A blog about business and economics.

Jan. 13 2017 6:05 PM

Coming This Summer to Florida: America’s First New Private Passenger Rail System in 100 Years

It’s Friday afternoon, and Google Maps is telling me that the 70-mile drive from Downtown Miami to West Palm Beach will take two hours.

This summer, I’ll be able to do it in half that time on a new, intercity passenger rail service called Brightline. It will be the first privately owned passenger rail operation to open in the United States in more than a century, and its five trains—the first of which arrived in Florida this week—will whisk thousands of passengers a day along the car-choked isthmus of South Florida.

With stations in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and West Palm Beach, Brightline will be an early test of the viability of intercity rail projects planned for California (public) and Texas (private). The project has not proceeded without some snags: Market anxiety and lawsuits from coastal counties have stalled the company’s tax-exempt, federally sanctioned bond issue, and the extension to Orlando—which will make up the bulk of the project’s mileage and new construction—is on hold and will not be finished for at least two to three years.

Jan. 13 2017 2:35 PM

Donald Trump Doesn’t Deserve an Ounce of Credit for Amazon Adding 100,000 U.S. Jobs

Amazon is embarking on a hiring spree, the e-commerce giant announced Thursday, pledging to add 100,000 full-time jobs in the United States in the coming 18 months. Some observers were quick to credit the incoming presidential administration. The Wall Street Journal noted the company was “leveraging plans already in the works in part to patch up its contentious relationship with President-elect Donald Trump.” The argument isn’t a total stretch: After criticizing Trump during the campaign, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos did participate in the informal meeting between Trump and technology leaders at Trump Tower last month.

At the same time, there’s both more and less here than meets the eye. On one hand, Amazon’s announcement is an indication that the labor market is quite tight. The unemployment rate is 4.7 percent. There have been 75 straight months of jobs growth. And at the beginning of December there were 5.5 million jobs open in the U.S. All of which means that if you need to fill lots of positions, it’s hard to do so by offering temporary or informal work without benefits. You’ve got to promise people full-time work with benefits, even for lower-skilled warehouse jobs. (Thanks, Obama and Yellen!)

Amazon is hiring in part because its many businesses—from web hosting to e-commerce—are growing very rapidly. And creating and sustaining all these businesses, especially those involved in moving lots of goods around the country, are still labor-intensive. Analysts estimate about 60 million people have signed up for Amazon Prime, and they use those order buttons with great frequency and alacrity. Lots of boxes have to packed and shipped every day. And that takes people.

But Amazon’s move, which speaks to a remarkable dynamism within the company, is also a sign of the similarly remarkable redistribution of retail-related labor, from stores to back offices and warehouses. E-commerce is relentlessly taking market share from bricks-and-mortar commerce. As the U.S. Census Bureau’s retail sales report Friday morning showed, on a year-over-year basis, in December, overall retail sales were up 4 percent; but nonstore retailing (e-commerce, catalogs, etc.) rose 13.2 percent.

As people are gaining jobs by the tens of thousands at Amazon, they are losing them in physical retailing. Consider the carnage. Just in the past few weeks, Lowe’s announced it would cut 3,000 jobs; Macy’s said it would close 68 stores and slash employment by 10,000; Sears Holdings said it would close another 200 Sears and Kmarts this year, leading to thousands of job losses; Walmart said it would cut 1,000 jobs at its headquarters; and the Limited suddenly announced it was closing all 250 retail units, which will lead to the loss of another 4,000 jobs.

There is certainly more to come. It’s really tough to be a physical retailer today. Many retailers have large amounts of debt, immense lease commitments to acres of retail square footage that shoppers no longer fill, and are continually losing market share to Amazon and others. Over the coming year, as Amazon ramps up its hiring, many retailers will be slashing their payrolls. And Amazon’s hiring won’t compensate for those losses. As Nelson Schwartz and Nick Wingfield note in the New York Times, you simply need lots fewer people to facilitate retail sales online than you do in person.

