Archives: 07/2010

Retiring Official: DOT Is Sitting on Pro-Toyota Probe Results

Damning if true: 

A new report in the WSJ strongly suggests Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is unwilling to release a report on the agency’s investigation into charges of “sudden acceleration” in Toyotas because its findings are too favorable to the Japanese automaker’s case. The source is a high-ranking retiring NHTSA official, George Person, formerly chief of the agency’s Recall Management Division.

Department spokeswoman Olivia Alair describes the report as ongoing and not completed; she also denies that Person was “involved in” the probe but does not appear to deny that he was briefed on the resulting report and is familiar with its contents.

Person says some NHTSA officials objected to the keeping of the report under wraps; it is not known what position was taken by the Obama appointee who heads NHTSA, David Strickland, a former lobbyist for the trial lawyers’ association AAJ and a principal author of the horrendous children’s-product-safety law CPSIA. Earlier here.

“Wherever the science leads,” indeed.

Social Security Bloviate-fest

The annual bloviate-fest on Social Security has begun, even before the Social Security Trustees’ report has been released this year.  Apparently the report is to be released next week — after a three-month delay from its statutory release deadline of April 1. 

There’s concern from groups interested in preserving Social Security that President Obama’s National Commission on Deficit Reduction will propose changes to the program involving benefit cuts. These groups, which include the AFL-CIO, MoveOn.org, NOW, and the NAACP have issued and allegedly rebutted five “myths” about Social Security.  But their selection of myths and myth-busting arguments are weak and involves questionable arguments.

Below is a list of the twisted logic that these groups are using to convince voters that all’s well with Social Security’s finances and that we should not worry and just be happy. Also below are my reactions to the “faux-myth-busters” arguments.

Myth #1: Social Security is going broke.

Reality: There is no Social Security crisis.  By 2023, Social Security will have a $4.6 trillion surplus (yes, trillion with a ‘T’).  It can pay out all scheduled benefits for the next quarter-century with no changes whatsoever. After 2037, it’ll still be able to pay out 75% of scheduled benefits — and again, that’s without any changes. The program started preparing for the Baby Boomers’ retirement decades ago.  Anyone who insists Social Security is broke probably wants to break it themselves.

Real Reality: We’re in a vortex, and these folks refuse to extend help. Yes, I also don’t like the “crisis” terminology.  A better descriptor is “vortex,” the upper reaches of which can seem calm, for a time.  But eventually, we’ll realize that what we thought was a good place to be is really an inexorable path to the doom of being spun around super fast.

Yes, Social Security will have a surplus (of Treasury IOUs) of $4.6 trillion by 2023. But, notwithstanding the “T” attached to that sum, all’s not well.  By 2023, the program’s net liabilities (the shortfall of future revenues relative to future benefit commitments under existing laws) will exceed $20 trillion (note, also with a “T”).  Last I checked, 20 exceeds 4.6 by about four fold.

The fact that Social Security “will be able to pay” 75% of scheduled benefits after 2037 means we would have to impose a 25% benefit cut at that time if no adjustments are made earlier.  It’s said that the natural human instinct for justice emanates from a simple thought experiment — of placing oneself in the shoes of the victims. In this case, it’s those poor future souls who would have to acquiesce to a 25 percent benefit cut.  But they would be forced to do so only because the faux-myth-busting authors shrieked in horror when confronted with a much smaller benefit cut that would be required now to place the program’s finances on a sustainable course.

Myth #2: We have to raise the retirement age because people are living longer.

Reality: This is a red-herring to trick you into agreeing to benefit cuts. Retirees are living about the same amount of time as they were in the 1930s. The reason average life expectancy is higher is mostly because many fewer people die as children than they did 70 years ago. What’s more, what gains there have been are distributed very unevenly — since 1972, life expectancy increased by 6.5 years for workers in the top half of the income brackets, but by less than 2 years for those in the bottom half. But those intent on cutting Social Security love this argument because raising the retirement age is the same as an across-the-board benefit cut. 

