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Tax Breaks Are Heavily Tilted Toward High Income Taxpayers Print
Sunday, 18 September 2011 14:34

The Post had a front page column reporting on the cost of tax breaks. The piece likely gave many readers a misleading picture of the main beneficiaries of these tax cuts when it told readers that:

"the bulk went to private households, primarily upper-middle-class families that Obama has vowed to protect from new taxes.'The big money is in the middle-class subsidies,' said Syracuse University economist Leonard Burman, former director of the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center."

In fact, by far the largest beneficiaries of these tax cuts are upper income individuals as the chart accompanying the piece shows. For example, tax breaks amount to average of $82,400 for families with income between $500,000 and $1,000,000. Close to 70 percent of the mortgage interest deduction goes to families with incomes above $100,000 a year.

These tax breaks tend to be worth less to more moderate income families since in most cases they do not amount to much more than the standard deduction. That means that most families near the median income (@$60,000) see little benefit from these tax breaks.

Can We Talk About Drug Patents Please? Print
Sunday, 18 September 2011 13:49

The Washington Post ran a fascinating article (researched by ProPublica). The article examined 15 instances in which pharmaceutical or medical supply companies reached settlements in connection with kickback schemes where they paid doctors to use their drugs or medical equipment. The study found that none of the 75 doctors paid any fine or suffered any professional sanction.

While this is an amazing situation, since it implies that these doctors suffered no consequence even after being caught in actions that could have endangered the health and the life of their patients, it is even more remarkable that patent protection, the underlying cause of the problem, was never mentioned. Government granted patent monopolies allow drug companies to charge prices that several hundred or even several thousand percent above the free market price.

In a free market, most drugs would be sold at just $5-$8 per prescription, as is the case with hundreds of generic drugs. However, patent monopolies allow drug companies to sell these drugs for hundreds or even thousands of dollars per prescription. This enormous gap between the patent monopoly price and free market price is the basis for the kickbacks. In the absence of patent protection, the profit margins would not be sufficient to allow drug or medical supply companies to pay kickbacks.

The failure to mention the underlying economics of these kickbacks would be like reporting on payoffs of key money to prospective landlords as a way of evading rent controls, without ever mentioning that apartments are subject to rent control. Key money would not make sense in a housing market with no rent restrictions, just as kickbacks to doctors would not make sense in a pharmaceutical market without patent protection.

The Less Than Prophetic Martin Feldstein Print
Sunday, 18 September 2011 13:40

The Washington Post business section ran a piece today titled, "a fiscal prophet shapes debt debate." The prophet being referred to in the headline is Harvard economics professor Martin Feldstein, who served at one time as President Reagan's chief economist.

Some of us know Mr. Feldstein for some less than prophetic work. For example, in the spring of 1993, when Congress was debating the Clinton tax increase, he wrote a column in the Wall Street Journal that claimed the Clinton tax increases will raise little, if any, revenue. His argument was that the disincentive of the higher tax rates would more than offset the impact of the higher rates themselves.

Feldstein also gained notoriety early in his career for publishing an article that purported to show the Social Security reduced private savings. It turned out that his results were driven by a computer programming error. When the error was corrected his results were statistically insignificant.

He updated this study in 1995 and claimed that with the additional years of data, his original results were now shown to be correct. However, it turned out that once the Commerce Department revised the savings data, his results were again insignificant.

George Will Comes Out for Stimulus, At Least When It Is Military Spending Print
Sunday, 18 September 2011 09:59

George Will has been a harsh critic of President Obama's stimulus package, claiming that it did little to boost the economy and create jobs. He would rather see him reduce the deficit. However in today's column he firmly expresses the view that government spending does create jobs, at least when it is tied to the military.

In this piece he warns readers that:

"The 1.5 million active-duty members of the armed services and 700,000 civilian employees of the Defense Department depend on an industrial base of more than 3.8 million persons. According to the Pentagon, a sequester would substantially shrink those three numbers, perhaps adding a point to the nation’s unemployment rate."

