…because I’m an economist and a mom–that’s why!

Is Federal Budget Season Nothing to Get Excited About?

January 19th, 2010 . by economistmom

Over on Roll Call, Stan Collender suggests that the release of the federal budget is no longer a big deal–not even to the fiscal policy wonks working here inside the Beltway:

There was a time when the submission of the president’s budget to Congress was a very big deal. Not only was it a front-page story across the country, but the major daily newspapers typically had a multi-page spread with reporters pulled from other beats to write about many different aspects of what was proposed. The president’s budget typically didn’t just lead the evening news on the day it was released; it dominated that night’s broadcast and was the subject of follow-up reports through the week.

It’s not the same today. Although the phrase “dead on arrival” hasn’t been as evident in recent years as it was a decade or so ago, the president’s budget still often quickly fades from view. Instead of being news for days or even weeks, the president’s budget increasingly has become a one-day story…

To a certain extent, the president’s budget has always been at least partly a political document. But the budget’s other major roles — providing an accounting of what was done in the past and serious plans for what to do next — increasingly have taken a backseat to the political aspects of what’s being proposed today. That’s why the substantive, functional presentations of what’s in the president’s budget have been replaced over the years with things that provide decidedly less information…

Well, true, the budget document has become a little too glossy and a little less than perfectly clear on the details of the President’s tax and spending proposals (and speaking of being “clear”–this analysis from Sunday’s Washington Post and accompanying video above may interest you).  But it’s still true that the President’s budget, no matter how vague, still lays out a hugely important agenda or at least “vision” for fiscal policy going forward.  And what the budget can do to motivate us to get on the best path going forward is a lot more valuable than any detailed documentation of how past decisions (good and bad) led us here.

In the submission of this year’s budget, President Obama is choosing among a huge range of paths going forward.  He might present a budget that looks very much like the one he presented last year–with recommended policies that would lead to a ten-year deficit of more than $9 trillion, which CBO explained (last summer) more than doubles the deficits that would occur under current law.  Or he might choose to revise his plans this year in light of his Administration’s own worsening deficit projections and a still-slow-to-recover economy:  if he modifies his position on the extension of the Bush tax cuts by only temporarily extending them, for example, he could reduce the deficit impact of his proposals by maybe 40 percent.  The difference between just these two options:  staying the course outlined last year versus cutting back on the deficit-financed Bush tax cuts, is the difference between being on an “unsustainable” path versus starting down a sounder path that could more reasonably lead to longer-term fiscal sustainability if coupled with some strategies to encourage some tough choices going forward.

So I think this federal budget season and the President’s upcoming budget is something to get excited about, no matter the details or lack of details in the actual budget document, and no matter how political the “spin” on the budget proposals will be–or how glossy the pictures.  Let me be clear(!):  there are real and huge matters of substance underlying the President’s budget, and what the President says in his budget (as well as how he says it and “sells” it) will indeed really matter–hugely.

So if despite Stan saying the budget is nothing to get excited about or gear up for, you’re still (like me) looking forward to seeing it, you can get ready for it by studying what’s on Donald Marron’s fiscal outlook reading list;)

Why Can’t We All Just Get Along in Terms of Dealing with the Fiscal Outlook?

January 18th, 2010 . by economistmom

This week the Senate will be debating an increase in the federal debt limit, necessary because before Congress recessed for the holidays, they had passed an increase that bought them only a couple more months. What makes this week’s consideration of the debt limit more interesting is the potential for amendments that would attempt to inject more discipline into the budget process just as the budget constraint is (again) being relaxed.

One such amendment would create a deficit-reduction panel (or “task force” or don’t-dare-say “commission”).  The problem with that idea?  As Jackie Calmes wrote last week in the New York Times, even policymakers who want to do something to reduce the deficit in the name of “fiscal responsibility” don’t always want to work on (all of) the specific ways to reduce the deficit:

…the same partisan divisions that keep elected officials from cutting spending and raising taxes enough to rein in deficits are also at play in the debate over a panel to make those decisions and force action.

The Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, has said tax increases should not be an option, while some Democrats see a budget panel as a threat to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

“A claim that any of those items should be off the table is a claim that you really don’t want to do anything about the problem,” Mr. Gregg said. “You can’t resolve the out-year financial problems of this country, which are massive, unless you have everything on the table.”

