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Amazon's Tax Breaks Are Essential to Its Survival Print
Thursday, 29 May 2014 07:03

An NYT article on the battle between Amazon and Hachette, a major publisher, told readers that:

"Thanks to Wall Street’s unwavering support, Amazon could afford to sell books for what it paid for them — something no physical bookseller could do."

While the willingness of investors to pay large amounts of money for the stock of a company that makes little or no profit has been important to Amazon's success, it is also worth noting that through most of its existence it has been exempt from the requirement that it collect sales tax, unlike its traditional competitors. This has allowed it to undercut them in the market giving the company an enormous competitive advantage courtesy of the taxpayers. The savings from not having to collect sales taxes dwarf Amazon's cumulative profits since it came into existence.

 

Addendum:

Having read through the comments here, I will make a couple of quick points.

1) Don't waste anyone's time or kill any electrons talking about customers being obligated to pay the tax. This is a blog about the real world. No one sends their sales tax to the government for the things they bought on Amazon. What matters is the law as it's enforced, and that means that Amazon's brick and mortar competitors (which includes many Internet sellers) had to collect state sales tax all along. Amazon has just recently started collecting taxes in some states.

2) Not having to collect sales tax is a huge subsidy to Amazon. (Yes, it is a subsidy. States and cities collect revenue -- if Bezos gets out of paying it, then everyone else pays more. It is the same thing as if the governments sent Jeff Bezos a big fat welfare check every year.) And it mattered a huge amount to Amazon's growth and survival. If it thought it could have raised prices by 4-8 percent (the amount of state sales tax) without hitting its market share, it would have done so. The fact that the company has generally operated with near zero profits indicates that collecting sales tax would have been a very big hit.

 

Note: Typos corrected.

 
Six Things George Will Would Not Have Said If He Had Access to Economic Data Print
Thursday, 29 May 2014 05:08

George Will devoted his column today to complaining about Obamanomics, or more specifically the state of the economy during the Obama administration. The article includes a serious of inaccurate or misleading statements which Will presumably made because he doesn't have access to data from his home or office in Washington.

1) Will told readers:

"June begins the sixth year of the anemic recovery from the 18-month recession. Even if what Obama’s administration calls “historically severe” weather — a.k.a., winter — reduced GDP growth by up to 1.4 percentage points, growth of 1.5 percent would still be grotesque."

Actually quarterly data are always erratic and an individual quarter tells people almost nothing about the state of the economy. (The first quarter number was revised downward this morning to show negative growth.) If Will thinks that a 1.5 percent growth rate would be "grotesque" then he would presumably also be appalled by the 1.9 percent growth rate the economy saw in the second quarter of 1986, the sixth year of the Reagan presidency. The best quarterly growth figure we have seen in the last four decades was the 16.5 percent annual growth rate in the second quarter of 1978 in the midst of "Carter-era stagflation."

 

2) Will complained:

"The recovery’s two best growth years (2.5 percent in 2010 and 2.8 percent in 2012) are satisfactory only when compared with 2011 and 2013 (1.8 percent and 1.9 percent, respectively)."

The recovery has indeed been anemic, but this is due to the fact that this recession was qualitatively different from prior recessions, with the exception of the 2001 downturn. It was caused by the collapse of a housing bubble. If Will had access to data he would know that house prices rose by more than 70 percent above their trend level at the peak of the bubble in 2006. This led to record levels of construction. The wealth effect from $8 trillion in bubble generated equity led to a consumption boom with the savings rate falling to record lows.

When the bubble burst there was no easy way to replace the lost demand from the collapse in residential construction and consumption. Folks who have managed to take an intro econ class know that there are only five components of aggregate demand. In addition to residential construction and consumption, we have non-residential investment, government spending, and net exports. An economic collapse will not generally provide the basis for a boom in non-residential investment. Will's Republican allies in Congress (along with many Democrats) have acted to make sure there was no big increase in government spending.

This only leaves net exports. A major rise in net exports would require a sharp decline in the dollar, which would make U.S. goods and services more competitive in the world economy. However powerful interests like Walmart, which have low-cost supply chains in the developing world, have no interest in seeing the dollar fall in value relative to other currencies, which would undermine their competitive advantage.

