This Unique, Terrible, Phony, Fraught-with-Lies Moment in American Politics

Jared Bernstein

Jared Bernstein Senior Fellow, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

This will be brief, because a note about how the political debate is misleading isn’t exactly breaking news or even, admittedly, that interesting. So, I’d consider it a personal favor if you’ll allow me to vent for a moment.

It’s just that the extent to which we’re being lied to right now seems, to me at least, uniquely over the top. The transparency of the BS is just so obvious, especially on Cassidy-Graham, the just-as-bad-as-all-the-others repeal and replace bill that may get a vote in the Senate next week.

Same with the tax “plan.” Even though there is no real plan yet, what we’ve seen so far is mostly tax cuts for wealthy businesses and corporations, the cost of which will get loaded onto the deficit. Yet its proponents are selling it as a pro-growth package that lifts the working class.

My CBPP colleagues have been hammering on how C-G is just as much a wolf as past R repeal bills, despite its sheep’s clothing. It cuts health care spending on ACA functions by over $200 billion, 2020-26, and much more in later years (a new study by the health analysis firm Avalere comes up with similar numbers; see their table below) and that doesn’t count cuts to the traditional Medicaid program, which under C-G is no longer guaranteed to expand to meet the health needs of low-income recipients. Under C-G: “Faced with a recession…states would have to either dramatically increase their own spending on health care or, as is far more likely, deny help to people losing their jobs and their health insurance.”

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Today’s Census Data on Poverty, Income, and Heath Insurance

Jared Bernstein

Jared Bernstein Senior Fellow, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

A solid report, showing gains across the spectrum. But inequality’s up too, and median earnings, not so much…

My data dive in the WaPo underscores the clearly favorable results in the report, but here are a few other factoids to consider:

–While this isn’t the best data for inequality analysis, for reasons I note in the WaPo, my piece points out the relative difference between gains at the 10th and 95th percentile. That observation is correct, but the 10th %’ile is a bit of a negative outlier. Better to look at a more stable statistic, the average real income gain for the bottom fifth, up 2.6% last year, compared to a 5.6% gain among the richest 5% of households. The bottom half gained last year, but not as much as the top.

–It’s also true that incomes shares going to the middle and low income households are at all time lows, as the figure reveals. (See note in WaPo piece, however, re the impact of the 2013 survey change on comparisons like this. I think it’s a legit comparison, and it comports with other, better inequality data–where better means inclusive of more data sources, including taxes, more transfers, and capital gains–showing even more growth in inequality.)

Source: Census Bureau

–The lack of change in real median earnings for full-time, full-year workers last year is worth noodling over a bit. It surely reflects a composition effect as lower-paid were drawn into the sample last year, pulling down the median (see here for how this works). But even considering that reality, look at this series for men since 1960:

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An Important Fact Check on Manufacturing Value-Added and Employment

Jared Bernstein

Jared Bernstein Senior Fellow, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

So, I’m driving around doing errands this past weekend when I hear former Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez (in GW Bush’s cabinet) interviewed about renegotiating NAFTA. He’s a big booster of the trade deal and wanted to make the point that any job loss in manufacturing was a result of faster productivity growth, not imbalanced trade. His evidence was as follows (my bold):

One of the things I go back to very often is our manufacturing as a percent of GDP. Our manufacturing output is pretty stable, pretty flat. If you go back 10, 15 years, it’s between 12 and 14 percent. But our manufacturing workforce has been declining steadily. So we’re producing the same output with fewer people. What that tells me is that technology is more of a threat to American jobs than trade.

Stable manufacturing output share of GDP?! I practically dropped the dry cleaning!

The first figure shows that, in fact, manufacturing’s share of output (blue line) has been falling since I was born in the mid-1950s. It was 11.7% in 2016, 13% in 2006, and 13.9% in the 2001. OK, that’s roughly between 12 and 14 percent, but it ain’t stable. It’s falling, and pretty steadily. In fact, Louis Uchitelle just published an important book on this long-term trend.*

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Yes, the “Skinny Repeal” is Just a Play to Get to Conference. But It’s Also Terrible Policy.

Jared Bernstein

Jared Bernstein Senior Fellow, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

Readers know I’ve been deeply engaged in the healthcare debate, and highly critical of the efforts thus far to repeal and replace, demean and deface, disgust and disgrace, etc.

But I haven’t weighed in on up to the minute changes in part because they’re changing fast and because the journalists who follow this are doing a good job of tracking developments in the Senate.

In sum, Senate R’s have failed to pass any of the repeal and/or replace bills they’ve come up with so far. At this point, McConnell looks to be counting on getting to 50 votes with “skinny repeal,” which gets rid of the individual and employer mandates, along with a tax on medical devices.

