Potshot at Progressive Economics Misses the Mark

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Written by Dean Baker   
Monday, 27 June 2011 19:47
In his diatribe against progressive economics Rob Atkinson included the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) in the list of institutions who he is attacking. I will let my friends at the Economic Policy Institute, the Levy Institute, Demos, and Center for American Progress argue their own cases, but Atkinson makes a number of mistakes that should be corrected.

First, his basic economic story is more than a bit confused. He is anxious to tout Germany and Japan as successes to contrast with the United States failure. While CEPR has put out numerous papers and articles over the years touting aspects of Germany's labor market policy along with that of other European welfare states (for example here, here, and here), and in particular its short work policy which has allowed Germany to actual lower its unemployment rate in this downturn, it's not clear that Germany and Japan have actually been successes in the way that Atkinson claims. Germany and Japan's productivity growth has consistently trailed that of the U.S. over the last 15 years. The gap is not huge, but it goes the wrong way for Atkinson's argument.

Germany and Japan do have large trade surpluses, as opposed to a trade deficit in the U.S., but this has a lot to do with informal protectionist barriers that presumably Atkinson does not want to see adopted in the U.S. The other major factor hurting U.S. trade is a dollar that is seriously over-valued, making U.S. goods uncompetitive. CEPR has written a great deal on this issue, arguing in numerous papers that the trade deficit will not be brought down to a manageable level until the dollar declines to a point where U.S. goods can be competitive in international markets.

Atkinson also seems not to like a vast body of research that indicates that growth is demand driven. Atkinson is right that this argument is getting old, but so is the theory of evolution. When he has some evidence showing that this research is wrong, I'm sure that he will have no problem getting an audience.

However, it is most bizarre to see Atkinson say that CEPR is not concerned about the supply conditions that foster growth. It would be almost impossible to look at our website without realizing that we deal with supply conditions all the time.

For example, we have written on alternatives to the incredibly inefficient patent system for supporting prescription drug research. In a free market drugs are cheap. As a result of patent protection, the U.S. Is projected to spend $3.7 trillion over the next decade on drugs. We could save close to 90 percent of this money ($3.3 trillion) if drugs were sold in a free market. Replacing the research currently supported by patents would cost us at most one-fourth this amount.

We have also proposed alternatives to copyright support for recorded music and videos, software, and even textbooks. The potential savings from ending copyright monopolies in these areas could easily exceed $100 billion a year.

We have also proposed a financial speculation tax which could raise close to $150 billion a year, while making the financial sector more efficient by eliminating tens of billions in transactions that serve no productive purpose.

We have also proposed expanding trade to subject highly paid professionals, like doctors, engineers, and lawyers to the same of international competition as autoworkers and steelworkers currently face. Patients could save themselves tens of thousands of dollars by getting major medical procedure in countries with more efficient health care systems. The government could save itself trillions of dollars if it let Medicare beneficiaries buy into the more efficient health care systems of countries like Canada and Germany. Unfortunately, when it comes to highly paid professional services Atkinson is an old-fashioned protectionist.

Atkinson would know that his caricature of progressive economists does not fit CEPR if he had ever looked at our website. Of course, anyone reading Atkinson's article would know there is a lot of material that he has not read.

One final point: it really is entertaining to be lectured about economics by someone who completely missed the stock and housing bubbles, the two largest asset bubbles in the history of the world.