Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

Some Saudi-US History

Some Saudi-US History

Given Donald Trump’s new commitment to support military adventurism by Saudi Arabia in Yemen and more generally against Iran, it might be worth reconsidering how this alliance developed.

The beginning for Saudi Arabia was in 1744 when a wandering radical cleric, Mohammed bin Abdel-Wahhab met up with a local chieftain, Mohammed bin Saud in the village of Diriyah, whose ruins are now located in the suburbs of the current Saudi Arabian capital, Riyadh. Wahhab converted Saud to his cause of spreading the strictest of the four Sunni shari’as, the Hanbali code, throughout the world, and this remains to this day the ideology of the House of Saud, the ruling family of Saudi Arabia, with this ideology widely known as Wahhabism. The territory ruled by the early Saudis expanded to cover a fair amount of the Nejd, the central portion of the Arabian peninsula, but when they threatened control of Mecca in 1818, ruled by Egyptians under the Ottomans who collected the moneys gained from pilgrims visiting there, the Egyptian leader, Muhammed Ali, invaded the Nejd and destroyed Diriyah. The Saud family moved to the next village over, Riyadh, and reconstructed their small state, which expanded again in the mid-1800s, although near the end of the century they were defeated and exiled to Kuwait by the rival Rashid family from Hail to the north of Riyadh.

In 1902 the 27 year old family leader, Abdulaziz bin al-Rahman bin Faisal al Saud, reconquered Riyadh and would eventually establish the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) through marital and martial conquests, with its modern boundaries established in 1932, and Abdulaziz (known in the West as “Ibn Saud”) bearing the title of King and Protector of the Two Holy Places (Mecca and Medina), which he had conqurered in 1924. He would have 43 sons, and today’s king, 81-year old Salman, is one of the last of them, and Abdulaziz would die in 1953. It should be noted that Saudi Arabia was independent of the Ottoman Empire, and was one of the few parts of the Muslim world that did not fall under the rule of a European power, along with Turkey, Persia/Iran, and Afghanistan.

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by Dale Coberly


Here is what she said:

“and “protecting” Social Security and Medicare, a reassuring political promise that removes over one-third of the budget from consideration.”

“trying to square the circle of balancing the budget while taking the largest contributors to spending growth — Social Security and Medicare — off the table”

“many Republicans — including, notably, Paul Ryan, the speaker of the House — have made the case for why we have to reform our largest entitlement programs, including Social Security and Medicare”

“Democrats, many of whom too often act as demagogues on entitlement reform,…”

Read the Op-Ed on the New York Times Website.

Here is the truth

Social Security does not add one dime to the debt or the deficit.

It is paid for entirely by the workers who will get the benefits.

When Social Security “taxes” bring in more money than currently needed to pay benefits, that money is kept in a Trust Fund, which like other trust funds uses the money to buy interest earning government bonds. Then when Social Security taxes bring in less money than needed to pay current benefits, it cashes the bonds.

Note that Social Security is NOT borrowing money; it is LENDING money TO the government, and when SS cashes its bonds it is NOT causing the government to spend money for Social Security. The government BORROWED that money FROM Social Security and spent it on other things, including tax cuts. Paying the money BACK to Social Security does not increase the Federal Debt. It reduces it. Or it would reduce if it the government didn’t get the money to pay BACK Social Security by borrowing it from someone else.

But by talking backwards the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB) hopes to fool you into thinking that Social Security CAUSES the debt.

Then, when it’s time for Congress to pay back the money it borrowed FROM Social Security, this payment shows up in their budget as an “expense,” and because all the expenses add up to more than all the income, the budget is in deficit, and the payment of Congress’ debt TO Social Security, like all the other expenses, is said to “contribute to the deficit.”

But it is talking backwards to describe paying BACK the money you borrowed as contributing to your deficit.

Normal people would not think much of you if you borrowed money from Paul and then told them that Paul was responsible for your debt. And if you paid Paul back by borrowing from Peter, normal people would not think you were being honest if you said that Paul increased your deficit.

