In a Washington Post column on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Summers raises the right cautions. He argues that a trade deal should have rules that prevent countries from gaining a competitive advantage by deliberately lowering the value of their currency. He also argues that a deal should not be about special privileges for corporations. And, he says that a trade deal should not jeopardize public health by raising drug prices.
Nonetheless it looks like Summers is likely still going to come down for the TPP. His rationale is that a deal has large potential gains for the United States by making East Asian markets more open to the United States.
This is hard to see. Most of these markets are already largely open, so there will not be much gain from removing whatever barriers still exist to exporting to countries like Australia. Some of the other countries, most notably Vietnam, still have substantial barriers, but it's difficult to see large gains given their limited size.
In the case of Vietnam, our current exports are around $35 billion a year. Suppose this increases by 30 percent as a result of the TPP. (This would be a large increase; remember barriers to its imports from other countries are falling as well.) This would translate into a bit more than $10 billion a year in additional exports to Vietnam. If we assume that we get 20 percent more from selling these exports to Vietnam than they would otherwise fetch (a quite large premium) that would translate into $2 billion a year. That is equal to 0.01 percent of GDP.
Of course there will be gains from openings with other countries but the total is not likely to be very impressive. A study published by the Peterson Institute for International Economics put the gains from the TPP at $77 billion a year. This is equal to about 0.4 percent of GDP. That's not trivial, but not exactly a sea change in terms of American prosperity. (It's equal to about 2 months of normal growth.) And remember, the projection is that we don't see this full gain for a decade or more. Also, this says nothing about the distribution of the gains, which may go disproportionately to those at the top. (The model assumes full employment.)
Furthermore, this estimate took no account of measures that will almost surely slow growth, most notably higher drug prices due to stronger patent protections and higher prices for other goods due to stronger copyright protection. These increased protections have the same impact as imposing large excise taxes on the items covered. (The impact of patents on drug prices is comparable to taxes in the range of 1,000-10,000 percent.)
There is an argument that these measures will provide more incentive to innovate and do creative work, but don't hold your breath on that one. When we retroactively increased the length of copyright protection from 75 to 95 years, did we give a lot of incentive to people in 1920 to do more creative work?
Anyhow, it is likely that the actual deal will have bad provisions on drugs, will include large corporate giveaways on the regulatory front, and have nothing on currency. For this reason, the TPP looks like lots of downside with not much upside.
It's too bad the NYT can't find a conservative columnist who doesn't have to resort to name-calling to make his arguments. Apparently he is upset that some of the economists close to Hillary Clinton now believe that the upward redistribution of the last three decades is a problem and that education is not the answer. He describes these people as "redistributionist" and insists that redistribution cannot do much to help the poor and middle class.
In fact, there is nothing inherent in the "redistributionist" agenda that should slow growth. Apparently, Brooks only wants people to think about tax and transfer policy, but that is not what Brooks' "redistributionists" are talking about. Suppose, for example, that corporate directors were not all friends of the CEOs who get payoffs to turn the other way as the CEOs ripoff shareholders. We could have a corporate governance structure where the directors lose their generous stipends if they overpay the CEO (as determined for example by losing a "say on pay vote"). That would likely help to bring CEO pay down to earth while increasing efficiency.
Similarly if the government stopped subsidizing non-profits that are so inept that they can only get competent people by paying high six figure or seven figure salaries. This would also be a market oriented reform that would reduce inequality. And we can take away the tax breaks that make folks like Mitt Romney and Jeff Bezos incredibly rich. Again, this would increase efficiency and reduce inequality.
We can have more open trade for doctors to give these one percenters the benefit of international competition. And we can have a Wall Street sales tax to subject the financial sector to the same sorts of taxes as other sectors.
None of these are tax and transfer policies. These are all policies that make the economy more efficient while reducing inequality. Brooks wants to pretend such policies don't exist, but ignorance is not much of an argument.
Note: Link and typos corrected, thank ltr and Robert Salzberg.
We all know that robots are making it impossible for people without a college degree to get jobs. That's a basic fact about the economy known to all right-thinking people. And, just like most of the other "facts" about the economy known by right-thinking people, it happens not to be true.
The figure below shows the change in the employment to population ratio (EPOP) for people over 25 from before the recession to the present. (It compares the average for the last four months with the year-round average for 2006.)
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics and author's calculations.
