Presidents and the Economy

While early opinion polls show a number of possible Democratic candidates beating Donald Trump in the 2020 election, economic models of presidential elections are telling a different story. Some of the most reputable economic models show Trump winning reelection handily on the strength of strong economic fundamentals. Barring an unlikely recession, Trump will undoubtedly make his management of the economy the centerpiece of his reelection campaign.

Most voters seem to think that economic conditions are determined by presidential policies and attribute the strength or weakness of the economy to who’s in the White House. Indeed, questions about management of the economy are staples of political opinion polls. Economists, in contrast, see presidential policies as having relatively little effect on cyclical economic conditions, although they are more prone to believing that sound economic policies can have long-term effects that may manifest long after a president has left office.

Yet, it would be too sweeping to argue that presidents have no short-term economic influence. The effects of tax and budget policies can sometimes have short-term effects (as well as long-term effects that may be hidden from voters), and some regulatory policies may as well. But the biggest economic influence presidents can have usually comes at times of crisis, when the road forks and the consequences of wise or foolish decisions may be fateful. Franklin Roosevelt’s management of the 1930s economic crisis comes immediately to mind. Abraham Lincoln, too, should get more credit for his management of the economic stresses of the Civil War and for his tax and banking innovations. As I will argue, Barack Obama also belongs in that small club of great economic presidents for his handling of the financial crisis and the deep recession he inherited.

Some presidents deserve more criticism for their handling of the economy–Andrew Jackson, for instance–but that is a bit too remote from current concerns. This post will focus on how our past three presidents have affected economic performance, and on how the public ultimately perceived their stewardship.

George W. Bush

The younger Bush inherited from Bill Clinton a federal budget surplus and a minor recession, and he used the latter to justify eliminating the former. That is, he campaigned on and fully intended to give large tax cuts to the wealthy under the already-discredited Supply Side doctrine, but when it became evident that the economy was slipping into recession early in his presidency, he repositioned his tax cuts as counter-cyclical fiscal stimulus. That rationale was enough to give 12 Democratic senators cover to vote for the bill, which passed 58-33 in an evenly divided senate.

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Green Resolution

The “Green New Deal” resolution introduced last week by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Senator Edward Markey (D-MA) was a good idea. The Democrats needed to reestablish climate action as a governmental concern and inject it into the 2020 election. With her high visibility, appeal to young voters, and ability to get under the skin of conservatives, AOC could have been an ideal messenger. Like a football team throwing a bomb to its flashy rookie receiver on the first down of the first game, if executed successfully it could have rattled defenses throughout the season. Unfortunately, the pass was dropped and the Dems might now find themselves wishing they had called a more conventional play.

Sticking with the football analogy just a bit, Nancy Pelosi’s Democrats have been steadily grinding out the yardage but run the risk of being sucked into playing Trump’s game. Since possession of the House shifted to the Democrats, the political agenda and news has been entirely dominated by Trump’s boorish calls for his idiotic wall and his reckless government shutdown. Yes, Pelosi has outmaneuvered him at every step, but the Dems are not going to take back the Senate and White House in 2020 just by playing good defense. Meanwhile, their investigative committees have tread cautiously, partly for fear of interfering with the secretive Mueller investigation and partly for fear of appearing mere hecklers. With each passing week the presidential primary roster expands and, especially if Bernie Sanders enters the race, the risk grows that Medicare-for-All crowds out all other progressive issues. So the idea of AOC streaking down the sideline for a big gain on climate change made some sense.

One reason the play didn’t work as planned was that it wasn’t actually planned. Pelosi was forced to distance herself from it and did so in terms that were a little too dismissive for my taste. But who knows what really went on? Pelosi claimed that she hadn’t even seen the resolution before AOC’s press conference. If true, that’s a serious discourtesy. How is the Speaker supposed to support a resolution she hasn’t seen or apparently had any input into?

