How Many Jobs Does $447 Billion Buy?

Picture yourself standing in front of the egg case at your favorite supermarket. The shelves are stacked six feet high with cartons, and above it all is a big sign: “Eggs $100.”

How do you react? It depends on the assumptions you make.

Most of us would figure that the price is $100 for a dozen eggs, since that is the usual quantity in which eggs are sold. The Federal Reserve’s current policy of hyper-easy money notwithstanding, $100 is a grossly inflated price for a dozen eggs – or even a gross (a dozen dozen) of eggs. We’d probably walk away shaking our heads.

But if the price is $100 for all the eggs in the egg case, it’s a good deal. You might have to own a chain of roadside diners to take advantage of it, but if you needed that many eggs, you would be thrilled to buy them for just $100.

President Obama wants to sell us some eggs…er, jobs. The price tag for his American Jobs Act is $447 billion. That ought to make one heck of an omelet. So the first question we ought to ask is exactly how many eggs (dang it! jobs!) the president is selling.

The trouble is, he won’t say.

Not once in his not-quite-prime-time speech to Congress last week did the president attach a number to his proposal. He did tell the lawmakers, eight times by my count, to “pass this jobs bill.” He actually used the word “jobs” 77 times. Maybe this was a sort of code. The president may have expected us to infer that his plan would create one job, or 10 jobs, or 100 jobs, for each time he used the word “jobs.” But I missed the memo where he told us what ratio we were supposed to use.

So if we want to decide whether we like the price of the president’s plan, we have to rely on other people to estimate what he is offering. That’s tough, since people have a fairly wide range of opinions about how many jobs the president’s proposals will actually generate.

Like many business owners and managers, I seriously doubt the American Jobs Act will produce many American jobs. Obama wants to extend and expand the payroll tax cut that took effect for employees this year. I am currently deciding whether to hire a couple of people over the next 12 months, and I can assure you that a one-year cut in Social Security taxes that I will pay for them is not a factor in the decision. This payroll tax cut is the centerpiece of the president’s program. But if I hire someone in 2012, only to let them go in 2013, the resulting rise in the unemployment tax rates that I will pay for all 25 of my employees will offset the payroll tax savings I got for that one employee for a year. I can only sensibly hire somebody if I expect to need that person for an extended period.

The president and those who like his plan don’t seem to care much about the views of people who actually do the hiring. They find the analysis of economists more persuasive.

The New York Times, helpfully if anonymously, reported on Saturday that economists expect the president’s plan to produce between 500,000 and 2 million jobs. The paper did not say how long the economists expect those jobs to last, but since Obama’s bill is mostly about short-term stimulus (a word he used zero times last week), I’ll just assume that each job will last for one year.

Now I can get my mathematical arms around the problem. If we pay $447 billion and produce 1 million jobs, we will be paying $447,000 per job per year. Those would have to be awfully good jobs. Too good to be true.

At the optimistic end of the scale, 2 million jobs would bring the unit cost down to just below $250,000 a year. If people actually earned anywhere near the amount the president wants to spend to keep them employed, this would be a handsome sum. So handsome, in fact, that each beneficiary would qualify for a tax increase in 2013, since the president has reasserted his position that the folks he calls “millionaires and billionaires,” even those that earn a lot less than $1 million, should pay for all the good stuff he wants to do before voters go to the polls in 2012.

On the other hand, at just 500,000 jobs, the cost would be $894,000 per job. At that price level, the president might as well make everyone in the country a millionaire or billionaire, so he will have more people to tax to cover the cost of making everyone rich.

But we’re left to guess. The White House isn’t saying how many jobs the American Jobs Act would create, probably because this is the only sure-fire way to avoid being blamed for the failure of people like me, who insist on weighing what we spend against what we get, to create any jobs.

The way I see it, the president hung a sign telling us his eggs cost $447 billion. Then he threw a big drop cloth over the egg case.

About Larry M. Elkin 525 Articles

Affiliation: Palisades Hudson Financial Group

Larry M. Elkin, CPA, CFP®, has provided personal financial and tax counseling to a sophisticated client base since 1986. After six years with Arthur Andersen, where he was a senior manager for personal financial planning and family wealth planning, he founded his own firm in Hastings on Hudson, New York in 1992. That firm grew steadily and became the Palisades Hudson organization, which moved to Scarsdale, New York in 2002. The firm expanded to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in 2005, and to Atlanta, Georgia, in 2008.

Larry received his B.A. in journalism from the University of Montana in 1978, and his M.B.A. in accounting from New York University in 1986. Larry was a reporter and editor for The Associated Press from 1978 to 1986. He covered government, business and legal affairs for the wire service, with assignments in Helena, Montana; Albany, New York; Washington, D.C.; and New York City’s federal courts in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Larry established the organization’s investment advisory business, which now manages more than $800 million, in 1997. As president of Palisades Hudson, Larry maintains individual professional relationships with many of the firm’s clients, who reside in more than 25 states from Maine to California as well as in several foreign countries. He is the author of Financial Self-Defense for Unmarried Couples (Currency Doubleday, 1995), which was the first comprehensive financial planning guide for unmarried couples. He also is the editor and publisher of Sentinel, a quarterly newsletter on personal financial planning.

Larry has written many Sentinel articles, including several that anticipated future events. In “The Economic Case Against Tobacco Stocks” (February 1995), he forecast that litigation losses would eventually undermine cigarette manufacturers’ financial position. He concluded in “Is This the Beginning Of The End?” (May 1998) that there was a better-than-even chance that estate taxes would be repealed by 2010, three years before Congress enacted legislation to repeal the tax in 2010. In “IRS Takes A Shot At Split-Dollar Life” (June 1996), Larry predicted that the IRS would be able to treat split dollar arrangements as below-market loans, which came to pass with new rules issued by the Service in 2001 and 2002.

More recently, Larry has addressed the causes and consequences of the “Panic of 2008″ in his Sentinel articles. In “Have We Learned Our Lending Lesson At Last” (October 2007) and “Mortgage Lending Lessons Remain Unlearned” (October 2008), Larry questioned whether or not America has learned any lessons from the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s. In addition, he offered some practical changes that should have been made to amend the situation. In “Take Advantage Of The Panic Of 2008” (January 2009), Larry offered ways to capitalize on the wealth of opportunity that the panic presented.

Larry served as president of the Estate Planning Council of New York City, Inc., in 2005-2006. In 2009 the Council presented Larry with its first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award, citing his service to the organization and “his tireless efforts in promoting our industry by word and by personal example as a consummate estate planning professional.” He is regularly interviewed by national and regional publications, and has made nearly 100 radio and television appearances.

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