Comments Guidelines

All comments are pre-moderated. No spam, slurs, personal attacks, or foul language will be allowed.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Time for a new incentives estimate!

It's been over four years since I last published an estimate of U.S. state and local government subsidies in Investment Incentives and the Global Competition for Capital, and the data there represented the situation circa 2005. So I think it's time to begin a new estimate, don't you?

We have a great place to begin. As you may recall, in December 2012 Louise Story of the New York Times published a series of articles, "The United States of Subsidies," which was accompanied by two searchable databases, one of individual deals and one on subsidy programs. The latter was far more comprehensive than anything previously published.

Unfortunately, the program database was flawed because $52 billion of the reported $80 billion in annual subsidies were for sales tax breaks that were for the most part not subsidies at all, but ways to prevent sales tax from being charged for inputs into goods that would pay full sales tax on their final sale. Upjohn Institute economist Timothy Bartik documented that $4.80 billion of the $4.83 billion in sales tax "subsidies" in Michigan fell into this category. There were smaller errors in the program database as well, such as wrongly including net operating loss provisions and omitting the cost of single sales factor apportionment (h/t Timothy Bartik).

Now, dear reader, I'd like to solicit your help. The first step is to review the sales tax breaks in the database, so as to include those relatively few that are genuinely subsidies, such as exemptions for capital goods, which by nature are targeted at investment. If you have insights on this for any of the sales tax programs, I would be extremely grateful if you would share them with me. I would also appreciate any assistance on step 2, which is updating from the 2011 data Story used. If you have the numbers or know the sources, please send them to me. Finally, the same is true for step 3, gathering information on local subsidies, which is much sparser than state-level program data. I will, of course, acknowledge your help in any publications based on this work.

For this project, you can email me at

Thanks in advance!

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Obamacare hasn't killed full-time jobs, either

When we last looked at Obamacare as an alleged "job-killer," Matt Yglesias had just pointed out that 2014, the first full year of insurance on the exchanges, was also the best year for job creation since 1999. But recently a non-blogging friend reminded me of a related anti-Obamacare meme, the idea that employers have been cutting their workers below 32 hours per week so they would not have to provide them with health insurance. His argument was, logically enough, that this would mean a loss of full-time jobs.

As with so many other anecdotal Obamacare horror stories, this one does not stand up to even simple inspection. Just like total job creation, it turns out that full-time (BLS uses 35 hours/week, not 32, by the way) job creation has quickly increased since December 2013, just before exchange insurance went into effect. Not only that, part-time employment has fallen slightly. The Bureau of Labor Statistics' monthly "Employment Situation" (Table A-9 in both cases) tells the tale.

Date            Full or Part Time     Not Seasonally Adjusted Jobs          Seasonally Adjusted Jobs

December 2013   Full-time          116,661,000                                      117,278,000
July 2015             Full-time         123,142,000                                     121,589,000
Change                                      + 6,481,000                                      + 4,311,000

December 2013   Part-time           27,762,000                                        27,372,000
July 2015             Part-time          26,850,000                                        27,265,000
Change                                          - 912,000                                          - 107,000

I included both seasonally adjusted and not seasonally adjusted data for completeness sake, but when we are comparing a summer month to a winter month, surely the seasonally adjusted figures are the correct ones to use. For those of you keeping score at home, then, full-time jobs have increased by 4.3 million since Obamacare exchange insurance went into effect, whereas part-time jobs have fallen by 107,000. Neither of these fits the anecdotes of workers being shunted from full-time to part-time work to avoid providing insurance. This increase in full-time work has been accomplished in the span of just 19 months, or an average of over 226,000 new full-time jobs per month.

Of course, it's theoretically possible that using sophisticated statistical controls might uncover a hidden negative relationship; that we'd have even more full-time jobs than we do if the exchanges hadn't gone into effect. Even if that were true, it's obvious that everything else going on in the Obama economy is having a much bigger effect on full-time employment, so there's no justification for using the epithet "job-killing" on the off chance that it's true.

Cross-posted at Angry Bear.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Basics: Tax Increment Financing Subsidies

Last week I made a presentation to the Colorado Assessors Association on tax increment financing (TIF) subsidies. With the organization's permission, I am sharing the PowerPoint presentation for my talk, as well as adding this introduction.

