Paying Taxes to Your Boss: Another Step Toward 21st Century Feudalism

Oct 26, 2012Tim Price

Employers are already treating their workers like their subjects. Now some of them get to collect taxes, too.

Employers are already treating their workers like their subjects. Now some of them get to collect taxes, too.

Though a lot of Americans really (really, really) hate paying taxes, most of us can at least justify it as our contribution to some greater good, whether it’s the broad range of social programs favored by progressives or a libertarian night watchman state. But what if the government instead told us, “We don’t want your money, but we would like to make friends with some rich guys, so just give it to them and let them have fun with it”? That could soon be the law of the land in Pennsylvania, where the state legislature has passed a bill that would, as Philadelphia City Paper blogger Daniel Denvir describes it, “allow companies that hire at least 250 new workers in the state to keep 95-percent of the workers' withheld income tax.” These workers will essentially be paying their employers for the privilege of having a job. Some have called this “corporate socialism,” but it also calls to mind an even older economic model that was once popular in Europe – except back then, the bosses were called lords. It’s a more modern innovation in the U.S., but combined with increased political pressure from employers and a crackdown on workers’ rights, it all adds up to feudalism, American-style.

The Pennsylvania bill is just the most recent example of state income taxes being turned into employer subsidies. It’s already the law of the land in one form or another in 19 states, and according to Good Jobs First, it’s taking $684 million a year out of the public coffers. The theory is that this will boost job creation. But the authors of the Good Jobs First report note, “payments often go to firms that simply move existing jobs from one state to another, or to ones that threaten to move unless they get paid to stay put.” In other words, it’s more like extortion than stimulus. With state governments facing a projected $4 trillion budget shortfall and continuing to cut social services and public sector jobs, they can hardly afford to be wasting money on companies that already have plenty and have no intention of putting it to good use. And the more governments turn over their privileges to businesses, the more the distinction between the two becomes blurred.

But if corporations have state governments over a barrel, they have their employees stuffed inside the barrel and ready to plunge down the waterfall. As I’ve noted before, some conservatives view all taxation as theft, but there’s surely no better term for what happens when employers promise their workers a certain wage or salary and then pocket some of the money for themselves. When you pay taxes to the government, you get something in return, whether it’s a school for your kids or a road to drive on or a firefighter to rescue you from a burning building. When you pay taxes to your boss, you… well, you give your boss your money. Your only reward is that you get to continue to “work the land,” so to speak. The lords didn’t consult with the peasants on which tapestries they should buy with the money they collected from them.

Did I forget to mention that these employers aren’t even required to tell their workers that this is how their “income taxes” are being used? Journalist David Cay Johnston, who covers this issue in his new book, The Fine Print: How Big Companies Use ‘Plain English’ to Rob You Blind, writes that this bait-and-switch is “stealthy by design.” Of course it is; if these workers were important enough to know where their money is going, it wouldn’t be legal to steal it.

Employers may be able to exert pressure, but they can’t actually control who you support, right? Well, they might not be able to accompany you to the voting booth (yet), but if you work in a state that allows your employer to confiscate your tax withholdings and donate them to a pro-Romney Super PAC, they can turn you into a Romney supporter whether you like it or not. It’s not enough that our current campaign finance system gives wealthy executives nearly unchecked power to support the candidate of their choice; subsidizing them with income taxes allows them to choose for everyone in their fiefdom.

If employers were always secretive about their exploitation, the comparison to feudalism might not seem apt – after all, serfs were pretty clear on what the score was. But there’s nothing subtle about the way some employers have begun to apply political pressure in the workplace. From forcing workers to attend Romney rallies without pay to outright threatening their jobs if President Obama is reelected, employers in the post-Citizens United era are feeling emboldened to conscript their employees as bannermen for the candidates of their choice. Suddenly, a job is not just a job, but an oath of allegiance. And Republicans, at least, are all for it. Mike Elk reports that Mitt Romney himself urged business owners to lobby their employees on his behalf, assuring them that there is “Nothing illegal about you talking to your employees about what you believe is best for the business.” And as we all know, if you can’t technically be arrested or fined for doing something, that means it’s totally okay to do it. Q.E.D., coal miners.

This lopsided power dynamic is reflected more generally in the shoddy state of modern labor law. In most states employers can fire their workers whenever they want for pretty much any reason, forcing them to fall in line with even the pettiest demands. When your boss is trying to tell you when you can and can’t go to the bathroom, forcing you to hide your Obama bumper sticker seems like an almost trifling concern in comparison. This lack of employee agency has led Roosevelt Institute Fellow Dorian Warren to describe today’s employers as “mini-dictators,” and as more public funds are diverted to private business owners, that comparison is only becoming more literal.

If conservative policymakers succeed in their nationwide effort to eliminate collective bargaining rights and neutralize already weakened unions, conditions aren’t likely to get better for workers anytime soon. Business owners and corporate execs will continue to assert more and more authority, bending their workers’ will to their own while using those workers’ paychecks to solidify their power. But there’s still hope of turning things around and restoring a more balanced playing field. If more American workers take note of the fact that two of their least favorite people, the tax collector and their boss, are being combined into one entity, it might just spark enough anger for them to fight back. As the feudal lords eventually learned, the peasants were the ones holding the pitchforks.

Tim Price is Deputy Editor of Next New Deal. Follow him on Twitter @txprice.

 

Businessman with crown image via Shutterstock.com.

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Bryce Covert: How Do We Make the Economic Case for Care Work?

Oct 19, 2012

On the latest episode of the Roosevelt Institute's Bloggingheads series, Fireside Chats, NND Editor Bryce Covert talks to Nancy Folbre, economist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and editor of For Love and Money: Care Provision in the United States.

On the latest episode of the Roosevelt Institute's Bloggingheads series, Fireside Chats, NND Editor Bryce Covert talks to Nancy Folbre, economist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and editor of For Love and Money: Care Provision in the United States. In the clip below, they discuss Bryce's main takeaway from the book, which is that there is a value to domestic care work "to everyone, to the economy, to individuals, and there's a cost when we're not valuing this care."

Bryce notes that the high-profile defeat of the Domestic Workers' Bill of Rights in California and the continued obstruction of a bill to provide paid sick days in New York City are both the result of Democrats giving in to pressure from business lobbyists. Given the challenge of taking on these powerful interests, Bryce wonders if there's a way "to make the economic case, to bring business in or at least to be able to combat their claims that, 'Oh, well, it's too much of a cost burden on us to do these things.'" She also points out research that shows that although these worker-friendly regulations are often met with initial resistance from employers, they've proven to be harmless or even beneficial once they're in place. This suggests that "maybe there's this disconnect between what small business owners or regular business owners think and their represented interests like the Chamber of Commerce, which tends to be very conservative even in policies that might actually benefit small businesses."

