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Morning Edition Gets It Right on Patents Print
Thursday, 17 July 2014 06:54

David Kestenbaum of the Planet Money team had an interesting piece on whether patents are an impediment or spur to innovation. The immediate issue was the decision by Tesla Motors to put all its patents in the public domain with the hope of helping to create a mass market for electric cars. However the piece went further and asked the question of whether patents actually promote innovation.

The argument in the opposite direction is that they lock up technologies for the period of the patent's duration. They also create enormous legal uncertainties since the boundaries of a patent's applicability are rarely clear. This means that a deep-pocketed patent holder can often scare away potential innovators with the threat of a lawsuit.

The piece includes an interview with David Levine and Michele Boldrin, who have been warning of the economic harms of patents and copyrights for more than a decade. They also maintain the fascinating website AgainstMonopoly.org.

One area where I would disagree with their argument about experimenting with an alternative approach is the suggestion in the interview that the way to get from here to there is through a gradual shortening of patent duration. This may actually provide little benefit since all the legal structures around patents and the need for secrecy would still be in place. As a result there may be little, if any, perceptible benefit from reducing patent duration from 20 to 18 years, for example.

An alternative would be to carve out areas where research would be publicly funded with all findings and patents put in the public domain. For example, the government could set aside $5 billion a year to finance the research and development of new cancer drugs. We would then be able to compare progress in an area where the research is all openly available and the final products are all sold as generics compared to output in areas that rely on the current patent system. This would provide a quicker and simpler test of the relative merits of research supported by government granted patent monopolies as opposed to research supported by direct upfront funding.

(Publicly funded patents could be subject to a "copyleft" principle where anyone can freely use them as long as they themselves don't use the patent to develop a privately held patent. If they do go that route then they would have to negotiate a payment to the government just as they would a private patent holder.)    

 

Note; Typos corrected.

 
Robert Samuelson Gets Part-Time Work Seriously Wrong Print
Thursday, 17 July 2014 04:53

For decades people have relied on Robert Samuelson to give a confused rendering of economic reality in the pages of the Washington Post. He came through again today in his warnings about an explosion of part-time work.

The centerpiece of Samuelson's concern is a reported, "whopping — 1,115,000 — increase in part-time jobs offset by the 708,000 loss in full-time jobs." Yes, that sounds pretty worrying. The number of full-time jobs is plunging. 

The reason that you are hearing this concern raised by Robert Samuelson and not by any of the economists or analysts who commented on the June jobs report is that the latter group understands the volatility of the data in the household survey from which the numbers on part-time work is obtained. It is not uncommon to see sharp month-to-month movements in part-time or full-time work. This is why economists generally ignore the month to month changes in these numbers in the household survey and rely instead on longer period changes, like year over year comparisons.

If Robert Samuelson had written this piece last month, before the release of the June data, he could have been decrying the disappearance of part-time work, since the economy had lost 318,000 part-time jobs in the prior two months. No one can believe that we really saw a sharp drop in part-time in April and May, only to be reversed by a huge surge in June. These numbers are simply errors in the survey. This is why no one raised the monthly movements.

There is an interesting story if we look at the year over year numbers. These numbers do show an increase in the number of part-time work, but all on the voluntary side. Voluntary part-time employment increased by 840,000 from June of 2013 to June of 2014. At the same time involuntary part-time employment fell by 650,000, leaving a net gain of 190,000. Since this was accompanied by a year over year change in total employment of 2,146,000 jobs, it implies a gain in full-time employment of 1,956,000 jobs. Are you scared?

There is actually a story (a good one in my view) of increased part-time work. Many people would prefer to work part-time. They have young children or ill family members they would like to spend time with. Or, they may be older workers who would like to partially retire. Before the passage of the Affordable Care Act these people might have worked full-time because this was the only way they could get health care insurance. However now that they can get insurance on the exchanges, they have the option to work part-time. I don't see the problem with this.

