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Is the Trans-Pacific Partnership President Obama’s Vietnam?

July 26, 2016 3 comments

from Dean Baker

The prospects for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) are not looking very good right now. Both parties’ presidential candidates have come out against the deal. Donald Trump has placed it at the top of his list of bad trade deals that he wants to stop or reverse. Hillary Clinton had been a supporter as secretary of state, but has since joined the opposition in response to overwhelming pressure from the Democratic base.

As a concession to President Obama, the Democratic platform does not explicitly oppose the TPP. However it does include unambiguous language opposing investor-state dispute settlement mechanisms — the extra-judicial tribunals that are an integral part of the TPP.

If the political prospects look bleak there also is not much that can be said for the economic merits of the pact. The classic story of gaining from free trade by removing trade barriers doesn’t really apply to the TPP primarily because we have already removed most of the barriers between the countries in the pact.

The United States has trade deals in place with six of the 11 countries in the TPP, so tariffs with these countries are already at or very near zero. Even with the other five countries, in most cases the formal trade barriers are already low, so pushing them to zero will not have much economic impact.   Read more…

Don’t believe Wall Street’s scare stories about a financial transactions tax

July 25, 2016 2 comments

from Dean Baker

Thanks in large part to Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Democratic Party recently added a financial transactions tax to its platform. In his run for the presidential nomination, Sanders had promoted the idea of an FTT — a small sales tax on the purchase of stocks, bonds or other financial assets — as a way to finance free college for everyone, with money left over for infrastructure and other important needs. The idea has currency beyond the platform, too: Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.) recently reintroduced an earlier proposal for a tax of 3 cents on every 100 dollars on most financial transactions.

Talk of FTTs scares the financial industry: They would significantly reduce the industry’s revenue and profits. As soon as anyone starts taking FTTs seriously, the industry immediately begins issuing dire warnings — which, unsurprisingly, almost always amount to nonsense.

Of late, the industry has taken to pretending that the real victims of an FTT won’t be the high rollers on Wall Street, but rather middle-class families. If families have 401(k)s, industry complainers say, they will have to pay more for the trades done by the people who manage their funds. Likewise, if they have a traditional pension, each trade made by the pension will cost more.

There’s a basic problem with the industry’s logic. A great deal of research shows that trading of stock and other financial assets is hugely responsive to the cost of trading. In fact, most research shows that if the cost of trading goes up by a certain amount — say 20% — the number of trades will fall by an even larger amount, say 25%.   Read more…

Paul Krugman’s stock market advice

July 15, 2016 3 comments

from Dean Baker

Paul Krugman actually did not make any predictions on the stock market, so those looking to get investment advice from everyone’s favorite Nobel Prize winning economist will be disappointed. But he did make some interesting comments on the market’s new high. Some of these are on the mark, but some could use some further elaboration.

I’ll start with what is right. First, Krugman points out that the market is horrible as a predictor of the future of the economy. The market was also at a record high in the fall of 2007. This was more than a full year after the housing bubble’s peak. At the time, house prices were falling at a rate of more than 1 percent a month, eliminating more than $200 billion of homeowner’s equity every month. Somehow the wizards of Wall Street did not realize this would cause problems for the economy. The idea that the Wall Street gang has some unique insight into the economy is more than a bit far-fetched.

The second point where Krugman is right on the money (yes, pun intended) is that the market is supposed to be giving us the value of future profits, not an assessment of the economy. This is the story if we think of the stock market acting in textbook form where all investors have perfect foresight. The news that the economy will boom over the next decade, but the profit share will plummet as workers get huge pay increases, would be expected to give us a plunging stock market. Conversely, weak growth coupled with a rising profit share should mean a rising market. Even in principle the stock market is not telling us about the future of the economy, it is telling us about the future of corporate profits.

Okay, now for a few points where Krugman’s comments could use a bit deeper analysis.  Read more…

The secret to the incredible wealth of Bill Gates

June 21, 2016 6 comments

from Dean Baker

Sorry folks, this isn’t Trump University, I don’t have the plan for you to get rich quick. But it is important for everyone to understand exactly why Bill Gates is very rich. It’s called “copyright protection.”

