Monday, October 2, 2023

Wisconsin maps rigged? OF COURSE THEY ARE! So what's the problem with admitting it?

With the possiblity of Wisconsin's gerrymandered maps being taken up by the Wisconsin Supreme Court in the coming weeks, this post from a UW-La Crosse PoliSci professor piqued my interest.

PlanScore is done by a group of PoliSci professors throughout America, and tries to figure out how fair (or unfair) district maps are across the 50 states. It also looks at the last 50 years of these maps, and how they affected outcomes.

Having that history helps illustrate how slanted Wisconsin's maps are today. Here's the analysis done by PlanScore on Wisconsin's legislative maps for the 2000s, when courts drew the maps following a deadlock between a split Legislature and Republican Governor Tommy Thompson.

So in a 50-50 vote split under those maps, Republicans would win around 55 seats in the Assembly (55.6% of the seats), and Democrats 44. That's quite a bit different than what we have under the current GOP gerrymander, which is set up to give a 63-36 GOP advantage in a 50-50 year.

But PlanScore also has a measure known as mean-median, which gives an idea about where the "crossover" percentage is where control of the chamber can flip.

So the "50th seat" was around less than 54-46 GOP, allowing Dems to be likely to win the Assembly in a year they won by more than 8 points. And in 2008, when Barack Obama won Wisconsin by 14 points in the presidential election, Dems did take control.

But that wouldn't come close to happening under the current GOP gerrymander, as that "50th seat" ends up around 58-42 GOP.

Bruce Thompson made a similar observation in his Data Wonk column in Urban Milwaukee. Thompson imputed the vote totals in the close Wisconsin Senate race of 2022 (where GOP Ron Johnson won by 1%), and broke down the results by Assembly district. Using that information, he developed the following chart to predict how both Democrats and Republicans would fare with various % totals statewide.

Look at that gap between how GOPs and Dems do when they get between 45% and 55% of the vote. Thompson says this results in an advantage of 20+ seats in the Assembly for Republicans.
How much more generous is reflected in the next graph, showing the number of districts won by each party, depending on their statewide vote. If Democrats received 44.5% of the statewide vote, they would win about 32 of the 99 Assembly districts. By contrast, Republicans would win 52 districts if they received 44.5% of the vote. Thus, while losing the state-wide vote, they would still control the Assembly.

These numbers and other analyses are why the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel's Craig Gilbert wrote a recent breakdown that was titled: "Are Wisconsin's election maps 'rigged'? Here are the reasons the answer is yes.
Today’s map and the previous [2010s] map were intended to significantly boost [Republicans'] “natural” advantage by creating the greatest number possible of safe GOP seats. Doing so also required minimizing the number of competitive seats, which meant there would be fewer individual districts in play and less uncertainty about the overall outcome.

My conclusion from studying the previous gerrymander was that both factors — partisan line-drawing and the state’s political geography (where Democrats and Republicans live) — contributed significantly to the partisan tilt in the map.....

If Wisconsin ends up in the months or years to come with a non-gerrymandered legislative map, that map will probably still leave Republicans with a better chance than Democrats of winning the Legislature.

But that advantage won’t be nearly as lopsided as it is now. And it won’t be deeply artificial. It will make the overall battle for legislative control in this 50/50 state less predetermined (or “rigged”). It will almost certainly increase the number of competitive districts. It will make the outcome of legislative elections more meaningful and more responsive to public opinion and election swings, which will make the party in power more accountable.

That would be good for the state, good for elections, and good for voters.
Heck, Robbin' Vos admitted that is was HIS RIGHT to rig the maps for himself and his fellow Republicans.

So when Janet Protasiewicz was running for Supreme Court earlier this year, and said Wisconsin's legislative maps are rigged, she was making a statement of fact. She didn't say if it was the Supreme Court's role to do anything to those maps, or what they would do to them. And besides, Robbin' Vos is proud to admit he rigged the maps, since the victor (from 2010) gets the spoils (13 years later).

So explain how can you impeach a justice for a factual statement, and before the justice has ever taken any action to change the rigged maps? Under state law, you can't. Justice Protasiewicz and the rest of the Wisconsin Supreme Court should ignore the whining from the gerrymandered GOP Legislature, hear the case, make a decision and impose the remedy, and take it from there.

Saturday, September 30, 2023

Incomes, spending solid in US, and 2023's figures look better, with inflation ghost fading

On Friday, we got the always-important information on income and spending for August. And the numbers seemed OK in the US on that front.