As can be seen the drop in the EPOP for college grads, at 4.0 percentage points, is somewhat smaller than the 6.1 percentage point drop for those with some college and the 5.9 percentage point drop for those with just a high school degree. But before anyone jumps on this as evidence of the education bias in today's economy, note that the EPOP for people without high school degrees is only 1.2 percentage points. The data sure make it look like the recovery has disproportionately benefited the least educated.
In fact, these comparisons actually tilt the case against the less-educated. We all know the demographic story in which we are not supposed to be concerned about the decline in EPOPs from pre-recession levels because it's the result of baby boomers retiring. For the most part this is not true (the drop in EPOPs among workers 25-54 is almost as large as for the adult population as a whole), but insofar as retirement is an issue, it would disproportionately affect less-educated workers.
The people who have crossed into their sixties since 2006 are much less educated on average than the people turning age 25 during this nine year period. This means that the percentage of people with a high school degree or less who have decided to retiree would have risen much more than the percentage of college grads. An age-adjusted measure of EPOPs would surely show a much worse story for college grads than this chart.
Don't expect these cheap statistics to affect the public debate about technology, education, and the labor market (that depends on what important people say, not data), but folks should know it ain't true.
My mistake, Will said record exports, but of course both are true, and in the real world (as opposed to the Washington Post opinion pages) it is the net that matters, and that has soared into negative territory in the last two decades. But, I don't won't to get into the sort of arithmetic that is clearly over Will and his editors' heads.
Just to explain the logic, many of our manufacturing exports are items are assembled overseas to be re-imported back to the United States. For example, if we export the car parts to an assembly plant in Mexico, instead of sending them to be assembled in Ohio, we have a big increase in U.S. exports. Fortunately for the state of U.S. manufacturing, our autoworkers understand that this does not create jobs in the United States. Unfortunately for those trying to push trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), our autoworkers understand that this does not create jobs in the United States.
Will gets some other points in his piece wrong. He repeatedly refers to the TPP as a "free trade" agreement. Perhaps he added the word "free" to meet his word quota at the WaPo, but it is not accurate. The deal does not seek to free all trade. For example, it will do little or nothing to open up trade in the services of doctors, dentists, and lawyers and other highly paid professionals. That could save consumers hundreds of billions a year and provide a large boost to growth. But these groups have enough power that they can ensure the protectionist barriers that support their high pay remain in place.
The deal also quite explicitly seeks to increase protectionist barriers in the form of patent and copyright protection. These barriers have the same effect on markets as tariffs in the hundreds or even thousands of percents. It is wrong to call a deal with large increases in protection a "free trade" pact.
Anyhow, this is the WaPo opinion page, so no one expects much by the way of accuracy, but even by WaPo standards, Will is stretching it.
The answer appears to be no, given the lack of news coverage. Anyhow, the Commerce Department released data on the January trade deficit yesterday. The nominal numbers were good, with a drop in the deficit from $45.6 billion to $41.8 billion, but this decline was driven mostly by lower prices for imported oil.
If we look at the deficit measured in constant dollars (i.e. adjusted for inflation), it rose by almost $3 billion compared to the average monthly deficit for the prior quarter. On an annual basis, this would imply an increase of close to $36 billion. If February and March produce similar numbers (the data are erratic), the trade numbers would shave more than 0.6 percentage points off growth for the first quarter. This one should have been worth at least a mention in the business pages.
You may have heard reports on Friday's jobs numbers saying that wage growth slowed sharply from January. It did not.
As I point out each time this becomes an issue, the data on hourly wage growth are highly erratic. This means the change from one month to the next is largely driven by errors in the data. Since errors do not tend to repeat in the same direction, a sharp uptick is likely to be followed by a sharp downtick and vice-versa. This pattern should be familiar to any economist or economic reporter who deals with the topic regularly.
For this reason, I largely ignore the monthly changes. I take the average wage for the last three months and compare to the average for the prior three months. If we do this with the February data we get an annualized rate of wage growth of 1.8 percent. That's down slightly from the 2.0 percent rate over the last year. I wouldn't make much of the slowdown, but there certainly is no case for an acceleration of wage growth, nor was there in November, December, or January.
I generally agree with Paul Krugman in his arguments on macro policy, but sometimes it is worth emphasizing a point of agreement. Krugman really nails the issue today in discussing the Fed's approach to tightening.