Social Security does have an “actuarial deficit.” This has nothing to do with the “budget deficit” or the Federal debt. What it means is that some time in the future if nothing is changed, Social Security will not have enough money to pay for all the “scheduled” benefits. This is a problem that can be fixed by raising the payroll “tax.”

[I put “tax” in quotes to try to remind people this is not like an ordinary tax, because you get your money back, with interest, when you will need it more than you do today.]

The amount of the raise that will be needed is not large. Ultimately about 2% of your wages from you and another 2% from your employer. It would be better to phase this in at a rate of one tenth of one percent per year… about a dollar per week in today’s money. This is at the same time your wages will be going up over ten dollars per week per year.

Or you could wait to the last minute and raise your tax by 2%. This would not be a burden, because by then your income will be at least 20% higher than it is today. But you would feel it as a burden if it hit you all at once. It’s the difference between getting a raise of 200 dollars a week and getting a raise of 180 dollars a week. If you had never expected the 200 dollars, you would be happy to get the $180. Especially if you remembered that your were not “losing” that $20 but merely setting it aside to help pay for a longer retirement than you had expected.

Or you could raise your tax about one percent today (and another one percent from your boss). This would take care of the “actuarial deficit” for the next seventy five years. But the enemies of Social Security like to scream “this won’t do: we have to solve the problem once and for all!” Actually we don’t. The people in 2090 will be in a much better position than we are to decide if they want to raise their tax another one percent or decide to do something else.

Thing is, we do have to do something now. We have to at least think about it carefully so we won’t be fooled by the people talking backwards, or stampeded by the people screaming Social Security is broke, flat bust” and “a huge burden on the young.”

Remember: a dollar a week each year if you start this year or next. Ten dollars per week for the next 75 years if you start this year and want to let the people seventy five years from now worry about another ten dollars (in today’s money) when their income will be more than twice ours. Or you can do nothing and wait a little more than ten years and then raise your tax about twenty dollars per week all at once, which will fix the problem forever (including those people living out at the infinite horizon).

Or you can listen to Maya and panic and let Congress cut your benefits, or increase the age you will be allowed to retire, or turn Social Security into welfare as we knew it (which will lead very soon to cut benefits and increases in the retirement age for the poor, and nothing for you while you still pay the taxes) with all the fun of gong to the welfare office every quarter to prove you really need it. The Left wants to help turn Social Security into welfare, because they think they can “make the rich pay for it.” I don’t think the rich are going to go along with that.

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Marginalized populations and employment during expansions

Marginalized populations and employment during expansions

Dean Baker ran a graph over the weekend showing an apparent conundrum: namely, that in the last several years there has been an increase in the percentage of those employed who only have a high school diploma vs. a slight *decrease* in employment among those with a college degree.  Here’s his graph:

This caught my attention, because I actually don’t think this is such an anomaly.  So I went back and checked.

The data posted by Prof. Baker has only been published since 1992, so we don’t have a long track record.  But it is interesting to note that a similar pattern asserted itself in the 1990s.  Take a look:

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Capital Flows and Domestic Responses

by Joseph Joyce

Capital Flows and Domestic Responses

The international impact of financial shocks became apparent during the global financial crisis. But how do financial flows affect economic conditions during non-crisis times? And are there ways to shelter the domestic economy from these flows? Some new evidence from the IMF seeks to answer these questions.

IMF economists Bertrand Gruss, Malhar Nabar and Marcos Poplawski-Ribeiro, in a chapter in the IMF’s latest World Economic Outlook entitled “Roads Less Traveled: Growth in Emerging Markets and Developing Economies in a Complicated External Environment,” examine the impact of external conditions on growthsince the 1970s in over 80 emerging market and developing economies. This issue is particularly important in light of the contribution to global growth—80%—by these economies since the financial crisis.

The authors construct measures for the countries in their sample to capture the following external conditions: external demand, as measured by domestic absorption in a country’s trading partners; external finance, based on capital flows to peer economies; and the terms of trade, constructed from commodity prices. The cross-correlation across these measures is low, indicating that they capture different sources of external variation. The country-specific measures often diverge from their global values, which the authors attribute to domestic factors.

