Matt O'Brien usually has interesting stuff on the economy is his Wonkblog pieces, but his post on the "economic boom" is not up to the usual standards. First, and most importantly, the idea of grading on a curve -- because things are better here than elsewhere we have a boom -- is rather dubious. Some countries were hit less hard by the depression than others. Would we want to say that they were experiencing a "boom?" 

Even if we accept grading on a curve it's not clear we have much of a story. The widely touted "recession" in Japan is seriously misleading. The Japanese proponents of austerity wanted to show that they could do as much damage as their counterparts in the U.K., euro zone, and U.S.. They insisted on a 5 percentage point increase in the sales tax in April. This led to a sharp drop in output in the second quarter. Output also fell in the third quarter, but this was entirely due to inventory fluctuations, final demand grew.

It is a safe bet that GDP will grow in the fourth quarter and will continue growing at a moderate pace in 2015. In terms of how life is on the ground, unemployment fell from 3.5 percent to 3.4 percent in December, with 1.15 jobs for every applicant, the highest ratio since 1992. It's true that Japan is likely to experience slower growth than the U.S., but this is largely due to it having a slowly shrinking population rather than a population growing at a rate of 0.7 percent. There is likely to be little difference in the rate of per capita GDP growth, which is economists' standard measure of income.

Much is often made of slower or negative population growth. There is no reason that anyone except the "it's hard to find good help" crowd should be concerned about such things. If an economy is experiencing healthy rates of per capita GDP growth, then the slower population growth simply means less strain on infrastructure and the environment.

Actually the Post's budget piece didn't tell readers that. Instead it said:

"All told, Obama’s policies would add about $5.7 trillion to the debt over the next decade (compared with nearly $8 trillion under current law). Meanwhile, interest payments on the debt would climb to nearly $800 billion a year by 2025 — more than Obama proposes to spend on any program in that year other than Social Security and Medicare."

Pretty damn scary, huh? Just think of that -- adding $5.7 trillion to the debt, and interest payments that will be larger than spending on any program other than Social Security and Medicare! Sounds like we're going to hell in a handbasket.

If the point of the story was to convey information rather than advancing its deficit cutting agenda (which seems aimed largely at Social Security and Medicare), the paper would have told readers that the interest tab projected for 2025 is 3.0 percent of GDP. Before you scream about what we are doing to our children, consider that interest payments were 3.0 percent of GDP or more every year from 1985 to 1997, except 1994 when they were 2.9 percent. (These numbers are in the same document, Table E-6). These payments were larger than spending on any program except the military and Social Security.

Unlike the NYT, the Post makes almost no effort to put the budget numbers in any context, expressing terms almost exclusively in billions and trillions which they know are meaningless to almost all their readers. It's just another way of saying that the government spends and borrows lots of money, the sort of claim that papers are supposed to leave to the opinion pages.

Give the NYT credit, it is trying to write about the budget in a way that doesn't just bury people in really big numbers. Its main article on President Obama's budget included several references that indicated how large various items were relative to the size of the economy and used other comparisons to place them in a context that could make them understandable to readers. This is a good start, but it could be better.

One item that readers would miss in this piece is any sort of historical comparison. This is important because the piece notes Obama's proposed increases in spending, but readers may not realize this is against a baseline of large cuts. The key area for increases is discretionary spending, both domestic and military. Obama proposes to increase spending in each area by less than 0.3 percentage points of GDP. This implies that spending in both areas will fall to close to 2.5 percent of GDP by the end of the 10-year horizon.

By comparison, spending in both areas had always been far higher as a share of GDP. Military spending had averaged well over 5.0 percent of GDP in the 1970s and 1980s during the cold war years, but declined to 3.0 percent by 2000 before again being ramped up as a result of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Domestic discretionary spending averaged 3.9 percent of GDP in the 1980s and 3.4 percent in the 1990s and well over 4.0 percent in the 1970s. Before the downturn the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) was projecting that domestic discretionary spending would be close to 2.8 percent of GDP by the end of this decade. This means that even with the increases proposed by President Obama he would still be spending less than the baseline path that CBO envisioned when President Bush was in the White House.

Robert Samuelson used his column today to tout a new study that analyzes home purchases by the income level of the buyer in contrast to previous work that analyzed data by average income in a zip code. The conclusion of the study is that increased aggregate debt to income levels was the result of more people buying homes, not higher ratios of debt to income among purchasers. This means that the problem was not a deterioration in lending standards. It also finds that the growth of debt was proportionate to income in each quintile, meaning that low-income households were not singled out for bad loans.