Samuelson does raise the issue that employers are cutting workers hours to less than 30 to avoid the employer sanctions that apply to firms who have more than 50 full-time employees but don't provide health care insurance. The imposition of these sanctions has been delayed, but Helene Jorgensen and I looked at the evidence that such hours reductions were happening in the first half of 2013 when employers thought the sanctions would apply to them. (The Obama administration announced the delay of the sanctions in early July of 2013.) There was none.   

 
Free Trade: The Answer to the Question of "How do you pay for a drug that costs $84,000?" Print
Wednesday, 16 July 2014 12:58

Wonkblog let down its readers badly in a piece on Sovaldi, the hepatitis C drug that Gilead Sciences is marketing in the United States at the price of $84,000 per treatment. While the post is headlined with the question in the title, it never makes the obvious point that the drug really doesn't "cost" $84,000.

This is the price that Gilead Sciences charges. It is able to get away with charging the price because the government gave it a patent monopoly, which means that any competitors would be arrested. In India, where the government ruled that the drug did not deserve a patent (it is a combination drug, not a new chemical compound) the generic version is sold for less than $1,000. "How do you pay for a drug that costs $1,000?" is a much simpler question to answer.

Of course if we did not give drug companies patent monopolies we would need an alternative mechanism for financing research, but such alternatives do exist as people know who have heard of the National Institutes of Health, which get $30 billion a year from the government. (The Defense Department provides another example of how research and development can be paid for upfront, rather than recovered through patent monopolies.)

If the research was financed up front we would not have to deal with Wonkblog's $84,000 question. We also wouldn't be giving drug companies an incredible incentive to lie, cheat, and steal in order to maximize the sale of a product on which they have a mark-up in the neighborhood of 10,000 percent.

 

Note: Typos corrected, thanks to Robert Salzberg.

 
President Obama Wants to Spend $302 Billion on Transportation Over the Next Four Years Print
Wednesday, 16 July 2014 04:49

Feel informed? That's the information you would have gotten from reading the NYT article on the debate over a new transportation bill. In case you cared, this comes to about 1.8 percent of projected federal spending over the next four years or about $240 per person per year. But hey, everyone knows how much $302 billion over the next four years is.

 
NYT Says 12.4 Percent Growth in China Is "Sputtering" Print
Wednesday, 16 July 2014 04:22

The NYT had a piece on the release of new data showing China's economy was 7.5 percent larger in the second quarter of 2014 than a year ago. While the piece noted that this is a healthy pace, even for China, it told readers:

"Three of the four cylinders of the Chinese economy — exports, private sector construction and retail sales — are sputtering."

It then went on to explain that the government sector is filling the gap with large-scale lending. Readers were then warned that this pattern cannot continue because China would reach the limits of its borrowing capacity.

"Some economists inside and outside the government say China has a choice: slow down lending and accept steady declines in economic growth each year, or continue heavy lending and risk a sharp drop in economic growth someday when the financial system begins to teeter. But nobody knows when that might happen."

If that sounds very scary then it's worth reading through to the last paragraph:

"Retail sales are growing strongly, up 12.4 percent in June from a year earlier, according to the government figures released Wednesday, nearly matching a pace of 12.5 percent in May."

As the article explains, real wages for factory workers are rising at more than an 8.0 percent annual rate. If that pace of real wage growth continues, the country should not have to worry about a lack of demand in the years ahead.

 
Taxpayer Subsidy to Former Hospital CEO Is Equal to 16,800 Months of Food Stamps Print
Wednesday, 16 July 2014 04:00

We all know how hard it is to get by on a $5 million a year salary in New York City. Therefore readers should not feel bad about subsidizing the $5.6 million paycheck for Herbert Pardes, the former CEO of New York-Presbyterian Hospital and now the executive vice-chairman of its board of trustees. 

The NYT had an interesting piece on Dr. Pardes salary as well as the pay of other top executives at large hospitals. However the piece erred in presenting the issue of these large paychecks as a question of social justice versus market outcomes. As a top executive of a tax exempt institution, Dr. Pardes is being subsidized by taxpayers. If we assume that most of the money that he is soliciting for the hospital is coming from people in the top tax bracket, then taxpayers are paying roughly 40 percent of the money that Dr. Pardes is able to collect. If taxpayers were not providing this subsidy it is likely that he would be raising considerably less money for the hospital, which would make his market value considerably lower.

