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Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Consumer Reports: Obamacare reduced bankruptcy rate

A new article at consumerreports.org suggests that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act* (PPACA) played a substantial role in the decline of annual personal bankruptcies that we have seen since the high of 1.5 million in 2010.

As I showed several years ago, international bankruptcy data support the oft-heard claim that medical bills make up one of the biggest, if not the biggest, causes of personal bankruptcy. That is, if the United States has a bunch of medical bankruptcies and other countries don't, all other things equal you would expect the U.S. to have a higher overall bankruptcy rate than other countries. And the only article I was able to find on this showed that it was true: In 2006, the U.S. had a rate (6000 per million population) that was twice Canada's (3000 per million), which in turn far outstripped #3 Germany (1200 per million). The U.S. and Canadian rates have long been the highest because they had the most debtor-friendly bankruptcy systems, so debtors took advantage of it when they could.

Canada and the U.S. had similar rates in 1982, but thereafter the U.S. rate increased substantially more rapidly than Canada's did. As this period was also marked by U.S. health care costs outstripping those of other OECD countries, this is definitely evidence that medical bills were contributing to the higher U.S. bankruptcy rate.

Now, as suggested by Consumer Reports, the increase in insurance coverage rates and the many consumer protections due to the Affordable Care Act are contributing to a falling bankruptcy rate. Certainly, part of the fall is due to the passing of the worst part of the Great Recession, but the numbers are still striking.


A chart showing how the number of personal bankruptcy cases dropped after the ACA was introduced.

As the article points out and the chart above emphasizes, protections that surely reduced bankruptcy rates were contained in even the initial phase of the ACA. In 2011, the Obama administration rolled out the ban on yearly and lifetime limits, guaranteed coverage for pre-existing conditions, and implemented the rules allowing adult children to remain on their parents' policies until they were 26. By the time all ACA provisions were in effect in 2014, there was already a decline of over 600,000 bankruptcies per year. In the next two years, bankruptcies declined by a further 160,000 per year.

With the possibility that the American Health Care Act (AHCA) could reverse many of those protections, the conclusion is inescapable that medical bankruptcies will once again increase. Just how much, of course, depends on the particulars after (and if) the bill goes through the Senate, but this new study shows us just how much we have gained, and how much we have at risk.

* I use the full name of the law because both the patient protection and affordability aspects of the legislation contributed to this outcome.

Consumer Reports has not responded to my request for permission to use the chart. I will remove it if so requested.

Cross-posted at Angry Bear.

Friday, April 28, 2017

European Union ends relocation subsidies

This isn't actually news, but it's news to me, and it's something you need to know. Greg LeRoy sent me an article by James Meek in London Review of Books (20 April 2017) that he'd been sent by a friend, documenting more EU-permitted job piracy by Poland that preceded the case I discuss at length in my book, Investment Incentives and the Global Competition for Capital. There, I criticized the European Commission's Directorate-General for Competition for approving a 54.5 million euro subsidy for Dell to move from Ireland to Poland in 2009. During my January 2011 book tour, I took a lot of flak from DG Competition when I presented there, with several staff pushing back on my criticism of this decision.

As the LRB article pointed out, there was another case involving Poland, where Cadbury received state aid of about $5 million (14.18 million zloty when the zloty was worth about 0.35 USD) in November 2008 to move from the Somerdale, United Kingdom, to Skarbimierz (the LRB gives a much bigger number, but from unspecified "Polish government figures," so I cannot find a way to compare it with the EU's case report). This case is only listed in the EU's Official Journal, where it is reported as having been notified under the General Block Exemption Regulation. As this regulation is intended for uncontroversial cases, that makes it evidence, though hardly proof, for a relatively smaller rather than larger aid amount. For my purposes, the amount is less important than the fact that we have another documented relocation subsidy.

What's the big "news"? In Meek's article we read, "In 2014, too late for Somerdale, the EU recognised its error and banned the use of national subsidies to entice multinationals to move production from one EU country to another." Just like that.*

Okay, I'm abstracting from the political process. But it's pretty clear what happened. As I reported in Investment Incentives and the Global Competition for Capital, when Dell moved to Poland, all of Ireland was up in arms, including government officials and Members of the European Parliament. The European Parliament made its displeasure known. What the Somerdale case shows us is that there was at least one other country on the wrong end of a relocation subsidy, strengthening further the political pressure for state aid reform.

