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Robert Samuelson Isn't Satisfied that China Agreed to Cap Its Per Capita Emissions at Less than Half U.S. Level Print
Sunday, 23 November 2014 21:34

That's essentially what he said in his column today dismissing the importance of China's agreement to target peak emissions at 2030 levels. The refusal of China to agree to emissions limits has often been cited as a reason why the United States should not bother trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Now Samuelson apparently feels that an agreement to restrict at a peak that is less than half of U.S. peaks is not a significant concession. (The obvious logic in this sitiation is that the United States would pay poor countries not to emit greenhouse gases, but apparently politicians and Washington Post columnists can't say that.)

It is striking that Samuelson, who routinely insists that Social Security and Medicare should be cut to help future generations, is apparently unconcerned about the state of the planet that we will pass unto them. Apparently in Samuelson's view, it would be fine if we passed along a devastated planet where hundreds of millions of people may be dying from the effects of global warming, as long as we don't raise their payroll taxes.

Falling Interest Rates and Rising Stock Prices Can be Related Print
Saturday, 22 November 2014 09:31

Neil Irwin has an interesting piece noting the worldwide fall in commodity prices and interest rates has been accompanied by a rising stock market in the United States. While the piece approaches the issue from the standpoint that these movements present a seeming contradiction, that is not necessarily the case.

Falling commodity prices and interest rates can be the result of economic weakness, which is undoubtedly in part the case now. Other things equal, a weaker economy will mean lower future profits and thereby imply lower profits. However there are two countervailing factors. If economies in the U.S. and elsewhere strengthen, this would lead to tighter labor markets, that could lead to higher wages and therefore some reversal of the shift from wages to profits that we have seen since the downturn began.

The other point is that lower interest rates should be expected to be associated with higher stock prices, other things equal. The return on bonds and other interest bearing assets is the opportunity cost of holding stock. If this opportunity cost is lower, then people should be willing to pay more for the same share of stock. In this respect it is worth noting that stock markets have risen throughout the world, not just the United States. That would support the view that lower interest rates might be one of the main factors that are pushing stock markets higher.

The Congressional Budget Office Has Consistently Over-Estimated the Cost of Obamacare Print
Saturday, 22 November 2014 09:12

A Washington Post editorial argued that the Republicans would be best-served by re-appointing Doug Elmendorf as the director of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) rather than picking someone who is a conservative ideologue. The basis for this argument is that Elmendorf, in the Post's view, "has a well-earned reputation for refusing to tell policymakers what they want to hear."

Ironically, in the example given in the editorial Elmendorf told the Republicans exactly what they wanted to hear:

"In 2009, for example, he publicly declared that an early draft of Obamacare would increase, not decrease, health-care costs, thus forcing the president and his congressional allies back to the drawing board."

Of course the Republicans wanted to hear that Obamacare would be an expensive program. It also turns out that Elmendorf was wrong. CBO has had to continually revise down its estimates of the cost of Obamacare.

It is interesting that the Post would highlight as evidence of Elmendorf's impartiality a case where he told the Republicans what they wanted to hear and was wrong to do so.

NYT Abandons Distinction Between News and Editorial Page to Push Trade Deal Print
Friday, 21 November 2014 23:51

Some people at the New York Times apparently feels so strongly about pushing the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Pact (TTIP) that it is prepared to abandon the longstanding separation between the news and editorial pages. A news article reporting on a statement from the new European trade commissioner on her commitment to achieving a deal with the United States described the deal as:

"a pact aimed at lowering tariffs and reducing regulatory barriers to encourage job creation and economic growth in Europe and the United States."

Really? Who decided that encouraging job creation and encouraging economic growth is the purpose of the TTIP? Yes, the politicians pushing the TTIP say that it is about job creation and economic growth, but perhaps we should let the NYT reporters and editors in on a little secret: politicians are not always truthful.

In fact, since the trade barriers are already very low between the U.S. and Europe, the economic impact of reducing them further will be trivial. On the other hand the deal will likely increase trade barriers in the form of stronger patent and copyright protection. Yes, that last word was "protection," as in the opposite of free trade, as in increased barriers and higher prices. Economic theory tells us that this will generally lead to slower growth and fewer jobs.

If the NYT were acting like a newspaper it could have described the TTIP as:

"a pact aimed at increasing the profits of the pharmaceutical industry, the entertainment industry and other powerful lobbies."

