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Policy Points from Iowa Fiscal Partners

Posts tagged economy

Who benefits? No doubts — the ‘1 Percent’

Posted June 4th, 2013 to Blog
Peter Fisher

Peter Fisher

For whose benefit is this country run? The events of the past 10 years should have erased any doubts about the answer to that question. Let’s recap for a minute just what happened.

First, federal regulators sat idly by while banks and investment funds, with help from their friends the bond rating agencies, put billions into high-risk mortgages that should never have been made, and mortgage brokers raked in closing fees. Millions of families became heavily in debt, and housing prices shot up at unsustainable rates. When all this collapsed, it drove the economy into the deepest recession since the 1930s. Millions lost their jobs and their homes, as banks chose to foreclose rather than work out a way for homeowners to remain in their homes.

There was a little seeming good news: Interest rates were at an all-time low. People could refinance at incredibly low rates. But wait: The banks reacted to the criticisms of their previous loose lending practices by drastically tightening credit rules. Ordinary people who were making house payments with mortgages at 5 or 6 or 7 percent were denied refinancing because their credit was bad — because of the recession and loss of jobs. So the banks were saying, in effect: Yes, we see that you are making your payments at 6 percent but we don’t think you could make the lower payments at 3.5 percent. Banks kept their very profitable mortgages, earning twice what they could get on new mortgages, and prolonging the recession as consumers were unable to free up money for other purchases.

So finally, after five years of economic hardship for much of the population, housing prices have hit bottom and started back up again. Great news. People who have a job again may also be able to buy a house again, and at still very favorable prices and interest rates. But wait: We can’t have the formerly unemployed, forced out of their homes, becoming homeowners again and getting all the benefit from future rising prices and cheap credit. No, that’s clearly a job for the rich.

Families who struggled and suffered during the recession saw their credit ratings sink, and with the tight credit rules, they are shut out of the mortgage market (and in some cases the job market as well). And who steps in? Wall Street firms and wealthy house-flippers. One firm alone, the Blackstone Group, has purchased 26,000 homes in nine states.[i] In a few years they can re-sell to ordinary working folks at higher prices (with mortgages at higher interest rates). The rich, it turns out, are the ones in a position to buy at the bottom and reap the capital gains that will follow (taxed, of course, at a much lower rate than wages).

It should hardly come as a surprise that the net effect of the housing bubble, the financial collapse and prolonged recession, and the beginnings of recovery, was to bring about a substantial redistribution of wealth. For much of the population, what little wealth they had was concentrated in home equity, which was wiped out by the collapse of the housing market; wealth continued to decline for the bottom 93 percent of the population during the first two years of “recovery.”[ii] But for the richest 7 percent, wealth increased 28 percent, from 2009 to 2011.

Income inequality is rising again as well, as profits have surged since the recovery began while wages have stagnated. The top 1 percent got 121 percent of all the gains in income from 2009 to 2011.[iii] If you are in the 1 percent, things have worked out just swimmingly; causing an economic collapse can be very profitable if you are in the right position.

If you are part of the 1 percent, you are also free to spend as much of that new wealth as you want re-electing public officials who will blame Food Stamp recipients, unions, and public school teachers for our economic troubles, while slashing any program that benefits the poorer half of the population in the name of cutting the national debt. Those elected officials can also be counted on to weaken those pesky new financial regulations, modest to start with, and making sure your tax rate doesn’t go back up to anywhere near what it was in the 1990s. Of course, curbing spending while unemployment is still above 7 percent prolongs the jobs recession and the hardships of working families, but who cares? Keep those wages down, profits up, and stock prices hitting historic highs. Meanwhile, having helped destroy several millions jobs during the recession, and having found numerous ways to restore production levels since then without hiring back your former employees, you will now find that you can claim an exemption from tax increases and qualify for all kinds of state and local incentives on the grounds that you are a “job creator.”

Is this a great country or what?

Posted by Peter Fisher, Research Director


Owen: State approaches incentives in upside-down fashion

Mike OwenBy Mike Owen, Iowa Policy Project

The world is upside down when state subsidies of business are presumed to be essential, and when a leading newspaper criticizes those who dare to question it.

