Is the Great Stagnation Over?

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Cowen cautioned that many technological advances would doubtlessly improve human welfare but still might not show up in U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) and productivity statistics. For example, the new plug-and-play vaccine platforms may well result in highly effective vaccines for malaria and HIV, and that would be a huge boon for millions of people living in poor countries, but those benefits would be unlikely to show up U.S. GDP per capita statistics. He also pointed out that the recent significant advances in green energy production are occurring chiefly as a way to avoid the possible catastrophe of man-made climate change. Because climate change is a hidden counterfactual, replacing fossil fuels with solar, wind, and batteries would not necessarily lead people to feel as though their standard of living had risen.

Strain countered that the toll that infectious disease takes on the stunting of talents and skills in poor countries would be greatly ameliorated by rolling out cheap effective vaccines now made possible by messenger RNA technology. Over a longer time horizon, the U.S. and the rest of the world would significantly benefit from efflorescence of invention and entrepreneurship arising in regions whose development is held back by prevalent plagues.

Author(s): Ronald Bailey

Publication Date: 7 April 2021

Publication Site: Reason

Biden Said His Tax Hikes Would Only Affect the Rich. He Can’t Keep That Promise.

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It’s time for the Democrats who elect presidents that promise not to jack up taxes on anybody but the rich to come to terms with something: These politicians can’t continue to spend that much money without raising taxes on nearly everyone, and that includes some regressive taxes. I don’t like it, since I’d prefer the size and scope of government to be significantly smaller—but this reality is not optional.

Here’s another reason why Biden was never going to be able to keep his promise: He already announced his intention to increase the corporate income tax from the current 21 percent to 28 percent. The reality here is that the corporations that he says are going to send bigger checks to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) after the tax hike aren’t the ones who actually shoulder this heavier tax burden.

Author(s): Veronique de Rugy

Publication Date: 1 April 2021

Publication Site: Reason

After $1.9 Trillion Spending Hike, Biden Is Planning $3 Trillion in New Spending

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The numbers here are simply staggering. Consider the fact that in 2019, the last full budget year before the pandemic, the federal government spent a grand total of $4.4 trillion. Combined with the bill that already passed in March, this plan represents nearly $5 trillion in new spending.

Though the specifics of the proposal are in flux, it seems to bear some similarities to the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan (ARP) that Biden signed into law earlier this month. That bill was ostensibly a COVID-19 relief measure, but only a small percentage of the money was actually directed toward dealing with the pandemic. The upcoming $3 trillion package will be called an infrastructure bill, but the Times says only about $1 trillion would be directed toward such traditional infrastructure items as roads, bridges, ports, and improvements to the electric grid.

Author(s): Eric Boehm

Publication Date: 22 March 2021

Publication Site: Reason

Rising costs of CalSTRS debt takes money from students, classrooms

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The California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS) recently reported a 26 percent increase in early teacher retirements in the second half of 2020 relative to the previous year. CalSTRS officials suggest that the COVID-19-driven spike in retirements will not affect the pension plan’s long-term solvency. But even if that holds true, CalSTRS is currently only 66 percent funded and has $100 billion in unfunded benefits. The costs associated with paying off this pension debt are skyrocketing and siphoning hundreds of millions of dollars from classrooms each year.

Like many states, California has made decades of legally ironclad promises to teachers regarding retirement benefits that, for a variety of reasons, have become massively underfunded.  The most notable factors contributing to growing debt are underperforming investments, inaccurate actuarial assumptions, and politicians’ longstanding preference to spend money on sexier things than retirement plans. When a public pension plan accrues debt, states and school districts need to start paying down that debt in addition to covering the normal operating costs associated with pensions. While California’s ledger would indicate it has been making pension debt payments, CalSTRS funding has only gotten worse over the last decade.

