Tag Archives: President Obama

Women are driving recent increase in age 25-54 labor force participation

Josh Zumbrun from the WSJ posted some interesting labor market charts that use data from today’s September jobs report. The one that jumped out at me was the one below, which shows the prime-age (age 25-54) employment and labor force participation (LFP) rate.

wsj-prime-age-sept-16-prime-age-lfp

In a related tweet he notes that the 25 – 54 LFP rate is up nearly 1 percentage point in the last year. The exact number is 0.9 from Sept. 2015 to Sept. 2016, and in the figure above you can clearly see an increase in the blue line at the end. So does this mean we are finally seeing a recovery in the prime age LFP rate? Yes and no.

I dug a little deeper and females appear to be driving most of the trend. The figure below shows the prime age male and female LFP rates from Jan. 2006 to the Sept. 2016. (Female data series LNS11300062 and male series LNS11300061)

oct-female-male-lfp-rate-1-06-9-16

As shown in the figure, the female LFP rate (orange line) appears to be steadily increasing since September of last year while the male LFP rate (blue line) is flatter. To get a better look, the following figure zooms in on the period January 2015 to September 2016 and adds a linear trend line.

oct-male-female-lfp-rate-1-15-9-16

The female LFP rate does appear to be trending up since the beginning of last year, but the male line is essentially flat.

Much has been made about the short-term and long-term decline of the prime-age male LFP rate. President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors wrote an entire report about it, and economists such as Larry Summers have recently said that figuring out why males are dropping out of the labor force and what to do about it is “vital to our future”.

The recent uptick in the overall prime-age LFP rate is a good sign, but it appears to be largely driven by women. I think it’s still too early to say that the LFP rate of prime-age men has started to improve, and what this means for the future is still unknown.

Paving over pension liabilities, again

Public sector pensions are subject to a variety of accounting and actuarial manipulations. A lot of the reason for the lack of funding discipline, I’ve argued, is in part due to the mal-incentives in the public sector to fully fund employee pensions. Discount rate assumptions, asset smoothing, and altering amortization schedules are three of the most common kinds of maneuvers used to make pension payments easier on the sponsor. Short-sighted politicians don’t always want to pay the full bill when they can use revenues for other things. The problem with these tactics is they can also lead to underfunding, basically kicking the can down the road.

Private sector plans are not immune to government-sanctioned accounting subterfuges. Last week’s Wall Street Journal reported on just one such technique.

President Obama recently signed a $10.8 billion transportation bill that also included a provision to allow companies to continue “pension smoothing” for 10 more months. The result is to lower the companies’ contribution to employee pension plans. It’s also a federal revenue device. Since pension payments are tax-deductible these companies will have slightly higher tax bills this year. Those taxes go to help fund federal transportation per the recently signed legislation.

A little bit less is put into private-sector pension plans and a little bit more is put into the government’s coffers.

The WSJ notes that the top 100 private pension plans could see their $44 billion required pension contribution reduced by 30 percent, adding an estimated $2.3 billion deficit to private pension plans. It’s poor discipline considering the variable condition of a lot of private plans which are backed by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC).

My colleague Jason Fichtner and I drew attention to these subtle accounting dodges triggered by last year’s transportation bill. In “Paving over Pension Liabilities,” we call out discount rate manipulation used by corporations and encouraged by Congress that basically has the same effect: redirecting a portion of the companies’ reduced pension payments to the federal government in order to finance transportation spending. The small reduction in corporate plans’ discount rate translates into an extra $8.8 billion for the federal government over 10 years.

The AFL-CIO isn’t worried about these gimmicks. They argue that pension smoothing makes life easier for the sponsor, and thus makes offering a defined benefit plan, “less daunting.” But such, “politically-opportunistic accounting,” (a term defined by economist Odd Stalebrink) is basically a means of covering up reality, like only paying a portion of your credit card bill or mortgage. Do it long enough and you’ll eventually forget how much those shopping sprees and your house actually cost.

If you’re an employee, do you still have your old health insurance plan?

