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Good news for international readers: Thanks to Google Translate, you can now read this blog in several dozen languages. Just click on the language you want in the box to the right.

(For those of you reading this via email, Google Reader, etc., here are some example links: German and Spanish.)

P.S. Kudos to the WordPress member who wrote the code for this.

Greece Starts Selling … But Not Corfu

Greece is ready to start selling assets, according to the Wall Street Journal, but Corfu and the Parthenon are not on the auction block (no surprise there).

Instead, the government figures that by selling its stakes in a bank and a betting company, as well as its share of the national telecommunications company, it can raise €2.5 billion ($3.76 billion)—the equivalent of 1% of gross domestic product, its target for this year. That would only scratch the surface of Greece’s debt—which has surpassed the country’s €250 billion-a-year GDP—but would underscore for financial markets that Athens is serious about fixing its public finances.

The government also may put up for sale its shares in 15 other companies, including the water utility in Athens, a leading oil refiner, and several casinos. The Finance Ministry also wants to get rid of some Airbus A340 planes that it owns from the years before the country’s debt-ridden national carrier, Olympic Airlines, was privatized.

P.S. I love the transliterated name of the betting company: the Organization for Prognostication on Soccer Matches.

Is Home Construction Bottoming?

This morning the Census Department released its latest look at housing activity. The headlines are that housing starts fell by 5.9% in February, mostly because of weakness in the Northeast and the South (which may well reflect February’s terrible weather). Most of the decline was in multi-family; single-family starts were essentially unchanged.

Although starts and permits usually grab the headlines, I think it’s also useful to look at another measure of housing activity: the number of houses under construction:

Not surprisingly, the chart shows that the number of single-family homes under construction fell off a cliff in early 2006. Almost 1 million new single family homes were under construction in February 2006. Today there are just 300,000.

The precipitous decline ended last summer, and housing construction has been essentially flat for several months. Perhaps housing construction has finally found bottom?

The Legacy of the Economic Crisis

In its recent Going for Growth report, the OECD concludes that the economic and financial crisis will leave an unwelcome legacy: a permanent reduction in economic activity. This loss averages about 3% of potential GDP across the 20 member countries for which the OECD was able to make these estimates.

As the following chart shows, those losses differ greatly across countries:

Ireland and Spain are the clear losers, with the crisis cutting economic activity by more than 10%. Despite being a catalyst for much (but by no means all) of the crisis, the United States faces one of the smallest losses. The 2.4% reduction in potential U.S. GDP is a sobering hit, but is less than that faced by 16 of the other nations.

Why does the United States appear to be on track for comparatively moderate output losses? Continue reading “The Legacy of the Economic Crisis”

Living Standards, Labor, and Productivity

This week the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development released its annual Going for Growth report. The purpose of G4G is to benchmark economic performance among the OECD member countries and suggest pro-growth policy reforms.

My favorite chart in the report examines how GDP per capita differs so much across countries:

The first column of bars shows how GDP per capita in each country stacks up relative to a benchmark equal to the average level of the 15 richest OECD countries in 2008. (Fun fact: In prior years, the OECD used the United States as the benchmark.) As you can see, the United States has the third highest level of per capita income, topped only by Luxembourg and Norway. Looking lower down, you can see that, on average, the GDP per capita of the EU19 countries is more than 20% lower than the benchmark and more than 30% lower than in the United States.

There are two basic ways that a country can achieve a high level of GDP per capita: People can work a lot (i.e., high labor hours per person) or people can work productively (i.e., high output per hour worked). The second and third columns of bars disaggregate the income differences into those two components.

The second column shows that there are significant differences among the countries in the average number of hours worked per person. As you might expect, people in the United States work slightly more than the benchmark average of the richest 15 OECD countries. People work substantially more, on average, in some nations, most notably South Korea, Iceland, and the Czech Republic. People work substantially less in Turkey, France, and Belgium. (Keep in mind that these figures are average hours per person, so they are influenced by the age distribution of the population as well as the number of hours worked by working-age people.)

The third column shows that there are even larger differences among the countries in productivity. Most notably, all of the countries with low per capita incomes have relatively low productivity.

OECD researchers repeated this analysis for a group of emerging economies:

The productivity comparisons are striking: China, Indonesia, and India are 90% less productive than the 15 richest OECD countries. That’s an enormous gap.

Talking About Our Budget Woes

On Thursday, I appeared on Canada’s Business News Network to discuss our budget woes. Also on the show were Joe Minarik of the Committee for Economic Development and Bill Beach of the Heritage Foundation.

