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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It is always cute when a major news outlet decides to blame problems on a policy it doesn't like in a new story. That is what the Wall Street Journal did today in a news story that told readers Puerto Rico's main problem is having the same minimum wage as the rest of the United States.

While the minimum wage is clearly high relative to labor productivity in Puerto Rico, its economic performance over the last four decades cannot be reconciled with a story where the minimum wage is the main culprit. Puerto Rico's minimum wage converged to the U.S. minimum wage over the period 1978 to 1983. In spite of this sharp increase in the minimum wage, Puerto Rico's unemployment rate fell sharply from the 1970s to the 1980s as its economy experienced strong growth (figures 3 and 4). While the unemployment rate in Puerto Rico remained higher than in the United States, the general direction was downward until the recession hit in 2007.

This simple story suggests that the minimum wage cannot be the main culprit. It is certainly possible that the minimum wage may have led to somewhat higher unemployment than would otherwise be the case, but the cause of the Puerto Rico's economic crisis must be elsewhere.

 

Note: An earlier version described the article as a front page story. The article did not run on the front page of the paper.

Further Note: The WSJ had a much fuller account of Puerto Rico's economic problems earlier in the week.

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The introduction to a Morning Edition segment on the response in Spain (sorry, no link) told listeners that Spain was undergoing austerity to pay down its "massive debt." This is inaccurate. Spain did not have anything that can be remotely described as massive debt before the austerity policies imposed on the country by its creditors.

Prior to the collapse of the country's housing bubble, Spain's debt to GDP ratio was 26 percent, just over one-third of the U.S. level. It was running surpluses of more than 2.0 percent of GDP, the equivalent of a budget surplus of roughly $350 billion a year in the United States. (Its worth noting that Greece's debt to GDP ratio was a much more manageable 107 percent of GDP before the crisis and austerity pushed it to 170 percent of GDP.)

The segment also is a bit out of line with reality in touting Spain's economic success under austerity. It boasted that Spain had the strongest growth in the euro zone. This is an extremely low bar. Spain's growth rate did not cross 3.0 percent last year and is not projected to do so this year. By contrast, it averaged almost 4.0 percent in the last two years before the crash. Countries recovering from steep downturns are expected to have faster than normal growth.

According to the I.M.F.'s growth projections (which have consistently proven to be overly optimistic) Spain's per capita income will not surpass its 2007 level until 2018. This is a considerably worse than the situation faced by the United States in the Great Depression. The OECD puts Spain's unemployment rate at 22.7 percent as of April.

 

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The Washington Post ran a map showing which countries in Europe use the euro and which use other currencies. The map is wrong. It shows Montenegro and Kosovo as using currencies other than the euro. This is not accurate, both countries do use the euro as their official currency although they have not have been accepted into the euro zone.

This is important in the context of the discussions on Greece because it illustrates the point that Greece cannot be forced off the euro. The European Commission and the European Central Bank can impose incredibly onerous conditions on Greece, but they cannot prevent the country from using the euro if it so chooses. The decision to leave the euro could only be made by the Greek government, not its creditors.

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A NYT article reported on a new commitment by China to reduce its emissions of greenhouse gases. At one point it referred to China as the world's second largest economy. Actually, using a purchasing power parity measure of GDP, which is the one most economists would use to measure an economy's size, China passed the United States last year and is now close to 4 percent larger. (China's economy would be about 6 percent larger if Hong Kong is included.)

In the context of GHG emissions it is important to note that a substantial portion of China's emissions are associated with producing items for consumption in the United States and elsewhere. China has an overall trade surplus and a large surplus on manufactured goods.

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They're really lowering the bar big time over at the Washington Post. An editorial condemning the Greek government and urging Greek voters to accept the last offer from its creditors told readers, "the Greek economy had started to perk up prior to Mr. Tsipras’s ascendance."

The Greek economy did grow in 2014. According to the I.M.F., the per capita growth rate last year was 1.4 percent. Since per capita income in Greece is down by almost 25 percent from its 2007 level, at the 2014 growth rate the country will be back to its 2007 income level by 2035.

