Category Archives: Op-ed

Non-Lessons of the Financial Crisis

By James Kwak

As the fifth anniversary of the Lehman bankruptcy approaches, the Internet is filling up with reflections on the financial crisis and the ensuing years. My main feeling, as expressed in my latest Atlantic column, is amazement at how little we seem to have learned. Looking back, the period in late 2008 and early 2009, when it was obvious that the financial sector would have to change in important, structural ways, now seems like a naïve, youthful delusion. Sure, there are some new rules around the margins, but for the most part little has changed—not just in the financial sector itself, but more importantly in the political and ideological landscape that shapes regulatory policy.

Of course, this isn’t simply the product of collective amnesia. It’s the result of the fact that ideas are shaped by money and political power. And that’s where little has changed.

Yet Another Proposal To Raise My Own Taxes

By James Kwak

In chapter 7 of White House Burning, we proposed to eliminate or scale back a number of tax breaks that I benefit from directly, including the employer health care exclusion, the deduction for charitable contributions, and, most importantly, tax preferences for investment income. We did not, however, go after tax breaks for retirement savings, on the grounds that Americans already don’t save enough for retirement.

Well, in my latest Atlantic column, I’m going after that one, too. I changed my mind in part for the usual reason—the dollar value of tax expenditures is heavily skewed toward the rich. But the other reason is that the evidence indicates that this particular subsidy doesn’t even do what it’s supposed to do: increase retirement savings. Instead, we should take at least some of the money we currently waste on tax preferences for 401(k)s and IRAs and use to shore up Social Security, the one part of the retirement “system” that actually works for ordinary Americans.

Of course, this isn’t going to happen anytime soon. President Obama proposed capping tax-advantaged retirement accounts at $3.4 million, which is a step in the right direction. ($150,000 would be a better limit, since most people reach retirement with far less in their 401(k) accounts.)* But even that was attacked by the asset management industry as theft from the elderly.

* Yes, I know about the issue of small business owners who only set up accounts for their employees because they want to benefit from them themselves. It’s a red herring. First, if an employer doesn’t have a 401(k), employees can contribute $5,000 to an IRA—and $5,000 is a lot more than most middle-income, small business employees are currently contributing. Second, the right solution would be to default everyone into a retirement savings account instead of relying on employers to decide whether or not to set up 401(k) plans.

Incentive Effects of Higher Wages

By James Kwak

My Atlantic column this week is on a familiar theme: why don’t Barack Obama and Democrats provide an clear alternative vision to the Romney-Ryan state of nature, instead of slowly stumbling along in the Republicans’ wake? But it also brings up a question that I haven’t seen before.

The theoretical argument against higher tax rates is that it reduces the incentive to work because it changes the terms of the tradeoff between labor and leisure. That is, higher taxes reduce your effective returns from labor, while your returns from leisure remain constant, so you will substitute leisure for labor.

In the long term, however, real wages tend to go up; even in the past three decades, which have generally been bad for labor (and good for capital), they’ve gone up by about 11 percent. If tax rates remain constant, that should increase the effective returns to labor, causing people to substitute labor for leisure (i.e., work more). Put another way, you could increase tax rates and keep the tradeoff between labor and leisure constant.

I generally don’t buy these pure theoretical arguments, but my point is that if you believe that higher taxes reduce labor supply through the substitution effect, then you should acknowledge that the effect of higher taxes could be swamped by growth in real wages.

Why Raise Taxes on Poor People?

By James Kwak

My Atlantic column today is on the bizarre fixation that some conservatives have with taxing poor people, pointed out by Bruce Bartlett in his latest column. Here’s one explanation:

The other, even-more-disturbing explanation, is that Republicans see the rich as worthy members of society (the “producers”) and the poor as a drain on society (the “takers”). In this warped moral universe, it isn’t enough that someone with a gross income of $10 million takes home $8.1 million while someone with a gross income of $20,000 takes home $19,000. That’s called “punishing success,” so we should really increase taxes on the poor person so we can “reward success” by letting the rich person take home even more. This is why today’s conservatives have gone beyond the typical libertarian and supply-side arguments for lower taxes on the rich, and the campaign to transfer wealth from the poor to the rich has taken on such self-righteous tones.

Also, in some housekeeping news, I’ve switched to a personal Twitter account, @JamesYKwak. My blog posts should generate tweets in that account; Simon’s should generate tweets in the old account, @baselinescene. I’ll try to aggregate all the stuff I write in various places in my new Twitter stream.

The Baseline Scenario Facebook page should be aggregating both of our Twitter streams, but I had a little difficulty with it on Monday, so who knows. It seems like Facebook changes the way everything works every other Tuesday, so you never know when something will break.

What Do Companies Do with Their Political Spending?

By James Kwak

Whatever they’re doing, it doesn’t seem to be good for shareholders. That’s one conclusion of a new paper by John Coates, a Harvard law professor, which I discuss in today’s Atlantic column (which originally misdated the Citizens United decision, thanks to some faulty proof-reading by me). Coates compares firm valuations with levels of lobbying and contributions by corporate PACs and finds that, outside of heavily regulated industries where everyone lobbies heavily, political activity is associated with lower firm value—implying that it’s more like a CEO perk than like a good investment from the shareholder perspective.

Can We Afford Medicare?

By James Kwak

The conventional wisdom, repeated endlessly by the so-called serious people, is that we can’t afford traditional Medicare and hence it has to be radically overhauled (see Ryan-Wyden for the latest round). But I’ve never seen a convincing argument for why we can’t afford traditional Medicare. Yes, costs are rising as a share of GDP. But in principle, to make the case that we have to reform the program, you would have to argue that revenues can’t rise enough to keep pace—which in most cases, just shows that you don’t want revenues to rise enough.

More specifically, you have to know how big the Medicare deficit is and how fast it is rising. By my calculations, relying mainly on the 2011 Medicare Trustee’s report, the deficit was 1.7% of GDP in 2010 and will be 3.0% of GDP in 2040. So the argument that we can’t afford traditional Medicare relies on the proposition that this 1.3% of GDP is the straw that will break America’s fiscal back. Needless to say, this is nonsense, especially since other tax revenues not related to Medicare will be rising over the same time period, at least under current law. For all the details and sources, see my latest Atlantic column.

Medicare has its problems. But we have choices.

What Good Is the SEC?

By James Kwak

This week’s Atlantic column is my somewhat belated response to Judge Jed Rakoff’s latest SEC takedown, this time rejecting a proposed settlement with Citigroup over a CDO-squared that the bank’s structuring desk created solely so that its trading desk could short it. I think Rakoff has identified the heart of the issue (the SEC’s settlements are unlikely to change bank behavior, so what’s the point?) but he’s really pointing to a problem that someone else is going to have to fix: we need either a stronger SEC or stronger laws. I’d like to see an aggressive, powerful SEC that can deter banks from breaking the law, but we don’t have one now.