The recent discovery that the federal government knew in 2010 that many people would not be able to keep their old health insurance under the Affordable Care Act has made nationwide news. But most of the discussion has focused on the market for individual and small group policies. A much bigger group of people — those of us with employer-provided insurance — are affected by the same “grandfathering” regulation that affects individual policies. And as I pointed out in an op-ed in The Hill yesterday, the Department of Health and Human Services’ 2010 analysis accompanying this regulation predicted that 39-69 percent of employer plans would no longer be grandfathered by 2013. (If you don’t believe me, you can download the grandfathering regulation and read the analysis yourself, on pages 34,550-34,553.)

Why has the effect on employer-provided policies received so little attention, even though it potentially affects a lot more people?

I suspect it’s a transparency issue.

If the employer makes changes to the plan that prevent it from being grandfathered, the new plan must include a number of new, costly coverages, such as childbirth, children’s vision care, psychological services, and substance abuse treatment. But employees do not receive letters in the mail saying that they can no longer continue their prior insurance plan because it does not comply with the ACA. Instead, the employer and the insurance company simply modify the plan, and the premiums change to reflect the cost of the new mandates.

Since employers usually pay most of the premium, employees do not see the full cost increase. Any increase in the employee’s share of the premiums is paid with pre-tax dollars, which further cushions the blow. And since we’re all conditioned to expect the cost of health insurance to go up every year, employees are not likely to ask how much of the premium increase occurred because of the new mandates versus other factors.

As a result, many employees may believe they’ve kept their old health insurance plan even if they haven’t!

 

It’s Time to Change the Incentives of Regulators

One of the primary reasons that regulation slows down economic growth is that regulation inhibits innovation.  Another example of that is playing out in real-time.  Julian Hattem at The Hill recently blogged about online educators trying to stop the US Department of Education from preventing the expansion of educational opportunities with regulations.  From Hattem’s post:

Funders and educators trying to spur innovations in online education are complaining that federal regulators are making their jobs more difficult.

John Ebersole, president of the online Excelsior College, said on Monday that Congress and President Obama both were making a point of exploring how the Internet can expand educational opportunities, but that regulators at the Department of Education were making it harder.

“I’m afraid that those folks over at the Departnent of Education see their role as being that of police officers,” he said. “They’re all about creating more and more regulations. No matter how few institutions are involved in particular inappropriate behavior, and there have been some, the solution is to impose regulations on everybody.”

Ebersole has it right – the incentive for people at the Department of Education, and at regulatory agencies in general, is to create more regulations.  Economists sometimes model the government as if it were a machine that benevolently chooses to intervene in markets only when it makes sense. But those models ignore that there are real people inside the machine of government, and people respond to incentives.  Regulations are the product that regulatory agencies create, and employees of those agencies are rewarded with things like plaques (I’ve got three sitting on a shelf in my office, from my days as a regulatory economist at the Department of Transportation), bonuses, and promotions for being on teams that successfully create more regulations.  This is unfortunate, because it inevitably creates pressure to regulate regardless of consequences on things like innovation and economic growth.

A system that rewards people for producing large quantities of some product, regardless of that product’s real value or potential long-term consequences, is a recipe for disaster.  In fact, it sounds reminiscent of the situation of home loan originators in the years leading up to the financial crisis of 2008.  Mortgage origination is the act of making a loan to someone for the purposes of buying a home.  Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, as well as large commercial and investment banks, would buy mortgages (and the interest that they promised) from home loan originators, the most notorious of which was probably Countrywide Financial (now part of Bank of America).  The originators knew they had a ready buyer for mortgages, including subprime mortgages – that is, mortgages that were relatively riskier and potentially worthless if interest rates rose.  The knowledge that they could quickly turn a profit by originating more loans and selling them to Fannie, Freddie, and some Wall Street firms led many mortgage originators to turn a blind eye to the possibility that many of the loans they made would not be paid back.  That is, the incentives of individuals working in mortgage origination companies led them to produce large quantities of their product, regardless of the product’s real value or potential long-term consequences.  Sound familiar?

Where Are The Benefits From Recent Energy Efficiency Regulations?

On Tuesday, President Obama gave a speech announcing his new agenda to combat climate change. As part of his efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions, the President and his administration plan on releasing a series of energy efficiency regulations, supposedly with the intention of reducing carbon dioxide emissions. The problem is, the vast majority of the benefits from many energy efficiency rules have nothing to do with reducing carbon dioxide emissions, and this is according to the government’s own estimates. Instead, agencies like the Department of Energy (DOE) are eliminating options for consumers, and then counting the loss to consumers as a benefit of regulating.

