Abuses of US Non-Profit Status

The holiday season is typically when US charities collect the majority of their donations. Let me start by noting that the US non-profit sector is vibrant, generating positive outcomes across many aspects of society. But there’s an unfortunate dark side, and a degree of abuse of the system that is appalling. When organizations with CEOs making $10M+ per year spend little on charitable services and pretend to be non-profits, that’s appalling. When organizations that are blatantly political in nature raise limitless funds and pay no taxes, that’s appalling. When some of the largest hedge funds in the land pretend to be “universities” while raking in billions, that’s appalling – and the list goes on.

I have given to charities for many years, but with the start of our family foundation, I’m now formally involved in the sector, making choices about grantees. The process of grant-making has enabled me to refine my thinking on the kinds of impacts we’d like to see, and on how to measure and quantify our impact. But seeing a range of pitches and organizations also helps me to see and understand what I don’t support – this rant could run a mile, but here are the quick hits, the sorts of organizations that I believe fundamentally abuse the tax code:

Non-Profit US Hospitals: The majority of US hospitals are organized as non-profits, and yet non-profit hospitals spend only 2.3% on charity care, which is actually less than for-profit hospitals! Non-profit hospital chain CEOs have compensation similar to Fortune 500 CEOs, and don’t do much charity work, so why don’t we end the sham and strip their status? Senator Chuck Grassley has been a lonely voice of reason on this issue for years. Ask yourself – why is it that doctors, pharmacies, medical labs, pharma companies all pay taxes – so why do hospitals get a special free pass?

And what’s more evil than pretending to be a non-profit while bankrupting patients by the thousands? Doing it while using sick kids as a way to tug at heart strings. Unfortunately most children’s hospitals also provide very little charitable care, and also pursue patients into bankruptcy just like any for-profit company.

501 (c) (4) organizations: These organizations were original meant to be “social welfare” organizations, but have now devolved into another form of super-pac which lobby and influence politics via donated funds! But why aren’t they taxed on “profits” like any other corporation? Both parties have used and abused these structures to the max now – pray for us poor souls in Georgia who have been pummeled non-stop by Walker and Warnock ads for months. Here’s an idea: instead of spending $500M on ads, you are raising enough money to actually impact the issues you claim to care about? You could literally buy school supplies for every teacher in Georgia, or pay for police officer training or equipment – whatever your issue, you could impact it with that kind of money, and prove your ideas to voters!

University Endowments: Elite universities have fallen into the same trap as hospitals, in that they no longer spend significant sums toward the public good, but hide behind non-profit status as their endowments grow ever larger. Harvard, Yale, Stanford and other universities with massive endowments spend less than 4.5% of their endowment annually, while generating investment returns of over 8.5% annually over the last decade. They grow the cash pile further by soliciting donations that they have no plans to spend! Is the primary purpose of a university to be a brand for endowment fund-raising?

Honorable Mention: Donor Advised Funds enable individuals to “donate” money to a “charity” and gain a tax deduction, but do not require that the funds ever be distributed! As a result, $142 Billion in donations sat in DAFs as of mid-2021, generating fees for investment managers while not being used for any further societal purpose.

What’s the solution here? Has the American non-profit system become so bloated that it needs to be torn down? A simple starting step might be to raise and enforce requirements around actual charitable work – if private foundations are required to distribute 5% to charities annually, surely operating charities can be required to spend 5% of their revenue on bonafide charity work annually?

P.S. I think there are a great many causes worth supporting out there in this giving season. GiveWell and the Copenhagen Consensus do a good job researching both charities and areas where donations can provide maximum benefit. And you can see my family foundation’s grantees here.

Where Have All the Workers Gone?

The October employment report was released last Friday, and it told a familiar story: the US economy is still suffering from labor supply issues, even with the pandemic (mostly) in the rear-view mirror and the Fed trying to apply the brakes via rapid rate hikes. As I noted in a fraction blog post last week, the professional workforce of the future is actually shrinking, hit by declines in college enrollment and legal immigration. Let’s dive a little deeper into the present situation – how many workers should we expect the US workforce to have right now, where are the missing workers, and what’s to be done about it?

