Tyler Cowen used his Upshot piece this week to tell us that the real issue is not inequality, but rather mobility. We want to make sure that our children have the opportunity to enjoy better lives than we do. And for this we should focus on productivity growth which is the main determinant of wealth in the long-run.

This piece ranks high in terms of being misleading. First, even though productivity growth has been relatively slow since 1973, the key point is that most of the population has seen few of the gains of the productivity growth that we have seen over the last forty years. Had they shared equally in the productivity gains over this period, the median wage would be close to 50 percent higher than it is today. The minimum wage would be more than twice as high. If we have more rapid productivity growth over the next four decades, but we see the top 1.0 percent again getting the same share as it has since 1980, then most people will benefit little from this growth.

The next point that comes directly from this first point is that it is far from clear that inequality does not itself impede productivity growth. While it can of course be coincidence, it is striking that the period of rapid productivity growth was a period of relative equality. At the very least it is hard to make the case that we have experienced some productivity dividend from the inequality of the post-1980 period.

And many of the policies that would most obviously promote equality also promote growth. For example, a Fed policy committed to high employment, even at the risk of somewhat higher rates of inflation, would lead to stronger wage growth at the middle and bottom of the wage ladder, while also likely leading to more investment and growth.

The proponents of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) are doing everything they can to try to push their case as they prepare for the fast-track vote before Congress this month. Today, Roger Altman, a Wall Street investment banker and former Clinton administration Treasury official weighed with a NYT column, co-authored by Richard Haass, the President of the Council on Foreign Relations.

They begin by giving us three myths, all of which happen to be accurate depictions of reality. The first "myth" is that trade agreements have hurt U.S. manufacturing workers and thereby the labor market more generally. Altman and Haas cite work by M.I.T. economist David Autor showing that trade with China has reduced manufacturing employment by 21 percent, but then assert that the problem is trade not trade agreements. They tell us:

"the United States does not have a bilateral trade deal with China."

Of course if China became a party to the TPP the United States would still not have a bilateral trade agreement with China. (That's right, the TPP is a multilateral trade agreement, not a bilateral trade agreement.) This indicates the level of silliness to which TPP proponents must turn to push their case. As a practical matter, a trade agreement, the WTO, was enormously important in the increase in China's exports to the United States. China joined the WTO at the end of 2001, three years later the U.S. trade deficit with China had nearly doubled from $83 billion to $162 billion.

One of the few pleasures of the dismal science is getting to watch the surprised faces of economists and economic analysts when things don't turn out as they expect. NAFTA didn't lead to a boom in Mexico, who could have imagined? The 1990s stock bubble burst and took the economy and those big budget surpluses with it, how could that be? The housing bubble exploded, sending house prices plummeting and the financial system into the abyss, who could have imagined?

We got a smaller item in this sequence in response to yesterday's weak job report. The 126,000 jobs reported for March was far below most analysts' expectations. This report, coupled with weak data in other areas, is now leading many to question the predictions of an economic boom. One especially visible questioner was Wonkblog's Matt O'Brien. He told readers:

"the depressing message is that things weren't as good as we thought they were [emphasis added]."

I am going to beat up on Matt for the use of the plural here. Some of us knew that things were not very good and we said that repeatedly. For example, here I am back in early February making fun of Matt for telling readers that the U.S. economy is booming. I don't mean to make this personal. Matt was pretty much in tune with most people writing about the economy at the time, he was just perhaps a bit more forthright in putting his assessment into print.

Suppose our leading physicists told us that fire will either lead to high temperatures that will cause burns or very low temperatures that would lead to hypothermia and frostbite, they couldn't be sure. This would be pretty much the state of macroeconomic debate in the United States and the world.

For decades we have heard endless accounts of how the retirement of the baby boomers was going to devastate the economy. The story was that the cost of their Medicare and Social Security would be an enormous drain of resources from the rest of the economy. We would have to raise taxes and/or run large budget deficits. We would have to pull away resources from infrastructure, educating our children and other vital needs. This is a story of too much demand.