So good for Amazon, and good for all the people who will go to work at the company. But Amazon’s  expansion has little to do with Donald Trump and his calls to hire more people in America, and everything to do with powerful trends in technology, distribution channels, and consumer habits.

Jan. 12 2017 4:47 PM

Obamacare Repeal Will Hand a Nauseating Tax Cut to the Rich

Obamacare is a complicated law with lots of interlocking parts that make it tricky to understand. But one of the core, very simple things it did was raise taxes on the wealthy in order to fund subsidized health care for more Americans. Couples earning more than $250,000 saw a 0.9 percent increase in their top Medicare tax rate, as well as a new, 3.8 percent Mediare surtax on investment income.

If Republicans have their way and successfully repeal the Affordable Care Act, those two taxes will be toast—which will mean a substantial break for some of the country's wealthiest families. The liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that millionaires would see 80 percent of the benefits from those tax reductions. Based on the most recent IRS data, the think tank roughly projects that the 400 highest income households—which earned an average of more than $300 million each in 2014—would see a $2.8 billion annual tax cut, worth about $7 million on average per filer. To put that in some perspective, that's a smidge more than Obamacare is set to spend on insurance premium tax credits in the 20 smallest states and the District of Columbia.


Republicans cutting benefits for the working class and poor in order to fund tax cuts for the wealthy is a dog bites man story if there ever was one. But by repealing Obamacare's sources of funding, the GOP is putting itself in a little bit of a bind. After all, any viable Republican replacement plan—should one actually ever come into existence, as promised—is going to presumably require some funding. Once Congress has dumped the Affordable Care Act's taxes into the dustbin of fiscal history, however, a lot of Republicans may be nervous about raising taxes to fund their own proposal. What happens at that point? Your guess is good as mine.

Jan. 12 2017 3:10 PM

Americans Want to Buy Cheaper Medicine From Canada. Why Did 13 Democrats Vote Against Letting Them?

It was just 24 hours ago that New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker showed himself to be a progressive hero with his testimony against Sen. Jeff Sessions, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for attorney general.

Don’t get too excited, people.

Booker joined with 12 other Democratic senators Wednesday night to vote against a budget-resolution amendment jointly proposed by Sens. Bernie Sanders and Amy Klobuchar to allow both pharmacies and people with prescriptions to order their pharmaceuticals from Canada and other countries where they sell for significantly cheaper prices than in the United States. As Sanders noted in his press release:

EpiPen, for example, costs more than $600 in the United States compared to $290 in Canada for the exact same allergy treatment. A popular drug for high cholesterol, Crestor, costs $730 in the U.S. but $160 across the northern border. Abilify, a drug to treat depression, is more than $2,636 for a 90-day supply in the U.S. but only $436 in Canada.

If you’re wondering, polls on the subject repeatedly find that large majorities of voters support legalizing prescription drug imports from Canada and have done so for more than a decade.

So why come out against such a worthy and clearly popular endeavor? Isn’t it exactly the thing to vote for to show you care about the economic woes of Americans, not just those who are less than happy with the Affordable Care Act? Well, Jezebel’s Ellie Shechet helpfully points out, Booker and a number of the other Democratic senators who said nay are among the biggest senatorial recipients of pharmaceutical contributions between 2010 and 2016.

What makes this particularly unfortunate: 12 Republican senators, including Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and John McCain, crossed party lines to vote for the amendment, which went down 46–52. Oh, and earlier in the day, Trump briefly ranted during his less-than-coherent press conference about how the pharmaceutical companies were “getting away with murder” because “Pharma has a lot of lobbies, a lot of lobbyists and a lot of power.”

I’ll say.

