of federal budget and tax policy, as set out under current law.  The report normally comes out in January or February of each year but was delayed this year in order to reflect the tax bill approved in December and also the FY18 budget, which was only approved in March (even though the fiscal year began last October).

The forecast is that the deficits will now balloon.  This should not be a surprise given the magnitude of the tax cuts pushed through Congress in December and then signed into law by Trump, but recall that the Republicans pushing through the tax bill asserted deficits would not increase as a result.  The budget approved in March also provides for significant increases in legislated spending – especially for the military but also for certain domestic programs.  But as will be discussed below, government spending (other than on interest) over the next decade is in fact now forecast by the CBO to be less than what it had forecast last June.

The CBO assessment is the first set of official estimates of what the overall impact will be.  And they are big.  The CBO forecasts that even though the economy is now at full employment (and assumed to remain there for the purposes of the scenario used), deficits are forecast to grow to just short of $1 trillion in FY2019, and then continue to increase, reaching over $1.5 trillion by FY2028.  In dollar terms, it has never been that high – not even in 2009 at the worst point in the recession following the 2008 collapse of the economy.

That is terrible fiscal policy.  While high fiscal deficits are to be expected during times of high unemployment (as tax revenues are down, while government spending is the only stabilizing element for the economy when both households and corporations are cutting back on spending due to the downturn), standard policy would be to limit deficits in times of full employment in order to bring down the public debt to GDP ratio.  But with the tax cuts and spending plans this is not going to happen under Trump, even should the economy remain at full employment.  And it will be far worse when the economy once again dips into a recession, as always happens eventually.

This blog post will first discuss the numbers in the new CBO forecasts, then the policy one should follow over the course of the business cycle in order to keep the public debt to GDP under control, and finally will look at the historical relationship between unemployment and the fiscal deficit, and how the choices made on the deficit by Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress are unprecedented and far from the historical norms.

B.  The CBO Forecast of the Fiscal Deficits

The forecasts made by the CBO of the fiscal accounts that would follow under current policies are always eagerly awaited by those concerned with what Congress is doing.  Ten-year budget forecasts are provided by the CBO at least annually, and typically twice or even three times a year, depending on the decisions being made by Congress.

The CBO itself is non-partisan, with a large professional staff and a director who is appointed to a four-year term (with no limits on its renewal) by the then leaders in Congress.  The current director, Keith Hall, took over on April 1, 2015, when both the House and the Senate were under Republican control.  He replaced Doug Elmensdorf, who was widely respected as both capable and impartial, but who had come to the end of a term.  Many advocated that he be reappointed, but Elmensdorf had first taken the position when Democrats controlled the House and the Senate.  Hall is a Republican, having served in senior positions in the George W. Bush administration, and there was concern that his appointment signaled an intent to politicize the position.

But as much as his party background, a key consideration appeared to have been Hall’s support for the view that tax cuts would, through their impact on incentives, lead to more rapid growth, with that more rapid growth then generating more tax revenue which would partially or even fully offset the losses from the lower tax rates.  I do not agree.  An earlier post on this blog discussed that that argument is incomplete, and does not take into account that there are income as well as substitution effects (as well as much more), which limit or offset what the impact might be from substitution effects alone.  And another post on this blog looked at the historical experience after the Reagan and Bush tax cuts, in comparison to the experience after the (more modest) increases in tax rates on higher income groups under Clinton and Obama.  It found no evidence in support of the argument that growth will be faster after tax cuts than when taxes are raised.  What the data suggest, rather, is that there was little to no impact on growth in one direction or the other.  Where there was a clear impact, however, was on the fiscal deficits, which rose with the tax cuts and fell with the tax increases.

Given Hall’s views on taxes, it was thus of interest to see whether the CBO would now forecast that an acceleration in GDP growth would follow from the new tax cuts sufficient to offset the lower tax revenues following from the lower tax rates.  The answer is no.  While the CBO did forecast that GDP would be modestly higher as a result of the tax cuts (peaking at 1.0% higher than would otherwise be the case in 2022 before then diminishing over time, and keep in mind that these are for the forecast levels of GDP, not of its growth), this modestly higher GDP would not suffice to offset the lower tax revenues following from the lower tax rates.

Taking account of all the legislative changes in tax law since its prior forecasts issued in June 2017, the CBO estimated that fiscal revenues collected over the ten years FY2018 to FY2027 would fall by $1.7 trillion from what it would have been under previous law.  However, after taking into account its forecast of the resulting macroeconomic effects (as well as certain technical changes it made in its forecasts), the net impact would be a $1.0 trillion loss in revenues.  This is almost exactly the same loss as had been estimated by the staff of the Joint Committee on Taxation for the December tax bill, which also factored in an estimate of a (modest) impact on growth from the lower tax rates.

Fiscal spending projections were also provided, and the CBO estimated that legislative changes alone (since its previous estimates in June 2017) would raise spending (excluding interest) by $450 billion over the ten year period.  However, after taking into account certain macro feedbacks as well as technical changes in the forecasts, the CBO is now forecasting government spending will in fact be $100 billion less over the ten years than it had forecast last June.  The higher deficits over those earlier forecast are not coming from higher spending but rather totally from the tax cuts.

Finally, the higher deficits will have to be funded by higher government borrowing, and this will lead to higher interest costs.  Interest costs will also be higher as the expansionary fiscal policy at a time when the economy is already at full employment will lead to higher interest rates, and those higher interest rates will apply to the entire public debt, not just to the increment in debt resulting from the higher deficits.  The CBO forecasts that higher interest costs will add $650 billion to the deficits over the ten years.

The total effect of all this will thus be to increase the fiscal deficit by $1.6 trillion over the ten years, over what it would otherwise have been.  The resulting annual fiscal deficits, in billions of dollars, would be as shown in the chart at top of this post.  Under the assumed scenario that the economy will remain at full employment over the entire period, the fiscal deficit will still rise to reach almost $1 trillion in FY19, and then to over $1.5 trillion in FY28.  Such deficits are unprecedented for when the economy is at full employment.

The deficits forecast would then translate into these shares of GDP, given the GDP forecasts:

The CBO is forecasting that fiscal deficits will rise to a range of 4 1/2 to 5 1/2% of GDP from FY2019 onwards.  Again, this is unprecedented for the US economy in times of full employment.

C.  Fiscal Policy Over the Course of the Business Cycle

As noted above, fiscal policy has an important role to play during economic downturns to stabilize conditions and to launch a recovery.  When something causes an economic downturn (such as the decision during the Bush II administration not to regulate banks properly in the lead up to the 2008 collapse, believing “the markets” would do this best), both households and corporations will reduce their spending.  With unemployment increasing and wages often falling even for those fortunate enough to remain employed, as well as with the heightened general concerns on the economy, households will cut back on their spending.  Similarly, corporations will seek to conserve cash in the downturns, and will cut back on their spending both for the inputs they would use for current production (they cannot sell all of their product anyway) and for capital investments (their production facilities are not being fully used, so why add to capacity).

Only government can sustain the economy in such times, stopping the downward spiral through its spending.  Fiscal stimulus is needed, and the Obama stimulus program passed early in his first year succeeded in pulling the economy out of the freefall it was in at the time of his inauguration.  GDP fell at an astounding 8.2% annual rate in the fourth quarter of 2008 and was still crashing in early 2009 as Obama was being sworn in.  It then stabilized in the second quarter of 2009 and started to rise in the third quarter.  The stimulus program, as well as aggressive action by the Federal Reserve, accounts for this turnaround.

But fiscal deficits will be high during such economic downturns.  While any stimulus programs will add to this, most of the increase in the deficits in such periods occur automatically, primarily due to lower tax revenues in the downturn.  Incomes and employment are lower, so taxes due will be lower.  There is also, but to a much smaller extent, some automatic increase in government spending during the downturns, as funds are paid out in unemployment insurance or for food stamps for the increased number of the poor.  The deficits will then add to the public debt, and the public debt to GDP ratio will rise sharply (exacerbated in the short run by the lower GDP as well).

One confusion, sometimes seen in news reports, should be clarified.  While fiscal deficits will be high in a downturn, for the reasons noted above, and any stimulus program will add further to those deficits, one should not equate the size of the fiscal deficit with the size of the stimulus.  They are two different things.  For example, normally the greatest stimulus, for any dollar of expenditures, will come from employing directly blue-collar workers in some government funded program (such as to build or maintain roads and other such infrastructure).  A tax cut focused on the poor and middle classes, who will spend any extra dollar they receive, will also normally lead to significant stimulus (although probably less than via directly employing a worker).  But a tax cut focused on the rich will provide only limited stimulus as any extra dollar they receive will mostly simply be saved (or used to pay down debt, which is economically the same thing).  The rich are not constrained in how much they can spend on consumption by their income, as their income is high enough to allow them to consume as much as they wish.

Each of these three examples will add equally to the fiscal deficit, whether the dollar is used to employ workers directly, to provide a tax cut to the poor and middle classes, or to provide a tax cut to the rich.  But the degree of stimulus per dollar added to the deficit can be dramatically different.  One cannot equate the size of the deficit to the amount of stimulus.

Deficits are thus to be expected, and indeed warranted, in a downturn.  But while the resulting increase in public debt is to be expected in such conditions, there must also come a time for the fiscal deficits to be reduced to a level where at least the debt to GDP ratio, if not the absolute level of the debt itself, will be reduced.  Debt cannot be allowed to grow without limit.  And the time to do this is when the economy is at full employment.  It was thus the height of fiscal malpractice for the tax bills and budget passed by Congress and signed into law by Trump not to provide for this, but rather for the precise opposite.  The CBO estimates show that deficits will rise rather than fall, even under a scenario where the economy is assumed to remain at full employment.

It should also be noted that the deficit need not be reduced all the way to zero for the debt to GDP ratio to fall.  With a growing GDP and other factors (interest rates, the rate of inflation, and the debt to GDP ratio) similar to what they are now, a good rule of thumb is that the public debt to GDP ratio will fall as long as the fiscal deficit is around 3% of GDP or less.  But the budget and tax bills of Trump and the Congress will instead lead to deficits of around 5% of GDP.  Hence the debt to GDP ratio will rise.

[Technical note for those interested:  The arithmetic of the relationship between the fiscal deficit and the debt to GDP ratio is simple.  A reasonable forecast, given stated Fed targets, is for an interest rate on long-term public debt of 4% and an inflation rate of 2%.  This implies a real interest rate of 2%.  With real GDP also assumed to grow in the CBO forecast at 2% a year (from 2017 to 2028), the public debt to GDP ratio will be constant if what is called the “primary balance” is zero (as the numerator, public debt, will then grow at the same rate as the denominator, GDP, each at either 2% a year in real terms or 4% a year in nominal terms) .  The primary balance is the fiscal deficit excluding what is paid in interest on the debt.  The public debt to GDP ratio, as of the end of FY17, was 76.5%.  With a nominal interest rate of 4%, this would lead to interest payments on the debt of 3% of GDP.  A primary balance of zero would then imply an overall fiscal deficit of 3% of GDP.  Hence a fiscal deficit of 3% or less, with the public debt to GDP ratio roughly where it is now, will lead to a steady debt to GDP ratio.

More generally, the debt to GDP ratio will be constant whenever the rate of growth of real GDP matches the real interest rate, and the primary balance is zero.  In the case here, the growth in the numerator of debt (4% in nominal terms, or 2% in real terms when inflation is 2%) matches the growth in the denominator of GDP (2% in real terms, or 4% in nominal terms), and the ratio will thus be constant.]

Putting this in a longer-term context:

Federal government debt rose to over 100% of GDP during World War II.  The war spending was necessary.  But it did not then doom the US to perpetual economic stagnation or worse.  Rather, fiscal deficits were kept modest, the economy grew well, and over the next several decades the debt to GDP ratio fell.

For the fiscal balances over this period (with fiscal deficits as negative and fiscal surpluses as positive):

Fiscal balances were mostly but modestly in deficit (and occasionally in surplus) through the 1950s, 60s, and 70s.  The 3% fiscal deficit rule of thumb worked well, and one can see that as long as the fiscal deficit remained below 3% of GDP, the public debt to GDP ratio fell, to a low of 23% of GDP in FY1974.  It then stabilized at around this level for a few years, but reversed and started heading in FY1982 after Reagan took office.  And it kept going up even after the economy had recovered from the 1982 recession and the country was back to full employment, as deficits remained high following the Reagan tax cuts.

The new Clinton budgets, along with the tax increase passed in 1993, then stabilized the accounts, and the economy grew strongly.  The public debt to GDP ratio, which had close to doubled under Reagan and Bush I (from 25% of GDP to 48%), was reduced to 31% of GDP by the year Clinton left office.   But it then started to rise again following the tax cuts of Bush II (plus with the first of the two recessions under Bush II).  And it exploded in 2008/2009, at the end of Bush II and the start of Obama, as the economy plunged into the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

The debt to GDP ratio did stabilize, however, in the second Obama term, and actually fell slightly in FY2015 (when the deficit was 2.4% of GDP).  But with the deficits now forecast to rise to the vicinity of 5% of GDP (and to this level even with the assumption that there will not be an economic downturn at some point), the public debt to GDP ratio will soon be approaching 100% of GDP.

This does not have to happen.  As noted above, one need not bring the fiscal deficits all the way down to zero.  A fiscal deficit kept at around 3% of GDP would suffice to stabilize the public debt to GDP ratio, while something less than 3% would bring it down.

D.  Historical Norms

What stands out in these forecasts is how much the deficits anticipated now differ from the historical norms.  The CBO report has data on the deficits going back to FY1968 (fifty years), and these can be used to examine the relationship with unemployment.  As discussed above, one should expect higher deficits during an economic downturn when unemployment is high.  But these deficits then need to be balanced with lower deficits when unemployment is lower (and sufficiently low when the economy is at or near full employment that the public debt to GDP ratio will fall).

A simple scatter-plot of the fiscal balance (where fiscal deficits are a negative balance) versus the unemployment rate, for the period from FY1968 to now and then the CBO forecasts to FY2028, shows:

While there is much going on in the economy that affects the fiscal balance, this scatter plot shows a surprisingly consistent relationship between the fiscal balance and the rate of unemployment.  The red line shows what the simple regression line would be for the historical years of FY1968 to FY2016.  The scatter around it is surprisingly tight.  [Technical Note:  The t-statistic is 10.0, where anything greater than 2.0 is traditionally considered significant, and the R-squared is 0.68, which is high for such a scatter plot.]

An interesting finding is that the high deficits in the early Obama years are actually very close to what one would expect given the historical norm, given the unemployment rates Obama faced on taking office and in his first few years in office.  That is, the Obama stimulus programs did not cause the fiscal deficits to grow beyond what would have been expected given what the US has had in the past.  The deficits were high because unemployment was high following the 2008 collapse.

At the other end of the line, one has the fiscal surpluses in the years FY1998 to 2000 at the end of the Clinton presidency.  As noted above, the public debt to GDP ratio stabilized soon after Clinton took office (in part due to the tax increases passed in 1993), with the fiscal deficits reduced to less than 3% of GDP.  Unemployment fell to below 5% by mid-1997 and to a low of 3.8% in mid-2000, as the economy grew well.  By FY1998 the fiscal accounts were in surplus.  And as seen in the scatter plot above, the relationship between unemployment and the fiscal balance was close in those years (FY1998 to 2000) to what one would expect given the historical norms for the US.

