James Pethokoukis

Politics and policy from inside Washington

The risks of a deficit commission

Mar 25, 2010 12:29 UTC

We now know the makeup of President Obama’s bipartisan deficit commission. There are 10 Ds and 8 Rs with 14 votes needed to approve a recommendation As I go down the membership list, I see a lot of folks who are likely believers in the new Washington Consensus — significant spending cuts won’t help so big tax hikes are necessary. Of course, study after study shows big tax hikes are a terrible way to bring deficits under control. They kill growth which makes balancing the budget even harder since revenues are deflated.

Yup, America hates Big Anything

Mar 25, 2010 12:27 UTC

A new poll shows Americans hate Wall Street. Of course, bankers are never popular. But maybe never less so than right now. Yet polls also show Americans cynical about Big Anything — Big Money, Big Business, Big Government. As Sen. John McCain likes to say, the approval ratings of Congress are so low, its only supporters must be paid staffers and blood relatives.

That helps explains why the nation has not been flocking to government-created solutions such as the stimulus plan and healthcare reform. This isn’t a time when Americans are shifting from believing in markets to believing in government. It’s a time when the last remaining shred of faith in the country’s elite is quickly eroding.


I beg to differ, the US loves huge arsenals of weapons, nukes, oil, junk food, health care, extravaganza’s and last, but not least, its massive stock of flags.

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Don’t fund healthcare by taxing capital

Mar 25, 2010 02:32 UTC

Washington will have difficulty producing a stranger bit of public policy than raising investment taxes to pay for healthcare reform. Remember, the consensus critique of the U.S economy is that it’s been plagued by too much consumption and debt. O.K., fine. So the answer is penalizing savings and investment? Really? Pure Bizarro economics for that and a number of other reasons:

1) It will hit the middle-class eventually. Wealthier Americans — families making over $250,000, individuals $200,000 — are the supposed targets here. Add in the new 3.8 percent Medicare tax to the year-end expiration of the 2003 Bush tax cuts, and they will see their capital gains and dividend rates will soar from 15 percent currently to 23.8 percent and 43.4 percent in 2013, respectively. But the income levels aren’t indexed for inflation. So the taxes will reach further down the income ladder each year. Assuming steady inflation, the tax in 2013 will actually affect households making over $226,000 and individuals $183,000. Another crack in the Obama tax pledge.

2) It is an expensive way to raise government revenue. Most studies show that raising the cost of capital lowers business investment and productivity. That translated into a lower standard of living. Hardly surprising, really. Taxes matter. Tax something and you tend get less of it. That’s a principle embedded, for instance, in calls to put a price on carbon, something the White House supports. Or in this, less economic growth.
3) It creates an accidental industrial policy. People should make economic decisions based on economic merit and efficiency, not because the tax code puts its thumb on the scale. For instance: Companies are financed either by issuing debt or selling shares. By raising taxes on equity, you further bias the tax code toward debt since interest can already be deducted from taxes. This imbalance was something an Obama tax commission, led by Paul Volcker, thought needed remedy. Instead, it will be worsened. The differing cap gains and dividend rates also tilt the tax code in favor of profit-poor companies (but with bright prospects and high stock price appreciation) over those throwing off cash.

4) It moves the tax code in the wrong direction. Economists favor paying for healthcare, as well as cutting the U.S. budget gap, with consumption taxes. (That would include eliminating the mortgage interest deduction to reduce housing consumption.) That could be a straight value-add tax. Or, better, a Hall Rabushka flat consumption tax. Actually, taking investment taxes to zero is a quick and dirty way to create a consumption tax since all you can do with income is save it or spend it. Of course, cutting spending should be the first order of business. Create a better tax system, reduce expenditure and then see where you are at as far as the deficit goes.

5) It puts politics over sound policy. For an administration that tries to follow economic consensus, this is an odd deviation. Politics explains it. Consumption taxes are broad taxes. The only taxes Washington finds palatable are those on upper incomes, such as found on Wall Street. But taxing the capital they provide to pay for healthcare will only sicken the American economy.


There’s currently a Medicare prescription drug loophole between roughly $2700 and $6200 worth of medicine. The reform bill each supplies a $250 rebate to Medicare beneficiaries that fall into this loophole and offers for the gap’s closing.healthcare fund

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Spreading the wealth

Mar 24, 2010 17:20 UTC

David Leonhardt of the NYT just noticed that tax rates are going up  and wealth is being redistributed. This makes him happy. But right now American faces a wealth creation problem. And if that isn’t working, every other problem facing America looks a lot worse. He also assumes that wealthier Americans won’t change their behavior, reducing the government’s take. Again, here is WH CEA Chair Christina Romer’s take on higher taxes when she was a econ prof at Berkeley: “Tax increases appear to have a very large, sustained, and highly significant negative impact on output … [and] that tax cuts have very large and persistent positive output effects.”


