Disposable Income, Federal Taxes, Federal Debt and our Spending Problem 1940-2012

Posted by PITHOCRATES - February 27th, 2013

History 101

Excessive Federal Taxes reduce Disposable Income which reduces New Economic Activity

The key to economic growth is disposable income.  The more disposable income people have the more economic activity they will create.  So the key to a healthy economy is maximizing disposable income.  And we can do that in a few ways.  First of all we need jobs.  And we can create more jobs with fewer costly regulations.  And lower taxes.  If we make it less costly to hire people businesses will hire more people.  Which they aren’t doing right now.  Primarily because of Obamacare.  Which is so costly to businesses that they’ve frozen new hiring.  And are pushing some full time employees to part-time.  As well as investing in capital equipment wherever they can.  Replacing people with machines.  Because machines don’t incur Obamacare costs, taxes or penalties.

For those lucky few who haven’t been replaced by machines they can earn some disposable income.  Depending on their skill level.  A low-skilled person who never graduated from high school cannot earn as much disposable income as a thoracic surgeon.  So if you want stuff.  And you want to stimulate the economy.  Become a thoracic surgeon.  Or something else that takes years of college and years of on the job training.  And hundreds of thousands of dollars of student loan debt.

But earning a good income isn’t enough.  Because from that income we must pay an enormous amount of taxes.  Greatly reducing our disposable income.  Some of the taxes we can see.  Such as those itemized on our paycheck stubs.  Federal and state income taxes.  And Social Security and Medicare taxes.  But there are a lot of taxes we don’t see.  Such as excise taxes on the things we buy from gasoline to liquor to cigarettes.  And then there are property taxes.  Sales taxes.  And the list goes on.  All of which take a bite out of our disposable income.  Siphoning away real economic activity over the years as the federal government added new taxes.  And increased the tax rates of the old taxes.

The Federal Government came up with the Withholding Tax to Prevent an all out Tax Revolt

When the Founding Fathers ratified the Constitution there weren’t many taxes.  Mostly custom duties and tariffs.  Which was enough to fund the limited government they created.  But ever since the Founding some in the federal government have been trying to destroy what the Founding Fathers created.  And replace it with what they fought so long to get rid of.  A very large government that reaches into all parts of our life.  Like a monarchy.  Where those in the federal government belong to a new aristocracy.  Who are more equal than everyone else.  And live a far, far better life.  If you don’t believe this just check out property values around Washington DC.

With the American Civil War killing a generation of fathers a lot of boys grew up with over protective and doting mothers.  When these boys came of age and entered politics they weren’t as manly as their father’s generation was.  Because they grew up without fathers to teach them to hunt and fight.  Instead, they grew up with mothers who taught them to be more nurturing.  Giving us the progressive movement.  Woodrow Wilson gave us a permanent federal income tax.  And tried to expand the federal government to be more of a monarchy with a powerful executive that can govern against the will of Congress.  And the people.  After World War I we returned to normalcy.  And Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge gave us the Roaring Twenties.  And the modern world.  Then Herbert Hoover and other progressives caused the Great Depression.  With a crisis too good to let go to waste FDR picked up where Woodrow Wilson left off.  Exploding the size and reach of the federal government.  And the great surge in federal taxes began.  Over the years they added more and more.  Such as these (see Table 2.1—RECEIPTS BY SOURCE: 1934–2017).

Income Payroll Excise and Other Taxes Key

Some of these you are no doubt familiar with.  The biggest bite is the individual income tax.  Something most of us have received our W-2s for and have just prepared our federal income tax returns.  Or are about to.  Dreading it.  Unless we’re getting a refund.  Those who owe money will probably take their sweet time.  As they hate writing a check to the federal government.  Which is why the federal government came up with the withholding tax.  For if people had to write a check for the full amount of their federal income taxes each year there would be an all out tax revolt.  And probably a lot more imprisonment for people not paying their federal taxes.  For no one has that kind of money sitting around.  Which is why the government takes it from you before you can spend it yourself.

