Friday, August 26, 2011

Children's lives aren't priceless

The Washington Post has a great story that illustrates the quandary that regulatory agencies face when they consider new safety measures and that illustrates the use of cost-benefit analysis.

For years, safety advocates have been pressuring the federal government to require seat belts in school buses. The rationale behind this request is as sensible as it is compassionate--seat belts would save lives and reduce injuries among bus passengers.

The National Highway Traffic Administration (NHTSA) has considered the request and rejected it, mostly on cost considerations.

NHTSA found that "that an average of 19 school-age children die in school bus-related traffic crashes each year: 5 are occupants of school buses and 14 are pedestrians near the loading/unloading zone of the school bus." (p. 20). Thus, school buses are already incredibly safe (several times safer than traveling in an automobile), though fatalities still occur.

NHTSA also agreed that seat belts would increase safety and reduce the number of fatalities among passengers. In particular, the agency "estimated that lap/shoulder seat belts would save about 2 lives per year and prevent about 1,900 crash injuries, of which 97 percent are of minor/moderate severity (mainly cuts and bruises), assuming every child wore them correctly on every trip."

So why not require seat belts?

Saving those 2 lives and preventing those 1,900 crash injuries would require enormous costs. NHTSA estimates that seat belts would add $5,500-$7,300 to the cost of each new school bus. Adding up the costs for all new school buses, NHTSA estimates that "the benefits would be achieved at a cost of between $23 and $36 million per equivalent life saved."

Worse, those very high costs could lead to some perverse effects. In particular, the costs would likely lead to school districts using fewer buses and spending less on student and driver training. NHTSA calculates that the likely changes in school district behavior might actually lead to a net loss of 10 to 19 additional lives. Thus, school buses themselves would be safer. However, they would available to fewer children and would be operated in a less safe manner, leading to a greater loss of lives.

NHTSA's analysis not only shows the costs associated with the regulation but how those costs will affect behavior. Regrettably, those high costs will continue to cost some children their lives.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Look who Republicans want to tax

In recent weeks, Republican dogma against raising taxes has evolved. Republicans had previously been opposed to raising any taxes under any circumstances. Now, however, Republicans are complaining that 47 percent of American households pay no federal income taxes and are arguing that new taxes should be imposed on them. For instance, David Weigel of Slate writes
On Sunday, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Huntsman found himself in a virtual love-in with Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann over, of all things, taxes. The paper asked Huntsman if "the half of American households no longer paying income tax—mainly working poor families and seniors—should be brought onto the income tax rolls."

He agreed, crediting the GOP's current front-runner for vice president, Sen. Marco Rubio, with the insight that "we don't have enough people paying taxes in this country."

The Journal called this position the "new GOP orthodoxy," which it is. When he announced his presidential bid two weeks ago, Perry told a room of conservative activists and bloggers that "we're dismayed at the injustice that nearly half of all Americans don't even pay any income tax." He was following on Bachmann, who'd just told the South Carolina Christian Chamber of Commerce the very same thing.

"Part of the problem is today, only 53 percent pay any federal income tax at all; 47 percent pay nothing," said Bachmann. "We need to broaden the base so that everybody pays something, even if it's a dollar. Everyone should pay something, because we all benefit."
So who are these households that Republicans want to tax? The Tax Policy Center of the Urban Institute and Brookings Institution has recently conducted an analysis of "Why Some Tax Units Pay No Income Tax."

The Tax Policy Center found that of the households in the U.S. that pay no income taxes, about half do so because their incomes are so low that they fall below the standard exemption and deduction amounts. In 2010, the exemption and standard deduction for a single, non-elderly adult totaled $9,350; the exemptions and standard deduction for a non-elderly married couple filing a joint return totaled $18,700. The exemptions and standard deduction for elderly or blind filers or for households with children were somewhat higher. These income cut-offs are near or in some cases below the poverty threshold. For example, the poverty threshold for a single, non-elderly adult is $11,344; the threshold for a non-elderly married couple is $14,602.

Note that these exemptions and deductions can be claimed by nearly all taxpayers. Thus, most single, non-elderly taxpayers pay no federal income taxes on the first $9,350 of income, and most married, non-elderly taxpayers pay no federal income taxes on the first $18,700.

The other half of households that currently pay no income taxes do so because of special provisions and breaks in the tax code, which are sometimes referred to as "tax expenditures" or loopholes. One of the biggest tax breaks in the tax code is that a portion of Social Security benefits is excluded from taxable income. The Tax Policy Center calculates that special provisions for the elderly (the Social Security exclusion and the slightly larger standard deduction) account four out of nine households that owe no taxes because of tax expenditures.

