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Charles Lane is Wrong on NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership Print
Tuesday, 04 February 2014 05:47

Charles Lane is wrong, as usual, in arguing that the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), like its predecessor NAFTA, is good for U.S. workers. However, the piece is useful in providing an opportunity to explain some basic economics.

Most of the piece is dedicated to saying that NAFTA, which to some extent is a model for the TPP, was really good for the country. Lane starts by disputing that NAFTA contributed to the $181 billion trade deficit that the United States ran with Canada and Mexico. He tells readers:

"But $100.7 billion of this deficit is because of oil imports, according to U.S. government trade statistics. NAFTA has nothing to do with this; Canadian and Mexican oil imports always flowed freely."

Nope, that's not how it is supposed to work. The United States is a net importer of oil and derivative products. That does not mean that the United States is supposed to run a trade deficit. According to good old econ 101, a deficit on oil trade is supposed to mean that the dollar falls, which then leads us to increase exports and reduce imports of other items. This adjustment would not take place over night, but we would expect it to take place over a long enough period of time. So pointing to oil imports and saying that we really don't have a trade deficit with these countries really is silly. (This doesn't mean the deficit is due to NAFTA, but it certainly doesn't preclude the possibility.)

Then Lane gives us a head scratcher. He tells us this trade figure doesn't include, "almost $90 billion worth of goods that entered this country from elsewhere and then got re-exported to Mexico or Canada." He then points out that re-exports create jobs in the U.S. in shipping and other areas. Incredibly, Lane then adds in the full $90 billion value of the re-exports, telling readers:

"Eliminating oil and including re-exports produces a U.S.-NAFTA surplus of roughly $7 billion in the goods trade."

Wow, so we get just as many jobs from having one million cars pass through ports in Oakland and Los Angeles on their way to Mexico and Canada as we do from building one million cars and exporting them to Mexico and Canada? Apparently we do on the Post's opinion page. Remember these are the folks, who in NAFTA boosterism, claimed Mexico's economy quadrupled from 1987 to 2007. (The actual increase was 83 percent.)

Read more...

 

 
Fiscal Surpluses in States Likely Driven by Capital Gains Income Print
Monday, 03 February 2014 06:06

The NYT had a piece noting how states across the country are seeing better budget pictures than they had projected. While this is attributed to growth, economic growth in 2013 was pretty much in line with expectations (worse in first half, better in second). The more plausible explanation is that the run-up in the stock market to both more capital gains taxes (a point that is noted) and also for capital gains income in many cases to be reported and taxed as normal income.

For tax purposes, short-term capital gains (assets held less than a year) are treated the same as normal income. Therefore it is likely that many households just report capital gains earnings as normal income. This would explain why the statistical discrepancy turns negative following large run-ups in asset prices such as the stock bubble in the 1990s and the housing bubble in the last decade.

statistical-disc

The implication of this scenario is that much of the increase in the tax revenue that states are now seeing is ephemeral. Unless stock and/or house prices continue to rise at an extraordinary pace, the statistical discrepancy will fall back toward zero and the extra tax revenue states are now seeing will disappear.

 

 
It's Monday and Robert Samuelson Is Defending the One Percent, Again Print
Sunday, 02 February 2014 21:09

Yes, not much of a surprise here. (I had to check the date to be sure I wasn't reading an old column.) Anyhow, let's start with the punch line:

"Economic inequality is usually a consequence of our problems and not a cause. For starters, the poor are not poor because the rich are rich.

"The two conditions are generally unrelated. Mostly, the rich got rich by running profitable small businesses (car dealerships, builders), creating big enterprises (Google, Microsoft), being at the top of lucrative occupations (bankers, lawyers, doctors, actors, athletes), managing major companies or inheriting fortunes. By contrast, the very poor often face circumstances that make their lives desperate."

Really? So the fact that doctors and lawyers secure themselves protection from competition and thereby drive up the cost of medical care and other products (yes, we do pay for corporate lawyers in the price of goods and services) doesn't affect the income of the poor? Not where I learned arithmetic.

