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The Persistence of Horrible Economic Reporting: They Just Don’t Care

(This post originally appeared on my Patreon page.)

Last month, in an interview with Rolling Stone, Chuck Todd responded to a question about whether he was surprised that the Trump administration would deliberately spread misinformation (i.e. lie):

“I fully admit, listening to you ask that question now, and me giving you the honest answer of, yeah, I guess I really believed they wouldn’t do this. Just so absurdly naive in hindsight.”

This answer had to have people all over the country banging their heads against the wall. Chuck Todd is the host of Meet the Press, the country’s most widely watched news interview show. He also regularly appears as a commentator on MSNBC.

After the Trump administration has engaged in a systematic pattern of lying on a wide range of issues, it is truly incredible that Chuck Todd would be telling us that he just came to realize this fact now. (Many of the lies, including Kellyanne Conway’s famous “alternative facts” were told right to Todd’s face on Meet the Press.)

This is a bit like the lead announcer at Super Bowl games over the last decade saying that he just discovered that the teams were trying to get the ball into the opposing team’s end zone. The big question in that case, as it is with Todd, is whether it is worse that they could be so astonishing ignorant over a prolonged period of time or that they apparently see nothing wrong with admitting it now.

While honesty should be applauded, Todd effectively said in this interview that he has totally failed in his job. If he didn’t recognize that Trump and his supporters were making up nonsense to advance their agenda, he was not acting as a serious reporter.

When most workers completely mess up on their job (e.g. the custodian who doesn’t clean the toilets or the dishwasher who breaks all the dishes) they face serious consequences, like getting fired. That does not appear to be the case with Chuck Todd. In all probability he will continue in his role with Meet the Press as though nothing had happened.

CEPR / January 09, 2020

Article Artículo

Washington Post Columnist Charles Lane Is Confident Fossil Fuel Industry Has Enough Political Power to Destroy the Planet

Charles Lane used his Washington Post column to brag about the fact that the fossil fuel industry and climate denialists have had enough political power to prevent more widespread use of electrical cars, as he had apparently predicted would be the case a decade ago. He seems very proud of this fact. He also concludes by citing a prediction that there will be 125 million electric vehicles on the road worldwide in a decade, less than one-tenth of the total. And he is confident that the actual number will be below this.

Okay, I’m sure it’s fun to use your column in the Washington Post to predict a climate disaster, but let’s take a look at some of the facts here, insofar as Lane has any.   

He starts by telling readers:

“gas-powered cars account for between one-sixth and one-fifth of U.S. carbon emissions.”

Lane’s source actually says that transportation accounts for 29 percent of carbon emissions. Cars and trucks account for 82 percent of this, with ships, boats, and “other” accounting for another 7.0 percent. If we assume that half of those emissions could also be readily replaced with electric motors, that would get us to 85.5 percent of the 29 percent of emissions attributable to transportation, which would put us at just under a quarter of total emissions. That’s a bit more than “between one-sixth and one-fifth,” but why quibble?

CEPR / December 31, 2019

Article Artículo

The Future of Trade Deals

(This piece first appeared on my Patreon page.)

Last week, to take some of the sting off his impeachment, Donald Trump was celebrating his trade deals as evidence of the great success of his presidency. Specially, he has touted his revised NAFTA, which the Democratic leadership agreed to, and his first round trade agreement with China. Neither deal is likely to have a noticeable impact on the U.S. economy, but this does provide a good opportunity to think about the shape of future trade agreements.

First of all, it is worth noting some positives in the new NAFTA. Congressional Democrats forced Trump to include some serious language on labor rights in Mexico. While it remains to be seen how enforceable these will prove to be, they are definitely stronger than the provisions in the original NAFTA.

It will also help that Mexico’s current president, Lopez Obrador, is its most labor friendly leader in more than half century. In most cases, Obrador will likely be happy to improve labor standards in Mexico in accordance with the agreement.

While provisions that can improve the living standards of Mexican workers should be seen as good, this is unlikely to make much difference in terms of the number of manufacturing jobs going from the U.S. to Mexico. Even if the labor provisions of the deal are fully enforced, wages will still be far lower in Mexico than in the United States.

