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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.

The Soft Bigotry of Incredibly Low Expectations Print
Tuesday, 18 November 2014 08:02

A front page Washington Post article touted the health of the U.S. economy, noting its 3.0 percent annual growth rate. While there are reasons for questioning whether even this growth rate will be sustained (October retail sales were weak, as was manufacturing output in both September and October), 3.0 percent growth is not especially strong given how far the economy is below its potential.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, the economy is still nearly 4.0 percent below potential GDP. With potential GDP growing at roughly a 2.2 percent annual rate, it would take us until 2019 to return to potential GDP if the growth rate remains at 3.0 percent. This would make it nearly 12 years since the beginning of the downturn, a longer period of under-utilization than even during the Great Depression. 

It is also worth noting that Japan has not been quite the economic basket case implied in this piece. Its employment to population (EPOP) ratio increased by 2.2 percentage points since 2012. By comparison, the EPOP in the United States increased by just 1.1 percentage point over the same period.


NPR Discusses Doctor Shortage and Never Once Mentions Wages Print
Tuesday, 18 November 2014 05:55

I have to thank NPR for proving my point about physicians being a protected profession. You see, doctors are poor little boys and girls -- must be shielded from the free market, unlike auto workers, dishwashers, and domestic care workers. How else can we explain a Morning Edition segment on the possibility of a doctor shortage that never once discussed their wages?

For the record, the average pay of doctors in the United States is roughly twice as high as the average for other wealthy countries. (Yes, they have high student loan debt. Their average debt load would be equivalent to roughly $20,000 for a typical worker.) This might be taken as prima facie evidence of doctor shortage. If there were more doctors it would presumably drive down their wages, making health care more affordable for the rest of us. (Why does everyone know that higher pay for workers in fast food restaurants means higher hamburger prices, but somehow the idea that higher pay for doctors raises health care costs seems bizarre?)

The piece in effect implies that the market relations don't apply to physicians. In discussing the idea of training more doctors as a precaution, it tells listeners:


"But letting more people train to be doctors 'just in case' strikes Wilensky [Gail Wilensky, a health economist]  and many other health economists as wasteful.

'Are you really serious?' Wilensky asks. 'You're talking about somebody who is potentially 12 to 15 years post high school — to invest in a skill set that we're not sure we're going to need?'"


Of course if we had more doctors their training would be used, they would just get paid less to use it. So what, no one forced them to become doctors? (If the market doesn't apply to doctors, then why don't we just cut their pay in half tomorrow and save everyone $90 billion a year? That is equal to more than half of a percentage point of GDP or 45 times the amount of improper disability payments over the last seven years that AP chose to highlight in a piece last weekend.)

Incredibly, the issue of immigration never once got mentioned in this piece. Given that immigration is front and center in the news right now and it is obviously cheaper to train doctors in other countries than in the United States, it would have been reasonable to expect that the issue would be raised. But apparently doctors are not yet ready to be exposed to the harsh winds of globalization.

Can we get another piece from David Leonhardt and the Washington Post on the mystery of stagnating middle class wages? (Yes doctors are at the high end, many are in the one percent and virtually all are in the top two percent of the income distribution.)

David Brooks and the Economics of Keystone Pipeline Print
Tuesday, 18 November 2014 05:36

David Brooks is unhappy that President Obama won't support the Keystone Pipeline. Maybe he would happier if he got the economics right. Brooks tells readers:

"Keystone XL has been studied to the point of exhaustion, and the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that it’s a modest-but-good idea. The latest State Department study found that it would not significantly worsen the environment. The oil’s going to come out anyway, and it’s greener to transport it by pipeline than by train. The economic impact isn’t huge, but at least there’d be a $5.3 billion infrastructure project."

I think there may be a problem of reading comprehension here. The studies all show that the pipeline would make it cheaper to get a very dirty type of oil (Canadian tar sands) to the market. There are issues associated with the risk of a spill, but more importantly, the pipeline will increase the amount of the oil that is burned thereby spewing more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and worsening global warming.

The assertion that "the oil's going to come out anywhere," is what economists refer to as "wrong." The pipeline would make the tar sands oil cheaper to bring to market, which would mean that more of it would be used. Not building the pipeline is equivalent to imposing a tax on tar sands oil. This is exactly what most economists, including Republican ones like Greg Mankiw (this is a piece touting bipartisan approaches), would advocate.

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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.