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Productivity Debates: Confusion is Not a New Argument Print
Saturday, 14 February 2015 08:39

It speaks to the state of economic debate in the United States that we have prominent voices arguing both that we face a future in which productivity growth will be near zero (Robert Gordon)  and that productivity is about to soar through the roof so that most of us will not have any work to do (Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee). If we envisioned the same debate in climate science, a substantial group of climatologists would be warning of an impending ice age even as others raise concerns about global warming. Needless to say, this sort of split would encourage most people to disregard the pronouncements of climatologists about anything, which is perhaps what the public should do in the case of economists.

When confronted with two sharply divided views about the world, the NYT doesn't help matters by adding a large dose of confusion, as it did in printing a column by Daniel Cohen, a French economist. Cohen's ostensible contribution is to tell us:

"both sides in this debate are right: We’re living an industrial revolution without economic growth. Powerful software is doing the work of humans, but the humans thus replaced are unable to find productive jobs." He then goes on to say that we will have to adjust to a world without growth because living standards will not be rising.

Apparently Cohen does not realize that he has taken Brynjolfsson and McAfee's side in this debate. The problem he has described is one of too much productivity growth. Workers find themselves without jobs because there is not enough demand for goods and services.

To see this point, imagine in the world Cohen describes that we ran the printing presses overtime and handed out $1 million in cash to every man, women, and child in the country. (Yep, we'll give a $1 million to deadbeat welfare cheats, hardworking middle income people, and even Bill Gates.) Now all you right-thinking people out there will want to scream that this will lead to massive inflation. After all, we're just printing money.

But the problem that we supposedly see is that the robots are doing all the work and there is no demand for most of our labor. If we there is more demand for goods and services now that we have been given our handouts, then we will ask the robots to work harder and a few of the formerly unemployed will get jobs doing robot maintenance or other such tasks. What in this story would cause prices to rise? Would the robots demand a pay hike?

If Brynjolfsson and McAfee are right, and we are not seeing growth, it's because boneheaded policymakers (I didn't say the European Union) are pointlessly restraining demand. In this context it is foolish to talk about "when the growth model fails." What we should be talking about is teaching economics 101 to the people determining economic policy.

Since no one asked, I think Brynjolfsson and McAfee are probably closer to the mark than Robert Gordon in that I see no reason to believe that our ability to achieve large gains in productivity is hitting any sort of limit. Nonetheless, I also don't expect a quantum leap in productivity growth. If we could get anywhere near the 3.0 percent annual productivity growth of the golden age (1947-1973) I would be very impressed.




David Brooks Is Making History Print
Friday, 13 February 2015 16:35

David Brooks cast his column today as a battle between the economic agendas put forward by Larry Summers in a recent report for the Center for American Progress and Marco Rubio in his campaign book, American Dreams. After a brief summary of key points Brooks asks,

"The questions for Summers are: Have we forgotten the lessons of the last quarter-century? Do we think government is smart enough to intrude into millions of business decisions? Do we worry that in making hiring more expensive we will get less of it, and wind up with European-style sclerosis and unemployment levels?"

What lessons of the last quarter century does Brooks have in mind? The major economy with the best record on employment at this point is Germany, with an employment to population ratio (EPOP) that is almost 4 full percentage points higher than in the United States. Its unemployment rate is currently 4.9 percent. There are few countries in which the government intervenes more in the corporate governance process than Germany.

In fact, even France has a higher EPOP among prime age workers (ages 25-54) than the United States. The United States has a slightly higher overall EPOP because we expect students to work and we expect people to retire later. In terms of employers being willing to hire prime age workers, France does better than the United States.

The problem is not that Summers has forgotten the lessons of the last quarter century, the problem is that Brooks is inventing lessons that fit the policies he wants to promote rather than the data.

Cheap Gas Depressed Consumption Print
Friday, 13 February 2015 05:57

That's not my line, it's the headline of an AP article in the Washington Post. The exact words were, "cheaper gas lowers retail sales; spending up elsewhere." Yes folks, once again we see the march of surprised economists.

