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For those lucky few who haven’t been replaced by machines they can earn some disposable income.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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Why the Democrats won’t Privatize Social Security

Posted by PITHOCRATES - January 24th, 2013

Politics 101

FDR Transformed the Country because he had a Great Crisis to Exploit like the Great Depression

Once upon a time in a place that seems far, far away there was once a people that saved for retirement.  The savings rate was so high in this mystical land that businesses were able to borrow money at low interest rates to expand their business.  And there was great employment.  Then came an evil ogre who hated savings.  And responsible behavior.  He saw money saved as money leaked out of the economy.  Hurting economic activity.  His motto was spend don’t save.  And don’t worry about how you will take care of yourself in retirement.  So this evil ogre set out to destroy savings and responsible behavior.

That evil ogre’s name was John Maynard Keynes.  Who empowered governments with his inflationary monetary policies.  Allowing governments to spend a lot of money.  Giving them a lot of power.  By getting as many people dependent on the government as possible.  Keynes met with Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the Great Depression.  To offer him ideas of how to spend his way out of the Great Depression.  FDR didn’t think much of Keynesian economics.  For he did try to maintain the gold standard.  But he loved spending money.  And getting people dependent on the government.

FDR gave us Big Government.  He did the things Woodrow Wilson wanted to do.  But Wilson couldn’t because he didn’t have a crisis like the Great Depression to exploit.  FDR did.  And he was able to transform the country because of it.  People saved less.  And government spent more.  Which led to deficit spending, massive debt and inflation.  And perhaps the cruelest thing he did was impoverish the retiring class.  By taking their wealth through taxes and inflation.  And making them dependent on a meager Social Security benefit.

Social Security Contributions would create a Bigger Nest Egg if Invested in the Private Sector

After seeing so many poor, hungry, homeless, etc., during the Great Depression government did something.  They punished those who saved responsibly for their retirement.  By redistributing their wealth to those who didn’t.  It seemed fair and just and kind.  And there was an element of that in providing a social safety net for our most vulnerable people.  But that wasn’t the intent of Social Security.  FDR wanted to transform the country.  Which he did.  And today they forecast Social Security will go bankrupt in the coming years.  Requiring ever more wealth redistribution.  All while making Social Security recipients live a more impoverished retirement than they would have.  Had they saved for their own retirement.  A true transformation of the richest country in the world.

So let’s look at the numbers.  Your Social Security contributions are technically saved in a ‘retirement account’ that accrues interest.  Each payroll period both employer and employee contribute to this ‘retirement account’.  Via a tax rate on a person’s gross pay up to a maximum amount (see Historical Payroll Tax Rates).  So let’s see what this would have done in the private sector.  Year by year.  With the following assumptions.  The worker enters the workforce at 18 and works until retiring at age 65.  The worker earns the maximum amount for Social Security taxes.  So all of his or her earnings are subject to the Social Security tax.  With each successive year we add the current contribution to the running balance in his or her retirement account.  The annual balance earns interest at 6% (including anywhere from 2-4% real return on their retirement investment and the rest of that 6% accounts for inflation).  The following chart shows the beginning 5 years and the final 5 years.

Here we can see the power of compound interest.  As we earn interest on both our contributions and the previous interest we earned.  Note that the total contributions for 48 years of work total $282,608.38.  Which earned a total of $540,413.12 in interest.  Bringing the retirement nest egg up to $823,021.50.  Again, this is assuming that the Social Security contributions were actually private retirement savings.  That thing John Maynard Keynes hated.  So this is what a retiree would have to live on in retirement.  Had his or her money not gone to the government.

The Purpose of Social Security was to make People Dependent on Government and Redistribute Wealth

Now let’s look at what kind of retirement that nest egg will provide.  Starting with some more assumptions.  Let’s say the retiree lives 35 years in retirement.  Reaching a grand old age of 100.  Not your typical retirement.  But one this retirement nest egg can provide.  For someone with fairly modest means.  Each year the retiree lives on $53,553.  At the end of the year they earn interest on their remaining balance.  Which helps to stretch that $823,021.50 over those 35 years.  The following chart shows the beginning 5 years and the final 5 years of that retirement.

Note how that $282,608.38 in retirement contributions can provide $1,874,355 in retirement payments.  Again, that’s the miracle of compound interest.  So what kind of retirement would Social Security have provided?  Someone who retires after working till age 65 who was earning $110,100 near retirement will receive approximately $24,720 annually in retirement.  Over 35 years of retirement that comes to $865,200 in retirement benefits.  Which is $1,009,155 less than someone would get investing in a private sector retirement plan.  Or a reduction of 53.8%.  Which is what people lose when letting the government provide for their retirement.  So Social Security is a very poor retirement plan.  Besides going bankrupt.  Which is why the Republicans want to give younger workers the option to opt out of Social Security and provide for their own retirement.  Which makes sense.  And would probably increase their quality of life in retirement.  As shown above.  So why are the Democrats so opposed to privatization of Social Security?

Because the purpose of Social Security was not to provide a quality retirement.  It was to make people dependent on government.  To redistribute wealth.  Increasing the power of government.  And for those things Social Security is a resounding success.  But there is one other thing why Democrats oppose privatizing Social Security.  What would happen if the person that built up that $823,021.50 nest egg died 5 years into retirement?  Who would get the remaining $781,392.18?  The retiree’s family.  Whereas if a Social Security beneficiary dies 5 years into retirement the government keeps their money.  To spend as they please.

