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George Will Must Not Think Willie Mays Was a Great Baseball Player or that the Polio Vaccine Was a Big Deal Print
Thursday, 26 March 2015 02:22

That is the implication of his column touting the virtues of inequality. Will seems to think that we could not get people to work hard to master skills or to be great innovators if they didn't have the prospect of earning billions or tens of billions of dollars. But if we look back through history we can identify an enormous number of tremendously talented and creative individuals who did not get fabulously wealthy or even have any plausible hope of getting fabulously wealthy.

Mays was of course well-paid, but adjusting for inflation, his best paychecks would probably be less than one-tenth of the pay of today's stars. And, there is no shortage of great athletes, writers, musicians, and other performers who never even made Willie Mays type salaries. The same is true of inventors. Jonas Salk, the inventor of the first effective polio vaccine, undoubtedly had a comfortable standard of living, but nothing approaching the wealth of a Bill Gates or even Jamie Dimon.

In fact, if we look back to the period of relative equality from the end of World War II to 1980, the economy made far more rapid progress than it did in the next three and a half decades of rising inequality. If the argument is that people need material incentive to do their best work, then Will has a case. If the argument is that people need the motivation of immense wealth to work hard and innovate, then Will is demonstrably wrong.


Note: Links added, thanks to Robert Salzberg.

NYT's Coverage of Japan Is Complicated by a Lack of Understanding of Economics Print
Wednesday, 25 March 2015 06:49

Just when you thought economics reporting could not get any worse, the NYT leads the way. The headline of a news article told readers that "Japan's recovery is complicated by a decline in household savings." The piece reports that consumption is now increasing (barely), but because real wages have not risen, it has led to a decline in household savings. The household saving rate in Japan is now negative. It then tells us that businesses are big savers, but that money is needed to finance the government's budget deficit.

Okay, now if the NYT could find someone who had taken an intro econ course that person could explain to its reporters and editors that if consumers, businesses, or the government spends more money, it will lead to additional income and employment, and additional saving. If the economy is below full employment, its spending is not limited by its current saving. (If it's not below full employment then it doesn't have a problem with a recovery, by definition its economy would have already recovered.)

Anyhow, that's what folks who learned economics would say.

The Economy, Like Arithmetic, Is Not Complicated; Even If Robert Samuelson Does Not Understand It Print
Wednesday, 25 March 2015 04:39

Robert Samuelson (sorry, he's not going to take advantage of my vacation) gets it badly wrong about the economy again. He began his Monday column by telling readers:

"The Federal Reserve is at a crossroads, and it doesn’t know where it’s going."

Really? The Fed doesn't know where it's going? How about Robert Samuelson doesn't know where it's going? 

It gets worse:

"There was a time when we were more confident. We didn’t pay attention to details, because the experts had matters in hand. During the Alan Greenspan era (1987-2006), the Fed was routinely seen as an economic superman. Its surgical shifts in the federal funds rate seemed to stabilize the economy: Expansions were long, recessions rare and mild."

Umm, no. "We" did pay attention to details. We yelled as loudly as we possibly could that there was a huge housing bubble that would sink the economy when it burst. Of course papers like the Washington Post did not pay attention to us because it did not fit their story that the Fed was an economic superman. Such nonsense was the conventional wisdom at the time and the paper did not want to give those who challenged the claim a voice. Now, it wants to pretend that people who understood the basic economics of the housing bubble, and the stock bubble before it, did not exist. 

And Samuelson gives us more error:



It's March 16th, and I Am Out of Here Print
Monday, 16 March 2015 09:51

It's vacation time. I'm off until Wednesday March 25th. And remember, until then, don't believe anything you read in the newspaper.

Robert Samuelson Is Worried Robots Will Take People's Jobs Print
Monday, 16 March 2015 05:02

At least this is what he says in his column today. The data strongly disagree with him. In the last four years productivity growth has averaged less than 1.0 percent a year. Productivity growth measures the rate at which robots and other technology replace people. In the years from 1995-2005 productivity growth averaged over 2.5 percent annually. In the period from 1947 to 1973 it averaged close to 3.0 percent.

The data indicate that we are seeing a slowdown in technology replacing labor (which should allow for rising living standards) rather than the speedup in the robot story. As a practical matter, workers should be far more concerned that the Federal Reserve Board will take their job, by slowing the economy with higher interest rates, than a robot will take their job.


Note: correction made, thanks Ethan.

NYT's David Leonhardt Does Mind Reading on Hillary Clinton Print
Saturday, 14 March 2015 21:44

It is amazing how many reporters want to be mind readers. I guess it's hard to make a living as a mind reader. Anyhow, David Leonhardt took some steps in the mind reading direction when he told readers:

"They both [President Obama and Hillary Clinton] consider the stagnant incomes of recent decades to be a defining national issue. They both want to address the stagnation through a combination of government programs and middle-class tax cuts. They both see climate change as a serious threat. They both think workers have too little power and corporations too much."

Wow, so David Leonhardt knows what President Obama and Hillary Clinton really "consider," "want," "see," and "think." That's impressive, but readers may want to be somewhat skeptical. After all, most of us recognize that politicians don't always reveal their true thoughts. We know what they say their priorities are, but only a mind reader would try to tell us what they really think.

There are also some objective facts that provide some basis for skepticism on this topic. First, many of the big winners from rising inequality are friends and campaign contributors to Hillary Clinton (and Barack Obama). It's possible that they both want to pursue policies that would take away large amounts of money from these people, but some folks may question this fact.