The question is at what point should the Fed start raising interest rates to keep the unemployment rate from falling further. The concern is that if unemployment gets too low, the inflation rate would start to accelerate. Krugman points out that we really don't know the level of unemployment that is low enough to trigger accelerating inflation, although many people have put it in the 5.3-5.5 percent range. If the Fed acted on this view then it would be raising interest rates very soon to keep the unemployment rate from falling below this level.
But there was a widely held view in the 1990s, backed up by a considerable amount of evidence, that the magic number was close to 6.0 percent. Alan Greenspan had the good sense to ignore this view and allowed the unemployment rate to continue to fall, eventually bottoming out at 3.8 percent in some months in 2000. The result was that millions of people had jobs who would not otherwise have been able to, and tens of millions saw pay increases. And, we had trillions of dollars in additional output.
The gains from lower unemployment contrasted with the risks of higher inflation seem so asymmetric that it is difficult to see why the Fed should move to dampen growth until there is real evidence of higher wage growth and accelerating inflation. There clearly is none now, so why shouldn't the Fed be prepared to take the Greenspan gamble?
Mark Cuban should know something about bubbles. After all, he became a billionaire in the 1990s stock bubble selling his start-up to Yahoo for what almost certainly was a grossly inflated price. But just as winning the lottery doesn't make someone an expert on probabilities and statistics, hitting the jackpot once doesn't mean someone knows much about bubbles.
Cuban demonstrated this point in a blogpost headlined, "Why This Tech Bubble is Worse than the Tech Bubble of 2000." The gist of his argument is that the inflated stock prices of 2000 were in publicly traded companies. By contrast, many of the most inflated prices in the tech sector today are in companies that are still private. His remedy is for the Securities and Exchange Commission to make it easier for people to buy into these companies. It's not clear which part is worse, Cuban's diagnosis of the problem or the proposed solution.
On the former point, he misses the fact that the size of the bubbles are nowhere comparable. At its peak in 2000 the value of corporate stock was more than 30 times trend earnings, today it is closer to 20. The bubble was clearly moving the economy both by sending investment to its highest share of GDP since the 1970s and by causing a consumption boom through the wealth effect.
Neither story is close to being true today. If over-valued tech companies were to lose 95 percent of their value tomorrow, few people outside of Silicon Valley would notice.
This issue about these companies being privately traded makes between little and no sense. If Mark Zuckerberg paid $19 billion too much for Whatsapp, who cares? It's a form of redistribution from the incredibly rich to the new superrich. That's hardly a publicly policy problem.
Cuban's real concern seems to be the small time operations being hawked through equity crowd funding. He's worried that small time types will lose the $5,000 they put up to buy into hare-brained schemes that only make sense to those infected with ignorant greed. Cuban's solution is to relax the restrictions imposed by the Security and Exchange Commission so that it will be easier to resell these shares to other suckers.
As a way for dealing with the problem of a bubble, this would be like relaxing margin requirements in 2000 so that it would be easier for investors to buy Internet stocks on credit. Cuban should have saved this one for the first of the month.
Regular readers of BTP know that the over-valuation of the dollar is one of my pet themes. There are two big issues with the over-valuation.
The first is macro economic. An over-valued dollar makes U.S. goods and services less competitive internationally. If the dollar is over-valued by 20 percent against other currencies then it has the same impact as if we were to impose a 20 percent tariff on all our exports and give a 20 percent subsidy on imported goods. Needless to say, this leads to a much larger trade deficit than would be the case if the currency were not over-valued.
The trade deficit creates a gap in demand. The deficit is currently around 3.0 percent of GDP or $540 billion a year. This is money creating demand in other countries, not in the United States. There is no easy way to make up this shortfall in demand. Investment and consumption will not conveniently rise to fill the gap. We could in principle fill the gap with larger budget deficits, but given religious views about balanced budgets among people in power, that is not going to happen.
This means that an over-valued dollar is likely to lead to major shortfalls in demand and unemployment. Or, to use the term currently popular among econ policy wonks, it leads to "secular stagnation."
The other issue is distributional. An over-valued dollar hurts the workers who are subject to international competition to the benefit of workers who are largely protected from international competition. Textile workers and autoworkers take it on the chin, while doctors and lawyers, who ensure that trade agreements don't subject them to international competition end up benefiting. They get lower cost imports, without experiencing any downward pressure on their wages. (Businesses like Walmart and GE, who import much of what they sell in the U.S., are also big beneficiaries.)