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Woodrow Wilson, FDR, Progressivism, Great Depression, Creeping Socialism, Social Security, Baby Boom and Baby Bust

Posted by PITHOCRATES - January 15th, 2013

History 101

The Policies of Herbert Hoover and FDR caused and prolonged the Great Depression

Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) took Rahm Emanuel’s advice.  Long before Rahm Emanuel gave it.  FDR did NOT let a good crisis go to waste.  And as far as crises go, none were better than the Great Depression.  After the government’s bad policies (wage and price controls, higher taxes, Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, etc.) caused the Great Depression and then their monetary contraction caused the massive bank failures the poverty rate soared for senior citizens.  FDR saw that suffering and thought here was a way to forever lock in the senior vote.  Give seniors a government pension.  And put the fear of God in them that the opposition wants to take it away.

At the turn of the Twentieth century the new thing in politics was progressivism.  Smart government people intervening into our private lives to make things better.  The size of the federal government exploded during the presidency of Woodrow Wilson.  He gave us the Federal Reserve System.  America’s central bank.  That would prevent anything like the Great Depression from ever happening.  Which it failed to do.  As the Great Depression happened on their watch.  He gave us a permanent federal income tax.  He attacked the U.S. Constitution.  Making the case for expansive presidential powers.  And used the courts to get around Congressional opposition.  As well as the U.S. Constitution.

The political opposition fought back against Wilson’s power grab.  Defeating the progressive successor in the next election.  And returning the country to normalcy.  Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge undid much of the anti-business policies of the Wilson administration.  Returning the nation to prosperity.  And giving us the Roaring Twenties.  Where the nation modernized with electric power, the automobile, radio, etc.  Unlike the speculative dot-com bubble of the Nineties.  Where investors poured money into dot-com companies that never made anything to sell.  The Federal Reserve was a little loose with their monetary policy causing some inflation in the Twenties.  But the economic activity was so robust that it absorbed that inflation.  Then the progressives got back in power.  First the Republican Herbert Hoover.  Then the Democrat FDR.  Whose policies caused and prolonged the Great Depression.

When FDR gave us Social Security it only cost Employer and Employee each 1 Cent of every Dollar up to $3,000

FDR was picking up where Wilson left off.  Expanding the federal government.  And the power of the presidency.  Using the federal courts like Wilson to bypass Congress.  And the U.S. Constitution.  Marking yet another departure from the free market capitalism that founded the country.  And made it the world’s number one economy.  It was a creeping socialism.  At least, that’s how the political opposition saw.  Especially with Social Security.  Which helped tip the power from the states to the federal government.  Just as Thomas Jefferson feared a strong executive would do.

Of course, the progressives played on our emotions.  These were, after all, destitute seniors.  We had to take care of these people.  Our fathers.  Our mothers.  Our grandparents.  Who sacrificed for us.  Now it was time to sacrifice a little for them.  And they promised it would be a little.  Both employer and employee would only pay 1 cent on every dollar earned up to $3,000 a year.  That’s all.  Only $30 a year (about $483.58 today).  And how could such a small amount be socialism?  The problem was that it didn’t stay only 1 cent on every dollar earned up to $3,000 a year.  The tax rate went up.  As well as the maximum taxable earnings.  The government has increased them both.  Often.

(source: Historical Social Security Tax Rates)

That low tax rate lasted barely a decade.  Then they started raising the maximum taxable earnings.  Not much for the first 30 years or so.  But once the Seventies arrived that maximum amount grew at an accelerated rate.  Despite the increasing tax rate.  Thanks to President Nixon decoupling the dollar from gold.  And ushering in the era of out of control Keynesian economics.  Where the government inflated the money supply like there was no tomorrow.  Devaluing the dollar at an alarming rate.  Which is why they increased the maximum amount of earnings at an accelerated rate.  Because constantly devaluing the dollar reduced what those Social Security checks could buy.  So they had to keep making those checks bigger.  And that required more tax revenue.

The Social Security Tax Rate held Steady during the Nineties thanks to the Dot-Com Bubble and Japan’s Lost Decade

But it’s worse than that.  For it’s just not bad monetary policy forcing the increases in the tax rate as well as in the maximum taxable earnings.  Something else happened during the Seventies.  Birth rates fell.  The baby boom ended in the Sixties.  But not the baby making activities.  They just continued along without producing new taxpayers.  Thanks to birth control and abortion.  Also, over the years they expanded the Social Security program to provide for more than just those destitute seniors.  So the benefits of the program greatly increases just as the falling birth rate reduce the growth rate of tax revenue.  As the number of people leaving the workforce grew at a greater rate than those entering the workforce.  Which is why when you convert the dollars into constant dollars the graph doesn’t change much.

We finance most wars with inflation.  By printing money to expand the money supply.  To give the government all the cash they need to buy the instruments of war.  And to pay, feed and clothe their military personnel.  We can see this rapid inflation during World War II as the real dollar amount of the maximum taxable earnings fell.  That changed in 1951.  When they started to increase that maximum amount.  That and the higher tax rate stabilized things for awhile.  Then the Seventies came along.  Where both the tax rate and the maximum taxable earnings amount continued to rise.  Even in real dollars.  Reflecting the growth in benefits.  And the fall in tax revenue.  Thanks to the baby bust following the baby boom.