This is an interesting analysis that seems to contradict much other evidence. For example, while it shows no correlation between income levels and delinquency, we know that African Americans were far more likely to lose their home in the crash than the population as a whole. It would be striking if this is exclusively a question of race and not income.

We also know that both subprime and Alt-A mortgages skyrocketed as a share of total mortgage issuance during the downturn, with the former going from around 8-9 percent in 2000 to 25 percent in 2005. The latter went from 2-3 percent to 15 percent in 2005. It is difficult to believe that the growth of these riskier mortgage types wasn't not associated with a rise in the debt to income ratios of borrowers.

And, we have a survey done by the National Association of Realtors at the time. This survey found that 43 percent of first-time homebuyers in 2005 put zero down or less (many people borrowed more than the value of their home). This certainly would not have been the case ten years earlier. Part of the problem could be that the first year in the analysis is 2002, a point at which the bubble was already well underway. The deterioration from 2002 to 2006 would have been far less than if the analysis had begun in a year before the bubble began. The other possibility is that the analysis is not picking up second loans that raised debt-to-income as well as debt to value ratios.

However the deeper point in this discussion is that the question of banker fraud versus a mistaken belief that the bubble will last forever is not an either/or proposition. It is entirely possible that most of the bankers issuing mortgages that they knew borrowers could not pay, or that were based on mis-stated information that they had entered, believed that rising house prices would ensure the quality of the mortgages. The investment bankers who packaged them into mortgage backed securities may have also believed in the bubble.

However this does not change the fact that falsifying mortgage information is fraud and that knowingly packaging fraudulent mortgages into mortgage backed securities is also fraud. The people convicted of fraud charges in the Enron scandal all had large amounts of Enron stock. This indicated that they believed the company was a good buy and presumably had a good business model. They still committed fraud. That is likely true of the folks at places like Countrywide, Goldman Sachs, and Citigroup.

The Commerce Department reported that GDP grew at a 2.6 percent annual rate in the fourth quarter, roughly a half point below most forecasts. This brought growth for the year (fourth quarter to fourth quarter) to 2.5 percent, a modest slowing from the 3.1 percent rate in 2013. Since GDP is the broadest measure of overall economic activity, the weak quarter and weak year-round performance might seem to fly in the face of all the upbeat news we've been hearing on the economy recently. But, most news coverage seemed determined not to let the data spoil the story.

For example, the Post told readers:

"For all of 2014, the U.S. economy grew at a 2.4 percent pace — a relatively dreary number much in line with the previous years of a long recovery. But that number is somewhat misleading: A brutal winter in the northeast led to a sharp contraction in the first quarter. Since then, the nation has seen its best nine-month stretch of growth since 2003 and 2004."

Actually, instead of the 2.4 percent (I get 2.5 percent) pace being misleading, the comment about the next 9 months is misleading. The economy shrank a 2.1 percent annual rate in the first quarter, a drop that was clearly in large part due to the weather. However the strong growth reported for the next two quarters was in large part due to the first quarter shrinkage.

To see this point, assume that the actual rate of growth in the economy is 2.8 percent annually, or 0.7 percentage points a quarter. Now suppose that the economy goes into reverse in a quarter due to weather so that we show that it shrank 0.5 percentage points (2.0 percent annual rate). If the economy returns to its trend path in the following quarter, then it will grow by 1.9 percentage points (0.7 percentage points for the quarter's trend growth, 0.7 percentage points for the first quarter, and 0.5 percentage points to make up for the drop). This 1.9 percentage point quarterly growth translates into roughly a 7.6 percent annual rate. 

This exercise is overly simplistic, but that is basically the story of the rapid growth in the second and third quarters. This growth cannot be understood without reference to the decline in GDP in the first quarter.

The NYT seemed to largely ignore the data altogether, with a lead paragraph telling readers:

"Powered by healthy spending from increasingly optimistic consumers, the American economy is emerging as an island of relative strength in the face of renewed torpor and turmoil elsewhere in much of the world."

Wow, 2.5 annual growth! That should embarrass China with its 7.4 percent growth. Those interested in comparisons with our own past recoveries should know that growth averaged 5.2 percent over the three years 1976-1978 and 5.4 percent over the years 1983-1985. Still feel like celebrating?

Okay folks, get out those umbrellas, we are about to showered with all sorts of garbage as the corporate interests pushing for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Pact ((TTIP) go into overdrive to get Congress to approve their deals. We are entering the logic-free zone where ostensibly serious people say any sort of nonsense imaginable to advance these trade deals (not free-trade deals).