If that sounds strange, imagine a world where everyone could make as many copies as they liked of Windows, Microsoft’s Office Suite and any other software at no cost. They would only have to send Bill Gates a thank you note, if they felt like it. Bill Gates is undoubtedly a very smart and ambitious guy, but in the world without copyright protection, it is highly unlikely that he would be the world’s richest person.

This point may be simple and obvious, but it seems to have been lost on most of the people arguing about inequality. In these discussions we hear continual expressions of concern over how technology is behind the massive upward redistribution of income we have seen in the last four decades. This upward redistribution is usually treated as an unfortunate fact of nature. Even if we don’t like to see the rich continually get richer at the expense of the rest of society, what can we do, stop technology? A little serious thinking could go a long way.   Read more…

Paul Krugman, Brexit, and unaccountable government

June 18, 2016 10 comments

from Dean Baker

Paul Krugman devoted his column on Friday to a mild critique of the drive to take the United Kingdom out of the European Union. The reason the column was somewhat moderate in its criticisms of the desire to leave EU is that Krugman sympathizes with the complaints of many in the UK and elsewhere about the bureaucrats in Brussels being unaccountable to the public. This is of course right, but it is worth taking the issue here a step further.

If we expect to hold people accountable then they have to face consequences for doing their job badly. In particular, if they mess up really badly then they should be fired. There is a whole economics literature on the importance of being able to fire workers as a way of ensuring work discipline. Unfortunately this never seems to apply to the people at the top. And this is seen most clearly in the cases of those responsible for economic policy in the European Union.

The European Central Bank (ECB) was amazingly negligent in its failure to recognize the dangers of the housing bubbles in Spain, Ireland, and elsewhere. Its response to the downturn was also incredibly inept, needlessly pushing many countries to the brink of default, thereby inflating interest rates to stratospheric levels. Nonetheless, when Jean-Claude Trichet retired as head of the bank in 2011, he was applauded for his years of service and patted himself on the back for keeping inflation under the bank’s 2.0 percent. (For those arguing that this was the bank’s exclusive mandate, it is worth noting that Mario Draghi, his successor, is operating under the same mandate. He nonetheless sees it as the bank’s job to maintain financial stability and promote growth.)

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Shorter workweeks will defeat the robots

June 13, 2016 6 comments

from Dean Baker

More than eight years after the start of the Great Recession, our labor market is far from recovering by most measures. At 5 percent, the current unemployment rate is not very different from its pre-recession level, but the main reason it is so low is that millions of people have given up looking for work and dropped out of the labor force. These people are no longer counted as being unemployed.

And contrary to what is often claimed, this is not a story of retiring baby boomers. The percentage of the prime age population (people between the ages of 25-54) that is working is down by 2 full percentage points from its pre-recession level. This translates into 2.5 million people who have given up looking for work at an age where they should be at the peak of their working career. That looks like pretty solid evidence of a weak labor market.

There are two ways to deal with a situation in which the number of people who want to work exceeds the number of jobs. The first is to increase demand in the economy, thereby increasing the demand for workers. We could in principle do this with increased government spending, but people don’t like budget deficits.

Reducing the size of the trade deficit would also increase demand, but this requires that our politicians make trade deficits a priority, which is not likely.

Some politicians claim that they have a magic formula that will cause companies to go on an investment spree. Unfortunately, the magic seems to work only in the elections, never once they are in office.  Read more…

The Trump supporters in econ departments and central banks everywhere

June 1, 2016 3 comments

from Dean Baker

Eduardo Porter used his NYT column this week to remind us that we have seen people like Donald Trump before and it didn’t turn out well. Porter is of course right, but it is worth carrying the argument a bit further.

Hitler came to power following the devastating peace terms that the allies imposed on Germany following World War I. This lead to first the hyper-inflation that we will continue to hear about until the end of time, and then austerity and high unemployment that was the immediate economic environment in which Hitler came to power.

The point that we should all take away is that there was nothing natural about the desperate situation that many Germans found themselves in when they turned to Hitler for relief. Their desperation was the result of conscious economic decisions made by both the leaders of the victorious countries as well as the leaders of the Weimar Republic. (It is not as though the latter had any good choices.) Nothing can excuse support for a genocidal maniac, but we should be clear about what prompted the German people to turn in that direction.

