Tag Archives: politics

More Pseudo-Contrarianism

By James Kwak

I accidentally glanced at the link to David Brooks’s recent column and—oh my god, is it stupid. You may want to stop reading right here to avoid being exposed to it.

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More on Wasting Shareholders’ Money

By James Kwak

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about my most recent “academic” paper, on the issue of whether corporate political contributions might constitute a breach of insiders’ fiduciary duty toward shareholders. The thrust of that paper was that some political contributions could be contested as breaches of the duty of loyalty—for example, if a CEO causes the corporation to give money to a candidate who promises to lower the CEO’s individual income taxes—which would result in the courts applying a higher standard of review.

Joseph Leahy, another law professor, recently directed me to a paper that he wrote last year (but is still being edited for publication in the Missouri Law Review) on basically the same topic. He argues first that corporate political contributions do not qualify as “waste” (which has a precise legal definition), barring the kind of extreme facts that you only see in law school hypotheticals. I agree with that, although my only discussion of the point was in a footnote (79).

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It Keeps Getting Better

By James Kwak

Remember when Steve Schwarzman said that taxing carried interest was “like when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939″? Or when Lloyd Blankfein said he was doing “God’s work”? Apparently, titans of finance can’t stop themselves from giving good copy. The latest is in Max Abelson’s Bloomberg article in Bloomberg on Wall Street’s search for a Republican presidential candidate who will wave their flag: low individual taxes and a rollback of financial regulation. John Taft, U.S. CEO of RBC Wealth Management, “likened his fear for the country to ‘hiding under my desk during air-raid drills because of the Cuban missile crisis,’ when ‘literally the future of humanity hung in the balance,’” before beginning a suggestion, “If I were God.”

More seriously, the financial sector expects to be able to choose the next Republican presidential nominee. In the words of one political strategist, with Chris Christie on the rocks, “The establishment is now looking for another favorite. . . . And by the establishment, I mean Wall Street.” At the moment, the big money is desperate enough to be looking at fringe candidates like Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio (although what they most long for is the third coming of Bush). Basically, there are huge piles of cash looking for a friendly political home, and the level of hysteria is likely to surpass what we saw in 2012. We should at least get some entertaining quotes out of it.

Posturing from Weakness

By James Kwak

President Obama’s 2015 budget proposes a number of tax increases that will mainly affect the rich. They include:

  • Limiting the tax savings on deductions to 28 percent of the deduction amount (and applying this limit to exclusions as well, such as the one for employer-provided health benefits)
  • Requiring a minimum 30% income tax on income less charitable contributions, which is intended to limit the benefit of tax preferences on capital gains and qualified dividends
  • Reducing the estate tax exemption from $5.34 million to $3.5 million and raising the estate tax rate from 40% to 45%
  • Eliminating tax preferences for retirement accounts once someone’s account balance is enough to fund a $200,000 annuity in retirement (simplifying slightly)

These are all good things, given the size of the projected national debt and the urgent needs elsewhere in society. But, of course, they have no chance of actually happening.

If President Obama really wanted these outcomes, there was a way to get them. He could have let the Bush tax cuts expire for good a year ago, making high taxes on the rich a reality. Then, a year later, he could have proposed a middle-class tax cut and dared the Republicans to block it in an election year. (He could also have traded a reduction in the top marginal rate—from the 39.6% that would have resulted, not counting the 3.8% Medicare tax—for the reforms he is now proposing.)

But no. Instead, he locked in low marginal rates, including low rates on dividends, that cannot be budged so long as Republicans have 41 votes in the Senate. And today he’s left waving a “roadmap” that has no chance of becoming reality.

Politics: Another Way To Waste Shareholder Money

By James Kwak

I don’t often go to academic conferences. My general opinion is that at their best, sitting in a windowless room all day listening to people talk about their papers is mildly boring—even when the papers themselves are good. And it takes a lot to justify my spending a night away from my family.

Despite that, a little over a year ago I attended a conference at George Washington University on The Political Economy of Financial Regulation. I went partly because my school’s Insurance Law Center was one of the organizers, partly because there was a star-studded lineup (Staney Sporkin, Frank Partnoy, Michael Barr, Anat Admati, Robert Jenkins, Robert Frank, Joe Stiglitz (who ended up not showing), James Cox, and others, not to mention Simon), and partly because I have friends in family in DC whom I could see. It was one of the best conferences I’ve been to, both for the quality of the ideas and the relatively non-soporific nature of the proceedings.

Many of the papers and presentations from the conference are now available in an issue of the North Carolina Banking Institute Journal (not yet on their website), which should be of interest to financial regulation junkies. My own modest contribution was a paper on the issue of corporate political activity. (In a moment of unwarranted self-confidence, I told one of the organizers I could be on any of three different panels, and they put me on the panel on “political accountability, campaign finance, and regulatory reform.”)

