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12/19/2010

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GreeceRUS

The government, not only in the US, but in the Western World in general, will have to sooner or later default on its obligations i.e. its entitlements. The weaker players are already going under in Europe.

The production dis-incentives and complacency afforded by the Welfare State, is fundamentally incompatible with the growth rates needed to finance its entitlements, as promised by Hope and Change. Higher prosperity based on decreased incentives to produce is as much af a pipe dream as a perpetual motion machine generating energy out of nothing. Sorry to remind that it simply does not exist!

GreeceRUS

Becker: “Of course, the teachers union and other powerful state and local government unions will strongly resist efforts to substantially cut their generous retirement benefits. Governments can, however, fight back if they have strong support from the taxpayers who will be burdened with financing these unfunded obligations. If the governments were losing these political battles, cities but not states, as Posner indicates, could even threaten the “nuclear” option of declaring bankruptcy in the expectation that bankruptcy courts will reduce the size of their unfunded retirement obligations.”

-----------------------------

Yes (as I said in the Posner post) perhaps so long as government employees remain a small portion of the voters.
In Greece, where public employees have become a dominant political block, cutting benefits to government employees has been out of the question. Anyone proposing such an action is immediately marginalized as an extremist. The debate, demonstrations and strikes are not about cuts, but rather, about whether the benefits will rise at 2,3 or 4x the GDP growth. Even now, under the threat of a bankruptcy that will inflict pain reaching food shortage levels and a generation of decline, the Greek public still vehemently resists such cuts. The situation mathematically leads to a death spiral, as a desperate public refuses to let go of the very government promises that created the predicament in the first place. At the same time, competent people, rationally and justifiably, become unwilling to produce to feed a government poised to confiscate a major portion of their efforts. Production dwindles even further and the death spiral deepens.

In the US, as an increasing number of people abandon the private sector to become public unionized employees, this very same Grecian “Point of No Return” is now approaching. The existential difference is that for the US there is simply no entity in this world even remotely capable of bailing out a failing America. So, in my view, exactly because there is no backstop, the US scale will tip abruptly, potentially unleashing a crisis that will make 2008-10 look like a walk in the park. I do not see a 20% support Tea Party capable of altering the course of things. More than a hope, the Tea Party is simply the last gasp of a once prosperous nation now facing the precipice of an intense vicious cycle of decline. Anyone doubting that such a cycle exists should consider how the American people elected Obama to correct Bush’s mistakes. Or the fact that Californians, the more in trouble they get, the more big spenders they elect. The margin of economic freedom that the US once enjoyed compared to the rest of the world is gone (in part because the US stalled, in part because other countries with 3+ billion citizens liberalized some) so the point of no return may have already been crossed. I think that the 2008 election WAS the endgame of American prosperity.

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From the book "AN AUTISTIC WORLD (1)"

The revolution came and went. Men fought bitterly to the end defending their points of view and their interests. Athens never had such an unpalatable meal on its mouth before. Its government was in danger of being erased from history, years earlier the Spartans got rid of it on a swift invasion. Athens had lost its splendor as the center of a universe of alliances between city-states, usually sprinkled along the golden shores of the Mediterranean sea. On the winning side, corrupt and inefficient politicians, generals, and an array of well-established citizens were holding on to a tradition of superstition and mistrust that produced a society governed by an army of shifters, dealers, and merchants ready to exchange any hint of morality for a good profit. On the loosing side, a troop of idealists, mostly young fellows that found enough reasons and arguments to confront the crude reality of a decaying nation, submerged in chaos and absurdity.

In Socrates’ times, society’s mind was preoccupied and consequently distracted with the capacity of managing the state’s debt. The Athenian citizens devoted a great deal of their energy to trying to find the best way out of their troubles, mainly caused by spending money on wars and massive public work programs. This situation was reflected in their alliances with other city states along the golden shores of the Mediterranean sea and also in the agora, where people profusely debated their points of view. The result was that in a sign of rejection, some of their most prevalent individuals turned against their government, citing their discontent with the common sentiment of placing the love for counting numbers before knowledge and ability. Our mass society professes a similar trend, but does it mean that a substantial portion of the people will rebel against the whole?

