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December 19, 2006
Is Pay-As-You Go A Good Idea?
Democrats are taking sides in what is shaping up as one of the party's biggest divides -- its identity on economic issues.
The brewing debate has been overshadowed by the national focus on Iraq. But at stake is the legacy of Bill Clinton and his treasury secretary, Robert Rubin, who in the 1990s redefined the formerly protectionist, free-spending party as a champion of free trade and balanced budgets. That "establishment" view now is under challenge from party populists and organized labor, who have been emboldened by gains in last month's elections to press their case against globalization and fiscal austerity.
My own leanings are probably no secret to anyone who reads this blog on a regular basis -- I'm solidly in the "free trade and balanced budgets" camp. But there is at least one counterpoint about which I might have some sympathy:
While liberal groups believe they have the party establishment on the defensive on trade, they complain that on budget and spending issues, fiscal conservatives have the upper hand. That stems in large part from Democrats' 2006 campaign promise to restore a "pay as you go" budget rule, which would require that any new spending, or tax cuts, be accompanied by offsetting revenue increases or spending cuts to avoid widening the deficit.
Robert Borosage, co-director of the liberal Campaign for America's Future, objects that by insisting on a pay-as-you-go approach Democrats are tying their own hands as they turn toward addressing "decade-old pent-up demands" for domestic spending.
Republicans, he says, never worry about deficits when they cut taxes. "What pay-go says is that the nation's first priority is the budget deficit, and that's just not true," Mr. Borosage says, citing instead the war in Iraq, global warming, energy dependence and trade deficits as bigger problems than the budget shortfall. "When you have a national crisis, you spend the money."
I'm a fan of pay-go rules, but there is a reasonable case to be made for the proposition that deficits have their place. Tom Sargent explains:
Robert Lucas and Nancy Stokey, as well as Robert Barro, have studied this problem under the assumption that the government can make and keep commitments to execute the plans that it designs. All three authors have identified situations in which the government should finance a volatile (or unsmooth) sequence of government expenditures with a sequence of tax rates that is quite stable (or smooth) over time. Such policies are called "tax-smoothing" policies. Tax smoothing is a good idea because it minimizes the supply disincentives associated with taxes. For example, workers who pay a 20 percent marginal tax rate every year will reduce their labor supply less (that is, will work more at any given wage) than they would if the government set a 10 percent marginal tax rate in half the years and a 30 percent rate in the other half.
During "normal times" a government operating under a tax-smoothing rule typically has close to a balanced budget. But during times of extraordinary expenditures—during wars, for example—the government runs a deficit, which it finances by borrowing. During and after the war the government increases taxes by enough to service the debt it has occurred; in this way the higher taxes that the government imposes to finance the war are spread out over time. Such a policy minimizes the cumulative distorting effects of taxes—the adverse "supply-side" effects.
Or consider policies that have short-term costs but long-run benefits. Think growth-promoting free trade policies that nontheless displace some domestic jobs and production today. Or, perhaps, a health-care program (prescription drug benefit?) that immediately raises spending, but offers the promise of better health and less expensive remedial treatments down the road. In cases such as these, you might think that because the benefits accrue to future taxpayers it would be sensible to have them bear some -- maybe even most -- of the costs as well. And that is exactly the nature of deficits -- they shift the tax burden from today to tomorrow.
That is also, of course, the problem. You might have noted the "under the assumption that the government can make and keep commitments " clause in the Sargent quotation above. That is one big "if" in this discussion. And you might suggest that it would be awfully easy for a government to claim that there are big future benefits to some set of policies, even when said benefits are suspect or highly speculative. Or you might reasonably argue that the burdens of future taxation are already inappropriately skewed to future generations (and getting more so by the minute).
For all these reasons, I lean to the pay-go solution. But the contrary view is at least worth considering.
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November 26, 2006
FOR years, the Clinton wing of the Democratic Party, exercising a lock on the party’s economic policies, argued that the economy could achieve sustained growth only if markets were allowed to operate unfettered and globally...
