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).

Follow on Twitter Like on Facebook Subscribe by E-mail RSS Feed

The same day that it ran a front page story that hyped fears of huge tariffs in the event that NAFTA is repealed, the NYT ran a column highlighting the problems of protectionism. Incredibly, the column was pushing for stronger protectionism in the form of better enforcement of copyright monopolies, without any recognition that it was pushing protectionism.

This is a great example of how elite types push protectionist policies to benefit themselves, with zero recognition that they are pushing protectionism. If anyone is confused, copyright protection is a type of protectionism, unlike the tariffs of 5–10 percent that we might see if NAFTA is repealed, copyrights raise the price of protected items by many thousand percent above their free market price.

Books, software, recorded music, movies, and other video material that could be transferred at near zero cost in the absence of copyright protection instead become hugely costly. All the models that economists use (and journalists imperfectly internalize) that show the waste caused by tariffs raising prices above the free market price apply to copyright (and patent) protection as well, except the sums involved are several orders of magnitude larger in the case of copyright protection.

Of course copyright monopolies do serve an important purpose, they provide an incentive to do creative work. However there are other more modern and efficient mechanisms that can be used. For example, I outline a tax credit system modeled on the charitable contribution tax deduction in chapter 5 of Rigged: How Globalization and the Rules of the Modern Economy Were Structured to Make the Rich Richer (it's free). (Seattle is doing something comparable now by giving voters vouchers for campaign contributions.)

Unfortunately, instead of considering alternatives to copyright monopolies, our elites are prepared to use ever more intrusive laws and tools for enforcement. And then they ridicule the less-educated workers who suffer from the upward redistribution caused by patent and copyright protection for not having the skills needed to succeed in the modern economy.

Add a comment

A front-page NYT piece warned that Trump may actually carry through on his threat to pull out of NAFTA. In recounting the fallout from a collapse of the agreement, the paper tells readers:

"If the deal does fall apart, the United States, Canada and Mexico would revert to average tariffs that are relatively low — just a few percent in most cases. But several agricultural products would face much higher duties. American farmers would see a 25 percent tariff on shipments of beef, 45 percent on turkey and some dairy products, and 75 percent on chicken, potatoes and high fructose corn syrup sent to Mexico."

The tariffs reported for agricultural exports to Mexico are the pre-NAFTA level. Mexico would not necessarily raise its tariffs to these levels since it would mean large price increases to their consumers. Governments usually don't like to impose large taxes on their citizens, especially just before an election. (Mexico has a presidential election next summer.) While it is worth pointing out the past history of tariffs on these items and that Mexico would certainly have the right to raise them to pre-NAFTA levels, the NYT's assumption that it would raise tariffs by this amount is unwarranted. 

Add a comment

Eduardo Porter had an interesting column on how smaller cities are less resilient to economic shocks than larger ones. As a result, they have been losing jobs and people, while larger cities have been gaining them. While the piece makes many interesting points it is misleading in describing this pattern as a natural outcome from technology:

"As technology continues to make inroads into the economy — transforming industries from energy and retail to health care and transportation — it bodes ill for the future of such areas."

The distribution of the benefits from technology is determined to a very large extent by policies on patent, copyrights, and other forms of intellectual property. Bill Gates, the richest person in the world, would probably still be working for a living if not for the copyright and patent monopolies he holds on Windows, Word, and other types of software.

While these monopolies serve a purpose — they provide an incentive to innovate and produce creative work — they are policies, not facts of nature. It is wrong to treat them as being simply given and unchangeable. We have made these forms of protection longer and stronger over the last four decades, which redistributes more money from the bulk of the population to the people in a position to benefit from these forms of protectionism.

We could decide going forward that the benefits from strengthening these protections, insofar as they exist, do not outweigh the costs in terms of greater inequality. We could also look to more modern and efficient mechanisms for supporting innovation and creative work. 

In any case, it is simply wrong to imply that it is technology that has benefited large cities at the expense of the rest of the country. It was conscious policy. This basic fact needs to be acknowledged in any serious discussion of the topic.