Today's entry is a piece by David Ignatius in the Washington Post pushing the merits of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Ignatius' big punch line is:

"The Peterson Institute for International Economics estimates that the market-opening features of the TPP will boost U.S. exports by about $123 billion annually by 2025 and add 600,000 jobs."

Hey, 600,000 jobs sounds pretty good. What sort of troglodyte could be opposed to that?

There are a few points that are worth noting on this. First, the comment on exports is a big giveaway. No serious person would talk about exports. Exports do not create jobs in an underemployed economy, net exports create jobs. To see the distinction, suppose that GM shuts a car assembly plant in Ohio and instead ships the parts to Mexico to be assembled. The finished cars are then imported back into the United States.

Exports have risen in this story by the value of the car parts. If you think GM's move of the assembly plant to Mexico was a job creator in the United States, then think more carefully. Anyone who understands basic economics knows that exports by themselves don't create jobs, you have to look at net exports (exports minus imports). Someone who just discusses exports is either ignorant of economics or not being honest.

The next point is that standard trade models are full employment models. This means that everyone who wants a job at the prevailing wage has a job. (Ignatius does not provide a link so it's not clear where he got his numbers.) This means that they create jobs through increasing efficiency. The job creation effect will almost invariably be small and it results from an increased supply of labor. Greater efficiency means higher wages (in these models) and therefore more people want to work.

Is someone paying them to give their readers inaccurate information? I'm inclined to doubt that explanation, but why does the paper keep using this description when it is so obviously not true?

The issue came up in the context of a discussion of the agenda of the Democrats in the House of Representatives. The article notes differences between House Democrats and President Obama and trade, and then tells readers;

"Republican leaders are preparing legislation that would grant Obama broad authority to finalize one of the largest free-trade pacts [the Trans-Pacific Partnership] in the nation’s history."

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is far from a "free-trade" deal. It actually will increase some protection in some areas, notably stronger and longer patent and copyright protection. Most of the deal is devoted to creating a uniform and largely business friendly regulatory structure. It creates special courts for businesses to sue governments outside of the normal judicial process. Since most trade barriers between the parties in the pact are already low, it will do little to reduce formal barriers to trade.

It is difficult to see why the Post cannot simply refer to the TPP as a "trade agreement," or even more accurately a "commercial agreement." It could save its praise of the pact for the opinion pages.

Steven Rattner doesn't like people focusing on stimulus as a path to help Europe grow because it is "simplistic." Instead he wants Europe to focus on reducing business regulation, protections for workers, and taxes for the wealthy.

Interestingly, he presents zero evidence that these changes will boost the continent's growth, in contrast to the now vast amount of evidence (e.g. here, here, and here) that stimulus will increase growth. On their face, many assertions seem outright wrong. For example, according to the OECD's assessment, employment protection for workers in Germany are the second strongest in Europe, yet it has an unemployment rate of 5.1 percent. This suggests that labor market protections are not the biggest problem stunting growth. 

Rattner also warns about Europe and even Germany losing "competitiveness." It is not clear what meaning he assigns to that word, but Germany has a trade surplus of more than 6.0 percent of GDP, in contrast to a deficit of 2.4 percent of GDP in the United States.

In some cases, his complaints not only lack evidence, but they defy logic. It is not efficient to allow companies to dismiss workers at will. Long-term employees make substantial commitments and sacrifices to develop firm specific skills. It will often be difficult for them to find new employment if they lose their job in their late forties or fifties. Dismissing these workers imposes costs on them and the government in the form of unemployment benefits and other transfer payments. That might be good for the businesses who can chalk up higher profits, but it is bad for the economy and society.

In short, this piece tells us that Rattner wants Europe to be more pro-business at the expense of the rest of society. He doesn't have any real argument as to why anyone who is not rich should support his position, although I suppose it is not simplistic.

We're still down close to five million jobs from our trend employment path. Or, to put this in generational terms, millions of kids are being raised by parents who can't find work. We have endless needs for infrastructure, health care, child care, and education, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions which are not being met because of concerns over budget deficits. Given this situation, Ruth Marcus would naturally use her column in the Washington Post to warn about the government debt.

She bemoans the fact that President Obama barely even mentioned the debt in his State of the Union address:

"Oh, the debt. Yawn. How passe. How 2009.

"Once, President Obama held a summit on fiscal responsibility (2009). Once, he gave an entire speech devoted to the subject (2011). Once, his State of the Union addresses (2010, 2011, 2013) were studded with double-digit references to the problem of sky-high deficits and lingering mountains of debt.

"Now, the topic receives just a glancing mention, a clause ('shrinking deficits') in a series of presidential back-pats and a refutation of warnings of Apocalypse Soon."