The three measures are all economically and statistically significant in explaining the growth rate of GDP per capita over five-year windows in the countries under stud , contributing almost 2 percentage points to income per capita growth over the 40-year period. Their collective impact rose from about 1.7 percentage points to 2.3 percentage points over the entire period. External financial conditions in particular have become increasingly important over time. Their contribution to growth increased by about half of a percentage point between the 1995-2004 and 2004-1014 periods, and represented half of the contribution from external factors since 2005. The authors attribute the rise in part to the increased financial integration of capital markets.

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Debts, Deficits and Social Security

Dan here…I noticed several articles in the NYT (here is one forcasting Trump/Mulvaneys’ Budget Proposal 2017, contrasting safety net program cuts with the Medicare/Social Security deficit busting programs. In an aside no less. Here we go again…as if deficit spending reduction was important to Republicans, and Social Security was one of the chief problems. I am reposting Bruce’s last piece on Budget and deficit from 2014. Also see this post Social Security: Cost, Solvency, Debt and TF Ratio.

by Bruce Webb

With the release of Tim Geithner’s new autobiography the old quarrel about whether Social Security does or even can add to “the deficit” has cropped up again. So rather than weigh in let me start from a more neutral spot. CBO produces a document called the Monthly Budget Review and in Nov 2013 it carried this title: Monthly Budget Review—Summary for Fiscal Year 2013 The introductory paragraph of the Summary of this Summary reads as follows:

The federal government incurred a budget deficit of $680 billion in fiscal year 2013, which was $409 billion less than the deficit in fiscal year 2012. The fiscal year that just ended marked the first since 2008 that the deficit was under $1 trillion. As a share of the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP), the deficit declined from 6.8 percent in 2012 to 4.1 percent in 2013. (The deficit was 1.1 percent of GDP in 2007, prior to the recent recession.)

and in turn was illustrated with the following graph: Fiscal Year TotalsFiscal Year 2013 outlays and revenues
Now in the normal course of reporting CBO gives figures for any number of ‘deficits’ including ‘on-budget deficit’, ‘off-budget deficit’, and ‘primary deficit’. But here they simply reference THE ‘deficit’ without qualification. So which of the three above adjectivally modified ‘deficits’ is CBO using in this Summary of its Summary of Fiscal Year 2013? Well none of them. Instead it is using a metric which by some measures no longer exists, at least under some readings of current law. Which has led to untold confusion. Confusion which I hope to unravel a bit under the fold.

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Real aggregate wage growth finally overtakes Reagan expansion

Real aggregate wage growth finally overtakes Reagan expansion

In my opinion the best measure of how average Americans’ situations have improved during an economic expansion is real aggregate wage growth.  This is calculated as follows:

  • average wages per hour for nonsupervisory workers
  • times aggregate hours worked in the economy
  • deflated by the consumer price index

This tells us how much more money average Americans are taking home compared with the worst point in the last recession.
Let me give you a few examples why I believe that this is the best measure of labor market progress:

First, compare an economy that creates 1 million 40 hour a week jobs at $10/hour, with an economy that creates 2 million jobs at 10 hours a week at $10/hour.  If we were to count by job creation, the second economy would be better.  But that’s clearly  not the case.  The second economy is paying out only half of the cold hard cash to workers as the first.

Next, let’s compare two economies that both create 1 million 40 hour a week jobs, but one pays $10/hour and the other pays $12/hour.  Clearly the second economy is better.  It is paying workers 20% more than the first.

Finally, let’s compare two economies that create 1 million 40 hour a week jobs at $10/hour.  In the first economy, there are 3% annual raises, but inflation is rising 4%.  In the second, there are 2% annual raises, but inflation is rising 1%.  Again, even though the second economy is giving less raises, it is the better one — those workers are seeing their lot improve in real, inflation-adjusted terms, whereas the workers in the first economy are actually losing ground.

In each case, the economy creating more jobs, or more hourly employment, is inferior to the economy  that pays more in real wages to its workers,  In other words, the best measure of a labor market recovery is that economy which doles out the biggest increase in real aggregate wages.
In short, people work for the cold hard cash that is put in their pockets, and real aggregate wage growth measures how much more of that they’ve received.