Anyhow, given the nature of the downturn, the weakness of the recovery was predictable and predicted. The economy was also slow to recover from 2001 recession, which was caused by the collapse of the stock bubble. It did not start generating jobs again until the fall of 2003 being pulled forward by the growth of the housing bubble.

Read more...

 

 
The Economic Recovery in Spain Should Push Unemployment Below 10 Percent by 2030 Print
Thursday, 29 May 2014 04:17

A New York Times article on the success of Podemos, a new anti-austerity political party in Spain, referred to the "hints of recovery" in Spain. In the last year, the unemployment rate in Spain has fallen by 1.0 percentage point to its current level of 25.3 percent. At this pace of recovery, the unemployment rate in Spain should fall below 10.0 percent just before 2030.

 
Why Would the Addition of Young Healthy People Raise the Cost of Insurance? Print
Wednesday, 28 May 2014 04:59

That's what Washington Post readers are asking after reading an article warning of large price increases in 2017. The piece reported the output from a simulation model developed by Stephen Parente, a University of Minnesota health economist who advised Sen. John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign.

According to the article, Parente's model predicts a large increase in the price of bronze and catastrophic plans in the exchanges in 2017. It gives the reason for this increase:

"Parente estimates between 4 million and 6 million people will see their existing individual coverage end in the next few years when either their plans lose grandfathered status or the White House's extension of non-compliant health plans runs out near the end of 2016. These holdovers from the individual market predating the ACA are expected to be younger, healthier and more sensitive to price.

"Parente's model finds these factors will have the most significant affect on 2017 premiums for less-robust plans in Obamacare's "metal tiers." These include catastrophic and bronze-level health plans, which have the cheapest premiums but the highest out-of-pocket costs. The effects will differ by state, but the national picture shows a big price jump for bronze and catastrophic plans between 2016 and 2017 — premiums for the average individual bronze plan, before subsidies, are projected to climb between $2,132 and $4,174 between those two years."

Let's see, healthy people raise the cost of insurance? Maybe we can get some older, sick people into the pool.

 
The NYT Makes Silly Mistakes Because It is Determined to Use Numbers Without Any Context Print
Wednesday, 28 May 2014 04:29

Newspapers should be in the business of informing their readers, but not the New York Times. Last fall I had raised the issue of putting large numbers in some context so that readers would be able to understand their significance. I was primarily thinking of budget numbers. Almost no readers have any idea what the billions or trillion mean, but they would immediately be able to understand a number expressed as a percent of the budget. The latter takes no additional research, it takes one second of a reporter's time to use a spreadsheet or calculator.

Margaret Sullivan, the paper's public editor agreed with me. So did David Leonhardt who was the Washington Bureau chief at the time and is now the editor of Upshot section. Leonhardt said that to most readers reporting a number in the hundreds of billion was the same thing as just writing "really big number." It seemed that this agreement would lead to a change in the paper's practices. However that was not to be the case.

The paper still routinely presents budget and other numbers without any context, even though everyone involved in the process knows these numbers are meaningless to the overwhelming majority of people who see them. Of course the numbers are also meaningless to the editors and copy editors at the NYT who review copy.

We got more evidence of this fact in a correction to an article on the cost of demolishing abandoned buildings in the city of Detroit. The correction told readers:

"Because of an editing error, an earlier version of the headline on the home page gave an incorrect figure for the estimated cost of ending blight in Detroit. It is $850 million, not $850 billion."

Yes, million, billion, who can tell the difference? If this number had been expressed relative to the size of the city's economy the error might have been clearer to the NYT's editors and likely would have not found its way into print.

The city of Detroit has a gross city product of roughly $35 billion, assuming that the share of the city's economy in the metro area economy is proportional to its population. This means the cost of addressing blight, as indicated in this article, would be roughly 2.3 percent of the city's annual output. By contrast, if the article had used the billion number it would have reported that the cost of blight was 2300 percent of the city's economy. Presumably an editor would have been able to realize that the latter was an implausible figure and caught the mistake before it found its way into print.

