Explaining Southern California's economy

Why are politicians fixated on a 'simple' tax code?

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kenteegardin/Flickr

Pictured: the advanced technology used to calculate the nation's taxes.

Herman Cain has his 999 plan. It's so much simpler than the excessively complex system we have now. Rick Perry just unveiled his 20-20 plan, which is also so much simpler than the excessively complex system we have now. And just today, I heard California Senator Dianne Feinstein support a recommendation, from Erksine Bowles and Alan Simpson's Deficit Commission, to reduce out current six tax brackets to three: 12, 20, and 27 percent (the top rate is now 35 percent).

Simplicity, it seems, sells. But why?

If anything, federal taxes are far easier to file than ever. I used TurboTax for the first time this year and, once I had gathered all my documents, the process consumed about an hour. In 1979, however, long before TurboTax came along, people managed to deal with 17 tax brackets, using a Bic ballpoint and calculator. In 1945, they confronted 24 brackets with nothing more than a No. 2 pencil, a pad of paper, a pack of Lucky Strikes, and stiff drink.

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Sen. Dianne Feinstein discusses economy, foreign affairs, taxes, and politics at Town Hall Los Angeles

Sen. Dianne Feinstein

Matt DeBord/KPCC

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles, speaks at a Town Hall event.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein sat down with Mark Baldassare, CEO of the Public Policy Institute of California, in front of a packed lunchtime audience today at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles. The two discussed economic challenges facing the U.S., the Occupy Wall Street movement, tax reform, and political gridlock in Washington, D.C.

"If you elect people who want to solve problems, you can get something done," Feinstein, who has been representing California for nearly 20 years in Congress, stated. "If you elect people who pound the table, you can't get anything done."

Feinstein, a Democrat, followed this indictment of Republican intractability by pointing out that she considers it unlikely that the remaining aspects of President Obama's jobs bill will pass, including a provision that would establish an national infrastructure bank, still to be voted on. 

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Student loan relief: Obama tries to keep good debt from going bad

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Brittany Knotts/KPCC

Many students who graduate from 4-year universities have student loan debt

President Obama, to his credit, is doing what he can to address problems in two of the three big debt markets in the U.S. He's rolled out a plan to enable borrowers who are underwater on their mortgages to refinance, taking advantage of historically low interest rates. And now he's turned his attention to student loan debt, which has ballooned in recent years as the cost of higher education has risen beyond the rate of inflation.

That leaves credit card debt and to a lesser extent auto loan debt. We're unlikely to see anything on that front, however, because the government doesn't backstop that kind of lending.

The student loan initiative is being driven by the crappy economy. Students have borrowed very large sums to fund their educations, but in many cases they can't get jobs in the face of 9 percent national unemployment. If they can find work, the pay isn't enough to service the debt. And overall student loan debt is now massive, at more than a trillion bucks.

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The Housing Crisis: Can prices fall even farther?

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Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

A foreclosure sign sits in front of a home for sale.

Another month, another Case-Shiller index on housing prices — and more bad news for the housing economy. This is from the Wall Street Journal:

The Case-Shiller data come on the heels of the White House's revamp of a mortgage-refinance program for "underwater" borrowers—those who owe more than their homes are worth. But economists say there are few quick fixes for the housing crisis, and easier refinancing rules will do little to address weak demand for homes.

"It was a very bad spring-to-summer-market season," said Nancy Wallace, a finance professor at the University of California at Berkeley. She said a turnaround in the housing market remains largely dependent on loosening credit and a surge in hiring. "People are almost afraid to apply for mortgages and lots of people have little scratches and dents on their credit right now."

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PHOTOS: A Visit to Idealab in Pasadena

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Matthew DeBord

Welcome to Idealab, a new business incubator founded in 1996 and located in Pasadena, Calif.

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Matthew DeBord

Entrepreneurs in an innovation tank need aquatic life in an aquarium, for metaphorical reasons and to relieve startup stress.

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Matthew DeBord

Idealab is currently working with a number of companies in its innovative, open-space environment.

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Matthew DeBord

Idealab provides the services that startups require, including legal and HR.

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Matthew DeBord

If you're an entrepreneur, you're going to need financial advice, at some point. Maybe at every point.

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Matthew DeBord

It isn't just social media startups and tech companies. Idealab maintains a workshop for entrepreneurs who need to build stuff out of something other than bytes.

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Matthew DeBord

It never hurts to have an accessible rooftop, where you can prototype solar projects.

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Matthew DeBord

I'm Matt DeBord, your DeBord Report business and economics blogger from KPCC 89.3, and I approve of this visit to Idealab. More to come...


Today, I dropped by Idealab, the business incubator in Pasadena, to learn a bit more about the startup scene in Southern California. They were kind enough to show me around their unique space and briefly chat about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it. 

Here's a timeline of the operation, which was founded in 1996 by Bill Gross and has moved through a number of iterations. They are to a certain extent building the future here, and that's always a good energy to be around. Idealab is also fostering new businessers and new technologies right here in SoCal, establishing an interesting alternative to the Bay Area (although certainly not acting as if NoCal doesn't exist). They're even beginning to explore so-called "angel" investing, with a new in-house ventures group.

Have a look around! And, if you want to get a sense of how entrepeneurship is affecting working life in Los Angeles during an economic downturn, check out KPCC's Shereen Marisol Meraji and her visit to NextSpace, a co-working business in Culver City.

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