Tag Archives: housing

Taxscam 101 Part One — Satisfy the 1% and Soak the Rest of Us

I think it’s safe to assume that Representative Mark Amodei (R-NV2) will be supporting the House Republican version of the Tax Cut Cut Cut… the last three words indicating what will happen for corporations, not what average Nevada income earners can expect from the proposal.  USA Today has a preliminary summation of some deductions INDIVIDUALS and FAMILIES won’t be able to use, that increase in the standard deduction is supposed to make up for this?   USA Today’s points are listed below, in red font.

Adoption: A tax credit worth up to $13,750 per child would end.  It’s a little hard to explain this one, given the GOP “pro-life” stance. It’s even harder to understand when the average cost for an adoption (2012-2013) was $39,996 using an adoption agency and $34,093 for an “independent” adoption. [AmAdopt]  Eliminating the tax credit to alleviate the impact of these expenses seems a strange way of encouraging couples to adopt children in need of permanent homes.

Alimony: To eliminate what Ways and Means Committee documents referred to as a “divorce subsidy,” alimony would no longer be deductible by the payor for decrees issued after 2017. Payments would be excluded from the recipient’s income.  I’m not at all certain that rebranding alimony as a “divorce subsidy” encourages support for single parents? This would also seem to make it all the more difficult for a parent to make child support payments?

Classroom costs: Teachers could no longer write off the cost of supplies they buy.  The reality is that not so long ago school districts kept supplies from pencils to facial tissues on hand; today these items (along with hand sanitizer) end up on lists of items parents are expected to purchase when the school year begins.  What isn’t subsidized by parents whose children are enrolled in cash strapped districts is usually purchased by teachers, to the tune of an average of $500 per teacher per year, with some teachers spending much more. [CNN money]  It’s been reasonably obvious Republicans aren’t great friends of public school teachers — but this suggestion is a direct slap at teacher’s own bank accounts.

College boosters: Sports fans would no longer be able to deduct 80% of the cost of donations to colleges if they are made only to become eligible to buy seats for games or get preferences such as prime parking spots.  The University of Minnesota isn’t sure what will happen to its program in light of this proposal, and universities in Nevada probably aren’t either.   UNLV and UNR both use booster donations to support their athletic scholarship funds. Perhaps lost in this controversial proposal is the notion that scholarship funds are, in most cases, not limited to a particular program but also support our “Olympic Sports.”  Donors to UNR and UNLV athletic funds might want to ask Representative Amodei why he might be in favor of this Republican plan.

Disaster losses: Currently, losses from theft or events such as flood, fire or tornado that exceed 10% of adjusted gross income are deductible. The bill would repeal that deduction, with one exception — disasters given special treatment by a prior act of Congress. A law enacted Sept. 29 increased the deduction for losses caused by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, and it was sponsored by Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas. Brady, the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, is also sponsoring the tax overhaul.  How interesting — the plan doesn’t affect those battered by “Harvey” in Texas — but Florida, Puerto Rico, and others it’s YOYO time as far as the Republicans are concerned.  Since when do we, as a nation, not give people a break when they’ve lost everything, or nearly everything in a natural disaster?

Employee achievement awards: Complicated rules that allowed some cash awards from employers to be tax-free to the worker would become taxable.  Another interesting point — corporations can expect a big tax cuts, but employees earning cash awards from those corporations would be required to pay taxes on these kinds of achievement awards.

Employer-provided housing: Rules allowing for some workers to get housing and meals tax-free from their employers would face a new cap of $50,000, and benefits would be phased out for those earning more than $120,000.  So, if the employer has you (and perhaps your family) parked in “West Moose Bay” where groceries have to be flown in, and “housing” is only provided by the corporation — the subsidy is taxable?  And we haven’t even mentioned that Section 1310 eliminates moving expenses. (pdf)

Home sale gains: Right now, the gain on the sale of a home is not taxable if it is under $500,000 for joint filers as long as the home was the owner’s primary residence for two of the previous five years. New rules would require a home to be the primary home for five of the past eight years to qualify, and the income exclusion would be phased out for taxpayers with incomes over $500,000.  I suppose we can kiss the Bush Administration’s emphasis on home ownership goodbye? Little wonder there’s opposition to this proposal from the housing industry — and from those who construct homes as well. There’s more from USA Today on the topic of housing at this link.

Major medical costs: The decision to eliminate the deduction for medical expenses exceeding 7.5% of adjusted gross income was one of the bill’s “tough calls,” Brady said Friday. “The call is this: Do we want a tax code that has special provisions that you may need once in your life, or do we want a tax code that lowers rates every year of your life?” he said.  This may take the prize for lame explanations — ever.  Consider for a moment the victims of the Las Vegas shooting, some of whom will be facing major medical expenses exceeding 7.5% of their AGI — not just now but for years to come.  The idea that we should eliminate affordable comprehensive health insurance is bad enough, but this notion is downright heinous.  And, this from those who want to cut Medicare and Medicaid?

And this isn’t all — there are more atrocities in the USA Today article, and more specifics in the Ways and Means Committee summary of the bill.  (pdf)

Not to put too fine a point to it, but this bill, which will most likely be supported by Representative Amodei, could have been drafted by accountants and tax lawyers for major corporations and the top 1% of American income owners — to be paid for by those who are working in everyday jobs, who have to move to find employment, who are adoptive parents, who are victims of natural disasters, who are facing major medical expenses…

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Filed under Amodei, income tax, Nevada politics, Politics, tax revenue, Taxation

Happy Fourth of July: A More Perfect Union

Flag July 4th

It’s a good 4th of July weekend.  The benefits of citizenship have been affirmed for members of the LGBT community, but as the founders told us we’re on a path to create “a more perfect union.”  Therefore, there’s more work to be done to insure that housing, employment, and other areas of American life aren’t stumbling blocks of discrimination. We will have to keep up efforts toward building that “more perfect” union.

