Holiday, Celebrate!

Lori Montgomery and Anne Kornblut at WaPo:

With just two months until the November elections, the White House is seriously weighing a package of business tax breaks – potentially worth hundreds of billions of dollars – to spur hiring and combat Republican charges that Democratic tax policies hurt small businesses, according to people with knowledge of the deliberations.

Among the options under consideration are a temporary payroll-tax holiday and a permanent extension of the now-expired research-and-development tax credit, which rewards companies that conduct research into new technologies within the United States.

Administration officials have struggled to develop new economic policies and an effective message to blunt expected Republican gains in Congress and defuse complaints from Democrats that President Obama is fumbling the issue most important to voters. Following Obama’s vacation and focus on foreign policy in recent weeks, White House advisers have arranged a series of economic events for the president next week, including two trips to swing states and a news conference.

David Leonhardt at NYT:

It’s time to start talking about a tax cut.

The economy is struggling mightily. Some 15 million people remain unemployed. The Federal Reserve has been slow to act and still is not doing much. The Senate has been unable to find the 60 votes needed to pass anything but minor bills.

The best hope for a short-term economic plan that can win bipartisan support is a tax cut — and not the permanent extension of George W. Bush’s tax cuts, which have been dominating the debate lately. Such an extension is unlikely to win many Democratic votes. Republicans, meanwhile, are unlikely to support more spending, like the national infrastructure project President Obama has been mentioning.

A well-devised tax cut could be different. Cutting taxes has been the heart of the Republican economic program for 30 years, and last year’s stimulus bill showed that Mr. Obama was open to tax cuts.

The question, then, is what kind of cut can put people back to work quickly.

The last 30 years offer some pretty good answers. For one thing, a permanent reduction in tax rates focused on the affluent — along the lines of those 2001 Bush tax cuts — does little to lift growth in the short term. An across-the-board, one-time cut — like the one that Mr. Bush signed in 2008 or that Mr. Obama signed last year — does more.

But the most effective tax cut for putting people back to work quickly is one that businesses and households get only if they spend money. Last year’s cash-for-clunkers program was an example. So was a recent bipartisan tax credit for businesses that hired workers who had been unemployed for months. Perhaps the broadest example is a temporary cut in the payroll tax for businesses, which reduces the cost of employing people.

Tyler Cowen

Joseph Lawler at The American Spectator:

The Post suggests that the bill would be introduced before the midterm elections. The article quotes William Galston of the Brookings Institution explaining that the timing proves that the decision wouldn’t be motivated by fears about the midterms: “Substantively, there is nothing they could do between now and Election Day that would have any measurable effect on the economy. Nothing.”

If the idea is to make it easier for companies to hire new workers in an attempt to revive the weak labor market, a payroll tax cut would be a good first step. The administration, however, is also toying with a few other policies that would undermine the effect of the payroll tax cut. For example, if the Democrats do allow the Bush tax cuts for top individual earners to expire, the burden will fall onto small business owners — counteracting the effect of the payroll tax cuts mere months after they’re implemented.

Mary Katherine Ham at The Weekly Standard

Jennifer Rubin at Commentary:

When all else fails, Democrats throw in the towel on their loopy economic policies and resort to tax cuts — just like the Republicans wanted in February 2009. We learn:

With just two months until the November elections, the White House is seriously weighing a package of business tax breaks — potentially worth hundreds of billions of dollars — to spur hiring and combat Republican charges that Democratic tax policies hurt small businesses, according to people with knowledge of the deliberations.

Among the options under consideration are a temporary payroll-tax holiday and a permanent extension of the now-expired research-and-development tax credit, which rewards companies that conduct research into new technologies within the United States.

A couple of problems with that. First, it won’t improve the economy before the election. The voice of sanity for the Democrats, William Galston, says: “Substantively, there is nothing they could do between now and Election Day that would have any measurable effect on the economy. Nothing.” Second, this renders the Obama economy policy entirely incoherent. If the economy is worsening and they admit tax cuts are good, why eliminate the Bush tax cuts? What sense does it make to give with one hand and take away with the other?