The Senate has been far more receptive to the commission concept than the House; witness their different health reform bills, with only the Senate’s specifying the “independent payment advisory board.”  The House has generally opposed the idea because they believe it would take too much power away from Congress.  (Sadly, that is the point.)

Another possible amendment would consider a statutory pay-as-you-go (PAYGO) rule on new (mandatory) spending or tax cuts.  The House already passed a version of this last year, but the Senate has generally been cold to PAYGO for a diversity of reasons: Senate Republicans don’t like having to pay for tax cuts and think that the House’s exemption of the bulk of the Bush tax cuts plus AMT relief isn’t “blanket-enough” of an exemption, and Senator Conrad has argued that the exemption is too generous to allow PAYGO to make enough of a difference.

So the Senate and the House haven’t been able to agree on the right form of fiscal discipline to pair with the debt limit increase; they all just agree we have to increase the debt limit.

Meanwhile, advocacy groups are mobilizing this week to pitch their cases for or against the debt-limit increase (and these associated amendments) to Congress, and there’s clear disagreement here, too.  In this case the groups seem to divide not so much by political party as by generation.  On the one hand, you have young “Millennials” holding a rally on Wednesday calling on Congress to get more serious about fiscal responsibility, and their positions include supporting the idea of a fiscal commission.  On the other hand, you have “elderbloggers” (their label, not mine) organizing a “call-in day” in opposition to the Senate’s consideration of a fiscal commission.  I find it unfortunate to see this form of (what at least feels like) “intergenerational warfare,” because I truly believe that the different generations share common–not mutually exclusive–goals.  (We all have (or had) parents, and many of us have children–and we care about them.)  But labels and hyped-up reactions to labels unfortunately have a way of encouraging false conflict.

More later this week as the drama unfolds.

Performance-Based Giving

January 15th, 2010 . by economistmom


Over on Politics Daily, Donna Trussell reminds us that just because times of extreme tragedy (such as the devastation in Haiti) encourage people to donate in a hurry with no questions asked, doesn’t mean we can afford to waste our money.  It doesn’t take much time to check out the organizations that are not only reputable but also might maximize your “difference per donation buck.”  Donna explains how to “think before you plunk”:

Charity Navigator is a nonprofit that rates other nonprofits, with the self-described goal of serving as an “intelligent guide to giving.” The group is unaffiliated with any other charity in the world, and claims objectivity and independence.

Charities are rated on organizational efficiency and organizational capacity, answering questions such as: How effectively does a charity use the dollars it gets from donors? Does it overpay its CEO or staff? Does it spend more on fundraising than on its mission? Does it have the infrastructure to get things done? Is there anything unusual on the balance sheet?

In other words: Is the charity competent? And is it honest?

Donna highlights some of the organizations most likely to make the most difference per dollar in Haiti:

Charity Navigator has a whole page devoted to highly rated organizations providing relief to earthquake survivors in Haiti.

Doctors Without Borders is a 4-star charity. They’re already in Haiti, and, since the quake, have served over a thousand patients in tents they’ve set up.

Another 4-star charity, Partners in Health, is less famous than Doctors Without Borders, but is highly respected (and also highly efficient, using just 5 percent of its funds for overhead). Partners in Health has been in Haiti for years, and they are working hard now to save as many lives as they can in this medical catastrophe.

Please consider these 4-star charities too. Each one uses less than 2 percent of revenues for overhead:

Operation USA is sending medical aid.

Heart to Heart International is preparing a major response.

Direct Relief International is sending food and medicine to Haitian hospitals.

I also recommend the GlobalGiving Foundation, an online “giving marketplace” of sorts, through which you can donate to particular charities and particular projects.  GlobalGiving has set up their own relief fund for the Haiti earthquake, or you can direct your donation to the individual organizations working on the ground in Haiti, including Partners in Health mentioned above.

Hope and Despair

January 15th, 2010 . by economistmom


Some hopeful news on the health reform negotiations regarding the revenue offset, reported by Ezra Klein:

On a 4:30 p.m. conference call, representatives of the labor movement triumphantly announced the details of their excise tax deal, and I’ll list them in a moment. Before I do, however, here’s the bottom line: The excise tax is virtually unchanged.