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Fear City’s Revenge

I was reading Kim Phillips-Fein’s Fear City at the time news broke of Amazon’s choice of Long Island City as one of its two HQII locations. The Amazon announcement was greeted with a weary acquiescence to the city’s inevitable dominance, as though the Yankees had just signed Bryce Harper. What a contrast to the mood of grim, inexorable decline that permeates Fear City. It reminded me that each chapter of Gotham’s story sets the stage for the next, and that the great city’s essence can be suppressed but not extinguished. 

Phillips-Fein’s book is a highly readable narrative of New York City’s brush with bankruptcy in the 1970s. For those who are not municipal budget wonks, the book maintains a good balance between financial detail and narrative flow. I set down to read it as a professional chore but found myself re-immersed in a period I lived through but, in the heedlessness of youth, failed to appreciate as a time of such outlandish grotesquerie. I could almost hear the punk music pounding and smell the tenements burning.

In Phillips-Fein’s telling the fiscal crisis was not just a trauma for the city, but a pivotal triumph for the emerging neoliberal creed of public-sector austerity over an exhausted New Deal progressivism. With banks refusing to lend to the city, and Wall Street refusing to issue more bonds, and the White House refusing to provide federal aid (thanks in no small part to President Ford’s Chief of Staff, Donald Rumsfeld), the city was forced to make draconian cutbacks in public services. Fire houses and day care centers closed, public infrastructure decayed, and perhaps most symbolically, CUNY ended its policy of free tuition. It was the end of expansive, activist urban government.

If Phillips-Fein had continued her story, though, it would be apparent that the neoliberal triumph was not so final. City government did make many important fiscal reforms as the result of the crisis and today it is run with a great deal of financial discipline and transparency. But its ethos of activist municipal government was not eradicated. In the early 1980s the state and city undertook a major reinvestment in its subways under the leadership of Richard Ravitch, and in the late ’80’s Ed Koch launched his massive housing program, which was instrumental in revitalizing large parts of the city. Mayors Dinkins, Giuliani and Bloomberg continued the housing program and made large strides in reclaiming the city’s waterfront and other abandoned industrial areas. Mayor di Blasio launched a universal preschool program. CUNY did not restore free tuition but it survives as a unique urban institution and in many respects is thriving. Urban liberalism in New York City retreated but did not surrender and had reasserted itself within a decade of the crisis.

There is also another sense, I think, in which Fear City’s short-period narrative obscures the meaning of the fiscal crisis. By giving so much attention to the neoliberal critique of the City’s financial practices and its expansive mission, Phillips-Fein inadvertently conveys that they were the underlying causes of the crisis. They were not. The crisis occurred in the midst of a severe national recession, which Phillips-Fein barely mentions, and a long-term restructuring of the nation’s economic geography. The city’s manufacturing base had been hollowed out by firms moving to the suburbs, and more portentously, to the sunbelt.

We now know that industrial capital’s search for the ideal business climate did not end with the sunbelt. The garment makers, the metal shops, and the electrical assemblers that first moved to South Carolina, Georgia and Texas in search of cheaper and more docile labor, lower taxes, and lax environmental standards later found even more favorable locations in Bangladesh, Mexico, and China. Those manufacturing firms have moved on and so has the city, and only the most stubborn industrial revivalists would still argue that manufacturing mens’ and boys’ outerwear is key to New York City’s economic future.

What appeared to many in 1975 as the city’s death throes now appears more like a molting, with the city shedding activities that would not be essential to its regeneration to make way for those that would. The first energy crisis and resulting recession caught the city during that extremely vulnerable time, a vulnerability compounded by some admittedly sloppy budgetary practices resulting in the humiliating fiscal crisis. But the fiscal crisis wasn’t the result of a fundamentally misguided vision of the role of government in a modern metropolis. In fact, it was that expansive vision of urban government that created the cultural, intellectual and physical conditions for revitalization.

