Beat the Press

Beat the press por Dean Baker

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. Please also consider supporting the blog on Patreon.

It is a bit bizarre that the NYT decided to frame the March Consumer Price Index data as raising a question about the Fed’s ability to cut interest rates this year. The subhead is:

“The surprisingly stubborn reading raised doubts about when — and even whether — the Federal Reserve will be able to start cutting interest rates this year.”

The Fed can cut interest rates any time it wants. Higher inflation data, like the March report, make it less likely that it will choose to cut rates, but the Fed still clearly has the option to do so.

This distinction is important since people should realize that the Fed is making policy choices. It has to weigh the risk of inflation compared to the benefits of lower rates, most notably lower interest rates on mortgages and car loans.

People can agree that the Fed is making the right call if it decides to put off any rate cuts, but they should recognize that it is not forced to delay cuts. It has chosen to do so.

It is a bit bizarre that the NYT decided to frame the March Consumer Price Index data as raising a question about the Fed’s ability to cut interest rates this year. The subhead is:

“The surprisingly stubborn reading raised doubts about when — and even whether — the Federal Reserve will be able to start cutting interest rates this year.”

The Fed can cut interest rates any time it wants. Higher inflation data, like the March report, make it less likely that it will choose to cut rates, but the Fed still clearly has the option to do so.

This distinction is important since people should realize that the Fed is making policy choices. It has to weigh the risk of inflation compared to the benefits of lower rates, most notably lower interest rates on mortgages and car loans.

People can agree that the Fed is making the right call if it decides to put off any rate cuts, but they should recognize that it is not forced to delay cuts. It has chosen to do so.

March CPI: Should We Be Worried?

The inflation hawks took March’s CPI as cause for celebration, inflation may not be dead yet. There is no doubt that it was a disappointing report for those hoping we could put the pandemic inflation behind us, but there still is not much basis for thinking the Fed needs to get out the nukes and start shooting big-time.

The key point to remember is that this inflation continues to be driven overwhelmingly by rent. We know that rental inflation will be falling because we have data on marketed units, the ones that change hands, that show sharply lower rental inflation and in some cases, such as the BLS index for new tenants, actually deflation.

The CPI rental indexes will follow the index for new tenants, but with a lag. That lag is proving longer than had generally been expected, but there is no reason to question the basic logic. If people who change apartments are seeing lower rental inflation, it is pretty hard to tell a story where this doesn’t eventually show up in lower rental inflation for people who stay in the same unit.

If we just look at the inflation rate excluding shelter, we have been skating close to, or even under, the Fed’s 2.0 percent target for most of 2023. The figure below shows annualized rates over the prior three months from 2019.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics and author’s calculations.

There definitely has been some acceleration in this measure in the last few months, but hardly an extraordinary one. We saw even larger upticks in inflation by this measure in the past, for example twice in 2019. Rent is typically a stabilizing factor in the overall inflation rate, precisely because the rate of rental inflation changes slowly.

There is another item that has played a big role in pushing inflation higher in recent years, auto insurance. The story is that premiums have risen sharply in recent years because of higher payouts in claims. (Profits have risen some as well, but we know payouts are most of the story from comparing the CPI measure which picks up gross payments, with the measure in the PCE deflator, which pulls out claims.)

Some of the story with premiums is higher costs due to higher prices for auto repairs, but much of it is simply more claims. Auto theft shot up in the pandemic but is now coming down. More long-term, people are seeing more damage due to climate-related events such as floods and hurricanes. That will be an ongoing problem.

To be clear, higher auto insurance premiums are a big deal in the sense that people have to bear these costs out of their pockets, however it is not part of a conventional inflation picture. The Fed will not be lowering auto insurance premiums by raising interest rates. The solution to climate-related damage is to try to limit climate change, but if that is off the agenda for political reasons, then people will just have to get used to higher-priced auto insurance, among other things.

Anyhow, if we pull auto insurance out of the story, in addition to rent, inflation was well below the Fed’s target for most of 2023 and actually negative at several points. We still get the acceleration in recent months to a 2.9 percent annualized rate as of March, but this hardly seems like something worth getting terribly excited over given the past behavior of this index.

In short, there is still plenty of reason for believing that the pandemic inflation is behind us. For now, the March report gave the inflation hawks some fresh meat, but a more careful look suggests that it doesn’t change the basic picture of inflation being largely under control.   

The inflation hawks took March’s CPI as cause for celebration, inflation may not be dead yet. There is no doubt that it was a disappointing report for those hoping we could put the pandemic inflation behind us, but there still is not much basis for thinking the Fed needs to get out the nukes and start shooting big-time.

The key point to remember is that this inflation continues to be driven overwhelmingly by rent. We know that rental inflation will be falling because we have data on marketed units, the ones that change hands, that show sharply lower rental inflation and in some cases, such as the BLS index for new tenants, actually deflation.

The CPI rental indexes will follow the index for new tenants, but with a lag. That lag is proving longer than had generally been expected, but there is no reason to question the basic logic. If people who change apartments are seeing lower rental inflation, it is pretty hard to tell a story where this doesn’t eventually show up in lower rental inflation for people who stay in the same unit.

If we just look at the inflation rate excluding shelter, we have been skating close to, or even under, the Fed’s 2.0 percent target for most of 2023. The figure below shows annualized rates over the prior three months from 2019.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics and author’s calculations.

There definitely has been some acceleration in this measure in the last few months, but hardly an extraordinary one. We saw even larger upticks in inflation by this measure in the past, for example twice in 2019. Rent is typically a stabilizing factor in the overall inflation rate, precisely because the rate of rental inflation changes slowly.

There is another item that has played a big role in pushing inflation higher in recent years, auto insurance. The story is that premiums have risen sharply in recent years because of higher payouts in claims. (Profits have risen some as well, but we know payouts are most of the story from comparing the CPI measure which picks up gross payments, with the measure in the PCE deflator, which pulls out claims.)

Some of the story with premiums is higher costs due to higher prices for auto repairs, but much of it is simply more claims. Auto theft shot up in the pandemic but is now coming down. More long-term, people are seeing more damage due to climate-related events such as floods and hurricanes. That will be an ongoing problem.

To be clear, higher auto insurance premiums are a big deal in the sense that people have to bear these costs out of their pockets, however it is not part of a conventional inflation picture. The Fed will not be lowering auto insurance premiums by raising interest rates. The solution to climate-related damage is to try to limit climate change, but if that is off the agenda for political reasons, then people will just have to get used to higher-priced auto insurance, among other things.

Anyhow, if we pull auto insurance out of the story, in addition to rent, inflation was well below the Fed’s target for most of 2023 and actually negative at several points. We still get the acceleration in recent months to a 2.9 percent annualized rate as of March, but this hardly seems like something worth getting terribly excited over given the past behavior of this index.

In short, there is still plenty of reason for believing that the pandemic inflation is behind us. For now, the March report gave the inflation hawks some fresh meat, but a more careful look suggests that it doesn’t change the basic picture of inflation being largely under control.   

The New York Times is apparently finding it difficult to be honest with its readers about the burden of student loan debt. It ran a major column telling readers that the burden of student loan debt is discouraging young people from becoming priests or nuns.

The whole premise of this column rests on a lie, that student debt should be a major burden to people interested in pursuing low-paying careers that might serve a higher purpose. The reason this is a lie is that income-driven repayment plan that President Biden put in place should allow people working in low-paying occupations to face little or no burden from their student debt.

Under this plan, a single person (presumably the relevant category for nuns and priests) would have to pay zero if their annual income is less than $32,800 a year. If it is $40,000 they would owe $720 a year and at $50,000 they would have to pay $1,700 a year. This hardly seems like a crushing burden for someone who wants to devote their life to pursuing religious ends.

This is not the first time the NYT has run a piece on student loan debt that completely ignored Biden’s income-driven repayment plan. Back in January it had a lengthy piece on how student loan debt was making college a bad deal for many people that never once mentioned Biden’s plan.

