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Is it impossible to envision a world without patent monopolies?

July 6, 2020 5 comments

from Dean Baker

Apparently at the New York Times the answer is no. Elisabeth Rosenthal, who is a very insightful writer on health care issues, had a column this morning warning that we may face very high prices for a coronavirus vaccine. She points out that this is in spite of the fact that the government is paying for much of the cost of the research. Rosenthal then argues we should adopt a system of price controls or negotiations, as is done in every other wealthy country.

While her points are all well-taken, the amazing part is that she never considers the simplest solution, just don’t give the companies patent monopolies in the first place. The story here is the government is paying for most of the research upfront. While does it have to pay for it a second time by giving the companies patent monopolies.

There is no reason that the government can’t simply make it a condition of the funding that all research findings are fully open and that any patents will be in the public domain so that any vaccines will be available as a cheap generic from the day it comes on the market. Not only does this ensure that a vaccine will be affordable, it will likely mean more rapid progress, since all researchers will be able to immediately learn from the success or failures of other researchers.

It is amazing that this obvious route is not being considered in public debate. Government-granted patent and copyright monopolies are one of the main ways in which we generate inequality. Bill Gates would still be working for a living without them.

At a time when the country is newly focused on racial inequality, it is striking that reducing the importance of the factors that generate inequality in the first place is not even up for discussion. This is fitting with the good old “White Savior” theory of politics.

Rather than changing the government-created structures that generate inequality, they would rather have the beneficent government push policies that reverse some of the inequality government structures created in the first place. I suppose this route is more appealing to the liberal psyche, but it ignores economic reality, and also at the end of the day, is likely to be less effective politically.

Structuring globalization to redistribute income upward

June 30, 2020 1 comment

from Dean Baker

The Washington Post ran a piece on how patterns of globalization may be changed due to the pandemic. It is more than a bit confused in not distinguishing short-term effects from long-term effects and its inability to distinguish between problems caused by fiscal policy and policies caused by the fallout from the pandemic.

The headline for the piece on the Post’s homepage is “Covid-19 is erasing decades of economic gains achieved through globalization.” The subhead is “The way we travel, work, consume, invest, interact, migrate, cooperate on global problems and pursue prosperity has likely been changed for years to come.”

Literally nothing in the piece supports the claim in the headline and insofar as items in the piece support the subhead it is at least as likely to be positive as negative. The gist of the piece is that we have seen a massive reduction in trade and travel as a result of the pandemic. While some of this may prove to be permanent, the piece gives us no reason to believe that the bulk of trade will not return to normal once the pandemic has been brought under control, either with effective treatments or with a vaccine.

In terms of travel, any enduring effect is likely to be largely positive. An enormous amount of resources is now wasted on business travel and conventions that can be just as effectively performed on-line. This realization will free up a large amount of resources for more productive uses, such as health care, child care, and stopping global warming. Of course, less travel by itself will be a big help in reducing worldwide  greenhouse gas emissions. Read more…

More thoughts on the recession, stimulus, and recovery

June 29, 2020 6 comments

from Dean Baker

As we get more data in, it seems increasingly likely that we are looking at a horrible and prolonged recession, not a complete economic collapse of Great Depression proportions. The May employment report showed a substantial bounce back in employment, with jobs up by more than 2.5 million from the April level. Retail sales had a huge 17.7 percent jump in May, by far the largest on record, although they are still 6.1 percent below the May 2019 level.

Mortgage applications also show a considerable degree of confidence about the future, with both refinancing and purchase mortgages soaring. Mortgage applications for refinancing are up more than ten-fold from year-ago levels, while purchase applications are up 268.6 percent to the highest level in more than 11 years. The latter is far more important for the economy since it implies people are buying homes, which typically lead to the purchase of new appliances and spending on renovations.