The piece also called on the government for further cuts in what it described as Greece's "unsustainable pensions." These pensions have already been cut by more than 40 percent and now average less than 700 euros (@ $800) a month. The pensions may well be unsustainable under the macroeconomic policies being imposed by Greece's creditors, but this is primarily because these policies have pushed Greece into a depression. The result has been a sharp reduction in the number of workers paying into the pension system and a big increase in the number of workers collecting pensions, since many have been forced by economic conditions to retiree early.

Using the I.M.F. projections from April 2008 as a benchmark, the policies pursued by the euro zone leadership will have the cost the region more than $10 trillion (@ $30,000 per person) by the end of 2015. In this context it is interesting that the Washington Post condemns the Greek government as being irresponsible.

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The NYT had a bizarre front page article about the limited effectiveness of monetary policy in the euro zone and elsewhere. The headline of the piece refers to "trillions" of dollars being spent by central banks, a line repeated in the first sentence:

"There are some problems that not even $10 trillion can solve.

"That gargantuan sum of money is what central banks around the world have spent in recent years as they have tried to stimulate their economies and fight financial crises."

In fact, central banks have not spent this money, they have lent this money, mostly by buying government bonds. This matters hugely because lending is a much more indirect way to boost the economy than spending.

Lending by central banks is supposed to boost growth by lowering interest rates. This encourages borrowing in the public and private sectors. This helps to explain the growth in debt in recent years. Rather than indicating a troubling situation, this was actually the point of the policy. Rather than focus on the amount of debt countries, companies, and individuals have incurred, it would be more reasonable to examine their interest burdens. These are mostly quite low.

For example, Japan's interest burden is less than 1.0 percent of GDP in spite of having a debt to GDP ratio of more than 200 percent. This is due to the fact that the interest rate on even its long-term debt is well below 1.0 percent.

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The Bank of International Settlements (BIS) issued a new report warning of the dangers of low interest rates. Robert Samuelson wants us to take these warnings very seriously, effectively saying that another crisis could be around the corner due to the recent build up of debt.

First, it is worth noting that warning of disaster due to expansionary monetary policy is what they do at the BIS, sort of like basketball players play basketball. The BIS has been warning for years that inflation was about to kick up if central banks didn't start raising interest rates. Of course, the exact opposite has happened, inflation rates have fallen and most central banks have been actively trying to increase the inflation rate from levels they view as too low to support growth.

The second point is that the rise in debt in a time of low interest rates is to be expected for two reasons. First, at low interest rates governments, corporations and individuals have more incentive to take on debt. This is not obviously a problem. For example, many corporations have taken advantage of extraordinarily low interest rates to issue long-term bonds. This gives them the opportunity to have cash to work with for decades into the future at very low cost. In these cases, they have the cash on hand and can easily meet their interest obligations.

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In response to questions from people everywhere, I will share a couple of quick thoughts on the possible departure of Greece from the euro. First, several people have raised the possibility of Greece being thrown out of the euro.

There is no way that Greece can literally be thrown out of the euro in the sense of being prohibited from using the euro. Any country has the option to use any currency it chooses. This was an issue that came up in the referendum over Scottish independence. The independence movement wanted to leave the United Kingdom but to continue to use the British pound as its currency. U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron said that the Scots could not keep the pound if they left the United Kingdom.

This was not true, unless the U.K. was prepared to invade Scotland and physically prevent their banks and stores from using the pound. The Bank of England could refuse to support any of the Scottish banks, which would make it highly undesirable for them to use the pound, in addition to the fact that the U.K. would not be setting monetary policy for the benefit of Scotland, but Scotland would certainly have the option to continue to use the pound for their currency.

In this vein, there are several countries around the world that use the dollar for their currency, including Panama, Ecuador, and Zimbabwe. They did not need to get permission from the United States to use the dollar, they just opted to do it (in the case of Ecuador and Zimbabwe to end hyperinflation).