The major elements of the excise tax are, first, the threshold at which plans begin getting taxed, and second, how quickly that threshold grows. In the Senate bill, the tax begins on family plans costing $23,000 a year, and that sum grows at the rate of inflation in the Consumer Price Index plus one percentage point (so if inflation that year was 3.3 percent, the threshold would grow by 4.3 percent).

In the excise tax deal announced today, the threshold becomes $24,000, and the growth rate is exactly the same. The basics of the tax are virtually unchanged. The other elements of the deal are that vision and dental coverage aren’t included in the taxable cost of the plan; there are adjustments for the age and gender of the pool (so if your insurance is expensive because everyone in your group is 52, there’s an adjustment for that); and it doesn’t hit union plans until 2018, which gives them time to renegotiate their contracts — – presumably rebalancing their compensation away from expensive insurance plans and towards higher wages, which is exactly what the tax is supposed to.

But also some despair on the deficit reduction front, as CQ reported the AARP’s objections to the little shreds of fiscal discipline we deficit hawks were clinging to:

The powerful AARP lobby on Thursday called on senators to defeat a proposal to create a debt-fighting commission, as well as any plan to put the “pay-as-you-go” budget rules into law.

Both approaches to stemming the tide of red ink will be considered as floor amendments when the Senate begins debate Jan. 20 on legislation to raise the debt ceiling…

The same CQ story explains why “by transitivity” we’re unlikely to get Congress to even agree on a commission, if that commission in turn is expected to recommend proposals that actually reduce the deficit (emphasis added):

[Senators] Conrad and Gregg say such an approach is the only way to get Congress to pass politically dangerous cuts to programs such as Social Security, or equally unpopular tax increases.

AARP is just the latest organization to denounce the idea. Liberal groups have become increasingly vocal in their opposition to the commission, echoing AARP’s warning it would cut Social Security and Medicare benefits. And some conservatives are now opposing the idea on grounds that it would result in tax increases.

The commission amendment will need 60 votes to be adopted, which appears highly unlikely at this point.

When are we going to start letting kids vote and have as much say about their economic future as these people who will be long gone by the time the consequences are realized?  All the arguing and so-called “compromising” among the older folks regarding the course of fiscal policy (”No, get your hands off my Medicare”…”Then you get your hands off my tax cuts”) just ends up “cutting the baby in half”–over and over again.

Attention 20-Something Readers of This Blog!

January 14th, 2010 . by economistmom

Are you neither an economist nor a mom nor a middle-aged budget analyst and yet are strangely drawn to read my blog?

Are you looking for a job, or a better job, and want to get your foot in the door of the federal fiscal policy world?

The Concord Coalition (my employer) is looking to hire a “research assistant”–but I think that job title understates the breadth and depth of this position.   This is a paid, full-time (but entry-level) position for someone who loves working on federal budget policy.  It entails a lot of responsibility, and at Concord we only hire people who are true “self-starters” and like to hit the ground running and get immersed in everything we do.  So if you think there’s a little “geeky budget analyst” as well as “media-and-tech-savvy, creative outreach person” in you–and I’d like to think that any young people who read this blog (for fun?) are a highly-selective sample–then you’re perfect for the job.  Here is the link to the page with the job description on Concord’s website.  That page also contains the description for interns we’re looking to hire on a part-time basis, interns who would probably spend at least part of their time helping me with this blog and some video blogging I’m supposed to have already started doing.  (I’ll be working on my own (EconomistMom) “plea for help” internship description that I hope to post here in the next few days.)

On Measuring Success by the Money You Spend

January 13th, 2010 . by economistmom


It seems that the Obama Administration will start to measure the “success” of the stimulus (the “recovery and reinvestment act”) the same way the Bush Administration used to brag about the “success” of their tax cuts.  As AP’s Brett Blackledge reported last night (emphasis added):

WASHINGTON – The White House has abandoned its controversial method of counting jobs under President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus, making it impossible to track the number of jobs saved or created with the $787 billion in recovery money.

Despite mounting a vigorous defense of its earlier count of more than 640,000 jobs credited to the stimulus, even after numerous errors were identified, the Obama administration now is making it easier to give the stimulus credit for hiring. It’s no longer about counting a job as saved or created; now it’s a matter of counting jobs funded by the stimulus.