The BLS October 2022 data showed a labor force participation rate still 1.2% below February 2020 levels. Population growth since that time implies a labor force that should be at least 3.2M workers larger than it is today – so what happened?

Early Retirements – Departure of the Boomers: -2.4M workers

The St. Louis Federal Reserve estimated that 2.4M additional workers retired early from the start of the pandemic through Q2 2021. Subsequent analysis by the Washington Post indicates that retirees are returning to work – but only at levels found in 2019, so this doesn’t make up for the pandemic era losses.

COVID Deaths and Long COVID: -2M Workers

Per Statista, just over a quarter million working age Americans have died of COVID since the start of the pandemic, further reducing the workforce.

COVID’s larger impact is through the impacts of long COVID – the Minneapolis Fed and Brookings estimate that 1.8M FTEs worth of work have been lost due to long COVID job loss and work hours reductions.

Lack of Immigration – Trump + COVID: -1M workers

This Census chart tells the story – changes in federal immigration policy and the closing of borders during the pandemic led to a huge loss in immigration. 1.5M less immigrants, with a 65% labor force participation rate, equates to a loss of roughly 1M workers due to changes in immigration flows.

The US added 1.5M less immigrants over the five year period from 2017-2021 than it over the previous five years (2012-2016)

Summing It All Up: 5.4M Workers Missing

The latest JOLTs report shows 10.7M job openings – 5.4M more available workers, when added to current unemployed (6.1M) would make for more available workers than jobs. That’s the opposite of the current 2:1 ratio of jobs to workers!

Alas, we can’t wave a wand and undo the damage of the pandemic, and many early retirees are happy with their new lives. Immigration is beginning to rebound, and will make a long term difference.

Short-term, we’ve got to make do with the workers we have – and that’s why I believe that fractional work is the future. Fully utilizing the surplus capacity of the existing professional workforce in America would add 4M FTEs to the labor market, almost fully replacing the 5.4M lost. In the coming weeks I’ll delve deeper into the fractional workforce and how it can help.

The Future of Work is Here!

I’m excited to announce the launch of fraction.work on ProductHunt – upvote fraction.work there to help us gain exposure and change the future of work!

Readers of this blog know that I like to focus on big macro trends. The macro trend here is incontrovertible – working age populations are flat or dropping in every developed country on Earth. We keep hearing that the robots are coming, and that automation will take all the jobs – meanwhile US unemployment is back near all-time lows, despite a Federal Reserve moving rapidly to force a recession.

There’s only one solution: expand the labor supply. And the fastest way to do that is to tap into the millions of American workers willing to work more, or to keep working part-time.

At fraction.work it’s early days, as we are focused for the moment on fractional software developers. But in the software field alone, I estimate that there are 500,000 additional workers available on a fractional basis. McKinsey’s research shows that over half of all jobs can be done in a remote or hybrid fashion – fractional work opens the door to millions more employees filling open positions we can’t otherwise seem to fill.

Uvalde + Buffalo + Parkland = Make guns 21+.

Uvalde, Buffalo, Parkland – the common thread in these massacres? All were committed by under-21 boys who purchased their guns legally. In mass shootings, 77% of the murderers obtained their weapons legally! Over 17% of all homicides are committed by those 18-20, and most weapons used in crime are obtained legally or through straw-man purchases from legal sellers [1].

So you’re telling me we could reduce school shootings and potentially stop 4000 deaths per year, just by making kids wait until they are drinking age to buy a gun [1]? It’s not quite that simple – with America awash in guns, eliminating access wouldn’t stop perpetrators entirely. But it’s worth noting that the aforementioned trio of shooters didn’t have criminal records, and didn’t have criminal contacts on whom to rely for illicit weapons. If only 1 in 4 young adults were stopped from obtaining a firearm, this would reduce deaths by over a thousand per year. From a gun-rights perspective, no right has been taken away – just shifted a few years to enable young minds to develop and gain impulse control (brain development actually ends at 25).