Also, the incredibly narrow list of policies that Leonhardt says is on Clinton's plate indicates that she probably is not serious about reducing inequality and promoting middle class wage growth. For example, many of the highest incomes in the economy are in the financial sector. If Clinton were serious about attacking inequality it is hard to believe that she would not be promoting a financial transactions tax. This could raise as much as $180 billion a year (more than $2 trillion over a decade). This money would come almost entirely out of the pockets of the high rollers in the financial industry. It would also increase economic efficiency and growth. Since Clinton has never indicated any interest in financial transactions taxes it is difficult to believe that she has much interest in countering inequality.



Robert Rubin Is Not "Overly Friendly" to Wall Street, He Is Wall Street Print
Saturday, 14 March 2015 10:44

Lydia DePillis and Jim Tankersley had an interesting wonkblog piece on how even mainstream Democrats are now at least paying lip service to the argument that unions are necessary to reduce inequality. The piece includes a pro-union statement from Robert Rubin who it describes as someone "whom liberals consider overly friendly to Wall Street."

This misrepresents Rubin's background. Robert Rubin was a top executive at Goldman Sachs before coming to the Clinton administration. After leaving the Clinton administration he went to Citigroup where he made tens of millions of dollars from the marketing of subprime mortgage backed securities. The reason that Robert Rubin has influence in policy debates is because he is very rich from the money he made on Wall Street and he can get other very rich Wall Street types to donate money to Democratic candidates and favored causes. Given his background, referring to Robert Rubin as someone who is "close to Wall Street" would be like referring to Rich Trumka as someone who is close to organized labor.

Getting It Wrong on Trade: TPP Is Not Good for Workers Print
Saturday, 14 March 2015 10:03

The big money is sweating big time since it seems large segments of the American public have caught wind of the Obama administration's plans for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. After several decades in which trade has been a major factor depressing the wages and living standards of the country's workers, the Obama administration is going back to the well to push for more.

The immediate goal is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which includes a number of countries in Asia and Latin America. While it excludes major countries like China and India, the explicit intention is to expand the pact so that these countries will eventually be included. This fact is important in assessing this deal.

For example, the Washington Post (which has a religious devotion to these sorts of trade deals) ran a column by three prominent economists, David Autor, David Dorn, and George Hanson (ADH), which tells readers the TPP is good for the country's workers. ADH is an interesting team to make this argument since they have written several papers showing that our patterns of trade have been an important force depressing the wages of a large segment of the U.S. workforce.

ADH start out by saying that manufacturing workers have little to lose in this deal because tariffs with the countries in the pact are already near zero, therefore we will not be opening ourselves to new competition if the few remaining barriers are eliminated. Here is where the possibility of expansion is important.

Many prominent economists, including many strongly pro-trade economists like Fred Bergsten, the former president of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, have argued the TPP should include rules on currency manipulation. While this may not be a big issue with most of the countries in this round, it is certainly a big deal with China and other countries that could join. According to calculations by Bergsten and others, actions of foreign central banks to raise the value of the dollar have added several hundred billions of dollars to our trade deficit and cost us millions of manufacturing jobs.



Profit Share Drops in 2014 Print
Friday, 13 March 2015 21:54

The Federal Reserve Board released data on profits for 2014 this week. The good news, for those who are not Mitt Romney-types, is that the profit share fell in 2014 from its 2013 peak. Before-tax profits were 0.6 percentage points lower as a share of GDP than they had been in 2013. After-tax profits were 1.2 percentage points lower.

profits 16686 image001

                             Source: Federal Reserve Board.


There are several points worth noting here. First, the drop in profits as the labor market has begun to tighten some lends credence to the view that a substantial portion of the rise in corporate profits was cyclical, not secular.

The point is that we are not seeing a surge in profit shares because of the inherent dynamic of capitalism. We are seeing a rise in profit shares because incompetents who couldn't see an $8 trillion housing bubble were running the economy. When the bubble burst and the economy collapsed, the resulting weakness in the labor market led to a huge rise in profit shares.

Folks may point to a similar rise in profit shares in the earlier part of the last decade. For those old enough to remember, this also followed the collapse of an asset bubble. And contrary to popular belief, the resulting recession was actually very severe from the standpoint of the labor market. We did not get back the jobs lost in the downturn until January of 2005. This was the longest stretch without net job growth since the Great Depression, until the current downturn. In short, weak labor markets lead to high profits.

This takes us to the Federal Reserve Board. The plan to raise interest rates is a plan to weaken job growth. And, it looks like it also might mean a plan to prevent profit shares from falling and wage shares from rising.

That might sound like bad news to most folks, but of course most folks will probably never hear it. We'll just hear highly paid economist types wringing their hands over the rise in inequality. No doubt the major foundations will make large grants to researchers trying to understand the problem.


Lower Inflation Due to Lower Oil Prices Does Not Raise Real Interest Rates for Businesses Print
Friday, 13 March 2015 04:26

That would be unless the business in the oil industry. A NYT piece on the drop in inflation across Asia seems confused on this point. It notes the sharp decline in the inflation rate across the region, which is mostly due to lower oil prices, and raises the concern that this may discourage businesses from investing.

This logic doesn't work insofar as the lower inflation is simply due to lower oil prices. From the standpoint of a business considering a new investment what matters is the price of the product it sells, not prices in general. If the price of cars is expected to rise by 2 percent a year, then businesses will take this projected rate of inflation into account in planning their investment. The fact that lower oil prices will reduce the overall rate of inflation should not affect its decision, except insofar as lower oil prices could mean that consumers have more money to spend on cars.

The basic story here is straightforward, lower oil prices are good for promoting growth except in countries that are large producers of oil. They are of course awful from the standpoint of the environment. (In addition to increasing oil consumption and greenhouse gas emissions directly, lower oil prices will also discourage investment in clean energy.)

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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.