Worried About The Size of The Federal Debt? There’s Another Number That Should Really Scare You.

Fat Chance - Banks Take Responsibility for the Financial Crisis by Michael Smith via Flikr

$53 trillion.

More than THREE TIMES the entire federal debt.

According to Saturday’s New York Times, that’s the amount of money currently held by US-based “too-big-to-fail” financial institutions.

“Too-big-to-fail” has been around for a while.  It dates back to the Reagan administration’s takeover of Continental Illinois National Bank and Trust Company, which was then the seventh-largest US bank.

And it’s been a growing problem ever since.

Here’s why: “TBTF” distorts the economy.  In theory, in a capitalist economy, there should be a relationship between risk and reward.  In theory, people who can’t afford to lose their money will chose “safe” investments, even though they have a lower rate of return; and even those people who can afford to lose money will take fewer risks.

But that’s only in theory.  In reality, TBTF has separated “risk” from “reward”.  The financial industry is now operating on the belief that if the loss is big enough, the government will step in.

It’s sort of like insurance… only, the financial industry doesn’t have to pay for it.

A year and a half ago, one Federal Reserve Bank economist estimated the TBTF effect is worth between $450 and $900 billion a year.

“The existence of the implicit subsidy enabled these companies to become larger and more complex than otherwise would have been the case. TBTF institutions respond to the subsidy by increasing their risk through either engaging in riskier activities or increasing their leverage. While these actions may be privately optimal, the response to the TBTF subsidy is not socially optimal, as it can pose huge risks to the financial system.”

(Gotta love that economist-speak…“Not socially optimal,” indeed.)

Even since the 2007 Wall Street meltdown, financial institutions have continued to take advantage of their TBTF status.  TBTF institutions are still getting bigger and taking more risks.  Here’s how Forbes described the situation last year:  “Banks today are bigger and more opaque than ever, and they continue to trade in derivatives in many of the same ways they did before the crash, but on a larger scale and with precisely the same unknown risks.”

And now, a half-decade after the bailout, the TBTF institutions are worth $53 trillion.

So why am I comparing the size of the financial industry with the size of the federal debt?

I was trying to figure out the current level of taxpayer exposure, in this “not socially optimal” arrangement.  In other words: if the financial industry implodes again, how much government money is it going to cost us?  And I figured the best way to figure that out was to look at what happened in the most-recent TBTF bailout.

As near as I could figure, from what’s easily available on the Internet: back before the 2007 meltdown, TBTF institutions were worth a total of about $2 trillion.  The 2008 bailout bill appropriated $700 billion to deal with the crisis — or, roughly one-third of the total value of TBTF institutions, before they started to fail.

The federal budget was already running a deficit.  That means: in order to fund the bailout, Congress had to borrow an amount equal to one-third of the pre-crisis value of those TBTF institutions (using my “as near as I can figure” estimate).

But those TBTF institutions are bigger now; and that means if they fail, any federal government bailout would need to be bigger, too.

TBTF are now worth $53 trillion. Do the math.  If there is another Wall Street meltdown; and another bailout; and this next bailout also requires the government to borrow an amount equal to one-third of what TBTF institutions are worth now…

Well…one-third of $53 trillion is…almost exactly the current amount of the federal debt.

In other words, the next financial meltdown could double the national debt.

Are you scared yet?

“Negotiate” means talking about ALL options

Golly.  The GOP still hasn’t figured out what’s driving the federal debt?  Let’s try… lack of revenues.

Federal revenues, as a percentage of the country’s economy, are at the lowest point since Harry Truman was President.  (And that was before Congress enacted Medicare, and added Medicare payroll taxes to the federal revenue mix.)

Corporate taxes, in particular, are at record-low levels.  (Just look at the olive-green areas on this graph.)

Federal Revenue Sources as percentage of GDP

The GOP insists on “concessions” from President Obama, in exchange for not driving America’s economy totally off the cliff.

They are insisting on cuts to Social Security and Medicare before they will consider acting on the debt limit.  “My goal here is to have a serious conversation about those things that are driving the deficit and driving the debt up,” according to House Speaker John Boehner.

But will they discuss restoring revenues, as a way of cutting the deficit?  Not a chance, the GOP says.

Wow.

Is Speaker Boehner really contemplating a “conversation”?  (Or is he just expecting the Democrats to surrender?)

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See the data I used in my graph here.

