Author Archive

Trump crazy and intellectual crazy

January 20, 2021 2 comments

from Dean Baker

– the ways in which the economy has been structured to redistribute income upward

It’s hard not to be appalled and scared by the reality denial of Donald Trump’s followers. Their willingness to insist an election was stolen, with no evidence whatsoever, is difficult to understand for those of who like to think that people respond to facts and logic.

I don’t have any easy answers to get these people to start thinking clearly, but I will point out that it is not just ignorant and/or crazed Trumpers who have trouble dealing with reality. Many of our leading intellectuals and our major media outlets have similar difficulty dealing with reality when it doesn’t fit their conceptions of the world.

In particular, I am referring to my standard complaint about the unwillingness to acknowledge the ways in which the economy has been structured to redistribute income upward. I will focus on the two simplest routes, which are often described as “technology” and “globalization.”

The Technology and Inequality Lie

Sorry to get harsh on this, but after what we saw on January 6th, I am not in a mood for being polite. I realize that it is very convenient for people who are doing relatively well in the current economy to believe that it is just a result of the way that technology happened to develop. In this story, it just happened to turn out that the progress in areas like software, artificial intelligence, and biotechnology have made advanced skills in science and math more valuable and less-skilled physical labor less valuable.

This line is repeated endlessly in media outlets and academic circles with zero reflection. Read more…

Even in the face of coup attempt, NYT continues propaganda for upward redistribution through trade

January 19, 2021 2 comments

from Dean Baker

I have repeatedly raised the point that media accounts routinely use the term “free trade” when they can more accurately say simply “trade” or trade policy. It is amazing to me that this practice continues.

We saw it yet again in a NYT article on how many Republicans continue to be faithful to Trump even after last week’s coup attempt. The article told readers:

“Anthony Sabatini, a Florida state representative, described Ms. Cheney and other Republicans who voted for impeachment as ‘artifacts,’ saying they were out of step in a party that has embraced a more populist platform opposed to foreign interventions and skeptical of free trade.”

As I have pointed out endlessly, we do not have a policy of “free trade.” We do not allow foreign trained professionals, such as doctors and dentists, to freely practice in the United States. Our trade policy has been focused on reducing barriers to trade in manufactured goods, while leaving in place the barriers that protect the most highly paid professionals.

This has the effect of putting U.S. manufacturing workers in direct competition with low-paid workers in the developing world. This has the predicted and actual effect of lowering the pay of manufacturing workers in the United States. Since manufacturing has historically been a source of relatively high-paying jobs for workers without college degrees, the loss of good-paying jobs in manufacturing has put downward pressure on the pay of non-college educated workers more generally. This distributional impact has nothing to do with “free trade,” it is due to a policy of selective protectionism.

In the same vein, much of our trade policy has been focused on making our patent and copyright protections longer and stronger and imposing these rules on our trading partners. These protections are 180 degrees at odds with free trade, they are government granted monopolies. They also have the effect of redistributing income upward, to drug and software companies and people with skills in the relevant fields. Very few dishwashers and custodians benefit from patent rents or royalties from copyrights.

It would be helpful if the NYT and other media outlets could stop trying to pretend that the upward redistribution from globalization was some sort of natural process involving free trade. That is a Trumpian lie and it would be good if the media stopped repeating it.

Debt and deficits, yet again

January 14, 2021 6 comments

from Dean Baker

With a Democrat in the White House, the season of the deficit hawk has returned. So, it’s worth going through the old arguments just to remind everyone that the best response to these people is ridicule.

It looks like President Biden will propose a robust stimulus package of well over $1 trillion. According to press accounts, the package is likely to include another check for $2,000. (I believe it is supposed to $1,400 above the $600 in the last package.) It is likely to include a refundable child tax credit that will do much to reduce child poverty.

It will also include money to state and local governments to make up massive pandemic induced shortfalls. There will also be money for mass transit and a down payment on green new deal programs. Biden also plans to increase the subsidies provided in the Affordable Care Act, to make its insurance more affordable. And, he is likely to ask for a reduction in the age of Medicare eligibility.

In other words, this will be a really big deal. And, it will cost money. Biden will propose tax increases on the rich and corporations, but there is little doubt there will be a large increase in the deficit and the debt. So should we be worried? Read more…

End of the year thoughts on inequality and its remedies

January 1, 2021 4 comments

from Dean Baker

The approach of the end of the year seems a good time to sum up thoughts. My comments here will not be news to regular readers, but may be to others. Also, this exercise is helpful for me to keep my thoughts clear. (I also expect to take next week off, so you won’t be hearing from me for a while.)