Jack

A major problem in CA, as Warren Buffet pointed out in his very brief role as Gov Arnie's financial adviser is that of Prop 13. The problem is that residential and commercial properties are only reassessed when SOLD, so many property owners pay little more than the tax bill of the late 70's when the Jarvis bill was adopted.

There was, as is always the case for poor public policy, a noble intent of protecting oldsters of the era from the effects of rapidly escalating property values and the related high taxes. CA was flush with $5 billion surplus under the tight-fisted government of the same Jerry Brown just re-elected.......... so "who needs property taxes?"

Today the problem is that of having been in place so long that it has a large number who have long benefited and have become stakeholders unwilling to modify Prop 13. It's nearly the perfect "don't tax me, don't tax thee, tax the guy behind the tree" policy in which new buyers pay vastly more for a twin of the long held property next door.

The effects of such a poor policy goes well beyond the overall loss of tax receipts and obvious inequities of one home owner paying many times the tax of his next door neighbor.

In commercial R/E complex "deals" are put together such that a tax reassessment event is avoided.

Also much of CA is a transportation nightmare with costly "freeways" gridlocked in both directions morning, noon and evening. It would be interesting to study how many who have retired and might like to move closer to the beach, golf course, or smaller town but who instead hang on for the substantial tax break, while newer, younger working folk are forced to "go further out" where property prices (and the newbie tax premium) are lower......... and add to the constant congestion with a time consuming, energy wasting, commute.

Voting patterns too are likely distorted with those paying very little in taxes favoring expenditures that will be inequitably paid by the newbies.

CA's problems would suggest that a reform and general phase out of Prop 13 become and immediate priority. It would be simple to offer a tax exemption on the first $150 (or some other amount) as is done here in Anchorage for those over 65 and gradually meld the remaining taxes into a common rate.

A brief article concludes:
"How the Golden State Got Tarnished"

"A more permanent, homegrown solution to California's woes (and it may take a state constitutional convention to get it) would require the state to eliminate the two-thirds threshold for enacting taxes, to repeal Proposition 13's freeze on the value of commercial properties (some of which are still assessed at their 1978 levels) and to end the process of ballot-box budgeting through the initiative process, which is now more dominated by monied interests than the legislature ever was. In Washington, the Age of Reagan may have shuddered to an inglorious end, but we also need action from state governments -- and Sacramento in particular -- to move us toward a more sustainable economic future."

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/05/27/AR2009052702904.html

CA's shortfall of $20 billion does seem a large number and cutting is surely to be part of the process, but with 35 million people and perhaps 15 million households the average cost per household would be $1300 per average household it's hardly "Greece".

Even as proper values have fallen, the wealthy state has $4.4 trillion in property value, some $300,000 per household, though that includes commercial. Closing the entire $20bn gap could be done from property taxers alone for 1/2 of one percent of value. Many states would love such a "problem". Reforming Prop 13 would be a good place to start, though ha! the likelihood among CA's perpetually adolescent voters seems slim! Maybe a celebrity will come, wave a magic wand and make it all go away.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Value of California's properties falls 1.8% to $4.4 trillion
Forty-eight of California's 58 counties saw totals fall this year — nine by more than 5%, the state Board of Equalization reported. The total value fell 2.4% in 2009.
September 02, 2010|By Marc Lifsher, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Sacramento — The Golden State's real estate market lost a bit more of its luster as the total value of California's properties fell for the second year in a row — and for the second time since records were first kept in 1933 at the depths of the Great Depression.

The value of all types of properties fell 1.8% this year to $4.4 trillion, the California Board of Equalization reported Thursday. The total value fell 2.4% last year.

Jack

A major problem in CA, as Warren Buffet pointed out in his very brief role as Gov Arnie's financial adviser is that of Prop 13. The problem is that residential and commercial properties are only reassessed when SOLD, so many property owners pay little more than the tax bill of the late 70's when the Jarvis bill was adopted.

