Archive for the 'Standard of Living' Category

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 05 2009

3 million job openings! Good news… or is it?

Help Wanted: Why That Sign’s Bad – BusinessWeek

This week’s cover story in Business Week magazine tells an interesting story about unemployment in America. Listen to the podcast or follow the link above to read more of this story:

Surprising statistic: In the midst of the worst recession in a generation or more, with 13 million people unemployed, there are approximately 3 million jobs that employers are actively recruiting for but so far have been unable to fill. That’s more job openings than the entire population of Mississippi.

Sound like good news? It’s not. Instead, it’s evidence of an emerging structural shift in the U.S. economy that has created serious mismatches between workers and employers. People thrown out of shrinking sectors such as construction, finance, and retail lack the skills and training for openings in growing fields including education, accounting, health care, and government. At the same time, the worst housing bust in decades has left the unemployed frozen in place. They can’t move to get work because they can’t sell their homes.

In IB and AP Economics we teach that there are three types of unemployment an economy may experience, ranked roughly in order from the least undesirable to the most undesirable (from a macroeconomic perspective):

  • Frictional unemployment: This accounts for people who are “in between jobs” or fresh out of college looking for their first jobs.
  • Structural unemployment: This is caused by the changing structure of an economy. As America’s manufacturing sector shrinks and its education and health care sectors grown, those whose skills lie in manufacturing become structurally unemployed.
  • Cyclical unemployment: This is also called “demand-deficient” unemployment because it is caused by a fall in aggregate demand or overall spending in the economy.

America today is clearly experiencing all three types, but due to the particular circumstances of the recession, the American worker is finding it it harder than ever to match his skills with an appropriate job. Below are some of the industries with the most and the fewest job openings today:

Most openings:

  • Education
  • Health care
  • Government
  • Energy (such as wind, oil, natural gas)
  • “Analytics” (i.e. business data analysis by firms such as IBM)

Fewest openings:

  • Construction
  • Manufacturing

Unfortunately for the large numbers of unemployed construction and factory workers, the kinds of skills required to work in the fields with the most job openings are prohibitively different from those learned in their previous industries. In addition to a mismatch of skills between the industries in which jobs are being lost and those in which labor is in demand, there is also a geographic mismatch in the labor market. Below are the states with the least and the most job openings:

Most job vacancies (states with large energy sectors: oil, natural gas and windmills)

  • North Dakota
  • Wyoming

Least job vacancies (states with large manufacturing and construction sectors)

  • North Carolina
  • California
  • Michigan

Historically, the geographic factor has not posed an issue to American workers, and when jobs opened up in one part of the country, Americans would pack up and move where necessary to find work. Today, however, with the collapse of house prices, more and more Americans find themselves stuck with a house they can’t sell in a part of the country where they can’t find a job.

To paraphrase the podcast above, “the US in danger of looking like Europe. The European job market has been described as ‘sclerotic’; people don’t respond to want ads because of the generous long-term unemployment benefits offered by European governments. Europeans have historically been geographically immobile due to nationalist ties to their home countries.” Today, the US job market reflects some of the same “sclerosis” as that of Europe.

America is facing the perfect storm of unemployment. At the same time that the economy is undergoing its most significant structural change since the Industrial Revolution brought millions of American workers from the farm fields into factories, it is facing the most significant decline in private sector spending (consumption, investment and exports) since the great depression. Put this together with the relative immobility of the American worker caused by the housing crisis, and unemployment has climbed to its highest level in three decades.

This interesting story ends with a glimmer of hope for the American worker:

To fight this sclerosis, the White House is using $3.5 billion of the stimulus for training, while boosting support for community colleges. Classes for factory workers seeking entry-level health-care careers have shown some success.

The truth is, displaced workers may have to move down a few rungs as they switch careers because their skills are irrelevant in their new roles… Many laid-off Wall Street financial engineers still haven’t absorbed that, says Fred Wilson, a partner in Union Square Ventures, a New York venture capital firm. “For them to take a job that pays a lot less, they have to make a meaningful change in their lifestyle. And that is an issue.”

Employers need to bend as well, recognizing that the candidates they’re seeking may not exist. Mark Mehler, co-founder of CareerXRoads, a staffing strategy consulting firm in Kendall Park, N.J., tells employers: “You’re hiring potential….You’ve got to train them.”

A mismatch of work and workers is never a good thing. But smart policy—combined with realism on the part of employers and job seekers—can minimize the disruption.

Discussion Questions:

  1. In what way may structural unemployment be a sign of a healthy economy, rather than a sick one?
  2. Part of the Obama stimulus package includes increased benefits for unemployed Americans. How may this pose an obstacle to reducing unemployment in America?
  3. Historically, the natural rate of unemployment in most European economies has been higher than that of the United States. Why is this?
  4. Do you think America’s NRU will return to its historic level (4-6%) when the economy eventually recovers from the current crisis? Why or why not?

38 responses so far

Sep 07 2008

The importance of incentives in achieving poverty alleviation: Venezuela vs. Brazil

Managing Globalization: To reduce poverty, money isn’t everything – International Herald Tribune

Two developing countries: Venezuela and Brazil. Two ideologies underpinning economic growth and development: command in Venezuela versus free market in Brazil. Which system has worked better for the people of these two large South American countries?

How much can governments do to fight poverty? In South America, a couple of answers are emerging in the growing economies of Venezuela and Brazil. Both governments have publicly pledged billions of dollars to raise living standards – but have they succeeded?

