Topic: Government and Politics

Bipartisan Baloney About Top 1 Percent Income Gains

In the State of the Union address on January 20, President Obama said, “those at the top have never done better… Inequality has deepened.”  The following day, Fox News anchor Brett Baier said, “According to the work of Emmanuel Saez, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, during the post-recession years of 2009-2012, top earners snagged a greater share of total income growth than during the boom years of 2002-2007. In other words, income inequality has become more pronounced since the Bush administration, not less.” 

Senator Bernie Sanders agrees that “in recent years, over 99 percent of all new income generated in the economy has gone to the top 1 percent.”  And Senator Ted Cruz likewise confirmed that, “The top 1 percent under President Obama, the millionaires and billionaires that he constantly demagogued earned a higher share for our income than any year since 1928.” 

When any statistic is so politically useful and wildly popular among left-wing Democrats and right-wing Republicans you can be pretty sure it’s baloney.  Bipartisan baloney.

In November 2013, I wrote that, “Because reported capital gains and bonuses were…shifted forward from 2013 to 2012 [to avoid higher tax rates], we can expect a sizable drop in the top 1 percent’s reported income when the 2013 estimates come out a year from now. The befuddled media will doubtless figure out some way to depict that drop as an increase.” As predicted, the New York Times took one look at a 14.9% drop in top 1% incomes and concluded that “The Gains from the Recovery are Still Limited to the Top One Percent” That involved slicing the same old baloney very badly.

How Not to Spin a Big Drop in Top 1% Incomes

Pre-1944 method of estimating top 1% shares

When Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez release their annual estimates of top 1 percent incomes, you can count on The New York Times to put it in a front page headline with additional hype on the editorial page.  This time, however, the news was that the top 1 percent had suffered a 14.9 percent decline in real income in 2013 if capital gains are included, as they always had been until now.  

The New York Times heroic spin was “The Gains From the Economic Recovery Are Still Limited to the Top One Percent.”  The author, Justin Wolfers of the Peterson Institute wrote, “Emmanuel Saez … has just released preliminary estimates for 2013. The share of total income (excluding capital gains) going to the top 1 percent remains above one ­sixth, at 17.5 percent. By this measure, the concentration of income among the richest Americans remains at levels last seen nearly a century ago.”

I will have more to say about this in another blog post.  For now, I just want to call attention to the artistic way in which the subject was changed.  Since 2008, Saez has been comparing changes in top incomes (for which he has preliminary IRS data) to incomes of the bottom 90 percent (for which IRS data are singularly inappropriate).   He always included realized capital gains because that makes the top 1 percent share both larger and more cyclical.

If We Decide to Keep Fannie Mae Around…

I’ve repeatedly said since 2009 that the further in time we get from the crisis, the greater the probability that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac would survive in some form.  Such looks like an ever-increasing likelihood.  I’m occasionally asked if there are any reforms that would make Fannie & Freddie acceptable.  I’m tempted to say “no.” 

In the spirit of lively debate, I submit the following changes to address most of the flaws in the government sponsored enterprise (GSE) model that would also allow the companies to survive in some form.  I do emphasize that this is not an argument for keeping the GSEs.  That’s a different question altogether.

1)   Open up the charters to competition.  If we learned anything from the rampant corruption that characterized early 1800s U.S. state banking, it is that legislators shouldn’t give out exclusive charters.  Accordingly, the government should delegate chartering authority to the regulator and allow anyone who can meet the requirements to get a charter.

2)   Increase Capital.  Fannie and Freddie were (and still are) massively leveraged.  Laurie Goodman suggests 4 to 5 percent would be a reasonable minimum capital.  I believe something closer to what insurance companies have–around 8 percent (real, not risk-weighted) would be appropriate.  While I’m not completely in the Admati camp on capital, I do agree with her general point that capital isn’t “dead” –it would be used for lending.  And since GSEs aren’t providing some form of payment medium like banks, I see little cost to requiring higher capital levels. So I’d say 8 percent, if not more.

3)   Ditch loan limits, go with income.  In order to make sure these entities actually serve middle-class America, rather than be a subsidy to the well-off, we should eliminate the loan limits and make mortgage eligibility based on income.  This is similar to the USDA’s Rural Housing Service loans.

4)   Break ‘em up.  This might be the most controversial, but simply allowing other institutions to enter the market is unlikely to guarantee sufficient competition.  We broke up Ma Bell.  Under any antitrust standard, Fannie and Freddie are a duopoly.  Unless we are repealing the Sherman Act, the two companies should be broken into at least 6 pieces each and barred from merging.  Existing shareholders would get shares in the off-spring companies.