There was, as is always the case for poor public policy, a noble intent of protecting oldsters of the era from the effects of rapidly escalating property values and the related high taxes. CA was flush with $5 billion surplus under the tight-fisted government of the same Jerry Brown just re-elected.......... so "who needs property taxes?"

Today the problem is that of having been in place so long that it has a large number who have long benefited and have become stakeholders unwilling to modify Prop 13. It's nearly the perfect "don't tax me, don't tax thee, tax the guy behind the tree" policy in which new buyers pay vastly more for a twin of the long held property next door.

The effects of such a poor policy goes well beyond the overall loss of tax receipts and obvious inequities of one home owner paying many times the tax of his next door neighbor.

In commercial R/E complex "deals" are put together such that a tax reassessment event is avoided.

Also much of CA is a transportation nightmare with costly "freeways" gridlocked in both directions morning, noon and evening. It would be interesting to study how many who have retired and might like to move closer to the beach, golf course, or smaller town but who instead hang on for the substantial tax break, while newer, younger working folk are forced to "go further out" where property prices (and the newbie tax premium) are lower......... and add to the constant congestion with a time consuming, energy wasting, commute.

Voting patterns too are likely distorted with those paying very little in taxes favoring expenditures that will be inequitably paid by the newbies.

CA's problems would suggest that a reform and general phase out of Prop 13 become and immediate priority. It would be simple to offer a tax exemption on the first $150 (or some other amount) as is done here in Anchorage for those over 65 and gradually meld the remaining taxes into a common rate.

A brief article concludes:
"How the Golden State Got Tarnished"

"A more permanent, homegrown solution to California's woes (and it may take a state constitutional convention to get it) would require the state to eliminate the two-thirds threshold for enacting taxes, to repeal Proposition 13's freeze on the value of commercial properties (some of which are still assessed at their 1978 levels) and to end the process of ballot-box budgeting through the initiative process, which is now more dominated by monied interests than the legislature ever was. In Washington, the Age of Reagan may have shuddered to an inglorious end, but we also need action from state governments -- and Sacramento in particular -- to move us toward a more sustainable economic future."

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/05/27/AR2009052702904.html

CA's shortfall of $20 billion does seem a large number and cutting is surely to be part of the process, but with 35 million people and perhaps 15 million households the average cost per household would be $1300 per average household it's hardly "Greece".

Even as proper values have fallen, the wealthy state has $4.4 trillion in property value, some $300,000 per household, though that includes commercial. Closing the entire $20bn gap could be done from property taxers alone for 1/2 of one percent of value. Many states would love such a "problem". Reforming Prop 13 would be a good place to start, though ha! the likelihood among CA's perpetually adolescent voters seems slim! Maybe a celebrity will come, wave a magic wand and make it all go away.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Value of California's properties falls 1.8% to $4.4 trillion
Forty-eight of California's 58 counties saw totals fall this year — nine by more than 5%, the state Board of Equalization reported. The total value fell 2.4% in 2009.
September 02, 2010|By Marc Lifsher, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Sacramento — The Golden State's real estate market lost a bit more of its luster as the total value of California's properties fell for the second year in a row — and for the second time since records were first kept in 1933 at the depths of the Great Depression.

The value of all types of properties fell 1.8% this year to $4.4 trillion, the California Board of Equalization reported Thursday. The total value fell 2.4% last year.

Gordon Longhouse

Although only tangentially related to this post, the issue of defined benefit versus defined contribution pension plans deserves more considered attention than it has hitherto received.

The story is usually presented as one of political and economic muscle: unions forcing government and large company employers to provide defined benefit plans (pension depends upon final salary regardless of investment or economy performance) even though defined contribution plans (pension depends on contribution plus the performance of investment of those contributions)are more sound on an economic basis.

The movement away from defined benefit to defined contribution plans is therefore portrayed (as it has been by Becker) as progress. I am not so sure. An argument can be made that in fact in many situations defined benefit is more efficient so long as all of the benefits provided are properly priced and paid for. The movement to defined contribution could in fact be setting up the next crisis.

