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

Robert J. Samuelson Goes Whole Hog Against Dems On Social Programs

Robert J. Samuelson Goes Whole Hog Against Dems On Social Programs

I want to follow Dean Baker in dumping on the Robert J. Samuelson Monday, 9/11/19 WaPo column on “The Democrats’ fairy-tale campaigns.”  He may be right that lots of proposals have been put forward with no clear accounting of how much all of them will cost, but RJS also fails to recognize some might save money, such as a properly structured universal health care program that might move us more towards the costs we see in other nations.  Of course, RJS regularly uses this column to call for cuts in Social Security benefits, so that some of these candidates dare to call for increased such benefits has him really riled up.  How dare they!?!?

Aside from reminding that RJS has regularly been misguided on Social Security projections, he goes after  him for not noting the role of patents and other regs supporting monpoly power, especially in the health care sector, including supporting outrageously high doctor salaries.

As it is, RJS whines about the size of budget deficits and claims the next president will need to increase defense spending.  This latter is not obvious. Trump has done a lot of increasing it, and restoring damaged US alliances does not obviously call for more spending.  How about just behaving better and making outrageous demands of US allies, including a stupid trade war?

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Scenes from the May employment report: expect more lackluster reports, and layoffs in manufacturing

Scenes from the May employment report: expect more lackluster reports, and layoffs in manufacturing

Three months ago when the poor February jobs report came out, I was just about the only commentator who saw it as a harbinger rather than an outlier. On Friday the naysayers got silenced.Let’s see how the more leading aspects of the employment report played out, with an eye towards the near future. To cut to the chase, expect more lackluster total payroll gains in the coming months, and further, it is a near certainty that there will be layoffs in manufacturing, probably totaling at least 50,000.

But first, let’s take a quick look at wage growth, which has pulled back slightly from the beginning of this year. Nominal wage growth is significant because employers do not give out inflation-indexed wage increases, and the pattern is that, as underemployment decreases below about 9%, wage growth increases:

That isn’t cause for concern yet, given the noise in the series, including at least two prior temporary downturns in this expansion alone. But on the other hand, note that an extended period of a slowdown or flatness in growth has tended to occur in the final stage of expansions. This is best shown when we track the YoY change in percent of wage growth itself (i.e., the second derivative), averaged quarterly in the graph below:

 

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For party voting preference, which is more important, age or education? Looks like we have an answer

For party voting preference, which is more important, age or education? Looks like we have an answer

For all the slicing and dicing that has been done in voting metrics for 2016 and 2018, one quandary has stood out. We know that higher educational attainment has strongly correlated with voting for Democrats, and we also know that there was a stark age difference in votes between Clinton and Trump in 2016: a majority of voters younger than 45 voted for Clinton, while a majority over 45 voted for Trump.

But the level of educational attainment has not remained static over time. With each passing generation, more and more students are getting a college degree, and advanced degrees as well.

So are the voting patterns mainly showing us that more younger voters have college degrees? Or is it really about generational experience? For example, is a Silent Generation or Boomer college graduate more likely to vote Democrat than a GenXer or Millenial with no college? This week I finally saw a graphic that spells out the answer, and here it is:


Age is more decisive, hands down. The only anomaly that even comes close is that voters aged 30 to 44 with a high school degree were only slightly more likely to vote Democratic than voters aged 45 to 64 without a high school degree.

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A Bernie Sanders Narrative for Seniors

A Bernie Sanders Narrative for Seniors

What follows is some unsolicited advice for the Sanders campaign.

Politico has an important piece on the downside of the extraordinary age bias in Sanders’ support.  Like a teeter totter, the large advantage Sanders enjoys among younger voters is counterbalanced by his dismal showing among the older crowd.  The article reviews voting breakdowns from the 2016 campaign and current poll results, and it shows that Sanders is not just behind among seniors, but way, way behind.  His political strengths guarantee he will survive the winnowing of the twenty-odd 2020 pretenders, but sheer arithmetic suggests he will need to make significant inroads among older voters, something he hasn’t done up to this point, to overtake Biden—assuming of course Biden doesn’t overtake himself.

