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(This post originally appeared on my Patreon page.)

As the Democrats have pushed ahead with impeachment proceedings, there have been criticisms from both the right and left that impeachment is a needless distraction from the pocketbook issues that people really care about. The argument is that people will see the Democrats as playing political games rather than focusing on health care, jobs, wages, and other issues that directly affect people’s lives.

This sort of argument ignores the world we now live in. First, we have to be clear about the Republican agenda. To put it simply, it is to give all the money to rich people.

This means that not only that they don’t want rich people to pay taxes, the rich also get to cheat workers out of their pay, pollute drinking water, destroy the planet, and do anything else to ordinary people and the environment that might boost their income. Republicans and their allies also design patent and copyright monopolies to give even more money to the rich (both here and overseas) and they structure the digital economy in ways that deny ordinary people any privacy.

It’s true that some Democrats also seem to share much of this agenda, but that’s beside the point. If the Republicans can control the White House and Congress, this is what they will do.

So, is impeachment a distraction from fighting this disastrous agenda? Not at all, impeachment is a necessary step in trying to stop it.

In case people somehow have missed it, Republicans do not care at all about democracy or the rule of law. They will do anything and everything they can get away with to keep power. We see this again and again.

To take one prominent example, Republicans wanted to include a question on citizenship on the Census to discourage immigrants from answering. The explicit purpose was to reduce political representation in areas with large immigrant populations. The Supreme Court ultimately blocked this effort because the Trump administration could not find a plausible reason to include this question, other than to discriminate against immigrants.

Just last week, the Republican leader of Kentucky’s state senate suggested reversing the results of the state’s gubernatorial election (which the Democrat won), based on his assessment that a third party candidate had pulled away enough votes from the Republican to cost him the election. While he seems to have backed away from this position in response to mass public outcry, the fact that he could seriously consider completely ignoring the results of an election shows the lack of respect that Republicans have for democracy and the rule of law.

The Ukraine affair has to be understood in this context. Trump is quite openly using the State Department, the Justice Department, and most likely other branches of government to directly advance his personal and political interests.

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Aaron Carroll had a very useful NYT Upshot piece highlighting research showing that even modest co-payments discourage people from getting necessary medical care. The article is about co-payments for prescription drugs where it highlights research showing that people will often skip taking prescribed drugs to avoid co-payments. There are a couple of points worth making about co-payments in this context and more generally.

First, if a drug has been prescribed for a patient, then it is the judgment of a medical professional that they need this drug for their health. The argument for co-pays, that we want people to think twice before getting the treatment, really should not apply here since a medical professional has determined that they do need the treatment. It doesn't make sense, in general, to encourage people to substitute their own judgement for that of a medical professional. (That doesn't mean that medical professionals will always be right, but it would be best if patients made the determination to ignore their judgment based on their own research, not the desire to save a co-pay.)

The other point is that drugs are almost invariably cheap. By this, I mean that they are cheap to manufacture and distribute. The research can be expensive, but this is a sunk cost at the point where the drug is being prescribed for the patient. If all drugs sold as generics, with no patent or related protections, they would rarely cost more than $10 or $20 per prescription. For this reason, there are not much savings to society if we get people to take fewer drugs, we are just risking people's health with co-pays.

We do need to pay for the research. I suggest doing this upfront, with the government contracting out to private firms. All results and patents are in the public domain. (See Rigged, chapter 5 [it's free].)

The issue with drugs is qualitatively different than with doctors' visits. First, a visit to the doctor does require the use of a doctor's time, as well as the time of their support staff and possibly other health care professionals. This means that there actually are savings from discouraging unnecessary visits.

The second point is that a decision to visit a doctor depends on the patient's judgment, not that of a medical professional. (This is not the case with repeat treatments, just an initial visit.) People will always weigh several factors in deciding whether to visit a doctor, whether or not there is a co-pay.