It is kind of astounding that people could be writing on this important topic, for the country’s leading newspaper, who apparently know nothing about the debt burden students would face under current law. It would be very unfortunate if people made decisions on colleges and careers based on the information they’re getting from these pieces.

In addition to confusing people on their options for dealing with debt, this is also a major political issue. Since tens of millions of people have student loan debt, the existence of a repayment option that minimizes their burden is likely to be a big deal for them in how they view the political parties.

Not only did President Biden put this new income-driven plan in place (it makes earlier plans from Clinton and Obama more generous), 11 Republican state attorneys general are suing to have the courts declare the plan illegal. It is very likely that if Trump wins the election, he will end this income-driven repayment plan.

Voters should know the implications for their student loan debt burden when they go to vote this fall. Readers of the New York Times would not.

The New York Times is apparently finding it difficult to be honest with its readers about the burden of student loan debt. It ran a major column telling readers that the burden of student loan debt is discouraging young people from becoming priests or nuns.

The whole premise of this column rests on a lie, that student debt should be a major burden to people interested in pursuing low-paying careers that might serve a higher purpose. The reason this is a lie is that income-driven repayment plan that President Biden put in place should allow people working in low-paying occupations to face little or no burden from their student debt.

Under this plan, a single person (presumably the relevant category for nuns and priests) would have to pay zero if their annual income is less than $32,800 a year. If it is $40,000 they would owe $720 a year and at $50,000 they would have to pay $1,700 a year. This hardly seems like a crushing burden for someone who wants to devote their life to pursuing religious ends.

This is not the first time the NYT has run a piece on student loan debt that completely ignored Biden’s income-driven repayment plan. Back in January it had a lengthy piece on how student loan debt was making college a bad deal for many people that never once mentioned Biden’s plan.

It is kind of astounding that people could be writing on this important topic, for the country’s leading newspaper, who apparently know nothing about the debt burden students would face under current law. It would be very unfortunate if people made decisions on colleges and careers based on the information they’re getting from these pieces.

In addition to confusing people on their options for dealing with debt, this is also a major political issue. Since tens of millions of people have student loan debt, the existence of a repayment option that minimizes their burden is likely to be a big deal for them in how they view the political parties.

Not only did President Biden put this new income-driven plan in place (it makes earlier plans from Clinton and Obama more generous), 11 Republican state attorneys general are suing to have the courts declare the plan illegal. It is very likely that if Trump wins the election, he will end this income-driven repayment plan.

Voters should know the implications for their student loan debt burden when they go to vote this fall. Readers of the New York Times would not.

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What would you call it when the median wealth of people between the ages of 55 and 64 rises by 47.4 percent in three years? If you’re CNN you would call it a retirement crisis. I wish I could say that I’m kidding, but that is the headline, “retirement crisis looms as Americans struggle to save.”

While CNN has touted and invented just about every piece of bad news imaginable since President Biden took office, this one might take the cake. The data on wealth is not hard to find, it comes from the Federal Reserve Board’s triannual Survey of Consumer Finance (SCF). The SCF showed sharp increases in median wealth for every age group.

Perhaps I missed it, but I don’t recall any CNN pieces on the retirement crisis in 2020 when people close to retirement had considerably less wealth. Maybe I’m just old-fashioned, but it seems if people have less money as they approach retirement, they are more likely to face problems in retirement than if they have more money.

To be clear, there are real retirement issues facing today’s workers. Traditional defined-benefit pensions have virtually disappeared outside of the public sector. While many workers have accumulated substantial sums in their 401(k) plans, most have not.

The largest source of wealth for the median worker is their home. Having more wealth in your home does mean you can borrow against your home, if necessary, and can pocket a substantial sum if you sell it, but it’s not the same as having a financial asset that can be freely used to support yourself. (Almost 80 percent of people in their late 60s are homeowners.)

It would be good if more workers had substantial sums accumulated in 401(k)s. Toward this end, President Biden signed the Secure 2.0 Act, which requires mid-size and large companies to enroll their workers in 401(k) plans. (Workers can opt-out if they choose.) He also imposed tougher rules on the financial industry to limit its ability to charge high fees on retirement accounts.

There is more that can and should be done to facilitate retirement savings, for example, the government could make a low-cost retirement plan, like the federal employees’ Thrift Saving Plan, available to all workers. This could substantially reduce the money wasted on administrative costs, allowing workers to accumulate more towards their retirement. But by almost every measure workers are better prepared for retirement than in 2020.

It is understandable why Donald Trump would like to see major media outlets touting a “retirement crisis” in this election year. It is not clear why a serious news outlet would do it.   

What would you call it when the median wealth of people between the ages of 55 and 64 rises by 47.4 percent in three years? If you’re CNN you would call it a retirement crisis. I wish I could say that I’m kidding, but that is the headline, “retirement crisis looms as Americans struggle to save.”

While CNN has touted and invented just about every piece of bad news imaginable since President Biden took office, this one might take the cake. The data on wealth is not hard to find, it comes from the Federal Reserve Board’s triannual Survey of Consumer Finance (SCF). The SCF showed sharp increases in median wealth for every age group.

Perhaps I missed it, but I don’t recall any CNN pieces on the retirement crisis in 2020 when people close to retirement had considerably less wealth. Maybe I’m just old-fashioned, but it seems if people have less money as they approach retirement, they are more likely to face problems in retirement than if they have more money.

To be clear, there are real retirement issues facing today’s workers. Traditional defined-benefit pensions have virtually disappeared outside of the public sector. While many workers have accumulated substantial sums in their 401(k) plans, most have not.

The largest source of wealth for the median worker is their home. Having more wealth in your home does mean you can borrow against your home, if necessary, and can pocket a substantial sum if you sell it, but it’s not the same as having a financial asset that can be freely used to support yourself. (Almost 80 percent of people in their late 60s are homeowners.)

It would be good if more workers had substantial sums accumulated in 401(k)s. Toward this end, President Biden signed the Secure 2.0 Act, which requires mid-size and large companies to enroll their workers in 401(k) plans. (Workers can opt-out if they choose.) He also imposed tougher rules on the financial industry to limit its ability to charge high fees on retirement accounts.

There is more that can and should be done to facilitate retirement savings, for example, the government could make a low-cost retirement plan, like the federal employees’ Thrift Saving Plan, available to all workers. This could substantially reduce the money wasted on administrative costs, allowing workers to accumulate more towards their retirement. But by almost every measure workers are better prepared for retirement than in 2020.

It is understandable why Donald Trump would like to see major media outlets touting a “retirement crisis” in this election year. It is not clear why a serious news outlet would do it.   

I usually see things pretty much the same way as Paul Krugman, but I seriously disagree with his column “Bidenomics is making China angry. That’s okay.” Krugman makes some reasonable points in the piece. Protecting our electric car industry and other green technologies is probably a good idea in order to give them some breathing space to grow and compete. It also makes sense to have productive capacity for advanced semi-conductors, so as not to be dependent on Taiwan in the event of a military conflict.

But it really is not okay that our policies are making China angry. We have to pursue policies that are in the U.S. national interest, but we should not be looking to gratuitously put it in China’s face. It will not be to our advantage, or the world’s, to have a Cold War with China similar to the one we had with the Soviet Union.

For those who are too young or too old to remember, we spent a huge amount of money on the military during the Cold War. In the 1970s and 1980s, when we were not in hot wars, military spending averaged over 7.0 percent of GDP.[1] When we were in hot wars like Korea and Vietnam, the tab came to well over 10.0 percent of GDP, with peaks in the early fifties of more than 15 percent of GDP. By contrast, last year we spent 3.6 percent of GDP on the military.

Apart from the lives lost in our wars (far more for the host countries than for us), this is also an enormous amount of money. If we increased our spending from last year’s 3.6 percent of GDP to 7.0 percent of GDP, the difference of 3.4 percent of GDP would translate into almost $1 trillion a year in our current economy (more than $8,000 per family). Double that if you want to have another Vietnam or Korea-type war.

