Wonkbook: Thanksgiving’s over, but the fiscal talks are just beginning.

November 26, 2012

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Wonkbook's Number of the Day: $59.1 billion. That's the National Retail Foundation's estimate of the total amount of spending over this Thanksgiving weekend. Amid the "Black Friday" craze and additional sales over rest of the weekend, American consumers shelled out 13 percent more than they did last year over the same period. The average consumer spent $423, up 6 percent from last year, according to another consumer survey. 

Top story: Is the public waking up to the austerity crisis?

Is the public waking up to the austerity crisis? "Throughout the fall, there’s been a pretty big disconnect between businesses and consumers on the looming tax hikes and spending cuts...But the latest round of economic indicators suggest that economic gloom is finally starting to set in with the general public, and the austerity crisis may have something to do with it. The Reuters/University of Michigan Consumer Sentiment Index fell 2.2 points from the preliminary reading early in November to the final reading after the election." Suzy Khimm in The Washington Post.

Checklist: What an austerity-crisis deal needs to cut it.

Austerity-crisis debate is invading TV screens. "The election ad wars are over. The "fiscal cliff" ad wars are just beginning. Interest groups of all types are launching campaigns to stir up Americans about the fiscal cliff, the $500 billion combination of tax increases and spending cuts set to start in January. Their target: members of Congress under pressure to make a deal with the White House in coming weeks to solve the problem." Sudeep Reddy in The Wall Street Journal.

A consensus to raise revenue. But how to do that? "For the first time in decades, a bipartisan consensus has emerged in Washington to raise taxes. But negotiators working to avert the year-end 'fiscal cliff' remain far apart on crucial details, including how taxes should go up and who should pay more...For now, Democrats are seeking $1.6 trillion in new taxes over the next decade collected from about 3 million families at the pinnacle of the income spectrum -- those earning more than $250,000 a year...Republicans insist on maintaining the Bush rates, at 33 percent and 35 percent, through 2013. Instead, they want to raise cash by rewriting the tax code to eliminate individual loopholes and deductions...GOP negotiators have declined to say how much they are willing to raise, according to people familiar with the talks. In the past, Boehner has proposed $800 billion." Lori Montgomery in The Washington Post.

@PaulPage: Some senators want to avoid the #fiscalcliff by creating another fiscal cliff that would be different in that it would come 6 months later.

Obama voter? You're wanted as an austerity-crisis ally also. "When Tea Party activists swamped town hall-style meetings about health care in the summer of 2009, President Obama’s army of campaign volunteers largely stayed away, seemingly less interested in fighting for legislation than they had been in electing the nation’s first African-American president. Now, Mr. Obama is seizing a second chance to keep his election-year supporters animated." Michael D. Shear in The New York Times.

@Goldfarb: What will likely replace the "fiscal cliff?" Well, a "fiscal staircase."

Wonkbookmark: "The New York Times is starting a new online feature on Monday to follow the talks between President Obama and Congressional leaders" over the austerity crisis, according to its Washington bureau chief David Leonhardt..

Talks remain in slow motion. "Congressional leaders return to Washington this week facing the prospect that talks with the White House over the country's budget impasse have barely progressed, a reminder of the philosophical divisions that remain despite both sides' early professions of optimism. In a sign of the slow pace, a senior administration official said President Barack Obama and congressional leaders aren't expected to reconvene this week, in order to give their staff more time to work through differences." Janet Hook and Damian Paletta in The Wall Street Journal.

This week: What's happening on the floor of Congress.

Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner's key role in the talks. "The White House has tapped the Treasury secretary as its lead negotiator in deficit-reduction talks with Congress, giving Mr. Geithner about a month to help cut a deal before $500 billion in tax increases and spending cuts begin in January—and before his long-planned departure from the administration. It is a sharp change in role for the 51-year-old, who has been preoccupied largely with the U.S. financial crisis, banking policy and Europe's debt crisis in the past four years...Congressional aides and those optimistic about the possibility of the latest talks hope Mr. Geithner is better suited to the role of pragmatic deal maker [than White House chief of staff Jacob Lew]." Damian Paletta in The Wall Street Journal.

@AndyHarless: How about we extend the payroll tax cut, fix the AMT, and let the rest of the fiscal cliff just happen?