Austin Debates Density

One of the most interesting urban planning debates going on in the country right now is happening in Austin, Texas. In 2012, the Austin City Council adopted the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan, a three-year effort that established priorities for the city’s growth and development for the next 30 years. Among the priority actions the plan identified were to invest in a compact and connected Austin, to grow and invest in the creative economy, and to develop and maintain household affordability. The next step in implementing the plan is to revise and modernize its zoning regulations. The city is now in the midst of that process, which it has dubbed CodeNEXT.

Austin, of course, is one of the fastest growing cities in the U.S.  From 2000 to 2017 the city’s population increased from 657,000 to 950,000, an annual rate of growth of 2.2%. It’s also gained a reputation as a fun place to live and has become a migration magnet for millennials; a Brookings Institution study found that Austin has the second-highest proportion of millennials in its population (27.2%) of the top 100 metro areas. With about 48% of its adult population holding a bachelor’s degree or higher, it also ranks among the nation’s most educated cities, comparable to Boston and Minneapolis.

Not surprisingly, Austin’s economic prosperity has entailed some costs. In particular, during this century it has had one of the fastest rates of housing price increase in the country. According to the Freddie Mac House Price Index, home prices in Austin have increased at about a 5.0% average annual rate since 2000, which is on a par with the Fresno, Salt Lake City and Washington D.C. metro areas. Since much of the city and the surrounding areas are zoned for single-family homes, growth has mostly taken the form of low-density sprawl. The developed land area of the metro area increased from just 53 square miles in 1970 to 372 square miles in 2016.

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Transparency in Trumpland

A little juxaposition of news items reveals how the Trump administration views transparency in government.

First comes Scott Pruitt’s announcement that EPA will seek to implement a regulation that will require all EPA rulemaking to be based only on scientific evidence for which the underlying data is publicly available. That will prevent the EPA from formulating regulations based on medical data that is confidential.

According to Pruitt, “The science that we use is going to be transparent, it’s going to be reproducible.” Junk science purveyor and member of Trump’s transition team Stephen J. Milloy added, “This will really open up EPA science to public scrutiny.”

Meanwhile, over at the American Bankers Association conference, Mick Mulvaney, interim director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, announced that the CFPB would cut public access to the bureau’s database of consumer complaints.  Mulvaney explained: “I don’t see anything in here that says I have to run a Yelp for financial services sponsored by the federal government.”

Evidently, transparency is good when it hinders regulations to protect the public health, but bad when it helps to protect consumers.

Making Deficits Great Again

After 2010, when Republicans gained control of the House of Representatives and later the Senate, the U.S. essentially pursued a policy of fiscal austerity.  President Obama sought to roll back the Bush-era tax cuts for wealthy households and was partially successful during the “fiscal cliff” standoff at the end of 2012. Meanwhile, the Republican Congress steadfastly refused to allow Obama to stimulate the economy with federal spending.  As a result, total federal budget outlays (including Social Security) grew at only a 1.9% annual rate from 2010 to 2016, far slower than the 6.5% annual rate of increase during the Bush years.

That American-style austerity was an under-appreciated contributor to the slow recovery from the Great Recession. However, the budget deficits of the U.S. government fell in both absolute dollars and as a percentage of GDP during most of Obama’s tenure, in 2014 and 2015 even reaching a level that produced stability in the ratio of overall debt to GDP. There was some slippage in the deficit at the end of Obama’s tenure, primarily because of a lapse in the economic growth rate in 2016. Responsible fiscal management would have suggested an attempt by Obama’s successor to get the deficit back to parity with the rate of economic growth, which would have required shaving it by about one-third, or by $250 billion.