And, if we’re talking about an arms race with China, these numbers would likely be very conservative. At its peak the Soviet economy was around 60 percent of the size of the U.S. economy. China’s economy is 25 percent larger than the U.S. economy and growing far more rapidly. It would require Trumpian levels of delusional thinking to believe that we could spend China into the ground, as we arguably did with the Soviet Union.

A Cooperative Alternative

We should not have illusions about China’s government. It is hardly anyone’s ideal of a liberal democracy. China’s president, Xi Jinping, is an authoritarian ruler who imprisons critics and is willing to use force to suppress political opposition. But that hardly distinguishes Xi from any number of leaders with whom the United States regularly does business.

Even if we go back to the Cold War with the Soviet Union, our foreign policy often looked to areas for possible cooperation. First and foremost, we had a number of arms control agreements designed to limit spending and the risks of accidental war. But we also looked to cooperate in other areas, most visibly space travel.

We can take a similar tack in our dealings with China. We can look to cooperate in areas that are mutually beneficial. Two obvious areas that stand out are climate and health. There could be enormous gains for both the U.S. and the world if we freely shared technologies needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as well as technologies to prevent disease and improve health.

This would mean that our scientists and engineers would be collaborating with Chinese scientists in these areas, freely sharing their latest research findings. That means scientists from both countries could build on successes and learn from failures. It also would mean that once a technology is developed it can be freely employed, without having to worry about patent monopolies or other bureaucratic obstacles.

In the case of climate, we would likely benefit from getting access to China’s latest battery technology, where they appear to be well ahead of the United States. The U.S. also has innovations in many areas, such as geothermal energy, that would be valuable to China.

In the case of health, both countries have extensive networks of research in a wide range of areas. While it is common to tout the rapid development of Covid vaccines in the United States as a result of Operation Warp Speed, China developed its own vaccines in a comparable timeframe. These vaccines also proved to be very effective in preventing serious illness and death.

There would have been tremendous gains to the world if these technologies had been freely shared so that anyone anywhere in the world with the necessary manufacturing facilities could have begun producing the vaccines as soon as they were in the clinical testing phase. (The cost of throwing out a hundred million vaccines that proved ineffective is trivial compared to the benefit of having a hundred million vaccines in storage waiting to be distributed once they are shown to be effective.)

We are not going to get from where we are now to a massive sharing of technology in these two huge sectors overnight, but we can begin a process. We can pick limited areas where the gains are likely to be greatest, for example vaccines against infectious diseases. We would have to set ground rules for committing funding and the openness of research. Ideally, we would pull the rest of the world into this sort of collaboration since everyone would be in a position to benefit from having access to open research.

This sort of sharing would mean a different mechanism for supporting research and innovation. Instead of relying on government-granted patent monopolies, we would have to pay for the research upfront, as we did with the development of the Moderna vaccine. Paying directly for research is not an alien concept, we currently spend over $50 billion a year on biomedical research through the NIH.

In principle, there is no reason that we couldn’t replace the research now funded by government-granted patent monopolies with publicly funded research, but it is likely to mean fewer big paydays for those at the top. Successful researchers should get generous paychecks, and these could even be supplemented by prizes like the Nobel Prize. But in a system of direct funding, we probably would see fewer Moderna billionaires and others getting super-rich in these areas.

That is likely the biggest obstacle to pursuing this sort of cooperative path towards relations with China. There are people with big dollars at stake who are happy to keep the status quo and are just fine if we go the route of a Cold War with China.

It’s worth remembering that the first Cold War was often as much about corporate profits as confronting the Soviet Union. That is obviously true in the case of the big military contractors like Lockheed and McDonnell Douglas. But there were also plenty of cases where powerful corporations got the U.S. military to do its bidding to support their operations around the world. The concern of these companies is their profits, not the well-being of the United States or the future of democracy and the planet.

And we should recognize that if we go the full Cold War route, it is likely the future of the planet is at stake. We are having a hard enough time garnering political support for measures to limit global warming now. What would the situation look like if we are coughing up another $1 to $2 trillion a year to compete in an arms race with China?

There’s one other point worth noting about the route of increased cooperation, it may help to lead to a liberalization of China’s regime. I don’t mean to get pollyannish, there were many people who argued for admitting China to the WTO on the idea that increased trade would somehow turn the country into a liberal democracy. That one proved to be seriously wrong.

But as a practical matter, the Chinese engineers and scientists who are collaborating with their counterparts in the U.S. are likely to be children, siblings, and parents of the party officials who are calling the shots in China. If these people develop an appreciation for liberal values, it’s hard to believe that some of that doesn’t rub off on their family members.

I wouldn’t push that line with any great confidence, social psychology is not my terrain. But I will say that it offers more hope than the idea that shoe manufacturers getting rich off of cheap labor will somehow become great proponents of liberal democracy.   

If Bidenomics Makes China Angry, That’s not Okay

The basic point here is that we should care a lot about our relations with China. That doesn’t mean we should structure our economy to make its leaders happy. We need to implement policies that support the prosperity and well-being of people in the United States. But we also need to try to find ways to cooperate with China in areas where it is mutually beneficial, and we certainly should not be looking for ways to put a finger in their eye.

[1] These figures use the definition of military spending in the National Income and Product Accounts. This is somewhat different than the measure used in the budget, primarily because it includes depreciation of capital equipment. The patterns of spending are similar in the two series.

I usually see things pretty much the same way as Paul Krugman, but I seriously disagree with his column “Bidenomics is making China angry. That’s okay.” Krugman makes some reasonable points in the piece. Protecting our electric car industry and other green technologies is probably a good idea in order to give them some breathing space to grow and compete. It also makes sense to have productive capacity for advanced semi-conductors, so as not to be dependent on Taiwan in the event of a military conflict.

But it really is not okay that our policies are making China angry. We have to pursue policies that are in the U.S. national interest, but we should not be looking to gratuitously put it in China’s face. It will not be to our advantage, or the world’s, to have a Cold War with China similar to the one we had with the Soviet Union.

For those who are too young or too old to remember, we spent a huge amount of money on the military during the Cold War. In the 1970s and 1980s, when we were not in hot wars, military spending averaged over 7.0 percent of GDP.[1] When we were in hot wars like Korea and Vietnam, the tab came to well over 10.0 percent of GDP, with peaks in the early fifties of more than 15 percent of GDP. By contrast, last year we spent 3.6 percent of GDP on the military.

Apart from the lives lost in our wars (far more for the host countries than for us), this is also an enormous amount of money. If we increased our spending from last year’s 3.6 percent of GDP to 7.0 percent of GDP, the difference of 3.4 percent of GDP would translate into almost $1 trillion a year in our current economy (more than $8,000 per family). Double that if you want to have another Vietnam or Korea-type war.

And, if we’re talking about an arms race with China, these numbers would likely be very conservative. At its peak the Soviet economy was around 60 percent of the size of the U.S. economy. China’s economy is 25 percent larger than the U.S. economy and growing far more rapidly. It would require Trumpian levels of delusional thinking to believe that we could spend China into the ground, as we arguably did with the Soviet Union.

A Cooperative Alternative

We should not have illusions about China’s government. It is hardly anyone’s ideal of a liberal democracy. China’s president, Xi Jinping, is an authoritarian ruler who imprisons critics and is willing to use force to suppress political opposition. But that hardly distinguishes Xi from any number of leaders with whom the United States regularly does business.

Even if we go back to the Cold War with the Soviet Union, our foreign policy often looked to areas for possible cooperation. First and foremost, we had a number of arms control agreements designed to limit spending and the risks of accidental war. But we also looked to cooperate in other areas, most visibly space travel.

We can take a similar tack in our dealings with China. We can look to cooperate in areas that are mutually beneficial. Two obvious areas that stand out are climate and health. There could be enormous gains for both the U.S. and the world if we freely shared technologies needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as well as technologies to prevent disease and improve health.

