Beat the Press is Dean Baker's commentary on economic reporting. Dean Baker is a Senior Economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR).

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Eduardo Porter had a good piece noting that the United States is an outlier among rich countries in that it takes in far less tax revenue each year than other wealthy countries. As a result, it provides less in public services like health care and higher education. However, this is an incomplete story.

Tax collections are only one way in which the government pays for goods and services. There are three other important mechanisms:

1) patent and copyright monopolies;

2) tax expenditures, and;

3) loan guarantees.

While tax collections have increased little over the last three decades, the money committed in these three categories has expanded hugely relatively to the size of the economy over this period.

In the case of patent and copyright monopolies, these are mechanisms that the government uses to pay for innovation and creative work as an alternative to direct spending. For example, the United States could spend another $50 billion a year on biomedical research (in addition to the $32 billion it spends through the National Institutes of Health) and take responsibility for developing and testing new drugs. Instead, it tells the pharmaceutical industry to develop drugs and it will give it patents and other types of monopolies so it can recoup its costs.

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The NYT gave us yet another account of an industry that apparently can't get enough workers:

"Trucking is a brutal job. Drivers endure long, tedious stretches where they are inactive but have to stay focused, and they spend weeks at a time away from home. For those and other reasons, the industry’s biggest problem has been the scarcity and turnover of drivers, making it hard to keep up with shipping demand."

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average hourly wage for production and nonsupervisory employees in the trucking industry went up 2.4 percent. If it is really the case that the industry can't get enough drivers, they may try raising the pay. This is at least what the intro econ textbooks would say.

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The NYT had a lengthy article reporting on the Trump administration's efforts to reverse the movement away from fee for service payments to doctors initiated by the Obama administration. Tom Price, who had been head of the the Department of Health and Human Services, was a central figure in this effort.

At one point the piece tells readers that Price:

"...had fought against what he saw as unnecessary government intervention since his days as a surgeon in the suburbs north of Atlanta."

While it is possible that Price "saw" the new payment structures as a "unnecessary" government intervention, we might also think that Price was primarily upset about a payment system that would lower his pay and that of other doctors. It's good that the NYT was able to determine Price's true motives for us.

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Yep, that seems to be the point of a major NYT article highlighting increased sales of Canadian lobsters in Europe. The point is that a trade deal between the European Union and Canada eliminated a 7 percent tariff on Canadian lobsters, which remains in place on U.S. lobsters.

To put in some of the perspective that is altogether lacking in this piece, the lobster industry in the United States is a bit under $500 million annually. Or, to put this in some context that might make sense to most NYT readers, it amounts to less than 0.003 percent of US GDP. In other words, the tariff is an issue that might make a difference to a small number of lobster trappers in Maine, but it matters pretty much not at all to the economy. (Actually, the rest of us will pay more for lobster if the tariff on U.S. lobster was eliminated, but the NYT forget to mention this fact.)

Anyhow, the proposed EU–U.S. trade deal, the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Pact (TTIP), actually had very little to do with trade, since trade barriers in almost all areas are already relatively low. The deal was about putting in place a pro-business structure of regulation. Among other things, it would set up special tribunals for investors that would override domestic laws in both the EU and US. It was also protectionist in that it would lock in longer and stronger patent and copyright protections.

Major media outlets, like the NYT, have been strong proponents of this deal using both their news and editorial pages to push it. This piece is an example of a pro-TTIP article that wrongly implies the U.S. is suffering major economic damage as a result of not pursuing TTIP. That is not true.

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A front page Washington Post article on the continued use of coal in Germany, in spite of its impact on global warming, told readers that one of the reasons it is difficult to cut back on coal is the industry employs about 20,000 people. Since most readers are unlikely to have a clear idea of the size of Germany's labor force, it would have been helpful to point out that this comes to less than 0.05 percent of its workforce of 43.0 million.

This doesn't mean that job loss for these workers would not still be traumatic, although Germany does provide much better unemployment benefits than the United States. It is important for readers to have some sense of how important employment in the sector is to the nation as a whole, which this piece did not give.