Booker told Jezebel he voted no because the bill did not “include consumer protections that ensure foreign drugs meet American safety standards.” Expect to hear that one again: There will be other chances for Democrats and Republicans to show us how serious they are about helping Americans combat the runaway prices of prescription drugs. Klobuchar and McCain introduced legislation last week that would allow Americans to order prescriptions from Canada, the Safe and Affordable Drugs from Canada Act. Sanders says he’ll soon partner with Rep. Elijah E. Cummings in the House to introduce a bill that will allow Medicare to negotiate with drug companies for lower prices, something it is currently banned from doing.

There’s clearly room for bipartisan movement on this issue. But if Democrats can’t overcome the powerful Washington lobbies to even make a mostly symbolic vote like the one on Wednesday night’s amendment, they’ll likely remain a party in disarray. And we’ll all continue to pay a high price for that—both in our politics and in our pocketbooks.

Jan. 12 2017 2:27 PM

Watch Elizabeth Warren Nail Ben Carson With This Question About Trump’s HUD Conflicts

The Senate Banking committee hearing for Dr. Ben Carson, President elect Donald Trump's nominee for Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, was a job interview for someone who did not want the job.

Carson, who in November reportedly felt like he wasn't qualified to run a federal agency, has been heavily criticized for having zero qualifications whatsoever to run the agency tasked with managing federal housing policy.

The sole exchange that really put Carson on the back foot had little to do with the position's typical responsibilities, but occurred when Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren asked Carson whether HUD money was going to end up in Trump's pockets. "Can you assure me that not a single taxpayer dollar that you give out will financially benefit the President elect or his family?"

Jan. 12 2017 12:23 PM

Buckle Up: Obamacare Repeal Is Going to Be a Long, Stupid Ride

Some mental health advice: Try, over the next couple of months, to not get too wrapped up in the day-to-day machinations of Obamacare repeal. It's going to be a tedious, often pointless, and drawn-out slog, sort of like watching regular season baseball. Eventually, the GOP may settle on a strategy to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, at which point it will be worth paying attention. For now, it has not. Nor does it seem to have a real timeline for crafting one.

Republicans did make their first, tentative move toward slaying Obamacare on Wednesday night by kick-starting the budget reconciliation process, which theoretically will let them eliminate the health law's tax and spending provisions with just 50 votes in the Senate. Specifically, the Senate passed a budget resolution telling congressional committees to draft some repeal legislation. But how soon will they get that job done? Nobody really knows. The resolution set a Jan. 27 deadline. But thanks to Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, who wanted longer for Congress to draw up an actual replacement, we now know that's “not a real date.”

“That is a place holder,” he explained on the Senate floor. “That's the earliest they can come back but in talking with leadership and working through, we understand that everyone here understands the importance of doing it right, giving Tom Price, the HHS person, the time to weigh in and help us make this work in the appropriate way.”

Price, of course, is Donald Trump's nominee for secretary of health and human services, who might not be confirmed until mid-February, at least according to Lamar Alexander, the Senate committee chairman who has power over such things. Given that Alexander also wants time to confer with GOP governors about how to replace the Affordable Care Act, it's possible we won't see a conservative health reform outline until March.

And what then? Beats the hell out of me. Trump himself seems to be operating in some alternative universe where the rules of Senate procedure don't apply. “We're going to be submitting—as soon as our secretary's approved, almost simultaneously, shortly thereafter, a plan. It'll be repeal and replace. It will be essentially simultaneously," Trump said during his surreal afternoon press conference Wednesday. “Probably the same day, could be the same hour.” This would be credible if Republicans had a 60-vote majority in the Senate, since that's what will be required to pass an actual replacement plan over a Democratic filibuster (reconciliation can only be used on things like taxes and spending that have a budget effect, not regulations such as the ACA's various insurance market rules). But Republicans only have 52 seats. And they're not going to peel off many Democrats to back the first plan that Tom Price, an arch-conservative, serves up.

Does Trump realize any of this? I don't know. It's not even clear to me he knows what the filibuster is (someone should ask him at his next presser). Could Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell simply nuke the filibuster in the face of Democratic resistance? Maybe, but for now it doesn't appear he has the appetite or votes to press the launch button.