That means that any stimulus money used to cover payroll will be included in the jobs credited to the program, including pay raises for existing employees and pay for people who never were in jeopardy of losing their positions.

Yes, it’s a lot easier doing cost-benefit analysis when you don’t have to worry about measuring the benefits.  Have I told you recently about how much money I’ve spent on my kids–their college applications and visits, their ballet lessons, their sports programs, and why, even their stylish wardrobes?…  I must be a really successful parent!

And on my dogs?  I don’t think I’ve yet told you about my newest dog (adopted him 3 1/2 months ago), but let me give you a hint about how great he is…


And if you want a successful marriage, start with an engagement ring like this one.  Hey, it’s from Costco even!  ;)

Why the Excise Tax Must Be Part of the Agreement on Health Reform

January 12th, 2010 . by economistmom

…Because it’s the closest thing we’ve got to reversing the tax-free treatment of employer-provided health benefits (granted through the income tax exclusion);

…which is the most immediate and surest route we have right now to “organically” dampen the growth in health costs (”bend the health cost curve”).

But don’t take my word for it; read what Paul Krugman has to say about it:

The argument for limiting the tax exclusion is that the tax break on health insurance encourages over-spending, so limiting it could help in the process of “bending the curve”. More generally, since we think the United States spends too much on health for not-so-good results, it makes sense where possible to pay for expanding coverage from the health sector itself. Both arguments are reasonable…

Even with the excise tax, premiums are likely to rise over time — just more slowly than they would have otherwise. So what we’re really asking is whether slowing the growth of premiums would reduce the squeeze rising health costs would otherwise have placed on wages. Surely the answer is yes…

A last general point: we really don’t know what it will take to rein in health costs, but that’s a reason to try every plausible idea that experts have proposed. Limiting tax deductibility is definitely one of those ideas.

Bottom line: the details of the excise tax should be fixed, but it’s on balance a good idea.

And Ezra Klein offers similar support (and like Krugman responds to particular criticisms against the excise tax), but adds some frank talk about what bending the health cost curve entails:

no one should be under the illusion that this tax will not cause some pain, or upset some voters, or assail the plans of some middle-class workers. It will. But it’s worth saying this very clearly: You cannot design a cost control that won’t. The health-care cost problem is not a problem of the rich and famous. It is not a problem that can be painlessly solved by limiting insurance company profits (much, much too small) or reducing payments to providers (which would mean long waits and less access). Everything has tradeoffs. Everything has losers.

Compared to what we’re going to have to do in the long run, the excise tax is small change. It won’t hurt many people. It won’t hurt folks badly. It has the chance to do some real good. And if it fails, it’s easy to repeal an unpopular tax. But if the hope is that someone will discover a cost control that no one dislikes and that produces no losers, it’s going to be a long while in coming. In the meantime, we need to start trying cost controls. Passing up this opportunity will only make the eventual reckoning worse.

That’s why the excise tax on high-end health insurance plans, which is in the Senate version of the health reform bill but not the House version, must not be compromised away.  The House has nothing equivalently effective at cost control in their version to trade.  Their alternative for a revenue offset, a millionaire surtax with a deepening (unindexed) reach over time (even in the optimistic case where that deepening reach is followed through on), would not even keep up with rising health costs, let alone control them.

Yes, Deficit Hawks CAN Have Their Cake and Eat It, Too

January 10th, 2010 . by economistmom

hawks-eating-cake-webformatDeficit Hawks “having their (deficit reduction) cake and eating it (stimulus) too” by EconomistMom

A couple days ago Catherine Rampell asked on the New York Times’ “Economix” blog:  What does it mean to be a “deficit hawk?”  Her question was motivated by the sometimes puzzling coexistence within any particular “deficit hawk”–me included–of a willingness to address the short-term weakness in the economy using fiscal stimulus and a concern about the longer-term fiscal outlook.  As Catherine puts it, economists like me who believe in an activist role of government and yet care about the federal debt and fiscal responsibility (emphasis added):

…[seem] worried about losing their budget-consciousness bona-fides because they are currently urging legislators to expand stimulus efforts, or at least not to curb them.

But can you really be a deficit hawk who supports deficit spending?

