I would have you understand that I am all for recycling. Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without--it was sound advice during World War II, and it still is today. Still, despite my committment to sustainable blogging, I was not pleased to see the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reissue the graph I blogged about last year in virtually the same form.
I didn't think much of this graph at the time, and I still don't. The effect of the graph is to make it seem as if we could, by simply refusing to extend the Bush tax cuts on high earners, cover virtually all of the Social Security shortfall that is going to be putting immense pressure on the budget deficit over the next century. But this is not the case.
The CBPP gets its figure by taking present values of the Bush upper income tax cuts extended over 75 years, and comparing them to the present value of the Social Security shortfall. For those who haven't taken finance classes, present values are sort of like compound interest, in reverse. Instead of adding up the future gains from interest rates, you discount future cash flows by a discount rate. Why do this? Mostly because of a financial truism: a dollar today is worth more than a dollar tomorrow: it's certain, not risky, and while you can only use a dollar tomorrow, erm, tomorrow, you can use today's dollar either immediately, or at any time in the future.
Present value is a very useful tool for comparing different investment projects. Say you have one investment project that gives you an immediate return, and one that will give you a much higher return eventually, but takes ten years to pay off--a present value calculation lets you assess which project is actually going to be worth more.
But present value has some drawbacks, too. Our contractor was over last night trying to shore up some joists in our basement that were inappropriately cut to run electric wire, and I mentioned to him that I was working on this post. He thought for a minute, and then summed it up perfectly: "It seems to me that you've got two main problems here: liquidity constraint, and an inappropriate discount rate." Just so. Let me see if I can unpack that a little.
Because it discounts future dollars, often quite heavily, cash flows which happen beyond 10-20 years out virtually disappear. In this case, I assume that the CBPP used the same 5.25% discount rate that it used last year. Just to illustrate what the effect of that discount rate is, if you had a guaranteed $100 payment every year for the next 75 years, discounted at 5.25%, the present value of that cash flow would be $1864, versus the $7500 you get from just adding them all together. Over half of that present value comes from the first 14 years of the 75-year period. By twenty years out, that $100 is only worth $35 a year to you.
Now let's assume that someone comes along and offers me a deal: I can buy that guaranteed $100 cash flow, worth $1864, by taking out a loan. That loan has no interest payments for the first 30 years, and then I have to pay back $400 a year from year 30 to year 75. Should I do it?
Present value would say yes! The present value of those future $400 payments is only $1563, much less than the present value of my $100 annual payments that start now. But obviously, I am going to have trouble in year 30 covering my $400 payment with the $100 I am taking in every year.
The difference could be made up in savings; if I could save all my $100 payments at a guaranteed interest rate of 5.25%, then by year 30, the interest on my savings would be $382; using a combination of interest and slow withdrawals, I could pay off the loan and still have $4500 in the bank.
But the government does not borrow and save like normal people--its constraints are different. The closest it can come to saving is to pay off debt. And our debt is not yielding 5.25% right now; our highest-yielding debt is paying 4.375%, which the government is trying to sell more of, not pay off, in order to lengthen the average time-to-maturity of the debt held by the public, which lowers the risks to the Treasury of a sudden interest rate spike.
The average interest rate on debt held by the public is around 3% right now; it hasn't been as high as 3.75% since April 2009.
Now, you might say that this is not an ordinary time, and that when we pay off our debt in the future, we will get a better "return" on our savings. But remember that discount rate: it means that the immediate future is what gives you the most bang for your buck. And we've only got nine years of "savings" before the Social Security shortfall becomes larger than the cost of the Bush tax cuts, as this graph from the invaluable Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget points out:
We're not going to let the Bush tax cuts expire until 2012 at this point, which gives us 2013-9 to save by paying off debt. Let's say that you think that interest rates are going to bounce back to the 4.96 we paid in July of 2007, and we will use all of the money gained from repeal to pay down debt. By my extremely generous estimates (adding in my best estimate of other tax provisions that primarily benefit the rich, and which CBPP claims were not included in the Congressional Budget Office's $700 billion 10-year price tag for the repeal of the high-income tax cuts), by the end of the seven year period we might pay off as much as $600 billion dollars worth of debt. That's not nothing! Which is why we should never have extended the Bush tax cuts for anyone.
But at 5% average interest rates, we'd be saving less than $30 billion a year in interest. Add that to the $80 billion or so the high-income tax cuts will cost us in 2020 and you get $110 billion a year, or about 0.48% of GDP by my calculations. But in 2020, as you can see from the graph, the Social Security shortfall is 0.51% of GDP. By 2025 it hits around 1% of GDP.
