A NYT article on a change in other countries' attitudes towards the United States role in global warming negotiations seriously understated the basis for other countries' anger toward the United States on this issue. It referred to reactions to President Obama's inability to get Congress to pass a law to reduce greenhouse gas emissions:

"the United States went back to being viewed as the world’s largest economy and largest historic greenhouse gas polluter, refusing to change course."

Actually, if the United States were just polluting in the same ratio to GDP as other wealthy countries that would be an enormous step forward. However, we have taken few of the steps that Europe has done over the last four decades to reduce energy consumption. In addition, because we have taken gains in productivity growth rather than leisure, we emit more than twice as much greenhouse gas (GHG) as people in western Europe, even though we have comparable living standards.

If it were just a question of the U.S. emitting a lot of GHG because we are the world's largest economy, those concerned about global warming would be much more pleasantly disposed toward the United States.

The NYT had an interesting piece on the decline in employment rates among prime age male workers. While it discusses many of the causes of this decline, it missed the most obvious: policy decisions that have depressed demand in the economy. Many readers of the piece may wrongly believe that the current low employment rate is primarily the result of a long-term trend. This is not true.

From 1979 to 2000 the employment to population ratio (EPOP) fell by 2.1 percentage points. If it had continued this pace of decline, it would have fallen by roughly 1.4 percentage points since 2000. In fact, it has dropped by 5.1 percentage points. The most obvious explanation for this more rapid rate of decline is weak demand. The weakness of demand is in turn caused by a decision to keep down the size of the budget deficit and to sustain an over-valued dollar. These are both policy decisions made in Washington that have nothing to do with the character and skills of the workers who do not have jobs.

It's also worth noting that wages for the jobs that these men may be able to get would be considerably higher if the government decided to run a high employment policy. As Jared Bernstein and I show in our book, wages for those at the bottom of the income distribution are strongly influenced by the unemployment rate.

I apologize for a bit of a digression here for personal reasons (my wife has chronic Lyme disease), but if you'll bear with me, I think I can make some connections. The immediate prompt for this post is a snide article in Slate by Brian Palmer, warning readers that, "New York is about to change its medical misconduct law to protect quacks."

The "quacks" referred to in the article's sub-headline are doctors who provide long-term antibiotic treatment for people who have chronic Lyme disease. As the article tells us, chronic Lyme does not exist:

"The Infectious Diseases Society of America—the association of scientists and clinicians who study this sort of thing—has repeatedly characterized chronic Lyme disease as 'not based on scientific fact.'"

It's great that Palmer can be so confident of this assertion, but it turns out that the evidence is far weaker than the association of scientists and clinicians who study this sort of thing might lead you to believe. There are actually very few studies that have tried to evaluate the effectiveness of long-term antibiotic treatment of people who believe themselves to be suffering from chronic Lyme.

As explained in an analysis by Brown University researcher Allison DeLong, one of the studies was poorly designed so that it would have been almost impossible for it to have found a significant effect from antibiotic treatment. A second study did find evidence that treatment alleviated symptoms, however this finding was dismissed because the symptoms returned after the treatment stopped. (Effectively this study was testing whether six months of treatment would cure patients, some of whom had years of prior treatment. It really shouldn't have taken too much background in science to know the answer to that one would be no.)

The third study actually did find statistically significant evidence that treatment improved patients' outcomes by its main measure, a survey on fatigue. However it dismissed this finding because the researchers decided that the blind nature of the study had been compromised. When surveyed after the fact, 70 percent of the control group wrongly guessed that they had been treated. However two-thirds of the treatment group somehow recognized that they were being treated. Therefore the researchers decided that they could not accept the results, since the people in the treatment group knew they were being treated.

I'm not making this up. You can find the study here. It was published in a major medical journal and its negative findings are routinely cited by doctors arguing that chronic Lyme disease does not exist and long-term antibiotic treatment is pointless. (If you haven't figured it out yet, the study found exactly what you would want in the comparison between the control and the treatment group. The same percent of people in each group thought they were being treating. This means that the blind nature of the study was not compromised.) 

