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.

There have been lots of reports in the media about China’s economic problems in recent months. Most of these pieces imply that it is facing some imminent disaster.

I will claim no special expertise on China, and it certainly looks like its government is pursuing some seriously wrongheaded policies, but it’s pretty difficult to see the disaster story in any publicly available data.

At the most basic level, most projections show its economy continuing to grow at a very healthy pace for the foreseeable future. Nonetheless, the coverage is almost exclusively negative.

For example, this New York Times piece noted China’s projection for 5.0 percent GDP growth in 2024 with the headline “Xi Sticks to His Vision for China’s Rise Even as Growth Slows. China’s growth projections, as well as its official statistics, should be taken with a grain of salt. Nonetheless, few doubt that the picture shown by government data, of an extremely rapidly growing economy over the last four and half decades, is basically right.

But suppose we don’t want to take China’s projections for 2024 and instead turn to the I.M.F. as a more neutral source. The most recent projections from the I.M.F. show China’s economy growing 4.2 percent in 2024. Its growth is projected to remain above 4.0 percent for the following two years, and then fall somewhat below 4.0 percent for the last two years of its projection period.

Is this an economy in crisis? Well, it is undoubtedly slower than the near double-digit growth rates its economy chalked up for much of the period between 1980 and 2020, but it hardly seems like a crisis.

To see this point, we can compare the projected growth for China with the projected growth over this period for Mexico, a country with a nearly identical level of per capita income. This is shown below.

 Source: International Monetary Fund.

 

As can be seen, Mexico is projected to have per capita income growth over this period averaging just over 1.0 percent annually, less than a third of China’s pace. (I have used per capita GDP to adjust for the fact that Mexico still has a growing population whereas China’s is declining slightly. Per capita GDP is a better gauge of living standards.) If we are to believe that China’s economy is facing some sort of crisis, then what do we think about an economy that is growing at less than a third of its pace?

It is also worth noting that, by this purchasing power parity measure, China’s economy is already considerably larger than the U.S. economy. It was 22.0 percent larger last year (24.0 percent including Hong Kong.) With the more rapid projected growth rate, it will be 34.0 percent larger by 2028.

This gap is worth noting when thinking about how best to deal with China. Those who think we can spend the country into the ground with a major military buildup need to check their arithmetic. (The Soviet economy peaked at roughly 60 percent of the size of the U.S. economy.)

The U.S. has differences with China in many areas, but both countries will fare much better if they look for areas for cooperation, like healthcare and climate, rather than confrontation. President Biden seemed to acknowledge this in his State of the Union address. It will be good if he follows through.

 

 

There have been lots of reports in the media about China’s economic problems in recent months. Most of these pieces imply that it is facing some imminent disaster.

I will claim no special expertise on China, and it certainly looks like its government is pursuing some seriously wrongheaded policies, but it’s pretty difficult to see the disaster story in any publicly available data.

At the most basic level, most projections show its economy continuing to grow at a very healthy pace for the foreseeable future. Nonetheless, the coverage is almost exclusively negative.

For example, this New York Times piece noted China’s projection for 5.0 percent GDP growth in 2024 with the headline “Xi Sticks to His Vision for China’s Rise Even as Growth Slows. China’s growth projections, as well as its official statistics, should be taken with a grain of salt. Nonetheless, few doubt that the picture shown by government data, of an extremely rapidly growing economy over the last four and half decades, is basically right.

But suppose we don’t want to take China’s projections for 2024 and instead turn to the I.M.F. as a more neutral source. The most recent projections from the I.M.F. show China’s economy growing 4.2 percent in 2024. Its growth is projected to remain above 4.0 percent for the following two years, and then fall somewhat below 4.0 percent for the last two years of its projection period.

Is this an economy in crisis? Well, it is undoubtedly slower than the near double-digit growth rates its economy chalked up for much of the period between 1980 and 2020, but it hardly seems like a crisis.

To see this point, we can compare the projected growth for China with the projected growth over this period for Mexico, a country with a nearly identical level of per capita income. This is shown below.

 Source: International Monetary Fund.

 

As can be seen, Mexico is projected to have per capita income growth over this period averaging just over 1.0 percent annually, less than a third of China’s pace. (I have used per capita GDP to adjust for the fact that Mexico still has a growing population whereas China’s is declining slightly. Per capita GDP is a better gauge of living standards.) If we are to believe that China’s economy is facing some sort of crisis, then what do we think about an economy that is growing at less than a third of its pace?

It is also worth noting that, by this purchasing power parity measure, China’s economy is already considerably larger than the U.S. economy. It was 22.0 percent larger last year (24.0 percent including Hong Kong.) With the more rapid projected growth rate, it will be 34.0 percent larger by 2028.

This gap is worth noting when thinking about how best to deal with China. Those who think we can spend the country into the ground with a major military buildup need to check their arithmetic. (The Soviet economy peaked at roughly 60 percent of the size of the U.S. economy.)

The U.S. has differences with China in many areas, but both countries will fare much better if they look for areas for cooperation, like healthcare and climate, rather than confrontation. President Biden seemed to acknowledge this in his State of the Union address. It will be good if he follows through.

 

 

This simple point was left out of a Washington Post article on the legal battle surrounding the Biden Administration’s efforts to negotiate lower prices for drugs purchased by Medicare. This point is important because the drug companies are definitely not trying to get the government out of the market, as the industry claims.

The industry is effectively insisting that the government is obligated to give it an unrestricted monopoly for the period of its patent duration. Also, since patent monopolies provide enormous incentives for corruption (they are equivalent to tariffs of many thousand percent, or even tens of thousands percent), drug companies often find ways to game the system and extend effective protection beyond the original patent life.

Anyhow, portraying this as a situation where the industry wants the free market and the Biden administration wants government intervention is 180 degrees at odds with reality. The industry wants very strong government intervention so that it can make big profits.