When we look at the rise of Trump and other right-wing populists across Western Europe, we see people responding to similar decisions by their leaders. The European Commission has imposed austerity across the euro zone largely at the insistence of Germany. It is not clear what economic theory explains the infatuation with austerity, but nonetheless it is now the golden rule across Europe. The U.K. has gone in the same direction even though it is not bound by the euro rules. Even Denmark has been making cuts to its health care system and other aspects of its welfare state in spite of the fact that its debt to GDP ratio is less than 10.0 percent and it is running a massive trade surplus.

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Getting high on interest rates: What’s new at the Fed

May 23, 2016 3 comments

from Dean Baker

The minutes from the most recent Federal Reserve Board Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting indicate that many of its members are anxious to move forward with more interest rate hikes. The next hit could come as soon as June. This should have the country very worried.

Just for some basic orientation, the point of raising interest rates is to slow the economy and keep it from creating too many jobs. The members of the FOMC are worried that the labor market is becoming too tight, with the unemployment rate falling too low. This would give workers more bargaining power, allowing them to get larger wage gains, which could be passed on in higher prices, kicking off an inflationary spiral. If that doesn’t sound like the economy you see, then it’s probably because you have a better idea of the data than the folks at the FOMC.

Starting at the basics, by many measures the labor market is still far from recovering to its pre-recession level, in spite of a recovery that will soon be entering its eighth year. Most notably the employment to population ratio (EPOP), which is the percentage of adults with jobs, is still more than 3 percentage points below its pre-recession level.  Read more…

Yes, the economy is rigged, contrary to what some economists try to tell you

May 11, 2016 8 comments

from Dean Baker

I see Greg Mankiw used his NYT column to tell folks that politicians are spinning tales when they say the economy is rigged. I would say that economists spin tales when they tell you it is not. (Mankiw and I just ran through this argument on a panel in Boston last week.) Let’s quickly run through the main points.

First, the overall level of employment is a political decision. We would have many more people employed today if the deficit hawks had not seized control of fiscal policy back in 2011 and turned the dial toward austerity. The beneficiaries of higher employment are disproportionately those at the middle and bottom of the income distribution: people with less education and African Americans and Hispanics. So the politicians pushing austerity decided that millions of people at the middle and bottom would not have jobs.

Furthermore, in a weaker labor market, it is harder for those at the middle and bottom to get pay increases. So the shift to austerity also meant that tens of millions of workers would have to work for lower pay. Read all about it in my book with Jared Bernstein (free, and worth it).

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Reining in CEO pay: market discipline at the top

April 13, 2016 3 comments

from Dean Baker

Ever wonder how top executives like former Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina can walk away with $100 million after nearly wrecking a major corporation? The answer is that the market doesn’t work the same way at the top as it does for the rest of us. While most of us expect our pay to bear some relationship to our performance, at the top it’s mostly a story of play money among friends.

Corporate executives get patted on the back when they announce plant closings, layoffs, and pay cuts. This is seen as good news for corporate profits and stock prices. But there is no one to applaud when the CEO gets their pay cut because they are not worth the money. That would be a decision of corporate boards, and these boards tend to have more loyalty to CEOs and top management than to the shareholders they ostensibly represent.

After all, top management often played a role in getting the directors their job. And being a director is a very good job. Typically it means getting paid several hundred thousand dollars a year for showing up at 6–10 meetings. Many corporate directors find the time to sit on three or four boards while still holding down full time positions of their own.   Read more…

The Reign of the Robots: Economists getting it badly wrong

March 31, 2016 22 comments

from Dean Baker

A standard fear raised in Washington policy debates is that the development of robots and other forms of technology will displace tens of millions of workers, leaving much of the workforce without jobs. This is remarkable story both because it is not supported by any evidence, but also because it goes in the opposite direction of virtually all the main concerns raised in debates over economic policy.

The story of the rising robots should mean that we are seeing a rapid increase in the amount of output per hour of work. The logic is that the robots are doing work that humans used to do, so we have more output for every hour of human labor.

In fact, we are seeing the exact opposite. The rate of productivity growth, which measures output per hour of work, has slowed sharply in recent years. In the last five years productivity growth in the United States has averaged just 0.4 percent annually, the slowest five year stretch on record. This compares to a rate of close to 3.0 percent annually from 1995 to 2005, which was also the rate of productivity growth during the long post World War II Golden Age, from 1947–73.
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Fools or liars on the Trans-Pacific Partnership?