But the tax cuts and budget passed by Congress and signed by Trump will now lead the fiscal accounts to a path far from the historical norms.  Instead of a budget surplus (as in the later Clinton years, when the unemployment rate was similar to what the CBO assumes will hold for its scenario), or even a deficit kept to 3% of GDP or less (which would suffice to stabilize the debt to GDP ratio), deficits of 4 1/2 to 5 1/2 % of GDP are foreseen.  The scatter of points for the fiscal deficit vs. unemployment relationship for 2018 to 2028 is in a bunch by itself, down and well to the left of the regression line.  One has not had such deficits in times of full employment since World War II.

E.  Conclusion

Fiscal policy is being mismanaged.  The economy reached full employment by the end of the Obama administration, fiscal deficits had come down, and the public debt to GDP ratio had stabilized.  There was certainly more to be done to bring down the deficit further, and with the aging of the population (retiring baby boomers), government expenditures (for Social Security and especially for Medicare and other health programs) will need to increase in the coming years.  Tax revenues to meet such needs will need to rise.

But the Republican-controlled Congress and Trump pushed through measures that will do the opposite.  Taxes have been cut dramatically (especially for corporations and rich households), while the budget passed in March will raise government spending (especially for the military).  Even assuming the economy will remain at full employment with no downturn over the next decade (which would be unprecedented), fiscal deficits will rise to around 5% of GDP.  As a consequence, the public debt to GDP ratio will rise steadily.

This is unprecedented.  With the economy at full employment, deficits should be reduced, not increased.  They need not go all the way to zero, even though Clinton was able to achieve that.  A fiscal deficit of 3% of GDP (where it was in the latter years of the Obama administration) would stabilize the debt to GDP ratio.  But Congress and Trump pushed through measures to raise the deficit rather than reduce it.

This leaves the economy vulnerable.  There will eventually be another economic downturn.  There always is one, eventually.  The deficit will then soar, as it did in 2008/2009, and remain high until the economy fully recovers.  But there will then be pressure not to allow the debt to rise even further.  This is what happened following the 2010 elections, when the Republicans gained control of the House.  With control over the budget, they were able to cut government spending even though unemployment was still high.  Because of this, the pace of the recovery was slower than it need have been.  While the economy did eventually return to full employment by the end of Obama’s second term, unemployment remained higher than should have been the case for several years as a consequence of the cuts.

At the next downturn, the fiscal accounts will be in a poor position to respond as they need to in a crisis.  Public debt, already high, will soar to unprecedented levels, and there will be arguments from conservatives not to allow the debt to rise even further.  Recovery will then be even more difficult, and many will suffer as a result.

Taxes to Pay for Highways: A Switch from the Tax on Gallons of Fuel Burned to a Tax on Miles Driven Would Be Stupid

Impact of Switching from Fuel Tax on Gallons Burned to Tax on Miles Driven

A.  Introduction

According to a recent report in the Washington Post, a significant and increasing number of state public officials and politicians are advocating for a change in the tax system the US uses to support highway building and maintenance.  The current system is based on a tax on gallons of fuel burned, and the proposed new system would be based on the number of miles a car is driven.  At least four East Coast states are proposing pilots on how this might be done, some West Coast states have already launched pilots, and states are applying for federal grants to consider the change.  There is indeed even a lobbying group based in Washington now advocating it:  The Mileage-Based User Fee Alliance.

There is no question that the current federal gas tax of 18.4 cents per gallon of gasoline is woefully inadequate.  It was last changed in 1993, 23 years ago, and has been kept constant in nominal terms ever since.  With general prices (based on the CPI) now 65% higher, 18.4 cents now will only buy 11.2 cents at the prices of 1993, a decline of close to 40%.  As a result, the Highway Trust Fund is terribly underfunded, and with all the politics involved in trying to find other sources of funding, our highways are in terrible shape. Basic maintenance is simply not being done.

An obvious solution would be simply to raise the gas tax back at least to where it was before in real terms.  Based on where the tax was when last set in 1993 and on the CPI for inflation since then, this would be 30.3 cents per gallon now, an increase of 11.9 cents from the current 18.4 cents per gallon.  Going back even further, the gasoline tax was set at 4 cents per gallon in 1959, to fund the construction of the then new Interstate Highway system (as well as for general highway maintenance).  Adjusting for inflation, that tax would be 32.7 cents per gallon now.  Also, looking at what the tax would need to be to fund adequately the Highway Trust Fund, a Congressional Budget Office report issued in 2014 estimated that a 10 to 15 cent increase (hence 28.4 cents to 33.4 cents per gallon) would be needed (based on projections through 2024).

These fuel tax figures are all similar.  Note also that while some are arguing that the Highway Trust Fund is underfunded because cars are now more fuel efficient than before, this is not the case.  Simply bringing the tax rate back in real terms to where it was before (30.3 cents based on the 1993 level or 32.7 cents based on the 1959 level) would bring the rate to within the 28.4 to 33.4 cents range that the CBO estimates is needed to fully fund the Highway Trust Fund.  The problem is not fuel efficiency, but rather the refusal to adjust the per gallon tax rate for inflation.

But Congress has refused to approve any such increase.  Anti-tax hardliners simply refuse to consider what they view as an increase in taxes, even though the measure would simply bring them back in real terms to where they were before.  And it is not even true that the general population is against an increase in the gas tax.  According to a poll sponsored by the Mineta Transportation Institute (a transportation think tank based at San Jose State University in California), 75% of those polled would support an immediate increase in the gas tax of 10 cents a gallon if the funds are dedicated to maintenance of our streets, roads, and highways (see the video clip embedded in the Washington Post article, starting at minute 3:00).

In the face of this refusal by Congress, some officials are advocating for a change in the tax, from a tax per gallon of fuel burned to a new tax per mile each car is driven.  While I do not see how this would address the opposition of the anti-tax politicians (this would indeed be a totally new tax, not an adjustment in the old tax to keep it from falling in real terms), there appears to be a belief among some that this would be accepted.

But even if such a new tax were viewed as politically possible, it would be an incredibly bad public policy move to replace the current tax on fuel burned with such a tax on miles driven.  It would in essence be a tax on fuel efficiency, with major distributional (as well as other) consequences, favoring those who buy gas guzzlers.  And as it would encourage the purchase of heavy gas guzzlers (relative to the policy now in place), it would also lead to more than proportional damage to our roads, meaning that road conditions would deteriorate further rather than improve.

This blog post will discuss why such consequences would follow.  To keep things simple, it will focus on the tax on gasoline (which I will sometimes simply referred to as gas, or as fuel).  There are similar, but separate taxes, on diesel and other fuels, and their levels should be adjusted proportionally with any adjustment for gasoline.  There is also the issue of the appropriate taxes to be paid by trucks and other heavy commercial vehicles.  That is an important, but separate, issue, and is not addressed here.

B.  The Proposed Switch Would Penalize Fuel Efficient Vehicles

The reports indicate that the policy being considered would impose a tax of perhaps 1.5 cents per mile driven in substitution for the current federal tax of 18.4 cents per gallon of gas burned (states have their own fuel taxes in addition, with these varying across states). For the calculations here I will take the 1.5 cent figure as the basis for the comparisons, even though no specific figure is as yet set.

First of all, it should be noted that at the current miles driven in the country and the average fuel economy of the stock of cars being driven, a tax of 1.5 cents per mile would raise substantially more in taxes than the current 18.4 cents per gallon of gas.  That is, at these rates, there would be a substantial tax increase.

Using figures for 2014, the average fuel efficiency (in miles per gallon) of the light duty fleet of motor vehicles in the US was 21.4 miles per gallon, and the average miles driven per driver was 13,476 miles.  At a tax of 1.5 cents per mile driven, the average driver would pay $202.14 (= $.015 x 13,476) in such taxes per year.  With an average fuel economy of 21.4 mpg, such a driver would burn 629.7 gallons per year, and at the current fuel tax of 18.4 cents per gallon, is now paying $115.87 (= $.184 x 629.7) in gas taxes per year. Hence the tax would rise by almost 75% ($202.14 / $115.87).  A 75% increase would be equivalent to raising the fuel tax from the current 18.4 cents to a rate of 32.1 cents per gallon.  While higher tax revenues are indeed needed, why a tax on miles driven would be acceptable to tax opponents while an increase in the tax per gallon of fuel burned is not, is not clear.

But the real reason to be opposed to a switch in the tax to miles driven is the impact it would have on incentives.  Taxes matter, and affect how people behave.  And a tax on miles driven would act, in comparison to the current tax on gallons of fuel burned, as a tax on fuel efficiency.

The chart at the top of this post shows how the tax paid would vary across cars of different fuel efficiencies.  It would be a simple linear relationship.  Assuming a switch from the current 18.4 cents per gallon of fuel burned to a new tax of 1.5 cents per mile driven, a driver of a highly fuel efficient car that gets 50 miles per gallon would see their tax increase by over 300%!  A driver of a car getting the average nation-wide fuel efficiency of 21.4 miles per gallon would see their tax increase by 75%, as noted above (and as reflected in the chart).  In contrast, someone driving a gas guzzler getting only 12 miles per gallon or less, would see their taxes in fact fall!  They would end up paying less under such a new system based on miles driven than they do now based on gallons of fuel burned.  Drivers of luxury sports cars or giant SUVs could well end up paying less than before, even with rates set such that taxes on average would rise by 75%.

Changing the tax structure in this way would, with all else equal, encourage drivers to switch from buying fuel efficient cars to cars that burn more gas.  There are, of course, many reasons why someone buys the car that they do, and fuel efficiency is only one.  But at the margin, changing the basis for the tax to support highway building and maintenance from a tax per gallon to a tax on miles driven would be an incentive to buy less fuel efficient cars.

C.  Other Problems

The change to a tax on miles driven from the tax on gallons of fuel burned would have a number of adverse effects:

a)  A Tax on Fuel Efficiency:  As noted above, this would become basically a tax on fuel efficiency.  More fuel efficient cars would pay higher taxes relative to what they do now, and there will be less of an incentive to buy more fuel efficient cars.  There would then be less of an incentive for car manufacturers to develop the technology to improve fuel efficiency.  This is what economists call a technological externality, and we all would suffer.

b)  Heavier Vehicles Cause Far More Damage to the Roads:  Heavier cars not only get poorer gas mileage, but also tear up the roads much more, leading to greater maintenance needs and expense.  Heavier vehicles also burn more fuel, but there is a critical difference.  As a general rule, vehicles burn fuel in proportion with their weight: A vehicle that weighs twice as much will burn approximately twice as much fuel.  Hence such a vehicle will pay twice as much in fuel taxes (when such taxes are in cents per gallon) per mile driven.

However, the heavier vehicle also cause more damage to the road over time, leading to greater maintenance needs.  And it will not simply be twice as much damage.  A careful early study found that the amount of damage from a heavier vehicle increases not in direct proportion to its weight, but rather approximately according to the fourth power of the ratio of the weights.  That is, a vehicle that weighs twice as much (for the same number of axles distributing the weight) will cause damage equal to 2 to the fourth power (=16) times as much as the lighter vehicle.  Hence if they were to pay taxes proportionate to the damage they do, a vehicle that is twice as heavy should pay 16 times more in taxes, not simply twice as much.

(Note that some now argue that the 2 to the fourth power figure found before might be an over-estimate, and that the relationship might be more like 2 to the third power.  But this would still imply that a vehicle that weighs twice as much does 8 times the damage (2 to the third power = 8).  The heavier vehicle still accounts for a grossly disproportionate share of damage to the roads.)

A tax that is set based on miles driven would tax heavy and light vehicles the same.  This is the opposite of what should be done:  Heavy vehicles cause far more damage to the roads than light vehicles do.  Encouraging heavy, fuel-thirsty, vehicles by switching from a tax per gallon of fuel burned to a tax per mile driven will lead to more road damage, and proportionately far more cost than what would be collected in highway taxes to pay for repair of that damage.

c)  Impact on Greenhouse Gases:  One also wants to promote fuel efficiency because of the impact on greenhouse gases, and hence global warming, from the burning of fuels. By basic chemistry, carbon dioxide (CO2) is a direct product of fuel that is burned.  The more fuel that is burned, the more CO2 will go up into the air and then trap heat. Economists have long argued that the most efficient way to address the issue of greenhouse gases being emitted would be to tax them in proportion to the damage they do.  A tax on gallons of fuel that are burned will do this, while a tax on miles driven (and hence independent of the fuel efficiency of the vehicle) will not.

An interesting question is what level of gasoline tax would do this.  That is, what would the level of fuel tax need to be, for that tax to match the damage being done through the associated emission of CO2.  The EPA has come up with estimates of what the social cost of such carbon emissions are (and see here for a somewhat more technical discussion of its estimates).  Unfortunately, given the uncertainties in any such calculations, as well as uncertainty on what the social discount rate should be (needed to discount costs arising in the future that follow from emitting greenhouse gases today), the cost range is quite broad. Hence the EPA presents figures for the social cost of emitting CO2 using expected values at alternative social discount rates of 2.5%, 3%, and 5%, as well as from a measure of the statistical distribution of one of them (the 95th percentile for the 3% discount rate, meaning there is only an estimated 5% chance that the cost will be higher than this).  The resulting costs per metric ton of CO2 emitted then range from a low of $11 for the expected value (the 50th percentile) at the 5% discount rate, $36 at the expected value for the 3% discount rate, and $56 for the expected value for the 2.5% discount rate, to $105 for the 95th percentile at a 3% discount rate (all for 2015).

With such range in social costs, one should be cautious in the interpretation of any one. But it may still be of interest to calculate how this would translate into a tax on gasoline burned by automobiles, to see if the resulting tax is “in the ballpark” of what our fuel taxes are or should be.  Every gallon of gasoline burned emits 19.64 pounds of CO2.  There are 2,204.62 pounds in a metric ton, so one gallon of gas burned emits 0.00891 metric tons of CO2.  At the middle social cost of $36 per metric ton of CO2 emitted (the expected value for the 3% social discount rate scenario), this implies that a fuel tax of 32.1 cents per gallon should be imposed.  This is surprisingly almost precisely the fuel tax figure that all the other calculations suggest is warranted.

d)  One Could Impose a Similar Tax on Electric Cars:  One of the arguments of the advocates of a switch from taxes on fuel burned to miles driven is that as cars have become more fuel efficient, they pay less (per mile driven) in fuel taxes.  This is true.  But as generally lighter vehicles (one of the main ways to improve fuel economy) they also cause proportionately far less road damage, as discussed above.

There is also an increasing share of electric, battery-powered, cars, which burn no fossil fuel at all.  At least they do not burn fossil fuels directly, as the electricity they need to recharge their batteries come from the power grid, where fossil fuels dominate.  But this is still close to a non-issue, as the share of electric cars among the vehicles on US roads is still tiny.  However, the share will grow over time (at least one hopes).  If the share does become significant, how will the cost of building and maintaining roads be covered and fairly shared?