While Marcus is clearly terrified by the deficit and debt, the column gives no reason why we should be more concerned about debts and deficits (yes, big numbers) than the number of trees in the United States (a number I do not know offhand, but I'm sure it's also big).

The best we get is a quote from an earlier State of the Union that is both wrong and arguably appealing to racist sentiments:

"Even after our economy recovers, our government will still be on track to spend more money than it takes in throughout this decade and beyond. That means we’ll have to keep borrowing more from countries like China. That means more of your tax dollars each year will go toward paying off the interest on all the loans that we keep taking out."

The budget deficit actually does not mean that we have to borrow from countries like China. We have to borrow from countries like China because we run a trade deficit. This in turn is the result of an over-valued dollar. The over-valuation of the dollar is the result of countries like China buying up large amounts of U.S. assets, including U.S. government debt. (This is how they "manipulate" their currency.)

If countries like China stopped buying U.S. debt and other dollar denominated assets then the value of the dollar would fall and we would move towards balanced trade. This would increase employment and also, by the way, reduce our budget deficit.

Marcus later tells readers, quoting in part from the Congressional Budget Office:

"Another is that, unlike at the start of the financial crisis, when debt amounted to just (!) 43 percent of GDP, the overhang of already huge debt could 'restrict policymakers’ ability to use tax and spending policies to respond [exclamation mark in original].'"

That is not exactly what the NYT said. Instead its article on the dispute between the new Greek government and Germany and other northern European countries chose to use bias in the opposite direction telling readers:

"But beneath the arguments over austerity is a deeper conflict of democratic wills, between the verdict of voters in Greece, who are desperate for some relief, and those in Germany, Finland and the Netherlands, who do not want their taxes used to underwrite a blank check for countries that get into financial trouble."

Really? The voters in Germany, Finland, and Netherlands are just concerned about issuing blank checks? Have they noticed that Greece cut its budget by 27 percent since 2008? This would be equivalent of a cut in annual spending in the United States of almost $1 trillion in its impact on the budget and close to $2 trillion in its impact on the economy.

These cutbacks, coupled with the austerity that the European Union has imposed on much of the rest of the euro zone, has had the predictable effect of throwing Greece's economy into a downturn that makes the U.S. depression look like an economic boom. Are voters in Germany, Finland, and the Netherlands really so ignorant of economics that they do not understand this fact?

At another point the article tells readers:

"Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the head of the group of finance ministers from countries using the euro, said he did 'not believe in this north-south divide,' noting that 'there are a lot of countries in the north, think of the Baltics; in the south, think of Spain; and Ireland' in the west, and they 'have done major reforms, and they are all back on the growth track.'"

It would have been worth pointing out that on Mr. Dijsselbloem's "growth track" Spain's economy is projected to first exceed its 2008 GDP in 2019. Ireland is projected to first pass its 2007 peak in 2016. By comparison, in the Great Depression, U.S. GDP was 6.0 percent larger in 1937 than it had been at the onset of the depression eight years earlier in 1929.

It also would be worth pointing out that many of the crisis countries' problems did not stem from a lack of "budget discipline." Several were running modest deficits and Spain and Ireland actually had large budget surpluses before the crash. Their economic problems stemmed from the fact that bankers in places like Germany, Finland, and the Netherlands were not very competent and thought that the housing bubbles in these countries could keep growing forever. Therefore they funneled hundreds of billions of dollars in loans that further inflated the bubbles and distorted the crisis countries' economies.

A NYT article on the dwindling size of the middle class noted that seniors are more likely to be middle class than in the past. It told readers:

"Today’s seniors have better retirement benefits than previous generations. Also, older Americans are increasingly working past traditional retirement age."

In fact, seniors on average almost certainly have worse retirement benefits. The increase in the normal retirement age from 65 to 66 is equiavlent to a 6 percent cut in Social Security benefits. In addition, changes in the methodology used for calculating the consumer price index reduced the size of the annual cost-of-living (COLA) adjustment by 0.3-0.5 percentage points compared to the increases in the early and mid-1990s. (This means that for the same actual rate of inflation, seniors would see a COLA that is 0.3-0.5 percentage points less than what they would have received in the early and mid-1990s.)

In addition, today's seniors are less likely to have a defined benefit pension, as these are dwindling rapidly. Defined contribution pensions have not come close to making up the loss. Seniors also are far less likely to have retiree health insurance to cover non-Medicare expenses. Medicare has also become less generous in many respects, although the addition of the Medicare drug benefits (Part D) has been a big help to seniors.

