Topic: Finance, Banking & Monetary Policy

The Left Embraces the Shock Doctrine

Last week Rahm Emanuel said to a prestigious audience, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. It’s an opportunity to do things you could not do before.”

And that’s just the strategy that bestselling author Naomi Klein accuses right-wingers of employing. Weaving a convoluted yet superficially simple tale of world events, she claims in her book The Shock Doctrine that right-wing ideologues and governments both use and create moments of crisis to implement their nefarious agenda.

“Some people stockpile canned goods and water in preparation for major disasters,” Klein writes. “Friedmanites stockpile free-market ideas.” Which is exactly what American left-liberals have been doing in anticipation of a Democratic administration coming to power at a time when the public might be frightened into accepting more government than it normally would. The Center for American Progress, for instance, run by John Podesta, who was President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff and is now President-elect Obama’s transition director, has just released Change for America: A Progressive Blueprint for the 44th President.

The ideas in that report mesh well with the opportunities that Emanuel identified. After re-emphasizing the opportunities that crisis provides, he told his audience that the Obama administration wanted to use the opportunity to implement central planning of health care and energy, higher taxes, a federal program directed at “training the workforce,” and tighter control of financial institutions and capital flows.

But Emanuel isn’t the only one. As I mentioned previously, Paul Krugman has also endorsed the “don’t let a good crisis go to waste” power grab.

And now Arianna Huffington, the founder of the left-wing bulletin board HuffingtonPost, makes the same point in a public radio appearance. On KCRW’s “Left, Right, and Center,” November 21 (at about 27:20 in the podcast), she declared: “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste. And it might be this particular crisis that will make it possible for the Obama administration to do some really innovative, bold things on health care, on energy independence, on all the areas that have been neglected.” (Hat tip: Thaddeus Russell.) Last year Huffington wrote a rave review of The Shock Doctrine, calling it “prophetic.” So it seems.

So … Emanuel. Krugman. Huffington. They’re all rallying around the theme that, well, that a left-liberal government should use this crisis to implement a more sweeping agenda than it could achieve in the absence of crisis. That’s the Shock Doctrine. Where are Naomi Klein and her legion of fans to expose and denounce it?

Of course, Klein might well decry their corporatist, big government/big business plans as just another example of Friedmanite/neoconservative/Pinochetist right-wing ideology. Anything other than local worker’s collectives smells like capitalism to her. So she can add the Obama administration to Milton Friedman, laissez-faire, the Bush administration, the Iraqi government, the Pinochet government, the Chinese Communist Party, and the ANC government of South Africa on the list of things that seem so many peas in a pod to her.

The San Francisco Chronicle says that Klein “may well have revealed the master narrative of our time.” The reviewer may have been more right than he knew.

Should We Blame Greenspan?

Alan Greenspan, once regarded as a Maestro, and so admired that people actually believed a New Republic article by Stephen Glass and Jonathan Chait claiming that a Wall Street financial firm had a literal shrine to him, is now being blamed for the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Is that fair? Did Greenspan’s Fed create the dot-com boom, the dot-com bust, the housing boom, and/or the housing bust and the ensuing financial crisis?

Two weeks ago Cato published a paper by David Henderson and Jeffrey Hummel with the now-controversial and counterintuitive thesis that “although Greenspan’s policies weren’t perfect, his monetary policy was in fact tight, and his legacy is one of having overseen low and stable inflation and a striking dampening of the business cycle.”

This week Cato published a paper by Lawrence H. White with a very different perspective. White argues that after the dot-com bust, the Greenspan Fed held interest rates extremely low for several years, setting off what Cato senior fellow Steve Hanke called “the mother of all liquidity cycles and yet another massive demand bubble.”

Back in May, Gerald P. O’Driscoll Jr. had also sharply criticized the Greenspan Fed in a Cato Briefing Paper. He wrote that the Fed had been creating asset bubbles and moral hazard by its implicit policy of intervening to keep asset prices high.

More perspectives were heard this week at Cato’s Annual Monetary Conference. Video of the conference can be found here, and the papers will eventually be published in the Cato Journal.

Subsidizing Reckless Behavior

Politicians specialize in bad law, but sometimes they go above and beyond ordinary incompetence in their search for foolish policy. The mortgage bailout is a good example. As an article in the San Francisco Chronicle explains, feckless government policy creates an incentive for people to default on their mortgages:

Should you keep paying your mortgage?

If you have significant equity in your home, absolutely.

If you don’t, it’s getting harder to answer that question, especially when our government keeps giving people who owe more than their homes are worth so many reasons not to pay.

Last week, the government announced a program that will substantially lower payments for many homeowners who have little or no equity, but only if they are at least 90 days delinquent.

Critics say the plan, which applies to loans owned or guaranteed by government wards Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac among others, could encourage people to suspend payments.

…Last year, Congress started removing some financial hazards of default when it passed a bill that temporarily waives the income tax on mortgage debt that is canceled when a homeowner is foreclosed upon, sells a home for less than the remaining debt (a short sale) or gets a loan modification that reduces the principal balance.

…Peter Schiff, president of Euro Pacific Capital, predicts that many homeowners who have little or no equity will stop paying their mortgage and then reduce their income to get the biggest payment cut possible. They could stop working overtime or, if two spouses work, one could quit.After the modification, they could try to boost their income again.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Schiff says. “People are going to feel like complete morons if they don’t participate. The people getting punished are the ones who never made an irresponsible decision to buy a house they couldn’t afford.”

The government is offering loan servicers $800 for every homeowner they get into the plan.

Schiff predicts that loan agents “will be cold-calling people trying to get them into it. Just like they encouraged people to overstate their income to get a bigger loan in the first place, now they will encourage them to understate their income to qualify for a smaller loan.”

