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Baumol’s disease? George Will’s misdiagnosis of U.S. health care costs

May 23, 2017 7 comments

from Dean Baker

In his Washington Post column today George Will told readers that the problem of rising costs in the U.S. health care system is simply a case of Baumol’s disease. This refers to the problem identified by economist William Baumol (who recently died), that productivity in the service sector tends to rise less rapidly than productivity in the manufacturing sector. The implication is that if workers get paid the same in both sectors, then the cost of services will always rise relative to the cost of manufactured goods. Will tells us that this is the story of rapidly rising health care costs.

There are a couple of big problems with this story. First, it is not always the case that productivity in services rises less rapidly than productivity in manufacturing. ATMs have hugely increased the ability of banks to serve customers without tellers. Film developing became hugely more productive with digital cameras.

It is quite likely in the decades ahead that we will see innovations in technology that will lead to large increases in productivity in health care. For example, improvements in diagnostic technology will likely allow a skilled technician to diagnose illnesses with better accuracy than the best doctor. Similarly, robots will almost certainly be able to perform delicate surgeries with more precision than the best surgeon. In these and other areas of health care there is enormous potential for productivity gains, assuming that doctors and others who stand to lose don’t use their political power to block the technology.

This brings up the second point. While health care costs have risen everywhere, no other country pays anything close to what we do in the United States, even though they have comparable outcomes. The figure below shows per capita health care spending in the United States and five other wealthy countries since 1971. (The numbers shown are from the OECD and expressed in purchasing power parity. I converted them to 2016 dollars using the PCE deflator.)  Read more…

A tax on Wall Street trading is the best solution to income inequality

May 19, 2017 9 comments

from Dean Baker

In the years since the 2008 economic crisis, financial transactions taxes (FTTs) have gone from a fringe idea to a policy that is in mainstream policy debates. They are seen as a way to both raise large amounts of money and to slow the pace of churning in financial markets. For this reason, most progressive Democrats have come out in support, and even the Clinton campaign provided a hat-tip to some form of taxation on high frequency trading.

This is a welcome change from where things stood before the crisis, when the only people supporting FTTs were the far left of the party. As a long-time proponent of an FTT, I welcome this change, but even many of the proponents of FTTs don’t realize the full benefits of such a tax.

To get some bearing, it is first worth recognizing how much money is potentially at stake. The Joint Tax Committee projected that a modest tax of 0.03 percent on all trades of stocks, bonds, and derivative instruments, along the lines of a proposal by Representative Peter DeFazio, would raise more than $400 billion over the course of a decade. This is roughly equal to 0.2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP. This would be enough money to cover 60 percent of the cost of the food stamp program.There have been proposals for larger FTTs. The Tax Policy Center of the Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution analyzed an FTT with a varying rate structure on stocks, bonds, and derivative instruments. They calculated that the maximum revenue would be achieved with a rate on stocks of 0.34 percent, with lower tax rates on other financial instruments. This tax would raise more than  $800 billion, or 0.4 percent of GDP, over the course of a decade.   Read more…

Trump family and friends: in your pockets

May 16, 2017 6 comments

from Dean Baker

Donald Trump has openly said that he doesn’t care at all about the rules that prohibit the president and those around him from profiting from their government positions. In breaking with longstanding precedent, he is holding on to his business empire and having his children run it as he carries on with the business of being president.

With the government forced to pay the bills for the Secret Service to stay at his golf resorts and hotels, Trump obviously feels no compunction about gouging taxpayers to put more money in his pockets. But this open graft is almost certainly the least important way in which Donald Trump’s family and friends will profit at the expense of the rest of us.

We still don’t know most of the details of Trump’s tax plan, but the main parts of the plan we do know look like it was written to benefit him personally as much as possible. First, it gets rid of the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT). This tax was put into law in 1986 to ensure that wealthy people, who can use deductions to drastically reduce their taxes, will still have to pay some amount of tax.