Add a comment

PRI had an interview with NYT reporter Steve Erlanger on the situation in Catalonia in which he said that Spain had pretty much recovered from the recession and debt crisis. That's not what the data say.

According to the data from the OECD, the employment rate for prime-age workers (ages 25–54) is still down by almost 5 percentage points from its pre-crisis peak. For young people (ages 15–24), it has fallen by 20.0 percentage points from 39.4 percent to 19.4 percent. In the United States, this sort of drop off in employment rates would mean that an additional 10 million people are out of work.

This deterioration in the economy may have some connection to the unhappiness of the people in Catalonia with the Spanish government.

Add a comment

In an NYT Upshot piece on innovation in health care, Aaron Carroll and Austin Frakt argue that the U.S. subsidizes other countries health care by paying higher prices for prescription drugs. This is far from obvious.

Since the U.S. grants patent monopolies and then puts no checks on prices, brand drugs do cost far more here than elsewhere, but that doesn't mean that other countries are not paying enough to support innovation. The price of patent-protected brand drugs is on average around ten times their free market price. In Europe and Canada, prices are around half the U.S. price which means they are around five times the free market price.

This gap between the patent-protected price in other wealthy countries and the free market price should be more than enough to support the research done by the pharmaceutical industry. (They claim to spend around $50 billion a year on research directly. Even adding in what they pay to buy up other companies only gets to around $100 billion, a bit more than 20 percent of annual U.S. spending on drugs.)

European levels of spending may not be sufficient to support the marketing and profits of the U.S. industry, but that speaks more to the inefficiency of the U.S. industry, not the failure of other countries to pay for research. It is also worth noting that without the perverse incentives created by patent monopolies, the research process would almost certainly be more efficient.

There would be no incentive to spend money researching duplicative drugs simply to share in the patent rents of a breakthrough drug. This doesn't mean that it is not desirable to have multiple drugs for a specific condition, but the priority of developing a second, third, or fourth drug for a condition where an effective treatment already exists is almost certainly lower than developing a drug for a condition for which no effective treatment exists. Ending the reliance on patent-supported research would also take away the incentive for drug companies to misrepresent the safety and effectiveness of their drugs.

Add a comment

A NYT article on the seemingly healthy state of the world economy carries the headline, "The economy is humming. Banks are cheering. What can go wrong?" The piece is written as though we need to fear the possibility that another financial crisis is just around the corner. We don't.

It's become popular in the economics profession to highlight the financial crisis as the culprit behind the Great Recession, as opposed to the collapse of the $8 trillion housing bubble. This is very self-serving for economics profession because finance can be complicated. After all, not many people are experts on collaterized debt obligations and all the various risks that can be created if they and other complex derivatives lose value.

By contrast, the housing bubble was a pretty simple story. We had an unprecedented run-up in nationwide house prices that could not plausibly be explained by the fundamentals in the housing market. Rents were following their historic pattern, pretty much rising in step with the overall rate of inflation. And, we already had a record vacancy rate even before the bubble burst. That doesn't fit a story with house prices being driven by the fundamentals of supply and demand in the housing market.

And the bubble was clearly driving the economy. Residential construction hit a record share of GDP in 2005, at almost 6.5 percent. (Normal is around 3.5–4.0 percent.) The $8 trillion in bubble generated housing wealth also led to a consumption boom, with consumption hitting a record high as a share of GDP.

It should have been obvious both that there was a bubble and that there would be no easy way to replace the demand generated by the bubble after it burst. The fact that virtually the entire economics profession failed to recognize the situation is an enormous embarrassment. Therefore, we get the complicated financial crisis story as a cover-up.

The financial crisis story also has the added dividend of justifying the Wall Street bailout. After all, the alternative was a Second Great Depression. No one really has a coherent story as to why we would have been condemned to a Second Great Depression if we let the market work its magic on Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, and the rest, but if we're already in the magical mystery world of financial crisis land, then sure, maybe the curse from letting the big banks go under will condemn us to a decade of double digit unemployment.