5)   Require More Mortgage Insurance.  In order to protect the taxpayer, mortgage insurance companies should take the first 35 percent of loss, instead of the customary 20 percent.

6)   Improve Underwriting Standards.  End the housing goals and require minimum down payments of 5 percent and minimum FICO scores of 700.

7)   End all securities law exemptions.  Subject companies to 1933 & 1934 Act requirements. 

8)   End banking law preferences.  Banks aren’t allowed to hold corporate equity, except for that of GSEs.  We know how that turned out.  For the purposes of all banking regulation, especially capital and asset concentration limits, treat GSE securities as you would any other corporate security.

9)   Limit portfolios.  Allow portfolios to be used for an inventory function only. A minimum of 90 percent of debt issued should be required to be mortgage-backed securities (MBS).

These are just some initial thoughts.  Implementing all of these would go a long way towards bringing competition to our mortgage markets and protecting the taxpayer.  If some remain concerned that this lacks a “catastrophic” backstop, then we can allow the Federal Home Loan Banks to discount advances on the MBS issued by these new and improved GSEs.

Defending the Right to Offend

Between 1861 and 1865, Texas was in a state of rebellion, waging war against the United States under the flag of the Confederacy. Texas has never offered any indication that it’s ashamed of this history. Indeed, the state recognizes April as Confederate History Month and spends January 19 celebrating Confederate Heroes Day. Yet now Texas is before the Supreme Court, arguing that its citizens’ sensibilities must be spared the sight of the Confederate flag in one particular context.

The case involves a state agency that knows well what it is to cause universal offense: the Department of Motor Vehicles. Texas’s DMV, like that of many states, runs a program that allows private organizations such as charities, universities, and businesses to design their own “specialty” license plates—not to be confused with “vanity” plates, where the vehicle owner chooses the letters/numbers on her plate—which can then be purchased through the DMV. The current range of customized plates on offer in the Lone Star State include messages that are patriotic (“God Bless America”), fannish (“Dallas Cowboys”), socially conscious (“Be a Blood Donor”), commercial (“Dr. Pepper”), and completely immoral (“Young Lawyers”).

These custom plates include a near-limitless variety of slogans, symbols, logos, and color patterns—something for everyone’s taste. Except the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Their design, which included a miniature depiction of the Confederate battle flag, was rejected by the DMV on the grounds that some members of the public would find it offensive.

It’s certainly right about that—and the relevant statute authorizes the DMV to reject any design that “might be offensive to any member of the public”—but do we really want the government determining what’s “too offensive”?

Hayek vs. Government Health Care

In “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” economist F.A. Hayek described how markets take into account an array of local knowledge that governments do not possess. It is “knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place,” which enters into everyday exchanges, but central authorities cannot access it. That’s because it “never exists in concentrated or integrated form but solely as the dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all the separate individuals possess.” This sort of knowledge is tacit and subjective, so “by its nature cannot enter into statistics and therefore cannot be conveyed to any central authority in statistical form.”

Cato adjunct scholar Jeff Singer is a surgeon practicing in Phoenix, and his op-ed today in the Wall Street Journal illustrates Hayek’s point. The federal government has mandated that health providers adopt electronic records to the specifications of the central planners in Washington. A theme in Jeff’s piece is that there is tacit and localized aspects of his practice that the government did not know about, and did not bother to find out about, before it imposed its top-down rules.

Fact Checking the Fed on “Audit the Fed”

With the introduction of bills in both the House (H.R. 24) and Senate (S.264) allowing for a GAO audit of the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy, officials at both the Board and regional Fed banks have launched an attack on these efforts.  While we should all welcome this debate, it should be one based on facts.  Unfortunately some Fed officials have made a number of statements that could at best be called misleading. 

For instance Fed Governor Jerome Powell recently claimed “Audit the Fed also risks inserting the Congress directly into monetary policy decisionmaking”.  I’ve read and re-read every word of these bills and have yet to find such.  H.R. 24/S.264 provide for no role at all for Congress to insert itself into monetary policy, other than Congress’ existing powers.  I would urge Governor Powell to point us to which particular part of the bill he is referring to, as I cannot find it.

Dr. Krugman Meets Dr. Fox

Dr. Paul Krugman, the hyper-productive New York Times columnist and Nobel laureate, has produced a flood of fiscal factoids. He argues that the only way to put the major economies around the world back on track is to “stimulate” them via deficit-financed government spending.

Most recently, Dr. Krugman has weighed in repeatedly on Greece’s travails with his fiscalist snake oil. His column of January 26th, “Ending Greece’s Nightmare,” makes it clear that he thinks he can deliver an elixir.

Not so fast Doctor. A mountain of evidence shows that the elixir is a fiscal factoid. Never mind.