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Thomas Edsall has as interesting piece this morning discussing the changing plight of working class whites in the United States and their increasing estrangement from the Democratic Party. He gets much of the story right. Certainly they can no longer be assured of a comfortable middle class existence. And, if they do manage to get middle class jobs, they certainly cannot guarantee that their children will be as lucky.

However some of the argument is misplaced. Edsall notes the sharp growth in single mothers among women without college degrees. He then refers to research showing worse outcomes for children of single parents, implying that the problems for children stem from the increasing ability of parents to get divorced. This does not follow.

To take the simplest story, imagine a world in which no one is allowed to get divorced. Some children grow up in happy families with two committed parents. These children are likely on average to do well in life. On the other hand, some children grow up in dysfunctional families where parents regularly fight and a father may be abusive, alcoholic, or have other serious issues. These children will probably on average do less well in life.

Now suppose we allow couples to divorce. Presumably the happy couples stay together and the unhappy ones get divorced. If we compare outcomes of the children we would likely find that the children raised by two parents do better than the children raised by single mothers. However, it would be wrong to conclude that the problems for the children of single mothers stemmed from the fact that they are divorced, it would stem from the fact that they had been in bad relationships.

Given that divorce and single parents are a reality, the obvious policy response is to ensure that children get the education and support they need regardless of their family background. Good public child care, access to pre-K education, and affordable college education seem like obvious policy responses to these circumstances, along with laws that guarantee family friendly workplaces (e.g. paid sick days and paid family leave). These are policies that the Democrats have typically advocated.

The other set of policies for the white working class that the Democrats could (and sometimes have) advocate have to do with full employment. As Jared Bernstein and I argued in our book, Getting Back to Full Employment (download is free), full employment disproportionately benefits those at the middle and bottom of the wage distribution. The only period in the last four decades where these workers enjoyed sustained real wage gains was in the period of low unemployment from 1996 to 2000. Barring other changes in the economy, we will have to return to unemployment rates below 5.0 percent before most workers will again see substantial real wage gains.

There are three policies that the Democrats can push to again get the unemployment rate down to these low levels. The first involves additional government spending which would boost demand, growth, and employment. Unfortunately, superstitions about budget deficits makes this unlikely in the foreseeable future.

The housing bubble was apparently too far in the past for many of the people writing about housing to remember. Part of the problem was that many borrowers got loans that they were ill-situated to repay.

One of the factors that is a strong determinant of whether people will be able to pay a mortgage is the size of the down payment. The equity from a down payment serves as a cushion in bad times. It also reduces the risk to lenders, since this is money they stand to recover in the event of a default.

The NYT misled readers about the relative risk from low down payment loans in an article on the decision by the government to allow Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to purchase loans with just 3 percent down payments. The piece cited several commentators saying that the risk of defaults would not increase substantially by lowering down payment requirements.

A study by the Center for Responsible Lending found that the default rate for loans with down payments of between 3 to 10 percent was 6.8 percent. This is 45 percent higher than the default rate it found for mortgages with down payments of 10 percent or more. The gap would be even larger of the comparison was restricted to those with down payments between 3 to 5 percent, with mortgages with down payments of 20 percent or more.

It is dubious housing policy to encourage moderate income people to take out mortgages on which they are likely to default. Furthermore, since the median period of homeownership among low income homebuyers is less than five years, a relatively small portion of households who are able to buy homes through this policy will accumulate any substantial amount of wealth. By contrast, the policy is likely to help the banking and real estate industries accumulate wealth.

 

Addendum:

In response to the questions in the comments, the study did not directly give the 57 percent figure, you had to back it out from the numbers they did give. According to their data, the additional low down payment mortgages raised the overall average from 4.7 percent to 5.2 percent. In order for this to be the case, the default rate on the additional mortgages had to be 6.8 percent -- in other words, 45 percent higher than the higher down payment mortgages.