GOP in Congress: Keeping — or BREAKING? — Promises

Crossed fingers ICan someone please explain to me… how can the GOP be simultaneously

What, exactly, is the big difference?  For Social Security and Medicare, people have paid money into the system, with the expectation that they would receive an agreed-upon return (benefits) at a later date.  Just the same way that bondholders have loaned money, with the expectation that they would receive an agreed-upon return (principal plus interest) at a later date.

Would bondholders be happy if House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan suggested trimming bond repayments between 15% and 45%?  So why should people who have paid into Social Security accept those kinds of cuts?

Let’s see… if Ryan reduced federal bond payments by 15%, wouldn’t that free up about $54 billion a year?  Wait… wouldn’t that more than cover the $40 billion of cuts to the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program that Republicans want to make?

Pediatricians at the Boston Medical Center have studied the interaction between hunger and health, and yesterday announced that SNAP was “one of America’s most cost-effective and successful public health programs in the country” and by improving children’s health, SNAP actually “saves society money.”  Except that Republicans want to cut children’s health insurance, too.  At this point, you halfway expect House leadership to start quoting Jonathan Swift.  But I digress.

Or if Ryan reduced bond payments by 45%, wouldn’t that free up about $162 billion a year?  Which would more than cover the revenue cost of not returning to Clinton-era tax rates.

But the GOP isn’t suggesting that bondholders should absorb those sorts of cuts…oh, no, that would be unthinkable.  So why would they think that Social Security recipients are fair game?

You pay your money in, you expect to get it back as promised.

Here’s what I think will happen, during the next few weeks of government shutdown/debt-limit crisis.  I think the Republicans will stop using Obamacare as their line in the sand/can’t compromise issue.  I think they will switch to insisting on some sort of “Entitlement Reform” in exchange for not driving our economy totally off the cliff.  And “Entitlement Reform” is Tea Party lingo for making cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

At one level, I guess it’s fair to lump Social Security and Medicare into the category of “entitlements” – you pay your money in, you’re entitled to get it back as promised.

Just like the US Treasury’s bondholders are entitled to get their money back as promised.

I’m wondering how the GOP is going to explain the difference between those promises, over the next few weeks.  Can’t imagine what rhetoric they will come up with, to justify holding bondholders harmless while trying to cut Social Security benefits.

 

Translating from TeaPartyese: What “negotiate” really means

Stahlwille ratchet head (1/2 SQ)Don’t let them fool you.

When GOP Congressmen say they “just want to negotiate” – what they’re really saying is “we’re going to have it our way”.

And when they talk about “compromise” – they’re really talking about “ratcheting it down even further.”

You know how a ratchet works, right?  When you turn it, the screw can only go one way.  And the Tea Party’s position is: government can only get smaller.

They’re yelling about the federal deficit – and accumulated federal debt – but the only “solution” they’re willing to entertain is to cut spending.  Have you heard anybody suggest raising revenues, lately?

The fact is: as a share of the nation’s economy, federal tax revenues are at almost-record lows. Yes, they were lower, back when Harry Truman was President – but that was before Medicare was enacted in 1965.

Federal Tax Revenues as Percentage of GDP

And it looks like the GOP may have already won the federal budget game.

Remember 2011, when House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan came out with his budget“$4 trillion of cuts over decade

Remember how radical that budget seemed, back then?  How far to the right?  How extreme the cuts appeared?

Now, take a closer look at the “continuing resolution” passed by the Democratically-controlled Senate last week, in a last-ditch effort to avoid the government shutdown.

Yeah, the same “continuing resolution” that the House GOP won’t send to an up-do-down vote, without further concessions.

Funding levels in that “continuing resolution” are about 10% less than what Chairman Ryan proposed, back in 2011.

And it came from the Democrats.

And it’s still not enough for the GOP.

Ratchet, ratchet, ratchet.

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Read more about how the Senate’s continuing resolution compares to the Ryan budget here.

See the tax revenue data that my chart is based on here.

 

 

 

Want to keep the government afloat? Here’s the list of House GOP demands


Just like the old Ginzu Knife commercials… “But wait, there’s more!”

Yes, House GOP leaders are insisting on a one-year delay of Obamacare (aka, the Affordable Care Act) as a condition of resolving this latest federal fiscal fiasco.

But that’s not all they’re looking for.