The other big number in the report that many look at is the PCE price index, which was also up 0.4%. But much of that was the rise in gasoline in August that was not repeated in September, and the "core" inflation number (outside of food and gasoline) was only up 0.1%. To be fair, consumer spending outside of gasoline was basically flat, so a bit of a warning of a slowdown, especially if it repeats in September.

But more interesting to me was that the spending and income numbers were also updated for several years before, and corresponding with the updates in GDP that we saw early in the week. Those updated numbers show that even as inflation has waned in the last year, the amount of income growth has gone up, and 2023's growth is even better than originally reported.

But that lack of income growth from mid-2021 to mid-2022, which happened as prices were rising by 8-9%, reduced the real income gains that happened from stimulus in 2020 and 2021, and the updated data has indicated that that stretch of inflation was likely more stressful to many than we would have thought. Those inflation-related losses have now reversed for much of 2023, showing steady growth with lower inflation.

Consumption numbers were also updated, and not only did it reiterate the boom that happened in early 2021 (as the first round of COVID vaccinations came in, and the economy reopened in wider levels), that recovery was even faster than we knew. But we've also had more moderation in spending growth in 2022 and 2023.

2022 and 2023 also coincides with rapid interest rate hikes by the Federal Reserve, which were intended to....slow down the economy and price growth. But it also makes me ask why we'd risk turning the slowdown into recession by continuing to choke off the housing market and increasing the cost of credit.

These updated numbers show the Fed was clearly late in moving interest rates off of the near-zero levels they were at for much of 2021 (in fairness, I probably was worried they and Congress were trying to choke off the recovery too soon). But they've also overshot at this point, and need to reduce the Fed Funds levels back to a balanced place, instead of the multi-decade highs that we are at today.

Thursday, September 28, 2023

GDP looks solid. Savings are higher, but home sales are lower. So why keep rates high?

Today had the third and final short-term revisions for 2nd Quarter GDP in 2023, and not much news out of that.

But while the 2nd quarter numbers didn't change much, and shouldn't change our evaluations of where things are, the bigger story to me is that the GDP report also included revisions to past years. And in particular, look at the positive revisions to income and savings.
Current-dollar personal income is now estimated to have increased $369.8 billion in the first quarter [of 2023], an upward revision of $91.9 billion from the previous estimate. The revision primarily reflected an upward revision to compensation (led by private wages and salaries).

Disposable personal income increased $701.8 billion, or 15.5 percent, in the first quarter, an upward revision of $113.9 billion from the previous estimate. Real disposable personal income increased 10.8 percent, an upward revision of 2.3 percentage points.

Personal saving was $948.2 billion in the first quarter, an upward revision in change of $132.9 billion. The personal saving rate—personal saving as a percentage of disposable personal income—was 4.8 percent in the first quarter, an upward revision of 0.5 percentage point.
That means that real wage growth was better than we knew at the start of the year, and that American consumers were saving more in a time of higher interest rates. These are things that the Federal Reserve allegedly should welcome, as higher savings rates lessen the threat of inflation. At the same time, the 1st Quarter gross domestic purchases price index was revised down to 3.6% from the originally-reported 3.8%. And then Q2's inflation got lower than that.

Yet the Fed looks at this, and continues to think they have to keep interest rates at a multi-decade high. And now we are starting to see that home-buying activity is getting frozen, as people don't want to take on higher interest rates to borrow for a house.

But jobless claims are back down to their lowest levels since February, and if the Fed actually cared about the Main Street economy, they'd realize that inflation isn't a threat now, the economy is in good balance, and they'd lower interest rates back into a balanced state as well.

And start it sooner than later, before the high interest rates turn our leveling off of spending into a straight-up decline that translates into job losses.

Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Oil is back toward $100. And it's due to Wall Street, not Main Street

Bad enough that Republicans in Congress are set to shut down the federal government as they argue amongst themselves and (as Paul Ryan told fellow WIsconsinites this week) "look like fools" and "can't govern," but we also had a spike in oil prices today.
US oil prices topped $94 a barrel on Wednesday for the first time in over a year, threatening to push up prices at the pump and inflation across the economy.

The latest gains came after federal data showed crude inventories fell by more than expected last week. Stockpiles at the closely watched Cushing, Oklahoma, storage hub plunged to nine-year lows.