The first part of the interview focused on taxes. In a nutshell, my view is that spending restraint won’t be enough to get our budget under control, and therefore tax revenues will have to rise above their historical level (of about 18 – 18.5% of GDP). But our existing tax system is inefficient and will not scale well to higher levels of revenue. Thus any effort to raise more revenues must be coupled with fundamental tax reform. For example, we ought to re-examine how tax expenditures have made swiss cheese of our tax system.

The second part focused on the risks of our growing debt. I view that debt as a serious problem (no surprise). But I remain optimistic that the United States will eventually get its act together to deal with it. I am just not sure when.

How Much Does the Senate Health Bill Cost?

Earlier today the Congressional Budget Office released an updated analysis of the Senate health bill. The update reflects all the amendments that were adopted during Senate consideration of the bill, some technical adjustments, and the assumption that the bill would be enacted in the spring of 2010 (rather than December 2009, as previously assumed).

The bottom line is that not much has changed. The near-term costs of the bill have increased somewhat, but the budget story remains essentially the same.

The health care debate seems to have moved on from budget issues. For example, the big news today was that the Senate Parliamentarian announced that the legislative strategy of using reconciliation to pass a second health care bill will work–at least as far as he is concerned–only if the Senate bill is first passed by the House and signed into law by the President.

Nonetheless, as a public service let me offer a quick summary of the budget impacts of the bill over the next ten years:

There are four things you should take away from this table:

1. The Senate bill costs about $971 billion — not $875 billion — over the next ten years. As long-term readers know, one of my pet peeves is that the media (and many policymakers) use the phrase “cost of the health care bill” when they should be saying “cost of the provisions in the health care bill that expand health insurance coverage.” This distinction is important because all the health bills also contain provisions that have nothing to do with expanding insurance coverage. The Senate bill, for example, would help fill in the doughnut hole in Medicare Part D, fund more community health centers, and fund prevention efforts, among other things. These efforts may be worthy, but they aren’t free. Thus while the media reports that the bill costs $875 billion, I estimate that the real cost is about $971 billion. That figures includes the $875 billion being spent to increase health insurance coverage plus $94 billion in new spending on other health initiatives and $2 billion in new tax cuts.

2. The Senate bill will reduce the deficit by $118 billion over the next ten years. The bill contains more than $1 trillion in offsets, including $251 billion in tax increases related to health insurance coverage (e.g., the tax on “Cadillac” health plans, penalties on some employers, and penalties on some uninsured individuals), $266 billion in tax increases unrelated to health insurance coverage (e.g., higher Medicare payroll taxes on wages above $200,000), and $572 billion in spending reductions (e.g., lower Medicare payment rates for some providers).

3. The near-term budget savings are exaggerated by the inclusion of the CLASS Act; adjusting for that, the ten-year deficit reduction is $48 billion. Another item familiar to long-time readers, the CLASS Act would create an insurance program for long-term care. Premium income, which reduces the reported deficit, would start much faster than benefit payouts, so the program generates surpluses in the near-term. But it won’t in the long-run. So most budgeteers view the inclusion of the CLASS Act here as a gimmick. Netting out the $70 billion in budget savings from the CLASS Act, and you have deficit reduction of $48 billion over the next decade.

4. The bill would increase the Federal commitment to health care over the next ten years. CBO created this metric to reflect the fact that the Federal government supports health care both through spending programs and through tax subsidies, most notably that for employer-provided health insurance. CBO finds that the combination of these efforts will expand during the first ten years of the bill.  If the entire bill executes as written, however, CBO expects that the federal commitment to health care will decline in the second decade.

Note: CBO does not calculate a total cost figure for the health bills. The bills include dozens of policy changes, and it would be difficult (perhaps impossible) to allocate all their impacts to specific provisions. Thus, my figures should be considered approximate. I calculated the $94 billion figure for additional spending by adding up all the individual line items in Table 4 of the cost estimate that increased direct spending, with a couple of exceptions. First, I did not include the interaction effects that CBO lists as the end of the estimate because I was not sure how to allocate them; the interactions are large and could have a material effect on my estimate, potentially up or down. Second, there was one policy that led to both spending increases and spending decreases; I included the net spending increase in my figure. I am certainly open to other suggestions about how to add up the other spending in the bill. It’s also worth noting that I have taken as given CBO’s estimate of the gross cost of expanding coverage. There are some nuances in the calculation of that figure (e.g., the treatment of payments in a reinsurance program) that I need to understand better. I made similar calculations for the $2 billion in tax cuts itemized in the JCT analysis of the bill.

