Beat the Press is Dean Baker's commentary on economic reporting. Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR).

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Donald Trump gets lots of things wrong, but he doesn't necessarily get everything wrong. On the link between budget deficits and trade deficits, Trump might be closer to the mark than the NYT.

The NYT rightly took Donald Trump to task for being lost in his trade policy. During his campaign Trump railed against NAFTA and repeatedly complained about China's currency "manipulation." Now that he is in the White House it is still not clear exactly what he hopes to do with NAFTA.

In the case of China, he has decided he is now good friends with China's president Xi Jinping after meeting with him earlier in the month. Trump apparently decided it would be rude to raise the currency issue with his new friend and instead settled for some Chinese trademarks for his daughters' clothing line.

Trump definitely deserves some criticism for this reversal, but the NYT editorial goes a bit overboard in telling readers that Trump's tax cut plan will make the trade deficit worse:

"Those tax cuts might increase growth somewhat, but history and many experts tell us it is far more likely that the tax cuts would explode the deficit and drive up interest rates as the federal government is forced to increase borrowing. Investors from around the world would then pour money into Treasury bonds, bidding up the value of the dollar, which would increase the trade deficit — $502 billion last year — as American exports become more expensive in the rest of the world and imports become cheaper. This in turn could cost jobs. Economists say that’s exactly what happened in the 1980s when the Reagan administration and Congress drove up the federal deficit through tax cuts and increased military spending."

Actually, there is a very weak relationship between the budget deficit, interest rates, and the value of the dollar. While the dollar did rise a great deal in the early 1980s, arguably this was at least as much due to Paul Volcker's interest rate policy at the Fed as the budget deficit. The dollar fell sharply in the second half of the decade following the Plaza Accord, in which our major trading partners agreed to try to bring down the value of the dollar. This is in spite of the fact that there was little reduction in the structural deficit over this period.

The biggest run-up in the value of the dollar occurred in the late 1990s, when the budget deficit was turning into a surplus, following the I.M.F.'s bailout of the countries of East Asia, after the 1997 financial crisis. Developing countries in the region and around the world began to accumulate massive amounts of reserves in order to avoid being in the same situation as the countries of East Asia. This accumulation of reserves caused the dollar to rise by more than 30 percent against the currencies of U.S. trading partners.

The trade deficit exploded in response, eventually reaching almost 6 percent of GDP in 2005 and 2006. The budget deficits of the 2000s almost certainly increased employment by creating demand in a context where there was a worldwide saving glut.

Given this history, and the fact that the U.S. economy arguably still has a considerable amount of excess capacity (the employment to population ratio for prime age workers is still down by 2 percentage points from pre-recession levels and 4 percentage points from 2000 levels), it is far from clear that an increase in the budget deficit will lead to a higher dollar and a larger trade deficit.


Note: Typos have been corrected from an earlier version.

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The Washington Post ran an article about a new study from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) comparing the pay of federal government employees with their counterparts in the private sector. The study found that less educated employees tend to earn more in the federal government than in the private sector, while more educated workers on average earn somewhat less. On average, it found there was a small pay premium for federal employees. The article also notes several other studies with different findings, most importantly an analysis from the Labor Department that found the pay of federal employees lags the private sector by 38 percent.

It is worth noting the main reason for the difference in the two studies. The CBO analysis calculates private sector pay by looking at general categories of workers based on experience and education. By contrast, the Labor Department analysis tries to match up specific tasks performed by federal employees with their counterparts in the private sector. For example, the pay of a biologist working at the National Institutes of Health would be compared with the pay of a biologist working in the pharmaceutical industry. If done accurately, this methodology should provide a more accurate comparison.

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The NYT had an article discussing various efforts to deal with companies shifting profits overseas to avoid paying the corporate income tax.The piece implies that we don't know how to ensure that companies pay taxes on foreign profits.

Actually, it is not hard to design a system where companies cannot avoid paying taxes on their foreign profits. If corporations were required to turn over an amount of non-voting shares equal to the targeted tax rate (e.g. if we want taxes to be equal to 25 percent of profits, then the non-voting shares should be equal to 25 percent of the total), then it would be almost impossible for companies to escape their tax liability.