At one level, this is high strategery. His play is to get to conference, i.e., once both chambers have passed bills, the R’s convene a committee that tries to agree on a plan that R majorities in both houses will support. There’s no requirement that what comes out of conference looks like what went in, and that means they’re most likely to go right back to the full, draconian repeal-and-replace cuts that would lead to tens of millions losing coverage.

Would Senate “moderates” who’ve blocked these bills thus far backtrack and vote for stuff they’ve heretofore opposed, like huge cuts to Medicaid or ending coverage of pre-existing conditions, maternal care, mental health, substance abuse treatment, etc.? They might, but it’s worth remembering that the debate on the conference bill is constrained, no amendments are allowed, and leadership will be in full arm-twisting mode.

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The Deficits Generated by Trump’s Budget are Much Bigger than CBO’s Estimates

Jared Bernstein

Jared Bernstein Senior Fellow, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

The figure below, from Senate Budget Committee staffer Bobby Kogan, shows four different estimates of projected budget deficits as shares of GDP:

–The lowest line is the administration’s own estimate, showing how if you buy their numbers–and if you do, I’ve got a bridge to sell you–the budget balances by 2027.

–The next line up is from today’s CBO release of their analysis of President’s budget. Note that CBO must adhere to claims that tax cuts will be paid for, even if there’s no credible plan to do so.

–The next line is CBO’s baseline, or the path they believe the deficit will follow if we stick to current law.

–The top line is the most important. It’s the deficit as a share of GDP under the far more credible assumption that team Trump fails to pay for their tax cuts (using Tax Policy Center static estimates of the cost of their tax cuts, with interest costs added; ftr, TPC’s dynamic score line looks the same).

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Supply-side, trickle-down nonsense on the NYT oped page

Jared Bernstein

Jared Bernstein Senior Fellow, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

There’s a robust debate to be had as to why the NYT published this op-ed on the alleged economic benefits of trickle-down tax cuts, as virtually every paragraph touts an alternative fact. It is the opinion page, I guess, and the authors advise (or at least advised) the president, so I can see why it’s there. But it does require debunking, so thanks NYT, for some make work.

Here’s much of the article’s text, followed by my comments in italics:

In the aftermath of the health care blowup, President Trump and the Republicans need a legislative victory. Tax reform probably should have gone first, but now is the time to move it forward with urgency.

By tax reform, as they admit below, the authors mean tax cuts. This is no such urgency at all. If anything, based on simple demographics alone, we’re going to need more, not less, revenue. This is a typical ploy in this space: create an emergency that can only be solved by tax cuts on the wealthy. If you listen carefully, you hear their fear that their tactics aren’t working, and the tax debate has gotten gummed up. That’s music to my ears, but cacophony to theirs.

Unfortunately, the White House seems all over the map on the subject. One day there is a trial balloon for a value-added tax. The next, the idea of a carbon tax or a reciprocal tax. And now we are hearing the curve ball of a payroll tax cut. Steve Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, has thrown cold water on the idea of any tax bill meeting the August deadline.

One sure lesson from the health care setback is the old admonition “Keep it simple, stupid.” The Republicans tried to fix the trillion-dollar health insurance market instead of keeping the focus on repealing Obamacare.

I take their point re the lurching of the White House on taxes, which really is remarkable and reveals the lack of not just any planning or coalition building, but even a clear sense of what they want to do on taxes. The idea that “keeping the focus on repealing Obamacare” would work, however, makes no sense, and reveals that the authors’ magical thinking extends beyond tax cuts to health care. Republican voters don’t want Obamacare to be replaced with nothing. They want more health care at less cost, which was what Trump promised them.

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Hey, No Fair! Governing is Hard!

Jared Bernstein

Jared Bernstein Senior Fellow, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

First, over at WaPo, check out my latest summary of the CBO score of the Republican’s just downright nasty, greedy “health care plan.”

Next, I agreed with David Leonhardt’s useful bit of history here, wherein he deconstructs the corner into which Republicans have painted themselves:

How did the party’s leaders put themselves in this position? The short answer is that they began believing their own hype and set out to solve a problem that doesn’t exist.

I agree, but I also think there’s something more prosaic going on here, and that is that it’s just way easier not to govern. That’s especially the case with health care, of which the politics are just wholly unforgiving.

Given today’s political dynamics, it is so much easier to be in permanent campaign mode, stoking your base, throwing endless spitballs at the folks trying to legislate. Moreover, these are precisely the things contemporary Republicans are good at: endless spin, endless shade throwing, fact-free opposition research, and very effectively–much more so than Democrats–applying those tools to getting elected.