Most reasonable gun safety measures are supported by the majority of Americans, but this particular improvement was also enacted by a conservative state – Florida ended gun sales to the under-21 crowd after the Parkland shooting. If Florida can do it, then virtually every state politically to the left of FL should be able to make this change. Narrow Federal legislation in this regard might be possible (though unlikely) in the current moment [2]. As this latest tragedy focuses our attention on the issue, I hope politicians will focus on simple, attainable changes like these.

[1] The FBI data uses slightly different age ranges, but if we add 1/5th of the homicides committed by those 20-24 to homicides committed by older teenagers, we get 1910 homicides in 2019 – this is 17% of all homicides that year (where age of offender is known). When scaled to 2021 homicide levels (using 6.9 per 100k rate and Census 2021 population), this is 3893 homicides per year – 79% of which are estimated to be committed by firearms. That’s 3110 homicides per year. Using CDC data we find another 900 suicides by firearm within the 18-20 age group – for a total of 4000 deaths per year!

[2] Theoretically this should be easy to pass at the federal level, but Congress has become so ossified and reactionary that nothing will pass there.The guns-at-all-costs crowd has grown more extreme, with many calling for ALL weapons to be legal (yep that includes nuclear weapons, according to a former TX state representative).

Are COVID Deaths Changing The Electorate? Wisconsin Edition

I just wrote about a detailed calculation of COVID deaths and their potential electoral impact in Georgia, my home state. One factor that causes COVID deaths to have little political impact in Georgia: the state has a large black population which is disproportionately impacted by COVID, and this balances out deaths (politically speaking) among the older white population.

What about if we look at a swing state like Wisconsin, which is 87% white per the Census Bureau?

White deaths roughly approximate the white share of total population in Wisconsin.

This ought to mean that COVID would push the Wisconsin electorate leftward, correct?

Here are 2020 exit poll results for white voters in Wisconsin, and 2020 exit poll results for black voters in the Midwest (black Wisconsin voters weren’t available as a subset):

President Biden won Wisconsin precisely because he lost the older white vote by a relatively small margin.

Let’s do some simple math:

8064 deaths * 86.5% white = 6975 deaths

6975 deaths * (10% Trump margin amongst age groups at risk) = 698 net loss in Trump voters

8064 deaths * 7.7% black = 621 deaths

621 deaths * (62% Biden margin among black voters in Midwest) = 385 net loss in Biden voters

The Wisconsin GOP appears to have lost 300-350 net votes due to COVID thus far. It’s possible that this understates the impact, since the white voters that died post vaccine-era are increasingly represented by GOP voters (since they are more likely to refuse vaccination). But 80% of COVID deaths in Wisconsin occurred prior to general vaccine availability (prior to 1/31/21), lowering partisan effects due to vaccine hesitancy. Even if we assume a 20% Trump margin among white voters that died post 1/31, this only increases the GOP’s net vote loss to 500 votes (add 1/5th of the white vote * additional 10% margin).

The impact of a 500 vote swing could be meaningful in states where politics is a game of inches these days – but we can’t overstate it. Voters’ overall reaction to how the pandemic has been handled is by far the larger factor in how COVID impacts American politics.

Are COVID Deaths Changing the Electorate?

Given that COVID-19 has become intensely politicized, I started wondering – will the death patterns seen to date have an impact on elections in 2022 and beyond? On the one hand, we’ve heard that minorities are dying at higher rates, whether due to poorer medical treatment or more exposure to the virus (a lower rate of work-from-home). On the other hand, the number one factor in terms of COVID mortality risk (other than vaccination status) is age – and the older you go in the US population pyramid, the whiter the demographics become.

I decided to try cross-referencing two data sources in Georgia to see how COVID might have changed the electorate. Given that President Biden won GA by only 12,000 votes, here, even small shifts in the electorate could have meaningful results. The Georgia Department of Public Health breaks COVID deaths down by age and race, and 2020 exit polling data provides a (rough) guide to how different demographics voted.

We can do some simple math to gauge the impacts, weighting the deaths by Biden/Trump voting split to determine the total impact on the Red/Blue dynamic. Here is 2020 exit polling data by age and race from CNN – since black and white were the only racial categories measured, we’ll focus on these (the number of COVID deaths in other groups in GA is dwarfed by these two groups).

