Better than nothing

. . . is how I’d describe this month’s major developments on the fiscal and monetary policy front, namely Pres. Obama’s new jobs proposal and the Fed’s decision to reallocate its Treasury bond portfolio so as to try to push long-term interest rates down.

The Fed’s decision is simpler, so I’ll start with that one. Last Wednesday the Federal Open Market Committee kept its fed funds rate target unchanged at 0-0.25% and announced that it would sell most of its short-term T-bill portfolio and replace it with longer-term T-notes and T-bonds. This is quite a bit less than the “QE3” (quantitative easing, round 3) that many in the market were hoping for, as it does not involve a net increase in the Fed’s Treasury holdings, and the stock markets took a tumble that afternoon. The media quickly dubbed the Fed’s move “Operation Twist,” after a similar action in 1961. Nobody expects this move to have more than a marginal impact, not when mortgage and other long-term interest rates are already at historic lows, but it’s hard to argue against a positive marginal impact, purchased at so little cost. A Wall Street Journal editorial notes that the 1960s Operation Twist lowered long-term interest rates by about 0.20 percentage points, and “Some experts said that was enough to make the program effective; others deemed it a failure.” It seems to me that any reduction in unemployment from this move, however small, is welcome news at a time of 14 million unemployed.

The President’s new jobs bill is a more complicated animal. (Note that they’ve dropped the term “stimulus package,” apparently out of belated recognition that “jobs bill” is simpler and sounds more appealing and also because the $787 billion stimulus of 2009 is unpopular. I’ve been over this one before: leading estimates are that it saved a few million jobs, which is good, but it was supposed to save all of them, and that obviously didn’t happen. Thus it is unpopular.) The main complication is that it has no chance whatsoever of passing, given knee-jerk opposition to all things Obama in the Republican-controlled House and the Republican-filibuster-strength minority in the Senate. This despite the fact that, as Obama said, that virtually everything in it has been supported by Democrats and Republicans alike. (To be fair, not much in it has been supported by Republicans recently, i.e., since Obama became president.)

Specifics: The American Jobs Act (its official name) has a price tag of $447 billion, most of which apparently would be spent during the next 12 months, so roughly the same yearly amount as the 2009 stimulus. More than half of that is a $240 billion cut in payroll taxes, including a reduction in the payroll tax paid by workers, a cut in the employer share for small businesses, and a tax holiday for new employees. The next biggest item is $140 billion for infrastructure and local aid, notably transportation, retaining and rehiring teachers and first responders, and modernizing public schools. The last area is $62 billion for unemployment insurance extensions, tax credits for hiring the long-term unemployed, and subsidized employment for low-income individuals.

All of this seems reasonable, maybe too reasonable. In a less toxic political environment, this proposal would pass, but just like the 2009 stimulus, it would be way too small to fill America’s jobs deficit. The payroll tax has already been cut to 4.2% (down from about 6.2%), and the jobs bill would cut it to 3.1%, or about $11 on every $1000 of income.  Small potatoes. And while poorer workers would surely spend their payroll tax cut, upper-middle class and upper-class workers would probably save much of theirs. The current payroll tax cut is set to expire at the end of this year, and Republicans aren’t crazy about it (they prefer permanent tax cuts aimed at “job creators” in the top tax brackets) but don’t want to be cast by Democrats as favoring tax increases for the little guy, so a further extension of the 4.2% payroll tax rate seems likely.

The payroll tax holiday and ($4000) tax credit for hiring the unemployed should also be expected to have a positive but marginal impact on employment. The number one question in any prospective employer’s mind is “Can I sell the extra output that this person would produce?” Tax holidays and tax credits make a Yes more likely, but only if the product demand is strong enough to almost warrant hiring the person in the first place. Still, we economists live at the margin, and as with the Fed’s Operation Twist, anything that creates jobs at minimal cost is a positive thing.

And now on to costs. This is the main area where I have a problem with the president’s proposal. Obama says the program is fully funded, when really that’s the last thing we should be worrying about during a depression.The more you offset the new spending and tax cuts with spending cuts and tax increases elsewhere, the less stimulus you have. Obama said the program will be paid for by additional spending cuts in the future, closing corporate tax loopholes, and reinstating the “millionaire’s tax” on personal income. (Note: We last had a $1 million tax bracket in 1940, in nominal terms. Adjusting for inflation, we last had a $1 million tax bracket in 1973.) If the spending cuts are sufficiently far off in the future, like when the unemployment rate is back below 6%, they should do little macroeconomic damage. Ditto the closing of tax loopholes — which probably have little to do with hiring anyway — and the millionaire’s tax. As far as I can tell, those tax increases — and some others that I would support, like taxing hedge fund managers’ salaries as ordinary labor income instead of at the lower capital gains rate — would take effect immediately. While I don’t buy the Republican rhetoric about every rich person being a Job Creator, I still don’t think raising taxes in a depression is a good idea. It can wait.

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