Most of my work for the last several years has been focused on ways to reduce before tax inequality by reducing the amount of before-tax income that goes to those at the top of the income distribution. For better or worse, there don’t seem to be a lot of progressives that share this beat. There are a few points that are worth making.

First, my focus on reducing income at the top doesn’t mean for a second that I don’t see efforts at raising income for those at the bottom (and middle) as being important. I have long been involved with or worked alongside people trying to raise minimum wages, protect or increase Social Security benefits, and increase unionization rates.

These are very important efforts, but at the end of the day, our ability to raise incomes at the middle and bottom will depend on reducing incomes at the top. This gets to the old pie-cutting story. If we want those at the middle and bottom to have much bigger slices of the pie, the folks at the top will have to get by with smaller slices.

To see how skewed the pie eating has gotten, if the federal minimum wage had kept pace with productivity growth since 1968, as it did from its establishment in 1938 until 1968, it would be $24 an hour today. That means a single full-time minimum wage earner would have an income of $48,000 a year. A two-earner couple getting the minimum wage would have an income of $96,000 a year. Read more…

China has the world’s largest economy: Get over it

December 27, 2020 2 comments

from Dean Baker

It is more than a bit annoying to hear reporters endlessly refer to China as the world’s second largest economy. It isn’t. It’s the world’s largest economy and has been since 2017. Here are the data from the International Monetary Fund.

Source: International Monetary Fund.

As the chart shows, China’s economy first passed the U.S. in 2017. It is projected to be more than 16 percent larger this year, and by 2025 is projected to be almost 40 percent larger by 2025.

Purchasing power parity (PPP) measures of GDP are based on applying a common  set of prices for all goods and services produced across countries. While it is difficult to measure accurately, most economists view PPP as being the better way to calculate GDP, since it reflects living standards and does not fluctuate with currency values. China does have four time the population of the United States, so it is still much poorer on a per capita basis.

The fact that China has a larger GDP than the United States is important for policy debates since many people seem to hold illusions are about the ability of the U.S. to influence China. While United States can take steps that will damage China’s economy, even the harshest measures will only have limited impact, and China will be able to take steps to overcome them through time. This is important background for debates on China policy.

Time to end patent monopolies

December 25, 2020 Leave a comment

from Dean Baker

For several years the opioid crisis has been recognized as a major national catastrophe. Millions of people have become addicted to the new generation of opioid drugs. In many cases, this addiction has led to the destruction of families, job loss, crime, and suicide. At the peak of the crisis in West Virginia, the hardest hit state, the death rate from overdoses alone, was more than 41 people per 100,000. This is more than 70 percent of its fatality rate from the pandemic, as of mid-December. And this doesn’t count deaths due to crime or opioid-related health conditions. Opioids are a big part of the story of the state’s drop in life expectancy over the last quarter century.

The crisis did not just happen by chance. As we now know, drug manufacturers and distributors made large amounts of money pushing their drugs. Read more…

Bloomberg is concerned that Janet Yellen’s dollar policy may lessen wealth inequality

December 22, 2020 1 comment

from Dean Baker

You don’t have to look far, it’s literally the first sentence in a Bloomberg piece on dollar policy under incoming Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen.

“Janet Yellen once touted the benefits of a weaker greenback for exports, but as the incoming Treasury secretary, she faces pressure to return the U.S. to a “strong-dollar” policy — and may cause trembles on Wall Street if she doesn’t.”

For folks who don’t know, the vast majority of U.S. stock is held by the richest 10 percent of households in the country, with the richest 1 percent holding close to 50 percent of all stock wealth. The run-up in the stock market over the last four decades has been the main factor behind the rise in the inequality of wealth over this period. A drop in the stock market would reduce wealth inequality, which is apparently a really bad outcome in the view of Bloomberg.

But getting beyond its promotion of wealth inequality it is worth looking at the substance of this piece pushing Janet Yellen to support a stronger dollar.

The piece gives us some dollar boosterism from Larry Summers, Treasury Secretary under President Clinton and the head of President Obama’s National Economic Council: Read more…

Big Pharma strikes back

December 16, 2020 1 comment

from Dean Baker and Arjun Jayadev

On Monday, we, along with Achal Prabhala, had a column in the New York Times arguing in support of a resolution put forward before the WTO by India and South Africa, which would suspend intellectual property rights related to vaccines and treatments during the pandemic. The main point is that these rights are slowing the diffusion of life-saving medicines in a crisis. Furthermore, since much or all the cost of developing these vaccines and treatments were picked up by various governments, the drug companies would still be earning back their investment, plus a healthy profit, even with this suspension.