Under this system, the non-voting shares would be treated the same way as voting shares in terms of payouts. If a company paid a $2 dividend on its voting shares, then the government's shares would also get a $2 dividend. If it bought back 10 percent of its shares at $100 a share, it will also buy back 10 percent of the government's shares at $100 a share.

Under this system there is basically no way for a company to avoid its tax obligations unless it also rips off its own shareholders. In this case, it would be outright fraud and the shareholders would have a large interest in cracking down on its top management. 

It understandable that those who don't want corporations to pay income taxes would be opposed to this sort of non-voting shares system, but it is wrong to say that we don't know how to collect the corporate income tax.

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Yes, it's Groundhog Day. Republicans are once again claiming that tax cuts will spur enough economic growth to pay for themselves. Well, old-timers like myself remember Round I and Round II when we tried this grand experiment. It didn't work.

Round I was under President Reagan when he put in big tax cuts at the start of the presidency. These tax cuts were supposed to lead to a growth surge which would cover the costs of the tax cuts. Not quite, the deficit soared and the debt-to-GDP ratio went from 25.5 percent of GDP at the end of 1980 to 39.8 percent of GDP at the end of 1988. (It rose further to 46.6 percent of GDP by the end of the first President Bush's term.)

Round II were the tax cuts put in place by George W. Bush. At the start of the Bush II administration the ratio of debt to GDP was 33.6 percent. It rose to 39.3 percent by the end of 2008.

In addition to these two big lab experiments with the national economy, we also have a large body of economic research on the issue. This research is well summarized in a study done by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) back in 2005 when it was headed by Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a Republican economist who had served as the head of George W. Bush's Council of Economic Advisers. 

I commented on this study a few years back:

"In a model that examined the effects of a 10% reduction in all federal individual income tax rates, the economy was slightly larger in the first five years after the tax cut and slightly smaller in the five years that followed. In this case, using dynamic scoring showed the tax cut costing more revenue than in the methodology the CBO currently uses.

"The CBO did find that dynamic scoring of the tax cut could have some positive effects if coupled with other policies. In one set of models, policymakers assumed that taxes were raised after 10 years. This led the government to raise more tax revenue in the first 10 years because people knew that they would be taxed more later, so they worked more."

In short, Holtz-Eakin considered the extent to which tax cuts could plausibly be said to boost growth and found that they had very limited impact on the deficit. The one partial exception, in which growth offset around 30 percent of the revenue lost, was in a story where people expected taxes to rise in the future. In this case, people worked and saved more in the low-tax period with the idea that they would work and save less in the higher tax period in the future.

That is not a story of increasing growth, but rather moving it forward. I doubt that any of the Republicans pushing tax cuts want to tell people that they better work more now because we will tax you more in the future. But that is the logic of the scenario where growth recaptures at least some of the lost revenue.

Having said all this, let me add my usual point. The debt-to-GDP ratio tells us almost nothing. We should be far more interested the ratio of debt service to GDP (now near a post war low of 0.8 percent).

Also, if we are concerned about future obligations we are creating for our children we must look at patent and copyright monopolies. These are in effect privately imposed taxes that the government allows private companies to charge as incentive for innovation and creative work. The size of these patent rents in pharmaceuticals alone is approaching $400 billion. This is more than 2 percent of GDP and more than 10 percent of all federal revenue. In other words, it is a huge burden that honest people cannot ignore.

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According to press accounts, Donald Trump seems prepared to put out a tax cut proposal that could net him hundreds of millions of dollars over the next decade. It probably won't do much to help the rest of us, but folks who were worried about whether President Trump would be able to pay off his debts should be relieved.

Here's the basic story. The word is that the Trump tax plan will include two measures that will personally help Trump enormously. The first is eliminating the alternative minimum tax. This is a special tax that is put in the tax code to ensure that people are not able to use loopholes to escape their tax liability altogether. The rate for very high income people like Donald Trump is 28 percent. 

The second special benefit for Mr. Trump is allowing individuals to pay the newly lowered 15 percent corporate income tax on income received through pass-through corporations. The idea of a pass-through corporation is a neat concept in itself.

The government grants the benefits of corporate status as a mechanism to promote wealth accumulation. Corporate status includes a variety of benefits, but first and foremost it gives you limited liability. This means that if you do something incredibly stupid that results in enormous harm to large numbers of people (e.g. producing a drug that leads to birth defects), the corporation is liable only to the extent it has assets. The individual shareholders are off the hook. In other words, they don't have to worry about losing their homes and their retirement accounts to cover the damage their company has inflicted on people.