The talk begins by putting TIF in the context of subsidies generally. As a subsidy, TIF is subject to the three main potential drawbacks of their use: Inefficiency, inequality, and environmental harm. These differing harms often call forth coalitions that prove the adage that "Politics makes strange bedfellows." One example was a joint appearance by Ralph Nader, Rep. John Kasich, and Grover Norquist in 1997. I was in a similar coalition in 2003 fighting a TIF that would have leveled downtown O'Fallon, Missouri, then the fastest-growing city in the state. Our leadership included people from liberal Democrats to future Tea Party members. Similarly, the mayor and TIF-supporting council members were bipartisan. It's easy to find single-party governments that abuse subsidies, too, whether it's now-Governor Kasich offering $400 million to move Sears from Illinois, or Democratic stronghold Kansas City, MO, offering multiple multi-hundred million dollar TIFs.

I then go on to discuss the legal particularities of TIF, which gives it another level of controversy. Tax increment financing typically allows governments to capture the property tax revenue of other districts (something especially hard on school districts), and these revenue fights are matched by the intense hatred the use of eminent domain usually brings forth.

The very first state to adopt TIF (in 1952), California axed TIF in 2011 due to its budget crisis, caused in part because the state reimbursed property tax revenue that school districts lost to TIF. Last year, a new version of TIF was passed, but it completely removes the option to take money from school districts, and lets other taxing jurisdictions opt out as well (see below).

Also of note in TIF history is the constant pressure to expand the locations able to use it (i.e., progressively less economically deprived areas want it in their subsidy arsenal) and the gross overuse of TIF for retail projects. As I mention in the link, St. Louis-area municipalities gave $2 billion in retail TIF from 1990 to 2007, creating all of 5400 jobs, no more than we'd expect on the basis of the area's income growth. That's why the relevant slide says $2 billion = 0 jobs.

Thanks to Karen Miller of the CAA for inviting me and agreeing to let me post the PowerPoint.

Cross-posted at Angry Bear.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Final subsidy accounting rules published!

On Friday, the Government Accounting Standards Board (GASB) published the final version of its new rules requiring governments to make reporting on subsidies a standard part of their financial reports (known as Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports, or CAFRs). Since GASB determines the content of "Generally Accepted Accounting Principles," its new rules will have to be widely adopted.

Subsidy reformers such as Good Jobs First did not get everything they wanted in the new rules, but their publication represents a gigantic step forward in subsidy transparency. In particular, every government that gives tax-based subsidies will be required to report the amount they give each year. Moreover, every government that loses revenue to subsidies given by another government must report the amount as well. Most commonly, this will be school districts and other political units that lose property tax revenue to tax increment financing (TIF) or property tax abatements.

GASB continued its incomprehensible use of the term "tax abatement" as its catchall for all tax-based subsidies. As I pointed out in my own GASB comments, the term properly only refers to property tax abatements, a smallish proportion of local subsidies used in fewer states than TIF (see Greenbaum and Landers, "The TIFF over TIF," 2014, no ungated version available). On the plus side, as Good Jobs First points out, the final rules make clear that subsidies such as tax increment financing are included in their definition of "tax abatement," although a strict reading of the draft definition might well have excluded it and other subsidies. I considered this a worry in my GASB comments, because too much focus on legal fictions (TIF recipients are legally deemed to have paid their taxes, for instance) would obscure the fact that a subsidy exists. Happily, GASB opted to be inclusive in the definition, which will make it more difficult for governments to evade the new rules.

The real drawbacks of the new rules are that they don't require that the recipients, even the largest ones, be identified (this is optional); they don't require governments to say how many subsidies are in place (just the total cost of subsidies for that year); and they don't require a listing of future subsidies already committed. In addition, as I pointed out in my comments, they do not require a cross-listing of non-tax subsidies such as grants and loans so that people reading a CAFR can determine how much a government is spending and committed to spend on total subsidies.

Still, the new rules represent a tremendous advance over the status quo. Every state and local government will now have to report the value of the subsidies it gives every year. CAFRs are audited reports, meaning that multiple sets of eyes will look at the documents even before the public sees the reports and can cross-reference them with everything else known about a government's subsidies. Good Jobs First will be expanding its Subsidy Tracker database to include the new data in governments' annual reports. I'm looking forward to all these developments, and you should be, too.

