Beat the Press is Dean Baker's commentary on economic reporting. He is a Senior Economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). To never miss a post, subscribe to a weekly email highlighting the latest Beat the Press posts.

Please also consider supporting the blog on Patreon.

Follow on Twitter Like on Facebook Subscribe by E-mail RSS Feed

The NYT seems confused on how the new lower limit on mortgage interest deduction in the Republican tax bill would work. It told readers:

"The bill does retain significant subsidies, allowing home buyers to deduct interest on mortgages as high as $750,000."

In fact, the bill allows homeowners to deduct interest on $750,000 of principal, regardless of the size of the mortgage. While the phrasing in the NYT piece might have led someone to believe that they could not deduct any interest on an $800,000 mortgage, in fact, they would be able to deduct almost all of their interest.

If a homeowner was paying 4.0 percent interest on an $800,000 mortgage, they would be able to deduct the interest on $750,000, or $30,000, from their taxable income. They would only lose out on the opportunity to deduct the $2,000 in interest on the $50,000 in principal above $750,000. Furthermore, after four or five years, when they had paid some of the principal, this homeowner would again be able to deduct the full amount of interest paid on their mortgage.

This distinction is important since the reduction in the cap on mortgage principal eligible for the interest deduction (from $1,000,000 to $750,000) is likely to have a very limited impact on the housing market. The doubling of the standard deduction and the cap on deductions for state and local income and property taxes are likely to be far more important.

 

Note: Typo corrected, thanks Raleedy.

Add a comment

Everyone remembers Marco Rubio walking the union picket lines, demanding stronger enforcement of workplace safety rules, and strong fiscal stimulus to counter unemployment. Oh, wait, Senator Rubio has been on the other side of all these issues. He has opposed strengthening workers' rights to organize, stronger enforcement of workplace safety rules, as well as stimulus measures to counter unemployment.

That's okay, in New York Times-land he still gets to be a "longtime champion of the working class." The context is Senator Rubio's fight for making more of the child tax credit refundable. His threat to hold out on this issue earned a slightly more generous provision that will net a single mother earning $20,000 about $300 a year.

This would be equivalent to an increase in the minimum wage of 15 cents an hour for a full-time year-round worker. It is equal to roughly 0.15 percent of the gains for the richest 0.1 percent of taxpayers. It's great that we have The New York Times to tell us that Rubio is a champion of the working class, most of us would probably never realize it based on his actions.

Add a comment

I see that I got cited at the top of a NYT column this week. Desmond Lachman, an economist at the American Enterprise Institute (who I know and respect) had a column warning about the rise of bubbles around the world and the risk of their collapse. The first sentence tells us, "no one seemed to have anticipated the world’s worst financial crisis in the postwar period." Yeah, well I realize I wasn't very successful in getting my warnings across, but I sure did try.

Anyhow, I would say that Lachman is about half-right on the current situation. Many economies do seem to be seeing new bubbles. The housing markets in Canada, Australia, and the UK seem especially out of line. The bursting of bubbles in these markets is likely to be bad news for these countries; however, I don't see comparable bubbles in the U.S. and most other major markets. If the more clearly identifiable bubbles burst, it does not look like 2008 all over again and a worldwide recession. (China looks bubbly too, but they have managed to go four decades without a recession, so I wouldn't bet against them at this point.)

Add a comment

Ryan Avent had a nice piece in the NYT this morning pushing the argument that Jared Bernstein, Josh Bivens, and I (among others) have been making for years, that higher wages can be a force driving more rapid productivity growth. The basic point is straightforward, when labor is expensive, employers have more incentive to find ways to use less of it. In this story, anything we can do to push up wages, like promoting unionization or raising minimum wages, is likely to lead to higher productivity.

The one important point that Ryan misses in this piece is that we may already be seeing a turning point. The tightening of the labor market over the last two years has led to upward pressure on wages, especially for those at the middle and bottom of the wage distribution. As Jared and I noted:

"The real weekly earnings for full-time, low-wage workers are up by more than 3 percent over the past two years. Real weekly earnings for the median African American worker have risen by more than 5 percent over the past two years, while the increase for Hispanics has been more than 4 percent."

This rise in wages is the result of the fact that the Fed allowed the unemployment rate to keep falling to its current 4.1 percent rate rather than hiking interest rates enough to keep it near the 5.0 percent level that most economists considered the best we could do without triggering spiraling inflation.

It also looks as though higher wages may be producing the productivity dividend that we predicted. Productivity grew at a 3.0 percent annual rate in the third quarter, after growing 1.5 percent in the second quarter. With the latest projections showing GDP growth in the fourth quarter at 3.3 percent, productivity growth is likely to come in over 2.0 percent in the fourth quarter. This follows five years in which productivity growth averaged less than 0.7 percent annually.