As compiled by the New York Times, here’s the list of House GOP leaders’ other demands:

…fast-track authority to overhaul the tax code, construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, offshore oil and gas production and more permitting of energy exploration on federal lands… roll back regulations on coal ash, block new Environmental Protection Agency regulations on greenhouse gas production, eliminate a $23 billion fund to ensure the orderly dissolution of failed major banks, eliminate mandatory contributions to the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, limit medical malpractice lawsuits and increase means testing for Medicare, among other provisions.

Does anybody (other than Fox News and a few hundred Internet trolls) still think the House leadership is trying to “compromise” and resolve this latest Congress-created crisis?

 

It’s Baaack! GOP puts US economy at risk (again) over the Keystone Pipeline

Trans Canada Keystone Oil Pipeline by Shannon Patrick via FlikrJust like an unwanted dinner guest that you can’t convince to leave, the Keystone Pipeline project is still on the GOP’s legislative agenda.  Actually, it’s now at the top of the GOP’s legislative agenda.

Read the news stories: Republican leaders have apparently given up on efforts to rein in their Tea Party legislators.  Last Friday, the House voted – for the 42nd time – in their futile attempt to repeal Obamacare.  Next Monday, the federal government is probably going to close down – because Congress can’t bring itself to pass annual Appropriations bills.  Jobs bills – and legislation to repair long-neglected roads and bridges – are gathering dust on Representatives’ shelves.  Immigration reform isn’t going anywhere.  Common-sense gun reform?  Yeah, right.  (About 8,400 Americans have been killed in the nine months since Newtown.  Crisis?  How many people have to die before Congress considers it a crisis?)

But no matter what else they’ve given up on, Republican leaders are still determined to force through TransCanada’s pipeline project.  Sometime in the next month or so, Republicans plan to use debt-ceiling legislation to bypass the administrative review process and authorize construction of the pipeline by Congressional fiat.

No, it’s not the first time the GOP has used fiscal emergencies to try to push the Keystone project through.  Back in December 2011, the Republicans traded about $3 trillion in federal debt for an expedited review process (which resulted in the project being rejected).  Since then, House Republicans have inserted Keystone into four other pieces of legislation, including the federal budget.

But why does Congress even care about Keystone?  TransCanada’s pipeline is nothing more or less than a construction project built by and benefitting a private corporation.  Sort of like… if Walmart wanted to build another gazillion-square-foot distribution center.  (Except that a new Walmart distribution center would probably create more than 35 permanent jobs.  Yep, that’s the number of permanent jobs that Keystone is expected to create: just 35.)  So why is Congress getting so involved in the project permitting?

One more time: Keystone is a construction project of a privately-owned corporation.   (Wondering exactly who owns that corporation?  According to Morningstar’s shareholder records, it looks like a whole lot of TransCanada stock is owned by foreign banks.)

One more time: WHY are the Republicans insisting that TransCanada be allowed to build this pipeline?

And whatever happened to “fiscal responsibility”?  Do Republicans really want our government to default on its bills?  That’s the scenario they’re setting up, by tying the debt-limit increase to construction of this private pipeline.

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You can read (experience?) the GOP’s latest press release about Keystone here.

Read NHLN’s “Why Is the House GOP Obsessed with the Keystone Pipeline” here.

Social Security: 78 years (and counting)

Seventy-eight years ago today, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act with this statement:

“Today a hope of many years’ standing is in large part fulfilled. The civilization of the past hundred years, with its startling industrial changes, has tended more and more to make life insecure. Young people have come to wonder what would be their lot when they came to old age. The man with a job has wondered how long the job would last.”

That was almost eight decades ago. Now, almost 90% of Americans age 65 or older receive Social Security. Almost half of those people would be living in poverty, if they did not receive Social Security benefits.

“This law, too, represents a cornerstone in a structure which is being built but is by no means complete. It is a structure intended to lessen the force of possible future depressions. It will act as a protection to future Administrations against the necessity of going deeply into debt to furnish relief to the needy. The law will flatten out the peaks and valleys of deflation and of inflation. It is, in short, a law that will take care of human needs and at the same time provide for the United States an economic structure of vastly greater soundness.”

Today, the Social Security Trust Fund has $2.7 trillion in assets. The “Old Age and Survivors Insurance” program is expected to have an annual surplus at least through 2020 (and only after 2020 would it need to dip into the Trust Fund to pay benefits).