Ravenal Bridge

There may be some dead-enders, some battle flag flying remnants of blatant racism, but no matter how hard the Klan and their allies try, their proposed demonstration will be nothing compared to the thousands who walked along the Ravenal Bridge in Charleston, South Carolina.  We’re closer to being a nation of people who are taking Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s message to heart:

“When evil men plot, good men must plan.  When evil men burn and bomb, good men must build and bind.  When evil men shout ugly words of hatred, good men must commit themselves to the glories of love. “

At least two churches in the south have been the target of recent arson attacks, so in order to form that more perfect union it’s time for people of good will to build and bind.   It’s been a long walk from the bridge in Selma to the bridge in Charleston, but we’re getting there.  We still have to acknowledge the often painful accuracy of Winston Churchill’s backhanded compliment, “You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing, after they’ve tried everything else.”  

In a more perfect union, we’d not have maps showing that a person earning minimum wages cannot achieve a point at which only 30% of his income can pay for a one bedroom apartment.

Rent map

The darker the blue the worse the problem.  We’ll have a more perfect union when we address the complications of living on inadequate wages.  It does no good to march behind banners proclaiming that hard working Americans should “save for the future,” – when simply meeting basic needs for food, housing, and adequate clothing consume all the family’s income. It takes us no closer to a more perfect union to proclaim, “if the poor would just work harder they’d get ahead,” when elements of our judicial system, parts of our educational system, and the myopia of commerce combine to force workers into multiple jobs at minimal wages.  We are no closer to forming a more perfect union when we reward those who prosper at the expense of those who produce.

Unassisted graph

In a more perfect union this graph would be significantly lower.  How do we care for the least able among us? The learning disabled young man with nerve damage, but not quite enough to meet disability standards?  Unmarried, with no dependent children, unemployed except for odd jobs paying about $10 per hour?  A victim of child abuse, and now a victim of a system in which he doesn’t qualify for benefits because he’s never been able to find employment which sustains them. [Reuters]

We’ll be a more perfect union when we are more aware that the able-bodied are not necessarily able to fully function in our modern economy.  In a more perfect union there is more educational, job, housing, and food support for those who live on the margins of despair.

I look to the diffusion of light and education as the resource most to be relied on for ameliorating the condition, promoting the virtue and advancing the happiness of man.” Thomas Jefferson to Cornelius Blatchly, October 1822

And yet:

“About seven in 10 (69%) college seniors who graduated from public and private nonprofit colleges in 2013 had student loan debt. These borrowers owed an average of $28,400, up two percent compared to $27,850 for public and nonprofit graduates in 2012.   About one-fifth (19%) of the  Class of 2013’s debt was comprised of private loans, which are typically more costly and provide fewer consumer protections and repayment options than safer federal loans.”  [TICAS]

In a more perfect union, education advances the “happiness of man,” not merely the bottom line of banking institutions, and certainly not the unrestrained avarice of some for-profit operations who once having the federal funds in hand look to more recruitment without much concern for those already recruited.

And, then – predictably – there’s the Wall Street Casino, which has created SLABS (Student Loan Asset Based Securities).  While certainly not in the mortgage meltdown class, these are problematic because:

“What I find most disturbing about SLABS is that they create a system where an increase in tuition (and the debt-burden on the borrower) equals an increased profit for the investor. When you consider the role that unscrupulous speculators played in the mortgage crisis, one can’t help but wonder if a similar over-valuation of college tuition is taking place for the benefit of SLABS investors. With the cost of attending college increasing nearly 80% between 2003-2013 while wages have decreased, it’s no wonder that so many people are having difficulty paying off their student loans.” [MDA]

This situation is NOT the way to “diffuse light and education.”

There are countless other topics and issues on which we might dwell, assistance for the elderly, transportation, trade, economic security, police and community relations, infrastructure issues, voting rights,  domestic terrorism, domestic violence, gun violence, climate change … the list is  as long as the population rolls, as we try to create that more perfect union of imperfect human beings.

What we need is Churchill’s optimism – that eventually, after avoiding problems, exacerbating problems, tinkering with problems – we’ll do the right thing.

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Filed under banking, civil liberties, education, financial regulation, Global warming, homelessness, income inequality, Minimum Wage, poverty, racism

Ryan’s Time Wasting Titivation

salchowThe latest version of the House GOP budget proposal in Congress looks very much like previous renditions — lower the tax rates for the top 0.1% of American income earners, and replace the current Medicare program with a coupon/voucher plan. [TPM]   “Re-litigation” comes to mind.   The curious part comes as Representative Ryan, who vilified the $716 billion in savings in the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) during the last presidential election, now incorporates those same savings into his budget proposal — while calling for the repeal of the ACA which contains those savings…  This rhetorical contortion looks less like a 360° turn and more like a quadruple salchow.  [more at Business Insider]

Former House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi, called the scheme “fuzzy math and budget gimmicks.” [TPM] The point of this budget exercise, is not really to address the long term stabilization of U.S. indebtedness — it IS an exercise in sophomoric political economy; simplistic in form and regressive in nature. Ezra Klein nails it:

“Ryan’s budget is intended to do nothing less than fundamentally transform the relationship between Americans and their government. That, and not deficit reduction, is its real point, as it has been Ryan’s real point throughout his career.”