For more, including a discussion of how coalitions can be built to push for better working conditions and why men share away from traditionally female-oriented care work, check out the full video below:

 

Childcare worker image via Shutterstock.com.

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The GOP's Zombie Dodd-Frank Would Lose the Core Logic of Financial Reform

Sep 20, 2012Mike Konczal

Republicans might not repeal Dodd-Frank outright, but they'd eliminate the system of rules that make it work.

Republicans might not repeal Dodd-Frank outright, but they'd eliminate the system of rules that make it work.

It was just announced that Tim Pawlenty will become the head of the bank lobbying group Financial Services Roundtable. The powerful financial lobbying group, which represents groups like JP Morgan and Bank of America among other big financial sector players, appears to be aligning itself more closely with the Republican Party and betting on the idea that Republicans will control at least part of Congress. But what do they want? Earlier in the year, I argued in Washington Monthly that they'd like to repeal the core parts of financial reform.

Recently, Phil Mattingly had an article at Bloomberg Businessweek about how the GOP and Mitt Romney would approach Dodd-Frank. This is with a hat-tip to Reihan Salam who notes that this article "has confirmed something I’ve heard from well-informed insiders" and makes additional arguments [1]. So it seems well-sourced.

Mattingly's argument is that it is unlikely that the Republicans will outright repeal Dodd-Frank. "Instead, President Romney would likely try to give the financial industry something it wants more: a diluted financial reform law that would relax restrictions on some of its most profitable—and riskiest—investments but maintain enough government oversight to give the banks cover."

So what would the Republicans try to dilute and remove? Mattingly:

"Wall Street wants to loosen rules governing the swaps market, which generated $7 billion in revenue in the first quarter of 2012, according to government records. The banks would also get rid of restrictions on bank investment in private equity and hedge funds, pare back the power of the new federal consumer protection agency, and block the Volcker Rule, which bars banks from trading with money from their own accounts, a practice that can put customer deposits at risk. [...]

Wall Street doesn’t oppose everything in the law. Banks support the “resolution authority” that spells out how and when the government can seize and wind down struggling banks before they catastrophically fail."

So they want to go after derivatives rules (swaps), the Volcker Rule and the related law on restrictions on hedge fund investments, and also the CFPB. It's important to understand this isn't like removing random parts of the bill, as strict as they may be, but is instead gutting the core logic of the law. It's the equivalent of Republicans saying they'd keep the Obamacare bill, but stop the exchanges, remove the individual mandate, and lose the ban on pre-existing conditions while getting rid of the means-tested subsidies and Medicaid expansion. We'd understand that all of the parts of this system are interconnected and inseparable; the ban requires everyone to be in the market, which requires subsidies and well-developed markets.

Let's make sure we understand how derivatives, the Volcker Rule, and the CFPB all work together. Imagine that we're car engineers, and we want to design a car and road system so that if the car crashes, it does so as safely as possible. There are four things we can do. We can put airbags and seatbelts in the car and other cars so that when it does crash the damage is limited and controlled. We can design the car with things like a brake override system so that if it hits a rough patch the driver can keep control of it and make it less likely to crash.  We can put some speed limits on the road, as well as clear traffic signals to guide cars from running into each other. And we can have some protection for pedestrians, like cops watching for DUIs or barriers to prevent cars from driving into crowds of people. Easy, right?

Now let's think of Dodd-Frank. There are the legal powers that deploy to resolve a firm if it fails, like an airbag, which are called resolution authority. This allows the FDIC to take down a failed financial firm as if it were a bank, subject to serious rules and restrictions.  And, like requiring certain car features, there are specific policies for large, systemically risky financial firms, like enhanced capital requirements, limits to investments in risky hedge-funds, and the Volcker Rule, which are designed to make it less likely for a firm to crash.

Dodd-Frank also introduces speed limits and rules of the road in the financial sector, designed to make the system as a whole less likely to crash or spiral out of control when a panic does happen. One primary place it does that is through derivatives regulations. And "cops on the beat" is the metaphor for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

So there's Dodd-Frank law to allow a firm to fail, law to make it less likely a financial firm fails, laws to prevent the interconnected financial markets from going into crisis if a firm does fail, and law to gives consumers a representative in dealing with the regulatory field. This is like thinking of Dodd-Frank as a system of deterrance, detection, and resolutiion, a related model we've developed elsewhere.

If Wall Street and the Republicans are looking to seriously gut the Volcker Rule, derivatives, and the CFPB, then they're looking to gut the entire logic of the bill. Interestingly, they are less interested in "resolution authority," the legal process to fail a financial firm. This is evidently no problem with everything else removed, perhaps because they believe congressional bailouts will then happen. This should remind us that resolution authority is strengthened and made more credible by other strong regulations, including things not in Dodd-Frank, like size caps or Glass-Steagall. Preventing these diluations is crucial to building a regulatory system for the financial sector that works in the 21st century.

[1] Reihan notes that banks "also understand that [Dodd-Frank] favors incumbents over new entrants, particularly incumbents with the legal acumen and lobbying resources to shape the emerging regulatory regime. My strong preference, very much in line with conservative and libertarian sensibilities, would be for a financial reform that would aim to facilitate rather than stymie entry."

I'd like to see more on how Dodd-Frank as blocking new firm entry works. While this is a generic complaint of regulations in general, I'm not sure in what ways it applies to Dodd-Frank. Parts of Dodd-Frank actually are designed to scale up with size and risk, e.g. Sec. 171 requires capital requirements to scale with "concentrations in market share for any activity that would substantially disrupt financial markets if the institution is forced to unexpectedly cease the activity," which is not for new entries. The idea is to hold larger and riskier firms to tougher standards and higher capital, which is regulation that scales with size.

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Misleading Advertising is On the Rise: Four Ways the FTC Can Fight Back

Aug 22, 2012Asha M. Fereydouni

Consumers need regulators to step up yet again to protect them from risks in the marketplace.

Consumers need regulators to step up yet again to protect them from risks in the marketplace.

Last year, President Obama created the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, a new agency to protect American consumers with the explicit purpose of preventing some of the risky practices that led to the crisis of 2008. It took one of the greatest financial disasters in history to initiate regulatory change. But there were a number of small failures leading up to the disaster that indicated things were going poorly. Had the CFPB existed at any one of these smaller junctures, much of the disaster could have been averted.

Today, the United States is at a similar juncture: consumers need additional protection, misleading advertising is on the rise, and the current agency responsible for regulation—the Federal Trade Commission (FTC)—is not doing enough.