How about the fact that the rich use their control over politicians to get them to run high unemployment policies by reducing the deficit and demand in the economy. This costs low and middle income workers both jobs and wages (see Jared Bernstein and my book on the topic.)

Oh yeah, and what about the fact that the Wall Street boys can get themselves too big to fail subsidies from the government ($83 billion a year according to Bloomberg, a bit more than the SNAP budget)? And of course they also get exemptions from the sales taxes that other industries have to pay. Where does this money come from if not the rest of us?

But hey, Robert Samuelson tells us their wealth has nothing to do with other people suffering. Who are you going to listen to, common sense, logic, and arithmetic or Robert Samuelson?

Then we get Samuelson telling us:

"Finally, widening economic inequality is sometimes mistakenly blamed for causing the Great Recession and the weak recovery. The argument, as outlined by two economists at Washington University in St. Louis, goes like this: In the 1980s, income growth for the bottom 95 percent of Americans slowed. People compensated by borrowing more. All the extra debt led to a consumption boom that was unsustainable. The housing bubble and crash followed. Now, weak income growth of the bottom 95 percent 'helps explain the slow recovery.'

Actually, the logic goes like this, as told by those of us who knew enough about the economy to see this crash coming. The economy suffers from weak demand because of so much money being redistributed upward to rich people who spend a smaller share of their income than middle and low income households. This problem was aggravated enormously by the explosion of the trade deficit that followed the run-up in the dollar due to botched East Asian financial crisis in 1997.

In the presence of weak demand the Fed allows interest rates to fall more than would otherwise be the case. In the absence of investment demand, these low interest rates create an environment that is very conducive to bubbles, hence we got the stock bubble in the 1990s and the housing bubble in the last decade. In the absence of another bubble to boost the economy we are continuing to see slow growth and high unemployment.

That one is probably too simple for Robert Samuelson to understand, but for most other people it provides a pretty direct link between inequality and the economic and social disaster of the Great Recession.

So the story is pretty simple. The system has been rigged to redistribute income upward. The rich have used their control of the political process to ensure that it stays that way and their control of news outlets like the Washington Post to try to distort reality.

 

 
The Value of Health Insurance Print
Sunday, 02 February 2014 11:23

The Washington Post has a very good piece about what having health insurance means to poor people in Eastern Kentucky with chronic health care conditions. As a famous vice-president once said, "it's a big f***ing deal."

That's not an excuse to overlook the huge flaws in Obamacare. For many people care will still be unaffordable. And the insurance companies, drug companies, medical supply companies and doctors are still ripping us off. But as this piece shows, it is already having a huge impact on people's lives.

 
Mayor Richard M. Daley Is Credited With Leaving Chicago an Unpayable Debt Burden Print
Saturday, 01 February 2014 21:52

We've been reading stories in the NYT and elsewhere about how Chicago has pension obligations to its workers that it can't possibly meet. Most of these accounts are exaggerated and seem intended to provoke excessive fears in order to facilitate default on the city's pension obligations. Nonetheless, there is no doubt that the city has seriously underfunded pensions.

This is why it is striking that when the NYT ran a piece on former Mayor Richard M. Daley going to the hospital, it failed to mention Daley's record on the city's pensions, telling readers:

"Mr. Daley, Chicago’s longest-serving mayor with 22 years in office, is credited with giving the city a face lift with new green spaces, a revived theater district and the transformation of Navy Pier into a colorful playground."

Daley is the person most responsible for the underfunding of Chicago's pensions, making him one of the most irresponsible elected leaders in recent history. It would be understandable that the NYT may not want to highlight negative aspects of Mr. Daley's tenure at a moment when he is apparently dealing with serious health issues, but there is no excuse for this sort of whitewashing of his record. Tens of thousands of people who worked for the city for decades may not see the pensions they earned as a result of Daley's recklessness.

 
Why Aren't the Prospects of Higher Rates In the United States Leading to Higher Rates In the United States? Print
Friday, 31 January 2014 07:57

The NYT had an article discussing the extent to which political unrest in Thailand might have an impact on its economy. At one point it notes a flight of foreign capital from Thailand and other developing countries which it attributes to the Fed's taper and the "prospect of higher interest rates" in the United States.