With that introduction, here is an updated graph of real aggregate wages for the entire past 53 years:

So how does the current expansion compare with past ones?  Here is a chart I created several years ago showing the real aggregate wage growth in every prior economic expansion beginning with 1964:

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Tillerson Economics and the Saudi Arm Deal

ProGowthLiberal concludes ‘no net increase’ on Saudi Arabian arms deal:

The $109 billion in arms sales is for the next decade amounting to an additional $11 billion in new exports on a per annum basis. So we are talking about only 0.06% of GDP in new exports but this only gets worse if we take Tillerson at his word that as the Saudis spend more on their own defense, we spend less. In other words, exports rise by $11 billion per year and Federal purchases fall by $11 billion per year. Good news from a deficit hawk perspective but no net increase in U.S. aggregate demand. So Trump’s “jobs, jobs, jobs” amounts to nothing but his usual political posturing.

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Output Optimum and the Roller Coaster of Immiseration

Following up on my post from two weeks ago, Immiseration Revisited, I built a spreadsheet replica of the marvelous Chapman diagram. In addition to lines on the page, the replica provides me with tables of numbers that I can add, subtract, multiply and divide in accordance with the conceptual logic of the diagram.

The chart below shows the results of some of these calculations. The red curve graphs cumulative gross “output” and green curve subtracts the value of foregone leisure and the pain cost of fatigue and wear and tear from output to calculate net “income” (green). The length of each vertical line measures the values of output and income, respectively for a work week of the length indicated by the scale on the x-axis.

“Big Dipper”: the Roller Coaster of Immiseration

I have set the hypothetical “output optimum” work week at 48 hours in deference to the diagram’s 1909 vintage. Assuming such an optimum and taking the conceptual diagram’s proportions literally, the ideal length of a work week for a laborer would be 36 hours. That is the point at which the value of foregone leisure and the pain cost of additional work begin to outweigh the additional earnings from the longer week. A workweek of 40 hours marks the threshold beyond which the value of foregone leisure alone exceeds the additional wage earnings.

If the optimal output workweek was 40 hours, the corresponding ideal length of workweek for the worker would be 30 hours, again assuming the reasonableness of the diagram’s proportions. There is, of course, only impressionistic evidence for the general shape of the curves and not for the accuracy of the proportions depicted. Nevertheless, the derived calculations indicate a steep acceleration of the discrepancy between output and worker welfare beginning well in advance of the output optimum.

Calculations based on the diagram suggest that by working 34 percent more hours per week, the employee can look forward to “enjoying” 29 percent LESS net benefit. If the actual cost to workers of working longer is even half or a third of those estimates, this still would represent a significant deviation not only from what Lionel Robbins dismissed as “the naïve assumption that the connection between hours and output is one of direct variation” but also from the equally indefensible premise of a consistently proportional relationship between work effort and reward.

(Most) Economists Balk

In a recent article, “Whose preferences are revealed in hours of work,” John Pencavel noted the “radical change in economist’s thinking about working hours” following the 1957 publication of H. Gregg Lewis’s article, “Hours of Work and Hours of Leisure,” Earlier textbooks attributed reductions in hours to pressure from trade unions, either directly through collective bargaining or by legislation promoted by organized labor. The earlier textbooks also addressed the effect that hours of work have on productivity, with reductions in hours usually leading to increases in hourly output and sometimes even to “no decline in total daily output.”

In later textbooks, the orthodoxy followed Lewis’s explanation that workers choose their own hours, based on their preferences for income or leisure. The connection between output and shorter hours vanished, as did the role of trade unions in achieving reductions of working time. But, Pencavel wondered, “If ‘employers are completely indifferent with respect to the hours of work schedules of their employees,’ [as Lewis had posited] why did employers oppose so resolutely workers’ calls for shorter hours?”

In a footnote, Pencavel also mentioned that in Lewis’s 1957 model, employers face no obstacle “to replacing shorter hours per worker with more workers.” This is an interesting point because many economists’ arguments against the employment potential of shorter working time rest on claims that workers and hours are not suitable substitutes. That conclusion is reached by smuggling back in the output/hours relationship concealed in a Cobb-Douglas production function with the Robbins/Hicks “simplifying assumption” that the current hours of work are optimal for output, so that any reduction of hours would result in a reduction of output. It is difficult to imagine how both of these things can be true at the same time.