“There’s not a lot of oil there and that’s causing some nervousness,” said Tom Kloza, global head of energy analysis at Oil Price Information Service.
But while gasoline availability is not exactly the same as oil availability, I'll note that gas in late September remains more plentiful in America than it's been in any year that wasn't smack dab in the middle of a pandemic.

And Americans continue to moderate their gasoline consumption, using significant less gas than we were in the late 2010s.

And if the shutdown lasts for a significant time, then it might slow the US economy (at least temporarily). So why would oil futures keep rising?
Analysts say bullish bets by hedge funds and other market speculators have helped fuel the latest rally.

“They are gunning for $100 and at this rate they’ll get there. It has a self-fulfilling element to it,” said Robert Yawger, vice director of energy futures at Mizuho Securities. “The sky is the limit.”
There it is. All speculation and BS. Very frustrating, especially if this causes prices as the pump to jump past $4 in these parts in the next month. It's not based on structural realities, just a cynical hope.

Monday, September 25, 2023

WisGOPs want to stop taxing retirement income.....for rich people

Tomorrow, it looks like the Joint Finance Committee is going to take on the Wisconsin GOP's tax cut package. I've already discussed a bit about the reduction from 5.3% to 4.4% for a large swath of Wisconsinites, and I instead want to concentrate about the provisions on retirement income.

The Legislative Fiscal Bureau says the retiree income exemption would end up costing nearly $1 bilion in the next 2 years, and the LFB describes how the retirement tax break would work.
Exclusion for Retirement Income. Beginning in tax year 2023, AB 386 would exclude the first $100,000 of retirement income currently subject to state tax received by each individual who is at least 67 years of age before the close of the taxable year. For married-joint filers where each spouse has attained age 67, the maximum exclusion would equal $150,000. For married-separate filers who have attained age 67, the exclusion claimed by each spouse could not exceed $75,000. [For comparison, the estimated average state-taxable retirement income under current law for individuals with retirement income in tax year 2023 is $37,530 for married-joint filers and $22,140 for all other filers.] The bill would prohibit a taxpayer who claims this exclusion from claiming any state income tax credits provided under current law in the same tax year...

Retirement income, for purposes of the exclusion, would be defined as payments or distributions received each year by an individual from a qualified retirement plan under the Internal Revenue Code under 26 USC 408 [such as distributions from a pension, 401(k), or 403(b)] or from an IRA established under specified provisions of federal law, which are generally subject to RMDs. The proposed exclusion would not apply to any retirement income which is already exempt under any of the aforementioned provisions of current state law (to prevent an exclusion from being claimed twice on the same income). Distributions from qualified after-tax retirement plans for which tax had already been paid (such as a Roth IRA, Roth 401(k), or Roth 403(b) plan) would not receive an additional tax benefit under the bill.
So we're talking about the richest retirees getting this tax break, especially when you remember what type of "reitree income" is already exempt from Wisconsin income taxes.
Under current law, the following retirement income categories are excluded from Wisconsin AGI: (a) Social Security benefits; (b) payments from the U.S. military employee retirement system and U.S. government retirement payments received by members of the U.S. Coast Guard, the Commissioned Corps of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Commissioned Corps of the Public Health Service; (c) income from certain public retirement systems if the individual was a member of, or retired from, that system prior to 1964; and (d) up to $5,000 of retirement income for taxpayers aged 65 or over with federal AGI of less than $15,000 per filer or less than $30,000 for married-joint filers. Together, these provisions are estimated to reduce individual income tax revenues by nearly $950 million in tax year 2024 under current law (the exclusion for Social Security benefits accounts for an estimated $900 million [95%] of this total).
In addition to the regressive nature, I had not heard about that provision which says that taking this tax break for "retirement income" would make elderly taxpayers ineligible for other tax credits. Take a look at the list that the LFB included with their analysis.

Itemized deduction credit that gives you 5% back for things such as charitable donations and mortgage interest? Property tax credits? Homestead Credit? Property tax credits for veterans and surviving spouses? Is that worth writing off some IRA distributions for, or your investment income? Only if you make a lot of money.

This is why I'd like to see the upper limit of this retiree tax break reduced to $25,000 single/$50,000 for married-joint filers. And I bet it would reduce the price tag by quite a bit. I'd also like to see older Wisconsinites be able to use property and Homestead tax credits that are key for homeowners (and particularly elderly homeowners).