Now we have a story of secular stagnation that is also suppose to stem from retiring baby boomers. This is a story whereby the slower growth in the labor force leads to less need for investment. With less investment there is less demand in the economy, leaving the economy well below its full employment level of output. This is a story of too little demand.

The incredible part of this story for folks standing by as observers should be that they are being told directly opposing stories by people who have great standing in the economics profession. The amazing part of the story is that almost no one seems to recognize this simple fact.

(My answer is that both sides are largely wrong. We will have plenty of resources to cover the costs of the baby boomers retirement. The impact of the growth in the ratio of retirees to workers is swamped by the impact of productivity growth. On the demand side, the impact of the trade deficit swamps the impact of any demographic related investment slowdown.)

That would be an implication of research by Tufts University professor Joseph DiMasi. He found that it cost an average of $2.6 billion to develop a new drug in the United States. By contrast, the Wall Street Journal reported that a company in China developed a new cancer drug for just $70 million, less than 3 percent of DiMasi's estimate.

Given the enormous difference in costs, the United States and the world economy would be much better served if we shifted drug development to efficient countries like China. The United States should instead focus on producing goods and services in which it has a comparative advantage. Unfortunately, our trade deals have been pushing in the opposite direction, trying quite explicitly to protect the U.S. drug industry by increasing the strength of patent and related protection. Of course the best outcome would be to move away from research financed by patent monopolies and moving toward more modern and efficient mechanisms.

(The $70 million estimate may not include any discounting for money spent in the past. The proper methodology would impute interest to money spent ten years ago as opposed to yesterday. It also is only the cost for a successful drug. It doesn't factor in the cost of failures, as does DiMasi's estimate.)

Josh Barro comments on the exchange between former Federal Reserve Board Chair Ben Bernanke and Larry Summers and Paul Krugman. The key issue is whether the main problem with inadequate demand stems from the trade deficit or weak consumption and investment demand. I weighed in earlier on Bernanke's side.

Josh's question for Bernanke is that if the problem is the trade deficit, what do we do about it? Of course the main reason for the trade deficit is the over-valued dollar, which makes our goods and services less competitive internationally. This in turn is the result of the decision by other central banks, most importantly China's, to buy up large amounts of U.S. government bonds.

As Josh notes, some folks, like me, have urged that there be rules on currency values in trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Bernanke rejects this route saying that it would be too complicated. (Hey, if you want complicated, try the TPP chapter on intellectual property.)

While currency rules would be fairly simple by trade agreement standards, Bernanke is right, we don't have to use trade deals like TPP to address the problem of an over-valued currency. Bernanke's proposed alternative is to "ask nicely."

Well, that's not exactly the way things work in international negotiations. Obviously China and the other countries who are deliberately propping up the dollar against their currency see it as being in their interest to do so. They are not going to hurt their economies, if they view this as the outcome of ending their currency intervention, just because President Obama asked nicely.

Charles Lane doesn't want the Postal Service to get involved in banking. That much is clear from his column, even if his argument doesn't necessarily support the case.

The argument seems mostly that the government can't compete with the dynamic private sector, although he also seems to worry about the opposite:

"(Yes, postal banking also undermines check-cashing liquor stores and pawn shops, a desirable goal if you buy into the stereotype that these are unscrupulous exploiters, as opposed to family-run small businesses, that the government would be crushing.)"

Hmmm, some of these operations are sizable chains. But yes, some are also family run, like the juice loan racket. Not sure of the point here exactly, but certainly a well-run postal bank would put a lot of sleazy operators out of business.

I see that Paul Krugman and Larry Summers are debating Ben Bernanke on the relative importance of weak domestic demand and our trade deficit in explaining shortfalls in demand. I have a busy morning, but let me throw in a quick tidbit and pronounce our former Fed chair the winner.

