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Larry Summers Gets It Right on the UK Print
Monday, 05 May 2014 07:11

Larry Summers had a good piece in the Post pointing out that the recent growth in the United Kingdom should not really be cause for celebration. He notes that the U.K.'s economy is growing in part because it has moderated its austerity and also in part because it appears to be carrying through policies that are deliberately designed to re-inflate its housing bubble. The latter policies are likely to have disastrous consequences in the near future, but may help the government win the election next year.

 
A Weak Economy Is the Perfect Time to Spend Money to Combat Global Warming Print
Monday, 05 May 2014 07:02

The Post had a major front page article reporting that President Obama plans to focus on global warming in the remaining years of his presidency. At one point it tells readers;

"during his first term the president’s top aides were sharply divided on how aggressively to push climate policy at a time when Americans were anxious about the economy."

This is a striking statement since the main problem facing the economy, insufficient demand, could have been effectively addressed by measures to slow global warming. Insofar as the government spent money on clean energy and/or conservation it would create more demand in the economy and lead to more jobs. In this sense, environmental measures are virtually costless in a period of inadequate demand and high unemployment. It is striking that there is so little recognition of this fact.

 
Wage Inflation Does Not Just Explode Print
Monday, 05 May 2014 05:14

The NYT had an interesting piece presenting the argument that the Federal Reserve Board should focus on wage inflation rather unemployment, not beginning to tighten up until wage inflation started to get above 3.0-4.0 percent, a rate consistent with its 2.0 percent inflation target. The piece included a counterargument from Torsten Slok, chief international economist at Deutsche Bank Securities, that if the Fed waited until it saw rising wage growth it would be too late. Inflation would then already be too high and getting out of control.

It is worth noting that there is no data to support Slok's view of inflation. Standard analyses show that the rate of inflation increases very slowly even in an economy where unemployment is below the level consistent with a stable inflation rate (i.e. the non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment or NAIRU). According to the Congressional Budget Office, even if the unemployment rate is a full percentage point below the NAIRU for a full year the rate of inflation would only rise by 0.3 percentage points. This suggests that there would be very little risk in terms of higher inflation from delaying Fed tightening.

 
Nope, Robert Samuelson Is Wrong Again, the Housing Bubble Did Cause the Recession Print
Sunday, 04 May 2014 21:58

Robert Samuelson actually has a lot of sensible things to say about bubbles in his column today, until we get near the end:

"it was not simply the bursting of the housing bubble that created the Great Recession. Consider the contrast between the 1990s’ tech-stock bubble and the housing bubble. Both inflicted multitrillion-dollar losses. Yet the first caused only a mild recession while the second plunged the economy into a deep and stubborn slump. Why?

"The difference is this: The housing bubble spawned a broader financial panic; the tech bubble didn’t. No one knew which banks held “toxic” mortgage securities and which didn’t. Large deposits fled banks, which in turn reduced lending (banks’ loans fell nearly $600 billion in 2009). Borrowers cut their expenses. Firms laid off workers; consumers curbed spending. It was the panic that did the most damage."

No, it actually was the collapse of the housing bubble that caused the Great Recession. First Samuelson is badly mistaken about the "mild" recession that followed the collapse of the stock bubble. While the official recession was short and mild, the economy did not begin to create jobs again until the fall of 2003 almost two years after the end of the recession. And, it didn't get back the jobs lost in the downturn until January of 2005, at the time the longest period without job growth since the Great Depression. And even then the growth was only coming on the back of the housing bubble.

But, contrary to Samuelson, the real difference between the two bubbles was simply that the housing bubble was more important in driving the economy than the stock bubble. It led housing to rise to 6.5 percentage points of GDP, more than two percentage points above its long-term average. When the bubble burst, the overbuilding caused housing construction to collapse to 2.0 percent of GDP, creating a gap in demand of 4.5 percentage points (@ $770 billion a year in today's economy).

On top of that, the housing wealth effect is stronger than the stock wealth effect since housing wealth is more evenly distributed. As a result, there was an even bigger consumption boom in 2004-2007 than in 1999-2000. At the peak of the stock bubble the savings rate fell to just over 4.0 percent of disposable income. It fell to less than 3.0 percent of disposable income at the peak of the housing bubble. (The decline in the savings rate was in fact likely even larger than the official data indicate because of a measurement problem. Measured disposable income rose sharply relative to GDP in these bubbles, possibly because capital gain income was wrongly being recorded as normal income.)