So here we have Will clearly asserting that cuts in government spending will add to the unemployment rate. It is hard to reconcile this view with his past criticisms of the stimulus and calls for deficit reduction.

He must hold some magical view that if we spend money on something related to the military that it creates jobs, but otherwise it has no effect on employment. Perhaps if President Obama had labeled all the items in his stimulus package "defense" (e.g. "the defense green jobs program" or the "defense emergency assistance to state governments") Will would have supported it.


The NYT Fails to Tell Readers About UK Inflation Print
Saturday, 17 September 2011 22:30

The NYT has an interesting piece discussing Adam Posen, a U.S. citizen who sits on the Bank of England's monetary policy committee. It reports Posen's view that the Bank of England and other central banks should take aggressive actions to boost the money supply in order to support growth. It contrasts this view with the concerns of inflation raised by others, noting that inflation in the U.K. has been 4.5 percent over the last 12 months.

The piece then presents Posen's assertion that inflation will come down, which is met by the skepticism of his critics. It would been helpful to tell readers that inflation already has come down. It was 0.0 percent in July, -0.1 percent in June, and 0.2 percent in May. This means that over the last three months inflation has been increasing at just a 1.0 percent annual rate. This piece of information would have been helpful to readers.

If Frank Bruni Knew Arithmetic He Wouldn't Write Columns Like This One Print
Saturday, 17 September 2011 22:04

Frank Bruni, one of the NYT's new columnists, ran a column today complaining about government corruption in Italy and the impact that an aging population in both Italy and the U.S. will have on reducing the living standards of our kids. This is one of those columns which could have been so easily prevented if the NYT just required a remedial 3rd grade arithmetic course for columnists that intend to write on economic issues.

For example, Bruni complains that seniors and older workers want to protect Social Security and Medicare. If he looked at the Congressional Budget Office's projections for Social Security he would see that they show a 1.6 percentage point increase in the payroll tax would leave the program fully solvent throughout its 75-year planning period.

By comparison, workers' wages are projected to rise by almost 40 percent over the next three decades. This means that the program can be kept fully solvent with a tax increase that is less than 5 percent of projected wage growth over the next three decades. This will impoverish our kids?

Of course most workers have not shared in the wage growth over the last three decades. The vast majority of wage growth has gone to those in the top 10 percent of the wage distribution. However this raises questions about  government policies that redistribute income upward, like trade policy, Federal Reserve Board policy, and patent policy. However, none of these villains appear in Bruni's column, he just wants to take Social Security checks, which average less than $1,200 a month, from current and future retirees.

The same story applies to Medicare. The problem is not that Medicare beneficiaries are getting such great care. The problem is that we pay way too much to pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, and doctors. If we paid the same amount per person for our health care as people in other wealthy countries then we would not have to increase payments to Medicare for many decades into the future. But again, Bruni's target is the seniors getting Medicare, not the powerful interests driving up costs. 

We find the same logic in Bruni's diatribes against Italy. He complains about the excessive pay and perks of the Italy parliament. While he may well have a case, if we take his numbers at face value, the 1000 member parliament costs Italy around $200 million a year. By comparison, Robert Rubin personally pocketed close to $120 million sitting near the helm at Citigroup, as the company was being driven into the ground and taking the economy down with it.

There is no excuse for public officials ripping off the people they are supposed to represent. But it is striking that they feature so prominently in Bruni's piece, while the barons of finance, who make the corruption of public officials look like chump change, are nowhere to be found.

Finally, Bruni somehow thinks that young Italians will be hurt by the country's low birth rate. In fact, this is likely to help future generations of Italians since it means that there will be shortages of workers. That will allow them to command higher wages. There are also many benefits of a smaller population that will not be picked up in official statistics. For example, public facilities like parks and beaches will be less crowded, as will transportation facilities. Also, it will be much easier to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants with a smaller population.

