Personal Finance: The Best Advice is from Saturday Night Live

I have a special attachment to Saturday Night Live, since it debuted the same year I was born.  This skit is genius, and summarizes the best financial advice you are going to get this year.

You can watch it here on

Don’t Buy Stuff You Cannot Afford


Scene: a typical American kitchen. A husband (Steve Martin) and wife (Amy Poehler) are puzzling over their finances.

Wife: Oh, I just can’t get these numbers to add up
Husband: Like we’re never going to get out of this hole.
Wife: Credit card debt, does it ever end?
Salesman: [entering from who-knows-where] Maybe I can help.
Husband: We sure could use it.
Wife: We’ve tried debt consolidation companies.
Husband: We’ve even taken out loans to help make payments.
Salesman: Well, you’re not the only one. Did you know that millions of Americans live with debt they can not control? That’s why I developed this unique new program for managing your debt. [Holds up book] It’s called, “Don’t Buy Stuff You Cannot Afford”
Wife: Let me see that. [Reading from book] If you don’t have any money, you should not buy anything. Hmmm … sounds interesting.
Husband: Sounds confusing.
Wife: I don’t know honey, this makes a lot of sense. There’s a whole section here on how to buy expensive things using money you’ve “saved”.
Husband: Give me that. And where do you get this “saved” money?
Salesman: I tell you where and how in Chapter 3.
Wife: OK, what if I want something but I don’t have any money?
Salesman: You don’t buy it.
Husband: Let’s say, I don’t have enough money to buy something. Should I buy it anyway?
Salesman: No.
Husband: Now I’m really confused.
Salesman: It’s a little confusing at first.
Wife: What if you have the money, can you buy something?
Salesman: Yes.
Wife: Now, take the money away. Same story?
Salesman: Nope. You shouldn’t buy stuff when you don’t have the money.
Husband: I think I’ve got it. I buy something I want, then hope that I can pay for it. Right?
Salesman: No. You make sure you have money, then you buy it.
Husband: Oh, then you buy it! But shouldn’t you buy it before you have the money?
Salesman: No.
Wife: Why not?
Salesman: It’s in the book. It’s only one page long. The advice is priceless and the book is free.
Wife: Wow. I like the sound of that.
Husband: Yeah, we can put it on our credit card.
Announcer: So, get out of debt now. Write for your free copy of “Don’t Buy Stuff You Cannot Afford”. And, if you order now, you’ll also receive, “Seriously, If You Don’t Have the Money, Don’t Buy It” along with a twelve month subscription to “Stop Buying Stuff” Magazine. Order today.

Genius.  Pure Genius.  I feel like I’ve actually had this conversation with people before.

Problems with Obama’s Tax Credit = Tax Cut Accounting

I normally stay away from politically tinged posts.  Tonight, I’m posting two.

Call it formal recognition that the McCain candidacy is a lost cause, and that Obama is going to take the White House.  Futures on a McCain win are now down to 15.5% on the Iowa markets, even lower on the Intrade markets.  That’s bad for him, and good for everyone afraid of a McCain victory.  Since the Democrats will likely retain Congress, we will have, for the first time since 1992-1993, a full Democratic sweep.

So the topic turns to Obama, and what he’s likely to do in the next four years.  Obama, like Clinton, actually has a wide set of very smart economic advisors.  Unfortunately, they literally cover the spectrum of economic policy, from conservative to liberal perspectives.  Like Clinton, it’s hard to tell ahead of time which direction he’ll lean on once he’s in office.  It’s Robert Reich vs. Robert Rubin all over again.

This opinion piece ran in the WSJ last week, and it got me thinking.

Originally, I thought Obama’s tax plan was quite clever:

  • You can’t argue that income disparity hasn’t become extreme in the past decade
  • You can’t cut the taxes of most people, because 40% of Americans don’t owe any taxes
  • Most people will not accept higher tax rates to fund new entitlements/distributions
  • Solution: Effective negative tax rates!  That allows a progressive tax system to extend into the non-taxpayer minority, without having to approve new distributions.

The WSJ article, however, got me thinking about the accounting for all this, and it has some scary implications.  From the article:

The Tax Foundation estimates that under the Obama plan 63 million Americans, or 44% of all tax filers, would have no income tax liability and most of those would get a check from the IRS each year. The Heritage Foundation’s Center for Data Analysis estimates that by 2011, under the Obama plan, an additional 10 million filers would pay zero taxes while cashing checks from the IRS.

The basic idea is that Obama will change a large number of deductions to refundable tax credits.  That means that, effectively, a large minority of Americans will actually be paying negative taxes.

The problem sounds like semantics, but it has accounting implication:

When is a tax credit just a distribution?

Why does it matter?  Well, a tax credit is just treated like a negative tax.  So if I tax one person $1000, and give a tax credit of $200, it’s treated like $800 of tax revenue.

Welfare is treated like an expenditure.  If I tax one person $1000, and give $200 welfare to another, we declare $1000 of tax revenue, and $200 of spending.

Both net to $800, but have very different implications for the size of government and the perception of spending.