It’s also worth noting that the amount of money at stake here is potentially enormous. We will spend well over $600 billion this year on drugs. These drugs would likely cost less than $100 billion in a free market. The difference of $500 billion is more than eight times as large as President Biden’s requested funding for Ukraine.

This simple point was left out of a Washington Post article on the legal battle surrounding the Biden Administration’s efforts to negotiate lower prices for drugs purchased by Medicare. This point is important because the drug companies are definitely not trying to get the government out of the market, as the industry claims.

The industry is effectively insisting that the government is obligated to give it an unrestricted monopoly for the period of its patent duration. Also, since patent monopolies provide enormous incentives for corruption (they are equivalent to tariffs of many thousand percent, or even tens of thousands percent), drug companies often find ways to game the system and extend effective protection beyond the original patent life.

Anyhow, portraying this as a situation where the industry wants the free market and the Biden administration wants government intervention is 180 degrees at odds with reality. The industry wants very strong government intervention so that it can make big profits.

It’s also worth noting that the amount of money at stake here is potentially enormous. We will spend well over $600 billion this year on drugs. These drugs would likely cost less than $100 billion in a free market. The difference of $500 billion is more than eight times as large as President Biden’s requested funding for Ukraine.

Is “Greedflation” Over?

Peter Coy used his column yesterday to beg President Biden not to use the term “greedflation” to explain the runup in inflation since the pandemic. I am sympathetic to much of his argument, most importantly, the idea that corporations suddenly turned greedy is a bit far out.

As Coy notes, corporations are always greedy. The real question is whether something unusual was going on with corporate profits in the pandemic. There clearly was an increase in profit margins in the pandemic. This was largely due to real shortages created by supply chain problems worldwide.

We can say this with a high degree of certainty because inflation was a worldwide story. This means that the idea that it was due to Biden’s “excessive” stimulus is silly.

While the U.S. is a huge part of the world economy, higher demand here could at most only explain a small fraction of the inflation in countries like the U.K. and Germany. The fact that their inflation has been similar to U.S. inflation since the pandemic, undermines the idea that Biden’s recovery package was the main factor in the U.S. inflation surge.

I have made this argument before and been told that people don’t care about inflation in the U.K. and Germany, they care about inflation here. That’s fine, but as an economist I’m trying to explain causation.

Any fool can look out over the horizon and see the earth is flat, the curvature of the planet is not generally visible in our range of vision. But we know the earth is in fact round, and no serious person is going to insist it is flat.

Similarly, we know inflation was a worldwide phenomenon due to the pandemic. If people want to yell at Biden over it, that is their right, but let’s not pretend that complaint is based in reality.

But let’s get back to “greedflation,” or “sellers’ inflation” the term used by Isabella Weber, the most prominent academic proponent of this view. There can be little doubt that there was a big shift to profits in the pandemic. Here’s the picture on the profit share of corporate income.

Source: Bureau of Economic Analysis and author’s calculations, see text.

 

It goes from just under 25.0 percent to a peak of 28.0 percent in the second quarter of 2021. (This calculation is corporate net operating surplus, NIPA Table 1.14, line 8, divided by employee compensation, line 4, plus line 8.) However, since that peak the profit share has shifted down somewhat to 25.7 percent in the third quarter of last year, the most recent quarter for which we have data. This implies that further rises in profit shares have not contributed to inflation in the last two and a half years, but we are still seeing a disproportionate share of national income going to profit. Corporations are still keeping more than a quarter of their pandemic windfall.

I have included a second line that shows a somewhat less optimistic picture from the standpoint of those who don’t want to see corporations pocket everything. This line subtracts out the profits reported by Federal Reserve Banks (NIPA Table 6.16D, Line 11). These profits are refunded to the Treasury and should not be viewed as part of corporate profits.

Making this subtraction gives a slightly different path of profits over the course of the pandemic. Profits go from 24.6 percent of income in the fourth quarter of 2019 to a peak of 27.3 percent in the second quarter of 2021. This implies a similar but somewhat smaller runup than what is shown without this adjustment.

But we get a very different picture on the other side. The Fed banks are now losing money (short story, they were nailed by the rise in interest rates). This means that their losses are now being subtracted from the profits earned by the corporate sector, causing the published number to be somewhat lower than is actually the case.

Using this adjustment, corporate profits stood at 26.3 percent of income in the most recent quarter. This implies that corporations are still pocketing more than 60 percent of their pandemic dividend.

This still raises the question of whether corporations were taking advantage of their market power to push up profit margins. Keep in mind, it would not be surprising that there is a shift to profits when we see short-term shortages, that is pretty much a textbook outcome. The question is whether there was something more going on due to the greater monopolization of the U.S. economy than in past decades.

I am still agnostic on this point, but I will note three issues.

First, it seems clear that in a context of general inflation, corporations are better able to jack up their prices beyond the increases in costs they actually see. When all prices are rising 7-8 percent, it seems easier to raise your own prices by this amount, or maybe even more, whether or not that reflects actual costs.

The second point is that the rise in margins seems to be surviving beyond the supply-chain crisis. Perhaps we will see further reductions in margins going forward, but supply chains were pretty much back to normal by the start of 2023, but we still see inflated margins. This suggests something other than supply chains was the cause or at least that the effect is enduring beyond the period of actual shortages.

The third point is that inflation was worldwide. I have not looked at profit margins in other countries (perhaps someone else has these data), but we generally think that Europe has been somewhat more aggressive in enforcing anti-trust rules than the U.S. If profit shares have increased everywhere by similar amounts, that would argue against the idea that the issue was excessive monopolization in the U.S.

In any case, the data are clear, corporations are taking a larger share of the pie now than before the pandemic. Go nail the bastards, President Biden!    

Peter Coy used his column yesterday to beg President Biden not to use the term “greedflation” to explain the runup in inflation since the pandemic. I am sympathetic to much of his argument, most importantly, the idea that corporations suddenly turned greedy is a bit far out.

