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How to Think About the Corporate Income Tax Print
Tuesday, 26 August 2014 07:06

My friend Jared Bernstein had a piece in the NYT warning against plans to eliminate the corporate income tax. He argues that the corporate income is paid primarily by owners of capital, who in turn are primarily wealthy people. Therefore, if we eliminate the corporate income tax we will be giving a big tax break to the wealthy.

This is largely true. Eliminating the corporate income tax without some major increases in the personal tax rates for high income people would be a big gift to the wealthy. And as much as we would all like to help our favorite billionaires, they are probably not the ones most in need of a hand at the moment.

But the story on elimination may be a bit brighter than Jared implies. First, it is important to remember that not all of the corporate income tax comes out of corporate profits. Due to feedback effects (less investment), some portion will come out of wages. The model used by the Tax Policy Center of the Urban Institute and Brookings Institution put the split at 80 percent profits and 20 percent wages. This means that if we lose $100 billion in corporate income taxes we are effectively losing $80 billion in revenue from rich people.

But even this is somewhat of an overstatement. If companies had $80 billion in additional after-tax profits, then they would pay roughly half of this out in dividends, or $40 billion. If we assume for simplicity that all of this is paid to high end individuals, then we will tax back 20 percent of this amount or $8 billion. (Dividends are taxed at roughly half of the rate of normal income. This would presumably change if we eliminated the corporate income tax.) This means the net loss of revenue from rich people is $72 billion.

Now let's consider the tax evasion industry that is created by the corporate income tax. The corporate income tax use to raise close to 4.0 percent of GDP. In recent years it has been less than 2.0 percent even though corporate profits are at a record high as a share of income. Part of the drop is explained by a drop in the top tax rate from 50 percent to 35 percent. However most of this decline is explained by more effective forms of tax avoidance or evasion. (Avoidance is legal.)

The question is, how much will a company pay to avoid paying $100 in income taxes? The answer is up to $99.99. There are a lot of companies that are paying lots of money to avoid paying corporate income taxes. It is likely that a very substantial portion of that lost 2.0 percentage points of GDP in corporate income taxes ($350 billion a year in today's economy) is instead being paid to the income tax avoidance industry (a.k.a. the financial sector).

To take one important example, much of the bread and butter of the private equity industry is bringing creative tax schemes to smaller businesses that lacked the expertise to do it themselves. To personalize this some, think of Mitt Romney. Much of the story of his wealth was the corporate income tax. By devising clever schemes that allowed businesses his firm took over to escape the tax, he was able to resell these businesses at an enormous profit. In this way, the corporate income tax is not just a way of taking money from rich people, it is also a way to give money to rich people by creating enormous profit opportunities in altogether unproductive areas of the economy.

And Mitt Romney's wealth has direct ramifications for the rest of us. Suppose Mitt Romney spends a big chunk of his wealth building a big new house. In the context of a depressed economy, any spending is good for growth and jobs, so his consumption is a net plus just like anyone else's consumption. However as we start to get to the point where the inflation hawks are bringing enough pressure to bear on the Fed to force it to raise interest rates and slow the economy, Romney's construction project will effectively be crowding out other spending. The Fed will be raising rates sooner than it otherwise would have because of the riches Romney accumulated from designing ways to avoid the corporate income tax.

If we assume that roughly half of the drop in corporate income tax is now income for the tax avoidance industry, then this means that we are giving them 1.0 percent of GDP to raise 1.15 percent of GDP (0.72*1.6 percent of GDP raised in corporate income taxes) in taxes from rich people.

In this fuller context, the corporate income tax is a much more questionable proposition. It seems very plausible that we could design a system that will raise as much money from the rich with an increase in personal tax rates, while at the same time destroying the tax avoidance industry.

 

 

 
NYT Has Determined That Brazil's Neo-Liberal Policies Were Necessary to Allow Growth Print
Tuesday, 26 August 2014 04:48

That's right, you might have thought there was a debate on whether the neo-liberal policies pursued by Brazil and other Latin American countries promoted or retarded growth, but the NYT settled the issue. It refers to the policies put in place by Social Democratic Party from 1994-2002 and then tells readers:

"The measures vanquished galloping inflation, opening the way for the next decade’s growth."

This voice of authority should perhaps explain why it took seven years of moderate inflation before growth could pick up. Inflation fell back to 6.9 percent in 1997 (it had been over 1000 percent), the growth rate crossed 5.0 percent in 2004 and remained at a respectable pace until the world financial crisis led to a recession in 2009.