The main reason seniors have more income is that they are working later in life. This is a positive insofar as it is the result of the voluntary decision of people in good health who enjoy their work. However in many cases, this is almost certainly not true. Many older workers are staying in the workforce because they have no other way to make ends meet.

It's not quite that bad, but pretty close. An article on the victory of Syriza in Greece told readers:

"International economists say the eurozone needs a judicious mix of all of the above: monetary stimulus to avoid deflation, deficit-cutting by debtor countries, higher spending by creditor countries, and broad economic overhauls in many nations to lift long-term prospects."

Really? Do all international economists say this? Did these international economists predict the economic collapse in 2008? If not, when did these international economists stop being wrong about the economy? Do these international economists know that the OECD says that Germany has stricter employment protection regulations than either Italy or France?

Later we are told:

"Ms. Merkel’s economic medicine, with its focus on Europe’s long-term prospects in a fast-changing global economy, could show benefits eventually, economists say. The problem, they add, is that meanwhile, Europe is staring at a lost decade."

It's not clear who these economists are or what they can possibly be thinking. There is a large and growing body of evidence that high rates of long-term unemployment permanently lower a country's productive potential. With countries like Greece, Spain, and possibly France looking at decade or more of double-digit unemployment under the German plan, the losses to GDP could easily last 20 years or more. If the economists the Wall Street relies upon are making GDP growth projections for 2033 and beyond, they probably should lose their licenses. 

Robert Samuelson cautioned, somewhat reasonably, against over-optimism on the U.S. economy. His basic point is that other economies around the world don't look very good right now. Their weakness could spill over and dampen growth in the United States. This is largely right, especially with the recent run-up in the dollar making U.S. goods and services less competitive.

However Samuelson does get some items wrong. He tells readers that Japan's economy is in a recession. This is almost certainly wrong. We don't have growth data for fourth quarter yet, but it is almost certain to be positive. Furthermore, even the drop in the third quarter was misleading. The economy contracted because of a large drop in inventory accumulations. Final demand actually grew modestly in the quarter. The unemployment rate has actually fallen slightly through Japan's recession, with the unemployment rate averaging 3.5 percent in October and November, compared to 3.6 percent in the first quarter. 

The Japan story is fairly simple. The austerity gang got the government to impose a large tax increase in April, which was a severe hit to the economy. However, with aggressive monetary policy and no further austerity, the economy is again growing at a modest pace.

The other point worth correcting is Samuelson's comment that one-third of U.S. corporate profits now come from overseas. This is true in an accounting sense but it is almost certainly a gross exaggeration of the economic distribution of profits. Most major U.S. corporations find ways to have profits from the United States show up on the books of subsidiaries in countries with lower tax rates.

Insofar as profits are foreign only in accounting, they will not be affected by the slowdown elsewhere in the world. Of course reduced corporate profits are not likely to have much impact on domestic demand in any case. Companies are already sitting on vast piles of cash, so lower profits would likely have little impact on investment. A reduction in dividend payouts or a fallback in stock prices may have a modest impact on the consumption of the wealthy, but this would probably not be large enough to have noticeable impact on the economy.

The Washington Post had a major business section piece on the "winners and losers of a stronger dollar" which never explicitly discussed its impact on the trade deficit. This is truly remarkable since the $500 billion plus annual trade deficit (@3 percent of GDP) is the main cause of the economy's weakness and continued high unemployment.

The logic of this is straightforward. The deficit is money that is income that is generated in the United States but is creating demand overseas. It has the same impact on the U.S. economy as if consumers decided to stuff $500 billion every year under their mattresses instead of spending it.

This is the main cause of the "secular stagnation" that has been widely discussed, even in the pages of the Washington Post. There is no easy mechanism for replacing this $500 billion in lost annual demand. We could do it with larger budget deficits, but deficit hawks like the folks at the Post, get hysterical at such suggestions. 

In the last decade we replaced the demand lost from the trade deficit with the demand from a housing bubble, which generated record levels of construction spending (measured as a share of GDP) and an unprecedented consumption boom. In the late 1990s we filled the hole with the demand created by a stock bubble, which spurred investment and a slightly smaller consumption boom. However without another bubble, there is no plausible mechanism for filling this hole in demand.

The rising dollar will make things worse since the value of the dollar is the main determinant of the trade deficit. A rise in the dollar will make U.S. goods and services more expensive to foreigners, meaning they will buy less of our exports. It makes foreign goods and services cheaper for people living in the United States, causing us to buy more imports. The net effect will be a larger trade deficit and a loss of jobs.