This approach coincided with a period of economic prosperity, low unemployment and falling deficits. Over time, this combination — called Rubinomics after the Clinton administration’s Treasury secretary, Robert E. Rubin — became the Democratic establishment’s accepted model for the future.
Not anymore. With the Democrats having won a majority in Congress, and disquiet over globalization growing, a party faction that has been powerless — the economic populists — is emerging and strongly promoting an alternative to Rubinomics.
... They want to rethink America’s role in the global economy. They would intervene in markets and regulate them much more than the Rubinites would. For a start, they would declare a moratorium on new trade agreements until clauses were included that would, for example, restrict layoffs and protect incomes.
The split is not over the damage from globalization. Mr. Rubin and his followers increasingly say that globalization has not brought job security or rising incomes to millions of Americans. The “share of the pie may even be shrinking” for vast segments of the middle class, Mr. Rubin’s successor as Treasury secretary under President Clinton, Lawrence H. Summers, recently wrote in an op-ed in The Financial Times. And the populists certainly agree.
But the Rubin camp argues that regulating trade, or imposing other market restrictions, would be self-defeating.
That seems right to me. What's the counter?
The economic populists argue that the trade agreements themselves are the problem. They cite several studies showing that more jobs shifted to Mexico as a result of Nafta than were created in the United States to serve the Mexican market.
Hmm. Doesn't that argue by way of attacking with a point the other side already conceded? Perhaps we should focus on the actual claims made by those who argue globalization is a force for good?
And then there is this:
As the two groups face off, Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute, contends that the populists are pushing much harder than the Rubinites for government-subsidized universal health care. They also favor expanding Social Security to offset the decline in pension coverage in the private sector.
Expanding Social Security? Maybe "the people" weren't as upset about growth in entitlements (via Medicare's prescription drug benefit, for example) as we were led to believe?
Is there any room for agreement here. Sure:
Apart from such differences, there are nevertheless crucial issues on which the groups agree. Both would sponsor legislation that reduced college tuition, mainly through tax credits or lower interest rates on student loans...
OK. I'm not sure access is the problem with our educational system, but at least that focuses on a real issue.
Both would expand the earned-income tax credit to subsidize the working poor.
Both would have the government negotiate lower drug prices for Medicare’s prescription drug plan.
Uh-oh. Price controls by any other name...
And despite their relentless criticisms of President Bush’s tax cuts, neither the populists nor the Rubinite regulars would try to roll them back now, risking a veto that the Democrats lack the votes to override.
Here, I guess, is the bottom line:
The populists argue that the national income has flowed disproportionately into corporate coffers and the nation’s wealthiest households, and that the imbalance has grown worse in recent years. They want to rethink America’s role in the global economy. They would intervene in markets and regulate them much more than the Rubinites would. For a start, they would declare a moratorium on new trade agreements until clauses were included that would, for example, restrict layoffs and protect incomes.
I have a prediction: I won't lose much sleep thinking about which side in this debate I support.
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November 21, 2006
Do These Numbers Add Up?
Today's Wall Street Journal has a long, and interesting, article (page A1 of the print edition) on where the Democrat-controlled Congress might take economic policy if they have their druthers. On the let's-pay-for-things side of the ledger:
The Senate Finance Committee, with the blessing of both parties' leaders, is circulating a list of ways to shrink the "tax gap" between taxes owed and taxes actually paid. Most are aimed at upper-income taxpayers, such as requiring stock brokers to report not only the price a client got for shares, but also the original purchase price paid.
Boosting taxes on upper-income Americans would reduce disparities and provide revenues for other attacks on inequality. Raising the top two tax rates, now 33% and 35%, by a single percentage point would yield $90 billion over five years, the Congressional Budget Office estimates.
Another favorite Democratic target is the lower tax rate -- a maximum of 15% -- on capital gains and dividends.
But then there is this list, which includes expanded tax breaks for low-income workers...
Enlarging the earned-income tax credit, viewed by many economists as a smart alternative to a higher minimum wage, is an option likely to figure in Democratic tax deliberations. The credit offers up to $4,536 to a family with two or more children to offset payroll taxes that the working poor pay. And it offers a cash bonus if the credit exceeds taxes paid, rewarding low-wage workers without raising employers' costs...