But that statement probably would not help the cause of getting the deal approved.

Charles Krauthammer Thinks that Colombia and Togo Should Be Able to Emit as Much Greenhouse Gases as the United States Print
Friday, 21 November 2014 08:00

That's the only conclusion that can be drawn from his column denouncing President Obama's agreement with China on restricted emissions as a "swindle." Krauthammer is upset that China would be allowed to continue increasing emissions until 2030, whereas the United States is expected to hasten its pace of emission reductions beginning immediately.

It is only possible to see this arrangement as being somehow unfair to the United States if we ignore how much each country is emitting per person. By this measure, China will never come close to current U.S. levels. And, since the problem is one of historical emissions (the carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for centuries), if China follows the path agreed to last week, it will never be responsible for anywhere near as much harm to the environment on a per person basis as the United States.

Since these facts are pretty straightforward, Krauthammer must somehow not view per person emissions as being relevant and instead think that allowable emissions per country should be independent of their population. If that is the case, then Krauthammer's sense of fairness would allow smaller countries throughout the world to emit as much greenhouse gas as the United States. In that scenario it would of course be a waste for the United States to spend any money reducing emissions, as Krauthammer argues.

Final Demand in Japan Grew at a 0.8 Percent Annual Rate in Japan in Third Quarter Print
Friday, 21 November 2014 05:56

The NYT used the reported drop in third quarter GDP as the basis for pronouncing the death of Abenomics in Japan with a piece headlined "with bad economic news for Japan, Abe's magic seems to evaporate." A closer examination of the data indicate that Abe's program may not be dead yet.

While GDP did fall at a 1.6 percent annual rate in the third quarter, following a much steeper drop in the second quarter, the decline was entirely driven by a sharp falloff in the pace on inventory accumulation. According to the OECD, inventories contributed 2.4 percentage points to the decline in growth, implying that final demand grew at a 0.8 percent annual rate in the quarter. (I have crudely annualized quarterly rates by multiplying by four. Due to rounding, these numbers will not be exact.) 

Inventory changes are extremely erratic. They added 4.8 percentage points to growth in the second quarter, after subtracting 2.0 percentage points in the first quarter. It is virtually certain that they will be a strong positive factor in the fourth quarter growth figure. (The drop in GDP is attributable to a sharp increase in consumption taxes in April. The resulting contraction in GDP has led Abe to postpone another increase scheduled for next April.)

It is worth noting that Abenomics has been an extraordinary success in promoting employment, with the employment to population ratio rising by two full percentage points since Abe took office in 2012. This would be the equivalent of 5 million jobs in the United States. The 3.0 percentage increase in the employment rate of women had been especially impressive. The employment to population ratio for women in Japan is now higher than in the United States.

Public Schools and Logic 101 for George Will Print
Thursday, 20 November 2014 08:33

George Will apparently has a hard time understanding why private schools that receive public school vouchers should have to meet the same requirements as public schools, specifically the requirement that they serve children with disabilities. He calls the requirement "bullying," and its application to private schools "tortured logic."

The story is actually a very simple one. Public schools have an obligation to provide an education for our children. That means all of our children, including those with disabilities. The argument made by advocates of vouchers is that the private schools can accomplish this task better. This is of course an arguable point, but the mission at hand is not arguable.

If the advocates of vouchers are saying that private schools can better educate children than public schools if they can dump the expense of educating children with disabilities on the public schools then whoop de doo! The private schools receiving the vouchers are supposed to be providing the same service as the public schools. If they are not open to the same group of students as the public schools, and have explicitly excluded those who are more expensive to educate, then they are not providing the same service. In that case, why should they get the voucher?

It's really pretty simple, if you're not George Will.

Quick, Some Meaningless Budget Numbers from the NYT Print
Wednesday, 19 November 2014 08:12

Okay folks, how big a deal is $608 billion over the next ten years to the federal government? Yeah, that comes to 1.3 percent of the $48.5 trillion that we were projected to spend over this period. You all knew that, right?

Yes, the NYT is again doing the meaningless budget numbers routine, telling us that plans by House Republicans to extend a set of tax breaks over the next decade would cost $608 billion in lost revenue. A Senate plan to cover 2015 and 2014 would cost $84.1 billion (roughly 2.4 percent of spending). Of course none of its readers has any idea of the significance of these numbers, and they know it. But hey, who ever said news reporting has anything to do with informing the public?