Add a comment

The Washington Post decided to highlight the Republicans' flip-flop from being a party obsessed with debts and deficits in the Obama years to one that doesn't really care, as long as it can give more tax cuts to the rich. In presenting the background on the deficit and debt, it makes a number of assertions that are likely to mislead readers.

The fourth paragraph tells readers:

"The moves come as the federal deficit, the difference between what the government earns in revenue and spends on programs, is growing more quickly. It will be $600 billion this year and is projected to reach $1.46 trillion in a decade, even without additional policy actions."

This might sound like a rapid jump in the size of the deficit because it is not expressed relative to the size of the economy. In fact, the projections show the deficit rising from 3.6 percent of GDP in 2017 to 5.2 percent of GDP in 2027.

Furthermore, almost the entire increase in the projected deficit is the result of a projected increase in interest payments equal to 1.5 percentage points of GDP. This increase is due the Congressional Budget Office's (CBO) projection that interest rates will be substantially higher in the future than they are today. In this respect, it is worth noting that CBO has consistently been wrong in its interest rate projections since 2010, hugely overstating the extent to which interest rates will rise.

It is also worth noting that another factor driving up projected deficits is the assumption that the Federal Reserve Board will sell off much of its assets so that it will refund substantially less money to the Treasury in future years than it is now doing. Currently, it is refunding about $90 billion annually (0.5 percent of GDP) based on the interest it receives from its assets. This is projected to fall to about 0.2 percent of GDP in a decade. For some reason, the Washington Post, in spite of its concern about deficits, has never mentioned the impact on the deficit of the Fed's decision to sell off its assets.

Add a comment

The NYT had an interesting article about an effort to make a number of cancer drugs available in several African countries at generic prices. This will make many treatments that are extremely expensive in the United States affordable for these countries. As the piece notes, the Indian drug manufacturer intends to sells many of the pills at 50 cents each and infusions for $10. The prices in the United States could be close to one hundred times as high, as was the case with many AIDS drugs and the hepatitis C drug Sovaldi.

This is a great story for the people who will now be able to get treatment. It also drives home the simple and obvious point: drugs are almost invariably cheap to produce. They are expensive because we give drug companies patents and other types of monopolies.

This is done to to give them an incentive to carry on research. It is an incredibly backward and wasteful way for the government to finance research. It would be great if we paid for the research upfront and allowed drugs to be sold at their free market price rather than trying to find ways to extract money from people suffering from serious illnesses, or to force them to pressure governments or their insurers to cough up the money.

Add a comment

By Josh Bivens, Research Director, Economic Policy Institute

Dean Baker, Co-Director, Center for Economic and Policy Research

Michael Madowitz, Economist, Center for American Progress

A consistent drumbeat in Donald Trump’s campaign for the presidency was a promise that he would stand up for the American working class against financial elites who had rigged policy to enrich themselves, a message that clearly resonated with some voters. He has reneged on this commitment in virtually every area of public policy, including providing better health care coverage than Obamacare, crafting better trade agreements, making sure tax cuts go to the middle class, and standing up for workers’ rights at work.

This month, workers who supported Trump may see another betrayal. It has been reported that Trump may pick Kevin Warsh, who married into a billionaire family, to replace Janet Yellen as the next Chair of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors (BOG). Decisions made by the Fed’s BOG are extraordinarily important for American workers. In recent years, pressure has built for the Fed to begin applying the brake to America’s economic recovery by raising interest rates. The rationale for this is that the Fed must slow growth to tamp down inflationary pressures. Warsh has consistently been on the side advocating for slowing growth to fight inflation. But these inflationary pressures appear nowhere in either wage or price data. And if the Fed hits the brake prematurely, millions of Americans could lose opportunities to work, and tens of millions could see smaller wage increases.

One underappreciated aspect of raising interest rates is that they will put upward pressure on the value of the U.S. dollar, and this stronger dollar will make U.S. exports less competitive on world markets while making foreign imports cheaper to American consumers. This will in turn lead to rising trade deficits which stunt growth in manufacturing employment. Warsh knows about this argument, but he just doesn’t really care.

