Beat the Press is Dean Baker's commentary on economic reporting. He is a Senior Economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). To never miss a post, subscribe to a weekly email highlighting the latest Beat the Press posts.

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I'm asking because a New York Times piece on the troubles facing a steel factory in southern Italy asserted that closing the troubled factory would cost Italy 1.4 percent of its GDP. According to the piece, the plant directly employs 10,500 workers. That is a bit less than 0.05 percent of Italy's workforce of 23,400,000.

The piece is surely right in highlighting the importance of the plant to a very depressed region in Italy, but the claim its closing would reduce Italy's GDP by 1.4 percent does not seem plausible.

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Charles Lane used his Washington Post column to brag about the fact that the fossil fuel industry and climate denialists have had enough political power to prevent more widespread use of electrical cars, as he had apparently predicted would be the case a decade ago. He seems very proud of this fact. He also concludes by citing a prediction that there will be 125 million electric vehicles on the road worldwide in a decade, less than one-tenth of the total. And he is confident that the actual number will be below this.

Okay, I’m sure it’s fun to use your column in the Washington Post to predict a climate disaster, but let’s take a look at some of the facts here, insofar as Lane has any.   

He starts by telling readers:

“gas-powered cars account for between one-sixth and one-fifth of U.S. carbon emissions.”

Lane’s source actually says that transportation accounts for 29 percent of carbon emissions. Cars and trucks account for 82 percent of this, with ships, boats, and “other” accounting for another 7.0 percent. If we assume that half of those emissions could also be readily replaced with electric motors, that would get us to 85.5 percent of the 29 percent of emissions attributable to transportation, which would put us at just under a quarter of total emissions. That’s a bit more than “between one-sixth and one-fifth,” but why quibble?

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The Washington Post ran a classic "really big numbers" piece on how much Democratic presidential candidates want to spend on the various initiatives they are proposing. These stories are known as "really big numbers" pieces because they provide basically zero context as they throw really big numbers at readers that they know almost none of them would understand.

The piece starts off by telling us that Bernie Sanders wants to spend $50 trillion over the next decade. It tells us that Warren would spend over $30 trillion and that Biden comes in at $4.1 trillion. While these proposals, especially the one for Medicare for All supported by Sanders and Warren, are complicated, the Post could at least show this spending as a share of projected GDP.

The Congressional Budget Office projects that GDP will be close to $280 trillion in the decade after the next president takes office in 2021. This means that Sanders projected spending comes to roughly 18.0 percent of projected GDP, while Warren's would be a bit less than 11.0 percent. Biden's proposals would be less than 1.5 percent of GDP. We are currently spending close to 22.0 percent of GDP.

However, this is only the beginning of the picture. The Sanders and Warren's proposals would both radically reduce what the country pays for prescription drugs and medical equipment. Most of our payments for these items now are an implicit tax that the government imposes by granting patent monopolies. The Washington Post literally never talks about this implicit tax. (One can speculate about the reason for this neglect, but it is worth noting that the paper gets lots of advertising revenue from the prescription drug industry.)

There are other random uses of really big numbers in the piece. For example, it tells us that Trump signed a $1.4 trillion spending bill this month. That $1.4 trillion (6.6 percent of GDP) was mostly renewing existing spending for fiscal year 2020. The piece tells about Trump's boast that he secured more than $2.5 trillion in military spending, without letting readers know whether the claim refers to an increase or how many years it covers. (Of course, with Trump, that may be hard to know.)

In throwing out its really big numbers the piece also refers to a proposal by Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang to give $100 in “Democracy Dollars” to each voter to support the candidate, party, or cause of their choice. If 200 million voters used this voucher it would $20 billion a year. That would come to less than 0.1 percent of GDP, but it is still a really big number.

Anyhow, this piece could be a classic in the really big numbers genre. The point is obviously to scare readers with really big numbers rather than to provide information.

