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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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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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.

 

More Than Detroit

I recently read Thomas J. Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit. I’m a bit embarrassed that it took so long for me to get around to this outstanding book, but I guess my timing was right as I finished it on election eve.

Sugrue tells what should be a familiar story, but probably isn’t to enough people, with a great deal of nuance and impressive historical research. African Americans from the south migrated to northern industrial cities in great numbers beginning around 1920. In Detroit, as in other cities, they enjoyed some prosperity and upward mobility in the 1920s and 1940s, although that progress was harshly interrupted by the Great Depression.  The war years and the immediate postwar period were times of hope and progress, but that came to an unfortunate end as Detroit and other cities deindustrialized and decayed in the 1960s and 1970s. The deindustrialization of center cities was not a conspiracy against the black migrants, but rather it was a historical coincidence with effects so cruel as to seem designed in malice. The ensuing impoverishment of inner-city blacks conttributed to the social unrest of the 1960s and the social disorder of the 1970s.

Sugrue’s research adds to the familiar story by showing that the roots of the urban crisis were sown much earlier than is typically portrayed; no sooner had WWII ended than the auto industry begin dispersing, both to the exurbs and to other non-urban areas of the country.  Backed with research that is concrete and detailed, Sugure shows that throughout the 1950s the UAW and other labor groups were resisting industrial deconcentration and automation, but ultimately could do little to influence the corporate decisions that threatened their jobs and disrupted their communities. Of course, many white workers were able to follow their employers to the suburbs and beyond, extending their hold on working class prosperity for a few more decades.  The black workers were not even that fortunate, as discrimination in jobs and housing left them stranded in the abandoned city.

Which brings us to the second major theme of Sugure’s book–the unrelenting discrimination and segregation African Americans experienced even in the northern promised lands. I grew up in a predominately white, working class neighborhood of Queens; it eventually transitioned into an exclusively African American and Caribbean neighborhood. The original white residents were on the whole decent people, there was little organized resistance to racial change, and racial transition was by and large accepted passively as a natural and inevitable progression. “White flight” there took place in slow motion over several decades, and when the white residents left they typically “fled” to grandchildren, nursing homes and graveyards. So I’m inclined to see residential segregation as an impersonal force driven by demographic flows and maintained by individual choices.  However, the virulent racism and violent hostility to neighborhood integration in 1950s and 1960s Detroit that Sugrue painstakingly documents is revolting and dispiriting, and underscores that much energetic activism was required to maintain the color line. Although he makes an effort to understand the threats white residents perceived to their communities, his heart doesn’t seem in it and truthfully, by the time I reached those passages, this reader’s wasn’t either.

So as I put the book down on election eve and watched the results roll in from Michigan, I had conflicting emotions. I was saddened by the futility of white Michiganers voting against all logic in the desperate hope that Donald Trump and the GOP would save their jobs and communities or care enough about them even to try. But it was also hard to put out of my mind Sugure’s horrifying narrative of racial animosity and to convince myself that the echoes of it didn’t play an important role as well.

What’s Up With Retail?

 

Early this year Macy’s announced that it was closing 40 of its department stores. In April, Sears Holdings said that it would close 10 Sears and 68 Kmart stores. Then last week, Macy’s announced that it would close about 100 additional stores. Do these retrenchments represent just the normal ebb and flow of company fortunes in a competitive marketplace, or is there something more profound going on in retailing?

Well, there seem to be three strong crosswinds impacting the retail sector today, and the large department stores are taking the brunt of them. The three are middle-class income stagnation, globalization and the internet.

Through 2014 (the last year for which data is available), the average real incomes of none of the five household income quintiles had recovered to their pre-recession peaks. However, the recovery of income has been more complete for the higher income groups. While the average income of the lowest quintile of households had recovered to only 88 percent of its pre-recession peak, the average income of the highest income quartile had recovered to 98 percent.  The share of total income garnered by the three middle quintiles declined from 46.9 percent to 45.7 percent, while the share of the highest income quintile went from 49.7 to 51.2.  Retail chains that cater to higher-income shoppers are reportedly doing well, but for many large chains the three middle groups, with annual household incomes from about $21,000 to $112,000, is where the volume is, and income growth for those households has been slow.

Competition between name-brand retailers and discounters is not new, but in recent decades the out-sourcing of dry-goods production to China, Bangladesh and elsewhere has tilted the playing field in favor of the discounters. Epitomized by the Walmart formula, which combines a cheap foreign supply chain with monopsony buying power and a no-frills “supercenter” shopping experience, the discounters have increasingly pressured the department store chains (as well as smaller chains and independent retailers) that traditionally marketed fashion and quality. Warehouse clubs like Costco have also made inroads among middle-income families whose incomes have stagnated. From 2000 through 2014 the number of department stores nationally declined from about 10,500 to 8,000 while the number of supercenter and warehouse club outlets has grown from about 1,800 to 5,300.  Walmart alone operates over 3,400 supercenters. Total retail sales in warehouse clubs and supercenters are now about triple the sales volume of traditional department stores.

Traditional retailers also face intensifying competition from internet sales. In 2015, internet sales topped $432 billion. While that represents only abut 9 percent of all retail sales, e-retailing has captured about 30 percent of the retail sales growth since 2007. As a consequence, in-store retailing has grown at only a 1.2 percent real annual rate over the past eight years, compared to the 8.2 percent growth rate of e-retailing.

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Corporate Eisodos

On August 1st the NY Times ran an article on corporations leaving the suburbs for downtown city locations. Featured in the article are GE’s move to Boston, McDonald’s to Chicago, and Chemours’ decision to stay in Wilmington. The exodus of corporate headquarters to suburban locations shaped metropolitan development in America for half a century, and a reversal of the trend could have equally profound implications.

(Oddly enough, there is no direct English antonym for ‘exodus.’ The English word derives from the Greek ‘exodos’ meaning an exit or departure, and of course is associated with the biblical narrative of the Israelites’ escape from slavery in Egypt. Unfortunately, the English language never got around to expropriating its Greek antonym, eisodos, which mean an entrance or act of entering.  Anyway….)

The article is mostly anecdotal so it might be premature to extrapolate an inversion of metropolitan geography from it. Nevertheless, such anecdotes have been accumulating, suggesting something might really be going on.

Two basic explanations are offered for the increasing appeal of urban locations. One is the tax incentives (increasingly?) being offered by municipal governments to companies that are considering downtown relocations. The other is the increased livability of urban areas and corporations’ desire to access a skilled labor force that prefers city living. What’s interesting is that those two reasons represent very different philosophies of urban redevelopment, and are even somewhat contradictory. The first reflects a 1970s-era belief that it’s all about tax competition.  The second reflects a Richard Florida-type strategy that if you make cities attractive enough, the creative class will flock to them and corporations will have no choice but to follow suit. The potential contradiction is that if cities give away their tax base to attract business, there won’t be enough of it to make the quality-of-life investments necessary to attract the creative class.

But maybe they aren’t ultimately contradictory.  If a virtuous circle takes hold, opposite of the vicious cycle that occurred in the 1960s and 1970s, cities could both lower tax burdens and improve the QOL. There is nothing to suggest that central cities are at an inherent tax disadvantage; economies of scale in metropolitan infrastructure and services might even give cities a structural tax advantage. Maybe we’re reaching that stage of city-suburban competition. In any case, the $7.9 million in grants given to Chemours, cited in the article, came from the state of Delaware, not the City of Wilmington, as the DuPont spinoff was considering a move to Pennsylvania or New Jersey.