The issue could then be addressed quite simply.  And one would want to do this in a way that rewards efficiency (as different electric cars have different efficiencies in the mileage they get for a given charge of electricity) rather than penalize it.  One could do this by installing on all electric cars a simple meter that keeps track of how much it receives in power charges (in kilowatt-hours) over say a year.  At an annual safety inspection or license renewal, one would then pay a tax based on that measure of power used over the year.  Such a meter would likely have a trivial cost, of perhaps a few dollars.

Note that the amounts involved to be collected would not be large.  According to the 2016 EPA Automobile Fuel Economy Guide (see page 5), all-electric cars being sold in the US have fuel efficiencies (in miles per gallon equivalent) of over 100 mpg, and as high as 124 mpg.  These are on the order of five times the 21.4 average mpg of the US auto stock, for which we calculated that the average tax to be paid would be $202.  Even ignoring that the electric cars will likely be driven for fewer miles per year than the average car (due to their shorter range), the tax per year commensurate with their fuel economy would be roughly $40.  This is not much.  It is also not unreasonable as electric cars are kept quite light (given the limits of battery technology) and hence do little road damage.

e)  There Are Even Worse Policies That Have Been Proposed:  As discussed above, there are many reasons why a switch from a tax on fuel burned to miles driven would be a bad policy change.  But it should be acknowledged that some have proposed even worse. One example is the idea that there should be a fixed annual tax per registered car that would fund what is needed for highway building and maintenance.  Some states in fact do this now.

The amounts involved are not huge.  As was calculated above, at the current federal gasoline tax of 18.4 cents per gallon, the driver of a car that gets the average mileage (of 21.4 mpg) for the average distance a year (of 13,476 miles) will pay $115.87 a year.  If the fuel tax were raised to 32.1 cents per gallon (or equivalently, if there were a tax of 1.5 cents per mile driven), the average tax paid would be still just $202.14 per year.  These are not huge amounts.  One could pay them as part of an annual license renewal.

But the tax structured in this way would then be the same for a driver who drives a fuel efficient car or a gas guzzler.  And it would be the same for a driver who drives only a few miles each year, or who drives far more than the average each year.  The driver of a heavy gas guzzler, or one who drives more miles each year than others, does more damage to the roads and should pay more to the fund that repairs such damage and develops new road capacity.  The tax should reflect the costs they are imposing on society, and a fixed annual fee does not.

f)  The Cost of Tax Collection Needs to be Recognized:  Finally, one needs to recognize that it will cost something to collect the taxes.  This cost will be especially high for a tax on miles driven.

The current system, of a tax on fuel burned, is efficient and costs next to nothing to collect.  It can be charged at the point where the gasoline and other fuels leaves in bulk from the refinery, as all of it will eventually be burned.  While the consumer ultimately pays for the tax when they pump their gas, the price being charged at the pump simply reflects the tax that had been charged at an earlier stage.

In contrast, a tax on miles driven would need to be worked out at the level of each individual car.  And if the tax is to include shares that are allocating to different states, the equipment will need to keep track of which states the car is being driven in.  As the Washington Post article on a possible tax on miles driven describes, experiments are underway on different ways this might be done.  All would require special equipment to be installed, with a GPS-based system commonly considered.

Such special equipment would have a cost, both up-front for the initial equipment and then recurrent if there is some regular reporting to the center (perhaps monthly) of miles driven.  No one knows right now what such a system might cost if it were in mass use, but one could easily imagine that a GPS tracking and reporting system might cost on the order of $100 up front, and then several dollars a month for reporting.  This would be a significant share of a tax collection that would generate an average of just $202 per driver each year.

There is also the concern that any type of GPS system would allow the overseers to spy on where the car was driven.  While this might well be too alarmist, and there would certainly be promises that this would not be done, some might not be comforted by such promises.

D.  Conclusion

While one should always consider whether given policies can be changed for the better, one needs also to recognize that often the changes proposed would make things worse rather than better.  Switching the primary source of funding for highway building and maintenance from a tax on fuel burned to a tax on miles driven is one example.  It would be a stupid move.

There is no doubt that the current federal tax on gasoline of 18.4 cents per gallon is too low.  The result is insufficient revenues for the Highway Trust Fund, and we end up with insufficient road capacity and roads that are terribly maintained.

What I was surprised by in the research for this blog post was finding that a wide range of signals all pointed to a similar figure for what the gasoline tax should be. Specifically:

  1. The 1959 gas tax of 4 cents per gallon in terms of current prices would be 32.7 cents per gallon;
  2. The 1993 gas tax of 18.4 cents per gallon in terms of current prices would be 30.3 cents per gallon;
  3. The proposal of a 1.5 cent tax per mile driven would be equivalent (given current average car mileage and the average miles driven per year) to 32.1 cents per gallon;
  4. The tax to offset the social cost of greenhouse gas emissions from burning fuel would be (at a 3% social discount rate) 32.1 cents per gallon.
  5. The Congressional Budget Office projected that the gasoline tax needed to fully fund the Highway Trust Fund would be in the range of 28.4 to 33.4 cents per gallon.

All these point in the same direction.  The tax on gasoline should be adjusted to between 30 and 33 cents per gallon, and then indexed for inflation.

The Tax Plans of the Republican Presidential Candidates Are Not Even Close to Serious

TPC Evaluations of Tax Losses in the Republican Tax Plans, 2016

A.  Introduction

There is a good deal in the current campaign of candidates seeking the Republican presidential campaign that is worrying.  When one of the main remaining candidates (Marco Rubio) tries to belittle one of the other candidates (Donald Trump) on national television by alluding to the size of his penis, one has to wonder.  This would be considered juvenile even in a campaign for a high school class president.  Yet one of these candidates will almost certainly receive the nomination of the Republican Party to be the President of the United States.

This blog seeks, however, to focus on economic issues.  And a key economic issue in modern day political campaigns is what the candidate would seek to do, if elected to office, about tax policy.  Major candidates have therefore set out detailed proposals while campaigning, with these proposals developed by teams of trusted advisors who are specialists in the area, and then put out by the candidate as what he (or she) would try to enact if elected.

The major Republican candidates have done this, and four of these (the proposals of Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Jeb Bush) have been analyzed in depth by the non-partisan Tax Policy Center (a joint center sponsored by the Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution).  (The Tax Policy Center has also just recently issued similar analyses of the tax plans of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.)

Among the issues examined by the Tax Policy Center was what the impact would be on revenues collected of the Republican plans.  This blog post will look at those estimates, and calculate what they imply for government expenditure cuts if, as each of the candidates insist, they would not allow deficits to rise.  And what they imply is that these plans, like much else in this campaign, simply are not serious.

B.  The Revenue Losses from the Republican Plans

The chart at the top of this post shows what the Tax Policy Center calculates the government revenue losses would be if the tax plans of the major Republican candidates were implemented.  Ten year totals (for fiscal years 2017 to 2026) are shown rather than year by year numbers to keep things simple, even though the plans would still be ramping up in 2017 with the full impact not seen until 2018.  The total revenue losses would range from $6.8 trillion for Bush as well as Rubio, to $8.6 trillion for Cruz, to $9.5 trillion for Trump.

To put this in perspective, the chart includes (on the right) the projected total government discretionary budget expenditures for all purposes other than defense over this same ten year period.  The figures are from the most recent (January 2016) ten year budget forecasts of the Congressional Budget Office, and will exclude defense as well expenditures for mandatory programs (two-thirds of which are for Social Security and Medicare) and for interest on public debt.

Forecast non-defense discretionary expenditures total $6.5 trillion over this ten year period.  This is less than what the revenue losses would be under any of the Republican plans.  That is, even with the total elimination of government discretionary spending on everything other than defense, the deficit would increase.  Yet these Republicans insist that their plans would not increase the deficit.

Cutting non-defense discretionary expenditures to zero is of course absurd.  For those concerned with security, one should note there would be no more federal prisons, no more prosecutors, no FBI, no more border control.  There would be no more federal disease control, no more federally funded medical research, no more federal support for infrastructure building or maintenance, no more NASA or supported science research, and so on.  Everything would be eliminated, not just cut.

Taking this a step further, one can look at how much defense spending would need to be cut, on top of the elimination of all non-defense expenditure, to make up for the lost revenues:

Implied Defense Reductions, FY2017 to 2026, TPC

The necessary cuts in the defense budget would range from 5% of forecast ten-year defense expenditures for Bush and Rubio, to 32% for Cruz, to 47% (!) for Trump.  Yet Cruz, Rubio and Bush have all also called for sharp increases in defense spending.  Ted Cruz has laid out an ambitious plan for a bigger military that an analyst at the conservative Cato Institute would cost an extra $2.6 trillion over eight years, an increase in defense spending of over 50%.  Bush and Kasich have each proposed increases in defense spending of $1 trillion over ten years, an increase of over 15%.  Rubio is also arguing for big (but unspecified) increases in defense spending.  Things are perhaps less clear for Donald Trump, who has asserted he is “gonna build a military that’s gonna be much stronger than it is right now”, but “for a lot less”.  How he would do this he does not say, and it is doubtful he would get a “much stronger” military if its budget is to be cut by close to half.

C.  Conclusion

The Republican candidates assert their tax cut plans would not, however, lead to deficit increases, nor that they would cut defense spending (at least other than Trump).  Rather, they would cut non-defense spending.  However, as seen above, even if non-defense spending were cut to zero, budget deficits would increase unless there were also sharp cuts in mandatory programs (which are mostly Social Security and Medicare).

How do they believe they can do this?  Because they assert their tax plans would lead to big, indeed miraculous, leaps in growth.  Yet there is no evidence that such tax plans would do this.  Indeed, they are so large that the disruption in finances would almost certainly have large negative consequences for growth.

Economic theory does suggest that tax systems can affect growth.  The Tax Policy Center evaluations of the Republican tax plans, cited above, each have a balanced discussion of what they might be.  But as they point out, one would expect from economic theory that there would be both positive and negative effects, offsetting each other to at least some degree, and that in any case the overall impact in either direction is likely to be small. What the net impact will be, and in what direction, is then an empirical question, and careful studies of historical examples of tax reforms suggests that the overall impact on growth is, indeed, small.

One also does not find any evidence in the US historical data that tax cuts lead to more rapid growth.  As an earlier post on this blog found, federal taxes as a share of GDP were substantially lower in the decade following the Bush tax cuts of 2001 than for any decade in the previous half century, but this was not associated with higher GDP or jobs growth. Rather, it was associated with the lowest growth of GDP or jobs of any decade since at least the 1960s.  Furthermore, one cannot find any indication that a reduction of the highest marginal income tax rate (a focus of the Republican tax plans) led to higher growth.  The highest marginal federal income tax rate was 91 or 92% in the 1950s under Eisenhower, and always 70% or higher during the 1960s, but growth in GDP and in jobs during those periods were reasonably good, especially in comparison to what they have been since the Bush tax cuts of 2001.  High marginal income tax rates in the 1950s and 1960s did not kill growth.

One should not then expect miracles.  The Republican tax plans simply cannot be taken seriously.  But perhaps I am being silly to expect that in this campaign for the presidency.

The Failure of the Austerity Strategy Imposed on Greece, With Some Suggestions on What To Do (and What Not To Do) Now

Greece - GDP 2008-2014 Projection vs Actual

A.  Introduction

It appears likely now that Greece will continue, at least for a few more months, with the austerity program that European governments (led by Germany) are insisting on.  In return, Greece will receive sufficient “new” funding that will allow it to pay the debt service coming due on its government debt (including debt service that was supposed to have been paid in June, but was not), as well as continued access to the liquidity lines with the European Central Bank that allow it to remain in the Eurozone.  But it is not clear how long Greece can continue on this path.

The measures being imposed by the Eurozone members are along the same lines as have been followed since the program began in 2010:  Primarily tax increases and cuts in government spending.  The most important measures (in terms of the predicted impact on euros spent or saved) in the new program are increases in value-added taxes and cuts in government pensions.  This has been a classic austerity strategy.  The theory is that in order to pay down debts coming due, a government needs to increase taxes and cut how much it has been spending.  In this way, the theory goes, the government will reduce its deficit and soon generate a surplus that will allow it first to reduce how much it needs to borrow and then start to reduce the debt it has outstanding.

The proponents of this austerity strategy, with Germany in the lead, argue that in this way and only in this way will the economy start to grow.  Others argue that austerity in conditions such as where Greece finds itself now will instead cut rather than enhance growth, and in fact lead to an economic decline.  The priority should instead be on actions that will lead to growth by raising rather than reducing demand.  Once the economy returns to full employment, one will be able to generate the public sector savings which will allow debt to be paid.  Without growth, the situation will only get worse.

One does not need to argue these points in the abstract.  Greece is now in its sixth year of the austerity program that Germany and others have insisted upon.  One can compare what has in fact happened to the economy to what was expected when the austerity program started.  The Greek program is the work of a combined group (nicknamed the “Troika”) made up of the EU, the ECB (European Central Bank), and the IMF.  The IMF support was via a Stand-By Arrangement, and for this the IMF prepares and makes available a Staff Report on the program and what it expects will follow for the economy. The EU and the ECB co-developed these forecasts with the IMF, or at least agreed with them.  This can therefore provide a baseline of what the Troika believed would follow from the austerity program in Greece.  And this can be compared to what actually happened.

The “projected” figures are therefore calculated from figures provided in the May 2010 IMF Staff Report for the Stand-By Arrangement for Greece.  What actually happened can be calculated from figures provided in the IMF WEO Database (most recently updated in April 2015).  I used the IMF WEO Database for the data on what happened as the IMF will define similarly in both IMF sources the various categories (such as what is included in “government” or in “public debt”).  Hence they can be directly compared.

This blog post will focus on a series of simple graphs that compare what was projected to what actually happened.  Note that the figures for 2014 should all be taken as preliminary. The concluding section of the post will review what might be done now (and what should not be done now).

As will be seen, the program failed terribly.  I should of course add that Germany and the Troika members do not believe that this failure was due to a failure in the design of the program, but rather was a result of the governments of Greece (several now) failing to apply the program with sufficient vigor.  But we will see that Greece actually went further than the original program anticipated in cutting government expenditures and in increasing taxes.  To be honest, I was myself surprised at how far they went, until I looked at the numbers.

Austerity was applied.  But it failed to lead to growth.

B.  The Path of Real GDP

To start with the most basic, did the austerity strategy lead to a resumption of growth or not?  The graph at the top of this post shows what was forecast to happen to real GDP in the Troika’s program, and what actually happened.  The base year is taken as 2008. Output had peaked early in that year before starting to turn down later in the year following the economic and financial collapse in the US.  (Note:  For 2008 as a whole, real GDP in Greece was only slightly below, by 0.4%, what it was in 2007 as a whole.)

The IMF Stand-by Arrangement for Greece was approved in mid-2010, with output falling sharply at the time.  The IMF then predicted that Greek GDP would fall further in 2011 (a decline of 2.6%), but that with adoption of the program, would then start to grow from 2012 onwards.