The irony here is that President Roosevelt expected Social Security to “lessen the force of possible future depressions” and prevent the federal government from having to go “deeply into debt to furnish relief to the needy” during economic crises.

But instead, the program was used to help the federal government absorb the cost of the Bush tax cuts.

Today, we are at the decision-making point that Alan Greenspan predicted 10 years ago: either the Bush tax cuts need to (finally) end, or the government is going to have to “cover the $1 trillion price [of the tax cuts] by trimming future benefits in Social Security and other entitlement programs.”

Today, the Social Security program is under attack like never before. (Watch for my next post, about the GOP’s revived “Penny Plan”.)

And President Roosevelt’s assumption that the federal government would go “deeply into debt to furnish relief to the needy” during “possible future depressions”?

Looks to me like that’s just history.

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Really worth reading, if you have a few more minutes: Tax attorney Paula Singer’s column “Social Security is a model, not a failure, for Washington budgetmaking.”

America’s “Race to the Bottom”: Boeing is still outsourcing

Boeing DreamlinerYesterday, the Boeing Company announced it would “create engineering centers for future work in South Carolina and possibly in Kiev, Ukraine.”

The perspective from Seattle, Washington:

The engineering union here — the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA), which represents nearly 26,400 engineers and technical staff — has long decried Boeing’s outsourcing of engineering work to its design center in Moscow.

Boeing internal documents obtained by The Seattle Times in 2004 after the Moscow center was set up show the company could employ high-quality Russian engineers there at ‘approximately 1/3 to 1/5 of the U.S. cost.’

Remember, this is the Boeing Company – manufacturer of the problem-plagued Dreamliner 787. Read “Boeing Learns the Hard Way that Outsourcing Hurts in the Long Run” here.

Most of us would think that “lessons learned the hard way” would maybe change a corporation’s modus operandi.

Most of us would think that maintaining – or restoring? – a reputation for quality workmanship would be particularly important to an airplane manufacturer.

But right now, the American economy is caught in a race to the bottom. These days, CEOs aren’t interested in long-term corporate reputations. They’re interested in profits. And Boeing’s executives have been producing good profits – despite the Dreamliner mess, and despite lower sales.

How? They’ve been so very, very proficient at “controlling costs” – costs such as engineering and skilled manufacturing labor. Read “Boeing profit beats estimates despite 787 problems” here.

And Boeing has rewarded its executives handsomely for their ability to “control costs”. Last year, “key executive” compensation was up almost 55%. And the guy at the top? CEO Jim McNerney received almost $27.5 million. One person. One year. Almost $27.5 million.

(And that doesn’t even include what McNerney receives in Boeing corporate dividends. According to SEC filings, McNerney owns a few hundred thousand shares of Boeing stock, mostly received as part of his executive compensation. That means McNerney receives almost another quarter-million dollars, every time Boeing issues quarterly dividends. And guess what? Those dividends are taxed at a much lower rate than ordinary wages and salaries.)

So yes, America’s economy is still racing toward the bottom. Boeing is hiring engineers at 20 cents on the dollar — and planning even more outsourcing.

How much lower can we go?

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More on McNerney’s dividends:

Not that long ago, dividends were taxed as ordinary income. It didn’t matter whether someone’s income came from wages or stock holdings, it was still taxed the same.

One of the many “Bush tax cuts” changed that – and now, stock dividends are taxed at roughly half the rate as CEOs’ salaries.

This morning, I finally added it all up. According to Congress’ Joint Committee on Taxation, over the past decade the “reduced rates of tax on dividends and long-term capital gains” have cost the federal government more than a trillion dollars in revenue ($1,020 billion, since FY2004).

That means almost 6% of the country’s total federal debt is directly attributable to this bizarre tax preference for unearned income.

Now that the stock market is booming, the impact is even greater: expect another $1.3 trillion loss of federal revenue over the next 10 years. And according to the Congressional Budget Office, the top 1% of taxpayers receive almost 70% of the benefit of this tax preference for unearned income.

The rest of us in the 99% get…?

 

Meanwhile, down in DC, Simpson and Bowles Work To Wreck Social Security

It’s probably going to get lost in today’s news, now breaking out of Boston, but…

SocialSecurityposter1Down in DC today, Erskine Bowles and Alan K. Simpson are scheduled to announce yet another of their “debt reduction” plans. Yes, it includes chained-CPI; yes, it includes cuts to Medicare. What is doesn’t include is much in the way of new revenues. Here’s how the Washington Post describes today’s plan:

“seeks far less in new taxes than the original, and it seeks far more in savings from federal health programs for the elderly.”