In his leaked 2005 tax return we know that Trump paid 25 percent AMT rather than the much lower rate that his aggressive use of tax loopholes would have allowed. It’s not a big surprise then, that Trump’s tax plan gets rid of the AMT.  Read more…

Where’s the productivity growth? The Bureau of Labor Statistics can’t find the robots!

May 15, 2017 3 comments

from Dean Baker

Manu prod

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics.

We hear endless stories in the media about how the robots are taking all the jobs. There was a new rush of such stories after the release of a study by Daron Acemoglu and Pascual Restrepo, which found that robots were responsible for a substantial share of the job loss in manufacturing in the last decade. (For example, this Bloomberg piece by Mira Rojanasakul and Peter Coy.)

However, there remains a very basic problem in the robot story, it is not showing up in the productivity data. To step back a minute, robots are supposed to replace human labor. This means that for the same number of hours of human work, we should see much higher output of goods and services, since the robots are now adding to total output. This is what productivity growth means.

So if robots are having a large impact on jobs, then we should see productivity growth going through the roof. Instead, it is falling through the floor. It has averaged less than 1.0 percent annually in the last decade. This compares to an average growth rate of 3.0 percent in the decade from 1995 to 2005 and also in the long Golden Age from 1947 to 1973.

Strikingly, productivity growth has been especially bad in manufacturing, the place where we see the greatest use of robots. Here’s the picture since 1988, the period for which the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has a consistent series.
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Global warming must be addressed now

May 9, 2017 7 comments

from Dean Baker

There are two enormous myths about global warming. One is that dealing with it is optional. The other is that the measures needed to slow the process will devastate the economy. Neither is true.

On the first point, we are already seeing major changes in weather that are almost certainly related to global warming, both in the United States and around the world. In the United States, we are seeing rising water levels eroding beachfront property all along our coast lines.

We are also seeing extraordinary conditions like the multi-year drought that until recently had much of California rationing water.

In addition, we have seen extreme weather events like Superstorm Sandy, which destroyed hundreds of homes in New Jersey and New York and made many areas uninhabitable.

The story is much worse elsewhere in the world. The Sahara Desert is rapidly moving southward in Africa, depriving millions of people of the means to support themselves.

Hundreds of millions of people in low lying areas of Bangladesh and elsewhere in East Asia face far greater risk from storms and flooding due to rising oceans.  Global warming is a reality; we can’t solve the problem by looking away any more than we can deal with a weight problem by throwing out our scale and continuing to eat unhealthy foods.   Read more…

People in France and Germany work much less than in the U.S

May 3, 2017 5 comments

from Dean Baker

The NYT had an article reporting on how the Pew Research Center had discovered work done by the Economic Policy Institute for a quarter century (the middle class is hurting). At one point the piece compares the United States with France and Germany:

“The United States, including the middle class, has a higher median income than nearly all of Europe, even if the Continent is catching up. The median household income in the United States was $52,941 after taxes in 2010, compared with $41,047 in Germany and $41,076 in France.”

When making such comparisons it is important to note that people in Europe work many few hours than people in the United States. Five or six weeks a year of vacation are standard. In addition, these countries all mandate paid sick days and paid family leave.

According to the OECD, the length of the average work year in the United States in 2015 was 1790 hours. It was 1482 hours in France (17 percent fewer hours) and just 1371 hours (23 percent fewer hours) in Germany. While these comparisons are not perfect (there are measurement issues) it is clear that people in these countries and the rest of Europe are working considerably fewer hours than people in the United States in large part as a conscious choice. This should be noted in any effort to compare them.

Monopoly Power: Is it time to bring back anti-trust?

May 2, 2017 5 comments

from Dean Baker

There has been growing attention in recent years to the near monopolization of many sectors of the U.S. economy. For example, Google completely dominates the search engine market, while Facebook has an overwhelming presence in social media. Amazon controls close to 70 percent of book sales in the United States and an ever growing share of retail more generally. Microsoft remains by far the dominant force in computer operating system software.

