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 roundup of Beat the Press.

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The Fact Check gang has been having a field day going after Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other proponents of Medicare for All. The latest battle is over a study produced by the right-wing Mercatus which showed that a government-run health care program could reduce national health expenditures by $2 trillion over the course of a decade (roughly 0.8 percent of GDP).

Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez seized on this projection of savings coming out of a right-wing think tank as support for the greater efficiency of a universal Medicare program. Of course, this was not the point that the Mercatus folks intended people to get from their study. They highlighted the fact that their projections showed Medicare for All increasing costs to the federal government by $32.6 trillion over the first ten years of operation, with the amount equal to 10.7 percent of GDP in 2022 and rising to 12.7 percent of GDP in 2031.

The fact check crew definitely went overboard in attacking Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez for misrepresenting the study. One scenario in the study did, in fact, show that Medicare for All would reduce national health care expenditures by $2 trillion over the decade.

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Robert Samuelson used his Labor Day column to tell us that our pay really didn't end up in the pockets of rich people. The problem is that it all went to employer-provided health care insurance. The argument is that health care costs have vastly exceeded the overall rate of inflation. Since a standard health care benefit is larger as a share of the pay of a low-wage worker than a high-wage worker, the increased cost of the benefit took away the money that otherwise would have gone into pay increases. He cites a survey (but doesn't link to it) that purports to show this.

The problem with this story is that it contradicts the data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics which show little change in the share of labor compensation going to employer-provided health insurance. This is true even in lower paying occupations.

For example, the share of compensation going for health benefits for workers in Production, transportation, and material moving occupations went from 8.5 percent in 2004 to 9.8 percent in 2018, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Employer Cost for Employee Compensation series. That means that if health insurance costs had remained at a constant share over this period, wages would be approximately 1.4 percentage points higher, adding 0.1 percentage point annually to wage growth. The series actually peaked at 10.4 percent in 2014, which means that declining health care costs should have been adding to wage growth for these workers in the last four years.

There is a similar story for office and administrative support occupations where the wage and salary share of compensation fell from 71.0 percent in 2004 to 69.3 percent in 2018. The latter figure is up from a low of 68.8 percent in 2014. Again, the declining wage share of compensation only explains a small part of the wage stagnation story.

There are three things going on here. First, lower-paid employees are much less likely to have health insurance coverage at their job than was the case two decades ago. Second, they are likely to have less generous coverage, with more deductibles and co-pays. Also, they more often have to pay part of the premium. Finally, in recent years, health care costs have largely moved in step with overall economic growth, which explains their declining share of compensation.

The Washington Post may always have room for people denying that there has been an upward redistribution of income, but it happens not to be true. There has been and it is enormous.

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The other 49 states have a massive trade deficit with Michigan in cars because of the terrible trade deals that our stupid trade negotiators signed with Michigan. Thankfully, Trump is going to impose a 25 percent tariff on cars from Michigan going into the other 49 states to set things right.

That is pretty much how we should understand Trump's complaint about the trade surplus that Canada has with the United States. (Yes, the United States actually runs a trade deficit with Canada, when properly measured, even including services.) Canada has a trade surplus for pretty much the same reason that Michigan has a trade surplus in cars. It has historically set itself up as a good place to manufacture goods.

Note that Canada's trick is not low-cost labor. Its workers get comparable wages to workers in the US and they enjoy considerably more labor rights than do workers here. That is the same story with Michigan's auto industry where workers are more likely to be unionized and get somewhat higher wages on average than workers in the other 49 states. (There can be currency issues with Canada, but we'll skip that for now.)

Suppose we did put 25 percent tariffs on cars going from Michigan to the other 49 states. Would that mean more jobs in the auto industry in the other 49 states?

The answer to that is not clear. To some extent, the auto manufacturers that have operations in Michigan may just keep their factories going and split the tariff with their customers. This will mean fewer Michigan cars will be sold in the other 49 states. Since Michigan cars include many parts from the other 49 states, that will mean fewer jobs in the auto industry in the other 49 states.