... expanded social insurance for displaced workers...
One direct response to workers' anxiety is expanded government programs to cushion the fall of those who lose jobs in today's rapidly changing economy...
Lori Kletzer of the University of California at Santa Cruz and Howard Rosen of the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, for instance, would offer eligible dislocated workers up to half the difference between weekly earnings at their old and new jobs, up to $10,000 a year. This isn't cheap: They put the price tag at between $2.6 billion and $4.3 billion a year, financed through general tax revenues or an expanded payroll tax.
... larger expenditures on education...
Democrats are focused on doing more to help Americans pay for college, especially important since the typical college grad earns 45% more than the typical high-school grad. Ms. Pelosi's platform calls for making up to $12,000 a year in college tuition tax-deductible -- or the equivalent in a $3,000 tax credit -- as well as cutting interest rates on student loans and increasing the maximum Pell Grant for low-income students to $5,100 from $4,050.
A coalition that spans the political spectrum is pushing more government support of Pre-K education. The case: Low-income children are behind when they arrive at kindergarten and never catch up; spending more on them sooner would have a big payoff.
... and incentives to induce more private saving
... such as replacing current tax breaks for retirement savings with universal 401(k) accounts into which the government would match family savings -- a 2-to-1 match for low-income families, 1-to-1 for middle income families and perhaps 0.5-to-1 for high-income families.
... an idea suggested by Clinton economic adviser Gene Sperling, described in an online companion article.
These are all responses to very legitimate concerns -- how do we encourage more saving, how do we ensure opportunities to develop the skills that so clearly separate the haves from the have-nots, how should we view society's responsibilities to people who are harmed by economic change through no fault of their own? And though the ideas above may or may not be the best approaches to dealing with these questions, they are certainly worthy of discussion.
But how should that discussion proceed? An awful lot of people seem to feel that just reversing past tax cuts will somehow lead us to the promised land, but the arithmetic looks pretty shaky to me. That's why I think this is a good place to start:
New House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has vowed to restore a 1990s rule requiring new spending to be offset by spending cuts or tax increases...
First, a means to institutionalize priority setting. Then, on the specifics of those priorities, we can talk.
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November 15, 2006
Another Thing That Annoys Me
I will officially start the holiday celebrations next Thursday, and I promise to post only nice friendly comments during the season of good cheer. But we're not there yet, so I just have to take exception to this item from Forbes, describing the October and end of fiscal-year 2006 deficit report issued by the Treasury on Monday:
The government posted a budget deficit of 49.3 bln usd in October, compared with expectations of a 49 bln usd deficit and the 47.4 bln usd deficit in October last year.
Receipts totaled a record high 167.7 bln usd, while outlays totaled 217 bln usd, also a record.
I added the emphasis, because that is what I came to complain about. To wit, is that "record" stuff at all meaningful? Don't think so. Here's a picture of annual nominal receipts and outlays, since 1970:
Rare is the period without a record. Perhaps if we adjust for inflation?
You see a bit more in the way of non-records there -- around the times of recessions, in particular -- but the standard story is ever upward and to the right. Not surprising, since that is also the story of income growth.
The informative statistic, of course, is not the dollar size of outlays and receipts, but their magnitudes relative to the size the economy, or GDP:
No records there, though I will forgive you if you choose to fret about that gap between the green line and the red line.
See? The good cheer has started already.
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October 19, 2006
Hat tip to Mirra at BudgetBlog for bringing to our attention the brand new Open Budget Index, designed to "rate countries on how open their budget books are to their citizens." The initial publication includes ratings for 59 countries, chosen to be a broadly representative global sample. The index is based on questionnaires, the answers to which are made available for each country, along with very useful links to each country's key budget documents.