Or, more specifically:

“Here is Paul Ryan’s path to a balanced budget in three sentences: He cuts deep into spending on health care for the poor and some combination of education, infrastructure, research, public-safety, and low-income programs. The Affordable Care Act’s Medicare cuts remain, but the military is spared, as is Social Security. There’s a vague individual tax reform plan that leaves only two tax brackets — 10 percent and 25 percent — and will require either huge, deficit-busting tax cuts or increasing taxes on poor and middle-class households, as well as a vague corporate tax reform plan that lowers the rate from 35 percent to 25 percent.”  (emphasis added)

Now, why would those be “vague?”  First, it is much easier to dodge criticism of a proposal when the details aren’t available.  Offering a “vague” proposition allows for the “I didn’t really mean that” rationalization when push comes to the inevitable shove.  Secondly, when the arithmetic is fuzzy the extrapolations, of necessity, must also grow furry. What should give the audience room for some trepidation is that this offering from Representative Ryan isn’t the first time he’s run this flag up the pole.  Why could not more rational, detailed, and precise numbers be provided as the budget plan moves through its various incarnations?

The answer may very well be that he can’t be more precise without (a) offending major segments of the electorate, and/or (b) demonstrating that the numbers simply don’t add up to what he is claiming for his project.

In Representative Ryan’s blinkered vision of America, government is more to be feared than the level of indebtedness [Ezra Klein] but this ideological perspective obfuscates the very real role our government plays in this mixed economy.   Programs which provide automatic stabilizers in the economy to mitigate the impact of business cycle volatility, and those which provide citizens with opportunities to increase their standards of living have an impact across the economic spectrum.

CBPP concludes:

“As policymakers embark on the necessary work of further reducing long-term budget deficits, their approach could have important consequences for tens of millions of low- and moderate-income Americans.  If policymakers take an even-handed approach, one that combines spending cuts with an adequate mix of new revenues, they can reduce deficits without increasing poverty and the ranks of the uninsured or weakening efforts to ensure that children have more opportunity to succeed in the classroom and later in the labor market.  If, however, policymakers cut deeply into programs that assist low-income individuals and families, we will likely see more poverty and hardship as well as fewer paths to opportunity.”

The essential problem with perceiving government as a threat to “freedom” is that those programs which keep people from becoming dependent on government assistance in the long run, are those which the Meat Cleaver Republicans would assert in the first wave of cuts in the short term.

For example,  there are significant omissions in Ryan’s latest offering:

“It won’t create jobs this year, and will likely cost jobs in the years to come by putting the economy on a steep austerity ramp. There’s no housing policy for the millions of families in foreclosure and no way to read Ryan’s budget without assuming massive cuts to student-loans programs. That may mean fewer families watching student loans pile up, but only because they didn’t get any in the first place.” [Klein WaPo]

Jobs?  Jobs generate income, income generates both consumer spending and tax revenue.  The impetus may come from federal spending, but the results would be seen initially in local economies.  Paychecks get spent on housing, clothing, groceries, and transportation.  A family with an income sufficient to support the purchase of an automobile generates not only good numbers for the automobile manufacturers, but pays state sales taxes on the purchase, pays gasoline taxes to keep the beast running, and pays license fees to keep highways operating functionally.

Housing?  The “housing market” is a mid-stream economic activity.  Building a housing unit, whether detached or communal, requires raw materials, manufactured materials, and financing.  In short, housing is in the midst of the economic stream of activity, and as we discovered to our collective horror in 2007 when things start to go badly in this milieu the ripples can become tsunamic.  That there is not even a passing nod given to the issues associated with current housing market fragility and the continuing foreclosure issues in Representative Ryan’s budget ought to be demonstrative of his detachment from real economic forces at work.

Foreclosed properties wreak havoc on the homeowners, bring down housing values in neighborhoods, cause a loss in property tax revenue for local governments, and create law enforcement issues where abandoned properties are all too prevalent.  One might have thought that Representative Ryan would at least given cursory acknowledgement to the issues associated with the housing market in his budget priorities?

Education?  There is a link between income, unemployment, and education.

Educations Pays

If we truly want to move people out of poverty, or up the economic ladder, the graph above from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows how the rungs of that ladder are constructed.  Note that when the graph was drafted the national unemployment rate was 14.1% for those with less than a high school diploma, but only 6.8% for those with an associates’ degree.  If we look to the more recent numbers the picture doesn’t change much.