Of course, after the Republicans held on to both houses of Congress in 2016 and unexpectedly found themselves with a Republican President to work with, there was no reasonable prospect that stabilization of the debt-to-GDP ratio would be made a policy priority. It is undeniable that cutting taxes, regardless of the fiscal implications, is the core policy goal of the modern Republican Party. Two intertwined factors are behind that inversion of Republican political philosophy. First is the widespread acceptance among conservatives of the “starve the beast” strategy for reducing the size of government.  The second was the creation of a much more cohesive, purposeful and sophisticated political apparatus by conservative mega-donors to the Republican Party, who out of ideological conviction and personal self-interest orchestrate anti-tax pressure and insist that their  elected dependents deliver. The two previous times Republicans took over the White House (Reagan and George W. Bush) they immediately enacted huge tax cuts and the deficits swelled. There was never any chance that, in the unlikely event Trump was actually elected, this time would be any different.

So the tax reductions Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan engineered in December were entirely out of the Republican playbook and should have been fully priced in to any economist’s or investor’s forecasts.  If there was anything surprising about the tax changes, it was the gratuitous and vindictive targeting of voters in high-cost, coastal Democratic strongholds (by imposing new limits on the mortgage tax deduction and the state and local tax deduction), an unprecedented use of the federal tax code to punish political opponents.

The McConnell-Ryan tax cuts will raise the cumulative federal deficit by $1.268 trillion over 10 years, according to Tax Policy Center estimates.  That represents a 14.8% increase over the CBO’s June 2017 baseline estimates. 

Then in early February things took an unexpected turn. Instead of pressing for more spending stringency, a smiley McConnell suddenly agreed to a two-year budget deal with Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer that called for large increases in both defense and non-defense discretionary spending. The deal, subsequently approved by Congress and signed by the President, is expected to add another $419 billion to the cumulative deficits through 2027.

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Time for an SUV Tax

There is no question that New York City is not viable as we know it without its mass transit system, so the snowballing problems of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority should be of concern to everyone who lives or works in the city, whether or not they are regular users of the system.

Increased funding for NYC Transit (the subsidiary of the MTA that operates the subways and buses within NYC) may not be a sufficient step for improving the system but it is certainly a necessary one. Finding additional funding in an already heavily taxed city will not be easy, however, and already the Governor and Mayor are at war over whose responsibility it is. In addition to each arguing that the other already has money in their budget that can be used to help, Mayor de Blasio has proposed an income tax surcharge on tax filers earning in excess of $500,000, while Governor Cuomo is considering some version of the congestion pricing system originally proposed by Mayor Bloomberg.

When Bloomberg made his push for congestion pricing in 2007, I was working as the Chief Economist for New York City Comptroller William C. Thompson.  The Comptroller is an independently elected citywide official who frequently serves as the chief antagonist of the Mayor, and at that time Bloomberg was maneuvering to have the city’s term limits waived so he could run for a third term. Thompson, who was planning to run for Mayor in 2009 all along and now faced the prospect of opposing Bloomberg, was casting about for an alternative to Bloomberg’s proposal. As it happened, I already had drawn up an alternative as a think piece and Thompson was intrigued.  He eventually adopted it as the position of the Comptroller and as a plank in his 2009 and 2013 Mayoral campaigns.

Before describing my proposal I should note that residents of New York’s “outer boroughs” have a deep-seated suspicion of schemes to restrict access to Midtown Manhattan, whether they be in the form of tolls on the East River bridges or the more high-tech congestion pricing plan Bloomberg sought. I share their suspicion. There is, of course, a distributional effect, as a congestion pricing regime would disproportionately charge residents of the outer boroughs in order to improve a subway system that disproportionately serves Manhattan residents. But I think outer borough residents have a more visceral objection as well. Many of them work in Manhattan, study in Manhattan, play in Manhattan, and have family roots in Manhattan. They see Manhattan as the city’s commons, not as a separate borough to which its increasingly wealthy residents should have privileged access. It’s that possessiveness that all New York residents feel toward Manhattan that underlies their hostility to bridge tolls and congestion pricing. It was ultimately outer borough opposition that sunk Bloomberg’s congestion pricing proposal, and that Thompson was seeking to appease.