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Perhaps it has something to do with the ten-year anniversary of the Lehman crash, but we seem to be seeing more financial crisis stories in the media lately. Today's version comes to us from The New York Times in a column by Bethany McLean, headlined "the next financial crisis lurks underground." The subhead tells us the basic story:

"Fueled by debt and years of easy credit, America’s energy boom is on shaky footing."

The piece looks to be a very reasonable discussion of the fracking boom and points out that most fracking operations are not profitable. It describes fracking as essentially a Ponzi scheme, where fracking companies are able to survive by finding suckers to buy their stock. Most frackers don't actually make enough money to repay their debts and generate a profit.

All of this sounds very plausible, although a jump back to 2014 type oil prices ($100 a barrel or higher) would presumably change this picture. (That's not a prediction, just noting the arithmetic.) But the problem is that if the Ponzi game ends, where is the financial crisis? We are told:

"Amir Azar, a fellow at the Columbia University Center on Global Energy Policy, calculated that the industry’s net debt in 2015 was $200 billion, a 300 percent increase from 2005."

Okay, so suppose two-thirds this debt goes bad and investors get back fifty cents on the dollar, both pretty extreme assumptions. That comes to $67 billion in losses on $134 billion in debt, an amount equal to 0.34 percent of GDP. Perhaps there is a world where this gives us a financial crisis, but not this one.

Just to be clear, The New York Times picks the headline, not the author of the column. The column is a perfectly reasonable piece on fracking, the headline is not.

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Donald Trump is very confused about trade and it seems the confusion has spread to the NYT. Its article on the trade negotiations between the United States and Canada told readers that Trump is threatening with tariffs on the cars it exports to the United States.

Canada doesn't pay tariffs on cars exported to the United States. The companies that import the cars to the United States would be the ones that pay the tariffs. This would primarily be Ford and General Motors, although there may also be some foreign auto companies that bring cars in from Canada.

In Trump World, it seems that trade is a battle between countries, with the ones that have the largest trade surplus being the winners. In reality, many US corporations have benefited hugely from the imports that have been associated with the U.S. trade deficit. They have taken advantage of lower cost labor (not really true in Canada) in other countries to reduce costs.

The basic story is that trade is about class, not country. Our patterns of trade were put in place to redistribute income upward.

When Trump threatens to disrupt the patterns of trade established over the last quarter century he is most immediately threatening US corporations. While there may also be some negative effects for workers in other countries, the direct targets are US corporations. Trump may not understand this fact, but the NYT should.

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That could be one conclusion from the Commerce Department's release of consumption data for July. According to the release, spending on prescription drugs accounted for 24.7 percent of the growth in real consumption spending for the month. Before people get too nervous about the worsening of the opioid epidemic, it is worth noting that real spending on drugs actually declined in the prior two months. July's figure was just 3.0 percent above the year-ago level.

It is worth noting that inflation in drug prices has been quite restrained over this period. The Commerce Department's measure, which is somewhat different than the measure in the Consumer Price Index, shows drug prices rising by just 0.9 percent over the last year. The main reason that the cost of drugs has risen in the last four decades is that new drugs are put on the market at very expensive prices, not sharp price increases in existing drugs.

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It really is hard to follow economic policy debate these days. After all, we have robots taking all the jobs so no one will have any work, but then we keep getting reminded that the baby boomers are retiring, so we won't have any workers.

We got a dosage of the latter concern in the middle of a very interesting Thomas Edsall piece that everyone should read, on the question of whites becoming a minority. The piece quotes Thomas Frey, a demographer, at Brookings:

"Given the slow and in fact, last year, negative growth of the white population along with its rapid aging — it is important for older whites to understand that the only way we will have a growing labor force will be to embrace the younger racial minority populations."