There is an argument that the public may want to subsidize the provision of health care by New York-Presbyterian Hospital. It is not clear what the argument would be that school teachers and firefighters should be subsidizing the paycheck of a hospital executive earning more than $5 million (16,800 months worth of food stamp benefits) a year. 

 
Get Me Another Bucketfull of Economic Nonsense: The Rich Boys Want to Pass the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership Print
Tuesday, 15 July 2014 04:37

Economics just flies out the window when the business interests want to get a trade deal passed. The NYT gave us more evidence of this fact in an article on the state of negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).

The article tells us that the TTIP appears to be facing troubles because of the opposition of environmental and consumer groups and the recent spying scandal in Germany. This opposition is presented as sort of tragic given the need for a deal:

"From the European side, new impetus for freer trade came on Monday in the form of new industrial production data indicating that the eurozone’s incipient economic recovery might have taken a step backward."

You've got to love this one. Europe just got new data showing that industrial production was weak last month, therefore it needs to push ahead with a trade agreement, that in the most optimistic scenario will not be signed before the end of the year. It will then be phased in over the next decade. Yeah, that's a good way of addressing weak economic data from May.

What's more striking is the mix of a discussion of real trade issues with regulatory issues that business interests are using to obstruct progress on trade. The starting point of the piece is how current trade rules cause Mercedes-Benz and Freightliner to take apart cargo vans in Europe so that they can be shipped to the United States to be reassembled. Of course this is a pointless source of inefficiency and waste. The vans could be sold more cheaply to consumers if they could be shipped as is, without the needless dis-assembly and reassembly. Eliminating the rules that lead to this practice is a great story how an agreement can lead to economic gains.

But the piece goes on to tell us that the negotiators are interested in much more than eliminating trade barriers. According to the article, they want to take away Europeans' right to set their own health, safety, and pollution standards. The article tells readers that the working proposal is that if a product meets standards in either the U.S. or Europe then it can be sold in both places.

This means, for example, that Europeans would have to give up  plans to impose energy efficiency requirements on cars or other products, if the U.S. Congress didn't agree to the same standards. Given that a large segment of the Congress claims not to believe in global warming, it is understandable that Europeans would not be inclined to accept this position. The same would apply to regulations of food, drugs, and other consumer products.

The article doesn't mention this fact, but much of the focus of the deal will be on increasing forms of protectionism, specifically copyright and patent protection. These policies will raise prices and slow growth. Also, if the concern was in reducing barriers that raise prices, items like the protectionism that makes doctors' pay twice as high in the United States as in Europe would be front and center. But of course reducing barriers that protect the earnings of highly paid professionals is never on the agenda in trade negotiations.

As a practical matter, if the agenda of TTIP were simply removing actual trade barriers, like the ones that provide the backdrop for this piece, the deal could probably be concluded and approved fairly quickly. However, these trade barriers are a small portion of the TTIP agenda. The weakening of consumer, safety, and enviromental regulations to make them more friendly to corporations is the main point of TTIP. Powerful business interests are happy to hold the real but modest economic gains from freer trade hostage in order to advance their regulatory agenda. 

 

 

 
More Fun with the Export-Import Bank: It's the Customers, Stupid Print
Tuesday, 15 July 2014 03:58

Wow, the pundit class is really worried about the Export-Import Bank reauthorization. Today's big shot comes from NYT columnist Joe Nocera.

Nocera is honest enough to acknowledge that big companies like Boeing and Caterpillar are the main recipients of support. The Export-Import bank supporters have been pushing the line that most loans go to small businesses. This is of course true, but most of the money goes to the Boeings and Caterpillars, and serious people care about the money, not the number of loans going out the bank's door.

Nocera's twist is that real beneficiaries are the customers of the big companies, not the companies:

"First, customers of these big companies get the bulk of the Ex-Im Bank’s assistance. ...

