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It is striking how the media universally accept the idea that patent and copyright monopolies are somehow free trade. We get that the people who own and control major news outlets like these forms of protection, but it is incredibly dishonest to claim that they are somehow free trade.

We get this story yet again in an NYT piece complaining about China's "theft" of intellectual property while telling readers about how Trump's proposed tariffs show his:

"[...]resolve to turn away from a decades-long move toward open markets and integrated world economies and toward a more starkly protectionist approach that erects barriers around a Fortress America."

While we are supposed to be alarmed about tariffs of 10 percent and 25 percent on steel and aluminum, patents and copyrights are effectively tariffs of many thousand percents, often raising the price of protected items tenfold or even a hundredfold. The economic impact of increased protectionism of this type has been enormous.

This can be seen clearly in the case of prescription drugs, where spending went from around 0.4 percent of GDP in the 1960s and 1970s to 2.4 percent of GDP ($450 billion) in 2017, as shown below.

Book3 4096 image001

Source: Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Since drugs are almost invariably cheap to manufacture, we would likely be spending less than $80 billion a year in the absence of patent and related protections, implying a cost of protectionism of more than $370 billion, and this is just from drug patents. Adding in costs in medical equipment, software, and other areas would likely more than double and quite possibly triple this amount.

The supporters of this protectionism argue that we need patent and copyright monopolies to provide an incentive for innovation and creative work. However, there are two major flaws in this argument.

First, while these monopolies are one way to finance research, they are not the only way. There are other mechanisms, such as direct government funding (we already spend more than $30 billion a year on biomedical research through the National Institutes of Health). Given the enormous cost associated with this protectionism, it would be reasonable to be debating the relative merits of alternatives. (See also Chapter 5 of Rigged: How Globalization and the Rules of the Modern Economy Were Structured to Make the Rich Richer.)

The other point is even simpler. We have been making patent and copyright protection stronger and longer for the last four decades. We know that this shifts more money from the rest of us to those who benefit from these protections. Even if we decide that these mechanisms are the best way to finance innovation and creative work, it does not mean that making them stronger and longer is always justified.

We should be asking the question of how much additional innovation or creative work do we get for an increment to strengthen and lengthen. This debate never takes place.

This creates the absurd situation where we put in place policies that are designed to transfer money from the rest of us to people like Bill Gates and then we wonder why we have so much income inequality. And the best part of the story is that some of the big gainers from these protections will even finance research as to why we have so much inequality, as long as it doesn't ask questions about patent and copyright protection.

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No, they are not endorsing his tariffs on steel and aluminum, but the paper is very concerned that Trump is not effectively protecting US intellectual property claims. The Post ran a piece that made it appear that a lack of protection for these claims should be a major concern for the public, as opposed to just the corporations that stand to lose profits.

The ostensible issue is that China allegedly doesn't respect US claims to intellectual property in a variety of areas. The piece tells readers:

"Trade secret theft — most from China — costs the U.S. economy $225 billion to $600 billion annually, a blue-ribbon commission on intellectual property concluded last year."

By contrast, it argues that Trump's proposed tariffs on China's electronic goods are misdirected:

"If Trump opts for a 25 percent tariff on all Chinese electronics, the cost to the U.S. economy over 10 years would total $332 billion, according to the nonprofit [corporate backed] Information Technology and Innovation Foundation."


"China’s treatment of foreign intellectual property may have been only an irritant when it manufactured low-tech products such as toys or clothing and assembled electronics for export. As Beijing covets global leadership in advanced technology, its industrial policies have grown into a threat to American economic and military pre-eminence."

In contrast to the $332 billion ten-year cost to the US economy that the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) calculated for Trump's tariffs, the cost of the intellectual property protections over this period would run well into the trillions of dollars. In the case of prescription drugs alone, the United States will spend more than $450 billion for drugs which would almost certainly cost less than $80 billion in a free market. The difference of $370 billion a year is more than the ten-year total cost of tariffs on electronics calculated by ITIF.

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Not deliberately of course, but the NYT had this great piece on how the junk food industry is trying to limit required warnings on junk food as part a renegotiated NAFTA. The issue is that our trading partners are looking to take measures to discourage people from eating foods that are high in sugar, fat, and salt. Several cities and states are considering similar measures. The junk food industry is looking to block such measures by getting a ban included in the new NAFTA.