As Coy notes, corporations are always greedy. The real question is whether something unusual was going on with corporate profits in the pandemic. There clearly was an increase in profit margins in the pandemic. This was largely due to real shortages created by supply chain problems worldwide.

We can say this with a high degree of certainty because inflation was a worldwide story. This means that the idea that it was due to Biden’s “excessive” stimulus is silly.

While the U.S. is a huge part of the world economy, higher demand here could at most only explain a small fraction of the inflation in countries like the U.K. and Germany. The fact that their inflation has been similar to U.S. inflation since the pandemic, undermines the idea that Biden’s recovery package was the main factor in the U.S. inflation surge.

I have made this argument before and been told that people don’t care about inflation in the U.K. and Germany, they care about inflation here. That’s fine, but as an economist I’m trying to explain causation.

Any fool can look out over the horizon and see the earth is flat, the curvature of the planet is not generally visible in our range of vision. But we know the earth is in fact round, and no serious person is going to insist it is flat.

Similarly, we know inflation was a worldwide phenomenon due to the pandemic. If people want to yell at Biden over it, that is their right, but let’s not pretend that complaint is based in reality.

But let’s get back to “greedflation,” or “sellers’ inflation” the term used by Isabella Weber, the most prominent academic proponent of this view. There can be little doubt that there was a big shift to profits in the pandemic. Here’s the picture on the profit share of corporate income.

Source: Bureau of Economic Analysis and author’s calculations, see text.

 

It goes from just under 25.0 percent to a peak of 28.0 percent in the second quarter of 2021. (This calculation is corporate net operating surplus, NIPA Table 1.14, line 8, divided by employee compensation, line 4, plus line 8.) However, since that peak the profit share has shifted down somewhat to 25.7 percent in the third quarter of last year, the most recent quarter for which we have data. This implies that further rises in profit shares have not contributed to inflation in the last two and a half years, but we are still seeing a disproportionate share of national income going to profit. Corporations are still keeping more than a quarter of their pandemic windfall.

I have included a second line that shows a somewhat less optimistic picture from the standpoint of those who don’t want to see corporations pocket everything. This line subtracts out the profits reported by Federal Reserve Banks (NIPA Table 6.16D, Line 11). These profits are refunded to the Treasury and should not be viewed as part of corporate profits.

Making this subtraction gives a slightly different path of profits over the course of the pandemic. Profits go from 24.6 percent of income in the fourth quarter of 2019 to a peak of 27.3 percent in the second quarter of 2021. This implies a similar but somewhat smaller runup than what is shown without this adjustment.

But we get a very different picture on the other side. The Fed banks are now losing money (short story, they were nailed by the rise in interest rates). This means that their losses are now being subtracted from the profits earned by the corporate sector, causing the published number to be somewhat lower than is actually the case.

Using this adjustment, corporate profits stood at 26.3 percent of income in the most recent quarter. This implies that corporations are still pocketing more than 60 percent of their pandemic dividend.

This still raises the question of whether corporations were taking advantage of their market power to push up profit margins. Keep in mind, it would not be surprising that there is a shift to profits when we see short-term shortages, that is pretty much a textbook outcome. The question is whether there was something more going on due to the greater monopolization of the U.S. economy than in past decades.

I am still agnostic on this point, but I will note three issues.

First, it seems clear that in a context of general inflation, corporations are better able to jack up their prices beyond the increases in costs they actually see. When all prices are rising 7-8 percent, it seems easier to raise your own prices by this amount, or maybe even more, whether or not that reflects actual costs.

The second point is that the rise in margins seems to be surviving beyond the supply-chain crisis. Perhaps we will see further reductions in margins going forward, but supply chains were pretty much back to normal by the start of 2023, but we still see inflated margins. This suggests something other than supply chains was the cause or at least that the effect is enduring beyond the period of actual shortages.

The third point is that inflation was worldwide. I have not looked at profit margins in other countries (perhaps someone else has these data), but we generally think that Europe has been somewhat more aggressive in enforcing anti-trust rules than the U.S. If profit shares have increased everywhere by similar amounts, that would argue against the idea that the issue was excessive monopolization in the U.S.

In any case, the data are clear, corporations are taking a larger share of the pie now than before the pandemic. Go nail the bastards, President Biden!    

The Wall Street Journal is unhappy with the move by President Biden to go after “junk fees,” by setting up a task force to uncover abusive pricing. It complains that this will interfere with companies’ ability to set prices where they think best, and will lead them to offset junk fees with overall price increases.

While the ending of junk fees may lead to some increase in advertised prices, this is exactly the point. We want people to know what they are paying. It doesn’t do you any good to get a cheap airline seat and then find out you have to pay big bucks for your carry-on luggage, an in-flight soda, and even using the restroom.

In every economics class we teach students that we get the best market outcomes where everyone is fully informed. If you see a plane seat advertised as $200, it should actually be $200. Then you can compare it to the price other airlines are charging. No one wants to get out a calculator and figure out what the price will be with all the various extra fees, if they can even find out about them before they get on the plane.

What President Biden is doing might be popular, as the WSJ suggests, but it is also good economics. Scam runners might be angered, but fans of the free market should be applauding.  

The Wall Street Journal is unhappy with the move by President Biden to go after “junk fees,” by setting up a task force to uncover abusive pricing. It complains that this will interfere with companies’ ability to set prices where they think best, and will lead them to offset junk fees with overall price increases.

While the ending of junk fees may lead to some increase in advertised prices, this is exactly the point. We want people to know what they are paying. It doesn’t do you any good to get a cheap airline seat and then find out you have to pay big bucks for your carry-on luggage, an in-flight soda, and even using the restroom.

In every economics class we teach students that we get the best market outcomes where everyone is fully informed. If you see a plane seat advertised as $200, it should actually be $200. Then you can compare it to the price other airlines are charging. No one wants to get out a calculator and figure out what the price will be with all the various extra fees, if they can even find out about them before they get on the plane.

