Tag: Living standards

President Obama’s Dubious Claims about Incomes of the Top 1% vs. the Bottom 90%

“In the last decade, the average income of the bottom 90 percent of all working Americans actually declined,” Obama said on April 13. “The top 1 percent saw their income rise by an average of more than a quarter of a million dollars each.”

Politi-Fact, partly on the basis of my own research, generously rates the president’s claim as “Half True.”

The truth is that the President’s source, Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, refer only to pretax, pretransfer income reported on individual tax returns (as opposed to being sheltered inside a corporation or IRA or simply unreported), and they have no data on the bottom 90%. Worst of all, they leave out transfer payments, which amounted to $2.3 trillion last year — 44% as large as all private wages and salaries ($5.2 trillion). The data also excludes refundable tax credits, which added about $170 billion to low and middle incomes in 2009 according to the the Joint Committee on Taxation (the EITC, child credit and Obama’s “making work pay” credit). And the Bureau of Economic Analysis estimates that gross income reported on tax returns is about $1 trillion less than actual income.

As for the top 1%, my research shows that top investors report more capital gains and dividends when those tax rates go down, which is why they paid such a big share of income taxes (up to 40%) in 1997-2000 and 2003-2007.  Raise the tax on dividends and capital gains to 23.8%, as Obama hopes to do by 2014, and somebody else would have to pay the taxes now paid by the top 1%. Using income reported to the IRS to measure actual living standards is foolhardy at best.

Now He Tells Us…

Here’s a story for the better-late-than-never file. Former Cuban dictator Fidel Castro confessed that communism doesn’t work and that his nation’s economic system should not be emulated.

Fidel Castro told a visiting American journalist that Cuba’s communist economic model doesn’t work, a rare comment on domestic affairs from a man who has conspicuously steered clear of local issues since stepping down four years ago. The fact that things are not working efficiently on this cash-strapped Caribbean island is hardly news. Fidel’s brother Raul, the country’s president, has said the same thing repeatedly. But the blunt assessment by the father of Cuba’s 1959 revolution is sure to raise eyebrows. Jeffrey Goldberg, a national correspondent for The Atlantic magazine, asked if Cuba’s economic system was still worth exporting to other countries, and Castro replied: “The Cuban model doesn’t even work for us anymore” Goldberg wrote Wednesday in a post on his Atlantic blog.

Too bad Castro didn’t have this epiphany 50 years ago. The Cuban people languish in abject poverty as a result of Castro’s oppressive policies. Food is harshly rationed and other basic amenities are largely unavailable (except, of course, to the party elite). This chart, comparing inflation-adjusted per-capita GDP in Chile and Cuba, is a good illustration of the human cost of excessive government. Living standards in Cuba have languished. In Chile, by contrast, the embrace of market-friendly policies has resulted in a huge increase in prosperity. Chileans were twice as rich as Cubans when Castro seized control of the island. After 50 years of communism in Cuba and 30 years of liberalization in Chile, the gap is now much larger.

Son of the Stimulus

Like the sequel to a horror film, the politicians in Washington just passed another stimulus proposal. Only this time, they’re calling it a “jobs bill” in hopes that a different name will yield a better result.

But if past performance is any indicator of future results, this is bad news for taxpayers. By every possible measure, the first stimulus was a flop. But don’t take my word for it. Instead, look at what the White House said would happen.

The Administration early last year said that doing nothing would mean an unemployment rate of nine percent. Spending $787 billion, they said, was necessary to keep the unemployment rate at eight percent instead.

So what happened? As millions of Americans can painfully attest, the jobless rate actually climbed to 10 percent, a full percentage point higher than Obama claimed it would be if no bill was passed.

The President and his people also are arguing that the so-called stimulus is responsible for two million jobs. Yet according to the Department of Labor, total employment has dropped significantly – by more than three million – since the so-called stimulus was adopted. The White House wants us to believe this sow’s ear is really a silk purse by claiming that the economy actually would have lost more than five million jobs without all the new pork-barrel spending. This is the infamous “jobs saved or created” number. The advantage of this approach is that there are no objective benchmarks. Unemployment could climb to 15 percent, but Obama’s people can always say there would be two million fewer jobs without all the added government spending.

