Beat the Press is Dean Baker's commentary on economic reporting. Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR).

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Carolyn Johnson has done a lot of excellent reporting on abuses and price gouging by the pharmaceutical industry, but her piece today on the "solution to the global crisis in drug prices" is more than a bit bizarre. I'll save you the suspense. The solution is a "public benefit" company which is not set up to maximize profit. (I'm not sure what prevents it from being bought out by a standard profit maximizing company, but we'll leave that one aside.)

While it is encouraging to hear some researchers actually interested in helping humanity rather than getting as rich as Bill Gates, this really seems like a major sidebar. There have been a long list of proposals of various types to have research funded in some form by the government, with all the findings placed in the public domain so that new drugs would be available at generic prices.

In this story, there is no need to rely on beneficent researchers. Researchers are paid for their work at the time they do it, just like billions of employees throughout the world. If it turns out poorly, that is unfortunate. Of course, incompetent researchers would be fired just like incompetent dishwashers and custodians. But if their work turned out to have huge health benefits, the public would enjoy them in the form of affordable drugs.

Publicly funded research also has the great benefit that research findings could be made public so that other researchers and doctors could benefit. This would allow research to advance more quickly and also for doctors to make more informed prescribing choices for their patients. (As it stands now, the industry only makes the results available that help it to market its drugs.)

Anyhow, it is remarkable that Johnson seems to be unaware of proposals for publicly funded research. (It can go through the private sector — it just doesn't rely on patent monopolies.) The proponents are not an obscure group, they include Joe Stiglitz, a Nobel prize winning economist.

We already spend over $30 billion a year on biomedical research through the National Institutes of Health (NIH). While this money is primarily devoted to basic research, there is no obvious reason the funding couldn't be doubled or tripled and designated to finance developing new drugs and carrying them through the FDA approval process. We spend over $430 billion a year on prescription drugs that would sell for 10–20 percent of this price in a free market, so there is plenty of room to increase funding and still end up way ahead.

While the industry pushes the line that the NIH or equivalent agency would turn into bumbling idiots if they allocated money for drug development, it argues that the current funding is money very well spent and consistently argues for more. Perhaps Johnson shares the industry's bizarre theory of knowledge, otherwise it is difficult to understand why she would not be looking at this obvious solution for high drug prices.

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by Dean Baker and Lara Merling

It's no secret that many folks, including many on the Fed, want to see higher interest rates. There are a variety of arguments put forward, including the story of huge but invisible bubbles that could burst and sink the economy just like the housing bubble did in 2008.

But the argument that deserves the most credibility is the conventional one that a low rate of unemployment is creating an overtight labor market. This leads to more wage growth, which will get passed along in more rapid inflation, which will soon force the Fed's hand. At some point the Fed will have to raise rates to keep inflation from getting out of control or we will be back in an era of excessive inflation. By this logic it is better to get out front and do it now.

In this story, we should at least be seeing the beginnings of an acceleration of inflation, but we don't. The figure below shows the core personal consumption expenditure deflator which provides the basis for the Fed's 2.0 percent (average) inflation target.

Book2 19143 image001

Source: Bureau of Economic Analysis and author's calculations.

The figure shows the annualized rate of inflation using average price levels from the most recent three-month period compared with average price levels from the prior three month period. It's pretty hard to see any evidence of an upward trend in these data. The core rate had approached 2.5 percent in early 2011. It had minor fluctuations, but eventually bottomed out at 1.0 percent in the fall of 2014. It has moved modestly higher in the last two years, peaking at 2.0 percent at the end of 2015, but since then has crept down to 1.7 percent. 

Of course, it is always possible that we will see the picture change and inflation will suddenly start to accelerate, but the point is that it has not yet done so. Furthermore, none of the standard models show that inflation suddenly jumps upward. If it does start to increase it would likely be a long and gradual process. For this reason, it is difficult to see the urgency in the drive to raise interest rates.

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Thomas Edsall's NYT column contrasted the downscale white working class Trump supporters with the growing number of college educated and relatively upscale supporters of Democrats. Near the end of the piece, Edsall quotes M.I.T. economist Daron Acemoglu:

"As long as the Democratic Party shakes off its hard-core anti-market, pro-union stance, there is a huge constituency of well-educated, socially conscious Americans that will join in."

Rather than completely abandon its base in the working class (of all races) there is an alternative route for the Democrats, they could abandon their hard core anti-market positions that benefit the wealthy.