The problem with this story is that long-term interest rates have actually been falling in the United States. If investors are fleeing Thailand and other countries because they expect long-term interest rates in the U.S. to rise, then these same investors should be dumping long-term bonds in advance of the interest rate hikes (which would lead to capital losses) thereby causing the rise in interest rates they expect. Instead interest rates on 10-year Treasury bonds have fallen from just over 3.0 percent in late December to under 2.7 percent as of Friday morning.

This suggests an alternative explanation for the flight from developing countries. Most likely it is a simple story of contagion, where investors feel the need to do whatever they see other investors doing. In prior years it was fashionable to unthinkingly put money into developing countries. Now that fashions have shifted the cool thing to do is to pull money out of developing countries. Since investors rarely get in trouble for making the same stupid mistake as everyone else, there is a big incentive to follow fashions in investing.

 
NYT Says Economists Still Don't Understand Inflation/Deflation Print
Friday, 31 January 2014 06:23

There has been a bizarre cult of deflation phobia over the last decade in which we are supposed to be terrified that very low positive rates of inflation can decline further and turn into low rates of deflation, which then create really big problems. The NYT tells us this cult is still dominating economic thinking. In an article on the latest data on inflation and unemployment in the euro zone, it noted that European Central Bank President Mario Draghi unexpectedly lowered interest rates in November:

"amid concern that Europe might be headed toward a Japan-style deflationary quagmire."

In reality Europe is already in a Japan-style deflationary quagmire. It suffers from an inflation rate that is too low. A higher inflation rate would translate into lower real interest rates, giving firms more incentive to invest. It would also reduce debt burdens for homeowners as the real value of their mortgage debt fell. It would also allow the peripheral countries like Greece, Spain, and Italy to regain competitiveness, if they held wage and price increases below the rates in Germany and other core countries. 

For these reasons the near zero inflation rate is making Europe's problems more difficult, delaying the adjustment process that could allow it to return to a healthy growth path. If the inflation rate were to fall further, say from a positive 0.7 percent to a negative 0.3 percent, this would make matters worse, but only in the same way that a drop in the inflation rate from a positive 1.7 percent to 0.7 percent also makes the situation worse. The issue is a one percentage point decline in the inflation rate, there is no importance to crossing zero.

This should be obvious to people familiar with the construction of price indices. The indexes are based on the collection of millions of different price changes. When the index is near zero, many prices are already falling. Going from a low positive to a low negative rate means that the percentage of falling prices in the index has risen somewhat. How could this possibly have catastrophic consequences for the economy? (In this context it is worth noting that computers and cell phones have had rapidly falling prices for decades. Has everyone noticed the disasters befalling these industries?)

Also, the prices recorded for each item depend on quality adjustments imputed by the statistical agencies. Often the price of a product like a refrigerator or a car might show an increase, but due to imputed quality adjustments it will be recorded as a price decline. Is it plausible that the economy would face some horror story if the pace of quality improvement in these products increases slightly?

The notion that something bad happens if inflation crosses the zero line and becomes deflation is silly on its face. (There is a bad story where the rate of deflation continually accelerates, but even Japan never saw this.) It is often said that economists are not very good at economics. The concerns over a deflation horror story provides a good example of this proposition.

 
Steve Rattner on Bernanke: Defining Down the Meaning of "Godsend" Print
Friday, 31 January 2014 05:48

Steve Rattner gives us a glowing appraisal of Ben Bernanke on his departure from the Fed. I have written on Bernanke elsewhere, but the basic story is that he bears a large amount of responsibility for the housing bubble and its subsequent bursting, since he was a Fed governor and chief economic advisorin the Bush administration as policymakers allowed it to grow to ever more dangerous levels. The result has been a loss of more than $7.6 trillion in output to date ($25,000 per person) and an economy that is still down more than 8 million jobs six years after the beginning of the downturn. There were few people better positioned than Bernanke to try to stem the growth of the bubble, but he consistently insisted that it did not pose any problem to the economy.