Although the earlier textbooks and economists acknowledged the connection between hours of work and output, most were silent on the discrepancy — or at least the magnitude of the discrepancy — between an output optimum and worker welfare. Cecil Pigou, Philip Sargant Florence, Lionel Robbins, John Hicks and Edward Denison treated the output optimum as the economic ideal. Richard Lester and Lloyd Reynolds, authors of “institutionalist” labor economics textbooks, showed more sympathy to trade union arguments but did not emphasize the discrepancy between the output optimum and worker welfare.

Sydney Chapman clearly distinguished analytically between worker welfare and the output optimum but his presentation was obscured by digressions that dwelt on shift-work as a palliative and on the philosophical necessity of paying more attention to the non-tangible aspects of culture. Clyde Dankert clearly distinguished between the output optimum and worker welfare but had the rather eccentric view that although “maximization of worker satisfactions” rather than output should be the social objective, shorter hours would have to be postponed “in view of the current cold war situation.” Only Maurice Dobb clearly and concisely stated what was at stake (although he left out the increasing value of leisure):

…trade unionists in the nineteenth century were severely castigated by economists for adhering, it was alleged, to a vicious ‘Work Fund’ fallacy, which held that there was a limited amount of work to go round and that workers could benefit themselves by restricting the amount of work they did. But the argument as it stands is incorrect. It is not aggregate earnings which are the measure of the benefit obtained by the worker, but his earnings in relation to the work he does — to his output of physical energy or his bodily wear and tear. Just as an employer is interested in his receipts compared with his outgoings, so the worker is presumably interested in what he gets compared with what he gives. A man who works longer hours or is put on piece-rates, and increases the intensity of his work as a result, may earn more money in the course of the week; but he is also suffering more fatigue, and probably requires to spend more on food and recreation and perhaps on doctor’s bills.

To compare “what s/he gets” with “what s/he gives” requires above all some way of estimating the value of what is given relative to what is being received. One may even suggest that constructing those estimates was the job economists should have been doing instead of castigating trade unionists and other advocates of shorter hours for adhering to a vicious “lump-of-labor” fallacy. Heck of a job, economists!

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Dean Baker’s Articles on Healthcare

Barkley has mentioned this particular article several times now. I would be negligent if I did not post a link to it so we could read it. New Health Care Plan: Open Source Drugs, Immigrant Doctors, and a Public Option, 25 March 2017, CEPR, Beat The Press, Dean Baker.

There are two obvious directions to go to get costs down for low- and middle-income families. One is to increase taxes on the wealthy. The other is to reduce the cost of health care. The latter is likely the more promising option, especially since we have such a vast amount of waste in our system. The three obvious routes are lower prices for prescription drugs and medical equipment, reducing the pay of doctors, and savings on administrative costs from having Medicare offer an insurance plan in the exchanges.

This short article is worthy of a read also. Why Do Proponents of More Immigration Never Mention Doctors? 08 February 2017, CEPR, Beat The Press, Dean Baker.

If we got the pay of our doctors down to the levels in other wealthy countries it could save us close to $100 billion a year.

More on Healthcare to follow.

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“It’s The Economy, Stupid!”: The Iranian Presidential Election

by Barkley Rosser

“It’s The Economy, Stupid!”: The Iranian Presidential Election
“It’s the economy, stupid!” quoth James Carville back in 1992, adviser to Bill Clinton during his successful presidential election campaign then. And so quoth Stella Morgana in an informative piece written a few days ago prior to and about the Iranian presidential election as linked to by Juan Cole The Iranian Election: It’s the Economy, Stupid!. For those who have not seen it yet, incumbent President Hassan Rouhani has won decisively with 57% of the vote over his main rival, Ebrahim Raisi, who got 38.5%. Rouhani is viewed as a moderate in the traditon of former president Khatami, who is under house arrest, while Raisi was supported by hard line clerics and the supreme leader, Ali, Khamenei. Many view Raisi as a potential successor to Khamenei.

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