Not surprisingly, the pharmaceutical industry is not letting this proposal go unchallenged in public debate. Thomas Cueni, the director-general of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations, had a column in the NYT on Thursday pushing the industry’s line. Cueni argues that it would be unfair to the industry to suspend its patent rights in the pandemic. He also argues that it wouldn’t help distribution in any case because of supply constraints and that it would be harmful in the long-run since companies would not invest in developing new drugs if they could not count on their patent rights being respected. Read more…

Beating up on finance

December 8, 2020 9 comments

from Dean Baker

When I do one of my diatribes about how our protectionist barriers allow U.S. doctors to earn twice as much as doctors in other wealthy countries, I invariably get complaints from doctors and their friends asking why I don’t go after the really big bucks people on Wall Street. The answer of course is that I do, but the bloated paychecks on Wall Street are not a reason to pay an extra $100 billion a year ($750 per household) to doctors in the United States. But it is true that I haven’t beaten up on the financial sector for a while, and with Biden now putting together his administration, this would be a great time to take a few shots.

First, we need some important background. Finance is an intermediate good, like trucking. It does not directly provide value to people like housing or health care. Its value to the economy is allocating capital and facilitating transactions so that the sectors that do provide value are as efficient as possible.

For this reason, an efficient financial sector is a small financial sector. People need to be able to borrow money to buy a home or start a business, and businesses need to be able to get money to expand, but we want as few resources as possible employed in handing out the money.

However, rather than getting smaller and more efficient, the financial sector has expanded hugely over the last four decades. This is seen most clearly in the narrow commodities and securities trading sector, which was less than 0.4 percent of GDP in the mid-seventies and is now more than 2 percent of GDP ($400 billion a year). Other parts of finance have exploded also. We now spend over $250 billion a year (1.2 percent of GDP) on the administration of the health insurance industry, $100 billion on life insurance (0.5 percent of GDP) and hundreds of billions more on other financial services. Read more…

More bad news about the Pandemic Recession: Longer hours

December 3, 2020 Leave a comment

from Dean Baker

We know that the economy is likely to get worse in the immediate future as the pandemic is spreading out of control in most parts of the country. However, the latest data on average weekly hours indicates we may be facing a longer-term issue that has not generally been anticipated.

In a normal recession, we see both a loss of jobs and a reduction in hours for those who managed to keep their jobs. The shortening of hours is a better way for employers to deal with reduced demand for labor since it keeps workers attached to their jobs. (This is the argument for work-sharing as an alternative to unemployment.) However, in this recession, we are actually seeing some lengthening of the average workweek, not the usual shortening.

The chart below compares the change in the average workweek from 2007 to 2009 and from 2019 to 2020. For 2020, I have used the most recent two months’ data (September and October) to just take the period where the economy was operating at a level somewhat close to normal. Read more…

The real reasons wages are low

November 30, 2020 4 comments

from Dean Baker

It’s good to see the New York Times making the case for higher wages in an editorial. Unfortunately, they get much of the story confused.

First off, the essence of the case is that higher wages will lead to more consumption, which will spur growth. This is true, but higher pay is not the only way to generate more demand. We also get more demand with larger budget deficits, lower interest rates, and a smaller trade deficit.

But that is the less important problem with the piece. The bigger problem is the assertion that the failure of pay to keep pace with productivity growth over the last four decades is due to higher profits.

“Wages are influenced by a tug of war between employers and workers, and employers have been winning. One clear piece of evidence is the yawning divergence between productivity growth and wage growth since roughly 1970. Productivity has more than doubled; wages have lagged far behind.”

In fact, a rising profit share only explains about 10 percent of the gap between productivity growth and the median wage since 1979. The overwhelming majority of the gap is explained by rising high end wages — the money earned by CEOs and other top execs, high pay in the financial sector, the earnings of some workers in STEM areas, and high-end professionals, like doctors and dentists.

For some reason, the NYT never wants to talk about the laws and structures that allow for the explosion of pay at the top. Read more…

How many lives would have been saved if we had collaborated on vaccines with China?

November 24, 2020 2 comments

from Dean Baker

We know that Republican office holders are not allowed to say that Joe Biden won the election. Apparently there is a similar ban in place for news outlets when it comes to the question of the United States collaborating with China, and other countries, in developing vaccines against the pandemic.

In recent days, there have been articles in several major news outlets about how China vaccinated close to 1 million people, under an Emergency Use Authorization, for vaccines that are currently in Phase 3 clinical testing (hereherehere, and here). While large-scale distribution of vaccines, that have not completed testing for safety and effectiveness, is probably not a good public health practice, none of these pieces raised any questions about whether the United States, and other countries, might have benefited from access to the Chinese vaccines.