March 24, 2016 2 comments

from Dean Baker

Given the recent flood of op-eds and editorials on the wonders of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the Obama administration must be about to present the deal to Congress for approval. Otherwise, it’s hard to see why so many pieces would spontaneously appear on the TPP. Since there is real money at stake, we can expect the debate to get pretty low and nasty, with the pro-TPP forces liberally substituting ad hominems and claims to expertise for serious arguments.

My favorite on the lack-of-argument side is the exciting news that if the TPP were approved it would eliminate 18,000 tariffs on U.S. exports to the countries in the deal. That sounds like a huge boon to trade, right? Public Citizen looked up the 18,000 tariffs that would be eliminated. It found that the United States is not currently exporting in more than half of the categories in which these tariffs apply. Included in the list of tariffs to be removed are Malaysia’s shark fin tariffs, Vietnam’s whale meat tariffs, and Japan’s ivory tariffs.

The overwhelming majority of these tariffs are of little consequence in very narrow product categories, like Brunei’s tariff on ski boots. So when the proponents of the TPP tout the 18,000 tariffs, is this because they have no clue what they are talking about, or are they deliberately trying to deceive the public?

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Is the ‘Gig Economy’ here to stay?

March 20, 2016 Leave a comment

from Dean Baker

The “gig economy” is one of the many trendy revolutions capturing the news media’s attention. But some simple realities apply to the gig economy, buried in a great deal of hype.

“Gig economy” work is the same sort of casual labor that has always existed. It’s a variation on the day-labor centers where workers go in the morning in the hope of finding work for all or part of a day. The only difference is that the gig economy operates over the Internet and involves workers in a wider range of occupations, some relatively skilled. However, just as some day-labor companies hope to profit by evading regulations and cheating workers, many gig economy companies hope to legally skirt labor laws that apply to other employers.

The survival of gig economy companies depends on the overall state of the economy. It is no accident that the gig economy exploded following the recent steep recession. More than eight years after the onset of the recession, the economy is still down more than 3 million jobs from trend levels.
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The rise of Donald Trump

March 2, 2016 16 comments

from Dean Baker

It is undoubtedly scary to many people living outside the United States to see Donald Trump as the leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. He has repeatedly made xenophobic and racist comments and promises to deport 11 million people who immigrated to the United States without proper documentation. This should provide cause for concern, but it is important to understand the basis of Trump’s appeal.

First, Trump’s support is coming overwhelmingly from white men with less than a college education. These are people who likely see themselves as losers in the economy over the last few decades. While an earlier generation of non-college educated white men could count on a reasonably good paying job in manufacturing, trucking, and other sectors requiring limited education, this is no longer true. Pay for men without college degrees has been largely stagnant over the last thirty five years.

These men are angry about not enjoying the living standard and economic security that their parents could largely take for granted. This leaves them looking for villains to blame, real or imagined.

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Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and the Money

February 20, 2016 8 comments

from Dean Baker

Bernie Sanders has made the corrupting role of money in politics a centerpiece of his campaign. He has argued that because campaign contributions by the rich pay for political campaigns, they are able to control the political process. This gives us a political system that is very effective at serving Wall Street and the insurance and pharmaceutical industries. It is much less effective at serving the needs of ordinary people.

This has created an interesting dynamic in the race for the Democratic nomination. Secretary Clinton has flipped Sanders’ claim around and challenged him to show where she has reversed a position to serve the moneyed interests. This might be a useful campaign tactic, but it misrepresents the way in which money affects campaigns.

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Financial reform: It’s about improving the financial system, not 2008

February 11, 2016 3 comments

from Dean Baker

As the Democratic presidential race heats up, the debate on financial reform has taken a bizarre twist. Somehow the measure of a good reform is its ability to prevent another 2008-type financial crisis.

While it is reasonable to subject a reform agenda to the 2008 test, this should be at most a side issue. After all, it is virtually certain that our next crisis will not look our last crisis. Financial reform first and foremost is not about preventing the last crisis, but rather about designing a financial system that more effectively serves the rest of the economy.