In fact, assuming their analysis is like every other analysis of default rates, it found a strong inverse relationship between the size of the down payment and the default risk. The likelihood of defaults for those putting down 3-5 percent is probably close to four times as high as those putting down 20 percent. I think it's great to help low and moderate income people get good housing. But this policy is about helping banks get their bad mortgages insured by taxpayers.

One more point, it is a lie to say that this is an issue about people being able to get a mortgage with a low down payment. This is an issue about people being able to get a government guaranteed mortgage with a low down payment. We are talking about people paying a higher interest rate that reflects the actual risk associated with their mortgage.

 

Correction: An earlier version had put the difference at almost 80 percent due to an arithmetic error. Thanks to Bill Sermons, at the Center for Responsible Lending for calling the error to my attention.

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  • It's not surprising it is this way. The lower the down payment, the larger the sum you need to pay interest on. The larger the amount of the interest, the more likely people are at defaulting all else equal.
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Catherine Rampell's column on Uber is well worth reading. The basic point is very simple and should be obvious. There are good reasons for regulating cabs. They should have proper insurance, meet safety standards (both car and driver), and should also be limited in number. (Cabs create congestion and pollute.)

Whatever regulations are established should apply across the board. Uber doesn't get an exemption because it is run by incredibly rich twenty somethings.  

Sorry, I usually find Matt's stuff interesting, but I couldn't resist the cheap shot. Anyhow, Matt seems to have gotten himself stuck in the mud of a silly debate between Obama haters and Obama apologists.

The haters are saying that all the jobs created under the Obama administration are part-time jobs -- pointing out that full-time employment is still below the pre-recession peak. Meanwhile the apologists are pointing out that most of the jobs created under Obama have been full-time jobs. With the wisdom of someone other than Solomon, Matt pronounces them both right.

Okay, let's step back for a moment and deal with two separate issues. The first is overall employment. We saw a huge fall in employment that began before Obama stepped into the White House and continued for his three months in office. Since that point the economy has gained back more jobs than it initially lost. However since part-time employment (both voluntary and involuntary, a distinction to which we return momentarily) is well above pre-recession levels, full-time employment is still below its pre-recession level.

How should this appear on the Obama scorecard? Well, it's pretty damn silly to blame Obama for the downturn. He walked into an economic disaster that was not of his doing. We can argue that the recovery should have been more robust. I know the Republicans blame Obamacare, taxes, regulations and the Redskins' defense, but none of these explanations can pass the laugh test.

The more obvious explanation, which some of us did say at the time, is that the stimulus was not large enough to fill the hole in demand created by the collapse of the housing bubble. There is a question as to whether Obama could have gotten more stimulus through Congress, either at the time or in subsequent efforts, but the main problem was congressional opposition, not the actions of President Obama.

In prior decades trade deals were largely about reducing tariffs and quotas that obstructed trade between countries. Due to the impact of these past deals, these barriers are now quite low or non-existent.

That is why the trade deals currently being negotiated by the Obama administration, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Pact (TTIP), are not really about reducing trade barriers. These deals are about locking in place a corporate friendly structure of regulation. This structure will limit the ability of elected governments to impose regulations on the environment, health and safety, and other areas.

Some of these regulations increase barriers to trade, such as increased patent and copyright protection. The Washington Post once again enthusiastically endorsed the TPP and TTIP in its lead editorial today. Since it is entirely possible that the increased protectionism in these trade deals will have a larger economic impact than any reduction in trade barriers, we should recognize that the Post may be an ardent supporter of protectionism for U.S. industries who find they can't make enough profit in a free market.