How the austerity crisis might hit the states, too. "State revenue is dependent on the feds, with $1 in every $3 coming from federal grants in 2010. While Medicaid, one big source of federal dollars, is exempt from the automatic across-the-board spending reduction due to take effect in January, eighteen percent of federal grants to states will be subject to those cuts in FY 2013. On the tax side, the picture is murkier. Because many states link their tax codes to the federal law, if all of the tax cuts expire and revert to pre-2001 law, states could benefit when some elements are restored." Norton Francis in Tax Vox.

The Tax Policy Center's Donald Marron explains: $1 trillion. $1.6 trillion. And so on. How to understand Obama's revenue targets.

What happens if $500k is the tax-cut cut-off? "What would happen if Congress extends the 2001-2010 tax cuts for couples making $500,000 or $1 million-a-year instead of $250,000 or less, as President Obama proposed? According to a new analysis by the Tax Policy Center, Obama could agree to such a deal without adding much more to the deficit than a Senate bill that extends for a year most of the 2001-2010 tax cuts for those making $250,000. TPC figures that preserving the tax cuts for those making between $200,000 and $500,000 for just one year (2013) would cost Treasury an additional $7 billion over a decade (of course, nearly all of it would come in that first year). Raising the threshold to $1 million would reduce revenues by an extra $14 billion, relative to that Senate bill." Howard Gleckman in Tax Vox.

@TheStalwart: Nomura's Lewis Alexander is skeptical of major Fiscal Cliff progress, and as a former Treasury guy, that's worth more than most opinions.

CORKER: Uncorking my 'fiscal cliff' plan. "I have shared with House and Senate leaders as well as the White House a 242-page bill that, along with other agreed-upon cuts that are to be enacted, would produce $4.5 trillion in fiscal reforms and replace sequestration...The proposal includes pro-growth federal tax reform, which generates more static revenue -- mostly from very high-income Americans -- by capping federal deductions at $50,000 without raising tax rates. It mandates common-sense reforms to the federal workforce, which will help bring its compensation in line with private-sector benefits, and implements a chained consumer price index across the government, a more accurate indicator of inflation. It also includes comprehensive Medicare reform that keeps in place fee-for-service Medicare without capping growth, competing side by side with private options that seniors can choose instead if they wish. Coupled with gradual age increases within Medicare and Social Security; the introduction of means testing; increasing premiums ever so slightly for those making more than $50,000 a year in retirement; and ending a massive 'bed tax' gimmick the states use in Medicaid to bilk the federal government of billions, this reform would put our country on firmer financial footing and begin to vanquish our long-term deficit." Bob Corker in The Washington Post.

KRUGMAN: Fighting fiscal phantoms. "These are difficult times for the deficit scolds who have dominated policy discussion for almost three years. One could almost feel sorry for them, if it weren’t for their role in diverting attention from the ongoing problem of inadequate recovery, and thereby helping to perpetuate catastrophically high unemployment. What has changed? For one thing, the crisis they predicted keeps not happening." Paul Krugman in The New York Times.

MANKIW: Obama's internal debate. "[P]olicy makers are debating how to avoid hitting a wall on Jan. 1, when large and abrupt tax increases and spending cuts will take effect automatically unless Congress acts. The debate is perhaps no more fervent than it is inside the head of our newly re-elected president, who must now decide what kind of policy leader he will become...Here is the dialogue, as I imagine it, between the two policy wonks -- the Moderate Obama and the Liberal Obama -- struggling for control of the president’s soul." N. Gregory Mankiw in The New York Times.

JENKINS: Why the middle class is going to pay. "America's fiscal cliff is an artificial crisis. We have no trouble borrowing in the short term. But at some point the market will demand evidence that long-term balance is being restored. President Obama said in his first post-election press conference that he doesn't want any proposals that 'sock it to the middle class.' He knows better. A long-term socking is exactly what's coming to the middle class, which must pay for the benefits it consumes...Today, a 50% tax increase would be needed just to meet the government's current spending, never mind its future obligations. One way or another, then, entitlements will be cut. Don't call it default. The correct term is entitlement reform." Holman W. Jenkins in The Wall Street Journal.

PEARLSTEIN: Fixing the austerity crisis will take an open mind. "You might ask yourself what is so sacred about a 35 percent, or a 39.5 percent, tax rate? Nothing, it would appear, other than the fact that politicians have invested so much ego and political capital in defending them, and the near-certain prospect that numskull commentators and special-interest groups will use them in assessing which 'side' won and lost. If there is need for more federal revenue (as most experts agree there is), and if it is reasonable to ask high-income households that have done well in recent years to assume a larger share of that tax bur den (as most Americans say they prefer), there are lots of ways to raise it without seriously harming the economy." Steven Pearlstein in The Washington Post.

