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When It Comes to Generating Jobs It Pays Not to Listen to the Experts Print
Saturday, 19 April 2014 07:43

It is remarkable that no country has outlawed economics as a dangerous occupation on a par with drug dealing or murder for hire. The damage done to the world over the last seven years based on policies designed by economists has been incredible.

Floyd Norris documents this fact in a nice piece comparing the change in employment rates (the percentage of the population employed) in rich countries since 2007. The only two countries with higher employment to population ratios today than at the start of the downturn are Germany and Japan. Both countries have broken with the economic orthodoxy in important ways.

In Germany, the government has adopted policies that encourage employers to keep workers on the payroll by cutting back hours rather than laying them off. As a result, their unemployment rate is almost three percentage points below its pre-recession level even though its growth has actually been somewhat slower than in the United States.

Japan has adopted a policy of aggressive deficit spending even though its debt to GDP ratio is already more than twice that of the United States. It also has deliberately targeted a higher rate of inflation as a way of lowering real interest rates and reducing debt burden. As a result, it has created a number of jobs that would be the equivalent of more than 4 million in the United States.

In short, ignoring the economic orthodoxy works. Listening to orthodox economists brings destruction to the economy and devastates peoples' lives.  

 

Addendum:

The increase in the employment rates of prime age women in Germany and Japan, 4.0 percentage points and 3.6 percentage points, is especially impressive. This compares to a drop of 3.1 percentage points in the United States.

 
$15 Billion In Higher Pay: Cheap Fun for Republicans Over the Minimum Wage Print
Friday, 18 April 2014 13:01

The Republicans apparently think they got a powerful piece of ammunition from the Congressional Budget Office this week when it came out with an estimate that President Obama's minimum wage proposal would cost employers $15 billion a year. Under the "really big number" approach to public policy, many Republicans think they can scare people with a number that is much more money that almost anyone will see in their lifetime.

Fortunately at least some folks in the media recognize that their job is to inform rather than scare readers. The AP story on the report pointed out that the $15 billion represented roughly one third of one penny of every dollar paid out in wages. Are you scared yet?

Those looking for useful comparisons of the costs imposed by the higher minimum wage may also want to compare it to the savings we have seen from slower health care cost growth. Back in 2008 the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services projected that we would be spending $3,313 billion on health care in 2014. Their most recent numbers show us spending $3093 billion in 2014. This amounts to a savings of $220 billion, or more than 14 times as much as CBO projects the higher minimum wage will cost employers.

We can argue over the extent to which the Obama administration deserves credit for lower cost growth. But, there is no doubt that the savings on health care, which have largely passed on unnoticed, are a hugely bigger deal than any costs to employers due to a higher minimum wage.

Of course just because this money is not a big deal to employers doesn't mean it is not a big deal to minimum wage workers. It will make a big difference in the living standards of the families of minimum wage workers, 70 percent of whom live in families with incomes of less than $60,000 a year.

 

Note: Numbers corrected, thanks to Robert Salzberg.

 
The Health Care Exchanges Need Healthy People, It Doesn't Matter If They Are Young Print
Friday, 18 April 2014 05:48

The NYT again obsessed about the number of young people signing up for the exchanges, telling readers they "tend to be healthier." Yes, everyone knows they tend to be healthier, which is why they pay on average a third of the premium of the oldest age band (55-64). As the Kaiser Foundation showed, a skewing by age would have little consequence since the difference in premiums largely reflects the difference in average costs. What will matter for the success of the exchanges is if there is a skewing by health conditions with less healthy people of all ages being disproportionately likely to enroll.

 
NYT Says Doctors May Not Talk About Expensive Treatments, Doesn't Talk About Patent Monopolies That Make Them Expensive Print
Friday, 18 April 2014 05:03

Yet again the NYT has given us a piece talking about trade-offs between the cost and quality of health care. The piece reports that some doctors may not discuss certain treatments with patients because they consider these treatments too expensive. Unfortunately, the piece never discussed the role of patent monopolies in making these treatments expensive.

The point is simple but incredibly important. In some cases, for example open-heart surgery, a medical procedure may genuinely involve a substantial use of resources. In this case, it involves many hours of the time of highly-trained medical specialists. (The pay of these specialists is inflated by supply restrictions, but that is another question.) In such cases there can be an issue of whether some treatments are worth the economic cost. For example, should an otherwise healthy 90-year-old get open heart surgery when we know their life expectancy is just 2-3 years even assuming a successful operation.