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My friend, Bill Greider, died on Christmas day. Greider, who was 83, was an old-time journalist who believed that the job meant exposing the corruption of the rich and powerful, rather than becoming their friends in order to get inside stories. This meant that he was never very popular with elite types, as perhaps best evidenced by his minimal obituary at the Washington Post, where he had worked for a decade as a reporter and an editor.

Greider's writing had a large impact on my thinking about the economy and the world. When I was still in graduate school I read his great study of the Federal Reserve Board, Secrets of the Temple. While there were many things in that book which were not exactly right, it did much to highlight the power of this fundamentally undemocratic institution. I, and many others, have worked with considerable success in recent years to make the Fed more open to public input, and for it to take its legal mandate for maintaining full employment more seriously. 

Greider also wrote the book, Who Will Tell the People? The Betrayal of American Democracy, about the corruption of politics in Washington. The book became the basis for a PBS documentary with the same name. I remember well a segment from this documentary.

It was an interview with a reporter. (Sorry, can't remember who it was.) The reporter was discussing how he came to fully appreciate the corruption of Washington. The reporter explained that someone asked him "why do you think members of Congress sit on the banking committee?" The reporter gave the textbook answer about sitting on the committee to oversee the regulations and laws on banking. His questioner responded, "they sit on the banking committee to get money from bankers."

I grew up in Chicago, when the machine politics of the first Mayor Daley was the only game in town, so I was not naive about politics and corruption, but this still stunned me. Folks who have been around Washington know it is obviously true, but I think the level of corruption is probably news to most people in the country. This was an education for me.

Back in 1997, Greider wrote a book, One World, Ready or Not: The Manic Logic of Global Capitalism, which warned that competition from the developing world would put downward pressure on the wages of manufacturing workers and that large trade deficits could lead to serious shortfalls in aggregate demand, meaning weak growth and high unemployment. The book was widely trashed by economists, including the leading liberals of the day. In particular, they ridiculed the idea that trade deficits could lead to unemployment, after all, the Fed could just lower interest rates to make up any shortfall in demand.

Two decades later, most of the mainstream of the profession accepts the idea of "secular stagnation," meaning a sustained shortfall in demand that leaves the economy operating well below its potential level of output. With interest rates having bottomed out at zero following the Great Recession, most economists would concede that the Fed does not have the ability to boost the economy back to full employment, or at least not with its traditional tool of lowering the federal funds rate.

While economists generally do not like to talk about the trade deficit as a cause of secular stagnation, fans of logic and arithmetic point out that if we had balanced trade rather than a deficit of 3.0 percent of GDP, it would provide the same boost to the economy as an increase in government spending of 3.0 percent of GDP or roughly $650 billion a year in today's economy. There is little doubt that would be a huge boost to demand and would have gone far towards ending the problem of secular stagnation. (There is no magic to balanced trade. I only use it as a point of reference.)

There were certainly things that Greider got wrong in One World, Ready or Not, as he did in his other economic writings. He was a journalist not an economist. Still, as one great economist commented, it is better to be approximately right than exactly wrong, a position that described many of his economist critics.

The response to Greider's death as well as his life calls to mind another great saying. In Washington, the only thing worse than being wrong is being right. And Greider was often guilty of that.

 

 

 

 
 

 

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(This piece first appeared on my Patreon page.)

Last week, to take some of the sting off his impeachment, Donald Trump was celebrating his trade deals as evidence of the great success of his presidency. Specially, he has touted his revised NAFTA, which the Democratic leadership agreed to, and his first round trade agreement with China. Neither deal is likely to have a noticeable impact on the U.S. economy, but this does provide a good opportunity to think about the shape of future trade agreements.

First of all, it is worth noting some positives in the new NAFTA. Congressional Democrats forced Trump to include some serious language on labor rights in Mexico. While it remains to be seen how enforceable these will prove to be, they are definitely stronger than the provisions in the original NAFTA.

It will also help that Mexico’s current president, Lopez Obrador, is its most labor friendly leader in more than half century. In most cases, Obrador will likely be happy to improve labor standards in Mexico in accordance with the agreement.