Maybe you think interest rates will jump even further? It's certainly possible. But if you think this, then I assume you aren't among the people making fun of the invisible bond vigilantes, or demanding that we borrow more money for stimulus. Assuming that inflation is not going to suddenly zoom to 5% without Ben Bernanke noticing (or reacting), if you think that interest rates are going to hit 7% in 2013, that means you think that the bond market is going to freak out and raise our real interest rates by hundreds of basis points. Given that the average maturity of our debt is currently less than five years, that means we're going to have to roll over a bunch of debt paying less than 3% for a bunch of debt paying more than 7% . . . which to my ears is the same as shrieking "We're screwed!"
Last year I caught a lot of flak for pointing out that most of the heavy lifting was being done by the discounting, and that if you just looked at the cash flows, there wasn't any good way to pay for Social Security over the next 75 years just by repealing the Bush tax cuts for the rich. But you can see this point illustrated in the CBPP's own graph. At right, you'll see their graph from last year. Notice anything different about it from the one above? I mean, other than the fact that they included the cost of all the Bush tax cuts, not just the ones for high earners?
That's right, last year the costs were equal. This year, the Social Security shortfall is almost 15% larger--0.8% of GDP rather than 0.7%. That's the effect of just one year of poor economic growth, and one year closer to the point where the lines cross on that CFRB graph. That alone tells you how much the timing differences in the cash flows are affecting their results, and why this is not a very useful chart.
There's another problem, one which the CFRB points out in its excellent post on the dangers of this comparison. Actually, they too have recycled--they pointed out exactly the same thing last year when the CBPP debuted the graph. Which is that the CBPP's numbers are incredibly sensitive to initial assumptions about the growth rates in these two budget items.
That's not such a problem with Social Security, where the projections are among the most stable we can make. Demographic change is a slow moving disaster. To a first approximation, every single person who will be collecting benefits in 2030 is now living and working in the United States. And the benefits are tied to the taxes that are paid, which means that unless you think we're going to get a giant burst of immigration, the deficit isn't going to widen or narrow overmuch. Furthermore, the benefits are indexed to wages, which means, broadly, to productivity and GDP growth, so there aren't going to be huge upside or downside surprises.
The estimates of the cost of the Bush tax cuts, however, are extraordinarily sensitive to initial assumptions:, as they pointed out last year:
Essentially, CBPP assumes that the growth rates in revenue loss from 2017 through 2020 will continue forever. Over time, the compounding effects of these growth rates are significant -- increasing the value of the cuts to about 1.1 percent of GDP by 2080. Yet tiny changes in some of the numbers they use can drastically alter this number.
For example, they estimate that the tax cuts will cost $99 billion in 2017 and $120 billion in 2020 based off of a combination of Treasury and TPC estimates. We used some TPC tables to estimates these numbers at $102 billion in 2017 and the same $120 billion in 2020. When we tried to roughly apply their methodology using our $102 billion instead of their $99 billion (in other words, a nominal growth rate of about 5.6% instead of 6%) we found that the shortfall only reaches about 0.65 percent of GDP rather than 1.1 percent.
This is not to say that our $102 billion is right and their $99 billion is wrong - both are plausible and surely both will be wrong. The point is that tiny changes in these numbers cause wild swings in the ultimate cash flow results. (Though the magnitude of the present value cost wouldn't swing nearly as much - under the scenario we presented, the present value of the upper-income cuts would be between 0.5 and 0.6 percent of GDP rather than 0.7 percent).
We also tried projecting forward two other ways: assuming that the upper income tax cuts remained a fixed proportion of total revenue under CBO's extended baseline scenario and assuming bracket creep for the upper-income cuts in line with the total bracket creep we estimate in our CRFB baseline.
Here are the results:
The CBPP is entirely right to point out that the Bush tax cuts were extremely costly. Given our parlous fiscal condition, we cannot afford to extend them--we couldn't in 2010, either, but we did it anyway, and that's water under the bridge. Come 2012, they need to expire. But this is what the CBO says our budget looks like if the Bush tax cuts for high earners expire, but the rest of the budget is business-as-usual: "fixing" the AMT and Medicare doctor reimbursement rates, easing the cutbacks made by ObamaCare, and otherwise acting the way we've acted for the last decade:
This is obviously not sustainable. And much of it is simply driven by the growing ratio of retirees to workers, requiring ever-more Social Security and Medicare dollars to sustain them.
That's why I think it's a terrible idea to juxtapose the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy and Social Security in a graph that implies that the costs are roughly the same size. Not just because they're not really equivalent--but because we don't have that money to spend. We're already assuming that we let those tax cuts go in 2012, and the budget picture is still a disaster.