 

 
Does Competition Really Increase in the Textbook Market When it Becomes More Concentrated? Print
Tuesday, 26 August 2014 04:22

A Vox piece on soaring textbook prices told readers:

"And the college textbook market has changed, too. Publishers used to spread out the cost of a new edition over five years before publishing the next edition and starting the cycle over. Since the publishing industry began consolidating in the 1980s — five major publishers now control 80 percent of the market — competition has become keener, and the window before a new edition has narrowed from five years to three. That means higher prices so that publishers can recoup the costs and make a profit."

Let's see, competition has become keener as the industry got more concentrated, causing prices to rise? That doesn't sound like the textbook economics I learned.

This sounds more like a story where an industry grew more oligopolistic. Rather than competing on price, textbook makers compete on quality (or the appearance of quality -- to keep the analogy to the prescription drug industry used in the piece). There is an implicit agreement not to try to undercut each other on price, since the big five recognize they would all end up losers in that story.

This sounds like a case where a bit of anti-trust action might do lots of good. Alternatively, a small amount of public funding for open source textbook production may wipe out the bastards altogether.

 
The Export-Import Banks Claims Need Not be Taken at Face Value Print
Tuesday, 26 August 2014 04:01

A New York Times article on the role that the debate over the Export-Import Bank is playing in the North Carolina senate race told readers that the bank:

"says it makes a profit and supported more than 200,000 jobs with $37.4 billion in transactions last year."

It would have been worth including the views of someone other than the bank who could have put these claims in context. If companies did not have access to the Bank's loans at below market interest rates, most of these sales would still take place. The companies would just have lower profit margins. As a result, the number of jobs that would be lost is a fraction of the number cited here.

Furthermore, in standard models it would be expected that with fewer exports subsidized by the bank, the dollar would fall in value, which would make other exports more profitable. The net effect on jobs and GDP would be close to zero and quite possibly positive. It would be possible to construct the exact same story about any industry that is subsidized by the government with loans offered at below market interest rates.  

 
Do Democrats Do Better on the Economy? Robert Samuelson Gets the Story Largely Right Print
Monday, 25 August 2014 04:51

Robert Samuelson discusses a new analysis from Princeton University economists Alan Blinder and Mark Watson that finds the economy has generally grown more rapidly under Democratic presidents than Republican presidents. Samuelson notes that Blinder and Watson can explain much of the difference on factors like the OPEC price shocks, wars, and trends in productivity, but there is still a portion that remains unexplained.

Samuelson then comments:

"Actually, the explanation is staring them in the face.

"The parties have philosophical differences that affect the economy. To simplify slightly: Democrats focus more on jobs; Republicans more on inflation."

Clearly there are differences in attitudes towards the willingness to promote jobs as opposed to concerns about inflation. However, the party breakdowns are perhaps not as clear as Samuelson suggests. After all, it was Richard Nixon who imposed price controls in 1971 as an alternative to contractionary fiscal and monetary policy that would have slowed growth and eliminated jobs. And Jimmy Carter was the person who appointed legendary inflation hawk Paul Volcker as head of the Federal Reserve Board. More recently, it was Republican Alan Greenspan (originally appointed by Ronald Reagan, although reappointed by Bush I, Clinton, and Bush II) who argued with Clinton appointees Janet Yellen and Lawrence Meyers that there was no reason to raise interest rates in 1995-1997 and that the economy could be allowed to continue to grow and create jobs.

Anyhow, Samuelson's point is right. There are differences between the priorities that are placed on jobs and employment versus the risk of higher inflation. This is a fundamental policy decision. It is unfortunate that most of the public is unaware of the decisions the Fed makes on this trade-off. As a result the voices that tend to dominate the debate come from the financial sector, which pushes the Fed to focus on the risk of inflation. Unnecessarily high unemployment has little consequence for bank profits, even if it means millions of people needlessly out work and tens of millions lacking the bargaining power to demand higher wages.

 

Note:

Allan Lane correctly takes me to task for seeming to accept Samuelson claim that the differences between the parties are "philosophical." That was not the part I was agreeing with. There are differences with Democrats tending to be more responsive to concerns from unions and workers more generally about jobs. On the other hand, Republicans are more likely to be listening to their backers in the financial industry. So there are differences, but they don't necessarily come from philosophies.

Also, as noted above, the differences are not always clear cut. The Democrats also count on support from Wall Street.

