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No one told Greg Mankiw about the Great Recession

October 8, 2018 1 comment

from Dean Baker

We all know how difficult it is for elite economists at places like Harvard to get information about the economy, so perhaps we should excuse him for this little mess up. Of course if he had heard of the Great Recession he would not be writing a piece in the New York Times telling us that trade deficits really don’t matter:

“Nations run trade deficits when their spending on consumption and investment, both private and public, exceeds the value of goods and services they produce. If you really want to reduce a trade deficit, the way to do it is to bring down spending relative to production, not to demonize trading partners around the world.”

If Mankiw had heard about the Great Recession he would have known that countries often face shortfalls in demand, meaning that we have unemployment because there is not enough demand (i.e. spending on consumption and investment). In this context, if we reduce domestic spending, as Mankiw advocates, it may reduce the trade deficit somewhat, but it will also lead to a further reduction in demand and loss of jobs.  Read more…

Trump’s tariffs on Chinese imports are actually a tax on the US middle class

October 1, 2018 3 comments

from Dean Baker

In his escalating trade war with China, Donald Trump is acting increasingly like Captain Queeg in the Caine Mutiny. He has imposed a 10 percent tariff on $200 billion in US imports from China, a rate he proposes to increase to 25 percent at the start of the next year. He also is threatening tariffs on the rest of our imports from China, an additional $300 billion in goods and services.

The straight arithmetic tells us that 10 percent of $200 billion is $20 billion on an annual basis. If this rises to 25 percent next year, the tariffs would be $50 billion. If we add in 10 percent tariffs on another $300 billion, that comes to $30 billion, bringing the total to $80 billion.

While Trump talks as though he thinks his tariffs are taxing China, they aren’t. Most immediately, they are a tax on US households. The full $80 billion would come to a bit less than $600 per household.

It is true that the tariffs will not be passed on dollar for dollar. Some companies will decide it’s better to see their profit market squeezed than pass on the full price increase. This means that Apple and Nike may not raise the price for the iPhone and running shoes by the full amount of the tariff.

In that case, a portion of the tax will be borne by US companies manufacturing items in China. This is fine, since corporate profits are near record highs as a share of GDP. But, this is still not taxing China.

There will be some spillovers where either Chinese companies importing items to the US end up with less money or Chinese suppliers selling to US companies are forced to accept less money, but there is little doubt that the bulk of the tariff will be borne by the US. Trump is effectively proposing one of the largest tax increases on the middle class in memory.  Read more…

Getting serious about debt and deficits: the deficit hawks did enormous harm to our kids

September 27, 2018 15 comments

from Dean Baker

Debt and Deficits, Again

With the possibility that the Democrats will retake Congress and press demands for increased spending in areas like health care, education, and child care, the deficit hawks (DH) are getting prepared to awaken from their dormant state. We can expect major news outlets to be filled with stories on how the United States is on its way to becoming the next Greece or Zimbabwe. For this reason, it is worth taking a few moments to reorient ourselves on the topic.

First, we need some basic context. The DH will inevitable point to the fact that deficits are at historically high levels for an economy that is near full employment. They will also point to a rapidly rising debt to GDP ratio. Both complaints are correct, the question is whether there is a reason for anyone to care.

Just to remind everyone, the classic story of deficits being bad is that they crowd out investment and net exports, which makes us poorer in the future than we would otherwise be. The reason is that less investment means less productivity growth, which means that people will have lower income five or ten years in the future than if we had smaller budget deficits. Lower net exports mean that foreigners are accumulated U.S. assets, which will give them a claim on our future income.

Debt is bad because it means a larger portion of future income will go to people who own the debt. This means that the government has to use up a larger share of the money it raises in taxes to pay interest on the debt rather than for services like health care and education. Or, to put it in a more Keynesian context, there will be more demand coming from people who own the debt, which means the government would need higher taxes, to support the same level of spending, than would otherwise be the case.  Read more…

Cheap tricks with economic statistics: the democratic version

September 22, 2018 7 comments

from Dean Baker

We all know Donald Trump’s tendency to make up numbers to tell everyone what a great job he is doing as president. People are rightly appalled, both that Trump is not doing a great job, but also that he is lying to imply otherwise.