Easing the budget pressure from Social Security is going to require finding new revenue, or new cuts to existing programs--we can't solve the shortfall with revenues we've already spent, any more than you can pay the mortgage with the check you sent to the electric company last week. And those revenues and cuts will have to be large. It is not helpful to imply otherwise. The American public is already unwilling to confront the actual costs of the programs it has. They don't need any more encouragement to push their heads ever deeper into the sand.
Donald Trump flaunted his elastic conception of truth in an interview with Time—but he may yet learn that facts are stubborn things.
How can anyone convince the most powerful man in the world of something he does not wish to believe?
It’s not an idle question. In a remarkable interview with Time’s Michael Scherer, President Trump flaunted his elastic relationship with truth. Instead of weighing evidence, he explained, he prefers to trust his gut. “I’m a very instinctual person,” he said, “but my instinct turns out to be right.”
Trump unrepentantly rehearsed his litany of false or unsubstantiated claims with Scherer. Was Ted Cruz’s father linked to Lee Harvey Oswald? “Why do you say that I have to apologize? I’m just quoting the newspaper.” (The newspaper in question is the National Enquirer.) Had the president tapped his phones? “A lot of information has just been learned, and a lot of information may be learned over the next coming period of time. We will see what happens.” Were there 3 million fraudulent votes cast in 2016? “Well I think I will be proved right about that too.”
The commander in chief embraces a peculiar worldview in which bogus claims are retroactively justified and evidence simply conjured into existence.
President Trump remains peculiarly fixated on the cover of Time magazine. He has claimed in the past that he holds the record for most covers, but in an interview with Michael Scherer for this week’s magazine, the president asked if he was the all-time leader. Scherer had to break the bad news to him: Richard M. Nixon still held the lead—though he added, “He was in office for longer, so give yourself time.” “Ok, good. I’m sure I’ll win,” Trump replied.
The exchange is full of intrigue. Neither man noted that though Nixon was elected to two terms, his presidency was foreshortened by paranoia and lawbreaking. Nor did they note the increasingly frequent comparisons between Nixon’s terminal scandal and Trump’s own difficulties. But in the course of an interview about Trump’s extremely distant relationship with the truth—from obvious lies to head-scratching speculation—the president offered Nixonian maxim of his own.
Two Princeton economists elaborate on their work exploring rising mortality rates among certain demographics.
Two years ago, the Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton published an alarming revelation: Middle-aged white Americans without a college degree were dying in greater numbers, even as people in other developed countries were living longer. The husband-and-wife team argued, in a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, that these white Americans are facing“deaths of despair”—suicide, overdoses from alcohol and drug, and alcohol-related liver disease.
The paper caused a stir in academic circles and in the media, and has remained in the public discourse following Donald Trump’s win partly on the strength of his support from these same middle-aged white Americans (the alive ones, to be clear). The paper, however, couldn’t answer the question everyone had: Why was this demographic in particular struggling? It couldn’t be purely the economic pain they faced in the wake of globalization; after all, European countries are also affected by globalization, and their residents are getting healthier and living longer. And non-whites in the U.S. are living longer than they used to as well, and they are subject to the same economic forces as middle-age whites and are struggling, at least in economic terms, even more.
Hours before the vote, President Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan are in search of a deal with conservatives to salvage a faltering plan.
Updated on March 23 at 2:13 p.m. ET
House Republicans on Thursday plan to mark the seventh anniversary of the signing of the Affordable Care Act by voting to dismantle the law and reshape the American health-care system.
Well, that’s the plan, at least.
Hours before the scheduled evening roll call, neither party leaders nor rank-and-file lawmakers know exactly what they’ll be voting on. They haven’t posted the final text of the American Health Care Act, they don’t have an updated projection of how it will impact the deficit or the millions of people currently insured under Obamacare, and they haven’t agreed to the rules governing a House debate.
But most ominously for President Trump and Speaker Paul Ryan, Republicans don’t appear to have the votes to pass whatever they put on the floor.
New research on the creatures’ family tree could “shake dinosaur paleontology to its core.”
When I first read Matthew Baron’s new dinosaur study, I actually gasped.
For most of my life, I’ve believed that the dinosaurs fell into two major groups: the lizard-hipped saurischians, which included the meat-eating theropods like Tyrannosaurus and long-necked sauropodomorphs like BrontosaurusYes, Brontosaurus. It’s a thing again. ; and the bird-hipped ornithischians, which included horned species like Triceratops and armored ones like Stegosaurus. That’s how dinosaurs have been divided since 1887. It’s what I learned as a kid. It’s what all the textbooks and museums have always said. And according to Baron, a Ph.D. student at the University of Cambridge, it’s wrong.