“I would say that the academy's view, the broad view of folks at the IMF and economics departments at elite universities, is that if only the dollar were weaker, then somehow we'd be getting this improvement in GDP arithmetic, we'd have an improvement in exports and we'd be getting much closer to trend. That's not a view I share. My own views are that having a stable currency, now more than ever, provides huge advantages to the U.S. The U.S. with the world's reserve currency is a privilege, but it is a privilege that we can't just look to history to remind us of; it's a privilege we have to earn and continually re-earn. And so it does strike me that those that think that dollar weakness, made possible by QE as one channel for QE, is the way to achieve these vaunted objectives are going to be sorely disappointed."

The effect of a high dollar in worsening the trade deficit is not just something that people at the IMF and in elite universities say; it is well-established in the data. Warsh doesn’t offer any evidence to counter the widely accepted view that a high dollar leads to a larger trade deficit, he just says that he doesn’t like it.

This blithe waving-away of clear evidence that a rising dollar will lead to larger trade deficits and displace American manufacturing jobs is par for the course when it comes to Warsh’s views of globalization. He is an ardent proponent of trade agreements that expose American workers to fierce global competition but provide even greater protection for corporate profits, protections that come at the expense of policymaking autonomy and democratic accountability in the poorer trading partners of the United States. As a Fed governor, he proclaimed fhat the Fed had a role in weighing in to support trade deals like NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, departing from the general view that the Fed should restrict its scope to issues directly related to the conduct of monetary policy.

A Warsh nomination for Fed chair would be a perfect example of how the financial sector capture of the Federal Reserve has hamstrung the economic leverage and bargaining power of low- and middle-wage workers. Finance hates inflation and doesn’t especially care if the unemployment rate is unnecessarily high. As a result, the Fed has for decades greatly overweighted its mandate to avoid above-target inflation while underweighting its mandate to pursue maximum employment. Part of the fallout of this frequently too-tight stance of monetary policy has been chronic trade deficits which have cost the country millions of manufacturing jobs. And while growing evidence shows that America’s stance towards globalization in recent decades has privileged the interests of corporations over typical workers, Warsh wants the Fed to be an advocate for doubling-down on this failed approach.

If Trump was serious about unrigging the rules of the American economy and globalization to help American workers, Warsh would not be in the running to be Fed chair. He both lacks the stature and the competence for the position. The clear choice is to re-appoint Janet Yellen, a chair with a solid track record as Trump himself has repeatedly acknowledged.

Add a comment

The New York Times took a big leap into a post-modern future with James Stewart's column on tax reform. The piece proposes several changes to the tax code that would fill the gap in revenue created by the tax cuts the Republicans have put on the table.

Before laying out the proposals Stewart tells readers:

"The Republican budget resolution accepts a 10-year revenue shortfall of $1.5 trillion, on the theory that faster economic growth will make up the difference. That’s a debatable proposition, but for purposes of this discussion, let’s accept it."

No, that really is not a debatable proposition, it is just something Republicans say to justify their tax break. They have no evidence that their tax cut can produce anything like this amount of additional revenue from faster growth.

This actually is a well studied topic. For example, see this analysis by Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a Republican economist who headed the Council of Economic Advisers under George W. Bush. It found that, at best, growth could temporarily make up 30 percent of the revenue lost from a tax cut. And this was under a set of assumptions that made the tax cut a net negative for growth over the long-term.

It is irresponsible (fake news?) to imply that something that is obviously not true becomes a "debatable proposition" just because someone in a position of power asserts it to be true.

Add a comment

Fans of the market believe that when there is a shortage, prices rise to eliminate it. Higher prices cause an increase in supply and reduce demand, bringing the two into balance.

That's a pretty basic story to fans of Econ 101 everywhere. However, when it comes to the pay of workers without college degrees, the Washington Post doesn't believe in markets. It ran a bizarre piece this morning complaining that the recovery efforts from the hurricanes in Texas and Florida were being hurt by a shortage of construction and manufacturing workers. 

