Archive for August, 2017

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“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

Alice in Wonderland (pdf) is the key to understanding much of what is happening in the world today—especially the language of economics.

For example, we’re going to hear and read a great deal about tax reform in the days and weeks ahead. But, based on the proposals I’ve seen, nothing in the way of tax reform is being proposed.

The usual meaning of reform is that it involves changes for the better. Most of the so-called reforms that are being proposed by the Trump administration—including the vague speech by Donald Trump yesterday—are just cuts in the tax rates that will directly benefit wealthy individuals and large corporations.

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Supposedly, the rest of us will eventually benefit because of increased investment. However, as is clear from the chart above, both corporate profits and private domestic investment are doing just fine without a cut in tax rates. But the benefits to the rest of us simply haven’t appeared.

Moreover, as I have explained before, U.S. corporations are not losing out in the competitive battle with foreign corporations because they face tax rates that are much too high.

And, no, as I have also explained, repatriating corporate profits will not lead to more investment, government revenues, and jobs.

In fact, as Patrician Cohen makes clear, the whole idea of repatriating profits held abroad makes no sense.

That’s because repatriation is not really about geography. Most of the money is not stashed in some underground vault overseas, but already in American financial institutions and capital markets. Repatriation is in effect a legal category that requires a company to book the money in the United States — and pay taxes on it — before it can be distributed to shareholders or invested domestically.

The whole notion of earnings trapped offshore is misleading, Steven M. Rosenthal, a tax lawyer and senior fellow at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center. “The earnings are not ‘trapped,’” he said. “They’re not offshore. They’re not even earnings. They’re accounting gimmicks that allow earnings to be shifted abroad.”

What’s more, companies already get something akin to tax-free repatriation by borrowing against those funds, with the added bonus of being able to deduct the interest paid on those loans from their tax bill.

What if corporations are induced to book their overseas profits in the United States? We probably won’t see much if any increase in private investment, since corporations aren’t facing any kind constraint in profits or their ability to borrow beyond their current profits. What is much more likely is some combination of more mergers and acquisitions, more stock buybacks, more payouts to shareholders, and more compensation distributed to CEOS.*

And that’s going to lead to even more inequality in the United States.

Alice surely would have seen through the meanings of all these misleading words concerning tax reform.

 

*AT&T is a good example of a company that already passes a low effective tax rate by exploiting tax breaks and loopholes. However, according to Sarah Anderson,

Despite the enormous savings AT&T has realized, the company has been downsizing. Although it hires thousands of people a year, the company, by our analysis at the Institute for Policy Studies, reduced its total work force by nearly 80,000 jobs between 2008 and 2016, accounting for acquisitions and spinoffs each involving more than 2,000 workers.

The company has also spent $34 billion repurchasing its own stock since 2008, according to our institute report, a maneuver that artificially inflates the value of a company’s shares. This is money that could have gone toward research and development or hiring.

Companies buy back their stock for various reasons — to take advantage of undervaluation, to reward stockholders by increasing the value of their shares or to make the company look more attractive to investors. And there is another reason. Because most executive compensation these days is based on stock value, higher share prices can raise the compensation of chief executives and other top company officials.

Since 2008, [AT&T CEO Randall] Stephenson has cashed in $124 million in stock options and grants.

Many other large American corporations have also been playing the tax break and loophole game. Their huge tax savings have enriched executives but not created significant numbers of new jobs.

Boeing is another good example. As Justin Miller explains,

Boeing has received a tax refund in five of the past ten years. It saves itself $542 million a year using a special domestic manufacturing tax break, and $1.8 billion in further cuts thanks to a research and development tax credit. Boeing also benefits from the immensely favorable depreciation schedules on capital that has saved it billions of dollars over the past decade.

Boeing also entered into a $9 billion tax incentive deal with Washington state back in 2013—the largest corporate subsidy ever—to “maintain and grow its workforce within the state.” But, as Michael Hiltzik points out in the Los Angeles Times, the company has since cut nearly 13,000 jobs (about 15 percent of its Washington workforce) as it sets up shop in cheaper states that offer incentives of their own.

It still manages to enrich its shareholders though. On the same day that it announced a production slowdown in December, Hiltzik notes, Boeing also announced a 30 percent increase in its quarterly dividend and a new $14 billion share-buyback program.