This could start with abandoning their position, especially in trade deals, to make government granted patent and copyright monopolies longer and stronger. These anti-market interventions are affecting an ever larger share of the economy (in prescription drugs alone patent related protections likely increase the costs by more than $350 billion annually). They directly redistribute income from ordinary workers to the relatively wealthy minority in a position to earn rents from these forms of protectionism.

The Democrats can also abandon the licensing restrictions that protect doctors, dentists, and other highly paid professionals from both domestic and international competition. Our laws prevent doctors from practicing medicine unless they complete a U.S. residency program. This is about as blatant a protectionist barrier as you'll find these days. It allows doctors in the United States to earn on average more than $250,000 a year, twice as much as their counterparts in other wealthy countries like Germany and Canada. This protectionism costs us around $100 billion a year in higher medical costs.

We could also subject the financial sector to the same sort of taxes as other sectors of the economy pay (e.g. a financial transactions tax). This market based reform could eliminate more than $100 billion a year in waste in the financial sector that ends up as income for bankers and hedge fund types.

There is a long list of market-friendly measures that would help to reverse the upward redistribution of the last four decades. (Yep, this is the topic of my new book, Rigged: How Globalization and the Rules of the Modern Economy Were Structured to Make the Rich Richer.) Anyhow, supporters of this upward redistribution do their best to turn language on its head and deny that these forms of protectionism are protection. They pretend that patent and copyright protections are the free market or that they never heard of restrictions on foreign doctors. Unfortunately, this group of deniers includes most of the people who write on these issues. But, there is always hope that they can learn.

 

Note: Typos in an earlier version were corrected, thanks Robert Salzberg.

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The promoters of "free trade" are feeling frustrated these days. Their trade deals are facing large-scale public opposition everywhere. This opposition almost derailed a trade deal between Canada and the European Union. In the United States, both major party candidates are openly opposed to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

The NYT recognizes some of the problems in recent trade pacts, but still badly misrepresents the key issues in an editorial on trade. The misrepresentation picks up a recent theme of the selective protectionists (a.k.a. "free traders"). It claims that trade has been falling:

"The total value of American imports and exports fell by more than $200 billion last year; they’ve fallen by an additional $470 billion in the first nine months of this year. Sluggish growth is both a cause and a result of this slowdown."

Numbers fans everywhere know the trick here. As I pointed out yesterday, the reason that the value of U.S. trade fell last year was the drop in the prcie of oil and commodities. The real value of trade rose by $2.3 billion from 2014 to 2015. This is admittedly slow growth, but it is not the same thing as the advertised decline. (These data are available from Bureau of Economic Analysis, National Income and Product Accounts, Table 1.1.6.)

The editorial compounds the error by bringing in data from 2016. It's true the nominal value of trade fell by $163 billion (not the $470 billion advertised) in the first nine months of 2016, but if we adjust for falling prices trade actually rose by $63 billion.

But this aside, it's time to stop honoring the lies by the promoters of trade deals. These deals have nothing to do with free trade. They are designed to redistribute income upward.

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The NYT had an interesting article arguing that trade has stopped growing in the last couple of years. The piece notes data showing that combined U.S. exports and imports fell in the 2015 compared to 2014 and seem likely to fall again in 2016. It then raises the concern that this will lead to slower growth going forward. There are a couple of points that complicate this issue.

The first is that the drop in the dollar value of trade is the result of lower prices, not a smaller volume of goods and services being imported and exported. While the nominal value of exports fell by $111.0 billion from 2014 to 2015, the real value actually rose by $2.3 billion. On the import side, the nominal value fell by $97.8 billion while the real value rose by $116.5 billion.

In other words, the actual amount of goods and services crossing U.S. borders in 2015 was in fact higher in 2015 than in 2014, we were just paying less for what we imported and foreigners were paying less for what we exported to them. The big factors here were the sharp drop in oil prices and comparable drops in the price of many agricultural commodities that we export. It is not clear that this is bad for economic growth, but in any case the issue is not a drop in the quantity of goods and services crossing national borders.

The other point is that the definition of a traded item can change depending on the property rules in place at the time. To take a simple example, suppose that one billion people in China use Microsoft's Windows operating system. If we make them all pay $50 for each system then this is $50 billion in U.S. exports to China. Now suppose that everyone in China is able to use Windows at no cost. In this case we have $50 billion less in exports, but we still have one billion people in China getting the benefit of the Windows operating system.

