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The High Cost of Protectionism in Prescription Drugs #53,476 Print
Thursday, 12 August 2010 21:42

The NYT has a front page article on the enormous success in identifying biological markers for the development of Alzheimer's that resulted from a collaborative effort in which all data was made freely available. The article reports the assessment of the leading participants that this departure from normal practice allowed for much greater progress than would have otherwise been possible.

It would be useful if in this or other articles the NYT explored the implications of this experience for bio-medical research more generally. It suggests that if research was freely shared that scientists may be far more successful in developing new drugs and other treatments for medical conditions. An open system of research would require the elimination of patent protection, but this would also mean that drugs could sell at their competitive market price rather than at prices that are several hundred to several thousand percent above the free market price.

 
The Vast Majority of Small Businesses Have Nothing To Fear From the End of the Bush Tax Cuts Print
Thursday, 12 August 2010 07:16

The Post had a piece on the expiration of the Bush tax cuts which reported an analysis by the Joint Committee on Taxation on the incidence by income group. The article noted that the analysis showed that 97 percent of tax filers reporting small business income would not pay higher taxes under the tax plan put forward by President Obama. However, it reported that 50 percent of small business income goes to taxpayers who would see an increase in their taxes.

It would have been worth noting that in most of these cases the tax increase would be trivial. For people with incomes between $200,000 and $500,000 the average tax increase would be $409 as shown in the chart accompanying the article. It is difficult to believe that a tax increase of this magnitude would affect business decisions to any noticeable extent.

 
How Would Fed Policy Lead to Inflation Without First Creating Jobs? Print
Thursday, 12 August 2010 07:04

In discussing the Fed's recent to decision to reinvest the money it earns from mortgage backed securities back into long-term government debt the New York Times presented at length the views of Carl Walsh, an economics professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He warned that if banks suddenly withdrew the $1 trillion in reserves that they held at the Fed it could generate inflation.

While this is in principle possible, it would have been worth noting the mechanism through which inflation would be generated. The banks would have to lend out the money to firms who invest it, thereby increasing employment. This would lead to more jobs, higher wages, and then higher demand, which would allow firms to be able to raise prices.

This process takes time. The Fed would have ample opportunity to raise interest rates and slow growth before inflation got too high. Most people would probably be willing to take the risk that the economy might jump back to full employment too quickly.

 
Social Security Trust Fund: It's Real Print
Thursday, 12 August 2010 04:42

Allan Sloan is a thoughtful business columnist whose work is generally quite insightful. His piece on the Social Security trust fund is not up to his usual standards.

There is nothing mysterious or shady about the trust fund. It is an asset to the Social Security system, which means that it can be used to pay benefits. Of course, as Sloan points out, its assets are U.S. government bonds, which are liabilities for the federal government, just like the government bonds held by banks, corporations and the general public.

To see the basic logic, imagine that we had a huge private pension fund to which we all contributed a portion of our wages. Call it "Private Social Security" or PSS. Suppose that PSS had an investment policy of investing its excess contributions entirely in Treasury bonds, just as Social Security does.

At some point, PSS plans to stop accumulating money and will instead begin to sell off its Treasury bonds to meet its benefit obligations. When it begins selling these bonds, the government will have to find other buyers for its debt. This could lead to higher interest rates for the federal government, as a major buyer for its debt has now become a seller. However, no one would describe this as a problem for PSS. It is selling its bonds just as any other bondholder might do. As long as it has bonds to sell to pay its benefits, we would consider PSS to be fine in terms of its ability to meet its obligations, unless the solvency of the federal government itself was called into question.

Now, let's take away the "P." What is the problem with the Social Security trust fund selling off its bonds to pay benefits? This is exactly the way the program was designed. It quite deliberately accumulated government bonds during the years that the baby boomers were in the work force with the intention that they would be sold off when baby boomers retire to help fund their benefits.

It's true that the government must find other buyers for these bonds, or alternatively raise taxes or spend less. But, that would be equally true in the case of PSS. This is an issue for the government, but not for either the PSS pension fund or Social Security. 