Suppose that our trade deficit was 1.0 percent of GDP (@$180 billion) instead of 3.0 percent of GDP (@$540 billion). Does anyone doubt that this difference of two percentage points of GDP would make a massive difference in employment and output in the United States? Where I come from it would have the same impact as a $360 billion (@ $4 trillion over a decade) government infrastructure program. That would go far towards getting us to full employment.

It's always a great day when I have the opportunity to have a substantive exchange with the incredibly erudite Brad DeLong, especially when I am quite sure that I am right. Brad is convinced that the fiinancial crisis is the evil doer responsible for our prolonged downturn instead of the good old-fashioned housing bubble often featured in these pages. He points to the surge in non-residential investment coming in 2007 and 2008. He argues that this surge, along with a rise in exports, would have offset the fall in residential construction and consumption, had it not been for the financial crisis.

I see a somewhat different picture.

Bubble 6310 image001

                                Source: Bureau of Economic Analysis.

 

The difference between my graph and Brad's is that I have pulled out construction from non-residential investment and shown net exports, rather than just exports. This is helpful because it shows that the surge in non-residential investment was entirely a surge in non-residential construction. This component rose from 2.6 percent of GDP at the start of 2005 to 3.8 percent of GDP in the fourth quarter of 2008. The rest of the non-residential investment component hovered near 9.6 percent over this period. In other words, it was going nowhere.

So what explains this enormous surge (almost a 50 percent increase in own terms) in non-residential construction? It's called a bubble. It would take me a moment to grab the data, but there was a surge in the price of non-residential properties just as the price of housing was going into reverse. Does this sound too dumb for words? Of course it is, but no one ever said that the folks in the banking system had a clue. We saw massive overbuilding in most areas of non-residential construction in this period. Even seven years later you can walk around the downtown of a relatively prosperous city like Washington and still see vacant retail and office space everywhere. This bubble was destined to burst, with or without a financial crisis.

What about net exports? I actually had some hope for net exports filling the gap, with the assumption that the dollar would drop, increasing the relative competitiveness of U.S. goods and services. There is some story here. The dollar had actually been falling since the beginning of the decade. (The over-valued dollar was an evil legacy of the Clinton years.) But the problem was that there were bubbles elsewhere in the world, most notably Europe. This meant a major export market was not going to be there for us. I don't see how we can blame the financial crisis for Europe's housing bubble.

Just to repeat my basic line, if we look at the economy after the financial markets had stabilized (2011 or 2012, pick your year) and ask what component of GDP would be higher if we did not have the financial crisis, it's hard to see a candidate. Brad's pick of non-residential investment doesn't hold water. Perhaps we can claim a bit better picture on net exports if people had not turned to the dollar as a safe haven, but this involved many factors other than the financial crisis. Also, the conscious decision of foreign central banks to prop up the dollar to sustain their export markets has to swamp this effect.

I stand by my housing bubble assessment.

 

Addendum:

Here's that commercial real estate price index I was looking for. Looks like it might be a good time to start worrying, especially if you're in the U.K.

Second Addendum:

I would also question the extent to which the further decline in house prices and construction was due to the financial crisis, as claimed by Brad in his post. It is not surprising that coming out of a bubble markets overshoot on the downside. It happened following the stock crash in 2000-2002. There was no financial crisis then. And the further decline in construction is easily explained by the overbuilding of the bubble years and the record vacancy rates. No need to talk about a financial crisis here either.

Note: typo corrected, thanks Marko.

 

 

The media regularly report the mixed signals from Japan on the state of its recovery (here, for example), but for some reason, they never seem to mention the state of the labor market. The news here is actually quite impressive. Since Shinzo Abe took over as prime minister in 2012 the employment to population ratio (EPOP) for adults under 65 rose by 2.4 percentage points. By comparison, the rise in the EPOP in United States over the same period, which has frequently been celebrated as a boom, was just 1.6 percentage points. Japan's EPOP is now 2.1 percentage points above its pre-recession level. By contrast, the EPOP in the United States is 3.2 percentage points lower for this group of workers.