These data, and a variety of surveys of consumers and businesses, do not show an economy in collapse. At the same time, there is little reason to believe that we will see a robust rebound to anything resembling normal. We lost 22 million jobs between February and April. Even if we had seven more months adding jobs back at the May rate, we would still be down by more than 2 million jobs from the pre-pandemic level. And, we are not likely to see seven more months with job growth anything like May’s pace, without some very serious fiscal stimulus.

new paper from Raj Chetty and co-authors provides some interesting insights on the problem the economy faces. Read more…

Great time for a vacant property tax

June 26, 2020 3 comments

from Dean Baker

I have long been a big fan of a vacant property tax. As the old saying goes, you tax what you want less, and why would we want vacant properties. This is especially likely to be relevant in many high-priced cities where the demand for commercial real estate is likely to go through the floor due to an increase in telecommuting.

As cities mull many types of tax increases to deal with pandemic caused budget shortfalls, a vacant property tax should stand out as a productive alternative. The economy would be best-served by having landlords quickly recognize that their property is not worth as much as it use to be, and therefore lower rents to keep it occupied. This will be good for keeping old businesses and supporting new ones, since rent is major expense for most businesses, especially small businesses.

At the end of the day, recognizing reality is likely to be good for  landlords, since they don’t  make money on vacant property.  Of course landlords are often not very good at economics. Both Donald Trump and Jared Kushner are major property owners.

Patents and the Pandemic, again

June 20, 2020 4 comments

from Dean Baker

I know I have been pounding on this a lot, but it is important and there is a lot of money at stake. All we need (okay, maybe not all) is some clear thinking.

The Washington Post had a good piece this week talking about how a company set up by a hedge fund, with no background or expertise in pharmacology, arranged to get rights to a drug that was developed by researchers at Emory University on a $16 million contract with the government. The drug, EIDD-2801, is thought to be a potential treatment for the coronavirus. Shortly after arranging to buy the rights to the drug, the company turned around and sold them to Merck, presumably for a substantial profit.

The piece highlights how some companies are likely to profit off government-funded research, often while contributing little or nothing to developing effective vaccines or treatments. We also face the likelihood that any vaccines or treatments that are developed will be sold at high prices by companies that were granted patent monopolies.

But this is only the beginning of the problem with the U.S. government’s approach for developing a vaccine or treatments for the pandemic. Read more…

The sure way to end concerns about China’s “theft” of a vaccine: Make it open

May 22, 2020 4 comments

from Dean Baker

In the last couple of weeks both the New York Times and National Public Radio have warned that China could steal a vaccine against the coronavirus, or at least steal work in the U.S. done towards developing a vaccine. Both outlets obviously thought their audiences should view this as a serious concern.

As I wrote previously, it is not clear why those of us who don’t either own large amounts of stock in drug companies or give a damn about Donald Trump’s ego, should be upset about the prospect of China “stealing” a vaccine. Concretely, if China gained knowledge from labs in the United States that allowed it to develop and produce a vaccine more quickly, this would mean that hundreds of millions of people might be protected against a deadly disease more quickly than would otherwise be the case. If China made this vaccine available to people in the developing world, then the numbers could be in the billions.

Sounds pretty scary, right? Read more…

Corruption and the Pandemic Bailout

May 17, 2020 12 comments

from Dean Baker

Neil Irwin had an interesting New York Times piece on how concerns about moral hazard in the bailout may damage the recovery. The gist of the article is that the fear that bad actors will be wrongly rewarded will prevent us from spending enough money to get the economy back on its feet. Irwin’s point is very important, but it does require some further examination.

We might agree for example, that it is silly to oppose an airline bailout because it will help shareholders if the bailout will also save tens of thousands of jobs. The priority should be to preserve jobs and, as much as possible, keep viable corporations intact through this crisis. This is not only to keep employment as high as possible during the crisis but also to preserve the basis for a strong recovery.

But let’s put some meat on the bones here. If we stay with the case of an airline bailout (which actually had some pretty good terms for workers, that were imposed as a result of pressure from industry unions), let’s imagine that the airlines planned to use much of their bailout money to pay out dividends to shareholders. Suppose that they plan to continue to pay CEOs salaries in the neighborhood of $20 million a year. And, they have plans to lay off a large portion of their workforce. Read more…

Fixing the bailout scammers: The Ten Percent Solution

May 6, 2020 7 comments

from Dean Baker

The pandemic crisis created a rare economic opportunity. In effect, the whole economy was thrown up for grabs, with the winners and losers determined by who had the political power to get a nice bailout. Needless to say, those who were already rich got the big handouts, those at the bottom got crumbs, if anything at all.