If you're wondering what this has to do with free trade, the answer is nothing. However, it is a beautiful example of an industry working to use a trade agreement to subvert the democratic process to advance its interests in a trade deal. If the junk food industry gets its way, the resulting pact will then be blessed as a "free trade" deal. The Washington Post and all the other beacons of the establishment will the proclaim their support for the new NAFTA and denounce opponents as Neanderthal protectionists.

Many of us have long been making the point that recent trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership have little to do with trade and are more about locking in place a business-friendly structure of regulation. But it took the clumsy ineptitude of the Trump Administration to remove any veneer. Thank you, President Trump. 


Thanks to Robert Salzberg for corrections from an earlier version.

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Yes, things could really nasty. In discussing the ways in which China might retaliate against tariffs, the Post told readers:

"China is also the largest foreign holder of U.S. government debt. It holds $1.17 trillion of U.S. Treasury securities, down about $33.5 billion since last August. The U.S. government faces huge borrowing needs, not only to finance new deficits but also to refinance past securities now coming due, so a drop in China’s appetite for that debt could nudge interest rates up in the United States."

The purchasing of US government bonds by China's central bank was the main tool through which it propped up the dollar against the yuan. The high-valued dollar makes Chinese goods cheaper relative to US goods, allowing it to run a large trade surplus with the United States.

If China were to sell some of the US bonds it holds, it would raise the value of the yuan, making US goods and services relatively more competitive. This is supposedly what both the Bush and Obama administrations wanted China to do. (I said "supposedly" because this was their public position. I don't know what happened in their private discussions.)

It is also worth noting that it appears Trump's major complaint is that he wants more protectionism in the form of stronger patent and copyright protections in China. If he succeeds in this effort, it will mean higher prices for consumers in both the United States and China. For some reason, the Post is not as concerned about the impact of these potential price increases as it is about the impact of higher steel and aluminum prices.

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Eswar Prasad makes the case in an NYT column that we should be paying attention to the selection of Yi Gang to head China's central bank as a result of China's status as the world's second-largest economy. Prasad is right about the importance of China's central bank in the world economy, but it is worth noting that by purchasing power parity (PPP) measures China is already by far the world's largest economy.

Purchasing power parity calculations of GDP attempt to measure all the goods and services produced by a country with a common set of prices. This means we add up all the cars, tables, haircuts, knee surgeries etc. produced in both the US and China and assume that each item costs the same in both countries.

According to the projections from the IMF, China's GDP is already 25 percent larger by this measure and will be almost 50 percent larger by the end of the projection period in 2022, as shown in the figure below.

Book3 11021 image001

Source: International Monetary Fund.

The US economy is still considerably larger using the exchange rate measure of GDP, but for many purposes, the PPP measure is more appropriate. For example, if we want to gauge the extent to which China's exports of steel or other items may affect world markets, we would want to know the PPP measure of output, not the exchange rate. Also, if we are looking at living standards, we would want to look at per capita GDP using the PPP measure. (Since China has four times the population of the US, it is still less than one third as rich on a per person basis.)

The PPP measure is also not subject to wild swings like the exchange rate measure. This means, for example, if the Chinese currency were to rise by 20 percent against the dollar, the exchange rate measure of GDP would rise by 20 percent. The PPP measure would not be affected.

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It's hard not to have a certain attachment to the Post's longstanding crusade against Social Security and Medicare. After all, it has been pushing for cuts to these programs at least since I came to town in 1992. They did in the high deficit years of the early 1990s, the boom times of the late 1990s, the housing bubble years of the 2000s, and through the Great Recession. So the Post calling for cuts to these programs is pretty much as predictable as the sun coming up. So this morning's call for "reform" is a bit like the morning coffee, although somewhat less pleasant.

At the most basic level, you sort of have to love the Post criticizing politicians for not wanting to go on record for cuts to these programs even when the editorial writers, who don't have to run for office, are scared to say what they actually want and instead use the euphemism "reform" when they mean cuts. But, the substance is also a bit hard to take.

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We all know about the skills shortage. Employers just can't find workers with the skills necessary for the jobs that are available. As a result, jobs go wanting and many workers remain unemployed.

Samuelson gives us yet another example of the skills shortage in his column titled, "Don't deny the link between poverty and single parenthood." Apparently, Samuelson was irked by a column in the NYT last month that told readers "Single mothers are not the problem."