The piece also makes a common mistake by implying that it matters that oil is generally priced in dollars:

"Oil prices are falling everywhere, but because the commodity is priced in dollars, American drivers are seeing a bigger discount than drivers in other countries."

Actually, the story would be exactly the same if oil were priced in euros or yen and we saw a similar run-up in the dollar against the value of other currencies. The fact that the price of oil is generally quoted in dollars is of no consequence.

I have had several readers send me a blogpost from Scott Sumner saying that the Keynesians have been dishonest in not owning up to the fact that they were wrong in predicting a recession in 2013. The argument is that supposedly us Keynesian types all said that the budget cuts and the ending of the payroll tax cut at the start of 2013 would throw the economy back into recession. (Jeffrey Sachs has made similar claims.)

That isn't my memory of what I said at the time, but hey we can check these things. I looked at a few of my columns from the fall of 2012 and they mostly ran in the opposite direction. The Washington insider types were hyping the threat of the "fiscal cliff" in the hope of pressuring President Obama and the Democrats to make big concessions on Social Security and Medicare. They were saying that even the risk of falling off the cliff could have a big impact on growth in the third and fourth quarter of 2012.

My columns and blogposts (e.g. here, here, here, here, and here) were largely devoted to saying this was crap. I certainly agreed that budget cutbacks and the end of the payroll tax cuts would dampen growth, but the number was between 0.5-0.8 percentage points. This left us far from recession. (All my columns and blogposts from this time are at the CEPR website, so folks can verify that I didn't do any cherry picking here.)

I know Paul Krugman is the real target here, not me, but we've been seeing the economy pretty much the same way since the beginning of the recession. If he had a different story at the time I think I would remember it. But his columns and blogposts are archived too. I really don't think anyone will find him predicting a recession in 2013, although I'm sure he also said that budget cuts and tax increases would dampen growth. 

Anyhow, I'm generally happy to stand behind the things I've said, and when they are proven wrong I hope I own up to it. But I don't see any apologies in order. No recession happened in 2013 and none was predicted here.



I see that Alex Tabarrok has found a quote from me from May of 2013 in which argued that the economy would not grow fast enough to make a significant dent in the unemployment rate in the near future:

"It is absurd to think that the economy has enough momentum to make any substantial dent in unemployment in the foreseeable future."

Since that time, the unemployment rate has fallen by roughly 2.0 percentage points. That would certainly qualify as a "substantial dent." Interestingly, growth over this period averaged just 2.8 percent. With potential growth generally put between 2.2-2.4 percent (potential growth is the rate needed to keep pace with the growth of the labor force) this difference of between 0.4-0.6 percentage points would ordinarily not be enough to make a substantial dent in the unemployment rate. In fact, if we look at the employment to population ratio (EPOP), the percentage of the population with jobs, it rose by just 0.6 percentage points over this period. At that rate, it would take approximately a decade to get back to the pre-recession EPOPs.

What I had not anticipated is the large number of people who would give up looking for work and drop out of the labor force over the next year and a half. The labor force participation rate fell from 63.4 percent in April of 2013 (the most recent data available when I wrote the column) to 62.7 percent in December of 2014. This drop corresponds to roughly 1.7 million people leaving the labor force. In past recoveries the labor force participation rate rose as more people got jobs.

Anyhow, I will own up to having gotten this one badly wrong. I did not expect people to be leaving the labor force as the economy recovered. I expected that participation rates would follow past trends. I still expect that this will be the case going forward, so I do think both the EPOP and the labor force participation will rise in the next couple of years, assuming that the economy continues on its modest growth path.

Joe Nocera used his NYT column this morning to beat up on a number of politicians who oppose President Obama's call for fast-track authority to facilitate passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Pact (TTIP). He claims that they have the trade story badly wrong and that recent trade deals have actually been a big help to the country.

While Nocera may be correct in saying that many politicians have exaggerated the negative impact on NAFTA and other recent trade deals (stop the presses! politicians exaggerating!), but their basic story is correct. There are three points that people should understand in assessing the impact of trade and the meaning of these trade deals:

1) Trade has been an important factor increasing inequality in the United States;

2) The trade deficit is the major reason that the economy has weak demand and remains far below full employment;

3) The TPP and TTIP are about imposing a corporate friendly regulation structure, not trade.

Taking these in turn, the fact that trade has been a major factor contributing to inequality is no longer just a claim from the fringe lefty types. Paul Krugman has written about as has M.I.T. economist David Autor. It was even highlighted in the report of the commission on inclusive prosperity set up by the Center for American Progress and co-chaired by Larry Summers.