It would not be reasonable to distribute Chinese vaccines here based on safety and effectiveness data that had not been thoroughly vetted by the Food and Drug Administration. But, if we had chosen to go a collaborative route in developing vaccines, we could have done our own tests, in addition to using data available from tests done by the Chinese manufacturers. Read more…

The Krugman boom: Don’t bank on It

November 22, 2020 5 comments

from Dean Baker

I have largely been in agreement with Paul Krugman in his assessment of the economy over the last dozen years or so, but I think in his latest column he let the promise of a post-Trump era get the better of him. Krugman notes that the distribution of effective vaccines should allow people to return to their normal lives.

He argues that this will lead to a spending boom, as consumers have accumulated savings through the slump and will now be in a position to spend lots of money. As a model he points to the boom in 1983 and 1984 after the Fed lowered interest rates.

While I have not been one of the doomsayers predicting economic collapse, I can’t be as optimistic as Paul on this one. First, just to be clear, Krugman does not at all question the need for immediate and substantial stimulus. In the next few months, with the pandemic spreading largely unchecked until vaccines become widely available, millions of people will be thrown out of work as restaurants, bars and other businesses in the service sector are either forced to close or see demand collapse even if they remain open.

These people will need unemployment benefits, protection from eviction, and other support until the labor market improves. State and local governments will also need massive aid to avoid a further round of layoffs and to provide essential services, including setting guidelines and rules for safe re-openings.

But getting beyond this period, once the vaccines have allowed us to return to normal, will there be a spending spree? Read more…

“Protecting Intellectual Property” against China means redistributing income upward

November 19, 2020 4 comments

from Dean Baker

The New York Times had an article discussing the prospects for U.S. trade relations with China during Biden’s presidency. At one point it tells readers:

“Mr. Biden has given few details about his plans for U.S.-China relations, other than saying he wants to recruit American allies such as Europe and Japan to pressure China to make economic reforms, like protecting intellectual property.”

Stronger and longer patent and copyright protections have redistributed enormous amounts of income upward over the past four decades, likely more than $1 trillion annually (half of all corporate profits). If Biden plans to put stronger enforcement of U.S. intellectual property claims at the center of his trade relations with China, it means he wants to redistribute even more money away from the vast majority of people who voted for him to the richest 10 percent of the population.

That should be a big deal in a news story on Biden’s trade policy towards China.

Lowering the bar on success: Megan McArdle on drug development

November 16, 2020 7 comments

from Dean Baker

Washington Post columnist Megan McArdle was anxious to tell readers that drug development in the pandemic has been a great success story. After all, look at all the treatments we have, and now it appears that Pfizer/BioNtech have developed a highly effective vaccine. What could be better than that?

Well, first we need a bit of perspective. Yes, we place an enormous value on our health and our lives, so getting effective treatments and vaccines quickly are extremely important. But we do also care about what we pay to get there.

To take my favorite analogy, the firefighter who goes into a burning building to rescue a couple of children can be said to deserve many millions of dollars. After all, we put a huge value on human life. While firefighters are reasonably well-paid, most of their paychecks don’t cross $100,000. Should we pay all of our firefighters $1 million a year? Perhaps in some sense that would be fair, but the reality is that we can get people to do the work for far less.

And, if we want to talk about payments that are commensurate with the value they provide to society, how much did the anti-smoking activists of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s get paid? My guess is that most of the people (I’m sure mostly women) who crusaded to restrict smoking, originally in places like airplanes and restaurants and later public places more generally, got compensated little or nothing for their work. But how many hundreds of thousands (or millions) of lives were saved and heart attacks and strokes prevented as a result of their work. Surely that would be worth many trillions of dollars if we sought to put a price tag on it. Read more…

Donald Trump and being deplorable

November 5, 2020 2 comments

from Dean Baker

As it increasingly looks like Joe Biden has won the election, I see many people around me appalled that so many of their fellow citizens can vote for someone as racist, sexist, and otherwise offensive as Donald Trump. Given what we know about the guy, and think everyone else should know about him as well, it is hard not to be appalled.

But we will not get anywhere politically by looking at half the country with disgust. Trying to win over some of Trump’s voters doesn’t mean giving in to Trump’s racism and sexism, it is about recognizing that large segments of the country have not benefitted from the economy’s growth over the last four decades as a result of deliberate policy.

This group does not at all coincide perfectly with the group of people who support Trump. Many Trump supporters have done quite well economically. There are also many among those who have been pushed behind who do not support Trump. This is especially the case for Blacks and other people of color who do not see a happy home for themselves in a party dominated by Trump’s racism.