Cross-posted at Angry Bear.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Basics: Is trade zero-sum between workers in different countries? had a long, interesting interview with Senator Bernie Sanders covering a large number of political and economic issues. In this post, I want to focus on just one issue he raised: Whether rising incomes for Chinese workers have to come at the expense of U.S. workers. Here is what Sanders told Vox's Ezra Klein:
I want to see the people in China live in a democratic society with a higher standard of living. I want to see that, but I don't think that has to take place at the expense of the American worker. I don't think decent-paying jobs in this country have got to be lost as companies shut down here and move to China.
What Sanders doesn't mention is that the market, left to itself, will indeed force a tradeoff between U.S. and Chinese workers. We can see this via the Stolper-Samuelson Theorem, which says that increasing trade will raise the real incomes of a country's abundant factors of production and reduce the real incomes of the scarce factors of production. The reason is that abundant factors of production (relative to the rest of the world, of course) will find new markets abroad as trade increases, while scarce factors of production will face increased import competition. Since China is a labor-abundant country and the United States a labor-scarce one, the theorem implies that real wages will rise in China and fall in the United States as they increase trade (all trade, not just with each other). And this effect can be sped up if U.S. companies close factories in the United States and open them in China, just as we have seen happen.

To disable the tradeoff requires political intervention in the market. If you want to preserve gains from trade that are predicted by the theory of comparative advantage, and you want to not worsen income inequality in the United States, you need to find a way, as Ronald Rogowski pointed out, for  the winners to compensate the losers from trade. This isn't easy: As Rogowski also noted, the winners increase their clout in the political system while the losers see their influence decrease (look at the long-declining influence of unions here). As I've discussed before, the increased mobility of capital exacerbates this problem in the U.S., since capital is much more mobile than workers. And so we have seen a steady decrease in the tax burden paid by corporations and the rich, more trade agreements signed, and a constant drumbeat to cut Social Security (despite the coming retirement crisis) and "phase out" Medicare.

What would compensating the losers from trade look like? Most obviously, and most focused, is trade adjustment assistance, which is often criticized as inadequate. Yet it does not really make sense to compensate only those who lose their jobs directly to foreign competition, because those workers then spill into other sectors of the economy, driving down wages as they go. Thus, we need to go beyond trade adjustment assistance.

To raise wages in the economy more generally, we need broader measures. One would be to raise the minimum wage: It pushes up workers' pay, but it also reduces turnover and training costs for employers, and puts money into the hands of people with a high propensity to consume, creating multiple channels to counteract the seemingly self-evident fact that raising something's price means people will buy less of it.

Another broad-spectrum approach to raising wages is to restore the power of unions. As I have pointed out before, the United States has the fifth-lowest union density in the 34-member Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Senator Sanders, in the interview linked above, notes that the increased power of unions in Nevada's gambling industry has enabled house-cleaning staff in the state's casinos to earn "$35,000 or $40,000 a year and have good health-care benefits." Having a National Labor Relations Board that is not in the pocket of industry is critical for us to see this take place.

Third, less targeted still but having the political benefit of universal coverage, an expansion of the social safety net would make it possible for people to simply refuse to take crappy jobs. Yes, this is about bargaining power! It would also encourage entrepreneurship because failure would not mean the loss of one's health insurance, for example. Medicare for all has long been one of Senator Sanders' standard prescriptions, a program that benefits from having far lower overhead costs (it avoids outrageous executive salaries, the need for profit, and does not have to advertise much) than private insurance. We could do a lot worse than considering it -- and we have.

Finally, to pay for these programs, it's necessary to raise taxes on corporations and rich individuals. Thomas Piketty, in his monumental Capital in the Twenty-First Century, suggests that the top marginal income tax rate should be 82% for individuals in the top 1/2% or top 1% of income. He notes that this will not raise much money, in part because it will reduce various lucrative but economically unproductive financial shenanigans. Instead, he thinks a tax of 50-60% on the top 5% of incomes would produce substantial revenue to create what he calls a "social state" for the 21st century. One could go further, of course, by adding a financial transactions tax (I hope to write about this soon) and shutting down tax havens.