In May 2012, POM Wonderful lost a lawsuit to the FTC for misleading advertising. Two days later, the company released an ad campaign selectively quoting from the judge’s ruling. The advertisements read, "Competent and reliable scientific evidence supports the conclusion that the consumption of pomegranate juice and pomegranate extract supports prostate health." But in the very next line of the ruling (which POM did not advertise) the judge states that while it might want to think that its product has the advertised health benefits, "the greater weight of the persuasive expert testimony shows that the evidence relied upon by [POM Wonderful] is not adequate to substantiate claims that the POM products treat, prevent or reduce the risk of prostate cancer."

The FTC tried its best, but it was unable to do a thing—the ads are still running, and POM has not paid a cent in fines.

But it’s not just POM. From Sketchers to CVS, each has been subject to misleading advertisement suits in just the last six months. If things aren’t changed, and companies are able to follow POM’s example in getting away with repeated instances of false ads, consumers will pay the price. We face the risk of purchasing a product, thinking that it has certain benefits, then realizing that our money has gone to waste. We may not be able to trust what is right in front of our very eyes. 

So what can the FTC do to strengthen its efforts in combating misleading advertising? Here are four places it can start:

1. The FTC can impose monetary punishments on companies the second a judge rules them in violation. Currently, companies that are sued for misleading advertising only face a monetary penalty if three conditions are met. First, the company must continue false ads after the judge’s ruling; second, the FTC must get those ads admitted to the record; and finally, the judge must find it guilty of committing a “double violation.”

The punishment for a double violation is steep. The FTC fines companies $16,000 PER advertisement, PER day—that’s no joke, even for a multimillion dollar company. The penalty works great as a deterrent for double violations, but there needs to also be a deterrent for a single violation. Fines ought to apply for any advertisement that, after being tried in court and ruled by a judge, is found to be misleading the American people.

2. The FTC can institute more stringent requirements as to what kinds of clinical studies are required before health claims are made. With the POM case, the FTC tried to set a new precedent of requiring double-blind studies and FDA pre-approval before POM (and, potentially, other companies) could make claims about the health benefits of its products. While the FTC’s efforts must be commended, it was ultimately unsuccessful in adding the new requirements. Further, the FDA by no means has the capacity to pre-approve and substantiate the medical claims for every company that presents health-related advertisements.

A plausible compromise would be for the FTC to implement requirements for certain standards in clinical studies. Among other things, the FTC could require companies to present studies that have a control group (a non-trial, comparable group to ensure that the products are actually having an impact) and the repeated achievement of stated results in at least three instances. In doing so, the FTC can begin to rein in how companies substantiate the medical claims behind their products.

3. The FTC can request more transparency in how companies advertise the medical benefits of their products. Currently, there exist loose standards as to what companies must disclose to consumers. The FTC ought to require that companies disclose on some part of the advertisement the funding source and basic information about the clinical trial that occurred to substantiate the product’s health claims.

4. The FTC can be internally consistent when it comes to measures to improve existing regulations. In July of 2011, the FTC announced that it would review each and every existing regulation. The goal of this comprehensive review was to “promote greater efficiency, transparency, and public participation.” In conjunction with this internal review, the FTC also asked for public comment and publicized its criteria for evaluating the existing regulations. It asked for comments on the rule's economic impact, its necessity, whether it conflicts with local laws, and if it's outdated.

Notice that there is no question of efficacy. On initial glance, it would seem as if the FTC doesn’t care whether the regulations actually work. However, after taking a closer look at the briefs released for each specific regulation, it would seem that the FTC did in fact care about how the regulations were working. It also asked, “What modifications, if any, should the Commission make to the Rule to increase its benefits or reduce its costs to consumers?”

While the detailed brief shows that the FTC does in fact care about the efficacy of its regulations, this desire ought to have been a component of its initial press release. A comment made by the Heritage Foundation is most illustrative of this lack of clarity. Heritage lists the FTC’s four criteria that were released in the initial press release and structures its analysis based on those criteria. It had no idea that there were expanded requirements. By not clearly asking what it wanted to know, the FTC was unable to get complete answers and left itself short-changed.

The FTC can take these steps now to combat misleading advertising. In doing so, it can take a proactive position, stand up to large companies, and protect American consumers. 

Asha M. Fereydouni is a member of the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network who is a senior at the University of California, Davis and is currently doing research on the FTC in Washington, DC.

Billboard image via Shutterstock

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America's Future in an Enduring Recession

Aug 9, 2012Herbert J. Gans

Americans have been taught to hope for the best, but to avoid a bleak future, we need to push for policies that support job creation.

Americans have been taught to hope for the best, but to avoid a bleak future, we need to push for policies that support job creation.

America's national optimism is so pervasive that not much public thought has yet been given to the possibility that the Great Recession could endure for many years. Even if GDP, the Dow Jones, and other standard economic indicators suggest that the overall economy is healthy once more, labor markets may not recover. Thus, all employment-related indicators could remain low to the end of the decade and beyond, justifying a guess about the social and political effects of an enduring recession. (Guess must be underlined because many unexpected happenings can always wreck predictions.)

If the country faces a continuing labor market recession, short- and long-term unemployment are likely to rise. So will underemployment, such as involuntary part-time work and shorter work weeks for full-time workers. Discouraged workers will continue to drop out of the labor market, older ones will head for involuntary retirement, and some young people may not obtain a steady job during the entire period. The total number of labor market victims will rise well above the current official estimate of close to 15 percent of the labor force. And this estimate leaves out other victims of the recession -- people brought down by foreclosures, humongous debt, and lost pensions, as well as poor people driven into more severe poverty. 

If the numbers rise sufficiently, the social effects of the enduring recession, which are now still mostly hidden, will become apparent. High levels of depression and other emotional illnesses and related physical ones will multiply, as will family conflict and breakup, interpersonal and criminal violence, and other kinds of self and social destruction. Militant extremists threatening bodily destruction of immigrant and other vulnerable populations may increase in number as well. The medical community and the media are likely to be talking about post-traumatic economic stress disorder. America will be full of very unhappy people.

Of course, November 6, 2012 could bring a Democratic victory of sufficient proportions so that the advocates of serious government action to revive the economy could get their way. If the Democratic majority in the Senate is filibuster-proof and the president is prepared to be transformative, only the conservative House Republicans can effectively sabotage their agenda. If all went well, a new, large, and targeted stimulus, complemented by tax reforms and related policies, would enable the federal government to help create decent jobs and provide sufficient income support for the still-jobless victims of the recession. In the process, consumer demand would be stimulated and the consumer economy would be revived.