The piece argues that there are not enough single mothers to explain child poverty. Therefore as Samuelson puts it:

"[...]let’s put the Times essay in context. Its policy agenda is candid. 'We should stop obsessing over how many single mothers there are and stop shaming them,' write sociologists David Brady of the University of California at Riverside, Ryan M. Finnigan of the University of California at Davis and Sabine Hübgen of WBZ Berlin Social Science Center."

Samuelson tells us:

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It is amazing how otherworldly seemingly intelligent people can sometimes be. The NYT ran a column by Alec Schierenbeck arguing that fines for things like parking and traffic violations should be progressive.

The point is that a $150 speeding ticket is no big deal to a high-priced doctor or lawyer, whereas it is a huge deal to a mother working at a near minimum wage job. This fine may be an impossible for burden for the latter, possibly leading to eviction or even imprisonment in some cases for failing to make court appearances connected with non-payment.

Schierenbeck is 100 percent right in this basic point, but in a country where the justice system is already so unbelievably tilted to favor the rich, the idea that we would make fines income-based is hopelessly utopian. Perhaps Schierenbeck is not old enough to remember the housing crash and the resulting financial crisis. This literally cost the country trillions in lost output, as millions lost their jobs and homes.

People in the financial industry committed serious crimes. They passed along mortgages they knew to be fraudulent in mortgage-backed securities. The credit rating agencies blessed these mortgage-backed securities as investment grade even though they knew they were garbage. No one went to jail because our country doesn't put rich people who commit financial crimes in jail.

And, this wasn't a one-off event. Let's see Donald Trump or Jared Kushner's tax returns. I would be willing to bet that there are bogus deductions that rip off more money from the taxpayers than the amounts that many convicted small thieves are sitting in jail for. And, this is a bi-partisan story. I'm sure there is lots of garbage on Robert Rubin's tax returns or Tony James'.

We live in a country where it is standard practice for rich people to get away with breaking the law in really big ways and facing, at worst, a slap on the wrist if they get caught. So yes, it would be fairer if the fines for minor offenses were income-based, but we don't live in a country where fairness between the rich and poor is taken seriously, and it is an insult to NYT readers to pretend we are.

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Many large companies managed to get some good publicity by announcing bonuses for their workers which they said were the fruits of the tax cuts. We, of course, have no way of knowing the extent to which these bonuses were due to the tax cut or were simply a story of companies trying to retain workers in a tighter labor market. 

In that context, it would have been better to see pay increases, which presumably will be in place in subsequent years and provide a higher basis for future pay raises. Of course, some companies did announce that they were raising workers pay also, in addition to some who improved retirement and other benefits.

All of that is good, but it does still miss the point of the Republican tax cut story. Their claims of workers getting $4,000 to $9,000 more in annual income did not depend on companies sharing their tax cuts. Rather it is a story that depends on a tidal wave of new investment increasing productivity. Higher productivity five or ten years out is supposed to mean higher wages.

The early returns on the investment-productivity story are not good, but we still can't say anything conclusive on the investment boom story. But we can join in the game to see what share of company tax cuts are being shared with workers through the much-hyped bonuses.

I did a quick calculation where I used the income and taxes reported in companies' 2016 annual report and compared it to what they would be paying at the new 21 percent tax rate, to calculate companies' tax savings. This likely understates the tax savings since many companies will undoubtedly find ways to pay less than the 21 percent statutory rate. Also, presumably their profits and therefore savings will be higher in 2018 than in 2016. It is also important to remember that their tax savings will be an annual deal, recurring for the indefinite future, whereas the workers' bonuses are a one-time event.

The figure below gives the picture.

Book1 221 image002

Source: Author's calculations.

The bonus figures are taken from The Americans for Tax Reform "list of tax reform good news." I did make some assumptions to get the ratios. For example, in the case of Walmart, they reported giving a maximum bonus of $1,000 which went to a full-time worker who had been with the company for 20 years. I assumed that the average bonus for its 1.6 million workers would be half of this amount. I generally tried to be generous in these assumptions.



I forget to mention that the Republicans effectively paid companies to announce bonuses before the end of last year. A bonus announced in 2017 could be deducted against 2017 profits, even though it may not be paid until 2018. This makes a big difference since companies faced a 35 percent tax rate in 2017, compared with a 21 percent tax rate in 2018.