So here's how our current course might shape up: Republicans will introduce plans to repeal and replace Obamacare in the next couple months, which Democrats will reject. At that point, the GOP might just pass its repeal bill and get ready for trench warfare with the Democrats over how to replace the law. According to the Washington Post, they might resort to legislative hostage-taking, much as they did during the Obama years:

According to multiple GOP individuals, Republicans are looking at whether to use coming reauthorizations of existing programs, such as the Children’s Health Insurance Program, as vehicles for Obamacare replacement measures. That could give them leverage to secure cooperation from Democrats.

Would that work? Will it actually unfold that way? Will Donald Trump himself understand any of it? Maybe, maybe not. Will we be treated to months of nonsense on barely rooted fact or logic as Republicans and Democrats grind away at this battle? Almost certainly.

Jan. 11 2017 6:23 PM

How Trump Could Spar With His Own Party Over Fixing America’s Roads

Watching senators question secretary of transportation nominee Elaine Chao on Wednesday made me think of one of my own bad habits as a journalist: the tendency to ask a question so overloaded with preambles that your interviewee can only respond, “Yes, that’s right.”

Chao, who has been down this road before, revealed virtually nothing about where she or her new boss stand on crucial transportation issues, such as whether the Trump administration will push for a huge influx of public money into expanding and repairing transportation infrastructure. Or even a firm stances on autonomous vehicles, drone regulation, TIGER grants, commuter rail, pedestrian safety, positive train control, or air traffic controllers, to name a few of the issues she punted on during the hearing.

The one consistent message from Chao was that the new administration would strive to encourage private investment in infrastructure—a central plank of the Trump infrastructure plan, to the extent such a thing exists.

No one seemed to care. Chao was a shoo-in, and nearly every senator who questioned her took a moment to praise her, her family, or make a little joke about her husband, Supreme Court obstructionist Mitch McConnell. The Senate majority leader introduced her with a quote that Bob Dole had used when his own wife, Elizabeth, was undergoing a confirmation hearing for DOT secretary: “I feel a bit like Nathan Hale,” he said. "I regret that I have but one wife to give for my country’s infrastructure.” In short, the whole thing—especially compared with the counterprogramming, the Trump press conference—was proof of the Senate’s enraging gentility. Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe chimed in to say he had never seen a nominee "that people loved more than you."

Anyway, the takeaway from all this was that—as in any poorly run interview—we learned very little about what Chao thinks about American transportation infrastructure, but a lot about the hopes and fears of a dozen U.S. senators. And some of those fears, especially, were pretty revealing.

One question that caught my attention came from West Virginia GOP Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, who asked about how public-private partnerships might work in her largely poor and sparsely populated state. "As a person who represents an almost all-rural state," the senator asked, "I'm concerned about how we're going to be able to incentivize the private dollars to go to the less populated, less economically developed areas of our country?"

Chao waffled a bit on her response, but the gist of it was: “It’s a huge issue that demands the best thinking of all of us.”

Quite. Infrastructure for profit is going to pan out better in some places—big cities, places with money—than others. (Though public-private partnerships also favor new projects over maintenance, which complicates the picture a little, and toll roads over transit.) While Democrats have typically favored large federal investments in public works, the people who benefit most from such programs are often rural Americans who depend on government largesse.

The rural-versus-urban theme shined through at other moments: in Sen. Ted Cruz’s request that the apportionment formula be adjusted to benefit fast-growing Texas, or in Sen. Cory Booker’s (exaggerated) claim that the Hudson River Tunnels carried the entire population of South Dakota between New York and New Jersey every day. (Actually, it’s about one-fifth the state’s population, but you get the idea.) On the flip side, Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan complained about how few roads his state had—fewer miles than Texas and even Connecticut—despite its size. The reason, of course, is that Alaska has barely one person per square mile, making it about six times less dense than Wyoming.