Yeah, this public policy debate is going in the wrong direction.

Here’s a better suggestion: Let’s return to the good ol’ days when investment income was taxed at the same rate as wage income.

Why does US tax policy give preferential tax treatment to dividends, just because investors don’t have to get their hands dirty in order to receive the income? America is supposed to be the land of Horatio Alger (“pull yourself up by your bootstraps, work hard, and you’ll get ahead”). If our tax code is going to have different standards for earned versus unearned income, shouldn’t the “hard work” type of income be the one we prefer?

Instead, ever since the Bush tax cuts, dividends have been taxed at a much lower rate. And that economic distortion has led to all sorts of bad outcomes. (Read “What Mitt Romney Taught Us about America’s Economy” here.)

According to Congress’ Joint Committee on Taxation, this backwards tax preference will cost $616 billion in revenue over the next five years. (It’s one of the largest “tax expenditures” in the tax code.)

So, let’s call that $1.2 trillion over the next decade… and we’re well on our way toward debt reduction – without any cuts to Social Security or Medicare. Toss in another $516 billion worth of estate taxes (I’m doubling the five-year cost of that tax preference, as calculated by the Joint Committee). Maybe throw in $315 billion from ending the special tax treatment for life insurance annuities. And we’re well over $2 trillion in deficit reduction—all without a single cut to a single government program.

Now let’s apply a little “dynamic scoring”. (Haven’t heard of it? It what the GOP used, back in 2001, to argue that the country could afford the Bush tax cuts. Just assume that the tax code changes will improve the economy, and that will generate even more tax revenues.) Ok, you’re right… “dynamic scoring” didn’t work so well with the Bush tax cuts. But remember the Clinton tax hikes? Remember how the economy improved and the budget went from deficit to surplus?

Add in a little “dynamic scoring” (of the tax-HIKE variety) and… Presto Change-o! Suddenly, we’re doing a whole lot better than Simpson-Bowles.

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Also in the message mix, today: a great, big “oops!” from the two Harvard economists whose research has bolstered the GOP’s austerity agenda. Turns out they made a mistake in their spreadsheet analysis. Yes, this is the very same analysis that Paul Ryan used, during last year’s presidential campaign, to argue that our slow economy was caused by national debt. [Hello? Most of us out here in the real world think the economy’s hurting because so many people are out of work.] Yes, these are the same two economists who testified before the Simpson-Bowles Commission.

Here’s the kicker: their mistake was discovered by researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Yes, public-funded higher education still works!

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Watching the news this morning, we’re seeing incredible acts of dedication and bravery. Special thanks to everyone whose jobs take them into danger, all those who protect the rest of us. Thoughts and prayers are with the family of the MIT Police officer who was killed; with the MBTA officer who was injured; and with everyone else whose lives have been forever altered by the events of the past few days.

Writing this from the security of my own home, I salute you all.

If Congressman Ryan Could Save $161 Billion A Year, Would He? The Answer May Shock You

DSC_9969Tax Credits or Spending? Labels, but in Congress, Fighting Words

The New York Times has a story about Washington lobbyists’ effectiveness in convincing Congress to pass tax breaks that benefit the wealthy.

Just one of those tax breaks – capital gains and dividends – costs an estimated $161 billion a year.  That would pay not just for the Sequester cuts, but also for all the additional cuts that House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan wants to make in next year’s federal budget.

No surprise, the top 1% get 75% of the benefit of that particular tax break.  (The bottom 60% of taxpayers get only 1% of the benefit.)

Another way to look at it?  The amount the 1% gets from the unearned income tax break – just in a single year – would pay for 10 years of Paul Ryan’s cuts to Medicare.

Read the story here.  Dig into the graphic here.

If you haven’t already, read Sunday’s post about corporate tax breaks.

Wondering why you should take the time to learn about this?  The next few budget battles are going to come down to questions of revenue versus cuts, and corporate welfare versus Social Security and Medicare.  Basically, it’s going to be a question of whose interests our government will serve:  the people who can afford to hire lobbyists? Or the very tired and distracted middle class?

The House GOP is still marching to the same drummer they have been following since 2001.  Nothing much is going to change in Washington, unless we the people work to change it.