Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Now, Back to that "Fiscal Cliff"

Deal or no deal?  That is the question that still hasn't been answered.

But remember, no deal is better than a bad deal.   Obama is still holding firm thus far in the face of the Repugnicans who want to slash our social safety net to give millionaires and billionaires more undeserved and unnecessary tax breaks.  And Boehner seems to be sweating bullets.  If no deal is reached, it will not lead to financial Armageddon like the right-wing plutocrats claim.  The so-called "fiscal cliff" is really not a cliff at all--it's more like a staircase.  The full effect of the tax hikes (which occur on next year's income) and automatic spending cuts (which are phased in over a period of a few months) will not be felt right away, which clearly gives Obama the upper hand especially after January 1, 2013.   No wonder Boehner and his ilk are so nervous.

Even more importantly, the budget deficit is actually NOT the biggest economic problem our nation is facing.  The more pressing issue, of course, is the jobs deficit--the whopping 9 million Americans that are still out of work at the end of 2012, five years after the recession officially began (December 2007) and over three years after the recession officially ended (June 2009).  We are clearly stuck in a vicious cycle of persistently high unemployment and inadequate consumer and aggregate demand (remember that one person's spending is another person's income and vice-versa).  Remember that 70% of our entire GDP is consumer spending, and 20% is government spending.  And cutting the budget deficit too much too soon (at least by traditional means) would only make the jobs deficit worse, and the relative lack of revenue from the still-struggling economy is one of the biggest drivers of the budget deficit.   Basically, any significant tax hikes on the bottom 90% of Americans and/or any significant cuts in non-defense spending would only hurt our economy and make our future deficits (and national debt) that much worse in the long run.  If it turns out that these hikes and cuts must be done, and that is a very big "if", then they must be postponed until our economy is back to normal (i.e. two consecutive quarters of 3% GDP growth or higher and less than 6% unemployment).  Congress, you have been warned, so don't drink the Repugnican Austerity Kool-Aid.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Stoned in Seattle

Today is truly a historic occasion.  In Washington State, the initiative that legalized cannabis goes into effect, marking the first time any US state fully legalized the herb since it was federally banned in 1937.  In Seattle, there was plenty of celebration of this occasion, with hundreds of people toking up under the Space Needle.  Colorado also legalized it as well, and that goes into effect on January 5, 2013  December 10, 2012 (see update below).  In both states, the first legal retail outlets for weed are scheduled to be set up in early 2014 as the new laws are phased in.  Looks like Cypress Hill finally got his wish in two states, even if California was not one of them.

Of course, cannabis is still illegal under federal law, and it is still not clear exactly what the Feds will do.  While they say they will still enforce the current law, the situation is very similar to how NY ended alcohol Prohibition in 1923, ten years before national Prohibition was repealed.   Basically, the only ones enforcing it there were the feds, and they did not have nearly enough manpower or resources to do it alone (and they still don't).  That spelled the beginning of the end for Prohibition, and we hope that is true this time around for cannabis as well.  We will be closely watching this story as the next few months progress.

For the record, the TSAP supports full legalization of cannabis in all 50 states as well as federally.  By that we mean it should be taxed and regulated in a manner similar to alcohol and tobacco, with an age limit of 18, and no one should be arrested or jailed for simple possession of small amounts.  Growing one's own weed (within reason) should be treated like growing one's own tobacco or brewing one's own beer, and passing around a joint should be treated like passing around a tobacco cigarette or a bottle of beer.  Driving under the influence of cannabis should be treated the same as driving under the influence of alcohol, though the penalties should reflect the fact that the latter is far more dangerous than the former.  And we hope this will all become reality sooner rather than later.

UPDATE:  On December 10, Colorado Governor John Hinckenlooper signed an executive order that made the initiative currently official.  Thus, cannabis possession is now legal in both states for all people over the age of 21, while sale remains at least technically illegal for now pending the creation of a regulatory framework for such sales.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Now, About that "Fiscal Cliff".....

With President Obama's re-election already won, the next hurdle to face is the so-called "fiscal cliff", which is a set of tax hikes and spending cuts that will automatically occur on January 1, 2013 if no action is taken.  While such a thing would clearly reduce the deficit, the Congressional Budget Office predicts that it would also likely trigger another recession given the already weak economy.  Specifically, it would be the middle-class tax hikes and some of the spending cuts that would be the real problem, not the tax hikes on the rich.  However, if we don't address the deficit at all, then we're in financial trouble as well, at least in the long run.   And to top it off, the debt ceiling will have to be raised yet again in late January or early February.  Seems like we're stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place, between the devil and the deep blue sea.

Not really, though.  As UC Berkeley professor Robert Reich so cleverly points out, the real problem is House Speaker John Boehner and the rest of the Repugnicans in Congress who are willing to play chicken with the economy.   They will apparently do anything to avoid even a modest tax hike on the top 1% of Americans, even if it means ruining our country's credit rating and/or crashing the economy.   Basically, everyone's ox would get gored except the ultra-rich if the Repugnicans had their way.

The best thing for Obama to do is to start out bold and aim high, rather than start out with a compromised position.  According to Robert Reich, this means the following:

1)  Raise taxes on the rich--by a LOT.  Enough so the average millionaire would pay an effective rate of about 55% after all deductions and credits, as it was 60 years ago.  (The top marginal rate would have to be at least 70%, and every dollar above the first million would have to be taxed at 50% or more)

2)  Create a 2% wealth tax on the net worth of the top 0.5% of Americans.