But in the event that government continues to be polarized and dysfunctional, politics could worsen economic victimization. In hard economic times, even the economically secure citizens tend to become less generous toward victims, worrying that government funds for the suffering would be taken out of their income and wealth. Some will fear that they will become economic victims too. The greater the shrinkage in public generosity, the greater also the readiness to demonize the economy's victims. The better off and even some not so well off are already describing the needy as moochers or takers and the jobless as too lazy to work. The recession's victims will be described as undeserving of help. Since the better off are more likely to be white and the economic victims disproportionally nonwhite, the latter will probably also experience more intense racial antagonism.

Since many Americans still see no difference between family and governmental budgets, and since recessionary times require familial belt-tightening, many people even outside the GOP base might support additional governmental belt-tightening as well. As a result, elected officials who are required to cut their budgets can further reduce the welfare state and welfare programs without suffering political consequences. And despite what people tell the pollsters about the desirability of higher taxes on the rich, the citizens that matter politically do not seem to contest the GOP argument that the wealthy need further tax reductions so that they can be "job creators."

So far, my long range guessing has emphasized the dark side of the future, but some corrective measures could take place, too. Three such developments seem most likely.

The first is new economic growth. All recessions and depressions, great or small, must end some day, and presumably so will the present one. They could end as a result of the pent up demand that is unfulfilled during deflationary times; for example, as people's necessities wear out and the population increases.

Demand may also return as a result of unpredictable new economic growth resulting from technological and other innovations. New products resulting from cyberspace breakthroughs, including robots as standard equipment at work and at home, are possible examples. So are new industries and businesses to help people survive 105 degree summers.

To be sure, American innovations that can be copied by lower wage economies are eventually copied, and even correlations that once existed between a high GDP and a healthy labor market can no longer be guaranteed. If global competition and an expensive dollar, high U.S. worker productivity, employer reductions in wages and working conditions, and other current impediments to job security and a "middle class" income remain in place, America's standard of living will not return to past levels.

The Great Depression was ended by World War II, which eventually brought about full employment at high wages. Although possible future wars are presumably on the Pentagon's drawing boards, they will not be labor-intensive and can no longer rescue a crippled labor market.

The second possibility is business community protest. Despite the business community's never-ending demand for reductions in taxes and "onerous" regulations, one could imagine that eventually at least the big corporations that earn their profits from consumer demand will begin to hurt. As a result, they might support the public pressure on government to stimulate that demand. They might even do so while continuing to ask for lower taxes and less regulation; giving up such a once profitable ideology will take time. However, some might be ready to trade, supporting stimuli, infrastructure projects, and anything else that provides purchasing power to the people they need to buy their goods and services.

If the business community's economic pain is sufficient, it might support a revival of the moderate Republican wing. Under such conditions, the rest of the party may agree to direct stimulation of the country's purchasing power. Conceivably, such a GOP might even initiate some of the economic policies they have long prevented Democrats from implementing. One must remember that nearly half a century ago, President Nixon was able to persuade his party to let him initiate relations with Communist China.

The third possibility is popular protest. Although the Left has traditionally believed that eventually the general public will demand economic relief, America's voters have only rarely pressed for such change. Right now, they seem to be angered more by social and related issues than economic ones. Or maybe they suspect that demonstrating for economic change is unlikely to be successful.

Moreover, mainstream America has become more diverse, more spread out, and harder to organize than in the past, and the radical unions that mobilized workers during the Great Depression no longer exist. New sociopolitical movements that fit the times are conceivable, but so far only some of the remaining Occupy groups are working toward economic goals, and none yet look as if they could turn into national movements. The victims of the current economy remain politically passive, if only because they must devote themselves to surviving economically and emotionally. In addition, they may feel (rightly) that they have nowhere to turn. Trust in government is at an all-time low, and other political organizations of the needed magnitude do not exist. Liberals and the left stand ready to offer help, but they have not shown that they can transcend the class and ideological differences that separate them from the economy's victims.

Historians still do not agree about the political effects of the popular protests that occurred during the Great Depression. The ghetto uprisings that took place in the 1960s, some simultaneously all across the country, did not produce immediate economic results. Since then, the de facto national incarceration policy has helped to keep the ghettos "quiet," and in recent years, the poor young men not (yet) in jail seem to have more often taken their discontents out on each other.

Perhaps effective political responses to the recession will emerge when more affluent sectors of the population are seriously hurt by the economy, notably the professional and managerial classes that have flourished economically in recent decades. They are politically skillful and know how to make themselves heard. Even Republicans might pick up their ears if the Tea Party and related groups, as well as the evangelicals who have previously concerned themselves only with "social" issues, indicate they now also need economic help. What if they hinted strongly that they will now have to vote their pocket books? Then it is even possible to imagine an election that unites many of the economically victimized and brings them together with liberals and liberally inclined independents, at least temporarily. If they can coalesce with others who stand to gain from a healthier labor market, they might be able to persuade the incumbent president to turn into a contemporary FDR or LBJ.

One would think that if a recessionary or deflationary economy endures, eventually something has to give. Although a dystopian welfare state in which the economy's many victims will live at bare subsistence level is conceivable, perhaps America will instead elect a government devoted above all to saving and creating jobs. However, such ideas are credible only in a country in which ordinary people exercise more political clout than entrepreneurs and speculators.

Herbert J Gans is the Robert S. Lynd Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Columbia University. His most recent book is Imagining America in 2033 (2008).

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What is the Economic Policy Uncertainty Index Really Telling Us?

Aug 8, 2012Mike Konczal

Conservatives have crafted a measurement that uses their own rhetoric as evidence to support their economic talking points.

Do you want to see a magic trick? It doesn't involves cards, fire, or anyone levitating. Instead I'm going to show you a set of Republican talking points magically turn into an economic index -- an index that Republicans then use to argue for their policies.

Mitt Romney's economics team of Hubbard, Mankiw, Taylor, and Hassett have rapidly turned around an economic policy sheet titled "The Romney Program for Economic Recovery, Growth, and Jobs." Matt Yglesias has a post on the issue of sluggish growth and Dylan Matthews has one on their review of the stimulus literature. Brad DeLong takes the deep dive through the entire piece here.

I'm interested in something I haven't seen people critically discuss enough, and that is the "policy uncertainty index." The Romney plan argues that "uncertainty over policy - particularly over tax and regulatory policy - limited both the recovery and job creation. One recent study by Scott Baker and Nicholas Bloom of Stanford University and Steven Davis of the University of Chicago found that this uncertainty reduced GDP by 1.4 percent in 2011 alone, and that restoring pre-crisis levels of uncertainty would add 2.3 million jobs in 19 months." This appears to be a new talking point for the candidate's team, as the same language was in a Wall Street Journal editorial by Hubbard over the weekend.

Let's take a critical look at this paper, "Measuring Economic Policy Uncertainty," which also has its own website, as it is likely to come up again in the election season. There are two sets of issues, one related to what the index actually shows and another related to the construction of the index itself.