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That would appear to the implication of a complaint in a news story that:

"Trump also has spent time during the trip excusing predatory economic behavior of China and other countries and blaming past U.S. administrations for allowing the 'unfair' trade imbalances he railed against during the campaign."

This is an interesting departure from the position the Post had generally taken in both its news and editorial page in the past, which largely derided the view that our pattern of trade was in any way detrimental to the U.S. economy. In particular, the idea that other countries might be managing their currency to maintain large trade surpluses was generally trivialized and those who argued this position were derided as "protectionist." It is interesting that the Post appears to have completely flipped its position on this point.

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The Washington Post refuses to follow journalistic norms and maintain a separation between the news and editorial pages when it comes to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Yet again the paper referred to the pact as a "free-trade" agreement.

Of course, the deal is not a free trade pact. It does little, if anything, to remove the barriers that protect highly paid professionals like doctors from international competition. Also, a major focus of the pact is longer and stronger patent and copyright protections.

These forms of protectionism have been a major factor in the upward redistribution of the last four decades. In the case of prescription drugs alone these protections add more than $370 billion annually (almost 2 percent of GDP) to what we spend on drugs. The Post supports these protections and apparently would like its readers to believe that they are somehow part of a free market.

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The main claim of proponents of the Republican tax bill is that lowering corporate taxes will lead to a surge in corporate investment. This is supposed to lead to more rapid productivity growth and therefore higher wages.

As those of us who are fond of data have pointed out, the world doesn't seem to work this way. There is very little relationship between after-tax profit rates and investment. In fact, the period of strongest investment was the late 1970s and early 1980s when after-tax profits were at their post-World War II low, while the current period of very high profits has been associated with lackluster investment. This leaves little reason to believe that cutting the corporate tax rate will have much impact on investment. (Of course, we also tried this trick in 1986, also with little impact on investment.) 

But there is another aspect to this story that folks in the reality-based universe should be thinking about. Productivity growth has been dismal in recent years, in spite of all the talk about robots taking our jobs. (Pundits aren't paid to know anything about the world.) Over the last five years, productivity growth has averaged less than 0.7 percent annually. That compares to rates of close to 3.0 percent from 1995 to 2005 and also during the long golden age from 1947 to 1973.

However this may be changing. Last quarter, productivity rose at a 3.0 percent annual rate. As everyone familiar with productivity data knows, the best thing to do with quarterly number is to ignore it. Nonetheless, a faster trend has to start somewhere and what is striking is that we seem to be on a path for another strong number for the fourth quarter.

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Paul Krugman had an interesting blog post today on the impact of the Republican proposal to cut the corporate income tax. While he rejected the growth claims of the Trump administration, he noted the projections of the Penn-Wharton model that the tax cuts would increase GDP between 0.3 to 0.8 percent by 2027. He described this increase as "basically an invisible effect against background noise." 

This is worth comparing with the projected gains from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The very pro-TPP Peterson Institute projected gains of 0.5 percent of GDP by 2032. The United States International Trade Commission projected an increase in GNI (Gross National Income) of 0.23 percent by 2032. (Neither of these analyses tried to incorporate the impact of the increased protectionism in the TPP in the form of longer and stronger patent and copyright protections.)

Anyhow, if we agree with Krugman that the projected 0.3–0.8 percent of GDP gain from the cut in the corporate income tax is "basically an invisible effect against background noise," then we can't think the smaller and more distant projected gains from the TPP are a big deal, unless we are dishonest. (For the record, Krugman is not a guilty party here since he opposed the TPP.)  

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That is effectively what he said when according to the Washington Post he claimed that "he has spoken to his own accountant about the tax plan and that he would be a 'big loser' if the deal is approved as written." Of course, we don't know exactly what Mr. Trump's tax returns look like since he lied about releasing them once an audit was completed, but based on the one return that was made public, the plan looks like it was written to reduce his tax liability.