Which all goes to an important point: the Trump-Chao plan to draw private dollars into infrastructure investment is not likely to bring more roads to Alaska, South Dakota, or West Virginia.

In November, my colleague Jordan Weissmann anticipated this issue with Trump's plan.* "Its core proposal—using tax credits to subsidize public-private partnerships of some sort—might not be very appealing to the rural and small-state politicians who help form the backbone of the GOP,” he wrote. “After all, infrastructure investors generally tend to be interested in big, new, and profitable projects in major population centers. … Private financing makes a whole lot less sense for fixing dilapidated highways in farm country, since that's not going to earn anybody much of a return.”

Lo, it has come to pass.

Committee Chairman John Thune, the GOP senator from South Dakota, hinted at this in closing. “The urban-rural thing is my version of bipartisanship,” he said. Keep that in mind when infrastructure spending comes up in the Senate: The divisions over how to pay for projects may wind up being more geographic than political.

*Correction, Jan. 12, 2017: This post originally misstated when a blog post by Jordan Weissmann was published. It was in November, not December.

Jan. 10 2017 3:11 PM

Republicans Will Come Up With an Obamacare Replacement. And Donald Trump Will Lie About What’s in It.

Here’s a modest prediction: While congressional Republicans may look disorganized and a bit hapless right now, they are going to get their act together at some point and craft an official proposal to replace Obamacare. Then Donald Trump will try to sell the plan by lying about what's in it.

That's the most obvious solution to the political impasse that the GOP is fast approaching. And it means that news organizations, which collectively found themselves incapable of helping voters discern truth from fiction during the presidential campaign, need to figure out ahead of time how they will cover a policy battle in which the president of the United States has no attachment to—or perhaps even understanding of—the basic facts involved.

This week, Republicans on Capitol Hill are confronting two unpleasant realties: Snuffing out Obamacare may not be as simple as they hoped, and any replacement proposal acceptable to conservatives may be unacceptable to the public. The party's original legislative game plan—“repeal and delay”—was to pass a filibuster-proof budget reconciliation bill that would eliminate the Affordable Care Act's major planks after two or three years, then use that sunset period to concoct a substitute. That strategy now looks shaky, as a number of Republican senators have said they would prefer to repeal and replace Obamacare simultaneously, or at least see an official replacement plan on paper before voting to repeal. That, of course, would make the process take longer.

Trump, meanwhile, has weighed in with the firm but unrealistic demand that Republicans both repeal and replace Obamacare with extreme haste. “We have to get to business. Obamacare has been a catastrophic event,” he said on Tuesday. As for the time table for replacement, he said, “Long to me would be weeks” and that "It won’t be repeal and then two years later go in with another plan.”

Inconveniently, that would require the GOP to reach a consensus on how to reform America's entire health insurance system over the next month or so, something it hasn't been able to accomplish in the six years that it’s controlled the House of Representatives. It would also force Republicans to grapple with the fact that every single replacement proposal their party has put forward would leave fewer Americans with health coverage than under Obamacare. And while kicking families off of their insurance in order to pass large tax cuts for the wealthy may be acceptable to conservative ideologues, it isn't exactly an election winner.

Unsurprisingly, Republicans have been shy lately when asked about their plans for health reform. Take this athletic dodge from Nevada Sen. Dean Heller, reported in Bloomberg:

Senator Dean Heller, a Nevada Republican up for re-election in 2018, declined to say whether he believes the GOP plan will cover as many people as Obamacare.
"I would anticipate nobody’s going to lose their health care for the next two or three years until the replacement is put in place. I think that’s pretty fair," he said.
And after two or three years?
"That’s a lot of prospective thinking," Heller said. "You can ask me in two or three years."

The early Republican disarray has lead some to speculate that the party may settle for mostly cosmetic changes to the Affordable Care Act—rebrand it Trumpcare and call it a day (which would be appropriate enough, given that the president made a whole second career stamping his name on buildings other people built). Jonathan Chait is already suggesting that, if the current trends continue, “Obamacare, or something substantially similar, is probably going to survive.”