3)  Create a 0.5% financial transactions tax.

4)  Raise the capital gains tax to match the rate on ordinary income, and cap the mortgage interest deduction at $12,000 per year.

5)  Eliminate special tax preferences and subsidies for Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big Agro, Wall Street, and so-called "defense contractors."

6)  Last but not least, let the Bush tax cuts expire for incomes between $250,000 and $1 million.

Doing all of these things would reduce the deficit by $4 trillion over the next ten years (the same as what Simspon-Bowles proposed), but without cutting any vital programs or raising taxes on the middle class.  This is the crucial difference between what Professor Reich proposes and what the Repugnicans propose.  And it wouldn't crash the economy, as the best studies have shown.

While Professor Reich acknowledges that some sort of compromise is inevitable, he also notes that any such "grand bargain" to avoid the cliff must contain the following stipulation:  any sort of tax hike on the middle class and any sort of spending cut must only be permitted with a triggering mechanism of two consecutive quarters of 6% unemployment or lower and 3% GDP growth or higher.  This caveat would ensure that we really are out of the woods before sucking any significant amount of aggregate demand out of the economy, echoing Keynesian economic theory.  It is also very important to note that, unlike last time, progressives actually have the upper hand right now--so let's not squander it.  No deal is still better than a bad deal.

Of course, there are other ways of accomplishing a similar or even greater deficit reduction, as the TSAP has repeatedly proposed.   In fact our own proposals would eliminate not just the deficit, but the entire national debt as well.  But much of what we have proposed dovetails rather nicely with what Professor Reich suggests, and that is an excellent start.   What better time than now?

Friday, November 9, 2012

Time for a Victory Dance!

The 2012 election was largely a victory for us, since Obama won re-election and the lesser-evil party (aka the Democrats) regained control of the Senate (but unfortunately not the House).  As we have noted before, Obama has been our only hope for keeping America from falling completely into the plutocrats' (and kleptocrats') hands yet again.  We thank everyone, especially in swing states, who chose NOT to feed the vultures this time around.  And fie upon those who did!

Ballot initiative results were generally favorable this time around, especially as far as civil rights are concerned.  For example, three more states legalized same-sex marriage, and one state rejected a constitutional amendment banning it.  This is the first time any state has legalized gay marriage via a ballot initiative.  Perhaps direct democracy isn't so bad after all.

Also, it looks like "California dreaming" has finally become a reality.  Though not in California or even in Oregon, but rather in Colorado and Washington.  Those two states were the first to legalize cannabis for non-medical use since it was banned in the 1930s.  This is nothing short of historic and groundbreaking.  However, before you go and book that flight to Denver or Seattle, keep in mind that it still remains illegal at the federal level and the feds say they will still enforce the federal law for the time being. 

In other news, it looks like Puerto Rico wants to become the 51st state. We hope Congress and the President will agree to make it happen. Imagine if Puerto Rico actually was represented in Congress and the Electoral College, that could be a game-changer in the 2016 election. And the people there would be paying federal income taxes as a result of statehood, so federal revenues should increase. However, this is the fourth time that the island tried to change its status, so we don't know if this attempt will succeed.

Thanksgiving is coming up soon, and we clearly have a lot to be thankful for.  Power to the people!

Saturday, October 6, 2012

New Study: Taxing the Rich Won't Tank Economy

We've been saying this before, and we'll say it again.  Contrary to what the top 1% and their lackeys like to claim, tax cuts on the rich do NOT create jobs or boost economic growth, and tax hikes on the rich do NOT destroy the economy.  And now a new study proves it yet again.  

In a nutshell, a 1%-of-GDP (i.e. $150 billion) tax cut on the bottom 90% of Americans boosts GDP by 2.7 percentage points over a two-year period, while a tax cut of the same size on the wealthiest 10% of Americans gives a statistically and practically insignificant boost of merely 0.13 percentage points (while significantly increasing economic inequality). So, if we really want to boost economic growth, we would cut (or perhaps even eliminate) the income tax on the bottom 90%, while raising rates on the top 10% and especially the top 1%.  That makes sense since 70% of our GDP is consumer spending, and the middle class are the ones who drive such spending.  The less money they have, the less they will spend.  And businesses will avoid hiring and making new investments and instead choose to sit on their excess cash (like they are doing now) when the consumer demand is simply not there.  It's not "class warfare," it's simple mathematics. 

But plutocratic Republicans never let mere facts get in the way of their greedy goals.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Romney Is Digging His Own Grave

Looks like Mitt "the Twit" Romney has put his foot in his mouth yet again, this time by insulting nearly half of America, and even has the audacity to defend his remarks rather than apologize.  His secretly recorded comments basically say out loud what most Republicans only think in their heads:

"There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it -- that that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what. ... These are people who pay no income tax. ... [M]y job is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."
This may very well be the quote that sinks Romney in the election this November (hopefully), and Obama is now ahead by 5 points in the polls.   But is what he said actually true?  It is technically true that 46.4% of Americans pay no federal income taxes in 2011.  But this does NOT mean that they pay no taxes at all, and it does NOT mean that they are freeloaders.  Just think state and local income taxes, FICA, sales taxes, excise taxes, property taxes, and the numerous hidden taxes built into the price of virtually everything they buy.  And it's not like most of them are particularly well-off financially; 4 out of 5 of these folks earn less than $30,000 per year.  The rest of his obnoxiously insulting quote is mere opinion rather than fact.  And he conveniently ignores the fact that 2/3 of large corporations paid zero or even negative income taxes, and quite a few millionaires and billionaires also paid zero income taxes.  Also, a disproportionate share of the 47% of Americans that pay no federal income taxes live in red (Republican) states, not blue (Democratic) states.  Romney is clearly entitled to his own opinions, but he is NOT entitled to his own facts.