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By now, everyone knows that Joel Osteen, the Prosperity Gospel preacher in Houston’s Lakewood Church, initially refused to open the doors to shelter the victims of Tropical Storm Harvey.

That’s certainly a good reason for people to hate Osteen.

Kate Bowler [ht: ji], the author of Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel, offers three other reasons for hating Osteen:

#1—Osteen represents the Christian 1 percent

From aerial views of his jaw-dropping mansion to the cut of his navy suits, he always looks like a man with a good reason to be smiling. He is a wealthy man who unapologetically preaches that God has blessed him, with the added bonus that God can bless anyone else, too. The promise of the prosperity gospel is that it has found a formula that guarantees that God always blesses the righteous with health, wealth and happiness. For that reason, churchgoers love to see their preachers thrive as living embodiments of their own message. But the inequality that makes Osteen an inspiration is also what makes him an uncomfortable representation of the deep chasms in the land of opportunity between the haves and the have-nots. When the floodwaters rise, no one wants to see him float by on his yacht, as evidenced by the Christian satire website the Babylon Bee’s shot Tuesday at Osteen: “Joel Osteen Sails Luxury Yacht Through Flooded Houston To Pass Out Copies Of ‘Your Best Life Now.’ ”

#2—There is a lingering controversy around prosperity megachurches and their charitable giving

When a church that places enormous theological weight on tithes and offerings is not a leader in charitable giving, the most obvious question is about who is the primary beneficiary of the prosperity gospel? The everyman or the man at the front?

#3—The Prosperity Gospel’s answer to the question about evil in the world is not unlike the one offered by neoclassical economics

Its central claim — “Everyone can be prosperous!”—contains its own conundrum. How do you explain the persistence of suffering? It might be easier to say to someone undergoing a divorce that there is something redemptive about the lessons they learned, but what about a child with cancer? This week, the prosperity gospel came face-to-face with its own theological limits. It was unable to answer the lingering questions around what theologians call “natural evil.” There is a natural curiosity about how someone like Osteen will react in the face of indiscriminate disaster. Is God separating the sheep from the goats? Will only the houses of the ungodly be flooded? The prosperity gospel has not every found a robust way to address tragedy when their own theology touts that “Everything Happens for a Reason.”

For neoclassical economists, everything happens—good and evil, both prosperity and poverty—because of people’s choices.

I have offered my own reasons for questioning the Prosperity Gospel—what I have called the American Hustle—and yet for taking it seriously—especially in terms of support for Donald Trump.

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Special mention

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Almost very time MFA hears a mainstream economist speak—on topics ranging from the danger of raising the minimum wage to how we all benefit from free trade and globalization—she responds, “Where did they get their degree, from a Cracker Jack box?”

No doubt, she’d react in the same manner if she listened to the members of the closing panel at the 2017 Lindau Meeting on Economic Sciences, who were asked to answer the following question: what could and should we do about inequality?

It’s a terrific question, given the obscene—and still rising—levels of inequality that characterize contemporary capitalism, in the United States and around the world. But those who take the time to watch the video (available here) just aren’t going to learn much about either the causes of inequality or what we can do about it.

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The panel consisted of three winners of the so-called Nobel Prize in Economic SciencesDaniel L. McFadden (2000), James J. Heckman (2000), and Christopher A. Pissarides (2000)—and one “young economist,” Rong Hai.

Individually and together, the panelists simply don’t have anything interesting or insightful to say about inequality.

It’s true, none of the men received their Nobel Prizes for research on inequality, although Hai is currently doing research on inequality (e.g., in relation to credit constraints and tax policy). That itself is a comment on how little inequality has figured as an important concern within mainstream economics. And, given the venue, they’re all mainstream economists. Because of that, there’s little they can say—and a great deal they simply can’t say—about inequality.

Their comments (only some of which were actually prepared) range from the obvious—the issue of poverty is different from that of inequality—to the all-too-frequent sidestep—inequality is caused by globalization and technology.