While Trump is clearly over the top in just inventing data to back his argument, Democrats are also often not very straightforward in assessing the data. We got a dose of that last week when there were complaints that the rate of income growth had slowed down in 2017 compared with 2016 and 2015.

Workers should be unhappy about the pace of income growth. They have much ground to make up following the losses of the Great Recession and the weak growth even prior to the downturn, but the main reason that income growth was slower in 2017 than in 2016 and 2015 is that oil, and energy prices more generally, rose in 2017 after falling the prior two years.

As a result of the reversal in oil prices, inflation was 2.1 percent in 2017, compared to 1.3 percent in 2016, and just 0.1 percent in 2015. This means that even though there was a very modest acceleration in nominal wage growth, and comparable gains in employment in all three years, the growth in income adjusted for inflation was far lower in 2017 than in the prior two years.

Workers have to pay for gas and heating oil, so the rise in energy prices does affect their living standards. In that sense, the weaker income growth in 2017 is very real, but this hardly represents some new failure of the political system. The speeding of income growth in 2015 and 2016, and its slowing in 2017, are just the story of fluctuating world oil prices, which any honest analyst should acknowledge.  Read more…

The best way to remove corruption in medicine: take the money out

September 20, 2018 1 comment

from Dean Baker

Former New England Journal of Medicine editor Marcia Angell had an op-ed in the NYT explaining how efforts to increase transparency had not ended the corrupting influence of money on medical research. Her piece describes various ways in which the researchers who get money from drug companies bend research to favor their benefactors.

While Dr. Angell suggests some reforms, there is an obvious one that is overlooked: take the money out. Drug companies have incentives to bend research findings because patent monopolies allow them to sell their drugs at prices that are several thousand percent above the free market price.

As every good economist knows, when the government puts in an artificial barrier that raises prices above the free market price it is creating an incentive for corruption. However, they are usually thinking about gaps like those created by Trump’s 10 or 25 percent tariffs that are supposed to punish our trading partners.

They usually don’t think about the corruption from patent monopolies that allow drug companies to sell drugs for tens of thousands of dollars that would sell for a few hundred dollars as a generic. But the same principle applies, with the incentives for corruption being proportionately larger.

The economist’s remedy would be the same in both cases: get rid of the artificial barrier. We could do this by paying for drug research upfront and make all findings fully public and place all patents in the public domain (discussed here and in Rigged Chapter 5). This would allow all new drugs to be sold at generic prices. There would then be no more incentive to make payoffs to doctors to help promote drugs.

The bank bailout of 2008 was unnecessary

September 19, 2018 4 comments

from Dean Baker

Last week marked 10 years since the harrowing descent into the financial crisis — when the huge investment bank Lehman Bros. went into bankruptcy, with the country’s largest insurer, AIG, about to follow. No one was sure which financial institution might be next to fall.

The banking system started to freeze up. Banks typically extend short-term credit to one another for a few hundredths of a percentage point more than the cost of borrowing from the federal government. This gap exploded to 4 or 5 percentage points after Lehman collapsed. Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke — along with Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve Bank of New York President Timothy Geithner — rushed to Congress to get $700 billion to bail out the banks. “If we don’t do this today we won’t have an economy on Monday,” is the line famously attributed to Bernanke.

The trio argued to lawmakers that without the bailout, the United States faced a catastrophic collapse of the financial system and a second Great Depression.

Neither part of that story was true.

Still, news reports on the crisis raised the prospect of empty ATMs and checks uncashed. There were stories in major media outlets about the bank runs of 1929.   Read more…

Amazon and Apple: Wall Street’s trillion dollar babies

September 15, 2018 10 comments

from Dean Baker

Last month Amazon joined Apple, becoming the second company in the world to have a $1 trillion market capitalization. Amazon’s accomplishment didn’t cause quite as much celebration as Apple’s – it pays to be number one – nonetheless this was treated as a milestone that all of us should view as good news.