Here's how the ratings stack up (click on the picture for a better look):
Among us types who harbor interests in fiscal affairs, it is not uncommon to engage in extended discussions about what should and shouldn't be included when calculating a measure like "the deficit". (For example, should contributions to Social Security trust funds be excluded or not?) I've always had a suspicion that, in this conversation, economists and p-wonks often make much ado about not a whole lot. In the United States, all the information is there in its full glory: On-budget deficits, off-budget deficits, projections of entitlement expenditures and receipts; basically more than enough information to knock yourself out answering whatever question you think budgetary concepts really ought to answer. The information may not be absolutely perfect, but the Open Budget Index suggests its pretty darn good.
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October 12, 2006
The 2006 federal deficit pleasantly surprised. From The Wall Street Journal (page A2 in the print edition):
Strong tax receipts from individuals and corporations helped to shrink the U.S. budget deficit for the fiscal year ended Sept. 30 to $248 billion, far narrower than the $423 billion previously projected by the White House...
The 2006 deficit narrowed in large part because the growth in spending was offset by surging tax receipts, which reached $2.4 trillion, up 12% from $2.15 trillion, the Treasury said. The biggest surge came from corporate income taxes, which increased 27% to $354 billion as corporate profits skyrocketed. The single biggest chunk of tax revenue came from individual income taxes, up 13% to $1 trillion, largely fueled by wealthy individuals, who benefited from higher salaries, bonuses and stock-market gains.
As usual (and appropriate), that bit of sunshine comes with a warning that you should not get too comfortable with that warm and fuzzy feeling:
While the deficit shrank in fiscal 2006, the White House and many economists expect it to widen again this fiscal year as revenue growth slows and spending continues to increase. The costs of entitlement programs are growing faster than the government's ability to pay for them, and government debt payments, which totaled $406 billion in fiscal 2006, are also rising.
That particular fact is no surprise, but writing on the opinion page of today's Journal the Cato Institute's Chris Edwards and Jagadeesh Gokhale say it is not just the federal government:
State and local governments are amassing huge obligations in the form of unfunded retirement benefits for their workers. Aside from underfunded pension plans, governments have also run up large obligations from their retiree health plans. While a new Governmental Accounting Standards Board rule will kick in next year and reveal exactly how large this problem is, we estimate that retiree health benefits are a $1.4 trillion fiscal time bomb...
To put these costs in context, consider the explicit net debt of state and local governments. According to the Federal Reserve Board, state and local credit market debt has risen rapidly in recent years, from $313 billion in 2001 to $568 billion in 2005. But unfunded obligations from state and local pension and retiree health plans -- about $2 trillion -- are still more than three times this net debt amount.
Experience tells me that the Edwards and Gokhale suggestion for fixing the problem won't please everyone...
The only good options are to cut benefits and move state and local retirement plans to a pre-funded basis with personal savings plans...
State and local governments also need to cut retirement benefits, which were greatly expanded during the 1990s boom. From a fairness perspective, cutting benefits especially of younger workers is reasonable given the generosity of state and local plans.
... but it's hard to ignore the warning.
UPDATE: pgl reacts to the Journal report at Angry Bear, and to my post of a few days ago adding: "If David’s point is that the unified budget must be balanced in the long-run, he’s right." Yep -- that's my point, and on this there is no disagreement between us.
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October 09, 2006
What Is The Right Way To Measure The Deficit?
My friend-in-blogging pgl took a look at my previous post and has concluded that I am apparently one of those unified budget types. Actually, I would be very pleased to be known as no type at all (or a man for all types, if you will).
Here is my point: The right measure for characterizing fiscal policy depends on what question is being asked. If the question is "Does the government have the current means to pay for its current expenditures?", then the unified budget -- which includes receipts from Social Security payroll taxes -- is clearly the right concept. The reason is that those payroll taxes do finance contemporaneous spending. Although the portion of that spending paid out of excess Social Security taxes are logged as contributions to the system's trust fund, the trust fund never provides independent revenues for the government as a whole. All future payments in excess of what is collected by the payroll tax must come from other tax sources.
However, if the question is "Does the government have the current means to pay for its current expenditures after it has honored accrued entitlement benefits payable in the current year?", then the deficit excluding off-budget items like Social Security is the right concept. And as I have said many, many times on this weblog, honoring those benefits should be the starting point for any and all discussions of Social Security reform.