As Jonathan Gruber says, the public is stupid.

Tufts Economist Documents Inefficiency of Patent System for Financing Drug Research Print
Wednesday, 19 November 2014 05:54

Joe DiMasi, a professor at Tufts University, presented the findings of a study updating his prior work on the cost of developing new drugs. He reported that the study estimated the average cost at $2.6 billion. It is worth noting that this figure only applies to a small fraction of drugs. DiMasi looked at drugs based on new chemical entities, which are less then 20 percent of all new drug approvals. He also is looking at drugs for which the drug companies paid for all the research (as opposed to the National Institutes of Health [NIH] or other funders), which further reduces the size of the group of drugs in question.

The $2.6 billion figure is a dramatic increase from DiMasi's last estimate of $802 million in 2001. (Both numbers are in current dollars -- the 2001 number would be roughly $1,040 million in 2014 dollars.) While many people raised questions about DiMasi's methodology, it's worth stepping back for a moment and asking about the implications of Dimasi's number. (The study itself is not yet available, he only released slides yesterday. It is worth noting that this study, like earlier versions, relies on funding and proprietary data provided by the pharmaceutical industry.)

While this study is almost certainly going to be used to justify charging high drug prices, rapid increases in costs is exactly what we would expect to see in a protected industry. When an industry is shielded from normal market competition, as the drug industry is with patent monopolies, it doesn't have the same incentive to minimize costs as other industries. As an analogy, consider the cost of military contractors working on cost-plus contracts. These contractors have no incentive to limit salaries and reduce waste, since higher costs mean higher profit.

It is likely that we are seeing a similar story in the pharmaceutical industry. While DiMasi's numbers may well be gross exaggerations of the true cost to the industry, it would not be surprising if drug companies that can charge $84,000 for a drug like Sovaldi, when the generic version would sell for less than $1,000, waste vast amounts of resources (for example, on financing studies showing that it is expensive to develop drugs). Of course they are able to charge $84,000 because the government will arrest anyone who produces the drug without the patent holder's permission.

So DiMasi's big numbers can really be seen as an indictment of the drug industry rather than an argument for higher drug prices. The bigger the number he comes up with, the better the argument for considering alternatives to patent supported research. If the money for research was paid up upfront, through mechanisms like NIH funding, then we would have the advantage that all research findings would be fully open so that other researchers, physicians, and the general public would have access. We also would be able to have all drugs available at generic prices, so we wouldn't have absurd moral dilemmas about whether we should pay $84,000 to treat every person suffering from Hepatitis C. And we wouldn't be giving drug companies enormous incentives to mislead the public about the safety and effectiveness of their drugs.

But of course this would require that we can consider alternatives to the patent system for developing drugs and that would require some new thinking from our policy wonks and the media. And that may be a serious long shot given the group of people we are talking about.

Is Saudi Arabia Raising Production to "Gain Market Share" or Punish U.S. Enemies? Print
Tuesday, 18 November 2014 14:46

That is a serious question. I ask in reaction to the assertion that increased U.S. domestic oil production sparked "a battle among OPEC members and other big producers for market share, leading to a crash in world prices." This was a prediction from Michael Levi, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. It was cited in a Slate piece by Jordan Weissman which argues that folks like me were wrong to be dismissive about the impact of U.S. production on world oil prices.

I am not saying that Weissman is wrong in his assessment of Saudi Arabia's motives in increasing production, just that he is not obviously right. If the argument is that lower prices today will permanently displace domestic production, that doesn't seem to make any sense. If increased demand pushes prices back above $100 a barrel in a year or two, what would keep domestic producers in the U.S. from coming back on line? if the answer is nothing (that seems the case to me), then how is Saudi Arabia gaining anything by increasing production and pushing down prices today.

As an alternative hypothesis, if the United States wanted to punish Russia and Venezuela, two countries with whom the Obama administration has issues, it would be difficult to think of a better mechanism than driving down the price of oil. Could the United States persuade Saudi Arabia to increase production to advance its foreign policy agenda? My guess is yes, but I will leave it to others to decide between these competing hypothesis.

One point that is not arguable is that the drop in world demand has actually had more impact in creating the current oil glut than increases in domestic supply. Current demand is 5.8 million barrels a day less than what was projected in 2007. This is twice the increase in domestic production over this period. That means the recession combined with conservation efforts deserve more credit for the oil glut than increased domestic production.

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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.