In the good old days, before the focus of economic policy was giving ever more money to the rich, the quid pro quo for corporate status was paying the corporate income tax. In this sense, the corporate income tax is a completely voluntary tax. Anyone is free to organize a company as a partnership in which the owners do have personal liability, and thereby avoid the corporate income tax completely.

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The NYT had an article reporting on how the Pew Research Center had discovered work done by the Economic Policy Institute for a quarter century (the middle class is hurting). At one point the piece compares the United States with France and Germany:

"The United States, including the middle class, has a higher median income than nearly all of Europe, even if the Continent is catching up. The median household income in the United States was $52,941 after taxes in 2010, compared with $41,047 in Germany and $41,076 in France."

When making such comparisons it is important to note that people in Europe work many few hours than people in the United States. Five or six weeks a year of vacation are standard. In addition, these countries all mandate paid sick days and paid family leave.

According to the OECD, the length of the average work year in the United States in 2015 was 1790 hours. It was 1482 hours in France (17 percent fewer hours) and just 1371 hours (23 percent fewer hours) in Germany. While these comparisons are not perfect (there are measurement issues) it is clear that people in these countries and the rest of Europe are working considerably fewer hours than people in the United States in large part as a conscious choice. This should be noted in any effort to compare them.

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I see Noah Smith is struggling to explain "the mystery of labor's falling share of GDP." At the risk of jeopardizing good paying jobs for people with PhDs in economics, let me suggest that there is no mystery to explain.

Noah's piece features a graph showing the labor share of GDP declining from a range of 64 to 65 percent in the 1960s and early 1970s to just over 60 percent in the most recent data. He then gives us several possible explanations for this drop. Let me give an alternative one, there was no drop or at least not much of one.

Suppose we look at the labor share of net domestic product. This is GDP after removing depreciation. This makes sense since deprecation is not something to be divided by labor and capital. It is the amount of output needed to replace worn out plant and equipment. The story since 1960 is below. (For those wanted to check the numbers, labor compensation comes from NIPA Table 1.10, Line 2; NDP from Table 1.7.5, Line 30.)

Book2 20935 image001Source: Bureau of Economic Analysis.

As we can see, there is no pattern of decline over the last five decades. In fact, the labor share of net domestic product is higher today than it was in the sixties. The labor share did fall sharply in the Great Recession, but this seems easy to attribute to the extraordinary weakness of the labor market. The share is now recovering and my bet is, that if the Fed can be prevented from slamming on the brakes, the labor share will soon return to the levels we saw in most of the period from 1970 to the early 2000s.

Of course, this doesn't mean that there was not an upward redistribution of income, but rather that it was mostly from low- and middle-wage earners to high wage earners. The latter group including doctors and dentists, Wall Street financial-types, CEOs and top executives, and folks in a position to benefit from patent and copyright rents. (This is the topic of Rigged: How the Rules of Globalization and the Modern Economy Were Structured to Make the Rich Richer.)

So we should definitely be worried about the upward redistribution of income, but it is not a story of a shift from wages to profits. But undoubtedly we can keep many eocnomists employed for some time trying to explain something that did not happen.

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It would have been worth including this point in an interesting column by Gretchen Morgenson noting how bank regulators remain close to the industry they regulate. The point is straightforward. If banks can make profits by writing deceptive contracts and finding ways to trick consumers, then they will devote resources to this effort, instead of concentrating on providing better services and reducing costs.

From the standpoint of the economy, devoting resources to ripping off consumers is a complete waste. It simply redistributes money from the rest of society to the banks. For this reason, people who care about economic growth should support measures that prevent predatory practices by the financial industry.

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On the day of the March for Science the NYT ran a column by Chad Terhune, a senior correspondent for Kaiser Health News and California Healthline, telling readers that the economy was dependent on the health care sector to generate employment.

"The country has grown increasingly dependent on the health sector to power the economy, and it will be a tough habit to break. Thirty-five percent of the nation’s job growth has come from health care since the recession hit in late 2007, the single biggest sector for job creation."