Actually, the celebratory coverage of both events demonstrated the incredibly ill-informed nature of much economic reporting in the United States. A big run-up in share prices is good news for the people who own lots of stock in the company; it is not especially good news for anyone else.

In principle, the value of a stock is supposed to represent the expected future earnings of the company. I said “supposed” because stock prices fluctuate wildly in response to all sorts of things that are not obviously connected to future earnings, but in the textbook definition, it is the discounted value of future earnings that determine stock prices. To be clear, this is not the socialist textbook, this is the capitalist textbook that is taught in business schools.

What does it mean that Amazon and Apple have market valuations of more $1 trillion? Presumably, it means that investors are now more optimistic about the companies’ future profit potential. It’s difficult to see why the rest of us should celebrate this outcome.

Apple obviously makes products that consumers value, and in that sense, it is contributing to the economy and generating wealth. But, suppose instead of one huge company we had 10 little (or littler) Apples that sold iPhones, computers, and the other items that comprise Apple’s product line? Would we be any poorer as a society in that case, even if the market cap of our leading tech company was just $100 billion?  Read more…

The housing bubble and financial crisis was easy to see coming

September 13, 2018 3 comments

from Dean Baker

Ten years ago we saw the culmination of a period of ungodly economic mismanagement with the collapse of Lehman Brothers and a full-fledged financial crisis. The folks who led us into this disaster rushed to do triage and tend to the most important problem: saving the bankrupt banks.

They also had to cover their tracks. They insisted that the financial crisis was some sort of fluke event — a lot of bad things went wrong simultaneously — and who could have predicted or prevented that? They had a lot of assistance in this coverup because almost all the people who did and wrote about economics at the time also missed the housing bubble and the harm that its inevitable collapse would cause.

The coverup continues to the present, largely because the same people who messed up in the years leading up to the crash are still in positions of authority. They are still the ones writing and talking about economics in major news outlets. So we can expect a lot of “who could have known?” drivel in the weeks ahead.

CEPR will be putting out a paper soon showing once again how the bubble was easy to recognize as was the fact that its collapse would be a disaster. Today I will just share one chart that shows much of the story.

The bubble led to an unprecedented run-up in house prices (with no accompanying rise in real rents), which in turn led to residential construction hitting 6.5 percent of GDP, more than two full percentage points above the long-term average. (But hey, who could have noticed that?)  Read more…

Bernanke, Geithner, and Paulson still don’t have a clue about the housing bubble

September 12, 2018 4 comments

from Dean Baker

NYT readers were no doubt disturbed to see a column in which former Fed Reserve Board chair Ben Bernanke, Obama Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, and Bush Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson patted themselves on the back for their performance in the financial crisis. First, as they acknowledge in the piece, all three completely failed to see the crisis coming.

During the years when house prices were getting way out of line with both their long-term trend and rents, Bernanke was a Fed governor, then head of the Council of Economic Advisers, and then Fed chair. He openly dismissed the idea that the run-up in house prices could pose any threat to the economy. Henry Paulson was at Goldman Sachs until he became Treasury Secretary in the middle of 2006. As the bank’s CEO, he was personally profiting from the bubble as the bank played a central role in securitizing mortgage-backed securities. Timothy Geithner was president of the New York Fed, where he was paid over $400,000 a year to make sure that the Wall Street banks were not taking on excessive risk.

It is bad enough that these three didn’t see the crisis coming, but they still seem utterly clueless. They tell readers:  Read more…

The housing bubble and financial crisis was easy to see coming

September 10, 2018 3 comments

from Dean Baker

Ten years ago we saw the culmination of a period of ungodly economic mismanagement with the collapse of Lehman Brothers and a full-fledged financial crisis. The folks who led us into this disaster rushed to do triage and tend to the most important problem: saving the bankrupt banks.