While provisions that can improve the living standards of Mexican workers should be seen as good, this is unlikely to make much difference in terms of the number of manufacturing jobs going from the U.S. to Mexico. Even if the labor provisions of the deal are fully enforced, wages will still be far lower in Mexico than in the United States.

This point can be made more generally. Promoting respect for labor standards and the right of workers to organize in developing countries is a good thing. Where possible, we should try to help support democratic rights and rising living standards, but given the large gaps in productivity between the United States and developing countries, respect for workers’ rights will not eliminate the large differences in wages.

The one positive aspect of this picture for U.S. workers is that most of the jobs that are likely to be transferred to developing countries have already moved. This is the story of the plunge in manufacturing employment in the last decade. While there was relatively little change in manufacturing employment from 1970 to 2000 (even though manufacturing employment fell as a share of total employment), employment in manufacturing fell by 3.4 million, or 20 percent, between December of 2000 and December of 2007. That is before the beginning of the Great Recession.

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The New York Times had an interesting piece about how developers of antibiotics are finding it impossible to make a profit, which most abandoning the field or going bankrupt. Incredibly, no one the piece talked with seems to have thought of a solution that does not rely on government-granted patent monopolies as the main financing mechanism for research.

"Public health experts say the crisis calls for government intervention. Among the ideas that have wide backing are increased reimbursements for new antibiotics, federal funding to stockpile drugs effective against resistant germs and financial incentives that would offer much needed aid to start-ups and lure back the pharmaceutical giants."

The possibility that is excluded here is simply having the government pay for the development of new antibiotics up front, under contract, as it already does now with more than $40 billion in research that goes though the National Institutes of Health and other public agencies. If this funding mechanism were used all new antibiotics would be cheap, since they would be available as generics from the day they were approved by the Food and Drug Administration. (The piece tells us that the industry charges up to $2,000 per prescription for some of the new antibiotics.)

If the government was directly financing the research, as opposed to indirectly through patent monopolies, it could also require that all research be fully public as soon as practical. This would mean posting findings on the Internet as soon as practical, as was done with the Human Genome Project. This would allow the science to advance more quickly.

People should not die because we rely on the antiquated patent system as our main mechanism for financing the development of new drugs. I talk about this issue more in chapter 5 of Rigged (it's free). Maybe we will see some new thinking in the new decade.

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That is the inevitable conclusion for readers of a NYT article on Putin and Russia that had the headline, "Russia is a mess. Why is Putin such a formidable enemy." While the article notes the recent economic stagnation in Russia, it misses the extraordinary turnaround that took place under Putin.

According to I.M.F. data, Russia's per capita income fell by almost 50 percent between 1990 and 1998.

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Source: International Monetary Fund.

 

This unprecedented peace time collapse took place largely under Boris Yeltsin, who was regarded as a hero by the leaders of both political parties in the United States. In the first decade of Putin's rule it's per capita income doubled, which translated into enormous improvements in living standards for most of Russia's population.

The economic collapse and chaos that preceded Putin's tenure, and the subsequent reversal in his first ten years in office likely has a lot to do with Putin's current standing in Russia. It is unfortunate that the NYT apparently does not have access to economic data on Russia.

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(This post originally appeared on my Patreon page.)

In debates over protecting the environment, and especially global warming, it is standard practice to refer to the pro-protection side as being in favor of government regulation and the anti-protection side as being pro-free market. This is nonsense and it is nonsense in a way that strongly benefits the enemies of environmental protection.

There is a simple way to think about environmental protection. If I build a home and want to dispose of my sewage in the cheapest possible way, I will just dump it on my neighbor’s lawn. Environmental regulation means having the government say that I can’t do this.

It is bizarre that somehow the prohibition of dumping my sewage on my neighbor’s lawn is treated as government regulation interfering in the market. The government is protecting my neighbor’s property. Prohibiting me from dumping sewage on her lawn is not really different from prohibiting me from building an addition that takes up half of her lot. In both cases, the government is not acting to interfere with the market, it is acting to protect the property rights that are the foundation of the market.