Lord, Make Me Chaste, But Not Yet

From a WSJ blog:

Former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, speaking at the same event, also pushed fiscal stimulus while stressing the importance of signaling concerns about the deficit. “The single most important thing we can do right now is a very large fiscal stimulus married with a commitment, once the economy is healthy again, to put in place a multi-year program to get back to a sound fiscal position,” he said.

Reply to Robert Gordon & James Kvaal’s WSJ letter

In a letter to the Wall Street Journal (Nov. 5), Robert Gordon and James Kvaal responded to my critique of their estimate that McCain’s tax plan would cut big oil’s taxes by $3.8 billion. They claim that “corporations as profitable as ExxonMobil pay a 35% rate on more than 99% of their profits.” Yet they also say, “Our code is riddled with special interest deductions, credits and exemptions that shield corporate profits from tax.” Well, which is it?

If big oil companies actually “pay a 35% rate on more than 99% of their profits,” then Gordon and Kvaal might be justified in ignoring McCain’s bold plan to end the oil companies’ “deductions, credits and exemptions.”

As the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget noted, “Senator McCain … would repeal special expensing rules for oil and gas companies, eliminate the foreign tax credit for oil companies, disallow expensing of exploration and development costs, encourage an increase in royalty rates for drilling on public land, subject working interests in oil and gas to the passive loss rules, eliminate 15 percent tax credit for enhanced oil recovery costs for tertiary wells, and eliminate special depreciable lifetimes for certain assets used by oil companies.”

CFARB estimated that McCain’s plan to tighten up deductions and credits would raise oil company taxes by $6 billion in 2013. That would certainly be offset to some extent, of course, by lower tax rates—30% in 2010-11 and 28% in 2012-2013 (Gordon and Kvaal wrongly assumed the rate would drop to 25% in 2009).

If big oil really pays 35% tax on virtually all their profits, however, then such loophole-closing would simply be a waste of time.

If big oil does not surrender 35% of profits to the IRS, however, then Gordon and Kvaal’s estimates (which assume that statutory tax rates are the same as effective tax rates) are worthless.

Their estimates are based on earnings reported to the SEC — earnings as defined by Financial Accounting Standard Board (FASB) accounting rules, not by IRS reporting rules. Gordon and Kvaal acknowledge that “The figures reported on tax returns … may differ because corporations employ different methodologies for calculating income for accounting and tax purposes.”

If any corporation reported SEC/FASB earnings to the IRS, they would be in very big trouble with the IRS. If they reported IRS earnings to the SEC, they would be in very big trouble with the SEC.

FASB, for example, insists that the “fair value” of nonqualified stock options be estimated when the options are granted, regardless of their ultimate worth. The IRS, by contrast, is not about to let firms deduct the estimated cost of anything. The IRS insists that companies deduct the labor cost of stock options only if and when they exercised and therefore taxed as individual income.

Using a matched sample of financial statements with tax returns, George Plesko of the University of Connecticut business school found that “financial reporting information does not allow a user to infer important information about a firm’s tax attributes.”

Ignoring Plesko’s well-known point, Gordon and Kvaal report that ExxonMobil paid $4.3 billion in federal income tax in 2007, which they assume was 35% of their domestic profits as shown on SEC financial reports.

Their estimates then “present each corporation’s estimated savings from reducing the corporate tax from 35 percent to 25 percent.”

Since a 25% tax rate is 28.57% smaller than a 35% tax rate, they figured that ExxonMobil would have saved 28.57% of $4.3 billion, or $1.2 billion. They repeated such naïve arithmetic for the entire Fortune 200.

ExxonMobil’s accounting profits were almost $41. billion, worldwide, but 68% of their revenue came from overseas according to Forbes (Apr 21). If profits are roughly proportionate to gross revenue, then U.S. earnings would have been $13 billion (32% of the total), and a tax of $4.3 billion happens to be 33% of $13 billion.

At first glance, that might appear consistent with Gordon and Kvaal’s claim that companies as profitable as ExxonMobil really do pay 35% of profits to Uncle Sam. But that would contradict their other claim that “deductions, credits and exemptions … shield corporate profits from tax.”

If we repeat that same exercise for the least international oil companies on the Gordon-Kvaal list, it looks as if Valero paid 40% of domestic profits in federal tax and Conoco Phillips paid 47.6%. As economist and accountants understand, the reason accounting earnings generate such unbelievably high tax rates is that it is just not possible to infer effective corporate tax rates from accounting earnings as Gordon and Kvaal attempted to do.

As I wrote, “That is not economics; it is not even competent bookkeeping.”

Messrs. Gordon and Kvaal thought I was criticizing them for being lawyers rather than economists or competent bookkeepers. On the contrary, I was criticizing President-elect Obama for using estimates from John Podesta’s Center for American Progress Action Fund —a 501c4 political lobby with a rather obvious bias. Unlike any think tank, such political action funds are free to engage in lobbying and campaign activity. Indeed, Gordon and Kvaal boast that “our results have been featured in millions of dollars worth of advertising.” Well, that certainly adds credibility doesn’t it?

A Tale of Two Auto Industry Business Plans

As Detroit’s lobbyists rack up the expenses trying to paint the Big Three and the UAW as innocent victims of the credit crunch, American workers cheer the groundbreaking of an American automobile plant in the American heartland by Honda, which has been producing vehicles in Marysville, Ohio for more than a quarter century now.

Let’s not forget that it’s these companies – the one’s capable of making the investments in manufacturing, the one’s who are leading the way in terms of producing fuel-efficient, comfortable, stylish vehicles that Americans have been inclined to purchase – that are implicitly taxed and burdened when their competition is subsidized.

A “bailout” costs taxpayers/consumers in many more ways than one.