In Washington policy debates, 90 percent of the story is what adjective gets applied to a particular set of facts (as in the "crushing" burden of the baby boomers' retirement). I know that I am not important enough to determine which adjective gets used, but I can take advantage of the adjectives used by others. If the United States has experienced an employment boom in the last two years, then Japan has experienced something better than a boom. It is remarkable that no news outlet has chosen to mention it.

A generous donor has agreed to give BTP big bucks for every case of a silly article complaining about deflation caused by a drop in energy prices. (I wish.) Anyhow, the NYT gave us another one today, thankfully with at least some qualifying language.

As I've pointed out many times before (most recently here), it doesn't matter if prices are falling if the decline is primarily due to an imported product like oil. The reasons that low inflation or deflation are troubling do not apply. Let's see how long the NYT takes to get it straight and maybe the rest of the media will follow.

Good piece on a study by AARP. (I was a discussant on a panel yesterday.) It will be interesting to see how Obamacare affects this story.

Since older workers can now get insurance through the exchanges, employers will be less concerned about picking up an older worker's health care costs. It will be interesting to see if this has a positive effect on their reemployment prospects.

It would have been worth mentioning this fact in a Washington Post article on the cost of providing Medicare and Medicaid patients with Sovaldi. Gilead Sciences, the manufacturer of Sovaldi, can get away with charging $84,000 for a treatment because the government will arrest anyone who tries to produce the drug without its permission.

Of course there is nothing to prevent people from going to India to get treatment there. It would be possible to pay $20,000 for the treatment and travel of a patient and family member, give them $10,000 for their troubles, and still come out $54,000 ahead. This would be a great win-win situation but apparently the Washington Post doesn't want anyone to consider ways to save the government money at the expense of drug companies.

And yes, we do have to finance the research, but patent monopolies are a horribly inefficient mechanism for this purpose.

Yes, once again Robert Samuelson stresses the urgency of cutting Social Security and Medicare. It's the usual pox on both your houses story, but as usual he leaves his thumb on the scale. In discussing the Republicans' proposals to save money by cutting spending, he says that their budget saves $2 trillion over the next decade (@ 0.9 percent of GDP) by repealing Obamacare. This is not quite right. The Republican proposal repeals the spending in the program, but leaves most of the revenue that paid for the spending in place. 

In making the case for cutting Social Security and Medicare he suggests raising the retirement age to 69 or 70 over 15 years. By comparison, in 1983 the normal retirement age was raised from 65 to 67 over a 40 year period, so Samuelson is proposing a very abrupt increase in the retirement age. (The increase from age 66 to 67 is being phased in over the years 2016-2022, so Samuelson's rise would overlap with this rise.) More accurately, this should be thought of as a cut in benefits of almost 20 percent over a 15 year period. In addition, Samuelson also wants to raise the age of Medicare eligibility to 69 or 70, implying large increases in health care costs for people between age 65 and 70.

The median retiree will have virtually no income other than Social Security in retirement. The average Social Security benefit is a bit less than $1,300 a month, yet somehow Samuelson views these cuts as being progressive. He does also want to cut benefits for "wealthier" retirees. In order to get any notable savings it would be necessary to have a cutoff for benefit cuts at around $40,000 of non-Social Security income. This gives a whole new definition to the term "wealthier."

Alexandra Levit tells readers of her NYT column that we should be thankful that Generation Z is entering the workforce because, "the United States is facing a skills gap in most industries."

Really? I wonder how Ms. Levit knows about this skills gap? Usually we would look to things like high vacancy rates, longer hours for the workers that employers can find, and of course, rapidly rising wages. We don't see this for any major occupation group. So what is the basis for asserting there is a skills gap?

 

Note: Thanks to Stefano Monti for calling this one to my attention.