Recent research has found an increasing concentration of corporate profits in recent decades in such large firms. In addition, the workers at these dominant firms tend to be paid much more than at their less successful competitors. For these reasons, increasing concentration could be one of the main factors behind the rise of income inequality.

While it is good to see many mainstream political figures raising concerns over excessive market power, there are a couple of important caveats that need to be included in this story. First, it is important to note that this is not a simple story of corporate profits rising at the expense of wages.

Corporate profits rose sharply following the collapse of employment in the Great Recession. Profits peaked as a share of corporate income at 26.8 percent in 2014. This was a full 5.0 percentage points above the peak in the nineties of 21.8 percent. However, most of the upward redistribution of income had occurred before 2005, when the profit share first began to rise notably. And the pre-recession increase is inflated by the profits booked on housing bubble related loans, which subsequently went bad.    Read more…

Trade denialism continues: Trade really did kill manufacturing jobs

March 29, 2017 21 comments

from Dean Baker

There have been a flood of opinion pieces and news stories in recent weeks wrongly telling people that it was not trade that led to the loss of manufacturing jobs in recent years, but rather automation. This means that all of those people who are worried about trade deficits costing jobs are simply being silly. The promulgators of the automation story want everyone to stop talking about trade and instead focus on education, technology or whatever other item they can throw out as a distraction.

This “automation rather than trade story” is the equivalent of global warming denialism for the well-educated. And its proponents deserve at least as much contempt as global warming deniers.

The basic story on automation, trade and jobs is fairly straightforward. “Automation” is also known as “productivity growth,” and it is not new. We have been seeing gains in productivity in manufacturing ever since we started manufacturing things.

Productivity gains mean that we can produce more output with the same amount of work. Before the trade deficit exploded in the last decade, increases in productivity were largely offset by increases in output, making it so the total jobs in manufacturing did not change much.

Imagine that productivity increased by 20 percent over the course of a decade, roughly its average rate of growth. If manufacturing output also increases by 20 percent, then we have the same number of jobs at the end of the decade as at the beginning. This is pretty much what happened before the trade deficit exploded.

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The Wrongest Profession

March 16, 2017 2 comments

from Dean Baker

Over the past two decades, the economics profession has compiled an impressive track record of getting almost all the big calls wrong. In the mid-1990s, all the great minds in the field agreed that the unemployment rate could not fall much below 6 percent without triggering spiraling inflation. It turns out that the unemployment rate could fall to 4 percent as a year-round average in 2000, with no visible uptick in the inflation rate. As the stock bubble that drove the late 1990s boom was already collapsing, leading lights in Washington were debating whether we risked paying off the national debt too quickly. The recession following the collapse of the stock bubble took care of this problem, as the gigantic projected surpluses quickly turned to deficits. The labor market pain from the collapse of this bubble was both unpredicted and largely overlooked, even in retrospect. While the recession officially ended in November 2001, we didn’t start creating jobs again until the fall of 2003. And we didn’t get back the jobs we lost in the downturn until January 2005. At the time, it was the longest period without net job creation since the Great Depression.

When the labor market did finally begin to recover, it was on the back of the housing bubble. Even though the evidence of a bubble in the housing sector was plainly visible, as were the junk loans that fueled it, folks like me who warned of an impending housing collapse were laughed at for not appreciating the wonders of modern finance. After the bubble burst and the financial crisis shook the banking system to its foundations, the great minds of the profession were near unanimous in predicting a robust recovery. Stimulus was at best an accelerant for the impatient, most mainstream economists agreed — not an essential ingredient of a lasting recovery.   Read more…

Tony Blair, who brought us the war in Iraq, lectures on the evils of populism

March 13, 2017 4 comments

from Dean Baker

Tony Blair, the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, who is best known for lying his country into participating in the Iraq War, lectured NYT readers on the evils of populism. Once again he gets many key points wrong.