We’ll see what the Democrats come up with. As Milton Freidman advised, “I am in favor of cutting taxes under any circumstances and for any excuse, for any reason, whenever it’s possible.” But conservatives should insist that in addition to any tax cuts Obama proposes, the Bush tax cuts must be retained. Otherwise, we are merely treading water.

Steve Benen:

Given the mixed signals of late, it’s worth noting that Politico has a report similar to the Post‘s, explaining that administration officials are “mulling a raft of emergency fixes to stimulate the economy before the midterms, including an extension of the research and development tax credit and new infrastructure spending.”

It’s hard to evaluate any of these ideas without more details, and for that matter, no matter what the White House recommends, Congress’ inability to function makes progress unlikely for the foreseeable future.

That said, it’s at least somewhat encouraging to see a shift away from “everything’s on track, so just be patient.” Moreover, there’s obviously real political salience to even just having the debate — with two months before the midterms, it’s worth having the two parties fight over how to help the economy grow. If Republicans intend to kill every proposal the White House offers, that should matter to voters, too.

The Post‘s report concluded that President Obama “could roll out additional measures as soon as next week.” Stay tuned.

Megan McArdle:

Thoughts:
1)  Practically, this isn’t going to do anything before the mid-terms.  These sorts of changes take time to roll out, and there’s no way they could get anything into effect soon enough to make an actual difference in peoples’ lives.
2)  Whether you think this works as a campaign tactic depends on whether you think people will think that it is going to work.  On that question, I have no idea.  People do love cash in their pockets, however.
3)  Politically, this has one major drawback:  it’s going to put huge holes in the Social Security and Medicare trust funds.  Since I think those trust funds are meaningless accounting devices, I don’t think this has any practical relevance.  But as you will be able to see in my comment section about twenty minutes after I hit “post,” people have a very deep emotional attachment to the idea of the trust funds, which politicians cannot easily trifle with.
4)  Practically, I think the actual impact will be minimal, at least on employment.  It might help people and companies to rebuild their balance sheets (or let struggling companies ride things out a while longer).  But the main constraint on business hiring is uncertainty, and a payroll tax isn’t going to change that.  Obviously, some workers will get hired at the margin–but if your labor is so marginal that you need a payroll tax holiday to make it economical, then I’d expect that as soon as the payroll tax holiday is over, you’ll probably be fired.  Hence, even if you get the job, you’re going to want to save as much of your wages as possible, blunting the multiplier effect we hope to get out of stimulus.
Really? I have a proposal. Suppose the holiday costs the trust fund $400 billion. Just transfer that $400 billion from the general budget to the trust fund.

In fact, we could immediately put $100 trillion gazillion dollars in the trust funds from the general budget, and then they would have enough money to pay Social Security forever. Supposedly.

The trust fund is a measure of what we are promising to pay future Social Security recipients. To me, it is nothing more than that. But what is going to fund Social Security down the road is not the promises that we pour into it today. It is the taxes that people will pay in the future.

I have tried to explain Social Security for a long time. See here, for example. But Megan is probably right. I honestly thought that among trained economists it was understood that the trust fund has no real significance. I thought that anyone who went to a respectable graduate school learned the overlapping generations model, which sometimes gets taught as a model of money but is most evidently a model of Social Security. However, Paul Krugman at least pretends to act as if he never learned that.

Atrios:

There’s something about working in politics which starts making people think everything is about perception rather than reality. I think a full payroll tax holiday would be fine as long as it wasn’t yet another excuse to try to destroy Social Security, but an employer only one would be truly awful on substance, impact, and message. More help for the overlords, no help for you!

But apparently the geniuses in charge think the problem is that “stimulus” and “bailout” have become scary bad words. The problem is that the economy sucks and people don’t have any money.

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