What President Biden is doing might be popular, as the WSJ suggests, but it is also good economics. Scam runners might be angered, but fans of the free market should be applauding.  

The Washington Post had a news quiz that included the results of a survey showing how much money people thought we had given to Ukraine. What is striking is not just that people were wrong, but rather they were insanely wrong. (Post readers thankfully did considerably better than the people responding to the poll.)  

The first question asked people how much aid we gave to Ukraine measured as a share of GDP. The correct number is around 0.5 percent of GDP, or $140 billion. (I haven’t tried to add it up carefully, so I am taking the Post at its word here.) According to the Post, 46 percent of people answered that we had spent close to 10 percent of GDP, which would come to $2.8 trillion. The piece reported that 23 percent answered that we spent an amount that was more than 20 percent of GDP, or $5.6 trillion.

The second number asked how Ukraine spending compared to Social Security spending. Forty two percent said we spend about the same on Ukraine as on Social Security and 28 percent said 18 times more. We spend roughly $1.4 trillion a year on Social Security, which means that over the last two years we have spent close to 20 times as much on Social Security as on Ukraine.

No one can expect the average person to know with any precision how much money the government is spending on Ukraine or anything else. People have jobs. They don’t have time to go digging through budget documents to figure out where the government’s money is going. But we might expect that they would be somewhere in the ballpark, maybe off by a factor of two or three, but not a factor of 20 or 40.

If people believe that we are spending twenty times as much on Ukraine as is actually the case, what does it mean when they say they are opposed to aiding Ukraine? Are they opposed to giving Ukraine the amount of money that is actually on the table or are they opposing giving an amount that is twenty times as large, which absolutely no one is proposing?

Part of this story is that the politicians opposed to aiding Ukraine have reason to lie about the money being spent. To advance their case they would like people to believe that the money going to Ukraine is preventing the government from spending money on popular domestic items. For this reason, they are happy to talk about Ukraine aid as though it is twenty or even forty times larger than is actually the case.

However, part of the blame for this extreme ignorance can be laid at the doorstep of the media. They routinely refer to spending amounts in the billions or tens of billions of dollars, sums that are meaningless to almost everyone who sees them.

It would be a very simple matter to refer to these numbers as shares of the budget. For example, the $60 billion proposal current on the table is equal to approximately 0.9 percent of this year’s budget. If the media routinely reported budget numbers in a way that provided some context, it is less likely that we would find that the vast majority of the public overstates spending on Ukraine or other items by an order of magnitude.

For what it’s worth, people in the media do recognize this problem. However, for some reason they refuse to do anything to address it. I will also add that there are entirely legitimate reasons that people may oppose aid to Ukraine, however being 10 percent of GDP is not one of them.

The Washington Post had a news quiz that included the results of a survey showing how much money people thought we had given to Ukraine. What is striking is not just that people were wrong, but rather they were insanely wrong. (Post readers thankfully did considerably better than the people responding to the poll.)  

The first question asked people how much aid we gave to Ukraine measured as a share of GDP. The correct number is around 0.5 percent of GDP, or $140 billion. (I haven’t tried to add it up carefully, so I am taking the Post at its word here.) According to the Post, 46 percent of people answered that we had spent close to 10 percent of GDP, which would come to $2.8 trillion. The piece reported that 23 percent answered that we spent an amount that was more than 20 percent of GDP, or $5.6 trillion.

The second number asked how Ukraine spending compared to Social Security spending. Forty two percent said we spend about the same on Ukraine as on Social Security and 28 percent said 18 times more. We spend roughly $1.4 trillion a year on Social Security, which means that over the last two years we have spent close to 20 times as much on Social Security as on Ukraine.

No one can expect the average person to know with any precision how much money the government is spending on Ukraine or anything else. People have jobs. They don’t have time to go digging through budget documents to figure out where the government’s money is going. But we might expect that they would be somewhere in the ballpark, maybe off by a factor of two or three, but not a factor of 20 or 40.

If people believe that we are spending twenty times as much on Ukraine as is actually the case, what does it mean when they say they are opposed to aiding Ukraine? Are they opposed to giving Ukraine the amount of money that is actually on the table or are they opposing giving an amount that is twenty times as large, which absolutely no one is proposing?

Part of this story is that the politicians opposed to aiding Ukraine have reason to lie about the money being spent. To advance their case they would like people to believe that the money going to Ukraine is preventing the government from spending money on popular domestic items. For this reason, they are happy to talk about Ukraine aid as though it is twenty or even forty times larger than is actually the case.

However, part of the blame for this extreme ignorance can be laid at the doorstep of the media. They routinely refer to spending amounts in the billions or tens of billions of dollars, sums that are meaningless to almost everyone who sees them.

It would be a very simple matter to refer to these numbers as shares of the budget. For example, the $60 billion proposal current on the table is equal to approximately 0.9 percent of this year’s budget. If the media routinely reported budget numbers in a way that provided some context, it is less likely that we would find that the vast majority of the public overstates spending on Ukraine or other items by an order of magnitude.

For what it’s worth, people in the media do recognize this problem. However, for some reason they refuse to do anything to address it. I will also add that there are entirely legitimate reasons that people may oppose aid to Ukraine, however being 10 percent of GDP is not one of them.

The New York Times had a piece on the tax code changes that will take effect next year unless Congress acts to extend current provisions. One of the items on this list is an increase in the amount of wealth exempted from the estate tax.

The piece lists the amount currently exempted as $13.6 million, with the possibility it will revert back to its pre-Trump level of $5 million (adjusted somewhat higher for inflation) if the Trump provision is not extended. It is important to point out that this is the exemption for a single individual. A couple would be able to pass on $27.2 million to their heirs without paying any tax whatsoever. 

This tax applies to less than 2,000 estates a year, less than 0.1 percent of all estates. Even with the $5 million cutoff only around 5,000 estates paid the tax.