However there is a very different story at issue in the cases discussed in this article. These cases all refer to the choice of drugs. The drugs that are very expensive do not necessarily involve a greater cost to the economy than the cheaper alternatives. They are expensive because the companies that sell them have patent monopolies or other protections that allow them to sell drugs at prices that are far above their free market price.

This distinction is important because if there are tough choices here it is only because government policy had created them. If all drugs were sold at their free market price, without patent protection, then the difference in costs would in almost all cases be trivial and doctors need not have any reservations about recommending the one they considered best based on their understanding of the evidence.

Of course patent monopolies serve a purpose in providing an incentive to drug companies to undertake research, but there are alternative mechanisms such as the $30 billion in annual direct public funding provided through the National Institutes of Health. Direct funding would not only eliminate the problems associated with figuring out how and whether to pay for expensive patent protected drugs, it would also likely lead to a much more efficient process and better medicine.

Read more...

 

 
Joe Scarborough and His Band of Space Aliens Take on Paul Krugman Print
Thursday, 17 April 2014 13:08

The Huffington Post really deserves to be called on the carpet for this piece. It implies there is a debate going on between Paul Krugman and Joe Scarborough over whether the Obama administration is tampering with Census data to make the Affordable Care Act look good.

There is no debate because Scarborough has no clue what he is taking about. He knows nothing about how the Census Bureau collects data and what is involved in changing questions as it is now doing. He is literally making a completely baseless accusation. He doesn't even pretend to have a shred of evidence to support his claim that the Obama administration is tampering with the data.

If he knew anything about the way Census worked, he would know it would be incredibly difficult for the Obama administration to alter its processes. There would almost certainly be people willing to talk if this were the case. Furthermore, any competent analyst would be able to recognize doctored data using other data sets.

Anyhow, Scarborough is not taking part in a debate, he is name calling. This is like someone running out on the baseball field and yelling at the stupid players because it would be much quicker to go from second base to home by running over the pitcher's mound. If Scarborough wants to have a serious debate with Paul Krugman or anyone else about the data coming from Census Bureau he will first have to learn a bit about the subject matter. Until then, he deserves nothing but ridicule from any serious news outlet.

 
The Washington Post Is Confused About Inflation, Economists Are Not Print
Thursday, 17 April 2014 07:42

In an article reporting on a speech by Federal Reserve Board Chair Janet Yellen, the Post told readers:

"One of the puzzles currently confounding economists is why inflation has remained so low even as the recovery has picked up steam. The Fed set a 2 percent inflation target but its preferred measure of price changes shows inflation is about half that."

Actually economists are not at all confounded by why inflation has remained low. The predominant view of inflation is that the change in the rate of inflation depends on the level of unemployment. Since nearly all economists believe the unemployment rate is still above its trend level, they expect inflation to be falling, not rising. In fact the bigger mystery from the standpoint of standard economic models is why the rate of inflation has not fallen more. (The answer is that wages and prices tend to be sticky going downward.)

Anyhow, the confounding is only at the Washington Post. The low inflation rate is not something economists have trouble explaining.

 

 
The I.M.F.'s Data Disagree With the NYT on the State of Russia's Economy Print
Thursday, 17 April 2014 07:21

The NYT headlined a piece on the dismal state of Russia's economy, "Russia economy worsens even before sanctions hit." The piece goes on to describe an economy in decline telling readers about Russians moving abroad and storing cash in safe deposit boxes and foreign currencies. It reports:

"Russia’s $2 trillion economy was suffering from stagflation, that toxic mix of stagnant growth and high inflation typically accompanied by a spike in unemployment. In Russia, joblessness remains low, but only because years of population decline have produced a shrunken, inadequate labor force."

The data from the I.M.F. tell a somewhat different picture. While growth has slowed in the last two years, per capita income has more than doubled in the country since Vladimir Putin took office in 1998. The NYT may not like Russia's "shrunken inadequate labor force," but members of this shrunken, inadequate labor force probably care more about the unemployment rate than the NYT's condemnations.

The I.M.F. projects an inflation rate of 6.2 percent for both this year and next. This is high for members of the 2.0 percent inflation cult that occupies central banks in the west and top economics departments, but folks familiar with economic data know that many countries have had long stretches of healthy growth with higher inflation rates. While the piece did find people who were unhappy about this inflation rate, people with better memories would recall that Russia had double-digit inflation as recently as 2008.