The basic point is a simple one. We constructed trade agreements designed to put our steelworkers and textile workers in direct competition with low-paid workers in the developing world. The predicted and actual effect of this policy is to lower the wages of steelworkers and textile workers.

If anyone finds this difficult to understand, imagine that the trade deals of the last quarter century were focused on making it as easy as possible for smart kids in India, China, and other developing countries to train to U.S. standards and then work as doctors, lawyers, dentists and in other highly paid professions in the United States. What would we expect to happen to the wages of doctors, lawyers, dentists and other highly paid professionals? They would fall, bingo!

The story on the trade deficit should be equally straightforward. Our annual trade deficit of $500 billion (@ 3.0 percent of GDP) is a direct drain on domestic demand. This represents money being spent by workers and companies in the United States that is creating demand in other countries, not in the United States. In the good old days, mainstream economists ridiculed the idea that a trade deficit could lead to a shortfall in demand because they assumed as an article of faith that any demand lost due to a trade deficit would be made by increased demand from other sources.

In trying to push its case with the public, Uber decided to share its internal data with Alan Krueger, a prominent Princeton economist and former head of President Obama's Council of Economic Advisers. (Could this be part of Uber's dividend from hiring former Obama political adviser David Plouffe?) Anyhow, Kreuger finds that Uber drivers on average earn a gross premium of $6.00 an hour over the pay of drivers of traditional cabs. (He also had some rather unsurprising findings, for example that more people are now working for Uber after it expanded the number of cities in which it operates.)

The key issue here is the use of the gross premium rather than a direct earnings comparison. The difficulty, as the paper notes, is that we don't know the costs incurred by Uber drivers, who use their own car. (There is a good write-up of the study by Emily Badger in Wonkblog.) Depending on how much Uber drivers drive, they could still end up with less money than their counterparts in traditional cabs.

A useful piece of information is the cost of driving a car, which Badger's colleague, Andrea Peterson tells us is 57 cents per mile, according to the Internal Revenue Service. Well, this one seems pretty straightforward, if Uber drivers average more than 11 miles per hour, they are less well-paid than their counterparts working for traditional cab companies.

Krueger's study doesn't have data on miles traveled (this is strange, since Uber has this data, at least for the time that a paying passenger is in the car), but it does tell us that the median number of trips per hour is 1.3. We really would want the average here, since we are looking at an average wage pay difference. But if we take the 1.3 median number of trips per hour given in the study, then the average trip distance would have to be 8 miles or less for Uber drivers to come out ahead, assuming they did no unpaid miles.

This second assumption is of course obviously wrong. If an Uber driver take a rider 30 miles from downturn to a suburb, there is a good chance that they will be driving back with an empty car. Also, Uber drivers often cruise high density areas to try to be in line for a call. (This is my casual empiricism from asking the few Uber drivers I have been in contact with.) Anyhow, clearly total miles driven will exceed paid miles driven, which means that the average length of a ride would have to be considerably less than 8 miles for Uber drivers to come out ahead of drivers for traditional cabs.

There is one other item in this mix worth noting. The I.R.S figure of 57 cents a mile is a figure for a commercial driver. It assumes that this person has paid for the necessary licenses and insurance. Most Uber drivers have not paid for commercial licenses for themselves and their vehicles. Most probably also don't carry insurance that covers them for commercial driving.

There may be some case here, but of course that is not what George Will is actually arguing. He is pulling numbers from outer space to tell a story of a run away welfare state. As he quotes that great welfare reformer of the past, Daniel Patrick Moynihan:

"the issue of welfare is not what it costs those who provide it but what it costs those who receive it."

Okay, none of us like to see healthy people in their prime working years scamming the rest of us rather than working. But in spite of Will's best efforts at playing with numbers, he does not have much of a story. He tells readers:

"Transfers of benefits to individuals through social welfare programs have increased from less than 1 federal dollar in 4 (24 percent) in 1963 to almost 3 out of 5 (59 percent) in 2013. In that half-century, entitlement payments were, Eberstadt says, America’s “fastest growing source of personal income,” growing twice as fast as all other real per capita personal income. It is probable that this year a majority of Americans will seek and receive payments.

This is not primarily because of Social Security and Medicare transfers to an aging population. Rather, the growth is overwhelmingly in means-tested entitlements."

If we go to the Congressional Budget Office, we can quickly find data going back to 1973. This shows entitlement spending, which accounts for the vast majority of federal government transfers, went from 7.5 percent of GDP in 1973 to 12.3 percent in 2014. I'm not sure that this sort of growth will destroy the nation's fiber. (I realize that this excludes the 1963-73 period, but if that is the story, then the nation's fiber was destroyed more than 40 years ago.)