They also had to cover their tracks. They insisted that the financial crisis was some sort of fluke event — a lot of bad things went wrong simultaneously — and who could have predicted or prevented that? They had a lot of assistance in this coverup because almost all the people who did and wrote about economics at the time also missed the housing bubble and the harm that its inevitable collapse would cause.

The coverup continues to the present, largely because the same people who messed up in the years leading up to the crash are still in positions of authority. They are still the ones writing and talking about economics in major news outlets. So we can expect a lot of “who could have known?” drivel in the weeks ahead.

CEPR will be putting out a paper soon showing once again how the bubble was easy to recognize as was the fact that its collapse would be a disaster. Today I will just share one chart that shows much of the story.

The bubble led to an unprecedented run-up in house prices (with no accompanying rise in real rents), which in turn led to residential construction hitting 6.5 percent of GDP, more than two full percentage points above the long-term average. (But hey, who could have noticed that?)  Read more…

Unions in the 21st century: A potent weapon against inequality

September 5, 2018 3 comments

from Dean Baker and Jared Bernstein

The topic of economic inequality can appear complex, with many nuanced causes and outcomes. But while the two of us actively engage in that debate, we also strongly believe that there is one overarching factor that must not be, but often is, overlooked: worker bargaining power. On Labor Day, this problem of the long-term decline in workers’ ability to bargain for a fair share of the growth they have helped generate deserves a closer look.

There is, of course, a direct link between less worker clout and the decline in union coverage. In addition to directly empowering workers at the workplace, unions have played a central role in the drive for a wide variety of policy measures to ensure that everyone benefits from prosperity, which is the opposite outcome of rising inequality. This list includes Social Security, Medicare, paid family leave, civil rights legislation, fairer tax policy and higher minimum wages.

This view has been further buttressed by recent research using new data showing a strong connection between union strength and a more equal distribution of income (see figure), a link that makes the sharp decline in union membership over the past four decades particularly disturbing.

bernstein baker labor day 2018Source: Piketty et al., UnionStats Read more…

Bad news for Donald Trump, China is already bigger than the United States

August 26, 2018 5 comments

from Dean Baker

As we know, Donald Trump is not very good with numbers. He gave more evidence of this fact when he told a campaign rally in West Virginia:

“When I came, we were heading in a certain direction that was going to allow China to be bigger than us in a very short period of time …That’s not going to happen anymore.”

Actually, China’s economy is already considerably bigger than the US economy. Using the purchasing power parity measure, which is recommended by most economists and the CIA World Factbook, China’s economy is already more than 25 percent larger than the US economy. It is also worth noting that there are no growth projections from any remotely reputable source that show the US economy growing more rapidly than China’s economy.

The United States is not on the brink of a financial crisis

August 21, 2018 6 comments

from Dean Baker

Prior to the collapse of the housing bubble and the resulting financial crisis, major news outlets had little interest in pieces warning about the bubble and the risks it posed to the economy. These days there seems to be a large demand for such pieces. Unfortunately, in choosing these pieces, news outlets seem little better informed today than they were in the years before the housing bubble collapse.

To take a recent example, the New York Times published a piece by William D. Cohan, a well-known author of books and articles on the financial industry. Cohan argues that the Federal Reserve Board has kept interest rates at unusually low levels in recent years.

He maintains that while low interest rates have helped boost economic growth in the short-term, it makes the economy vulnerable to financial crises in the longer term. If interest rates go up, then many debtors will be unable to pay their debts and we will again be facing a 2008-type financial crisis.

At the most basic level, Cohan’s argument is extraordinarily misleading. He notes the current valuation of the $41 trillion bond market is considerably larger than the $30 trillion stock market and therefore deserves considerably more attention than it receives.  Read more…

Where Donald Trump and the elites agree on protectionism: patents and copyrights

August 3, 2018 86 comments

from Dean Baker

Policy wonks and pundits have been nearly unanimous in their condemnations of Donald Trump’s trade war and his primary weapon of tariffs. Tariffs are a tax increase on US consumers, raising the price of imports and the domestically produced goods with which they compete.