Finally, if the question is "Does the government have in place the means to pay for its current and future expenditures given the likely path of current and future revenues?", then the current deficit, by any measure, is meaningless. So too are entitlement trust funds as they, once again, represent only earmarked funds, not the means by which to pay for them. Answering this question requires something like generational accounts which incorporate the present value of receipts the government can collect from the private sector -- not the shifting around of those receipts within the government.
As I read the Bernanke speech that motivated the Beat the Press post that motivated my aforementioned macroblog post, it seems clear to me that the Chairman was primarily concerned with the latter question. Generational tax burdens is, in fact, a central theme of the speech, and in that context I think he he uses the budgetary concepts appropriate to that discussion (including a mention of generational accounts). I don't think it fair -- or conducive to productive debate -- to call a person "dishonest" simply because he or she answers a different question than the one you want answered.
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September 30, 2006
Upon Further Review...
At Angry Bear, pgl throws the yellow flag on Greg Mankiw:
Greg Mankiw commits an intellectual foul in my view as he graphs the ratio of the Federal government debt held by the public to GDP as if our payroll contributions to prefunding our Social Security benefits are really employment tax increases designed to pay for that tax cut for Bill Gates et al...
Is Greg Mankiw recommending this backdoor employment tax increase? If he is, his graph makes sense.
It is certainly true that "debt held by the public" does not include government liabilities held in the Social Security Trust Fund, and that deficits look a good measure larger if we exclude surpluses of payroll contributions over Social Security benefit payments:
So, Social Security surpluses do indeed finance current spending in any given year. But if those surpluses truly do represent "prefunding our Social Security benefits", then the future payments to beneficiaries will be paid out of the debt accumulated by the Social Security trust fund. And the assets of the trust fund are simply Treasury securities that the government keeps for itself.
Where will the funds to retire those securities come from? With no social security surpluses, the answer is general revenues -- mainly individual and corporate income taxes. While it is possible that some future Congress will choose to address the liability posed by trust fund claims by raising payroll taxes, that is not the default. It may be fair, of course, to warn of "backdoor" tax increases generically. Professor Mankiw says as much:
The looming problem with fiscal policy is the longer-term outlook, which will unfold over the next several decades as the baby-boom generation retires and starts collecting Social Security and Medicare. At that point, this series will start rising rapidly unless taxes are raised or spending is reduced compared with benefits promised under current law.
But a backdoor employment tax increase? Not necessarily.
My friend Greg Mankiw says we shouldn't be worried about the current fiscal situation, just the looming fiscal challenge. I'm not quite sure what to make of the statement, back in the Clinton administration our argument for running large surpluses and reducing the debt was precisely to prepare for the looming fiscal challenges.
First, although Greg can defend himself on this one, I think his point was pretty close to Jason's. Second, although there may have been arguments for running large surpluses, the only year in which non-trust-fund surpluses actually arose was 2000. Third, the policies in place at that time were arguably very far from addressing the "looming fiscal challenges."
Just to anticipate the response to these comments, I am not arguing for or against economic policies put into place post-2000. The fact, clearly articulated in the Mankiw post, is that structural imbalances in entitlement programs have not been addressed. They weren't addressed then, they are not being addressed now.
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September 13, 2006
A Warning Sign In The Deficit Report?
I guess how you feel about today's news on the August federal deficit report depends on your perspective. Reuters led with the observation that the ink was a little redder than expected...
The U.S. government posted a larger-than-expected $64.61 billion federal budget deficit in August as outlays for the month were at a record high, a Treasury Department report showed on Wednesday.
The August deficit compared with a $51.33 billion deficit in August 2005.
Wall Street economists polled by Reuters were expecting a $61.15 billion deficit for the month.
... while AFX News Limited (via Forbes) kicked off with a cheerier perspective:
The federal deficit through August held below last year's level and continued on its course for a smaller yearly deficit this year than last, the Treasury Department said.
The government posted a budget deficit of 64.6 bln usd in August, compared to expectations of a 67 bln usd monthly deficit.