Bernanke also made the decision to leave the financial industry intact at a time when the market would have sent Goldman Sachs, Citigroup and most of the other Wall Street giants into bankruptcy. He misled Congress to rush it into passage of the TARP and he gave hundreds of billions of dollars worth of loan subsidies and guarantees to keep Wall Street alive. As a result, the financial industry is more concentrated than ever.

Bernanke does deserve credit for his aggressive monetary policy in the face of harsh opposition from Republicans and some Democrats. It has boosted the economy, although other banks, notably the Bank of Japan, have been more aggressive. Anyhow, his monetary policy over the last four years certainly is a plus, but it doesn't qualify Bernanke as a "godsend" by the usual meaning of the word.

 
If Businesses Reduce Their Inventories in the First Quarter, the Economy Will Shrink Print
Thursday, 30 January 2014 21:16

Firms added inventories at a record $127.2 billion (in 2009 dollars) annual rate in the fourth quarter of 2014. This increase did not draw much attention because it was only $11.5 billion above the third quarter pace, adding 0.44 percentage points to GDP growth in the quarter. The extraordinary pace of inventory growth in the last two quarters means it is likely that inventory growth will slow in future quarters, which will be somewhat of a drag on growth.

However, it is worth noting that we are likely looking at a slower rate of inventory growth in future quarters, not actually a decrease in inventories as has been suggested in several reports. If inventories were to actually decline (which they almost never do outside of recessions) then it would be a huge drag on growth almost certainly pushing GDP in negative territory. Just to take a simple case, if inventories stayed flat in the first quarter, then the rate of inventory accumulation would have fallen by $127.2 billion, in a single quarter. This would translate into roughly a $508.8 billion annual rate of change (the quarterly rate multiplied by four). With GDP at roughly $16 trillion (in 2009 dollars), this would knock roughly 3.2 percentage points off the rate of growth in the quarter.

Since the underlying rate of growth is almost certainly less than 3.0 percent at the moment, the flatlining of inventories would push growth into negative territory. Even a modest fall in inventories would virtually guarantee a substantial drop in GDP in the first quarter.

 
Mobility and Inequality: More on Non-New Findings Print
Thursday, 30 January 2014 06:08

Robert Samuelson is happy to tell us that contrary to what he hoped some of us believed, there was not much change in mobility for children entering the labor force between the first President Bush and second President Bush's administrations. Samuelson misrepresents the study to imply that it finds that there has been no change in mobility over the post-war period.

"By the conventional wisdom, American society is becoming more rigid. People’s place on the economic ladder (“relative mobility”) is increasingly fixed.

"Untrue, concludes the NBER study."

Samuelson then notes the study's finding that there has been little change in mobility for workers entering the labor market in 2007 compared to 1990. The study then refers to earlier work finding no change in mobility prior to 1990. This study did not itself examine the period prior to 1990.

This is important since that is the period in which we might have expected growing inequality to have a notable impact on mobility. There was some divergence between quintiles of income distribution in the 1980s. In the years since 1980, there has not been much divergence between the bottom half of the top quintile and the rest of the income distribution. Most of the inequality was associated with the pulling away of the one percent from everyone else. This study made no effort to examine mobility into the one percent.

As far as mobility in the years prior to the 1990, contrary to the claim of this study, the research is far from conclusive. For example, an assessment published by the Cleveland Fed concluded:

"After staying relatively stable for several decades, intergenerational mobility appears to have declined sharply at some point between 1980 and 1990, a period in which both income inequality and the economic returns to education rose sharply. This finding is also consistent with theoretical models of intergenerational mobility that emphasize the role of human capital formation. There is fairly consistent evidence that intergenerational mobility has stayed roughly constant since 1990 but remains below the rates of mobility experienced from 1950 to 1980."

While it would be wrong to take this statement as conclusive, it is also wrong to take the assessment of the study cited by Samuelson as conclusive and it is a gross misrepresentation to imply that this study examined patterns in mobility over the whole post-war period. It did not even try to examine changes in mobility over the 1980s, the period when patterns in inequality would have most likely led to a decline in mobility. 

 

Note: Link fixed, thanks Dennis.

 
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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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