Posts Tagged ‘interest’

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Tax cuts and spending increases enacted by Republicans over the past four months will lead to wider than previously expected budget deficits, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The federal budget deficit would total $804 billion this year, 43 percent higher than it had projected last summer, and exceed $1 trillion a year starting in 2020.

Larger deficits will, of course, add to the national debt: debt held by the public will hit $28.7 trillion at the end of fiscal 2028, or 96.2 percent of gross domestic product, up from 78 percent of GDP in 2018.

Those estimates assume current law will remain in effect, meaning Congress would allow some tax cuts to expire and spending caps to take effect again in the coming years. If Congress extends the tax cuts, as many Republicans want to do, the CBO predicted higher deficits and publicly held debt of about 105 percent of GDP by the end of 2028—a level exceeded only once in U.S. history, in the immediate aftermath of World War II.

So, what do these escalating deficit and debt numbers mean?

Clearly, in the first instance, the Republican deficit hawks have gone the way of moderate Republicans and all other extinct species of politicians and other mammals. They existed for decades, always in an attempt to cut entitlement programs and other public expenditures for poor and working-class Americans. But once it was possible to pass massive tax cuts for corporations and wealthy individuals and boost military spending, the deficit hawks on the Republican side of the aisle simply disappeared into the walls of Congress.*

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But there’s a second, perhaps even more important, angle we need to take into account: wealthy individuals and large corporations—the chief beneficiaries of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act—would rather lend money to the government, at interest, than pay taxes on the surplus they receive. As federal deficits and debt grow, they end up receiving, not paying for, a larger and larger share of federal expenditures.

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I have illustrated the structure of federal debt over time in the chart above. By the end of 2017, the federal debt (the red line) had reached $20 trillion, of which $14.5 trillion was held by the public (the green line).** Private investors (the blue line) own the bulk of debt held by the public (about 83 percent), while foreign investors (both private and public, the yellow line) hold less than half (43 percent) of U.S. public debt.

As we can see, private holders of U.S. public debt—mostly wealthy individuals and large corporations—the majority of whom are based in the United States, are the ones who stand to gain. They have been granted lower tax rates and, at the same time, will receive a mounting share of the interest that is paid out on the growing debt ($310 billion for fiscal year 2018).

In the current political economy of the United States, nothing can be said to be certain, except growing debt payments and lower taxes—all for the benefit of wealthy individuals and large corporations.

 

*But, as Michael Hiltzik [ht: sm] explains, the species of Republican economists and politicians who aim to cut entitlements, such as Medicare and Social Security, is still thriving.

One would have thought that after saddling the U.S. economy with a tax cut costing $1.5 trillion over 10 years, conservatives and their patrons in corporate America would soft-pedal the usual attacks on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

One would be wrong.

**The difference between federal debt and debt held by the public is made up of intergovernmental holdings, Government Account Series securities held by government trust funds, revolving funds, and special funds (as well as Federal Financing Bank securities).

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While we’re on the topic, I want to note three additional problems in Aaron Steelman’s recent essay on contemporary economics.

First, Steelman presumes that the goal of heterodox economists is to break into mainstream economics. While that may be the hope and goal of some heterodox economists, my sense from talking and working with many heterodox economists over the years is that is the furthest thing from their minds. They don’t want to break into the mainstream; what they want is to develop alternative approaches—in their research, teaching, service—without always having to be looking over their shoulders and worrying about being disciplined and punished by the mainstream economists who run the high-profile departments, journals, and funding sources in and around the discipline.

Which leads to my second point: why is it Steelman simply assumes that “significant differences in methodological approaches and fields of study” need to lead to a split of an economics department, at Notre Dame or elsewhere? Such differences exist in a wide variety of fields, from anthropology to zoology, and splits neither occur or are called for. In other words, what is it about mainstream economics that it simply can’t allow for or coexist with nonmainstream approaches? That’s a question I’d like to see the Steelmans of the world consider.