And, this is not just semantics. By definition workers, and only workers, pay Social Security tax. It is a payroll tax that is capped at just $106,000, so the chairman of Goldman Sachs pays no more in Social Security tax than a senior teacher or firefighter who may also hit the wage cap. By contrast, most of the general budget is financed through personal and corporate income taxes, which disproportionately come from higher income taxpayers. So it matters hugely that the bonds held by the trust fund are repaid from general revenue, as opposed to coming from additional Social Security taxes.

It is often claimed that the Social Security surplus has been used to hide the government deficit. It is not clear what is meant by this, but the government certainly has not been doing the hiding. Every government budget document directly shows the budget deficit, excluding the surplus from Social Security. If anyone has used the surplus to hide the deficit it would be the reporters who convey information about the deficit to the public.

 

 

 
Speculators Don't Eat Grain Print
Wednesday, 11 August 2010 05:08

The NYT featured a bizarre column today by a family farmer who expressed concern that financial reform will drive speculators from the grain market. The column tells readers:

"According to the trading commission, about one-third of the long positions in hard red spring wheat futures, which is what I trade on the Minneapolis Grain Exchange, are owned by speculators. If speculators were driven out of the market, it would be as if I’d lost a third of my customers."

No, that is not quite right. Speculators may buy one-third of the wheat sold on the market, but unlike other customers, they don't keep it. Instead, they resell it. So, if speculators are driven from the market, it would be comparable to eliminating one-third of the buyers and one-third of the sellers, leaving prices on average unchanged.

The profit of speculators come at the expense of sellers and consumers. This may be an acceptable price, if they lend stability to the market. In effect, speculators can absorb the risk of price swings. However, there are reasons to believe that they can also contribute to price swings, making the market less stable. If this is the case, then their profits are a pure loss to the economy. It is also possible that the volume of speculation in the market far exceeds what would be necessary to stabilize prices. In this case the excess speculation would be a drain on the economy.

 
The Recession Really Is Not Good Print
Wednesday, 11 August 2010 04:45

David Leonhardt tells readers that the Great Recession has had some silver linings for many workers. High on his list is continued wage growth. This is misleading. All the real wage growth in this downturn occurred in the months of November and December of 2008. This was due to a plunge in the price of oil and other commodities. Since December of 2008 real wages have stagnated.

The wage growth in those two months also followed 6 years of wage stagnation. Essentially, nominal wage growth was eaten up by rising commodity prices during the upturn. These gains were then realized when prices crashed, but it is misleading to imply a pattern of consistent wage growth during the downturn.

avg-real-hr-wage

The piece also correctly notes that unemployment has been concentrated among a smaller segment of the workforce than was true in the 1981-82 recession. This is a direct implication of the high levels of long-term unemployment. However, it is also worth noting that part of the reason that unemployment is more concentrated is that the workforce is much older today.

In the 1981-82 recession the baby boom cohort was between ages 17 and 36, years when workers change jobs frequently. At present, they are between the ages of 46 and 64, years in which workers infrequently change jobs. This means that much of the reason for the greater concentration of unemployment may be due to a change in the workforce rather than the demand side of the market.

 
Has the Washington Post Gone Mad? Print
Wednesday, 11 August 2010 03:38

Confused readers may wonder based on its lead editorial complaining that supporters of Social Security: "pursue a maddening strategy of minimizing the existence of any problem and accusing those who seek solutions of trying to destroy Social Security (emphasis added)."

The piece begins by telling readers that: "THIS YEAR, for the first time since 1983, Social Security will pay out more in benefits than it receives from payroll taxes -- $41 billion. This development is not an emergency, but it is a warning sign (emphasis in original)." It certainly is a warning sign. The falloff in Social Security tax revenue is a warning that the economy is seriously depressed due to the collapse of the housing bubble. Double digit unemployment leads to all sorts of problems, including the strains that it places on pension funds like Social Security.

In a sane newspaper the next sentence would be pointing out the urgent need to get back to full employment. Instead the Post tells readers:

"Too soon, this year's anomaly will become the norm. By 2037, all the Social Security reserves will have been drained and the income flowing into the program will only be enough to pay 75 percent of scheduled benefits. If that sounds tolerable, consider that two-thirds of seniors rely on Social Security as their main source of income. The average annual benefit is $14,000. Those who care most about avoiding such painful cuts ought to be working on ways to bolster the program's finances -- and soon, when the necessary changes will be less drastic than if action is postponed."