NYT: Germany's Unemployment Rate is 7.0 Percent or 6.2 Percent Print
Saturday, 17 September 2011 07:31

In the NYT, Germany's unemployment rate seems to vary depending on which article you read. We can look at the chart accompanying a piece on Geithner lecturing the European Union on how to deal with debt and see that the German unemployment rate is 6.2 percent. Or we can read in a piece discussing Berlin's economic and social prospects that the city's 13.3 percent unemployment rate is far above the national average of 7.0 percent.

The 6.2 percent number in the chart is right. This is the OECD's harmonized unemployment rate. It uses essentially the same methodology as the United States government, which makes it a meaningful figure for NYT readers.

The 7.0 percent rate is the official German government rate. The German government methodology counts many part-time workers as being unemployed. This number does not provide an apples-to-apples basis for comparisons with the U.S. unemployment rate. Therefore it should not appear in a news story in the U.S. media. 

How Did the NYT Determine that the President Can't Do Much About the Economy? Print
Friday, 16 September 2011 22:14

In an article reporting the results of a new public opinion about President Obama and Congress, the NYT told readers:

"Two-thirds of the public say Mr. Obama has not made progress in fixing the economy, even though a majority of people concede the condition of the national economy is not something a president can do a lot about."

The public can only "concede" that the president cannot do much about the economy if it is in fact true that the president cannot do much about the economy. Of course the mainstream of the economics profession would argue the opposite. For example, through Keynesian stimulus, it is possible to boost growth and create jobs. Alternatively, the decision to make budget cutbacks in a downturn adds to unemployment and slows growth.

By using the term "concede," the NYT is implying that this view is wrong. It would be interesting to know how it made this determination.

Alternatively, the paper could have simply told readers what its poll findings actually show: most people do not believe that the president can have much impact on the economy.

August Industrial Production: Double Dippers Get Dunked Print
Friday, 16 September 2011 14:17

The Federal Reserve Board released data on industrial production in August yesterday, and it was reasonably good. Manufacturing production rose by 0.5 percent following a 0.6 percent rise in July.

This is not earth shattering growth, and certainly not very good compared to the growth rates following severe downturns in the 70s and 80s, but it is clearly positive. The growth rate over the last 2 months is more than 6.0 percent at an annual rate. Even adding in the zero figure for June, we still get an annual rate of growth of almost 4.5 percent.

These data should have featured far more prominently in news reporting. There has been considerable attention to the risk that the economy is about to sink back into recession. The data from the Fed on manufacturing indicate that this important sector is still growing at a respectable pace.

The NYT Says Denmark and Bill Gates are Both Like Greece Print
Friday, 16 September 2011 12:19

The NYT has lost any connection to reality in its deficit/debt discussions. In an article discussing the victory of the left parties in Denmark it told readers:

"For Denmark, a nation of 5.5 million people, the election turned on the issue that has also divided many other Western nations struggling with low growth, large government deficits and historic levels of national debt: what mix of government spending and tax policies to adopt in order to restore economic health and avoid slipping further toward a crisis like Greece’s."


According to the IMF, Denmark's debt to GDP ratio is projected to be just over 4 percent at the end of 2011. By comparison, Greece's debt to GDP ratio is 150 percent. Greece's annual interest burden is considerably larger than Denmark's debt.

Claiming that Denmark need worry about being like Greece is like saying that Bill Gates needs to worry about ending up homeless. Both are theoretically possible, but almost unimaginable given their current situations.

The article also includes an unusual discussion of growth rates telling readers:

"Denmark is Scandinavia’s worst-performing economy, with a growth rate less than half of Norway’s and less than one-third of Sweden’s."

Since the growth rates in question are all low, it makes far more sense to express the gap in percentage point terms rather than as ratios. A country with 1.0 percent growth has twice the growth rate of a country with 0.5 percent, but for most purposes there is little difference between these growth rates in the lives of the populations affected.

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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.