George Washington law professor and economist Neil Buchanan comments on the state of the economics profession today, linking it to the frustration many Americans feel when economists seem unable to come up with a clear set of prescriptions as to how the economy can be improved. Buchanan traces the root of the problem to the way in which economists are now trained, and the expectations placed upon PhD candidates. Ideally, Buchanan says, economists would be trained to study important and interesting real-world issues. Instead, he observes, they are not asked to actually try to understand the economy, but rather to master certain technical skills and to gain a command of topics in advanced mathematics that have limited, if any, direct real-world applications. Buchanan notes that some excellent economists do learn to grapple with real-world problems, but he observes that they do so more by happenstance, than as a result of their training. He traces the roots of this longstanding situation, and predicts that it will only change if and when the incentives presented to economics PhD candidates change.
Justia columnist, economist, and George Washington law professor Neil Buchanan comments on the controversy regarding the “Buffett Rule,” Warren Buffett’s observation that he surely should not pay a lesser percentage of his income in taxes than his secretary does. This rule—and the principle behind it—proved to be especially relevant this week, Buchanan notes, when presidential candidate Mitt Romney released some of his tax returns. Buchanan explains how wealthy Americans typically receive special tax treatment, and argues that it is not true that—as some claim—this treatment is necessary to induce the wealthy to invest. He also lauds the Buffett Rule as a key step toward reaching our ultimate goals as a nation, and ensuring the fair treatment of all Americans, regardless of income.
Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb comments on New York Governor Andrew Cuomo's proposed amendment to the New York State Constitution, which would legalize casino gambling. Even Cuomo’s father, former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, opposes the measure. But is he correct to do so? Colb notes the common argument that casino gambling is, in effect, a regressive tax—that is, one that disproportionately burdens less affluent people. However, she argues that for many people—putting gambling addicts aside—gambling is simply another form of entertainment. And for someone with a modest income, Colb points out, many forms of entertainment—for instance, going to the movies—could also be seen as effectively imposing a regressive tax on those who are of modest means, but still opt to participate. She also contends that since many bans on enjoyable activities have, over history, been based on religious motivations, it is worth looking skeptically at such bans when they still exist today. A key question needs to be asked, Colb says: Is a gambling ban like New York’s meant to protect would-be gamblers’ pocketbooks (a permissible objective), or to save their souls (an impermissible objective)? Colb also notes that those who are addicted to an activity are likely to avail themselves of illegal alternatives, rather than abiding by a ban—rendering a ban potentially futile, and regulation a wiser choice.
Justia columnist, George Washington law professor, and economist Neil Buchanan takes strong issue with the claim that “contractionary” policies—such as budget cuts, and tax increases imposed on the non-wealthy—can help the American economy. To the contrary, Buchanan contends that such policies will only shrink the economy, and that the right approach to improving America’s economy is to use government spending and tax cuts aimed at the non-wealthy, who are very likely to spend the extra money that tax cuts free up and thus give a strong boost to the economy. And yet, Buchanan points out, all we have seen from Congress, over the past year, has been a series of contractionary approaches. Buchanan examines the case for invoking “expansionary austerity” in America now, and finds it sorely lacking when tested against the relevant evidence—as found in the recent and past experiences of America and of other nations. He concludes, based on this evidence, that “expansionary austerity” is simply a pipe dream.
Justia columnist, George Washington law professor, and economist Neil Buchanan takes very strong issue with the claim, often made by conservatives now, that the rich pay more than their share of taxes. In particular, Buchanan rebuts the common claim that Social Security and Medicare taxes—the taxes that fall most heavily on lower- and middle-income Americans—are somehow not really taxes at all. Buchanan points out that the overall federal tax code is only mildly progressive, and that state and local taxes are regressive, falling more heavily on the poor. And overall, he notes, rich and poor alike pay roughly the same percentage of their incomes in taxes each year—reflecting, rather than reversing, income inequality. Finally, Buchanan notes that conservatives take issue with calling Social Security and Medicare payments taxes, because benefits will be paid out down the line, but he presents several strong arguments showing that their contention is misleading.
Justia columnist, George Washington law professor, and economist Neil Buchanan comments on the “Occupy Wall Street” protests. He argues that this new movement should be taken seriously, not just dismissed as a passing fancy. Accordingly, he focuses on the substance of the protesters’ complaints, finding many of their points well-founded—particularly, their points about the inequality of economic and, relatedly, political and media power in the United States. Buchanan argues that such inequalities are damaging not just to the have-nots, but also to society as a whole: Greater degrees of inequality, according to the IMF, lead to slower economic growth. Buchanan also argues that protesters are right to the extent that they are calling for re-regulation of the financial markets. And he cautions that if the “Occupy Wall Street” protesters fairly modest and reasonable proposals for re-regulation and greater social equality are ignored now, the next protest movement we see, along these lines, may be much more dangerous and troubling.