Much of the focus of U.S. trade policy in recent decades has been about making other countries pay for items that in principle could be free through patents and copyright protection. (Yes, this is protectionism, even if your friends profit from it.) It is not clear that we are boosting world growth by making countries pay more money for items like prescription drugs, software, recorded music and video material, although we would certainly be increasing the dollar value of trade flows.

The long and short is that it is not clear what we are measuring when we see a decline in trading or volume or what it would mean if trading volume increases because we can force other countries to pay for items that would otherwise be available for free. (Yes, these issues are covered in my new book, Rigged: How Globalization and the Rules of the Modern Economy Were Structured to Make the Rich Richer, which is available for free.)

 

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By Lara Merling

The official unemployment rate in the U.S. is currently estimated at 5 percent, a number that is sufficiently low for some to claim that the economy is at full employment. The unemployment rate varies significantly across states. Between September 2015 and March 2016 the unemployment rate has averaged 2.8 percent in North Dakota, 3 percent in Hawaii and New Hampshire, while in West Virginia it was at 6.4 percent, and in Washington DC, and Alaska it averaged 6.6 percent.

Once the labor market is at full employment, it is difficult to have much by way of further employment gains beyond the growth in the working-age population. If the current 5.0 percent unemployment rate is actually close to full employment, then we should expect to see smaller increases in the employment-to-population ratio (EPOP) in states with lower unemployment rates, since these states should be running up against the full employment limit. We would then expect higher gains in EPOPs in states that have higher unemployment rates which are further away from reaching full employment.

The figure below compares the change in the EPOP in each state over the period from March 2016 and September 2016, for people between the ages of 18 and 64, with the state's average unemployment rate for September 2015 to March 2016.

 Book11 8941 image001

As can be seen there is no relationship between the unemployment level and the change in EPOP. Some states with very low unemployment rates have seen large increases in EPOP, while some of the states with the highest unemployment levels have seen much smaller increases, or even decreases in EPOP. While this comparison is far from conclusive, it does not easily fit with a story with the labor market approaching full employment.

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The Washington Post had a fact check on Obamacare to explain some of the issues around the widely reported rate hikes for policies in the exchange. It gets a few points wrong in a generally solid piece.

First, it explains the problem of the exchanges as being one in which people are more willing to pay the penalty for not having insurance than signing up on the exchange:

"The feared individual mandate has not had the expected result of convincing people to buy insurance, with younger and healthier Americans apparently more willing to pay a $695-per-person fine than sign up for health care they think is too costly. So the mix of people in the insurance pools have tended to be people who have chronic illnesses and thus require more care and frequent doctor or hospital visits. The risk pools are also why insurance companies have sought higher premiums and the biggest deductibles."

While it is true that the mix of people in the exchanges are less healthy than expected, the problem is not that people are opting to pay the penalty rather than get insurance. This has been a frequent mistake in reporting.

In fact, the percentage of the population that is insured is running above the projections at the time the law was passed. This is in spite of the fact that a 2012 Supreme Court ruling allowing states to opt out of the Medicaid expansion provided for in the law. The reason that the exchange population is less healthy than expected is that more people continue to get insurance through their employer than expected. And, since the people who get employer provided insurance are healthier on average than the population as a whole (most are working full-time jobs), this means that relatively healthy people are being kept off of the exchanges.

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A Washington Post article told readers that the 2.9 percent GDP growth reported for the third quarter made it more likely the Fed would raise interest rates at its December meeting. Part of its story is that inflation is accelerating.

"Inflation remains below the Fed’s target rate of 2 percent but is creeping closer to that level."

Actually, the opposite is the case. The report (Appendix Table A) showed that the core personal consumption expenditure deflator increased at a 1.7 percent annual rate in the third quarter. That is down from 2.1 percent in the first quarter and 1.8 percent in the second quarter.

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Alan Reynolds had a column insisting that the U.S. need not fear trade agreements impact on the United States labor market. The context is an argument that the presidential candidates are wrong to oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The piece argues that trade agreements have not led to increased trade deficits and that imports from China really have not had much impact on the manufacturing sector in the U.S. His argument doesn't quite fit the data.

The piece lays out the basic argument in its subhead:

"If trade agreements are so lousy, why are our largest deficits with countries that lack a U.S. trade deal?"

It then notes that the United States largest trade deficits are with China and Japan and that we have trade deals with neither. This might be a good rhetorical point at the Wall Street Journal, but it has nothing to do with the issue at hand. The question is the direction of change following an agreement. While the data on this point is not entirely conclusive, there is evidence that deficits have generally increased with countries following the implementation of trade deals.