How do they do this? It all has to do with a relatively new field of social science known as behavioral economics. You can think of behavioral economics as the intersection of psychology and economics. Behavioral economists believe that people exhibit many biases that cause them to systematically act in ways that are out of line with their true preferences. In a lab situation, there are many examples of such biases that have been demonstrated. For example, a person buying a home may bid one price, but if she is selling the same house, she may require a higher price, implying she values the same object differently depending on whether the object belongs to her or not. Or, people may value objects differently depending on time. For instance, a person might choose to receive $100 today over $110 tomorrow, yet at the same time pass on $100 a year from now in exchange for $110 in a year and one day, implying the person is more impatient today than he sees himself being in the future.

As the chart below demonstrates, the Department of Energy recently finalized a regulation related to microwave ovens, and nearly 80% of the benefits of the rule stemmed, not from protecting the environment or public health, but from saving consumers money by preventing them from buying the products they would choose otherwise. DOE does not seem to understand why consumers might choose to pay a relatively low price today for a product that is not very energy efficient, when this person could buy a more expensive energy efficient product that will save money over the life of the product through lower electricity bills. From an economics perspective, DOE does not believe this behavior is rational, hence it is like one of the behavioral biases described above, and in many cases DOE has decided to ban the products it doesn’t like in order to protect consumers from themselves.

Energy Efficiency Benefits from DOE Microwave Ovens Regulation*

Capture4

Federal agencies are ignoring the fact that consumers may value other attributes of products aside from energy and fuel efficiency. With automobiles, consumers may prefer larger and safer cars, to smaller more fuel efficient vehicles. Restaurants may prefer light bulbs that raise electric bills slightly every month, but whose warm glow creates an ambiance that customers enjoy. And in the case of microwaves and laundry machines, it may be that machines that use more energy simply work better at their stated purpose. And it’s not just microwave ovens. DOE, and other agencies like the Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency, make this same type of assumption with other regulations, like rules impacting commercial clothes washers, light bulbs, and fuel efficiency standards for vehicles. Agencies even assume businesses are behaving in this manner. Does anyone honestly believe that trucking companies aren’t taking fuel efficiency into account when buying new fleets? Or that laundromat owners don’t consider electricity costs when purchasing new equipment? It seems highly implausible, but agencies are assuming just that.

For decades, agencies have been required to identify a market failure or other systemic problem that exists before intervening in the marketplace with a regulation. Market failures include things like a lack of competition, a lack of consumer information, or costs that spill over onto the public as the result of a private transaction. Now, agencies like DOE have begun to expand the definition of market failure to include what they deem to be personal failures on the part of consumers.

So why are agencies doing this? One reason may be because the environmental benefits alone aren’t enough to justify the costs of some regulations. Claiming additional benefits helps agencies justify an inefficient policy, and keeps government programs continuing to employ regulators. Agencies have other ways to make the benefits of rules appear greater too. In the case of the microwave rule, of the small portion of benefits related to carbon dioxide reductions, most will be captured by citizens of foreign countries, with only a small fraction going to US citizens. Counting benefits to foreigners makes the benefits of rules appear greater, even though agencies are asked to only consider benefits to the United States in most cases.

Another reason we may be getting these types of rules is the rules may really be intended to benefit special interest groups more than consumers. A manufacturer that is already producing an energy efficient product may capture market share by getting the products of its competitors banned. Or manufacturers may simply want to force consumers to buy a more expensive product, or replace old products with new ones, while eliminating the possibility of a competitor undercutting them by selling a cheaper product in the marketplace.

Reducing Carbon Dioxide emissions in order to combat climate change may be a noble goal, but recent energy efficiency regulations are unlikely to get us there. Rather than overriding consumer choice, and counting this loss to consumers as a benefit, DOE and other agencies should give the American people a more honest assessment of the benefits of their rules.