It is also important to recognize that the tax is marginal — it only applies to wealth above the cutoff. This means for example, that a couple with an estate of $27.5 million would only pay the 40 percent tax on the $300,000 above the cutoff. In this case the heirs would face a tax liability of $120,000, less than 0.5 percent of the estate.

The New York Times had a piece on the tax code changes that will take effect next year unless Congress acts to extend current provisions. One of the items on this list is an increase in the amount of wealth exempted from the estate tax.

The piece lists the amount currently exempted as $13.6 million, with the possibility it will revert back to its pre-Trump level of $5 million (adjusted somewhat higher for inflation) if the Trump provision is not extended. It is important to point out that this is the exemption for a single individual. A couple would be able to pass on $27.2 million to their heirs without paying any tax whatsoever. 

This tax applies to less than 2,000 estates a year, less than 0.1 percent of all estates. Even with the $5 million cutoff only around 5,000 estates paid the tax.

It is also important to recognize that the tax is marginal — it only applies to wealth above the cutoff. This means for example, that a couple with an estate of $27.5 million would only pay the 40 percent tax on the $300,000 above the cutoff. In this case the heirs would face a tax liability of $120,000, less than 0.5 percent of the estate.

That is effectively what the state of Texas and Florida are arguing before the Supreme Court this week. This argument goes under the guise of whether states can prohibit social media companies from banning material based on politics. However, since much of Republican politics these days involves promulgating lies, like the “Biden family” Ukraine bribery story, the Texas and Florida law could arguably mean that the state could require Facebook and other social media sites to spread lies.

There is a lot of tortured reasoning around the major social media platforms these days. The Texas and Florida laws are justified by saying these platforms are essentially common carriers, like a phone company.

That one seems pretty hard to justify. In principle at least, a phone company would have no control over, or even knowledge of, the content of phone calls. This would make it absurd for a state government to try to dictate what sort of calls could or could not be made over a telephone network.

Social media platforms do have knowledge of the material that gets posted on their sites. And in fact they make conscious decisions, or at least have algorithms that decide for them, whether to leave up a post, boost it so that it is seen by a wide audience, or remove it altogether.

The social media companies arguing against the Florida and Texas laws say that they have a First Amendment right to decide what material they want to promote and what material they want to exclude, just like a print or broadcast outlet. However, there is an important difference between the factors that print and broadcast outlets must consider in transmitting and promoting content and what social media sites need to consider.

Modifying Section 230

Print and broadcast outlets can be sued for defamation for transmitting material that is false and harmful to individuals or organizations. Social media sites do not have this concern because they are protected by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

This means that not only are social media companies not liable for spreading defamatory material, they actually can profit from it. This is not only the case for big political lies. If some racist decides to buy ads on Facebook or Twitter falsely saying that they got food poisoning at a Black-owned restaurant, Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk get to pocket the cash.

The restaurant owner could sue the person who took out the ad, if they can find them (ads can be posted under phony names), but Facebook and Twitter would just hold up their Section 230 immunity and walk away with the cash. The same story applies to posts on these sites. These can also generate profits for Mr. Zuckerberg or Mr. Musk, since defamatory material may increase views and make advertising more valuable.

The ostensible rationale for Section 230 was that we want social media companies to be able to moderate their sites for pornographic material or posts that seek to incite violence, without fear of being sued. There is also the argument that a major social media platform can’t possibly monitor all of the hundreds of millions, or even billions, of posts that go up every day.

But removing protections against defamation suits does not in any way interfere with the first goal. Facebook or Twitter should not have to worry about being sued for defamation because they remove child pornography.

As far as the second point, while it is true that these sites cannot monitor every post as it goes up, they could respond to takedown notices that come from individuals or organizations claiming they have been defamed. There is an obvious model here. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act requires that companies remove material that infringes on copyright, after they have been notified by the copyright holder or their agent. If they remove the material in a timely manner, they are protected against a lawsuit. Alternatively, they may determine that the material is not infringing and leave it up.

We can have a similar process with allegedly defamatory material, where the person or organization claiming defamation has to spell out exactly how the material is defamatory. The site then has the option to either take the material down, or leave it posted and risk a defamation suit.

This would effectively be treating social media sites like print or broadcast media. These outlets must take responsibility for the material they transmit to their audience, even if it comes from third parties. (Fox paid $787 million to Dominion as a result of a lawsuit largely over statements by guests on Fox shows.) There is not an obvious reason why CNN can be sued for carrying an ad falsely claiming that a prominent person is a pedophile, but  Twitter and Facebook get to pocket the cash with impunity.

We can also structure this sort of change in Section 230 in a way that favors smaller sites. We can leave the current rules for Section 230 in place for sites that don’t sell ads or personal information. Sites that support themselves by subscriptions or donations could continue to operate as they do now.

This would help to counteract the network effects that tend to push people towards the biggest sites. After all, if Facebook and Twitter were each just one of a hundred social media sites that people used to post their thoughts, no one would especially care what posts they choose to amplify or remove. If users didn’t like their editorial choices, they would just opt for a different one, just as they do now with newspapers or television stations.

It is only because these social media sites have such a huge share of the market that their decisions take on so much importance. If we can restructure Section 230 in a way that downsizes these giants, it will go far towards ending the problem.  

Modifying Section 230 won’t fix all the problems with social media, but it does remove an obvious asymmetry in the law. As it now stands, print and broadcast outlets can get sued for carrying defamatory material, but social media sites cannot. This situation does not make sense and should be changed.

That is effectively what the state of Texas and Florida are arguing before the Supreme Court this week. This argument goes under the guise of whether states can prohibit social media companies from banning material based on politics. However, since much of Republican politics these days involves promulgating lies, like the “Biden family” Ukraine bribery story, the Texas and Florida law could arguably mean that the state could require Facebook and other social media sites to spread lies.

There is a lot of tortured reasoning around the major social media platforms these days. The Texas and Florida laws are justified by saying these platforms are essentially common carriers, like a phone company.