Excessive Federal Spending requires ever Higher Taxation and ever more Borrowing to Feed

The big debate in Washington now is the sequester.  And the automatic cuts of the sequester.  Which were proposed by President Obama.  Which Congress wrote into a bill.  And the president signed into law.  In hopes that Republicans and Democrats would come together and find a way to reduce the record high deficit.  The Republicans want to do the obvious.  Cut the spending that caused the record deficit.  Democrats want to do what they always want to do.  Raise taxes.  Saying that we don’t have a spending problem.  That the four years of trillion dollar deficits isn’t because we’re spending too much.  It’s because we’re not taxing enough to pay for that spending.   That rich people aren’t paying their fair share.  But that’s not what you see when you look at the numbers.

Income Payroll Excise and Other Taxes

These taxes are identified in the above table.  As government spending grew so did taxes.  In particular personal income taxes which provide the majority of federal tax revenues.  Which exploded after LBJ’s Great Society added a lot of new federal spending.  And after President Nixon decoupled the dollar from gold in 1971.  Unleashing inflation.  Note that personal income taxes are greater than corporate income taxes.  That’s because there are more people than corporations.  For example, Siemens AG is an international corporation that employs about 360,000 people.  Who all pay personal income taxes.  After personal income taxes comes old-age and survivors insurance.  Otherwise known as Social Security.  And all of these taxes have continued to grow.  Taking a bigger and bigger bite out of disposable incomes.  Putting a drag on new economic activity.  Note that the only falls in federal tax revenue were due to two Democrat-caused recessions.  Bill Clinton’s dot-com bubble burst causing a bad recession in 2000.  And his subprime mortgage lending bubble he started with his Policy Statement on Discrimination in Lending burst causing a bad recession in 2007.  Apart from these, though, the pattern has been more spending.  Not less.  Which would suggest that we do have a spending problem.

Also included on this chart is the federal debt.  Note how it spiked up during World War II.  Then settled down at a constant rate for about 30 years.  Until LBJ’s Great Society spending increased federal spending.  But these massive new taxes weren’t enough.  For that’s when the big deficits started.  Adding on to a growing federal debt.  With the only decline in this growth coming during President Clinton’s presidency.  President Clinton’s dot-com boom (before the bubble burst), the peace dividend from President Reagan winning the Cold War, the Asian financial crisis and Japan’s Lost Decade all helped the American economy shower the treasury with cash.  Putting the nation into a surplus for a year or so.  But that didn’t last.  As federal spending continued to outpace tax revenue.  Culminating with President Obama’s trillion dollar deficits.  With federal tax revenue at the highest since President Bush’s record high just before Clinton’s subprime mortgage bubble burst into the subprime mortgage crisis.  And the Great Recession.

So yes, Virginia, we have a spending problem.  A spending that requires ever higher taxation and ever more borrowing to feed.  Taking an ever bigger chunk out of disposable incomes.  Leaving less and less for new economic growth.  Explaining why the economy has never recovered from the Great Recession.  For President Obama’s policies only increase taxes and the cost of doing business.  And do nothing to create disposable income.

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LESSONS LEARNED #24: “You cannot lobby a politician unless he or she is for sale.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 29th, 2010

BUILDING A RAILROAD ain’t cheap.  It needs dump trucks of money.  Especially if it’s transcontinental.  And that’s what the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific were building.  Starting during the Civil War in 1863 (the year Vicksburg fell and Lee retreated from Gettysburg).  The Union Pacific was building west from Iowa.  And the Central pacific was building east from California. 

For the most part, Protestant, English-speaking Americans settled Texas.  Mexico had encouraged the American colonists to settle this region.  Because few Mexicans were moving north to do so.   The deal was that the colonists conduct official business in Spanish and convert to Catholicism.  They didn’t.  These and other issues soured relations between Mexico and the American Texans.  The Republic of Texas proclaimed their independence from Mexico.  America annexed Texas.  Mexico tried to get it back.  The Mexican-American War followed.  America won.  Texas became a state in 1845.  And that other Spanish/Mexican territory that America was especially interested in, California, became a state in 1850.  Hence the desire for a transcontinental railroad.

The U.S. government was very eager to connect the new state of California to the rest of America.  So they acted aggressively.  They would provide the dump trucks of money.  As America expanded, the U.S. government became the owner of more and more public land.  The sale of new lands provided a large amount of revenue for the federal government.  (Other forms of taxation (income taxes, excise taxes, etc.) grew as the amount of public lands to sell decreased.)  Land is valuable.  So they would grant the railroad companies some 44 million acres of land (i.e., land grants) for their use.  The railroad companies, then, would sell the land to raise the capital to build their railroads.  The government also provided some $60 million in federal loans.