To take some prominent examples, the U.S. went from a modest trade surplus with Mexico in 1993, before NAFTA went into effect, to a deficit of more than $60 billion in 2015. It went from a trade deficit of $13.2 billion with South Korea in 2011, the year before a trade deal went into effect, to a deficit of $28.3 billion in 2015.

It is also important to note that the composition of trade is likely to shift against U.S. manufacturing as a result of trade deals. These deals are quite explicitly designed to increase payments from other countries for licensing fees and royalties to U.S. pharmaceutical, entertainment, and software companies. The more these countries are forced to pay Pfizer for drugs and Disney for Mickey Mouse, the less money they have to spend on U.S. manufactured goods. In other words, the gains for these companies from trade deals imply larger trade deficits in other areas like manufactured goods.

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The Social Security scare story is a long established Washington ritual. Bloomberg news decided to bring it out again in time for Halloween. The basic story is that the Social Security trust fund is projected to face a shortfall in less than two decades. This means that unless Congress appropriates additional revenue, the program is projected to only be able to pay a bit more than 80 percent of scheduled benefits.

This much is not really in dispute. The question is how much should we be worried about this projected shortfall and what should we do about it. Bloomberg's answer to the first question is that we should be very worried. It goes through the list of potential fixes and implies that all would be difficult or impossible.

I will just take one potential fix, which is raising the payroll tax by 2.58 percentage points to cover the projected shortfall. Bloomberg tells us:

"...it’s doubtful that the American public would accept such jarring changes."

That's an interesting political assessment. It would be worth knowing the basis for this assertion. We had comparably jarring changes in the form of Social Security tax increases in the decades of 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s. There was no massive tax revolt against any of these tax increases; what has convinced Bloomberg that we can never again have a comparable increase in the payroll tax?

A piece of evidence suggesting that tax increases necessary to support Social Security might be politically viable is the fact that few people even noticed the 2.0 percentage point increase in the payroll tax at the start of 2013 when the payroll tax holiday ended. This was at a time when the labor market was still very weak from the recession and wages had been stagnant for more than a decade. (A survey conducted for the National Academy for Social Insurance also found that people were willing to pay higher taxes to support the scheduled level of Social Security benefits.)

Given this history and evidence, Bloomberg's claim that the public won't tolerate the sort of tax increases necessary to fully fund Social Security looks like an unsupported assertion.

The other point on this topic is that economists usually believe that workers care first and foremost about their after-tax wage, not the tax rate. The Social Security trustees project that real before-tax wages will rise on average by more than 50 percent over the next three decades. By comparison, the tax increase needed to fully fund Social Security seems relatively small, as shown below.

wage projection 29243 image002

Source: Social Security trustees report, 2015 and author's calculations.

Most workers have not seen their wages increase as much as the average wage over the last four decades since a disproportionate share went to those at top. These are people like CEOs, Wall Street traders, and doctors and other highly paid professionals. Workers stand to lose much more in terms of after-tax income if this upward redistribution continues over the next three decades than they would from the "jarring" Social Security tax increase that Bloomberg feels the need to warn us about.

So, of course people could get really worried about Social Security, as Bloomberg wants, or they can focus on the upward redistribution which will have far more impact on their well-being and that of their children. (Yes, this is the topic of my new book, Rigged: How Globalization and the Rules of the Modern Economy Were Structured to Make the Rich Richer, which can be downloaded for free.)

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The New York Times had a major adventure in fantasy land when it ran a front page article asserting that the problem with the health care exchanges under the Affordable Care Act is that the penalties have not been large enough to coerce people into getting health care insurance. The begins by telling readers:

"The architects of the Affordable Care Act thought they had a blunt instrument to force people — even young and healthy ones — to buy insurance through the law’s online marketplaces: a tax penalty for those who remain uninsured.

"It has not worked all that well, and that is at least partly to blame for soaring premiums next year on some of the health law’s insurance exchanges."

The piece then explains that many people are opting not to buy insurance and instead pay the penalty.

The problem with this line of argument for fans of reality is that the number of uninsured has actually fallen by more than had been projected at the time the law was passed. This is in spite of the fact that many states were allowed to opt out of the Medicare expansion by a 2012 Supreme Court decision making expansion optional. (It was mandatory in the law passed by Congress.)