Author(s): LEONARD GILROY and ZACHARY CHRISTENSEN

Publication Date: 5 March 2021

Publication Site: Orange County Register

How to Spend Stimulus Money to Reduce State and Local Retiree Health Care Debt

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In some cases, state and local governments show net OPEB liabilities, which is the total amount of benefits already promised to retirees, as large or larger than their net pension liabilities. Although the total future cost of retiree health care benefits is smaller than pension benefits, which are intended to replace income, most governments have at least partially prefunded their pension benefits while setting aside little or no money to cover their future OPEB costs. This is often attributable to the strong legal protections granted to public pensions but that largely do not extend to OPEB benefit promises made to workers in most places. Nonetheless, by failing to set aside funds for retiree health benefits as employees accrue them, government employers are burdening future taxpayers with growing debt. The size of the problem is also raising doubts among prospective retirees about whether the benefits promised to them will really be there when they retire.

In this post, I consider two potential strategies for using the temporary increase in governments’ fiscal capacity to address unfunded other post-employment benefit liabilities: (1) prefunding and reforming defined retiree healthcare benefits, and (2) switching employees to defined contribution retiree health care benefits.

Author(s): Marc Joffe

Publication Date: 12 March 2021

Publication Site: Reason

Pausing AstraZeneca COVID-19 Shots Is a Bad Risk/Benefit Call

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Last week Austria, Norway, Denmark, and Iceland all suspended the administration of the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine, citing reports of blood clots occurring in a few folks who had been inoculated with it. Ireland, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Thailand, and the Netherlands have now joined them.

“There is no causal effect established or anything like that yet,” Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin told CNBC, “but as a precautionary move in line with the precautionary principle and in an abundance of caution, our clinical advice was to pause the program whilst the EMA does a review of this.”

The precautionary principle is an ideological construct that eschews risk-benefit evaluations and essentially requires that all new technologies be somehow proved entirely risk-free before they can be used.

Author(s): Ronald Bailey

Publication Date: 15 March 2021

Publication Site: Reason

State Revenue Is ‘Virtually Flat.’ Local Government Revenue Is Up Slightly. Congress Wants To Give Them $350 Billion Anyway.

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Indeed, an analysis from the National Taxpayers Union’s Andrew Lautz has found that when accounting for states’ rainy day funds and steady revenues, only about $6 to $16 billion (not the proposed $195 billion) would be needed to make those governments whole.

Lautz also argues it’s inappropriate to divvy up money to states based only on their number of unemployed residents, given that the jobless are already receiving targeted benefits and that those benefits are themselves helping to prop up states’ tax revenues.

“Individuals who want a job and don’t have one are certainly struggling right now, but the [$900 billion] December bill and the proposed COVID-19 relief package support them with a $300 or $400 per week boost to their regular unemployment benefits,” writes Lautz. “The $600-per-week benefit from the CARES Act helped prevent major state revenue dropoffs in part because it allowed unemployed people to continue spending at rates similar to before they lost their jobs.”

Author(s): CHRISTIAN BRITSCHGI

Publication Date: 8 March 2021

Publication Site: Reason

Despite Its Much Stricter COVID-19 Policies, California’s Per Capita Death Rate Is Only Slightly Lower Than Florida’s

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According to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the infection fatality rate for Americans who are 70 or older is something like 5.4 percent, compared to 0.5 percent for 50-to-69-year-olds, 0.02 percent for 20-to-49-year-olds, and 0.003 percent for people younger than 20. In other words, the risk for the oldest age group is 11 times the risk for the next oldest, 270 times the risk for 20-to-49-year-olds, and 1,800 times the risk for the youngest cohort.

Yet Los Angeles Times reporters Soumya Karlamanga and Rong-Gong Lin II, citing University of Florida epidemiologist Cindy Prins, write that “Florida’s older population might have, perhaps counterintuitively, prevented the virus from spreading as quickly as it did in California.” How so? “Young adults who socialize and mingle, either at work or in social settings, tend to spread the virus the most while older people are more cautious and stay home.”

Florida, of course, is a mecca for college students on spring break, whose socializing and mingling provided ammunition for critics of DeSantis’ alleged recklessness. And despite the relative timidity of elderly Americans, they account for more than four-fifths of COVID-19 deaths in the United States. Nursing homes alone account for more than a quarter of the total death toll.