Suppose we had let the market work its magic on the airlines, on the hotel chains, the restaurant chains, the aircraft industry (i.e. Boeing), and on the oil industry. With few exceptions, the big actors in these sectors would all have been bankrupt. The companies would have been reorganized, with the ones that were otherwise viable being restructured. Debtors would take large haircuts only collecting a fraction of what they had been owed. Shareholders would be wiped it, losing trillions of dollars of equity. Many top executives would likely been sent packing, and would no longer be able to count on paychecks in the millions or tens of millions.

Of course, things didn’t turn out this way because almost no one in policy circles actually believes in the market. That’s just something they tell children and liberal policy wonks. The people in power believe in using the government to give themselves as much money as possible. Usually they can do this through structuring the market so that money flows upward.  Read more…

More thoughts on a wealth tax and alternatives

May 1, 2020 10 comments

from Dean Baker

Last week the Boston Review (BR) published an exchange on a wealth tax that included a proposal from Berkeley economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, with a number of responses, including one from me. I was critical of the proposal for both political reasons and because I think avoidance and evasion will be massive problems.

On the political side, in addition to the difficulty of getting a wealth tax through Congress, there is the virtual certainty that the current Supreme Court will rule it unconstitutional. This is not an abstract question of whether a wealth tax should be viewed as constitutional. I realize that many legal scholars have argued that such a tax is not inconsistent with the power to tax granted to Congress by the constitution. This is a very concrete question as to whether the current Supreme Court would rule that a wealth tax is constitutional. I don’t think anyone with a straight face could argue that it would.

We can of course talk about various plans to pack the court, either by adding new justices or through some rotation scheme of judges across federal courts. These may be interesting and worthwhile strategies to pursue against a corrupt court, but if we’re thinking of a timeline of a presidential term in which we hope to get important legislation passed, they are not likely to be helpful.  Read more…

Saving journalism will require some new thinking

April 26, 2020 8 comments

from Dean Baker

There has been a new wave of despair among journalists in the last couple of weeks as several major news outlets, including the Los Angeles Times and McClatchy News Service, announced layoffs and/or pay cuts. The immediate cause is the coronavirus. Pandemics sharply reduce advertising opportunities, but the underlying model is clearly not viable for most news outlets.

There is a limited amount of money that businesses are willing to pay for web ads, which is now by far the largest form of distribution. This is especially the case when Facebook and Google can offer much better targeted advertising. Subscriptions can raise some money, but apart from the New York Times and a few other elite publications, this source of revenue will not go far in supporting the people who produce and edit content.

While the immediate problem of the coronavirus forced shutdown will eventually abate, the longer-term trends in the industry are not going away. Fewer and fewer journalists will be supported through the current model, leaving us ever more poorly served. We clearly need a new model.

A New Approach  Read more…

Debt and deficits with the coronavirus

April 22, 2020 6 comments

from Dean Baker

For all the suffering caused by the pandemic, one important positive effect is that it may lead to clearer thinking about government debt and deficits. To Congress’s credit, it has focused on dealing with the problem of sustaining the country through a period in which much of the economy is shut down, rather than worrying about the large deficit it will run this year, as well as the amount it is adding to the national debt. (I strongly suspect that this would not be the situation if a Democrat was in the White House. In that case, most Republicans would likely be making angry speeches feigning outrage over the burden that Obama, Biden, etc. was imposing on our children and grandchildren.)

Anyhow, the story on the deficit and debt are both simpler and more complicated than is generally imagined. The basic story of the deficit is, are we pushing the economy too hard. The issue is whether the additional demand created by a government deficit is exceeding the economy’s ability to produce goods and services, leading to inflation. Read more…

The post-pandemic economy

April 12, 2020 8 comments

from Dean Baker

We have a lot of economist type people telling us how awful the economy will be once we get through our near-term shutdown period. At the risk of being accused of unwarranted optimism, I am not sure I buy the pessimists’ story.