It reduces the tax rate for high-income people on income from pass-through corporations, which was pretty much all of Trump's income on his return. It also eliminates the alternative minimum tax, which Trump had to pay for 2005. And it eliminates the estate tax, which Trump's estate would almost certainly have to pay when he dies. In addition, it leaves in place a number of special tax breaks for the real estate sector, even as it eliminates them for other businesses.

It seems likely that either Mr. Trump's accountant is incompetent or Trump lied about what they told him about the impact of the tax plan on his finances.

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It's amazing the stuff you can find in the NYT. Most of us learn at a fairly early age that the people who sit in Congress are politicians. They get there by appeasing powerful interest groups who give them the money and political support necessary to get and hold their seats. However, NYT columnist David Brooks seems to think that they get their seats as a result of their political philosophy.

In his column on the tax debate, titled "the clash of social visions," Brooks tell readers:

"The Republicans have a social vision. The Republican vision is that the corporate sector is more important to a healthy America than the professional and nonprofit sector. The Republican vision is that companies that thrive in the red states, like manufacturing and agriculture, are more important for the country than the industries that thrive in blue states, like finance, media, the academy and the movies."

Hmmm, so the Republicans have a vision that people (like Donald Trump) who get their income from pass-through corporations (or can devise a scheme that makes it look like they get their income from pass-through corporations) should pay taxes at a lower rate than people who get their income working as a lawyer, doctor, or other highly paid professional and don't cheat the I.R.S.?

And their social vision also tells Republicans that like kind transactions involving real estate (like those done by Donald Trump) should be exempt from the more general requirement that such transactions be subject to capital gains tax? (A like kind transaction involves exchanging two businesses or properties that have some general similarities.) Does the Republican social vision also tell them that heavily leveraged real estate deals (like those done by Donald Trump) should be exempt from the caps on the deductability of interest?

It would also be interesting to know how the Republican social vision implies that cancer victims should not be able to deduct massive medical bills from their income taxes. It's also not clear how ending the tax deduction for the interest on college loans advances the Republican social vision.

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It's hard to know what is the most cynical part of a tax bill designed to give as much money as possible to Donald Trump and his family, but the elimination of the tax deduction for medical expenses has to rate pretty high on the list. The Post had a good piece on the issue, pointing out how the loss of this deduction will make life considerably more difficult for a couple dealing with early-onset Alzheimer's disease.

This case is perhaps somewhat extreme, but it is the sort of situation in which families would be in a position to benefit from the tax deduction. It only applies to expenses in excess of 10 percent of a family’s income, so it is only people with large expenses who would be in a situation to benefit from this deduction. Eliminating this deduction is likely to be a considerable financial hardship for families dealing with serious medical conditions.

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The Washington Post had a good piece pointing out the relatively small share of the population that would be hit by the cap of $500,000 on the amount of the principal for which interest is tax deductible. While it pointed out that a relatively small share of homes sell for a large enough amount to require a $500,000 mortgage and that the interest up to $500,000 will still be deductible, it neglected to point out that the principal dwindles over time so that even people who took out a mortgage of more than $500,000 will soon find that all their interest is still deductible.

For example, if someone takes out a $600,000, 30-year mortgage, after 7–8 years they will have paid off more than $100,000 of this mortgage so that all of their interest is again deductible. For mortgages over, but near, $500,000, it will only for the first years of a mortgage that a homeowner will be affected by this provision.

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The jobs report for October showed the unemployment rate falling to 4.1 percent, the lowest rate in almost 17 years. Of course, as many have noted, the unemployment data are somewhat erratic and this was associated with a drop in employment rates (EPOPs), as people left the labor market, which is not good news. Still, the drop in EPOPs followed a jump in September, so that even with the October decline the EPOP for prime-age (ages 25 to 54) women is still 0.7 percentage points above its year-ago level and for men, the increase is 0.6 percentage points. So this is still a very good story.