In this way, Greece will have the option to keep the euro indefinitely. It is difficult to see why it would want to if it lacks the support of the European Central Bank, since it would almost certainly mean a substantially worsening of its economy from its current Great Depression levels of output. However if Greece's leaders decide that keeping the euro is more important than reviving the economy, the eurozone authorities cannot keep them from doing it, short of an armed invasion.

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The Wall Street Journal passed along warnings from the Bank of International Settlements (BIS) that central banks should start to curtail monetary expansion and that governments need to reduce their debt levels. The piece tells readers:

"The BIS has issued similar warnings in recent years concerning an overreliance on monetary policy, but its advice has gone largely unheeded."

It is worth noting that the BIS has been consistently wrong in prior years, warning as early as 2011 about the prospects of higher inflation due to expansionary monetary policy:

"But despite the obvious near-term price pressures, break-even inflation expectations at distant horizons remained relatively stable, suggesting that central banks’ long-term credibility was intact, at least for the time being.

"But controlling inflation in the long term will require policy tightening. And with short-term inflation up, that means a quicker normalisation of policy
rates."

Since that date, the major central banks of the world have been struggling with lower than desired inflation and doing whatever they could to raise the rate of inflation. It would have been helpful to readers to point out that the BIS has been hugely wrong in its past warnings, so people in policy positions appear to have been right to ignore them. This is likely still the case.

 

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The NYT finished a piece on the status of negotiations on Greece's debt with the comment:

"The bigger fear is that a Greek default could force the country eventually to be the first to leave the 19-nation euro currency union and threaten the regional integrity of the broader European Union."

It would have been helpful to tell readers who has these fears. After all, the current policies being imposed by the European Central Bank and the EU have cost the region millions of jobs and trillions of euros in lost output and threaten a whole generation's economic future. It is hard to see why anyone would fear the possibility that these policies may be reversed.

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That's what readers are asking after seeing a NYT piece on reactions to the Supreme Court's ruling upholding the insurance subsidies in the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The piece gives comments from a number of people including John Kasich, the governor of Ohio and a likely candidate for the Republican presidential nomination.

"More typical was the response from Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, a likely Republican presidential candidate.

"'The law has driven up Ohio’s health insurance costs significantly,' he said, 'and I remain convinced that Congress should repeal it and replace it with something that actually reduces costs.'"

There has been a sharp slowdown in the rate of health care cost growth across the country. While this slowdown preceded the passage of the ACA, the law has likely been a factor contributing to the slower growth in costs. If Ohio is actually seeing rising insurance costs due to the ACA then it would be an outlier from the experience in the rest of the country.

If this is the case, it would be interesting to know the reason for the higher costs in Ohio. Alternatively, Kasich may just be saying this for political purposes.

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James Stewart has a piece in the NYT telling readers that if Greece were to leave the euro it would face a disaster. The headline warns readers, "imagine Argentina, but much worse." The article includes several assertions that are misleading or false.

First, it is difficult to describe the default in Argentina as a disaster. The economy had been plummeting prior to the default, which occurred at the end of the year in 2001. The country's GDP had actually fallen more before the default than it did after the default. (This is not entirely clear on the graph, since the data is annual. At the point where the default took place in December of 2001, Argentina's GDP was already well below the year-round average.) While the economy did fall more sharply after the default, it soon rebounded and by the end of 2003 it had regained all the ground lost following the default.

argentina 2fredgraph

Argentina's economy continued to grow rapidly for several more years, rising above pre-recession levels in 2004. Given the fuller picture, it is difficult to see the default as an especially disastrous event even if it did lead to several months of uncertainty for the people of Argentina. In this respect, it is worth noting that Paul Volcker is widely praised in policy circles for bringing down the inflation rate. To accomplish this goal he induced a recession that pushed the unemployment rate to almost 11 percent. So the idea that short-term pain might be a price worth paying for a longer term benefit is widely accepted in policy circles.

At one point the piece refers to the views of Yanis Varoufakis, Greece's finance minister, on the difficulties of leaving the euro. It relies on what it describes as a "recent blogpost." Actually the post is from 2012.