Before saying anything about the economy, we have to outline where we think our containment efforts are headed. I will throw out my story, which people here who know what they are talking about can correct.

Let’s assume that after two months we have the coronavirus reasonably well-contained. People are still getting sick, but the numbers are much more manageable so that our hospitals are no longer overflowing and health care personal are no longer being worked to exhaustion and beyond.

At least as important, let’s assume that we have testing fairly well advanced so that we can quickly identify people with the disease and both quarantine them and test the people with whom they have been in contact. Read more…

Why do economists have such a hard time imagining open source biomedical research?

April 9, 2020 3 comments

from Dean Baker

It seems more than a bit bizarre, but in a discussion of alternative to patents for financing the development of new drugs and vaccines, publicly funded open-source research is not mentioned.  This is peculiar since so much of the research into treatments and vaccines for the coronavirus are in effect being open-sourced, with researchers posting results as soon as they are available. Advance, open-sourced funding would mean that any new drugs or vaccines that are developed could be sold as cheap generics from the first day they are available.

It is also bizarre that economists have such a hard time envisioning open source research, since all of our research is essentially open source. Economists are paid by universities and think tanks. Extraordinary work can qualify for a Nobel Prize, which is a big chunk of money, but the vast majority of economists get the bulk of their income from ongoing funding streams, where they are expected to produce research that will be widely available.

Perhaps economists believe that this route has not been effective in supporting good research in economics. This could explain their reluctance to envision open source research in biomedical innovation and elsewhere.

The shape of the recovery: Those who tell don’t know

April 1, 2020 5 comments

from Dean Baker

There have been a number of pieces in major news outlets telling us what the recovery will look like from this recession. Most have been pretty negative. The important thing to know about these forecasts is that the people making these forecasts don’t have a clue what they are talking about.

The shape of recovery will depend first and foremost on the extent to which the coronavirus is contained or is treatable, areas in which most of our prognosticators have zero expertise. I can think of a scenario in which we have a very robust recovery.

Suppose that in three months we have developed treatments to the point that the disease is not much more deadly than the standard u. In that case, we would look to restart the economy while trying to protect the most vulnerable segments of the population. Read more…

Can coronavirus force policy types to think clearly about intellectual property?

March 13, 2020 2 comments

from Dean Baker

It will be hard to decide the most Trumpian moment in his dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, but my nomination is Trump’s meeting with executives from several pharmaceutical companies, where he discussed developing a vaccine. According to Trump, he asked them to “speed it up,” and they said that they would.

The idea that Trump’s admonition to hasten the development of a vaccine would have any impact on these companies’ efforts is too loony to envision for anyone outside of Trumpland. These companies have every incentive in the world to move as quickly as possible to develop a vaccine. It can be hugely profitable for them to be the first company with an effective vaccine and I’m sure at least some of them also care about public health.

In this context, Trump’s urgings probably had about the same impact as the advice to “keep breathing.” It’s sound advice, but you don’t really need someone to tell you.

Anyhow, it is not just Donald Trump who has cloudy thinking about the development of vaccines, it’s pretty much the whole policy elite. In this situation we have a worldwide health crisis, with more than 100,000 people already affected and many tens of millions threatened. In this context, developing a vaccine as quickly as possible should be a top priority for the whole world. Read more…

How many times do the drug companies have to be paid for their research?

March 11, 2020 6 comments

from Dean Baker

That’s what readers of this Politico piece on efforts to restrict patent monopoly pricing of a coronavirus vaccine as a quid pro quo for government funding must be wondering. One might think that if the taxpayers put up money for the research then they have already paid for it, and therefore no patent monopolies would be involved. The vaccine would sell as a cheap generic and drug companies would make profits from it in the same way that manufacturers of paper clips and plastic cups make profits.

But, that is far too simple for our Washington policy types. Even though the government puts up the research money, the government still has to grant the drug companies patent monopolies, and then beg them not to charge us too much money for the vaccines they developed with our money.

Too bad no one in Washington policy debates believes in the free market.