Romney is clearly digging his own grave.  Time for the voters to push him in there on Election Day.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Billy Joel Was Right

Looks like Billy Joel was right all along.  Working too hard actually can give you a heart attack.

A recent study found that too much work-related stress, especially when workers have little to no control over their stress levels (like retail workers), can raise the risk of a heart attack by 23%.  This risk persisted even after other variables such as lifestyle were controlled for.  While it does not completely prove causation, this study is quite reliable since it combines the results of 13 prospective cohort studies and adjusts for several confounders.  Another recent study found that working more than eight hours a day may raise the risk of heart disease by as much as 40-80%.  Thus, it's really not all that surprising that New York City and its surrounding suburbs have some of the highest death rates from heart disease in the nation, and also that the USA tends to be worse than other developed nations in this regard.

Of course, it's mainly the bottom 99% of Americans that are likely to be affected, but that does not make the top 1% completely immune.  And next time someone claims that raising marginal tax rates or some other policy will cause at least some workers not to work as hard as they otherwise would, remind them of these studies.  The life you save may be your own.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Don't Feed the Vultures!

The 2012 presidential election is fast approaching, and much to our chagrin there will be no chance for any third party candidates.  Though not an ideal candidate, only Obama has any sort of chance of beating Romney the Vulture Capitalist and Paul "Throw Granny Off a Cliff" Ryan.  Only Obama has any chance at all of stopping 1,000,000 Americans from receiving pink slips (due to Romney) and then facing a shredded or nonexistent social safety net (due to Ryan).  And if they do manage to find another job later on, they will then be kicked in the teeth with higher taxes (you read that right) while watching the richest 1% pay even less than they do now.  We simply cannot support that, period.  As a result, the TSAP has no choice but to endorse Obama this time, and thus we will NOT be running a candidate of our own.  It is such a dead heat in the polls that a vote for any progressive third-party candidate will effectively be a vote for Romney-Ryan, as much as we hate to admit it.  And not voting at all is like rolling over and playing dead just so the vultures can eat you alive.

So let's all shout it from the rooftops:  DON'T FEED THE VULTURES!!!  VOTE FOR OBAMA LIKE YOUR LIFE DEPENDS ON IT!!!  Because in many ways, it does.

Monday, July 2, 2012

What the Obamacare Ruling Means

NOTE: This post is on both the TSAP blog and the Twenty-One Debunked blog

The recent Supreme Court ruling on the Affordable Care Act ("Obamacare") was a mixed bag overall. The individual mandate (which the TSAP does not support) was upheld, but as part of the government's taxing power rather than under the Commerce Clause. While it is clearly a stretch to say it is constitutional because it is a tax (just think of poll taxes), and thus unfortunately provides a roadmap on how to make an end-run around some parts of the Constitution in the future, at least the Court recognized that the Feds do not have unlimited power under the Commerce Clause. Thus, the ruling took some of the wind out of the sails of the dangerous Gonzalez v. Raich precedent in 2005.

One thing the Court did strike down was the primary mechanism for ensuring state compliance with the Medicaid expansion, namely the withholding of existing federal Medicaid funds as a penalty for noncompliance. This was basically the same form of coercion used by the feds to force states to raise the drinking age to 21 in the 1980s, which was upheld by South Dakota v. Dole in 1987. Since then, this power has been used to coerce the states to follow other mandates as well, and not just ones related to highways. Thus if there is any silver lining to the Obamacare ruling, it is the fact that it may make it easier for states to lower the drinking age (and possibly even legalize cannabis) without federal interference.

As we have noted before, the TSAP supports a single-payer healthcare system similar to what Canada currently has, which is also what President Obama originally wanted as recently as 2008. Anything less would be uncivilized.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Take Back the Flag

Just pointing out that today is Flag Day. But this blog looks no different today because we display the Stars and Stripes every day.

To all the ignorant fools who burn it, remember what it is that you're really burning, and all those that fought and died for it. Those who consider themselves to be on the political left would be better served by "taking back the Flag" and waving it proudly, so it is not perverted into an ultra-right-wing symbol by the fascists. Make it clear that the government policies you oppose are not in the national interest. And let everyone know that you can just as strongly love this country as you fear its government.  In fact, plenty of true patriots often do feel that way, and as Jefferson once said, "dissent is the highest form of patriotism."

The Flag is not Republican, Democrat, liberal, conservative, or belonging to any other faction. It is the American Flag, and it belongs to all of us.   Live free or die!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

America Eats Its Young

Unfortunately, the title of this post is not just the name of a Funkadelic song (and album) from 1972.  It is also the best way to describe what is happening to the Millennial generation as we speak.  And it's not good. 

An excellent article by Stephen Marche (in Esquire of all places) really hits the nail on the head in describing what is happening.  Which is nothing short of intergenerational robbery. 