For example, if they have a busy schedule or long-planned travel, they may choose not to see a doctor for a particular issue where they might otherwise see a doctor. In this context, it may be very reasonable to have a modest co-payment (e.g. $20 per visit -- which would be waved for low-income people) to make people think twice before seeing a doctor.

This sort of co-payment can be seen as analogous to charging people five cents for using a plastic bag when they shop, as many cities now do. If someone really wants the bag, the five-cent fee will not prevent them from getting it, but it does get people to think twice, and therefore has led to a large decline in usage.

It is reasonable to think that a modest co-pay could have a similar effect on doctors' visits. It should not prevent people with serious health issues from seeing a doctor, but it may discourage some visits for relatively trivial matters, like a cold.

Note, this is not the "skin in the game" story pushed by many economists, which wants patients to be comparative shoppers. There is considerable evidence that patients generally are not good at weighing the relative price of different treatments, and when they do, they often make the wrong choice for their health.

This is simply arguing that it would be good if patients think twice before rushing to see a doctor. We can't guarantee that this will never mean that a person who needed to see a doctor chose not to, but in the alternative, we can't guarantee that a person in desperate need to see a doctor won't have to wait because the person in front of them in line has a cold.

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It is a popular theme in news reporting that there has been a sharp decline in the labor share of income over the last four decades, and that this is a big part of the story of wage stagnation. The data don't quite agree.

Part of the confusion is that people often look at the labor share of GDP, a measure which includes depreciation of capital equipment. Since the depreciation share of GDP (the amount of spending needed to replace worn out or obsolete capital) has risen, that would definitionally lead to a fall in the labor share, even if there was no change in the split between labor and capital.

However, even looking at GDP, the loss of labor share would not explain much of the wage stagnation for typical workers over the last four decades. The labor share of GDP fell 2.6 percentage points over this period. This implies that wages would have been 4.8 percent higher in 2019 if the wage share had remained constant over this period. That's not trivial, it means someone earning $20 an hour today would instead be getting $20.96 in a constant shares world, but it is not most of the story of wage stagnation.

But if we want to be more accurate and pull out the impact of rising depreciation, the labor share has only fallen by 1.6 percentage points over this forty year period. That would imply wages would be 2.5 percent higher in a constant share world. That translates into a wage of $20.50 an hour for the worker now earning $20.00 an hour.

It is also worth noting that all of the fall in the labor share has occurred in this century. In fact, I would say that it is really a Great Recession story, where the loss in shares is overwhelmingly the result of the weak labor market in the years 2008-2012. In the last few years, the labor share has been rising as the labor market tightens.

It is true that the data show a drop in shares prior to the Great Recession, but it is important to remember that these were the housing bubble years. During this period banks and other financial institutions were booking enormous profits on loans that subsequently went bad, leading to hundreds of billions in losses in the years 2008-2010. In other words, much of the profits booked in these years were not real profits. If we corrected for the tidal wave of bad loans, it is not clear that there would be much left of the rise in profit shares in the years 2002-2007.

In any case, it is clear that the vast majority of the upward redistribution was within the wage distribution, with pay that used to go to ordinary workers instead going to CEOs and other top executives, Wall Street financial types, and highly paid professionals (e.g. doctors, dentists, and lawyers). If we want to reverse this upward redistribution, the first step is to be clear on who got the money.

This doesn't mean that we have not had failures in anti-trust policy, especially in areas like cell phones and Internet and cable service, but this is not the major cause of the upward redistribution of the last four decades.

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It is a bit bizarre that in the various discussions of a wealth tax no one mentions the most obvious way that rich people can avoid paying: renounce their U.S. citizenship. This would make them completely exempt from a U.S. wealth tax.

While Warren's proposal, and presumably Sanders' as well, would include a steep exit tax on the wealth of people renouncing their citizenship, this would only apply after the tax is in place. While there is little reason to believe that most billionaires are especially bright, it unlikely that most of them are morons. If they don't want to pay the tax they could leave while it was being debated in Congress, if they thought it likely to pass.