He criticizes the left for abandoning centrist politicians:

“One element has aligned with the right in revolt against globalization, but with business taking the place of migrants as the chief evil. They agree with the right-wing populists about elites, though for the left the elites are the wealthy, while for the right they’re the liberals.”

Blair then tells us:   Read more…

The new trade agenda: deals that promote equality rather than inequality

March 8, 2017 6 comments

from Dean Baker

With the Trans-Pacific Partnership now definitely dead and Donald Trump pushing for a renegotiation of NAFTA, many progressives are looking for a fundamental re-examination of trade deals. As supporters of international cooperation rather than narrow nationalists, progressives have often felt uncomfortable opposing trade deals.

While there is no reason to be defensive about opposing trade deals that favored business interests at the expense of workers, consumers, and the environment in all the countries participating, it is worth asking how trade deals can be crafted to promote a progressive agenda. There really is no shortage of ideas in this area.

To start, from a U.S. perspective, the items opened up for trade has to be broadened. High-end professional services, such as physicians’ and dentists’ services should be front and center in any future trade deals. The U.S. has highly protectionist rules in this area. In the case of physicians, foreign doctors are prohibited from practicing in the United States unless they complete a U.S. residency program. Foreign dentists must graduate from a U.S. dental school, although in recent years graduates of Canadian schools have been allowed also.

As a result of this protectionism, doctors in the United States earn on average more than $250,000 a year, twice as much as their counterparts in other wealthy countries. The potential gain to the United States from standardizing licensing requirements in professional services is at least $100 billion a year and quite likely close to $200 billion (0.5-1.0 percent of GDP). The goal need not be that all countries have the same standard, but rather that licensing rules are transparent and based on legitimate public interest, not protecting the incomes of professionals.   Read more…

Bill Gates Is clueless on the economy

February 28, 2017 9 comments

from Dean Baker

Last week Bill Gates called for taxing robots. He argued that we should impose a tax on companies replacing workers with robots and that the money should be used to retrain the displaced workers. As much as I appreciate the world’s richest person proposing a measure that would redistribute money from people like him to the rest of us, this idea doesn’t make any sense.

Let’s skip over the fact of who would define what a robot is and how, and think about the logic of what Gates is proposing. In effect, Gates wants to put a tax on productivity growth. This is what robots are all about. They allow us to produce more goods and services with the same amount of human labor. Gates is worried that productivity growth is moving along too rapidly and that it will lead to large scale unemployment.

There are two problems with this story. First productivity growth has actually been very slow in recent years. The second problem is that if it were faster, there is no reason it should lead to mass unemployment. Rather, it should lead to rapid growth and increases in living standards.

Starting with the recent history, productivity growth has averaged less than 0.6 percent annually over the last six years. This compares to a rate of 3.0 percent from 1995 to 2005 and also in the quarter century from 1947 to 1973. Gates’ tax would slow productivity growth even further.   Read more…

The “Free Traders” do not believe in free trade: #46,765

February 25, 2017 4 comments

from Dean Baker

The concept of “free trade” has acquired near religious status among policy types. All serious people are supposed to swear their allegiance to it and deride anyone who questions its universal benefits.

Unfortunately, almost none of the people who pronounce themselves devotees of free trade actually do consistently advocate free trade policies. Rather they push selective protectionist policies, that have the effect of redistributing income to people like them, and call them “free trade.”

The NYT gave us yet one more example of a selective protectionist masquerading as a free trader in a column this morning by Jochen Bittner, a political editor for Die Zeit. Bittner contrasts the free trading open immigration types, who calls Lennonists (in the spirit of John Lennon’s song, Imagine) and the Bannonists who are nationalists followers of Steve Bannon or his foreign equivalents.

The problem with this easy division is that the “free traders” wholeheartedly support very costly protectionist measures in the form of ever stronger and longer patent and copyright protections. These protections redistribute several hundred billions dollars annually (at least 3 percent of GDP in the United States) from the bulk of the population to the small group of people who are in a position to benefit from these government granted monopolies.   Read more…

Bill Gates wants to undermine Donald Trump’s plans for growing the economy

February 21, 2017 15 comments

from Dean Baker

Yes, as Un-American as that may sound, Bill Gates is proposing a tax that would undermine Donald Trump’s efforts to speed the rate of economic growth. Gates wants to tax productivity growth (a.k.a. “automation) slowing down the rate at which the economy becomes more efficient.