The WaPo chimed in with those beneficiaries in a Wonkblog piece telling readers which countries are best to visit to take advantage of the over-valued dollar. Needless to say, there will probably not be many manufacturing workers who will take advantage of the information in this piece. However, there will be many doctors, lawyers, and congressional staffers (including those of progressive representatives) who will find this useful information.
And you wonder why no one ever does anything to make the dollar more competitive.
I will give a quick response to the argument by Yanis Varoufakis raised in the comments. I think Varoufakis is mistaken. They are no secret conspiracies here, everything is pretty much right on the table. There are segments of the elites that stand to gain from an over-valued dollar. This includes businesses that are outsourcing to get cheap labor and retailers like Walmart who undercut competitors by setting up low cost supply chains in the developing world. Finance also tends to be happier with a dollar that goes farther overseas and less inflationary pressure at home.
The economy as a whole does not in any way need an over-valued dollar, nor does the U.S. uniquely "benefit" from some special privilege as the world's reserve currency. On the first point, if the dollar had been lower in the years from 1997 (when we first began running large trade deficits) to 2008, we simply would have seen a smaller trade deficit and more employment. That may not have been true at the peak of the 1990s cycle, when the Fed may have tightened up enough to choke off any employment gains, but it would almost certainly have been true for much of the rest of the period. If there is a basis for some crisis in that story, it's hard to see what it is.
On the second point, the euro is also used as a reserve currency, albeit to a much smaller extent than the dollar. Nonetheless, this is not a zero/one story. The euro and its predecessor currencies also rose in value against the currencies of the developing world following the East Asian financial crisis, although the timing was different. The euro peaked in the year before the financial crisis at close to 1.6 dollars. If we enjoyed some special privilege then the euro zone countries enjoyed a super special privilege.
In reality the over-valuation of the euro was contributing to the enormous imbalances that were the basis of its economic collapse. That's not a privilege anyone should want to seek.
The NYT examined the impact the Fed has on unemployment among African Americans and came up with the bizarre conclusion that the Fed can't do much:
"The Fed has a hammer, and, as the saying goes, not all problems are nails."
This conclusion is bizarre, because the data are very clear; efforts to reduce the overall unemployment rate disproportionately help African Americans and Hispanics. As a rule of thumb, the African American unemployment rate is roughly twice the unemployment rate and the unemployment rate for African American teens is roughly six times the white unemployment rates. (The unemployment rate for Hispanics is generally 1.5 times the white unemployment rate.)
In keeping with this rule of thumb, the unemployment rate for whites in January was 4.9 percent. It was 10.3 percent for African Americans and 29.7 percent for African American teens. Here's what the longer term picture looks like.
If we could get back to 2000 levels of unemployment, when the unemployment rate for whites bottomed out at 3.4 percent, we might see something like the 7.0 percent unemployment rate for blacks overall and 20.0 percent we saw for black teens back in April of 2000.
Alternatively, to flip it over and talk about employment rates, the percentage of black teens that was employed peaked at 31.7 percent in 2000, more than 50 percent higher than the 19.6 percent figure for last month. Does anyone really want to say that increasing the probability that black teens will have a job by 50 percent doesn't make a difference?
There is a separate issue as to whether it would be possible to get down to 4.0 percent unemployment without triggering spiraling inflation. This is an arguable point. But it is worth noting that those who say it is not possible to have 4.0 percent unemployment today also said that it was not possible back in 2000.
Note: This is a corrected version, the original graph had data that were not seasonally adjusted.
Addendum: The story has been corrected.
With a string of strong jobs reports (the most recent coming with good hourly wage growth) the business section has been filled with reports of America once again being a booming economy, which contrasted with weak growth elsewhere in the world. With a bit more data, it's not clear that reporters will still be writing these stories.
First, the fourth quarter growth rate was revised down to 2.2 percent, giving a 2.4 percent growth rate over the prior year. This is almost exactly the same as the average of the last two years. Not much of a case for an acceleration of growth there.
Furthermore, the data that have come in for the first quarter don't look very promising. Construction spending fell by 1.1 percent from December to January. Retail sales fell 0.8 percent in January compared to December. Car sales were relatively weak in February. This was undoubtedly in part due to unusually severe weather, but it nonetheless virtually guarantees weak growth in consumption for the quarter. Equipment investment is up modestly, but January shipments were only slightly above the October level. In short, we are not seeing any investment boom.
