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Conservative Economics Has Not Produced Rapid Growth Print
Thursday, 26 February 2015 08:33

The Post had an interesting piece on the debate within the Republican party over economic policy. At one point the piece notes the stagnation in middle class incomes and then tells readers:

"There is a growing sense among many conservative economists that faster growth by itself will not suffice to lift those incomes at the rate middle-class workers came to expect a generation ago ."

This comment may mislead readers into believing that conservative policies of tax cuts and deregulation have been associated with faster growth. They haven't.

The table below shows the average growth rate under the last six presidents (measured as first quarter of their term to first quarter of the next adminstration.)

Carter -- 3.4%

Reagan -- 3.4%

Bush I -- 2.0%

Clinton --3.7%

Bush II -- 1.6%

Obama -- 2.2%

This record shows that tax cutting Republicans have done worse in promoting growth during their administrations than tax and spend Democrats. While Republican policies may not have been successful in producing gains for the middle class, they have also not done very well in promoting growth. 

NYT Fact Checkers Go On Strike as Column on Greece Gets Submitted (see correction) Print
Wednesday, 25 February 2015 21:41

That is the only possible explanation for the appearance of a column on Greece's economy by venture capitalist Aristos Doxiadis. The column's central premise is that Greece's severe downturn cannot be explained by its macroeconomic policies. It claims that other countries had similar austerity but had no comparable decline in output. It instead blames Greece's problems on structural problems that have blocked the growth of exports. Both claims are untrue.

Doxiadis told readers:

"Greece has fared much worse than other eurozone countries that faced a sudden drop in foreign financing, and then enacted similar austerity programs. It lost 26 percent of its G.D.P. from the pre-crisis peak, while Portugal, Ireland and Spain lost no more than 7 percent each. Much of this difference is due to foreign trade.

"In all four countries, when capital from abroad stopped flowing in, increasing exports became an urgent goal. The other three countries achieved this quickly. Greece did not. If it had boosted exports, its recession would have been much shallower; by one estimate, a 25 percent increase in exports could have limited the drop of gross domestic product to just 3 percent."

The claim that the other three countries had similar austerity programs is wrong. According to the I.M.F. the decline in the structural deficit between 2007 and 2014 was 6.0 percentage points of GDP in Ireland, 1.8 percentage point of GDP in Portugal, and -4.1 percentage points of GDP in Spain (the structural deficit grew larger over this period). By comparison the structural deficit in Greece was cut by 12.5 percentage points of GDP over this period, more than twice as large as the deficit reduction in Ireland, the most austere of the other three countries.

The assertion about Greece being the worst export performer of the group is also at odds with the data. According to the OECD, Greece had the largest increase in goods exports (sorry, couldn't find service data) from 2007 to 2014. Measured in dollar terms, Spain's goods exports increased by 27.5 percent over this period. Portugal's exports increased by 21.9 percent while Ireland's exports fell by 3.1 percent. By comparison, the OECD reports that Greece's exports rose by 35.6 percent, far more than the 25 percent increase that Doxiadis held out as a target (he doesn't indicate his time frame).

This matters because Doxiadis' whole argument is that Greece's problems cannot be explained by austerity but rather are due to anti-business regulations and attitudes. It may well be the case that regulations and attitudes are impeding growth in Greece, but contrary to Doxiadis' claim, its downturn is well explained by its austerity, which was much more severe than in the other three countries.

The NYT should have insisted that the column get the basic facts right. 



Mr. Doxiadis referred me to data on total Greek exports, which were markedly worse than goods exports alone. Apparently Greece's service exports fared far worse since 2007 than its goods exports. 


Would Doctors Benefit from Globalization that Lowered Their Pay and the Cost of Health Care? Print
Wednesday, 25 February 2015 05:13

Better yet, would economists say they had benefited? The reason for the question is that this is essentially the question that the University of Chicago's Initiative on Global Markets (IGM) asked its group of elite economists about trade with China. It asked:

"Trade with China makes most Americans better off because, among other advantages, they can buy goods that are made or assembled more cheaply in China."

This question could be taken to be saying that most Americans are better off because they can get cheaper goods from China. It's a bit difficult to imagine how that could not be true, taken in isolation. In other words, are we better off because we have the opportunity to buy some goods at lower prices?

Other things equal, we certainly would be better off. Hence the question about having the country flooded with foreign educated doctors so that their pay is cut in half. With around 900,000 doctors in the country averaging paychecks of well over $200k a year, this would save the country more than $90 billion a year on health care costs (@ $700 per household per year -- how does that compare to your tax cut?). If we asked our elite economists whether doctors were benefited by lower cost health care, how would they answer? Aren't doctors benefited by paying less rather than more for their health care?