Finally, Steelman notes that not all departments that have encouraged the existence of nonmainstream or heterodox approaches are on the Left. He mentions the free-market or Austrian approaches that predominate in the economics departments at Florida State, Clemson, and George Mason. What he doesn’t mention is that those departments and universities have received significant funding from the Koch brothers, as documented by Inside Higher Ed and the Washington Post.

Economists at those institutions may teach the magic of the free market but there’s nothing magical about how they have grown in prominence in recent years or how other heterodox economists, many of whom have broken from mainstream economics, have been pushed to or beyond the margins of the discipline.

As many heterodox economists well understand, but Steelman apparently does not, the marketplace of ideas in economics is embedded within and structured by power, interests, and ideology. Which is what many students of economics today want to see transformed, so that they are finally able to study theories and approaches other than those of mainstream economics.

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Thanks to Thomas Piketty’s new book, the returns to capital are now back on the intellectual—if not the political—agenda. But, as one of my students (who just completed a wonderful senior thesis on “The Gilt and the Glitter: Thorsten Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class, and the Second Gilded Age”) noticed, the composition of incomes of the leisure class changed between the first and second Gilded Ages: in 1916, most of their income came from “capital”; now, a large portion comes from “salaries”—although, as we can see below (in data from 2007), that’s less true of the top 0.1 percent than of the rest of the top 1 percent.

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Robert Solow, in the clearest review of Piketty’s book to date, is the first to notice this change.

You get the picture: modern capitalism is an unequal society, and the rich-get-richer dynamic strongly suggest that it will get more so. But there is one more loose end to tie up, already hinted at, and it has to do with the advent of very high wage incomes. First, here are some facts about the composition of top incomes. About 60 percent of the income of the top 1 percent in the United States today is labor income. Only when you get to the top tenth of 1 percent does income from capital start to predominate. The income of the top hundredth of 1 percent is 70 percent from capital. The story for France is not very different, though the proportion of labor income is a bit higher at every level. Evidently there are some very high wage incomes, as if you didn’t know.

This is a fairly recent development. In the 1960s, the top 1 percent of wage earners collected a little more than 5 percent of all wage incomes. This fraction has risen pretty steadily until nowadays, when the top 1 percent of wage earners receive 10–12 percent of all wages. This time the story is rather different in France. There the share of total wages going to the top percentile was steady at 6 percent until very recently, when it climbed to 7 percent. The recent surge of extreme inequality at the top of the wage distribution may be primarily an American development. Piketty, who with Emmanuel Saez has made a careful study of high-income tax returns in the United States, attributes this to the rise of what he calls “supermanagers.” The very highest income class consists to a substantial extent of top executives of large corporations, with very rich compensation packages. (A disproportionate number of these, but by no means all of them, come from the financial services industry.) With or without stock options, these large pay packages get converted to wealth and future income from wealth. But the fact remains that much of the increased income (and wealth) inequality in the United States is driven by the rise of these supermanagers.

And Solow’s interpretation?

It is of course possible that “supermanagers” really are supermanagers, and their very high pay merely reflects their very large contributions to corporate profits. It is even possible that their increased dominance since the 1960s has an identifiable cause along that line. This explanation would be harder to maintain if the phenomenon turns out to be uniquely American. It does not occur in France or, on casual observation, in Germany or Japan. Can their top executives lack a certain gene? If so, it would be a fruitful field for transplants.

Another possibility, tempting but still rather vague, is that top management compensation, at least some of it, does not really belong in the category of labor income, but represents instead a sort of adjunct to capital, and should be treated in part as a way of sharing in income from capital. There is a puzzle here whose solution would shed some light on the recent increase in inequality at the top of the pyramid in the United States. The puzzle may not be soluble because the variety of circumstances and outcomes is just too large.

Solow seems to be onto something: the source of the salary incomes of the top 1 percent is just as much capital as are the other sources of their income, such as profits, dividends, interest, rent, and capital gains. All of them—including the salaries of “supermanagers”—represent distributions of the surplus initially appropriated by capital.

Therefore, as Solow concludes, “it is pretty clear that the class of supermanagers belongs socially and politically with the rentiers, not with the larger body of salaried and independent professionals and middle managers.”