This would mean that our scientists and engineers would be collaborating with Chinese scientists in these areas, freely sharing their latest research findings. That means scientists from both countries could build on successes and learn from failures. It also would mean that once a technology is developed it can be freely employed, without having to worry about patent monopolies or other bureaucratic obstacles.

In the case of climate, we would likely benefit from getting access to China’s latest battery technology, where they appear to be well ahead of the United States. The U.S. also has innovations in many areas, such as geothermal energy, that would be valuable to China.

In the case of health, both countries have extensive networks of research in a wide range of areas. While it is common to tout the rapid development of Covid vaccines in the United States as a result of Operation Warp Speed, China developed its own vaccines in a comparable timeframe. These vaccines also proved to be very effective in preventing serious illness and death.

There would have been tremendous gains to the world if these technologies had been freely shared so that anyone anywhere in the world with the necessary manufacturing facilities could have begun producing the vaccines as soon as they were in the clinical testing phase. (The cost of throwing out a hundred million vaccines that proved ineffective is trivial compared to the benefit of having a hundred million vaccines in storage waiting to be distributed once they are shown to be effective.)

We are not going to get from where we are now to a massive sharing of technology in these two huge sectors overnight, but we can begin a process. We can pick limited areas where the gains are likely to be greatest, for example vaccines against infectious diseases. We would have to set ground rules for committing funding and the openness of research. Ideally, we would pull the rest of the world into this sort of collaboration since everyone would be in a position to benefit from having access to open research.

This sort of sharing would mean a different mechanism for supporting research and innovation. Instead of relying on government-granted patent monopolies, we would have to pay for the research upfront, as we did with the development of the Moderna vaccine. Paying directly for research is not an alien concept, we currently spend over $50 billion a year on biomedical research through the NIH.

In principle, there is no reason that we couldn’t replace the research now funded by government-granted patent monopolies with publicly funded research, but it is likely to mean fewer big paydays for those at the top. Successful researchers should get generous paychecks, and these could even be supplemented by prizes like the Nobel Prize. But in a system of direct funding, we probably would see fewer Moderna billionaires and others getting super-rich in these areas.

That is likely the biggest obstacle to pursuing this sort of cooperative path towards relations with China. There are people with big dollars at stake who are happy to keep the status quo and are just fine if we go the route of a Cold War with China.

It’s worth remembering that the first Cold War was often as much about corporate profits as confronting the Soviet Union. That is obviously true in the case of the big military contractors like Lockheed and McDonnell Douglas. But there were also plenty of cases where powerful corporations got the U.S. military to do its bidding to support their operations around the world. The concern of these companies is their profits, not the well-being of the United States or the future of democracy and the planet.

And we should recognize that if we go the full Cold War route, it is likely the future of the planet is at stake. We are having a hard enough time garnering political support for measures to limit global warming now. What would the situation look like if we are coughing up another $1 to $2 trillion a year to compete in an arms race with China?

There’s one other point worth noting about the route of increased cooperation, it may help to lead to a liberalization of China’s regime. I don’t mean to get pollyannish, there were many people who argued for admitting China to the WTO on the idea that increased trade would somehow turn the country into a liberal democracy. That one proved to be seriously wrong.

But as a practical matter, the Chinese engineers and scientists who are collaborating with their counterparts in the U.S. are likely to be children, siblings, and parents of the party officials who are calling the shots in China. If these people develop an appreciation for liberal values, it’s hard to believe that some of that doesn’t rub off on their family members.

I wouldn’t push that line with any great confidence, social psychology is not my terrain. But I will say that it offers more hope than the idea that shoe manufacturers getting rich off of cheap labor will somehow become great proponents of liberal democracy.   

If Bidenomics Makes China Angry, That’s not Okay

The basic point here is that we should care a lot about our relations with China. That doesn’t mean we should structure our economy to make its leaders happy. We need to implement policies that support the prosperity and well-being of people in the United States. But we also need to try to find ways to cooperate with China in areas where it is mutually beneficial, and we certainly should not be looking for ways to put a finger in their eye.

[1] These figures use the definition of military spending in the National Income and Product Accounts. This is somewhat different than the measure used in the budget, primarily because it includes depreciation of capital equipment. The patterns of spending are similar in the two series.

This is apparently news to BlackRock CEO, who is apparently believes it is still 65, according to a New York Times Dealbook piece.

“No one should have to work longer than they want to. But I do think it’s a bit crazy that our anchor idea for the right retirement age — 65 years old — originates from the time of the Ottoman Empire.”

The reforms to Social Security put in place in 1982 provided for a gradual increase in the normal retirement age from 65, for people turning 62 before 2002, to 67 for people turning 62 after 2022. It is also important to recognize that there is not a single age where workers start collecting benefits. They can begin getting benefits as early as age 62, but their payment will be reduced by roughly 6.0 percent for every year between the normal retirement age and the age where they start collecting benefits.

This means, for example, that a person who starts collecting benefits this year at age 62 would get roughly 30 percent less than their full scheduled benefit. (This is age 67 minus 62 [5 years] times 6 percent.)

For people who start collecting benefits after the normal retirement age, benefits increase by approximately 8 percent a year. This means that if someone who is 62 today waits until age 70 to start collecting benefits, they will get a boost to their benefits of roughly 24 percent (3 years times 8 percent). For this reason, the focus on the retirement age can be misleading, the issue is really a schedule of benefits.

This is important to keep in mind for those who think it would be good for people to work later in life. There is an obvious route to pursue if we want people to retire later that doesn’t involve reducing benefits. Instead of cutting off at age 70, we could have benefits increase to age 72 or even later.

This change is costless since the increase is set based on people’s life expectancy. That means that if people retiring at age 72 get 16 percent more each year than people who start collecting benefits at age 70, they can expect to collect benefits for a period that is 16 percent shorter. This is a simple and costless fix that should give people an incentive to retire later, if that is the outcome we are looking for.

It is also worth noting that if we think AI will take all the jobs then it is foolish to be worried that we need older people to work longer. We will not be facing a shortage of labor in that story.

This is apparently news to BlackRock CEO, who is apparently believes it is still 65, according to a New York Times Dealbook piece.

“No one should have to work longer than they want to. But I do think it’s a bit crazy that our anchor idea for the right retirement age — 65 years old — originates from the time of the Ottoman Empire.”

The reforms to Social Security put in place in 1982 provided for a gradual increase in the normal retirement age from 65, for people turning 62 before 2002, to 67 for people turning 62 after 2022. It is also important to recognize that there is not a single age where workers start collecting benefits. They can begin getting benefits as early as age 62, but their payment will be reduced by roughly 6.0 percent for every year between the normal retirement age and the age where they start collecting benefits.

This means, for example, that a person who starts collecting benefits this year at age 62 would get roughly 30 percent less than their full scheduled benefit. (This is age 67 minus 62 [5 years] times 6 percent.)

For people who start collecting benefits after the normal retirement age, benefits increase by approximately 8 percent a year. This means that if someone who is 62 today waits until age 70 to start collecting benefits, they will get a boost to their benefits of roughly 24 percent (3 years times 8 percent). For this reason, the focus on the retirement age can be misleading, the issue is really a schedule of benefits.

This is important to keep in mind for those who think it would be good for people to work later in life. There is an obvious route to pursue if we want people to retire later that doesn’t involve reducing benefits. Instead of cutting off at age 70, we could have benefits increase to age 72 or even later.

This change is costless since the increase is set based on people’s life expectancy. That means that if people retiring at age 72 get 16 percent more each year than people who start collecting benefits at age 70, they can expect to collect benefits for a period that is 16 percent shorter. This is a simple and costless fix that should give people an incentive to retire later, if that is the outcome we are looking for.

It is also worth noting that if we think AI will take all the jobs then it is foolish to be worried that we need older people to work longer. We will not be facing a shortage of labor in that story.

I was more than a bit surprised to see the profit data this morning. I really did believe that the profit surge during the pandemic was a one-off, associated with supply-chain issues.