The tax rate held steady during the Nineties thanks to the surpluses of the Clinton administration.  Due to that dot-com bubble.  And Japan’s Lost Decade.  Whose bad economic times helped boost the American economy.  Still they had to keep raising the maximum earnings amount.  As the baby boomers started retiring.  Then Clinton’s dot-com bubble burst.  Giving George W. Bush a recession to start his presidency.  His tax cuts pulled us out of that recession.  Then Bill Clinton’s revamping of the Community Reinvestment Act caught up with us.  Giving us the subprime mortgage crisis in 2008.  And the Great Recession.  Which President Obama tried to ameliorate by reducing the employee’s Social Security tax rate from 6.2% to 4.2% in 2011.  For his near trillion dollar stimulus bill failed to end the Great Recession in 2009.  As his Social Security tax cut failed to do in 2011.  Which was not enough to overcome his anti-business policies (such as Obamacare).  All he did was starve Social Security of hundreds of billions in revenue.  Making the Social Security funding problem worse in the long run.  Requiring even higher tax rates than that once promised 1% (for both employer and employee).  On earnings more than that promised $3,000 (about $48,000 today).

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2012 Endorsements: Woodrow Wilson, FDR and Joseph Stalin

Posted by PITHOCRATES - October 30th, 2012

2012 Election

A Strong President and a Few Judges could defy Congress and the State Legislatures and Govern as They Please

Woodrow Wilson became president in 1913.  He was a progressive.  And didn’t much care for our Founding Fathers.  Or our Founding Documents.  The Declaration of Independence.  And the Constitution.  He referred to our inalienable rights as a “great deal of nonsense.”  Preferring to think of them as privileges granted by the government.  Like kings once did.  And as kings did not like limits on their power so did Wilson not like limits on his power.  For government was a living thing that could grow and do great things.  But to do great things it needed great men in leadership positions.  Like him.  Not hindered by the checks and balances of the Constitution.  Or state legislatures.  Or people clamoring about their inalienable rights.

This was the age of progressivism.  When smart people were in government.  Smarter than they ever were before.  People who graduated from the finest institutions of higher learning.  Or ran them.  Like Wilson.  Who was president of Princeton.  Progressives were smarter than the average American.  Who could take America to such great heights.  If they could only keep the dumb people from interfering with their vision.  And foolishly try to limit the power of the federal government.  So, as president, Wilson got a lot of legislation passed that helped make the federal government more powerful.  Such as creating the Federal Reserve System.  A central bank that could print money as the government needed it.  And enacting the first federal income tax since the American Civil War.  With this new found wealth the federal government only needed one other thing to take America to great heights.  Getting rid of the Constitution.

As much of what Wilson wanted to do exceeded his Constitutional authority he needed a way around that particular nuisance.  The checks and balances of the Constitution.  Especially after the Framers made it so difficult to add amendments.  Requiring a 2/3 supermajority in both houses of Congress.  And then ratification by three-fourths of the state legislatures.  Not a promising way to make radical changes in the structure of the federal government.  So Wilson’s solution was not to amend the Constitution.  But to go around the Constitution.  With judicial activism.  The president should appoint federal judges who share his views of abandoning the intent of the Framers.  Thus consolidating power into fewer hands.  So they could do more of what they wanted and less what the people wanted.  A strong president and a few judges along the way could defy the Congress and the state legislatures and govern as they please.  Reshaping America into their vision.  Not the Founders’ vision.  A progressive vision.  Where these few enlightened and very smart individuals would do what was best for us.  Even if we didn’t know what that was.

The New Deal was a Revolution made not by Tanks and Machine Guns but acts of Congress and Decisions of the Supreme Court

Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) saw things the way Wilson did.  FDR was all for radical change.  And breaking away from the constraints of our Founding Documents.  And his New Deal did just that.  A radical change and expansion of the federal government.  And to help get the people to embrace these changes in the long-term he introduced Social Security.  To get even more people dependent on the federal government.  A program so convoluted he reportedly said that it would be impossible to overturn.  He empowered unions.  He introduced payroll taxes to fund Social Security.  He raised income taxes.  Even tried to implement a heavy progressive tax that topped out at 100% for the very rich.  And he introduced the withholding tax.  As people’s tax bills were to grow so large there would have been push back had they had to write a check at the end of the year for the full amount.  But if you took a little bit each pay period the total tax bill didn’t seem so high.

In FDR’s 1944 State of the Union speech he proposed a Second Bill of Rights.  However, when talking about our Constitutional rights he called them “inalienable political rights.”  By inserting the word ‘political’ those God-given rights of the Declaration of Independence became privileges granted by the government.  Which was similar to the way Wilson saw those rights.  As privileges granted by government.  And privileges that government could take away.  Thus emphasizing the power of the federal government over the individual.  Making it easier to impose those new federal taxes.  So what were those new rights?  A good-paying job, adequate food and clothing, recreation, high farm prices for farmers, freedom from unfair competition, a decent home, medical care, a pension, unemployment insurance and a good education.  Sound familiar?  If you’re an old Soviet communist they do.