With weak consumption and lackluster investment, there will be little to counter the impact of a rising trade deficit resulting largely from the increase in the value of the dollar. Look for first quarter growth under 2.0 percent and possibly a fair bit under 2.0 percent. (Insofar as the weakness is weather-related, there will be a rebound in the second and third quarters, as happened last year.)
Meanwhile, the rest of the world is looking brighter. Japan had 2.2 percent GDP growth in the fourth quarter, which puts it about a percentage point ahead of the United States on a per capita basis. The euro zone economies are now showing modest growth, but the best news may be coming from Germany. IG. Metall, the country's largest trade union, signed a pact increasing wages by 3.4 percent. IG Metall's contracts often provide a basis for other contracts and even wages among non-union workers.
This could be a sign that wages and consumption will grow more rapidly in Germany. This also could lead to somewhat higher inflation in Germany, which will be a huge help to the peripheral countries in the euro that are trying to regain competitiveness. In short, this is really good news for German workers and the euro zone as a whole.
Okay, Robert Samuelson would never see any injustice in rich people like Pete Peterson getting the interest on their government bonds. If that means that "struggling millennials" have to pay more taxes, so be it. The rich are entitled to the interest on the bonds they purchased.
No, Robert Samuelson is upset that workers are getting the Social Security and Medicare benefits they paid for. As an analysis from the Urban Institute shows, middle income baby boomers will get somewhat less back in benefits than they paid in taxes. The cost of their Medicare benefits will exceed what they pay in taxes, but this is because we pay our doctors, drug companies, and medical equipment companies roughly twice as much as they would get in other wealthy countries. If there is a complaint about someone doing well at the expense of struggling millennials, it should be directed at these groups.
Of course the other obvious issue is why are millennials struggling? If we had an economy aimed at achieving full employment, instead of having the Fed raise interest rates to slow job creation, if we had a trade policy designed to help ordinary workers instead of doctors, lawyers, and drug companies, and if we had a labor relations policy that was more balanced between workers and capital, then millennials would not be struggling. For that matter, their baby boomer parents might then have something other than Social Security to support them in retirement.
Anyhow, it's Monday morning and Robert Samuelson is unhappy that workers may be able to enjoy a comfortable retirement. In other words, it's another week in Washington.
The NYT described Germany's insistence that Greece adhere to an austerity plan as being derived from a desire to protect taxpayers. It's not clear that this is the case. Most of the debt is owed to official lenders who have no need to make demands on Germany's taxpayers to get funding. (The European Central Bank prints its money.)
Furthermore, more rapid growth in the euro zone will both allow Greece to repay a larger portion of its debt and also improve Germany's budget situation as well. For this reason, it is hard to see how German taxpayers will derive any benefit from austerity in Greece.
A NYT piece on the ongoing legal battle between hedge funds that own a portion of Argentina's debt and the Argentine government likely misled many readers. It referred to the hedge funds as "holdouts," saying that they had refused to accept the terms offered by Argentina to bondholders at the time the country defaulted in 2001.
In fact, these funds did not hold Argentine debt at the time of the default. They bought the debt up after the default at a small fraction of its face value. Their hope was that they could use their political connections and their legal expertise to force the Argentine government to pay substantially more on its debt than it offered to other creditors.
The Post had an interesting piece on the debate within the Republican party over economic policy. At one point the piece notes the stagnation in middle class incomes and then tells readers:
"There is a growing sense among many conservative economists that faster growth by itself will not suffice to lift those incomes at the rate middle-class workers came to expect a generation ago ."
This comment may mislead readers into believing that conservative policies of tax cuts and deregulation have been associated with faster growth. They haven't.
The table below shows the average growth rate under the last six presidents (measured as first quarter of their term to first quarter of the next adminstration.)
Carter -- 3.4%
Reagan -- 3.4%
Bush I -- 2.0%
Bush II -- 1.6%
Obama -- 2.2%
This record shows that tax cutting Republicans have done worse in promoting growth during their administrations than tax and spend Democrats. While Republican policies may not have been successful in producing gains for the middle class, they have also not done very well in promoting growth.