To the aging Baby Boomers who are currently voting and/or in power, listen up:  You have only a few short years left to rectify these wrongs before they become irreversible.  And you have the power to do so.  You may not like what has to be done, but it is FAR better than the alternative.  Even the most self-centered and self-interested among you should be able to see the writing on the wall.  Remember that the Millennials are the ones that will be paying for your retirement and ultimately deciding your fate as far as that goes.   And unless you want to end up in the gutter because we are too broke to pay for it all, you might just want to invest in us instead of hoarding or squandering your vast and unprecendented wealth.

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Only Way to Defeat the Debt

Our national debt is approaching $16 TRILLION dollars, and our deficit remains well over a trillion, meaning that the debt is still growing rapidly. It is now mathematically impossible to pay off the national debt by conventional (fiscal) means--even the Donald Trump Tax would raise "only" about a trillion or so based on our back-of-the-envelope calculations. So what should we do?

Obviously, if we find ourselves in a hole (especially one as deep as this), the first thing we should do is stop digging. That means no more deficit spending for the foreseeable future, period. But unfortunately, that's a lot easier said than done. Taxes will have to go up and spending will have to go down--dramatically. There is really no way around that.

However there is a relatively painless (albeit unconventional) method of paying off the debt. Not just this year's deficit, but all of the cumulative $16 trillion of the debt. It's called the Noble Solution (named after its creator, Richard E. Noble) and does not involve any significant tax hikes or spending cuts. So what is it? It's something we never would have advocated in the past: printing (electronically creating) money out of thin air to pay it off all at once.  Alas, the genie is out of the bottle now, as the Feral Reserve has been creating money out of thin air for decades (including a recent whopping $16 trillion secret bailout of the banks) so we might as well put this practice to productive use.  Call it QE4 if you'd like.  Money is really nothing more than an accounting entry nowadays, so let's make the entry and be done with it. 

But wouldn't that lead to hyperinflation? Not if it is properly done with due diligence.  Noble points out that while creating money is undoubtedly inflationary, using it to pay off the debt (which is in Treasury bonds and is thus already part of the money supply) would be deflationary in that it would shrink the money supply by an equal amount. Thus, the two effects would cancel each other out, as paper (electronic data) would be exchanged for paper (data). Of course, we would have to bypass the Feral Reserve to avoid creating more debt in the process. Or better yet, abolish the Feral Reserve entirely and return the power of money creation to its rightful owners, our elected representatives in Congress.  America would then be free and clear for the first time in history since Thomas Jefferson.

Of course, while doing it once may not be harmful, doing it regularly can be.  To make sure we never have to do this again, we must make sure the debt never, ever, reaches such stratospheric levels again, period.  In addition to abolishing the Fed, fiscal policy must be tightened after the Noble Solution is implemented and the debt is paid off.  We have already outlined in previous posts what must be done as far as taxes and spending are concerned.  We will need to have a Balanced Budget Amendment added to the Constitution as well, with deficit spending permitted only in severe fiscal emergencies.  Fortunately, the latest news suggests that the deficit may already be shrinking as we speak as the economy improves (albeit very slowly).  After all, a significant portion of the fiscal gap is due to reduced revenues resulting from the Second Great Depression (because that's what it really is) as well as the several fiscal stimulus measures made necessary by the crisis.  (Nearly all of the rest can be chalked up to the wars and the Bush-Obama tax cuts, as well as various loopholes and tax-shelters.)

But the bottom line is that the debt must be defeated, and soon.  We simply cannot afford to continue kicking this can further down the road.  Otherwise we may very well go the way of the Romans.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Laffer Curve Revisited (Part Deux)

In our previous post, we essentially debunked the right-wing talking points about the Laffer Curve.  We showed that, generally speaking, the peak of the curve for the top marginal tax rate is most likely 70% or perhaps even a bit higher.  That is, tax cuts (particularly at the top) can nearly always reasonably be expected to decrease revenue rather than increase it, and vice-versa. We also showed that there is another curve called the Kimel Curve, which illustrates that a top marginal rate of 60-70% maximizes economic growth based on empirical data.

But what about Hauser's Law?  For those who don't know, Hauser's Law (a supposed corollary to the Laffer Curve) postulates that federal tax revenue cannot exceed 19.5% of GDP for long regardless of what the marginal tax rates are.  Indeed, at first glance the empirical data from 1945 to the present do appear to agree, but it really doesn't stand up to closer scrutiny.  Part of it comes from lying with statistics to obscure significant swings in revenues, and part of it comes from omitting key facts about less obvious changes in the tax code over the years that confound the apparent (non)correlation.  Thus anyone who cites Hauser's Law (which it turns out is not really a law at all) is either ignorant or disingenuous at best.  Consider it debunked.

Another important question is whether the Laffer Curve differs depending on the type of income being taxed.  Conservatives frequently argue that the tax rate on long-term capital gains should be significantly lower than the rate on ordinary income, as is currently the case.  For example, they claim that the Laffer Curve peaks at a much lower rate due to the so-called "lock-in" effect (when investors hold onto their underperforming assets longer to avoid taxation) induced by higher tax rates, an effect that allegedly hurts the economy.  However, this appears to be primarily a short-term phenomenon that occurs when investors either anticipate the change in tax rate in advance and/or believe that the rate hike or cut will only be temporary.  Effects on economic growth do not appear to be large in the short or long term, and may even be perverse in the short term.  In fact, rather than encourage investment, one experimental study finds that taxing capital gains at too low a rate may, at least in some circumstances, encourage too much divestment (consumption) of capital at the expense of further investment.  This might be one reason why overall private investment was actually lower on average in the lower-tax 1980s than it was in the higher-tax 1970s.  Also, a lower rate on capital gains is a key part of many tax shelters, and adds unnecessary complexity to the tax code. Thus, taxing long-term capital gains at a lower rate does not appear to be justified.  And to avoid taxing illusory gains due to inflation, it would make more sense to simply allow taxpayers to index the basis for inflation (which is not currently the case) while taxing all forms of income at the same rate. 