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A Few Quick Thoughts

By James Kwak

It pains me to see so much blogging fodder passing before my eyes and not have any time to do it justice. But here are a few thoughts:

  • Why does anyone think that anyone cares about what a rating agency has to say about Treasury debt? Credit ratings matter for obscure companies because they represent new information that is not otherwise available to investors. In the case of the U.S. Treasury, all the information you need to know is plastered across the front page of the world’s newspapers, all the time. Your not going to change your opinion because of something that Fitch says.
  • Since the debt ceiling mess started heating up, the yield on the one-month T-bill has increased from about 2 basis points (the rough average for September) to 32 bp. It makes sense to me that, if you absolutely have to get your cash back on October 31, it might make sense to be nervous about a bill coming due on that day. But otherwise, there is no chance that you won’t get your principal back. Does anyone think that the government won’t get its borrowing authority back one of these days or months? And does anyone think the Treasury won’t go back and redeem all the bills that came due during the hiatus? Which is why I’m not particularly worried about my holdings of the Vanguard Short-Term Treasury fund.
  • I am probably one of the few liberals who don’t think the Tea Party caucus is engaged in irresponsible hostage-taking. Sure, I disagree with their policy objectives, and they are risking economic catastrophe by trying to force the government into default. But they are also fighting for a principle, misguided as it may be: Obamacare is evil, and should be stopped. The debt ceiling is an absurdity that should not exist. But since it does exist, it is leverage that conservatives can use to try to achieve their policy goals. The problem is that the debt ceiling exists; given its existence, you can’t blame people for using it for their ends. It’s like the filibuster: you can say that the 60-vote requirement is bad, but you can’t blame people for taking advantage of it. As Norman Ornstein said (quoted in White House Burning, p. 103), “If you hold one-half of one-third of the reins of power in Washington, and are willing to use and maintain that kind of discipline even if you will bring the entire temple down around your head, there is a pretty good chance that you are going to get your way.”
  • Warning: If we get through this crisis alive, it’s because there are just enough Republicans who are just moderate enough to get sixty votes in the Senate, and John Boehner is enough of a realist (or a coward) that he doesn’t want to be known as the man who single-handedly caused a default (by refusing to let a compromise bill come to the floor). One more round of Tea Party elections, and Eric Cantor or Paul Ryan as speaker, and all bets are off.

 

The Wall Street Takeover, Part 2

By James Kwak

Five years later, and things seem marginally better in some areas (the CFPB exists), significantly worse in others (LIBOR, money laundering, London Whale, etc.). There has been some debate recently about whether we have a safer financial system today than before Lehman collapsed. But the fundamental issue, as Simon and I discussed in 13 Bankers, is whether our political system will put the interests of society at large ahead of the interests of large financial institutions. On that score, there is little to be encouraged about.

In 2002, Art Wilmarth wrote a mammoth (262 pages) article titled “The Transformation of the U.S. Financial Services Industry, 1975–2000.” In that article, he identified many of the key trends in the financial sector—consolidation, deregulation, breakdown of Glass-Steagall, complex products, increased risk-taking—that would not only produce a financial crisis but make it so destabilizing for the economy later in the decade. Now he has written a shorter (164 pages) article, “Turning a Blind Eye: Why Washington Keeps Giving into Wall Street,” on the key question: why our government doesn’t do anything about it, even after the financial crisis.

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Wealth Taxes? Don’t Hold Your Breath

By James Kwak

Tyler Cowen thinks that we are entering an age of debates over wealth taxes. If only.

It’s true, as Cowen notes, that national debt everywhere is a relatively small fraction of national wealth and that, therefore, “fiscal problems are best regarded as problems of dysfunctional governance.” One of our central arguments in White House Burning was that the United States obviously, easily has the ability to pay down the national debt, and how it will do so is basically a distributional issue.

Even if wealth taxes make sense, that doesn’t mean they will happen. Cowen claims that “Like the bank robber Willie Sutton, revenue-hungry governments go ‘where the money is.’” But all that is cleverly phrased is not true. Consider this chart from White House Burning:

Screen shot 2013-07-24 at 1.30.09 PM

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The Costs of “Good” Economics

By James Kwak

If there is a central argument to 13 Bankers, it is that politics matters. The financial crisis was the result of a long-term transformation of the financial sector and its place in the overall economy, and that transformation occurred because of—and contributed to—a shift in the political balance of power.

Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, authors of Why Nations Fail, take up this theme on a much broader scale in their recent article in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, “Economics Versus Politics: Pitfalls of Policy Advice,” burnishing their reputations as two of the most subversive thinkers around. People have always known that economics and politics are related: that economic power produces political power and that political institutions constrain economic policy choices. Still, however, at least for the past several decades, the universal assumption has been that good economic policy is always good policy, full stop: for example, that it is always good to eliminate market failures.

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It’s Not That Complicated

By James Kwak

Of course the tax bill couldn’t have passed today, even if the two sides reached a compromise. Today it would have been a tax “increase.” Tomorrow it will be a tax “cut.” As my daughter would say, “Duh.”

