Author Archive

The old debt and entitlement charade

October 22, 2016 8 comments

from Dean Baker

The establishment is trying to pull a big one over on the public yet again. One of the designated topics for the last presidential debate goes under the heading, “debt and entitlements.” This should have people upset for several reasons.

The first is simply the use of the term “entitlements.” While this has a clear meaning to policy wonks, it is likely that most viewers won’t immediately know that “entitlements” means the Social Security and Medicare their parents receive. It’s a lot easier for politicians to talk about cutting wasteful “entitlements” than taking away seniors’ Social Security and Medicare.

The ostensible purpose of the debate is to allow voters to be better informed about the candidates’ views. So if the purpose is conveying information, why not use terms that most voters will understand?

But the semantics are the less important part of the problem. Why is it that Social Security and Medicare are linked to debt?  These are not the only programs that entail future commitments of resources.

For example, our military budget involves large commitments of future resources. New weapon systems can require decades to develop and produce. We commit ourselves not only to the annual salaries of current soldiers, but also many decades of veterans’ benefits. And, when we make military commitments through policies like the expansion of the North American Free Trade Agreement, we are potentially obligating ourselves to vast expenditures in future conflicts.

Many of the government’s largest commitments of future resources do not even appear in the budget. When the government grants a patent or copyright monopoly, it is allowing the holder to effectively tax the public for decades into the future.    Read more…

Economists keep getting it wrong because the media coverup their mistakes

September 30, 2016 7 comments

from Dean Baker

Most workers suffer serious consequences when they mess up on their jobs. Custodians get fired if the toilet is not clean. Dishwashers lose their job when they break too many dishes, but not all workers are held accountable for the quality of their work.

At the top of the list of people who need not be competent to keep their job are economists. Unlike workers in most occupations, when large groups of economists mess up they can count on the media covering up their mistakes and insisting it was just impossible to understand what was going on.

This is first and foremost the story of the housing bubble. While it was easy to recognize that theUnited States and many other countries were seeing massive bubbles that were driving their economies, which meant that their collapse would lead to major recessions, the vast majority of economists insisted there was nothing to worry about.

The bubbles did burst, leading to a financial crisis, double-digit unemployment in many countries, and costing the world tens of trillions of dollars of lost output. The media excused this extraordinary failure by insisting that no one saw the bubble and that it was impossible to prevent this sort of economic and human disaster. Almost no economists suffered any consequences to their career as a result of this failure. The “experts” who determined policy in the years after the crash were the same people who completely missed seeing the crash coming.

We are now seeing the same story with trade. The NYT has a major magazine article on the impact of trade on the living standards of workers in the United States and other wealthy countries. The subhead tells readers:  Read more…

The anniversary of Lehman and men who don’t work

September 21, 2016 7 comments

from Dean Baker

Last week marked the eighth anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the huge Wall Street investment bank. This bankruptcy sent financial markets into a panic with the remaining investment banks, like Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, set to soon topple. The largest commercial banks, like Citigroup and Bank of America, were not far behind on the death watch.

The cascade of collapses was halted when the Fed and Treasury went into full-scale bailout mode. They lent trillions of dollars to failing banks at below market interest rates. They also promised the markets that there would be “no more Lehmans” to use former Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner’s term.

This promise was incredibly valuable in a time of crisis. It meant that investors could lend freely to Goldman and Citigroup without fear that their loans would not be repaid — they had the Treasury and the Fed standing behind them.

The public has every right to be furious about this set of events eight years ago, as well what has happened subsequently. First, everything about the crisis caught the country’s leading economists by surprise. Somehow, the country’s leading economists both could not see an $8 trillion housing bubble, nor could they understand how its collapse would seriously damage the economy. This bubble was clearly driving the economy prior to the crash, it is difficult to envision what these economists thought would replace the demand lost when the bubble burst.  Read more…

Men who don’t work: when did economists stop being wrong about the economy?

September 15, 2016 9 comments

from Cherrie Bucknor and Dean Baker

The 4.9 percent unemployment rate is getting close to most economists’ estimates of full employment. In fact, it is below many estimates from recent years and some current ones. Many policy types, including some at the Federal Reserve Board, take this as evidence that it’s necessary to raise interest rates in order to keep the unemployment rate from falling too low and triggering a round of spiraling inflation.