We can argue about how much of this increase was a predictable story, where profits rise due to shortages, and how much was about companies exploiting market power to jack up prices, but the fact that profit shares increased is not disputable. In any case, it was reasonable to expect that profits would return to their pre-pandemic shares after supply chains returned to normal.

That doesn’t look like what is happening, as shown below.

Source: BEA and author’s calculations, see text.

The profit share of corporate income rose to 26.8 percent in the fourth quarter from 26.3 percent in the third quarter. That is down only 0.5 percentage points from its pandemic peak of 27.3 percent in the second quarter of 2021 and well above the 24.3 percent average for 2019.[1]

This rise in profit shares really should have the Fed rethinking its inflation-fighting strategy. It is certainly true that the 6.0 percent rate of wage growth at the end of 2021 and start of 2022 was inconsistent with the Fed’s 2.0 percent inflation target. However, the current rate of roughly 4.0 percent is obviously consistent with the Fed’s target, if it is allowing companies to increase their profit share. This implies that we should actually want to see a somewhat more rapid pace of wage growth, unless we think profit shares need to be increasing indefinitely.

There are a couple of important qualifications here. First, we saw extraordinary productivity growth in 2023. Clearly corporations were the main beneficiaries of this growth. If this uptick was an aberration and we revert to something closer to the pre-pandemic growth rate, then profit shares may not continue to rise with a 4.0 percent pace of wage growth and could even edge back somewhat.

The other big qualification is that there is a large and unusual discrepancy between GDP measured on the income side and GDP measured on the output side. In principle these sums should be identical, but in a $28 trillion economy, they never come out exactly the same.

In recent decades, the income side has generally been about 0.5 percentage points higher than the output side. In the fourth quarter, the income side was 2.0 percentage points lower. We usually assume that the true figure lies somewhere between the two measures.

This would imply that the true sum of wages and profits is 1.0 to 2.0 percentage points higher than what is now reported. If that gap ends up being disproportionately wages or profits it could change the picture somewhat, but even if the full 2.0 percentage points all ended up being wage income it would not change the fact that the profit share is still far above its pre-pandemic level.  

The upshot is that it really is time for the Fed to declare “Mission Accomplished” and take its foot off the brake. If profit shares are rising, there is no reason for it to be trying to slow wage growth.   

[1] These figures take Line 8 (net operating surplus) from NIPA Table 1.14, minus Line 11 (Federal Reserve Bank profits) from Table 6.16D divided by Line 8 plus Line 4 (labor compensation) from Table 1.14.

I was more than a bit surprised to see the profit data this morning. I really did believe that the profit surge during the pandemic was a one-off, associated with supply-chain issues.

We can argue about how much of this increase was a predictable story, where profits rise due to shortages, and how much was about companies exploiting market power to jack up prices, but the fact that profit shares increased is not disputable. In any case, it was reasonable to expect that profits would return to their pre-pandemic shares after supply chains returned to normal.

That doesn’t look like what is happening, as shown below.

Source: BEA and author’s calculations, see text.

The profit share of corporate income rose to 26.8 percent in the fourth quarter from 26.3 percent in the third quarter. That is down only 0.5 percentage points from its pandemic peak of 27.3 percent in the second quarter of 2021 and well above the 24.3 percent average for 2019.[1]

This rise in profit shares really should have the Fed rethinking its inflation-fighting strategy. It is certainly true that the 6.0 percent rate of wage growth at the end of 2021 and start of 2022 was inconsistent with the Fed’s 2.0 percent inflation target. However, the current rate of roughly 4.0 percent is obviously consistent with the Fed’s target, if it is allowing companies to increase their profit share. This implies that we should actually want to see a somewhat more rapid pace of wage growth, unless we think profit shares need to be increasing indefinitely.

There are a couple of important qualifications here. First, we saw extraordinary productivity growth in 2023. Clearly corporations were the main beneficiaries of this growth. If this uptick was an aberration and we revert to something closer to the pre-pandemic growth rate, then profit shares may not continue to rise with a 4.0 percent pace of wage growth and could even edge back somewhat.

The other big qualification is that there is a large and unusual discrepancy between GDP measured on the income side and GDP measured on the output side. In principle these sums should be identical, but in a $28 trillion economy, they never come out exactly the same.

In recent decades, the income side has generally been about 0.5 percentage points higher than the output side. In the fourth quarter, the income side was 2.0 percentage points lower. We usually assume that the true figure lies somewhere between the two measures.

This would imply that the true sum of wages and profits is 1.0 to 2.0 percentage points higher than what is now reported. If that gap ends up being disproportionately wages or profits it could change the picture somewhat, but even if the full 2.0 percentage points all ended up being wage income it would not change the fact that the profit share is still far above its pre-pandemic level.  

The upshot is that it really is time for the Fed to declare “Mission Accomplished” and take its foot off the brake. If profit shares are rising, there is no reason for it to be trying to slow wage growth.   

[1] These figures take Line 8 (net operating surplus) from NIPA Table 1.14, minus Line 11 (Federal Reserve Bank profits) from Table 6.16D divided by Line 8 plus Line 4 (labor compensation) from Table 1.14.

David Wallace-Wells had a column discussing the trip by Javier Milei, Argentina’s new president, to the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland. The WEF is an annual gathering of many of the world’s richest people, where they also invite politicians, academics, and others who they think may amuse them. According to Wallace-Wells, Mr. Milei definitely fits into that category.

The piece talked about how Milei calls himself as an anarchist, with the government just doing basic functions, like defending the country and running the criminal justice system. Otherwise, Milei would eliminate any role for government, if he had his choice.

It is humorous to hear politicians make declarations like this. As a practical matter, almost all of these self-described anarchists would have a very large role for the government. What they want to do is to write the rules in ways that sends income upwards and then just pretend it is the natural order of things.

Patent and Copyright Monopolies

The best place to go to start ripping off the phony face of these “anarchists” is with government-granted patent and copyright monopolies. These monopolies, which make folks like Bill Gates incredibly rich, are not part of any natural order. They are explicit government policies designed to promote innovation and creative work.

It is possible to argue for these government-granted monopolies as good policy, but that doesn’t change the fact that they are government policies. It is just a lie to say that you don’t want the government intervening in the market and then support these monopolies.

The lie also has the effect of avoiding a serious debate on the relative merits of these mechanisms for supporting innovation and creative work, compared to other mechanisms. People like Milei pretend that copyrights and patents are just the natural working of the market, whereas other mechanisms, like publicly funded open-source research and creative work are government interventions.

This means that even if these other routes are more efficient, Milei doesn’t want them to be discussed. Oh yeah, if patents and copyrights happen to send a huge amount of income upward, well we don’t have to talk about that.

And let’s be clear, we are talking about a huge amount of income. It’s likely more than $500 billion a year ($4,000 for every family) in the case of prescription drugs alone. In total we are almost certainly talking about more than $1 trillion a year, a sum that is close to half of after-tax corporate profits.

The Privilege of Incorporation

It’s always fun to ask anarchist-libertarian types if they want to get rid of corporations. It usually draws a blank stare.

It shouldn’t, because corporations are creations of the government. We can have individuals agree to work together in partnerships, but you need big bad government to create a corporation, an entity that has a distinct identity from the people who own it.

This is a big deal for many reasons. The most obvious one is that a corporation can go bankrupt, stiffing its creditors, even as the shareholders retain their wealth, apart from what they invested in the company’s shares.

This is an especially big deal when the creditors did not voluntarily lend money, such as a neighborhood wrecked by chemical contaminates or the patients who took a drug that turned out not to be safe. Suppliers who delivered goods or workers promised pensions can also find themselves as unintentional creditors.

The anonymity allowed by corporate status can also allow individuals to profit from activities that they would rather not be identified with, such as selling tobacco, guns, and pornography. Corporate status allows investors to hide in a way that would not be true of partnerships.