 
Patent Monopolies: The Reason Drug Companies Pushed Synthetic Opioids Print
Monday, 25 August 2014 04:38

The New York Times reported on lawsuits being filed by the City of Chicago and two California counties over the promotion of painkillers. The suit charges that the companies promoted OxyContin and other drugs for uses where they may not have been appropriate or necessary and deliberately downplayed risks of addiction and overdose.

It would have been worth noting that the reason the companies being sued had incentive to push their drugs was the high profit margins provided by patent monopolies. If these drugs had been sold in a free market in which the drug companies enjoyed the same profit margins as companies selling steel or bread, it never would have been profitable to spend tens of millions of dollars pushing their drugs for inappropriate uses.

However because patent monopolies allowed them to charge prices that were several thousand percent above the free market price, companies could make substantial profits by getting people to use their drugs even in cases where they may not have been appropriate. It would have been worth noting this basic fact, just as an article reporting on shortages of a particular product should mention that the government imposes price controls on the product.

 

Correction: "Synthetic" was added to the headline in the interest of accuracy. Thanks to Fred Gardner for the correction.

 
Will Robots Help Your Employment Prospects? Autor and Yglesias Print
Monday, 25 August 2014 04:08

The usually astute Matthew Yglesias falls off the track with his discussion of David Autor's latest paper on technology and wages. For background, Autor is the guru of the job polarization story: the idea that technology is destroying middle-paying jobs leaving only those at the top and bottom. He presented a new paper at the Fed's annual conference at Jackson Hole which reassesses his prior work.

Matt's take on this paper has Autor telling us that robots may not take our jobs, but they will cut our pay. That isn't the story as I see it. Technology always devalues some jobs while increasing the productivity and wages of other jobs (that's why average wages are higher today than they were 100 years ago). New technologies like robots will not be different in this respect.

What's new and newsworthy in the Autor paper is the acknowledgement that his occupation story really cannot explain trends in wage inequality. Here's a figure from Autor's paper that Matt uses in his post.

skills

Note that there is no job polarization in the period 2000-2007 and only very modest high end job growth in the period 2007-2012. The main story in these periods is the growth in the share of low-end occupations. Yet we continued to see a sharp increase in high end wages relative to everyone else.

This is a problem not only for the post-2000 period, but for the whole period. If high-end wages increase relative to other wages when their occupation share is not rising in the period 2000-2012, why would we think that the mix of occupations explains wage trends in earlier periods? And of course the sharpest increase in shares is for occupations at the bottom end of the skills distribution, the workers who have seen the sharpest drop in relative wages in the years since 2000 as well as the longer period since 1979.

In other words, there is no link between changes in occupation shares and wage trends, a point that my friends and colleagues, Larry Mishel, John Schmitt, and Heidi Shierholz, have been making for several years. These points in Autor's new paper appeared in their paper, Don't Blame the Robots. (Autor was a discussant of an earlier version of this paper at the American Economic Association meetings in 2013, although it is not cited in his new paper.)

Anyhow, given the eagerness with which the punditry embraced Autor's hollowing out of the middle story, the fact that he has now moved away from it should be big news. This means that the economics profession does not have a way to blame the growth of wage inequality on technology. And if it wasn't technology that gave us inequality, then we might start thinking about policy. 

 

 
David Autor Discovers the Rebirth of Middle Skill Jobs Print
Sunday, 24 August 2014 07:56

Neil Irwin had a write-up of new research by M.I.T. economist David Autor explaining why the development of technology need not lead to a further growth in wage inequality. Autor's new work is especially noteworthy because Autor had previously been associated with the occupational polarization view that held that technology and globalization were wiping out middle wage jobs. This view was widely held up by the punditry as the major cause of wage inequality.

In Autor's paper, he concedes that the job polarization pattern he identified as having taken place in the 1980s and 1990s had stopped in the period since 2000. In fact, the bulk of the job creation since then has been at the bottom end of the occupational distribution with middle wage and high wage occupations mostly falling as a share of the workforce.

In this way, the paper is agreeing with the paper by Larry Mishel, John Schmitt, and Heidi Sheirholz, which showed there was no link between the patterns of job polarization identified by Autor in earlier work and the trends in wage inequality over the last three decades. (Autor was the discussant on this paper when it was presented at the American Economic Association convention in 2013, although he does not cite it in his new paper.)

 

Note: This post is a correction from an earlier version which cited an old column from David Autor and David Dorn rather than the piece by Irwin.

Further note: Adam Davidson had a piece last year on the exchange between Larry Mishel and David Autor.