Finance is an intermediate good like trucking. It does not directly provide value like food or health care, the value in the financial sector depends exclusively on its ability to make the rest of the economy function better. This means effectively getting money to businesses and households who need to borrow. And it means providing safe investment vehicles for people to save for retirement or other purposes.

An efficient financial sector provides these services using as few resources as possible. With that in mind, it is hard to make the case that our financial system is efficient. It has exploded in size relative to the rest of the economy over the last four decades, with the narrow commodities and securities trading sector increasing fourfold.

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Paul Krugman, Bernie Sanders, and the Experts

February 3, 2016 17 comments

from Dean Baker

I have tremendous respect for Paul Krugman. I also consider him a friend. For these reasons I am not eager to pick a fight with him, but there is something about his criticisms of Bernie Sanders that really bothered me.

In a blog post last week, Krugman told readers:

“As far as I can tell, every serious progressive policy expert on either health care or financial reform who has weighed in on the primary seems to lean Hillary.”

While I already had some fun with the idea of Krugman revoking the credentials of everyone who works in these areas who does not back Clinton, the appeal to the authority of the “experts” is more than a bit annoying. The reason is that the “experts” do not have a very good track record of late and still have a long way to go to win back the public’s trust.

To start with the obvious, almost none of the experts saw the 2008 collapse coming. Almost all of them dismissed the idea that there was a housing bubble and even the few that grudgingly acknowledged the possibility of a bubble insisted that it could not have much consequence for the economy.

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Global Warming and Secular Stagnation

November 23, 2015 5 comments

from Dean Baker

As the world prepares for another round of climate negotiations, it is worth repeating a few simple points. First, it is becoming increasingly obvious that the world is already paying a substantial price for global warming.

Extreme weather events will never come with a stamp that says “caused by global warming.” We know that global warming will change weather patterns in ways that are not entirely predictable. That means that we will see unusual weather events where global warming was likely a factor, but we can never know for certain.

One of the leading candidates in this respect is the extreme drought that afflicted Syria in the last decade, destroying much of its agriculture and leading to a mass migration to its cities. This migration was likely a factor in the unrest that had led the country’s civil war. Syria’s civil war in turn has led to hundreds of thousands of deaths, the displacement of millions, and of course the rise of ISIS.

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Why the cure for a sluggish economy is actually longer vacations

November 13, 2015 6 comments

from Dean Baker

What if we could boost the economy with longer vacations? Or with paid family leave? With shorter workweeks?

It may sound too good to be true, but hear me out.

Economists have long dismissed the idea that an economy could suffer from a persistent shortfall in demand. While most acknowledged that in periods of recession, growth and jobs could be limited by inadequate demand, this was viewed as a temporary story. In the decades since World War II, the economy generally bounced back quickly from recessions. Once the economy recovered from recession, the basic constraint was supply. We would only have more growth and jobs if we could make the economy more productive and/or persuade more people to work. In this context, additional demand, such as a burst of consumption or increase in government spending, would only create inflationary pressures and undermine the effort to boost growth.

This view has been badly shaken by the Great Recession. Many prominent economists, including Paul Krugman and Larry Summers, now warn quite explicitly about the country facing a prolonged period of what’s known as secular stagnation. Secular stagnation means the main constraint on the economy is inadequate demand, not a lack of supply. If we are facing secular stagnation, policies that boost demand will lead to more growth and jobs.

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The TPP’s children’s table: Labor rights and currency

November 12, 2015 Leave a comment

from Dean Baker

The concept of the children’s table has moved from Thanksgiving dinner to presidential politics with the networks having a separate debate for the low-polling candidates for the Republican nomination. But the concept of the children’s table is also useful for understanding trade policy and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

The TPP has two classes of issues. On the one hand, there are the issues that really matter to the drafters of the deal. These are issues like protection of patents and copyrights and other forms of investment. Disputes that arise over investment can be taken directly by foreign investors to the investor-state dispute settlement tribunals set up by the TPP.

The investor bringing the complaint gets to appoint one of the three judges hearing the complaint. A second judge is appointed by the country against whom a complaint is being brought. The third judge is jointly appointed by the investor and the government. This panel is then empowered to impose fines of whatever size it considers appropriate. This is entirely an extra-judicial process. The verdict is not appealable to any domestic court.

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