Chapter X of the 1936 Soviet constitution included a list of Fundamental Rights.  Which included a right to a good-paying job, adequate food and clothing, recreation, medical care, a pension, and a good education.  Among others.  No surprise, really.  As FDR was a fan of Joseph Stalin and what he was doing in the Soviet Union.  The same kind of things he wanted to do.  But he didn’t have the same freedoms Stalin had.  There were such similarities that Whittaker Chambers, a Soviet spy in the US during the time of the New Deal wrote in his book Witness “the New Deal was a genuine revolution, whose deepest purpose was not simply reform within existing traditions, but a basic change in the social and, above all, the power relationship within the nation.  It was not a revolution of violence.  It was a revolution by bookkeeping and lawmaking…made not by tanks and machine guns, but acts of Congress and decisions of the Supreme Court…”  Just like Wilson envisioned.

If Woodrow Wilson, FDR and Joseph Stalin were Alive Today they would likely Endorse Barack Obama and Joe Biden

Alexander Hamilton believed in a strong central government.  Partly because he saw what a weak central government did to the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War.  And partly because he admired the greatness of the British Empire.  He wanted an American Empire.  Trusting that only men of virtue would serve in a republican government, he did not fear a federal government from overreaching, and abusing, their power.  Thomas Jefferson and James Madison thought Hamilton was mad.  And fought against him with every last fiber of their bodies.  Because they knew that they couldn’t trust future members of their republican government to be men of virtue.  As proven by Aaron Burr.  Who lived during the time of the Founding Fathers.

The modern Democrat Party traces its roots back to Woodrow Wilson and FDR.  Men hungry for power.  And having little virtue.  Today we call people like them Big Government liberal Democrats.  Who have continued to advance the growth and power of the federal government.  Approximately 20% of the population identifies themselves as liberals.  And yet the liberals have greatly advanced their agenda.  How?  In large part through judicial activism.  Using the courts to give them what the state legislatures or Congress won’t.  Such as when a state passes a referendum on a liberal issue, such as redefining gay marriage, the liberals use the courts to overturn that act of democracy.  Or any other that they disagree with.

Now that’s the kind of governing that Wilson and FDR would approve of.  Even Joseph Stalin.  More and more power centralized in the federal government.  The ability to overturn legislation you don’t like.  A revolution without violence.  It doesn’t get any better than that.  If Woodrow Wilson, FDR and Joseph Stalin were alive today they would likely endorse the Democrat candidates Barack Obama and Joe Biden.

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The Federal Reserve, Roaring Twenties, Stock Market Crash, Banking Crises, Great Depression and John Maynard Keynes

Posted by PITHOCRATES - September 25th, 2012

History 101

The Federal Reserve increased the Money Supply to Lower Interest Rates during the Roaring Twenties

Benjamin Franklin said, “Industry, perseverance, & frugality, make fortune yield.”  He said that because he believed that.  And he proved the validity of his maxim with a personal example.  His life.  He worked hard.  He never gave up.  And he was what some would say cheap.  He saved his money and spent it sparingly.  Because of these personally held beliefs Franklin was a successful businessman.  So successful that he became wealthy enough to retire and start a second life.  Renowned scientist.  Who gave us things like the Franklin stove and the lightning rod.  Then he entered his third life.  Statesman.  And America’s greatest diplomat.  He was the only Founder who signed the Declaration of Independence, Treaty of Amity and Commerce with France (bringing the French in on the American side during the Revolutionary War), Treaty of Paris (ending the Revolutionary War very favorably to the U.S.) and the U.S. Constitution.  Making the United States not only a possibility but a reality.  Three extraordinary lives lived by one extraordinary man.

Franklin was such a great success because of industry, perseverance and frugality.  A philosophy the Founding Fathers all shared.  A philosophy that had guided the United States for about 150 years until the Great Depression.  When FDR changed America.  By building on the work of Woodrow Wilson.  Men who expanded the role of the federal government.  Prior to this change America was well on its way to becoming the world’s number one economy.   By following Franklin-like policies.  Such as the virtue of thrift.  Favoring long-term savings over short-term consumption.  Free trade.  Balanced budgets.  Laissez-faire capitalism.  And the gold standard.  Which provided sound money.  And an international system of trade.  Until the Federal Reserve came along.

The Federal Reserve (the Fed) is America’s central bank.  In response to some financial crises Congress passed the Federal Reserve Act (1913) to make financial crises a thing of the past.  The Fed would end bank panics, bank runs and bank failures.  By being the lender of last resort.  While also tweaking monetary policy to maintain full employment and stable prices.  By increasing and decreasing the money supply.  Which, in turn, lowers and raises interest rates.  But most of the time the Fed increased the money supply to lower interest rates to encourage people and businesses to borrow money.  To buy things.  And to expand businesses and hire people.  Maintaining that full employment.  Which they did during the Roaring Twenties.  For awhile.

The Roaring Twenties would have gone on if Herbert Hoover had continued the Harding/Mellon/Coolidge Policies

The Great Depression started with the Stock Market Crash of 1929.  And to this date people still argue over the causes of the Great Depression.  Some blame capitalism.  These people are, of course, wrong.  Others blamed the expansionary policies of the Fed.  They are partially correct.  For artificially low interest rates during the Twenties would eventually have to be corrected with a recession.  But the recession did not have to turn into a depression.  The Great Depression and the banking crises are all the fault of the government.  Bad monetary and fiscal policies followed by bad governmental actions threw an economy in recession into depression.