It is difficult to see any legitimate reason for not expressing numbers in a context where they are understandable to NYT readers. The failure to do so also means the numbers are less understandable to NYT editors, which means that the paper will allow more embarrassing typos into print.

 
L.A. Times Reports Low-Paid Workers Don't Have Much Money Even After Increase in the Minimum Wage Print
Tuesday, 27 May 2014 14:11

The Los Angeles Times had a news article telling readers that workers in Connecticut are still having a tough time making ends meet even after the minimum wage in the state was increased by 45 cents to $9.15 an hour at the start of 2014. The headline of the piece, which reflected the content of the article, read:

"In Connecticut, some minimum-wage workers say raise has not helped much."

The piece included comments from economists who have criticized the minimum wage, saying both that it would cost jobs and that it is an ineffective way to reduce poverty. The piece did not present the views of any of the large group of economists who have studied the minimum wage and found that it had little or impact on employment.

Nor did it discuss the views of any economists whose research indicated the minimum wage could have a substantial effect in reducing poverty. The Congressional Budget Office agreed with this assessment in the analysis of the minimum wage it released earlier this year. The article instead touted increases in the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) as a preferred way to address poverty. The article ignored evidence that the EITC lowers wages for low-paid workers who do not qualify for the credit.

The article tries to present a case that the minimum wage is already costing Connecticut workers jobs:

"Employment growth in Connecticut has lagged behind the nation since December, data show. Nationally, employment grew 0.62% from December through April, while employment in Connecticut fell 0.19% over the same time period.

"Much of that drop-off was related to the elimination of 10,900 jobs in January, the month employers had to start paying 45 cents more. In the previous three years, Connecticut had added an average of 4,000 jobs over the same time period."

Actually Connecticut has been lagging the country in employment growth throughout the recovery. The country as a whole had created jobs at a 1.1 percent annual rate from the end of the recession in June 2009 to December of 2013. Connecticut had created jobs at just a 0.7 percent annual rate.

Job losses are also not unusual in erratic state data. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Connecticut lost 9,000 jobs from June of 2013 to September of 2013.

The piece also implies that most minimum wage workers are teenagers who are working for spending money:

"Another argument from business owners against increasing the minimum wage: It doesn't help the presumed beneficiaries — working-poor families — because many minimum-wage workers are young people learning their first jobs or working part time while going to school.

"Case in point: Bridgeport, Connecticut's largest city and one of its poorest, decided to raise the minimum wage for all city employees to $10.10 on July 1.

"But that will mainly benefit people who work at the city's golf course, like Meaghan Derry and Yogabeth Arias. Derry's husband supports the family with a higher-paying job, and Arias is a high school student who will go to college in the fall.

"The extra money Arias has earned this year from the 45-cent raise has mostly gone to pay for her prom."

In fact, the majority of workers earning near the minimum wage are over age 25 and the vast majority are over the age of 20. Almost 10 percent have a college degree and another 33.3 percent have some college.

 
NYT Gets Just About Everything Wrong In Discussing Euro Zone Inflation Print
Tuesday, 27 May 2014 04:31

A NYT piece on the problem of low inflation and weak growth facing the euro zone got just about every aspect of the issue wrong. Near the beginning the piece tells readers:

"the euro zone is at risk of sliding into deflation, a downward price spiral that can ultimately destroy corporate profits and the ability of businesses to hire."

Actually the euro zone already faces a crisis because the low inflation rate means that the real interest rate (the nominal interest rate minus the inflation rate) is much higher than would be desirable given the weakness of the euro zone's economy and the high unemployment rate. Since it is difficult to make the nominal interest rate negative, the only way to reduce the real interest rate is with a higher inflation rate.

This problem becomes worse when the inflation rate falls, however there is no particular consequence to it turning negative. In this sense, the problem is now, not some hypothetical bad scenario that could happen in the future. The notion of a "downward spiral" suggested in the piece has literally never happened in a wealthy country in the last 70 years. Even Japan, the only major country to experience a prolonged period of deflation, never experienced anything resembling a downward spiral. Its deflation rate was always modest and never exceeded minus 1.0 percent for any substantial period of time.