The immediate cause was a report from the Commerce Department showing a drop in retail sales of 0.8 percent in January that followed a drop of 0.9 percent in December. These declines do not quite fit with the story of a soaring economy led by a consumption boom. So now in the hunt for culprits, this AP article has apparently fingered lower gas prices.

Back in the good old days before this report was released we used to think that lower gas prices would be a spur to consumption as it freed up money for other purchases, but I guess we have an audible here:

"The modest gain suggests Americans are still cautious about spending their windfall from lower gas prices. ...

"Economists were disappointed by the weak showing, but most expect that consumers will eventually spend much of the extra cash left over from lower prices at the pump.

"'With lower gasoline prices leaving households with more to spend ... the labor market on fire and consumer confidence back at its pre-recession level, we had hoped to see a much stronger performance,' Paul Ashworth, an economist at Capital Economics, said in a note to clients."

There are two important data points that were apparently missed by the surprised economists. First, the labor market is very far from being "on fire." The percentage of unemployment due to people voluntarily quitting their jobs is still at extraordinarily levels. This is a key measure of workers confidence in the state of the labor market. Nominal wage growth has been just 2.2 percent over the last year, virtually unchanged from the prior three years.

The other data point apparently unavailable to surprised economists is the saving rate. Contrary to what they routinely assert, the saving rate is actually quite low, meaning that consumption as a share of disposable income is already quite high. People have need to save, for example for things like retirement. Some folks may have heard stories about the retirement income crisis. This refers to the fact that workers approaching retirement no longer have defined benefit pensions and have little savings.

For this reason, we should not expect some big surge in consumption going forward. If we expect to see a sharp uptick in growth we will have to look to some other component. Since there ain't many choices out there (the textbook says GDP is equal to consumption, investment, government spending, and net exports), some of us are less optimistic than the surprised economists.

Throw the Truth Out the Door: President Obama Has to Pass a Trade Deal Print
Thursday, 12 February 2015 15:41

Wow, this stuff just keeps getting worse. Apparently anything goes when the big corporations want a trade deal. Otherwise serious people will just make stuff up, because hey, the big campaign contributors want a trade deal to make themselves richer. The latest effort in creative myth-making comes from Third Way, which tells us that post-NAFTA trade deals aren't job losers like NAFTA.

As Jim Tankersley and Lydia DePillis point out, this implicitly tells us that all those pro-NAFTA types weren't right in telling us that NAFTA would create jobs. (Hey, when did these folks stop telling us things about trade that were not true?)

But getting to the meat of the matter, the line from Third Way is that our trade negotiators have learned from past mistakes. Now, trade agreements include labor and environmental standards and other provisions that ensure they will be job gainers. They show this by comparing U.S. trade deficits in goods with the countries with whom we have signed trade pacts in this century, in the years since the pact with the decade prior to the pact. In their analysis they find that in 13 of the 17 countries the trade deficit was smaller in the years since the pact than in the decade before the pact.

Before anyone becomes convinced that we can now count on new trade deals to reduce our trade deficit, let's pretend that we approached this like serious people. We would want to control for overall trends in the deficit and region-specific trends (e.g. compare the pattern in Chile after the signing of the pact with the pattern with other Latin American countries).

I don't have time to do a full analysis (no one pays us for correcting this dreck), but a very quick look shows how the deck is stacked in favor of getting the Third Way result. Most of the trade deals were signed right as the United States was reaching its peak deficit (2006) or in the years just after.

To see how this stacks the deck, the table below shows average trade deficit (in constant dollars) in the decade prior to the year of the pact and for the years since: [The data is available from Bureau of Economic Analysis, Table 1.1.6; modify the table to to show additional years]

           Prior decade             Years since pact

2006   $530.5 billion             $488.7 billion

2007   $587.3 billion             $456.7 billion

2008   $616.5 billion             $439.5 billion

2009   $618.3 billion             $448.8 billion

2010   $616.4 billion             $446.3 billion

2011   $612.2 billion             $441.9 billion

2012   $599.0 billion             $436.6 billion

2013   $576.8 billion             $452.6 billion


In short, this methodology would lead you to find smaller trade deficits in the years following an agreement even if the U.S. trade balance with these countries worsened compared to other countries. This ain't serious stuff, but like they say, when pushing trade deals, truth doesn't matter.         