Hmm, so what is her position on these issues now? Did she sell out just to get an appointment in Obama’s administration? Or does she argue these positions internally, but to no avail. Inquiring minds wnat to know.

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Iraq debt almost as safe as California’s

Mar 24, 2010 17:20 UTC

Wow (from the Boston Globe):

Iraq is now considered a safer bet than Argentina, Venezuela, Pakistan, and Dubai — and is nearly on par with the State of California, according to Bloomberg statistics on credit default swaps, which are considered a raw indicator of default risk.

“Compared to California, I’d rather bet on Iraq,’’ Daher said. “Iraq is a country where there are still bombs going off and people getting murdered, but they are less indebted than the United States. California is likely to have more demands on its resources, and there is no miracle where California is going to have more revenue coming out of the sky. Iraq has prospects for tremendously higher revenues, if they can manage to get their act halfway together, which they seem to be doing.’’

The crushing cost of the public sector

Mar 24, 2010 16:38 UTC

Great post with oodles of charts from Mike Mandel. I did want to highlight one chart, though:

benefit chart

Why Washington will kill the market (or not)

Mar 23, 2010 13:25 UTC

The wise and wonderful Ed Yardeni gives bullish and bearish Money & Politics scenarios:

Here’s the bullish scenario for stocks: The economy could continue to grow, especially now that the uncertainty is over about how the healthcare system will be overhauled. The resilience of the economy would be attributable to the Profits Cycle. If profits continue to grow solidly this year, as I expect, companies are likely to increase their payrolls and capital spending. Stock prices would continue to rally. A regime change in November would fuel a powerful yearend rally. This is the scenario that I believe is still the most likely to unfold.

Here’s the bearish scenario: The widely expected upturn in employment won’t happen. Instead, job losses could mount again if the Obama administration now pushes ahead with more of its divisive agenda. Much of it is just as controversial as healthcare has been. The President has suggested that he won’t mind if his party loses in November and if he is a one-term president as long as his agenda prevails. On January 25, in an interview with Diane Sawyer on ABC’s “World News,” Obama said, “I’d rather be a really good one-term president than a mediocre two-term president.” He added, “You know, there is a tendency in Washington to believe our job description, of elected officials, is to get re-elected. That’s not our job description. Our job description is to solve problems and to help people.” Spoken like a true community organizer.

Me: In political terms, this is the difference between Democrats a) losing 15-25 House seats and 3 or 4 Senate seats and b) 35+ House seats and 5-Senate seats.


Dividends, share buybacks, M&A and company 2010 guidance are all on the rise, which gooses stocks. That’s what has been driving the market to new highs and it won’t end soon

Health reform is faith-based deficit reduction

Mar 23, 2010 12:38 UTC

Healthcare reformers in Washington are asking America’s creditors to take a leap of faith. The plan is supposed to cut future budget shortfalls. But it depends on politicians following through on cuts and taxes, a deficit commission imposing additional discipline, and untested reforms working as expected. Owners of U.S. government debt shouldn’t bank on it.

The numbers add up on paper, at least according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. Its estimate for the 10-year cost of reform is $940 billion, with cost cuts elsewhere and new taxes turning that into a $138 billion net reduction in the projected federal deficit over a decade. Go out another 10 years, and the plan racks up another trillion or so in projected savings.

One problem is that despite being nonpartisan, the CBO’s methods are still dictated by Congress. That means Capitol Hill can get away with financial chicanery such as front-loading some tax increases and delaying spending plans — something that can help the numbers work because, in a fixed 10-year period, the tax income is counted for more years than the spending.

And then there are the promised but politically unpalatable fiscal fixes that fall to a future president and Congress. Proposed cuts in federal payments to hospitals, for instance, are delayed a decade. If today’s lawmakers are punting such measures, it’s hard to have any confidence their successors will show any more mettle.

The reformers hope more can be saved if the healthcare plan’s cost-control pilot projects bear fruit and are then widely implemented. But the CBO doesn’t give these projects much credit. And even the White House admits that rising healthcare costs could still threaten America’s finances. That’s one reason why President Barack Obama is keen on a bipartisan, deficit-cutting panel. But its potential efficacy is widely derided by veteran budgeteers.