This might seem a bizarre policy proposal at a time when productivity growth has been at record lows, averaging less than 1.0 percent annually for the last decade. This compares to rates of close to 3.0 percent annually from 1947 to 1973 and again from 1995 to 2005.

It is not clear if Gates has any understanding of economic data, but since the election of Donald Trump there has been a major effort to deny the fact that the trade deficit has been responsible for the loss of manufacturing jobs and to instead blame productivity growth. This is in spite of the fact that productivity growth has slowed sharply in recent years and that the plunge in manufacturing jobs followed closely on the explosion of the trade deficit, beginning in 1997.

Manufacturing Employment

manu empl
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The trouble with trade: people understand it

February 16, 2017 12 comments

from Dean Baker

Ever since Donald Trump was elected there has been a huge backlash among elite-types against those blaming trade for their problems. Major news outlets have been filled with misleading and dishonest stories claiming that the real cause of manufacturing job loss has been automation and that people are stupid to worry about trade.

In fact, people are exactly right to be concerned about the impact of our trade policies on their living standards. It is the fact that people are right that is worrying our elites. Trade is just one of the areas in which politicians of both parties have promoted policies to redistribute income upward. It just happens to be the area in which the impact is most recognizable and therefore people have mounted an effective resistance.

The story with trade is simple. When a manufacturing worker in the US is placed in direct competition with a worker in Mexico, China or some other developing country, who earns one-tenth of their pay, it puts downward pressure on their wages. Either their jobs go away or they are forced to take substantial pay cuts to keep their job.

This competition has cost a huge number of manufacturing jobs in this century. It has also put downward pressure directly on the wages of manufacturing workers and indirectly on the wages of less-educated workers more generally, as displaced manufacturing workers sought jobs in other sectors.

Elite media types have tried to deny these facts by claiming that the source of job loss is automation (i.e. productivity growth), not trade. This claim deserves to be met with the same sort of derision as the claims of climate change deniers.

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Badly confused economics: The debate on automation

February 8, 2017 24 comments

from Dean Baker

The media have been filled with accounts in recent years of how automation is displacing workers and threatening the country with mass unemployment. Even President Obama even made a point of warning about the dangers of mass displacement from automation in his farewell address.

This obsession is bizarre for two reasons. The first is a simple empirical point. In contrast to the concern about automation leading to massive displacement, in recent years the pace of automation has been extremely slow. Productivity growth, which is a measure of the rate at which workers are being displaced by technology, has averaged less than 1.0 percent annually in the United States over the last decade.

By contrast, it averaged almost 3.0 percent annually in the decade from 1995 to 2005. Productivity growth also averaged almost 3.0 percent annually in the long Golden Age from 1947 to 1973. This slowdown has not been restricted to the United States. Virtually every wealthy country has seen very slow productivity growth over the last decade. The United Kingdom even had several years of negative productivity growth. This is equivalent to workers were replacing robots: a situation where it takes more workers to produce the same amount of output.

So at a time when automation is proceeding at an extraordinarily slow pace we are seeing many policy types and politicians worrying about mass displacement from automation. That does not make a great deal of sense.   Read more…

End patent and copyright requirements in NAFTA

February 4, 2017 8 comments

from Dean Baker

The trade deals negotiated in the last quarter century are becoming less focused on traditional trade barriers like tariffs and quotas. Instead, they are imposing a regulation structure on the parties, which tend to be very business oriented. In many cases, the rules being required under the trade deals would never be accepted if they went through the normal political process.

The renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement allows the United States, Canada and Mexico to get rid of rules that have no place in trade deals. At the top of this list is the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (I.S.D.S.) tribunals. These tribunals operate outside the normal judicial process. Their rulings are not bound by precedent, nor are they subject to appeal. Also, they are only open to foreign investors as a mechanism to sue member governments.

These tribunals can be used to penalize governments for measures designed to protect the environment, consumers, workers or to ensure the stability of financial institutions. TransCanada, the company that had been building the XL pipeline, gave us an example of how these tribunals can be used. It initiated a suit after President Barack Obama decided to cancel the pipeline. It is likely that we would see many more suits in the future using the I.S.D.S. tribunals if they are left in NAFTA and other trade deals.  Read more…

Truthiness on trade

February 1, 2017 10 comments

from Dean Baker

With the official death of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the likely renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the proponents of these deals are doubling down in their defense of the current course of US trade policy. While there are serious arguments that can be made in defense of these policies, advocates are instead seeking to deny basic reality.

These trade policy proponents are trying to deny that these policies have hurt large segments of the workforce and are claiming that the people, who believe that they were hurt by trade, are simply misinformed. The proponent’s story is that the real cause of job loss was the impersonal force of technology, not a trade policy that deliberately placed US manufacturing workers in direct competition with low paid workers in the developing world.

Fortunately this is a case where the facts are clear. The people who think they were hurt by trade are right. It is the people who blame technology who are misinformed or worse.

The obvious error in the technology or automation story is that automation is not anything new. We have been seeing increases in productivity in manufacturing forever; it is not something that just happened in the last two decades. In fact, the most rapid period of technological change was in the quarter century from 1947 to 1973, not the last two decades.  Read more…

The Trump cabinet: strangest show on Earth

January 28, 2017 4 comments

from Dean Baker

As we start the Trump presidency, events just keep getting more bizarre. At his first and last press conference as president-elect, Donald Trump boasted about his divestment plan in which he was “sort of, kind of” turning over the management of his business enterprises to his two adult sons. He displayed a table full of documents that were supposed to indicate the extent of his divestment, but the documents were not made available for the press to examine.

Furthermore, in spite of claiming that he was stepping away from his business enterprises, Trump was still boasting being offered a $2 billion deal from a Dubai businessman. While Trump assured us that he turned the deal down, the obvious question is why he was discussing it in the first place.

Insofar as Trump is actually stepping away from his business, this is very far from the sort of blind trust arrangements made by presidents of both parties for the last half century. The public can never be sure that his actions as president are not motivated by a desire to fatten the profits of Trump enterprises. Nor can we be assured that actions by foreign governments won’t be affected by their country’s dealings with the president’s business empire.

The ethical lapses from the top carry through to his cabinet appointments, which seem destined to replace Ringling Bros. Circus as the strangest show on Earth. Andy Puzder, Trump’s pick for secretary of labor, runs two chains of fast-food restaurants that have repeatedly violated wage and hour laws and has been legally forced to make payments to workers. These are the laws that Mr. Puzder will be responsible for enforcing if he gets approved for the job.
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Weak labor market: President Obama hides behind automation

January 13, 2017 8 comments

from Dean Baker

It really is shameful how so many people, who certainly should know better, argue that automation is the factor depressing the wages of large segments of the workforce and that education (i.e. blame the ignorant workers) is the solution. President Obama takes center stage in this picture since he said almost exactly this in his farewell address earlier in the week. This misconception is repeated in a Claire Cain Miller’s NYT column today. Just about every part of the story is wrong.

Starting with the basic story of automation replacing workers, we have a simple way of measuring this process, it’s called “productivity growth.” And contrary to what the automation folks tell you, productivity growth has actually been very slow lately.

Book2 9104 image001

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The figure above shows average annual rates of productivity growth for five year periods, going back to 1952. As can be seen, the pace of automation (productivity growth) has actually been quite slow in recent years. It is also projected by the Congressional Budget Office and most other forecasters to remain slow for the foreseeable future, so the prospect of mass displacement of jobs by automation runs completely counter to what we have been seeing in the labor market.