While the private equity investor who is one of the main sources for the piece predicts that Russia will default on its debt, it's difficult to see the basis for this assertion in the data. The I.M.F. reports that it has a deficit of less than 1.0 percent of GDP and its debt-to-GDP ratio have been on a downward course. It has a current account surplus. Furthermore, the I.M.F. shows that investment is almost 24 percent of GDP. This compares to less than 20 percent in the United States.

In short, the data for Russia reported by the I.M.F. would be consistent with the 80 percent approval rating for Putin that the article mentions, even if the economic picture painted by the NYT is not.

 
Open Source Seeds and Inequality Print
Thursday, 17 April 2014 05:07

Morning Edition had an interesting segment reporting on a new effort to promote open source seeds. These seeds could be freely reproduced and varied, as long as any resulting seeds were also freely available.

Unfortunately this piece did not fully flesh out the economic implications of this movement. While it included the comments of the representative of a seed company, saying that it would likely avoid open source seed in order to be able to continue to sell patent protected seed, it didn't include any discussion of the larger implications of patents in seeds.

The seed companies and many of their top executives and scientists are getting very rich from patent protected seeds. This is not technology. This is not technology. (Sorry, had to repeat this in case any economists were reading.) This is the result of a government policy that hands out monopolies to certain companies and threatens to arrest competitors.

Patent monopolies are one way to finance research into developing new seeds. It is certainly not the only way. Much of the research into agriculture is paid by universities or government agencies. The government could increases this sort of funding to replace the research done by the private sector.

This would allow all seeds to be available at the free market price. This would likely eliminate many of the large fortunes earned by selling seeds. It would also eliminate the enormous distortions associated with patent protected prices. If the patent leads to a price that is 500 hundred or 1000 percent above the free market price it leads to the same amount of economic waste as if the government were to impose a tariff of 500 or 1000 percent on imports of the seed.

Publiclly funded research would also likely lead to more effective development of new seeds since making all research findings public could be a requirement for getting public funding. Under a system supported by patent monopolies companies only make available the information needed to get a patent. In fact, they have a strong financial incentive to misrepresent and conceal research findings in order to promote their product and inhibit competitors.

Since science advances much more rapidly in a context of open research it would have been worth including this point in the discussion. It also is important to point out that, insofar as patent protected products are a source of great wealth and a factor in inequality, it is the outcome of government policy, not technology.  

 

 
Will the Wall Street Journal Give Ed Lazear Space to Correct His Piece About Falling Work Hours? Print
Wednesday, 16 April 2014 05:28

Last month the WSJ ran a column by Ed Lazear, a Stanford economics professor and former chief economist to President Bush, which noted the decline in the length of the average workweek between the fall and the most recent data from February. The piece noted that if labor demand was measured in hours, we had lost the equivalent of 100,000 jobs over the prior six months. He discussed possible causes for this decline and highlighted the incentives created by the Affordable Care Act.

While some of us at the time questioned the plausibility of this story and noted the likely effect of the weather on reducing workweeks in January and February, we got the question resolved when the March data was released this month. The entire decline in average hours was reversed. The question is whether the WSJ will allow Mr. Lazear a follow-up piece to point out that his earlier concerns about the Affordable Care Act leading to a reduction in the length of the average workweek had apparently been wrong.

avg. hours

                                    Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics.

 
If We See Inequality Because of Technology, It's Because the Government Wanted Us to Have Inequality Print
Wednesday, 16 April 2014 04:55

How rich would Bill Gates be if anyone in the world could make a computer with the latest version of Windows without even sending him a thank you note? Think about this question as you read Eduardo Porter's piece on how technology might be shifting income towards capital making society ever more unequal.

Porter is of course right, we have seen a large shift in income from labor to capital across the world over the last three decades. However it is difficult to see how this could be seen as technologically determined when so much of this shift was clearly attributable to patent rents and other laws that certainly were not determined by technology. If current patterns of growth are increasing inequality it is because we have designed a legal and institutional system to bring about this outcome. There is nothing natural about this pattern of development. (in addition to the Bill Gates example, imagine what would happen to Walmart's profits if it executives faced criminal penalties for violations of labor laws.)

 
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About Beat the Press

Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. He is the author of several books, his latest being The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive. Read more about Dean.

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