As I said, Commission staff believed they made the correct decision in the subsequent Dell case, and the rationale would have been exactly the same for Cadbury. The move sent economic activity from somewhere with high per capita income to a place with a far lower per capita income. They saw this as an overall increase of efficiency within the European Union. As I argued, though, even if that were the case, the decision wasn't good for intra-EU solidarity, and it undermined support for policies promoting the growth of the EU's poorer regions ("cohesion" policy in EU-speak). In light of the 2014 policy change, we know that arguments aligned to mine were the ones that carried the day politically.

This shouldn't come as any surprise: People generally don't like job piracy when they know about it. If you've read Chapter 5 of my book Competing for Capital, you know that it's basically not allowed for states to use federal funds (Community Development Block Grants, Small Business Administration, etc.) to engage in job piracy. But in each program's case, the reform happened only after one or more such incidents (many of them reported to me by Greg LeRoy during my research) had taken place, leading to demands for change.

Moreover, individual states know how to prevent job piracy within their own state. As of 2013, 40 states had shown their ability to write anti-piracy rules (p. iii). But they don't hesitate to use relocation subsidies when it comes to raiding other states. They can't seem to help themselves since they all need investment, and nothing stops other states from providing incentives. In fact, all multi-state anti-piracy agreement in the U.S. have failed, and even the most promising recent attempt (Kansas/Missouri) failed to get off the ground.

Only the federal government can stop states from stealing jobs from one another, but don't hold your breath on it happening anytime soon even though the negative-sum nature of inter-state border wars is easy to see. It's heartening to me to see the European Union has finally changed its policy, given that I have written mostly positive things about state aid control over the years. It's great for the glaring exception to be gone.


*For the technically inclined, this is embodied in a ban of relocation subsidies under the General Block Exemption Regulation, and in the Guidelines for Regional Aid 2014-2020, which classifies a relocation aid (paragraph 122) as "a manifest negative effect," "where the negative effects of the aid manifestly outweigh any positive effects, so that the aid cannot be declared compatible with the internal market" (paragraph 118).

Cross-posted at Angry Bear.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

How wrong is IBD on California? Let us count the ways

Investor's Business Daily has a hit piece out on California, as you can tell from the headline, "Taxifornia does it again." Here's the first paragraph of the editorial*, to give you a good flavor of it:
California's far-left government has done it again. Not realizing its real problems are excessive spending on misplaced priorities, excessive taxes, too much debt and a far-too generous welfare state, its legislature working in cahoots with Gov. Jerry "tax-and-spend" Brown has pushed through the largest tax hike in state history.
Amazingly, the editorial does not mention regulations once, though it did get around to the "job-killing $15-an-hour minimum wage" recently passed, along with the proposal for a single-payer health insurance system. I guess that counts as massive self-restraint on the editors' part.

The article calls California "the highest-tax state in the union." If that's so, it's just another example of the false claim (popular also with Arthur Laffer and the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council) that high taxes always mean bad policy outcomes. (FWIW, according to Forbes, California only has the sixth-highest state and local tax burden.)

So what have been the consequences of all of California's tax increases? According to IBD, "Since 2004, California has lost more than 1 million people, representing a $26 billion net income loss." Of course, no one has actually been lost. California's population grew by almost exactly 4 million between 2004 and 2016, from 35.25 million to 39.25 million. What IBD's editors are referring to is net interstate immigration and even there, the analysis is a little squirrely. From 2004 to 2008, the state had net interstate emigration of over 100,000 per year, with a low point of 288,000 net loss in 2006 (you know, during the housing disaster), but in every year since 2009, the number has been under 100,000 per year. Of course, interstate immigration is only one element of population change, and IBD conveniently omits the rest.

And the $26 billion alleged income loss due to interstate out-migration over that time period? A rounding error in an economy which grew from $1.8 trillion (2004) to $2.2 trillion (2015) annually in real 2009 dollars. I'm not even going to bother searching for their unlisted source.

The article further claims that because of taxes, over 10,000 firms, including Toyota, "have either fled the state or reduced their investments." Of course, Toyota has been replaced in its Fremont factory by Tesla, the most valuable auto company in the United States by market capitalization (yes, I agree: it does need to make profits sometime to maintain this). Again, we need to look at the bigger picture. California hit its pre-recession peak employment in January 2008 at 16,949,800 (6.1% unemployment rate), went below 16 million employed and over 12% unemployment in the worst of the Great Recession, but in December 2016 reached 18,376,600 employed with just a 5.2% unemployment rate. So something more than offset all the companies that "fled," I guess.