A lot of people talk about stock market speculation in the Twenties running up stock prices.  Normally something that happens with cheap credit as people borrow and invest in speculative ventures.  Like the dot-com companies in the Nineties.  Where people poured money into these companies that never produced a product or a dime of revenue.  And when that investment capital ran out these companies went belly up causing the severe recession in the early 2000s.  That’s speculation on a grand scale.  This is not what happened during the Twenties.  When the world was changing.  And electrifying.  The United States was modernizing.  Electric utilities, electric motors, electric appliances, telephones, airplanes, radio, movies, etc.  So, yes, there were inflationary monetary policies in place.  But their effects were mitigated by this real economic activity.  And something else.

President Warren Harding nominated Andrew Mellon to be his treasury secretary.  Probably the second smartest person to ever hold that post.  The first being our first.  Alexander Hamilton.  Harding and Mellon were laissez-faire capitalists.  They cut tax rates and regulations.  Their administration was a government-hands-off administration.  And the economy responded with some of the greatest economic growth ever.  This is why they called the 1920s the Roaring Twenties.  Yes, there were inflationary monetary policies.  But the economic growth was so great that when you subtracted the inflationary damage from it there was still great economic growth.  The Roaring Twenties could have gone on indefinitely if Herbert Hoover had continued the Harding and Mellon policies (continued by Calvin Coolidge after Harding’s death).  There was even a rural electrification program under FDR’s New Deal.  But Herbert Hoover was a progressive.  Having far more in common with the Democrat Woodrow Wilson than Harding or Coolidge.  Even though Harding, Coolidge and Hoover were all Republicans.

Activist Intervention into Market Forces turned a Recession into the Great Depression

One of the things that happened in the Twenties was a huge jump in farming mechanization.  The tractor allowed fewer people to farm more land.  Producing a boom in agriculture.  Good for the people.  Because it brought the price of food down.  But bad for the farmers.  Especially those heavily in debt from mechanizing their farms.  And it was the farmers that Hoover wanted to help.  With an especially bad policy of introducing parity between farm goods and industrial goods.  And introduced policies to raise the cost of farm goods.  Which didn’t help.  Many farmers were unable to service their loans with the fall in prices.  When farmers began to default en masse banks in farming communities failed.  And the contagion spread to the city banks.  Setting the stage for a nation-wide banking crisis.  And the Great Depression.

One of the leading economists of the time was John Maynard Keynes.  He even came to the White House during the Great Depression to advise FDR.  Keynes rejected the Franklin/Harding/Mellon/Coolidge policies.  And the policies favored by the Austrian school of economics (the only people, by the way, who actually predicted the Great Depression).  Which were similar to the Franklin/Harding/Mellon/Coolidge policies.  The Austrians also said to let prices and wages fall.  To undo all of that inflationary damage.  Which would help cause a return to full employment.  Keynes disagreed.  For he didn’t believe in the virtue of thrift.  He wanted to abandon the gold standard completely and replace it with fiat money.  That they could expand more freely.  And he believed in demand-side solutions.  Meaning to end the Great Depression you needed higher wages not lower wages so workers had more money to spend.  And to have higher wages you needed higher prices.  So the employers could pay their workers these higher wages.  And he also encouraged continued deficit spending.  No matter the long-term costs.

Well, the Keynesians got their way.  And it was they who gave us the Great Depression.  For they influenced government policy.  The stock market crashed in part due to the Smoot Hawley Tariff then in committee.  But investors saw the tariffs coming and knew what that would mean.  An end to the economic boom.  So they sold their stocks before it became law.  Causing the Stock Market Crash of 1929.  Then those tariffs hit (an increase of some 50%).  Then they doubled income tax rates.  And Hoover even demanded that business leaders NOT cut wages.  All of this activist intervention into market forces just sucked the wind out of the economy.  Turning a recession into the Great Depression.

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Sixteenth Amendment, Revenue Act of 1913, Progressive Tax, Marginal Tax Rate, Tax Shelter, Tax Cuts and Decade of Greed

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 10th, 2012

History 101

Americans find Taxes Repugnant and have a Long History of Making this Repugnance Known

American independence began with a tax revolt.  The ratification of the U.S. Constitution happened only with safeguards against the new federal government from growing too powerful.  And great efforts went to limiting the amount of money it could spend.  For a long time all federal tax revenue came from import tariffs.  Then from sales of federal lands as the population moved west.  It took a civil war for us to impose an income tax.  Our first income tax was 3% on incomes over $800 (or about $20,000 today).  The first income tax was a flat tax.  They passed this income tax to pay for the war.  They repealed the income tax following the war.  Americans wouldn’t see another federal income tax until 1913 when we ratified the Sixteenth Amendment.  And President Woodrow Wilson signed into law the Revenue Act of 1913.

Woodrow Wilson was a progressive.  The precursor to today’s liberals.  Who thought beyond the limited government of our Founding Fathers.  They wanted to expand government.  To make it a part of our everyday life.  Where the brilliant progressive politicians would make better decisions for us than we ever could.  And their changing of society included the funding of the federal government.  For their income tax was a progressive tax.  Everyone paid a flat tax of 1% on income of $3,000 or more.  About $66,100 today.  Then the progressive taxes came into play.   Adding another percentage to the income tax rate for increasing amounts of income.  The thresholds for these increases were as follows: $20,000 (roughly $440,400 today), $50,000 ($1,101,000 today), $75,000 ($1,651,600), $100,000 ($2,202,100), $250,000 ($5,505,300) and $500,000 ($11,010,700).  The top marginal tax rate on the super rich (earning $11,010,700) was 7%.