Productivity data are notoriously erratic, so it is too early to declare the trend of weak growth over, but these are promising signs. And, there is no doubt that workers at the middle and bottom have seen decent wage growth over the last two years. These are important points to add to Ryan's piece.

Add a comment

This is a frequent mistake in reporting on the tax proposal, as in this Post article telling us:

"Under the Trump plan, pass-through businesses get a substantial reduction in taxes."

This is wrong since pass-through corporations already don't pay any taxes, so their taxes can't be reduced unless we have a negative income tax for them. The tax cut applies to income from pass-through corporations.

This distinction matters for two reasons. First, it means that taxpayers with the same income will pay different tax rates depending on its source. Under the plan passed by the Senate, anyone can get a 23 percent reduction in their tax bill if they arrange for their income to come through a pass-through corporation.

While this tax break is not likely to do much to promote economic growth, it will be rocket fuel for the tax shelter industry. There will be a flood of pass-through corporations created as higher-earning workers, like doctors and lawyers, arrange to have their income paid to them from their pass-through corporations rather than as normal wage income. (Yes, this is supposed to be illegal, but the Republicans have spent two decades gutting the IRS's enforcement capabilities. If you think the IRS, given its current resources, will be able to prevent widespread evasion, please contact me so I can sell you some digital currency.)

Add a comment

We all know that folks involved in debates on economic policy are not very good at arithmetic. That's why almost no one was able to see the $8 trillion housing bubble that sank the economy. But we can always speculate about what the world would look like if arithmetic mattered.

Right now, the Republicans are claiming that cutting the corporate income tax rate from 35 percent to 20 percent will lead to a huge surge of investment and growth. They claim that the additional growth from this tax cut will produce $1.5 trillion in extra revenue. This is why they say they can have a tax cut that totals to $1.5 trillion without increasing the budget deficit.

While almost no independent economists agree that growth will be large enough to produce this much revenue, it is at least a coherent position. Tax cuts can boost growth, and higher growth does mean more tax revenue. The problem with this story is that the Republicans are apparently no longer talking about reducing the corporate income tax to 20 percent, they are planning just to reduce it to 21 percent. Nonetheless, they are still claiming it will produce enough growth to generate $1.5 trillion in additional revenue.

Fans of arithmetic everywhere should be ridiculing the Republican leadership for flunking third-grade math. If a cut in the tax rate to 20 percent produces enough growth to generate $1.5 trillion in revenue, then a cut to 21 percent must produce somewhat less growth and therefore less revenue. In effect, the Republicans are now saying that they can get the same amount of growth and revenue regardless of the size of the tax cut.

In Republican Tax Cut World, we must have a story that looks something like this:

Size of Tax Cut                                                       Revenue Generated from Additional Growth

15 percentage points to 20 percent                           $1.5 trillion

14 percentage points to 21 percent                           $1.5 trillion

13 percentage points to 22 percent                           $1.5 trillion

12 percentage points to 23 percent                           $1.5 trillion

11 percentage points to 24 percent                           $1.5 trillion

10 percentage points to 25 percent                           $1.5 trillion

9 percentage points to 26 percent                             $1.5 trillion

8 percentage points to 27 percent                             $1.5 trillion

7 percentage points to 28 percent                             $1.5 trillion

6 percentage points to 29 percent                             $1.5 trillion

5 percentage points to 30 percent                             $1.5 trillion

4 percentage points to 31 percent                             $1.5 trillion

3 percentage points to 32 percent                             $1.5 trillion

2 percentage points to 33 percent                             $1.5 trillion

1 percentage points to 34 percent                             $1.5 trillion

Yes, this is pretty damn ridiculous, but fortunately for the Republicans, knowledge of arithmetic is rare in Washington policy circles, so they will likely get away with claiming the same revenue dividend from additional growth, even with a smaller tax cut.

Add a comment

This line inexplicably appeared in the middle of an NYT article about a contract between the Communications Workers of America and AT&T which provides job protection and pay increases for 20,000 workers. It also apparently includes a commitment from AT&T to bring some jobs back to the United States.

There is nothing in the piece that identifies any policy being pushed by President Trump which would keep more low- and middle-skilled jobs in the United States. His actions to date do not demonstrate this sort of commitment. For example, he has displayed little interest in reducing the value of the dollar against currencies, which is the most immediate determinant of the relative competitiveness of the United States. He has supported the tax plans being pushed by congressional Republicans, which will altogether exempt the foreign profits of U.S. corporations from being taxed by the United States.