The proposal I devised for Thompson would impose a registration tax on motor vehicles registered in the five boroughs according to the curb weight of the vehicle. Thompson modified the proposal only by expanding it to all 12 counties of New York’s metropolitan commuter transportation district. Passenger vehicle registration fees in New York State average only about $20 per year and neither the State nor City imposes a personal property tax on vehicles as many states do. As proposed, a vehicle weighing up to 2,300 pounds (think Toyota Yaris) would pay an annual registration fee of $100, and the fee would increase by $.09 per pound above that weight, bringing the annual registration fee for, say, a Lincoln Navigator SUV to about $430.  The registration tax could generate about $350 million annually just from the 2 million automobiles and trucks registered in the city.  The revenue generated could be adjusted, of course, by adjusting the weight formula.  More precise estimates of the revenue could be made beforehand using data on the makes and models of vehicles registered, which we did not have access to at the time.

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A Good Tax

Gina Bellafante, who is usually an acute and sensitive observer of New York’s community life, wrote a somewhat misdirected column about the city’s retailing environment for Sunday’s Times.

The column portrays sympathetically several long-time Manhattan retailers who have been forced to close shop, or might soon, because of the high cost of rental space.  And they are sympathetic! However, the column identifies the City’s Commercial Rent Tax (CRT) as a contributor to the rent inflation retailers have faced and hence to the corporate homogenization of the city’s streetscape. There are several problems with this premise, not the least of which is that the CRT probably doesn’t contribute much, if at all, to the high rents for retail space.

The CRT, initially imposed in 1963 and modified a number of times since, effectively imposes a tax of 3.9% on commercial rent payments that exceed $300,000 annually.  The tax applies only in Manhattan below 96th Street and phases in beginning at the $250,000 benchmark.  The tax raised $816 million in the City’s 2017 fiscal year which, somewhat astonishingly, represented only about 1.5% of its tax revenue.

A savvy newcomer might ask why levy this tax at all, doesn’t it do more or less what a conventional property tax on commercial buildings does? The answer is yes, it does, but its origins and continued usefulness lies in New York State’s constitutional limit on how much property tax revenue municipalities in the state can raise.  In New York City’s case, that limit is 2.5% of the 5-year average of the full value of real property within it (with some complicated adjustments). The City has periodically bumped against that cap, so having a revenue source that is similar to a property tax, but which is not subject to the cap, is fiscally useful.

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The Perils of Private Infrastructure

It is becoming increasingly obvious that the Trump Administration is incapable of pursuing any coherent, sustained legislative strategy. The Administration was unable to play any useful role in fashioning a viable “repeal and replace” health care bill, and it seems equally clueless on the other big agenda item, tax reform. Seeing the Republican legislative machine stall out on those two priority items does not auger well for a third Trump initiative that was once thought to hold some bipartisan appeal: infrastructure spending. That is probably just as well, since any wide-ranging infrastructure bill coming from this Administration and Republican congress would likely be an ideological monstrosity that would entice little Democratic support.

An infrastructure program is, however, more suitable to a piecemeal approach than is health care or tax reform, so it is likely that some sort of  new infrastructure policy emerges over the next eighteen months. Trump’s first budget programmed $200 billion over ten years to implement his infrastructure program (while cutting the Department of Transportation’s budget for the coming year by 13 percent). A fact sheet outlined some of the principles that will guide infrastructure policy.

The Trump infrastructure program will invariably seek to maximize the private-sector role, although the Administration’s fact sheet only hints at that direction with proposals such as removing the cap on private activity bonds. Administration officials are also touting the concept of “asset recycling,” whereby government agencies sell existing public infrastructure to private operators and use the proceeds to invest in new infrastructure projects.