The piece really struggles to put together a case for a labor shortage:

"In 2005, Hurricane Katrina wrought about $108 billion in damages. Demand in New Orleans soared for carpenters, electricians and plumbers. Immigrants flocked to the city for the blue-collar work. 

"At the time, the country’s unemployment rate was higher — 4.7 percent when Katrina struck, compared to today’s 4.4 percent. More people were looking for jobs, particularly men. 

"Male participation in the workforce was 73.3 percent in 2005, while today’s is 69.2 percent. Opioid use, now seen as a factor keeping men out of work, wasn't yet regarded as a national crisis, and immigration restrictions weren’t as tight. That made it easier for construction firms to find laborers in a hurry when it came time to fix things up. 

"In contrast, monthly job openings in the United States reached a record high this summer at 6.2 million. Then came the hurricane season's aftermath, adding on to those vacancies as communities began to put themselves back together."

Are we really supposed to believe that a 4.7 percent unemployment rate is a hugely different labor market from a 4.4 percent unemployment rate? As far as the drop in labor force participation, much of this is due to demographics: people have retired. If we look at prime-age workers (ages 25 to 54) the decline in participation rates for men is less than 2.0 percentage points. It is also worth noting that it has risen by roughly half a percentage point in the first eight months of 2017 compared to 2015, suggesting that many of those now counted as out of the labor market would come back if they saw good paying jobs.

If we look at job openings, the labor market does seem somewhat tighter in 2017 than in 2005, but not hugely so. The job opening rate in construction for the first seven months of 2017 has averaged 2.6 percent. That compares to 2.0 percent in the last four months of 2005, but isn't much different from the 2.3 percent rate for 2006.

Add a comment

Earlier this week the Washington Post Fact Checker gave three Pinocchios to Bernie Sanders for saying that the world's six richest people had more wealth than the bottom half. Several people contacted me to complain about the piece. I had originally intended to let it pass because I actually agree with many of the criticisms, but on second thought, this piece applies a level of scrutiny that it never does to claims of other politicians or its own editorial page.

First, I'll make a few quick points on wealth as a measure on inequality. Wealth can fluctuate enormously and often for reasons that really don't tell us much about inequality. When the stock market fell by 50 percent between the bubble peak in 2000 and the trough in 2002 did we become a much more equal society?

Asset prices, and therefore wealth, fluctuate inversely with interest rates. In fact, with bond prices the inverse relationship is definitional. If the interest on 10-year treasury bonds doubles from 2.2 percent to 4.4 percent (roughly its pre-recession level), will the implied plunge in bond prices mean we are more equal?

Also, as the piece points out, the world's poorest people by this measure are not those who are starving and homeless in the developing world, but rather recent graduates of Harvard med school and business school who took out large amounts of debt to pay for their education. I'm afraid I can't shed many tears for these folks.

Finally, what counts as wealth is hugely arbitrary. In the good old days, many workers had defined benefit pensions that helped support them in retirement. At least in the private sector these have been mostly replaced with 401(k) plans and other defined contribution retirement plans. A defined benefit pension would not show up in most measures of wealth whereas a defined contribution pension would. This means we would count someone with $50,000 in a 401(k) plan as having more wealth than someone who would get $30,000 a year in retirement until they die from their pension. That makes no sense.

Add a comment

A Washington Post article on government subsidies for oil and gas production might have misled readers on the importance of these subsidies for global warming. The article focuses on the finding of a new report that almost half of projected new production in the U.S. would not be profitable without various tax and other subsidies. This finding has less importance for global warming that the piece implies.

First, it applies to future, not current production. Once a well has been dug, it is generally reasonably cheap to keep it in production. Output will decline as the oil or gas becomes depleted. But the immediate impact of removing subsidies would be minimal.

The second point is that it assumes the price of oil remains at its current level of $50 a barrel. As the piece notes, if oil prices rise to $70 a barrel (they had recently been over $100), then the subsidies would have far less impact on profitability. I have no crystal ball, so I'm not projecting higher prices. My guess is they are more likely to go lower than higher, given the many areas with substantial potential to increase production and the rapid growth of electric car production, but certainly no one can rule out substantially higher oil prices in the future, in which case the subsidies will not be of much consequence.

