Wonkbook: How Washington increased unemployment and hurt growth

May 9, 2013

Welcome to Wonkbook, Ezra Klein and Evan Soltas's morning policy news primer. To subscribe by e-mail, click here. Send comments, criticism, or ideas to Wonkbook at Gmail dot com. To read more by Ezra and his team, go to Wonkblog.

(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Oof: "The nation’s unemployment rate would probably be nearly a point lower, roughly 6.5 percent, and economic growth almost two points higher this year if Washington had not cut spending and raised taxes as it has since 2011, according to private-sector and government economists."

That's from Jackie Calmes and Jonathan Weisman. Because each month's jobs numbers look about the same as the last month's jobs numbers, it's easy to get lulled into complacency, to assume that what we're doing in Washington doesn't much matter. But adding 208,000 jobs a month -- which is our six-month average -- isn't good enough. At that pace of job growth, the Hamilton Project estimates we won't be back to pre-recession unemployment till 2021.

As the economy strengthens-- and it's clearly strengthening -- we need to see job growth accelerate. But Washington keeps putting hurdles in its way. In order to keep job growth steady, the economy has needed to strengthen enough to overcome the payroll tax hike, and the fiscal cliff tax hikes, and the various spending cuts, and the fears over the fiscal cliff and sequestration. The economy, amazingly, is keeping up. But imagine a world in which we didn't raise taxes and cut spending over the past two years, but passed legislation to help the economy now and reduce the deficit by more as soon as unemployment fell to six percent.

What's remarkable about that world, I think, is that it's better no matter your theory of recovery. If you're a deficit hawk, a larger and more credible deficit reduction plan, one that includes more entitlement and tax reforms, is far more comforting to markets. If you're a Keynesian, policy would be more expansionary now. If you simply hate taxes, well, taxes would be lower now. There's no economic theory that would ever counsel the course we've chosen.

Wonkbook's Number of the Day: 52 percent. That's the amount of Americans who own stock outright, as part of a mutual fund, or in a self-directed retirement account. Before the recession, the number was in the 60s.

Wonkblog's Graphs of the Day: Where the economy would be without austerity, and why there won't be a debt-ceiling showdown until the fall.

Wonkbook's Top 5 Stories: 1) House immigration plan may debut in June; 2) debt-ceiling problem deepens; 3) everything that's wrong in lending; 4) why the wait to sell Obamacare?; and 5) why a Keystone deal could be in the cards.

1) Top story: House plan to come out of the shadows

House to reveal immigration reform plan by June, or next year. "House lawmakers negotiating a sweeping immigration reform package will unveil their proposal this month — or never at all, a member of the group vowed Wednesday. Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) said only a few disagreements remain to be ironed out within the bipartisan Group of Eight, which has been meeting for four years to craft legislation that can pass through Congress. If those differences aren't resolved by June, Gutiérrez said, then the window will have closed on reaching a deal this year." Mike Lillis in The Hill.

Leahy: Immigration markup begins with 'trigger.' "Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy said his panel will begin Thursday’s opening session on a comprehensive immigration package with consideration of a “trigger” that must be met before any undocumented immigrants can seek legal status, to be followed by debate over proposals to improve border security...The trigger would include: an operational border security plan; substantial completion of new border fences; the “E-Verify” system to allow employers to check an employee’s citizenship status must be up and running; and a “biographic entry-exit system” for airports and seaports has to be in place." Lois Romano and John Bresnahan in Politico.

@markknoller: WH official says Pres & House Dems discussed Job creation, immigration reform, anti-gun violence measures & other items on the Dem agenda.

GOP sharpens knives on immigration reform. "The almost 200 amendments filed by Senate Judiciary Committee Republicans lay bare their strategy on immigration reform: They want to gut the bill...But the attacks leveled by Republicans over the next three weeks are aimed at weakening the bill as it heads to the Senate floor, where the GOP hopes its ideas can gain traction. Republicans opposed to the Gang of Eight’s bill will try to score points during the markup by highlighting what they see as serious flaws in the legislation." Carrie Budoff Brown and Seung Min Kim in Politico.