Interpreting the Index

First off, does the paper show what Romney's team claims? Matt O'Brien notes that the big run-up in uncertainty in 2011 is a function of the battle over the debt ceiling. This is very obvious from the graph of their index:

 

 

I personally think we can blame that fiasco on House Republicans. But even if you think the Democrats share some of the blame, it has nothing to do with Dodd-Frank or Obamacare. But Romney's team is using this uncertainty issue to call for repealing both.

That said, the rate is elevated starting around 2009. Why is that? The uncertainty index consists of three parts. The first a news search for articles on policy uncertainty, which we'll return to in a minute. The second part has to do with disagreements among economic forecasters. And the last part is "the number of federal tax code provisions set to expire in future years." Tax code provisions set to expire are weighted by the formula 0.5^((T+1)/12), where T is the number of months until the tax code expires. That means these provisions weigh more in the analysis as they get closer to expiring -- those with more time left have weights approaching 0, and those close to expiration approach 1.

And of course, as the paper notes, "An important recent example involves the Bush-era income tax cuts originally set to expire at the end of 2010." The way the weighting works is that it jumps in the two years before expiration, which means the tax cuts scheduled to expire at the end of 2010 really start to matter for the index starting in late 2008, when President Obama is elected.

Watch that again. George W. Bush's economic advisors, like Glenn Hubbard, pass a series of tax cuts in the early 2000s that are set to expire 10 years out. When Obama gets into office the deadline starts to approach, creating "uncertainty" in this index. Then people like Hubbard blame President Obama for all that uncertainty caused by the design of the Bush tax cuts. Brilliant.

A Magic Trick

But now for that magic trick. How do they construct the search of newspaper articles for their index, which generates a lot of the movement?

Their news search index is constructed with four steps. They first isolate their search to a set of articles from 10 major newspapers (USA Today, the Miami Herald, the Chicago Tribune, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Dallas Morning News, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal). They then search articles for the term "uncertainty" or "uncertain." They then filter again for the word "economic" or "economy." With economic uncertainty flagged, they then filter again for one of the following words to identify government policy: "policy," "'tax," "spending," "regulation," "federal reserve," "budget," or "deficit."

See the problem? We don't know what specific stories are in their index; however, we can use their search terms listed above to find which articles would have likely qualified. Let's take a story from their first listed paper, USA Today"Obama taking aim at GOP pledge on campaign trail," from August 28, 2010 (for the rest of this post, I'm going to underline the words in quotes that would trigger inclusion in their policy uncertainty index):

Brendan Buck, a spokesman for the House GOP lawmakers who crafted the pledge, said "it's laughable that the president would try to lecture anyone on spending." [....] Buck said the pledge was developed to address voter worries about high unemployment and record levels of government spending and debt.

"While the president has exploded federal spending and ignored Americans who are asking, 'Where are the jobs?', the pledge offers a plan to end the economic uncertainty and create jobs, as well as a concrete plan to rein in Washington's runaway spending spree," Buck said.
Spokespeople for the conservative movement tell reporters that President Obama's policies are causing economic uncertainty. Reporters write it down and publish it. Economic researchers search newspapers for stories about economic uncertainty and policy, and create a policy uncertainty index out of those talking points. The conservative movement then turns around and points to the policy uncertainty index as scientifically justifying their initial talking points about Obama and uncertainty as well as the need to implement their policies. Taa-daa! Magic.
 
Two Other Issues
 

It's amazing how much of the GOP rhetoric you find when trying to replicate this index. With that in mind, there are two additional issues with the index, one empirical and the other theoretical. Let's start with this story, likely caught in their index, USA Today's "Minority leader accuses Obama, aides of 'job-killing,'" from August 28, 2010: "House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio used a speech in Cleveland to blame Obama's spendingtax and regulatory policies for creating uncertainty and stalling economic growth."

Let's pretend, after this story came out, that reporters follow up by asking a lot of experts what they think, and those experts say "There's little evidence to support Boehner's idea that uncertainty over regulation and policy are contributing to economic weakness." What happens? Do they cancel? No, the uncertainty index flags it as more economic uncertainty.

If Boehner, upon reading that story, went out the next day and gave a quote to a reporter that said "I no longer think that uncertainty caused by regulation is contributing to our economic problems," that would be flagged as more uncertainty!

Which is to say that the empirical problems with this measure of policy uncertainty always bias the results upward. Data is never perfect, so it is important to understand which way it is likely to bias. The noise machine of talking points biases this index upwards, but any stories pushing back against this uncertainty meme would also push the index upwards.

There's also the theoretical issue. Their story is one of a weak economy created by government policy uncertainty, of "taxes, government spending and other policy matters." Last fall, the authors wrote an editorial for Bloomberg arguing that their model showed that "harmful rhetorical attacks on business and millionaires," the NLRB's actions against Boeing, and Obamacare were all major factors in the weak recovery. These all point to the supply side of the economy.

But what about uncertainty from lack of demand? Consider a story that begins with "Keynesian economists argue that the economy today is weak because businesses are uncertain about future customers and workers are uncertain about their future jobs, and the textbook response to this situation is expansionary monetary and fiscal policy." This would be flagged in their index as a problem of government policy, though it is a story of weak aggregate demand.

This isn't a hypothetical. Let's look at another story likely captured by their index, USA Today, "Retail sales drop for first time in 5 months," August 13, 2008:

Retail sales fell in July, the weakest performance in five months, as shoppers shunned autos and other big ticket items. [....] Analysts said the poor showing in July, the last month for bulk mailings of stimulus checks, raised concerns about consumer spending going forward.

"Cautious and uncertain consumers are watching their wallets and with the back-to-school shopping season under way, that does not bode well for retailers," said Joel Naroff, chief economist for Naroff Economic Advisors. [....] The disappointing performance of retail sales meant that the consumer sector, which accounts for two-thirds of total economic activity, got off to a weak start at the beginning of the third quarter.

As the economy is going into freefall, as the worst recession since the Great Depression is starting, as the Great Moderation is coming to an end and the violence of the business cycle and a prolonged downturn shows its ugly head again, consumers are reducing consumption because of economic uncertainty. Yet this index reads this as just another example of out-of-control government policy and records it as such. The index will see stories about demand uncertainty as stories about supply, which means it will have trouble telling any accurate story about the Great Recession and our current troubles.

(I have a follow up post, taking apart the rest of the index, here.)

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Conservatives have crafted a measurement that uses their own rhetoric as evidence to support their economic talking points.

Do you want to see a magic trick? It doesn't involves cards, fire, or anyone levitating. Instead I'm going to show you a set of Republican talking points magically turn into an economic index -- an index that Republicans then use to argue for their policies.