The third point is that the impact of U.S. production on global warming will be very limited. The story here is that, without the subsidies, cheaper foreign oil and gas will displace more expensive U.S. produced oil and gas. Increased U.S. consumption of foreign fossil fuels will lead to somewhat higher world prices. This will both provide incentives for more production elsewhere and also lead to somewhat reduced consumption worldwide as people conserve energy and switch to cleaner sources.

In this way, reduced U.S. production can be thought of as equivalent to imposing a modest carbon tax. That's a good thing, but it will not have a large impact on the future course of global warming. And just to be clear, subsidizing the fossil fuel industry is really stupid policy.

Add a comment

Roger Cohen showed us yet again that it seems our children aren't learning when it comes to basic arithmetic skills. He used his NYT column to lecture the people of Catalan on their bad manners in seeking to become independent of Spain over the objections of both the national government and the European Union.

"The Catalan lurch is of its time. Yes, it’s about Catalan self-determination. But it’s also of a piece with the anti-establishment, anti-elitist, disruption-at-any-cost upheavals that have been buffeting and undermining the postwar liberal order in Europe.

"Of course, it’s precisely that order — embodied in the European Union and by the presence of the United States as an offsetting power in Europe — that over the past four decades has ushered Spain, and Catalonia within it, to a degree of prosperity and democratic stability unimaginable at Franco’s death. Spain is a poster child for European integration. So, of course, is Catalonia.

"But we have entered the Age of Amnesia."

So Cohen says that the European Union and the current world order have ushered in a period of unimaginable prosperity for Catalan and Spain, but the dumb masses just can't remember how bad things were in the bad old days because of their amnesia. Well, let's check the numbers.

Add a comment

Paul Krugman again went after Paul Ryan for the lack of specifics in his proposals for eliminating the national debt. As he reminds us, centrist commentators widely praised these proposals at the time as serious budget plans.

While Krugman is absolutely right on the tax side (Ryan says that he will offset lower tax rates by eliminating unspecified tax loopholes), he should give Ryan credit for what he actually proposes on the spending side. As I have pointed out elsewhere, Ryan has essentially proposed eliminating the federal government other than Social Security, Medicare and other health programs, and the military.

"This fact can be found in the Congressional Budget Office's (CBO) analysis of Ryan's budget (page 16, Table 2). The analysis shows Ryan's budget shrinking everything other than Social Security and Medicare and other health care programs to 3.5 percent of GDP by 2050. This is roughly the current size of the military budget, which Ryan has indicated he wants to increase. That leaves zero for everything else.

"Included in everything else is the Justice Department, the National Park System, the State Department, the Department of Education, the Food and Drug Administration, Food Stamps, the National Institutes of Health, and just about everything else that the government does. Just to be clear, CBO did this analysis under Ryan's supervision. He never indicated any displeasure with its assessment. In fact he boasted about the fact that CBO showed his budget paying off the national debt."

So the Washington press corps favorite thoughtful conservative wants to get rid of almost the entire federal government. Let's give Mr. Ryan credit for what he is proposing. It is specific, it just happens to be crazy.

Add a comment

The NYT had an interesting piece by Sheri Berman on the decline of the center-left in Europe. It points to the sharp drop in the support for social democratic parties across the continent, with many parties that used to lead government barely getting above 20 percent of the vote. Voters apparently see little reason to support these parties. A similar story could be told about the center-left in the United States, although the money they command may allow them to still control the Democratic Party.

To carry her observations a bit further, these center-left parties have been largely complicit in the policies that have redistributed income upward over the last four decades. Tony Blair in the U.K., Gerhard Schroeder, and Bill Clinton were all associated with policies that benefited the financial industry at the expense of the rest of society.

The center-left parties have all been supportive of longer and stronger patent and copyright monopolies, which give money to Bill Gates and other incredibly rich people, as well as more educated workers generally, at the expense of workers with less education who would provide the traditional base for center-left parties. These parties, especially the Democrats under Clinton, supported trade deals which were designed to redistribute income from less-educated workers to capital and the most highly educated workers.