The main difference between defined benefit and defined contribution plans is that of who carries the risk that the plan will run out of money (credit risk) and the risk that financial markets will not provide sufficient returns to provide for a reasonable standard of retirement (investment risk). The employer carries these risks in defined benefit plans while the employee (and retiree) carries them in defined contribution plans. At issue is which party (employer or retiree) is better able to carry and manage the risk?

I think that a respectable argument can be made that the employer, at least where it is a large company or government, is better able to carry and manage these risks than the people who work for them. These risks require a lot of information and expertise to manage. I suggest that it is asking too much of non-professionals that they manage such risks. Investment professional have trouble enough with these risks as the GFC has demonstrated.

Also retirees are much more vulnerable to investment losses than the rest of the population because they have far less time and practically no options to make them up. To ask of them that they investigate credit risk and investment options and suffer the results if they are wrong is unrealistic for almost all people.

When you add to ordinary investment risk "uncertainty" the unpredictable 'fat tail' rare but high impact events (such as the recent GFC) to the equation the issue becomes stark but not easy: on the one hand pensioners cannot be expected to provide for such events, indeed how does anyone provide for such events?

On the other, is what company or government can afford to provide for such events for hundreds of thousands or millions of employees or ex-employees?

These are the issues we will confront sooner or later in a world of defined contribution pensions. Given that these are the wave of the future, we ought to confront these issues now.

Jim

WE all know what the proximate causes are but the situation will nnever be fixable until talented, gutsy people decide enough is enough and run for public office, tell the truth and act accordingly. Otherwise the solution will solve itself painfully through the laws of economics. I will bet that the people who got us into this mess believe that they can defy the laws of physics as well. By the way, Illinois might be worse off than California inasmuch as the state of Illinois is bankrupt and corrupt, The city of Chicago is bankrupt and corrupt, the county of Cook is bankrupt and corrupt and my own suburb is bankrupt (probably not corrupt. To boot, the weather is bad.

Guile Honda

Just a quick note about the California budget deficit. The state had a chance to climb their way out of it with Prop 19, however, the residents shot themselves in the foot by letting the conservative voters rule the day: http://lawblog.legalmatch.com/2010/11/11/why-prop-19-failed-and-what-will-happen-now/

35 percent voter turn out, that's just sad California...

taogirls

In Socrates’ times, society’s mind was preoccupied and consequently distracted with the capacity of managing the state’s debt. The Athenian citizens devoted a great deal of their energy to trying to find the best way out of their troubles, mainly caused by spending money on wars and massive public work programs. This situation was reflected in their alliances with other city states along the golden shores of the Mediterranean sea and also in the agora, where people profusely debated their points of view. The result was that in a sign of rejection, some of their most prevalent individuals turned against their government, citing their discontent with the common sentiment of placing the love for counting numbers before knowledge and ability. Our mass society professes a similar trend, but does it mean that a substantial portion of the people will rebel against the whole?

GreeceRUS

So, the public’s assessment for California (one of the highest overall taxing states) is that …well Californians are not paying enough taxes. Anybody notice the vicious cycle I was talking about? That is why America seems to have passed the point of no return…

Jack

Gordon: Very good points. Another area where we're split between high, median and low incomes.

At median incomes it would seem rational and cost effective for retirement programs to be, essentially, longevity insurance. Not very costly to the company for those half of males not living beyond 77 and more costly (per capita) for those far fewer living much or well beyond 77.

At high incomes, and especially if tax advantaged, one might save enough (barring other huge economic waves!) not only to retire comfortably but to pass some of the corpus along to next of kin.

A friend and I were trying to monetize a teacher's defined benefit retirement as compared to a mortgage free rental property or a stock portfolio. Today the inflation protected yield of the stocks would require something in the range of a million bucks... a teacher would have to be both lucky and smart to assemble such. The rental paid off over one's 25 year career might be better but is hardly a passive investment.

At the break-even, or worse, wages that are all too common, where savings are next to impossible and likely to be wiped out by something......... medical costs come quickly to mind, a defined benefit would seem the only viable option.

As you point out, our slicksters have craftily pawned off retirement liability to the individual. Public employee unions would be wise to resist taking the bait.