Okay, this is the story that we don't have enough work to fully employ people. If we didn't waste huge amounts of labor doing needless tasks in the health care sector, then millions of workers would be out on the street having nothing to do.

That sounds really bad. It's also 180 degrees at odds with the conventional concern of economists, which is scarcity, an inadequate supply of labor. We see this story all the time in various forms. Just yesterday the Washington Post told readers about how the retirement of baby boomers was leading to a shortage of workers in construction and trucking.

More generally, the concern frequently expressed by the Washington Post, that an overly generous disability system is leading too many people to leave the labor force (actually we have the least generous system among rich countries), or concerns about budget deficits generally, are concerns about scarcity. In effect they mean that we don't have enough workers to do what needs to be done. (For the record, the data seem to agree with the scarcity folks for the now, with productivity growth at historic lows for the last decade.)

Anyhow, it is striking that we have seemingly serious people who are 180 degrees at odds on this one. Either the planet as a whole is getting warmer or cooler, it can't possible be both. Experts on climate science appear to be in agreement on this one. Unfortunately, in economic policy, we don't need seem to know which way is up.

Perhaps even worse, no one gives a damn.  

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Germany is running an annual trade surplus of more than 8.0 percent of its GDP (equivalent to $1.6 trillion in the U.S. economy). This huge trade surplus translates into large deficits for the rest of the world. This is the largest single cause of the problems facing Greece, Italy, Spain, and even France. All are seeing their growth and employment seriously constrained as a result of the large German trade surpluses.

In the good old days before the euro, Germany's trade surplus would have led to a run-up in the value of its currency making its goods and services less competitive in the world economy, which would have diminished its surplus. However, now that Germany is in the euro, this mechanism for adjustment does not exist.

In the absence of an exchange rate adjustment, the mechanism for addressing the trade imbalance would be more rapid inflation and growth in Germany. The inflation would adjust relative prices and the growth would pull in more imports from Germany's trading partners. For reasons that seem largely grounded in superstition, Germany refuses to embark on a more rapid growth path (it is running a budget surplus) and continues to maintain a very low inflation rate. (The two are directly linked, since more rapid growth would be the mechanism for increasing the inflation rate.

Instead of giving these basic facts to readers, the NYT ran a Reuters article that reported the dispute as a silly he said/she said. It told readers:

"The Trump administration has criticized Germany for its large trade surpluses with the United States, while Germany has said its companies make quality products that customers want to buy."

The German response is of course meaningless. The fact that it has a trade surplus means that people want to buy its products at their current prices. If there was an adjustment process that made the German products, say 20 percent more expensive, many fewer people would want to buy them.

The piece also bizarrely asserts that the reform of the corporate income tax being considered by Republicans is "protectionist." It is not obviously protectionist in a way the refunding of the value added tax on exports is protectionist, and it is certainly not as obviously protectionist as patent and copyright protection. In effect, what Reuters was telling readers is that it doesn't like the tax proposal and they should not either.


Note: Typos corrected from an earlier post. Thanks to Robert Salzberg and MichiganMitch.

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The Washington Post had an interesting piece on how employers in traditionally male-dominated industries, like construction and trucking, are increasingly looking to hire women. While opening up these relatively high-paying sectors to women is certainly good news, the argument in the article really does not make sense.

The piece asserts that employers are having difficulty finding qualified workers, in large part because of the retirement of large numbers of baby boomers. If employers are really having trouble finding workers then we should see rapidly rising wages in these sectors. We don't.

The piece focuses on iron workers, a skilled construction trade. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average real hourly wage among specialty trade contractors, the category that includes iron workers, has risen by less than 3.0 percent since its peak in 2002.

Average Hourly Earnings: Specialty Trade Contractors


construction specialty

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics.

That is annual rate of increase of roughly 0.2 percent. That is not what we would expect in an occupation facing a labor shortage. (Earnings are expressed in 1982–84 dollars, multiply by roughly 2.5 to get 2017 dollars.) It's great that doors are being opened to women, but there is not evidence of a labor shortage in this sector.

The piece also included an interesting discussion of a looming worker shortage in the trucking industry:

"The American Trucking Associations, meanwhile, declared in a recent report that the industry needs to add almost 1 million new drivers by 2024 to replace retired drivers and keep up with demand."