From the Georgia Dept. of Public Health, here are COVID deaths by race:

In absolute terms, the number of white deaths greatly exceeds all other groups, principally because the vast majority of Georgians (and Americans) over 70 are white.

Now let’s do the math. We’ll use a simple model – we’re just using the age groups by race, and the voting margins by age and race, to determine how many votes each side has likely lost due to death by COVID. COVID has resulted in substantial excess mortality in the US since March 2020, so most of these people would still be alive and voting. Here’s the spreadsheet.

Results:

GOP candidates are likely to lose 4,661 votes due to COVID deaths.

Democratic candidates are likely to lose 4,895 votes due to COVID deaths.

This leads to a swing of 234 votes in the GOP’s favor. This result is influenced by a few factors:

  • While white deaths do substantially exceed black deaths in total, the black population of Georgia is experiencing substantial excess mortality – total deaths of black Georgians exceed that of white Georgians for ages 18-49, despite being roughly 1/3 of the population in that age group.
  • Biden won Georgia by chipping away at Trump’s margin among white voters – while older black voters favored Biden 94-6, older white voters favored Trump by 72-28. Since COVID mortality is centered on the elderly, the lopsided voting patterns help cushion the GOP’s losses.

My prior assumption, when glancing at the Georgia Dept of Public Health graphs, was that COVID might have a non-trivial impact on GOP support, simply given the large number of deaths among older white voters. This analysis has ignored differential vaccination rates by political leaning – so it’s possible that going forward, this calculus might change, since conservatives appear most vaccine resistant. In Georgia at least, it appears that COVID deaths are not leading to much net change in the electorate. States with a more homogeneous white population might experience a more profound impact, since age would then be the only important variable.

Half of Police Homicides are Justified – A Data Analysis

Analysis of all 2019 US police homicides indicates that half are not justified – over 500 individuals per year die unnecessarily at the hands of police.

In 2019, police in the United States killed 1,099 people – and US police are tracking toward 1150 for all of 2020 [1]. While there is no uniform government database for police homicides in the United States, non-profit efforts like Mapping Police Violence have emerged to track the issue. While great work has been done collecting data, I’ve seen no analysis as to whether the homicides are justified. At one extreme, police unions argue that the police are always right – they believe that police homicides have a nearly 100% justified rate. BLM protesters and others argue the opposite – but where does the truth lie? If all police violence were justified, then there’s no reason for concern. As hundreds of videos and photos now show, it appears that the fraction is much lower – necessitating this analysis.

I analyzed fifty 2019 police homicides by hand, reading media reports, reviewing video evidence, and reading police reports. All 1,099 police homicides in 2019 were then analyzed using an automated approach – see the spreadsheet at bottom for the full details [2]. I used calendar year 2019 data, and manually scored 50 homicides using a list of rules as follows:

Rules Used in Manual Scoring: (51% of police homicides determined to be justified using these rules)

  1. Was the deceased provably (video, non-police witnesses) attacking officers or a victim with a firearm? If so, set to 100% justified
  2. Did the deceased kill anyone else prior to or during police intervention?
    If so, set to 100% to justified
  3. Was the deceased armed with a firearm or knife? If so, add 25% to the probability. (Cars, tools, and other implements are not counted here)
  4. According to the police, was the deceased threatening the police or a victim with a weapon? Is so, add 25% to the probability.
  5. According to non-police witnesses or footage, was the deceased threatening the police or a victim with a weapon? If so, add 25% to the probability
  6. Was the deceased shot in the back, while running away, or while driving away? If so, set the probability to 0%. (Shooting at drivers in cars has been proven to be extremely dangerous to the public and to officers, and is outlawed in many countries)

For the automated data analysis, I used only data available within the Mapping Police Violence spreadsheet.