But the other part of the story, that many folks seem to have missed, is that there is evidence of a modest uptick in wage growth. Typically we look at the year over year gain in wages, which is telling us much about wage growth last November as it is about the pace of wage growth last month. If we focus on the more recent data, taking the average hourly wage for the last three months (August to October) with the prior three months (May to July), there is clear evidence of an uptick in wage growth, as shown below.

jobs 2017 11

The annualized wage growth by this measure is 3.1 percent. If we knock off a couple of tenths due to the fact that September's number was distorted by the hurricane, we are still looking at a 2.9 percent rate of wage growth. While this is hardly spectacular, if inflation remains under 2.0 percent (it jumped in September due to higher gas prices caused by the hurricanes), it translates in a modest pace of real wage growth that is consistent with workers getting their share of productivity growth.

It would be good to see wages outpace productivity growth for a period of time in order to make back ground lost during the Great Recession, but it is important to note this progress. And, if the third quarter productivity number (3.0 percent growth) is not a fluke, then we can really talk about some good wage growth.

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An NYT article discussing the prospects of the Republican tax plan included projections from the Tax Foundation which does not indicate that it is a conservative organization. The piece told readers:

"When economic growth is taken into account, the gains would be more evenly distributed, with the middle class seeing the biggest income increase on a percentage basis. That is because the Tax Foundation assumes additional growth spurred by business tax cuts largely finds its way into workers’ paychecks."

The growth assumed by the Tax Foundation in its projections is not assumed by independent analysts.

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There are many reasons to object to the Republican tax cut plan. Most importantly, the corporate tax cut is likely to primarily benefit shareholders, with little impact on investment; the elimination of the estate tax is a gift to the very richest people in the country; and the 25 percent tax rate for rich people on the income they receive from pass-through businesses is both a huge gift to the very rich and an enormous growth incentive for the tax shelter industry.

But one complaint is largely ill-founded. The limit of the mortgage interest to payments on $500,000 in principal is not likely to have much negative impact on middle-income households. While the NYT tells us that people buying "starter houses" in places like New York City and Silicon Valley are likely to be hit, this impact is likely to be minimal. This can be seen with a bit of arithmetic.

Ife we assume that someone buys a home with 10 percent down, then a $500,000 mortgage would go along with a house that sold for $555,000. According to the Case-Shiller indices, this would put you well into the top third of houses in the New York City commuter zone. (The cut-off is $480,000 in the most recent data.)

Furthermore, it is only the interest on the principle above this amount which is no longer tax deductible. Suppose someone has a $600,000 mortgage (enough to buy a $670,000 home, assuming a 90 percent loan to value ratio). They would be able to deduct the interest on $500,000 in principle, but not the last $100,000. If they paid a 4 percent interest rate on their loan, this would be $4,000 in lost deductions. If they are in the 25 percent bracket, this would amount to an increase of $1,000 in their taxes.

While this amount is not trivial since this person is paying $24,000 a year in mortgage interest alone (taxes and principle almost certainly raise housing costs above $40k a year), their income is almost certainly well over $100k a year, so this is not a moderate-income household. Furthermore, as the principal is paid down, a greater portion of the interest is tax deductible, as the outstanding principle falls to the $500,000 cutoff. In short, it does not make sense to claim this limit is a big hit to middle-income households, even in areas with high-priced housing.

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The Washington Post reported that Republicans in Congress are now considering making their tax cuts temporary, so as to reduce their cost over the 10-year budget horizon. The paper neglected to mention that this change would completely undermine the basis for the claim that the tax cut will lead to boom in investment and growth.

This alleged boom is the basis for both the claim that the average family would get $4,000 from the tax cut and that additional growth would generate $1.5 trillion in revenue over the next decade. As I pointed out yesterday, the projection of an investment boom was never very plausible in any case, but for it to make any sense at all, the tax cuts have to be permanent. 

The Republicans' argument was that lower tax rates would increase the incentive for companies to invest. But if companies anticipate that the tax rate will return to its current level after a relatively short period of time, then the tax cut will provide little incentive. This means there is no basis for the assumption of a boom.