By using tax credits, Obama can state, with a straight face, that he isn’t going to raise taxes, he’s just going to redistribute the burden more fairly.  And technically, he’s correct.

However, if you treat tax credits as entitlement spending, then you see that what he actually could do is radically increase the tax burden on the country, but cancel out a large volume of transfer payments from the spending side of the equation.  So it looks like the tax burden has stayed the same.  It looks like spending has not increased.

But really what’s happened is that a whole new set of entitlements and taxes have come into existence, but cancel themselves out where no one can see them.

This may not sound like a big deal to you, but this type of accounting shenanigan looks highly prone to abuse.  Imagine what our debate about Social Security would look like if Social Security checks were positioned as tax credits instead of distributions?  Medicare.  Welfare.

I’m not saying that Obama will abuse this system per se, but it’s a bad accounting precedent, started by the Earned Income Tax Credit.  The CBO and GAO should declare that tax credits are distributions, and shift the accounting accordingly.  That would provide accurate transparency in the system, while still giving the government flexibility to tax & spend as it sees fit.

I’m not eager to see Enron-style accounting on this scale.

Update (10/16/2008): A few people have asked me for a concrete example of the problem here.  Here is an exaggerated one:

Imagine that Obama sets the income tax rate to 100%, and then gives back 80% of the money in tax credits.  By the Obama accounting, the government’s take would only be 20% of GDP.  However, in actually, the government has confiscated 100% of all income, and redistributed 80% of it.  The 100% is the number that truly reflects the government take, not the 20%.

Why the Liberal Political Engine is Working in 2008

“You have a great name. He must kill your name before he kills you.”

Juba, from the movie Gladiator

I’ve almost finished reading Paul Krugman’s The Conscience of a Liberal.  I’ll post a formal book review here soon, but right now, I wanted to highlight one of the insights that I gained from the book.

As a preface, Paul Krugman is a brilliant economist.  I’ve linked to his work here on this blog before.  He also, I’m afraid, is suffering from the aggressive form of anti-Bush psychosis – he hates the man & his policies so much that it’s pushed him into aggressively politicized commentary.  But it’s a common ailment these days, and likely to subside in the years to come.

However, in The Conscience of a Liberal, Krugman does the best job that I have ever seen laying out the principles and case for an aggressively liberal economic agenda in the United States.  Obama hints at these elements at times, but rarely pieces them together as effectively as Krugman does in this book.

I’ll save my evaluation of his analysis for a later post, but I wanted to highlight the reason that I think Obama & Krugman are onto something powerful politically here in 2008.  Sure, the timing is good:  Iraq, Katrina, and now the housing/financial crisis are a great backdrop for change.  But 2008 doesn’t feel like 1992 does it?  Let’s remember that the only people with a lower popularity than our Republican President is our Democratic Congress.

Here is my theory:

The liberals have learned, and learned well from the mistakes in 2000-2004.  They can’t defeat the conservative economic agenda of the past thirty years without killing the names of the heroes of those years.  Clinton made this compromise, but while it preserved him even in the face of the 1994 Republic Congressional wins, it didn’t make the party stronger.  As recently as 2004, people were talking about a permanent Republican majority.  (Yes, it wasn’t that long ago).

No, to win, they have to convince the American people that the entire last 25 years were a mistake.  The economic boom and resurgence of productivity post-1982 didn’t happen, or was fake in some way.  Reagan was not a great President.  Milton Friedman was not a brilliant economist.  Robert Rubin was not a great Treasury Secretary.  Alan Greenspan was not a great Federal Reserve Chairman.

Yes, to do this, they will have to throw Clinton & Rubin under the bus.  But that just might be the only way to really sell a liberal economic agenda.

Obama actually doesn’t stick to this line clearly – he has made “mistakes” in his campaign by praising Reagan and Clinton at times.  He’s inclusive, right?  But reading Krugman’s book gave me a clearer insight into the strategy, and it’s not a bad one.  Convince everyone that the last 25-30 years of economic progress/thinking was a mistake.  Rewind to the New Deal and the decades after it as a lost ideal.  Map the past thirty years to the 1890-1928 era.

Of course, intellectually, it’s not a terribly compelling position.  You aren’t going to be able to re-create the economic conditions of post-WWII America ever again, globally.  And of course, we now know that huge pieces of the government response to the market crash of 1929 were counter-productive, extending the Great Depression.  The US Government share of the economy is now close to 19% compared to less than 5% in the 1929.  Analogies to the 1960s really don’t help either, since the 1960s led to the 1970s.  Ugh.

Still, I think the strategy has legs.  If they can kill the economic heroes of the past 30 years (Friedman, Reagan, Rubin, Greenspan), we might really see a successful liberal economic agenda in the United States.  The combination of the Bush Presidency with the current economic morass produces an ideal backdrop for reconsidering economic policy.

Watch the news.  I’m seeing elements of this meme everywhere now.  It seems to be taking hold, even if people don’t see the pattern.  Example: Culprits of the Collapse, soon to air on CNN.

“You have a great name. He must kill your name before he kills you.”

Juba, from the movie Gladiator