So how can he do this?  The first thing to realize is that he doesn’t need absolute majorities among retirees and near-retires, just enough support so his advantage among the non-elderly isn’t erased.  The second is that direct material benefits alone are never enough.  People don’t simply vote in their immediate financial interest, although of course interests play an essential role.  Economic motives are like nuclei around which layers of narrative form, but it’s the narrative—the meaning—that orients people, and an economic condition can be explained in multiple ways.  Not all explanations are equally valid, of course, but in politics that’s largely irrelevant.  So yes, Sanders can and should talk up Social Security expansion and how universal health insurance would benefit  those on Medicare too.  But that’s not a sufficient political strategy; it lacks an encompassing narrative.  This narrative doesn’t have to be one all older people will gravitate to, but it has to speak to a significant portion of them.

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A Very Erroneous Chart in the Economic Report of the President

A Very Erroneous Chart in the Economic Report of the President

Menzie Chinn has been reading the latest Economic Report of the President and finds a very erroneous and misleading chart, which is figure 1-6 from this this document (see page 45), which states:

Equipment investment, in particular, exhibited a pronounced spike in the fourth quarter of 2017, as both the House and Senate versions of the TCJA bill, which were respectively introduced on November 2 and November 9, stipulated that full expensing for new equipment investment would be retroactive to September 2017. This created a strong financial incentive for companies to shift their equipment investment to the fourth quarter of 2017, so as to deduct new equipment investment at the old 35 percent statutory corporate income tax rate. After the initial spike in the rate of growth in fixed investment, standard neoclassical growth models would predict a return of the rate of growth to its pre-TCJA trend, but from a higher, post-TCJA level, with the capital-to-output ratio thereby asymptotically approaching its new, higher steady-state level.

Earlier on page 43 we see:

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Tariffs and Monetary Policy: Moral Hazard and Rent Seeking

Tariffs and Monetary Policy: Moral Hazard and Rent Seeking

President Trump’s threat to impose tariffs on Mexico over immigration has pushed Federal Reserve Chair Jay Powell to say that if the tariffs lead to economic growth slowing, the Fed will cut interest rates.  While the bump may be about to end, this announcement was followed by a  solid global surge of stock markets on June 4 followed by smaller increases the next day.  This sets up a moral hazard situation for Trump where if he behaves irresponsibly on trade policy (with even GOP senators basically freaking out), the Fed might bail him out with interest rate cuts.

How is rent seeking entering into this?  I note a point just made by Dean Baker, that all these tariffs Trump is imposing on his own without any Congressional approval offer him the option of allowing specific exemptions from them.  So Trump can grant exemptions to specific sectors or even firms that favor him.  So Trump’s trade wars are opening up a whole new vista for rent seeking.

Finally, and unsurprisingly, many of his trade policies look to fail to achieve their supposed goals.  This is pretty obvious for the case of the tariffs on Mexico, which by potentially weakening the Mexican economy weaken Mexico’s ability to reduce Central Americans from to the US.  Another case involves the Chinese firm Huawei, supposedly both to enhance US national security and support the US high tech sector.  But according to a story in the Washington Post, 6/5/19 reports that 61 percent of experts say that Trump’s ban on US firms supplying parts to Huawei will both weaken US national security by reducing US influence over Huawei and the whole 5G sector, with the relevant US firms being hurt.  I do not think even the Fed can bail the US economy out from this mess.

Barkley Rosser

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The sources of the next recession

The sources of the next recession

While we are waiting for the ISM May manufacturing survey and construction spending data to be released later this morning, both of which will give us important clues to Friday’s jobs report, let me write down some thoughts on the nerdy question I ruminated about this weekend: what is the most likely source of the next recession?