* Source: Department of Energy, “Technical Support Document: Energy Efficiency Program for Consumer Products and Commercial and Industrial Equipment: Residential Microwave Ovens – Stand-By-Power,” (Table 1.2.1.), May 2013. Calculated using a 3 percent discount rate. Assumes 15 percent of reductions in CO2 emissions are attributed to the United States. This is the midpoint between 7 percent and 23 percent, the range estimated by the Interagency Working Group on Social Cost of Carbon, “Technical Support Document, Social Cost of Carbon for Regulatory Impact Analysis under Executive Order 12866,” February 2010.

Government shouldn’t pick winners either

Last week, Steven Mufson of the Washington Post reported:

The Energy Department gave $150 million in economic Recovery Act funds to a battery company, LG Chem Michigan, which has yet to manufacture cells used in any vehicles sold to the public and whose workers passed time watching movies, playing board, card and video games, or volunteering for animal shelters and community groups.

This week, Mufson’s colleague Thomas Heath reports about another firm that has received gov’t aide:

District-based daily-deal company LivingSocial has received a much-needed $110 million cash infusion from its investors, according to a memo the company sent to employees Wednesday.

“This investment is a tremendous vote of confidence in our business from the people who know us best, our current board members and investors,” LivingSocial chief executive Tim O’Shaughnessy said in the memo, which was obtained by The Washington Post.

Mr. O’Shaughnessy is putting a nice gloss on it. A LivingSocial “senior company insider” tells PrivCo:

We scrambled for cash quickly….we did receive one other funding offer, but the current investors’ terms were the least bad of two terrible proposals….which we had no choice but to take it or file for Chapter 11.

According to PrivCo, the company ended the year with just $76 million in cash and assets while it faces some $338 million in liabilities.

Readers will no doubt remember that just eight months ago, the D.C. Council unanimously voted to give LivingSocial a $32,500,000 get-out-of-tax-free card.

These stories (and the many, many more that could be told) suggest that President Obama’s former economic adviser  Larry Summers, was right to warn that government is a crappy venture capitalist. Milton and Rose Friedman’s simple explanation of the four ways money can be spent offers a nice explanation:

how to spend money

A private venture capitalist spends her own money to buy equity in a firm. And if that firm does well, she does well. Since she is spending her own money on herself, she has an incentive to both economize and seek the highest value.

But when government policymakers play venture capitalist, they are spending other peoples’ money on other people. They therefore have little incentive to either economize or seek high value. It is no wonder that they often make the wrong bets.

But the scandal has much more to do with a bad bet. Even if the bet pays off—which it sometimes does—there are problems associated with taxpayer support of private industry. There are more details in my paper, but just to name a few, government-supported industries will tend to:

  • Be cartelized, which means consumers are stuck with higher prices;
  • Use less-efficient productive techniques;
  • Offer lower-quality goods;
  • Waste resources in an effort to expand or maintain their government-granted privileges;
  • Innovate along the wrong margins by coming up with new ways to obtain favors rather than new ways to please customers.

Together, these costs can undermine long term growth and even short-term macroeconomic stability. And since the winners tend to be the wealthy and well-connected and the losers tend to be the relatively poor and unknown, privileges such as these undermine people’s faith in both government and markets.

We should be upset when governments sink money into firms that then go bankrupt. But it is no less scandalous when government sinks funds into firms that survive.

Governments should stay out of the business of picking winners or losers.

Pre-K for All?

I’m at US News’s Economic Intelligence blog this week, writing about President Obama’s proposal for universal Pre-K. One problem with his proposal is that we don’t have data demonstrating that state- or federally-funded preschool will improve outcomes for children:

Accurately measuring the outcomes of education programs is critical for providing policymakers, educators, and the public with the necessary data to know what works. Without this data we cannot know whether or not putting scarce taxpayer resources toward preschool will provide lasting benefits to participants, let alone provide societal benefits in excess of costs.

When politicians can’t see their own loopholes

TaxesAccording to a 2008 IRS report, the Federal Tax Code “has grown so long that it has become challenging even to figure out how long it is.”

A search of the Code conducted in the course of preparing this report turned up 3.7 million words. A 2001 study published by the Joint Committee on Taxation put the number of words in the Code at that time at 1,395,000. A 2005 report by a tax research organization put the number of words at 2.1 million, and notably, found that the number of words in the Code has more than tripled since 1975.