In addition, one should also observe how nearly every single time the capital gains tax was cut, an asset bubble of some sort eventually followed.  These include the notorious 1920s stock market bubble (tax cut was in 1922-1925), the late 1970s commodities bubble (cut in 1978), the late 1990s NASDAQ/tech bubble (cut in 1997), and the 2000s housing bubble (cuts in 1997 and 2003).  The one exception was the 1982 tax cut, which occurred during a deliberately-induced (i.e. by the Feral Reserve) recession and was followed by an equally large hike in the capital gains tax five years later that restored the rate back to its 1981 value before another bubble had a chance to form.  (The relatively small stock market correction in 1987 represented only a minor bubble in the market.)  While correlation does not necessarily equal causation, it is uncannily suggestive to say the least.  Though a low tax rate may appear be investor-friendly on the surface, one should keep in mind all of those hapless investors that lost their shirts when the bubbles inevitably burst, and all the damage the fallout did to the general economy.

How about corporations?  It appears that the Laffer Curve for the corporate income tax peaks somewhere between 20-30%, which is significantly lower than is the case for individuals.  However, the current corporate income tax rate of 35% in the USA (supposedly one of the highest in the world) is largely a fraud--due to loopholes, most companies pay nowhere close to that, and two-thirds of them effectively paid zero (or even negative) rates in 2008-2010.  And most estimates of the Laffer Curve simply don't take that into account.  While cutting the rate to 20-25% may very well make America more competitive in the global economy, the loopholes absolutely must be closed, period.

We recently came across a website called EquityScore, which claims that cutting the corporate income tax to zero would actually increase revenue to the point that all other income taxes could also be eliminated except for the capital gains tax.  That is, they claim that taxing corporate profits suppresses market values, and the massive gain in market values would yield enough capital gains tax revenue (when the stocks are sold) from individual shareholders to more than offset the foregone revenue from eliminating the corporate income tax.  While there may be some truth to that, their calculations ignore the fact that the majority of corporations already pay an effective rate of zero (or close to zero) due to loopholes, and that typical corporations used to pay much more in the not-too-distant past than they do now.  A better idea to maximize revenue (and growth) would be to cut the corporate tax rate to 20-25%, close all of the loopholes, tax only the amount of profit left after dividends are paid out, and tax dividends (and capital gains) as ordinary income for individuals.  Not only would that raise more revenue directly, it would also allow companies to pay bigger dividends and attract more investors, thus increasing market values and indirectly raise even more revenue.  It would also make the "double taxation" argument moot as well.

In summary, we have shown that the supply-siders' conception of the Laffer Curve is largely a canard.  And for those who continue to eschew the notion of shared prosperity and still insist on the richest Americans and mega-corporations paying historically low (if any) taxes, we shall leave the reader with the following inspirational quote from a very wealthy businessman of many decades past.  This was the man who founded the famous Filene's department store and also founded the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

"Why shouldn't the American people take half my money from me? I took all of it from them."

---Edward Albert Filene (1869-1937)

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Laffer Curve Revisited

Most people (at least those who took Econ 101) have heard of the Laffer Curve.  This idea is often attributed to economist Arthur Laffer in 1974, but similar ideas were put forth much earlier by John Maynard Keynes and Ibn Khaldun.  In a nutshell, it states that both a 0% tax rate and a 100% tax rate would both yield zero revenue, for obvious reasons, and that the level that would produce the maximum amount of revenue thus lies somwhere in between.  To wit:

However, this is a rather crude representation and the curve need not be symmetric or even single-peaked.  So where exactly is the (highest) peak of this curve?  That is the million-dollar question that has been nagging numerous economists ever since Arthur Laffer himself initially proposed it.  Different sources have given very different answers, and the true answer may very well vary from year to year and country to country.  Probably one of the most reliable estimates of the peak is the midpoint of the results of various studies, which according to the New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics is about 70% as of 2008.  Thus, the real curve would probably look something like this:

Of course, one source of variation of estimates has to do with whether or not you are talking about average rates or top marginal rates (i.e. the rate on the last dollar earned by those in the highest tax bracket), as well as where the threshold of the top bracket lies.  Most studies (and politicians) are more concerned with the top marginal rate, and both those rates and the thresholds for the top bracket have varied a great deal throughout history and from place to place.  The most recent study on the matter puts the peak for the federal top marginal rate at a whopping 76%, assuming no loopholes and all else being equal.  Thus, with a top marginal rate of 35% as of 2012, we clearly have plenty of room to raise it (even double it), close the loopholes, and still significantly increase revenue.  Policymakers should take note next time the issue of budget deficits comes up.