The point about needing immigrants who are not generally viewed as white in order to have a growing labor force is true, but why exactly do we need a growing labor force? Japan and Germany both have shrinking labor forces and their populations are not suffering in any obvious way as a result. To be clear, I am not arguing that we should keep out immigrants, but if the argument rests on the assumption that we need a growing labor force, then we have a problem.

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The World Bank’s annual World Development Report (WDR) is viewed as the Bank’s official statement on best practices in development policy. It is important both because it often serves as a basis for project loans and IMF programs, and also because it is viewed as an authoritative document by many people in policy positions throughout the world.

For this reason, it is disconcerting that the draft report gets some very big things wrong. First and foremost, the overview dismisses concerns over growing inequality by noting that the Gini coefficient in 37 of 41 developing countries stayed the same or fell over the years from 2007 to 2015 (page 7). This is a bizarre conclusion because this is the period of the worldwide financial crisis. Inequality, even in the United States, was little changed over this period, even though there has been a massive increase in inequality over the longer period dating back to the late 1970s. While the experience of the developing countries may differ in this respect from the experience of the United States and other wealthy countries, it is strange that the Bank would use this clearly atypical period as the basis for dismissing concerns about growing inequality.

The other major concern, which is perhaps more important since it provides the basis for many of the specific recommendations, is a misunderstanding of the nature of the labor market. The draft largely accepts the idea that traditional employer–employee relationships are becoming obsolete and effectively urges developing countries to accommodate their policy to this reality. That means weakening or eliminating a wide variety of labor market regulations, such as minimum wages and employment protection rules.

While there has been a large amount of hype in the media about the gig economy, with the idea that workers are increasingly just taking temporary work through web-based apps rather than traditional employment, the data do not support this assessment. This is seen most clearly in the United States where the Bureau of Labor Statistics recently released its Contingent Work Survey (CWS), the first one conducted since 2005.

The CWS showed that there had actually been a slight decrease in contingent employment as share of total employment between 2005 and 2017. Pure gig jobs, like driving an Uber, accounted for less than 1.0 percent of total employment.

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We wouldn't have known this without the a Washington Post article headlined "...on NAFTA, Canadians worry they have been outmaneuvered by Trump." While that is the theme of the piece, the only person quoted or cited in the piece who says anything like this is a member of the opposition Conservative party.

The piece also bizarrely concludes that the US has much more leverage with Canada than the other way around:

"But the latest turn in the talks makes the 'no deal' option particularly dangerous for Canada if Trump goes ahead with his threat to impose tariffs on Canada’s substantial exports of cars and automotive components to the United States."

The companies that export cars from Canada to the United States have names like "Ford" and "General Motors." These companies will not be happy if Donald Trump uses his leverage to punish them. It is also not clear that the net effect in this story would a substantial increase in manufacturing employment in the United States, since some of the cars produced in Canada will be replaced by cars produced in other countries.

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I've had a number of people ask me my opinion of the Trump administration's proposal to change Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) reporting requirements so that companies only have to make reports semi-annually rather than quarterly. While I would say the switch would be good in principle, I would say it is not good now.

The basic argument is straightforward: companies that obsess on quarterly reports may neglect long-term planning for short-term profit targets. It is not clear to me that making reports semi-annual rather than quarterly will hugely change this story, but this is probably a step in the right direction. Also, since quarterly reports are often manipulated to hit profit targets (several studies have found implausible smoothness in earnings patterns), it is not clear they provide much real information in any case. So, it seems in the interest of conserving resources and paper, switching to semi-annual reports is a good idea.

My not-now qualification stems from the character of the Trump administration. Trump has made it abundantly clear that he views conflicts of interest and fraud as all part of the game. He has shown unprecedented contempt for the disclosure requirements that administrations of both parties have followed for decades. He has appointed numerous individuals with serious conflicts to top-level positions.

In this context, we cannot count on the SEC and other regulatory agencies to do their jobs. Investors will have to do their own policing of company books. Given this reality, more information is better than less information. The switch to semi-annual reporting should occur under the next administration, assuming it takes the rule of law seriously.

 

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