The paper also deserves some ridicule for touting the possibility that the Fed will raise interest rates:

"Indeed, if favorable trends such as low oil prices continue, the economy might achieve the long-awaited “escape velocity” that would enable the Federal Reserve to end its zero interest-rate policy without harming growth."

In fact, it will take about two and a half years of the job growth that we saw in November to restore the demographically adjusted employment to population ratio that we had before the recession. It is also striking how the Post seems to see it as an end in itself that the Fed raise interest rates. Low unemployment and income growth are standard economic goals, a federal funds rate is not typically viewed as a goal of economic policy.

Andrew Biggs had a column in the Wall Street Journal last week complaining that public pension funds were taking excessive risk by having 70 percent to 80 percent of their holdings in risky assets, such as stocks and various alternative investment vehicles. In a few cases, holdings of risky assets apparently cross 80 percent. Biggs argues that this is far too high and that underfunded pension plans are now taking big gambles in the hope of closing their funding gap.

Bigg's basic argument stems largely from an inappropriate comparison of pension investment patterns to individual investment. Biggs tells readers:

"Many individuals follow a rough '100 minus your age' rule to determine how much risk to take with their retirement savings. A 25-year-old might put 75% of his savings in stocks or other risky assets, the remaining 25% in bonds and other safer investments. A 45-year-old would hold 55% in stocks, and a 65-year-old 35%. Individuals take this risk knowing that the end balance of their IRA or 401(k) account will vary with market returns.

"Now consider the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (Calpers), the largest U.S. public plan and a trendsetter for others. The typical participant is around age 62, so a '100 minus age' rule would recommend that Calpers hold about 38% risky assets."

The logic of an individual following this rule is that some point individuals will retire and basically be dependent on their savings and Social Security for all their income. Retirement is usually a pretty sharp break. If the stock market happens to be down at that point, they will be in trouble if they hold lots ot stock, especially if their intention had been to buy an annuity to support themselves in retirement. They will be forced to sell their stock at a depressed value since they won't have the option to wait for the price to recover.

The NYT had an article which discussed the potential political implications of a better than expected economic picture. At one point the article comments:

"The White House’s push for fast-track trade negotiating powers — and eventually for a major Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact — could be eased by growing confidence in the economy and the nation’s ability to compete internationally."

This comment is essentially a non sequitur. The major pacts up for negotiation, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Pact (TTIP) will have almost no impact on traditional trade barriers in the form of tariffs or quotas. They are about imposing a regulatory structure on federal, state, and local governments that will be more business friendly.

For example, the deals are likely to limit the sorts of environmental and health and safety restrictions that can be put in place. They will also likely limit the ability of governments to put in place privacy restrictions on the use of personal data. And they will increase patent and copyright protections, likely putting in place rules similar to those that Congress tried to impose through the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). There is almost nothing about the likely provisions of the TPP and TTIP that would become more acceptable to the public due to a stronger economy.

This article also includes the bizarre comment:

"The Republican Congress will again want to pursue a balanced budget while also cutting taxes."

If the republicans want to balance the budget and cut taxes, then they want to cut spending. It would have been simpler and more informative to just say Republicans want to cut spending to offset the revenue lost through tax cuts and lower the deficit. 

It is also important to note that economy is not really doing much better than expected. Through the first three quarters of 2014 the economy has grown at a 2.1 percent annual rate. At the start of the year, the Congressional Budget Office projected the economy would grow by 3.1 percent in 2014. Employment has grown more rapidly than projected and unemployment has fallen by more than projected. This is due to lower than expected productivity growth and people dropping out of the labor force.

Tax collections have been higher than expected largely as a result of the run-up in the stock market and the resulting capital gains. Part of the story of the strong stock market has been the redistribution from wages to profits. Unless the we see several more years of strong job growth like the 321,000 job gains in November, workers are not likely to see substantial wage gains. Untill workers start seeing wage growth, and thereby share in the benefits of economic growth, most people will not view the economy as strong.