It's not clear how many would choose this route, but many billionaires have made it quite clear that they are not committed to the country and don't have much respect for democracy. If they felt their wealth was seriously threatened, it's hard to believe that many would not simply choose to give up their citizenship.

 

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(This post originally appeared on my Patreon page.)

This summer, the Business Roundtable, a group that includes most of the country’s largest corporations, made big news. It issued a statement that its members would no longer be concerned exclusively with maximizing returns to shareholders. Instead, Roundtable members would take into account the well-being of their workers, the communities in which they do business, and the environment.

This statement was given a mixed reception. While some applauded the idea of moving away from a single-minded focus on shareholder value others questioned the sincerity of the commitment. After all, drug companies pushing opioids, oil companies lying about fossil fuels, and hotel and retail chains cheating workers out of their pay, always had the option to do the right thing, but chose not to. Did anyone believe this resolution from the Business Roundtable would change the way they operate? 

However, there is a more basic point that got almost no attention. There is little reason to believe that corporations are being run to maximize returns to shareholders. The reason for questioning this claim is that returns to shareholders have actually been low by historical standards in the last two decades, as shown in the figure below.

 

 

 

image001

Source: Shiller 2019 and author's calculations.

The average real return over the last two decades has been just 2.8 percent annually. This compares to average returns of more than 7.0 percent, and sometimes in the double-digits, in the 1950s and 1960s, when corporations were supposedly less single-mindedly pursuing shareholder value. And, this weak return required considerable help from the government in the form of sharply lower corporate tax rates.

The data are very clear. If corporations are being operated to maximize returns to shareholders, they are failing badly in their efforts.

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The New York Times gives Steven Rattner the opportunity to push stale economic bromides in columns on a regular basis. His column today goes after Senator Elizabeth Warren.

He begins by telling us that Warren's plan for financing a Medicare for All program is "yet more evidence that a Warren presidency a terrifying prospect." He goes on to warn us:

"She would turn America’s uniquely successful public-private relationship into a dirigiste, European-style system. If you want to live in France (economically), Elizabeth Warren should be your candidate."

It's not worth going into every complaint in Rattner's piece, and to be clear, there are very reasonable grounds for questioning many of Warren's proposals. However, he deserves some serious ridicule for raising the bogeyman of France and later Germany.

In spite of its "dirigiste" system France actually has a higher employment rate for prime age workers (ages 25 to 54) than the United States. (Germany has a much higher employment rate.) France has a lower overall employment rate because young people generally don't work and people in their sixties are less likely to work.

In both cases, this is the result of deliberate policy choices. In the case of young people, the French are less likely to work because college is free and students get small living stipends. For older workers, France has a system that is more generous to early retirees. One can disagree with both of these policies, but they are not obvious failures. Large segments of the French population benefit from them.

France and Germany both have lower per capita GDP than the United States, but the biggest reason for the gap is that workers in both countries put in many fewer hours annually than in the United States. According to the OECD, an average worker in France puts in 1520 hours a year, in Germany just 1360. That compares to 1780 hours a year in the United States. In both countries, five or six weeks a year of vacation are standard, as are paid family leave and paid sick days. Again, one can argue that it is better to have more money, but it is not obviously a bad choice to have more leisure time as do workers in these countries.

Anyhow, the point is that Rattner's bogeymen here are not the horror stories that he wants us to imagine for ordinary workers, even if they may not be as appealing to rich people like himself. Perhaps the biggest tell in this piece is when Rattner warns us that under Warren's proposals "private equity, which plays a useful role in driving business efficiency, would be effectively eliminated."

Okay, the prospect of eliminating private equity, now we're all really scared!

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The New York Times has an article on the Trump administration's decision to pull the United States out of the Paris Agreement on climate change. The first sentence wrongly describes the United States as "the world's largest economy." Actually China passed the United States as the world's largest economy early in the decade. According to the I.M.F. its economy is now more than 25 percent larger than the U.S. economy. It is projected to be more than 50 percent larger by 2024.