Why Heritage is on the defensive. "Six years ago, the Heritage Foundation helped kill immigration reform. Now the conservative think tank is on the defensive, fielding attacks from left and right over its claim that reform would cost trillions. The change is a sign of why reform is far more likely to survive this time around." Rachel Weiner in The Washington Post.

@ModeledBehavior: Has Heritage offered an explanation for why dynamic scoring doesn't make sense for immigration but does for everything else?

...And there's something you should know about Jason Richwine. "Richwine’s dissertation asserts that there are deep-set differentials in intelligence between races. While it’s clear he thinks it is partly due to genetics — “the totality of the evidence suggests a genetic component to group differences in IQ” — he argues the most important thing is that the differences in group IQs are persistent, for whatever reason. He writes, “No one knows whether Hispanics will ever reach IQ parity with whites, but the prediction that new Hispanic immigrants will have low-IQ children and grandchildren is difficult to argue against.”" Dylan Matthews in The Washington Post.

@mattyglesias: Say what you will about his work, Jason Richwine is a great name for a conservative think tanker.

Music recommendations interlude: Travis, "Side," 2001.

Top op-eds

KLEIN: The problem with small donors. "Just as big money is corrupting, small money is polarizing. And it’s polarization that probably poses the bigger threat to American politics right now. Big money, for example, generally wants to raise the debt ceiling. Small money is one reason Republicans in Congress came close to breaching it. Big money often wants the two parties more or less to get along; no one gets a tax break if legislation dies on the floor. Small money will turn on you if you dare cut a deal with the other side. Big money erodes what little trust Americans still have in their political system. Small money attacks the bipartisanship that, for better and worse, is required for the system to function." Ezra Klein in Bloomberg.

BARRO: Boehner accidentally explains why his deficit position is wrong. "It’s hard to think of better evidence for the sustainability of budget deficits than the fact that we have run them for 55 of the last 60 years. If our fiscal practices haven’t caught up to us after 60 years, when will they? Or does Boehner take a David Stockman-like position that the last several decades of American advancement have in fact been a ghastly failure?...Soaking the poor is a policy option. It is not, as Boehner would have it, a policy necessity dictated by the inability of the federal government to borrow or tax sustainably. But if the debate instead becomes about tax and spending priorities -- is it more important to provide universal health care or keep tax rates low on high earners -- it shifts to turf unfavorable to Republicans. So they pretend." Josh Barro in Bloomberg.

WESSEL: Deficit-cutting is a matter of when. "The standoff between President Barack Obama and Republicans in Congress has produced spending restraint and higher taxes now—and nothing credible about curbing spending on retirement and health benefits, the real deficit drivers. Think about it. The U.S. has an economic crisis: It is unemployment, not the deficit. There are nearly 12 million Americans without jobs looking for work, three million of them for a full year or more." David Wessel in The Wall Street Journal.

MEYERSON: Labor wrestles with its future. "[E]mployer opposition to organizing has become pervasive in the larger economy, and the penalties for employers that violate workers’ rights as they attempt to unionize are so meager that such violations have become routine...Unions face an existential problem: If they can’t represent more than a sliver of American workers on the job, what is their mission? Are there other ways they can advance workers’ interests even if those workers aren’t their members?" Harold Meyerson in The Washington Post.

Delightful interlude: The BBC has begun a 90-second program, "Tweet of the Day," which is all bird songs.

2) The debt-ceiling problem deepens

House GOP sees few options on debt. "House Republican leaders don’t know how they’re going to address the debt limit later this summer, but early plans show that Washington is casually strolling into a five-month political and legislative minefield...Ahead of a members-only, two-hour meeting next Tuesday, the top idea bouncing around GOP leadership is casually being referred to as a catch-all, kitchen sink plan. The plan is simple: craft a debt ceiling hike onto a bill loaded with tons of conservative goodies to put lots of options on the table to garner 218 GOP votes. Options being floated internally include language approving the Keystone XL pipeline, slashing regulations with the Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny Act and additional spending cuts — perhaps even a framework for tax reform." Jake Sherman in Politico.

Graph: No debt-ceiling showdown until the fallDylan Matthews in The Washington Post.

