Archive for May, 2009

May 29 2009

Welker’s daily links 05/28/2009

  • Making the world’s knowledge computable

    Today’s Wolfram|Alpha is the first step in an ambitious, long-term project to make all systematic knowledge immediately computable by anyone. You enter your question or calculation, and Wolfram|Alpha uses its built-in algorithms and growing collection of data to compute the answer. Based on a new kind of knowledge-based computing… more »

    tags: economics

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.

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May 28 2009

Regressive or progressive taxes: Which road to follow towards fiscal discipline?

Once Considered Unthinkable, U.S. Sales Tax Gets Fresh Look – washingtonpost.com

Here in Switzerland I enjoy the luxury of having to pay a relatively small federal income tax of 9.6%. In the US, at my current income level, I would be paying a 25% federal income tax. On the other hand, everything I buy here in Switzerland, from food to clothes to train tickets and bike parts, costs me an additional 7.6% of value added tax. If a product is imported, chances are there is also an additional 20% import tariff. In other words, what I save coming in (because of the low direct tax) I lose going out (through high indirect taxes).

The incentive, therefore, is to save as much of my income as possible. I shop much less than I would in the US where indirect taxes are much lower, but when I do shop prices are much higher. Much of Switzerland’s government revenue comes from the value added tax and other indirect taxes, which means households keep much more of their earned income.

In the United States, where the government has not seen a balanced budget since 2001, there has been much talk about creating a national sales tax to help raise revenue to pay for many of the social plans that the Obama administration wants to pursue, such as national health care. VATs and sales taxes are regressive, which means more of the tax burden is born by low income households compared with high a direct, income tax, which is progressive, meaning the higher a household’s income, the greater percentage it pays. But with budget shortfalls expected to reach $4 trillion over the next four years, new sources of tax revenue are needed.

“Everybody who understands our long-term budget problems understands we’re going to need a new source of revenue, and a VAT is an obvious candidate,” said Leonard Burman, co-director of the Tax Policy Center, a joint project of the Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution, who testified on Capitol Hill this month about his own VAT plan. “It’s common to the rest of the world, and we don’t have it.”

The surge of interest in a VAT is testament to the extraordinary depth of the nation’s money troubles. While some conservatives have long argued that a consumption tax would provide a simpler and more efficient alternative to the byzantine U.S. income tax code, this time it’s all about the money.

To counter claims that a national sales tax is regressive, advocates point out that such a tax would allow the federal government to lower income tax rates for low income Americans, giving them more disposable income to spend on goods and services, which would be more expensive because of the VAT.

Another option the government should consider is a tax on greenhouse gas emissions. Currently, Obama is advocating a carbon permit market, which would be less effective at generating income for the government as permits, once they are issued or auctioned to industry, are bought and sold by firms, creating revenue for companies and not the government. A carbon tax, on the other hand, would create new tax revenue for the federal government and help reduce the negative externalities causing global warming and encourage development of alternative “green” methods of production.

In the short-term, it is unlikely that the US government will legislate any significant new taxes. Carbon taxes have been ignored by the Obama administration and Congress, under the argument that during a recession any new tax on industry might just break the nation’s manufacturing and energy sectors’ backs. A VAT is just as unpopular, for the reason that any policy raising consumer prices puts even greater burden on already strapped household incomes. Tradeable carbon permits are popular for the reason that they appear to be a “market based” approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions; but Congress is talking about putting a price ceiling on carbon permits of $28 per ton, a price at which the incentives to reduce emissions among firms is minimal.

America’s long period of strong growth, low savings, and deficit financed government spending will necessitate belt-tightening in the near future as ultimately the government will have to start financing its budgets through tax revenues, not the issuing of new debt. Carbon taxes, higher marginal income taxes, or a national sales tax are all options the Obama administration can choose from. For now, it appears it’s choosing none of these, and instead selling more bonds to the public, foreigners, and the Fed, increasing the moneys supply in the hope that households and firms begin spending once more. The path towards fiscal discipline is a hard one to get started on, especially during a recession when no new taxes are politically viable.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What make’s a sales tax regressive if everyone has to pay, say, 10% on top of the regular sales price of a good or service?
  2. How does the US government finance its massive budgets when its revenue from taxes don’t even come close to equaling the amount of spending?
  3. Why is it important for a country, in the long-run, to achieve a balnced budget?
  4. What would you prefer to do: pay a higher income tax or a higher sales tax? What are the pros and cons of direct versus indirect taxes?

25 responses so far

May 27 2009

Welker’s daily links 05/26/2009

  • A great article outlining the likelihood of “real” versus “financial” crowding-out that may result from the US fiscal stimulus
    …the key question is whether government spending that comes into action during recession is likely to crowd out new private spending, dollar for dollar. The answer depends on the extent to which real and financial resources are currently under-utilised.

    “Real” crowding out occurs when labour and capital are already fully employed so that further spending exceeds capacity and leads to inflation. The logic of the harm done by inflation is well understood. But the logic of “financial” crowding out is less intuitive and more complex.

    Simply put, financial crowding out results from rising interest rates when government deficits put pressure on bond markets. This kind of crowding out is most plausible in the US, which began the recession with the biggest deficit in world history. However, relative to national income, it is not nearly as large as that which Britain ran after the Napoleonic wars. And currently, the biggest as a percentage of national income is Japan’s: almost 200 per cent of its gross domestic product. It doesn’t seem to be crowding out private spending as the Japanese long-term interest rate is still only 1.5 per cent.