"Second, most of the arguments made against the Ex-Im Bank revolve around its help to the big companies, not the small ones. For instance, it is argued that big companies have their own means of helping customers finance deals. That’s true, but it’s the customers, not the companies, that are pushing for export credit guarantees. A Boeing source told me that it is hearing from customers and potential customers about the fate of the Ex-Im Bank. 'It’s a big deal,' my source said, especially in places like Africa, where conventional financing for aircraft is hard to come by."

Okay, this one should get be worth a big burst of laughter from a comedy show laugh track. Imagine that, a "Boeing source" told a New York Times columnist that the Export-Import Bank is really about helping the companies customers. Yeah, how could anyone question that. (This is like when companies oppose pollution regulations because they are worried about their workers' jobs.)

The story here is not very complicated for believers in economics. If there were no subsidies from the Bank, Boeing would have to accept somewhat lower profits on its deals. It would likely make up some, but not all, of the value of the Bank's subsidy. This means that the customers would be looking at slightly higher prices. Life's tough. (Let's get a list of the customers and see if they rank higher than veterans or inner city kids as beneficiaries of the taxpayers largesse.)

In some cases, the higher price will mean that Boeing will lose the deal to a competitor. That's known as capitalism, it happens all the time.

It speaks volumes that at the same time the establishment pundits are getting hysterical over the dire consequences of not reauthorizing the Ex-Im Bank, the WTO issued a ruling against the U.S. over tariffs against Chinese and Indian steel imports. This ruling is likely to cost more U.S. jobs than the shutting of the Ex-Im Bank, but odds are none of the pundits will speak against it. Draw your own conclusions.   

Of course the real free trade position is to lower the value of the dollar against other countries' currencies. That is how a trade deficit is supposed to be corrected in a world of floating exchange rates, like the one we are supposed to have. However the dollar does not fall to bring our deficit into balance because many countries, most notably China, buy up hundreds of billions of dollars to keep the dollar over-valued. The over-valued dollar makes our exports expensive (like taking away the subsidy from the Ex-Im Bank) and makes imports cheaper to people in the United States, crowding out domestically produced goods.

In an economy suffering from secular stagnation, we have no market mechanism to replace the $500 billion dollars in demand (3 percent of GDP) lost to the trade deficit. Adding in a multiplier effect, this deficit costs us around $750 billion in annual output or around 6 million jobs. Unlike the Ex-Im Bank, there is real money and real jobs at stake with the value of the dollar. It would be great for Joe Nocera to write about that.

 
Yet More Frat Boy Budget Reporting at the Washington Post Print
Monday, 14 July 2014 10:25

Some folks might think that a newspapers job is to convey information to its readers: not the Washington Post. At least when it comes to budget reporting the Post firmly believes in the frat boy ritual of throwing out really big numbers that will be almost meaningless to virtually all of its readers.

It gave us one such ritualistic piece on Saturday that discussed new budget projections from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Among other things the piece told readers:

"The White House said Friday that the federal budget deficit will fall to $583 billion this year, the smallest deficit of President Obama’s tenure and the first to dip below $600 billion since the Great Recession took hold in 2008. ...

"The White House predicts that the nation’s finances will deteriorate markedly over the next decade, with deficits rising nearly $600 billion above previous projections. ...

"When Obama took office in 2009, the economy was in free fall and the budget deficit was soaring toward $1.4 trillion, the first of four consecutive trillion-dollar deficits that drove the national debt to the highest level as a percentage of the economy since the end of World War II. ...

"Democrats hailed Friday’s White House deficit forecast, which came on the same day as a Treasury Department announcement that the government recorded a surplus of $71 billion for the month of June. ....

"Republicans, meanwhile, noted that the long-term outlook remains gloomy, with the national debt forecast to rise to more than $25 trillion by 2024 if Obama’s policies are enacted.

"On Friday, the debt stood at $17.6 trillion."

Feel well informed? The amazing part of this story is that the reporter did not even herself have to wade through the long arduous process of dividing the numbers by GDP to make them somewhat meaningful to readers. This information was actually contained in the blogpost by OMB director Brian Deese to which the piece links.