That did not happen.  The situation in 2010 was in fact already worse than what the IMF thought at the time, with a sharper contraction already underway in 2009 than the estimates then indicated and with this then continuing into 2010 despite the agreement with the Troika.  National estimates for aggregates like GDP are always estimates, and it is not unusual (including for the US) that later, more complete, estimates can differ significantly from what was initially estimated and announced.

Going forward, GDP growth was then far worse than what the IMF thought would follow with the new program.  GDP fell by 8.9% in 2011, rather than the 2.6% fall the IMF predicted.  GDP then fell by a further 6.6% in 2012 and a further 3.9% in 2013.  The widening gap between the forecast and the reality is especially clear if one shifts the base for comparison to 2010, the start of the IMF supported program:

Greece - GDP 2010-2014 Projection vs Actual

Growth appears to have returned in 2014, but by just 0.8% according to preliminary estimates (and subject to change).  But with the turmoil so far in 2015, everyone expects that GDP is once again falling.  The austerity strategy has certainly not delivered on growth.

C.  Real Government Expenditures, Taxes, the Primary Balance, and Public Debt

Advocates of the austerity strategy have argued not that the austerity strategy failed, but rather that Greece did not apply it with sufficient seriousness.  However, Greece has in fact cut government expenditures by substantially more than was called for in the IMF (and Troika) program:

Greece - Govt Expendite 2008-2014 Projection vs Actual

By 2014, real government expenditures were 17% below what the IMF had projected would be spent in that year, were 27% below where they had been in 2010 at the start of the program, and were 32% below where they had been in 2008.  Real government expenditures were in each year far less, by substantial margins, than had been called for under the initial IMF program.

It is hard to see how one can argue that Greece failed to cut its government spending with sufficient seriousness when government spending fell by so much, and by so much more than was called for in the original program.

Taxes were also raised by substantially more than called for in the initial IMF program:

Greece - Govt Revenue 2008-2014 Projection vs Actual

 

Tax effort and effect is best measured as a share of GDP.  The IMF program called for government revenues to rise as a share of GDP from 37% in 2009 and an anticipated 40.5% in 2010, to a peak of 43% in 2013 (a rise of 2 1/2% over 2010) after which they would fall.  What happened is that taxes were already substantially higher in 2009 (at almost 39% of GDP) than what the earlier statistics had indicated, and then rose from 41% of GDP in 2010 to a peak of 45% in 2013 (a rise of 4% over 2010).

Taxes as a share of GDP have therefore been substantially higher throughout the program than what had been anticipated, and the increase from 2010 to the peak in 2013 was far more than originally anticipated as well.  It is hard to see how one can argue that Greece has not made a major effort to secure the tax revenues that the austerity program called for.

With government spending being cut and government revenues rising, the fiscal deficit fell. For purposes of understanding the resulting government debt dynamics, economists focus on a fiscal deficit concept called the “primary balance” (or “primary deficit”, when in deficit).  The primary balance is defined as government revenues minus government expenditures on all items other than interest (and principal) on its debt.  It will therefore measure the resources available to cover interest (and principal, if all of interest can be covered).  If insufficient to cover interest coming due, then additional net borrowing will be necessary (thus adding to the stock of debt outstanding) to cover that interest.

With expenditures falling and revenues rising, the government’s primary balance improved sharply over the program period:

Greece - Primary Balance 2008-2014 Projection vs Actual

The primary balance improved from a deficit of 10.2% of GDP in 2009 to 5.2% of GDP in 2010, and then rose steadily to a primary surplus of 1.2% of GDP in 2013 and an estimated 1.5% of GDP in 2014 (where the 2014 estimate should be taken as preliminary). A rise in the primary balance of close to 12% of GDP in just five years is huge.

However, the primary balance tracked below what the IMF program had called for.  How could this be if government spending was less and government revenues higher?  There were two main reasons:  First, the estimates the IMF had to work with in 2010 for the primary deficit in that year and in the preceding years were seriously wrong.  The primary deficit in 2010 turned out to be (based on later estimates) 2.8% points of GDP higher than had originally been expected for that year.  That gap then carried forward into the future years, although narrowing somewhat (until 2014) due to the over-performance on raising taxes and reducing government expenditures.

Second, while the path of government expenditures in real terms was well below that projected for the IMF program (see the chart above), the decline in government expenditures as a share of GDP was less because GDP was so much less than forecast. If, for example, government expenditures are cut by 20% but GDP also falls by 20%, then government expenditures as a share of GDP will not change.  They still did fall as a share of GDP between 2009 and 2014 (by 7.7% points of GDP), but not by as much as they would have had GDP not collapsed.

Finally, from the primary balance and the interest due one can work out the path of government debt to GDP:

Greece - Govt Debt to GDP 2008-2014 Projection vs Actual

The chart shows the path projected for public debt to GDP in the IMF program (in blue) and the path it actually followed (in black).  Despite lower government expenditures than called for in the program and higher government revenues as a share of GDP, as well as a significant write-down of 50% on privately held government debt in 2012 (not anticipated in the original IMF program), the public debt to GDP ratio Greece now faces (177% as of the end of 2014, and rising) is well above what had been projected in the program (153% as of the end of 2014, and falling).

Why?  Again, the primary reason is that GDP contracted sharply and is now far below what the IMF had forecast.  If debt followed the path it actually did take but GDP had been as the IMF forecast, the debt to GDP ratio as of the end of 2014 would have been 131% and falling (the path shown in green on the chart).  This would have been well less than the 153% ratio the IMF forecast for 2014, due both to private debt write-off and to the fiscal over-performance.  Or if debt had followed the path projected in the IMF program while GDP took the path it in fact did take, the debt to GDP ratio would have been 207% in 2014 (the path in red on the chart) due to the lower GDP, or well above the actual ratio of 177% in that year.

One cannot argue that Greece failed to abide by its government expenditure and revenue commitments sought in the IMF program.  Indeed, it over-performed.  But the program failed, and failed dramatically, because it did not recognize that by implementing such austerity measures, GDP would collapse.  The program was fundamentally flawed in its design.

D.  Other Measures

While the fiscal accounts are central to understanding the Greek tragedy, it is of interest to examine two other variables as well.  First, the path taken by the external current account balance:

Greece - Current Acct 2008-2014 Projection vs Actual

For countries who have their own currency, but who borrow in a foreign currency, crises will normally manifest themselves through a balance of payments crisis.  This is not central in Greece as it does not have its own currency (it is in the Eurozone) and almost all of its public borrowing has been in euros.  Still, it is of interest that the current account balance of Greece (exports of all goods and services less imports of all goods and services) moved from a massive deficit of over 14% of GDP in 2008 to a surplus in 2013 and 2014. Relative to 2010, Greek exports of goods and services (in volume terms) were 12% higher in 2014, while Greek imports were 19% lower.

The IMF had projected that the external current account would still be in deficit in those years.  This shift was achieved despite Greece not being able, as part of the Eurozone, to control its own exchange rate.  The rate relative to its Eurozone partners is of course fixed, and the rate relative to countries outside of the Eurozone is controlled not by events in Greece but by policy for the Eurozone as a whole.  Rather, Greek exports rose and imports fell because the economy was so depressed that domestic producers who could export did, while imports fell in line with lower GDP (real GDP was 17.5% lower in 2014 than in 2010).  Lower wages were central to this, and will be discussed further below.

Finally, with the economy so depressed, unemployment rose, to a peak of 27.5% in 2013:

Greece - Unemployment Rate 2008-2014 Projection vs Actual

While the preliminary estimate is that unemployment then fell in 2014, most observers expect that it will go up again in 2015 due to the economic turmoil this year.  And youth unemployment is at 50%.

E.  What Can Be Done

I do not know Greece well, and certainly not enough to suggest anything that would be close to a complete program.  But perhaps a few points may be of interest, starting first with some things not to do (or at least are not a priority to do), and then some things that should be done (even if unlikely to happen):

1)  What not to do, or at least not worry about now:

a)  Do not continue doing what has failed so far:  While it should be obvious, if a particular strategy has failed, one should stop pursuing it.  Keeping the basic austerity strategy, with just a few tweeks, will not solve the problem.

b)  Do not make the austerity program even more severe:  Most clearly, the austerity program has savaged the economy, and one should not make things worse by tightening it even further.  Yet that is the direction that things appear to be heading in.

Negotiations are now underway as I write this between the Government of Greece and the Troika on the extension of the austerity program.  A focus is the government’s primary balance.  The original IMF program called for a primary surplus of 3% of GDP in 2015, and that has been still the official program goal despite all the turmoil between 2010 and now. The IMF program (as updated in June 2014) then envisioned the primary surplus rising to 4.5% of GDP in 2016 and and again in 2017.  Germany wanted at least this much, if not more.

Even the official Greek proposal to the Troika of July 10 had the primary surplus rising over time, from 1% of GDP in 2015, to 2%, 3%, and 3 1/2% in 2016, 2017, and 2018, respectively.  With the chaos this year, few expect Greece to be able to achieve a primary surplus target of even 1% of GDP (if one does not ignore payment arrears).  And while the IMF estimate from this past spring was that the primary surplus in 2014 reached 1.5% of GDP (reflected in the chart above), this was a preliminary estimate, and many observers believe that updated estimates will show it was in fact lower.

With even the Greek Government proposal conceding that an effort would be made to reach higher and higher primary balance surpluses, the final program as negotiated will almost certainly reflect some such increase.  This would be a mistake.  It will push the economy down further, or at least reduce it to below where it would otherwise be had the primary surplus target been kept flat.

c)  Do not negotiate over the stock of debt now:  There has been much more discussion over the last month on a need to negotiate now, and not later (some assert), a sharp cut to the stock of Greece’s public debt outstanding.  This was sparked in part by the public release on July 14 by the IMF of an updated debt sustainability analysis, which stated bluntly that the level of Greek public debt was unsustainable, that it could never be repaid in full, and that therefore a reduction in that debt will at some point be inevitable through some system of write-offs.

There is no doubt that Greek public debt is at an unsustainable level.  Some portion will need to be written down.  But I see no need to focus on that issue now, with the economy still deeply depressed and in crisis.  Rather, a moratorium on debt service payments (both principal and interest) should be declared.  The notional debt outstanding would then grow over time at the rate of interest (interest due in effect being capitalized).  At some future point, when the economy has recovered and with unemployment at more normal levels, there can be a negotiation on what to do about the debt then outstanding.  One will know only at that point what the economy can afford to pay.

Note that such a moratorium on debt service is fully and exactly equivalent to debt service payments being paid, but out of “new” loans that cover the debt service due.  This has been the approach used so far, and the current negotiations appear to be calling for a continuation of this approach.  Such “new” lending conveys the impression that debt service continues to be paid, when in reality it is being capitalized through the new loans. Little is achieved by this, and it wastes scarce and valuable time, as well as political capital, to negotiate over such issues now.

d)  Structural reforms can wait:  There is also no doubt that the Greek economy faces major structural issues, that hinder performance and productivity.  There are undoubtedly too many rules and regulations, inefficient state enterprises in key sectors, and codes that limit competition.  They do need to be reformed.

But there is a question of whether this should be a focus now.  The economy is severely depressed, with record high unemployment (similar to the peak rates seen in the US during the Great Depression).  Measures to improve productivity and efficiency will be important to allow the full capacity level of Greek GDP eventually to grow, but the economy is currently operating at far below full capacity.  The priority right now should be to return employment to close to full employment levels.

One needs also to recognize that many of the measures that would improve efficiency will also have the immediate impact of reducing rather than raising employment.  Changing rules and regulations that will make it easier to fire workers will have the immediate impact of reducing employment, not raising it.  Certain state enterprises undoubtedly should be privatized, and such actions can improve efficiency.  But the immediate impact will almost certainly be cuts in staffing, not increases.

Structural reforms will be important.  But they are not the critical priority now.  And far more knowledgeable commentators than myself have made the same point.  Former Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke made a similar point in a recent post on his blog, although more diplomatically and speaking on Europe as a whole.

2)  What should be done:

Finally, a few things to do, although it is likely they will not be politically feasible.

a)  Allow the primary balance to fall to zero, and then keep it there until the economy recovers:  As discussed above, the program being negotiated appears to be heading towards a goal of raising the primary surplus to 3 1/2% of GDP or more over the next few years.  The primary balance appears to have been in surplus in 2014 (the preliminary IMF estimate was 1.5% of GDP, but this may well be revised downwards), with a surplus also expected in 2015 (although the likelihood of this is now not clear, due to the chaotic conditions).  To raise it further from current levels, the program will call for further tax increases and government expenditure cuts.  This will, however, drive the economy down even further.

Keeping the primary balance at zero rather than something higher will at least reduce the fiscal drag that would otherwise hold back the economy.  Note also that a primary balance of zero is equivalent to a moratorium on debt service payments on public debt, which was discussed above.  Interest would then be fully capitalized, while no net amount will be paid on principal.

b)  Germany needs to take actions to allow Greece (and the Eurozone) to recover:  While I am under no illusion that Germany will change its domestic economic policies in order to assist Greece, the most important assistance Germany could provide to Greece is exactly that.

The fundamental problem in the design of the single currency system for the Eurozone system was the failure to recognize as critically important that Europe does not have a strong central government authority, with direct taxing powers, that can take action when the economy falls into a recession.  When a housing bubble bursts in Florida or Arizona, incomes in those states will be supported by US federal authorities, who will keep paying unemployment compensation; pensioners will keep receiving their Social Security and Medicare; federal transfers for education, highway programs, and other such government expenditures will continue; and if there is a national economic downturn (and assuming Congress is not controlled by ideologues opposed to any such actions) then stimulus measures can be enacted such as increased infrastructure spending.  And the Federal Reserve Board can lower interest rates to spur investment.  All of this supports demand, and keeps demand (and hence production and employment) from falling as much as it otherwise would.  This can then lead to a recovery.

The European Union in current form is not set up that way.  Central authority is weak, with no direct taxing powers and only limited expenditures.  Members of the Eurozone do not individually control their own currency.  If a member country suffers an economic downturn and faces limits on either what it can borrow in the market or in how much it is allowed to borrow in the market (by the limits set in the Fiscal Compact that Germany pushed through), it will not be able to take the measures needed to stabilize demand. Government revenues will decline in the downturn.  Any such borrowing limits will then force government expenditures to be cut.  This will lead to a further downward spiral, with tax revenues falling again and expenditures then having to be cut again if borrowing is not allowed to rise.  Greece has been caught in exactly such a spiral.

As was discussed some time ago on this blog, even Professor Martin Feldstein (a conservative economist who had been Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under Reagan) said such fiscal rules for the Eurozone could “produce very high unemployment rates and no route to recovery – in short, a depression”.  That is exactly what has happened in Greece.

The EU in its present form cannot, by itself as a central entity, do much to resolve this. However, member countries such as Germany are in a position to help support demand in the Eurozone, if they so wished.  But they don’t.  Germany had a current account surplus of 7.5% of GDP in 2014, and the IMF expects it will rise to 8.4% of GDP in 2015. Germany’s current account surplus hit $288 billion in 2014, the highest in the world (China was second, at $210 billion).  German unemployment is currently about 5%, but inflation is excessively low at 0.8% in 2014 and an expected 0.2% in 2015.  It could easily slip into the deflationary trap that Japan fell into in the 1990s that has continued to today.