The November jobs numbers were unambiguously good news. The economy is moving in the right direction and at a faster pace than we had seen in years. But we have to realize how far the labor market has to go before it makes up the ground lost in the recession.

The simplest and best measure is the employment to population ratio (EPOP), which gives the percentage of the adult population which is employed. This stood at 59.2 percent in November (unchanged from October). This is 1.0 percentage points above the low of 58.2 percent last hit in the summer of 2011, but it is still more than four full percentage points below the pre-recession peaks and more than five full percentage points below the all-time highs hit in 2000.

Many people have dismissed these comparisons by pointing to demographic changes, specifically the aging of the baby boomers. With much of the baby boom cohort now in their sixties, we would expect to see more people retiring, but if we look at prime age workers (ages 25-54) we get a similar story. The OECD reports that the EPOP for this group was 76.8 percent in the third quarter of this year, compared to 79.9 percent in 2007 and 81.5 percent in 2000. People in their thirties and forties have not just suddenly decided that they want to retire. This drop in employment is almost certainly due to the weakness of demand in the labor market.

Some other measures of slack are also useful to note. Some reports have noted the upturn in quit rates as reported in the Job Opening and Labor Turnover Survey. The most recent data puts the quit rate at 2.0 percent compared to a low of 1.3 percent at the trough of the recession. This means that more people are prepared to quit a job with which they are unhappy. But this figure is still down from 2.2 percent as a year-round average in 2006. (We should remember that even in the pre-recession period, the labor market was just getting tight enough to see some wage growth.) The quit rate at the end of 2000 and start of 2001, when the survey began, was as high as 2.6 percent. (When considering these numbers it is important to realize that the shift in employment over this period from low quit sectors like manufacturing to high quit sectors like restaurants would have added at least 0.1-0.2 percentage points to the quit rate.)

Okay boys and girls, today we learn about the erratic pattern of wage data. Ideally the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) would tell us exactly how much hourly wages rose each month. Unfortunately, BLS doesn't have that ability. It has a very good survey of establishments that gives a reasonably close estimates of current hourly and weekly wages, but these numbers are not exact. And, since each month's wage estimate includes a component of error, the changes from one month can contain a very large component of error.

To see the logic, imagine that the 95% confidence interval is +/- 0.1 percent. (I haven't checked this, but 0.1 percent would be pretty good.) Suppose that one month it underestimates the average wage by 0.1 percent. Suppose the next month it overestimates the average wage by 0.1 percent. This would lead to a wage growth number from one month to the next that was 0.2 percentage points above the true number. In a context where monthly wage growth has been averaging less than 0.2 percent, this would be a very large error. That is why it is always advisable to take a longer period than a single month to assess wage growth. (My preferred measure is taking the rate of change for the most recent three months compared with the prior three months.)

Many foolish comments about the November employment report could have been avoided if reporters recognized the erratic nature of the monthly data. The 9 cent gain (0.4 percent) reported in the average hourly wage for November was widely touted. Unfortunately, reporters did not bother to note that BLS reported a gain of just 0.1 percent in October and 0.0 percent in September. As a result of the weak wage growth the prior two months, the average wage for these three months grew at just a 1.8 percent annual rate compared with the average of the prior three months. That is somewhat below the 2.1 percent increase over the last year.

When we look at these numbers we have two choices. One is to take the monthly data at face value, as almost all the reports on the November report did, and believe that wage growth virtually stopped in September and October and then surged in November. Alternatively, we can believe that the slowdown in September and October and the surge in November were both driven by measurement error.

It looks like individual choice is not supposed to get in the way of corporate profits in the world of Michael Froman and U.S. trade policy. In a Washington Post article on the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Pact (TTIP), U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman is quoted as saying:

"We’re not trying to force anybody to eat anything ... we do feel like the decision as to what is safe should be made by science."