Rules Used in Automated Scoring: (54% of police homicides determined to be justified using these rules, with all data per police reports)

  1. Was the deceased armed in any fashion? If so, add 25% to the probability.
  2. Was the alleged weapon a firearm? If so, add 25% to the probability.
  3. Was the deceased attacking the police or others at the moment they used lethal force? If so, add 25% to the probability.
  4. Was the deceased holding their ground and not fleeing? If so, add 25% to the probability.
  5. Was the deceased fleeing at the moment the police used lethal force, whether by car, foot, or other means? If so, subtract 25% from the probability.
  6. Did the deceased exhibit symptoms of mental illness? If so, subtract 25% from the probability.

Both analyses show that roughly half of all police homicides were found to be justified. When reading through and scoring individual homicides, I noted a wide range of cases ranging from truly heroic action to absurd and ridiculous [3]:

  • Heroic: Killing active assailants engaged in firing on officers or the public
  • Dubious: Shooting suspects in the back or in a car while they were trying to run away or drive away, even when they posed no threat
  • Absurd: A mentally ill person called 911 too many times, resulting in 911 dispatching officers to arrest him for excess calling, leading to his death unarmed and in his own home, after struggling with police

If half of all police homicides are not justified, then police are responsible for over 500 preventable deaths per year. This result cries out for change, even before potential racial inequities are studied! For those who think the police deserve the benefit of the doubt – the numbers indicate that the problem is real, and needs real attention. For those who think the police are always wrong – there are hundreds of instances in 2019 where the police rightly used lethal force. As usual in America these days, the solution is not binary – we need to acknowledge this and take reform seriously, but not to absurdity.

[1] Through August 24th 2020, policed had killed 751 people, according to Mapping Police Violence – that’s through the first 237 days of the year. Multiplying by 365 / 237 to normalize for a full year yields a rate of 1157 homicides per year for 2020 thus far.

[3] It’s important to note that the vast majority of the data for this analysis comes directly from the police. By 2019 anti-police violence protests movements had already gained traction across much of the country, leading police departments to proactively provide evidence when shootings are justified. When a police department refuses to comment or provide evidence on a shooting, the innocent-until-proven-guilty standard should be applied, meaning that the justification percentage is 0% in the absence of evidence.

Real Change: Push for a DOJ Ban on Hiring Killer Cops

Protesters across the nation (and the world) are expressing their rage, anger, and frustration at the killing of George Floyd and so many others at the hands of police in the United States. I have no issue with the rage against injustice – I have written about how over 20% of all random homicides in the United States are committed by the police! But as I watch events unfold, my instinct is to try to grasp for solutions. The protesters ask for the arrest of all involved officers – but surely this anger, this protest, can further be channeled toward institutional change? Protests and movements end, and without actionable demands, they often end empty-handed.

Here’s a simple actionable demand to make of both President Trump and Democratic Presidential Candidate Joe Biden:

Direct the Department of Justice to instruct police departments that they will receive $0 in federal funding if they hire any officer previously terminated or disciplined for killing a civilian:

  • Newspapers and non-profits have already compiled substantial lists of officers involved in killing unarmed civilians and other misconduct.
  • If any officer has been involved in such an incident, and is terminated, disciplined, they should be placed on a Department of Justice list. If a jurisdiction pays out a civil settlement with respect to an incident involving an officer, the officer’s name should likewise be placed on the list.
  • Any police department continuing to employ officers listed should no longer be eligible to receive any federal funding or benefit of any kind.

Some have argued that the federal government cannot change the behavior of individual police departments. This policy approach changes that equation – if a department wants to keep employing dangerous officers, they can do so without federal funding. Billions are sent to local police by the federal government annually, through programs including the Department of Defense 1033 program, the COPS Hiring program, the NHTSA’s funding support for traffic safety, and more. This idea is not new, as this Congressional Research Service article indicates.

In economics, we often talk about how incentives drive behavior. The federal government does not directly control the 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States – but changing the incentives will change their behavior. No department wants to risk its grant funding, its equipment donations, or other federal support. While everything is politicized these days, this need not be a political football – who wants bad police on the street? If a doctor losing his medical license in one state is unable to practice in another, why is a police officer fired for misconduct able to be re-hired in the same state? I don’t think most police officers want to work with the small minority who engage in criminal conduct either – so this is a simple step to cleaning up law enforcement across the country.