Overall income is moving upward in both countries, if for different reasons. Venezuela is riding the black tide of high-priced oil, while Brazil’s relatively firm economic policies have built confidence in its business prospects among both locals and foreigners.

The president of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, has portrayed himself as an ardent socialist and a disciple of Fidel Castro. Reducing inequality is fundamental to his agenda, whether by dividing up Venezuela’s oil wealth or, as he has obliquely suggested this month, through land reform. His consolidation of executive power has brought Venezuela closer to a centrally planned economy and, as such, has given him the opportunity to invest heavily in social programs.

But identifying the results isn’t easy. The poverty rate in Venezuela was about 50 percent when Chávez’s presidency began in 1999, according to the government’s own figures. Since then, roughly equal numbers of people have fallen into and out of poverty at various times, with a spike to more than 60 percent in 2003 and a drop below 40 percent in 2005…

Rodríguez also questioned whether Chávez’s programs could be completely effective because of the way they were managed. Some of the world’s most successful initiatives for improving the well-being of the poor, he said, linked families’ benefit payments to useful actions like their children’s attendance in school or visits to the doctor. In Venezuela, he said, the link is to political loyalty instead.

“The level of political polarization has become so high that not only is loyalty to the regime the key determinant of your access to benefits, it is also the key determinant of your capacity to be involved in the administration of those benefits to others,” Rodríguez said.

One example of this problem was a program intended to improve literacy. “The government had no system of accountability to monitor performance other than the reports of its own administrators,” Rodríguez said. “When program administrators learned that it was more important to show loyalty to the regime than to effectively run the program, any incentives that they had to administer resources efficiently, from a social point of view, disappeared.”

In Venezuela, president Chavez’s socialist inspired, command policies, paid for by the sale of expensive oil to the rest of the world have led to benefits primarily for those citizens willing to show political loyalty to Chavez and his party. Hard work and productivity is not rewarded as much as loyalty and support for the government. This system of incentives leads to some poor outcomes. The result? Only mediocre improvements in poverty rates, literacy, employment and health of the people.

In Brazil, where free market principles underlie much of the economic development policies, monetary benefits for development workers and the families they serve are linked not to political affiliation but to actual behavior of households and government employees. The result, not surprisingly, has been real improvements in education, health, and poverty levels amongst Brazilians.

Meanwhile, in Brazil, progress appears to have been more widespread. Figures compiled last year by Rômulo Paes de Sousa of the Ministry of Social Development and Fight Against Hunger, covering the period from 1999 through 2004, painted a rosy picture: School attendance was up, while illiteracy was down. Life expectancy was up, but hospital visits were down. Employment was up, and child labor was down.

Again, however, it’s difficult to say with certainty where the credit should go… [perhaps] to the simple fact that Brazil’s monetary benefits for families are indeed linked to actions like attendance in school, prenatal care and childhood vaccinations?

The lesson here? In a command economy like Venezuela’s, in which the government decides how resources are to be allocated, it appears that real improvements in people’s lives are not as important as political loyalty. Because most people involved in economic development work for the government, they focus on making themselves appear more dedicated and loyal to president Chavez, in order to make sure they get paid more and promoted up the ladder.

In Brazil’s free market economy, on the other hand, rewards are based on performance, not political loyalty. Brazilians have enjoyed access to a wider variety of efficiently run development programs than Venezuelans, despite Hugo Chavez’s pledge to alleviate poverty. Correct incentives explain why the market system is more efficient and effective than a command system, and the examples of Venezuela and Brazil illustrate this observation quite nicely

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why do command economies fail efficiently allocate resources to where they are needed the most?
  2. What does Brazil do that Venezuela does not that has led to real improvements in people’s lives?

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16 responses so far

Feb 29 2008

“Opulent in elegance. Bountiful in spirit”

It’s Friday morning here in Shanghai. My AP students are in the middle of their Macro Unit 2 test on Aggregate Demand and Aggregate Supply. I’m reading SAS’s weekly Parent Talk newsletter that I handed out to my homeroom this morning, and on the back cover is an advertisement for the housing compound across the street from school, “Rancho Santa Fe”.

I just had to post this to my blog, as I think it captures well the trajectory that rich, suburban, Shanghaites are heading as Shanghai and the other Eastern provinces continue to develop and get rich.

“Success has many stages.

Acquiring a definitive territory counts as the ultimate one.

Embracing the best nature and humanity have to offer.

Rancho Santa Fe Phase 3 is a magnum opus of a villa residence.

Opulent in elegance. Bountiful in spirit.

The grandeur lies not only in heritage, but the entirety of all that is perfect.”

I hope you enjoyed this as much as I did. Happy Friday!

11 responses so far

Feb 27 2008

China: formerly the world’s factory, now a nation of consumers…

Economics focus | From Mao to the mall | Economist.comChina - a nation of consumers

China, long acknowledged as the world’s factory, could suffer if falling demand for its exports in the US results in a decline in aggregate demand and GDP here as some economists believe it will. But not all economists agree on the importance of exports to China’s domestic economy:

The increase in net exports (exports minus imports) has never been the main source of China’s growth. It contributed two to three percentage points to annual GDP growth between 2005 and 2007, whereas domestic demand (consumption and investment) added eight to nine percentage points.

But the latest figures show that exports have become even less important as a driver of growth. The World Bank’s latest China Quarterly Update suggests that net exports contributed only 0.4 percentage points to GDP growth in the year to the fourth quarter of 2007 (see left-hand chart). Overall GDP growth slowed only modestly (to 11.2%) because of faster growth in domestic demand, which contributed an impressive 10.8 percentage points.

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27 responses so far

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