Author(s): Jacob Sullum

Publication Date: 10 March 2021

Publication Site: Reason

Federal COVID-19 Bailout Prohibits States From Cutting Taxes

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Since the federal government is giving states money that they don’t need, there are two things state lawmakers can do: Use the federal money to grow government spending or pass that extra cash along to taxpayers by lowering their tax burdens.

However, the Senate inserted language in the American Rescue Plan expressly telling states that they “shall not use the funds provided…to either directly or indirectly offset a reduction in the net tax revenue,” or do anything that “reduces any tax (by providing for a reduction in a rate, a rebate, a deduction, a credit, or otherwise) or delays the imposition of any tax or tax increase.”

That same section of the bill also bans states from depositing the federal bailout into their public pension funds. That’s probably a good idea, but it’s pretty ironic considering that the American Rescue Plan also contains a completely indefensible bailout of some private-sector pension funds run by labor unions.

Author(s): Eric Boehm

Publication Date: 10 March 2021

Publication Site: Reason

Cuomo’s Office Covered Up Nursing Home Death Toll Last Summer

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Cuomo aides kept nursing home death numbers quiet. A damning new report from The New York Times suggests Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office knew as early as last June how deadly the governor’s plans were proving for nursing home residents, but still concealed this information from the public.

Early in the pandemic, Cuomo had ordered that nursing homes could not reject patients from returning to those facilities after testing positive for COVID-19 and being hospitalized. He also barred the deaths of COVID-19 patients transferred from nursing homes to hospitals after catching the virus from being counted among nursing home COVID-19 deaths.

Author(s): ELIZABETH NOLAN BROWN

Publication Date: 5 March 2021

Publication Site: Reason

Detroit Mayor Is Wrong To Turn Down J&J COVID-19 Vaccines

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The Detroit Free Press reports that the mayor declined to accept a shipment of 6,200 doses of the Johnson & Johnson one-shot vaccine. Why? At a press conference on Tuesday, the mayor asserted, “Johnson & Johnson is a very good vaccine. Moderna and Pfizer are the best. And I am going to do everything I can to make sure the residents of the city of Detroit get the best.”

What does the mayor mean by “best”? Duggan stated, “The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are 95% effective if you get two shots. Johnson & Johnson is one shot, which is nicer, but it’s about 67% effective.”

Actually, in the United States arm of the Johnson & Johnson (J&J) clinical trial, the vaccine’s ability to prevent moderate to severe infection was 72 percent and it is 85 percent effective at preventing severe disease.In addition, the J&J vaccine has been shown to be effective against the new, more contagious COVID-19 variants that are now spreading across the country. And it is likely that many citizens would prefer the convenience of getting a one-and-done J&J shot as opposed to waiting nearly a month to get a second Moderna or Pfizer/BioNTech shot.

Author(s): Ronald Bailey

Publication Date: 5 March 2021

Publication Site: Reason

Montana Teacher Retirement System Pension Solvency Analysis

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Excerpt:

The latest analysis by the Pension Integrity Project at Reason Foundation, updated this month (February 2021), shows that deviations from the plan’s investment return assumptions have been the largest contributor to the unfunded liability, adding $897 million since 2002. The analysis also shows that failing to meet investment targets will likely be a problem for TRS going forward, as projections reveal the pension plan has roughly a 50 percent chance of meeting their 7.5 percent assumed rate of investment return in both the short and long term.

In recent years TRS has also made necessary adjustments to various actuarial assumptions, exposing over $400 million in previously unrecognized unfunded liabilities. The overall growth in unfunded liabilities has driven Montana’s pension benefit costs higher while crowding out other education spending priorities in the state, like classroom programming and teacher pay raises.

The chart below, from the full solvency analysis, shows the increase in the Montana Teacher Retirement System’s debt since 2002:

Author(s): Jen Sidorova, Swaroop Bhagavatula, Steven Gassenberger, Leonard Gilroy

Publication Date: 1 March 2021

Publication Site: Reason