That is the only possible explanation for the appearance of a column on Greece's economy by venture capitalist Aristos Doxiadis. The column's central premise is that Greece's severe downturn cannot be explained by its macroeconomic policies. It claims that other countries had similar austerity but had no comparable decline in output. It instead blames Greece's problems on structural problems that have blocked the growth of exports. Both claims are untrue.
Doxiadis told readers:
"Greece has fared much worse than other eurozone countries that faced a sudden drop in foreign financing, and then enacted similar austerity programs. It lost 26 percent of its G.D.P. from the pre-crisis peak, while Portugal, Ireland and Spain lost no more than 7 percent each. Much of this difference is due to foreign trade.
"In all four countries, when capital from abroad stopped flowing in, increasing exports became an urgent goal. The other three countries achieved this quickly. Greece did not. If it had boosted exports, its recession would have been much shallower; by one estimate, a 25 percent increase in exports could have limited the drop of gross domestic product to just 3 percent."
The claim that the other three countries had similar austerity programs is wrong. According to the I.M.F. the decline in the structural deficit between 2007 and 2014 was 6.0 percentage points of GDP in Ireland, 1.8 percentage point of GDP in Portugal, and -4.1 percentage points of GDP in Spain (the structural deficit grew larger over this period). By comparison the structural deficit in Greece was cut by 12.5 percentage points of GDP over this period, more than twice as large as the deficit reduction in Ireland, the most austere of the other three countries.
The assertion about Greece being the worst export performer of the group is also at odds with the data. According to the OECD, Greece had the largest increase in goods exports (sorry, couldn't find service data) from 2007 to 2014. Measured in dollar terms, Spain's goods exports increased by 27.5 percent over this period. Portugal's exports increased by 21.9 percent while Ireland's exports fell by 3.1 percent. By comparison, the OECD reports that Greece's exports rose by 35.6 percent, far more than the 25 percent increase that Doxiadis held out as a target (he doesn't indicate his time frame).
This matters because Doxiadis' whole argument is that Greece's problems cannot be explained by austerity but rather are due to anti-business regulations and attitudes. It may well be the case that regulations and attitudes are impeding growth in Greece, but contrary to Doxiadis' claim, its downturn is well explained by its austerity, which was much more severe than in the other three countries.
The NYT should have insisted that the column get the basic facts right.
Mr. Doxiadis referred me to data on total Greek exports, which were markedly worse than goods exports alone. Apparently Greece's service exports fared far worse since 2007 than its goods exports.
Better yet, would economists say they had benefited? The reason for the question is that this is essentially the question that the University of Chicago's Initiative on Global Markets (IGM) asked its group of elite economists about trade with China. It asked:
"Trade with China makes most Americans better off because, among other advantages, they can buy goods that are made or assembled more cheaply in China."
This question could be taken to be saying that most Americans are better off because they can get cheaper goods from China. It's a bit difficult to imagine how that could not be true, taken in isolation. In other words, are we better off because we have the opportunity to buy some goods at lower prices?
Other things equal, we certainly would be better off. Hence the question about having the country flooded with foreign educated doctors so that their pay is cut in half. With around 900,000 doctors in the country averaging paychecks of well over $200k a year, this would save the country more than $90 billion a year on health care costs (@ $700 per household per year -- how does that compare to your tax cut?). If we asked our elite economists whether doctors were benefited by lower cost health care, how would they answer? Aren't doctors benefited by paying less rather than more for their health care?
If this seems like a strange question it would not be the first time that IGM stumped the experts. It previously posed a question on whether Piketty's views on growing inequality were correct. The overwhelming majority answered "no," so did Thomas Piketty.
For thousands of years we have seen people develop knowledge and skills, make discoveries, and advance science. The overwhelming majority of this work was not motivated by the hope of getting a patent monopoly. Yet somehow, the ostensibly serious people at the Association of University Technology Managers think that patent monopolies are the only way to support the development of new drugs, or so it would seem from a speech to them by Joseph Allen.
Mr. Allen took issue with my suggestion that if the government funds research that the findings and any associated patents should be placed in the public domain. He pointed to the period before the Bayh-Dole Act when there were:
"28,000 inventions wasting away on the shelves in Washington because there was no patent incentive for anyone to develop them."
Okay, let's try to get this straight. Suppose that the government made its funding partly contingent on developing a usable product approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Would all the inventions still sit on the shelf because people are too dumb to make a usable product without the motivation of a patent monopoly?