To assist Greece and others in the Eurozone, Germany could do two things.  First, it could accede to the wage demands of its principal trade unions.  Germany’s largest trade union, IG Metall, had earlier this year asked for a general wage increase of 5.5% for 2015.  In the end, it agreed to a 3.4% increase.  A higher wage increase for German workers would speed the day to when they were in better alignment with those in Greece (which have been dropping, as we will discuss below) and others in the Eurozone.  Inflation in Germany would likely then rise from the 0.2% the IMF forecasts for 2015, but this would be a good thing.  As noted above, inflation of 0.2% is far too low, and risks dipping into deflation (prices falling), from which it can be difficult to emerge.  Thus the target set in the Eurozone is 2%, and it would be good for all if German inflation would rise to at least that.

Direct fiscal spending by Germany would also help.  It has the fiscal space.  This would spur demand in Germany, which would be beneficial for countries such as Greece and others in the Eurozone for whom Germany is their largest or one of their largest export markets.  Inflation would likely rise from its current low levels, but as noted, that would be good for all.

Of even greater direct help to Greece would be German support for EU programs that would provide direct demand support in Greece.  An example might be an acceleration of planned infrastructure investment programs in Greece, bringing them forward from future years to now.  Workers are unemployed now.  Bringing such programs forward would also be rational even if the intention was simply to minimize costs.  Unemployed workers and other resources are now available at cheap rates.  They will be more expensive if they wait until the economy is close to full employment, so that workers have an alternative. Economically, the opportunity cost of hiring workers now is extremely low.

A more balanced approach, where adjustment is not forced solely on depressed countries such as Greece but in a more balanced away between countries in surplus and those in deficit, would speed the recovery.  Far more authoritative figures than myself (such as Ben Bernanke in his blog post on Greece) have made similar arguments.  But Germany shows little sign of accepting the need for greater balance.

3)  What will likely happen:

With Germany not changing its stance, and with the Troika now negotiating an extension and indeed deepening of the austerity program Greece has been forced to follow since 2010 (in order to be allowed to remain in the Eurozone), the most likely scenario is that conditions will continue along the lines of what they have been so far under this program. The economy will remain depressed, unemployment will remain high, government revenues will fall in euro terms, and this will then lead to calls for even further government expenditure cuts.

One should not rule out that at some point some event occurs which leads to a more immediate collapse.  The banking system could collapse, for example.  Indeed, many observers have been surprised that the banking system has held up as well as it has. Liquidity support from the European Central Bank has been critical, but there are limits on how much it can or will be willing to provide.  Or a terrorist bomb at some resort could undermine the key tourism industry, for example.

Absent such uncontrollable shock events, there is also the possibility that at some point the Government of Greece might decide to exit the Eurozone.  This would also create a shock (and any such move to exit the Eurozone could not be pre-announced publicly, as it would create an immediate run on the currency), but at least some argue that following the initial chaos, this would then make it possible for Greece to recover.

The way this would work is that the new currency would be devalued relative to the euro, and by law all domestic transactions and contracts (including contracts setting wages of workers) would be re-denominated into the new currency (perhaps named the “new drachma” or something similar).  With a devaluation relative to the euro, this would then lead to wages (in euro terms) that have been reduced sharply and immediately relative to what they were before.  The lower wages would then lead to Greek products and services that are more competitive in markets such as Germany, leading to greater exports (and lower imports).  This is indeed how countries with their own currencies normally adjust.

It would, however, be achieved only by sharply lower wages.  It would also likely be accompanied by chaotic conditions in the banking system and in the economy generally in reaction to the shock of Eurozone exit.  Greece would also likely cease making payments of interest and principal on its government debt (payments that are due in euros).  This plus the exit from the Eurozone would likely sour relations with Germany and others in the Eurozone, at a time when the country needs help.

So far Greece has resisted leaving the Eurozone.  Given what it has accepted to do in the Troika program in order to stay in the Eurozone (with the resulting severely depressed economy), there can be no doubt that this intention is sincere.  Assuming then that Greece does stay in the Eurozone, what will likely happen?

Assuming no shocks (such as a collapse of the banking system), it would then be likely that the economy would muddle along for an extended period.  It would eventually recover, but only slowly.  The process would be that the high unemployment will lead to lower and lower wages over time, and these lower wages would then lead to Greek products becoming more competitive in markets such as Germany.  This is similar to the process following from a devaluation (as discussed above), but instead of this happening all at one point in time, it would develop only gradually.

The process has indeed been underway.  The key is what has happened to wages in Greece relative to where wages have gone in its trading partners.  One needs also to adjust for changes in labor productivity.  The resulting measure, which economists call nominal unit labor costs, measures the change in nominal wages (in euro terms here), per unit of effective labor (where effective labor is hours of labor adjusted for productivity growth).  While one cannot easily compare unit labor costs directly between countries at the macro level (it would vary based on employment composition, which differs by country), one can work out how much it has changed in one country versus how much it has changed in another country, and thus how much it has changed for one country relative to another.

Scaling the base to 100 for the year 2010 (the year the austerity program started in Greece), relative unit labor costs have fallen sharply in Greece relative to the rest of the Eurozone, and even more so relative to Germany (with the data computed from figures provided by Eurostat):

Greece and Eurozone Unit Labor Cost, 2010 = 100

Relative to 2010, nominal unit labor costs fell by 13% in Greece (up to 2013, the most recent date available).  Over that same period, they rose by 4% in the Eurozone as a whole and by 6% in Germany.  Thus relative to Germany, unit labor costs in Greece were 18% lower in 2013 than where they were in 2010.  This trend certainly continued in 2014.

The lower unit labor costs in Greece have led to increased competitiveness for the goods and services Greece provides.  Using the IMF WEO database figures, the volume of Greek exports of goods and services grew by a total of 12% between 2010 and 2015, while the volume of imports fell by 19%.  As noted in a chart above, the Greek current account deficit went from a large deficit in 2010 to a surplus in 2013 and again in 2014.  Greater exports and lower imports have helped Greek jobs.  And as seen in another chart above, Greek unemployment fell a bit in 2014 (although with the recent chaos, is probably rising again now).

This process should eventually lead to a recovery.  But it can be a slow and certainly painful process, and is only achieved by keeping unemployment high and wages falling.

Are Greek wages now low enough?  Changes in unit labor costs cannot really provide an answer to that.  As noted above, the figures can only be provided in terms of changes relative to some base period.  The base period chosen may largely be arbitrary.  The chart above was drawn relative to a base period of 2010, as that was the first year of the austerity program, but cannot tell us how much (and indeed even whether) wages were out of line with some desirable relative value in 2010.  And one can see in the chart above that Greek unit labor costs were rising more rapidly than unit labor costs in the Eurozone as a whole in the period prior to 2010, and especially relative to Germany.

Rebasing the figures to equal 100 in the year 2000 yields:

Greece and Eurozone Unit Labor Cost, 2000 = 100

The data is the same as before, and simply has been adjusted to reflect a different base year.  Relative to where they were in the year 2000, Greek unit labor costs in 2013 were below what they were for the Eurozone, but only starting in 2013:  They were higher for each year from 2002 to 2012.  And they were still above the change in Germany over the period:  German unit labor costs were 11% higher in 2013 than where they were in 2000, while Greek unit labor costs were 17% higher (but heading downwards fast).

Wages are therefore adjusting in Greece, and indeed adjusting quite fast.  This is leading to greater exports and lower imports.  Over time, this will lead to an economic recovery. But it will be a long and painful process, and it is difficult to predict at this point how long this process will need to continue until a full recovery is achieved.

Unless the depressed conditions in the country lead to something more radical being attempted, this is probably the most likely scenario to expect.

The recovery could be accelerated if Greece were allowed to keep the primary balance flat at say a zero balance (implying all interest on its public debt would be capitalized, and no net principal paid) rather than increased.  But this will depend on the acquiescence of the Troika, and in particular the agreement of Germany.  It is difficult to see this happening.

Concrete Measures to Address Real Income Stagnation of the Poor and Middle Classes

Piketty - Saez 1945 to 2013, June 2015, log scale

I.  Introduction

The distribution of the gains from economic growth has gotten horribly skewed since around 1980, as the graph above shows (using a log scale so that distances on the vertical scale are equal relative changes).  Average real incomes of the bottom 90% of households have fallen by 5% in real terms since 1980, while the real incomes of the top 0.01% have grown by 325%.  This is astounding.  Something has changed for the far worse in recent decades.  The real incomes of these groups grew at roughly similar rates in the post-World War II decades leading up to 1980, but then diverged sharply.

An earlier post on this blog looked at the proximate factors which took substantial growth in GDP per capita (which grew at about the same pace after 1980 as it had before) down to median wages that simply stagnated.  As discussed in that post, this was principally due to a shift in distribution from labor to capital, and a shift within labor from the lower paid to the higher paid.  (Demographic effects, principally the increased participation of women in the labor force, as well as increases in the prices of items such as medical care relative to the prices of other goods, were also both important during this period. However, both have now become neutral, and are not factors leading to the continuing stagnation in recent years of median wages.)

The purpose of this blog post is to look at concrete policy measures that can be taken to address the problem.  The issue is not slow growth:  As noted above, per capita growth in GDP since 1980 has been similar to what it was before.  The problem, rather, is the distribution of the gains from that growth, which has become terribly skewed.

Discussion of this is also timely, as a consensus appears to be forming among political leaders in both major parties that something needs to be done about the stagnant incomes of the poor and middle classes.  Several of the candidates seeking the Republican presidential nomination have said they wish to make this a primary issue of the 2016 campaign.  This is good.  If they are serious, then they would support measures such as those laid out below.  I doubt they will, as they were strenuously opposed in the past to many of them, and indeed championed the changes in policy from the Reagan period onwards which are, at a minimum, associated in time with the deterioration in distribution seen in the chart above.  But one can hope.

This is a long blog post, as it discusses a long list of measures that could be taken to address the predicament of the poor and middle classes.  Many (although not all) of these policies have been reviewed in previous posts on this blog.  Thus the discussion here will in such cases be kept individually brief, with the reader encouraged to follow the links to the earlier blog posts for more substantive discussion of the points being made.  And the reader with limited time may wish to scan through the section headings, and focus on those topics of most interest.

II.  A Policy Program

A.  Labor Market

We start with the labor market, as it is fundamental.

1)  Raise the minimum wage:  The minimum wage is now less in real terms than what it was in 1950, during the presidency of Harry Truman.  This is amazing.  Or perhaps what is amazing is the argument made by some that raising it would price workers out of their jobs.  Real GDP per capita is now 3.75 times what it was then, and labor productivity has grown to 3.5 times what it was then.  But the minimum wage is now less in real terms than what it was then.  The minimum wage in 1950 was not too high to price low paid workers out of the market, and labor productivity is three and a half times higher now.

Obama has called for the minimum wage to rise to $10.10 per hour from its current $7.25 per hour (with this then indexed to the rate of inflation).  This would bring the minimum wage back only to where it was in the 1960s, a half century ago.  There is no evidence that such a rise will hurt low wage workers, and it would still leave a full time worker (at 40 hours a week, and with no vacation time, so 52 weeks per year times 40 hours per week = 2,080 hours per year) at such a minimum wage (2,080 x $10.10 = $21,008 per year) earning well less than what is needed to bring a family of four up to the poverty line ($24,250 per year for a family of four in 2015).  This is the minimum that should be done. Indeed, it should be more.

2)  Ensure predictable work hours:  Many workers, particularly in sectors such as retail and food service (whether fast food or traditional restaurants), are increasingly being required to accept “flexible” work hours, where their employer tells them only a short time ahead what days to come in, at what time to report, and for how many hours.  They might be told a few days before, or only the day before, or sometimes only on the day of possible work, whether they will be needed and should report to work.  This is sometimes called “just-in-time” scheduling (a term taken from just-in-time inventory management) or “on-call” scheduling, and managers are rewarded for what is seen as “optimizing” their use of labor.

But it plays havoc with the life of many workers.  They cannot take a second job in the evening to help make ends meet, if they do not know whether their primary job may sometimes require that they come in on short notice to work an evening shift.  Students cannot enroll in college classes in order to finish a degree if they do not know whether they might be called in during class time.  Parents and especially single mothers can have great difficulty in arranging for child care when their work schedules are unpredictable.  And an unpredictable number of weekly work hours, of perhaps 30 hours one week and 20 hours the next, makes budgeting impossible.

Recent developments in computer and communications technology have made on-call scheduling possible and increasingly common.  Establishments such as Starbucks can receive at some central office real-time information on coffee sales (from the cash registers, via an Internet connection), and together with other factors (weather forecasts; whether a convention is in town) can run sophisticated software algorithms predicting how many workers will be needed, exactly when, and which ones should be called in.

The problems this creates for low income workers has only recently come to be recognized.  An important spark was a story in the New York Times on August 13, 2014, on the impact on a worker at Starbucks.  This led Starbucks the very next day to announce it would change its practices, but a review a month later by another news organization raised questions as to whether anything of significance had really changed.

Starbucks can possibly be shamed into improving it working conditions, as it sells high-end coffee to those with significant disposable income.  And if the problem were solely with Starbucks and a few similar firms, a shaming approach might possibly be effective. However, while Starbucks may have become the symbol, the practice has unfortunately become increasingly widespread.  Furthermore, there is competitive pressure across firms to adopt such practices.  If Starbucks stops the practice, it may face coffee retailers who continue to “optimize” their use of labor through such practices, who can then take away business by charging less.  There is thus pressure on firms to impose the lowest standards they can get away with.

There is no federal law against such labor practices.  There may be state laws which might constrain the practices in some way in certain jurisdictions, but they are not widespread. What is needed is a legislated solution which will apply generally, and should be undertaken at the federal level.  This has been done before.

Abuses of labor had become common during the “gilded age” of the late 1800s / early 1900s (when income distribution was, not coincidentally, as bad as it is now).  Progressive Era and later New Deal reforms addressed some of the more egregious issues.  Work place safety and child labor laws were enacted, a minimum wage was established, and a 40 hour work week was set as the standard, where a worker is required to be paid overtime at the rate of “time and a half” (150% of their regular wage) for any hours worked beyond 40 in a week.

The issue of unpredictable work hours could be addressed similarly.  All workers would have a normal set of hours, defined individually and a function of their particular job.  They would always be paid for this set of normal hours.  But it is recognized that firms may have an unexpected need for additional workers at certain times (for example to substitute for a worker who is sick).  Workers could take on such additional shifts beyond their regular hours if they so chose, but as a financial inducement for the firm not to rely on such job calls, the firm would be required to pay 150% of normal wages for such time (as for overtime work).

This would lead firms to assess better when they need workers and when not, and build this into the standard work schedules.  Firms have little incentive to do this now, since the cost of unpredictable schedules is shifted onto the workers.  Note also that with this system there will not be an incentive to further split up jobs, as all workers will be assigned an individualized normal schedule.  The firms will gain no flexibility by splitting a 30 hour a week job into one of 20 hours and one of 10 hours.  They will still need to determine when workers are expected to be needed, in order to assign hours accordingly.  And to the extent they do not do this carefully, they will be penalized as they will then need to pay 150% of the wage when a worker needs to be brought in to cover those extra hours.