While it is not entirely clear what Froman means by this comment, most people would probably think that individuals have the right to determine for themselves what is safe, since "science" or scientists sometimes makes mistakes, just like economists. This would mean that food should be clearly labeled, so that people can know what chemicals it contains and how it was produced. Froman's comment could be interpreted as objecting to this position.

It is also worth noting that the TTIP is not a "free trade" agreement as asserted in the article. The increased protections in the pact, in the form of stronger patent and copyright protections, are likely to do more to raise prices and block trade than any tariff reductions that are included. the pact is mostly about putting in place a set of regulations that are likely to be very friendly to the corporate interests involved in negotiating the deal, but which would face difficulty if put to a vote of democratically elected parliaments individually.

 

I have complained at length about news stories that give us really big numbers with no context, which they should know are absolutely meaningless to almost all their listeners. Marketplace Radio did exactly this early in the week when it told listeners in a short segment:

"Here's a big number: $18 trillion. 

"That's the national debt of the United States of America. Yesterday, we surpassed the $18 trillion mark for the first time.

"Partisan and or political inferences will not be entertained."

There you go. Do you feel informed now?

It's hard to see what information anyone could get from this comment other than the U.S. debt is a really big number and presumably someone at Marketplace radio thinks its too big. (The latter information is ordinary reserved for designated commentaries and opinion pieces.)

Last year, the NYT committed itself to trying to put numbers like this in some context that would make them meaningful to their audience. David Leonhardt, who was then the Washington bureau chief, even joked about how the sort of reporting in this Marketplace segment is the same as telling their audience "really big number."

It would not have been difficult to put the $18 trillion figure in a context that would be more meaningful. Economists usually measure debt relative to GDP. That's a pretty simple calculation. If it wanted to give us the economic impact of the debt, it could have told us that the interest rate on long-term debt is a bit over 2.2 percent, well below normal levels. If it wanted to report on the burden to taxpayers, it could have told us that interest payments are equal to roughly 1.3 percent of GDP, less than half the burden in the early 1990s.

This information, all of which can be obtained in seconds from the Congressional Budget Office, would have allowed listeners to better understand the importance of the $18 trillion debt figure.

Floyd Norris (who unfortunately has accepted a buyout and will be leaving the paper) had an interesting piece on the disappearance of traditional defined benefit pensions. He notes that millions of workers in multi-employer plans are at risk of sharp reductions in benefits. Detroit city workers and retirees have already seen sharp declines in benefits.

After pointing out that few workers now have secure pensions, he then refers to a new book by Alicia Munnell, Charles D. Ellis and Andrew D. Eschtruth, which he cites as saying that the typical household near retirement has only $110,000 in a 401(k). Actually this figure refers to the roughly half of near retirees that have a 401(k). The median near retirement household has considerably less money in a retirement account.

According to our recent analysis of the Fed's 2013 Survey of Consumer Finance, the average net worth outside of housing wealth for families in the middle quintile of households between the age of 55-64 was just $89,300. This figure includes all assets in 401(k)s, plus any money held in checking and saving accounts and any non-housing tangible assets, like a car or boat. it would subtract non-mortgage debt like credit cards, car loans, and student loans.

The average home equity stake for households in the middle quintile in this age cohort was $76,400, this accounted for 54.6 percent of the home's value. In 1989, households in the middle quintile in this age group had more than 81 percent of their home paid off on average.

I have to take some issue with Ezra Klein in his criticisms of Chris Rock. Ezra is upset with Rock's suggestion that Obama would have been best off letting the financial industry and the auto companies collapse, and then picking up the pieces. Rock argued that Obama would have gotten more credit from this path than he is getting now for having bailed out firms and effectively muddled along.

Ezra responds that Rock's plan is:

"morally odious: it would have meant putting millions of Americans through harrowing pain in order to help Obama out politically."

He then argues that it would have given us a second Great Depression.