    Nevertheless, skeptics argue that dramatic doubling of US deficits this year and beyond could leave little room for private sector borrowing. If the US deficit stifles rather than stimulates recovery of its private sector, prolonged worldwide recession is inevitable.

    tags: economics, crowding-out

  • All should read this, it is a powerful exposition of the competing ideologies about the solutions to our global recession:

    Following are excerpts from a symposium on the economic crisis presented by The New York Review of Books and PEN World Voices at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on April 30. The participants were former senator Bill Bradley, Niall Ferguson, Paul Krugman, Nouriel Roubini, George Soros, and Robin Wells, with Jeff Madrick as moderator.

    —The Editors

    Jeff Madrick: It was six months ago now that the Lehman debacle occurred, that AIG was rescued, that Bank of America bought Merrill Lynch; it was about six months ago that the TARP funds started being distributed. The economy was doing fairly poorly in much of 2008, and then fell off a cliff in the last quarter of 2008 and into 2009, shrinking at a 6 percent annual rate—an extraordinary drop in our national income. It is now by some very important measures the worst economic recession in the post–World War II era. Employment has dropped faster than ever before in this space of time.

    We have a three-front problem: a housing market that went crazy as the housing bubble burst; a credit crisis, the most severe we’ve known since the early 1930s; and now a sharp drop in demand for goods and services and capital investment, leading to a severe recession. What gives us the jitters is that all of these are related. We have seen some deceleration in the rate of economic decline, and many people are saying that “green shoots” are showing. What is the actual state of the economy, and do we need a serious mid-course correction on the part of the Obama administration?

    tags: economics

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.

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May 20 2009

AP Economics – will it evolve to a changing economic reality?

A.P. Economics vs. Real Life – Economix Blog – NYTimes.com

Econ Exams: Are The Correct Answers Still Right? : NPR

Listen to the 3 minute NPR podcast here

It’s interesting to me that AP Economics has gotten two major mentions in the mainstream media recently, both asking the same question: Does high school Economics teach kids about the real world anymore?

Both the New York Times and NPR refer to a past AP Macro multiple choice question, this one from the NYT:

Policy makers concerned about fostering long-run growth in an economy that is currently in a recession would most likely recommend which of the following combinations of monetary and fiscal policy actions?
MONETARY POLICY…/…FISCAL POLICY
a. sell bonds…/…reduce taxes
b. sell bonds…/…raise taxes
c. no change…/…raise taxes
d. buy bonds…/…reduce spending
e. buy bonds…/…no change

The correct answer, as readers should know, is e. Buying bonds increases the money supply and lowers interest rates, while choosing not to engage in expansionary fiscal policy means no crowding out of private investment will occur and thus “fostering long-run growth” in the economy.

The NYT blogger writes:

But that answer does not even remotely resemble what policy makers have actually done in response to the current crisis (or, for that matter, in response to previous recessions).

It’s true, the severity of the current recession has forced the government and Fed to create new monetary and fiscal tricks, but the fundamentals behind a response indicated in answer e. still hold true. Lowering interest rates to encourage private investment is a pro-growth policy for correcting a mild recession.

Anyway, I think it’s worth listening to the podcast from NPR and reading the blog post from the NYT. Definitely read the comments on the blog post too, some interesting points are made by readers.

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May 20 2009

Welker’s daily links 05/19/2009

  • Are credit markets still “frozen”? Apparently so for small businesses, which account for 80% of America’s economic activity:

    Big companies are rushing to issue stocks and bonds to suddenly hungry investors. But credit is still scarce for thousands of mostly smaller companies that rely on bank lending.

    U.S. corporations such as Ford Motor Co. and MGM Mirage Inc. raised more than $34 billion by selling stock in the first two weeks of May. At around the same time, Bill Mulrooney, chief financial officer of UniFoil Corp., was setting aside plans to borrow money for new equipment that the company had hoped would boost sales.

    “I hear about the credit markets’ freeing, but it’s clearly not the case for small businesses,” Mr. Mulrooney says.

    tags: economics

  • What future threat might the massive US budget deficits pose to America? Here’s what Robert Samuelson has to say…

    At best, the rising cost of the debt would intensify pressures to increase taxes, cut spending — or create bigger, unsustainable deficits. By the CBO’s estimates, interest on the debt as a share of federal spending will double between 2008 and 2019, to 16 percent. Huge budget deficits could also weaken economic growth by “crowding out” private investment.

    At worst, the burgeoning debt could trigger a future financial crisis. The danger is that “we won’t be able to sell [Treasury debt] at reasonable interest rates,” says economist Rudy Penner, head of the CBO from 1983 to 1987. In today’s anxious climate, this hasn’t happened. American and foreign investors have favored “safe” U.S. Treasurys. But a glut of bonds, fears of inflation — or something else — might one day shatter confidence. Bond prices might fall sharply; interest rates would rise. The consequences could be worldwide because foreigners own half of U.S. Treasury debt.

    The Obama budgets flirt with deferred distress, though we can’t know what form it might take or when it might occur. Present gain comes with the risk of future pain. As the present economic crisis shows, imprudent policies ultimately backfire, even if the reversal’s timing and nature are unpredictable.

    tags: economics

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.

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