Of course, this is downright heresy to wealthy Republicans and their Tea Party lackeys, so when they aren't trying to deny it directly (which they often do) they at least try to argue that a higher top marginal rate will hurt economic growth and thus hurt all of us in the long run, even if it does raise more revenue in the short run.  But history doesn't really bear this out.  Recall that the top marginal rate hovered around 90% in the 1950s and early 1960s, and hovered around 70% from 1964 to 1981.  Some of the greatest economic growth we have ever had occured during top marginal rates north of 70%.  Which leads us to another, less well-known curve--the Kimel Curve.  Discovered by economics blogger Mike Kimel, this curve plots historical real GDP growth versus the top marginal tax rate and controls for several potential confounders.  And the peak of that curve turns out to be somewhere between 60-70% depending on how the model is specified.  Thus, a top marginal rate of 60-70% actually appears to maximize economic growth rather than hurt it! 

While this may seem counterintuitive to those who took Econ 101, it is entirely plausible that hoarding of wealth by the ultra-rich as well as excessive executive compensation has an adverse effect on GDP growth.  Inequality beyond a certain point appears to harm the economy--just look at the levels of inequality (and tax rates) immediately before both the first Great Depression and the current one.  And a top marginal rate north of 50% most likely discourages such hoarding and excessive executive salaries and bonuses, and encourages businesses to reinvest their profits in more productive ways.  This is similar to the rationale nicely summarized by Kimel himself:

At 70% tax rates, there is more of an incentive to reinvest in the business, creating more growth in the business in subsequent years, and more economic growth thereafter. 70% tax rates are more likely to generate faster economic growth than 25% tax rates precisely because people are self-interested and the higher tax rates induce people to continue investing in things they do well.
Indeed, another study of the 1920s and 1930s found high top marginal rates (even pushing 80%) did not appear to hurt business investments one iota, but possibly even slightly increased the formation of new businesses.  This was a time period in which the income tax was levied pretty much only on the wealthy (with the top rate applying only to the top 0.1%), the top rate varied a lot from year to year, and the tax code was a lot simpler with fewer opportunities for cheating and tax-sheltering.

In addition, there is always the fact that, contrary to popular opinion, sometimes the government actually spends and invests money in better ways than the ultra-rich and mega-corporations would.  Just think of public infrastructure, which enables the private sector to generate most of its wealth in the first place.  And the money for that comes from--you guessed it--taxes.

Thus, advocates of a more progressive tax system (as well as the more intelligent deficit hawks) should feel vindicated and motivated by the results of these studies.  And we can just hear the greediest members of society whining right now.  But taxes are the price we pay for civilization, and the alternative to civilization is far worse.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

230 Million Unnecessary Returns

This tax day, April 17, about 230 million American taxpayers will file a federal income tax return if last year's numbers are any indication.  The federal income tax has been with us for nearly a full century, having been started in 1913.  It started out simple enough.  In the first few years, it was fairly straightforward, and only the wealthy really had to pay a significant amount.  Since then, our nation's tax code has grown into a convoluted 60,000 page mess filled with numerous loopholes and deductions.  Up until 1980, Americans typically believed that the income tax was the fairest of all taxes, but since then, most people now rate it as the least fair tax of all.  Originally intended to be progressive, it remains as such up to a point, but then actually becomes regressive above that point especially when other taxes are taken into account.  Just ask Warren Buffett.  And for corporations, 2/3 of them get away with paying zero federal income taxes (and sometimes even negative rates!) because of all the ridiculous special-interest loopholes and subsidies in our tax code.

Several thinkers believe that our tax code is in need of a major overhaul and thus have tried to come up with alternatives.  Americans for Fair Taxation, for example, believes that all our federal taxes can be replaces with one national sales tax of 30%.  Michael Graetz, on the other hand, believes that we can and should replace all income taxes for households earning below $100,000 and single individuals earning below $50,000 (i.e. 90% of the population) with a 10-15% value-added tax (VAT) and a 25% flat income tax for those earning above $50,000 or $100,000 as well as all corporations.  Others believe in a purely flat tax, and still others (such as the TSAP) believe we can and should retain a steeply graduated income tax with a generous personal exemption and no loopholes.  For the record, the TSAP would also support a plan similar to Graetz's if an additional 50% bracket were added for incomes north of $1 million or so and the VAT did not exceeed 10%.

However, we have recently discovered an even better way forward for the 21st century.  Enter the Automated Payment Transaction (APT) Tax.  The APT is a novel idea proposed in 2005 by economist Dr. Edgar Feige.   Basically, it would replace all of our current federal and state taxes (and possibly even some local ones) with one tiny little tax (say, 0.3%) on all automated transactions. This would essentially be the lowest possible rate on the broadest possible base, with no loopholes or finagling. It would actually be quite progressive in practice since the rich make a disproportionally large volume of transactions, and it is literally impossible to evade it or game the system. It is based on simple math, not half-baked voodoo economic theories. And the benefits to replacing the current messy, 60,000 page tax code with something so simple and easy are painfully obvious.  Finally, something most liberals, conservatives, and libertarians can actually agree upon!

Unlike Dr. Feige, however, the TSAP supports retaining an income tax on all individual incomes in excess of $1 million. The first million would be tax-free, while the amount over $1 million would be taxed, preferably at a rate of 50% or higher. Thus, 99.9% of Americans would pay any income taxes at all.  The TSAP also supports various luxury and vice taxes as well.  And to pay down our ludicrously high national debt, we support what should be called the Donald Trump Tax--a one-time wealth tax of 15% on individuals and trusts with net worths above $10 million.