Through the first 11 months of the budget year, the deficit was 304.3 bln usd, down 14 pct from the same period in 2005, when it totaled 354.1 bln usd.
I don't doubt that someone out there in blogland will point out that, in the even longer run, the federal budget remains in a state of some disrepair. But, for the moment, I am decidedly focused on the short run, and trying to figure out exactly how the economic outlook is evolving. From that perspective, this detail from Action Economics (subscription required) is not encouraging:
Receipts were weak, declining 1.0% or $1.6 bln to $153.9 bln. Weakness was led by a drop in individual income. This marks the first time since April of 2004 that receipt growth has been negative.
OK, I'll remind myself that one month does not a trend make, and maybe encourage myself with this report, from Greg Ip and Christopher Conkey at The Wall Street Journal Online:
The recent drop in oil prices could provide a welcome and surprising boost to consumer pocketbooks this fall, cushioning the economy from a falloff in home prices and construction while venting an important source of inflation pressure.
The easing of energy prices is an unexpected -- and little-noted -- positive amid economic anxiety over falling housing activity, previous energy-price increases and the possibility of recession.
Crude oil was at $77 a barrel as recently as early August. Yesterday, the price of the October crude-oil future contract settled at $63.76, a near six month low, down $1.85 from Monday, on the New York Mercantile Exchange.
Ahh. I feel better already.
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July 29, 2006
Fifty Percent Less Disagreement Than Meets The Eye
What proportion of students will be able to follow the syllogism?
- Tax relief is good for growth only if the tax reductions are financed by spending restraint.
- The Bush tax reductions have been financed not by spending restraint but by borrowing.
- The Bush tax reductions have been bad for growth.
I hope the answer is none, because one of the premises is irrelevant. The question is not have the tax cuts been financed by spending cuts, but rather will they be financed by spending cuts. Brad's expectation may be reasonable given the politics of the situation, but you obviously cannot draw conclusions by assuming a condition that has yet to be determined.
Today, Professor DeLong responds:
It's possible that there are huge spending cuts relative to GDP in our future. It's not terribly likely.
Uh, gee. Isn't that exactly what I said? OK, I'll always accept the possibility I just wasn't clear enough, but I'm not sure where this comes from:
If I were Macroblog, I would say, instead, that the Bush tax cuts are good for growth because in response to the tax-cut magic the Growth Fairy will appear, wave her wand, and instantaneously boost labor productivity by 5%. That seems more likely than Macroblog's scenario.
I wasn't aware that I was proposing any scenario. I was really making a pretty simple, and minor, observation. The Treasury analysis in question was based on assumptions about what policy might be in the future, not on what policies are already in place (which I think everyone agrees are incomplete). Brad built a syllogism on a premise related to current and past policy, which is quite beside the point of the analysis. If the premise had been "The Bush tax reductions will not be financed by spending restraint..." I would have been perfectly happy (although I might still have suggested that opinions remain distinct from facts).
In the balance of my original post I waxed enthusiastic about Menzie Chinn's assertion that seriously evaluating spending reductions requires that those cuts be explicitly identified. And as I noted above, I did in fact say that the "Brad's expectation [that taxes will have to be increased] may be reasonable" and coupled that with a call to combine that conclusion with advocacy for a broader look at how the tax system can be made more conducive to enhanced economic performance. How that adds up to a belief in some magic tax-cut Growth Fairy is beyond me.
Brad goes on:
... only tamed economists give politicians credit for policies the politicians won't propose. It muddies the waters and degrades the quality of debate to do so.
I think that there is a knee-jerk tendency to assume that any objection to someone's criticism of a policy is the same thing as an endorsement of that policy. It is not. So, for the record: I endorse no blanket solution to bringing the government's budget back into balance. I am highly skeptical of the proposition that it can be done by reducing spending alone. I am also highly skeptical of the proposition that simply reversing the Bush tax cuts is the best possible answer. And I am 100% in agreement with the DeLong appeal that "the Bush administration propose a policy mechanism--like the Budget Enforcement Act, say--to cut discretionary and entitlement spending, title by title, as shares of GDP starting in 2010". There a quality debate awaits.
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