Export Subsidies and Currency Values in China Print
Thursday, 12 February 2015 05:49

The NYT reported on a decision by the Obama administration to file a complaint before the World Trade Organization over alleged subsidies by China to its exports. The subsidies take the form of government support for product design, information technology, and worker training for exported items. According to the article, the value of these subsidies came to roughly $1 billion over the last three years.

It would have been helpful to put this complaint in some context for readers. China has an explicit policy of holding its currency to a level that is far below its market value. If we assume that the market value of the yuan would be 20 percent higher than the current value, the export subsidy implied by keeping the yuan below its market level would be on the order of $260 billion over the last three years. Even if the gap between the market value and China's targeted rate is just 10 percent, the implied subsidy would be over $130 billion over this period.

As the piece notes, the administration's move was intended primarily as a gesture to win support from Congress for fast-track authority to allow the passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Pact. The effectiveness of this gesture would be substantially reduced if the NYT had pointed out that the Obama administration continues to do nothing with reference to an export subsidy that is more than 100 times as large.

Robert (not Paul) Waldman Takes the Stock Return Challenge Print
Wednesday, 11 February 2015 10:13

I see Robert Waldmann has taken up the old challenge from the Social Security privatization days of whether it was possible to get a 7.0 percent real return when price to earnings ratios in the stock market were over 20 to 1 (2005 days) or 30 to 1 (late 1990s privatization craze). He claims to have done the trick by assuming that stock prices grow at a 3.0 percent real rate (the same as the growth rate for the economy), stocks pay out 1.9 percent in dividends, and effectively pay out 3.3 percent of their value to shareholders in the form of share buybacks.

I'll make two quick points on this one. First, the assumption of 3.0 percent real GDP growth is far above what the Social Security trustees were assuming at the time (@ 1.5-1.8 percent). It is also above most current projections which tend to be near 2.0 percent for long-run growth. Waldmann's projection may well prove right, but the point is that he is using a different growth projection than is being used in other contexts (like projecting the size of the Social Security shortfall).

The other problem is that he has companies paying out an amount equal to 5.2 percent of their stock price either as dividends or share buybacks. If the price to earnings ratio is over 20 (it is), then he has them paying out more than 100 percent of their profits to shareholders. That doesn't seem like a sustainable policy in the long-run, but I am prepared to be shown otherwise.


Note: corrections made -- thanks folks.

Erskine Bowles Is Back and Still Pushing Austerity Print
Wednesday, 11 February 2015 08:08

Erskine Bowles, the superhero of the fiscal austerity crowd, took time off from his duties on corporate boards to once again argue the need to "put our fiscal house in order." He apparently hasn't been following the numbers lately. If he had, he would have noticed that growth rate of Medicare and other government health care programs is now on a path that is lower than the proposals that he and Alan Simpson put forward in their report. (He refers to their report as a report of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. This is not true. According to its bylaws a report would have needed the support of 14 of the 18 members of the commission. The Bowles-Simpson proposal only had support of 10 members of the commission.)

Bowles also inaccurately claims they proposed delaying deficit reduction until after the economy had recovered. In fact, the report proposed deficit reduction of $330 billion (2.0 percent of GDP) beginning in the fall of 2011. This was long before the economy had recovered or would have in any scenario without a large dose of fiscal stimulus.

Bowles also fails to give any reason whatsoever why the country would benefit from dealing with large projected deficits a decade into the future. These projections may themselves be far off the mark, as has frequently been the case in the past. It is also worth noting that the rise in the deficit depends on projections of sharply higher interest rates in the years after 2020. There is no obvious basis for assuming this would be the case.