But it didn’t end there.  The federal government came up with incentives to speed things up.  They based the amount of loans upon the miles of track laid.  The more difficult the ground, the more cash.  So, what you got from these incentives was the wrong incentive.  To lay as much track as possible on the most difficult ground they could find.  And then there were mineral rights.  The railroad would own the property they built on.  And any minerals located underneath.  So the tracks wandered and meandered to maximize these benefits.  And speed was key.  Not longevity.  Wherever possible they used wood instead of masonry.  The used the cheapest iron for track.  They even laid track on ice.   (They had to rebuild large chunks of the line before any trains would roll.)  And when the Union Pacific and Central Pacific met, they kept building, parallel to each other.  To lay more miles of track.  And get more cash from the government.

PAR FOR THE COURSE.  When government gets involved they can really mess things up.  But it gets worse.  Not only was government throwing dump trucks of American money down the toilet, they were also profiting from this hemorrhaging of public money.  As shareholders in Crédit Mobilier.

Thomas Durant of Union Pacific concocted the Crédit Mobilier Scandal.  As part of the government requirements to build the transcontinental railroad, Union Pacific had to sell stock at $100 per share.  Problem was, few believed the railroad could be built.  So there were few takers to buy the stock at $100 per share.  So he created Crédit Mobilier to buy that stock.  Once they did, they then resold the stock on the open market at prevailing market prices.  Which were well below $100 per share.  Union Pacific met the government requirements thanks to the willingness of Crédit Mobilier to buy their stock.  The only thing was, both companies had the same stockholders.  Crédit Mobilier was a sham company.  Union Pacific WAS Crédit Mobilier.  And it gets worse.

Union Pacific chose Crédit Mobilier to build their railroad.  Crédit Mobilier submitted highly inflated bills to Union Pacific who promptly paid them.  They then submitted the bills to the federal government (plus a small administration fee) for reimbursement.  Which the federal government promptly paid.  Crédit Mobilier proved to be highly profitable.  This pleased their shareholders.  Which included members of Congress who approved the overbillings as wells as additional funding for cost overruns.  No doubt Union Pacific/Crédit Mobilier had very good friends in Washington.  Including members of the Grant administration.  Until the party ended.  The press exposed the scandal during the 1872 presidential campaign.  Outraged, the federal government conducted an investigation.  But when you investigate yourself for wrongdoing you can guess the outcome.  Oh, there were some slaps on the wrists, but government came out relatively unscathed.  But the public money was gone.  As is usually the case with political graft.  Politicians get rich while the public pays the bill.

(Incidentally, the investigation did not implicate Ulysses Grant.  However, because members of his administration were implicated, this scandal tarnished his presidency.  Grant, though, was not corrupt.  He was a great general.  But not a shrewd politician.  Where there was a code of honor in the military, he found no such code in politics.  Friends used his political naivety for personal profit.  If you read Grant’s personal memoirs you can get a sense of Grant’s character.  Many consider his memoirs among the finest ever written.  He was honest and humble.  A man of integrity.  An expert horseman, he was reduced to riding in a horse and buggy in his later years.  Once, while president, he was stopped for speeding through the streets of Washington.  When the young policeman saw who he had pulled over, he apologized profusely to the president and let him go.  Grant told the young man to write him the ticket.  Because it was his job.  And the right thing to do.  For no man, even the president, was above the law.)

THE FINANCIAL WORLD fell apart in 2007.  And this happened because someone changed the definition of the American Dream from individual liberty to owning a house.  Even if you couldn’t afford to buy one.  Even if you couldn’t qualify for a mortgage.  Even, if you should get a mortgage, you had no chance in hell of making your payments.