To support the argument that Greece has little prospect for increasing its exports it quotes Daniel Gros, director of the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels, on the impact of devaluation on tourism:

“But they’ve already cut prices and tourism has gone up. But it hasn’t really helped because total revenue hasn’t gone up.”

Actually tourism revenue has risen. It rose by 8.0 percent from 2011 to 2013 (the most recent data available) measured in euros and by roughly 20 percent measured in dollars. In arguing that Greece can't increase revenue from fishing the piece tells readers:

"The European Union has strict quotas to prevent overfishing."

However the piece also tells readers that leaving the euro would cause Greece to be thrown out of the European Union. If that's true, the EU limits on fishing would be irrelevant.

The piece also make a big point of the fact that Greece does not at present have a currency other than the euro. There are plenty of countries, including many which are poorer than Greece, who have managed to switch over to a new currency in a relatively short period of time. While this process will never be painless, it must be compared to the pain associated with an indefinite period of unemployment in excess of 20.0 percent which is almost certainly the path associated with remaining in the euro on the Troika's terms. 

In making comparisons between Greece and Argentina, it is also worth noting that almost all economists projected disaster at the time Argentina defaulted in 2001. Perhaps they have learned more about economics in the last 14 years, but this is not obviously true.

 

Addendum

I should have also mentioned that the pre-default decline has been much sharper in Greece than in Argentina, over 25 percent in Greece, compared to less than 10.0 percent in Argentina. This should mean that Greece has much more room to bounce back if it regains control over its fiscal and monetary policy.

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Okay, that may not have been the headline, but careful readers would see this is the case. The NYT ran a piece complaining that plans by the Greek government to raise business taxes, as opposed to further cuts to pensions and other spending, could hurt business.

The poster child for this argument is Thanos Tziritis, the owner of a family business that produces and exports a wide range of construction materials. The piece goes through the various complaints of Mr. Tziritis, at one point telling readers:

"Still, it took 20 months to get all the permissions and licenses to begin construction, as papers moved back and forth between Thessaloniki and Athens.

"One reason for the delay, Mr. Tziritis said he was told, was that one of the government employees examining the request was on maternity leave and no one else was authorized to look at that specific Isomat file. The project remained in limbo for more than six months until the civil servant returned to work."

Presumably one of the reasons that no one else could fill in for the government employee examining the construction request was that Greece was forced to cut back on the number of employees. It may well be the case that Greece regulations are excessive, but until they are reformed cutting back on the number of people involved in the review process is likely to slow investment and growth, as this article indicates.

The article bizarrely implies that Greece has been resistant to making budget cuts, complaining:

"The I.M.F., in particular, is upset that its demands for spending reductions have been ignored.

"'All expenditure measures have been replaced by taxes on capital and labor,' said a fund official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. 'This is very growth unfriendly.'"

In fact, total government spending has fallen by more than one-third since 2009, according to I.M.F. data.

It is also worth noting that, in violation on NYT policy, there is no reason given for why the fund official was granted anonymity.

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The Washington Post ran a piece on Glenn Hubbard, the chief economic adviser to President George W. Bush and now an adviser to Jeb Bush, which ignored much of Mr. Hubbard's history. For example, it told readers:

"Hubbard believes that for too long, the United States has only experienced rapid growth in the midst of what he calls 'bubble economies,' which don't deliver broadly shared prosperity to workers. For example, he blames the Federal Reserve for stoking a bubble in the mid-2000s by keeping interest rates too low for too long."

While the piece notes that Hubbard had been an adviser to Bush during part of this period, it neglects to tell readers that he never said anything about the housing bubble. In other words, Hubbard's analysis is 100 percent hindsight, he completely missed the $8 trillion housing bubble, the collapse of which has devastated the economy.

He is also mistaken in claiming that bubbles cannot lead to "broadly shared prosperity to workers." During the 1990s stock bubble, the unemployment rate eventually fell as low as 4.0 percent. During these years workers at the middle and bottom of the wage distribution saw healthy wage gains. The problem is that this growth could not be enduring, since it was based on a bubble.

