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The Post Carries Protectionism to a New Level Print
Sunday, 12 February 2012 08:48

The Washington Post is widely known as a hotbed of Neanderthal protectionism, strongly supporting measures that shield highly educated professionals from international competition. This has the effect of redistributing income from autoworkers, textile workers and other people who have been subjected to international competition by deliberate policy to the highly educated workers who enjoy protection.

It carried its protectionist agenda a step further in a lengthy front page business section piece that told readers that:

"It is no exaggeration to say that the success of the health-care law rests on young doctors choosing to do something that is not in their economic self-interest."

This view is also pounded home in the headline to the print version of the article:

"The health-care overhaul depends on primary-care doctors. They work more and earn less. Who'd sign up for that?"

Remarkably the piece never once mentions the possibility of filling any potential shortage of primary care physicians with an increased number of foreign doctors. The article reports that the median compensation for primary care physicians is $208,700 a year.

There is no shortage of smart people in countries like China, India, Mexico and elsewhere who would be happy to train to U.S. standards, become completely fluent in English and work for half of this wage. The gap in wages between the United States and these countries is so large that doctors from these countries would be far ahead of what they could earn in their home countries even if they only made $100,000 a year.

It is also simple to design systems that would repatriate a portion of the earnings of immigrant doctors to their home countries so that they can train 2-3 doctors for each one that came to the United States. This could ensure that the countries sending doctors to the United States also saw improvements to their health care systems.

Unfortunately the Washington Post, like most of the political elite, is so committed to its protectionist agenda that it does not want such possibilities to even be discussed. 

NYT on Future of Government Safety Net, Misses Growth and Health Care Stories Print
Sunday, 12 February 2012 08:20

The NYT had a thoughtful piece on the public's greater reliance on Social Security, Medicare and other benefits. While the piece provides many useful insights into the increasing importance of these programs in people's lives and their attitudes toward them, it does miss a few key points.

First, it implies that the growth of government programs, rather than the economic downturn are the main factor behind the current deficit:

"Politicians have expanded the safety net without a commensurate increase in revenues, a primary reason for the government’s annual deficits and mushrooming debt."

In fact, the country would be facing very small deficits at present had it not been for the recession. Part of the rise in the deficit in the last four years has been due to the expansion of unemployment benefits, food stamps and other government programs, but this was a response to the recession, not a sudden urge on the part of politicians to increase the generosity and scope of these programs.

A second point that deserved more emphasis is the extent to which the projected budget problems in future years are the result of a broken health care system. The United States already spends more than twice as much per person for its health care as do people in other wealthy countries with little obvious benefit in outcomes. This gap is projected to grow rapidly in the decades ahead. If U.S. health care costs were in line with costs in other countries then the country would be looking at long-term surpluses, not deficits.

A third factor that provides an important backdrop to this discussion is the path of wage growth. The people interviewed for this piece expressed concern for their children and grandchildren's living standards based on the possibility that they would face higher taxes. However, the extent to which taxes impose a burden depends hugely on workers' before-tax income.

If workers get their share of projected productivity growth, then real wages will rise by roughly 1.3 percent a year, even assuming a higher portion of compensation going to pay health care benefits. This growth rate implies that wages will be nearly 40 percent higher after 25 years, roughly a generation. This would mean that if most workers got their share of productivity gains, then after-tax wages would be far higher for the next generation than for current workers even if the tax rate they paid increased substantially. 

This brings home the point that the real problem faced by the people interviewed for this piece and elsewhere in the country is that they have not been sharing in the gains of economic growth. If the current policies that enforce this pattern of income distribution persist, then workers in the future will find their taxes to be a serious burden, however the core problem is the set of polices (e.g. trade, Fed policy, patent policy etc.) that lead to an upward redistribution of income, not taxes.

Patents are Not Free Trade, #24,567 Print
Saturday, 11 February 2012 09:37

The Washington Post has an interesting piece about opposition to a trade pact between the European Union and India which could limit the ability of India to supply generic medicines for treating AIDS and other diseases. The article repeatedly refers to the agreement as a "free-trade" pact.

This is 180 degrees wrong. Patent protection is the opposite of free trade. It is a government-granted monopoly. Patent protection is a government policy for supporting innovation. Just as trade protection in other areas is a form of industrial policy.

Patent protection leads to the same sort of distortions as economists criticize from other types of protection except the magnitudes are much larger with patent protection. In the case of prescription drugs, it often raises prices by many thousand percent above the free market price. Most tariffs only raise the price of products by 20-30 percent. There are arguably more efficient mechanisms for supporting research on prescription drugs.

Trade Deficits and National Income Accounting for Deficit Hawks Print
Saturday, 11 February 2012 09:12

The trade deficit jumped by $1.8 billion in December, putting the monthly deficit more than $8 billion above its year ago level. This item got almost no attention from the business press. If there were articles on the rise in the WSJ and NYT, I couldn't find them. The Post did have a somewhat respectable piece, which ran in the business digest in the print edition.

It is remarkable how little attention is given to the trade deficit by people who routinely get nearly hysterical about the budget deficit. Just to remind folks of the basic accounting identity:

                               X-M = (S-I)+ (T-G)

This means that the trade surplus is equal to the sum of the excess of private saving over private investment (S-I) and the government surplus (T-G). Or, to take the reverse, when we have an annual trade deficit of $600 billion, as is the case now, the sum of private and public savings must be -$600 billion. This is an accounting identity, there is no way around this.

That leaves two choices. We can have large negative savings on the private side, as we did in the peak years of the housing bubble when there was a bubble driven boom in construction and the saving rate fell to zero due to a housing wealth driven surge in consumption. Alternatively, we can have large government deficits.