Our second income tax was quite controversial.  A lot of people hated it.  For Americans find taxes repugnant.  And have a long history of making this repugnance well known.  But thanks to the American Civil War a generation of men was lost.  And a generation of boys grew up without fathers.  Tended on by doting mothers.  Smothering them with love and affection.  And these boys grew up without knowing the manly hardships of life.  And they entered politics.  Becoming those early progressives.  Who wanted to change the government into a great doting mother.  And now they could.  For they had their income tax.

Few paid the Confiscatory Tax Rates of the Seventies by Hiding their Income in Tax Shelters

The rich paid our first federal income taxes after the Revenue Act of 1913.  And these were very small percentages we had them pay.  Back then the top marginal tax rate was lower than our lowest income tax rate today.  Think about that.  The richest of the rich paid only 7% of their income ($11,010,700 or more today) in federal income taxes.  While today single people earning the lowest bracket of taxable income (from $0 to $8,700) pay 10% of their income in federal income taxes.  Clearly the growth of government exploded thanks to the Sixteenth Amendment.  Much as our Founding Fathers feared it would if they had too much money to spend.

Of course, this is ancient history.  Few know about this today.  For few could even tell you why we fought for our independence.  Or even who we fought for our independence from.  (We fought for our independence from Great Britain because of their policies to tax us despite our having no representation in Parliament.  That’s where the phrase taxation without representation came from).  Today high taxes are sadly just an accepted part of life.  In fact, we have referred to our paychecks as take-home pay.  Our net pay.  Because gross pay is a myth.  No one sees their gross pay.  About a third or more of that disappears in withholding taxes.  So gross pay is a meaningless expression for us today.  (It wasn’t before the Sixteenth Amendment or before the progressives came to power).  Something that we sadly accept.  And we now fund our lives on the take-home pay the government allows us to keep.  All the while accepting these high tax rates.

Government spending took off in the Sixties and the Seventies.  As did our taxes.  If we had once thought that a 7% tax on incomes of $11,010,700 or more was an outrage, we didn’t see anything yet.  In 1978 the top marginal tax rate was 70% on incomes of $351,712 or more.  And there were 25 marginal tax rates.  As shown here adjusted for inflation (sources: Tax Rates, Tax Receipts, and Celebrity Incomes).

 In this example we calculated the average of some top celebrities.  And the top celebrities on average earned about $30,000,000 in 2010.  Using the 1978 tax brackets they would have owed $20,936,506 in federal income taxes.  Or approximately 69.8% of their total income.  Which is pretty much equal to the top marginal tax rate.  Of course, few paid these confiscatory tax rates.  They hid their income as best as they could in the Seventies.  In tax shelters.  And you know they did because despite these confiscatory tax rates the federal government still ran budget deficits.  Having to print money to pay for their explosion in government spending. 

The Low Tax Rates of the Eighties created so much Economic Activity the Opposition called it the Decade of Greed

The heyday of Keynesian economics was in the Seventies.  After Richard Nixon decoupled the dollar from gold the Keynesians were free to print money to stimulate the economy.  Which was their answer to ending a recession.  Stimulus spending.  Have the government print money to create economic activity that wasn’t happening in the private sector.  Their policy tool to end a recession was inflation.  By pouring money into the economy people would borrow it and buy cars and houses and furniture.  And everything else under the sun.  Creating a surge of economic activity.  And creating jobs in the process as businesses must hire new workers to meet that government stimulated demand.  With the dollar decoupled from the ‘cross of gold’ the Keynesians were finally able to prove their mettle.  And solve all the country’s economic problems.  It was the dawn of a brave new world.

And that world sucked.  For the implementation of Keynesian economic policy proved those policies did not work.  Instead of replacing high unemployment with inflation they just added high inflation to the high unemployment.  Something that was impossible to happen in Keynesian textbooks.  But it happened.  Stagnant economic activity.  And inflation.  What we called stagflation.  We added the unemployment rate to the inflation rate to come up with a new economic indicator.  The misery index.  The economy was so miserable during Jimmy Carter’s 4 years in office that he lost in a landslide to Ronald Reagan.  Who was a proponent not of Keynesian economics but of the Austrian school.  Or supply side economics.   And the Austrians believed in low tax rates.  For low tax rates would stimulate economic activity.  And the greater amount of economic activity would generate a greater amount of tax revenue even at lower tax rates.  Let’s look at that same celebrity paying taxes a decade later under Ronald Reagan.

 Much simpler.  And more in keeping with the Founding Fathers.  Instead of paying 70% of their earnings in federal income taxes they will only pay 28% (again, equal to the top marginal tax rate.  Which is pretty much the only tax rate the rich pay).  That’s still a lot of money to give to the federal government.  But it’s so much smaller that in many cases it was cheaper and easier to pay Uncle Sam than trying to hide that income.  So economic activity took off in the Eighties.  It was so great that the opposition called it the Decade of Greed.  Out of sour grapes because their policies could never produce anything like it.  But what about tax revenue?  Those on the Left say this economic activity came at a price.  Exploding deficits.  Well, the deficits did grow.  But it wasn’t because of the cuts in the tax rates.