Predictability in hours is extremely important to low wage workers.  Indeed, it is quite possibly more important than raising the minimum wage.  It will shift some of the costs of unpredictability back onto the firm, where it had been until modern computer and communications technology (and lax labor laws that did not foresee this) allowed the firms to shift onto workers the cost of unpredictability.  Firms did this to raise profits, and business profits did indeed then rise while wage earnings stagnated.  This is precisely the issue that needs to be corrected.

3)  Manage policies to return the economy rapidly back to full employment when there are economic downturns:  While it would be ideal always to keep the economy at or close to full employment, economic downturns happen, most recently in 2008 in the last year of the Bush administration.  But when they do, the priority should be to return the economy to full employment as rapidly as possible.  Everyone can of course agree on this. Differences arise, however, on how to do it.

Monetary policy should be used to the extent possible, but there is a limit to how much it can do since interest rates cannot go below zero.  And they have been at essentially zero since late 2008, following the Lehman Brothers collapse.  The Fed can also try to reduce long term rates (such as through quantitative easing), and while its policy here has had some beneficial effect, it is also limited.

Monetary policy in a downturn such as that just experienced must therefore be supported also by expansionary fiscal policy.  Additional government spending is the most effective way to expand demand, as it does this directly.  Tax cuts can also help, but are less effective since a significant share of the reduction in taxes may be partly saved by households (and likely will be largely saved by higher income households).  There will thus be less stimulative effect per dollar from tax cuts than from direct spending.

Unfortunately, government spending was cut each year from 2010 up to 2014. This was the first time in at least 40 years that government has cut spending in a downturn.  Hence the economic recovery has been the slowest of any over that period, and only picked up in 2014, when government spending was finally allowed to increase.

Republicans have argued that to return the economy to full employment, one should instead reduce regulations.  But this makes no sense.  Regulations in the middle of a downturn are not far different from what they were before the downturn began, so how can they be blamed for the unemployment, and how would reducing them lead to less unemployment?  And if some regulations are wrong, one should change them, whether the economy has high unemployment or low unemployment.  Regulations do not serve as a macro policy to reduce unemployment, but rather serve a micro purpose to ensure the economy functions efficiently.

A slack labor market will have a direct effect on income inequality.  When there is available labor that is unemployed, a laborer will have little leverage to negotiate for higher wages. And unemployment has been higher, on average, in the three decades following 1980 than in the three decades before 1980.  A simple regression analysis suggests that if the average rate of unemployment after 1980 had simply matched what it had been before 1980, then the real incomes of the bottom 20% of households would not only have grown at a rate similar to how fast they had grown before, but also at a rate similar to that of the top 20% in the period after 1980.  That is, there would have been continued growth in the real incomes of the bottom 20% after 1980, instead of stagnation, and no increase in inequality relative to the top 20%.  Keeping the economy at close to full employment is critical to the poor and middle classes.

B.  Fiscal Policy

Fiscal policy is therefore an important instrument to keep the economy at full employment, or to return it to full employment from a downturn.  What specifically should be done?

1)  End the Congressional budgetary “pay-as-you-go” rules when in or recovering from a recession:  The Budget Enforcement Act of 1990 required that, as a budgetary rule, any increase in mandatory government spending or reductions in taxes must be “paid for” over the next five years as well as the next ten years by offsetting spending cuts or tax increases, so as to be budget neutral over these periods.  While the rules have been modified over the years, were not in place for a period during the Bush II administration, and were not always abided by (such as for the large tax cuts at the start of the Bush administration), they have acted in recent years to limit the government spending that was needed to recover from the downturn.

Over the course of a full business cycle, covering the full period over when the economy is at or close to full employment and when it is not, a limit on the size of the government deficit is warranted.  But by setting such a limit to apply identically and continuously both in a downturn and when the economy is booming, one limits the government expenditures that may be needed for a rapid recovery.  The rule should be suspended during any period when the economy is in a recession or recovering from one, to be replaced by a rule that applies over the course of the business cycle as a whole and which focusses on the government debt to GDP ratio rather than simply the government deficit.

2)  Stop cuts to important safety net programs such as food stamps and unemployment insurance, especially in a downturn:   Safety net programs such as food stamps (now called SNAP) and unemployment insurance are critically important to the poor and middle classes, and especially so in a downturn. They provide limited support to households who lost their jobs or other sources of income in the recession, due to no fault of their own.  (The 2008 downturn was a consequence of the reckless management of banks and other financial institutions in the US, and the policy decision of the Bush administration officials not to make use of their regulatory powers to limit it.  This led to very high bank leverage, a build-up of the housing bubble, and then collapse when the housing bubble burst.)

As unemployment rose and incomes fell, especially of the poor and near poor, many more households became eligible for food stamps and, having lost jobs, for unemployment insurance.  Expenditures on these and other safety net programs expanded, as they are designed to do in a downturn.  But Congressional Republicans then forced through cuts in the key safety net programs (e.g. unemployment insurance, and food stamps) by limiting eligibility, and have sought much more extensive cuts.

If one wishes to help the poor and near poor, one does not cut programs which help them directly, and especially not when they most need them.  These programs are also extremely efficient.  The food stamp program (SNAP) spends only 5% of its budget on administrative costs.  Few charities are anywhere close to as efficient, but at least some prominent Republicans think otherwise.  Former Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, at one point the leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012, asserted that 70% of food stamp funding went to “bureaucrats”.  This was absurdly wrong.

Safety net programs in the US, while efficient for the money spent, are however highly limited in how much they do spend.  US income inequality or poverty rates are actually not worse than those seen in other high income OECD economies in terms of wages and other income paid to workers. That is, the US capitalist market economy does not itself produce more unequal outcomes than those of other high income OECD economies.  The US is near the average in this across all the OECD countries.  But once one takes into account government taxes and transfers, the US turns out to be the very worst, both in terms of inequality (as measured by the Gini coefficient) and in terms of poverty (by the share of the population considered poor).  The problem is not that the US tax and transfer programs are not especially progressive:  They are in fact more progressive than in most countries.  The problem is that they are simply too small to matter.

3)  Implement a public infrastructure investment program:  American public infrastructure is an embarrassment.  Compared to other high income countries, US roads, bridges, mass transit, and other public structures, are clearly inadequate in scale, are in terrible condition due to inadequate maintenance, and constitute what is in effect a growing debt that will need to be repaid in the future when they finally have to be rebuilt (normally at much greater cost than if they had been maintained properly).

Public investment has been cut back especially sharply in recent years, whether measured as a share of GDP or simply in real per capita terms, as a consequence of Congressional cuts in the budget.  But while the cuts have been especially sharp since 2010, the problem is long-standing.  Amazingly, US non-defense public investment in structures in 2013 was less, in real per capita terms, than what it was in 1960, even though real per capita GDP almost tripled over this period.

It should therefore be no surprise that roads and bridges are in poor condition (with some bridges that have even collapsed), mass transit systems are in poor repair, and all are grossly inadequate to what we need.  This impacts especially the middle classes, who have to sit in traffic jams daily just to get to work.  Toll roads or tolled lanes built by private concessionaires have become fashionable in recent years to build roads that government is no longer willing to pay for, but they can be expensive.  The tolled lanes opened recently in Northern Virginia in the I95/I495 corridor have tolls that, for the entire length, could conceivably reach $40 or more per trip (and double that per day).  Rich people can afford this, but most of those with middle class incomes cannot.

Adequate public infrastructure is needed to raise productivity and for the economy to grow.  And the recent severe downturn should have been a time for a special effort to expand such investment, putting to work unemployed construction and other workers, in firms that had capacity to produce more than they could sell due to low demand in the downturn.  Furthermore, the government could have borrowed long term funds during this period at historically low rates, and even at times at negative real rates.  It was insanity not to utilize the unemployed labor and underutilized firms, financed by funds at low or even negative real cost, to build and repair infrastructure that the economy and especially the poor and middle classes desperately need.

But this was not done.  It instead will need to be done over the coming years (and at much higher cost, due to the lack of maintenance), when the economy is hopefully at full employment, interest rates have returned to normal levels, and anything extra spent on public infrastructure will need to come out of less being available for other goods and services, including for private investment.

4)  Increase public support to higher education:  At one time, students could pay for the total costs of attending a state university, including room and board, through work at just the minimum wage during summers and part time during the academic terms.  This is no longer the case.  In part this is due to the fall in the minimum wage in real terms from where it had been in the 1960s.  But it was also a consequence of the rising cost of university education (a result of Baumol’s cost disease) coupled with sharp cutbacks in the share of these costs covered by state support to their colleges and universities, shifting more of the cost onto students and their families.

This reduction in state support to their colleges and universities needs to be reversed, or soon state schools will in effect no longer exist.  They will have become essentially private schools catering to those who can afford them.  And while federal programs exist to help students (most importantly the Pell Grant program, which provides grants of up to $5,775 per year, in academic year 2015/16), they are limited and family income based.  The maximum Pell Grant goes only to the poorest households.

There are different ways to assist students from poor and middle class households to continue their schooling beyond high school.  President Obama, in this year’s State of the Union address, proposed for example that federal support be provided so that community colleges would stop charging tuition for students in good standing.  One would in essence be extending the availability of public schooling from 12 years now to 14 years.  The budget cost would be relatively modest at just $6 billion per year.  Others have suggested, constructively, that using such funds to expand the Pell Grant program would achieve the same aim, while assisting also those low income and middle class students who would do better by enrolling in a four-year college.

The response of the Republicans in Congress has, however, been in the opposite direction.  While rejecting Obama’s proposal for community colleges, the recent proposal from the House Budget Committee would instead freeze the maximum Pell Grant at $5,775 for at least the next ten years, thus leading to its erosion in real terms as prices rise (much as the minimum wage has eroded over time due to inflation).

C.  Tax Policy

Tax policy has a direct impact on income distribution.  But while most still accept the principle that taxes should be progressive (the principle that the rich should pay taxes at a higher rate than the poor), the tax system the US in fact has is regressive in many of its aspects.

1)  Stop the preferential tax treatment of income from wealth:  The wealthy pay a lower rate of taxes on their income from wealth than most of the population pays on their income from labor.  In terms of policy options to address inequality, little would be more straightforward than to end the practice of taxing income from wealth at lower rates than income from work.  Tax rates on all income groups could then be reduced, with the same total tax revenues collected.

The long-term capital gains tax rate on most assets is only 15% for most earners (there is an additional 3.8% for those households earning more than $250,000 bringing the rate to 18.8%, with this rising by a further 5% points to 23.8% for those earning $464,850 or more in 2015).  These rates on income from wealth are well below what is paid by most on income from labor (wages).  While the regular income tax rates (on wages) vary formally from 10% in the lowest bracket to 39.6% in the highest, one should add to these the social insurance taxes due.  These are often referred to loosely as Social Security taxes, but they include both Social Security at a 12.4% rate (up to a ceiling in 2015 of $118,500), and Medicare taxes at a 2.9% rate (with no ceiling).  Note also that while formally the employee pays half of this and the employer pays half, analysts agree that all of the tax really comes out of wages.

Once one includes social insurance taxes on wages, the effective tax rates on income from labor goes from 25.3% for the lowest bracket to 40.3% on those earning between $74,900 and $118,500, after which it drops down to 27.9% as the Social Security ceiling has been hit, and then starts to rise again.  The long-term capital gains rate is always below this even for the very richest, and normally far below.

To add further complication, preferential rates of 25% apply to long-term capital gains on certain commercial building assets (“Unrecaptured Section 1250” gains), and 28% apply to collectibles (such as fine art or gold coins) and certain small business stock. These are still well below what most pay in taxes on income from work.

This system not only worsens income inequality, but also creates complications and introduces distortions.  Many of those with high income are able to shift the categorization of their incomes from what for others would be wage income, to income which is treated as long-term capital gains.  Properly structured stock options, for example, allow CEOs and other senior managers to shift income from what would otherwise be taxed at ordinary income tax rates to the low rates for capital gains.  “Carried interest” does the same for fund managers.  With many fund managers earning over $100 million in a year, and indeed some earning over $1 billion, this preferential tax treatment of such extremely high earnings is perverse.

The reform would be simple.  All forms of income, whether from labor or from wealth, would be taxed at the same progressive rates that rise with total household income.  The one issue, which can be easily addressed, is that income from long-term capital gains should be adjusted for inflation, to put the gains all in terms of current year prices.  But this can easily be done by scaling up the cost basis based on the change in the general price level between when the asset was bought and when it was sold.  The IRS could supply a simple table for this.

2)  Reduce marginal effective tax rates on the poor:  Conservatives have long argued for cuts in marginal tax rates for the rich, arguing this would lead to faster growth (“supply-side economics”).  While there is no evidence that lower tax rates in recent decades have in fact led to faster growth, this was the stated rationale for the big tax cuts under Reagan and then Bush II.

Liberals have noted that if one were really concerned about high marginal tax rates, you would look at the high marginal effective tax rates being paid at the other end of the income scale – by the poor and those of moderate income.  Studies have found that these can range as high as 80 or even 100%.  The marginal effective tax rates take into account the impact of means-tested programs being phased out as one’s income rises.  When extra income is earned, you will pay not only a portion of this in taxes, but you will also lose a portion of benefits that are being provided (such as food stamps) in programs that phase out as income grows.  If the extra paid in taxes plus the amount lost in benefits matches additional earnings, the marginal effective tax rate will be 100%.

Conservatives have started to pay attention to this.  An opinion column in the Wall Street Journal last September by Senators Marco Rubio and Mike Lee (both Tea Party favorites) decried the 80 to 100% marginal effective tax rates that low income workers might face, arguing this can act as a strong disincentive to work.

In reality, the rates being faced by the poor are normally less, although still substantial. The issue is complex since the effective tax paid will depend not only on income, but on such factors as:  1)  Family composition (whether married and number and age of children); 2) Where one lives (what state and often what city or county); 3)  Particular benefit program qualification criteria (which will vary by program, and will often depend on many factors other than income); and 4) Whether the individual always enrolls in programs they are qualified for, as one may not be aware of certain benefit programs, or find the benefits to be too small to be worthwhile (because of difficulties and complications in enrolling, with these quite possibly deliberate difficulties in some jurisdictions).

The Congressional Budget Office, in a careful study issued in November 2012, concluded that the marginal effective tax rate for citizens with incomes of up to 450% of the federal poverty line averaged about 30% in 2012.  And under law as then in effect, this would rise to 32% in 2013 and 35% in 2014.  There was a good deal of variation within the average, with a marginal effective tax rate of as much as 95% (for example, for single mothers with one child with an income in the range of about $18,000 to $20,000, which was just above the poverty line for such a household).  But rates of 40% or more were not uncommon.

Such rates, even when not at the 80 to 100% extremes cited by Senators Rubio and Lee, are high.  Even at just 30% (the average) they are double what those who are far better off pay in long-term capital taxes.  While the conservative senators argue that such high marginal rates discourage work effort (there is in fact little evidence that this is the case – when you are poor, you are desperate for whatever you can get), such high marginal rates are in any case unfair.  If one wants to help those of low and moderate income, these effective tax rates should be reduced.