You see the problem, however. Once you get so good at these techniques that the voters you’ve hoodwinked put you in power, you have to govern. That requires policy chops, real facts, and political compromise, all of which go in exactly the opposite direction of what got you into power in the first place.

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It’s here: CBPP’s top graphs of last year!

Jared Bernstein

Jared Bernstein Senior Fellow, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

Happy new year and welcome to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities top graphs of 2016 special! I’ll be your host, joined later by musical guest…whoops, sorry. What with the urgency of the moment, there’s no space for a band this year. So let’s jump into the facts and figures (and to be clear–and fair to my CBPP colleagues–this is but a small sample of our best stuff; take my advice and, if you haven’t already, bookmark our site and visit it often; current threats have us shifting into overdrive).

This year’s theme is a somber one: the fragility of the gains we’ve made.

First, the GOP appears poised to engage in a War on Poverty Programs. In order to help finance their highly regressive tax cuts, they’re likely to target programs like Medicaid and SNAP (food stamps), e.g., by turning them into block grants to states. This robs these programs of their vital countercyclical impact, like that shown in the figure below. Back in 2010, as the Great Recession was pummeling low-income households, the safety net did what it’s designed to do: catch people when the market fails.

What’s that? You’re skeptical that block grants would truly undermine the effectiveness of our anti-poverty programs. Well, observe this next figure, showing the growing failure of cash assistance to reach needy families since it was turned into a block grant back in the mid-1990s.

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Sorry, Mr. Puzder: no correlation between exchange premiums and restaurant employment

Jared Bernstein

Jared Bernstein Senior Fellow, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

My colleague Ben Spielberg made this neat scatterplot today in reference to a claim by Labor Secretary designee Andrew Puzder. Puzder claimed that a “government mandated restaurant recession” was caused by rising premiums in the Obamacare exchanges. The idea is that consumers, after paying for health coverage, didn’t have enough left to go out to eat.

If so, we should see restaurant employment falling – or, at least, growing more slowly – in states where Obamacare premiums rose. But, as the scatterplot reveals, there’s little correlation at all between these two variables (and what there is goes the wrong way for Puzder’s case).

There are lots of reasons for that non-correlation, not least of which is that the vast majority of Americans do not get coverage through the exchanges–only 7% obtain coverage through the non-group market. See this Scheiber/Strom piece in the NYT for more details.

As I said therein: “We see different goals between a business owner trying to hold down costs and a national policy maker who ought to be focused on making sure that the benefits of growth are fairly and broadly shared. For a guy like Puzder, suppressing labor costs is a good day at work. For the labor secretary, that’s not the goal.”

***

This was reposted from On the Economy.

If the Trump administration wants to do something useful, should progressives still oppose them?

Jared Bernstein

Jared Bernstein Senior Fellow, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

The question I pose above came out of this piece I posted in today’s WaPo on confusion in the Trump camp about trade deals and trade deficits:

To hear President-elect Trump tell it, ripping up, repealing or renegotiating international trade deals will bring back lost factory jobs and restore the glory days of the American working class. Wilbur Ross, Trump’s nominee to run the Commerce Department, plans to work with his new boss to release America from “the bondage” of “bad trade agreements.”

Conversely, to President Obama, the for-now defunct Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement would have boosted America’s growth, raised living, environmental and labor standards in the 11 other signatory countries, and blocked China from dominating the global stage.

They can’t both be right, and the record shows that neither are. Those hoping that American industry will rise again if and when the president-elect whacks deals like the North American or Korea trade deals will be profoundly disappointed. Neither does the failure of the TPP pave the way for the rise of our new Chinese overlords.

The problem with this hyper-elevation of trade deals is that it conflates the deals with the trade. The real problem, as I’ll explain, is the persistent and economically large trade deficits that the United States has run with our trading partners since the mid-1970s, which at this point have little to do with trade deals.

If the Trump administration seriously intends to help the displaced manufacturing workers and communities that were instrumental in the president-elect’s upset victory, it will need to shift its line of attack from trade deals to the trade deficit.

I think it would be good economic policy, and probably good politics–though truth be told, I really have no idea anymore about what’s good politics–to help workers, families, and communities hurt by the downsides of globalization. For years, elites from all sides of the aisle have basically ignored these people’s loss of high value-added work, assuring them that globalization is always and everywhere a force for good, at least as long as the winners win enough such that they can compensate the losers.

Whether or not they do so–i.e., compensate the losers–well, that’s “outside the model.”

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