The loss of this bubble driven consumption also created a gap in demand. Throw in the loss of demand from the collapse of a bubble in non-residential real estate and we are looking at a shortfall in demand of more than 8 percent of GDP (@ $1.4 trillion in annual demand in today's economy). The financial stuff was a lot of fun, but really beside the point. What did Samuelson think would replace this lost demand, Jeff Bezos newspaper purchases?

There was no mechanism in the economy that would allow it to replace this demand. The collapse of the housing bubble pretty much guaranteed a prolonged and severe downturn barring a vigorous policy response.

 

Note: Typos corrected.

 
A Heaping Dose of Economic Nonsense from Thomas Friedman on China Print
Sunday, 04 May 2014 08:25

No one expects to get serious insights on the economy from reading Thomas Friedman, but he really went off the deep end in today's column. The piece is a diatribe about how our economic weakness is preventing the United States from acting like a real superpower.

At one point Friedman tells readers:

"We need to counterbalance China in the Asia-Pacific region, but that is not easy when we owe Beijing nearly $1.3 trillion, because of our credit-fueled profligacy."

Presumably Friedman is referring to the amount of government debt that China owns, but it is hard to tell since the statement makes no sense at almost any level.

Let's assume that Friedman is referring to government debt. And this poses a threat to the U.S. exactly how? Yes, China could dump the debt. If they tried to sell it all Monday morning, it would probably drive down the price a little bit and raise interest rates some, but there is not exactly a shortage of people willing to buy U.S. debt right now.

Friedman may not have access to the business section of his paper, but the current interest rate on 10-year Treasury bonds is under 2.6 percent. If China dumps its bonds then maybe it would rise to 2.7 percent, 2.8 percent? Maybe it will go back to the 3.0 percent level we saw in December. A lower interest rate is better than a higher interest rate right now, but I don't recall anyone saying that high interest rates were suffocating the economy five months ago. (in more normal times, 10-year Treasury bonds carry a yield of 5-6 percent.)

Of course the story doesn't end with interest rates. The Obama administration has been publicly committed to a policy of forcing China to raise the value of its currency against the dollar. Many accuse China of "manipulating" the value of its currency, deliberately keeping it low against the dollar to make its products cheaper in U.S. markets.

The way China keeps the value of its currency down is through purchasing hundreds of billions of dollars of assets in the United States, primarily government bonds. If China were to dump its bonds, then it would send down the value of the dollar against the Chinese yuan. This is ostensibly exactly what the Obama administration has been asking China to do.

The result is that we will be able to export more goods and services to China and other countries and domestically produced items will replace imports. This will lower our trade deficit and potentially create millions of new jobs, many of which will be relatively high-paying jobs in manufacturing. Are you scared yet?

But wait, there's more. Friedman is badly confused about the relationship of "our credit-fueled profligacy" and the debt to China. Suppose that we had been running balanced budgets for the last decade, but China had the same policy of trying to prop up the dollar to boost its exports. It could have bought the exact same amount of government debt that was already outstanding. Alternatively, it could have bought up debt of private corporations or bought equity in them. In these cases, the United States would be just as much indebted to China as it is today, even though the government will not have been profligate by Friedman's standard.

In other words, our indebtedness to China is due to the conscious decision of the Chinese government to lend money to the United States, not any need by the U.S. government to borrow. It is probably also worth mentioning that the government has not been in any way particularly profligate in any normal meaning of the word. The deficits were just over 1.0 percent of GDP and the debt-to-GDP ratio was falling before the collapse of the housing bubble threw the economy into a recession.

If we had run smaller deficits over the last six years the main effect would have been to raise the unemployment rate. Friedman may be willing to throw millions of people out of work and weaken the bargaining power of tens of millions of others in the interest of his confused great power ambitions for the United States, but much of the public likely does not share his priorities.

 

Note: Corrections made.

 

 
Washington Post Can't Even Talk About Alternatives to Patent Support for Prescription Drug Research Print
Sunday, 04 May 2014 07:29

Just as the media in the Soviet Union were not allowed to talk about alternatives to one-party rule, the Washington Post apparently can't raise the issue of alternatives to patent supported drug research in the United States. This should be apparent to readers of an article on Sovaldi, a new drug to treat Hepatitis C.