In recent months there have been endless news stories about how self-driving vehicles were going to lead to mass unemployment in the trucking industry. This seems like more evidence of the which way is up problem in economics; we will either have a massive shortage of workers in the trucking industry or mass unemployment. Whichever, it clearly is a serious problem.

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The New York Times ran a column by Michael Rips that inadvertently called attention to a major tax scam. Rips is unhappy because when artists and other creative workers donate their work to a museum or other charitable institution they can only deduct the value of the materials on their taxes. They cannot deduct the full market value of the work, nor any amount for their labor.

There is a simple reason why they can't deduct the value of their labor from their taxes, they never paid taxes on their labor in the first place. Suppose a doctor or a lawyer could do work for school and then deduct the value of this work without ever paying taxes on it. This would be a very nice subsidy to the doctors or lawyers, but it doesn't make sense as tax policy. Nor does it make sense to allow artists to deduct the market value of their work, if they had not already paid taxes on it.

But Rips does call attention to an important discrepancy in the tax code. Suppose a rich person buys a painting for $5 million and then donates it to a museum twenty years later when it has a market value of $50 million. The rich person is allowed to deduct the full market value of $50 million from their taxes, even though they only paid $5 million for the painting.

There is no obvious rationale for this sort of arrangement and it naturally encourages cheating. (Find me an appraiser who will say that my $40 million painting is worth $50 million and it gets me another $4 million off my taxes.) The more logical path would be to limit the person to deducting the original price of the work (perhaps with an inflation adjustment). The rich person could of course sell the painting, pay the capital gains tax, and then donate the proceeds to the museum, but then the museum doesn't get the painting.

Anyhow, we know it's hard to be rich, but there is no reason to have special tax breaks like the one Rips calls attention to.

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That's the gist of Anne Applebaum's Washington Post column today. In a discussion of the upcoming election in the United Kingdom, she refers to the political stances of the Labor Party, the Conservative Party, and the Scottish National Party:

"Curiously, the three parties do have one thing in common: They all claim to be fighting for “the people” against an unnamed and ill-defined “elite.” They all offer their followers a new sort of identity: Voters can now define themselves as “Brexiteers,” as class warriors or as Scots, opposing themselves against enemies in (take your pick) journalism/academia/the judiciary/London/abroad/financial markets/England. If you were wondering whether “populism” was nothing more than a political strategy, easily tailored to elect any party of any ideology, you have your answer. Left-wing radicals, right-wing radicals and Scottish radicals all share a style, if not an agenda."

So there you have it. We can't actually have a politics directed against all the money going to the rich because, everyone says they are against the elite. I guess the only thing left to do is cut programs like Social Security and disability and have the Federal Reserve Board raise interest rates to keep people from having jobs. Otherwise, you could be a populist.

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The NYT ran a Reuters article which reported on the German government's response to I.M.F. complaints about its trade surplus. The essence of the response was the German government lacked the competence to reduce its trade surplus, which is currently more than 8.0 percent of GDP ($1.6 trillion in the U.S.). The German trade surplus is of course a deficit for other countries, which are seeing a loss of output and employment as a result.

Because Germany is in the euro, the most important tool for addressing an excessive trade surplus, a rise in the value of the currency, is not available as an option. A higher valued euro would hurt the competitive position of other countries in the euro, like Greece, Portugal, and Spain, that are struggling with slow growth and high unemployment. Of course, a change in the value of the euro does not affect Germany's position at all relative to its main trading partners within the euro.

The mechanism for an adjustment in this case would be for Germany to increase demand and to try to raise its domestic inflation rate. The best way to increase its budget deficit. Unfortunately, instead of running large budget deficits, Germany is running a budget surplus of 0.6 percent of GDP ($115 billion annually in the United States).

If Germany continues to run large trade surplus, then heavily indebted countries like Greece will inevitably need further debt relief. In effect, this means that Germany will have given away its exports in prior years. If Germany were prepared to run more expansionary fiscal policy and allow its inflation rate to rise somewhat then it could have more balanced trade, meaning that it would be getting something in exchange for its exports.

However, Germany's political leaders would apparently prefer to give things away to its trading partners in order to feel virtuous about balanced budgets and low inflation. The price for this "virtue" in much of the rest of the euro zone is slow growth, stagnating wages, and mass unemployment.