 
Should Taxpayers Subsidize the Pay of College Presidents? Print
Sunday, 24 August 2014 07:43

Colman McCarthy has a piece discussing the low pay received by many adjunct professors across the country. He argues that they should make a living wage and then suggests that a way to pay for this would be to cut the high salaries for university presidents and other top administrators, which can cross $1 million a year.

It is worth noting that universities, both public and private, operate with large taxpayer subsidies. In the case of private universities, most enjoy tax-exempt status. As a result, they are exempt from many state and local taxes, but most importantly, individuals can deduct their contributions from their income tax. For wealthy contributors, this means that the taxpayers are effectively picking up 40 percent of the cost of their contributions.

If the public felt it was more important that adjuncts made $40,000 a year than university presidents made $1,000,000 a year, there could be a limit on compensation levels that would allow an institution to receive tax-exempt status. For example, if the cap for total compensation was set at $400,000, university presidents would still be able to earn twice as much as cabinet officers

Of course universities would complain about such a restriction as government interference, but this is nonsense. They are free to pay their staff absolutely as much as they like, the restriction only applies if they want a government subsidy. (It's sort of like restrictions the government imposes on people who get TANF.)

The universities will also complain that they cannot get qualified people for $400,000 a year. This one should invite a healthy dose of ridicule. If we can get qualified people to run the Defense Department and Department of Health and Human Services for half this amount, perhaps their school is not the sort of institution that deserves taxpayer support if it can't find anyone willing to make the sacrifice of running the place for twice the pay of a cabinet secretary. 

Free market economics is so much fun!

 
NYT on the Mark on the Fed and Interest Rates Print
Sunday, 24 August 2014 07:17

The NYT had an excellent editorial on the Fed and interest rates today that nailed the main points very well. The piece pointed out that if the Fed raises rates it will slow the economy and keep people from getting jobs. There are two points that would provide a useful addendum to this piece.

First, the Fed's actions on interest rates swamp the importance of almost every government spending program designed to help low and moderate income people. There were big battles in Washington in the last couple of years over Republican proposals to cut food stamps by $4 billion a year. If the Fed keeps the unemployment rate one percentage point higher than a level it could reach without triggering an inflationary spiral then it would be preventing close to 3 million people from working. (A rule of thumb is that for the number of people not currently in the labor force who find a job is roughly equal to the number of unemployed people who find a job.)

In addition to allowing millions more people to work, lower unemployment will vastly improve the situation of people at the lower end of the pay ladder by both allowing them to work more hours (for those who choose to do so) and also by giving them the bargaining power to get higher pay. The analysis by my colleague John Schmitt shows that a sustained one percentage point drop in the unemployment rate translates into 9.8 percent higher wages for workers in the bottom fifth of the wage distribution. For someone earning $20,000 a year, that means a pay increase of $2,000. In short, this is a huge deal for people who really need the money. It matters way more than the potential cut to food stamps, which is not to say people were wrong to fight that cut.

The second point is that the track record of the economists screaming about inflationary pressures and the need to clamp down before we get Zimbabwe-style hyper-inflation is nothing short of abysmal. As Paul Krugman regularly points out (here, for example), these people have been screaming about inflation for the last four years. However the track record is even worse than Krugman's complaints imply.

We have been here before. Back in the mid-1990s the absolute consensus in the economics profession was that the unemployment rate could not get much below 6.0 percent without triggering inflationary pressures. This was a view held not only by conservative economists, but by liberals like Janet Yellen, Alan Blinder, and Paul Krugman. Fortunately, Federal Reserve Board Chair Alan Greenspan was not a mainstream economist. He argued there was no evidence of inflationary pressures, therefore he saw no reason to keep the unemployment rate from falling below the 6.0 percent threshold. 

The unemployment rate fell below 5.0 percent in 1997 and was at 4.0 percent as a year-round average in 2000. Not only were millions of people to get jobs who would not have otherwise been able to work, workers at the middle and bottom of the wage ladder saw sustained real wage growth for the first time since the early 1970s. And, there was a huge swing from budget deficits to budget surpluses, giving the country the budget surpluses that the Clintonites always celebrate.

Anyhow, given the abysmal track record of nearly all economists in predicting the course of inflation and the general economy (can you say collapsed housing bubble?), any economist insisting that the Fed raise rates to prevent inflation should be asked one simple question: when did you stop being wrong about the economy?

 
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About Beat the Press

Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. He is the author of several books, his latest being The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive. Read more about Dean.

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