Real Reality: Longer life spans, earlier retirement trends, a sharp decline in fertility that ended the baby-boom in the 1960s, and our failure to prepare for boomer retirements by saving adequately have all combined to expose Social Security (and our living standards) to a high risk of insolvency.

The “myth-busting” authors argue that infant mortality reductions caused most of the gains in longevity, but also that high earners benefitted more.  But the fact is that American longevity rates, as calculated by the National Center for Health Statistics, place life-expectancy at age 15 to be about 51 years in 1940 (through age 66).  Today (using 2006 life tables), it is 63.4 years (through age 78.4).  Combined with the fact that retirees beginning to collect Social Security benefits earlier (at age 62 rather than age 65), we have witnessed a very significant increase in retirement life spans.  

Skewed distributions of longevity gains by earning levels are not surprising. Higher earners are generally better educated, they know how to adopt healthy lifestyles, and have the incomes to do so.  The solution is not to take benefit cuts off the table, but to reform the system’s structure by eliminating statutory age eligibility rules AND providing stronger incentives to work longer — say, by gradually reducing payroll taxes with age and improving benefit replacement rates as incentives for working longer and beginning benefit collection later.  Incentives for such conservative choices on resource disposition (working longer and saving) would be especially enhanced the more “retirement benefits” are financed out of workers’ own resources compared to maintaining dependency on a regular government check.

Myth #3: Benefit cuts are the only way to fix Social Security. 

Reality: Social Security doesn’t need to be fixed. But if we want to strengthen it, here’s a better way: Make the rich pay their fair share.  If the very rich paid taxes on all of their income, Social Security would be sustainable for decades to come. Right now, high earners only pay Social Security taxes on the first $106,000 of their income.  But conservatives insist benefit cuts are the only way because they want to protect the super-rich from paying their fair share.

Real Reality: The system is badly in need of a structural fix.  Increasing taxes won’t strengthen Social Security, but only increase government spending as short-term Trust Fund surpluses increase.

The system was designed to be fair to everyone by not extending Social Security to the upper reaches of earnings for high earners. The program is intended to provide social insurance against the “loss of income due to old age,” not against the “loss of high income due to old age.”  High earners could self-insure against those losses if they wish by appropriately saving more for retirement. 

Under the current system, upper earners already pay more than their fair share for the appropriate level of social insurance. The Social Security benefit formula replaces only 15 cents to the dollar of their average wages above a certain threshold, whereas 90 cents are replaced for each dollar of average wages at the low end of the earnings scale. 

Moreover, increasing payroll taxes on high earners, many of whom are self employed small business owners, may push them into cutting back on business investments and hiring—precisely the activities needed to revive a sluggish economy.   

Myth #4: The Social Security Trust Fund has been raided and is full of IOUs

Reality: Not even close to true. The Social Security Trust Fund isn’t full of IOUs, it’s full of U.S. Treasury Bonds. And those bonds are backed by the full faith and credit of the United States.7 The reason Social Security holds only treasury bonds is the same reason many Americans do: The federal government has never missed a single interest payment on its debts. President Bush wanted to put Social Security funds in the stock market—which would have been disastrous—but luckily, he failed. So the trillions of dollars in the Social Security Trust Fund, which are separate from the regular budget, are as safe as can be.

Real Reality: We cannot really say one way or the other. 

We cannot observe how much the government would have spent if no Trust Fund surpluses had ever accrued. 

Two academic studies on the time trends of government spending and Trust Fund surpluses conclude that government spending increased more than dollar-for-dollar when Trust Fund surpluses increased compared to when those surpluses did not increase — suggesting (not proving) that exactly the opposite conclusion might be true.