In the case of a temporary tax cut, the claim that average families will see a $4,000 dividend from higher pay makes no sense. And the claim of a $1.5 trillion growth dividend can be seen for what it is: a number snatched out of the air to claim the tax cut won't increase the deficit.  

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The Republicans are telling us that cutting in the corporate tax rate will lead to a big $4000 pay increase for ordinary workers. The story goes that lower taxes will lead to a flood of new investment. This will increase productivity and higher productivity will be passed on to workers in higher wages.

That's a nice story, but the data refuse to go along. My friend Josh Bivens took a quick look at the relationship across countries between corporate tax rates and the capital-to-labor ratio. If the investment boom story is true, then countries with the lowest corporate tax rate would have the highest capital-to-labor ratio.

Josh found the opposite. The countries with the highest capital-to-labor ratios actually had higher corporate tax rates on average than countries with lower capital-to-labor ratios. While no one would try to claim based on this evidence that raising the corporate tax rate would lead to more investment, it certainly is hard to reconcile this one with the Republicans' story.

Just to consider all the possibilities. Josh looked to see if there was a relationship between the change in the tax rate and change in the capital-to-labor ratio. Here, also, the story goes the wrong way. The countries with the largest cuts in corporate tax rates had the smallest increase in their capital-to-labor ratios.

The implication of this simple analysis is that there is no reason to believe that cuts in the corporate tax rate will have any major impact on investment. It will simply mean more money in the pockets of shareholders, with little if any gain for ordinary workers. The moral here is that workers best not go out and spend their promised $4,000 tax cut dividend just yet.

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The Washington Post told readers that the Republican tax plan:

"...will aim to slash corporate tax rates, simplify taxes for individuals and families and lure the foreign operations of multinational firms back to the United States with incentives and penalties."

While there is no plan at the moment, the reports to date have said the Republicans want to shift to a territorial tax under which companies don't pay U.S. tax on their foreign profits. If this is true, their proposal will increase the incentive to shift operations overseas, or at least to have their profits appear to come from overseas operations.

It is worth noting that the concern expressed about future deficits in this piece is referring to a largely meaningless concept. If we are concerned about the commitment to future debt service payments then we should be looking at debt service payments, which are now near historic lows relative to the size of the economy.

We should also be asking about the burden the government creates by granting patent and copyright monopolies. This presently comes to close to $370 billion annually (more than twice the debt service burden) in the case of prescription drugs alone. This is the gap between what we pay for drugs, currently around $450 billion a year, and the price that would exist in a free market without patents and related protections, which would likely be less than $80 billion. The full cost of these protections in all areas is almost certainly at least twice the cost incurred in prescription drugs.

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A NYT article reported on a commitment by its president, Xi Jinping, to raise everyone in China above its official poverty level of 95 cents a day by 2020. According to the piece, 43 million people in China now fall under this income level.

While the piece implies this would be a difficult target for China to make, the cost would actually be quite small relative to the size of its economy. If it were to hand this amount of money (95 cents a day) to each of these 43 million people, it would cost the country $14.9 billion annually. This is just over 0.05 percent of its projected GDP for 2020 of $29.6 trillion. This target would still leave these and many other people very poor but if this is what China's government is shooting for, there is little reason to think it will not be able to meet the target.

The article also says that China's slowing growth will make reducing poverty more difficult. While it is harder to reduce poverty with slower growth rather than faster growth, China's economy is still projected to be growing at more than a 6.0 percent annual rate, which is faster than almost every other country in the world.

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It is common for economists to assert that the trade deficit is equal to the gap between national savings and national investment. If the United States invests more than it saves (combining private savings and government savings) then it is running a trade deficit. This is true by definition.

Intro Econ fans may remember that we have the basic accounting identity saying that output is equal to income:


...where C is consumption,

...I is investment,

...G is government spending,

...X-M is net exports (exports minus imports),

and Y is income.

We also can say that Y=S+C+T,

...where S is savings,

...C is consumption,

...and T is taxes.

The basic story is that the government taxes away some of our income and the rest is either saved or consumed (saved means it is not consumed).

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