However, if the APT does not come to fruition, the TSAP still supports a graduated, progressive income tax with no loopholes.  The TSAP would consider the following graduated scheme of marginal tax rates (loosely adapted from Robert Reich) to be fair:

Under $20,000: no income tax
$20,000 to $50,000: 5%
$50,000 to $90,000: 10%
$90,000 to $150,000: 20%
$150,000 to $250,000, 30%
$250,000 to $1,000,000, 40%
$1,000,000 to $10 million, 50%
over $10 million, 70%

Unlike the current Byzantine tax code, there would be no loopholes or any deductions other than for state and/or local income taxes paid, and a limited amount (up to 10% of income) for charitable donations. Also, all forms of income (wages, interest, dividends, and capital gains) would be taxed equally, unlike the status quo.   And a top marginal rate of 50% or even 70% is actually pretty tame compared to what it was in the 1950s and early 1960s, which hovered around 90%.   For those worried about the Laffer Curve, rest assured that the most recent study on the matter found that revenue peaks at a top rate of about 76%. 

For corporations, a 20% income tax with no loopholes would be infinitely better than the one we have now, with 2/3 or large corporations (including ExxonMobil, GE, B of A, and BP) currently paying zero income taxes while numerous unfortunate small businesses get hit with up to a 35% tax. Even better would be if the first $1,000,000 per year was tax-free, and only the amount of profit left over after dividends are paid out would be taxable if the company is publicly traded.

And as long as we have a FICA tax for Social Security and Medicare, the wage cap needs to be eliminated completely or set at a very high level such as $10 million or so.

At the very least, though, we definitely need something like the Buffett Rule for as long as we retain our 60,000 page mess of a tax code.  Of course, that doesn't go far enough, but at least it makes the tax code non-regressive at the very top.  50% for every dollar above $1 million with no exceptions would clearly be better, but the proposed 30% is a step in the right direction.

Those who oppose this idea can call us pinkos all they want, but they might just want to listen to Adam Smith, the man who is often considered to be the father of capitalism:

The necessaries of life occasion the great expense of the poor. They find it difficult to get food, and the greater part of their little revenue is spent in getting it. The luxuries and vanities of life occasion the principal expense of the rich, and a magnificent house embellishes and sets off to the best advantage all the other luxuries and vanities which they possess. A tax upon house-rents, therefore, would in general fall heaviest upon the rich; and in this sort of inequality there would not, perhaps, be anything very unreasonable. It is not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion.  (Emphasis added)
And there you have it.  Even the father of capitalism himself essentially agrees with us, which really says something.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Does Atlas Really Shrug?

One favorite claim by the wealthiest 1% (and their lackeys) is that higher marginal tax rates at the state/local level will cause rich folks to vote with their feet, and take several jobs with them in the process.  During these times of recession and budget crises at all levels of government, when there is clearly a need to raise taxes, the rich love to scare people about this.  But is it true?

At least two recent, carefully controlled studies say no.  There apparently is little to fear about the alleged adverse effects of "soaking" the rich at the state level, or any level for that matter.  The vast majority of millionaires and billionaires will essentially stay put in the face of a tax hike, and for the very few that do leave, good riddance.  Just ask Donald Trump--despite his repeated threats to leave NYC, he never seems to get around to it.  But why do so many people still believe that there will be a mass exodus of the rich?  Part of it is due to the power of anecdotes, even though the plural of "anecdote" is not "data".  Also, superficial observational data that does not control for other variables can indeed produce spurious relationships.

In addition, the corollary idea that the states that have lower or no income taxes do better economically than states with progressive taxes is also a canard.  In fact, a recent study found that the nine states considered to be "high" in terms of income taxes actually had more economic growth per capita than the states with no income tax at all, despite (or perhaps even because of) the fact that the latter group has more income inequality than the former.  Unemployment rates, on average, were roughly equivalent between the two groups of states as well.  So much for Atlas shrugging.

We feel it is very important to debunk this idea now.  The question is, will our elected representatives listen to the truth?

Monday, April 2, 2012

New Platform

The TSAP has recently updated our platform from its 2009 version, as our dynamic party continues to evolve.  Please take a look at it under our list of pages bar at the top of the page.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

State of the Planet Address 2012

On January 24, 2012, the President gave his annual State of the Union Address.  Every year since 2011, the TSAP has been giving our annual State of the Planet Address.  Yes, we know it is a bit of a downer to say the least.  So sit down, take off your rose-colored glasses, and read on:

Our planet is in grave danger.  We face several serious long term problems:  climate change, deforestation/desertification, loss of biodiversity, overharvesting, energy crises, and of course pollution of many kinds.  Polar ice caps are melting.  Rainforests have been shrinking by 50 acres per minute.  Numerous species are going extinct every year.  Soil is eroding rapidly.  Food shortages have occurred in several countries in recent years.  Weather has been getting crazier each year, most likely due to climate change. And in 2010, we had the worst oil spill in the entire history of the world, leaving widespread and severe environmental damage in its wake that will persist for years to come. 

None of this is an accident of course.  These problems are man-made, and their solutions must also begin with humans.  We cannot afford to sit idly by any longer, lest we face hell and high water in the not-too-distant future.  Our unsustainable scorched-earth policy towars the planet has to end.