But if we maintain that we truly don’t know whether Trust Fund surpluses are dissipated or saved — the likelihood that Trust Fund surpluses are spent must be placed at 50 percent: A very high gamble that we are dissipating Trust Fund surpluses — and odds that I would not recommend, especially for Social Security surpluses meant to be sequestered for future benefit payments. We need a better “lock box” than the Trust Funds provide in order to take Social Security fully and truly off budget.

Myth #5: Social Security adds to the deficit

Reality: It’s not just wrong—it’s impossible!  By law, Social Security’s funds are separate from the budget, and it must pay its own way. That means that Social Security can’t add one penny to the deficit.

Real Reality: By law, they are intended to be separate but, in fact, Social Security payroll-tax surpluses are no different from any other federal revenues.

Saying that Social Security must pay its own way does not preclude benefit cuts as a means of payment.  In reality, reforms to the program that are adopted eventually are likely to be pre-announced well in advance to allow affected participants to adjust their personal finances to the reality of smaller future benefits (through whatever channel) or higher taxes (of whatever kind).

But if people react by revising their expectations of smaller government retirement support and adjust their behaviors by working longer and saving more, then (a) they must be the rational, forward-looking types of individuals (whose existence is vehemently denied by defenders of Social Security), and (b) when it comes to direct changes to individuals’ resources via Social Security reforms, there’s really not much difference between tax increases and benefit cuts that are announced well in advance. To individuals, both approaches would appear as a reduction of future resources and would provoke a behavioral response. 

But a vast difference would arise in terms of the types of private behavioral response that the two alternatives would produce.  Pre-announced reductions in scheduled benefits would induce longer working lifetimes, more pre- and post-retirement saving, and larger transfers of human and physical capital to forthcoming generations of workers, which would increase their productivity. Tax increases, on the other hand, would provoke withdrawals from the work force, disincentives to saving, capital flight to low-tax countries, and reduced worker productivity. 

The faux-myth-busters need to be exposed for what they are: proponents of preserving their share of the national economic pie at the expense of our children and grandchildren. They are opponents of policies that would sustain faster economic growth and living standard improvements for successive generations.

Even Keynesian Accounting Can’t Find All That ‘Stimulus’

From January 2009 to the present, President Obama and his team have repeatedly made grandiose claims about the economic benefits of shoveling money at shovel-ready projects or green jobs.  “It is largely thanks to the Recovery Act that a second Depression is no longer a possibility,” said the President.   He also claimed that lavish spending alone (not Federal Reserve actions or bank bailouts) is what prevented the unemployment rate from “getting up to … 15%.”

If any of that were remotely close to being true then, as a matter of simple accounting, rising federal spending would have shown up as a huge offset to falling GDP in 2009, and also as a major component of the modest increase in GDP growth in early 2010.   On the contrary, the table below shows that the increase in federal nondefense spending contributed only two-tenths of one percent (0.2) to the change in GDP in 2009.  That was no better than 2008 when the Recovery Act did not exist.  If nondefense spending had not increased at all in 2009 (unlike 2008) then GDP would have fallen 2.8% rather than 2.6% — scarcely the difference between a recession and a “second Depression.”  If nondefense federal spending had not increased at all in 2010, the economy still would have grown at a 3.6% pace in the first quarter, 2.1% in the second.  Cutbacks in state and local spending were a trivial damper on GDP growth last year, contrary to recent speculation, and real state and local spending rose significantly in this year’s second quarter (unlike the first).

This is just an exercise in crude Keynesian accounting, not economics.  Yet it nonetheless makes the stimulus bill look like a huge waste of money.  The reason Keynesian accounting is no substitute for economics is that governments can only spend other peoples’ money.  To claim that such spending is a net addition to “aggregate demand” is to ignore those other people — namely, current and future taxpayers.

Nobel Laureate Robert Lucas put it this way:

If the government builds a bridge … by taking tax money away from somebody else, and using that to pay the bridge builder — the guys who work on the bridge — then it’s just a wash.  It has no first-starter effect.  There’s no reason to expect any stimulation.  And, in some sense, there’s nothing to apply a multiplier to.  You apply a multiplier to the bridge builders, then you’ve got to apply the same multiplier with a minus sign to the people you taxed to build the bridge.  And then taxing them later isn’t going to help, we know that.