That one seems pretty hard to justify. In principle at least, a phone company would have no control over, or even knowledge of, the content of phone calls. This would make it absurd for a state government to try to dictate what sort of calls could or could not be made over a telephone network.

Social media platforms do have knowledge of the material that gets posted on their sites. And in fact they make conscious decisions, or at least have algorithms that decide for them, whether to leave up a post, boost it so that it is seen by a wide audience, or remove it altogether.

The social media companies arguing against the Florida and Texas laws say that they have a First Amendment right to decide what material they want to promote and what material they want to exclude, just like a print or broadcast outlet. However, there is an important difference between the factors that print and broadcast outlets must consider in transmitting and promoting content and what social media sites need to consider.

Modifying Section 230

Print and broadcast outlets can be sued for defamation for transmitting material that is false and harmful to individuals or organizations. Social media sites do not have this concern because they are protected by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

This means that not only are social media companies not liable for spreading defamatory material, they actually can profit from it. This is not only the case for big political lies. If some racist decides to buy ads on Facebook or Twitter falsely saying that they got food poisoning at a Black-owned restaurant, Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk get to pocket the cash.

The restaurant owner could sue the person who took out the ad, if they can find them (ads can be posted under phony names), but Facebook and Twitter would just hold up their Section 230 immunity and walk away with the cash. The same story applies to posts on these sites. These can also generate profits for Mr. Zuckerberg or Mr. Musk, since defamatory material may increase views and make advertising more valuable.

The ostensible rationale for Section 230 was that we want social media companies to be able to moderate their sites for pornographic material or posts that seek to incite violence, without fear of being sued. There is also the argument that a major social media platform can’t possibly monitor all of the hundreds of millions, or even billions, of posts that go up every day.

But removing protections against defamation suits does not in any way interfere with the first goal. Facebook or Twitter should not have to worry about being sued for defamation because they remove child pornography.

As far as the second point, while it is true that these sites cannot monitor every post as it goes up, they could respond to takedown notices that come from individuals or organizations claiming they have been defamed. There is an obvious model here. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act requires that companies remove material that infringes on copyright, after they have been notified by the copyright holder or their agent. If they remove the material in a timely manner, they are protected against a lawsuit. Alternatively, they may determine that the material is not infringing and leave it up.

We can have a similar process with allegedly defamatory material, where the person or organization claiming defamation has to spell out exactly how the material is defamatory. The site then has the option to either take the material down, or leave it posted and risk a defamation suit.

This would effectively be treating social media sites like print or broadcast media. These outlets must take responsibility for the material they transmit to their audience, even if it comes from third parties. (Fox paid $787 million to Dominion as a result of a lawsuit largely over statements by guests on Fox shows.) There is not an obvious reason why CNN can be sued for carrying an ad falsely claiming that a prominent person is a pedophile, but  Twitter and Facebook get to pocket the cash with impunity.

We can also structure this sort of change in Section 230 in a way that favors smaller sites. We can leave the current rules for Section 230 in place for sites that don’t sell ads or personal information. Sites that support themselves by subscriptions or donations could continue to operate as they do now.

This would help to counteract the network effects that tend to push people towards the biggest sites. After all, if Facebook and Twitter were each just one of a hundred social media sites that people used to post their thoughts, no one would especially care what posts they choose to amplify or remove. If users didn’t like their editorial choices, they would just opt for a different one, just as they do now with newspapers or television stations.

It is only because these social media sites have such a huge share of the market that their decisions take on so much importance. If we can restructure Section 230 in a way that downsizes these giants, it will go far towards ending the problem.  

Modifying Section 230 won’t fix all the problems with social media, but it does remove an obvious asymmetry in the law. As it now stands, print and broadcast outlets can get sued for carrying defamatory material, but social media sites cannot. This situation does not make sense and should be changed.

Most people don’t keep up on the details of government policy. This is understandable because they have lives to live, and can’t spend all their time following the structure of various government programs. However, it is unfortunate when their lack of knowledge prevents them from using a government program that could benefit them greatly.

This is true of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) which created health care exchanges that allow tens of millions of people to get insurance with large subsidies. Many people who could benefit from these subsidies, which in many cases cover the full cost of a policy, don’t take advantage of the exchanges because they don’t know about the subsidies.

Apparently, this ignorance applies to New York Times columnists and editors. A New York Times column trashing the Biden economy (a regular feature of the paper) told readers about benefit cliffs that many moderate-income families face. The story is that many people lose Medicaid, food stamps, or other benefits when their income rises above certain thresholds.

While this is a real problem, the specific example given in the piece is not.

“A helpful starting point would be to address benefit cliffs — income eligibility cutoffs built into certain benefits programs. As households earn more money, they can make themselves suddenly ineligible for benefits that would let them build up enough wealth to no longer need any government support. In Kansas, for example, a family of four remains eligible for Medicaid as long as it earns under $39,900. A single dollar in additional income results in the loss of health care coverage — and an alternative will certainly not cost only a buck.”

There are two problems with this story. First, a family of four would almost certainly be eligible for the CHIP program, which in Kansas provides health insurance for children for families that earn up to 250 percent of the federal poverty level, which is $78,000 for a family of four.

The other problem is that this family would be eligible for a full subsidy for a silver plan (middle quality) in the exchanges created by the ACA as long as their income was under $45,000. Even with an income of $60,000 a year, they would only be paying $1,200 a year for their insurance.

It is unfortunate that people who could benefit from the Obamacare exchanges often don’t. If our country’s leading newspaper could be bothered to give correct information, maybe there would be fewer people in this category.

Most people don’t keep up on the details of government policy. This is understandable because they have lives to live, and can’t spend all their time following the structure of various government programs. However, it is unfortunate when their lack of knowledge prevents them from using a government program that could benefit them greatly.

This is true of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) which created health care exchanges that allow tens of millions of people to get insurance with large subsidies. Many people who could benefit from these subsidies, which in many cases cover the full cost of a policy, don’t take advantage of the exchanges because they don’t know about the subsidies.