It is not difficult to find the evidence that the number of uninsured has fallen more than projected. In March of 2012, the Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Tax Committee projected that there would be 32 million uninsured non-elderly people in 2015. Estimates from the Kaiser Family Foundation put the actual number at just under 29 million. In other words, three million more people were getting insured as of last year (our most recent data) than had been projected before most of the ACA took effect.

So, if more people are getting insured than had been expected, how could the penalties have been a failure? I leave that one for the folks at the NYT responsible for this front page story.

I will add one other item in this story worth correcting. The piece includes a quote from Joseph J. Thorndike, the director of the tax history project at Tax Analysts, telling readers:

“If it [the mandate] were effective, we would have higher enrollment, and the population buying policies in the insurance exchange would be healthier and younger."

While we do care whether the people in the exchanges are healthy, it doesn't matter if they are young. In fact, healthy older people are far more profitable to insurers than healthy young people since their premiums are on average three times as high. There is a slight skewing against the young in the structure of premiums, but this has little consequence for the costs of the system.

As a practical matter, the people signing up on the exchanges are probably somewhat less healthy than had been expected, but this is largely because more people are getting insurance through employers than had been expected. The people who get insurance through their employers are more healthy than the population as a whole, since for the most part they are healthy enough to be working full-time jobs.

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The coverage of the new law in New York state, which would prohibit the short-term renting of whole apartments in New York City, has been difficult to understand. It presents as competing claims that it would increase the supply of affordable housing in New York City and that it will allow hotels to raise their fees. (This Washington Post piece is an excellent example.) Actually, it will likely do both.

The basic story is that the city has a large number of units that are subject to some form of rent control. The purpose is to keep these units affordable for people who don't work on Wall Street. This purpose is defeated if it is possible for either the landlord or tenant to rent out the unit through a service like Airbnb. If the landord is going the Airbnb route then it removes a unit of otherwise affordable housing from the market. If the tenant is going the Airbnb route then they are taking advantage of rent control to make a profit on arbitrage.

This is also bad news for the hotel industry, since people who might have otherwise stayed in hotels will instead stay in Airbnb units, thereby lowering occupancy rates and putting downward pressure on hotel prices. Therefore, there is absolutely nothing contradictory about the argument this measure will both increase the supply of affordable housing and benefit the hotel industry.

The long-run story may be somewhat different. In the long-run the construction of hotels is responsive to demand. If there is a high vacancy rate in the city's hotels, there will be fewer hotels built in future years. This will leave more land for the construction of apartments and other uses. In that case, the restriction on Airbnb rentals may not ultimately lead to an increase in the number of affordable housing units in the city (a financial transactions tax would be more effective), but is perfectly reasonable to believe that in the short-term this restriction on Airbnb rentals will both increase the supply of affordable housing units and benefit the hotel industry.                                        

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The usually excellent radio show This American Life may have misled listeners in its discussion of NAFTA and trade this week. The piece misrepresents both some of the key issues on trade and also economists' attitudes towards trade deals.

On the key issues, the piece notes that deals like NAFTA have led to job losses. It uses the figure of 700,000 jobs. It then compares this to the gains to the economy that are projected from lower tariff barriers and therefore lower priced goods.

What this discussion leaves out of the picture is the fact that the jobs lost are disproportionately for non-college educated workers. This puts downward pressure on the wages of non-college educated workers more generally as the displaced workers crowd into retail, services, and other sectors of the economy. So it is not just the 700,000 displaced workers who suffer as a result of this pattern of trade, it is non-college educated workers more generally who see their wages fall as a result of the deal.

This issue of wage inequality is important to remember when the segment tells listeners:

"In fact, there's this survey that the University of Chicago did where they asked all these economists all across the political spectrum, are Americans better off, on average, because of NAFTA?  95% said yes. 5% said they were unsure."

This might be taken as meaning that nearly all economists think that NAFTA benefited the country. Whether or not this is true, that is not the question they answered. This question asks the economists whether American "on average" are better off because of NAFTA. The question does not ask about distribution. This means that if NAFTA gave Bill Gates $100 billion and cost the rest of the country $99 billion, then the correct answer to this question is that NAFTA made the country on average better off. Even economists who think NAFTA was bad policy might think that it led to gains on average.

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Just kidding. Actually, insurance costs have slowed sharply in the years since the Affordable Care Act was passed, but it is unlikely many readers of the NYT would know this. Instead, it has focused on the large increase (not levels) in premium costs for the relatively small segment of the population insured on the exchanges. In keeping with this pattern, it gives us a front page piece telling readers about the 25 percent average increase in premiums facing people on the exchange this year. There are two points to keep in mind on this issue.