Coronavirus, the stock market, and the economy

March 8, 2020 Leave a comment

from Dean Baker

Many people have become very concerned about the economy because of the stock market’s plunge in the last two weeks. While the spread of the coronavirus gives us very good reason to worry about the state of the economy, the plunge in in the stock market does not. In fact, those folks who are very concerned about wealth inequality can celebrate because the wealth of the top 1 percent has just dropped by around 10 percent, while the wealth of the bottom 50 percent has barely been touched. (I tend to focus on income inequality, in large part for this reason.)

Anyhow, the stock market does not generally provide us with very good insight into the future of the economy, except when it looks like more of the same. It’s sort of like hearing the weather forecaster tell you it’s sunny, as you step outside into the sunlight. You didn’t really need them for this purpose. When it comes to telling about the storm just around the corner, the stock market is a much worse predictor than weather forecasters.

We don’t have to look to ancient history to see this point. In October of 2007 the S&P 500 hit what was at the time a record high. That was less than two months before the beginning of the worst recession since the Great Depression. The stock market did not give us much warning on that one. Read more…

The coronavirus could wreck the economy. These steps would help limit the damage

March 2, 2020 1 comment

from Dean Baker and Jared Bernstein

Though we don’t yet know the extent of its threat, a widespread coronavirus epidemic in the United States is increasingly possible. In addition to the downright scary health consequences, we think the virus will quickly do serious damage to the U.S. economy, reducing growth in at least the first half of this year, pushing up unemployment and possibly ending the historically long expansion. And we’re far from alone.

The economic challenges posed by the virus are unique in that they are already hitting supply and demand. The former refers to the inability of workers to go to work, because of quarantines either at their jobs or their kids’ schools, along with disruptions to the global flow of goods to retailers and factories. The latter refers to reduced spending at restaurants, movie theaters, stores, etc. Consider, for example, the many trips, vacations and conferences already being canceled. Add to that the chance that millions of workers without paid leave could lose paychecks, and you begin to get a sense of the sudden shock to commerce.

Read more…

Do stockholders look forward to a decade of very low returns?

February 25, 2020 2 comments

from Dean Baker

In spite of completely missing the crash of the stock bubble in 2000-2002 and the housing bubble in 2007-2010, people tend to think that the big actors in the stock market have great insight into the economy’s prospects. While I won’t claim to have a crystal ball that predicts the future of the economy (I had warned of both of those crashes), I did learn arithmetic in third grade.

There are some simple and important statements we can make about future stock returns, based on nothing more than arithmetic and the generally accepted projections for the economy’s performance. The basic story is that if we accept the projections for future profit growth from the Congressional Budget Office, or other official forecasters, then we are almost certain to see a decade of extraordinarily low returns to stockholders.

Real returns will almost certainly be less than 5.0 percent annually. This compares to a long period average of close to 7.0 percent. And this assumes no plunge in the market over the decade. Of course, if the market does plunge, real returns will be considerably lower.

The reason that returns will almost certainly be low in the next decade is that stock prices are high. Read more…

We shouldn’t have to beg Mark Zuckerberg to respect democracy

February 15, 2020 12 comments

from Dean Baker

Last month George Soros had a New York Times column arguing that Mark Zuckerberg should not be running Facebook. (Does the NYT reserve space on its opinion page for billionaires?) The gist of Soros’ piece is that Zuckerberg has made a deal with Trump. He will allow all manner of outrageous lies to be spread on Facebook to benefit Trump’s re-election campaign. In exchange, Trump will defend Zuckerberg from efforts to regulate Facebook.

Soros is of course right. Zuckerberg has said that Facebook will not attempt to verify the accuracy of the political ads that it runs. This is a greenlight for any sleazebag to push the most outrageous claims that they want in order to further the election of their favored candidate.

This will almost certainly benefit Donald Trump’s re-election, since the one area where he can legitimately take credit is in pushing outlandish lies. No one has pushed more lies more effectively than Donald Trump. The free rein promised by Zuckerberg is a re-election campaign contribution of enormous value.

While Soros is right on the substance of the issue, he is wrong to focus on the personality of Mark Zuckerberg. It would be good if we had a responsible forward-thinking person, who cared about the future of democracy, running Facebook, but that is not the normal course of things in a capitalist economy. Read more…