Of course, not everything is hunky-dory in California. As Woody Guthrie sang in 1940, "you won't find it [California] so hot, if you ain't got the do-re-mi." It's just as true today. California has persistent problems with a shortage of affordable housing, with studies rating it as having the highest housing costs in the country. But that means, contrary to the tax-doomsayers, that it is low-income people moving out and higher income people moving into the state, the opposite of what we'd expect if the anti-tax hype were true.

All in all, the editorial is Exhibit 538 in pressuring states to cut taxes, pretending you can provide infrastructure, education, and training without tax revenue, and that you can create prosperity by creating low-wage jobs.

* Thanks to a non-blogging friend for pointing out this editorial.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Tax Justice Network Taxcast, March 2017: Brexit and Tax Havens; Losses to Tax Avoidance

Will Brexit harm the City of London's tax haven? With weak regulation, money laundering, and satellites like BVI, Cayman Islands, and Jersey, everyone knows it's already a tax haven. The UK is threatening to be more of a tax haven if they don't get their way on other issues in the Brexit negotiations, but the EU will be vigilant on this issue, in John Christensen's opinion. He notes that the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) does not guarantee trade in most financial services. He says UK suffers from finance curse (like the resource curse increasingly studied in political science). He predicts that the EU will find it easier to regulate financial services after the UK is gone.

The cost of the financial crisis was $6.5-$14.5 trillion, according to calculations by Gerald Epstein, of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. The bailout enabled finance to make profits far beyond what was justified based on the risk banks took on prior to the bailout. Economic rent has been generated through excess compensation, drawing more top graduates into the sector. Private credit/GDP over 90% or so leads to lower economic growth. The U.S., UK, and Iceland all had been at 200% of GDP.

"Overcharged? The High Cost of High Finance" is the name of the report.

Listen to the entire broadcast here: http://traffic.libsyn.com/taxcast/Taxcast_March_17.mp3


Sunday, March 19, 2017

U.S. Has Worst Wealth Inequality of Any Rich Nation, and It's Not Even Close

I've discussed the Credit Suisse Global Wealth Reports before, an excellent source of data for both wealth and wealth inequality. The most recent edition, from November 2016, shows the United States getting wealthier, but steadily more unequal in wealth per adult and dropping from 25th to 27th in median wealth per adult since 2014. Moreover, on a global scale, it reports that the top 1% of wealth holders hold 50.8% of the world's wealth (Report, p. 18).

One important point to bear in mind is that while the United States remains the fourth-highest country for wealth per adult (after Switzerland, Iceland, and Australia) at $344,692, its median wealth per adult has fallen to 27th in the world, down to $44,977. As I have pointed out before, the reason for this is much higher inequality in the U.S. In fact, the U.S. ratio of mean to median wealth per adult is 7.66:1, the highest of all rich countries by a long shot.

The tables below illustrate this. First, I will present the 29 countries with median wealth per adult over $40,000 per year, from largest to smallest. The second table also includes mean wealth per adult and the mean/median ratio, sorted by the inequality ratio.


1. Switzerland  $244,002
2. Iceland  $188,088
3. Australia  $162,815
4. Belgium  $154,815
5. New Zealand  $135,755
6. Norway  $135,012
7. Luxembourg  $125,452
8. Japan  $120,493
9. United Kingdom  $107,865
10. Italy  $104,105
11. Singapore  $101,386
12. France  $  99,923
13. Canada  $  96,664
14. Netherlands  $  81,118
15. Ireland  $  80,668
16. Qatar  $  74,820
17. Korea  $  64,686
18. Taiwan  $  63,134
19. United Arab Emirates  $  62,332
20. Spain  $  56,500
21. Malta  $  54,562
22. Israel  $  54,384
23. Greece  $  53,266
24. Austria  $  52,519
25. Finland  $  52,427
26. Denmark  $  52,279
27. United States  $  44,977
28. Germany  $  42,833
29. Kuwait  $  40,803

Source: Credit Suisse Global Wealth Databook 2016, Table 3-1

Now that I've got your attention, let me remind you why this low level of median wealth is a BIG PROBLEM. Quite simply, we are careening towards a retirement crisis as Baby Boomers like myself find their income drop off a cliff in retirement. As I reported in 2013, 49% (!) of all private sector workers have no retirement plan at all, not even a crappy 401(k). 31% have only a 401(k), which shifts all the investment risk on to the individual, rather than pooling that risk as Social Security does. And many people had to borrow against their 401(k) during the Great Recession, including 1/3 of people in their forties. The overall savings shortfall is $6.6 trillion! If Republican leaders finally get their wish to gut Social Security, prepare to see levels of elder poverty unlike anything in generations. It will not be pretty.