Progressives have no reason to try to appease affluent Trump backers, but we should be looking to help the pushed behind among the Trump backers. Policies that benefit this group may not mean that they will turn to backing progressive candidates, but it is the right thing to do in any case.

The first part of this strategy is simply to state the facts. There is a conventional story that dominates economic and policy discussions, in which people without college degrees (still a majority of the workforce) have lost out because they don’t have the right skills to prosper in today’s high-tech global economy.

That is nonsense.

Read more…

Government-granted patent monopolies gave Purdue Pharma incentives to push opioids

October 22, 2020 1 comment

from Dean Baker

Maybe this is too obvious a point, but I don’t see it mentioned in news coverage of the company’s settlement. If we could ever have a serious debate on the relative merits of government-granted patent monopolies compared with direct upfront funding, as we did with Moderna’s research on a coronavirus vaccine, the incentive that patents give to lie about the safety and effectiveness of drugs would be an important factor.

Unfortunately, we may never have this debate because our policy types refuse to consider any alternatives to the patent monopoly system. It’s sort of like in the days of the Soviet Union, they didn’t have public debates on the merits of central planning.

Waiting for a vaccine and the collaborative research alternative

October 17, 2020 6 comments

from Dean Baker

It seems increasingly likely that China will begin providing vaccines to its own people, as well as those in some other countries, by December, and possibly as early as next month. The prospect of a vaccine being available that soon has to look good to people here, now that the Trump administration’s pandemic control efforts have completely failed. The whole country would like to get back to normal, but that doesn’t seem like a serious possibility until we have an effective vaccine widely available.

It seems China’s leading vaccine makers got ahead of the ones in the U.S. and Europe by using the old-fashioned dead virus approach to developing a vaccine. This is well-known technology that they were apparently able to quickly adapt for a vaccine providing protection against the coronavirus. This allowed for them to get into the field sooner with large-scale Phase 3 tests. It also has apparently created fewer issues with side effects than the mRNA vaccines being pursued here. In addition, the dead virus vaccines do not require super-cold storage, like the mRNA vaccines. That will be a huge problem in the developing world, but also a serious logistic problem even in the United States. Read more…

Waiting for a vaccine: Killing for inequality

October 11, 2020 2 comments

from Dean Baker

I have been harping on the fact that it is very likely China will be mass producing and distributing a vaccine at least a month, and quite possibly several months, before the United States. This should make people very angry.

Even a month’s delay is likely to mean tens of thousands of avoidable deaths and hundreds of thousands of avoidable infections. And, it adds a month to the time period before we can get back to living normal lives. Of course, the delay could end up being many months, since we still have no idea how the clinical trials will turn out for the leading U.S. contenders.

We are in the situation where we can be waiting several months for a vaccine, after one has already been demonstrated to be safe and effective, because the Trump administration opted to pursue a route of patent monopoly research, as opposed to open-source collaborative research. If Trump had gone the latter route, as soon as China, or anyone, had a vaccine, everyone would have a vaccine, or at least everyone able to manufacture it.

Patent Monopoly Financing Versus Open Source

Since people seem to find the alternative to Trump’s patent monopoly approach confusing, let me outline it simply, so that people can see what is at issue. As it turned out, Trump quite explicitly turned the development of a vaccine into a race. He created “Operation Warp Speed,” to which he committed more than $10 billion of public funds. This effort is supposed to develop both vaccines and treatments for the coronavirus.

Read more…

Patent monopolies in prescription drugs cause corruption # 43,508

October 5, 2020 1 comment

from Dean Baker

Economists and economic reporters all know that tariffs can lead to corruption. The idea is that if a government-imposed tariff raises the price of a product by 10-25 percent above the free market price, companies have a large incentive to find ways to avoid the tariff. This can mean reclassifying imports to get around the tariff or trying to curry favor with politicians to get exemptions. The New York Times and ProPublica have run several excellent pieces providing examples of such behavior (e.g. herehere, and here).

The reasonable takeaway from these stories is that tariffs should be applied sparingly and with clear purposes in mind. Indiscriminate use of tariffs is likely to lead to large-scale corruption, as corporations use their political power to gain special treatment.

We should be glad that reporters have actively worked to expose the abuses associated with the tariffs Donald Trump has imposed since coming into the White House. But what about the abuses associated with government-granted patent monopolies for prescription drugs? We literally never see a piece pointing out that patent protection creates an enormous incentive for corruption, in fact, one that is far larger than with the Trump tariffs. Read more…