The February 2013 unemployment rate for those with a high school diploma stood at 7.9%; for those with an associates’ degree or some college the unemployment rate was 6.7%.  Those holding a college degree experienced an unemployment rate of 3.8%.  [BLS]

Given this information it would seem logical to conclude that if we want to improve the overall health of the American economy it would be seemly to enhance the opportunities for education, especially post-secondary educational programs.  That’s not what Representative Ryan and his Republican colleagues have on offer:

Ryan would stop increasing the size of Pell Grants to adjust for inflation. Instead, they would stay at the current level, $5,645, for 10 years. Ryan would also change the way the government calculates how much a student’s family is expected to pay to make it less generous.”  [Atlantic]  …

Ryan’s proposal doesn’t spend much time on a key reason Pell Grant awards have increased: rising education costs. Average costs for a four-year institution have risen 250% since 1980 and nearly doubled in the last 20 years. Pell Grant allocations have increased rapidly over the last decade — but that increase isn’t tied to the change for education costs.” [Atlantic]

Education is a labor intensive occupation.  The process can be assisted with technology, but since time out of mind the means by which human beings transmit knowledge — vocational, cultural, economic, etc. — is from human being to human being.  As states cut funding to educational institutions the colleges, tech schools, and universities raised tuition and fees to the “customers.”  The greater the increase in fees, the greater the problem for middle class parents who want to see their offspring move up the educational (and economic) ladder.   Young people are asked to take on a staggering amount of indebtedness to earn a degree, which in turn limits their capacity to participate more fully in the economic life of this nation.  Too much student loan debt means more difficulty purchasing a vehicle, or much of anything else.

The bottom line is that Representative Ryan has simply re-cycled his political document, with its ideological baggage and called it a budget.  While it’s an improvement over the Republican budget document which arrived without numbers in 2009, it’s still an homage to Ayn Rand and her Cult of Selfishness…and very little else, except time wasting titivation.

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Filed under Economy, Federal budget, tax revenue, Taxation

Republican YOYO Home Economics: Medicaid Slashed, Other Support Burned

Former President Clinton advised the delegates to the 2012 Democratic Convention to listen carefully to what the Republicans were offering in regard to Medicaid, and those of us in Nevada should be “listening with both ears.”  Here’s the description of the Medicaid program as stated by the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services, the program:

“Provides health care coverage for many people including low income families with children whose family income is at or below 133% percent of poverty, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) recipients, certain Medicare beneficiaries, and recipients of adoption assistance, foster care and some children aging out of foster care. The DHCFP also operates five Home or Community-Based Services waivers offered to certain persons throughout the state. The Division of Welfare and Supportive Services (DWSS) determines eligibility for the Medicaid program.”

Listing those categories focuses on the aims of the program — it is to serve (1) low income families with children; (2) elderly Nevadans; (3) low income Nevadans over 65 years of age; (4) families receiving assistance for adopted children; (5) children in foster care.  Who was enrolled in Nevada’s Medicaid program as of fiscal year 2009:

What services were provided to those enrolled in Nevada’s Medicaid program?

During fiscal year 2010, 68.1% of the spending from the Medicaid program went for acute care, 25.6% was allocated for long term care, and 6.3% was used for “disproportionate care – hospital payments.”

The spending for long term care breaks down as illustrated in the following chart:

11.1% of the long term care funding was allocated to facilities for the intellectually disabled, 2.9% went to services for the mentally ill — and notice — 86% was used to provide home health & personal care, and nursing facility care.  In other words, 86% of Nevada’s Medicaid expenses for long term care went toward serving those least able to care for themselves.  The other 14% was used to provide intermediate and long term care for those unable to care for themselves because of intellectual limits or mental illness.

Here is exactly why President Clinton told his audience to “listen up:”

My view is get the federal government out of Medicaid, get it out of health care. Return it to the states.” – Romney, South Carolina GOP Primary Debate, Jan. 20, 2012.

In case anyone is remotely confused about what that statement from the former Massachusetts Governor means, he’s speaking about transforming the Medicaid program into Block Grants.

More specifically, the former Governor is adopting the block grant proposal for Medicaid set forth in his running mate’s “Path to Prosperity” budget plan:

“The plan also would repeal health system reform law provisions that will expand Medicaid coverage starting in 2014. Instead, states would receive block grants, which would free states “to tailor their Medicaid programs to the unique needs of their own populations,” the budget says.”  [AMA]

The tailoring is to be done with less cloth:

The Ryan budget would cut $2.4 trillion from Medicaid and other health programs. Reduced spending would increase the number of uninsured dramatically, Park* said. “Those who retain coverage will have benefits scaled back and have higher cost-sharing.” [AMA] (emphasis added)

We can drill down further into what Governor Romney and Representative Ryan have in mind for the Medicaid program by looking at the Congressional Budget Office’s analysis of the Ryan position:  Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP)—from 2 percent of GDP in 2011 to 1¼ percent in 2030 and 1 percent in 2050.

Now is the moment to recall that 58% of those who receive Medicaid assistance for their health care needs in Nevada are children, and the AAP isn’t thrilled at cuts to that constituency:

“American Academy of Pediatrics President Robert W. Block, MD, said the proposal would undo investments in health programs for children. More than half of Medicaid recipients are children, but their care accounts for up to only one-quarter of the program’s costs.

“Whether considering fiscal year 2013 federal spending bills or reviewing long-term budget proposals, Congress must seize this opportunity to invest in the future of our country by protecting children’s health,” Dr. Block said.” [AMA]

Dr. Block has reason to be concerned, if we return to the Congressional Budget Office’s analysis we can see why.  In two paragraphs from their analysis of the Ryan “Path” the non-partisan office explains why the proposal would make deep cuts, and place greater burdens on the states:

“The specified path (Ryan Plan) would cause federal spending on Medicaid and CHIP to decline relative to GDP in coming decades, rather than to rise sharply as in the other policy scenarios that CBO has analyzed, and would include no exchange subsidies (see Figure 3). As a result, by 2050, such spending would be 76 percent below what would occur for Medicaid, CHIP, and exchange subsidies under the baseline scenario and 78 percent below what would occur under the alternative fiscal scenario. Because spending on CHIP and exchange subsidies represents a relatively small share of the amounts in the baseline and alternative fiscal scenarios, most of the reduction would have to come from the Medicaid program.” [CBO] (emphasis added)