He also has done nothing to increasingly expose more highly skilled workers, like doctors and dentists, to international competition, which would reduce the pressure on less-skilled workers. And, he has pushed measures to increase protectionism for patents and copyrights, as well as imposing rules on digital commerce on our trading partners. These would have the effect of increasing the income of US corporations from foreign countries which would, other things equal, mean increased deficits in the areas that employ and low- and middle-skilled workers.

It seems like the comment about Trump wanting to keep low- and middle-skilled jobs in the United States was largely a throwaway line. It would have been best just to throw it away rather than include it in an otherwise solid article.

Add a comment

Fox News and Atlantic Magazine have zero shame. The latter has a major article telling readers that Social Security is "the grandparents stealing from the grandchildren."

The piece is a cornucopia of misstatements about Social Security and Medicare, most importantly implying that today seniors get some big windfall from the programs and that it somehow comes at the expense of our grandchildren. Both parts of this claim are seriously wrong.

In the case of Social Security, most people retiring in the near future will actually get back from the program roughly the same amount that they paid in, using standard interest rates. Low- and-moderate income people will get back somewhat more, whereas "high earners" (defined as people earning around $75,000 a year) will get back less.

The average value of Medicare benefits will exceed tax payments, but this is due to the high cost of medical care in the United States. While we don't have better health care outcomes in the United States than in Germany, Canada, or other wealthy countries, we do pay around twice as much per person as these other countries. The difference is the greater price of drugs and medical equipment, the cost of insurance, and the pay of doctors. A serious article would look at how these big actors in the health care industry are stealing from our grandchildren, but not the Atlantic.

The other part of the story is the implication that somehow the Social Security and Medicare received by seniors is limiting our ability to ensure a decent standard of living for our children and grandchildren. This is lunatic land. As the Republicans are showing right now, we are not near any limits in our ability to run larger deficits. We could always impose higher taxes on the rich who have been the big gainers from economic growth over the last four decades, due to their rigging of the economy.

We could also reverse some of the rigging. For example, ending patent monopolies on prescription drugs and allowing them to be bought at free market prices would save us close to $370 billion a year, roughly half of which would take the form of savings to the government. Expansionary fiscal and monetary policy that allows the unemployment rate to fall to lower levels also disproportionately benefits those at the bottom of the income ladder, benefiting our children and grandchildren by giving their parents jobs and the bargaining power to get pay increases at those jobs.

Add a comment

Did you hear the one about...? Okay, it's not that funny, but the Washington Post tells us that the Republicans are now considering a 21 percent corporate tax rate instead of the 20 percent rate that was in the bill passed by both the House and Senate.

The reason this matters is that the Republicans are assuming their tax bill will lead to additional growth, which they claim means $1.5 trillion in new revenue over the next decade. While virtually no economists outside of the administration accept this claim (the Joint Tax Committee assumes one third of this growth effect), the ostensible basis for the claim is the incentive for new investment based on a 20 percent corporate tax rate.

The problem here is that a 21 percent corporate tax rate means less of a reduction in taxes than a 20 percent corporate tax rate. This means it should provide less incentive to invest and a smaller increment to growth and revenue. But apparently, the Republicans don't intend to change their $1.5 trillion target implicitly leaving their growth assumption unchanged even though they've changed the basis for the assumption.

Welcome to the modern Republican Party: Up is Down, Night Is Day, and American is Great Again.

Add a comment

As the labor market has tightened, many of us have looked to trends in wage growth to see evidence that we could be hitting full employment. While the tighter labor market has led to gains for those at the middle and bottom of the wage distribution, it has not led to a general acceleration in wage growth. The year-over-year increase in the average hourly wage was just 2.5 percent for November, roughly the same as it has been for the last two years.

In spite of the weak wage growth, news outlets continually tell us that employers are unable to find workers with the necessary skills. The argument is that more people would be hired if only the unemployed workers had the skills required by employers.

This story doesn't fit with the weak wage growth story since there are always workers with the necessary skills — they just might work for competitors or in another city. The way employers attract these workers is by offering a higher wage. If we don't see wages rising, then this story doesn't really make sense. (Employers would always like to find workers who will accept below-market wages; so what?)

Nonetheless, we often see people citing the Bureau of Labor Statistics data on job openings and hires to argue the case that companies can't find workers with the needed skills. There has been a fall in the ratio of monthly hires to job openings over the last decade. This is taken as evidence that employers have positions that are going unfilled because they can't find skilled workers. A closer look at the data indicates otherwise.

Add a comment