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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The NYT again obsessed about the number of young people signing up for the exchanges, telling readers they "tend to be healthier." Yes, everyone knows they tend to be healthier, which is why they pay on average a third of the premium of the oldest age band (55-64). As the Kaiser Foundation showed, a skewing by age would have little consequence since the difference in premiums largely reflects the difference in average costs. What will matter for the success of the exchanges is if there is a skewing by health conditions with less healthy people of all ages being disproportionately likely to enroll.

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Yet again the NYT has given us a piece talking about trade-offs between the cost and quality of health care. The piece reports that some doctors may not discuss certain treatments with patients because they consider these treatments too expensive. Unfortunately, the piece never discussed the role of patent monopolies in making these treatments expensive.

The point is simple but incredibly important. In some cases, for example open-heart surgery, a medical procedure may genuinely involve a substantial use of resources. In this case, it involves many hours of the time of highly-trained medical specialists. (The pay of these specialists is inflated by supply restrictions, but that is another question.) In such cases there can be an issue of whether some treatments are worth the economic cost. For example, should an otherwise healthy 90-year-old get open heart surgery when we know their life expectancy is just 2-3 years even assuming a successful operation.

However there is a very different story at issue in the cases discussed in this article. These cases all refer to the choice of drugs. The drugs that are very expensive do not necessarily involve a greater cost to the economy than the cheaper alternatives. They are expensive because the companies that sell them have patent monopolies or other protections that allow them to sell drugs at prices that are far above their free market price.

This distinction is important because if there are tough choices here it is only because government policy had created them. If all drugs were sold at their free market price, without patent protection, then the difference in costs would in almost all cases be trivial and doctors need not have any reservations about recommending the one they considered best based on their understanding of the evidence.

Of course patent monopolies serve a purpose in providing an incentive to drug companies to undertake research, but there are alternative mechanisms such as the $30 billion in annual direct public funding provided through the National Institutes of Health. Direct funding would not only eliminate the problems associated with figuring out how and whether to pay for expensive patent protected drugs, it would also likely lead to a much more efficient process and better medicine.

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The Huffington Post really deserves to be called on the carpet for this piece. It implies there is a debate going on between Paul Krugman and Joe Scarborough over whether the Obama administration is tampering with Census data to make the Affordable Care Act look good.

There is no debate because Scarborough has no clue what he is taking about. He knows nothing about how the Census Bureau collects data and what is involved in changing questions as it is now doing. He is literally making a completely baseless accusation. He doesn't even pretend to have a shred of evidence to support his claim that the Obama administration is tampering with the data.

If he knew anything about the way Census worked, he would know it would be incredibly difficult for the Obama administration to alter its processes. There would almost certainly be people willing to talk if this were the case. Furthermore, any competent analyst would be able to recognize doctored data using other data sets.

Anyhow, Scarborough is not taking part in a debate, he is name calling. This is like someone running out on the baseball field and yelling at the stupid players because it would be much quicker to go from second base to home by running over the pitcher's mound. If Scarborough wants to have a serious debate with Paul Krugman or anyone else about the data coming from Census Bureau he will first have to learn a bit about the subject matter. Until then, he deserves nothing but ridicule from any serious news outlet.

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In an article reporting on a speech by Federal Reserve Board Chair Janet Yellen, the Post told readers:

"One of the puzzles currently confounding economists is why inflation has remained so low even as the recovery has picked up steam. The Fed set a 2 percent inflation target but its preferred measure of price changes shows inflation is about half that."

Actually economists are not at all confounded by why inflation has remained low. The predominant view of inflation is that the change in the rate of inflation depends on the level of unemployment. Since nearly all economists believe the unemployment rate is still above its trend level, they expect inflation to be falling, not rising. In fact the bigger mystery from the standpoint of standard economic models is why the rate of inflation has not fallen more. (The answer is that wages and prices tend to be sticky going downward.)

Anyhow, the confounding is only at the Washington Post. The low inflation rate is not something economists have trouble explaining.


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The NYT headlined a piece on the dismal state of Russia's economy, "Russia economy worsens even before sanctions hit." The piece goes on to describe an economy in decline telling readers about Russians moving abroad and storing cash in safe deposit boxes and foreign currencies. It reports:

"Russia’s $2 trillion economy was suffering from stagflation, that toxic mix of stagnant growth and high inflation typically accompanied by a spike in unemployment. In Russia, joblessness remains low, but only because years of population decline have produced a shrunken, inadequate labor force."

The data from the I.M.F. tell a somewhat different picture. While growth has slowed in the last two years, per capita income has more than doubled in the country since Vladimir Putin took office in 1998. The NYT may not like Russia's "shrunken inadequate labor force," but members of this shrunken, inadequate labor force probably care more about the unemployment rate than the NYT's condemnations.

The I.M.F. projects an inflation rate of 6.2 percent for both this year and next. This is high for members of the 2.0 percent inflation cult that occupies central banks in the west and top economics departments, but folks familiar with economic data know that many countries have had long stretches of healthy growth with higher inflation rates. While the piece did find people who were unhappy about this inflation rate, people with better memories would recall that Russia had double-digit inflation as recently as 2008.

While the private equity investor who is one of the main sources for the piece predicts that Russia will default on its debt, it's difficult to see the basis for this assertion in the data. The I.M.F. reports that it has a deficit of less than 1.0 percent of GDP and its debt-to-GDP ratio have been on a downward course. It has a current account surplus. Furthermore, the I.M.F. shows that investment is almost 24 percent of GDP. This compares to less than 20 percent in the United States.

In short, the data for Russia reported by the I.M.F. would be consistent with the 80 percent approval rating for Putin that the article mentions, even if the economic picture painted by the NYT is not.