The Republicans do, indeed seem serious about eliminating Medicaid as a federal program and shifting the expenses for health care access to low income elderly, the disabled, the intellectually disabled, elders in nursing facilities, and children in poverty to the states.  The CBO explains the nature of this shift:

The responses of the states would be of particular importance. If states were given additional flexibility to allocate federal funds for Medicaid and CHIP according to their own priorities, they might be able to improve the efficiency of those programs in delivering health care to low-income populations. Nevertheless, even with significant efficiency gains, the magnitude of the reduction in spending relative to such spending in the other scenarios means that states would need to increase their spending on these programs, make considerable cutbacks in them, or both. Cutbacks might involve reduced eligibility for Medicaid and CHIP, coverage of fewer services, lower payments to providers, or increased cost-sharing by beneficiaries—all of which would reduce access to care. (emphasis added)

Translation: Even if the states were able to achieve all the vaunted efficiencies a “flexible” plan might provide — the cuts proposed are so deep and so drastic that citizens in the United States who are lower income elderly or the disabled in nursing homes, and those who are low income and living in foster care, or families in poverty — would have reduced access to care. Period.

These aren’t generic numbers and pie in the sky statistics we’re talking about, we’re speaking of 25,841 elderly Nevadans, 40,898 disabled Nevadans, 55,626 adult Nevadans – mostly women, and 168,070 Nevada children.

So, here’s a question for Governor Romney and Representative Ryan — If no matter how much efficiency the state of Nevada squeezes from your block grants for Medicaid, Nevada and the other states will still have to either appropriate significantly more revenue, or drastically reduce services — how is your plan anything other than a proposal to shift the burden of health care costs, for the least able among us, from the federal treasury to the state treasuries and the pockets of low income Americans?

Where, Governor Romney and Representative Ryan, does the Nevada Legislature start cutting? From the acute care services for adopted or foster children? From the acute care for pregnant women? From acute care for children in poverty who have asthma, autism, broken arms, or sprained ligaments?  From the long term care for the elderly who need home health care services and personal care to avoid institutional living?  From the long term care for the indigent mentally ill?  From elderly residents of nursing facilities?  From disabled children who need home health care? Where?

Perhaps cuts aren’t the only option. Must the Nevada government raise the eligibility standards such that only those living at “25%” of the official federal poverty level can receive assistance?  Here are the 2012 guidelines from the Department of Health and Human Services —

How much more should a family of four living on $1,920.83 per month  have to pay for basic health care?  How much more should a young man and his pregnant wife living on $1,260.83 per month have to pay for pre-natal care, and expenses associated with the birth of their first child?  For a political party which lauds its “Pro-Life” stance — asking low income families to dig deeper to pay for health care to make up for federal and state budget issues (while proposing more tax cuts for the top 1% of American income earners), makes it sound as though the GOP is the Pro-Birth, not Pro-Life party.

How much more should a young family have to pay for health care before the cost of health care begins to impinge on the capacity to put a roof over their heads?

Or their ability to put food on the table?  It’s likely going to cost our young family with two children under the ages of 19 approximately $366.40 to $578.40 per month to keep everyone fed. [USDA] Our hypothetical family might be lucky to have $764.43 per month remaining after housing and food for utilities, clothing, transportation costs (auto payments or bus fare) — that $764.43 translates to about $25.48 per day to cover ALL the basic family needs listed previously… including Health Care.  But wait, the Romney/Ryan budget cuts nutrition assistance too, drawing fire from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops:

“Cuts to nutrition programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) will hurt hungry children, poor families, vulnerable seniors and workers who cannot find employment. These cuts are unjustified and wrong.” [The Hill]

And what other program do the Republicans fantasize about turning into a Block Grant Program and then cutting?  Housing subsidies. [TO.org]  There was some discussion of the Ryan proposal on this topic at the March 21, 2012 House Budget Committee hearing:

“Rep. David Price (D-NC) asked Donovan what the implication of the Ryan budget cuts would be on HUD programs such as public housing, Choice Neighborhoods, HOME and others.  Donovan responded that, under the proposed Ryan budget, approximately one million households could lose their housing.  Of the one million households at risk under the Ryan budget, Donovan estimated that 585 thousand would come from the Housing Choice Voucher Program, 425 thousand from the Project-Based Voucher Program, and 110-180 thousand from homeless assistance programs.  He also mentioned that an estimated 17 thousand jobs would be lost from CDBG, and cuts to the HOME program would mean tens of thousands of new affordable housing units would not be built.”  [CLPHA] (emphasis added)

So, no help for financially fragile families for health care, or housing, or food — or anything, but tax payers in the top 1% of all our income brackets will get more, yet more generous, tax breaks.  Little wonder the Bishops were annoyed.  Less wonder Sister Simone Campbell from Nuns on the Bus received a standing ovation at the Democratic National Convention.

A person doesn’t have to be Roman Catholic to find the Republican proposals supported by Governor Romney and created by Representative Ryan astonishing in their parsimony and appalling in their avarice.