Depends whom you ask, and when. Many Keynesians would say yes, at least during a downturn. And many have complained to me — both on and off the record — that the popular you-either-support-economic-recovery-or-you-support-deficit-reduction rhetoric is a false dichotomy perpetuated by the media (and advocacy organizations like the Peter G. Peterson Foundation).

Last month the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, another fiscal policy group who could easily be considered part of those organizations “like” PGPF, responded to Stan Collender’s “break up with the deficit hawks” post with a post of their own that basically said “Huh?  Are you talking about us?!  Since when did we ever say (as you claim, Stan) that we must: reduce the federal deficit at all times no matter what”, or that we are against everything all the time that increases the deficit”?

So in that spirit of defensiveness and on behalf of my employer, the Concord Coalition, let me chime in with my own “Huh?” Certainly the Concord Coalition does not “perpetuate” that “false dichotomy” between the goals of short-term economic stabilization and those of longer-term fiscal responsibility–because we do not believe those goals are mutually exclusive.  As we wrote in a Concord issue brief a year ago (emphasis added):

[T]he Obama administration and Congress should pursue a recovery strategy that combines:

  1. Deficit spending in the short term on policies that will quickly stimulate consumption, create jobs, or provide assistance to cash-strapped households;
  2. Critical public investments over the longer term that will ultimately increase our nation’s productive capacity; and
  3. A long-term fiscal sustainability strategy focused on reforming health care, Social Security and the tax system.

What I think makes the Concord Coalition deserving of Stan’s “substantively based deficit hawk” label is that in recommending short-term deficit spending we don’t mean to suggest that the need for effective short-term stimulus justifies any kind or amount of short-term deficit spending, or that the justification for short-term deficit spending implies that deficit-financing of longer-term policy is warranted, or that either effective short-term stimulus or smart longer-term public investments will get us out of the need to (fundamentally) reform our tax and entitlement systems.  Back to our issue brief:

To do the first effectively [short-term stimulus], deficit-financed policies must have a clearly countercyclical purpose and be effective at producing those benefits during, not after, the recession. To accomplish the second goal [make worthwhile longer-term investments with positive net benefits], deficit financing of longer-term investments should be evaluated through the normal budgetary process and designed to pass a cost-benefit test that accounts for debt service. To do the third effectively [get back to longer-term fiscal sustainability], the long-term cost of government commitments must be scaled back and sufficient revenues must be raised to pay for them.

Fairly early in Catherine’s column, she worries that “making the long-term goal a priority over the short-term goal could undermine both”–just like Bruce Bartlett speculates, in the title of his latest Forbes column, about “How Deficit Hawks Could Derail the Recovery.” But the danger probably runs more in the opposite direction: that excessively large and long-lived deficit spending could send the wrong signals to our global investors and cause a major “credit crunch” for the U.S. government.  As long as the “getting back to fiscal responsibility” part means gradually closing the fiscal gap after the economy is well into the recovery, there’s no contradiction with the short-term stimulus goals; in fact, there would be a synergy between the longer-term and shorter-term goals.

And as Bruce concludes, there’s really no danger that policymakers will try to close the fiscal gap “too soon”:

I’m not terribly worried that Congress will reduce the deficit too quickly; too much of the budget is on automatic pilot or effectively off-limits. Entitlement programs like Medicare will continue to grow for years to come and there is no way that defense spending can be reined in as long as we continue to fight two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention the likelihood of new domestic security spending in the wake of an aborted terrorist attack on Christmas day. And it’s far more likely that Congress will appropriate new stimulus measures than cut back on those already enacted.

Moreover, the possibility of a tax increase at this point is very remote indeed. Republicans will fight any such an effort even more intensely than they fought health reform, and it’s hard to see any Democrats leading the fight for higher taxes with the party already looking at electoral losses in November. The administration is even backpedaling on plans to allow some of the Bush tax cuts to expire this year. Yet there is no plausible way of significantly reducing deficits in the near term without higher revenues.

For these reasons, I don’t see any possibility of fiscal tightening beyond that which will occur naturally as economic growth automatically reduces spending a bit, and causes revenues to rise as corporate profits revive.