In the event that large deficits do prove to be a problem in 2025 and beyond there is no obvious reason why we would think that the Congress and president would not be able to deal with them at the time. That is what experience would suggest. In the mean time, we have real problems like millions of people unable to find jobs and tens of millions who have not shared in the benefits of growth for the last fifteen years. Or, to put it in generational terms, we have tens of millions of children growing up in families whose parents don't earn enough to provide them with a comfortable upbringing.

Robert Samuelson Is Unhappy that Seniors Get Social Security and Medicare Print
Monday, 09 February 2015 06:05

Yes, it's Monday morning at the Washington Post and Robert Samuelson wants to raise the retirement age and cut Social Security and Medicare benefits. How else would one begin the week?

He apparently thinks he is being clever by claiming that because the government is meeting these obligations to its seniors, it is failing elsewhere. Somehow, it doesn't occur to Samuelson that if we want to get extra money for other areas of government spending we could

1) raise taxes,

2) cut government payments for doctors, drug companies, and medical equipment suppliers in Medicare, Medicaid, and other government programs;

3) shoot for lower unemployment rates by not having the Fed choke off the recovery with higher interest rates;

4) default on the national debt.


The first point is straightforward. We have raised taxes many times in the past. If this were 1970 and we projected forward budgets for a decade with no increases in Medicare or Social Security taxes, the budget would have shown very large deficits. The same would have been true in 1980. This is what we are doing now. This is not to say that a tax increase would be politically easy, but cutting Social Security and Medicare are not exactly politically easy either. Apparently Samuelson is prepared to go after seniors, but not wealthy people who presumably would disproportionately bear the brunt of any tax increase.

The second point is straightforward also. We pay close to twice as much per person for our health care as people in other wealthy countries. This is not because we get better health care, but because our drug companies, medical equipment suppliers, and physicians get twice as much money as their counterparts in other wealthy countries. We could take steps to bring our costs into line, such as medical trade, but again Samuelson would rather hit seniors than these high income folks.

The third point is hugely important and under-appreciated. We got budget surpluses at the end of the 1990s not because of budget cuts and increased taxes; we got budget surpluses because the Fed allowed the economy to grow more and the unemployment rate to fall far lower than was thought possible by most economists.



Actually the Personal Saving Rate Is Very Low Print
Saturday, 07 February 2015 13:50

Robert Schiller had an interesting piece in the NYT on how uncertainty about the economy may be leading to extraordinary low long interest rates. However, he adds in the strange comment that savings is not low, in spite of the very low return available to savers:

"Yet according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, personal saving as a fraction of disposable personal income stood at 4.9 percent for the United States in December. That may not be an impressive level, but it’s not particularly low by historical standards."

This comment is strange, because in fact a 4.9 percent saving rate is in fact quite low by historical standards.


The only periods in which the saving rate was lower than it is today were when the wealth effects from the stock and housing bubble led to consumption booms at the end of the 1990s and the middle of the last decade. The current saving rate is far below the average for the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.

It is worth noting that the actual saving rate out of income may be even lower than the data indicate. There is currently a large negative statistical discrepancy in the GDP accounts (@ 0.8 percent of GDP), which means that measured income is larger than measured expenditures. My explanation for this unusual gap is that capital gains income is showing up as normal income, leading to an overstatement of true income. (Capital gains are not supposed to count as part of income for GDP accounting purposes.) if this is true, then actual saving rate could be as much as a percentage point lower than the reported rate.

Why the Monthly Change in the Hourly Wage Tells Us Nothing Print
Saturday, 07 February 2015 12:10

Okay, we'll try it with pictures this time. I have been trying to explain that the monthly wage data are erratic. If we accept the numbers at face value then we would have to believe that workers go from getting healthy pay gains one month to pay cuts the next. To me that seems pretty implausible, but apparently many reporters and some economists think this is the way the economy works.

So today we do it with pictures. The folks who believe that the monthly wage data released by the Labor Department are giving us real insight into the movement in wages think that monthly wage changes look like this.


Percent Change in Average Hourly Wage

average hourly wage

Source; Bureau of Labor Statistics.

That doesn't look like the economy I see, but hey, what do I know?

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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.