Higher Tax Rates do not Necessarily Increase Tax Revenue 

In 1978 total tax revenue was $1,113.6 billion.  In 1988 total tax revenue was $1,421.1 billion.  So Reagan’s cuts in the tax rates produced $307.5 billion more in tax revenue.  An increase of about 27.6%.  Dropping the top marginal tax rate from 70% to 28% actually increased tax revenue.  So the cut in tax rates did not cause the deficits.  It wasn’t a revenue problem.  Revenue went up.  Spending just increased more.  And it was this excessive government spending that caused the deficits.  Not the tax cuts. 

The lesson here is that higher tax rates do not necessarily increase tax revenue.  Because changes in tax rates changes behavior.  Higher tax rates discourage people from investing in businesses.  They discourage businesses from expanding.  Or hiring new workers.  Higher tax rates may decrease the opportunity costs for hiding income.  The cost and inconvenience of hiding income in tax shelters and offshore accounts may become less that the cost of paying higher taxes.  Like it was during the Seventies.  Where despite confiscatory tax rates the government could not generate enough tax revenue to meet their spending obligations.

Income tax rates grew from a very small percentage on only the largest of incomes to high tax rates on very modest incomes.  And yet our deficits have never been larger.  Proving that our tax rates are either too high and dampen economic activity (as well as encouraging people to avoid paying their taxes).  Or that government spending has just grown too large.  More than likely it’s a combination of the two.  A fact that would shock and dismay the Founding Fathers were they alive to see what we did with the republic they gave us.

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LESSONS LEARNED #27: “Yes, it’s the economy, but the economy is not JUST monetary policy, stupid.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - August 19th, 2010

WHAT GAVE BIRTH to the Federal Reserve System and our current monetary policy?  The Panic of 1907.  Without going into the details, there was a liquidity crisis.  The Knickerbocker Trust tried to corner the market in copper.  But someone else dumped copper on the market which dropped the price.  The trust failed.  Because of the money involved, a lot of banks, too, failed.  Depositors, scared, created bank runs.  As banks failed, the money supply contracted.  Businesses failed.  The stock market crashed (losing 50% of its value).  And all of this happened during an economic recession.

So, in 1913, Congress passed the Federal Reserve Act, creating the Federal Reserve System (the Fed).  This was, basically, a central bank.  It was to be a bank to the banks.  A lender of last resort.  It would inject liquidity into the economy during a liquidity crisis.  Thus ending forever panics like that in 1907.  And making the business cycle (the boom – bust economic cycles) a thing of the past.

The Fed has three basic monetary tools.  How they use these either increases or decreases the money supply.  And increases or decreases interest rates.

They can change reserve requirements for banks.  The more reserves banks must hold the less they can lend.  The less they need to hold the more they can lend.  When they lend more, they increase the money supply.  When they lend less, they decrease the money supply.  The more they lend the easier it is to get a loan.  This decreases interest rates (i.e., lowers the ‘price’ of money).  The less they lend the harder it is to get a loan.  This increases interest rates (i.e., raises the ‘price’ of money). 

The Fed ‘manages’ the money supply and the interest rates in two other ways.  They buy and sell U.S. Treasury securities.  And they adjust the discount rate they charge member banks to borrow from them.  Each of these actions either increases or decreases the money supply and/or raises or lowers interest rates.  The idea is to make money easier to borrow when the economy is slow.  This is supposed to make it easier for businesses to expand production and hire people.  If the economy is overheating and there is a risk of inflation, they take the opposite action.  They make it more difficult to borrow money.  Which increases the cost of doing business.  Which slows the economy.  Lays people off.  Which avoids inflation.

The problem with this is the invisible hand that Adam Smith talked about.  In a laissez-faire economy, no one person or one group controls anything.  Instead, millions upon millions of people interact with each other.  They make millions upon millions of decisions.  These are informed decisions in a free market.  At the heart of each decision is a buyer and a seller.  And they mutually agree in this decision making process.  The buyer pays at least as much as the seller wants.  The seller sells for at least as little as the buyer wants.  If they didn’t, they would not conclude their sales transaction.  When we multiply this basic transaction by the millions upon millions of people in the market place, we arrive at that invisible hand.  Everyone looking out for their own self-interest guides the economy as a whole.  The bad decisions of a few have no affect on the economy as a whole.

Now replace the invisible hand with government and what do you get?  A managed economy.  And that’s what the Fed does.  It manages the economy.  It takes the power of those millions upon millions of decisions and places them into the hands of a very few.  And, there, a few bad decisions can have a devastating impact upon the economy.

TO PAY FOR World War I, Woodrow Wilson and his Progressives heavily taxed the American people.  The war left America with a huge debt.  And in a recession.  During the 1920 election, the Democrats ran on a platform of continued high taxation to pay down the debt.  Andrew Mellon, though, had done a study of the rich in relation to those high taxes.  He found the higher the tax, the more the rich invested outside the country.  Instead of building factories and employing people, they took their money to places less punishing to capital.

Warren G. Harding won the 1920 election.  And he appointed Andrew Mellon his Treasury secretary.  Never since Alexander Hamilton had a Treasury secretary understood capitalism as well.  The Harding administration cut tax rates and the amount of tax money paid by the ‘rich’ more than doubled.  Economic activity flourished.  Businesses expanded and added jobs.  The nation modernized with the latest technologies (electric power and appliances, radio, cars, aviation, etc.).  One of the best economies ever.  Until the Fed got involved.