You mention large strong companies being able to bear the risk better than the individual, I'd add that smaller companies could combine in risk pools to lay off risk they could not self-insure.

taogirls: One difference between us and Athens would be that of Athens having no chance to cover basic living stds for all........ today, in the US that IS an option, though we're sidling off toward the option of untold wealth for the very few and stagnant, economy tanking wages for 90%.

"Greece" Nope. CA ranks somewhere in the mid 20's in rate of taxation, the kiddies there just like to whine more than others. Ahh, yes........ 35% turnout on a "fix the problem vote".

sheds to live in

Well the outcome was that in a signal of rejection, some of their most common persons turned contrary to their government, citing their discontent with the widespread sentiment of putting the love for counting figures before information and ability.

Mike and the Mechanics

In addition to running trillion dollar deficits, the Obama administration has managed to pull the GINI coefficient (measuring economic equality) down from its all time high in 2006.

Jack

"Mechanics" looking for causes and effects might wonder what "Obama" has done to exacerbate growing deficits since the Bush admin insisted on a host of unaffordable tax cuts favoring the wealthiest among us and we seem stuck with the warmongering bills (now part of the budget -- instead of sneaky "off budget" "supplementals" for quite some time

As for the GINI coefficient my guess is that tremendous unemployment rates and stagnant/declining wages in the lower quintiles have not been the cause of the narrowing. Instead, it's more likely that of the fraudulent banking practices bubble being burst giving at least some relief from by an initial pruning of overpaid, bonus snatching, predatory WS thieves. Let's hope for more post-corruption benefits to follow.

Whew! Imagine bankers owing fiduciary responsibility to their depositors and investors "lending" at 30 times assets!! Where just a 5% pull back in valuations would more than wipe out company assets. And they got away with this for 10 years? with NO oversight? (The historical norm is in the range of 10 times.)

Mike and the Mechanics 2

Jack, there is a very big difference between the $500bn deficits and the Trillion Dollar Deficits that Obama has proposed. If the current administration wants any hope of passing another progressive budget, then they will really need to explain to the public the reasons for the expenditures. Blaming the economy, when unemployment remains at 9%, just isn't going to cut it. Sorry. In addition, asking a past winner of the Nobel Prize to endorse the proposed economic policies also isn't going to cut it. I, personally, would like to see another trillion dollars get spent, but only if it is spent intelligently. :-)

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Jack

Mike: Agreed! After noting that the Bush taxcuts kinda failed to deliver the golden promises of the (hilarious) Laffer Curve even as the nation partied along on atop a faux housing boom based on fraudulent banking practices from top to bottom. One suspects those rates won't work much better in deep depression with millions on extended unemployment benefits either.

Then there's putting the ongoing warmongering costs on budget as the way of life they've become, rather than off-budget "supplementals" of unexpected events.

And I'm sure all here 'cept the poor shoe clerks tryng to drum up a sale? have noticed that servicing the D E B T related to three admin's worth of "believing" in the Laffer Curve fairy tale is becoming almost a 2nd military in terms of the size of the check that has to be written.......... to outsiders, where it's expected precious little will "trickle down" to benefit our economy and people.

As for not "endorsing" current policies after generally going along with what got us here and NOT spotting the very unusual nature of the "housing boom" and related shenanigans it would go down a lot better were a viable alternative offered.

Ha! Perhaps we'll have to start the Mechanics movement as I too see an economy as being similar to a diesel engine. A powerful force to do our bidding when properly maintained and governed but highly problematic if the inept messes with the fuel and air mixture or tries to run it at the wrong RPM. I agree whole heartedly that it's going to cost another trillion to get the tow truck down here to yard this bus out of the ditch.

Trouble is "intelligently" means the difficult task of getting two bucks worth of bang for each buck while having to grease apparently greedy constituents whose concept of "Supporting The Troops" is to slap a most-likely printed in China decal on their gas hog.

Surely there is no doubt among honest economists that A. this economy is not lacking investment capital - which would be the goal of tax breaks for the wealthier B. that those billions injected into the economy at lower income tiers would do FAR more to stimulate weak demand.

