Author Archives: James Kwak

“Middle-Class Economics”

By James Kwak

Supposedly President Obama is making “middle-class economics” one of the key themes of his final two years in office. I don’t really know what this is supposed to mean in a country where people making ten times the median household income call themselves “middle class” and there are tens of millions of people in poverty.

For starters, I think it’s important to understand the distribution of wealth in the country as it stands today. That’s the theme of a story I wrote on Medium earlier this week, “The Magnitude of Inequality,” which uses charts and pictures to try to convey just how unequal a society we live in.

Yesterday I published another story on Medium about one of Obama’s “middle-class economics” proposals: the forthcoming Department of Labor rule that will try to protect people’s retirement savings from financial advisers’ conflicts of interest. It’s a complicated topic to understand, and the administration proposal will undoubtedly help—but not very much, given the scope of the retirement security problem.

Tax Breaks (for the Rich) Are Forever

By James Kwak

This week I returned to one of my favorite topics: raising taxes, particularly on the rich. First I wrote an article for Medium about the single most obvious change that should be made to the tax code: eliminating the step-up in basis at death for capital gains taxes. If you’re not sure what step-up in basis means, or why it’s a ridiculous idea, you should read the article.

Then today I wrote an article for the Atlantic about why (a) killing 529 plans was a great idea in President Obama’s latest tax proposals and (b) why 529 plans are impossible to kill. Here’s the crux of the matter:

“If you’re poor, a 529 plan gives you nothing, since you don’t pay income taxes; the American Opportunity Tax Credit gives you $4,000 ($5,000 under Obama’s proposal) because you can take $1,000 of the credit per year even if you pay no taxes. If you’re in the ‘middle class’ (making at least $74,900 and able to save $3,000 per year per child), a 529 plan gives you $5,800; the AOTC gives you $10,000 ($12,500 under Obama’s proposal). If you’re in the upper class, a 529 plan gives you $26,300; the AOTC gives you nothing. Do I even need to write the rest of this article?”

My editor took out that last sentence, but I liked it so much I’m putting it back here. (Those number are based on some basic scenarios I described in the article.)

Every politician likes to say that he is in favor of simplifying the tax code, eliminating tax breaks for people who don’t need them, and helping the middle class. Only it just isn’t true.

Shareholders, Managers, and Capitalism

By James Kwak

This morning I posted an article over at Medium about the question—raised again by Goldman analysts earlier this month—of whether JPMorgan should be broken up. The answer is obviously yes. The interesting thing is that this is not a socialist-vs.-capitalist, academic-vs.-manager, regulator-vs.-businessman sort of argument. It’s a shareholder-vs.-manager issue, and the shareholders are wondering why Jamie Dimon insists on defending an empire that is best known for crime and ineptitude.

Earlier this month I wrote another Medium article about whether or not directors have a so-called fiduciary duty to maximize profits. The answer is no. They can do pretty much whatever they want, as long as they have enough sense to come up with some sort of plausible justification for whatever else it is that they want to do. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is a closer question, and it depends on whether you view directors as protectors of great institutions against rapacious fund managers, or whether you see them as cronies who are too willing to cater to their golf-club buddies in the executive suites.

Insider Trading and the Art Bubble

By James Kwak

I recently wrote two more articles for the Bull Market collection at Medium. The first was my explanation of the Second Circuit’s decision in United States v. Newman and Chiasson, which said that insider trading is only a crime if the original tipper gained a personal benefit from leaking confidential information, and if the eventual trader knew of that personal benefit. If you don’t like this outcome, the original problem is a poorly written Supreme Court opinion (isn’t that redundant?) from the 1980s, Dirks v. SEC.

The second article was a response to a column by James Stewart and a post by Felix Salmon about soaring prices in the art market—which, almost by definition, constitute a bubble.

Law School and Radio

By James Kwak

This week I posted two things on Medium. The first was a commentary on changes in the markets for law students and lawyers. In short, if you are thinking of going to law school, the case is significantly stronger than it was four years ago. Whether it’s strong enough to pull the trigger depends on too many factors for me to say anything about your particular situation.

The second was about Serial, the new podcast from the This American Life people. Longtime blog readers know that I love love love TAL. I was really looking forward to Serial, and it had its moments. But I finally gave up on it when it framed one too many unreliable recollections with pregnant pauses and ominous music. I just don’t think there’s enough there there, at least not for me.

Obamacare, Taxes, United Airlines, and My Tea Infuser

By James Kwak

Over at Medium, I just posted a new article about the Jonathan Gruber-Obamacare “scandal.” Republicans are highlighting Gruber’s remarks as proof that the individual mandate really is a tax, and that the administration hid that fact in order to put one over on the public. But this whole argument flows from a faulty premise: that whether something is a tax or not is a question that has a knowable answer.

Last week I wrote a post complaining about my dismal experiences on United Airlines, which I chalk up to two things. The first is miserable computer systems. (It’s remarkable when you can see a computer system failing, and you know exactly what’s going wrong.) The second is the oligopolistic/near-monopolistic structure of the industry, especially when combined with a do-nothing Antitrust Division over at DOJ. It’s not just me: Tim Wu thinks so, too.

Finally, before that I wrote a post about Amazon’s extraordinary dominance in online retailing of physical goods. Who cares if no one will buy your phone when people are happy using other people’s phones to buy toilet paper and diapers from you?

Enjoy.

No, You Can’t Get a Drink at 5 AM

By James Kwak

I’m in the United Club at SFO waiting for a flight, and the bar is closed until 8. So much for business travel.

I just published a post over at Medium that is really about two things: how both airline marketers and on-campus recruiters perpetuate the idea that air travel is glamorous, even when all of us know that it isn’t. It’s sort of a sequel to one of my favorite posts of those I’ve written, “Why Do Harvard Kids Head to Wall Street?” which I think is the one Paul Tough mentioned in his book about grit. Now that it’s recruiting season in the Ivy League, I thought it might be useful.

Also, last week I wrote a post about the HP breakup and what it implies about corporate management.