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Morning Edition had an interesting segment reporting on a new effort to promote open source seeds. These seeds could be freely reproduced and varied, as long as any resulting seeds were also freely available.

Unfortunately this piece did not fully flesh out the economic implications of this movement. While it included the comments of the representative of a seed company, saying that it would likely avoid open source seed in order to be able to continue to sell patent protected seed, it didn't include any discussion of the larger implications of patents in seeds.

The seed companies and many of their top executives and scientists are getting very rich from patent protected seeds. This is not technology. This is not technology. (Sorry, had to repeat this in case any economists were reading.) This is the result of a government policy that hands out monopolies to certain companies and threatens to arrest competitors.

Patent monopolies are one way to finance research into developing new seeds. It is certainly not the only way. Much of the research into agriculture is paid by universities or government agencies. The government could increases this sort of funding to replace the research done by the private sector.

This would allow all seeds to be available at the free market price. This would likely eliminate many of the large fortunes earned by selling seeds. It would also eliminate the enormous distortions associated with patent protected prices. If the patent leads to a price that is 500 hundred or 1000 percent above the free market price it leads to the same amount of economic waste as if the government were to impose a tariff of 500 or 1000 percent on imports of the seed.

Publiclly funded research would also likely lead to more effective development of new seeds since making all research findings public could be a requirement for getting public funding. Under a system supported by patent monopolies companies only make available the information needed to get a patent. In fact, they have a strong financial incentive to misrepresent and conceal research findings in order to promote their product and inhibit competitors.

Since science advances much more rapidly in a context of open research it would have been worth including this point in the discussion. It also is important to point out that, insofar as patent protected products are a source of great wealth and a factor in inequality, it is the outcome of government policy, not technology.  


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Last month the WSJ ran a column by Ed Lazear, a Stanford economics professor and former chief economist to President Bush, which noted the decline in the length of the average workweek between the fall and the most recent data from February. The piece noted that if labor demand was measured in hours, we had lost the equivalent of 100,000 jobs over the prior six months. He discussed possible causes for this decline and highlighted the incentives created by the Affordable Care Act.

While some of us at the time questioned the plausibility of this story and noted the likely effect of the weather on reducing workweeks in January and February, we got the question resolved when the March data was released this month. The entire decline in average hours was reversed. The question is whether the WSJ will allow Mr. Lazear a follow-up piece to point out that his earlier concerns about the Affordable Care Act leading to a reduction in the length of the average workweek had apparently been wrong.

avg. hours

                                    Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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How rich would Bill Gates be if anyone in the world could make a computer with the latest version of Windows without even sending him a thank you note? Think about this question as you read Eduardo Porter's piece on how technology might be shifting income towards capital making society ever more unequal.

Porter is of course right, we have seen a large shift in income from labor to capital across the world over the last three decades. However it is difficult to see how this could be seen as technologically determined when so much of this shift was clearly attributable to patent rents and other laws that certainly were not determined by technology. If current patterns of growth are increasing inequality it is because we have designed a legal and institutional system to bring about this outcome. There is nothing natural about this pattern of development. (in addition to the Bill Gates example, imagine what would happen to Walmart's profits if it executives faced criminal penalties for violations of labor laws.)

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The NYT had an interesting piece on how a rapidly growing number of people are finding rents unaffordable (defined as more than 30 percent of gross income. There are two reasons that rents can rise in price. The first is that the same units cost more money. The second reason is that the mix of rental units change so that the the typical unit costs more.

It is clear that the main cause of higher rents is the latter, as shown below.


This graph shows that the owner equivalent rent index from the Consumer Price Index (CPI) has almost exactly tracked the overall rate of inflation since the start of the century. (I used owner equivalent rent since this excludes the cost of utilities. The cost of utilities has likely outpaced inflation, but that is a somewhat different story.)

If this index from the CPI, which is effectively a quality adjusted price index, is not outpacing inflation, then it implies that the problem must be the quality is getting better. In other words, the units added to the rental housing stock (either by new construction or conversion of ownership units) are either bigger or better in some way than the average rental unit in 2000. 

The other factor that could explain a rise in the ratio of the median rental price to income is a decline in real income, which we have seen to some extent in this century. In that case the problem is not really high housing prices, but low wages.  

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The NYT is continuing its parody of news reporting with a piece that discusses the budget proposals of France's Prime Minister, Manuel Valls. It told readers:

"On Tuesday, Mr. Valls offered the most detailed summary yet of how the government intends to meet its promise to enact Really Big Number in spending cuts by 2017. He called for Really Big Number in cuts to the central government bureaucracy, Really Big Number to the national health care system and Really Big Number to local governments — an element at which many legislators on the right booed loudly, having just won control of a number of local governments. He did not specify how the remaining Really Big Number in cuts would be made."

Okay that is not exactly what the piece said. Here's the actual paragraph:

"On Tuesday, Mr. Valls offered the most detailed summary yet of how the government intends to meet its promise to enact $69 billion in spending cuts by 2017. He called for $26 billion in cuts to the central government bureaucracy, $13.8 billion to the national health care system and $13.8 billion to local governments — an element at which many legislators on the right booed loudly, having just won control of a number of local governments. He did not specify how the remaining $15.4 billion in cuts would be made."

Did this provide any more information than the "Really Big Number" paragraph? The piece provides no information on how much is currently spent on these programs, nor is it even clear whether these cuts refer to a single year's spending (presumably 2017), or some aggregate over 2015-2017. The NYT surely has some readers who are sufficiently familiar with France's budget to make sense of the numbers in this article, but to the other 99.9 percent of readers, these numbers provided no information whatsoever.



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