For some reason economics reporters and economists seem to have a really hard time understanding deflation. There are two lessons for today. First, we get the standard lesson: crossing zero means nothing, the problem is too low a rate of inflation.

As I've written a few thousand times, inflation is an aggregate measure that combines price changes of hundreds of thousands of goods and services. When the inflation rate gets near zero it means that than many of the price changes are already negative. Going from a near zero positive to a near zero negative just means a higher ratio of negative price changes to positive price changes (or the negative ones are larger). How can going from 45 percent negative price changes to 55 percent negative price changes be a disaster? That makes zero sense.

Furthermore, since these are all quality adjusted price changes it may not even be the case that prices are actually falling for the goods themselves. The price index for new cars in the United States is less than 3 percent above its 1998 level, yet the average new car costs considerably more in 2015 than it did in 1998. The difference is that the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) attributes most of the price rise to quality improvements. The story would be even more dramatic with computers where BLS reports that prices have fallen by more than 95 percent since 1997. Does anyone believe that an economy faces disaster just because its cars and computers are getting better?

The NYT ran an a piece by Hugo Dixon that boldly proclaimed that if Alex Tsipras, the prime minister of Greece is rational, he will get tough with his left-wing supporters and impose more austerity measures. This is an interesting notion of rationality.

Greece's economy has shrunk by more than 25 percent since 2008. Its unemployment rate is close to 25 percent. The current projections from the I.M.F. and others show little improvement in these numbers by the end of the decade if it sticks to this austerity path. By contrast, if it breaks with the euro its goods and services would suddenly become far more competitive in the world economy as their price would fall due to a lower valued currency. It would also no longer have to run primary budget surpluses since it would be able to avoid payments on its debt for a period of time.

While this break would undoubtedly lead to a short-term hit to the economy as it put its new currency place and worked out patchwork arrangements on trade, it is likely that it would bounce back quickly. The model here is Argentina which went into default in December of 2001. It's economy went into a free fall for three months, then stabilized in the second quarter of 2002. By the fall of the year it was growing rapidly and it continued to grow rapidly for the next five years. It made up all the lost ground before the end of 2003.

It is worth noting that at the time, the I.M.F. and most other "experts" confidently predicted a disaster for Argentina. While there are issues about the accuracy of Argentina's numbers, this has mostly been more a problem in the post-recession period when an over-valued currency and extensive price controls have led to serious economic distortions.

If we want to use the words "tough" and "rational," they would probably better be applied to the strategy of breaking with the euro rather than continuing an austerity policy that promises a level of pain for the Greek period that far exceeds that experienced by the United States in the Great Depression.

The Washington Post likely misled many readers in an article on a Republican proposal to cut benefits for federal employees. It noted that the proposal calls for federal workers to increase the amount they pay for their pensions by 7 percent of their salary. It then quoted Richard Thissen, the president of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association, as saying that the higher contribution is,"nothing more than a pay cut for federal employees."

This is not just the view of a person representing the affected workers. Virtually all economists would agree that requiring workers to pay more money for the same benefit amounts to a cut in pay. This is not really an arguable point, although the Post's discussion of the topic likely led many readers to believe it is a matter of opinion.

The piece also errors in referring to the proposals of the "bipartisan Simpson-Bowles committee." The commission actually did not make any proposals since its by-laws required that to be approved a proposal needed the support of 12 of the 16 members of the commission. Since no proposal got the necessary 12 votes it is inaccurate to refer to recommendations of the commission. The proposal in question was put forward by the co-chairs and had the support of 10 of the 16 commission members.

The Washington Post missed the opportunity to correct Stanley Fisher, the vice-chair of the Federal Reserve Board, on his arguments for raising interest rates. An article on the prospect of Fed rate hikes later this year quoted Fisher on the desirability of raising rates so that the Fed would have room to use normal monetary policy (i.e. lower interest rates) if there was a shock to the economy leading to a slowdown. There are two major flaws in this logic.