It also would have been useful to remind readers that Hubbard had done excellent research indicating the Bush tax cuts would not be likely to have the promised effect of increasing investment. Hubbard's research showed that investment is very unresponsive to reductions in the interest rate. The stated goal of tax cuts directed at high income households was to give them more incentive to save and thereby lower interest rates. If investment is unresponsive to a reduction in interest rates, then this is unlikely to be an effective route to boosting investment and growth.

 

Addendum:

My colleague, Nicholas Buffie, calls my attention to a paper that Professor Hubbard co-authored for Goldman Sach's Global Markets Institute in 2004, near the peak of the bubble. The executive summary of the paper told readers:

“The ascendancy of the US capital markets — including increasing depth of US stock, bond, and derivative markets — has improved the allocation of capital and of risk throughout the US economy. Evidence includes the higher returns on capital in the US compared to elsewhere; the persistent, large inflows of capital to the US from abroad; the enhanced stability of the US banking system; and the ability of new companies to raise funds. The same conclusions apply to the United Kingdom, where the capital markets are also well-developed.” [emphasis added]

“The development of the capital markets has also facilitated a revolution in housing finance. As a result, the proportion of households in the US that own their homes has risen substantially over the past decade.”

“The capital markets have also acted to reduce the volatility of the economy. Recessions are less frequent and milder when they occur. As a result, upward spikes in the unemployment rate have occurred less frequently and have become less severe.”

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Emily Badger had an interesting discussion of the decline of homeownership in Wonkblog. However the piece neglected to mention one of the most important reasons why people might opt to rent rather than own: the insecurity of their employment situation.

It is usually not a good idea to spend the large overhead costs associated with buying a home unless you have a secure job where you can expect to stay many years into the future. As stable jobs become rarer in the economy (median job tenure has fallen sharply over the last three decades), homeownership is likely to make sense for a smaller segment of the population. If the trend towards shorter job tenure continues we should see further declines in the ownership rate in the years ahead.

The piece also errors in implying that rental prices are rising substantially faster than other prices. For these sorts of comparisons it is best to use the owner equivalent rent (OER) measure, which pulls out utilities that are often included in the rent measure.

CPI housing fredgraph

The graph shows that this measure of rent has somewhat outpaced core inflation over the last few years, but this followed several years in which OER rose less rapidly than the core rate of inflation. Since January of 2006, the OER has risen by 3.0 percentage points more than the core inflation rate.

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Michael Fletcher had a short piece highlighting the huge gulf in the economic status of whites and African Americans. While the piece rightly points out that there are no simple remedies to eliminate the gap, one of the charts suggests a policy that can make a huge difference.

The chart shows the overall unemployment rate and the unemployment rate for whites and African Americans. The unemployment rate for African Americans is consistently twice as high as the unemployment rate for whites. This means that a drop in the unemployment rate for whites of one percentage point would likely be associated with a drop of two percentage points in the unemployment rate for African Americans.

For African American teens the ratio is typically six to one. This means that a Federal Reserve Board policy of letting the unemployment rate fall as low as possible is likely to have large payoffs for African Americans, especially for young people trying to get a step up in the labor market. This may not eliminate the gap in status between whites and African Americans, but a commitment to a full employment policy may go a substantial distance in that direction.

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The Wall Street Journal was good enough to give us "our entitlement problem for the next generation in one CBO chart." The featured chart shows the projected discounted cost of Medicare benefits compared with the discounted value of the taxes paid in. It shows that the former is around three times the latter for the baby boom cohorts.

While this may look like the baby boomers are getting a real bonanza on their health care the real story is that the doctors and the drug companies are getting a real windfall at the expense of the rest of the country. Our health care providers earn roughly twice as much on average as their counterparts in other wealthy countries. There is little evidence they provide anything in the form of better service for this money, they just get much richer.

The doctors and other providers are able to largely limit domestic competition through their control of licensing and the setting of health care standards. They also obstruct any efforts to open up health care to international competition for example by allowing Medicare beneficiaries to buy into the health care systems of other countries (yes, this would have to be negotiated -- sort of like the TPP) or by increasing the number of foreign trained doctors who practice in the United States.