Perhaps one has to be incited by the fact that a family in Las Vegas might have an air-conditioner, or a DVD player, or a functional motor vehicle — “Look,” cry the miserly, “They have nice stuff, and they got it by doing nothing.” Not. So. Fast.   As of 2010 not that many Nevadans were receiving public  assistance. [Census] In fact, about 3% of Nevadans were receiving public assistance. [Census pdf]

Thus much for the Miserly Myth that “They’re all sitting around collecting welfare, and learning to be dependent on Guv’mint.”  Perhaps we should add the usual follow up, “and they’re doing it on my hard earned tax dollars.”  The latter portion is correct, we do pay taxes which support assistance programs for fragile families.  However, the Grinches among us appear to believe they are the only ones chipping in.

S’cuse me Mr. Grinch, but I really don’t mind paying a fractional portion of my income to insure NO child goes to bed hungry, NO elderly person with dementia is left alone, NO foster child is left with an untreated case of pneumonia, NO pregnant woman is without pre-natal care, NO family is homeless, NO mentally ill person is abandoned, NO disabled child is without care.

This is what Democrats mean when we say, “Just Say No.”

References and Resources:  * Edwin Park, CBPP.  Congressional Budget Office, Ryan’s Specified Paths, March 2012. (pdf) “House Republican Budget Seeks to Slow Medicare, Slash Medicaid,” American Medical Association, April 2, 2012.   Kaiser Family Foundation, State Health Facts, Database.  “Public Assistance Relief,” Census, Department of Commerce, pdf.  “HUD Secretary Defends FY13 Budget Before House Appropriators,” CLHPA.   “Four Ways Romney and Ryan Would Roll Back the 20th Century ,” Jake Blumgart, AlterNet, September 5, 2012.  “What Paul Ryan’s Budget Actually Cuts,” Brad Plumer, Washington Post, August 12, 2012.  USDA, Cost of Food Plans, Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, May 2011 (pdf).  ASPE, Department of Health and Human Services, HHS Poverty Guidelines 2012. Congressional Budget Office, “The Long-Term Budgetary Impact of Paths for Federal Revenues and Spending Specified by Chairman Ryan,” March 2012, pdf.   Kaiser Family Foundation, link to interactive database for state health care statistics.

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Filed under 2012 election, Economy, family issues, Health Care, health insurance, Medicaid, Nevada budget, Nevada child welfare, nevada health, Nevada politics, Politics, public health, Republicans, Romney

Philosophical Stuff: Mortgage Modification in Nevada and the Moral Hazard

There’s always a point at which ideology and reality meet, and if we’re seeking a rational solution to Nevada’s economic problems then reality must inevitably trump ideological concerns.  Nevada governor Sandoval is at this crossroads, and has chosen to direct his administration to explore ways to assist homeowners facing foreclosure.  [LVSun]

One of the problems with supply side “invisible hand” ideology is that it offers only a One Size Fits All to economic issues.   For example, the NPRI’s objections to Governor Sandoval’s suggestion are underpinned by the Moral Hazard argument:

“First, it’s unjust to use taxpayer dollars to subsidize the entities — the individual who can’t pay his mortgage and the bank that made or bought the loan — that are causing the problem. Now, this money is coming from the feds, so at least Sandoval isn’t spending state money. But this interference is still going to make things worse.

By financially rewarding those who are in or near foreclosure, you incentivize other homeowners to flirt with foreclosure and punish those who pay their bills on time. In turn, this depresses home prices, which hurts every homeowner who is doing his best to make on-time payments.”

This argument makes sense, but only superficially.  Yes, people should be responsible for paying off their bills and contracts.  Yes, some individuals made some irresponsible decisions in terms of financing, or refinancing, their homes. Therefore, why should there be any collective response to their individual problems?  To address this question we need to take on some of the illusions of the Almighty Market.

When we strip all the tangential issues away from the troubles in the housing market what we find is that depressed home values have some homeowners “underwater,” if not already drowning in debt.   We’ve come to speak of  value, cost, and price when speaking of the housing market as if these were synonymous.  They aren’t. 

The Basics

The differences in terminology aren’t merely semantic or academic, they go to the core of what we’ve come to believe about how capitalism should work.

For example, the value of a home is not only its market price but also incorporates the protection it affords the family, including the quality of life which can be attained while living in that residence and location.  Part of the value of a home includes the quality of the neighborhood schools, the proximity of parks and recreational facility, and the networks of social relationships in the community.

The cost of a home isn’t measured purely in dollars and cents either.  Paying off the mortgage is only one part of a home’s cost.  There are expenses for insurance, upkeep and maintenance, and improvements which must also be considered in the total cost of a residence.

Now we’re down to the price.  In terms of the housing market, the price of the home is the best offer from an immediate buyer.  So, how does classical capitalism explain how the price is determined?  Back to Econ 101:  The market price is established by the interaction of supply and demand; and, the equilibrium price is that achieved when the demand is equal to the supply.

Here’s where the rubber starts meeting the road.  If the ‘best’ price is one that can be derived algebraically from quantified inputs like how many houses are on the market, and how many people want to buy them, then we would probably not have created the Housing Bubble in the first place.   However, we did have a housing bubble, just as we had a Stock Market Bubble, just as we had a Dot.Com Bubble, just as we had the Savings and Loan bubble, just as we had a Tulip Bubble, just as we had a South Seas Bubble…

We’re Forever Blowing Bubbles

Why? Without getting into all the particulars of each Bubble created, and then pricked, by our markets, they do have one thing in common: A Failure of Judgment.  If we look back to the Housing Bubble we can see failures on several fronts.  Potential homeowners were attracted into the market by a political decision predicated on the Ownership Society as perceived by the Thatcher government in Great Britain:

“She thought the housing would be better maintained, but more importantly she thought that homeowners would become more responsible citizens and see themselves as having a real stake in the future and in the quality of life in their communities.” [Cato]

U.S. policy since at least 1992 advanced the “better citizens through home ownership” theory.  This amalgam of political and economic theory led to the promotion and marketing of the “Everyone Needs A White Picket Fence Around Their Own Subdivision Home” construction boom.  Construction companies were attracted into the housing market with low interest rates for construction loans; banks got into the act with mortgage origination, more banks got into the act with mortgage servicing, yet more banks got on stage in the secondary mortgage markets, bankers enthusiastically joined in the game securitizing the secondary mortgage instruments, joined again by those making sideline bets on those securities, and we Bubbled right along. Where did the judgment fail?