Home ownership would be the key to American prosperity.  Per the American government.  Build homes and grow the economy.   That was the official mantra.  So Washington designed American policy accordingly.  Lenders came up with clever financing schemes to put ever more people into new homes.  And they were clever.  But left out were the poorest of the poor.  Even a small down payment on the most modest of homes was out of their range.  Proponents of these poor said this was discriminatory.  Many of the inner city poor in the biggest of cities were minority.  People cried racism in mortgage lending.  Government heard.  They pressured lenders to lend to these poor people.  Or else.  Lenders were reluctant.  With no money for down payments and questionable employment to service these mortgages, they saw great financial risk.  So the government said not to worry.  We’ll take that risk.  Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac would guarantee certain ‘risky’ loans as long as they met minimum criteria.  And they would also buy risky mortgages and get them off their books.  Well, with no risk, the lenders would lend to anyone.  They made NINJA loans (loans to people with No Income, No Job, and no Assets).  And why not?  If any loan was likely to default it was a NINJA loan.  But if Freddie or Fannie bought before the default, what did a lender care?  And even they defaulted before, Fannie and Freddie guaranteed the loan.  How could a lender lose?

Once upon a time, there was no safer loan than a home mortgage.  Why?  Because it would take someone’s lifesavings to pay for the down payment (20% of the home price in the common conventional mortgage).  And people lived in these houses.  In other words, these new home owners had a vested interested to service those mortgages.  Someone who doesn’t put up that 20% down payment with their own money, though, has less incentive to service that mortgage.  They can walk away with little financial loss.

ARE YOU GETTING the picture?  With this easy lending there was a housing boom.  Then a bubble.  With such easy money, housing demand went up.  As did prices.  So housing values soared.  Some poor people were buying these homes with creative financing (used to make the unqualified qualify for a mortgage).  We call these subprime mortgages.  They include Adjustable Rate Mortgages (ARMs).  These have adjustable interest rates.  This removes the risk of inflation.  So they have lower interest rates than fixed-rate mortgages.  If there is inflation (and interest rates go up), they adjust the interest rate on the mortgage up.  Other clever financing included interest only mortgages.  These include a balloon payment at the end of a set term of the full principal.  These and other clever instruments put people into houses who could only afford the smallest of monthly payments.  The idea was that they would refinance after an ‘introductory’ period.  And it would work as long as interest rates did not go up.  But they went up.  And house prices fell.  The bubble burst.  Mortgages went underwater (people owed more than the houses were worth).  Some people struggled to make their payments and simply couldn’t.  Others with little of their own money invested simply walked away.  The subprime industry imploded.  So what happened, then, to all those subprime mortgages?

Fannie and Freddie bought these risky mortgages.  And securitized them.  They chopped and diced them and created investment devices called Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs).  These are fancy bonds backed by those ‘safe’ home mortgages.  Especially safe with those Fannie and Freddie guarantees.  They were as safe as government bonds but more profitable.  As long as people kept making their mortgage payments.

But risk is a funny thing.  You can manage it.  But you can’t get rid of it.  Interest rates went up.  The ARMs reset their interest rates.  People defaulted.  The value of the subprime mortgages that backed those CDOs collapsed, making the value of the CDOs collapse.  And everyone who bought those CDOs took a hit.  Investors around the globe shared those losses. 

Those subprime loans were very risky.  Lenders would not make the loans unless someone else took that risk.  The government took that risk in the guise of Fannie and Freddie.  Who passed on that risk to the investors buying what they thought were safe investments.  Who saw large chunks of their investment portfolios go ‘puff’ into thin air.

SO WHAT ARE Freddie and Fannie exactly?  They are government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs).  They key word here is government.  Once again, you put huge piles of money and government together and the results are predictable.  In an effort to extend the ‘American Dream’ to as many Americans as possible, the federal oversight body for Freddie and Fannie lowered the minimum criteria for making those risky loans.  Even excluding an applicant’s credit worthiness from the application process (so called ‘no-doc’ loans were loans made without any documentation to prove the credit worthiness of the applicant.)  To encourage further reckless lending.  Ultimately causing the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. 

And, of course, members of Congress did well during the good times of the subprime boom.  They got large campaign contributions.  Some sweetheart mortgagee deals.  A grateful voting bloc.  And other largess from the profitable subprime industry.  Government did well.  Just as they did during the Crédit Mobilier Scandal.  And the American taxpayer gets to pay the bill.  Some things never change.  Government created both of these scandals.  As government is wont to do whenever around huge piles of money.  For when it comes to stealing from the government, someone in the government has to let it happen.  For it takes a nod and a wink from someone in power to let such massive fraud to take place. 

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