Anyhow, if we paid the same per person amount for health care as people in other wealthy countries, most of the gap between the cost of Medicare and Medicare taxes would disappear. Therefore we can more accurately say this is a picture of our health care cost problem in one graph. The power of the health care providers makes it very difficult politically to fix this problem, but it should at least be possible to talk about it.

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I see that I have to disagree with Brad DeLong again. Brad wants to see the 2008 downturn as a uniquely bad event due to the overextension of credit and the ensuing financial collapse. I see it as overwhelmingly a story of a burst housing bubble and the resulting fallout in the real sector.

First off, in this piece Brad seems to want to attribute the worldwide downturn to the collapse of the housing bubble in the U.S. This seems more than a bit bizarre, since countries like Spain and Ireland arguably had bigger bubbles and bigger collapses than the U.S.

The collapse in the U.S. may have happened first and triggered the collapse in other countries, but this would only be in the sense that the U.S. collapse might have alerted lenders to the possibility that house prices can fall. Presumably the bankers would have discovered this basic economic fact at some point regardless of what happened in the United States.

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The NYT had a piece on efforts to encourage doctors to assess the price and relative effectiveness of drugs when writing prescriptions for cancer patients. It notes that drug companies charge $10,000-$30,000 a month for many of the new cancer drugs. It then comments on the suggestion that doctors should take these costs into account in deciding treatment:

"Evaluating the latter cost would put doctors in the role of being stewards of societal resources. That is somewhat of a controversial role for doctors, since it might conflict with their duty to the patient in front of them."

It is important to note that doctors are not exactly in the role of deciding whether resources would be allocated to developing these cancer drugs, since that decision would have already been made. The resources devoted to developing the drugs have already been used at the point where doctors are deciding whether to prescribe them. The doctors' decision only determines how much drug companies will profit as a result of committing these resources.

This is an important distinction. Obviously profits will affect the drug companies decisions on future research, but at the point where the drug exists, it costs society very little to make it available to every patient who would benefit. It is only due to patent monopolies that we get such a sharp divergence between the price facing the patient or insurer and the cost to society.

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An NYT article on the prospects of a deal between Greece and its creditors left this item off its list of the risks from Greece leaving the euro. If Greece were to leave the euro, its exports, most importantly tourism, would be hyper-competitive. This would likely lead to a huge increase in its business as travelers from Europe and the United States opt to visit Greece rather than other tourist destinations.

This could lead to the same sort of rebound that Iceland saw after its initial collapse. This would be hugely embarrassing to the I.M.F., the European Commission, and the European Central Bank, which have forced Greece to endure a depression and demand policies that will likely leave it with depression levels of unemployment for at least another decade.

This outcome will be especially painful for political leaders in countries like Spain and Portugal, both because they have imposed comparable depressions on their own populations and also because they will be directly hit by the loss of tourism to Greece. From their perspective, a successful Grexit would be the worst possible outcome.

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Robert Samuelson used his column today to note the sharp rise in CEO pay. He ends up leaving it an open question as to whether the increase in the pay gap between CEOs and average workers, from an average of 20 to 1 in the 1960s to 300 to 1 at present, reflects the fundamentals of the market. In assessing this question, it is worth considering the incentives for the boards of directors that set CEO pay.

If a CEO wants another $1 million, a director is likely to make herself unpopular among her peers, many of whom are likely to be personal friends of the CEO, if she refuses to go along. Furthermore, if the CEO were to leave because they did not get the pay raise, and the company performed poorly (possibly because of random events having nothing to do with the CEO), the director who opposed the pay increase would be likely to see their position threatened.

On the other hand, directors almost never have their positions threatened as a result of overpaying their CEO. It is very difficult for disgruntled shareholders to organize to remove a director.

In this context, it would not be surprising if CEO pay continued to rise. With such asymmetric incentives, there is not the same sort of downward pressure on CEO pay as there is for auto workers or retail workers. Therefore, it should not be surprising that if gap in pay continues to increase.

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