The Fed looked at this economic activity and saw speculation.  So they contracted the money supply.  This made it hard for business to expand to meet the growing demand.  When money is less readily available, you begin to stockpile what you have.  You add to that pile by selling liquid securities to build a bigger cash cushion to get you through tight monetary times.

Of course, the economy is NOT just monetary policy.  Those businesses were looking at other things the government was doing.  The Smoot-Hartley tariff was in committee.  Across the board tariff increases and import restrictions create uncertainty.  Business does not like uncertainty.  So they increase their liquidity.  To prepare for the worse.  Then the stock market crashed.  Then it got worse. 

It is at this time that the liquidity crisis became critical.  Depositors lost faith.  Bank runs followed.  But there just was not enough money available.  Banks began to fail.  Time for the Fed to step in and take action.  Per the Federal Reserve Act of 1913.  But they did nothing.  For a long while.  Then they took action.  And made matters worse.  They raised interest rates.  In response to England going off the gold standard (to prop up the dollar).  Exactly the wrong thing to do in a deflationary spiral.  This took a bad recession to the Great Depression.  The 1930s would become a lost decade.

When FDR took office, he tried to fix things with some Keynesian spending.  But nothing worked.  High taxes along with high government spending sucked life out of the private sector.  This unprecedented growth in government filled business with uncertainty.  They had no idea what was coming next.  So they hunkered down.  And prepared to weather more bad times.  It took a world war to end the Great Depression.  And only because the government abandoned much of its controls and let business do what they do best.  Pure, unfettered capitalism.  American industry came to life.  It built the war material to first win World War II.  Then it rebuilt the war torn countries after the war.

DURING THE 1980s, in Japan, government was partnering with business.  It was mercantilism at its best.  Japan Inc.  The economy boomed.  And blew great big bubbles.  The Keynesians in America held up the Japanese model as the new direction for America.  An American presidential candidate said we must partner government with business, too.  For only a fool could not see the success of the Japanese example.  Japan was growing rich.  And buying up American landmarks (including Rockefeller Center in New York).  National Lampoon magazine welcomed us to the 90s with a picture of a Japanese CEO at his desk.  He was the CEO of the United States of America, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Honda Motor Company.  The Japanese were taking over the world.  And we were stupid not to follow their lead.

But there was no invisible hand in Japan.  It was the hand of Japan Inc.  It was Japan Inc. that pursued economic policies that it thought best.  Not the millions upon millions of ordinary Japanese citizens.  Well, Japan Inc. thought wrong. 

There was collusion between Japanese businesses.  And collusion between Japanese businesses and government.  And corruption.  This greatly inflated the Japanese stock market.  And those great big bubbles finally burst.  The powerful Japan Inc. of the 1980s that caused fear and trembling was gone.  Replaced by a Japan in a deflationary spiral in the 1990s.  Or, as the Japanese call it, their lost decade.  This once great Asian Tiger was now an older tiger with a bit of a limp.   And the economy limped along for a decade or two.  It was still number 3 in the world, but it wasn’t what it used to be.  You don’t see magazine covers talking about it owning other nations any more.  (In 2010, China took over that #3 spot.  But China is a managed economy.   Will it suffer Japan’s fate?  Time will tell.)

The Japanese monetary authorities tried to fix the economy.  Interest rates were zero for about a decade.  In other words, if you wanted to borrow, it was easy.  And free.  But it didn’t help.  That huge economic expansion wasn’t real.  Business and government, in collusion, inflated and propped it up.  It gave them inflated capacity.  And prices.  And you don’t solve that problem by making it easier for businesses to borrow money to expand capacity and create jobs.  That’s the last thing they need.  What they need to do is to get out of the business of managing business.  Create a business-friendly climate.  Based on free-market principles.  Not mercantilism.  And let that invisible hand work its wonders.

MONETARY POLICY CAN do a lot of things.  Most of them bad.  Because it concentrates far too much power in too few hands.  The consequences of the mistakes of those making policy can be devastating.  And too tempting to those who want to use those powers for political reasons.  As we can see by Keynesian ‘stimulus’ spending that ends up as pork barrel spending.  The empirical data for that spending has shown that it stimulates only those who are in good standing with the powers that be.  Never the economy.

Sound money is important.  The money supply needs to keep pace with economic expansion.  If it doesn’t, a tight money supply will slow or halt economic activity.  But we have to use monetary policy for that purpose only.  We cannot use it to offset bad fiscal policy that is anti-business.  For if the government creates an anti-business environment, no amount of cheap money will encourage risk takers to take risks in a highly risky and uncertain environment.  Decades were lost trying.

No, you don’t stimulate with monetary policy.  You stimulate with fiscal policy.  There is empirical evidence that this works.  The Mellon tax cuts of the Harding administration created nearly a decade of strong economic growth.  The tax cuts of JFK were on pace to create similar growth until his assassination.  LBJ’s policies were in the opposite direction, thus ending the economic recovery of the JFK administration.  Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts produced economic growth through two decades. 

THE EVIDENCE IS there.  If you look at it.  Of course, a good Keynesian won’t.  Because it’s about political power for them.  Always has been.  Always will be.  And we should never forget this.

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