Suppose that the funding even went to private companies who would see their payments increase 50 percent, 100 percent, or even 200 percent if they get a usable product approved by the FDA. Even in that case the inventions would just sit on the shelf because there are no patent monopolies?
One has to wonder what it is about developing drugs that require patent monopolies when people in so many other areas can be motivated simply by money. It's a great mystery.
It's always exciting to read an interesting new idea in the NYT opinion section. It's less exciting to read an idea that is not new, but presented as such. Hence my lack of joy when reading Ezekiel Emanuel's proposal for a prize fund for the development of new antibiotics.
Emanuel wants the government to put up a $2 billion prize for the first five companies that get regulatory approval for a new antibiotic. He writes his piece as though a prize fund for developing drugs is a new idea. It isn't. The idea of prize funds for developing drugs goes back close to two decades (possibly longer), and has had many prominent proponents, most notably Joe Stiglitz, the Nobel prize winning economist.
Emanuel does have an original twist on his proposal. Stiglitz and other proponents of prize funds saw them as an alternative to patents. The idea was that the company got paid for their research when they got the prize. There was no reason to pay them a second time by giving them a monopoly over the sale of the drug.
In fact, one of the main points of the prize was to allow drugs to be sold at their free market price. This would both ensure that they were affordable (drugs are almost always cheap to produce) and eliminate the drug companies' incentive to lie about the safety and effectiveness of their drugs.
Emanuel does depart from earlier proponents of prize funds in proposing that drug companies be allowed to have a patent monopoly even after having been awarded with a prize. This leaves in place the potential problems of affordability and perverse incentives that earlier proponents of prize funds had sought to address.
The NYT won't name names, but obviously these people don't know much economics. In a generally useful article about differences in regulatory policy between the European Union and the United States the NYT told readers:
"The talks [on the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Pact] are considered more of a priority for Europe, which is mired in deflation and high unemployment, than the United States, where the economy is recovering."
An analysis by the Centre for Economic Policy Research in the U.K. (no connection to Washington CEPR) found that the pact would increase the EU's GDP by 0.5 percent after its full effects are felt more than a decade after it is implemented. This translates into a boost to EU growth of less than 0.05 percentage points annually.
This is not much of a cure for stagnation. Even if the number were doubled its impact on growth would be too small for people to notice in their everyday lives. Furthermore, this calculation does not take account of any negative impact on growth that could result from higher prices for drugs and other products due to the stronger patent and copyright protections that will almost certainly be part of any deal. It also doesn't include losses that may be suffered if regulatory changes damage the environment or public health.
Robert Samuelson was inspired by a graph in the new Economic Report of the President to tell readers that the real problem for the middle class is not inequality but rather productivity growth. His point is that if we had kept up the Golden Age (1943-1973) rates of productivity growth it would have mattered much more to middle income families living standards than the rise in inequality since 1980.
This is true in the sense of if I were six feet five inches, I would be taller than I am, but it's not clear what we should make of the point. We don't know how to have more rapid productivity growth (at least not Golden Age rates), so saying that we should want more rapid productivity growth is sort of like hoping for the second coming. As Samuelson notes, we do have policies that would likely improve growth, more spending on infrastructure, education, and research and development, but no one seriously thinks such policies would get us back to the golden age growth rates of 3.0 percent a year. (Samuelson includes tax reform on his list. While a cleaner tax code probably would boost growth, it's worth noting that tax rates were much higher and the tax code contained more loopholes in the golden age.)
As a practical matter we may not be able to boost productivity growth, but we can change the policies driving inequality. At the top of this list, if we maintain low levels of unemployment as we did in the late 1990s, then middle income and lower income wages will rise in step with productivity growth. This would require generating demand through fiscal policy and lower trade deficits from a lower valued dollar. It also means not having the Fed cut off growth with higher interest rates.
If we also structured labor laws so that it was possible for workers to organize unions, had a minimum wage that kept pace with productivity growth (as it did in the golden age), and didn't protect high-end professionals (e.g. doctors, dentists, and lawyers) from domestic and international competition, then it would be reasonable to expect middle class incomes to keep pace with the economy's productivity growth. If we can only sustain the 1.5 percent annual productivity growth of the slowdown years (1973-1995) this would still imply income gains of almost 60 percent over three decades. While it would of course be better to have golden age productivity growth, since we don't know how to get back such rapid growth, why not pursue the policies that we know will be effective in restoring middle class income growth?