In that world, the Sioux City Journal’s March 24 editorial (“Iowa must be a player in the economic incentive game”) might not be surprising, but is no less misdirected.

The Journal’s editorial brushes off critics of the state’s Orascom scheme — a $200 million subsidy to an Egyptian company to build a fertilizer plant in Iowa. It reluctantly concedes that “legislators not only have the right, but in some cases the obligation to ask questions about economic development deals involving state money for incentives.”

Yet in that sentence the Journal lays bare the weakening of fundamental checks and balances in our state on the question of corporate subsidies.

Lawmakers should ask questions “in some cases,” the Journal believes? How very wrong. State legislators have the obligation in every single case to ask questions about economic development deals involving state money, or at least to hold state agencies accountable on all Iowans’ behalf. Among those questions just for starters: First, is it a good project? Second, is there a public benefit? And third, is a subsidy even necessary?

Iowans must be assured that tough questions are being asked and the answers evaluated before the checkbook is opened in surrender to the mindset of a “need to offer state incentives, sometimes big incentives, to attract large capital projects to Iowa within the intensely competitive arena of economic development.”

The proper default position when a corporation comes hat in hand for a subsidy is at best, “maybe.” And if the answer becomes “yes,” it must be defended and defensible, especially for big deals such as Orascom.

If we cannot always count on development officials to be so careful, we should be able to count on a newspaper, which has as great an obligation as legislators to ask questions about development deals.

Orascom offers one of those poster-child examples of poor practices, where the state very simply offered more than was necessary, even if you believe “big incentives” are sometimes necessary. Iowa had Illinois beat: The state offered more than Illinois could do because of a $1.2 billion low-interest loan available to Iowa and not Illinois through a federal flood-relief program. That was enough to bring the firm to our state. Then Iowa sweetened its offer and roped local property taxpayers into it, as well.

If you believe in a market-oriented economic system, as many claim to do, a subsidy is a last resort — not the starting place — for public-sector involvement in a private-sector project. All such deals demand questioning. Some deals will pass as sensible, and some may even be optimal approaches as targeted, careful investments that will produce a return on the public dollar.

Orascom already has failed the test.

 

Mike Owen is assistant director of the Iowa Policy Project, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization founded in 2001 to produce research and analysis on state policy decisions. IPP focuses on tax and budget issues, economic opportunity and family prosperity, and energy and environmental policy.

This guest opinion ran in the April 3, 2013, edition of the Sioux City Journal.

Sound budgeting doesn’t include blanket tax credit

Posted January 28th, 2013 to Blog
Mike Owen

Mike Owen

This session of the Iowa Legislature offers a tremendous opportunity to move the state forward with a balanced approach — including responsible, fair tax reform and investments in critical needs that have gone unmet, in education at all levels, in environmental quality and public safety.

The proposal for a blanket $750 tax credit to couples, regardless of need and blind to the opportunity cost of even more lost investments, does not fit that approach. To compound a penchant to spend money on tax breaks is fiscally irresponsible to the needs of Iowa taxpayers, who will benefit from better services, and to the promise that we would return to proper investments when the economy turned up, as it has. Furthermore, to give away Iowa’s surplus when uncertainty remains about the impact of federal budget decisions on our state’s tax system and services is tremendously short-sighted.

As the Iowa Fiscal Partnership has established, cutbacks in higher education funding have caused costs and debt to rise for students and their families, not only at the Regents institutions but community colleges as well. While Iowa voters, through a statewide referendum, have expressly called for new revenues to go toward better environmental stewardship, lawmakers have not taken action. The surplus we now see should be used responsibly for the future of Iowans, who patiently endured budget austerity for the day when we could once again see support for critical services. This is no time to be forgetting our responsibilities.

Iowa can do better by returning to the basics of good budgeting, crafting budget and tax choices that keep a long-term focus on the needs of young and future generations, whose lives will be shaped by the foundations we leave them.