Top op-eds

BUFFETT: A minimum tax for the wealthy. "[L]et’s forget about the rich and ultrarich going on strike and stuffing their ample funds under their mattresses if -- gasp -- capital gains rates and ordinary income rates are increased. The ultrarich, including me, will forever pursue investment opportunities...[W]e need Congress, right now, to enact a minimum tax on high incomes. I would suggest 30 percent of taxable income between $1 million and $10 million, and 35 percent on amounts above that." Warren E. Buffett in The New York Times.

SOLTAS: The highest marginal tax rates fall on the working class. "[M]arginal tax rates are not as large a problem for the wealthy as they are for the poor and working classes. According to a recent report from the Congressional Budget Office, the Americans paying the highest effective marginal tax rates are, for the most part, low- to middle-income individuals. It's these Americans -- not House Speaker John Boehner's 'job creators' -- who are materially discouraged by their effective marginal tax rates...The marginal tax rate of earners making 100 percent to 150 percent of the federal poverty level -- between $23,050 and $34,575 for a family of four -- is more than 30 percent, as compared with a federal statutory rate of 15 percent. Almost one-third of earners in this range -- tens of millions of Americans -- paid a marginal tax rate higher than 39.6 percent, the top statutory rate. The average person paying a 40, 50, 60, or even 70 percent marginal tax rate isn't well-off: More likely than not he or she is below middle-income." Evan Soltas in Bloomberg.

RATTNER: We need to raise the capital gains tax. "It was the absurdly low rate on those forms of income -- just 15 percent -- that yielded Mitt Romney’s embarrassingly small tax payments...President Obama has proposed much of the needed adjustment, including eliminating the special treatment of dividends and raising the tax on capital gains to 20 percent for the rich. Personally, I would go further and raise the capital gains rate to 28 percent, right where it was during the strong recovery of Bill Clinton’s first term, and grab hold of a total of $300 billion of new revenues over the next decade." Steven Rattner in The New York Times.

Top long reads

Jonathan Weisman explains how the Congress slid into gridlock: "[T]he first fight of the next Senate, which convenes in January, is not likely to be over a fiscal crisis, immigration, taxes or any issue that animated the elections of 2012. It will instead probably be over how and whether to change a troubled Senate, members and aides say...The changes under consideration [reforming the filibuster] may sound arcane, but they would have such a profound impact that they are referred to as the 'nuclear option.' In effect, they would remake a Senate that was long run on compromise and gentlemen’s agreements into something more like the House, where the majority rules almost absolutely."

Stephanie McCrummen discusses the future of Hillary Clinton: "In recent weeks, Hillary Clinton has reiterated that she will not stay on for President Obama’s second term, unleashing fresh waves of speculation about her plans. There is hypothesizing that she is merely entering a hibernation period before a 2016 presidential bid. There is talk that she will start her own women’s rights initiative. There is the prospect, too, that this might really be it for one of the most iconic figures in American political history."

Ben Wallace-Wells on what happens now that the drug war has failed. "These votes suggest what may be a spreading, geographic Humboldt of the mind, in which the liberties of pot in far-northern California, and the unusually ambiguous legal regime there, metastasize around the country. If you live in Seattle and sell licensed marijuana, your operation could be perfectly legal from the perspective of the state government and committing a federal crime at the same time. It is hard to detect much political enthusiasm for a federal pot crackdown, but the complexities that come with these new laws may be hard for Washington to simply ignore. What happens, for instance, when a New York dealer secures a license and a storefront in Denver, and then illegally ships the weed back home? Economists who have studied these questions thoroughly say that they can’t rule out a scenario in which little changes in the consumption of pot—the same people will smoke who always have. But they also can’t rule out a scenario in which consumption doubles, or more than doubles, and pot is not so much less prevalent than alcohol."

Best public service announcement ever interlude: 'So many dumb ways to die,' or why you should stay off the train tracks.

Got tips, additions, or comments? E-mail me.

Economy

The coming week in economic data. "This week has a number of important releases, including data on home sales and durable goods orders and a revised estimate of gross domestic product in the third quarter. The markets, however, are likely to be paying closest attention to any hints of how Congress and the White House are dealing with the impending 'fiscal cliff.' News and rumors on this front have driven wild swings in the financial markets over the past week, and that’s not likely to change any time soon." Brad Plumer in The Washington Post.