When the government passes laws allowing incorporation it also sets up rules for corporate governance. These rules determine who is likely to benefit most from corporate status. In the United States the rules are much more friendly to top management than elsewhere. As a result, our CEOs tend to get far higher pay than their counterparts at large successful companies in other wealthy countries. This matters not only for the CEOs,  but for top management more generally, and skews the pay structure in the economy as a whole.

Rules of corporate governance can also require some role for stakeholders other than shareholders. In Germany, large companies are required to include worker representatives on their board. There is no natural set of rules of corporate governance, they are set by governments. The libertarian bible won’t help here.

 

Labor Unions

Another area where self-imagined anarchist libertarians often have trouble is with labor unions. If we let people associate with whoever they want, presumably workers are free to get together and act collectively just like businesspeople can get together to form a partnership. So good libertarians have to accept unions.

But what are the boundaries for union activities? Can unions, or their members, be liable for the damage a company suffers as a result of a strike? There have been many efforts over the years to make workers pay for a company’s losses from a strike. Can unions sign contracts that require all of a company’s workers to pay a representation fee to the union?

What about secondary boycotts? Can the Teamsters refuse to make deliveries to a restaurant or hotel being picketed by its workers?

These questions and others are policy issues that can be decided any number of ways. The desire to “get the government out” provides no help here. The government is in whether we like it or not.

 

The “Libertarian” Philosophy is Lie, Why Pretend Otherwise?

I could go on at length and show other ways in which most people who call themselves libertarians are happy to have the government intervene in the economy. (This is the main point of my book Rigged [it’s free].) In almost all cases the effect of their approved interventions is to redistribute income upward.

It is totally understandable that people like Milei would like to conceal their approach in an anarchist-libertarian philosophy. After all, it sounds much better to run around saying that you support anarchist principles and get the government out of the economy than to say that you want the government to intervene in ways that give all the money to rich people.

The part of this story that is hard to understand is why people who don’t want to give all the money to the rich accept the claims of the “anarchist-libertarians” at face value. We get people absurdly arguing against “free-market fundamentalists,” like they are arguing against the market.

This makes zero sense. The market is a tool, like the wheel. It makes no more sense to argue against the market than to argue against the wheel. We all want to use the market in the same way we all want to use wheels. We are arguing over how best to use it.

It is both bad politics and terrible policy to pretend that the enemy of progressive change is somehow the market. The issue is how best to shape the market. We can’t have this discussion if we pretend that people like Milei are sincere in wanting to get the government out of the economy.

Let the rich at Davos enjoy this clown show. Serious people need to deal with reality.

David Wallace-Wells had a column discussing the trip by Javier Milei, Argentina’s new president, to the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland. The WEF is an annual gathering of many of the world’s richest people, where they also invite politicians, academics, and others who they think may amuse them. According to Wallace-Wells, Mr. Milei definitely fits into that category.

The piece talked about how Milei calls himself as an anarchist, with the government just doing basic functions, like defending the country and running the criminal justice system. Otherwise, Milei would eliminate any role for government, if he had his choice.

It is humorous to hear politicians make declarations like this. As a practical matter, almost all of these self-described anarchists would have a very large role for the government. What they want to do is to write the rules in ways that sends income upwards and then just pretend it is the natural order of things.

Patent and Copyright Monopolies

The best place to go to start ripping off the phony face of these “anarchists” is with government-granted patent and copyright monopolies. These monopolies, which make folks like Bill Gates incredibly rich, are not part of any natural order. They are explicit government policies designed to promote innovation and creative work.

It is possible to argue for these government-granted monopolies as good policy, but that doesn’t change the fact that they are government policies. It is just a lie to say that you don’t want the government intervening in the market and then support these monopolies.

The lie also has the effect of avoiding a serious debate on the relative merits of these mechanisms for supporting innovation and creative work, compared to other mechanisms. People like Milei pretend that copyrights and patents are just the natural working of the market, whereas other mechanisms, like publicly funded open-source research and creative work are government interventions.

This means that even if these other routes are more efficient, Milei doesn’t want them to be discussed. Oh yeah, if patents and copyrights happen to send a huge amount of income upward, well we don’t have to talk about that.

And let’s be clear, we are talking about a huge amount of income. It’s likely more than $500 billion a year ($4,000 for every family) in the case of prescription drugs alone. In total we are almost certainly talking about more than $1 trillion a year, a sum that is close to half of after-tax corporate profits.

The Privilege of Incorporation

It’s always fun to ask anarchist-libertarian types if they want to get rid of corporations. It usually draws a blank stare.

It shouldn’t, because corporations are creations of the government. We can have individuals agree to work together in partnerships, but you need big bad government to create a corporation, an entity that has a distinct identity from the people who own it.

This is a big deal for many reasons. The most obvious one is that a corporation can go bankrupt, stiffing its creditors, even as the shareholders retain their wealth, apart from what they invested in the company’s shares.

This is an especially big deal when the creditors did not voluntarily lend money, such as a neighborhood wrecked by chemical contaminates or the patients who took a drug that turned out not to be safe. Suppliers who delivered goods or workers promised pensions can also find themselves as unintentional creditors.

The anonymity allowed by corporate status can also allow individuals to profit from activities that they would rather not be identified with, such as selling tobacco, guns, and pornography. Corporate status allows investors to hide in a way that would not be true of partnerships.

When the government passes laws allowing incorporation it also sets up rules for corporate governance. These rules determine who is likely to benefit most from corporate status. In the United States the rules are much more friendly to top management than elsewhere. As a result, our CEOs tend to get far higher pay than their counterparts at large successful companies in other wealthy countries. This matters not only for the CEOs,  but for top management more generally, and skews the pay structure in the economy as a whole.

Rules of corporate governance can also require some role for stakeholders other than shareholders. In Germany, large companies are required to include worker representatives on their board. There is no natural set of rules of corporate governance, they are set by governments. The libertarian bible won’t help here.

 

Labor Unions

Another area where self-imagined anarchist libertarians often have trouble is with labor unions. If we let people associate with whoever they want, presumably workers are free to get together and act collectively just like businesspeople can get together to form a partnership. So good libertarians have to accept unions.

But what are the boundaries for union activities? Can unions, or their members, be liable for the damage a company suffers as a result of a strike? There have been many efforts over the years to make workers pay for a company’s losses from a strike. Can unions sign contracts that require all of a company’s workers to pay a representation fee to the union?

What about secondary boycotts? Can the Teamsters refuse to make deliveries to a restaurant or hotel being picketed by its workers?

These questions and others are policy issues that can be decided any number of ways. The desire to “get the government out” provides no help here. The government is in whether we like it or not.

 

The “Libertarian” Philosophy is Lie, Why Pretend Otherwise?

I could go on at length and show other ways in which most people who call themselves libertarians are happy to have the government intervene in the economy. (This is the main point of my book Rigged [it’s free].) In almost all cases the effect of their approved interventions is to redistribute income upward.

It is totally understandable that people like Milei would like to conceal their approach in an anarchist-libertarian philosophy. After all, it sounds much better to run around saying that you support anarchist principles and get the government out of the economy than to say that you want the government to intervene in ways that give all the money to rich people.

The part of this story that is hard to understand is why people who don’t want to give all the money to the rich accept the claims of the “anarchist-libertarians” at face value. We get people absurdly arguing against “free-market fundamentalists,” like they are arguing against the market.

This makes zero sense. The market is a tool, like the wheel. It makes no more sense to argue against the market than to argue against the wheel. We all want to use the market in the same way we all want to use wheels. We are arguing over how best to use it.

It is both bad politics and terrible policy to pretend that the enemy of progressive change is somehow the market. The issue is how best to shape the market. We can’t have this discussion if we pretend that people like Milei are sincere in wanting to get the government out of the economy.

Let the rich at Davos enjoy this clown show. Serious people need to deal with reality.

There is a steady drumbeat from people intent on making a major issue over the fact that many cities may have kept their schools closed for too long during the pandemic. The argument is that children were generally less susceptible to Covid than the rest of the population and closing schools did little to stem the spread of the pandemic.