This seems premature. Lest we forget, Senate Democrats spent months fighting over the details of Obamacare—first trying in vain to wrangle some sort of bipartisan compromise, then fine-tuning a bill that both Sens. Bernie Sanders and Joe Lieberman could agree on. At times, the whole effort appeared poised to unravel over seemingly tangential issues like abortion funding. It was a long, exhausting legislative tightrope walk, performed above a pit of screaming conservatives tuned into Rush Limbaugh.

Given how hard it was to erect the Affordable Care Act, nobody should have thought that tearing it down and rebuilding something in its place would be a swift or painless process. Republicans may have set some unrealistic expectations by promising to slay Obamacare within a hot minute of Trump taking the oath of office. But even with the speed bumps they've hit, the health care industry has still been “stunned,” as the New York Times puts it, by just how quickly they've managed to move to repeal the law. Meanwhile, Trump has picked Georgia Rep. Tom Price to be his secretary of health and human services. Price has written his own replacement plan and signed on with the proposal House Speaker Paul Ryan put forth this summer. The White House is going to offer up something, and Senate Republicans are going to feel ample pressure to back it.

Is it possible that the replacement effort will collapse under the weight of its own contradictions? Maybe. As many (Chait included) have argued, Republicans dislike Obamacare in large part because it taxes the wealthy in order to expand insurance coverage to the poor and working class. But because that's not a politically palatable position, they've attacked it for insuring too few people while saddling them with expensive premiums and high deductibles. Those are real problems for which Republicans don't have any actual solutions; instead, the GOP has drafted proposals that would let the government spend less on health care and maybe allow young, healthy adults (mostly men) to purchase cheap coverage that currently doesn't exist because of Obamacare's regulations. Selling those ideas to a public that's been told they're already paying too much for bad insurance will be hard. Selling Democrats on it will be even harder. And since Republicans only have a 52-seat majority in Senate, they need some opposition votes to overcome a filibuster.

But Republicans may also be led by just the con man for the job. Donald Trump does not know anything about health care. But he does care about winning, about cutting taxes, and about undoing his predecessor's legacy. And he has no compunctions about spouting nonsense, or lying outright, about pressing policy issues. If the Congressional Budget Office says a Republican replacement plan won't cover 19 million people, do you think Trump will give a damn? Do you think Trump even knows what the Congressional Budget Office is? He'll happily go on Hannity and tell the country that everybody will get great, cheap coverage, better than anything they've had before.

So here's how I see the fight shaping up: Republicans will come up with an Obamacare replacement and Trump will tout it with a barrage of hyperbole utterly divorced from reality, just like he touts everything. At that point, the debate becomes a struggle to win over public opinion, plus whether Republicans can find eight Democrats to go along for the ride. If journalists treat Trump's sales pitch credulously—or even lead with a bunch of headlines along the lines “Trump Says X”—it's going to give the GOP an advantage and help the party squeeze Dems like Joe Manchin of West Virginia. If instead reporters spend time asking Trump basic questions like whether he can actually explain the details of his own health care plan, Obamacare may have a fighting chance. Even then, they'll have to cut through reams of noxious internet propaganda and Trump-friendly reporting from Fox News and Breitbart.

Which one will it be? I don't know. How much faith do you have in the efficacy of the fourth estate these days?

Jan. 9 2017 4:41 PM

No, AP, You Don’t Need to “Fact-Check” Whether Meryl Streep Is Overrated

The Associated Press picked an unfortunate time to make a mockery of its own fact-checking standards.