Retaliation by other countries will reduce US exports, costing jobs in other sectors. This is not likely to lead to good outcomes, especially when the basis for Trump’s complaints is vague, constantly shifting and often at odds with reality.

The one exception is with patents and copyrights. There is widespread agreement with Trump that China, our largest competitor, is stealing “our” intellectual property. They agree that Trump should be prepared to take steps to stop this theft and crackdown on China’s practices.

The so-called theft takes two forms. On the one hand, the complaint is that China does not adequately protect patents and copyrights internally. As a result, massive amounts of software, recorded music and video material, and other copyright protected items are sold without authorization.

The other form of theft is through requirements that companies looking to set up operations in China partner with Chinese firms and thereby share their technology. For example, Boeing is required to partner with Chinese manufacturers in its operations there, which then gives the Chinese manufacturers the ability to be competitors in future years.  Read more…

Why Trump’s tariffs are nearly as unpopular with his voters as Obama’s trade policy was

July 29, 2018 13 comments

from Dean Baker

Donald Trump made his opposition to much of America’s international trade policy a central theme in his presidential campaign, and his position almost certainly played a major role in his victory in key industrial states like Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. But the public now seems largely opposed to his recent tariffs against our major trading partners.

It is possible to make sense of these seemingly contradictory facts.

First, most people are not policy wonks. They have day jobs and, when they get back from work, they often have family responsibilities, so getting the news means hearing a few tidbits on the television or radio, or possibly skimming an article in a newspaper or online.

This means that the vast majority of people only have the most general understanding of trade and trade policy. In the election of 2016, there was a widely held view that trade policy had hurt many people, which was why both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the most important trade deal then on the table. (Trump pulled out of the dealshortly after his inauguration.)

People were not wrong to hold a negative view of trade policy: Over the prior four decades, it had put U.S. manufacturing workers in direct competition with their low-paid counterparts in the developing world by reducing tariffs and other barriers that had caused foreign-made products to cost more. The predicted and actual effect of this policy was the loss of millions of manufacturing jobs.  Read more…

Pledging fealty to Trump: Europe pays the price for increasing inequality

July 26, 2018 6 comments

from Dean Baker

At the NATO summit earlier this month, Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary general of NATO, was forced to publicly praise Donald Trump’s leadership. Mr. Stoltenberg is almost certainly a very intelligent hardworking man. That is virtually a prerequisite for a person in his position. By contrast, Donald Trump is the most ignorant ill-prepared person ever to sit in the White House.

Nonetheless, when Stoltenberg noted the increases in military spending by NATO members, Trump asked him why the increases were happening. Stoltenberg meekly responded, “because of your leadership.” (Actually, the increases were part of a deal negotiated with President Obama in 2014.)

Trump obviously loves this game of forcing powerful people to sing his praises. Like Stoltenberg, most don’t seem to feel they have any choice.

But, there is an issue here that goes far beyond Donald Trump’s unpleasant personality. Tens of millions of people cast their votes for Trump in 2016 (although less than a majority and in fact fewer than his main opponent, Hillary Clinton).

This was in large part because they wanted someone in the White House who would insult people like Stoltenberg. They wanted someone who would be a thumb in the eye of the people they viewed as the elite, and Donald Trump certainly fits the bill.  Read more…

Corporations and mainstream media trumpet the “horrors” of higher wages

July 17, 2018 18 comments

from Dean Baker

The media have treated us to an array of stories warning us of the terrible labor shortage facing the country. Some of the pieces have been general, such as this CNBC piece on the labor shortage “reaching a critical point,” or this Wall Street Journal article on wage gains “threatening profits.”

Others have been more industry-specific, such as The Washington Post’s highlighting of the trucker shortage that threatens the “prosperous economy.” Then there is this New York Times piece noting that nursing homes have trouble attracting nursing assistants at the $13.23 an hour average pay for the occupation.

It’s clear that many in the media are terrified by the prospect that as the labor market gets tighter, workers might get a larger share of the pie. Perhaps this should not be surprising when billionaires control major news outlets, but it does mean that economic reporting might be getting pretty far out of line with economic reality.