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A New York Times article on the newest growth forecasts from the International Monetary Fund (I.M.F.) described the I.M.F. as "the most ardent defender of traditional free-trade policies." This is not accurate. 

The I.M.F. has been fine with ever stronger and longer patent and copyright protections. These government imposed monopolies raise the price of protected items by factors or ten or even a hundred above the free market price, making them equivalent to tariffs of hundreds or thousands of percent. These protections both have negative economic impacts, as would be predicted from any tariff of this size, and also are major factors in the upward redistribution of income that we have seen in most countries in recent decades.

The impact of these monopolies is most dramatic in prescription drugs. In the United States, we will spend more than $440 billion this year on drugs that would likely cost less than $80 billion in a free market. This gap of $360 billion is almost 2.0 percent of GDP. It is roughly five times what we spend on food stamps each year. It is more than 20 percent of the wage income of the bottom half of the workforce.

In addition, the huge gap between the protected price and the free market price leads to the sort of corruption that economists predict from tariff protection. It is standard practice for drug companies to promote their drugs for uses where they may not be appropriate. They also often conceal evidence that their drugs are not as safe or effective as claimed.

The cumulative cost of these protections in other areas is likely comparable. Anyone who supports these government granted monopolies cannot accurately be described as a proponent of free trade.

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Paul Krugman used his column this morning to ask why we don't pay as much attention to the loss of jobs in retail as we do to jobs lost in mining and manufacturing. His answer is that in large part the latter jobs tend to be more white and male than the latter. While this is true, although African Americans have historically been over-represented in manufacturing, there is another simpler explanation: retail jobs tend to not be very good jobs.

The basic story is that jobs in mining and manufacturing tend to offer higher pay and are far more likely to come with health care and pension benefits than retail jobs. A worker who loses a job in these sectors is unlikely to find a comparable job elsewhere. In retail, the odds are that a person who loses a job will be able to find one with similar pay and benefits.

A quick look at average weekly wages can make this point. In mining the average weekly wage is $1,450, in manufacturing it is $1,070, by comparison in retail it is just $555. It is worth mentioning that much of this difference is in hours worked, not the hourly pay. There is nothing wrong with working shorter workweeks (in fact, I think it is a very good idea), but for those who need a 40 hour plus workweek to make ends meet, a 30-hour a week job will not fit the bill.

This difference in job quality is apparent in the difference in separation rates by industry. (This is the percentage of workers who lose or leave their job every month.) It was 2.4 percent for the most recent month in manufacturing. By comparison, it was 4.7 percent in retail, almost twice as high. (It was 5.2 percent in mining and logging. My guess is that this is driven by logging, but I will leave that one for folks who know the industry better.)

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In fact, it wasn't even $800 billion, but the Washington Post has never been very good with numbers. The issue came up in a column by Paul Kane telling Republicans that they don't have to just focus on really big items. The second paragraph refers to the Democrat's big agenda after President Obama took office:

"Everyone knows the big agenda they pursued — an $800 billion economic stimulus, a sweeping health-care law and an overhaul of Wall Street regulations."

The stimulus was actually closer to $700 billion since around $70 billion of the "stimulus" involved extensions of tax breaks that would have been extended in almost any circumstances. This was actually a very small response to the collapse of a housing bubble that cost the economy close to $1,200 billion dollars in annual demand (6–7 percent of GDP).

The Obama administration tried to counteract this huge loss of demand with a stimulus that was roughly 2 percent of GDP for two years and then trailed off to almost nothing. This was way too small, as some of us argued at the time.

The country has paid an enormous price for this inadequate stimulus with the economy now more than 10 percent below the level that had been projected by the Congressional Budget Office for 2017 before the crash. This gap is close to $2 trillion a year or $6,000 for every person in the country. This is known as the "austerity tax," the cost the country pays because folks like Peter Peterson and the Washington Post (in both the opinion and news sections) endlessly yelled about debt and deficits at a time when they clearly were not a problem.

It is also worth noting that the overhaul of Wall Street was not especially ambitious. It left the big banks largely intact and did not involve prosecuting any Wall Street executives for crimes they may have committed during the bubble years, such as knowingly passing on fraudulent mortgages in mortgage backed securities.



Typos corrected, thanks for Robert Salzberg and Boris Soroker.

