Money, Government and Mortgages

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Robert Skidelsky

I just finished reading Money and Government by Robert Skidelsky (2018).  It is a bit tough in parts for non-economists, but it is a great read for those trying to understand the appropriate relationship between economic theory and government policy.  While that may sound dry indeed, it is of key importance to the design of a post-Financial Crisis world regulatory order.

The book delves into the the “Mysteries of Money,” providing a short history of a deceptively simple topic that I continue to find to be difficult to wrap my head around:  what exactly is money and what can you do with it?  The book then goes into some inside baseball analysis of the history of economic thought.  I skimmed this section because it related some pretty technical debates among early economists to set up its more accessible discussion of Keynesian economics and its challenger, Milton Friedman-led Monetarism.  The book then takes a look at how economic theory impacted governments’ responses to the Financial Crisis, for good and for ill.

I think readers of this blog would be most interested by Skidelsky’s insights in the final section, where he tries to sketch “A New Macroeconomics.”  He asks and answers the question, “What Should Governments Do and Why?”  He wants to make banking safe and address inequality.

Readers of this blog will be particularly interested in his analysis and  recommendations for the mortgage market.  He argues that the “main theoretical mistake behind securitization was the assumption that securities are always liquid:  they can always be sold quickly and without (much) loss.”  (328)  The Financial Crisis demonstrated in spades that this was not true.  He argues that “[c]ompelling banks to hold mortgages for a period of years” is the solution to this particular problem.  (363) I do not think that I agree with this solution, but as he argues his point at a high level of generality, it probably is best to say that the devil will be in the details for any reform program in this sphere.

I found his analysis of populism compelling.  He argues that the “political divide between right and left . . . is increasingly overshadowed by one between nationalism and globalism.” (372)  I won’t go into the details here, but he has a very trenchant analysis of how the economist’s theoretical Homo economicus fails to account for important aspects of our humanity as individuals, as members of groups and as citizens of nation-states.  He warns that we do that at our peril:  citizens of democracies will punish their leaders for failing to take into account their complex need to flourish in all of those ways that economists can reduce down to one-dimensional units of measurement, such as “utility.”

Yale University Press says that the book is out of print, but Amazon has paperback copies available if you dig a bit on the book’s web page (and, of course, there are Kindle versions available for those so inclined).  I recommend that you get yourself a copy.

Is The Mortgage Interest Deduction Inequitable?

photo by Elana Centor

I have certainly thought so, as do many other housing policy types. Daniel Hemel and Kyle Rozema have a more nuanced view in their paper, Inequality and the Mortgage Interest Deduction, that was recently posted to SSRN. The abstract reads,

The mortgage interest deduction is often criticized for contributing to after-tax income inequality. Yet the effects of the mortgage interest deduction on income inequality are more nuanced than the conventional wisdom would suggest. We show that the mortgage interest deduction causes high-income households (i.e., those in the top 10% and top 1%) to bear a larger share of the total tax burden than they would if the deduction were repealed. We further show that the effect of the mortgage interest deduction on income inequality is highly sensitive to the alternative scenario against which the deduction is evaluated. These findings demonstrate that claims about the distributional effects of the mortgage interest deduction depend critically on the counterfactual to which the status quo is compared. We extend our analysis to the deduction for state and local taxes and the charitable contribution deduction. We conclude that the appropriate counterfactual for distributional claims is dependent upon political context — and, in particular, on the feasible set of politically acceptable reforms up for consideration.

To make this a bit more concrete, the authors offer a simple hypothetical:

to show how a provision of the tax code can provide a disproportionate share of dollar benefits to the rich while also causing the rich to bear a larger share of total tax liabilities. Imagine a society with two households—a rich household with pre-tax income of $100, and a poor household with pre-tax income of $50. Further imagine that the rich household pays $12 in mortgage interest and the poor household pays $9 in mortgage interest. Say that the tax system is structured such that the tax rate on the first $50 of income is 20% and the tax rate on all income above the $50 threshold is 40%.

If the tax system does not allow a deduction for mortgage interest, the rich household would pay a tax of $30 ($10 on the first $50 and $20 on the next $50), and the poor household would pay a tax of $10. Thus the government would collect a total of $40 in revenue; the rich household would bear 75% of the total tax burden ($30 divided by $40); and the poor household would bear the remaining 25%. If the tax system allows each household to deduct mortgage interest, the rich household would receive a benefit from the deduction of $4.80 ($12 times 40%), and the poor household would receive a benefit from the deduction of $1.80 ($9 times 20%). The benefit of the MID in dollar terms is clearly greater for the rich household than for the poor household. In percentage terms, the rich household received 72.7% of total MID benefits, while the poor household received 27.3% of total MID benefits. And yet the rich household now bears 75.45% of the total tax burden ($25.20 divided by $33.40), as compared to 75.0% before, while the poor household now bears 24.55% of the total tax burden ($8.20 divided by $33.40), as compared to 25.0% before. (Government revenue decreases from $40 without the MID to $33.40 with the MID.) (8, footnote omitted)

The authors conclude that their analysis “simultaneously confirms and challenges widespread beliefs regarding the effect of tax expenditures on inequality. The mortgage interest deduction does indeed appear to be inequality-increasing relative to a counterfactual in which the deduction is repealed and revenues are reallocated to all households on a equal basis; when the mortgage interest deduction is evaluated against other counterfactuals, however, the distributional effects are more nuanced.” (40)

Where does this leave us? It reminds us that we should be careful about promoting simple policy proposals without taking into account the likely context in which they might be implemented.