The drug is currently subject to a government granted patent monopoly which allows its manufacturer, Gilead Science, to sell a year's dosage for $100,000. By contrast, a generic version sells in India for about 1 percent of this price. As the piece tells readers:

"If all 3 million people estimated to be infected with the virus in the United States were treated with the drugs, at an average cost of $100,000 per person, the amount spent for all prescription drugs in the country would double, from about $300 billion in a year to more than $600 billion."

To put this number in context, the additional cost of Sovaldi due to the government granted patent protection would in this case be equal to more than 1.7 percent of GDP, or a bit less than 25 percent of after-tax corporate profits. In short, it is real money.

One might think that an article that raises ethical questions, as this one does, about how much we should be willing to pay for saving a person's life, might also ask the question about why this drug is so expensive in the first place. Not in the Washington Post.

The granting of patent monopolies is a government policy to provide incentive for innovation. There are other ways to provide incentives, like paying people directly. (Has anyone heard of the National Institutes of Health? They get $30 billion a year to do basic biomedical research.) The government also finances a large amount of research directly through the Defense Department, with military contractors paid to develop new weapons systems. So there is a great deal of precedent for the government paying directly for research.

Some economists, like Joe Stiglitz, a winner of a Nobel prize, have suggested a prize fund where the government would buy up patents and then place them in the public domain. Under either system, all new drugs could be sold as generics at generic prices.

This would meet the condition that the price would then equal the marginal cost, which is usually a high priority for economists. Economists and people who have been through intro econ classes usually get upset when government policies like tariffs raise the price of a product by 15-20 percent above marginal cost. In this case, the patent monopoly is raising the price by close to 10,000 percent above marginal cost.

All the economic distortions and incentives for corruption that we would see from a 15-20 percent tariff also appear when a patent monopoly raises the price by 10,000 percent, except they are several orders of magnitude greater. The company has enormous incentive to mislead patients and doctors about the effectiveness and safety of their drug and also to market for uses for which it may be inappropriate. Drug companies also have incentives to pay off politicians to get their drugs covered by public programs. And drug companies act all the time in exactly the way predicted by economic theory. (Think of Vioxx.)

It is incredible that alternatives to patent supported research were never mentioned in an article that poses ostensibly difficult ethical questions about how much a life is worth.Without the government granted patent monopoly such questions would not arise, unless the Post puts the value of human life at less than $1,000.

It is also amazing that, at a time where much of the intellectual class has been obsessed with Thomas Piketty's book, Capital for the 21st Century, which warns of a growing concentration of wealth and income, a policy that both creates enormous economic distortions and leads to upward redistribution of income, is not even a topic for debate.

It is probably worth mentioning that the Post gets substantial advertising revenue from the drug industry.

 

 
Deficit Dogma Runs Deep Even at the New York Times Print
Friday, 02 May 2014 16:45

This is one of those strange but true stories. Here's the description of Paul Krugrman's column from NYT opinion page for Friday:

PAUL KRUGMAN

Why Economics Failed

Though it’s true that few economists saw the fiscal crisis coming, policy makers and politicians ignored both the textbooks and lessons of history. comment icon Comment

 

You have 30 seconds to see the problem in this story.


That's right, Krugman doesn't believe there was a fiscal crisis, in fact he has vigorously argued the opposite. We clearly had a financial crisis, but as Krugman argues, it had nothing to do with excessive budget deficits.

So how does this find its way into the NYT? Clearly some folks were asleep at the wheel, but this is pretty incredible. It attributes a view that is at 180 degrees at odds with the frequently and strongly expressed view of the paper's most prominent columnist.

 
The Story of How Trucking Jobs Became Low-Paying Jobs Print
Friday, 02 May 2014 15:16

Very good piece in the Washington Post on how the trucking industry contracted out to push down wages in trucking. Now many independent truckers don't earn much more than workers in fast-food restaurants.

 
Bill Clinton and the Trade Deficit: Is There Some Reason We Can't Talk About It? Print
Friday, 02 May 2014 05:26

Following the NYT, the Washington Post had an article on Bill Clinton's economic legacy today. And like the NYT piece yesterday, the Post did not mention the soaring trade deficit. (See my complaint about the NYT piece here.)