And, these parties have generally supported fiscal and monetary policies that have had the effect of keeping unemployment high in order to minimize the risk of inflation. By reducing workers' bargaining power, these policies have put downward pressure on the wages of the bulk of the workforce. (Yes, these points and more are covered in my [free] book Rigged: How Globalization and the Rules of the Modern Economy Were Structured to Make the Rich Richer.)

Anyhow, it is not surprising that workers will not support political parties that are committed to taking money out of their pockets and giving it to the rich. If this continues to be the agenda of center-left parties, they are not likely to have much of a future.

Add a comment

A NYT article on the debate in Europe over regulating Uber and other "gig economy" companies raised the possibility that Uber may stop doing business in the United Kingdom if it was required to treat its workers as employees:

"If the ruling is upheld [that Uber workers are employees], it could hit the business model on which Uber, Deliveroo and similar online platforms rely. That may mean a major recalibration of the gig economy, or it may drive companies out of those countries which choose to impose stiffer regulation.

"Outside Europe, there have been signs of that happening: Uber threatened to leave Quebec this month if the government there pressed ahead with tougher standards for drivers."

While the article implies that the departure of Uber would be a bad outcome for the people of the United Kingdom and Quebec there is no reason to think this is the case unless they happen to be large holders of Uber stock. There are plenty of other companies that apparently are better able to deal with regulations than Uber. They would presumably fill any gap created by Uber's departure.

We saw this last year when Austin imposed a law requiring that drivers for services like Uber and Lyft be finger-printed, just like other taxi drivers. The two companies sponsored a ballot initiative in the city and spend a huge amount of money pushing their opposition to fingerprinting. They also threatened to leave if the initiative failed.

The initiative was defeated and both companies stopped serving the city. The gap created was quickly filled by a number of start-ups that apparently were able to deal with the fingerprinting requirement. (Uber then lobbied the Texas legislature to have the Austin rule overturned.) Anyhow, the prospect of Uber ending its operations in an area should be seen an opportunity for local start-ups, not a threat.


Note: An earlier version of this post said that Uber CEO Dara Koshrowshahi was on the board of the NYT. He resigned this position on September 7th.

Add a comment

We know the NYT has to practice affirmative action for conservative columnists. Otherwise, they would never have any on their opinion pages, but they might have gone too far with Bret Stephens. The guy apparently knows literally nothing about the economy and is so ignorant he doesn't even know how little he knows.

In his latest column he touts the good economic news under Donald Trump:

"The Dow keeps hitting record highs, and the economy is finally growing above the 3 percent mark."

This is meant to say that things are going great for the country. The new highs in the stock market are good news for the roughly 25 percent of the country that holds substantial amounts of stock. For the rest of the country, they make less difference than the outcome of this Sunday's football games.

As fans of Econ 101 know, the stock market is a measure of expected future profits, that is when it is not in a bubble driven by irrational exuberance. So the current expectation is that after-tax corporate profits will be a larger share of future income. That's great news for large shareholders. And guess where those larger expected profits will come from? Are you celebrating yet?

The second part of this sentence is perhaps even worse than the first part. "The economy is finally growing above the 3 percent mark." No, the economy is not growing above the 3 percent mark, we had one quarter of growth above the 3.1 percent mark. We have had many quarters of growth above the 3.0 percent mark in this recovery.


Economic growth tends to fluctuate quarter by quarter. Those old enough to remember will recall that growth in the first quarter was just 1.2 percent. That explains part of the stronger growth in the current quarter, as weak sales of durable goods in the first quarter led to strong growth in sales in the second quarter.

Anyhow, Stephens apparently seems to think that the 3.1 percent growth in the second quarter implies that the economy is now on a growth path of above 3.0 percent. If there is any economist who agrees with this assessment, they are keeping a very low profile. For what it's worth, the most recent projection for third quarter GDP, based on the data we have to date, is 2.3 percent.


Note: An earlier version put the 3.1 percent growth as being in the third quarter. This was reported GDP for the second quarter. Thanks to Boris Soroker.