First, the focus on premiums is exclusively on the relatively small segment of the population getting insurance through the exchanges and specifically through the exchanges managed through the federal government. According to the latest numbers, 12.7 million people are now getting insurance through the exchanges (roughly 4.0 percent of the total population). This article refers to the premiums being paid by the 9.6 million people insured through the federally managed exchange (3.0 percent of the total population). Many states, such as California, have well run exchanges that have been more successful in keeping cost increases down.

There are two reasons that costs on the exchanges have been rising rapidly. The first is that insurers probably priced their policies too low initially. Even with the increases this year premium prices are still lower than had been expected in 2010 when the law was passed. In fact, there has been a sharp slowing in the pace of health care cost growth in the last six years. While not all of this was due to the ACA, it was undoubtedly a factor in this slowdown. In the years from 1999 to 2010, health care costs per insured person rose at an average annual rate of 5.7 percent. In the years from 2010 to 2015 costs per insured person rose at an average rate of just 2.3 percent.


HCsoendinginsuredperson1999 1016

Source: Bureau of Economic Analysis and author's calculations.

The other reason that premiums on the exchanges have risen rapidly is that more people are stiill getting insurance through employers than had been expected. The people who get insurance through employers tend to be healthier on average than the population as a whole. The Obama administration expected that more employers would stop providing insurance, sending their workers to get insurance on the exchanges. Since they have continued to provide insurance, the mix of people getting insurance through the exchanges is less healthy than had been expected.

Note that this has nothing to do with the "young invincible" story that had been widely touted in the years leading up to the ACA. The problem is not that healthy young people are not signing up. The problem is simply that healthy people of all ages are getting their insurance elsewhere. The overall percentage of the population getting insured is higher than projected, not lower as the young invincible silliness would imply.

 

Addendum

Robert Salzberg reminds me that the vast majority of people buying insurance in the exchanges get subsidies. For most people these subsidies will fully cover these cost increases. Even after the increases noted in this NYT article, almost 80 percent of the people buying insurance in the exchanges will be able to get a plan for less than $100 per month.

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We continue to see a steady drumbeat of news stories and opinion pieces about the problem of men, and especially less-educated men, in the modern economy. The pieces always start with the fact that large numbers of prime-age men (ages 25–54) have dropped out of the labor force. The latest entry is a NYT column by Susan Chira that highlighted recent research showing that a large percentage of men who are not in the labor force are in poor health and frequent users of pain medication.

While this is interesting and useful research, it is unlikely that it explains the decline in employment among prime-age men. The reason, as I (along with Jared Bernstein) continually point out, is that there has been a similar drop in the employment rates of prime-age women since 2000.

The issue here should be straightforward. If we see drops in employment rates for both prime-age men and women, then it is not likely that they will be explained by problems that are unique to men. More likely, the problems stem from the overall state of the economy. In other words, the problem is with the people who design policy, not with the men who have dropped out of the workforce.

This doesn't mean that non-employed men are not facing real problems. Undoubtedly many are, although the extent to which these problems are the result of their unemployment or a cause will often not be clear. Nonetheless, steps that can improve public health will be a good thing, but the better place to look to solve the problem of unemployment is Washington.

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Yes, that is what he advocated in this column calling on people to vote for Hillary Clinton and Republican members of Congress. The Republicans are a party of climate deniers. Perhaps Samuelson doesn't know this, but who cares. He urged the readers of his column to support a party that denies well-established science on climate change.

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By Lara Merling and Dean Baker

The Peter Peterson-Washington Post deficit hawk gang keep trying to scare us in cutting Social Security and Medicare. If we don't cut these programs now, then at some point in the future we might have to cut these program or RAISE TAXES.

There are many good reasons not to take the advice of the deficit hawks, but the most immediate one is that our economy is suffering from a deficit that is too small, not too large. The point is straight forward, the economy needs more demand, which we could get from larger budget deficits. More demand would lead to more output and employment. It would also cause firms to invest more, which would make us richer in the future.

The flip side in this story is that because we have not been investing as much as we would in a fully employed economy, our potential level of output is lower today than if we had remained near full employment since the downturn in 2008. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that potential GDP in 2016 is down by 10.5 percent (almost $2.0 trillion) from the level it had projected for 2016 back in 2008, before the downturn.