Peter Ferrara’s Too-Nice Attack on Phony Washington Budget Deals

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Peter Ferrara of the Institute for Policy Innovation explains that Washington budget deals don’t work because politicians never follow through on promised spending cuts. This is a very relevant argument, since President Obama’s so-called Deficit Reduction Commission supposedly is considering a deal featuring $3 of spending cuts for every $1 of tax increases (disturbingly reminiscent of what was promised — but never delivered — as part of the infamous 1982 TEFRA budget scam).

Washington’s traditional approach to balancing the budget is to negotiate an agreement on a package of benefit cuts and tax increases. President Obama’s deficit commission seems likely to recommend just this strategy in December. The problem is that it never works. What happens is the tax increases get permanently adopted into law. But the spending cuts are almost never fully adopted and, even if they are, they are soon swept away in the next spendthrift budget. Then — because taxes weaken incentives to produce — the tax increases don’t raise the revenue that Congress initially projected and budgeted to spend. So the deficit reappears.

In 1982, congressional Democrats promised President Ronald Reagan $3 in spending cuts for every dollar in tax increases. Reagan went to his grave waiting for those spending cuts. Then there was the budget deal in 1990, when President George H.W. Bush agreed to violate his famous campaign pledge — “Read my lips, no new taxes,” he had said in 1988 — in pursuit of a balanced budget. But after the deal, the deficit increased substantially: to $290 billion in 1992 from $221 billion in 1990.

As the excerpt indicates, Peter’s column is solid and everything he writes is correct, but it suffers from one major sin of omission. He should have exposed the dishonest practice of using “current services” or “baseline” budgeting. This is the clever Washington practice of assuming that all previously planned spending increases should go into effect and categorizing any budget that increases spending by a lower amount as a spending cut. In other words, if the hypothetical “baseline” budget increases by 7 percent, and a budget is proposed that increases spending by 4 percent, that 4 percent spending increase magically gets transformed into a 3 percent spending cut.
 
Politicians love “current services” or “baseline” budgeting for two reasons. First, it allows them to have their cake and eat it too. They can simultaneously shovel more money to interest groups while telling voters they are “cutting” spending. Second, it rigs the process in favor of bigger government. This is because lawmakers who actually propose to restrain the growth of spending can be lambasted for wanting “savage” and “draconian” budget cuts totaling “trillions of dollars” when all they’re actually proposing is to have spending grow by less than the so-called baseline. But since people in the real world use honest math rather than “current services” math, they assume that spending is being reduced next year by some large amount compared to what is being spent this year. And if the phony budget cut numbers sound too big (especially for specific programs such as Medicare or Medicaid), they sometimes conclude that it would be better to raise taxes.

Speaking of which, the same misleading process works on the revenue side of the budget. The politicians automatically get to keep whatever additional revenue is generated by population growth and higher incomes, which is not trivial since revenue in a typical year grows faster than nominal GDP. But when they do a budget deal featuring X dollars of tax increases for every Y dollars of spending cuts, the additional taxes are always on top of the revenue increases that already are occurring. And since the supposed spending cuts invariably are nothing more than reductions in planned increases, it should come as no surprise that the burden of spending always seems to increase.
 
Defenders of “current services” or “baseline” budgeting will respond by arguing that spending should automatically increase because of factors such as inflation and demographic change (i.e., more seniors signing up for Medicare). Indeed, they will point out that the government is legally obligated to spend more money for entitlement programs based on current law.
 
But that’s not the point. The issue is whether the American people are being presented with honest numbers. If the fans of big government want to argue that spending should increase by 7 percent for various reasons, they should openly and honestly explain what they are trying to do. And if they disagree with lawmakers who want spending to increase by 4 percent, they should be forthright and tell voters that “this proposal does not increase spending by enough because of…” and list the reasons why they want spending to grow even faster.
 