Desvinculado y Desigual = Separate and Unequal

"Plessy marker" by Skywriter - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Plessy_marker.jpg#/media/File:Plessy_marker.jpg

Justin Steil, Jorge De la Roca and Ingrid Gould Ellen, researchers affiliated to the NYU Furman Center, have published Desvinculado y Desigual [Separate and Unequal]: Is Segregation Harmful to Latinos? The authors find that their research on this topic “suggests that segregation may have as negative effects for Latinos as it does for African Americans and that persistent Latino-white segregation is of serious concern as the nation’s metropolitan areas continue to become more diverse.” (74)

More specifically, their research finds that

segregation continues to be associated with significant reductions in educational attainment and labor market success for African Americans, and that the associations between segregation and outcomes for Latinos are at least as large as those for African Americans. For native-born African American and Latino young adults between the ages of 20 and 30, increases in metropolitan-area segregation are associated with significant reductions in the likelihood of high school and college graduation, with lower earnings and employment rates, and with an increase in single motherhood.

These findings are somewhat unanticipated given the long history of intense black-white segregation and the systematic disinvestment in black neighborhoods through much of the last century, when compared to the historically more moderate levels of Latino-white segregation. These findings raise the question of which mechanisms may be at play to generate these differences.

One crucial mechanism seems to be the levels of neighborhood human capital to which whites, Latinos, and African Americans are exposed; they are consistent with the negative associations for both blacks and Latinos and with the differences in the magnitude of the association between them. The white-Latino gap in neighborhood exposure to human capital increases dramatically as levels of segregation increase.

The significance of neighborhood levels of human capital is consistent with existing research on the effects of segregation for African Americans and for immigrants. (73, citations omitted)

This is an understudied and important topic, so it is great that the authors have begun to explore it. They identify a number of research questions that others can take up. Let’s hope some do.

Housing, Out of Reach

House_at_309_Railroad,_Las_Vegas_NM

The National Low Income Housing Coalition has released Out of Reach 2015: Low Wages & HIgh Rents Lock Renters Out. The Introduction reads,

Since its founding in 1974 by federal housing policy expert, Cushing Dolbeare, NLIHC has used data to document America’s housing affordability crisis. As part of her original analysis, Cushing observed a fundamental mismatch between the wages people earn and the price of decent housing, what we now call Out of Reach. Today, housing is still out of reach for far too many, and the gap between what people earn and the price of decent housing continues to grow.

The 2015 Housing Wage is $19.35 for a two-bedroom unit, and $15.50 for a one-bedroom unit. The Housing Wage for a two-bedroom unit is more than 2.5 times the federal minimum wage, and $4 more than the estimated average wage of $15.16 earned by renters nationwide. The Housing Wage is an estimate of the full time hourly wage that a household must earn to afford a decent apartment at HUD’s estimated Fair Market Rent (FMR), while spending no more than 30% of income on housing costs. The data in Out of Reach illustrate the gap between wages and rents across the country. In 13 states and D.C. the 2015 Housing Wage is more than $20 per hour.

Many renters earn far less than the Housing Wage in their community and struggle to find an affordable place to live. This edition of Out of Reach highlights some of the economic challenges facing low income renters, including lagging wages, inconsistent job growth, and the rising cost of living. Undoubtedly, the lack of affordable housing remains the overarching problem for low income households, a problem made worse by these economic challenges.

Expanding and preserving the supply of quality, affordable housing is essential to any strategy to end homelessness, poverty, and economic inequality. As our nation’s policymakers seek ways of overcoming these societal ills, access to affordable housing must be a cornerstone of any proposal. (1, emphasis removed)

Some of the particular findings are disturbing. For instance, “There is no state  in the U.S. where a minimum wage worker working full time can afford a one-bedroom apartment at the fair market rent.” (1) This state of affairs reflects many trends, including the fact that the minimum wage has not kept pace with inflation and is worth less today than it was a few decades ago. It is worth unpacking this finding a bit.