On Monday, the day after Meryl Streep criticized President-elect Donald Trump in a speech at the Golden Globe Awards, the news agency published what it billed as a “fact check” of Trump’s claim that Streep is “one of the most overrated actresses in Hollywood.” The AP’s 304-word report was headlined, “FACT CHECK: Streep Overrated? Trump Picks a Decorated Star.” Here’s an excerpt:

While "overrated" is an opinion, Streep, who took aim at Trump in her speech while accepting the Globes lifetime achievement award, holds the record for the most Academy Award nominations of any actor. She has earned 19 Oscar nominations and three wins, as well as a record 29 Golden Globe nominations and eight wins, and two Emmy Awards.
Plus there's a Presidential Medal of Freedom, not to mention 10 People's Choice Awards, two British Academy Film Awards, four National Society of Film Critics Awards, two Screen Actors Guild Awards, a Kennedy Center Honor and has been named a Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, the highest civilian honor given by the French government.

The list of accolades goes on to enumerate another couple of dozen, in roughly descending order of how much anyone could possibly give a crap. The story then compares Streep’s acting trophy case to Trump’s, noting that he received two Emmy nominations for “best outstanding reality competition.” (Fact check: The award is called “Outstanding Reality-Competition Program.”) It concludes on what is, for the AP, an uncharacteristically snarky note:

But he beat her to one award—a Golden Raspberry. He won a worst supporting actor trophy in 1989, appearing opposite Bo Derek in the crime comedy "Ghosts Can't Do It."

There is probably a conceivable world, a possible set of circumstances, under which some version of the AP item’s concept could have been amusing or illuminating, had it been better executed. Unfortunately, that is not the world we live in today, and this was not that version.

The flaws are too numerous and too obvious to bear full enumeration here. Suffice it to say that there were no facts in Trump’s claim to check; that publishing a laundry list of Streep’s accolades does nothing to rebut the claim that she’s “overrated”; and that the exercise smacked of the very brand of smugness that Trump routinely accuses the mainstream media of evincing.

All of this would be more easily excused as a misguided lark, had it not come at a time when the practice of nonpartisan fact checking is under assault from many on the right, who regard it as an excuse for the liberal media to cloak an ideological agenda in the guise of objectivity. Recently, some conservatives blasted Facebook’s decision to collaborate with a number of organizations that routinely fact-check possibly false claims, including the AP, on the grounds that they couldn’t be trusted to evaluate facts impartially. The AP’s “fact check” on Trump and Streep inadvertently reinforced the right’s anti-media point so effectively that Breitbart simply republished it in full, sans commentary.

In a time when information and disinformation are vying for readers’ attention on the slanted battlefields of cable news and social media, scrupulous journalistic fact checking is as important as it’s ever been. But objectivity and neutrality are philosophically tenuous constructs to begin with, and it doesn’t help when the organizations that profess to them stray so blatantly and clumsily into partisanship. We don’t need the AP’s fact-checkers to crack cheap jokes at the president-elect’s expense. We have the rest of the internet for that.

What we need is for them to, as far as possible, stick to the facts, and let the rest of us argue about whether Trump is acting petty or Streep is overrated. OPINION: He is, and she isn’t.

Jan. 5 2017 6:15 PM

Yes, Homeowners Really Will Get Hosed by the Republican Tax Plan

On Wednesday, I published a piece arguing that the Republican tax plan would hurt home values by effectively killing off the mortgage interest deduction for middle-class families. A few readers have suggested that might not be such an awful policy move. So I want to elaborate on why it is.

To quickly review, the Republican tax blueprint that Paul Ryan rolled out this past summer calls for simplifying the IRS code by eliminating a number of breaks and nearly doubling the standard deduction to $24,000 for joint filers. Technically, the plan would keep the mortgage interest deduction in place. But with such a high standard deduction, very few people would choose to itemize. That would kill the tax advantage of having a mortgage, leading home prices to fall. People who paid more than $24,000 a year in mortgage interest would still get some benefit from the deduction, meaning that the luxury housing market would be comparatively unaffected.

I find this pretty terribly misguided. The mortgage interest deduction is a deeply flawed piece of policy that has inflated housing prices without expanding ownership much if at all and should be reformed. But doing it in a way that swiftly penalizes middle- and upper-middle-income homeowners while leaving the wealthy relatively unscathed isn't the way to approach the task.