Add a comment

This is in effect what they did when they criticized an analysis of the proposal by the non-partisan Tax Policy Center. An NYT article on the analysis, which showed the plan would lead to massive tax breaks for the wealthy and a large increase in the deficit, referred to the Republican response:

"Republicans quickly dismissed the analysis, saying the tax cut framework needs detail before it can be accurately assessed. A nine-page proposal for a tax overhaul, announced by Mr. Trump and Republican leaders in Congress on Wednesday, did not include income levels for its three personal income brackets. It left the door open to a fourth level of taxation for high-income taxpayers, and it did not specify the size of an enhanced child tax credit.

"'This analysis is based on guesswork and biased assumptions designed to promote the authors’ point of view — rather actual detail from a bill that has not yet been written by the committees,' said Antonia Ferrier, a spokeswoman for Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader."

The claim that there is not yet enough information available to evaluate the plan is incredibly damning to the Republican leadership who crafted it. They spent months working on the plan. As their comment indicates, there are still important aspects of the plan that need to be filled in.

This should warrant a separate article telling readers what the Republicans were doing when they were supposed to be working on their tax plan. If the idea is that they will just decide major aspects of the tax plan in the last days before Congress votes (they plan to vote this fall) then it means they intend to put in place major changes in the U.S. tax code in a way that doesn't allow for serious public debate. This fact deserves attention.

Add a comment

Neil Irwin seems to get a bit lost in his concerns about treating owners of pass-through businesses fairly. His NYT Upshot column argues that there is a problem where we are left with a choice between large-scale evasion, treating them unfairly, and micro-monitoring their behavior. The story is actually far simpler than he presents it.

The basic story is that the tax rate on a pass-through business is zero. The business itself pays no taxes, all its income is passed on to its owner(s) to be taxed at the individual rate. As it stands now, the income from pass-through businesses is treated as ordinary income and taxed at the same rate as labor income.

The Republicans are proposing to put a cap on the tax for income from pass-through businesses at 25 percent. This means that high-income people who own pass-through businesses will be able to pay taxes at a 10 percentage point lower rate than the 35 percent top marginal rate they are proposing. (The savings are 14.6 percentage points compared to the current 39.6 percent top marginal tax rate.)

Irwin correctly points out that this gap will be an invitation for every high-end earner to set up a pass-through business so that they can pay a 25 percent tax rate on their income rather than a 35 percent rate. Treasury Secretary Mnunchin has noted this problem but said that the I.R.S. will scrutinize pass-through corporations to prevent this sort of scamming. (Mnuchin's claim must be taken with a continent worth of salt. The Republicans have worked for the last two decades to do everything they can to weaken the I.R.S.'s enforcement powers.)

While Irwin recognizes the incentive this structure creates for gaming and also the difficulty of enforcement, he seems to accept that there is some inequity that the lower tax rate on pass-through income would address. This is not true.

Irwin is concerned that genuine pass-through income is income from capital, which we tax at a lower rate than income from labor. The current maximum tax rate on dividends and capital gains is 20 percent, compared to the rate of 39.6 percent on labor income. He argues that by taxing pass-through income at the rate on ordinary income we would be imposing too high a rate on the capital income from these companies.

Add a comment

The Fed has been raising interest rates for the last 21 months with the idea that it wanted to slow growth in order to prevent inflation. It has now begun the process of selling off assets, which will also have the effect of raising interest rates and slowing growth.

While the need to slow growth is premised on the fear that inflation will rise to a higher than the desired rate, the data refuse to cooperate. The Bureau of Economic Analysis released data for the personal consumption expenditure deflator (PCE) this morning. The year over year rate of inflation in the core PCE, which is the focus of the Fed, fell to 1.3 percent, from 1.4 percent in July. (The annualized rate for the last three months compared to the prior three months was slightly higher at 1.4 percent.)

Anyhow, it is difficult to see any basis for the Fed's concern that the inflation rate will exceed its target of a 2.0 percent average rate. At least for now, it is going in the wrong direction.

Add a comment