Let's see, it would be intolerable to have Social Security pay 75 percent of scheduled benefits in 2037, but one of the Post preferred cuts is raising the retirement age to 70,a 15 percent cut in benefits when fully phased in. So the Post thinks it would be just fine to have beneficiaries get 85 percent of scheduled benefits in 2037.

Of course doing nothing today, or for the next decade, or even the next two decades, does not imply that beneficiaries will see their benefits cuts by 25 percent in 2037. The Post may not be familiar with the way Congress works, but it tends to wait until issues require action. They would know this if they had heard about the Greenspan Commission, which was established in 1982 to deal with Social Security's last crisis. It produced a set of fixes which is now expected to keep the program solvent for 54 years, and no one missed a check.

While it would not be desirable to wait until the system was literally facing a shortfall, as was the case when the Greenspan Commission, there is little obvious harm to waiting now in terms of the program's finances. A Greenspan Commission size fix put in place in 2030 would leave the program fully solvent for most of the rest of the century.

There is also a very good reason for delay. The opponents of Social Security have been spending huge amounts of money deliberately promoting misinformation. Peter Peterson, the richest and most prominent opponent, has repeatedly asserted that the Social Security trust fund does not exist. This flat earth view of the program has been given respectful treatment at the highest levels of government. When Peterson put on a daylong program on the deficit in the spring both of the co-chairs of President Obama's deficit commission took part in the program as did former President Clinton.

This massive effort to undermine confidence in the program has been largely successful. Polls show that substantial majorities of younger workers do not expect to receive their Social Security benefits.

That is not a good environment in which to debate substantial changes to the country's most important social program. Since there are several decades until the program faces any real problems, it is entirely reasonable for those who support the program to focus on educating the public about the program's financial health and to seek to delay any major changes until the Peterson-type misinformation campaigns have been defeated.

 
Silliness About the Risks of Deflation Print
Tuesday, 10 August 2010 05:05

Reporters continually discuss deflation as though something magical will happen if the rate of price growth crosses zero, and turns negative. This is silly. The point is that a lower rate of inflation raises real interest rates at a time when we want lower real interest rates. We can't lower nominal rates below zero, so any decline in the inflation rate right now is bad news.

In this sense, 0.5 percent inflation is worse than 1.5 percent inflation. The situation gets still worse if this goes to a negative inflation rate of -0.5 percent. But the drop from 0.5 percent to -0.5 percent is no worse than the drop from 1.5 percent to 0.5 percent.

This is important to understand because the fixation on deflation implies that somehow everything is okay as long as our inflation rate is still positive. That is not true: the economy is suffering from an enormous output gap leading to tens of millions of people needlessly facing unemployment or underemployment.

 
Final Demand Growth Was 1.3 Percent Print
Tuesday, 10 August 2010 04:28

This item might have been worth mentioning in a discussion of the economy's growth prospects and the Fed's response. Growth has been boosted over the last 4 quarters by an inventory cycle as firms went from depleting to building their inventories. This cycle has now ended. Inventory growth is unlikely to accelerate further in the quarters ahead.

This means that GDP growth will be close to final demand growth. Final demand growth has averaged 1.2 percent in the last four quarters and was 1.3 percent in the most recent quarter. There is no obvious reason to expect that the rate will increase in the near future.

 
If the Consumer Is Not Deceived, It's Not "Counterfeit" Print
Monday, 09 August 2010 04:44

Why do reporters feel the need to indiscriminately label unauthorized copies as "counterfeits"? The distinction is very simple and important. A copy where the consumer understands that they are not getting the brand product is not counterfeit, regardless of whether or not there is an infringement of an individual or company's intellectual property protections. This distinction is important because the consumer is clearly benefiting in this case. The consumer is preferring to purchase the copy rather than the brand product.

By contrast, an actual counterfeit product is ripping off the consumer. The consumer is an ally in combatting counterfeits, whereas consumers benefit from the opportunity to buy unauthorized copies.

This simple distinction is lost at the the Washington Post. It describes markets in China as selling "counterfeit" products when it is very clear that consumers realize that they are not purchasing the brand product.

 
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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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