On the first point, I completely agree that putting millions of people out of work for political ends is morally odious. However, if we flip this over for a moment and make the question one of putting millions of people temporarily out of work for the ostensible longer term benefit of the economy, it would be much more difficult to call the choice morally odious. At least if we did, then we would have to say that most of the central bankers in the last century and the politicians who appointed them were morally odious.

It is central banking 101 that you raise interest rates to slow the economy and throw millions of people out of work in order to head off inflation. Paul Volcker is a hero in elite Washington circles precisely because he raised interest rates and threw millions of people out of work in order to bring an end to the inflation of the 1970s. To his admirers (which do not include me), the longer term benefits to the economy were worth the pain suffered by the millions of unemployed and their families. So the idea of throwing millions out of work to advance important economic ends is widely accepted in policy circles, even if most of us may agree that it is unacceptable to deliberately throw large numbers of people out of work as a campaign strategy.

A Washington Post article on President Obama's efforts to secure fast-track trade authority in order to pass the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) included an incredible comment from Obama:

"'It is somewhat challenging because of . . . Americans feeling as if their wages and incomes have stagnated' because of increasing global competition, Obama said. 'There’s a narrative there that makes for some tough politics.'"

Of course President Obama is correct that this "narrative," which most economists would say corresponds to the reality, makes it difficult to pass more trade deals that will further disadvantage workers in the United States. It's not clear why President Obama would be surprised that most of the public opposes trade deals that are likely to redistribute more income upward.

According to the article, the administration also inaccurately characterized the nature of the TPP.

"The administration has argued that the trade deals will boost U.S. exports and lower tariffs for American goods in the fast-growing Asia-Pacific region, where the United States has faced increasing economic competition from China."

The deal will have little impact on tariffs in most of the countries that are parties to the TPP, since they are already low. Furthermore, the deal includes a large amount of protectionism in the form of stronger patent and copyright protection. Higher licensing fees and royalties will make the drug and entertainment industry richer, but are likely to crowd out other exports.

It is also worth noting that jobs depend on net exports (exports minus imports), not exports. (If we increase exports, but imports rise by a larger amount, then we on net lose jobs.) If the administration doesn't understand that it is net exports that affect employment, and not just exports, then the media should be doing intense ridicule. This would be like Sarah Palin saying she could see Russia from her house, but much more serious. 

Eduardo Porter ends an interesting piece on declining income inequality in Latin America with a warning that the decline may not continue, insofar as exports of commodities was a major cause. The argument is that China's growth is slowing, and since China was a major market for exports, this means that growth in demand in the future might be much slower than growth in demand in the last decade.

The problem with this view, which is frequently repeated in the media, is that it ignores the fact that China is much larger now than it was a decade ago. China's economy has more than doubled in size over the last decade. This means from the standpoint of the world economy, 7.0 percent growth in China today has far more impact than 10.0 percent did a decade ago. It may well be the case that demand for commodities exported from Latin America is weakening, but if we are comparing the impact of growth in China on this demand, it is undoubtedly a larger factor in 2014 than it was in 2004.

Thomas Edsall used his column today to agree with Charles Schumer that the Democrats made a mistake by pushing through Obamacare and should have instead focused on the economy. As I've noted previously, this is wrong on both sides.

On the economy side, what does Schumer think the Democrats would have accomplished if they had never said a word about health care? Would they have gotten another $20 billion a year in stimulus spending, $30 billion, $40 billion? Plug in your number, but it doesn't have to get too high before it doesn't pass the laugh test. Of course any additional spending would have been good both for creating jobs and the longer term benefits, but if Schumer is claiming that barring a whole different political world (i.e. doing a lot more than skipping health care reform) we would have seen enough stimulus to make a qualitative difference in the state of economy, and the public's view of the economy, then he's been smoking something strong.