That is it; that is the full range of choices. This means that if the deficit hawks are upset about our large budget deficit, then they should be very concerned about the growth in the trade deficit. We should have front page stories, hysterical columns and editorials, and enraged pundits denouncing irresponsible politicians for allowing the trade deficit to explode. (Meet the over-valued dollar as the leading villain the story.)

But, we don't see this. Even people who are trying to find out about the economy by taking the time to read the major newspapers carefully will not get the fundamentals about the economy. That is sad.

BusinessWeek Tries to Inject Humor Into the Stimulus Debates Print
Friday, 10 February 2012 18:57

BusinessWeek decided to take a shot at Paul Krugman. Okay Krugman, like everyone else in public debate, is fair game. But if they can find a reporter who knows a little economics they might better serve their readers by constructing a little scorecard.

Krugman (along with a few other Keynesian types out here) has staked out very clear positions on a number of key economic issues such as the size of the stimulus, the impact of deficits on interest rates, and the impact of quantitative easing on inflation. Maybe Businessweek can tell its readers whether the Keynesians have been right or whether the fresh water types carried the day.

Then, if they really want to be cruel, they can ask who warned about the housing bubble before it actually sank the economy.

USA Today and Marketing Scams on Household Income Measure Print
Friday, 10 February 2012 11:08

Short-term measures of real family income are driven primarily by sampling error and erratic movements in the consumer price index. The latter is mostly due to fluctuations in energy prices.

This is the reason that most economists, unlike USA Today, would not take seriously a report showing a large gain in median family income in the last four months of 2011. The main reason for the sharp rise in income shown in this report is likely the sharp drop in the consumer price index over this period.

It is more useful to report these data over longer periods of time so that random fluctuations play less of a role. Given the vast amount of material that is available for free on the web, it is especially difficult to understand why USA Today would place so much emphasis on a newly produced report that is being sold for $20 each.

People Do Have Ideas on Reducing Inequality of Income/Education, They Just Don't Get Mentioned in the New York Times Print
Friday, 10 February 2012 05:48

The NYT had an interesting article reporting on new research showing a sharply growing gap in educational outcomes based on the income of children's parents. While the racial gap has fallen sharply, this income gap has exploded.

The discussion of this research was quite valuable, however the second part of the article was devoted to telling readers that nothing can be done. For example, article concluded by presenting the views of Douglas Besharov, a fellow at the Atlantic Council who was formerly at the American Enterprise Institute:

"The problem is a puzzle, he said. 'No one has the slightest idea what will work. The cupboard is bare.'"

Of course there are all sorts of ideas on measures that would reduce income inequality, which would presumably also reduce the large gap in educational outcomes. For example, if doctors and lawyers were not largely protected from international competition they would no longer have the sort of incomes that would allow them to hire tutors and give other advantages to their children compared with the children of ordinary workers.

The Housing Market is Recovering from a Bubble, It Is Not In a Slump Print
Friday, 10 February 2012 05:30

The Washington Post still seems to not have seen the housing bubble. A front page article refers to a housing "slump" and discusses the possibility that the states' settlement on foreclosure practices will heal the housing market.

These sorts of comments imply that it is plausible that the housing market will somehow bounce back to its bubble levels of prices and construction. It isn't.

The bubble led to house prices in many parts of the country that were completely out of line with the fundamentals of the housing market, just as was the case with stock prices at the peak of the stock bubble in 2000. It also led to enormous overbuilding of housing.

There is no reason to expect house prices to bounce back at all, as house prices nationwide are just now returning to trend levels. Housing construction will pick up gradually as the oversupply from the bubble era is gradually reduced through population growth, but there is no plausible story where we will see some sort of boom in housing construction at a time when vacancy rates remain near record highs.

Confidence Lags the Economy, It Doesn't Predict It Print
Thursday, 09 February 2012 22:50

A NYT Economix blognote told readers that confidence about the economy is up and that this should be reinforcing leading to a stronger economy, as firms invest more and consumers spend more. The chart accompanying the note shows the opposite.

The recent levels of the Gallup Economic Confidence Index are getting back or slightly exceeding the peaks hit at the end of 2010, just before the economy nearly ground to a halt, growing just 0.3 percent in the first quarter of 2011. After 6 months of very slow growth, the confidence measure cratered. It has been rising again following the stronger growth of the last two quarters.

In short, this confidence measure looks like a very good lagging indicator, one that tells us where the economy was.

A Competent Federal Reserve Board Would Help the White Working Class Print
Thursday, 09 February 2012 05:35

So would trade policy that was not designed to lower their living standards. Nicholas Kristof devoted his column to the worsening plight of white workers without college degrees over the last three decades. He notes that the share of prime age workers with only a high school degree who have dropped out of the labor force has quadrupled since 1968.

This can be explained in part by the Federal Reserve Board to pursue policies that promoted full employment. When the economy did achieve low rates of unemployment, as was the case in the late 90s, workers at all education levels were being pulled into the labor force. There were strong wage gains at all points along the income distribution. If the Fed was actually doings its job and promoting full employment, instead of ignoring asset bubbles, like the stock and housing bubbles, the late 90s would be the norm rather than the exception.

Trade policy has also worked to weaken the economic situation of these workers since it has been designed to put them in direct competition with low-paid workers in Mexico, China and other developing countries. By contrast, the protectionist barriers that make it difficult for lawyers, doctors and other highly educated professionals from these countries from competing with our professionals have generally been left in place. The theoretical and actual result of such policies is a redistribution from less educated workers to more educated workers. 


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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.