This means, for example, that the $800 million in bonuses that Walmart is promising only cost the company only cost the company $520 million (65 percent of $800 million) because they announced it in 2017. If they had waited until 2018 the bonuses would have cost them $632 million (79 percent of $800 million). In effect, Walmart was paid $112 million to announce its bonuses before the end of 2017. This is the same story for any company considering bonuses for its workers.

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As someone whose mother took him to Bargain Town (the original name for Toys 'R' Us) when I was a little kid, it's hard not to feel sad to see Toys 'R' Us being liquidated. There were obviously many factors involved in the company's collapse. It faced serious competition from first Walmart and then Amazon and other internet retailers in a rapidly changing environment.

This situation would have made prospering difficult for Toys 'R' Us in any case, but its takeover by private equity was what really pounded the nails in the coffin. In 2005, two private equity companies took over the company and immediately loaded it up with debt, a standard practice for private equity.

This can be a profitable strategy, since the interest payments are tax-deductible for the company, whereas dividends paid out to shareholders are not. Private equity companies also often use debt to pay out dividends to themselves so they can quickly recover much of what they spent to purchase the company. (To get the full story on private equity read Private Equity at Work: When Wall Street Manages Main Street, by my colleague Eileen Appelbaum and Rose Batt.)

Essentially, what the debt does is create a highly leveraged bet where the private equity company stands to make a huge return on its investment if the company survives and can again be taken public. If it fails, as was the case with Toys 'R' Us, they may still come out ahead from the dividend payouts and various management fees charged to the company.

If this strategy is good for private equity, then who ends up as losers? Well, most obviously the 33,000 workers who stand to lose their jobs with the liquidation. Apparently, there is a possibility that some of the stores may be sold off and operated by a competitor, so perhaps some of these jobs can be saved, but clearly, most of these people will be looking for new work.

The people who lent Toys 'R' Us money also stand to lose, as the bankruptcy likely means they will only be repaid a small part of their loans. There should not be too many tears shed here. Presumably, the lenders understand the risk of giving money to a highly indebted company. They should have charged a high-interest rate to compensate for the risk.

The more serious issue is with the inadvertent creditors. These are the suppliers that may have sold the company merchandise on credit. It may also include companies that provide services to Toys 'R' Us, such as a trucking company or a cleaning service. These companies didn't intend to make loans to Toys 'R' Us, they just were following normal business practices in providing goods and services in advance of payment. Perhaps they should have been more careful, given the financial situation of Toys 'R' Us, but businesses don't always do credit checks on their customers in advance of making sales. Anyhow, in addition to losing an important customer, these suppliers are likely to see big losses from the money owed to them by Toys 'R' Us.

There are things that can be done to rein in private equity. First, the asymmetric treatment of interest and dividend payments in the tax code makes little sense. One of the positive items in the Republican tax bill last fall was a cap on the deductibility of interest at 30 percent of profits. (The bill includes the Donald J. Trump exception for real estate.) This should provide less incentive for private equity companies to go the high debt route in the future.

It is also important to follow the assets. In many cases, the private equity company effectively shifts the profitable assets, like real estate, to other corporations under their control, so that creditors have no assets to seize. Bankruptcy courts have to police this shuffle the asset routine and hold the private equity company itself liable when a company under its control has not been properly compensated for the loss of an asset.

Most importantly, long-term workers should be compensated for their time with the company. The United States is the only wealthy country that allows workers to be fired at will with no compensation. 

Some reasonable compensation, say two weeks of pay per year of work, would provide long-term workers with help transitioning to new employment. More importantly, it changes the incentive for companies. If they know they will have to pay 40 weeks of severance pay to a worker who has been with the company for 20 years, they will think more about keeping this worker on the payroll and training them to be more productive, rather than just dumping her.

While the Republican Congress is not likely to be interested in taking a step like this to help workers, severance pay is something that can be put in place at the state level. (Montana already has a law requiring compensation for long-term workers who are dismissed without cause.) More progressive states like California, New York, or Washington can take the lead here, as they have on other issues.

As long as we will have a capitalist economy, we will have companies that go out of business. But we should not structure our tax and bankruptcy laws to make going out of business profitable. And, we should ensure that workers end up treated fairly in the process.

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It would be interesting to know how the paper made that determination, but it referred to "China’s theft of American intellectual property" as a matter of fact. China is bound by the TRIPS provisions in the WTO, but there are many different interpretations of these rules.