She could have told readers that the new projections show a deficit of 3.4 percent of GDP for fiscal 2014, which is projected to fall to 3.0 percent of GDP in 2015. The size of the deficit is projected to continue to fall, hitting 2.1 percent of GDP in 2024.

While the Post piece implies that the debt situation is bad news ("remains gloomy) by just giving dollar numbers without any context, in fact it is projected to edge down slightly. The ratio of total debt (including money owed to the Social Security trust fund) to GDP is currently just over 100 percent. The latest OMB numbers project the debt to GDP ratio falls to 94.1 percent of GDP in 2024. In short, for deficit hawks the reality is the opposite of what the Post article asserts.

In addition to its frat boy use of numbers, it is also worth elaborating slightly on the pieces reference to "painful but historic spending cuts." The budget cuts were painful to millions of people who were denied work since the government was reducing demand in a badly depressed economy, therefore leaving more people without jobs. They were also painful to tens of millions of workers who were unable to secure a share of the gains from economic growth in higher wages because the weak labor market left them with little bargaining power.

The cuts probably were not painful to most business owners or highly paid professionals. The former have seen profits hit a record share of GDP, likely in part due to the fact that wages are low. The latter have benefited from being able to hire cheap help, since workers have few choices in a labor market that has been kept weak by budget cuts.

Addendum:

It is worth noting that the burden of the debt is measured by the amount of debt service, not the size of the debt. The latest OMB reports a net interest burden in 2024 of 3.0 percent of GDP. This is slightly less than its early 1990s levels. Thanks to Robert Salzberg for reminding me about this point.

 

Note: Type corrected, thanks to Rodrigo.

Read more...

 

 
Central Bank Battles Against Bubbles Print
Friday, 11 July 2014 05:41

In a Wonkblog post Matt O'Brien discusses central bank efforts to deal with bubbles. His starting point is the decision by the central bank in Sweden to begin raising interest rates in 2010, ostensibly to head off the development of a bubble there.

There are two points worth noting here. First, it is difficult to imagine what the central bankers were drinking in Sweden when they decided to start shooting at bubbles. A bubble that threatens the economy is a bubble that moves the economy. If there is a bubble in Uber stock or the price of hops, there is little consequence to the economy when the bubbles burst.

The crashes of the stock bubble and the housing bubble led to recessions because these bubbles were driving the economy. This was easy to see in the data in both cases. In the first case, the investment share of GDP hit the highest level in more than two decades as people were able to raise billions in IPOs for utterly nonsense dot.coms. Consumption surged to then record shares of income as the stock wealth effect caused spending to surge. This boost to the economy disappeared when the bubble burst.

There was a similar story with the housing bubble. Residential construction hit a record share of GDP, roughly 50 percent above its average over the prior two decades. Consumption surged to an even higher share of income, driven by the housing wealth effect. And, when this bubble burst we got the Great Recession.

There were no obvious distortions in the Swedish economy when its central bank started shooting at bubbles. Its savings rate was relatively high and the country had a huge trade surplus (as opposed to deficits in bubble driven economies like the U.S. and Spain). The bubbles that really matter are not hard to see. Economists like to pretend otherwise since almost all of them missed the last one, but that reflects the competence of economists, not the inherent difficulty in recognizing bubbles.

The other point is that central banks do have many tools other than interest rates to attack bubbles. My favorite is talk.

I know it doesn't sound sophisticated and it's not terribly mathematical, but I suspect it would have a very large impact on the housing market if Janet Yellen were to say that she thought house prices were over-valued and that the Fed would be prepared to take steps to bring prices in line with fundamentals. Note that I am referring to an explicit warning backed up by Fed research, not a mumbled "irrational exuberance" subsequently qualified by incoherent gibberish. I would certainly take such a warning seriously if I was thinking of buying a house.

I know this view is dismissed by economists, but it's hard to see the downside of trying this path. The worst I've heard is that this could damage the Fed's credibility if house prices didn't fall. Given that we have lost many trillions of dollars of output and millions of people have seen their lives ruined from the collapse of the housing bubble and the ensuing recession, the risk of the Fed's credibility seems a small price to pay in such circumstances.

 
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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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