I should start by noting that I remain on “recession watch” for later this year, as in, a substantially heightened risk, due to enough of the long leading indicators turning negative by the end of last year. But my base case remains that there will be a slowdown without an actual recession, because those indicators haven’t gone down *enough* and some, like real M1 and some housing metrics, have already rebounded.

But I read a tweet over the weekend from a political source I respect, who essentially said, “housing’s fine, there will be no recession, end of story,” and, well, I was annoyed.

That’s because housing isn’t always the source of a recession, and occasionally, as in 2000-01, it doesn’t turn down very much at all. In fact, housing has turned down since the beginning of last year about as much as it turned down in 2000 – which didn’t prevent the 2001 recession, did it?

So what are other sources of recessions? Here’s my take:

 

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A Tariff Laffer Curve?

A Tariff Laffer Curve?

Douglas Irwin is a very good economist. Let’s highlight his Historical Perspectives on U.S. Trade Policy:

The Civil War marked the beginning of a long period of high U.S. tariffs. These tariffs served the dual purpose of raising revenue for the federal government and keeping out foreign goods, ostensibly for the protection of U.S. labor and business. After the war, tariffs (which generated roughly half of government revenue) remained high to service the enormous debt burden that resulted from the war. Yet by the mid-1880s a curious problem had arisen: though much of the debt had been paid off, federal revenues were outstripping expenditures by as much as 50 percent. Republican and Democratic politicians agreed that the fiscal surplus should be reduced, but they proposed exactly the opposite policies for achieving this objective. Democrats advocated cutting tariff rates in an effort to reduce revenue. Arguing that this would simply encourage imports and raise even more revenue, Republicans proposed higher tariff rates to reduce fiscal revenue. This debate over the tariff “Laffer curve” essentially hinged on whether existing tariffs were above or below the revenue-maximizing rate, which in turn depended on the height of the tariff and the price elasticity of import demand.

Irwin examined this issue in his Higher Tariffs, Lower Revenues? Analyzing the Fiscal Aspects of the “Great Tariff Debate of 1888”:

This paper examines this debate and attempts to determine the revenue effects of the proposed tariff changes. The results indicate that the tariff and the price elasticity of U.S. import demand during the 1880s below the maximum revenue rate, and therefore a tariff reduction would have reduce customs revenue.

Irwin also contrasts the other policy agendas of the two parties.

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Kenneth Thomas in WSJ

Kenneth Thomas (an AB contributor) was quoted April 7  in the Journal a second time on the general question of how to solve the problem of subsidy bidding wars.  Unfortunately it is behind a paywall…but worth pointing to…

 WSJ.COM
Opinion | Pass a Law to Combat Rent-Seeking

Congress could invoke the Commerce Clause to limit destructive competition over corporate subsidies.

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Trump’s Latest Mexican Tariff Tirade Irks Senator Grassley

Trump’s Latest Mexican Tariff Tirade Irks Senator Grassley

Senator Grassley rebukes the latest idiocy from the White House:

President Trump dropped a trade war bomb on Thursday when he announced his intent to put in place new and harsh tariffs on goods from Mexico until the “illegal Immigration problem is remedied.” And among the many worried, negative reactions was one from Senate Finance Committee Chair Chuck Grassley, in a strongly worded statement. “Trade policy and border security are separate issues. This is a misuse of presidential tariff authority and counter to congressional intent,” the statement begins. “Following through on this threat would seriously jeopardize passage USMCA, a central campaign pledge of President Trump’s and what could be a big victory for the country.” Putting this in the context of harming Trump’s own signature USMCA (the replacement for NAFTA) is a smart frame, an effort to show that the tariffs are in conflict with the administration’s own trade goals.

First Tramp thinks NAFTA is the worst trade deal ever but NAFTA 1.1 is beautiful. But now Trump wants to start a new trade war with Mexico because he did not get his racist wall? OK! Of course Trump is not the only one with a twitter account and Paul Krugman has joined Senator Grassley with lines like:

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