Perhaps the NYT has analyzed China's practices and determined they violate TRIPS. If so, they should share this analysis with its readers.

It is also worth noting that the enforcement of intellectual property rules in China is a factor increasing inequality. The overwhelming beneficiaries of these rules are at the top end of the income distribution. On the other hand, if China doesn't have to pay royalties and licensing fees to Bill Gates and his ilk, the items China produces will be available for lower costs to US consumers.

This is the same argument that "free traders" always make about how tariffs are bad, except the beneficiaries from the protection of intellectual property are almost exclusively people at the top end of the income ladder, and there is much more money involved than with tariffs. Of course, if we have longer and stronger protections for intellectual property then liberal foundations can give more money to economists to figure out the causes of inequality.

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It was widely reported that Donald Trump confronted Canada's prime minister Justin Trudeau over his country's trade surplus with the United States. Trump was mocked in these stories since they claimed that Canada actually has a trade deficit with the United States. When confronted with this alleged fact, Trump boasted about just making up numbers in his exchange with Canada's prime minister.

It turns out that Trump is actually correct about Canada's trade surplus with the United States. The Commerce Department data that reporters used to show a trade surplus includes re-exports. These are items that are shipped through the United States, but are not produced in the United States. For example, if a German car company ships 1000 cars through New York, and 100 of these end up in Canada, the 100 cars would be counted as US exports even though they were not produced in the United States.

The United Nations has a database which separates out re-exports. When this is done, Canada's deficit turns into a surplus in the neighborhood of $20–$30 billion. This means that Trump was correct in his charge.

To be clear, this doesn't excuse the president meeting another head of government and not knowing what he is talking about. Nor does it necessarily mean Canada is doing anything wrong because it has a trade surplus with the United States. (We could address this by reducing our oil consumption.) Donald Trump may not care about getting his numbers right but the rest of us should.

Thanks to Lori Wallach of Public Citizen for calling my attention to this point.

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A lot of folks are running around making a big point of the fact that Larry Kudlow, Trump's new head of the National Economic Council, has gotten a lot of things about the economy wrong, and in particular missed the coming of the Great Recession. For example, here's Dana Milbank's column in the Washington Post this morning.

While Kudlow has gotten a lot of things wrong and completely missed the housing bubble and the implications its collapse would have for the economy, he was hardly alone in this category. Just about the whole economics profession was there along with Kudlow, even if they may not have been quite as outspoken in their optimism. 

In January of 2008 the Congressional Budget Office, which consciously tries to place itself in the center of professional opinion, projected 1.7 percent economic growth for 2008 and 2.8 percent for 2009. Even a year later, Christina Romer and my friend Jared Bernstein hugely underestimated the severity of the recession in their report outlining President Obama' stimulus package. 

The commentary of the time is full of great lines from distinguished economists. My favorite was when then Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke said that the problems in financial markets will be restricted to the subprime market. After Bear Stearns went under he also famously commented that he didn't see another Bear Stearns out there. It subsequently turned out that there were nothing but Bear Stearns out there, as virtually the whole banking system faced collapse as trillions of dollars of mortgage debt went bad.

I could go on, but the point is that Kudlow was hardly alone in his mistake here. I spent years being derided by many of the country's leading economists for suggesting that there was a housing bubble and its collapse could sink the economy. So yes Kudlow really blew it, but so did pretty much the whole economics profession. (Fortunately for economists, economics is not a profession where people are evaluated based on their performance.)

To Kudlow's credit, he was at least prepared to allow people like me, who warned of the bubble, appear on his show. That was not the case with Mr. Milbank's paper, The Washington Post, which pretty much excluded anyone warning of the bubble until after it burst. (The Post was busy hyping fears about the budget deficit.)

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Thomas Friedman used his column today to trash Trump for protecting old-line industries like steel and aluminum and argued instead that US trade policy should be, "[...]focused on protecting what we do best — high-value-added manufacturing and intellectual property." In this vein, he argued for rejoining the Trans-Pacific Partnership and very high tariffs on China unless it respects our protectionist policies in these areas. Oh yeah, Friedman also wants to toss a few bones to the less-educated workers who might lose jobs but will pay higher prices for prescription drugs, software, and a wide range of other items with Friedman's agenda.