This is not a small matter. The trade deficit was less 1.0 percent of GDP when Clinton took office, it was almost 4.0 percent when he left, and headed upward.This increase would be equivalent to more than $500 billion in today's economy.

And this increase was largely a result of Clinton's policy. His team pushed a high dollar policy and put muscle behind it with the bailout they designed for the East Asian financial crisis. A high dollar leads to a trade deficit in the same way that high meat prices lead to fewer hamburgers being sold. A high dollar makes our goods and services relatively more expensive in the world economy, therefore we sell less of them.

The resulting trade deficit creates a huge hole in demand. For arithmetic fans, demand is equal to consumption, investment, government spending, and net exports:

Y = C+I+G+(X-M)

If we have a big trade deficit then we have to make it up with one of the other components of demand, otherwise we have a shortfall in demand and unemployment. This is not whacko lefty thought, this is the simple economics that is taught in every intro class.

In the 1990s we made up for the trade deficit with the demand generated by the stock bubble. Consumption soared based on the stock wealth effect (people increase their consumption as they see the value of their stockholding increase) and there was also an uptick in investment as the dot.com crew could raise billions for nonsense plans by issuing stock.

Read more...

 

 
Thomas Piketty and the Ghost of Joan Robinson Print
Thursday, 01 May 2014 20:16

Okay, I really did not want to spend more time arguing about methodology but there seems to be some simple points getting lost in cyberspace. Paul Krugman picks up on the debate between Simon Wren-Lewis and Tom Palley, coming down clearly on the side of the former.

I won't go through the blow by blow, but I do want to deal with the point Paul raises at the end of his post.

"And what’s going on here, I think, is a fairly desperate attempt to claim that the Great Recession and its aftermath somehow prove that Joan Robinson and Nicholas Kaldor were right in the Cambridge controversies of the 1960s. It’s a huge non sequitur, even if you think they were indeed right (which you shouldn’t.)"

Hmm, I don't quite see it that way. To me there is a very specific issue that Piketty raised that relates directly to the Cambridge controversies. He argued that the elasticity of substitution between capital and labor was greater than one. Therefore even as the amount of capital increased relative to labor, there was no reason that the rate of profit had to fall proportionately. This raises the prospect of an increasing capital share as economies get richer.

This relates to the Cambridge controversies since the Cambridge U.K. people argued that the idea of an aggregate production function did not make sense. They pointed out that there was no way to aggregate different types of capital independent of the rate of return. The equilibirum price of any capital good depended on the rate of return. Therefore we can't tell a simple story about how the rate of return will change as we get more capital, since we can't even say what is more capital independent of the rate of return.

The takeaway from this, or at least my takeaway, is that we don't have a theoretical construct that we can hope more or less approximates how the economy actually works. The theoretical construct doesn't make sense. This means if we want to determine the rate of return to capital we should not be looking to elasticities of substitution, but rather the institutional and political factors that determine the rate of profit. 

The debate touched off by Piketty's claim about the elasticity of substitution will inevitably be a fruitless one. We are not going to find a technical relationship in past data that will tell us how profit shares will change as the ratio of capital to labor increases.

Does any of this mean that the Great Recession proved Joan Robinson and Nicholas Kaldor right? Not as far as I can see. Although it is pretty damning of the state of the economic profession that almost no one recognized the growth of housing bubbles in the United States and much of the rest of world, and that their collapse would create a hole in demand that would be extremely hard to fill.

I will say that I am a bit at loss to understand the meaning of Simon Wren-Lewis's comment that:

"As I said in my original post, I would like to make students aware of heterodox critiques, but I want to point out where in my mainstream account that critique would enter. (I think what I teach is pretty close to how many central bankers think, if not the rest of 'my tribe'!)"

It certainly is worthwhile to know what central bankers think, but is this supposed to be a source of legitimation? After all, even by the I.M.F.'s measures the wealthy countries are losing well over $2 trillion a year due to economies operating below potential GDP. The cumulative losses to the rich countries from the Great Recession are virtually certain to exceed $20 trillion and could well top $30 trillion. Is it supposed to be some sort of validation that the folks who got us here share your view of the world?

 
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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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