If this seems like a strange question it would not be the first time that IGM stumped the experts. It previously posed a question on whether Piketty's views on growing inequality were correct. The overwhelming majority answered "no," so did Thomas Piketty.



The Patent Theory of Knowledge Print
Tuesday, 24 February 2015 08:17

For thousands of years we have seen people develop knowledge and skills, make discoveries, and advance science. The overwhelming majority of this work was not motivated by the hope of getting a patent monopoly. Yet somehow, the ostensibly serious people at the Association of University Technology Managers think that patent monopolies are the only way to support the development of new drugs, or so it would seem from a speech to them by Joseph Allen.

Mr. Allen took issue with my suggestion that if the government funds research that the findings and any associated patents should be placed in the public domain. He pointed to the period before the Bayh-Dole Act when there were:

"28,000 inventions wasting away on the shelves in Washington because there was no patent incentive for anyone to develop them."

Okay, let's try to get this straight. Suppose that the government made its funding partly contingent on developing a usable product approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Would all the inventions still sit on the shelf because people are too dumb to make a usable product without the motivation of a patent monopoly?

Suppose that the funding even went to private companies who would see their payments increase 50 percent, 100 percent, or even 200 percent if they get a usable product approved by the FDA. Even in that case the inventions would just sit on the shelf because there are no patent monopolies?

One has to wonder what it is about developing drugs that require patent monopolies when people in so many other areas can be motivated simply by money. It's a great mystery.



Ezekiel Emanuel's Unnecessary Originality on New Drugs Print
Tuesday, 24 February 2015 07:43

It's always exciting to read an interesting new idea in the NYT opinion section. It's less exciting to read an idea that is not new, but presented as such. Hence my lack of joy when reading Ezekiel Emanuel's proposal for a prize fund for the development of new antibiotics.

Emanuel wants the government to put up a $2 billion prize for the first five companies that get regulatory approval for a new antibiotic. He writes his piece as though a prize fund for developing drugs is a new idea. It isn't. The idea of prize funds for developing drugs goes back close to two decades (possibly longer), and has had many prominent proponents, most notably Joe Stiglitz, the Nobel prize winning economist.

Emanuel does have an original twist on his proposal. Stiglitz and other proponents of prize funds saw them as an alternative to patents. The idea was that the company got paid for their research when they got the prize. There was no reason to pay them a second time by giving them a monopoly over the sale of the drug.

In fact, one of the main points of the prize was to allow drugs to be sold at their free market price. This would both ensure that they were affordable (drugs are almost always cheap to produce) and eliminate the drug companies' incentive to lie about the safety and effectiveness of their drugs.

Emanuel does depart from earlier proponents of prize funds in proposing that drug companies be allowed to have a patent monopoly even after having been awarded with a prize. This leaves in place the potential problems of affordability and perverse incentives that earlier proponents of prize funds had sought to address.  

Who Considers the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Pact a Cure for European Stagnation? Print
Tuesday, 24 February 2015 05:52

The NYT won't name names, but obviously these people don't know much economics. In a generally useful article about differences in regulatory policy between the European Union and the United States the NYT told readers:

"The talks [on the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Pact] are considered more of a priority for Europe, which is mired in deflation and high unemployment, than the United States, where the economy is recovering."

An analysis by the Centre for Economic Policy Research in the U.K. (no connection to Washington CEPR) found that the pact would increase the EU's GDP by 0.5 percent after its full effects are felt more than a decade after it is implemented. This translates into a boost to EU growth of less than 0.05 percentage points annually.

This is not much of a cure for stagnation. Even if the number were doubled its impact on growth would be too small for people to notice in their everyday lives. Furthermore, this calculation does not take account of any negative impact on growth that could result from higher prices for drugs and other products due to the stronger patent and copyright protections that will almost certainly be part of any deal. It also doesn't include losses that may be suffered if regulatory changes damage the environment or public health.

Robert Samuelson on History, Inequality, and Productivity Print
Monday, 23 February 2015 04:59

Robert Samuelson was inspired by a graph in the new Economic Report of the President to tell readers that the real problem for the middle class is not inequality but rather productivity growth. His point is that if we had kept up the Golden Age (1943-1973) rates of productivity growth it would have mattered much more to middle income families living standards than the rise in inequality since 1980.

This is true in the sense of if I were six feet five inches, I would be taller than I am, but it's not clear what we should make of the point. We don't know how to have more rapid productivity growth (at least not Golden Age rates), so saying that we should want more rapid productivity growth is sort of like hoping for the second coming. As Samuelson notes, we do have policies that would likely improve growth, more spending on infrastructure, education, and research and development, but no one seriously thinks such policies would get us back to the golden age growth rates of 3.0 percent a year. (Samuelson includes tax reform on his list. While a cleaner tax code probably would boost growth, it's worth noting that tax rates were much higher and the tax code contained more loopholes in the golden age.)