The 'Black Friday' sales numbers are in. "Retailers reported a big jump in consumer spending over the Thanksgiving weekend as shoppers flocked to stores, snapped up online discounts and, according to some merchants, paid repeat visits to the mall...Total spending for the weekend reached an estimated $59.1 billion, a 13% increase from a year ago, according to the National Retail Federation...A consumer survey conducted for the trade association by BIGinsight found that shoppers spent an average of $423 over the weekend, up 6% from $398 last Thanksgiving weekend...Online spending on Friday alone topped $1 billion for the first time." Ann Zimmerman and Greg Bensinger in The Wall Street Journal.

...But is all that just a bunch of meaningless hype? "When television news crews and newspaper writers go to cover the holiday crowds, they try to give the festivities some great economic import. Standard aspects of the genre include noting that holiday sales can account for about a third of retailers’ annual sales; cite authoritative-sounding projections from the National Retail Federation about what this year’s sales will be, and perhaps even note that consumer spending accounts for 70 percent of the U.S. economy...In fact, sales over Thanksgiving weekend tell us virtually nothing about retail sales for the full holiday season -- let alone anything meaningful about the economy as a whole." Neil Irwin in The Washington Post.

For the long-term unemployed, time is running out. "More than 40% of the nearly five million Americans who receive unemployment insurance are set to lose those benefits if federal programs expire as scheduled at year-end...About 2.1 million Americans receive payments through federally backed emergency unemployment programs, which Congress adopted starting in 2008 as a temporary supplement to state-level programs funded primarily with taxes on employers, which generally offer six months of benefits." Ben Casselman in The Wall Street Journal.

Economists, Obama administration at odds over role of mortgage debt in recovery. "One year and one month before President Obama won reelection, he invited seven of the world’s top economists to a private meeting in the Oval Office to hear their advice on what do to fix the ailing economy. 'I’m not asking you to consider the political feasibility of things,' he told them in the previously unreported meeting. There was a former Federal Reserve vice chairman, a Nobel laureate, one of the world’s foremost experts on financial crises and the chief economist of the International Monetary Fund , among others. Nearly all said Obama should introduce a much bigger plan to forgive part of the mortgage debt owed by millions of homeowners who are underwater on their properties." Zachary A. Goldfarb in The Washington Post.

The wealthy's taxes just keep falling. "Effective tax rates fell for high-income households in 2010, continuing a long-term trend that is fueling momentum for rewriting tax rules. The Internal Revenue Service said in a report released Wednesday afternoon that average effective tax rates -- the percentage a taxpayer actually pays after deductions and other breaks -- fell for every income group above $500,000. The decreases were largest for the top category, households with income exceeding $10 million. The average rate fell for that group to 20.7% from 22.4% in 2009. The reason for the drop in average tax rates is no secret: It’s the special 15% top rates for capital gains and dividends that President George W. Bush pushed through." John D. McKinnon in The Wall Street Journal.

Music recommendations interlude: Warren Zevon, "Lawyers, Guns, and Money," 1978.

Health Care

As drug industry’s influence over research grows, so does the potential for bias. "Arguably the most prestigious medical journal in the world, the New England Journal of Medicine regularly features articles over which pharmaceutical companies and their employees can exert significant influence...The New England Journal of Medicine is not alone in featuring research sponsored in large part by drug companies -- it has become a common practice that reflects the growing role of industry money in research. Years ago, the government funded a larger share of such experiments. But since about the mid-1980s, research funding by pharmaceutical firms has exceeded what the National Institutes of Health spends. Last year, the industry spent $39 billion on research in the United States while NIH spent $31 billion." Peter Whoriskey in The Washington Post.

It's a big challenge, setting up the health exchanges. "The Obama administration faces major logistical and financial challenges in creating health insurance exchanges for states that have declined to set up their own systems...Sixteen states -- most of them governed by Republicans -- have said they will not set up their own systems, forcing the federal government to come up with one instead. Another five states said they want a federal-state partnership, while four others are considering partnerships. It's a situation no one anticipated when the Affordable Care Act was written." Elise Viebeck in The Hill.

The doctor will e-mail you now. And then see you later. "[Kaiser Permanente researcher Ted] Palen just finished a five-year retrospective study of what happened when Kaiser Permanente in Colorado began allowing e-mail access to doctors in 2006. Online access to doctors was associated with more doctor visits, not fewer. There was a big spike in visits and phone calls to doctors’ offices right when the new e-mail access, called MyHealthManager, came online. That initial spike did taper off with in a few months. Even a year later, however, those who utilized the online access to doctors still had higher rates of doctor visits per month. The researchers found that these patients had, on average, 0.7 more doctor visits each month and made 0.3 more phone calls than those who didn’t." Sarah Kliff in The Washington Post.