But they don’t have anything to say about contemporary economic and social institutions, especially those of capitalism, or about history. They don’t discuss in any detail the changes in recent decades that have led to the current obscene levels of inequality or, for that matter, the relationship between the factor distribution of income (e.g, between labor and capital) and the size distribution of income (e.g., the growing gap between the 1 percent and everyone else).

Their concern about and knowledge of the causes and consequences of inequality are, at least to judge from their presentations in this panel, stupefyingly limited.

Maybe MFA is right: they did get their degrees from Cracker Jack boxes.

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Special mention

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A couple of weeks ago, I published a guest post, by minimum-wage expert Dale Belman, about a controversial study of the effects of an earlier decision in Seattle to raise the local minimum wage to a level much higher than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.

Now, in Trump’s America, we’re seeing exactly the opposite: an attempt, on the part of the Republican-controlled Missouri legislature, to roll back local minimum wages to levels that are no higher than the state minimum of $7.40 an hour.

Of course, that’s already happened in other places, such as Ohio and Alabama, which affected minimum-wage workers in Cleveland and Birmingham. And, in all these places, Republican legislatures have used the arguments mainstream economists—but not most empirical studies—have offered them: higher minimum wages might seem to be the best way of helping low-wage workers but, since they lead to a loss of employment (either though dismissals or automation), workers earning at or just above the existing minimum wage are actually hurt.

Well, I’ve dealt with that argument many times on this blog, including a post I did in July of last year, in which I argued that employers’ profits were the real obstacle:

The fact is, when employers threaten to let workers go (or not hire additional workers) if the minimum wage is increased (or mainstream economists make the argument for them), they’re attempting to protect their bottom line. If they kept their existing workers, so the argument goes, their profits would fall; and if they wanted to maintain their current level of profits, they’d have to fire some of their workers and replace them with one or another form of automation. It’s all about pumping out the maximum profits from their employees.

Profits also enter the story in a second way. Private employers see the possibility of compensating for minimum-wage-related job losses—by offering workers public relief and by creating new jobs through public programs—as a challenge to their existing control over workers, jobs, and ultimately profits. That’s the second reason they oppose an increase in minimum wage, because they know full well society has the means to make up for their willingness to eliminate jobs. But then their own role in the economy and the profits that come from that role are called into question.

For both those reasons—the threat to fire workers and the threat to their monopoly as employers—profits are the real obstacle to raising the minimum wage.

Republicans and business groups in Missouri, as elsewhere around the country, are doing all they can to push back on the wave of municipal minimum-wage increases in order to safeguard those profits—with the same boiler-plate rhetoric:

“We can’t let the biggest economic engine in the state, St. Louis, become an island that employers avoid due to higher labor costs,” Missouri Chamber of Commerce & Industry President Daniel Mehan said in an interview Friday. Elevated city minimum wages would cost workers jobs, encourage businesses to automate, and create confusion along city borders, he said.

What makes Missouri unique is the higher minimum wage in St. Louis, of $10 an hour, had already been in effect for months before the state pre-emption law kicked in. And workers were already experiencing the benefits:

Bettie Douglas, a worker at a St. Louis McDonald’s restaurant, expects to take a pay cut this week, though she said her manager hasn’t informed her of a new rate. Before May, the 59-year-old received $7.90 an hour, she said. Ms. Douglas, an activist seeking higher minimum wages nationwide, earned about $63 more a week because of the higher wage floor, money she said allowed her to have her water turned back on and buy school supplies for her teenage son.

“It’s made a big difference,” she said Friday. “It’s still a struggle, but I had a little extra to pay my bills.”

Some employers will of course take advantage of the new law and roll back their workers’ wages. But others aren’t convinced it’s a good idea:

“People would be angry and then they wouldn’t do a good job and they’d be resentful,” said Harman Moseley, whose STL Cinemas operates four local theaters, including the Chase Park Plaza, Moolah Theatre and MX Movies.

Of course, workers are going to be angry and resentful—and perhaps even more.

There are, I think, a couple of lessons here: First, working-class movements to improve their lot can in fact succeed, making it difficult—but, of course, not impossible—to roll them back. Second, there’s a reason why working-class Americans are suspicious not only of their employers, but also of politicians and the government. That’s particularly true when politicians are so closely aligned with their employers.

My guess is both of those lessons will be put to the test even more in Trump’s America.