Just to get our eyes on the ball, if anyone were approaching these issues seriously, they would be asking how much additional innovation we get for how much additional patent and copyright protection. (Anyone seen any analysis on this one?) The question would then be both, is the additional inequality from stronger and longer protections justified by the additional innovation and is there an alternative mechanism (e.g. direct public funding) that could be comparable efficient and yield less inequality. (This is discussed in my [free] book, Rigged: How Globalization and the Rules of the Modern Economy Were Structured to Make the Rich Richer, chapter 5.)

For some reason, it seems no one likes to talk about the link between patent and copyright protection and inequality. Remember, Bill Gates would probably still be working for a living without these government-granted monopolies.

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Many economists, including those at the I.M.F., have concluded that the austerity policies imposed on the euro zone by Germany cost millions of jobs and trillions of dollars of output over the last decade. But the NYT dismisses this assessment and tells readers that policies moving away from austerity, "could undo economic boom."

The piece tells readers that reducing restrictions on firing across the eurozone was a major factor in lowering unemployment:

"He also pushed those countries to emulate Germany’s reforms, in particular relaxing restrictions on hiring and firing. Many countries complied, at least to a degree, helping joblessness in the eurozone fall to 8.6 percent in February, down from more than 12 percent in 2013."

This contradicts much research which finds that restriction on firings have no effect on employment and unemployment. The more likely explanation is that the euro zone eventually did recover from the 2008–2009 recession, in part because the European Central Bank did its best to work around the austerity being imposed by Germany through fiscal policy.

The one cited source for the piece's conclusion on labor market dynamics is Holger Schmieding, chief economist of Berenberg, a German bank, although the piece does tell us:

"Surveys of business optimism have slipped in recent months after four years of nearly uninterrupted gains. Such pessimism can become self-fulfilling, discouraging businesses from expanding and hiring."

So, the NYT is unhappy that German workers may have more job security and get back some of their share of economic output. That's fine, but maybe they should confine these views to the opinion pages.

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The Washington Post has long used both its opinion pages and news section to advance its agenda on trade. It is famous for inventing a GDP boom in Mexico to push the case for NAFTA. More  than a decade ago it ran an editorial claiming that Mexico's GDP quadrupled between 1987 and 2007, which it attributed to NAFTA.

The actual number was 84.2 percent, according to the I.M.F. In spite of this gross error, the paper has never run a correction.

Given the Post's history on trade, it was not surprising to see a piece ("The obsolete number that drives Trump's China obsession and how to fix it") telling readers that China's trade surplus with the United States is actually much smaller Donald Trump thinks it is. The gist of the piece is that China's trade surplus with the U.S. is actually considerably smaller than the standard data reported by the Commerce Department. The reason is that much of what China exports includes inputs from other countries, including the United States.

The piece offers up the example of the iPhone, which is assembled in China. In the trade data the full value of the iPhone is counted as a Chinese export and a U.S. import, but most of the value actually comes from inputs produced in other countries. By counting the full value of the finished product as an export from China we are seriously overstating the value of exports from China.

While this point is entirely accurate, there is a flip side to this issue which the piece amazingly ignores. While much of the value-added in products imported from China originates in other countries, much of the value-added in our imports from other countries originates in China. China is a huge exporter not only to the United States, but to Japan, Korea, Europe, and elsewhere.

If we want to do a serious value-added analysis of our trade balance with China we would not only subtract out the foreign value-added in Chinese exports, we would also add in the Chinese value-added in our imports from other countries. It would take some serious work to calculate the total figure (see Rob Scott's analysis), but the deficit would clearly be larger than the one the piece calculates by just pulling out the foreign value-added in Chinese exports.   

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Okay, Brownstein didn't use the word "fake," but that is the position he described in his CNN column. Brownstein argues that the Democrats  predominately live in tech centers like Seattle and the Bay area which export large amounts of high tech products and services. He argues these tech areas won't be helped by Trump's steel tariffs and could be hurt by retaliation from foreign countries.

While it is true that these areas will not be helped by steel tariffs it is dishonest to say that these industries support free trade. The tech sector is hugely dependent on protectionism in the form of patent and copyright protection. These government-granted monopolies raise the price of protected items by factors or ten or even a hundred over the free market price, making them the equivalent of tariffs of several thousand percent or even tens of thousands percent.