Based on these facts, they argue that we had a massive preventable loss in learning. This loss is especially serious for children from under-privileged backgrounds, whose families do not have the resources to help their kids close the learning gap.

The places where schools had remote or hybrid classes longest were mostly cities with Democratic mayors and/or strong teachers unions. Therefore, we should blame these liberal types for hurting the people they ostensibly care about.

The latest piece of ammunition for these critics came in a study from a number of prominent researchers showing that children in schools that were closed for longer periods of time fell furthest behind during the pandemic. This effect was largest in the poorest school districts.

This study was written up in a major article in the New York Times. The piece noted that students in the schools closed longest fell more than half a year behind as a result of the pandemic.

There seem to be many people anxious to mispresent the findings of this study. While it does show that students fell further behind the longer their schools were closed, it also shows that the bulk of the learning loss was due to the pandemic, not the school closings.

In the schools that were closed for the shortest duration, students in grades 3 through 8, fell 0.35 years behind grade level on math scores. In the schools that were closed longest they fell 0.57 years behind. This means that the extra period of closing was responsible for a loss of 0.22 years, roughly 40 percent of the total. And this is the additional loss for schools that were closed longest compared to schools that were closed the shortest, most obviously fell somewhere in the middle.

Of course, it is better not to have students lose any ground in their education, especially those from under-privileged backgrounds. But we need to be clear that even in the most extreme cases the issue was the 0.22 years, not the full pandemic loss.

And requiring in-person instruction did pose real risks, if not to the students, certainly to teachers and their families. It is understandable that a teacher with a serious health condition, or who had a family member with a serious health condition, would be reluctant to expose themselves to the pandemic any more than absolutely necessary, at least until the vaccines were widely available. And it is certainly understandable that the unions that represented these teachers would act to protect them.

We can argue that the cities that gave in to pressure from teachers and their unions made the wrong call, but we need to have a clear eye of what was at stake. It was 0.22 years of learning – definitely an unfortunate loss, but probably not something we would consider a disaster in most contexts.

Vaccines for the World?

While the New York Times has ample space for the argument that we kept schools closed longer than necessary, it’s worth noting something that we don’t see widely being relitigated: the availability of vaccines, as well as tests and treatments. Given the extraordinary nature of the worldwide Covid pandemic, it would have been reasonable to suspend normal rules on patents and intellectual property and have worldwide sharing of technology related to vaccines, tests, and treatments.

This would have meant an international agreement where the United States, Europe, China, India, and everyone else involved in research related to the pandemic would agree to make all their relevant technology fully open. This means putting everything up on the Internet so that researchers everywhere had access to the same knowledge that they could criticize and build on.[1]

It also meant that as soon as a technology was shown to be successful, anyone anywhere could take advantage of it. There have been many boasts about the speed with which Operation Warp Speed developed effective vaccines. This was indeed impressive, but effective vaccines were also developed in roughly the same time frame in China and Europe, and only a little bit slower in India and Cuba.

Vaccines were in short supply in much of the world in 2021 and into 2022. If all the vaccines were fully open-sourced, so that anyone could produce them, we almost certainly would have vaccinated the bulk of the world’s population much more quickly. This would have hugely slowed the spread, likely preventing the development of the omicron strain and possibly even the delta strain. Millions of lives could have been saved and tens of millions of infections prevented.

Would all the countries of the world have agreed to this sort of pandemic cooperation? We’ll never know, but we do know that we didn’t try and the failure to have such cooperation was enormously costly in terms of lives lost, health, and economic damage.

It might be worth giving some thought to this issue. We can spend as much time as we want beating up liberals for respecting teachers’ health concerns, at the cost of 0.2 years of lost learning. But maybe we can also spend a little time asking if there are not ways to do medical research that better serve society, even if they may perhaps not be as good for the pharmaceutical industry’s profits.  

[1] We could compensate companies after the fact for the profits that they lost due to the sharing of their technology.

There is a steady drumbeat from people intent on making a major issue over the fact that many cities may have kept their schools closed for too long during the pandemic. The argument is that children were generally less susceptible to Covid than the rest of the population and closing schools did little to stem the spread of the pandemic.

Based on these facts, they argue that we had a massive preventable loss in learning. This loss is especially serious for children from under-privileged backgrounds, whose families do not have the resources to help their kids close the learning gap.

The places where schools had remote or hybrid classes longest were mostly cities with Democratic mayors and/or strong teachers unions. Therefore, we should blame these liberal types for hurting the people they ostensibly care about.

The latest piece of ammunition for these critics came in a study from a number of prominent researchers showing that children in schools that were closed for longer periods of time fell furthest behind during the pandemic. This effect was largest in the poorest school districts.

This study was written up in a major article in the New York Times. The piece noted that students in the schools closed longest fell more than half a year behind as a result of the pandemic.

There seem to be many people anxious to mispresent the findings of this study. While it does show that students fell further behind the longer their schools were closed, it also shows that the bulk of the learning loss was due to the pandemic, not the school closings.

In the schools that were closed for the shortest duration, students in grades 3 through 8, fell 0.35 years behind grade level on math scores. In the schools that were closed longest they fell 0.57 years behind. This means that the extra period of closing was responsible for a loss of 0.22 years, roughly 40 percent of the total. And this is the additional loss for schools that were closed longest compared to schools that were closed the shortest, most obviously fell somewhere in the middle.

Of course, it is better not to have students lose any ground in their education, especially those from under-privileged backgrounds. But we need to be clear that even in the most extreme cases the issue was the 0.22 years, not the full pandemic loss.

And requiring in-person instruction did pose real risks, if not to the students, certainly to teachers and their families. It is understandable that a teacher with a serious health condition, or who had a family member with a serious health condition, would be reluctant to expose themselves to the pandemic any more than absolutely necessary, at least until the vaccines were widely available. And it is certainly understandable that the unions that represented these teachers would act to protect them.

We can argue that the cities that gave in to pressure from teachers and their unions made the wrong call, but we need to have a clear eye of what was at stake. It was 0.22 years of learning – definitely an unfortunate loss, but probably not something we would consider a disaster in most contexts.

Vaccines for the World?

While the New York Times has ample space for the argument that we kept schools closed longer than necessary, it’s worth noting something that we don’t see widely being relitigated: the availability of vaccines, as well as tests and treatments. Given the extraordinary nature of the worldwide Covid pandemic, it would have been reasonable to suspend normal rules on patents and intellectual property and have worldwide sharing of technology related to vaccines, tests, and treatments.

This would have meant an international agreement where the United States, Europe, China, India, and everyone else involved in research related to the pandemic would agree to make all their relevant technology fully open. This means putting everything up on the Internet so that researchers everywhere had access to the same knowledge that they could criticize and build on.[1]

It also meant that as soon as a technology was shown to be successful, anyone anywhere could take advantage of it. There have been many boasts about the speed with which Operation Warp Speed developed effective vaccines. This was indeed impressive, but effective vaccines were also developed in roughly the same time frame in China and Europe, and only a little bit slower in India and Cuba.

Vaccines were in short supply in much of the world in 2021 and into 2022. If all the vaccines were fully open-sourced, so that anyone could produce them, we almost certainly would have vaccinated the bulk of the world’s population much more quickly. This would have hugely slowed the spread, likely preventing the development of the omicron strain and possibly even the delta strain. Millions of lives could have been saved and tens of millions of infections prevented.

Would all the countries of the world have agreed to this sort of pandemic cooperation? We’ll never know, but we do know that we didn’t try and the failure to have such cooperation was enormously costly in terms of lives lost, health, and economic damage.

It might be worth giving some thought to this issue. We can spend as much time as we want beating up liberals for respecting teachers’ health concerns, at the cost of 0.2 years of lost learning. But maybe we can also spend a little time asking if there are not ways to do medical research that better serve society, even if they may perhaps not be as good for the pharmaceutical industry’s profits.  

[1] We could compensate companies after the fact for the profits that they lost due to the sharing of their technology.