Mitt Romney's economics team of Hubbard, Mankiw, Taylor, and Hassett have rapidly turned around an economic policy sheet titled "The Romney Program for Economic Recovery, Growth, and Jobs." Matt Yglesias has a post on the issue of sluggish growth and Dylan Matthews has one on their review of the stimulus literature. Brad DeLong takes the deep dive through the entire piece here.

I'm interested in something I haven't seen people critically discuss enough, and that is the "policy uncertainty index." The Romney plan argues that "uncertainty over policy - particularly over tax and regulatory policy - limited both the recovery and job creation. One recent study by Scott Baker and Nicholas Bloom of Stanford University and Steven Davis of the University of Chicago found that this uncertainty reduced GDP by 1.4 percent in 2011 alone, and that restoring pre-crisis levels of uncertainty would add 2.3 million jobs in 19 months." This appears to be a new talking point for the candidate's team, as the same language was in a Wall Street Journal editorial by Hubbard over the weekend.

Let's take a critical look at this paper, "Measuring Economic Policy Uncertainty," which also has its own website, as it is likely to come up again in the election season. There are two sets of issues, one related to what the index actually shows and another related to the construction of the index itself.

Interpreting the Index

First off, does the paper show what Romney's team claims? Matt O'Brien notes that the big run-up in uncertainty in 2011 is a function of the battle over the debt ceiling. This is very obvious from the graph of their index:

 

 

I personally think we can blame that fiasco on House Republicans. But even if you think the Democrats share some of the blame, it has nothing to do with Dodd-Frank or Obamacare. But Romney's team is using this uncertainty issue to call for repealing both.

That said, the rate is elevated starting around 2009. Why is that? The uncertainty index consists of three parts. The first a news search for articles on policy uncertainty, which we'll return to in a minute. The second part has to do with disagreements among economic forecasters. And the last part is "the number of federal tax code provisions set to expire in future years." Tax code provisions set to expire are weighted by the formula 0.5^((T+1)/12), where T is the number of months until the tax code expires. That means these provisions weigh more in the analysis as they get closer to expiring -- those with more time left have weights approaching 0, and those close to expiration approach 1.

And of course, as the paper notes, "An important recent example involves the Bush-era income tax cuts originally set to expire at the end of 2010." The way the weighting works is that it jumps in the two years before expiration, which means the tax cuts scheduled to expire at the end of 2010 really start to matter for the index starting in late 2008, when President Obama is elected.

Watch that again. George W. Bush's economic advisors, like Glenn Hubbard, pass a series of tax cuts in the early 2000s that are set to expire 10 years out. When Obama gets into office the deadline starts to approach, creating "uncertainty" in this index. Then people like Hubbard blame President Obama for all that uncertainty caused by the design of the Bush tax cuts. Brilliant.

A Magic Trick

But now for that magic trick. How do they construct the search of newspaper articles for their index, which generates a lot of the movement?

Their news search index is constructed with four steps. They first isolate their search to a set of articles from 10 major newspapers (USA Today, the Miami Herald, the Chicago Tribune, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Dallas Morning News, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal). They then search articles for the term "uncertainty" or "uncertain." They then filter again for the word "economic" or "economy." With economic uncertainty flagged, they then filter again for one of the following words to identify government policy: "policy," "'tax," "spending," "regulation," "federal reserve," "budget," or "deficit."

See the problem? We don't know what specific stories are in their index; however, we can use their search terms listed above to find which articles would have likely qualified. Let's take a story from their first listed paper, USA Today"Obama taking aim at GOP pledge on campaign trail," from August 28, 2010 (for the rest of this post, I'm going to underline the words in quotes that would trigger inclusion in their policy uncertainty index):

Brendan Buck, a spokesman for the House GOP lawmakers who crafted the pledge, said "it's laughable that the president would try to lecture anyone on spending." [....] Buck said the pledge was developed to address voter worries about high unemployment and record levels of government spending and debt.

"While the president has exploded federal spending and ignored Americans who are asking, 'Where are the jobs?', the pledge offers a plan to end the economic uncertainty and create jobs, as well as a concrete plan to rein in Washington's runaway spending spree," Buck said.
Spokespeople for the conservative movement tell reporters that President Obama's policies are causing economic uncertainty. Reporters write it down and publish it. Economic researchers search newspapers for stories about economic uncertainty and policy, and create a policy uncertainty index out of those talking points. The conservative movement then turns around and points to the policy uncertainty index as scientifically justifying their initial talking points about Obama and uncertainty as well as the need to implement their policies. Taa-daa! Magic.
 
Two Other Issues
 

It's amazing how much of the GOP rhetoric you find when trying to replicate this index. With that in mind, there are two additional issues with the index, one empirical and the other theoretical. Let's start with this story, likely caught in their index, USA Today's "Minority leader accuses Obama, aides of 'job-killing,'" from August 28, 2010: "House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio used a speech in Cleveland to blame Obama's spendingtax and regulatory policies for creating uncertainty and stalling economic growth."

Let's pretend, after this story came out, that reporters follow up by asking a lot of experts what they think, and those experts say "There's little evidence to support Boehner's idea that uncertainty over regulation and policy are contributing to economic weakness." What happens? Do they cancel? No, the uncertainty index flags it as more economic uncertainty.

If Boehner, upon reading that story, went out the next day and gave a quote to a reporter that said "I no longer think that uncertainty caused by regulation is contributing to our economic problems," that would be flagged as more uncertainty!

Which is to say that the empirical problems with this measure of policy uncertainty always bias the results upward. Data is never perfect, so it is important to understand which way it is likely to bias. The noise machine of talking points biases this index upwards, but any stories pushing back against this uncertainty meme would also push the index upwards.

There's also the theoretical issue. Their story is one of a weak economy created by government policy uncertainty, of "taxes, government spending and other policy matters." Last fall, the authors wrote an editorial for Bloomberg arguing that their model showed that "harmful rhetorical attacks on business and millionaires," the NLRB's actions against Boeing, and Obamacare were all major factors in the weak recovery. These all point to the supply side of the economy.

But what about uncertainty from lack of demand? Consider a story that begins with "Keynesian economists argue that the economy today is weak because businesses are uncertain about future customers and workers are uncertain about their future jobs, and the textbook response to this situation is expansionary monetary and fiscal policy." This would be flagged in their index as a problem of government policy, though it is a story of weak aggregate demand.

This isn't a hypothetical. Let's look at another story likely captured by their index, USA Today, "Retail sales drop for first time in 5 months," August 13, 2008:

Retail sales fell in July, the weakest performance in five months, as shoppers shunned autos and other big ticket items. [....] Analysts said the poor showing in July, the last month for bulk mailings of stimulus checks, raised concerns about consumer spending going forward.