The abortion rate just hit an all-time low. "After years of holding steady, new Center for Disease Control data shows that the United States abortion rate has fallen to an all-time low. It dropped 5 percent between 2008 and 2009, the most recent years for which data is available, the largest decline in the past decade." Sarah Kliff in The Washington Post.

Odd combinations interlude: Mitt Romney went to Disneyland after the election.

The Republican re-think

Some Republicans are willing to walk away from Norquist no-tax pledge. "Two high-profile Republicans Sunday joined a growing chorus of GOP officials willing to part ways with at least part of the anti-tax pledge pushed in recent years by activist Grover Norquist, more evidence that lawmakers appear willing to part ways with party orthodoxy in order to strike a deal averting the 'fiscal cliff.'" Ed O'Keefe in The Washington Post.

New conservative line: Let's be "pro-market," not "pro-business" or "pro-finance." "[S]ome conservatives say the GOP needs to shed the perception that it is a defender of big business and large financial institutions. These activists -- including tea-party activists but also some mainline Republicans -- say the party should adopt a more populist tone, one that places more emphasis on ways Republican policies would help the middle class...The loudest proponent of this view in the emerging intraparty debate has been Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. Many party insiders believe he is positioning himself for a potential 2016 presidential run in part by trying to steer the party in a different direction." Neil King Jr. and Victoria McGrane in The Wall Street Journal.

McCain: GOP should leave the abortion issue "alone." "Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said Sunday that Republicans should steer clear of discussions of abortion that could alienate young and female voters, after the two groups helped power President Obama's reelection...Pressed whether that meant Republicans should be willing to allow abortion rights, McCain said that he was simply suggesting the GOP strike a more conciliatory tone." Justin Sink in The Hill.

Lists interlude: Foreign Policy magazine's 100 global thinkers of 2012.

Energy

CO2 levels hit a record. "Atmospheric volumes of greenhouse gases blamed for climate change hit a new record in 2011, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) said in its annual Greenhouse Gas Bulletin on Tuesday. The volume of carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas emitted by human activities, grew at a similar rate to the previous decade and reached 390.9 parts per million (ppm), 40 percent above the pre-industrial level, the survey said." Reuters.

The flip side of the natural-gas boom. "The boom in U.S. natural-gas production has driven economic growth across much of the country, but not everyone is a winner...[L]ower prices for coal and gas have resulted in lower revenues for some energy companies, prompting them to cut back on gas drilling and coal mining...In a handful of states, while consumers and many businesses are benefitting, some local and state government tax collections are being impacted. The budgetary squeeze is particularly acute in West Virginia, where rich reserves of coal and natural gas have long been a key source of revenue." Kris Maher and Daniel Gilbert in The Wall Street Journal.

Oil and gas pipeline demand to surge through 2016. "A surge in demand for pipelines and other oil and natural gas infrastructure will sweep the United States for the next four years, driven by growth in the nation’s newest energy corridors, according to researchers at The Freedonia Group...In total, demand for oil and gas infrastructure across the country will rise more than 6 percent each year, hitting $12 billion by 2016, the researchers predicted. In 2011, the industry demanded about $8.9 billion in new oil and natural gas infrastructure." Simone Sebastian in FuelFix.

What they're doing over there in the UK to support green energy. "The British government announced on Friday far-reaching changes in energy regulation intended to encourage development of renewable energy and nuclear power while ensuring that the country can still meet its electricity needs. The changes will gradually quadruple the charges levied on consumers and businesses to help support electricity generation from low-carbon sources, to a total of about £9.8 billion, or $15.7 billion, in the 2020-21 fiscal year, from £2.35 billion now." Stanley Reed in The New York Times.

Developing nations push rich on climate targets ahead of talks. "Talks on a new climate change treaty in Qatar next week will not advance unless rich countries promise more ambitious cuts to greenhouse gas emissions, four major developing nations said. The four nations, Brazil, China, India and South Africa -- known in climate talks as the BASIC bloc -- released a joint ministerial statement late on Tuesday saying responsibility for the outcome of the latest round of U.N. climate talks in Doha lay in the hands of rich countries." Stian Reklev in Reuters.

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