Apparently, this ignorance applies to New York Times columnists and editors. A New York Times column trashing the Biden economy (a regular feature of the paper) told readers about benefit cliffs that many moderate-income families face. The story is that many people lose Medicaid, food stamps, or other benefits when their income rises above certain thresholds.

While this is a real problem, the specific example given in the piece is not.

“A helpful starting point would be to address benefit cliffs — income eligibility cutoffs built into certain benefits programs. As households earn more money, they can make themselves suddenly ineligible for benefits that would let them build up enough wealth to no longer need any government support. In Kansas, for example, a family of four remains eligible for Medicaid as long as it earns under $39,900. A single dollar in additional income results in the loss of health care coverage — and an alternative will certainly not cost only a buck.”

There are two problems with this story. First, a family of four would almost certainly be eligible for the CHIP program, which in Kansas provides health insurance for children for families that earn up to 250 percent of the federal poverty level, which is $78,000 for a family of four.

The other problem is that this family would be eligible for a full subsidy for a silver plan (middle quality) in the exchanges created by the ACA as long as their income was under $45,000. Even with an income of $60,000 a year, they would only be paying $1,200 a year for their insurance.

It is unfortunate that people who could benefit from the Obamacare exchanges often don’t. If our country’s leading newspaper could be bothered to give correct information, maybe there would be fewer people in this category.

The media are pushing the economy is terrible story pretty much 24-7. They refuse to let the strong labor market and rapid real wage growth get in their way. They seem to want everyone to think things are really bad, in spite of a 24-month stretch of below 4.0 percent unemployment and a sharp reduction in wage inequality since the pandemic.

The latest item in this effort was a New York Times piece about how the economy is rigged. It told readers about the bad times exemplified by an explosion of credit card debt. While credit card debt is rising rapidly, it is not quite the horror story the piece would have you believe.

Credit card debt virtually stopped growing in 2020-22. There were two reasons. First, the pandemic checks meant that many households were flush with cash and had no reason to borrow on their credit card.

The second reason is that we had an unprecedented boom in mortgage refinancing, with more than 14 million people taking advantage of the low rates available during these years. Many of these households borrowed extra cash when they refinanced, meaning they had no reason to borrow on their credit cards.

Those who didn’t do cash-out refinancing saved an average of $2,500 a year on interest. Somehow this fact has gone almost unnoticed among those commenting on the economy.

With the cash people saved in the pandemic getting run down, and the refinancing window closed due to the jump in mortgage rates, people are again turning to credit cards. But we are just back to roughly our pre-pandemic trend, as shown below. (By the way, anyone who says that credit card debt is at a record high is just trying to tell you that they know nothing about the economy. Just like GDP and income, credit card debt is almost always hitting a record high.)

 

 

If we are worried about the burden of interest payments on family budgets, then we can look at the ratio of debt service to income, which includes the burden of all loans, not just credit cards. Here’s the picture.

 

 

As can be seen, instead of the horrible burden story, the ratio is near a four-decade low, with the pandemic years being the only time when it was lower.

To be clear, tens of millions of people are struggling to pay their rent and put food on the table, but that was also true when Donald Trump was in the White House. In those years, the NYT and other major media outlets did not feel the need to constantly run pieces saying how awful the economy was.

I will also add that the economy is in fact rigged, but not in ways that the New York Times will let people talk about in its pages. The government grants patent and copyright monopolies that make folks like Bill Gates incredibly rich and drugs incredibly expensive. Our system of corporate governance is a cesspool, with top executives making tens of millions annually at the expense of their companies and hugely skewing wage patterns throughout the economy. The bloated financial system siphons hundreds of billions annually from the rest of us and hands it to hedge fund and private equity tycoons.

We could structure the economy differently so that less of the benefits of growth go to those at the top. But the major media outlets do not want to have that sort of discussion. They just want to tell people that things are bad under Biden.

The media are pushing the economy is terrible story pretty much 24-7. They refuse to let the strong labor market and rapid real wage growth get in their way. They seem to want everyone to think things are really bad, in spite of a 24-month stretch of below 4.0 percent unemployment and a sharp reduction in wage inequality since the pandemic.

The latest item in this effort was a New York Times piece about how the economy is rigged. It told readers about the bad times exemplified by an explosion of credit card debt. While credit card debt is rising rapidly, it is not quite the horror story the piece would have you believe.

Credit card debt virtually stopped growing in 2020-22. There were two reasons. First, the pandemic checks meant that many households were flush with cash and had no reason to borrow on their credit card.

The second reason is that we had an unprecedented boom in mortgage refinancing, with more than 14 million people taking advantage of the low rates available during these years. Many of these households borrowed extra cash when they refinanced, meaning they had no reason to borrow on their credit cards.

Those who didn’t do cash-out refinancing saved an average of $2,500 a year on interest. Somehow this fact has gone almost unnoticed among those commenting on the economy.

With the cash people saved in the pandemic getting run down, and the refinancing window closed due to the jump in mortgage rates, people are again turning to credit cards. But we are just back to roughly our pre-pandemic trend, as shown below. (By the way, anyone who says that credit card debt is at a record high is just trying to tell you that they know nothing about the economy. Just like GDP and income, credit card debt is almost always hitting a record high.)

 

 

If we are worried about the burden of interest payments on family budgets, then we can look at the ratio of debt service to income, which includes the burden of all loans, not just credit cards. Here’s the picture.

 

 

As can be seen, instead of the horrible burden story, the ratio is near a four-decade low, with the pandemic years being the only time when it was lower.

To be clear, tens of millions of people are struggling to pay their rent and put food on the table, but that was also true when Donald Trump was in the White House. In those years, the NYT and other major media outlets did not feel the need to constantly run pieces saying how awful the economy was.