Let's move now to the inequality data, where I'll present median wealth per adult, mean wealth per adult, and the mean-to-median ratio, a significant indicator of inequality. These data will be sorted by that ratio.


1. United States  $ 44,977  $344,692 7.66
2. Denmark  $ 52,279  $259,816 4.97
3. Germany  $ 42,833  $185,175 4.32
4. Austria  $ 52,519  $206,002 3.92
5. Israel  $ 54,384  $176,263 3.24
6. Kuwait  $ 40,803  $119,038 2.92
7. Finland  $ 52,427  $146,733 2.80
8. Canada  $ 96,664  $270,179 2.80
9. Taiwan  $ 63,134  $172,847 2.74
10. Singapore  $101,386  $276,885 2.73
11. United Kingdom  $107,865  $288,808 2.68
12. Ireland  $ 80,668  $214,589 2.66
13. Luxembourg  $125,452  $316,466 2.52
14. Korea  $ 64,686  $159,914 2.47
15. France  $ 99,923  $244,365 2.45
16. United Arab Emirates  $ 62,332  $151,098 2.42
17. Norway  $135,012  $312,339 2.31
18. Australia  $162,815  $375,573 2.31
19. Switzerland  $244,002  $561,854 2.30
20. Netherlands  $ 81,118  $184,378 2.27
21. New Zealand  $135,755  $298,930 2.20
22. Iceland  $188,088  $408,595 2.17
23. Qatar  $ 74,820  $161,666 2.16
24. Malta  $ 54,562  $116,185 2.13
25. Spain  $ 56,500  $116,320 2.06
26. Greece  $ 53,266  $103,569 1.94
27. Italy  $104,105  $202,288 1.94
28. Japan  $120,493  $230,946 1.92
29. Belgium  $154,815  $270,613 1.75

Source: Author's calculations from Credit Suisse Global Wealth Databook 2016, Table 3-1

As you can see, the U.S. inequality ratio is more than 50% higher than #2 Denmark and fully three times as high as the median country on the list, France. As the title says, this is not even close.

The message couldn't be clearer: Get down to your town halls and let your Senators and Representatives know that it's time to raise Social Security benefits and forget the nonsense of cutting them.

Cross-posted to Angry Bear.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Meanwhile, back in Ireland

We've gotten to another point where it's hard for me to turn on the TV. I know this will have to change, but for now I'll go back to one of my favorite topics, the fate of Ireland under austerity.

As I suggested might happen, Ireland in its 2015-2016 immigration statistical year (May-April) was finally able to end its net emigration. According to the Central Statistical Office's August report, 3100 more people came to Ireland than left during 2015-2016. This was the first time since 2008-2009 that Ireland had net in-migration. Still, among the Irish themselves, net emigration continued in 2015-2016, with 10,700 more leaving than returning.

The unemployment rate declined again from Q3 2015 to Q3 2016, from from 9.3% to 8.0%. The monthly unemployment rate for January 2017 dropped to 7.1%. And yet...

While Q3 2016 employment increased by 57,500 to 2,040,500, this remains 5.6% below its Q1 2008 peak of 2,160,681. Things are finally getting better, but Ireland is still not all the way back.

By contrast, currency-devaluing, banker-jailing Iceland long ago passed its old employment peak (create your own table), which was 181,900 in August 2008. Employment reached a low point of 163,900 in February 2011, first surpassed the old peak in February 2015 (182,900), and in December 2016 stood at 194,400, or 6.9% above the pre-crisis peak.

Oh, and Iceland's unemployment rate? A seasonally adjusted 2.9% in December 2016, and only 2.6% without seasonal adjustment.

Maybe one day we'll talk about the Celtic Tiger again. But Ireland, hamstrung by its inability to devalue and by harsh austerity measures, shows lingering weakness, masked by emigration, to this day. Iceland, by contrast, is the one looking like a Nordic Tiger.

Cross-posted at Angry Bear.