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I know Donald Trump is lots of fun and everything, but people should be paying at least a little attention to inflation, or the lack thereof. Remember, last time we tuned in the Federal Reserve Board was embarked on a process of tightening through a sequence of interest rates hikes. The concern expressed by proponents of higher rates was that the economy was too strong and that inflation would soon be rising above its 2.0 percent target. (Actually, the target is supposed to be an average, which means at the peak of a recovery the inflation rate should be somewhat higher than 2.0 percent.)

The March data seems to undermine this concern. While monthly data are erratic, it was striking because both the overall and core rate were negative in the month. The core CPI dropped by 0.1 percent in March, its first decline in more than seven years.

Furthermore, even the modest inflation shown by the core index is largely due to rents. While higher rents do affect people's cost of living, the Fed is not going to slow rental inflation by raising interest rates. In fact, by slowing construction, the near-term impact of higher interest rates could be to increase inflation in rents.

Over the last year, a core CPI that excludes rent has risen by just 1.0 percent.

Year over Year Change in Core CPI, Excluding Housing

CPI core housing

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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The Trump administration announced that would end the Obama administration's practice of revealing the list of people who visit the White House. This list was useful in letting the public know who President Trump was making deals with.

The administration claimed this move was taken as a security measure and also to save the country $70,000 over the next four years. Since the government is projected to spend roughly $16 trillion over the next four years, the savings will be equal to 0.00000004 percent of projected spending. Alternatively, it will save each person in the country 0.007 cents annually over the next four years. 

Another comparison that might be useful is that it costs taxpayers more than $3 million in additional security costs every time that President Trump goes to Mar-a-Lago for the weekend. This means that Trump is saving us an amount equal to 2 percent of the cost of one of his weekend trips by keeping the records of his meetings secret.

Book3 22059 image001

Source: See text.

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Washington Post economics reporter Max Ehrenfreund featured a piece highlighting former Donald Trump adviser Steven Moore's views of Trump's recent shifts on economic policy. In particular, Moore took issue with Trump's desire to see the value of the dollar fall. He argued that the dollar rose with strong economies under President Reagan and Clinton, while it was weak under Nixon, Ford, and Carter.

Actually, it is not especially accurate to claim the dollar rose under President Reagan. Using the Federal Reserve Board's broad real index, it was trivially higher in January of 1989 than it was when Reagan took office in January of 1981 (91.3 in 1989 compared to 89.7 in 1981). The comparison goes the other way if we use December of 1988 (89.8) and December of 1989 (90.6), the last full month of Carter and Reagan's terms.

As a practical matter, the run-up in the dollar in the first part of the Reagan administration led to a large trade deficit, causing serious hardship in manufacturing sectors. In response, Reagan's Treasury secretary negotiated an orderly decline in the value of the dollar to bring down the deficit, which it did.

Also, if we are using the value of the dollar as a measure of the strength of the economy under different presidents, we find that it was virtually unchanged through President George H.W. Bush's presidency and Clinton's first term. The former was a period of weak growth, while the latter was a period of strong growth.

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The business media routinely feature stories about employers' difficulty in getting qualified workers. These pieces often leave economists scratching their heads, since the usual way to get better workers is to offer higher pay. And, the workers are almost invariably out there, most likely working for a competitor.

This means that if there were really shortages of workers with specific skills then we should see pay for workers with these skills rising rapidly. Since there is no major segment of the labor market where we see rapidly rising real wages, it is difficult to take the story of a skills shortage seriously.

This naturally brings us to ask questions about United Airlines and CEO pay because it is always interesting to ask what justifies the high pay at the top. Ostensibly, CEOs have compensation packages that run into the tens of millions a year because that is what you have to pay to attract and keep these extraordinarily talented individuals.

United's CEO, Oscar Munoz, is targeted to receive pay of $14 million this year, with a potential $500,000 bonus depending on customer satisfaction surveys. So we should assume that United has to pay this sort of money (roughly the pay of 1000 minimum wage workers) in order to attract a person with Mr. Munoz's skills.

While it would take more work than I am going to do just now to evaluate Mr. Munoz's overall performance for the company's shareholders (I'm ignoring the issue of the sort of corporate citizen United might be to its workers, customers, and the environment), his performance surrounding the forcible removal of Dr. David Dao from a United plane earlier this week hardly seems worth $14 million a year.

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