If, as a people, we want real change, let’s come up with concrete solutions. This is my attempt to do that – I hope we can channel the rage on the streets toward solutions, so we don’t find ourselves in the same place in another decade’s time.

Coronavirus: Why the US Might Fare Better than Expected

Update 5/31/2020 – It’s been two months exactly since this post. Some aspects have aged well – US deaths to date did in fact peak around 2500 per day, and the rate of death has declined substantially since. The notion that we’d stay below 100k deaths overall has not, however. I believed that the opportunity created by April shutdowns would be used to ramp testing 10x, and that mask usage might dramatically increase. It now appears that the US is instead focusing on a vaccine as the only solution, with ongoing deaths the price paid for an unwillingness to wear masks or test aggressively.

Original Post – 3/31/2020

With the steady drumbeat of negative news, it’s easy to slip into despair about the state of the nation and the world. The present moment has enabled journalists and well-meaning prognosticators of all sorts to shout out the depth of our peril. While the danger is real, I’d like to take a moment to point out a myriad of reasons why the Coronavirus pandemic may end in something less than the worst case outcome (for the skeptical, you will find ample sourcing along the way).

First, let me define what I mean: a worst case outcome would be something approximating the Imperial College of London study, with millions of deaths in the United States. While President Trump initially stalled and downplayed the crisis, the response is now rolling nationwide, with 75% of the US under lockdown and 90% of Americans saying that they are staying home in some manner. If the US manages to traverse a path similar to that of Italy, we might keep total fatalities at or below 100,000.

Italy Coronavirus Status as of 3/30/2020:

Italy entered a nationwide lockdown on March 9th, and the positive results of this action have become evident over the last 10 days (roughly two weeks after lockdown). Worldometer’s Coronavirus charts tell a striking story – new Coronavirus cases as of March 30th are below that of March 19th, and total daily deaths remain below the peak set on March 27th. While the trend could yet reverse, this follows the path set by China  in which strong lockdown measures resulted in a drop in new cases a bit under two weeks later. If Italy’s trends continue, coronavirus should become less lethal in the country once the curve is sufficiently flattened and hospital capacity is again able to deal with all critically ill patients.

US Favorable Metrics Relative to Italy (and China):

The US has the dubious distinction of having the world’s most Coronavirus cases, but we also have quite a few factors working in our favor. Let’s walk through each and then apply an Italy-style scenario to the US:

  1. The population density for the lower 48 is roughly 329M / 3.1m sq miles = 106 people/sq mile, versus 533 people / sq mile in Italy. This is not a linear factor as populations are grouped into much denser metro areas, but in general metro area density in the US is still much lower than in Italy.
  2. 22.7% of Americans are above the age of 60, versus 29.8% of Italy. Since the vast majority of Coronavirus deaths are of those beyond the age of 60, this factor alone should reduce America’s risk by 25% relative to Italy.
  3. There is some early statistical evidence that sun, warmth, and absolute humidity might reduce the spread of Coronavirus. According to these models, the later onset of the outbreak in the US and warmer climate (relative to northern Italy in early March) could prove ameliorating.
  4. Results of testing every individual in the village of Vo, Italy revealed that for every positive test in a broader population, up to 10 times as many individuals may have contracted the virus. These kinds of results indicate that the mortality rate might stabilize below the current 1% estimate.
  5. Over 50 different drugs or treatments are currently being investigated – the worst case scenarios imply that all of these treatments fail or are so delayed that they prove ineffectual.
Summing it up, what’s the potential outcome?

Since the US has now instituted many of the measures put in place in Italy and elsewhere, let’s assume that we follow Italy’s lead. President Trump extended initial “social distancing” guidance on March 16th, but most of the US did not follow suit until March 23rd (when restaurant, school, and other closures became widespread).