To return to our original question, there is no reason that Chinese workers and U.S. workers can't both prosper from trade. But to make it possible in the United States requires a great deal of rule rewriting that will not be achieved overnight.

Cross-posted at Angry Bear.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Like us on Facebook and Twitter!

Facebook and Twitter followers get more than just immediate notification of new posts. I also promote selected articles from around the Web that are related to middle class issues. If you would find that of interest, I hope you'll support me there.

Thanks in advance!

Monday, July 13, 2015

Impending disaster in Greece

Paul Krugman analyzes the debacle in Greece. Although Greeks voted barely a week ago to reject the bailout terms offered by the EU, which called for uninterrupted austerity, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras proposed to the EU to accept almost all of the terms if there was some true financial relief. Instead, what the European Union, spurred by Germany, proposed today demanded all of the pain, and none of the gain that Tsipras sought. Indeed, Germany has essentially demanded regime change in Greece, even though Tsipras only came to office in January. As Krugman says, "It is, presumably, meant to be an offer Greece can’t accept."

The Germans, it would appear, have decided to push Greece from the eurozone. But demanding an end to Greek sovereignty and austerity as far as the eye can see is simply evil. Moreover, it negates the long-successful stand of European Central Bank (ECB) president Mario Draghi that the ECB would do "whatever it takes" to keep the eurozone intact. The ECB's reputation would be damaged greatly should crisis recur in Spain, Portugal, Ireland, etc., now that the world knows the ECB will not do "whatever it takes." This is a recipe for a new recession in Europe spreading from the EU periphery. The German demands are particularly "grotesque," as Krugman says, when you consider that Greece has already endured 25+% unemployment for three years (see chart). This is an unemployment rate that the United States never saw even at the height of the Great Depression in 1933, when it peaked at 24.9%.

However, I believe Krugman's argument actually overlooks an important point. He writes:
But still, let’s be clear: what we’ve learned these past couple of weeks is that being a member of the eurozone means that the creditors can destroy your economy if you step out of line.
His point is that eurozone membership has removed Greece's ability to exercise monetary policy autonomy and respond to its specific conditions, including via currency devaluation. Indeed, there can be no doubt that monetary union was flawed from the start. But Krugman overestimates the ability of devaluation to fix an economic crisis. At the same time, he underestimates the ability of creditors to destroy a government whose economic policies they disapprove of.

 The mega-example of this, of course, is the Latin American debt crisis of the 1980s. Mexico, Brazil, and all the other victims of this crisis (caused primarily by the U.S. Federal Reserve cranking up interest rates to astronomical levels in the late 1970s and early 1980s, which in turn caused an unprecedented rise in the value of the U.S. dollar and a global recession) were "bailed out" by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in order to prevent the collapse of creditor banks in the United States, but were subject to strict austerity, with the same results we've seen in the EU. Indeed, in virtually every Latin American country income per capita was lower in 1990 than at the start of the crisis in 1982, giving rise to the term "lost decade of development" to describe these events. Supposedly, the IMF learned its lesson after the Asian financial crisis that austerity packages didn't work. Krugman has argued this many times (one example here). Indeed, the IMF has seemed to be more of a voice of sanity in the current crisis than in either the Latin American or Asian crises. Yet, in the endgame of the Greek crisis, this seems to have fallen away, with the IMF going along with the EU on Greek austerity. Something is seriously wrong here.

But there is another important example to mention, where the IMF was not involved. This, too, was a result of the Fed-caused global recession, this time in France. After Francois Mitterrand and the Socialist Party swept to power in 1981, among the government's many policy changes was an attempt at Keynesian stimulus. However, this was met by massive capital flight. The problem was that the French franc was losing so much value that the government had to reverse its policies. For example, the franc was 4.6453 to the dollar in January 1981, but fell to 8.0442 by August 1983, 9.3041 by September 1984, and 10.0933 in February 1985. The takeaway is that even having floating exchange rates does not guarantee that you can maintain your policy independence.

Events are moving very rapidly; perhaps the EU will find a way to prevent this disaster. But at the moment, things look very grim.