The report defines “affordability” as costing “no more than 30% of a household’s gross income” for rent and utilities. (2) It defines “Fair Market Rent” as “the 40th percentile of gross rents for typical, non-substandard rental units.” (2) In some ways, this report overstates the affordability crisis because minimum wage workers may be able to afford housing that falls below the 40th percentile of gross rents. Perhaps a better measure would have been to determine how many units are available to the minimum wage workers in that jurisdiction. That being said, the report does document how “rents remain out of reach for many renters.” (2) For instance, 75% of extremely low income renters spend more than 50% of their income on housing costs . . ..” (5)

Income and wealth inequality have reached extreme proportions in America today. This report highlights how this is playing out in the context of the housing market. (I would also note, however, that the report does not account for how restrictive land use policies keep the supply of new housing from growing many communities, but that may just be a subject for another report.)

Reiss at TechSalon on Tenant Rights

I will be the lead discussant at a Technology Salon Brooklyn event on Thursday morning: How Are ICTs and Social Media Supporting Tenant Rights? The invitation reads,

Gentrification is top of mind of many Brooklynites, as they are pushed out of their communities by large-scale economic development and wealthier groups moving in. One effect of the gentrification process is often the shuttering of local businesses and skyrocketing rents for residents as landlords make way for those who can pay more.

The New York City Office of the Comptroller reported in April 2014 that median rents in the city had risen by 75% since 2001, compared to 44% in the rest of the US, while at the same time, real incomes declined overall for New Yorkers. At the same time, the numbers of rent-regulated properties has decreased. The harshest consequences of rising rents and lowering incomes are felt by the poor and working classes (those earning less than $40,000 a year).

This situation is contributing to an increase in homelessness, with the city’s shelters receiving an all time high number of people seeking support and services. The negative impacts of gentrification also tend to differentially impact on communities of color. Tenants do have rights — however, enforcing those rights can take years when landlords have deep pockets. In 2003, a tenant advocacy group found that in cases initiated by tenants, only 2% resulted in fines for landlords.

Residents of gentrifying areas have not been silent about the impact of gentrification. Numerous community groups have formed and are fighting to keep communities intact, cohesive and affordable for residents. Social media and better data and data visualization can help to track and create evidence bases that can support residents, or to connect them to support services and legal aid.

Please RSVP now to join us at the Brooklyn Community Foundation for a lively roundtable conversation on tenant rights and ICTs. We’ll hear from community organizations, technology developers, legal advocates and others with an interest in technology and social activism around tenant rights, including such questions as:

  • How are community organizations successfully using ICTs and social media to support tenant rights?
  • What is working well, and what are some of the lessons learned about using ICTs and social media for outreach?
  • What are some new ways that organizations could use ICTs to support their work?
  • What support do community organizations need to do this work?

Please RSVP now to join Technology Salon Brooklyn for a lively discussion! Be sure to arrive early to get a good seat, hot coffee, and morning snacks before we start.

ICTs, Social Media and Tenant Rights
Thursday, April 16, 2015, 9-11am
Brooklyn Community Foundation
1000 Dean Street, Suite 307
Brooklyn, NY 11238
RSVP is Required to Attend

The Foundation is a short walk from the A, C, S 2, 3, 4 or 5 trains (Franklin Av stop) (map).

Tax Expenditure Wars: Wealthy Households v. Poor

Henry Rose has posted How Federal Tax Expenditures That Support Housing Contribute to Economic Inequality to SSRN. This short article examines “how federal income tax laws benefit more affluent owner households but provide no benefits to economically-strapped renter households.” (1) Housing policy analysts (myself included) constantly bemoan the regressive nature of federal tax policy as it relates to housing, but it is always worth looking at the topic with updated numbers. And this article contains some tables with some interesting numbers.

One table provides an overview of the estimated tax savings (in billions) in FY 2014 for five federal tax expenditures for owners of housing that they occupy:

Mortgage Interest Deduction  (MID)                                                 $66.91

Property Tax Deduction (PTD)                                                        $31.59

Capital Gains Exclusion on Sales                                                   $35.54

Net Imputed Rental Income Exclusion                                            $75.24

Discharge of Mortgage Indebtedness Exclusion                            $3.1

Total                                                                                                 $212.38

The next table provides an estimated distribution of two of these tax expenditures (FY 2014, savings in millions):

Tax-Filer AGI                PTD Tax Savings         MID Tax Savings                

Below $50,000              $693                              $1,443

$50,000-75,000             $2,190                           $4,330

$75,000-100,000           $3,478                           $6,581

$100,000-200,000         $13,648                         $27,421

$200,000+                     $11,798                         $29,340

Total                              $31,806                         $69,115                               

The article concludes by noting that despite

the great disparity in economic positions between owners and renters, federal tax expenditures lavish tax savings on primarily affluent owners and provide none for renters. The federal tax expenditures for owners are so generous that interest can be deducted on mortgage balances up to $1,000,000 and can also be taken on second homes, even yachts, as well as primary residences. It is difficult to conceive of a federal public policy that more directly promotes economic inequality than the federal tax expenditures that support owners of housing but are not available to renters. (9-10, footnote omitted)

I don’t expect this disparity to be addressed any time in the near future, given the current political environment, but it is certainly one that should stay at the top of any list of reforms for those concerned with promoting equitable federal housing policies.