"Cautious and uncertain consumers are watching their wallets and with the back-to-school shopping season under way, that does not bode well for retailers," said Joel Naroff, chief economist for Naroff Economic Advisors. [....] The disappointing performance of retail sales meant that the consumer sector, which accounts for two-thirds of total economic activity, got off to a weak start at the beginning of the third quarter.

As the economy is going into freefall, as the worst recession since the Great Depression is starting, as the Great Moderation is coming to an end and the violence of the business cycle and a prolonged downturn shows its ugly head again, consumers are reducing consumption because of economic uncertainty. Yet this index reads this as just another example of out-of-control government policy and records it as such. The index will see stories about demand uncertainty as stories about supply, which means it will have trouble telling any accurate story about the Great Recession and our current troubles.

(I have a follow up post, taking apart the rest of the index, here.)

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Who's Going to Build the Next American Economy?

Aug 6, 2012Bo Cutter

President Obama's "you didn't build that" comment highlighted the importance of public investment, but we're not doing anything to make it happen.

President Obama's "you didn't build that" comment highlighted the importance of public investment, but we're not doing anything to make it happen.

I'd like to restart "The Cutter Report" with a commentary about President Obama's remark that "you didn't build that." Relax; I'm not going to pile on the endless series of brainless remarks about how the president hates the private sector. For the record, I don't think he does. I think the endless spinning of the president's remarks by Governor Romney, a whole slew of Republican political "experts" (how do you get to be one of those?), and every half hour of Fox News is only another sign of the apocalypse and nothing to be taken as actual real thought about anything that matters.

Rather, I'd like to take his comments seriously, as I think he intended. So let's start with the fact that President Obama is simply correct. It's no more complicated than that.  I've spent two-thirds of my career in business and I think he's right, and so would every businessperson I know outside of the brainless debates of this presidential campaign. We are all damn lucky to have started, run, and been in businesses in America. Not one of us could have done any of this if we were trying to do it in the Eastern Congo. We have a Constitution, a sense of private property, laws, honest courts, decent infrastructure, great R&D, and on and on.  

But right now, we risk losing some or many of these advantages. As I detailed last year, and as Third Way, a centrist think tank, spells out in its new paper, "Collision Course: Why Democrats Must Back Entitlement Reform," we have entered an era when as a nation we have decided not to invest in either hard or soft public infrastructure any longer. I estimated then that our total domestic public sector investment is about 5 percent of GDP and I calculated that this will fall to around 2 percent of GDP over the next 10 years (I used OMB numbers, but the projections are my interpretation). Third Way's numbers show similar trends. Federal investment spending will drop from 6 percent of GDP in 1962 to a projected 2 percent in 2018, or from 3 percent of the federal budget to 10 percent. As I've said before, I think this is a disaster. Why?

First, I completely agree with the central implication of Ben Friedman's classic book, The Moral Consequences of Economic GrowthThere may be problems that come along with economic growth, but they are nothing compared to the problems of no growth, as we have all seen. And none of the problems progressives care about can be solved in the absence of growth.

Second, as a general proposition, growth is not possible in the middle or long term without investment, and I mean both public and private investment. 

But third, investment is even more important to us today, right now. The core truth is that if we are to grow as rapidly over the next 20 years as we did in the last 20, we have to have a productivity revolution. More of our growth will have to come from productivity -- about 80 percent in the next decade, as opposed to 35 percent to 50 percent in the last three decades. To keep growth constant with the last three decades, labor productivity will have to grow by about one-third. If none of this happens, the generation born during the last decade will experience only about 60 percent of the per capita income growth as did the generation born in the '60s. And creating a productivity revolution is going to require an investment revolution in both the private and the public sectors. 

But we're not going to get investment or a productivity revolution or decent long-term growth. Growth is certainly not at the core of either political campaign now. Public investment is disappearing from the federal budget, and private sector investment is at best mediocre. Neither end of our ideological spectrum cares enough about growth to make it a priority. (As the loading dock foreman said, "Sure my boss cares about quality; he mentions it at least twice a year. But he talks 'shipping boxes' about three times a day.")

So if you take President Obama's comments as true -- as I do -- and you see them as a shorthand view of the combination of elements that actually creates growth, and if you project forward a little bit, then we aren't going to be building much of anything in the future.    

(Note: Many progressives strongly disagree with Third Way's paper. I refer you this post on Bill Keller's New York Times blog, "Boomers and Entitlements: The Next Round," for a debate between James Galbraith of the University of Texas, who also critiqued the paper here at Next New Deal, and Jim Kessler of Third Way. Keller's issue is not my issue in this particular post, but I agree with him, and after reading the Third Way paper and the debate, I mostly agree with the Third Way perspective.)  

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Bo Cutter is formerly a managing partner of Warburg Pincus, a major global private equity firm. Recently, he served as the leader of President Obama’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) transition team. He has also served in senior roles in the White Houses of two Democratic Presidents.

 

Construction workers image via Shutterstock.com.

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A Big Banker’s Belated Apology

Jul 30, 2012Jeff Madrick

This op-ed originally appeared at NYTimes.com.

This op-ed originally appeared at NYTimes.com.

Last week, in a CNBC interviewSanford I. Weill, the former chairman of Citigroup, said that America should separate investment banking from commercial banking. This separation, of course, was the prime purpose of the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933, a piece of legislation that Mr. Weill and other bankers had successfully watered down, with Alan Greenspan’s support, before Mr. Weill helped engineer its official demise in 1999. Now, Mr. Weill, the creator of what was once the largest financial conglomerate in the world, suggests that Citigroup and others should be broken up. Banks can no longer “be too big to fail,” he told CNBC.

But what was most eye-catching was Mr. Weill’s claim that the conglomerate model “was right for that time.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

Mr. Weill’s original business concept — the justification of financial conglomeration — was to provide one-stop shopping to any and all customers. This could now include clients for investment banking, stock research, brokerage and insurance. Then, with the 1998 merger of his Travelers Group with Citicorp, it could include savers, business borrowers and credit card users, too. But few, even among his own executives, ever believed the strategy would work.

Rather, conglomeration bred conflicts of interest in Mr. Weill’s firms, and others — the very conflicts that the original Glass-Steagall Act was designed to prevent. This inevitably led to investment in and promotion of risky, poorly run and, in some cases, deceitful companies that brought us the high-technology and telecommunications bubble of the late 1990s.

Indeed, Mr. Weill’s Citigroup was a primary underwriter of and one of the two largest lenders to the oil and futures trading firm Enron, whose accounting charade resulted in what was in 2001 the biggest bankruptcy of its time. Citigroup was a major underwriter for the telecommunications giants Global Crossing and WorldCom, which would later go bankrupt as a result of flagrant accounting deceptions. There were many other, if less visible, debacles.

Read the full article here.