This is real money, over $6,200 per person. But if we want to have a little fun, we can use a tactic developed by the deficit hawks. We can calculate the cost of austerity over the infinite horizon. This is a simple story. We just assume that we will never get back the potential GDP lost as a result of the weak growth of the last eight years. Carrying this the lost 10.5 percent of GDP out to the infinite future and using a 2.9 percent real discount rate gives us $172.94 trillion in lost output. This is the size of the austerity tax for all future time. It comes to more than $500,000 for every person in the country. 

By comparison, we can look at the projected Social Security shortfall for the infinite horizon. According to the most recent Social Security Trustees Report, this comes to $32.1 trillion. (Almost two thirds of this occurs after the 75-year projection period.) Undoubtedly, many deficit hawks hope that people would be scared by this number. But compared to the austerity tax imposed by the deficit hawks, it doesn't look like a big deal.

austerity tax infinite hor 14645 image001

Source: Social Security Trustees Report and Author's Calculations.

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Former Federal Reserve Board Chair Paul Volcker and private equity billionaire Peter Peterson had a NYT column this morning complaining that not enough attention is being paid to the national debt. The piece uses wrong-headed economics and xenophobia to try to scare readers into backing their austerity agenda.

On the economic side, it implies that the prospect of a rising debt to GDP ratio implies an imminent crisis.

"Yes, this country can handle the nearly $600 billion federal deficit estimated for 2016. But the deficit has grown sharply this year, and will keep the national debt at about 75 percent of the gross domestic product, a ratio not seen since 1950, after the budget ballooned during World War II.

"Long-term, that continued growth, driven by our tax and spending policies, will create the most significant fiscal challenge facing our country. The widely respected Congressional Budget Office has estimated that by midcentury our debt will rise to 140 percent of G.D.P., far above that in any previous era, even in times of war."

There are several points to be made here. First the ratio of debt service to GDP is currently just 0.8 percent. (This is net of interest payments rebated by the Federal Reserve Board.) This is near a post-war low. By comparison the ratio was over 3.0 percent in the early and mid-1990s. In other words, the reality is the exact opposite of what Volcker and Peterson claim, the burden of the debt on the economy is unusually low.

Second, if interest rates rise precipitously, which they imply will happen for unexplained reasons, we can always buy back the debt at large discounts, thereby reducing the debt-to-GDP ratio. This would be an absolutely pointless move, but if distinguished people who can get columns in the NYT think the debt-to-GDP ratio is important, it can be done to humor them.

Finally, the widely respected Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has repeatedly been wrong in predicting that interest rates will rise. (They also seriously over-estimated the cost of the Affordable Care Act and health care more generally.) Ever since 2010 CBO has projected that interest rates will bounce back to pre-recession levels. Each time they have been shown wrong as interest rates remained low.

The reason for the low rates is the weak level of demand in the economy. In this context, the deficit is a good thing and a bigger deficit would be better. It would generate more demand, output, and employment. It would also make us richer in the future since at higher levels of output firms invest more. Also, many workers who are out of the workforce for long periods of time can end up permanently unemployable.

As a result of the low deficits and weak demand in the post-recession years the widely respected Congressional Budget Office estimates that the economy's potential GDP in 2016 is almost 10 percent smaller (almost $2 trillion) than the potential it had projected for 2016 before the crash in 2008. This "austerity tax" is costing the country $6,200 per person in lost output. For some reason, Volcker and Peterson would have us ignore this huge and growing burden that the country now faces as a result of a sustained period of weak demand and instead concern ourselves with the improbable scenario they paint in their piece.

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The Washington Post had an interesting piece about Iclusig, a cancer drug that now sells for almost $200,000 a year. The piece discussed the pricing pattern for cancer drugs. It noted that the pricing of Iclusig did not follow the normal pattern, with the price soaring as its range of approved uses was limited by the Food and Drug Administration.

While it presented this as evidence of this not being a normal market, the piece never made the obvious point: the drug market is certainly not normal because the government grants patent monopolies and other forms of protection. Without these government granted monopolies almost all drugs would be cheap. Certainly none would sell for anything close to $200,000. While it is necessary to pay for research, they are other mechanisms that would almost certainly be more efficient and less prone to corruption than patent monopolies.

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At the debate last night, moderator Chris Wallace challenged both candidates on the question of cutting Social Security and Medicare. The implication is that the country is threatened by the prospect of out of control government deficits. The question was misguided on several grounds.