This matters because China actually has moved aggressively to adopt clean energy. It is now by far the world leader in the use of solar and wind power and electric car sales. The fact that the Trump administration is determined not to cooperate in efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is unfortunate, but the fact that the world's actual largest economy is taking big steps to curb emissions is hugely important.

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The New York Times had a column by "global investor" Ruchir Sharma this weekend in which he touted the Swiss model as being preferable to the Scandinavian model promoted by Bernie Sanders and other progressives. He notes that Switzerland is considerably richer, has a smaller government role in its economy, and still manages to provide health insurance to everyone.

There are a few points worth making about Sharma's piece. First, one of the big factors that contributed to Switzerland's wealth is that it shielded the wealth of rich criminals from around the world. Not only did it hide this wealth from tax authorities, it is also allowed drug dealers, gun runners, and corrupt dictators to park their money in a safe haven for themselves and their families. Not every country would want to follow this path to prosperity and in any case there is a limit to the amount of illicit funds to be deposited in such havens.

One of the reasons Sharma is impressed with Switzerland is that, rather than having the government provide health care for its population, it requires its citizens to purchase private insurance. This does lead to universal coverage, although it seems to come at a substantial price. According to the OECD, Switzerland's health care costs of $7,300 per person are considerably less than the U.S per person cost of $10,600, but 17 percent more than #3 Norway's costs and almost 40 percent higher than Denmark's. It's not clear that our model for reform should be the second most costly system in the world.

The next point is that this treatment of health care is a big factor in the difference between the 50 percent government share of GDP in the Scandinavian countries compared to the one third in Switzerland. Perhaps it makes a big difference to people whether they are mandated to pay premiums to an insurance company as opposed to taxes to the government, but it is not obvious why that would be the case.

This treatment of health care is also relevant to Sharma's point on relative wealth:

"The typical Swiss family has a net worth around $540,000, twice its Scandinavian peer."

Middle income families have greater need for wealth in Switzerland, where they have to pay for their health insurance, than in the Scandinavian countries where it is paid for by the government. How much additional wealth is needed would depend on the timing of health care payments over people's lifetimes.

There is an area where progressives Democrats are looking to Switzerland as a model. The country has a wealth tax on its richest people. Both Senators Warren and Sanders have proposed a comparable tax for the United States.

 

 

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I hate to let the data ruin good lines in news stories, but apart from a few quarters in 2012, the savings rate is at its highest level in the last quarter-century.

fredgraph6

This means that people are actually consuming a smaller share of their income than normal. That is consistent with a tax cut that gave a lot more money to rich people, who tend to consume a smaller share of their income than low and middle class people.

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Last week, New York Times columnist Timothy Egan had a piece headlined “Why Doesn’t Mark Zuckerberg Get It?” The piece then goes on to document how Facebook has become a medium for spreading lies and nonsense all over the world, that many ill-informed users have come to believe.

This is what Egan wants Zuckerberg to “get.” While it would be nice if Zuckerberg understood the problems created by Facebook, and took effective measures to address them, the problem with Egan’s piece is that there is no reason to expect that Zuckerberg would get this point.

Zuckerberg is not a political philosopher concerned about the public good. There is a zero evidence he is a deep thinker of any sort. He is a Harvard boy who stumbled into a good idea and had the necessary connections to get very rich from it: end of story.

It is bizarre that so many people look to the country’s billionaires to tell us how the world should be constructed or think that these people have any great insight into such matters. Being a billionaire means that you were successful at getting very rich. There is no reason to believe that billionaires have any more insight into major policy issues than anyone else.

Imagine if we turned to LeBron James, a truly great basketball player, to get advice on how best to deal with global warming. LeBron is a smart guy, but no one would expect him to have special insights into dealing with global warming, in spite of his incredible skills on the basketball court.

In the same vein, why would anyone think that Zuckerberg would know or care about how Facebook should be run in a way that protects democracy? Zuckerberg runs Facebook to make to make money (lots of it), not to promote democracy. The way to fix the problems of Facebook is not to convince Zuckerberg of its harms, the way to fix Facebook is to change the law.

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