The notion of private firms providing public infrastructure is polarizing, with conservatives portraying public agencies as inherently corrupt and inefficient and the left portraying private operators as inevitably predatory. In reality, the economic infrastructure of the United States has always been a patchwork of private and public operations and whatever prevails in a particular region tends to be taken by its residents as the natural state of affairs. Most passenger rail transportation, for example, was originally developed by private firms but virtually all of it was eventually taken over by government entities. Similarly for water supply systems, although about one-quarter of the U.S. population is still served by private water. Conversely, about 70 percent of American households buy their electricity from private, investor-owned firms. Roads and highways, and commercial airports, have always been developed and operated primarily by governments.

In recent years governments have explored privatizing, or re-privatizing, some infrastructure or contracting with private firms to operate it. Encouraging privatization appears to be a key part of the Republican infrastructure agenda, and that will be controversial enough. Even more problematic, though, will be efforts to incentivize the private creation of new economic infrastructure. In that regard the development of Florida’s long-distance passenger rail network is instructive, highlighting both the opportunities and perils of relying on private firms to develop new infrastructure.

The Florida High Speed Rail Project

Efforts to reestablish intercity passenger rail links in Florida have a  checkered history reaching back decades. In 2000, Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment mandating the establishment of a high-speed intercity rail system. In order to implement that mandate, the Florida legislature established the Florida High Speed Rail Authority (HSRA) in 2001. However, Florida Governor Jeb Bush was opposed to the idea of a constitutional mandate for transportation infrastructure and was skeptical of the endeavor’s cost. He managed to get the rail mandate repealed in 2004, although the HRSA remained in existence and oversaw the completion in 2005 of an EIS for the Tampa-Orlando segment of a proposed system that was envisioned to eventually run from Tampa to Miami.

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Cat Tracks to Chicago

Caterpillar, Inc. became the latest corporate giant to join the back-to-the-city movement when it announced, on January 31, that it was scrapping plans to build a new headquarters building in Peoria and instead would relocate its headquarters to the Chicago area. Caterpillar has been headquartered in Peoria since 1925.

The company announced that it would be relocating a limited group of senior executives and support functions to the Chicago area. The company disclosed only that the executives would be moving into leased office space by the end of 2017, but did not specifically state that the space would be in downtown Chicago. The company expects about 300 HQ employees to staff the new offices, some of whom would be relocated from Peoria.

The firm’s CEO, Jim Umpleby, provided an interesting rationale for the relocation: “Caterpillar’s Board of Directors has been discussing the benefits of a more accessible, strategic location for some time. Since 2012, about two-thirds of Caterpillar’s sales and revenues have come from outside the United States.  Locating our headquarters closer to a global transportation hub, such as Chicago, means we can meet with our global customers, dealers and employees more easily and frequently.”

Although there are surely additional reasons for the move, Umpleby’s statement is right out of Irwin and Kasarda’s classic paper on air passenger linkages and metropolitan employment growth. Peoria is about 165 miles southwest of Chicago in central Illinois. Unlike Chicago’s O’Hare, Peoria’s General Wayne A. Downing International Airport does not offer nonstop flights to, say, London, Shanghai or Beijing.

Caterpillar’s decision also underscores the complexity of modern global business organization, which defies President Trump’s simplistic approach to trade and protectionism. The firm has 22 “principal” manufacturing facilities in the U.S., but also has plants in Australia, Belgium, Brazil, China, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Poland, Russia, Singapore, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom, and Thailand. The firm had 40,900 U.S. employees at year-end 2016, and another 54,500 abroad, including 11,400 in Latin America and 22,800 in Asia/Pacific.

The move also adds a ripple to the narrative of Midwestern industrial belt decline. In this case, the jobs are being lost to a global U.S. city rather than to a foreign country.  Caterpillar employs about 12,000 workers in the Peoria area (in a metropolitan labor market of about 175,000 payroll employees) so its footprint there will remain large. However, it is difficult to believe that this is not a continuance of a long-term shift of the firm’s higher-level executive functions to global locations with a higher level of connectivity and a richer pool of human capital.