At least with healthcare an effort is being made to do no fiscal harm. That was not the case with major spending initiatives of the past decade for which balancing cost cuts or tax increases weren’t attempted. But with the U.S. ratio of debt to GDP still on track to double in a decade, it will take a leap of faith for America’s creditors to retain their enthusiasm for Treasury bonds.


This bill is designed as an irrevocable “ratchet” up of Government spending and control.

The Left has calculated that even if it gets kicked out of office, this travesty of a bill will remain in effect, and when they inevitably return, they will ratchet it up further (Public Option, complete takeover, etc.).

Fir the sake of the future of the country, one only hopes they’ve miscalculated and the bill gets thrown out for its myriad areas of unconstitutionality. Or if the Supremes are cowed by the same cabal that so rudely (and incorrectly) treated them at the Shame of the Union address, then this Frankenstein piece of Machiavellian Central Planning may indeed remain in effect and the Decline and Fall of the American Empire will have truly commenced.

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Why U.S. labor markets may stay in a funk

Mar 22, 2010 18:16 UTC

“The Labor Market in the Great Recession” is an interesting new paper that looks at where the job market may be heading, as well as how it has fared the past few years. The latter points first:

Unemployment rose from a pre-recession minimum of 4.4 percent to reach 10.1 percent in October 2009. This increase—5.7 percentage points—is the largest postwar upswing in the unemployment rate. It dwarfs the rise in joblessness in the two most recent recessions in 1990 and 2001, when in each case unemployment rose by approximately 2.5 percentage points. It dominates even the severe recession of 1973/4 (4.25 percentage points) as well as the combined effects of the double recession of the early 1980s (5 percentage points). There is little doubt that the present downturn is the deepest postwar recession from the perspective of the labor market.

But will the deep downturn be followed by a rapid rise? Don’t count on it, the authors say:

The resemblance of these trends to the similar breakdown in match efficiency that accompanied the European unemployment problem of the 1980s raises the concern of persistent unemployment, or hysteresis, in U.S. unemployment going forward. We consider a range of possible sources that might lead to hysteresis, including sectoral mismatch, extension of unemployment insurance (UI) benefits, duration dependence in unemployment outflow rates, and persistence in unemployment brought about by reductions in the rate of worker flows, what Blanchard (2000) has termed sclerosis.

Recent data point to two warning signs going forward. First, the historic decline in unemployment outflow rates has been accompanied by a record rise in long-term unemployment. We show that this is likely to result in a persistent residue of long-term unemployed workers with relatively weak search effectiveness, depressing the strength of the recovery. Second, conventional estimates of the impact of UI duration on the length of unemployment spells suggest that the extension of Emergency Unemployment Compensation starting in June 2008 is likely to have led to a modest increase in long-term unemployment in the recession. Nonetheless, we conclude that, despite these adverse forces, they have not yet reached a magnitude that would augur a European-style hysteresis problem in the U.S. economy in the long run.


Jimmy was picked on when he was in school. That is why he is such an angry dork.

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15 healthcare winners and losers, in a phrase

Mar 22, 2010 16:43 UTC

1. Obama the Democrat. Achievement of 50-year Dem goal means no 2012 nomination challenge. W

2. Obama the Centrist. Not with an all-Dem bill that has upside-down approval ratings.L

3. Big Pharma. No Canadian drugs, plus they get more generic biotech protection. W

4. Big Insurance. Loads of new regulations plus wimpy mandate that means new customers might not show. L

5. Treasury holders. Tax hikes and spending cuts for coverage expansion rather than Medicare solvency. L

6. 2010 GOP. Loss ensures motivated base for midterms. W

7.Supreme Court. May have to decide constitutionality of politically explosive individual mandate. L

8. Rep. Paul Ryan. Confrontation with Obama cranks up profile. W

9. Majority Leader Steny Hoyer.Speaker Nancy Pelosi not going anywhere, even if a big November loss. L

10. Mitt Romney. Anger over Obamacare could seep into RomneyCare. L

11. Mitt Romney. Expertise in healthcare could boost him in 2012. W

12. Investors. Overall, cap gains taxrates are rising 60 percent. L

13. Government workers. Uncle Sam is going to lots need more to administer this. W

14. Federalism. Top-down health mandate that some states may not be able to afford. L

15. China. More pressure to enhance its own safety net to boost consumption. W (for US, at least)


Romney is toast and rightfully so. Passage of Massacare shows abysmally bad judgment. Let’s go for better candidates.

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