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New Deal Numerology: Makers and Takers

Jul 26, 2012Tim Price

This week's numbers: $1.8 million; $560,000; $1.5 billion; $1.1 billion; $1 billion

$1.8 million... is a self-made number. That’s how much government aid has been given to Gilchrist Metal, a company highlighted in Romney ads as an independent success. The owner says he was just reclaiming his own tax money, which the government must have socked away in a special Gilchrist-only fund.

This week's numbers: $1.8 million; $560,000; $1.5 billion; $1.1 billion; $1 billion

$1.8 million... is a self-made number. That’s how much government aid has been given to Gilchrist Metal, a company highlighted in Romney ads as an independent success. The owner says he was just reclaiming his own tax money, which the government must have socked away in a special Gilchrist-only fund.

$560,000... is a patronized number. That’s how much Brian Maloney, another small business owner who criticized Obama’s comments, received from a federal contract on top of a preferential loan. Nearing retirement, Maloney is also deeply concerned about keeping the government’s hands off his Medicare.

$1.5 billion... is a chilling number. That’s how much taxpayer money went to support the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. If Romney has to distance himself from that like he did with Bain and his governorship, all he'll have left to brag about are his five World’s Greatest Dad mugs.

$1.1 billion... is a devious number. That’s the size of Obama's proposed 2013 budget for the Small Business Administration. This is all part of his secret plan to destroy the private sector by bribing the ownership class to convert to socialism and overthrow itself.

$1 billion... is a capitalizing number. That’s how much additional funding President Obama wants to give Small Business Investment Companies. Next he’ll be handing out free bootstraps instead of letting people pull themselves up by the ones they inherited from their dad, the governor of Michigan.

Tim Price is Deputy Editor of Next New Deal. Follow him on Twitter @txprice.

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Bubble Standards: Why the Poor Are on the Hook for the Housing Crash

Jul 23, 2012Mike Konczal

When it comes to assigning losses from an economic bubble, we apply one set of standards to elite investors and another to struggling homeowners.

When it comes to assigning losses from an economic bubble, we apply one set of standards to elite investors and another to struggling homeowners.

Many are discussing a potential collapse of a housing bubble in Canada and what could be done about it right now. Here are posts on that subject from Matt Yglesias, Dean Baker, and Worthwhile Canadian Initiative. As I read the literature being written on this crisis, the key issue to watch for is whether the rapid growth in housing prices is matched by a similar growth in household mortgage debt. To see why, it might be useful to contrast the aftermath of the United States' housing bubble with the stock market bubble.

The IMF recently studied a series of 25 OECD countries from 1980 to 2011. These countries experienced a total of 99 housing busts ("turning points (peaks) in nominal house prices"). It divided these housing busts into ones with a high run-up in household debt and ones with a low run-up, and found that "housing busts preceded by larger run-ups in household debt tend to be followed by more severe and longer-lasting declines in household consumption...real GDP typically falls more and unemployment rises more for the high-debt busts." This happens with or without a financial crisis occuring at the same time as the housing bust.

Why is this the case? Let's look at the allocation of losses that occur from the collapse of a bubble.

Within a short time after the internet dot-com bubble popped in 2000-2001, people had a sense of the size of the losses and who would take those losses. The equity holders of collapsing dot-com firms, the ones who held companies' stocks, would be wiped out, and the creditors would take huge hits, as there was very little property to be auctioned off or value to be retained. Trying to reorganize and resurrect the dot-com firms under Chapter 11 bankruptcy wouldn't have helped because they were new firms with no real revenues sources, their high-skill employees would flee, and there was little in terms of assets to use as collateral to secure future funding.

Since the firms were mostly webpages and had small-scale intellectual property, they were auctioned off very quickly under Chapter 7 bankruptcy rules. Even telecom firms that went bankrupt but had a large amount of assets and were eventually relaunched took less than two years. Global Crossing, for example, went bankrupt in January 2002 and relaunched in December 2003. These bankruptcies involved heavy losses for creditors. According to bankruptcy expert Edward Altman, "Default recoveries continued at persistently low average levels, weighed down by the enormous supply of new defaults and communication firms’ 16.6% average recovery." (h/t Greg Ip) But within a two-year span, the losses were understood and allocated.

It has been roughly five or six years since the United States' housing bubble popped. Have we finished assigning the losses yet? Robbie Whelan at the Wall Street Journal reports that we have a range of estimates from 23 percent of homes with a mortgage being underwater, owing a total of $715 billion more than their homes are worth (CoreLogic's estimates), to 31 percent of homes with a mortgage being underwater, owing a total of $1.2 trillion more than their homes are worth (Zillow's estimate). The evidence is clear that where households are most underwater on their mortgages, consumption is weakest, job losses are the worst, and income gains are struggling.

Mortgage debtors aren't shareholders, but it is fascinating to contrast their fates. In the dot-com bust, losses were assigned very quickly. In the housing bust, losses stick with the equivalent "equity" holder years and years out (and hang like an albatross around the neck of the economy as a whole). The losses that are allocated come about in large part through painful foreclosures, which create more losses by fire-selling assets into a weak marketplace. This system is designed to destroy all possible value and drag out the procedures in long, painful ways.

Crucially, in the dot-com bust there weren't the same moral and political arguments that we see in the current one. Economists who demand to know why U.S. mortgages don't stay with people who walk away from their homes didn't demand to know why the equity holders of Pets.com didn't have to dip into their personal savings to pay off the losses creditors took. Very Serious People wonder if debtors' prisons are necessary for homeowners who would walk away from a mortgage or view bankruptcy as an exit strategy, yet no Very Serious People called for the mass imprisonment of Webvan or Flooz shareholders after those firms declared bankruptcy as an exit strategy. Nobody argues that the shareholders of the dot-com era received a gigantic government bailout through the law when they were not personally on the hook for sticking creditors with an 83.4 percent average loss. Meanwhile, efforts to allow for a cleaner way of allocating the housing bubble losses, from retaining value of the household through bankruptcy reform to local municipalities taking action through eminent domain, face a minefield of political and financial industry opposition that gives the impression that the banks "own the place."

When it comes to assigning losses among elite financial institutions, like shareholders and creditors, there is a clean system in place to make sure that it runs efficiently without dragging the entire economy to a halt. When it comes to assigning losses between household mortgage debtors and elite financial creditors, we sit in a perpetual quasi-recession six years out. As the antropologist David Graber finds historically, "[d]ebts between the very wealthy or between governments can always be renegotiated and always have been throughout world history. They’re not anything set in stone... It’s, generally speaking, when you have debts owed by the poor to the rich that suddenly debts become a sacred obligation, more important than anything else. The idea of renegotiating them becomes unthinkable." This time isn't different.

Mike Konczal is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.

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