First, as a matter of law the Social Security program can only spend money that is in the trust fund. This means that, unless Congress changes the law, the program can never be a cause of runaway deficits.

Second, it is important to note that the size of the projected shortfall in the Medicare Part A program (the portion funded by its own tax) has fallen sharply in the Obama years. The shortfall for the 75-year planning horizon was projected at 3.53 percentage points of payroll in 2009, the first year of the Obama presidency. It has now fallen by 80 percent to just 0.73 percent of payroll. This reduction is due to a sharp slowdown in the projected growth of health care costs. Some of this predates the Affordable Care Act (ACA), but some of the slowdown is undoubtedly attributable to the impact of the ACA.

Anyhow, the implication of Wallace's question, that these programs are somehow out of control and require some near term fix, is not supported by the data. We will have to make changes to maintain full funding for Social Security, but there is no urgency to this issue.

On the more general point of deficits, the country's problem since the crash in 2008 has been deficits that are too small, not too large. The main factor holding back the economy has been a lack of demand, not a lack of supply. Deficits create more demand, either directly through government spending or indirectly through increased consumption. If we had larger deficits in recent years we would have seen more GDP, more jobs, and, due to a tighter labor market, higher wages.

The problem of too small deficits is not just a short-term issue. A smaller economy means less investment in new plant and equipment and research. This reduces the economy's capacity in the future. In the same vein, high rates of unemployment cause people to permanently drop out of the labor force, reducing our future labor supply if these people become unemployable. (Having unemployed parents is also very bad news for the kids who will have worse life prospects.)

The Congressional Budget Office now puts potential GDP at about 10 percent lower for 2016 than its projection from 2008, before the recession. Much of this drop is due the decision to run smaller deficits and prevent the economy from reaching its potential level of output. We can think of this loss of potential output as a "austerity tax." It currently is at close to $2 trillion a year or more than $6,000 for every person in the country.

It is unfortunate that Wallace chose to devote valuable debate time to a non-problem while ignoring the huge problem of needless unemployment and lost output due to government deficits that are too small.

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Binyamin Appelbaum had an interesting interview in the NYT with Boston Fed bank president Eric Rosengren. In the interview he argued that it was important to keep the unemployment rate from falling too low. In a response to Appelbaum saying "low unemployment sounds like a good thing," Rosengren said:

"During periods when the unemployment rate has gotten to the low 4s, we haven’t stayed there for a real long time. And that’s because we do start seeing wages picking up, and we do see prices start picking up, and we do see asset prices picking up. In that environment we start to tighten and when we tighten we’re not so good at getting it exactly right.

"The problem is the dynamics of how firms and individuals start thinking about the tightening process. Those dynamics make it very hard to calibrate the monetary policy process. People understand tightening. But convincing them of how much you’re going to tighten and that you’re going to hit it exactly right — particularly given that you haven’t hit it exactly right in the past, it’s pretty tough to convince people of that. Not surprisingly, they start worrying about: “Well, they’re starting to tighten, they may tighten too much. What do I do? I start pulling in in terms of my own spending.” Firms start pulling in, saying, “We want to be prepared in case they don’t get this quite right.” Those kinds of actions — which are very hard to predict, and individually everyone behaves a little differently — in aggregate, cause a problem where we sometimes slow down the economy more than we intend.

"So you don’t see instances where we go from 4.2 percent to 4.7 or 5 percent and level off. What you actually see is when we start tightening we end up with a recession."

Actually, we have very little experience of the unemployment rate falling to the low fours in the last 45 years. The one time it did fall that low was in the late 1990s. In that period, the unemployment rate fell to 4.3 percent in April of 1998. The economy experienced almost three years subsequent years of solid growth, with almost no uptick in inflation, until the collapse of the stock bubble threw it into recession in March of 2001.

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The unemployment rate was in the mid-fours in 2007, hitting 4.4 percent in March and May of that year. There was little increase in the inflation rate, but a collapse of the housing bubble did throw the economy into a recession at the end of the year.

In short, there is little evidence of wage price inflation associated with low unemployment rates that Rosengren mentions. There is an issue of asset price inflation (i.e. bubbles) but this has little direct relationship with the unemployment rate. In the case of the housing bubble, prices peaked in the summer of 2006 and were already falling rapidly by the spring of 2007 when unemployment hit its low. The bubble began to form as early was 1996 and with prices rising rapidly in 2002 and 2003, when the unemployment rate was at its recession peak and the economy was still shedding jobs.

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