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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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.

 

 

 

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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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The Washington Post had a piece on newly released data on the federal budget deficit. The piece included the obligatory comments from the always wrong budget "experts" at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. It also warned readers:

"U.S. debt is considered one of the safest investments in the world and interest rates remain low, which is why the government has been able to borrow money at cheap rates to finance the large annual deficits. But the costs are adding up. The government spent about $380 billion in interest payments on its debt last year, almost as much as the entire federal government contribution to Medicaid."

"Almost as much as the entire federal government contribution to Medicaid!" Think about that. Try also thinking about the fact that interest payments were around 1.7 percent of GDP last year (before deducting money refunded from the Fed). That compares to a peak of 3.2 percent of GDP in 1991. Are you scared yet?

It's also not quite right to claim that interest rates in the United States are especially low, at least not compared to other rich countries. The U.S. pays an interest rate on 10-year government bonds that is more than two full percentage points higher than the interest rate paid by Germany and the Netherlands. It's even higher than the interest rate paid by Greece.

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When I first saw Senator Warren refuse to acknowledge that Medicare for All will mean higher taxes, I admired her political skills, but as an economist, I was annoyed at her evasion of an obvious truth. However, on further thought, I realize that she is exactly right and is doing a public service with her simple insistence that costs for most people will go down.

It is true that many people hate taxes and find the idea that they would ever have to pay more for taxes for anything repugnant. But that group is far from a majority of the electorate. Most people approach their tax bill as any rational person would. They want to know what they are getting for their money.

This is why Warren is giving the right answer even though it is angering reporters and political pundits. She is talking about what actually matters to most voters; what will they get for their money?

The reporters are determined to make this a “she will raise your taxes story.” This is an absurd narrowing of the issue. There is no reason that Warren should cooperate with their silly game. She is determined to talk about the substance of the issue, whether or not the reporters want to hear it.

For a larger context, consider how the budget is reported. Reporters routinely highlight the budget deficit and the accumulated debt, as though this is the most important feature of the budget. It is at least implicit in nearly all reporting that the country would be better off with a lower budget deficit.

This is also indicated in their choice of sources. An incredibly high percentage of budget stories in leading news outlets (i.e. the New York Times, Washington Post, and National Public Radio) feature comments from Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, an organization committed to lower deficits and debt.   

News stories on the budget almost never present the countervailing view, which is endorsed by a growing number of economists, that the budget deficit has generally been too small in the years following the Great Recession. The result has been that growth has been slower than it otherwise would have been, causing workers to be needlessly unemployed.

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The Commerce Department reported that orders for non-defense capital goods fell 2.8 percent in September after dropping 3.1 percent in August. The September figure is more than 10 percent below the September 2018 level. If we pull out aircrafts, which are highly volatile and being pushed down by Boeing's 737-Max problems, orders were still down by 0.5 percent. Orders for the month are up just 0.2 percent from the year-ago level.

This would have been worth some attention (both the NYT and WaPo ran wire service stories), since the rationale for the corporate tax cut pushed through by the Republicans in 2017 was supposed to be that it would lead to an investment boom. While there was a modest rise in investment in the first half of 2018 (but certainly not a boom), investment has been extraordinarily weak for the last year. Clearly, the tax cut has not produced the projected benefits.

 

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The Washington Post had an article reviewing Donald Trump's various efforts to secure trade and other agreements with foreign countries. It comments briefly on the trade pact Trump negotiated with South Korea.

While the piece noted that the deal made few major changes in U.S.-Korea trade relations, it would have been useful to report on the impact on the trade deficit with South Korea. In the first eight months of 2018, the U.S. trade deficit in goods with South Korea was $11.7 billion. In the same months of 2019 it has been $14.9 billion. The full impact of any trade deal will only be felt after many years and there are many factors that affect bilateral trade deficits, but for now, at least, there is little evidence that Trump's trade deal has reduced the country's trade deficit with South Korea.

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