And both Bruce and Catherine seem to come to the same conclusion: that we need to start at least planning for the gradual shift toward the longer-term goal of deficit reduction, because without such a “game plan” those who really don’t care about fiscal sustainability will continue to blast the dreaded “deficit hawks” as secretly wanting to destroy the entitlement programs–or worse yet, the entire U.S. economy(!)–as a way of torpedoing any proposals that would actually bolster both.  So Bruce urges for “entitlement reforms now that won’t take effect for some years” (I’d add tax reform as well), and Catherine adds “maybe the Conrad-Gregg proposal for a ‘fiscal task force’ will help”–as she declares that (emphasis added):

[Y]ou [as a deficit hawk] can have your cake and eat it too: You can spend money on some things now [fiscal stimulus] to bolster the economy, and cut back spending on other things later on to avoid a major budget crisis a decade from now [deficit reduction]. You just have to have a plan for both.

Ah, there’s the key and the rub:  you just have to have a plan for both. We’ve got our work cut out for us.

EconomistMom’s “Scholarly” Impact

January 8th, 2010 . by economistmom


It’s been a very long time since I cared about making a “scholarly” impact–apart from hoping I’m actually helpful to the public policy students I teach on just a part-time basis at George Washington University.  (My last full-time academic job was as an assistant professor of economics at Penn State University, which I left in 1994.)

But somehow I’ve ended up as one of the few non-academics listed in this academic-style ranking of economics bloggers and blogs, and I’ve come up #27 in the “top economics bloggers by scholarly impact” list (Table 1), and #14 in the “top economics blogs by scholarly impact of contributors” list (Table 2).  Perhaps I’ve been too long away from academic-style research to understand how on earth they put me where they did on these lists–and nowhere in the text of the paper does it explain me as a “special case.”  It’s as if my “fairy blogmother” has granted me another surprise blessing–just like when the Wall Street Journal ranking came out last July.

Besides being flattered by the “scholarly” label, I’m most proud of being the top ranked female economics blogger, and in fact one of only two of us in the top 50.  When I had dreams of starting this blog a few years ago, and even by the time it became a reality 20 months ago, I always knew that the market for economics bloggers who would write from the more feminine and even maternal perspective would not be yet cornered.

A big “thank you” to the paper’s authors, Franklin Mixon and Kamal Upadhyaya, for including my blog in your “blogometric” analysis!  And an even bigger “thank you” to my employer, the Concord Coalition, for their continued support of my EconomistMom effort (which like the rest of my job has not felt like “work” at all).  It’s very fitting that this academic ranking’s listing of Concord as my affiliated institution might elevate Concord’s status a little bit as well.

An “Incomplete” for the President in Tax Policy

January 7th, 2010 . by economistmom


The Brookings Institution’s Bill Gale and Ben Harris give the Obama Administration an overall grade of “B” for their policy performance thus far on “tax reform and fiscal policy.”  But that’s a bit of an arbitrary “averaging” of what they think were good policy choices:

We give the President an A on focusing on the key economic priority [fighting off a more severe recession, and] a B+ for design of the stimulus package…

against an arguably larger part of the Administration’s overall fiscal policy agenda that Bill and Ben feel deserves a grade of “Incomplete”:

One casualty of the year-long focus on the economic recovery has been the ability to develop plans for systematic tax reform and fiscal sustainability. While it is impossible to cut the short-term deficit while stimulating the economy, progress on medium- and long-term fiscal policy has been mostly absent—and sometimes negative—in the first year. The administration has proposed to extend almost all of the Bush tax cuts and to massively reduce the AMT, in each case without offering any proposal to pay for the changes.

The 10-year fiscal outlook is unsustainable. Likewise, there has been no real progress on the taxation of capital income or the use of tax expenditures. The president’s policies have justifiably made taxes more progressive, but they have also made taxes more complex; the most egregious example being the temporary elimination of the estate tax. Systematic tax reform and fiscal sustainability should address all of these issues in the coming year.

I think the Brookings grading system is overly generous here.  In most schools, an “incomplete” on a large chunk of the syllabus means an “incomplete” for the course overall.  The Administration’s getting an extension on this big assignment though (what to do about the Bush tax cuts)–and is likely to get even another extension if my hunch that Congress will go for a temporary extension of the Bush tax cuts before the end of this year comes true.  It’ll be interesting to see what grade Brookings gives the President a year from now.

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