There are three ways, and only three ways, to reduce the marginal effective tax rates on the poor.  One is to get rid of the benefit programs for the poor altogether.  If they receive no food stamps to begin with, one has nothing to lose when incomes rise.  But this then penalizes the poor directly.

One could also phase out the programs more slowly, and pay for this by reducing the benefits to the poorest.  This is then a transfer from the poorest to the somewhat better off than the poorest.  Senators Rubio and Lee proposed this route (without explicitly calling it that) by reducing benefits such as food stamps and providing instead larger child tax credits for all households (including the rich).  This would be a transfer from the poorest to those of higher income (including the rich), and especially to those with large families.  The poorest would be penalized.

Finally, the third and only remaining option is to phase out the benefit programs more slowly.  This reduces the marginal effective tax rate that poor households will face if they are able to obtain jobs paying more than what they earned before.  It will not penalize the poorest, but it does of course require that budgets for the programs then rise.  But this will be support made available directly to the poor, and in particular to the working poor (as they are the ones facing the high marginal effective tax rates from additional earnings). If one is concerned about poverty and inequality, this is precisely the support that should be provided.

3)  Tax inherited wealth the same as any other wealth:  Wealth that is inherited enjoys significant tax benefits.  The only exception is wealth that is so large that it becomes subject to the estate tax (greater than $10.86 million for a married couple in 2015).  But few pay this due to that high ceiling, as well as since one can establish trusts and use other legal mechanisms to avoid the tax.  Indeed, in 2013 (the most recent year with available data), estate taxes were due on less than 0.2% of estates; the other 99.8% had no such taxes due.  This is down from over 6% of estates in the mid-1970s, due to repeated changes in tax law which narrowed and reduced further and further what would be due.

Any wealth that is passed along within the effective $10.86 million ceiling will never be subject to tax on capital gains made up to the point it was passed along.  That is, the cost basis is “stepped-up” to the value upon the date of death.  If one had purchased $100,000 of General Electric stock 40 years ago, the stepped-up value now would be roughly $3 million, and no taxes would ever be due on that $2.9 million of gain.

This is not fair.  Taxes on such wealth should be treated like taxes on any other wealth, and as argued in item #1 of this section above, all sources of income should be taxed the same (recognizing, importantly, that capital gains should be adjusted for inflation).

Some have argued that this cannot be done for inherited wealth since those inheriting the wealth may not know what the original cost basis was.  But this is not a valid excuse.  First of all, the two most important categories of wealth that are passed along through estates are homes and other real estate, and stocks and bonds and other such traded financial assets.  There are government land records on all real estate transactions, so it is easy (and indeed a matter of public record that anyone can look up) to find the purchase price of a home or other real estate.  And purchases of stocks, bonds, and other trade financial assets are done via a brokerage, which will have such records.

Second, if there are any other assets with special value (such as valuable coins or works of art) that will be passed along through an estate, the owner of those assets can include a record of their cost basis as part of the will or trust document that grants the asset to those inheriting the estate.

4)  Equal tax benefits for deductions should be provided for all income levels:  Under the current tax system, if a rich person in a 40% marginal income tax bracket makes a $100 contribution to some charity, then the government provides a gift to that rich person of $40 through the tax system, so that the net cost will only be $60.  If a middle class person in a 20% marginal tax bracket makes a $100 gift to the exact same charity, then the government will pay them back $20, for a net cost of $80.  And if a poor person in the 10% bracket makes a $100 gift to that same charity, the net cost to him will be $90.

This is enormously unfair.  There is no reason why deductions should be made more valuable to a rich person than to a poor person.  And there is an easy way to remedy it. Instead to treating deductions as subtractions from taxable income, one could take some percentage of deductions (say 20%) as a subtraction from taxes that would otherwise be due.  The $100 gift to the charity would then cost the rich person, the middle class person, and the poor person, the same $80 for each.

5)  Set tax rates progressively, and at the rates needed to ensure a prudent fiscal balance over the course of the business cycle:  I have argued above that all forms of income should be taxed similarly.  Whether you earn income from working or from wealth, two households with the same total income should pay taxes at the same rates.  This is not only for fairness.  It would also simplify the system dramatically.  And this is not only for the obvious reason that calculations are easier with one set of rates, but also because the current diverse rates interact between themselves in complex ways, which make computing taxes due a headache when there are different rates for different types of income.  Perhaps most importantly, it would eliminate the incentive to shift income from one category to another (e.g. from wage income to stock options) where lower taxes are due.  That creates distortions and wastes resources that should be used for productive activities.

There remains the question of what the new rates should be.  I do not have the data or the detailed tax models which would allow one to work that out, but a few points can be made.  One is that the new tax rates would be lower (at any given level of income) than what regular income tax rates (on wage income) are now.  This is because the tax rates on income from wealth (such as for capital gains, or inherited wealth) would be unified with the now higher tax rates on income from labor, so the new overall tax rates on regular income can be lower than before to yield the same level of tax revenues.  General income tax rates would come down.

Second, one should of course preserve the principle of progressivity in the tax code.  Rich people should pay taxes at a higher rate than poor people.  As Warren Buffitt argued eloquently in a New York Times column in 2011 (“Stop Coddling the Super-Rich”), there is no economic justification for the rich to pay taxes at lower rates than those with less income.  And it is grossly unfair as well.  Their secretaries should not pay at higher rates than the rich (fully legally) pay.

Third, one needs to recognize that the purpose of taxes is to raise revenues, and rates should thus be set at the levels required to cover government expenditures over time.  As argued above, the budgetary accounts should not be forced to balance each and every year, since fiscal policy is extremely important to move the economy back to full employment in an economic downturn (and fiscal policy is basically all that is available when interest rates are at the zero lower bound, as they have been since late 2008 in the US).

But over the full course of the business cycle, tax rates should be set so that the tax revenues collected suffice to keep the government debt to GDP ratio at a stable and reasonable level. This implies deficits when unemployment is high, and surpluses when the economy is close to full employment.  The economy was at full employment in 2006-07 (unsustainably so due to the housing bubble building up in those years) with the unemployment rate below 5% and as low as 4.4%.  Unfortunately, due to the Bush II tax cuts, the government’s fiscal deficit in those years was still significant.

Applying these principles, the tax rates needed for this would need to be worked out.  This can be done, but I do not myself have access to the data that would be required.  In the end, I suspect that regular income tax rates could be reduced substantially from what they are now, with this still sufficient to provide for adequate government expenditures over the course of the business cycle.  But the rich would pay more while those of low to moderate income would pay less, and whether this would then be possible politically is of course a different issue.

D.  Health Insurance

Access to health insurance is important.  A careful statistical analysis published in 2009 found that the likelihood of dying is higher for the uninsured than for the insured, and the lack of universal health insurance (as was then the case in the US) was leading to an estimated 45,000 more Americans dying each year than would be the case if they had health insurance.  This is greater than the number of Americans killed in action over the entire period of the Vietnam War.

The ObamaCare reforms have been a big step forward to making it possible for all Americans to obtain access to health care, but it remains under threat.  If Republicans are serious about helping the poor and middle classes, they should support the following.

1)  First, stop trying to block health care access for all:  ObamaCare, while not perfect (it reflects political compromises, and is based on the system of individual mandates first proposed by the conservative Heritage Foundation in 1989), is nonetheless working.  An estimated 16.4 million Americans now have health insurance coverage, which they did not have before ObamaCare became available.  And a Gallup poll found that there was a higher satisfaction rate among those obtaining health insurance policies through the ObamaCare exchanges, than among those with traditional health insurance policies (mostly via employers).

Despite this, Republicans continue to campaign aggressively to terminate ObamaCare, and have supported lawsuits in the courts to try to end this health care access.  A case now before the Supreme Court, with findings to be announced this month (June 2015), may declare that the federal government payments made through certain of the ObamaCare exchanges (those not run by the states) to those of low to moderate income, cannot be continued.  If the Supreme Court finds in favor of those opposed to such payments, these low and moderate income households will no longer be able to obtain affordable health insurance.

If the Republican presidential candidates are in fact in favor of helping the poor and middle classes, they should call for an end to the continued efforts by their Republican colleagues to terminate ObamaCare.  There are ways it could be improved (e.g. by taking more aggressive actions to bring down the cost of medical care to all in the US), but it is working as intended, and indeed better than even its advocates expected.

2)  Extend Medicaid in all states in the US:  The ObamaCare reforms built on the system of existing health insurance coverage.  Medicare would remain the same for those over age 65; employees in firms would normally pay for health insurance coverage through employer based plans; Medicaid would expand from covering (generally) those up to the poverty line to include also those with income up to 133% of the poverty line; and all those remaining without health insurance would be allowed to purchase coverage from private health insurers competing on internet-based health insurance exchanges, where those with incomes of up to 400% of the poverty line would receive federal subsidies to make such health insurance affordable.

The Medicaid expansion to cover all those with incomes of up to 133% of the poverty line was thus one of the building blocks in the ObamaCare reforms to enable all Americans to obtain access to affordable health care.  Because of its historical origins in health care programs for the poor that had traditionally been implemented in the states, Medicaid is implemented at the state level even though it is funded jointly with the federal government. For the Medicaid expansion to 133% of the poverty line, the federal government through the legislation setting up ObamaCare committed to funding 100% of the incremental costs in the first three years (2014 to 2016) with this then phased down to 90% in 2020 and thereafter.

Despite this generous federal funding, the Supreme Court decided in 2012, in its decision that also found ObamaCare in general to be constitutional, that Congress could not force the states to expand Medicaid to the higher income limits.  Thus the expansion became optional for the states, and as of April 2015, 21 states have decided not to.  The 21 states are mostly in the south or the mountain west, with Republican legislatures and/or Republican governors or mostly both.

Blocking this Medicaid expansion in these states is being done even though an expansion would cost little or nothing.  There is literally no state cost in the first three years as the federal government would cover 100% of the extra costs.  And while the federal share would fall then to a still high 90% for 2020 and thereafter, allowing more of the poor to be covered by Medicaid will reduce state costs.  The poor in this gap in coverage are forced to resort to expensive emergency room care, for which they cannot pay, when their health gets so bad that it cannot be ignored.  These costs are then partially compensated by the state.

A careful analysis for Virginia, undertaken for the state by Price Waterhouse Coopers, concluded that if Virginia opted in to the Medicaid expansion, the state would save $601 million in state budget costs over the period 2014 to 2022.  And this did not even include the indirect benefits to the budget from higher tax revenues, as a consequence of the additional jobs that would be created (nurses and other care providers, etc.) and the higher incomes of hospitals from less uncompensated care.

Denying affordable health care to the poor with incomes of between 100% and 133% of the poverty line is callous.  These are the working poor, and there really is no excuse.

3)  Ensure employers pay a proportionate share for health insurance for their part-time workers:  Employers have traditionally not allowed part time employees to obtain (through their wage compensation package) health insurance cover in employer-based plans.  There was a practical reason for this, as health insurance plans only provided cover in full.  It has been difficult to provide partial plans, so part time workers have traditionally gotten nothing.

This has now changed with the introduction of the ObamaCare health insurance market exchanges.  Those without health insurance coverage through their employers can now purchase a health insurance plan directly.  One could therefore now require that all employers make a proportionate contribution to the cost of the health insurance plans for their part time workers.  That is, for someone working half time (20 hours a week normally) the employer would contribute half of what that employer pays for the health insurance plans for their full time workers.

There would then be no incentive (and competitive advantage) for an employer to split a full time job with health insurance benefits into two half time jobs with no health insurance benefits for either worker.  Under the current system of normally no health insurance benefits for part time workers, employer are in essence shifting the cost of health insurance fully onto the worker and onto the federal government (and hence general taxpayer) if the worker earns so little that they are eligible for federal government subsidies to purchase health insurance on the exchanges.

The proportional employer contribution would be paid to the “account” of the worker in the same way (and at the same time) as Social Security and Medicare taxes are paid for the worker.  The funds from this account would then be used to cover part of the costs of the worker purchasing health insurance on the ObamaCare exchanges.  And if the worker was working in two (and sometimes three or more) part time jobs in order to make ends meet, the total paid in from all of the worker’s employers might well suffice to cover the cost of the health insurance plan in full.

4)  Allow competition from low cost public health insurance:  As part of the political compromises necessary to get ObamaCare passed in the face of steadfast Republican opposition, only private health insurers are allowed to participate in the ObamaCare health insurance exchanges.  Yet Medicare, which provides health insurance to all Americans age 65 and older, is far more efficient than private health insurance providers.  Giving Americans the option (not a requirement) to purchase Medicare administered health insurance on the ObamaCare exchanges would introduce much needed competition. There are often only a few insurers competing in the exchanges, which are all state-based (3 or fewer insurers in 15 of the 51 states plus Washington, DC, with only one insurer offering policies in West Virginia).

But even with multiple insurers competing on the state exchanges, the private insurers in general have high costs.  Private health insurers nationwide (and for all the policies they offer) have administrative costs plus profits equal to 14.0% of the health insurance benefits they pay out.  This is huge.  The same figure for Medicare is only 2.1%.  Medicare costs only one-seventh as much to administer as private health insurance.  And note these lower costs are not coming out of low payments to doctors and hospitals since the 14.0% and 2.1% are being measured relative to claims paid.

It would be straightforward to allow Medicare to compete on the health insurance exchanges.  One would require that Medicare charge rates sufficient (for the resulting client base, which will of course be younger than and generally healthier than Medicare’s senior citizens) to recover its full costs for such coverage.  But Medicare could use its existing administrative structure, including computer systems and contracts with doctors, hospitals, and other medical care providers at the rates that have already been negotiated.

Purchasing a Medicare administered health insurance policy on the exchanges would be fully optional.  No one participating in the exchanges would be required to buy it.  But with its lower costs, the competition Medicare would introduce into the exchanges could be highly effective in bringing down costs.

E.  Pensions

Probably the greatest failure of any social experiment of recent decades has been the switch of employer pension plans from the traditional defined benefit plans that were common up to the early 1980s, to defined contribution schemes (such as 401(k) plans) that have grown to dominance since the 1980s.  In doing this, employers not only shifted the investment, actuarial, and other risks on to the individual workers, but also typically reduced their matching funding shares significantly.

The end result is that workers are now typically woefully unprepared for retirement.  The funds accumulated in their 401(k) and IRA accounts for households (with head of household aged 55 to 64) with a 401(k) account, only amounted to $111,000 in 2013 (for the median household).  Such an accumulation, for households who will soon be in retirement, would suffice to provide only less than $400 a month by the traditional formulas, or $4,800 per year.

This is woefully inadequate, and these households will need to rely on what they can get from Social Security.  But Social Security payments are also not much.  For 2012 (the most recent year with such data), the median Social Security pension payment per beneficiary (age 65 or more) was just $16,799 per year, or per family unit (with head aged 65 or more) just $19,222 per year.  Furthermore, if nothing is done, the Social Security Trust Fund will run down to a zero balance in 2033 based on the most recent projections.