The idea that deflation will "destroy corporate profits and the ability of businesses to hire," is also silly. Profits have largely recovered from pre-recession levels. The concern is that lower inflation will reduce the desire to invest. If firms can anticipate that the goods and services will sell for 15 percent more in five years then they will have considerably more incentive to invest than if they anticipate that prices will be unchanged or even lower in five years. 

 

Addendum:

The piece also told readers:

"A negative deposit rate would tend to push down the value of the euro against the dollar and other currencies, because investors would earn little or no return on euros. In his speech on Monday, Mr. Draghi said the increase in the euro’s value against the dollar since 2011 had driven down the price of commodities like fuel in euro terms, contributing to low inflation."

Actually the main advantage of a fall in the value of the euro is that it will make goods and servcies produced in the euro zone more competitive internationally, thereby increasing net exports and boosting demand.

 

 

 
The Data Show the Case for College Is More Ambiguous than What the New York Times Tells You Print
Tuesday, 27 May 2014 04:09

David Leonhardt touts (but doesn't link to) new research from the Economic Policy Institute which shows the wage premium for recent college grads hit a record high in 2013. He then goes on to declare that it would be irrational for people not to go to college given this large pay premium. 

Leonhardt's analysis ignores the dispersion in pay among college grads, especially among men. Research by my colleague John Schmitt and Heather Boushey shows that near one in five recent male college grads earned less than the average high school grad. This implies that going to college implies substantial risks, especially since attending college is likely to lead to substantial debt. There is also a risk that a student will not complete college, which is especially likely for the marginal college student (a person at the edge of deciding whether to try college or not). It is also likely that the marginal college student faces a much higher risk of being in this bottom fifth than the typical college student. In short, a little deeper analysis indicates that the decision of many people, especially young men, not to attend college could seem very rational. 

Leonhardt also tells readers that the unemployment rate for people with just college degrees (i.e. without advanced degrees) between the ages of 25-34 was just 3.0 percent in April. That seems unlikely. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the unemployment rate for all people over age 25 with college degrees, including those with advanced degrees, was 3.3 percent in April. Since younger grads and those without advanced degrees have higher unemployment rates it is difficult to see how Leonhardt's assertion can be true. 

 
Syriza Is Opposed to the European Union's Anti-Growth Policy, Not the European Union Print
Monday, 26 May 2014 06:59

The Washington Post told readers that in several countries parties hostile to the European Union won in the elections to the European Parliament over the weekend. One of the countries on its list was Greece, where Syriza, the main opposition party received the most votes.

It is inaccurate to describe Syriza as being opposed to the European Union. The party has not called for Greece to leave the European Union. The party is opposed to austerity policies imposed on Greece by the European Union which have pushed the unemployment rate above 25 percent. By the I.M.F. measures, the lost output in Greece from being below potential GDP since 2010 is now approaching 30 percent of GDP, which would be more than $5.7 trillion in the United States. (This estimate is likely very conservative since the I.M.F. hugely reduced its estimate of Greece's potential GDP in the last few years.)

Syriza is opposed to these anti-growth policies. It is not opposed to the European Union.

 

 
Small Businesses Account for 60 Percent of Job Losses Print
Sunday, 25 May 2014 05:31

There is a popular and ungodly silly line about new businesses being responsible for some very high share of new jobs in the U.S. economy. A version appears in this NYT article on the economic ripple effects of student loan debt. It cites a study showing that recent graduates with large amounts of student debt are less likely to start a business, then adds:

"Considering that 60 percent of jobs are created by small business, 'if you shut down the ability to create new businesses, you’re going to harm the economy,' Professor Ambrose [one of the authors of the study] said."

The problem with Professor Ambrose's comment is that small businesses also account for close to 60 percent of the job loss in the economy. On a gross basis small businesses do create many more jobs than larger firms, but they also are far more likely to go out of business and therefore lose jobs than large firms. On net, firms of all sizes add jobs at approximately the same rate.

This doesn't mean that we shouldn't be concerned about student debt restricting young people's ability to start businesses and in other ways limit their career choices. It does mean that the consequences for the economy may not be as large as implied by this comment. 

 

Note: link fixed.

 
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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.

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