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director


States should beware ALEC-brand snake oil

Posted November 29th, 2012 to Blog

Peter Fisher

Legislative sessions will be starting across the country after the first of the year, and with them, some very bad ideas for public policy.

The purveyor of many poor prescriptions is a very influential right-wing organization, the American Legislative Exchange Council, known as ALEC. The organization promotes policies to cut taxes and regulations in the disguise of promoting economic growth, but what they really do is reduce services, opportunity and accountability.

In short, the ALEC medicine show is a prescription for poor results, and states should beware.

Our new report, “Selling Snake Oil to the States,” examines ALEC’s proposals and the misinformed, primitive methodology behind the study that supports them. The new report, a joint project of the Iowa Policy Project in Iowa City and Good Jobs First in Washington, D.C., illustrates how ALEC’s prescriptions really offer stagnation and wage suppression.

In fact, we find that since ALEC first published its annual “Rich States, Poor States” study with its Economic Outlook Ranking in 2007, states that were rated better have actually done worse economically.

Find “Selling Snake Oil to the States” at http://www.goodjobsfirst.org/snakeoiltothestates.

We tested ALEC’s claims against actual economic results. We conclude that eliminating progressive taxes, suppressing wages, and cutting public services are actually a recipe for economic inequality, declining incomes, and undermining public infrastructure and education that really matter for long-term economic growth.

ALEC’s rankings are based on arguments and evidence that range from deeply flawed to nonexistent, consistently ignoring decades of peer-reviewed academic research.

What we know from research is that the composition of a state’s economy — whether it has disproportionate shares of high-growth or low-growth industries — is a far better predictor of a state’s relative success over the past five years. Public policy makers need to stick to the basics and recognize that public services that benefit all employers.

Posted by Peter Fisher, Research Director


House vote: Thumbs up or thumbs down for 86,000 Iowa families?

Posted August 1st, 2012 to Blog
Mike Owen

Mike Owen

Iowans would stand to lose much under a proposal this week in the U.S. House of Representatives. Citizens for Tax Justice offered a striking analysis last week highlighting the impact of the 2009 improvements in the refundable tax credits for low-income working families in Iowa.

Simply put, the House proposal would undo the good work of 2009 and increase tax inequities, while a Senate-passed bill would keep the good stuff.

One of the 2009 improvements is an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), an issue we have covered extensively at IPP and the Iowa Fiscal Partnership.

Any attempts to weaken the EITC at either the state or federal level will harm low- to moderate-income working families in our state. More than 1 out of every 7 federal tax filers in Iowa claims the EITC (about 15 percent). But under H.R. 8, the tax proposal being offered by the House leadership, the EITC improvements from 2009 would be lost.

H.R. 8 also would fail to extend the improvements made in the Child Tax Credit (CTC) in 2009, and in the American Opportunity Tax Credit for higher education expenses.

It is impossible to find balance in the approach of H.R. 8, which would end these provisions above for 13 million working families with 26 million children, while extending tax cuts for 2.7 million high-income earners.

The state numbers from CTJ (full report available here):

  • 86,321 Iowa families with 190,553 kids would lose $62.5 million ($724 per family), if 2009 rules on EITC and the Per-Child Tax Credit are not extended;
  • 17,503 Iowa families with 28,179 kids would lose $32 million if the Per-Child Tax Credit earnings threshold does not remain at $3,000, compared to $13,300 as proposed by H.R. 8.
  • 59,159 Iowa families with 139,806 kids would lose $30.5 million if the two 2009 expansions of the EITC — larger credit for families with three or more children, and reducing the so-called “marriage penalty” — are not extended in 2013.

These “Making Work Pay” provisions of the tax code are almost exclusively of help to working families earning $50,000 or less at a time of stagnant wages and a difficult job market in which the Iowa economy is shifting toward lower-wage jobs.

To address our nation’s serious deficit and debt issues, a balanced approach should do nothing to increase poverty or income inequality. The Senate bill passed last week would keep the EITC and CTC improvements from 2009, and follows that principle. The bill that has emerged in the House does not.

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director