Google’s Public Data: Much Improved

Google recently released some major improvements in its public data efforts. If you click on over to Public Data, you will find a much broader range of data sets including economic information from the OECD and World Bank, key economic statistics for the United States, and some education statistics for California. Google has also included more tools for visualizing these data, from standard line charts to the evolving bubble charts that have made Hans Rosling such a hit at TED.

As an example, I made a flash chart of state unemployment rates from 1990 to the present. Puerto Rico (which counts as a state for these purposes), Michigan, Nevada, and Rhode Island currently have the highest unemployment rates, so I thought it would be interesting to see how they stacked up against the other states over the past twenty years.

WordPress doesn’t allow me to embed Flash, but if you click on the image above and then click play, you will see the evolution of state unemployment rates over time. (Spoiler alert: All those colored bars move sharply upward toward the end of the “movie”.)

Long-time readers may recall my series of posts criticizing Google for directing its users to unemployment data that have not been seasonally adjusted. Happily, Google now allows the user to use either seasonally adjusted or non adjusted data. Two cheers for Google.

Why only two cheers rather than three? Because Google still directs unsuspecting users to unadjusted data–without the ability to switch to seasonally adjusted–if they do a Google search on “unemployment rate United States“. That’s a big deal, particularly for February 2010 when the official unemployment rate was 9.7%, but the unadjusted figure reported by Google was 10.4%.

Clearly, the two parts of Public Data need to integrate a bit more.

What Assets Could the United States Sell?

Several German lawmakers hit a nerve last week with their suggestion that Greece sell some of its assets in order to cut its debts. The German newspaper Bild summarized this line of reasoning quite memorably: “We give you cash, you give us Corfu.”

That zinger has prompted a cottage industry of possibly humorous efforts to tote up what Greece should consider selling. For example, the Christian Science Monitor has a slide show of the top ten items it thinks that Greece could sell, including the Parthenon and the Acropolis.

While no one (?) takes these suggestions seriously, they do raise an important point. Spending reductions and revenue increases are important when governments face budget pressures, but they are not the only option. Governments can also sell off assets.

Which raises a natural question. If push comes to shove, what could the United States sell in order to cut its debts?

The United States isn’t Greece, of course, and I am far from suggesting that we actually need to start selling. On the other hand, there’s plenty of rhetoric (some coming from me) that the United States should set a target for its publicly-held debt. If we do adopt one, we should keep in mind that asset sales may be one way that policymakers may try to reach it.

So what does the United States own?

That’s a hard question to answer completely, but a good place to start is the Financial Report of the United States Government. According to the 2009 report, the U.S. owned $2.7 trillion in assets at the end of 2009, up from only $2.0 trillion a year earlier. Many of these are off-limits (we aren’t going to sell the Capitol or the USS Nimitz), but some raise interesting questions.

For example, we own an impressive portfolio of financial assets:

  • $540 billion in direct loans (e.g., student loans) and mortgage-backed securities
  • $240 billion in TARP loans and equity investments (some of which have since be repaid)
  • $24 billion in a trust that invested in AIG
  • $65 billion in preferred stock in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac

We also have a tidy amount of gold:

  • $250+ billion (The official financial statements report the gold as worth $11 billion, but that’s assuming gold is worth $42 per ounce. Gold prices are now about 25 times higher.)

Throw in another hundred billion or so for the value of the spectrum that we currently give away for free (not included in the financial statements), and we have a bit more than $1 trillion in assets that might conceivably be saleable. Of course, whether they would actually yield that trillion is an open question.

What about the ideas of the German lawmakers? Wouldn’t they suggest that we could sell Yosemite or Mount Rushmore as well? How much are they worth?

No one knows. Our nation’s accountants understandably make a point of not placing a dollar value on such “stewardship and heritage assets,” almost all of which should never–and will never–be on the auction block.

There might be a few saleable items lurking in there–the United States came close to selling the Presidio in San Francisco a few years back–but the real money is in the financial assets that the government owns.

Love Wins

The photos on the front page of the Washington Post are usually depressing. War, natural disasters, and other tragedies provide a seemingly endless stream of sad or horrifying images.

Not so this morning. When I picked up my paper, the images were joyful, depicting happy same-sex couples who were finally able to apply for marriage licenses in our nation’s capital. I went to the WaPo’s web site and discovered that it has a whole slide show of photos of happy couples. Here’s my favorite (note the poster):

I often tell my students that, in my humble opinion, one purpose of government is to help people be happy. The DC government did a good job on Wednesday.