Let’s take one step back before moving this argument further:  In the bad old days a person buying a home got a 20% down 30 year fixed rate mortgage.  In other words, the loan ratio was 80-20, with the homeowner having a 20% stake in the actual ownership of the residence.  Also, in those bad old days, there was more knowledge than information in the pipeline, and we need knowledge to make good judgments.

Before the housing booms (and busts) in the 1980’s and the 2000’s, local bankers and homeowners were practicing the principles of an Ownership Society.  The local banker knew more about the prospective mortgage seeker, knew perhaps not only the amount of his or her income but also may have had a better sense of the permanency of that employment.  Underwriting standards were higher because the bank, which might have kept a significant portion of the mortgages on its own books, had an ownership stake in the process.

The problem in the early 2000’s was that the knowledge accrued by homebuyers and mortgage providers in a previous era was dissipated and diluted into statistics about “units” and “trends” and inserted into algorithms which sought to reduce that knowledge into formulaic whiz-bang fast fodder for investors.  It was the economic version of observing statistical trends on the productivity of horses and applying the conclusions to automobiles.

Information regarding the statistical probability of defaults in the Fixed Rate Era was unfortunately applied to the probability of defaults in a milieu of subprime, Alt-A, no-doc, adjustable rate, pick a payment, creatively financed, mortgages.  In short, we had Information about mortgages, but no Knowledge about how the new products were going to work.  Judgment fails without knowledge.

The failures of judgment can be set at the doorsteps of not only individuals who didn’t carefully consider the ramifications of their indebtedness in 2005, but also at the steps of the financial institutions which were promoting the direct opposite of ownership — liability.  At this point it’s probably a good  time to repeat the maxim that one man’s liability (debt) is another man’s asset, and by the time we got finished distributing the risk of all these liabilities we created a situation in the Fall of 2008  in which ownership was so diluted that it was all but impossible to discern who actually owned what.  We had lots and lots of “information” about the housing market, but frankly speaking, very little “knowledge.”

Prices, Impulses, and Peril

Now it’s time to ask another question relative to the Moral Hazard so feared by the NPRI:  Why would anyone “flirt with foreclosure” and risk punishing those who pay their bills on time?  Why would banks reduce their underwriting standards to accommodate the financial demands of those who would do so?

A simplistic, but unsatisfactory, answer is They Were All Greedy.  Indeed, they probably were, however even good old fashioned human greed has its limits, which are generally reached as soon as a human being perceives good old fashioned danger.  Why didn’t either side of the mortgage equation see the Danger Signs well before the situation became downright perilous?

The answer may come in two parts.  In the first part, people purchased mortgages they thought they could repay, given the information they had at the time.  Received wisdom, aka common sense, dictated that real estate values, which were defined as assessments or valuations and market prices, always increased.  People were lulled into believing that the market price of their property would increase, because that’s what it had always done before — in the bad old days of the Fixed Rate Era.  The idea that 1 out of every 180 properties in the Las Vegas, Nevada metropolitan area would face foreclosure was not just a Black Swan, but a four legged Black Swan with a teal blue head and pale green beak.

The second part of the answer is that bankers were also operating under the delusion that the statistics of the Fix Rate Era were applicable to the ARM Era.  However, there is another facet to this element of the discussion.  The promotion of adjustable rate mortgages and other financial products contributed to an overall decimation of actual ownership.

How does putting people into homes with 0% down payment “decimate” actual ownership?  Because — 0% means they had Zero actual ownership of the property.  The figures from the Fixed Rate Era showed that individuals who had from 0% to 5% ownership in properties were more likely to default than those who had 20%.   Worse still, homeowners were invited to take out home equity loans — “Pay for Educational costs, Medical expenses, Vacations…” which further eroded the actual ownership of the very real property.  Chickens do come home to roost, and they have in Las Vegas.

The recent CoreLogic report explains:

“released negative equity data showing that 10.9 million, or 22.7 percent, of all residential properties with a mortgage were in negative equity at the end of the first quarter of 2011, down slightly from 11.1 million, or 23.1 percent, in the fourth quarter. An additional 2.4 million borrowers had less than five percent equity, referred to as near-negative equity, in the first quarter. Together, negative equity and near-negative equity mortgages accounted for 27.7 percent of all residential properties with a mortgage nationwide. In the fourth quarter, these two categories stood at 27.9 percent.”

[…] Nevada had the highest negative equity percentage with 63 percent of all mortgaged properties underwater, followed by Arizona (50 percent), Florida (46 percent), Michigan (36 percent) and California (31 percent). The negative equity share in the top 5 states was 39 percent, down from 40 percent in the fourth quarter. Excluding the top 5 states, the negative equity share was 16 percent in the current and previous quarter.