This point can be made more generally. Promoting respect for labor standards and the right of workers to organize in developing countries is a good thing. Where possible, we should try to help support democratic rights and rising living standards, but given the large gaps in productivity between the United States and developing countries, respect for workers’ rights will not eliminate the large differences in wages.

The one positive aspect of this picture for U.S. workers is that most of the jobs that are likely to be transferred to developing countries have already moved. This is the story of the plunge in manufacturing employment in the last decade. While there was relatively little change in manufacturing employment from 1970 to 2000 (even though manufacturing employment fell as a share of total employment), employment in manufacturing fell by 3.4 million, or 20 percent, between December of 2000 and December of 2007. That is before the beginning of the Great Recession.

CEPR / December 26, 2019

Article Artículo

Greenhouse Gas Emissions and the Right to Dump Sewage on Your Lawn

(This post originally appeared on my Patreon page.)

In debates over protecting the environment, and especially global warming, it is standard practice to refer to the pro-protection side as being in favor of government regulation and the anti-protection side as being pro-free market. This is nonsense and it is nonsense in a way that strongly benefits the enemies of environmental protection.

There is a simple way to think about environmental protection. If I build a home and want to dispose of my sewage in the cheapest possible way, I will just dump it on my neighbor’s lawn. Environmental regulation means having the government say that I can’t do this.

It is bizarre that somehow the prohibition of dumping my sewage on my neighbor’s lawn is treated as government regulation interfering in the market. The government is protecting my neighbor’s property. Prohibiting me from dumping sewage on her lawn is not really different from prohibiting me from building an addition that takes up half of her lot. In both cases, the government is not acting to interfere with the market, it is acting to protect the property rights that are the foundation of the market.

Somehow this basic logic has gotten lost in discussions of environmental regulation and in particular with respect to policies designed to curb global warming. The right routinely gets away with the idea that its opposition is grounded in a commitment to the free market and that those who want to protect the environment are proponents of big government bureaucracy telling everyone what they can and can’t do.

At this point, the fact that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are warming the planet and leading to a wide variety of disastrous climate outcomes is no longer debatable. The decision by some politicians to insist ignorance on the issue changes nothing. We know that spewing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere is imposing damage on people in the present and will do much more in the future. Restricting these emissions is effectively telling people that they can’t dump their sewage on their neighbor’s lawns. 

In this context, there is no defense to regulations restricting GHG emissions. There are no philosophical or ideological points at issue. The only question is how best to limit GHG emissions and how much we should be willing to pay to do so.

CEPR / December 20, 2019

Article Artículo

Health and Social Programs



Should We Care How Many People LBJ Would Think are Poor Today?

In a new National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) working paper, Richard Burkhauser and his coauthors argue that only 2.3 percent of Americans lived in poverty in 2017, if we define poverty in the way they claim “President Johnson defined it.” By comparison, the OECD put the US poverty rate at 17.8 percent using the standard international measure of poverty, which sets the poverty line at half of median disposable income (about $34,000 a year for a family of four in 2017).  

To reach this conclusion, Burkhauser et al. make a long list of changes to the official poverty measure. Some of these adjustments are sensible. For example, they follow the international practice and use disposable income (including taxes and near-cash, in-kind benefits) to measure poverty. At least two other changes they make are controversial and problematic. First, they make inflation adjustments that have the effect of pushing down the value of the poverty line, compared to other relevant poverty lines, over the last half-century (to about $18,800 in 2017 for a family of four). Second, they count the dollar value of public and employer-sponsored health insurance as income. 

What does it mean to say only 2.3 percent of Americans live in poverty today, as LBJ supposedly defined it? Imagine two adults raising two children in 2017 on a disposable income of $19,000 without receiving any public or employer-provided health insurance. According to most Americans and any modern poverty measure, this family would not only be poor, they would fall substantially below the poverty line. Yet, according to Burkhauser et al., they are not living in poverty, as Johnson defined it.

CEPR / December 18, 2019