There is a rationale for this protectionism, as there is for all protectionism. This is the government's way to provide incentives for innovation and creative work. But there are other, more efficient, mechanisms for financing innovation and creative work that would not put so much money in the pockets of high tech sectors. The people who insist on longer and stronger patent and copyright protections, and use trade deals to lock them in domestically and impose them on other countries are protectionists, not free traders. (This is discussed in my [free] book, Rigged: How Globalization and the Rules of the Modern Economy Were Structured to Make the Rich Richer, chapter 5.)

It is also worth noting that most of Brownstein's "free traders" are just fine with the protectionist barriers that insulate doctors and other highly paid professionals from foreign competition. In the case of doctors these barriers have created a situation in which the average pay of our doctors is roughly twice as high as it is in other wealthy countries (see Rigged, chapter 7).

Protectionism for doctors costs us roughly $100 billion a year in higher health care costs. This is ten times as much as the amount of money at stake with the steel tariffs. All the people who apparently are fine with the barriers that prevent foreign doctors from competing with U.S. doctors are protectionists, not free traders.

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Apparently, America's small business owners are too dumb to realize how great the tax cuts were. The Trump administration told us that the corporate tax cuts would lead to a massive boom in investment which would increase the capital stock by one third above the baseline projection. But for some reason, the nation's businesses haven't gotten the message.

The National Federation of Independent Businesses released its February survey of its members this morning. The survey showed (page 29) that 29 percent of businesses expect to make a capital expenditure in the next 3 to 6 months, the same percentage as in January. This is somewhat higher than the 26 percent reported for February of 2017, but below the 32 percent reported for August of last year. It's also the same as the 29 percent reading reported back in August of 2014 when a Kenyan socialist was in the White House.

In other words, there is no evidence here of any uptick in investment whatsoever and certainly not of the explosive increase promised by the Trump administration. Maybe if Trump did some more tweeting on the issue it would help.

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It seems Germany is suffering from a skills gap also, at least according to Reuters. It told readers:

"Labour shortages in Germany are threatening the whole economy as companies struggle to fill around 1.6 million job vacancies, the DIHK Chambers of Industry and Commerce said on Tuesday."

According to the OECD, labor compensation rose by just 2.6 percent last year, down from a 2.9 percent rate in 2016. When an item is in short supply, we expect the price to rise. If there is a housing shortage, buyers or renters bid up the price of housing. If employers can't get workers, then the normal route is to offer higher pay, which will attract workers from competitors.

Apparently, German employers don't understand basic economics. Their ignorance is apparently jeopardizing the whole economy, according to the DIHK Chambers of Industry and Commerce.

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Most data indicate relatively little acceleration in wage growth overall, but as I have noted the Current Population Survey shows more rapid wage growth at middle and especially the bottom end of the wage distribution over the last three years. The "Workforce Vitality Index" produced by ADP, shows a similar picture.

Its most recent survey shows hourly wage growth of more than 6.0 percent for workers earning less than $20,000 a year and 5.6 percent for workers earning $20,000 to $50,000 a year. This compares to increases of 5.4 percent and 5.0 percent in the 3rd quarter of 2014, the first period in the sample. By comparison, wages increased 3.4 percent on the most recent quarter for workers earning more than $75,000 a year, virtually the same as the 3.3 percent increase in the 3rd quarter of 2014. (These are figures for job holders — found on page 5.)

This supports the view that the tightening of the labor market has disproportionately benefited those at the bottom end of the wage distribution. It also should be a warning of bad effects if the Fed moves too aggressively in raising interest rates and causes the unemployment rate to rise.

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As Robert Samuelson tells us in his weekly column in the Washington Post, there is a big market for people saying that things are great. Samuelson cites a number of authors and statistics telling readers that things are getting better.

He then speculates about why we have so much pessimism. He suggests that the media is at fault for using the word "crisis" too frequently and tells us:

"But some of today’s pessimism is simply a political fad. It 'became fashionable, starting in academia and expanding to the public square, brought there by politicians [and] social media,' Easterbrook [economist Gregg Easterbrook] writes. 'Today the conventional wisdom is that any informed person should feel the world is falling apart.'"

Of course, the other plausible explanation is that most of the workforce in the United States has seen stagnating wages over the last four decades even as those at the top have become incredibly rich. And, the incredibly rich don't like to highlight this fact, so there is a big market for people saying that everything is great.

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