Debt-ceiling contingency plan moves forward. "The House on Wednesday took a step toward passing a bill that would let the government borrow money above and beyond the debt ceiling to pay interest on the debt and for the Social Security Trust Fund. Members approved a rule for the Full Faith and Credit Act, H.R. 807, in a party-line 226-199 vote. The rule calls for an hour of debate and consideration of one amendment — the House is expected to approve it later in the week." Pete Kasperowicz in The Hill.

Explainer: This slide is the best summary of the budget debateEzra Klein in The Washington Post.

Are Republicans really gunning for another debt-limit showdown? "For now, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) are talking tough, vowing to block a debt-limit increase unless Obama agrees to cuts and reforms that they say are necessary to put the nation on a path to a balanced budget." Lori Montgomery in The Washington Post.

Obama, House Democrats talk jobs, deficit reduction at dinner. "Gathered at the posh Jefferson Hotel in Northwest D.C., the group discussed an array of issues, including job creation, deficit reduction, education and the ongoing investigation into last month's Boston Marathon bombings, according to a White House official." Mike Lillis in The Hill.

Economist interlude: The "Krugman" Times.

3) What has gone wrong with lending in this country?

Freddie Mac's profit soars, thanks to housing rebound. "The government-rescued mortgage-finance company will make a $7 billion dividend payment to the U.S. Treasury next month. While Freddie isn't allowed to pay off the $71.3 billion of bailout money it received beginning five years ago, the latest payment brings to $36.6 billion the amount of dividends it will have returned to the Treasury, leaving its net cost to taxpayers at $34.7 billion." Nick Timiraos in The Wall Street Journal.

CFPB wants to ease repayment of student loans. "The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau on Wednesday issued a series of proposals to create more flexible repayment plans for the millions of Americans struggling with private student loans...To ease the burden on borrowers, the consumer bureau said that those who pay on time should be able to refinance their debt at lower interest rates. Borrowers who fall behind should have access to income-based repayment plans, it said." Danielle Douglas in The Washington Post.

Borrowers shorted on mortgage-relief checks. "The Federal Reserve said Wednesday that about 96,000 homeowners who are entitled to a cut of a $3.6 billion settlement with mortgage servicers accused of faulty and fraudulent foreclosures received less than they were owed." Danielle Douglas in The Washington Post.

Big banks push back against tighter rules. "Top bank officials are trying to coordinate more closely and present a united front. On April 10, top officials from five major banks gathered for a strategy session at Bank of America's Washington office to discuss what they should do about the growing perception that big banks continue to pose a threat to financial stability, according to several people with knowledge of the session." Deborah Solomon, Robin Sidel, and Aaron Lucchetti in The Wall Street Journal.

Economists: Fiscal consolidation is slowing the recovery. "The nation’s unemployment rate would probably be nearly a point lower, roughly 6.5 percent, and economic growth almost two points higher this year if Washington had not cut spending and raised taxes as it has since 2011, according to private-sector and government economists." Jackie Calmes and Jonathan Weisman in The New York Times.

Stock markets are rising, but fewer benefit. "In its annual Economy and Finance survey, conducted April 4-14, Gallup found that 52 percent of Americans said they (personally or jointly with a spouse) owned stock outright or as part of a mutual fund or self-directed retirement account. That’s not statistically different from the share last year (53 percent), but is down substantially from pre-recession levels. It’s also the lowest recorded share since Gallup started asking this question in 1998." Catherine Rampell in The New York Times.

SBA shifting funding away from small business training programs, draws fire from Congress. "The U.S. Small Business Administration plans to shift some funding away from basic counseling programs for new and small businesses to help finance advanced training for slightly larger companies, part of the agency’s efforts to nurture the economic recovery even as the government reins in spending. In its latest budget proposal, the agency announced plans for a new $40 million entrepreneurship education program designed for owners of mid-sized, well-established firms; those that have the potential but not necessarily the expertise necessary to accelerate hiring and add new revenue streams." J.D. Harrison in The Washington Post.

The mess in the Job Corps. "A top Labor Department official who acknowledged budgeting missteps and cost overruns while overseeing Job Corps announced Monday that she has resigned, effective at the end of the month. Jane Oates, assistant secretary of Labor’s Employment and Training division, notified employees of her decision in an e-mail touting her accomplishments. The message made no mention of budget woes for the federal job training program." Josh Hicks in The Washington Post.