Italy started a full lockdown on March 9th as noted earlier, roughly 14 days before the US entered a partial lockdown. Let’s assume that the US didn’t achieve anything approximating full lockdown until March 30th – this would place the peak of the epidemic in mid-April, following the Italian pattern of a 2-week delay. Italy appears to have peaked under 1,000 deaths per day  – this would equate to roughly 5,000 deaths per day in the United States if conditions were equivalent. As mentioned earlier, age distribution alone lowers risk by 25%. US density is 80% less than Italy, but let’s assume this reduces peak impact by less than half that, taking our overall risk relative to Italy down to 50%. This would imply 2500 deaths per day at peak.

Italy sustained roughly 4,000 deaths prior to hitting the current plateau March 20th – if they remain at these levels for 30 days before descending, that would lead to another 30,000 deaths, followed by another 4,000 if the descending phase mirrors the ascent. This would represent a conservative outlook relative to China, which stayed on a plateau near peak death rates for only two weeks.

If the United States follows Italy’s lead, we might experience 8,000 deaths climbing to the peak, 75,000 deaths on the peak plateau (30 days at 2500 deaths/day), and a similar number on the way down – for a total number of deaths just under 100,000. These estimates assume the net positive impact of climate, treatments, and lower mortality rates is zero.

Does this sound like fantasy? Italy is already beginning to look optimistic that it is turning the corner, with new cases down from the peak – and it’s quite possible that the United States is just a few weeks behind, provided we keep the doors shut, stay at home, and let the storm pass, while we get our testing and treatment capabilities ramped up.

The Great GOP Stimulus

The 2018 Trump stimulus exceeds the Obama-era stimulus package in size – will it pay off at the top of the economic cycle?

In 2010, when Barack Obama pushed for a stimulus package to help boost the American economy, it was decided by many in the GOP as wasteful spending. While there are more productive (infrastructure) and less productive¬†(tax rebates) ways to stimulate the economy, any form of spending (or tax cut) is a form of economic stimulus – this is a point agreed by both economists and businessmen like Warren Buffet. In fact, any form of budget deficit is a form of stimulus, as the government borrows (or prints) money that it doesn’t have to spend it into the economy.

The past year has seen the GOP enact not one but two stimulus measures – first a budget which ended Obama-era budget caps and boosted spending by roughly $150B per year, and second the tax cut which reduces taxes by another $150B per year. Taken together these measures are adding roughly $300B per year in stimulus to the US economy, potentially adding 1.5% to GDP for each of the next few years. Adding this stimulus to a core GDP growth rate of 2-2.5% might thus make 4% possible in the near term, with the bill due much later. The total federal (non-central bank) stimulus under President Trump’s first will hit at least $1.2 Trillion, exceeding President Obama’s 2010 stimulus package by $350 Billion [1], but this time at the top of the economic cycle!

What does this tell us? A few key takeaways emerge:
  • While most economists agree that it’s better to do fiscal stimulus when the economy is at or near recession, democracies don’t work this way, and there’s little correlation between economic need and actual governance.
  • When either party has complete control of government, they take the opportunity to spend on favored initiatives – in Trump’s case the DoD received most of the benefit, while in Obama’s case a variety of energy efficiency, infrastructure, and other initiatives were funded.
  • Budget deficits haven’t been a major issue over the last decade, but the tax cuts in particular will layer on top of Social Security and healthcare spending trends to drive debt-to-gdp well past 100% [2].
  • The best stabilizers in the US economy (unemployment insurance) are effectively automated – extending this sort of stabilizer to infrastructure spending (spending more on transportation funding etc as unemployment rises) would not just help buffer downturns – it would also get taxpayers a better deal.

Time will tell whether the GOP’s late-cycle spending will extend the business cycle substantially, but in the long run US policy will improve if more of these decisions are put on auto-pilot, removing the uncertainty of the political winds and the desire to spend at the least opportune times.

 

[1] The Obama administration stimulus plan cost around $850B in the end, including only the 2010 Stimulus measure and its implementation. Extension of Bush-era tax cuts and similar are not counted here, as these were extensions of existing measures, rather than new tax cuts or new spending as in the Trump administration’s recent moves.

[2] Many charts and news reports on the debt refer only to the publicly-held portion of the US debt, but when debts to the Social Security trust fund are included as in this data from the Federal Reserve, the US debt-to-gdp ratio already exceeds 100%.