"Intelligent" too will mean taking off on a different tack as the whole housing boom, builders, financiers and the lot is not coming back and was a big driving wheel not easily replaced. "WE" have yet accepted that........ pundits all speak of an uptick in retail or a blip in mfg as a harbinger of a warm spring. "2% growth?" Half of that is due to population growth bringing with it the need for correspondingly more jobs.

No.... using Obama's bus stuck in the ditch analogy it',s not pulled back up on the highway as in a typical recession. Instead it's going to have to be shifted into 4WD, equipped with special tires, and head off across unmapped country. Ha....... the Brits got moving, but backwards toward an idealized bus barn and will run out of gas before they arrive. But hey, they're tough and will eat sandwiches along the roadside until......... ?

Us? With people as brilliantly creative and open to change as Mitch McConnell in the cab? But who knows? once the seemingly clueless tea partiers are brought up to speed perhaps their energy will create something akin to a coalition government will emerge out of the fallen deadwood?


Steve W from Ford

First you must kill the unions! The idea that elected government officials can negotiate adequately with powerful public employee unions is ludicrous as everyone from FDR to Reagan have realized.
The unions, once ensconced, will always be able to bring enough electoral pressure to bear to ensure that they are only having to negotiate in name only.
We never had government employee unions in this country for very good reason and as we see in Greece once they are there the only way to defeat them is through the bankruptcy of the state. They have no concept of responsible governance, they know only self interest and the public be damned.
First we must kill the unions!

Jack

Steve One hopes you're NOT from Ford the motor company with THAT attitude!

Posner and Becker seemed kinda sloppy in their laments this week. For example: HAS the local governing sector outpaced GDP gains? Are not the tasks of ALL governing bodies more complex than in the past? Why ARE we locking folks up at multiples of even the relatively recent past and five times the rate of the more civilized nations? How about the attendant court costs? Remember for the majority of criminal cases the state pays for both the prosecution and varying degrees of defense.

I've asked several times here if "union" teacher pay in high cost CA of $50k (which in most areas would not qualify them to buy any housing) seems ......... too generous? But how about some example in which you think public salaries have been driven too high? Keep in mind that the problem of stagnant private sector wages of the last 25 years are a separate problem.

antalya ilaclama

"Mechanics" looking for causes and effects might wonder what "Obama" has done to exacerbate growing deficits since the Bush admin insisted on a host of unaffordable tax cuts favoring the wealthiest among us and we seem stuck with the warmongering bills (now part of the budget -- instead of sneaky "off budget" "supplementals" for quite some time

Chris

@Jack. No, the stagnant wages of the private sector are not a separate problem. They are an indicator that public sector wages are too high.

Also it's 50K base, plus retirement, plus medical, plus the value of increased job security in the form of tenure, plus whatever else they can earn in the 185 days they have off. And yes, that is too high.

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Jack

Chris??? Stagnant wages for 25 years for most of us is NOT good for much of anyone other than the few percent who took all of the productivity gains. In the longer run as flat and declining wages tanks what's left of our once fine economy it won't be good for them either.

As for the "$50k base" being "too high?" it's not likely that the much larger group suffering from stagnant wages will benefit by trying to claw back the inflationary adjustments to public sector wages and what little gains they may have made to be lifted by the "rising tide" of productivity gains.

Would you mind looking over the trend lines? I think a few minutes will show what few got in the hen house and fed lavishly at the expense of those doing the daily work of the world.

http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:bB64joVfJsYJ:lanekenworthy.net/2008/03/09/the-best-inequality-graph/+best+inequality+graph&cd=2&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us

Wait! Too, I've been wondering if 30 times working folks pay was too little for a chap to head up the charge? Today it appears to take the wages of 400 working folk to get a CEO out of bed in the morn. Any insight? Oh! one more! By comparison to some twit running a boring insurance company for millions/year, golden chutes and all sort of retirement bennies, do you think our generals, congressmen, presidents and on down to school superintendents, teachers are grossly underpaid?

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