Espionage interlude: How to become your own spy agency

4) The wait-and-sell strategy on Obamacare

Why Democrats aren't selling Obamacare yet. "Months before the law’s main components roll out, Republicans are reviving their campaign against Obamacare. Among health law supporters and journalists, the question now is: Why isn’t the Obama administration doing more to fight back?...I’ve put this question to top administration officials and advocates, and the answer tends to be this: If we start selling Obamacare now, we’re going to be raving about a product that doesn’t yet exist. That would, in turn, undermine the sales pitch they want to make in October, when enrollment in the new health plans opens." Sarah Kliff in The Washington Post.

House schedules another repeal vote. "The House will vote again next week to repeal the 2010 health-care reform law, a decision by top Republican leaders designed in part to appease GOP freshmen lawmakers who have not had an opportunity to take a vote on the issue...It will give about 30 House GOP freshmen who’ve never voted on such a bill the opportunity to do so — and then likely secure Cantor enough support to finally pass the “Helping Sick Americans Now Act.”" Ed O'Keefe and Paul Kane in The Washington Post.

The centrality of dental problems in public health. "I’ve researched various issues at the boundaries of public health and poverty policy. One basic issue seems to always lurk: bad teeth. I can’t count the times this health problem has come up when I’ve talked with a homeless person, someone with a mental health or substance use disorder, or someone who is simply quite poor. When I meet people who have gotten past a bad patch in their lives, their dental problems — including missing teeth or yellowed gums — still need treatment, stigmatizing reminders of what these people otherwise had left behind." Harold Pollack in The Washington Post.

Your world interlude: Mercury poisoning may be fueling cascading population crashes.

5) A Keystone XL deal could be in the cards

Can we cut a deal over Keystone XL? "[C]ould some kind of deal be in the offing — a major climate policy announcement on, for example, power plant regulation or renewable energy incentives — to ease the sting of the pipeline approval?...For that reason, the approaching decision — expected some time this summer or early fall — offers the president a rare opportunity to set the parameters of the energy debate for the rest of his term and cement his legacy as the first president to seriously address climate change." John M. Broder in The New York Times.

...Something Biden said may matter on Keystone. "Environmentalists have seized on a comment Vice President Biden made while working a rope line in Columbia, S.C., on Friday, in which he told an activist he is “in the minority” within the administration when it comes to opposing the Keystone XL pipeline." Juliet Eilperin in The Washington Post.

Explainer: How oil travels around the world, in one mapBrad Plumer in The Washington Post.

CO2 levels at their highest in at least 800,000 years. "For decades now, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have higher than at any point in the last 800,000 years — a fact scientists discovered by analyzing ancient air bubbles trapped in ice cores...Recent studies have estimated that current levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide are at their highest levels since the Pliocene, the geologic era between five million and three million years ago. Here’s a description of that era from the University of San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography" Brad Plumer in The Washington Post.

Reading material interlude: The best sentences Wonkblog read today.

Wonkblog Roundup

The most important story in global economics nobody is paying attention toNeil Irwin.

Chart of the day: We won’t have another budget battle until fallDylan Matthews.

How oil travels around the world, in one mapBrad Plumer.

Heritage study co-author opposed letting in immigrants with low IQs. Dylan Matthews.

This slide is the best thing you’ll read on the budget debateEzra Klein.

Carbon-dioxide levels are at their highest point in at least 800,000 yearsBrad Plumer.

‘I can’t chew, you know, because the teeth are very weak’Harold Pollack.

Democrats say there’s a reason they’re not selling Obamacare yet. Sarah Kliff.

Et Cetera

Census: Blacks voted at higher rates than whites in 2012Dan Balz and Ted Mellnik in The Washington Post.

Food stamp program would see deep cuts in farm billRon Nixon in The New York Times.

Legislation introduced to stop VA executive bonusesSteve Vogel in The Washington Post.

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

Wonkbook is produced with help from Michelle Williams.

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Brad Plumer · May 8, 2013