Grover Norquist’s Taxpayer Protection Pledge will remain technically inviolate, which was not terribly hard to predict. And it will have done its most important work: making a small and obvious policy change—allowing moderately higher taxes for the rich—seem like an enormous, gut-wrenching concession by Republicans.

See you next year!

Rewriting History

By James Kwak

This morning Matt Yglesias wrote a post arguing that the December 2010 tax cut was an Obama victory. By the time this evening that I finally found time to figure out what annoyed me about it, I had to go to the second page of his blog to find it, since he had posted so much in the interim. That man sure can write.

I’m not so sure about his memory, though. Yglesias says Obama won because he got the (Bush) middle-class tax cuts extended along with some other goodies like a payroll tax cut and extended unemployment benefits, and all he had to give up was an extension of the (Bush) upper-income tax cuts. The reason people think it was not a good deal, he says, was that “to get a favorable deal Obama had to downplay the extent to which he hadn’t given anything up.”

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Grover Still Matters

By James Kwak

Last week I wrote a post arguing that Grover Norquist’s Taxpayer Protection Pledge is alive and well and still a binding constraint on Republican lawmakers. The media continue to push the story of Republicans renouncing the pledge, however, and who knows, I could turn out to be wrong. Maybe some Republicans will vote to reduce deductions without a compensating reduction in marginal rates.

Even in that world, however, the pledge will still have a major impact. All this focus on the pledge makes it seem as if the few apostates—Peter King, Lindsey Graham, etc.—are making some enormous, admirable stand on principle. In fact, all they are saying is that they might be willing to close a few loopholes and keep tax rates where George W. Bush left them; they are still adamantly opposed to increases in tax rates (even though those increases, set to take effect on January 1, are the result of Bush’s choosing to use reconciliation to pass his tax cuts).

The specter of the pledge has allowed them to dress up a tiny concession—conservatives should want to get rid of distortions anyway, since they distort economic choices—as a major move to the center. In return for breaking the pledge, they can demand that Democrats agree to major changes to entitlement programs.

The tactical beauty of the pledge is that it credibly committed the Republican Party to never increase taxes, thereby forcing Democrats to meet them not in the middle, but all the way over on their side. (See the tax compromise of December 2010 and the debt ceiling compromise of August 2011, for example.) Even if a few signatories break free, it will still have much the same effect.

Maybe Nate Silver Was Wrong

By James Kwak

I think Nate Silver does a good job aggregating polls to make meaningful quantitative predictions about upcoming elections. But as he said himself shortly before the election, if the polls he relies on are systematically biased, then his forecasts are going to be off.* Many people have noted that Silver (and other quantitative poll aggregators like Sam Wang) correctly predicted an Obama victory and the outcomes in most if not all states.

But the fact remains that Obama did modestly better than the polls, and hence the poll aggregators, expected (not to mention than the Romney campaign expected). We shouldn’t read too much into this, as even where Obama significantly overperformed—like in Iowa, where Silver forecast a 3.2 percentage point victory and the actual came in at 5.7 points—the results were within the confidence intervals. But it’s also possible that the polls really were systematically biased, only they were biased against Obama—not against Romney, as conservative pundits were claiming in the last days.

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Some Things Don’t Change

By James Kwak

Which of these things doesn’t belong? John Boehner: “The year 2013 should be the year we begin to solve our country’s debt problem through entitlement reform and a new tax code with fewer loopholes and lower rates.”

Can you imagine Bill Belichick (or any other football coach) saying, “This should be the year we win more games by giving up fewer yards on defense and improving our offense by reducing turnovers and gaining fewer yards per play”?

As long as Republicans persist in claiming to believe that lower tax rates will reduce deficits, nothing in Washington will change. Given their ability to deny both climate change and evolution, denying simple budgetary arithmetic is trivially easy.

And a Few Thoughts About the Election

By James Kwak

Just about everything has been said already, but:

  • There was a lot of talk, and rightly so, about Barack Obama’s overwhelming victory among Latinos. There was little talk about Obama’s even more overwhelming victory among Asian-Americans, who are the fastest-growing demographic group in the country. For decades people have said that Asian-Americans are a natural Republican constituency. But they said that about Latinos, too.
  • In the broad sweep of history, it will be hard to see 2012 as a turning point, given its endorsement of the status quo. With one exception: it was the night that gay rights broke through. Besides Tammy Baldwin, besides victory in all four states (Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Washington), there was the roar of applause when Barack Obama said “gay or straight,” and even the Republican commentators talking about how their party had to get on the right side of the issue.
  • Last night, when the outcome was clear, David Brooks said that if Obama reached across the aisle, he could gain the support of 15 to 20 Republican senators—proving that he can smoothly transition from being unable to interpret polls to being unable to interpret election results.
  • Amid all the gratifying things about election night (with Elizabeth Warren at the top of the list), here are  few more: “Joe” the “Plumber” losing, the replacement of Joe Lieberman, Karl Rove and Donald Trump displaying their craziness.
  • And, of course, the final word must go to xkcd. Go math!