Fully funding Social Security is eminently solvable, as will be discussed below.  The annual cost (including for disability insurance) will rise from roughly 5% of GDP currently to 6% of GDP in 2030, as the baby boomers retire, or an increase of just 1% of GDP.  But what many do not realize is that on current projections, Social Security expenditures are then expected to remain stable (under current benefit rules) at that 6% of GDP for the foreseeable future, in projections that go out 75 years.  One can find 1% of GDP to save Social Security.  But the politicians in Washington will need to agree to do so.

There are several measures that need to be taken to ensure income security for the poor and middle classes in their old age:

1)  Raise, and certainly do not reduce, Social Security payments to those of low and modest income:  Social Security payments, while a crucial safety net, are low.  As noted above, the median payments in 2012 for those aged 65 and older were just $16,799 per beneficiary and $19,222 per recipient family (for the old age component). Such payments are minimal.  Yet these are just medians, meaning half of all recipients received less than even those figures.

Despite being so low, these Social Security payments are critical to many Americans. For the entire population of those aged 65 and older, Social Security accounted for half or more of their total regular income for two-thirds of the population (65% to be precise); Social Security accounted for 90% or more of their income for over a third of the population (36%); and Social Security accounted for 100% of their income for a quarter of the population (24%).  This is incredible, and shows the failure of the current pension systems in the US to provide a reasonable income in retirement for American workers.

The situation is, not surprisingly, worse for those of low to moderate income.  For the bottom 40% of the population by income, where 40% is by far not a small or insignificant share, Social Security accounted for half or more of their regular total income for 95% of them.  Social Security accounted for 90% or more of their income for three-quarters (74%) of them, and for 100% of their income for over half of them (53%).

Social Security benefits are by no means large.  Yet a large share of Americans depend on them.  They should not be cut, but rather should be raised, at least for those of low to moderate income who are critically dependent on them in their old age.

2)  Broaden the base for Social Security taxes to ensure the system remains fully funded:  As noted above, the Social Security Trust Fund will be depleted in 2033 (based on current projections, and including the disability component – while technically separate, the trust funds for old age and for disability insurance are normally treated together).  While some argue, with some justification, that the Trust Fund is fundamentally just an accounting tool, which can be “topped-up” with regular federal government transfers if necessary, there are also good reasons to stay with the Trust Fund rules.  They help keep the Social Security system out of routine Washington politics, and the temptation by conservatives to cut Social Security benefits in order to reduce the size of government.

Under the current Trust Fund rules, participation in the Social Security system is mandatory; taxes are paid on wage earnings (up to a ceiling of $118,500 in 2015); at a rate of 12.4% for Social Security pension and disability coverage for the employer and employee combined (excluding the 2.9% with no wage ceiling for Medicare); and upon retirement, these contributors will receive regular monthly payments from Social Security until they die, based on a formula which is linked to how much was paid into the Social Security Trust Fund during their working career (for the 35 years of highest inflation adjusted earnings).  The formula is complex, and “tilted” in the sense that those earning less will receive back somewhat more than they paid in, while those earning in the upper end of the taxable range will receive back somewhat less.  There is therefore some progressivity, but the degree of progressivity is limited.  Finally, the taxes paid into the fund will earn interest at the rate of the long-term Treasury bond yield of the time, so the taxes paid in to the fund grow over time with interest.

Based on these Trust Fund rules and on current projections of growth in worker earnings (and its distribution) and of what pay-outs will be as workers retire, the Trust Fund is expected to be depleted in 2033.  The basic cause is not that Social Security administration is inefficient and wasting funds.  It is, in fact, incredibly efficient, with a cost of administration of just 0.5% of benefits paid out (on the old age component).  Note this is not on assets, but on benefits paid.  As will be discussed further below, the typical expenses on savings in 401(k) and similar accounts will be 2 to 3% of assets each and every year.

The principal cause of the Trust Fund being depleted, rather, is that life expectancies have lengthened, and hence the period over which Social Security old-age payments are made have grown.  Crudely (and ignoring interest for this simple example), if life expectancy at age of retirement has grown by 50%, so that the number of years during which one will draw Social Security payments has grown by 50%, then the amount needed to be paid in to the Trust Fund to cover this lengthened life will need to grow by 50%.

Longer life expectancies are good.  The Social Security Trust Fund will run out of assets in 2033 not because the funds are being wasted (as noted above, administrative costs are incredibly low), but because people are living longer.  But this will need to be paid for.

But it is also critically important to recognize who is living longer.  As incomes have stagnated for those other than the rich since Reagan took office (see the chart at the top of this post), life expectancies for the poor and middle classes have in fact not increased substantially.  Rather, the overall life expectancy is rising principally because those at higher income levels are enjoying much longer life expectancies (in part precisely because their incomes have been growing so fast).

Specifically, life expectancy for a man at age 65 in the bottom half of earnings rose from 79.8 years in 1977 to 81.1 years in 2006, an increase of just 1.3 years.  But life expectancy at age 65 for a man in the top half of earnings rose from 80.5 years in 1977 (only 0.7 years longer than men in the lower half of the earnings distribution in that year) to 86.5 years in 2006, an increase of 6.0 years.  People are living longer, but it is mostly only those of higher income who are enjoying this.  Life expectancies have not changed much for those of low to moderate income.

It would therefore be perverse to penalize those of lower income to make up for the Trust Fund shortfall, when it is the lengthening of the life spans of those of higher income which is leading to the depletion of the Trust Fund.  Yet proposals to raise the retirement age, or to increase Social Security taxes on all, would charge the poor as much as the rich to make up for the Trust Fund deficit.

Rather than penalize the poor, Social Security taxes should be raised on those who are better off to pay for their increasing lifetime benefits.  And this is of course also precisely what one should want to do if one is concerned about inequality.

The obvious solution is to broaden the tax base for the Social Security tax to include incomes now excluded – which are also incomes that accrue to the rich.  First, note that the shortfall to be made up when the Social Security Trust Fund is expected to be depleted (if nothing is done) in the 2030s would require a 20% increase in revenues.  That is, following a transition between now and about 2030 as the baby boomer generation retires, the long term projection is that Social Security tax and other revenues will level off at about 5% of GDP, while Social Security obligations will level off at about 6% of GDP. That is, we will need revenues to increase by about 20% to make up the shortfall, to get to 6% of GDP from 5%.  (A more precise estimate, but from my blog post of a few years ago, is an increase of 19.4%).

Broadening the Social Security tax base would easily provide such an amount of funding. For wages alone, there is the current ceiling of $118,500 (in 2015) on wages subject to Social Security tax.  At this ceiling, only 83% of all wages paid are subject to this tax.  This is down from 89% in 1980 as an increasing share of wages are being paid to the very well off (those with wages above the ceiling).  If one were to tax 100% of wages rather than only the current 83%, one would in fact obtain the funds needed, as that alone would provide an increase of over 20% (100/83 = 1.205).

But broadening the base should not stop at simply ensuring the taxes paying for Social Security are paid by all wage earners equally, rich and poor.  There is no economic rationale why only wage income should be taxed for this purpose, and not also income from wealth.  And income from wealth is primarily earned by the wealthy.

Using figures from the National Income and Product (GDP) accounts, total private income (including not just wages, but also income from interest, dividends, rents, and so on, but excluding government transfers) in 2014 was 65% more than just wages alone.  (Note that while these income concepts from the GDP accounts are not the same as the income concepts defined in the income tax code, they suffice for the illustrative purposes here.)  A uniform tax rate of 7.5% rather than 12.4% (12.4/7.5 = 1.65), but on all forms of income and not just wage income, would thus suffice to generate the Social Security tax revenues to fund fully the Trust Fund for the foreseeable future.

But one important proviso should be noted.  Such tax rates (of either 12.4% on all wage income, or 7.5% on all forms of private income) would generate the revenues required to fully fund the system based on current benefit payment projections.  However, with benefit payments tied to one’s history of tax payments, one would also need to change the benefit payment formulae to reflect the broader tax base.  Otherwise the benefits due would also change to reflect the higher amounts paid in.

Finally, as noted above, current Social Security benefit payments are low and really need to be increased.  While I do not have the data and models that would be required to work out fully some specific proposal, the figures here can give us a sense of what is possible. For example, a possible balance might be to broaden the tax base to include all forms of income, but then to reduce the tax rate on this not all the way from 12.4% to 7.5%, but rather to the halfway point of 10%.  But this 10% rate would then suffice to permit a one-third increase in overall benefits (10/7.5 = 1.333), which one should want also to concentrate on those of low to moderate income.  The overall tax rate would be cut, but in broadening the tax base to all forms of income one could support a significant increase in benefits.  Overall taxes paid would be higher (everything has to add up, of course), and while low and moderate income earners would mostly see a reduction in the taxes they owe, richer individuals would pay more.

3)  Require that 401(k) plan administration fees are paid for by the entity choosing the provider:  Turning from Social Security to private pension plans, where defined contribution plans (401(k) plans and similar) are now the norm, the key issue is to keep fees low.  Unfortunately they are extremely high, and take away a large share of the investment returns on the funds saved.

One cause of this is that the fees being received by the financial advisors are often hidden in various ways, and charged in different ways by different entities.  There is no standard, and average levels are not made publicly available to provide a basis for comparison. The fees charged will also vary sharply depending on the type of investment product being used (i.e. direct equities, mutual funds of different types, insurance products including annuities, various complex products, and more).  Finally, while individual fees might sometimes appear to be low, they are imposed at several layers in the investment process, and in total come to very high levels.  Not surprisingly, according to one survey 93% of the respondents dramatically underestimated what their cumulative 401(k) fees will come to.

Estimates for what the average fees in fact now are vary.  At the base will be the fees charged by a plan administrator, chosen by the firm of the employee and responsible for the record keeping, for allocating the investments as chosen by the plan participant, and so on. These fees will vary depending on the size of the firm and the deal negotiated on behalf of the employee, but one set of estimates are that these fees average 0.5% of plan assets annually in large firms (plan sizes of $100 million or more), 0.9% in medium size firms (plan assets of $10 million to $100 million) and 1.4% in small firms (plan assets of less than $10 million).

On top of these base administrative fees one will then have to pay the fees charged by the investment vehicles themselves.  Mutual funds are perhaps most common, and the expense fees on these (normally subtracted from the investment returns, so the amount being paid will not be obvious) average about 1.1%.  But they can range widely, from less than 0.1% for standard index funds, to over 2%.  On top of this, one has the cost of buying and selling the investments (whether mutual funds or equities or the other products), which some estimate may average 1.0%.  But these too can vary widely.

Finally, one may have individual fees on top of these all, which depend on the services being requested (whether investment advice, or entry and exit fees, or loan advances against balances in the worker’s pension accounts, and more).  These will vary widely, but one estimate is that the median might be an annual cost of about 0.7% of assets.

The total amount lost in fees each year can therefore easily be in the range of 2 to 3% of assets, and 2.5% is a commonly taken average.  Note also that these fees (or at least most of them) will be taken by the financial managers regardless of whether the investments perform well in any given year.

Over time, these fees will take for the financial administrators a large share of the investment returns that were intended for worker retirement.  A simple spreadsheet calculation, for example, will show that over a 40 year time horizon, where (for simplicity) equal amounts are set aside each year for retirement, with an assumed 5% real rate of return but financial fees of 2.5% a year, the financial cost will have taken away by the 40th year 45% of what would otherwise be the balance saved.  (It will not equal 50% because of the way compounding works.)  This is 90 times the total fees that would be charged by Social Security for the old-age support it provides, which as noted above is only 0.5% of benefits paid out.  Note that I am not arguing that the private fees should be the same as what the cost is for Social Security to administer the accounts.  Social Security is an extremely efficient system.  The specific share taken by financial fees will also depend, of course, on what is assumed for the rate of return and other parameters. But anything like 90 times as much is a lot.

Furthermore, many of the fees being charged on the private pension accounts will continue into the retirement years, so the final amount paid out in benefits will be even less.  Assuming there will be 20 years of retirement following the 40 years of work, with returns and fees continuing as before, the annual amount that could be paid out to the worker in retirement will be only 44% of what would be paid out if the fees were at the 0.5% (of benefits only) of Social Security, a reduction of 56%!

Fees are therefore hugely important, but the worker can manage (through the decisions they make) only some of them.  In particular, the basic plan administration fees for managing the accounts are made at the firm level.  When firms had defined benefit pension plans, these costs were included in what the firm covered.  They kept track of, or contracted out to some specialist, the individual payment obligations and other bookkeeping.  But when firms switched to defined contribution schemes, most commonly 401(k)s, the firms chose to incorporate the costs of the plan administration into charges against the individual account balances, thus shifting these on to the workers.  But the workers had no choice between plan administrators:  They were chosen by the firm.  And with the firm not bearing the cost, the firm might not worry so much about what the cost was.  Rather, they might choose a plan administrator based on how good they were at making sales pitches, or whether they did other work for the firm where they might extend a discount, or based on who provided the fanciest annual conferences for their clients (the decision maker in the firm) at some resort in Hawaii.

Some firms of course make a sincere effort to choose the best balance between plan administrator cost and performance, but others do not.  But to resolve this, a simple reform would be to require that firms pay the cost of plan administration directly from the firm’s accounts, and not out of the pension savings of the workers.  This would return to what had normally been done with the traditional defined contribution pension plans, where firms had an incentive to ensure plan administration costs were kept low.

4)  Require low cost investment options be included in 401(k) and similar schemes:  One can also keep financial fees down by investing in low cost investment options, such as simple and standard index funds.  The Vanguard S&P 500 Index Fund, and now even the Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund, each charge an annual expense fee of just 0.05%.  This is far below the 1 to 2% charged by most managed mutual funds.

Such low cost options are included in many 401(k) plans, but unfortunately not all.  Such options should be required in all.

5)  Provide an option of investing in “Social Security Supplemental Accounts”:  One very low cost investment option would be to invest a portion of one’s 401(k), IRA, and similar balances, into a supplemental account managed by Social Security, which would then be paid out along with one’s regular Social Security checks.  Accounts would earn a return equal to the long-term US Treasury bond rate, the same as existing Social Security balances do now.  The option would take advantage of the extremely high efficiency of the Social Security Administration.

With the far lower cost of Social Security relative to what private financial institutions in the US charge, the net return on such investments would be attractive.  Given historical long term bond interest rates and the differences in fees, the returns would be comparable to what might be earned in pure equity investments, but far less volatile.  And the returns would be far better than what on average has been earned in actual 401(k) and IRA accounts, given how they have historically been managed.

The Social Security Supplemental Account would be purely voluntary.  No one would be forced to put a share of their 401(k) or IRA assets into them.  But this would be an attractive option for at least a share of the plan assets, earning a comparable return (after fees) but with far less risk.  It would be especially attractive to middle class families who may have significant but not huge assets in their retirement accounts, who are seeking to ensure a safe retirement.

F.  Conclusion

The returns to economic growth have become horribly skewed since Reagan took office, but there is much that could be done to address it.  This blog post has discussed a number of actions that could be taken, and if the Republican (and Democratic) candidates are truly concerned about the direction of income inequality, there is no shortage of measures to consider.  And this is not an all or nothing set of actions:  While complementary and mutually reinforcing, taking some actions is better than none, and more is better than some.  Nor are they in general administratively difficult to do.  Most are straightforward.

But action is clearly needed.