As a practical matter we may not be able to boost productivity growth, but we can change the policies driving inequality. At the top of this list, if we maintain low levels of unemployment as we did in the late 1990s, then middle income and lower income wages will rise in step with productivity growth. This would require generating demand through fiscal policy and lower trade deficits from a lower valued dollar. It also means not having the Fed cut off growth with higher interest rates.

If we also structured labor laws so that it was possible for workers to organize unions, had a minimum wage that kept pace with productivity growth (as it did in the golden age), and didn't protect high-end professionals (e.g. doctors, dentists, and lawyers) from domestic and international competition, then it would be reasonable to expect middle class incomes to keep pace with the economy's productivity growth. If we can only sustain the 1.5 percent annual productivity growth of the slowdown years (1973-1995) this would still imply income gains of almost 60 percent over three decades. While it would of course be better to have golden age productivity growth, since we don't know how to get back such rapid growth, why not pursue the policies that we know will be effective in restoring middle class income growth?



What Does "Keep a Lid on Spending" Mean to the NYT and the Troika? Print
Sunday, 22 February 2015 17:10

That's the question that millions of readers of the NYT will be asking after seeing an analysis of the deal between Greece and the European Union that told readers:

"Moreover, the finance ministers made clear that Greece will not get any more cash until it satisfies them it can keep a lid on spending."

In fact, Greece has already cut government spending by almost 15 percent in real terms from 2008 to 2014, according to the International Monetary Fund (I.M.F.). This spending cut is equal to almost 9.0 percent of Greece's potential GDP. This would be the equivalent of a cut in annual spending of $1.6 trillion in the United States in terms of its economic impact. 

The piece also asserts that "leaders in the rest of Europe do not want to join or, more important, finance the Greek-led revolt." Actually the financing is going from Greece to the rest of Europe since Greece is now running a primary budget surplus. That means that the government is collecting enough revenue to finance its spending, excluding interest payments. It is the size of the interest payments, which go primarily from Greece to the European Union, European Central Bank, and I.M.F. that is at issue. Greece is not asking for additional money from the rest of Europe. In the event that Greece leaves the euro the payments on its debt will almost certainly stop altogether, so the question is how much financing the rest of Europe gets from Greece, not how much financing Greece gets from Europe.


The Young Invincibles Are Back from the Dead at the WaPo Print
Sunday, 22 February 2015 10:13

The myth of the "young invincibles" has come back to life in the editorials of the Washington Post. Folks may recall that this was the story where Obamacare would live or die depending on whether young healthy people signed up for the program. The small grain of truth to the story is that the premium for young people was slightly higher than an actuarially fair premium while the premium for those in the oldest Obamacare age band (ages 55-64) was slightly lower. This means that as a group, the young provide a modest subsidy to the old.

However the differences in costs within each age band swamp the differences across age bands. There are millions of people in the oldest age band who have little or no medical expenses each year just as there are millions of young people who have no medical expenses. Obamacare needs the former group at least as much as it needs the latter (arguably more, since the older group pays premiums that are three times as high).

The Kaiser Family Foundation did the calculations to show this point. Even a large skewing by age will make little difference in the cost of the program. It matters much more if there is a skewing on health status.

Anyhow, perhaps this study will find its way over the WaPo editorial board at some point.

Stocks and Flows and the Value of China's Currency Print
Saturday, 21 February 2015 08:28

The NYT reported that efforts by rich Chinese to get some of their wealth out of the country have led to downward pressure on the value of the country's currency. It noted that the central bank is trying to counteract some of this pressure by selling some its foreign exchange reserves to buy up yuan. It then tells readers:

"A weaker renminbi could produce greater tensions with the United States, by widening that trade imbalance. The Obama administration is in a tricky position, however. It has long argued that Beijing should guide the value of the renminbi less and let market forces prevail. But following that logic now and letting the renminbi fall further could make it even harder for American producers to compete."

This is not accurate. As the article notes, China's central bank holds $3.8 trillion in foreign exchange reserves. This is close to four times what a country with an economy the size of China's would be expected to hold. The holdings of dollars and other reserves prop up the dollar against the yuan even if China's bank decides to sell off some of its holdings.

In this way, it is very similar to the situation of the Fed with respect to quantitative easing. Even if the Fed sells off some of its bonds, the net effect of its policy is still to lower interest rates, as long as it still has a large stock of long-term debt on its balance sheets.

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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.