I will also add that the economy is in fact rigged, but not in ways that the New York Times will let people talk about in its pages. The government grants patent and copyright monopolies that make folks like Bill Gates incredibly rich and drugs incredibly expensive. Our system of corporate governance is a cesspool, with top executives making tens of millions annually at the expense of their companies and hugely skewing wage patterns throughout the economy. The bloated financial system siphons hundreds of billions annually from the rest of us and hands it to hedge fund and private equity tycoons.

We could structure the economy differently so that less of the benefits of growth go to those at the top. But the major media outlets do not want to have that sort of discussion. They just want to tell people that things are bad under Biden.

George Will used his Washington Post column to go on a diatribe against proposals for subsidizing local news outlets. After noting the plunge in the number of local newspapers, and an even sharper drop in the employment of journalists (down two-thirds since 2005), Will attacks the ideas for public support of journalism developed by Illinois Task Force on Local Journalism.

Will lists various forms of proposed subsidies and then tells readers:

“What could go wrong? Everything.

“Soon, government would mandate hiring and coverage quotas for “underrepresented” groups, would enforce government’s idea of editorial “balance,” would censor what government considers “misinformation” about public health, diversity, equity and inclusion, and would dictate all things pertinent to government’s ever-lengthening agenda. The task force’s recommendations — journalism throwing itself into government’s muscular arms — are a recipe for making local news sources as admired and trusted as government is.”

If Will is really this adverse to government subsidies, then it is bizarre that he is not also ranting against government subsidies for cultural institutions, charitable organizations, and churches through the charitable contribution tax deduction. This deduction, which is almost exclusively used by high-income people, allows people to reduce their taxable income by the amount of their contribution.

For a rich person who faces roughly a 40 percent marginal tax rate, this means that the government pays for 40 percent of their contribution. That means if a rich person chooses to give $1 billion to a think tank, a church, or some other qualifying organization, the taxpayers pick up $400 million of the tab, effectively meaning this $1 billion contribution only cost the rich person $600 million.

For some reason, we haven’t seen a George Will rant in the Washington Post against this very large government subsidy. Is he unconcerned that the government will mandate hiring quotas, have diversity, equity, and inclusion requirements and other things he views as evil as conditions for being the tax deduction?

If this is not a concern with the charitable contribution tax deduction, why would it be a concern with other forms of government subsidies for news organizations? In fact, many news outlets, such ProPublica, are now organized as charitable organizations and benefit directly from this tax deduction.

In fact, some forms of subsidies are explicitly modelled on the charitable contribution tax deduction. Proposals in Washington, DC and Seattle, Washington would effectively give each resident a tax credit (e.g. $100) to support the local news outlet of their choice. This is comparable to the tax deduction, except that it would give the same amount to everyone, even people who are not paying taxes.

If Will is comfortable that we can handle the charitable contribution tax deduction without serious abuses, it is difficult to see why he is so confident that a tax credit would be subject to massive abuse. (It’s also worth mentioning that government-granted copyright monopolies are an explicit subsidy, as readers of the constitution know well.)   

Will has an important point in his column. We do want to encourage a press that is independent of government interference. This is a fair warning about how subsidies for local journalism should be structured. However, the track record shows that this turf can be, and is being, navigated well. That could change in the future (Donald Trump has explicitly indicated that he doesn’t give a damn about freedom of the press), but the risks here seem small relative to the potential benefits.

George Will used his Washington Post column to go on a diatribe against proposals for subsidizing local news outlets. After noting the plunge in the number of local newspapers, and an even sharper drop in the employment of journalists (down two-thirds since 2005), Will attacks the ideas for public support of journalism developed by Illinois Task Force on Local Journalism.

Will lists various forms of proposed subsidies and then tells readers:

“What could go wrong? Everything.

“Soon, government would mandate hiring and coverage quotas for “underrepresented” groups, would enforce government’s idea of editorial “balance,” would censor what government considers “misinformation” about public health, diversity, equity and inclusion, and would dictate all things pertinent to government’s ever-lengthening agenda. The task force’s recommendations — journalism throwing itself into government’s muscular arms — are a recipe for making local news sources as admired and trusted as government is.”

If Will is really this adverse to government subsidies, then it is bizarre that he is not also ranting against government subsidies for cultural institutions, charitable organizations, and churches through the charitable contribution tax deduction. This deduction, which is almost exclusively used by high-income people, allows people to reduce their taxable income by the amount of their contribution.

For a rich person who faces roughly a 40 percent marginal tax rate, this means that the government pays for 40 percent of their contribution. That means if a rich person chooses to give $1 billion to a think tank, a church, or some other qualifying organization, the taxpayers pick up $400 million of the tab, effectively meaning this $1 billion contribution only cost the rich person $600 million.

For some reason, we haven’t seen a George Will rant in the Washington Post against this very large government subsidy. Is he unconcerned that the government will mandate hiring quotas, have diversity, equity, and inclusion requirements and other things he views as evil as conditions for being the tax deduction?

If this is not a concern with the charitable contribution tax deduction, why would it be a concern with other forms of government subsidies for news organizations? In fact, many news outlets, such ProPublica, are now organized as charitable organizations and benefit directly from this tax deduction.

In fact, some forms of subsidies are explicitly modelled on the charitable contribution tax deduction. Proposals in Washington, DC and Seattle, Washington would effectively give each resident a tax credit (e.g. $100) to support the local news outlet of their choice. This is comparable to the tax deduction, except that it would give the same amount to everyone, even people who are not paying taxes.

If Will is comfortable that we can handle the charitable contribution tax deduction without serious abuses, it is difficult to see why he is so confident that a tax credit would be subject to massive abuse. (It’s also worth mentioning that government-granted copyright monopolies are an explicit subsidy, as readers of the constitution know well.)   

Will has an important point in his column. We do want to encourage a press that is independent of government interference. This is a fair warning about how subsidies for local journalism should be structured. However, the track record shows that this turf can be, and is being, navigated well. That could change in the future (Donald Trump has explicitly indicated that he doesn’t give a damn about freedom of the press), but the risks here seem small relative to the potential benefits.

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