I have long been amazed at how major debates over various economic policy issues can have completely contradictory assumptions, and no one seems to notice. This was driven home to me by a New York Times column by Peter Coy (a very good columnist) where he addressed the issue of whether AI would take all our jobs.

This risk has been arousing some concern in social media and various publications. This is striking because the prospect of no jobs raises a set of concerns that is 100 percent in the opposite direction of the frequently expressed problem of budget deficits and debt, as well as the problem of an aging population.  

To put the issue as simply as possible, the story of AI taking all the jobs is a story where we can produce too much. The idea is that people don’t have jobs because there is no demand for their labor, AI is doing all the work.

This is the exact opposite of the budget deficit problem or the aging problem. Both of these are stories of scarcity. The deficit story is that government spending, given current tax structures, is pushing the economy beyond its capacity to produce goods and services.

If we are not hitting the economy’s capacity then we can just print the money, no matter how large the deficit is. We only get inflation if we push the economy beyond its ability to produce goods and services.

It’s a similar picture with the aging population story. The argument here is that we have too few workers to support a growing population of retirees. We would need ever higher taxes on the working population if we are to provide retirees with food, housing, healthcare and other necessities.

It is possible to construct stories where AI will lead to massive overproduction and an enormous reduction in the demand for labor. It is also possible to construct stories where large budget deficits push the economy up against constraints, leading to inflation, or where the aging population requires much larger taxes on workers.

However, it is not possible to put both stories together. If we really have to worry about AI radically reducing the demand for labor, then we don’t have to worry about the size of our budget deficit or debt. We also don’t have to worry about the rising ratio of retirees to workers. AI will take care of that, providing the goods and services our elderly need.

As far as my own view, I lean towards the AI taking the jobs story, although perhaps my scenario would not be as dramatic as some have been suggesting. I’m sure AI will have a big productivity impact in many sectors, but it is not going to be instantaneous.

We will gradually see reduced demand for lawyers, accountants, engineers, and in hundreds of other occupations. This will translate into lower prices for many items, which means higher real wages for workers in sectors seeing fewer layoffs. That should mean increased demand, as these workers spend their pay, which will create new jobs.

Of course, there is no guarantee that the benefits of increased productivity will accrue to workers, although that has generally been the case in the past. (The wage stagnation since 1980 has largely been a story where the wages of workers at the middle and bottom of the distribution went to workers at the top end like CEOs and Wall Street types.) We need policies to ensure that the productivity gains from AI are widely shared.

Just to be clear on this point, the issue is not one of government “redistribution,” as it is often framed. Government rules, not the market, will determine how the bigger pie associated with AI gets cut. There is no natural market distribution.

Just to take the most obvious and important example, ownership of AI is bestowed by government-granted patent and copyright monopolies. These are government policies, not the market.

Without these monopolies, it is unlikely that any company and/or individuals would be in a position to hugely profit from AI. Imagine that all AI software was fully open and could be used by anyone at zero cost. Also, the software embedded in the servers that power AI was fully open, so that anyone with a factory could replicate the servers. In this case, AI would likely be very cheap for anyone who saw a use, which means its benefits should be quickly passed on in the form of lower prices.  

The government can take steps to ensure that gains are broadly shared. A higher minimum wage to go along with higher productivity would be an obvious measure. (We used to raise the minimum wage in step with productivity, it would be over $24 an hour today if we had continued this practice.)

We can also reduce the standard workweek. Instead of having overtime pay kick in at 40 hours a week, we can set the cutoff at 36 hours or 32 hours, or even less, depending on how much AI is increasing productivity.

And we could use our AI productivity dividend to spend more in areas like health care and education, as well as cleaning up the environment. All of which will be possible without higher taxes due to the AI increasing our output.

Again, I don’t see us stumbling into a world of unbelievable plenty tomorrow, but I do think AI offers enormous potential for productivity gains that can be broadly shared with the right policies. There really is not a basis for fears that we won’t have any jobs, but the fact that the issue is even raised means that we likely don’t have to worry about budget deficits or not having enough workers due to an aging population.   

 

I have long been amazed at how major debates over various economic policy issues can have completely contradictory assumptions, and no one seems to notice. This was driven home to me by a New York Times column by Peter Coy (a very good columnist) where he addressed the issue of whether AI would take all our jobs.

This risk has been arousing some concern in social media and various publications. This is striking because the prospect of no jobs raises a set of concerns that is 100 percent in the opposite direction of the frequently expressed problem of budget deficits and debt, as well as the problem of an aging population.  

To put the issue as simply as possible, the story of AI taking all the jobs is a story where we can produce too much. The idea is that people don’t have jobs because there is no demand for their labor, AI is doing all the work.

This is the exact opposite of the budget deficit problem or the aging problem. Both of these are stories of scarcity. The deficit story is that government spending, given current tax structures, is pushing the economy beyond its capacity to produce goods and services.

If we are not hitting the economy’s capacity then we can just print the money, no matter how large the deficit is. We only get inflation if we push the economy beyond its ability to produce goods and services.

It’s a similar picture with the aging population story. The argument here is that we have too few workers to support a growing population of retirees. We would need ever higher taxes on the working population if we are to provide retirees with food, housing, healthcare and other necessities.

It is possible to construct stories where AI will lead to massive overproduction and an enormous reduction in the demand for labor. It is also possible to construct stories where large budget deficits push the economy up against constraints, leading to inflation, or where the aging population requires much larger taxes on workers.

However, it is not possible to put both stories together. If we really have to worry about AI radically reducing the demand for labor, then we don’t have to worry about the size of our budget deficit or debt. We also don’t have to worry about the rising ratio of retirees to workers. AI will take care of that, providing the goods and services our elderly need.

As far as my own view, I lean towards the AI taking the jobs story, although perhaps my scenario would not be as dramatic as some have been suggesting. I’m sure AI will have a big productivity impact in many sectors, but it is not going to be instantaneous.

We will gradually see reduced demand for lawyers, accountants, engineers, and in hundreds of other occupations. This will translate into lower prices for many items, which means higher real wages for workers in sectors seeing fewer layoffs. That should mean increased demand, as these workers spend their pay, which will create new jobs.

Of course, there is no guarantee that the benefits of increased productivity will accrue to workers, although that has generally been the case in the past. (The wage stagnation since 1980 has largely been a story where the wages of workers at the middle and bottom of the distribution went to workers at the top end like CEOs and Wall Street types.) We need policies to ensure that the productivity gains from AI are widely shared.

Just to be clear on this point, the issue is not one of government “redistribution,” as it is often framed. Government rules, not the market, will determine how the bigger pie associated with AI gets cut. There is no natural market distribution.

Just to take the most obvious and important example, ownership of AI is bestowed by government-granted patent and copyright monopolies. These are government policies, not the market.

Without these monopolies, it is unlikely that any company and/or individuals would be in a position to hugely profit from AI. Imagine that all AI software was fully open and could be used by anyone at zero cost. Also, the software embedded in the servers that power AI was fully open, so that anyone with a factory could replicate the servers. In this case, AI would likely be very cheap for anyone who saw a use, which means its benefits should be quickly passed on in the form of lower prices.  

The government can take steps to ensure that gains are broadly shared. A higher minimum wage to go along with higher productivity would be an obvious measure. (We used to raise the minimum wage in step with productivity, it would be over $24 an hour today if we had continued this practice.)

We can also reduce the standard workweek. Instead of having overtime pay kick in at 40 hours a week, we can set the cutoff at 36 hours or 32 hours, or even less, depending on how much AI is increasing productivity.

And we could use our AI productivity dividend to spend more in areas like health care and education, as well as cleaning up the environment. All of which will be possible without higher taxes due to the AI increasing our output.

Again, I don’t see us stumbling into a world of unbelievable plenty tomorrow, but I do think AI offers enormous potential for productivity gains that can be broadly shared with the right policies. There really is not a basis for fears that we won’t have any jobs, but the fact that the issue is even raised means that we likely don’t have to worry about budget deficits or not having enough workers due to an aging population.   

 

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