I've seen a few points raised in response. I'd like to address three in particular.

First, some people have suggested that the House plan would still be a net positive to homeowners. If house prices drop, but middle-class families get a tax cut from the higher standard deduction, aren't they better off?

Not necessarily. The Tax Policy Center estimates that under the comprehensive House plan—which, to be fair, is just a preliminary sketch—the bottom 80 percent of households would see a less than 1 percent increase in their after-tax income. For a family in the fourth quintile, you're talking about a $410 annual bump.


Now, let's say a family in that income bracket owned a $200,000 house, which would be well below the median new home price of $305,000. As I mentioned in my earlier piece, a recent analysis from a Federal Reserve Board economist suggested that killing the mortgage interest deduction entirely could cause a 6.9 percent average drop in home prices. Let's say they fell less than half that much, by 3 percent. That would mean a $6,000 property value loss, equal to about 14 years' worth of the tax break they'd receive under the Ryan plan.

It gets worse, though. Houses tend to be heavily leveraged assets, so a small drop in value can erase a good chunk of a homeowner's equity. Let's say our hypothetical family owned 30 percent of their house, or had $60,000 in equity, with $140,000 on their mortgage. That 3 percent price drop would leave them with a $140,000 mortgage and $54,000 in equity—a 10 percent home-equity loss, all in exchange for a pretty meager tax cut.

That could have consequences for the rest of us, by the way. Economists have found a pretty strong “wealth effect” associated with housing: When prices go up, homeowners spend more; when prices drop, they spend less. A sudden contraction in the housing market can cause the whole economy to clam up.

The upshot: A bunch of middle-class homeowners would come out poorer in this bargain, and the broader country might pay a price for it.

Now, point two. Some have suggested that lowering home prices a bit would be a good thing, especially for young buyers, since housing costs are absolutely insane in many parts of the country.

I think that's a bit optimistic. Falling home values might make down payments more affordable. But the Fed Board analysis I pointed to earlier suggests that if the mortgage deduction goes, first-time homebuyers will be hurt more long-term by the higher borrowing costs than they’ll be helped by lower prices—even in places like San Francisco and New York.*

Finally, there are those like the Washington Examiner's Tim Carney, who allows that, yeah, there might be losers in this bargain, but their misfortune is worth the cost of a simpler tax code that lowers the burden for many and gets rid of distortions in housing prices.

But that's missing my point. We should reform the mortgage interest deduction, or maybe phase it out entirely. And I'm not necessarily against tax relief for lower earners; raising the standard deduction may even be a smart, simple way to offer it. But we need to do those things while minimizing the harm to homeowners who've made major financial decisions based on the current tax code. (Disclosure: I own my apartment. So do many people who'd be writing on this subject.) Congress could accomplish that by raising the standard deduction while turning the mortgage interest deduction into a set tax credit anybody could get whether or not they itemized. That would better target the policy's benefits at working-class homeowners without instantly yanking them away from slightly wealthier families and severely disrupting the market. You could then choose to sunset that credit over a decade or two—as Britain did with its mortgage subsidies—or keep it around. That approach would certainly be expensive. But we might be able to afford it if Congress wasn't contemplating a tax plan that slashed rates on millionaires and billionaires.

*Correction, Jan. 9, 2017: Because I goofed up reading the Fed paper, I originally reported that its author had concluded that eliminating the mortgage interest deduction entirely would cause home values to fall less in metro areas where housing supply is almost always tight, like San Francisco, than in more flexible markets, like Alexandria, Louisiana. The study basically says the opposite—in metro areas with greater price elasticity of housing supply, values fall less. Thankfully, for my dignity at least, other conclusions in the study support the broader point I was trying to make, which was that pushing down house prices by killing the mortgage interest deduction might not be that much of a boon to young homebuyers.