First, if the Fed delays raising interest rates and allows more job creation and economic growth, we are more likely to see higher inflation. If the inflation rate starts to rise, the Fed could raise the federal funds rate along with it, leaving real interest rates unchanged. If the inflation rate goes to a somewhat higher level, this would provide the Fed with considerably more ability to boost the economy in a downturn with conventional monetary policy since it could have lower real interest rates. (The real interest rate is the nominal interest rate minus the inflation rate.) This would be especially the case if it allowed the inflation rate to rise above its current 2.0 percent target.

In this respect, it is important to remember that the 2.0 percent target is just a number chosen by former chair Ben Bernanke. It is not part of the Fed's legal mandate to promote high employment and price stability.

The other flaw in Fisher's logic is that he is effectively advocating that the Fed deliberately slow growth now so that it will have more ability to speed growth later. This is a rather peculiar argument, sort of like committing suicide to ensure that you won't be killed. Would it make sense to say, slow growth by a total of 1.0 percentage points over the next two years to ensure that the Fed has enough room to lower interest rates and thereby speed growth by 1.0 percentage point in response to a possible future shock? (Fisher undoubtedly would have different numbers.)

It is at least peculiar to argue that we should for certain take a large loss now, in the form of higher unemployment and lower wages for those at the middle and bottom of the wage distribution, in exchange for being better able to respond to a possible loss in the future. Unless the potential gains from the latter action are much larger than the certain losses from raising interest rates, this would be a bad trade-off.

 

Okay, for the 64,512th time, it is net exports that contribute to GDP, not exports. Apparently this distinction is difficult for people involved in economic policy to understand since they keep making the same mistake.

The point is straightforward. If the United States increases its exports because GM is exporting car parts to be assembled in Mexico and then imported back as a finished car to the United States, it will not be a net job creator. We used to have jobs at assembly plants in the United States. These are being replaced by jobs in assembly plants in Mexico. In this story exports increase, but net exports (exports minus imports) fall. Fans of intro econ know the accounting identity that GDP = C + I + G +(X-M), where the X-M stands for exports minus imports.

This is why the NYT seriously misled readers in an article on the impact of the rising dollar when it wrote:

"the sharp rise of the dollar threatens to undercut one of the principal drivers of the recovery in recent years: strong export growth for American companies."

While exports have been a positive for growth, imports have been an even larger negative. According to our good friends at the Bureau of Economic Analysis (Table 1.1.2), the fall in net exports reduced growth by 0.22 percentage points in 2014. They added the same amount to growth in 2013, but have been a net negative since 2010. Of course net exports will almost certainly be more of a drag on growth due to the recent rise in the dollar, but it is not true that they had previously been a driver of the recovery.

That is the implication of his column touting the virtues of inequality. Will seems to think that we could not get people to work hard to master skills or to be great innovators if they didn't have the prospect of earning billions or tens of billions of dollars. But if we look back through history we can identify an enormous number of tremendously talented and creative individuals who did not get fabulously wealthy or even have any plausible hope of getting fabulously wealthy.

Mays was of course well-paid, but adjusting for inflation, his best paychecks would probably be less than one-tenth of the pay of today's stars. And, there is no shortage of great athletes, writers, musicians, and other performers who never even made Willie Mays type salaries. The same is true of inventors. Jonas Salk, the inventor of the first effective polio vaccine, undoubtedly had a comfortable standard of living, but nothing approaching the wealth of a Bill Gates or even Jamie Dimon.

In fact, if we look back to the period of relative equality from the end of World War II to 1980, the economy made far more rapid progress than it did in the next three and a half decades of rising inequality. If the argument is that people need material incentive to do their best work, then Will has a case. If the argument is that people need the motivation of immense wealth to work hard and innovate, then Will is demonstrably wrong.

 

Note: Links added, thanks to Robert Salzberg.


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