Somehow this basic logic has gotten lost in discussions of environmental regulation and in particular with respect to policies designed to curb global warming. The right routinely gets away with the idea that its opposition is grounded in a commitment to the free market and that those who want to protect the environment are proponents of big government bureaucracy telling everyone what they can and can’t do.

At this point, the fact that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are warming the planet and leading to a wide variety of disastrous climate outcomes is no longer debatable. The decision by some politicians to insist ignorance on the issue changes nothing. We know that spewing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere is imposing damage on people in the present and will do much more in the future. Restricting these emissions is effectively telling people that they can’t dump their sewage on their neighbor’s lawns. 

In this context, there is no defense to regulations restricting GHG emissions. There are no philosophical or ideological points at issue. The only question is how best to limit GHG emissions and how much we should be willing to pay to do so.

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The NYT had a piece describing the departure of the UK from the EU as the end of an era:

"The notion that global economic integration amounts to human progress had a good run, dominating the thinking of the powers that be for more than seven decades. But a new era is underway in which national interests take primacy over collective concerns, with trading arrangements negotiated among individual countries."

This fundamentally misrepresents past trade policies and totally misrepresents the crux of recent trade deals, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

Past trade deals were about making it easier to trade manufactured goods, making it as easy as possible for corporations to take advantage of low-cost labor in the developing world. This has the predicted and actual effect of putting downward pressure on the wages of less-educated workers.

The impact of trade was devastating for large segments of the U.S. workforce. It cost 3.4 million manufacturing jobs (20 percent of the total) between the years 2000 and 2007. (It cost almost 40 percent of all unionized manufacturing jobs.) Note, that this was before the Great Recession, which began in December of 2007.

The argument that this was technology and not trade is truly Trumpian and deserves the same sort of derision as Trump's claims about his "perfect" phone call with Ukraine's president. We lost relatively few manufacturing jobs between 1970 and 2000, and we have gained a small number since 2010. So the Trumpers arguing for the technology story want us to believe that technology only cost us manufacturing jobs in the years when the trade deficit exploded, but not in the years prior to that or in the years since. Right.

It is also worth noting that the "free traders" have pretty much zero interest in free trade in professional services. Even though we could save on the order of $100 billion a year ($700 per family per year) if we liberalized rules for physicians, and allowed qualified doctors in places like Canada and Germany to practice in the United States, the people who think that "global economic integration amounts to human progress," have little interest in global integration when it might reduce the living standards of highly paid professionals.

It is also important to point out that the liberalization of trade in goods is largely a done deal. Tariffs are already zero or near zero in the vast majority of cases. The potential gains from further liberalization are limited, especially since goods are a rapidly falling share of total output.

Instead, deals like the TPP are largely about locking in rules on items like intellectual property protections and preserving Mark Zuckerberg's dominance of the Internet. The TPP, like other recent trade deals, calls for longer and stronger patent and copyright monopolies.

These protections are 180 degrees at odds with free trade. They are about shifting more income from the bulk of the population to people who benefit from rents on patents and copyrights, by making them pay more for drugs, medical equipment, software and a wide variety of other items. 

The deals also look to lock in existing rules on the Internet, making it more difficult for both the United States and other countries to regulate Internet behemoths like Facebook and Google. Perhaps most importantly, these deals enshrine Section 230, which protects Facebook and other Internet intermediaries from facing the same liability for circulating libelous material as print and broadcast outlets. This has nothing obviously to due with economic integration, but it is likely to make Mark Zuckerberg richer.   

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People who remember the 1990s stock bubble and the housing bubble of the last decade know that markets are not always right. But it is nonetheless worth following their response to events to see how ostensibly knowledgeable people see them.

In the case of Trump's trade deal with China, where the big highlight was an announcement of new soybean purchases, the response was a big thumbs down. While soybean prices did go up by close to 1.0 percent yesterday, they are still around 3.0 percent below November levels and more than 10 percent below highs hit last year. This means that, for now, the markets do not expect Trump's trade deal to substantially improve the prospects for soybean farmers.

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