While we do not invoke the precautionary principle for all issues, we unequivocally do for the issue of climate change and any other environmental issues of comparable magnitude (we support the Rio Declaration's version, to be precise). With no apologies to hardcore libertarians or paleoconservatives, in fact. We are not fazed one bit by the Climategate scandal as it does not really "debunk" the scientific consensus on anthropogenic global warming. The only serious debate is about how fast it will happen, and when the tipping point will occur. It is not a matter of if, but when. And the less precarious position is to assume it is a real and urgent problem. We need to reduce CO2 emissions to the point where the CO2 concentration is at or below 350 ppm. And it is currently at an unsustainably high level, and growing.

Solving the problem of climate change will also help to solve the other ecological crises we are facing, for they all ultimately have the same root causes, not least of which is our insatiable addiction to dirty energy.  However, there is a right way to solve it, and several wrong ways.

The TSAP endorses the ideas embodied in Steve Stoft's new book Carbonomics, most notably a tax-and-dividend system that would tax carbon (i.e. fossil fuels) at the source, and give all Americans an equal share of the revenue generated from this tax. Every dollar raised will be used this way without exception. Yes, prices for various things would undoubtedly rise due to this embedded tax, all else being equal, but the dividend will allow Americans to pay for this increase. The average American would in fact break even, but those who (directly or indirectly) use less energy than average will effectively pay less tax, while the energy hogs will effectively be taxed more, as they should be. Thus it is certainly not a regressive tax, and may even be mildly progressive. This is both the simplest and most equitable way to reduce carbon emissions as well as other forms of pollution, not to mention waste of dwindling non-renewable resources. The real challenge is getting the feds to accept something that won't directly benefit them (in the short term).  Carbonomics also includes other good ideas, such as improving how fuel economy standards are done, and crafting a better verison of the Kyoto treaty.

Though not a part of Carbonomics, we also support raising the federal gasoline (and on-road diesel) tax, raising it a penny a week for two years until it is a dollar higher than it currently is but using that to fund alternative energy sources and public transportation along with highway funding (and including a limited prebate). We call this idea "a penny for progress".

We support ending net deforestation completely, and putting carbon back in the ground through carbon sequestration. One method is known as biochar, a type of charcoal made from plants that remove carbon dioxide from the air, that is subsequently buried. This is also an ancient method of soil fertilization and conservation, originally called terra preta.  It also helps preserve biodiversity. 

We've said this before, and we'll say it again. We need more nuclear power plants as well. Nuclear emits no greenhouse gases directly, and even indirectly it pales in comparison to fossil fuels. Done properly, it is just as green as solar photovoltaic power, produces less radiation than coal power, and is much safer than in the past (and even those dangers were exaggerated). Since nuclear plants take many years to build, we need to get cracking ASAP. Nuclear power is not a substitute to renewables; it is a necessary complement to them since we need a base-loading power source, not just intermittent power. Our nation's irrational fear of all things nuclear needs to die NOW.  Right now.

But the biggest elephant in the room (make that the elephant in the Volkswagen) is overpopulation.  It does not make for pleasant dinner conversation, but it must be addressed or else all other causes become lost causes in the long run. We need to have fewer kids, or nature will reduce our population for us, and the latter will NOT be pleasant. The TSAP believes in voluntarily reducing the total fertility rate (TFR) to 1.5-1.9 children per woman to do so, along with reducing immigration dramatically, but we do not support draconian and/or coercive measures of population control (like China has used). But the current tax and benefit incentives that reward having more than two children need to be jettisoned at once. We believe more liberty is the answer, not less.   Fortunately, America's TFR has recently dropped to 1.9 (though that is probably just due to the bad economy rather than a secular trend).  But we cannot keep growing and growing, that's for sure (in fact, we need to shrink). And our addiction to economic growth (despite being recently decoupled from well-being) is also part of the problem.  Growth for the sake of growth is clearly one of the most asinine obsessions our nation (and world) has ever had.

Bottom line: we need to take the environment much more seriously than we do now. We ignore it at our own peril.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Facts About the State of the Union

President Obama gives his annual State of the Union Address tonight.   In addition to watching it, you should also look at the following link to get the facts about what has gone on since his last State of the Union Address in 2011:

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Down With SOPA!

The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), along with its companion bill Protect IP Act (PIPA), is currently being debated in Congress.  This bipartisan effort, ostensibly to fight internet piracy and counterfeit goods, has been mired in controversy since its inception.  While supporters (mainly those in the entertainment industry) hail it as a necessary step to take, opponents (most Internet users and virtually all of Silicon Valley) fear that it would amount to censorship of the Internet.

Regardless of how you feel about piracy (and counterfeiting), SOPA's vague language goes way beyond that.  It essentially creates a "Great Firewall of America" that would blacklist not only pirate sites, but potentially any site worldwide with user-created content if corporations claim that such content may have been pirated.  Internet service providers could be required to block IP addresses of certain sites and monitor Internet traffic, effectively making such sites disappear from the Web.  The potential for collateral damage (not to mention abuse) is enormous, and there are also security implications to consider.  Such a bill would be a blatant violation of the First Amendment's guaranteed right to freedom of speech.  Additionally, SOPA is unnecessary--there are other means to defeat the foreign and domestic "rogue sites" that are the primary targets, and one alternative bill (the OPEN Act) does so by cutting off funding to such sites (from ads and credit cards) without actually censoring the Internet or any part of it.

It should go without saying that the TSAP opposes this bill, which would chill the free exchange of ideas and essentially end the Internet as we know it.

UPDATE:  It appears that SOPA has been shelved by Congress for now.  And we hope it never rears its ugly head again.