In last night’s State of the Union, President Obama spoke eloquently about the need for tax reform to clean up the code:

To hit the rest of our deficit reduction target, we should do what leaders in both parties have already suggested, and save hundreds of billions of dollars by getting rid of tax loopholes and deductions for the well-off and well-connected.  After all, why would we choose to make deeper cuts to education and Medicare just to protect special interest tax breaks?  How is that fair?  How does that promote growth?

Now is our best chance for bipartisan, comprehensive tax reform that encourages job creation and helps bring down the deficit.

The American people deserve a tax code that helps small businesses spend less time filling out complicated forms, and more time expanding and hiring; a tax code that ensures billionaires with high-powered accountants can’t pay a lower rate than their hard-working secretaries.

Amen. Unfortunately, a few minutes later, the President said:

Through tax credits, grants, and better loans, we have made college more affordable for millions of students and families over the last few years.

And a few lines after that:

We’ll give new tax credits to businesses that hire and invest.

The tax code didn’t get to be as complicated as it is by accident. Every complication; every loophole; every deduction, exemption, and credit got there because some elected official had a clever idea. It got there because someone dreamed up an innovative scheme to use the tax code as a way to encourage some sort of behavior.

The code is the way it is because politicians who decry loopholes and special-interest privileges can’t see that their own clever schemes are part of the problem.

To Raise Taxes or to Close Loopholes?

Imagine for a moment that you are interested in lowering your nation’s debt-to-GDP ratio. Let’s assume you are determined to ignore the experience of other nations and you are dead-set on lowering your debt-to-GDP ratio by raising revenue rather than by cutting spending.

This leaves you with two choices:

Choice A: increase tax rates.

Choice B: leave rates where they are but close loopholes.

President Obama’s erstwhile deficit commission, Simpson-Bowles, favored Choice B. And I think it is fair to say that most economists do as well. Why? Put simply, a rate increase has deleterious demand and supply-side effects, whereas a loophole closing only has deleterious demand-side effects. If you raise rates, people are incentivized to spend less and work less (or hide more of their income from the IRS). But if you close loopholes, people are incentivized to spend less while their incentive to work is unchanged.  What’s more, when you close loopholes, you tend to remove other distortions in the economy (think: mortgage interest deduction) and you diminish the incidence of government-favoritism.

There are at least three strikes against the fiscal cliff deal struck this week:

  1. It ignored the evidence that tax increases are more economically harmful than spending cuts.
  2. It opted to raise revenue through rate increases rather than loophole closings.
  3. It actually expanded corporate tax loopholes!

On the last point, don’t miss Vero’s pieces here and here, Tim Carney’s pieces here and here, Matt Stoller’s piece here, and Brad Plumer’s piece here.

What Was Wrong with the Bush Tax Cuts?

Back in April, President Obama had this to say about the Bush tax cuts:

We tried this for eight years before I took office. We tried it. It is not like we did not try it. At the beginning of the last decade, the wealthiest Americans got two huge tax cuts, in 2001 and 2003. Meanwhile, insurance com­panies, financial institutions, there [sic] were all allowed to write their own rules, find their way around the rules. We were told the same thing we’re being told now—this is going to lead to fast­er job growth, it’s going to lead to greater prosperity for everybody. Guess what? It didn’t.

At first blush, the data would seem to be on the President’s side: even if we ignore the Great Recession,  economic growth in the 26 quarters that followed passage of the Bush tax cuts averaged just 2.5 percent while it averaged 3.7 percent in the 26 quarters that preceded the cuts.

So is this experience reason to throw out every microeconomics 101 textbook? Or at least to rip out the sections that cover the deadweight loss of taxation? No. The fact is that the Bush tax cuts were deeply flawed, even from a free-market perspective. In a new paper with Mercatus program associate, Andrea Castillo, we contend:

[T]he Bush tax cuts had a number of problems from a market-oriented perspective: they were phased in slowly, they were set to expire within a decade, they entailed a Keynesian emphasis on stimulating aggregate demand, and—above all—they were undertaken without any effort to reduce spending. In light of these problems, there is no reason to overturn decades of theoretical and empirical research supporting the link between low taxation and growth. The episode offers a cautionary lesson in how not to cut taxes.