There are also special provisions for households with children (e.g., the child tax credit) and the working poor (e.g., the Earned Income Tax Credit). These provisions account just under another third of the households that owe no taxes because of tax expenditures. Some means-tested cash transfers, such as Supplemental Security Income and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, is not treated as taxable. These exclusions account for another six percent of households.

If we put these figures together, at least 90% of the households that are not paying federal income taxes are either have very low incomes or have somewhat higher incomes but are elderly or have children. Indeed, the Tax Policy Center calculates that 80% of the households that escape federal income taxation have incomes below $30,000.

Of the other households that escape federal income taxation, most do so because of policies that Republicans favor, including the mortgage interest deduction and the special treatment of capital gains and dividend income.

Taxes for some of these "no tax" households are scheduled to increase in coming years. In particular, the tax package that was approved last December extended some credits for working and poor families. Under the current law and under the Obama administration's budget proposals, the proportion of people paying some taxes would rise. So a tax increase is on the way.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Self-inflicted economic wounds in the Tar Heel State

North Carolina's (former) workers are reaping the bitter fruit of the Republican legislature's slashing of government spending. Non-farm employment in North Carolina, which was starting to recover when the Republicans took control of the legislature, has now declined from 3,890,000 jobs in March to 3,868,100 jobs in July, a loss of 21,900 jobs.

In March, there were 435,200 unemployed workers in North Carolina, and the unemployment rate was 9.7 percent. In July, the number of unemployed workers was 455,000, and the unemployment rate was 10.1 percent.

The state has performed worse than the rest of the country. While the national job picture has been far from than stellar, the national economy has still managed to add 433,000 jobs since March. Over the same period, employment in North Carolina has fallen.

The state's net job losses were as unnecessary as they were painful because they all came from the elimination of jobs in the public sector. From March to July, North Carolina shed 25,000 state and local government jobs.

The Republicans' policies are inflicting lots of pain in the form of displaced government workers, reduced public services, and more crowded classrooms but are producing no discernible benefits for the general economy. Worse still, the cuts have largely come from the education sector, which will likely lead to North Carolina's children and young adults being less productive and earning lower wages in the future.

Monday, August 8, 2011

How about some change we can believe in

On the first market day following S&P's downgrade of U.S. debt, the world looked to Washington for leadership and confidence. Instead, the world got a few minutes of dispiriting remarks from a President that is clearly in over his head.
On Friday, we learned that the United States received a downgrade by one of the credit rating agencies -- not so much because they doubt our ability to pay our debt if we make good decisions, but because after witnessing a month of wrangling over raising the debt ceiling, they doubted our political system’s ability to act. The markets, on the other hand, continue to believe our credit status is AAA. In fact, Warren Buffett, who knows a thing or two about good investments, said, “If there were a quadruple-A rating, I’d give the United States that.” I, and most of the world’s investors, agree.
Investors didn't agree. The Dow Jones Industrial Average, which was already down about 400 points when the President went on the air, dropped another 200 points in the final two hours of trading.

Investors and the rest of the world were surely looking for concrete steps to stem the crisis. Instead, the President used the White House stage to chide Congress for its intransigence and to make a vague call for change. At the same time, the President revealed that he had nothing to offer beyond some empty words.

Given the crisis that we are facing, Congress should immediately call itself back into session. The President and Congress should then take the following steps to improve the economy and restore confidence:
  • Ratify the outstanding free trade agreements with South Korea, Panama, and Columbia that Republicans want and the extension of Trade Adjustment Assistance that Democrats want. The President and Congress appear to have an agreement for these four pieces of legislation to begin moving forward in September, but why not remove all uncertainty and pass the package now?
  • Negotiate an agreement for and pass the fiscal year 2012 federal budget. The budget should include a continuation of the 99-week unemployment benefits.
  • Complete and pass the two-year bipartisan transportation reauthorization that has been negotiated by Senators Barbara Boxer and James Inhofe.
  • Negotiate and pass the long-term reauthorizations of the FAA, No Child Left Behind, and a host of other bills stalled by partisan infighting.
  • Drop all single-senator holds on the President's nominees and hold votes on the nominees' confirmations.
None of these actions would be a magic bullet. However, action on each is needed, could make modest improvements to the country's economic functioning, and is achievable in short order. Despite their "small ball" nature, completion of each would be a vast improvement over lurching from one self-inflicted crisis to the next.

Monday, August 1, 2011

The debt-ceiling debacle has already cost us $1.7 billion

CNN/Money reports
The debt ceiling debacle has just cost U.S. taxpayers more than $1.7 billion.

That's the amount of additional interest the government had to pay investors Monday to sell Treasury bills that finance its operations.

To be precise, the extra cost is $1,721,250,000 more in interest payments than the government would have needed to pay investors just two weeks ago, when they were willing to accept far lower rates before the debt ceiling became a crisis.
And here I thought that the Republicans were concerned about the deficit.