To be fair, this does not mean that Obama’s supposed stimulus caused unemployment to jump to 10 percent. In all likelihood, a big jump in unemployment was probably going to occur regardless of whether politicians squandered another $787 billion. The White House was foolish to make specific predictions that now can be used to discredit the stimulus, but it’s also true that Obama inherited a mess – and that mess seems to be worse than most people thought.

Moreover, it takes time for an Administration to implement changes and impact the economy’s performance. Reagan took office in early 1981 during an economic crisis, for instance, and it took about two years for his policies to rejuvenate the economy. It certainly seems fair to also give Obama time to get the economy moving again.

That being said, there is little reason to expect good results for Obama in the future. Reagan reversed the big-government policies of his predecessor. Obama, by contrast, is continuing Bush’s big-government approach. Heck, the only real difference in their economic policies is that Bush was a borrow-and-spender and Obama is a borrow-and-tax-and-spender.

This raises an interesting question: Since last year’s stimulus was a flop, isn’t the Administration making a big mistake by doing the same thing all over again?

The President’s people actually are being very clever. Recessions don’t last forever. Indeed, the average downturn lasts only about one year. And since the recession began back in late 2007, it’s quite likely that the economic recovery already has begun (the National Bureau of Economic Research is the organization that eventually will announce when the recession officially ended).

So let’s consider the political incentives for the Administration. Last year’s stimulus is seen as a flop. So as the economy recovers this year, it will be difficult for Obama to claim that this was because of a pork-filled spending bill adopted early last year. But with the passing of a supposed jobs bill, that puts them in a position to take credit for a recovery that was already happening anyway.

That may be smart politics, but it’s not good economics. The issue has never been whether the economy would climb out of recession. The real challenge is whether the economy will enjoy good growth once the recovery begins. Unfortunately, the Obama Administration policies of bigger government – combined with the Bush Administration policies of bigger government – will permanently lower the baseline growth of the United States.

If America becomes a big-government welfare state like France, then it’s quite likely that we will suffer from French-style stagnation and lower living standards.

America vs. Europe

The blogosphere has been buzzing with a debate on whether America or Europe is more prosperous. A partial list of contestants includes Jim Manzi, Paul Krugman, Matt Welch, Megan McArdle, Matthew Yglesias,  and Tino (don’t know who he is, but his blog has lots of good info).

I’ve addressed this issue in the past, with detailed comparisons in my Cato study on the Nordic Model, as well as a paper for the Heritage Foundation looking at Fiscal Policy Lessons from Europe.

I’m frankly shocked when people claim Europe is as rich as the United States, for the simple reason that the data showing otherwise is so abundant. The following charts, both from presumably impeccable sources, should be more than enough to end the argument. The first one is from OECD data (see page 6), showing average individual consumption per capita. I compare America to the EU-15 (Western Europe), but then also add Norway and Switzerland to the mix to boost the European score.

The next bit of data comes from a Danish Finance Ministry study (see page 3), and it shows another measure of individual consumption per capita. Once again, I only look at Western Europe, as defined by the EU-15 plus Norway and Swtizerland. And I even include consumption financed by government transfers. Nonetheless, the gap between U.S. and European living standards is stunning.

The data for both these charts is from earlier this decade, but as this up-to-date OECD data on economic performance indicates, the United States certainly has not lost any ground relative to Western Europe in recent years. Last but not least, this post is not an attack on Western Europe, which is a very wealthy region by global standards. But the data certainly show that America is even richer. And since the biggest policy difference between the U.S. and Western Europe is the burden of government, this certainly suggests that the Bush-Obama policies of bigger government and more intervention may not be a path to more prosperity.

One final comment. Luxembourg is the one Western European nation that ranks above the United States according to both the OECD and the Danish Finance Ministry. If any statists want to suggest that we mimic Luxembourg’s tax haven policies, you can count on my support.