Las Vegas led the nation with a 66 percent negative equity share, followed by Stockton (56 percent), Phoenix (55 percent), Modesto (55 percent) and Reno (54 percent). Outside metropolitan areas in the top 5 negative equity states, the metropolitan markets with the highest negative equity shares include Greeley, CO (38 percent), Boise (36 percent), and Atlanta (35 percent).

No surprise here, the numbers for the Las Vegas, NV area were among some of the worst in the nation.   Thus much for the “common knowledge” that real estate prices never fall.  We had all manner of information about the stock prices of home construction corporations, and copious amounts of data about bank equities, and even more information about default rates than anyone should have needed — but we didn’t use our judgment based on our knowledge of economic bubbles to avoid the Housing Bubble or its collapse.

The moral hazard argument might apply IF home owners and bankers KNEW that the products they were selling and purchasing were inherently dangerous, and were underpinned by dubious information and suspect analysis.  We certainly don’t want to reward irresponsible behavior, but the mortgage purchasers thought they were getting “good deals,” and the bankers thought they were spreading the risk so no one was imperiled — in the end the mortgage product purchasers were underwater, and the bankers had only succeeded in spreading a contagion to everyone in the entire financial sector.

Systemic Problems Need Systemic Answers

It’s entirely too simplistic to insist that the Mighty Invisible Hand of the housing market will magically redress all the issues in the aftermath of the housing bubble collapse.  The Invisible Hand theory assumes a market with accurate information upon which reliable assumptions can be made.  In the recent housing catastrophe there was plenty of information, bits and pieces of data swirling through the bank computer algorithms, but there was obviously a paucity of knowledge about the actual condition of the economy.

The Invisible Hand works best when it’s guided by very human ones.  There is a large difference between a Free Market and an Efficient Market.  What the NPRI is implying is that an efficient market can replace human judgment with statistical manipulation, the “numbers will right themselves” if we are all just a bit more patient.  To argue that financial markets should be free of all government intervention is to ignore the fact that government is one of the financial market’s biggest customers.  Investment institutions on Wall Street were falling like dominos — some, like AIG weren’t “bankrupt” in the classic sense of the term, but they couldn’t prove to other financial institutions that they weren’t what is politely called “insolvent.”

When 10-K reports to the SEC were questionable at best during the Boom and Bust, and almost fraudulent at worst, or when balance sheets were composed of more fiction and hopeful thinking than accurate data, it would have been the height of folly NOT to have the financial sector’s biggest customer (government) step in to restore some sanity in the system.

It can be cogently argued that what failed during the last housing bubble collapse was NOT morality, but judgment.  Consumers, institutions in the financial sector, and government regulators, were all dancing to the same tune.  Unfortunately it was a Siren’s Song.  When we assume that an efficient market bolstered by elegantly scripted algorithms is a better system than relying on good old fashioned and very human judgment we are all headed for trouble.

As if to put a layer of icing on this notion, consider the study of the Housing Bubble Collapse of 2008 by the Cleveland Federal Reserve.  The study debunked ten simplified explanations, or myths, commonly cited as causal factors, and concluded:

“Many of the myths presented here single out some characteristic of subprime loans, subprime borrowers, or the economic circumstances in which those loans were made as the cause of the crisis. All these factors are certainly important for borrowers with subprime mortgages in terms of their ability to keep their homes and make regular mortgage payments. A borrower with better credit characteristics, a steady job, a loan with a low interest rate, and a home whose value keeps increasing is much less likely to default on a mortgage than a borrower with everything in reverse.

But the causes of the subprime mortgage crisis and its magnitude were more complicated than mortgage interest rate resets, declining underwriting standards, or declining home values. The crisis had been building for years before showing any signs. It was feeding off the lending, securitization, leveraging, and housing booms.”

Amen.  No single subject comprises the proximate cause of the entire debacle. No single facet of the situation posed a proximate cause of the collapse.  It seems to have been a failure composed of all the mentioned elements exacerbated by input from the processes themselves — or, again, a failure judgment in contrast to a failure of responsibility or morality.

If we now find the moral hazard argument to be (1) entirely too narrowly focused, (2) unconnected to the systemic issues inherent in the creation of bubbles, and (3) unhelpful in framing a systemic response to a systemic problem, then why not allow Governor Sandoval (or indeed any other agency of governance) to attempt to reintroduce some judgment into the possible solutions?

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Recommended reading: Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, “Ten Myths about Subprime Mortgages,” 7/23/09.   CAP, “Housing Refinancing Reforms Still Needed,” 11/22/11.  The Economist, “Financial Economics: Efficiency and Beyond,” 7/16/09.  The Motley Fool, “A Stupid Idea That Deserves To Die,” 11/3/11.   Federal Reserve, “Re-Balancing the Housing Market: Lessons Learned,” 9/1/11.  FDIC testimony “Challenging Environment for FDIC Institutions,” 8/16/11.   FDIC, “The Challenge Posed By Short Termism,” 6/24/11.   Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, “Financial Crisis Report, (pdf) 4/13/11.  Brookings, “Developments in the Housing Market,” 12/12/11.   Brookings, “Telling the Narrative of the Financial Crisis,” 12/14/11. Brookings, “Geographical Differences in Price Changes and Negative Equity, 11/29/11.  EPI, “Wide Impact Of The Housing Slump,” 8/29/06.  CEPR, “Clearing the Air on Too Big To Fail,” 10/17/11.

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Filed under Foreclosures, housing, Nevada economy, Nevada politics, Sandoval