There is a plausible alternative economic story, but it has nothing to do with Obamacare. Instead of using Big Government to protect the Wall Street gang from their own greed and incompetence, Obama could have let the market work its magic and put most of the Wall Streeters out of business. (Left to the market, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Bank of America and Citigroup certainly would have gone bankrupt.) He could have used the Justice Department to put the Wall Street felons behind bars. (Knowingly putting fraudulent loans in a mortgage backed security is fraud. Selling an investment grade rating for a mortgage backed security is fraud.)  And, he could have tapped into populist sentiment to impose a Wall Street sales tax that would tax financial speculation. Even the I.M.F. has recommended increasing taxes on the financial industry, recognizing it as an undertaxed sector. 

In short, there is a populist economic path that Obama could have pursued that would have put the economy and the Democrats in a very different position. But nothing about the Affordable Care Act (ACA) prevented them from going this route. Furthermore, it's unlikely that Senator Schumer has any interest in following this path, unless the NYT neglected to cover his endorsement of a financial transaction tax and the jailing of Wall Street bankers.

Wow, some things are really hard for elite media types to understand. In his column in the Washington Post, Richard Cohen struggles with how we should punish bankers who commit crimes like manipulating foreign exchange rates (or Libor rates, or pass on fraudulent mortgages in mortgage backed securities, or don't follow the law in foreclosing on homes etc.). 

Cohen calmly tells readers that criminal prosecutions of public companies are not the answer, pointing out that the prosecution of Arthur Andersen over its role in perpetuating the Enron left 30,000 people on the street, most of whom had nothing to do with Enron. Cohen's understanding of economics is a bit weak (most of these people quickly found other jobs), but more importantly he is utterly clueless about the issue at hand.

Individuals are profiting by breaking the law. The point is make sure that these individuals pay a steep personal price. This is especially important for this sort of white collar crime because it is so difficult to detect and prosecute. For every case of price manipulation that gets exposed, there are almost certainly dozens that go undetected.

This means that when you get the goods on a perp, you go for the gold -- or the jail cell. We want bankers to know that if they break the law to make themselves even richer than they would otherwise be, they will spend lots of time behind bars if they get caught. This would be a real deterrent, unlike the risk that their employer might face some sort of penalty.

Why is it so hard for elite types to understand putting bankers in jail?

Andrew Ross Sorkin used his column today to complain about the AFL-CIO and others making an issue over Wall Street banks paying unearned deferred compensation to employees who take positions in government. He argues that the people leaving Wall Street for top level government positions are victims of a "populist shakedown."

Sorkins's complaint seems more than a bit bizarre given recent economic history. In the housing bubble years the Wall Street folks made themselves incredibly wealthy packaging and selling bad mortgage backed securities. When this practice threatened to put them all into bankruptcy, the Treasury and Fed stepped in with a bottomless pile of below market interest rate loans and loan guarantees to keep them afloat.

This was explicit policy as former Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner makes very clear in his autobiography. He commented repeatedly that there would be "no more Lehmans," and he ridiculed the "old testament" types who thought that somehow the banks should be made to pay for their incompetence and left to the mercy of the market.

The result is that the Wall Street banks are bigger and more powerful than ever. By contrast, more than 10 million homeowners are still underwater, the cohort of middle income baby boomers are hitting retirement with virtually nothing but their Social Security and Medicare to support them, and most of the workforce is likely to go a decade without seeing wage growth. And Geithner is now making a fortune at a private equity company and gives every indication in his book of thinking that he had done a great job.

This state of affairs would probably not exist if the Treasury had been full of people without Wall Street connections. If we had more academics, union officials, and people with business backgrounds other than finance, it is likely that all the solutions to the economic crisis created by Wall Street would not have involved saving Wall Street as a first priority. (And, we would not have that silly second Great Depression myth as the guiding story for public policy. Getting out of the Great Depression only required spending money -- even Wall Street folks could figure that one out.) 

Anyhow, the AFL-CIO is right to raise questions about policies that further Wall Street's dominance of economic and financial policy. It's striking that Sorkin can't even see a problem. 


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