Justia columnist, George Washington law professor, and economist Neil Buchanan comments on recent Republican proposals based on the idea that tax cuts for the rich will help curb the recession. Buchanan argues that there is no support, in either economic theory, or in empirical evidence, to conclude that America’s current tax rates are hurting the economy, or that reducing tax rates for businesses and the wealthy will improve the economy and/or reduce unemployment. All such cuts would do, Buchanan contends, is make the rich richer—while also imperiling vital public services.
Justia columnist, George Washington law professor, and economist Neil Buchanan offers a detailed response to an argument that has been in the news frequently: Billionaire investor Warren Buffett has contended that those with annual incomes above one million dollars should pay significantly more in income tax, and that those with annual incomes above ten million dollars per year should pay even more than that. Many commentators, Buchanan points out, have responded to Buffett’s argument by pointing out that Buffett is free to give away his own riches to the government, if he so chooses—for instance, by foregoing tax exemptions that he would be entitled to claim. But Buchanan offers a set of strong responses to this argument, suggesting that the debate should properly focus on Buffett’s proposal, and not on Buffett himself.
Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Michael Dorf notes that many Americans have expressed disappointment in President Obama’s recent speeches. But, of course, it’s easy to criticize, and much harder to detail what the President actually should be saying. That’s exactly what Dorf does in this column—even going so far as to offer his own hypothetical stump speech for President Obama to deliver—a speech addressing tough issues like tax cuts; how, exactly, to put Americans back to work; and one key policy and legal point that Republicans and Democrats alike ought to agree upon.
Justia columnist, George Washington law professor, and economist Neil Buchanan suggests how, in the future, we can ensure that the debt limit is not, once again, used as a political weapon. He discusses three key solutions: (1) simply eliminating the debt limit via a presidential directive incorporating a Fourteenth Amendment analysis, as The New York Times suggested; (2) and following one of Yale Law professor Jack Balkin’s two suggestions, which are nicknamed “Big Coin” and “Exploding Option.” Buchanan provides background to ensure that readers fully understand each suggestion, and points out a downside to Balkin’s ideas: the public’s confidence in money and the monetary system may turn out to be fragile, if the system is experimented with.
Justia columnist, George Washington law professor, and economist Neil Buchanan continues his commentary on the debt-limit crisis and its resolution. Buchanan contends that there is little to applaud in the resolution of the crisis—for, he says, we have now embarked on a path that will only make a sick economy much sicker, and could even push the country back into recession. In light of these realities, he argues, we need to ask how we got here: How did we reach the point where both parties became committed to an economic strategy that is so detached from reality? Buchanan stresses, especially, that America should have focused on unemployment, not spending reductions.
Justia columnist and U. Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry provides important background on the United States’ debt ceiling debate, explaining exactly why the United States—unlike other countries—has only one option when the risk of sovereign default looms: self help. Ramasastry first considers how other countries typically handle sovereign default or distress, then covers the reasons why the United States’ situation is very different, and concludes by examining why there has been such a great need for Congress and President Obama to reach a resolution of this issue.
Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Michael Dorf comments on what may happen if the debt-ceiling deal that President Obama announced on Sunday, August 31, is somehow derailed—or if (as is almost certain to be the case) future Presidents face constitutional-law issues that are philosophically similar to the one President Obama may have narrowly avoided here. In discussing the debt-ceiling issue and its constitutional dimensions, Dorf describes the trilemma the President may face; raises the question whether the constitutionality of a measure must be an either/or proposition or if there are intermediate options of a measure's being, say, “very unconstitutional” or “a little unconstitutional”; and describes America’s historic hostility to balancing different constitutional values against one another.
Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Michael Dorf weighs in on the debate over whether Senator Mitch McConnell’s plan to prevent the federal government from defaulting on its obligations is constitutional. Dorf explains McConnell’s plan and analyzes three possible constitutional objections to it, concluding that none of these objections is, in the end, persuasive. Indeed, Dorf suggests that the more closely one looks at the plan, the more clear it is that it should be a first choice among possible solutions.
Justia columnist, George Washington law professor, and economist Neil Buchanan responds to a recent New York Times editorial by Laurence Tribe regarding the constitutionality of the federal government's debt ceiling. Tribe contended that the limit is constitutional; Buchanan contends that it is not. In his column, Buchanan summarizes and responds to Tribe's arguments regarding the key constitutional provision at issue, the Public Debt Clause.
Justia columnist, George Washington University law professor, and economist Neil H. Buchanan comments on the current situation regarding the federal debt limit, considers how it could be resolved, and notes that President Obama could take a constitutional stand in order to resolve the impasse. Buchanan begins by explaining for readers what the debt limit is and why it is important now; explains why the debt-limit law that set the ceiling was never necessary in the first place; describes the potentially very grave consequences of passing the debt-limit ceiling with that law in place, as it is now; and contends that our current game of political “chicken” regarding the debt limit is dangerous indeed. He then describes a possible constitutional solution that President Obama could opt for, based on arguments that the debt limit is illegitimate and void as a matter of constitutional law. Finally, Buchanan explains why, even if the debt limit were to be removed from the picture, an underlying, related problem with the political process would still remain.