Furthermore, contrary to what Will tells us, most of the growth was in Social Security and Medicare payments to an aging population, which went from 4.2 percent of GDP in 1973 to 7.8 percent in 2014. This increase accounts for 3.6 percentage points of the 4.8 percentage points of growth in entitlement payments over this period. (Most of the rest can be accounted for by Medicaid, which increased by 1.2 percentage points as a share of GDP. This is a means-tested program, but more than half of expenditures go to low-income seniors.)

Paul Krugman joined in ridiculing billionaire Jeff Greene, a person who richly deserves to be ridiculed. (He wants people to get used to lower living standards.) However people are wrongly attacking Greene when they complain about his betting against subprime mortgage backed securities.

Subprime mortgage backed securities were the fuel for the housing bubble that entrapped tens of millions of people, laid the basis for the economic collapse, and ruined millions of lives. The securities were in fact bad. Greene betting against them made that clear in the markets somewhat sooner than would have otherwise been the case, bringing down the bubble earlier and more rapidly.

This is good. It meant that fewer people were caught up in it than if the bubble had continued to grow for another six months or year. It would have saved people an enormous amount of pain if there had been lots of Jeff Greenes betting against subprime mortgage backed securities in 2003-2004. They could have prevented the housing bubble from ever growing to such dangerous proportions. Certainly his actions were much more commendable in this one that the profiteers and enablers like Robert Rubin, Alan Greenspan, and Timothy Geithner. 

Just to be clear, Greene was acting out of greed, not a desire to help the economy and society. But this is a case where greed was good. Of course he is still a wretched person, flying across the Atlantic in his private jet with two nannies to tell the rest of us that we will have to get used to a lower standard of living.  

Note: Name corrected -- thanks John Wright.

By almost every measure there continues to be a great deal of slack in the labor market. Unemployment rates remain high even for college graduates and even college graduates with degrees in the STEM fields have since little increase in wages in recent years.

Given this backdrop, it is not clear what information the NYT thinks it is giving readers when it reports :

"His company [a cable start-up based in Denver] has created about 60 jobs in the past year, but Mr. Binder said that vacancies often showed the structural problems in the economy. His business sometimes struggles to find qualified candidates for technologically demanding positions, but it is deluged with 700 applicants when it needs to hire an accountant."

The normal way in which businesses attract qualified candidates is by offering higher pay. Clearly these candidates exist, they just might work for Mr. Binder's competitors. Insofar as Mr. Binder's difficulties in getting qualified candidates for technologically demanding positions is evidence of a structural problem, the problem is that we have people in top positions in businesses who apparently do not understand how the labor market works.

Robert Samuelson used his column on Monday to debate the need for the Fed to clamp down on wage growth and came down on the right side: hurry up and wait. This is good to see, but there are a few more data points that make the case even more strongly.

First, the quit rate -- the share of unemployment due to people voluntarily quitting their jobs -- is still at levels that we would expect in a recession. This is important because it is a relatively direct measure of workers' confidence in their labor market prospects. If they are unhappy at their job, but they don't feel they have much opportunity to find a better one, they will be reluctant to quit unless they have a new job lined up.


Percentage of Unemployment Due to Job Leavers

quit rates

                                  Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The second noteworthy point is the high number of people who report working part-time involuntarily. We can debate the reasons that prime age workers might have dropped out of the labor force, but there is no plausible case that people who work part-time jobs and say they want full-time employment, don't actually want full-time employment. This number is still up by more than 2 million (@ 50 percent) from pre-recession levels, suggesting a large amount of labor market slack.

The last point is that we really don't have much basis for fear about getting this wrong by being too lax. According to research from the Congressional Budget Office, the terms of the trade-off between unemployment and inflation have flattened. This research indicates that even if the unemployment rate was a full percentage point below the NAIRU for a full year, the inflation rate would only rise by 0.3 percentage points.

The NAIRU or non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment, is supposed to be the lowest unemployment rate we can hit without having the inflation rate start to rise. We don't know exactly where it is, but most economists put it between 5.2 percent and 5.5 percent unemployment. (I think we can go far lower.) But the point is that if the "true" number is 5.5 percent, and we allowed the unemployment rate to fall to 4.5 percent for a full year, the inflation rate would only be 0.3 percentage points higher than at the end of the year than the beginning. In the current environment, that would mean going from a 1.6 percent core inflation rate to a 1.9 percent core inflation rate.

That doesn't sound like a really bad story. For this reason, it's hard to see why anyone should be talking about raising interest rates and deliberately slowing the economy right now.


Note: Link fixed.

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