At the most basic level, if workers did see pay increases at the expense of profits, they would just be getting back some of what they have lost in this century. The after-tax profit share of national income rose by almost three full percentage points between 2000 and 2016. That would correspond to an average loss of almost $3,000 per worker per year.

But even this calculation understates the shift from wages from profits. According to new research by Gabriel Zucman, more than a third of the foreign profits of US corporations are actually profits made in US but shifted overseas to evade taxes.

Factor this profit shift into the calculation and the loss to workers is close to $4,000 per worker per year. And this is before factoring in the corporate tax cut passed last year.  Read more…

Six lies on trade

July 11, 2018 20 comments

from Dean Baker

After 500 days of Donald Trump’s presidency, it is clear that any relationship between his statements and the truth are purely coincidental. He even boasts about his lack of interest in the truth, touting the fact that he had no idea what our trade deficit was with Canada when he confronted Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau over our “$100 billion trade deficit.” (The actual figure is around $20 billion.)

But Donald Trump’s contempt for the truth should not cause the rest of us to become liars also. In fact, it is more important than ever that progressives ground arguments in reality.

This is especially the case with trade, where lying was standard fare long before Donald Trump entered politics. Here are six common lies which deserve major pushback any time they appear.

1. Everyone gains from trade.

This is not even the textbook story. The textbook tells us there are winners and losers. In the standard story, the winners gain more than the losers lose. This means that the winners could compensate the losers so that everyone is better off. In the real world, this compensation never takes place, so the losers just lose.

If this is hard to understand, suppose we arranged for 300,000 highly qualified doctors from other countries to start practicing in the United States. This influx would probably lower our doctors’ pay by around $100,000 a year each to roughly European levels. This would save us close to $100 billion annually ($700 per family) on health care costs. That’s a big gain to the rest of us, but a big loss to US doctors. That’s basically the story of trade, but the competition has been for manufacturing workers.  Read more…

Intellectual property and China: No One is back

July 9, 2018 2 comments

from Dean Baker

I sometimes go under the professional name of “No One” as in “no one saw the financial crisis coming.” I apparently need to use this identification again when it comes to trade war with China.

On Morning Edition today, Jeff Greene interviewed Jonah Goldberg, senior editor at National Review. Mr. Goldberg told Greene how conservatives are free traders so they generally are opposed to Trump’s tariffs. He then suggested that a way out for Trump would be to focus on China’s intellectual property “theft,” since everybody agrees this is a problem.

This is where I come in. I don’t particularly consider the fact that China doesn’t pay Microsoft, Pfizer, and Boeing what they think they are owed to be a problem for people who are not major stockholders in these companies. As a basic proposition, the more money China sends to these companies, the larger its trade surplus in other areas.

More generally, as a basic proposition it is more than a bit bizarre that so many economists can somehow believe both that without patent and copyright monopolies and related protections, there would be no incentive for innovation and that technology causes inequality. If we have a problem with inequality due to “technology,”  it is due to the way in which we assign property rights. Shorter and weaker patents and copyrights means less money to the people on top and more money for everyone else.  Read more…

Businesses can’t find qualified CEOs, don’t know how to raise wages

July 8, 2018 6 comments

from Dean Baker

That’s the implication of this CNBC piece that claims that hiring is down because businesses can’t find qualified workers. If this is really the problem, then the solution, as everyone learns in intro economics, is to raise wages. For some reason, CEOs apparently can’t seem to figure this one out, since wage growth remains very modest in spite of this alleged shortage of qualified workers.

Businesses should be well-positioned to absorb higher wages since their profits have soared over the last two decades. In the years from 1980 to 2000, the beneficiaries of upward redistribution were higher paid workers like CEOs, Wall Street-types, and highly paid professionals like doctors and dentists. Since 2000, there has been a substantial shift from wages to profits, as the after-tax profit share of national income has nearly doubled, as shown below.

Book2 9000 image001

Read more…