By thoroughly comparing 74 early dinosaurs and their relatives, Baron has radically redrawn the two major branches of the dinosaur family tree. Defying 130 years of accepted dogma, he splits the saurischians apart, leaving the sauropods in one branch, and placing the theropods with the ornthischians on the other. Put it this way: This is like someone telling you that neither cats nor dogs are what you thought they were, and some of the animals you call “cats” are actually dogs.
Trump promised to revitalize the blighted heartland. His policies will punish them.
President Donald Trump might be consumed by half-truths and conspiracy theories, but during the campaign he brought attention to a very real phenomenon: regional inequality. He promised not only a proper swamp-draining in Washington, D.C., but also a renaissance for the Rust Belt, Appalachia, and America’s blighted heartland.
Even when his prognoses were fantasies—neither trade wars nor border walls will ever bring back 1950s-level manufacturing employment—the underlying diagnosis was pretty much right. For much of the 20th century, productivity in America’s poorest regions actually grew faster than in rich metros. But decades of convergence have come to a screeching halt in the 2000s. Rich coastal cities have left the rest of the country behind. In 1980, the typical New York City worker earned 80 percent more than the national average. By 2013, he earned 172 percent more.
Tech companies are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to improve conditions for female employees. Here’s why not much has changed—and what might actually work.
One weekday morning in 2007, Bethanye Blount came into work early to interview a job applicant. A veteran software engineer then in her 30s, Blount held a senior position at the company that runs Second Life, the online virtual world. Good-natured and self-confident, she typically wore the kind of outfit—jeans, hoodie, sneakers—that signals coding gravitas. That day, she might even have been wearing what’s known as the “full-in start-up twin set”: a Second Life T-shirt paired with a Second Life hoodie.
In short, everything about her indicated that she was a serious technical person. So she was taken aback when the job applicant barely gave her the time of day. He knew her job title. He knew she would play a key role in deciding whether he got hired. Yet every time Blount asked him a question about his skills or tried to steer the conversation to the scope of the job, he blew her off with a flippant comment. Afterward, Blount spoke to another top woman—a vice president—who said he’d treated her the same way.
Many experts have blamed a poor job market, but new research indicates that an overlooked cause may be poor health.
CHARLOTTE, North Carolina—John LaRue is having a tough time of it these days. He used to move things for people, advertising his services on Craigslist. But work slowed up, and he became homeless and started sleeping in his truck, until, that is, someone stole it.
Now, he told me, he’s fighting alcoholism and his health is deteriorating from living on the streets. I met LaRue at a Social Security office outside of Charlotte, where he was hiding his belongings in the bushes because he didn’t have anywhere to keep them and wasn’t allowed to bring them inside. “I feel like there’s a cloud over my head,” he told me. “It’s just been one thing after another.”
LaRue is one among many. In 1957, 97 percent of men in America ages 25 to 54 were either working or looking for work. Today, only 89 percent are. Italy is the only OECD country with a lower labor-force participation rate for men in their prime years. Just why there are so many men who aren’t working is a matter of debate. In a 2016 report, President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers examined the declining labor-force participation rate and suggested that a drop-off in good jobs for low-skilled men was part of the explanation. Wages, the report theorized, are so low for many jobs that don’t require a college education that men don’t find it worth it to seek out bad jobs. A lack of job training and job-search assistance—when compared to other OECD countries—makes it more difficult for men to move into more lucrative fields. And a surge in incarceration has made it more difficult for men to find work when they leave prison, according to the report.
The new Republican provision to allow states to deny health assistance for lacking employment will only make the program worse.
What are work requirements good for?
Stretching back to the establishment of welfare in the United States, politicians have debated both the practical and moral utility of requiring people to work in order to receive government benefits. Since welfare reform in the 1990s gave states wide latitude to create work requirements in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families cash-assistance program, Republicans have hankered for a chance to extend those requirements to other safety-net programs, as part of their push to “require everyone who can to work.”
The purpose of work requirements in welfare, according to the Congressional Research Service, is “to offset work disincentives in social assistance programs, promote a culture of work over dependency, and prioritize governmental resources,” in addition to helping lift people out of poverty.
The House intelligence committee chair, a Trump ally, muddied waters and gave comfort to the White House, but he provided no evidence of wrongdoing or support for Trump’s “wiretap” claims.
Updated on March 22 at 5:24 p.m.
In a head-spinning development on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, Representative Devin Nunes, the chair of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, revealed that … well, what Nunes revealed isn’t totally clear.
Nunes held a brief press conference Wednesday afternoon saying that “on numerous occasions the Intelligence Community incidentally collected information about U.S. citizens involved in the Trump transition.” But Nunes’s vague statements raised a host of questions, and his decision to announce them publicly and then go to the White House to brief President Trump, having not informed Democrats on the committee about his new findings, cast a pall of politics over the proceedings.