I'd also disassociate it from the reduction in income tax rates that is part of this bill, and separate both out. Perhaps that would help in getting some kind of compromise between the Legislature and Governor Evers, instead of blowing the entire surplus in 2 years. But I have a feeling that the WisGOPs are less interested in passing anything into law, and more into playing poser games that sound good to low-info voters.

Catching up from a weekend in the North.. of Indiana

Had a very fun weekend to get away from the oddness and seriousness of what happens to me in Wisconsin. Headed out to West Lafayette, Indiana to see the alma mater play Purdue in football, which went well enough. Seats and the tailgate were quite good as well, as I met up with a couple of Boiler graduate friends that also came in for the weekend.

A Bucky win and a fun night out is a great combination.

For Saturday, we met up at a nearby BW-3, and one of my friends helped me get set up with a Draft Kings sports betting account. For doing so, the $75 I deposited into my account got matched with a free $75 bet from DraftKings, and my friend also got a $75 free bet. Then I took advantage of having a $6 bet on the Marlins making the MLB playoffs (at +230, as a hedge against a higher-odds bet I made in March to have the Cubs make the playoffs), and then I got another $200 in free bets (in the form of 8 $25 bets).

I know the idea behind these promotions – get you in the door, and you inevitably become a regular bettor and deposit more money over time. But I still don’t see how DraftKings can make this work long-term if they’re still offering these deals in most states. Out of that $75 I put in, I took out $175 after Saturday’s college football action. Yes, my bets went OK for the weekend, but it’s not like I was on an epic run, and I still have another $140 in that account after putting in all of those free bets.

Honestly, the big winner was probably that BW-3 that me and a couple of friends hung at. We got food and drink for both the early afternoon, and for a later session in the evening. But I also took a couple of hours off to recharge (both myself and my phone) and then walk around town on a sparkling 80-degree day.

I also couldn’t help but ignore the large number of new high-rise, nice-looking apartments near campus, and in downtown Lafayette across the river. This seems to be the trend in college towns and nearby metro areas these days. West Lafayette even has a higher-end apartment complex called the Hub near campus, just like we do in the Mad City.

On Sunday, I got a chance to check out another Boiler tradition – the Triple X diner.

Good stuff, although I was glad I got in early before the small place got crowded. Also reasonably-priced vs what I’m used to in Madison. Then I drove toward home, dropped in to an Illinois Tollway Oasis to drop some NFL bets and a couple of other MLB futures (this time through my Caesar’s app, in an account I previously had funds in), and got back on the highway home.

Quick sidelight - gas prices were definitely higher in Illinois and Indiana. Often exceeding $4 a gallon in Illinois and around $3.80 or so in Indiana. I'll also note that both Illinois and Indiana have sales tax with their gasoline, which likely helps when it comes to paying for things, but also makes it cost quite a bit more than it does here in Wisconsin.

In my last hour of driving, I heard the Packers fall behind the Saints early on. Then I got home, and the Pack stayed down until the early 4th Quarter. But then something strange happened on the way to an injury-marred loss.

That was a pleasant surprise, wasn’t it? And not a bad way to end a sports-centric weekend that made for a good break from what is often an infuriating larger world. Top it off with getting surprisingly good grub from City BBQ (complete with a $5-off coupon for a birthday I had 3 weeks ago!), and I can’t complain whatsoever.

Now it’s time to get back to normal in a more normal work week….Well, at least until the Brewers can win 1 more game and clinch the division. Would have been nice if that happened this weekend, but I guess I couldn’t get it all. That’s OK, I got plenty of good things from those 3 days, and I hope you did too.

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Powell and other Fed bankers plan to keep interest rates high, no matter what reality is telling them

The Federal Reserve decided against making any change to interest rates that are at a 22-year high. But Wall Streeters were caring less about what the Fed might do today, and wanted a better hint at what they might do in the future.

But while the Fed thinks the real economy will be in better shape, you also should notice that they project interest rates to stay at these elevated levels for the rest of 2023, at a 1/2 point higher for 2024 and 2025 than they projected back in June.

Guess what that did to stocks, especially after Fed Chair Jerome Powell's press conference around 2:30 Eastern reiterated the "higher for longer" outlook on interest rates?

Still trying to crush an inflation ghost that has long since been diminished. And why President Biden doesn't pressure Powell the way Donald Trump did when the Fed Funds rate wasn't even 1/2 as high as it is now is beyond me.