The argument on the other side is first and foremost there is zero evidence that inflation is about to start spiraling upward. The Fed’s key measure, the core personal consumption expenditure deflator, remains well below the Fed’s target and shows no evidence of acceleration. The same is true of most wage growth measures.

But there is also good reason for skepticism on the current unemployment rate as a useful measure of labor market tightness. Other measures of labor market tightness, such as the percentage of workers employed part-time for economic reasons and the share of unemploymentdue to voluntary quits, remain close to recession levels.

Most importantly, there has been a sharp drop in labor force participation rates. As a result, in spite of the relatively low unemployment rate, the employment rate is still close to 3.0 percentage points below its pre-recession level. This story holds up even if we restrict ourselves to looking at prime-age workers (between the ages of 25–54), with an EPOP that is close to 2.0 percentage points below pre-recession levels and almost 4.0 percentage points below 2000 peaks.[1]  Read more…

As UK productivity growth falls to zero, John Harris at the Guardian tells readers that technology is making old workplace relations obsolete

September 12, 2016 1 comment

from Dean Baker

The efforts by many elite types to deny basic statistics and to tout the new technologies transforming the workplace are truly Trumpian in their nature. According to the OECD, productivity growth in the UK was essentially zero between 2007 and 2014 (the most recent year for which it has data). So we would naturally expect that the Guardian would run a column telling us that globalization and new technologies are making old workplace relations obsolete.

As John Harris tells readers:

“In a world in which businesses can survey their order books on an hourly basis and temporarily hire staff at the touch of a button, why would they base their arrangements on agreements that last for years?”

Well, a big part of the story is that the UK (like the U.S.) has a very weak labor market. This was a result of conscious policy decisions. The Conservative government put in a policy of austerity that had the effect of reducing demand in the UK and slowing the rate of job creation. In this context, of course employers get to call the shots.

Serious people would address the context which has denied workers bargaining power. It is not “technology” as Harris and his elite Trumpians would like to pretend, it is macroeconomic policy. But Harris has no time for talking about macroeconomic policy. He dismisses a plan put forward by Labor Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn to produce full employment as, “either naive or dishonest” adding “but they reflect delusions that run throughout Labour and the left.”

There we have it, in elite Trumpland we don’t have to deal with data or arguments; we can just dismiss people and ideas with ad hominem arguments.  Read more…

The simple way to crack down on Apple’s tax games

September 9, 2016 12 comments

from Dean Baker

While Elizabeth Warren is praising the European Union’s crackdown on Apple’s Ireland tax scheme, Jack Lew and the Obama Treasury Department are going to bat for corporate tax cheating. Warren is far too optimistic about the prospect of a successful crackdown. These folks are prepared to spend a lot of money to hide their profits from tax authorities and they are likely to find accomplices in many Irelands around the world.

It would be good to look in a different direction. I remain a big fan of my proposal for companies to turn over non-voting shares of stock to the government. In that case, what goes to the shareholders also goes to the government. Unless you cheat your shareholders, you can’t cheat the government.

I know this is probably too simple to be taken seriously in policy circles, but those who care about an efficient and effective way to collect corporate taxes should be thinking about it.

Trade, Truth and Trump

August 18, 2016 71 comments

from Dean Baker

Donald Trump seems to have driven a substantial portion of the media into a frenzy with his anti-trade rhetoric. While much of what Trump says is wrong, and his solutions are at best ill-defined, the response in the press has largely been dishonest.

For example, a New York Times editorial tried to imply that there was an ambiguous relationship between the size of the trade deficit and employment in manufacturing. It pointed out that Japan and Germany, both countries with trade surpluses, had seen a comparable percentage decline in the number of workers employed in manufacturing as the United States over the last quarter-century.

What the editorial for some reason chose to ignore was that Japan and Germany have seen near-stagnant labor force growth over the last quarter-century. Other things equal, we should therefore expect to see a smaller increase or larger percentage point decline in manufacturing jobs in these countries than in the United States, where the labor force has grown by more than 25 percent over this period.

The editorial also neglected to mention that Japan now has just under 17 percent of its workforce employed in manufacturing, while in Germany the share is almost 20 percent. This compares to 8.6 percent in the United States. If the United States had the same share of its workforce employed in manufacturing as Japan, we would have another 11 million manufacturing jobs. If we had the same share as Germany, we would have another 16 million manufacturing jobs. That would make a huge difference in the US labor market.   Read more…

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

July 26, 2016 4 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.

Read more…

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).

Read more…

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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