Unfortunately, deceptive budget practices in Washington are a feature, not a bug. But if you pay close attention, they are very revealing. If the President’s Deficit Reduction Commission uses “baseline” or “current services” budgeting as a benchmark for determining spending “cuts” and tax increases, that’s a good sign that the crowd in Washington wants to pull a fast one on the American people.

Imports Viewed Skeptically at the Washington Post

What explains the chronically misleading depictions and interpretations of international trade in the Washington Post?  Is it economic illiteracy? Intellectual indifference? Institutional bias? What?

The opening paragraph in Neil Irwin’s story (online, July 30, 2010, 9:13 am) reads:

The pace of economic growth slowed this spring, according to new government data, as Americans remained reluctant to consume and imports soared.

And a few paragraphs later:

The biggest drain on growth was imports, which rose 28.8 percent, compared with only a 10.3 percent gain in exports.

On July 14, one day after the Commerce Department’s monthly trade figures were released, revealing a slight increase in the trade deficit, the opening paragraph in the Washington Post story under the heading “Rising Imports Offset Export Gains” read:

America’s resurgent appetite for imports may undermine the Obama administration’s efforts to rekindle job growth, with a rise in overseas purchases by American businesses and households undercutting the benefits of increased U.S. sales abroad.

I have posted about this problem again and again and again and again and again (just this year), but apparently to no avail. The simplistic scoreboard interpretation of trade (where exports are considered “our” team’s points and imports “their” team’s) combined with a zeal for inciting fears about economic collapse seems to remain the formula of choice at the WaPo.

As I wrote yesterday:

U.S. producers account for over half of the value of U.S. imports, which means there is great potential to increase their competitiveness by improving their access to imports.  It also explains the strong correlation between imports and exports, between imports and GDP, and between imports and job growth — facts that too many politicians wish to expunge from the record. 

Along with politicians at the end of the last sentence, I should have included a certain newspaper.

Education Standards at Work —- the NY Debacle

President Obama today touted his Race to the Top program, which pressures states to, among other things, adopt national education standards. Also today, the New York Board of Regents revealed that it had been misleading its citizens for years, giving them an inflated notion of how well their children were performing academically. Last year 77 percent of students were ”proficient” in English according to NY state standards. This year it’s 53 percent.

So what’s to stop this from happening at a national level? In fact, what’s to stop an endless cycle of setting high standards that produce low scores, gradually dumbing the standards down to give the illusion of progress, and then resetting them to a high level again when the deceit is discovered?

At any stage of this cycle, officials can claim that students are showing improvement or that steps are being taken to raise standards — without any need to, you know, improve the schools.

Instead, we could just adopt in education the same system of freedom and incentives  that’s been responsible for actual progress in every other area of human activity for the past two centuries. Or is that just too obvious?

The Letter Is Different, but the Spirit Still Lives

An update from my post yesterday about the bill to establish a Commission to End the Trade Deficit (now called the “Emergency Trade Deficit Commission”): apparently the bill that passed the House was different from the bill initially considered, and to which I linked (and commented). My apologies.

The bill that was passed had many of the most egregious provisions and provocative wording stripped out. There was no talk of eliminating the trade deficit, for example. And the provision that would have prohibited congressional consideration of any trade deal before the Commission reported is, thankfully, gone too. But I would suggest that the underlying message of the bill — that individuals cannot be trusted to make their own decisions about which products to buy, and from where — is intact. There are plenty of references to “improving trade balances,” “enhancing the competitiveness of U.S. manufacturers,” and environmental and labor standards.  I stand by comments about those sentiments.

Maybe a commission is a useful way of distracting members of Congress from actually doing anything, and certainly this bill is less offensive than the original, but it still betrays an unwillingness of some members of Congress to let consumers and firms make decisions without a commission studying, reporting on, and possibly correcting them.

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