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

The government shutdown may have caused a mini-recession

The government shutdown may have caused a mini-recession

Aside from being a monumentally poor policy outcome, and aside from the hardship it caused nearly a million workers, the government shutdown may also have caused a general contraction in production, sales, and income, and a slowdown in employment, that if it were longer would qualify as a recession.

Because the affected three months straddle Q4 2018 and Q1 2019, both quarters will likely show positive real GDP growth, it won’t be a recession. Let’s call it a mini-recession.

Although shorthand for a recession is two quarters of GDP contraction, that wasn’t the case for 2001, and the NBER has indicated that a general downturn in production, employment, sales, and income are the crucial criteria. So let’s look at each.

Industrial production declined significantly in December, and the small rebound in January was not enough to overcome that downturn. This is especially true of the manufacturing component:


The same is also true of real retail sales:

Comments (0) | |

Elizabeth Warren, David Leonhardt, Redistribution, and Predistribution

I just had an unusual experience. I was convinced by an op-ed. One third of the way through “Elizabeth Warren Actually Wants to Fix Capitalism” by David Leonhardt, I was planning to contest one of Leonhard’s assertions. Now I am convinced.

The column praises Elizabeth Warren. Leonhardt (like his colleague Paul Krugman) is careful to refrain from declaring his intention to vote for her in the primary. I am planning to vote for her. I mostly agreed with the column to begin with, but was not convinced by Leonard’s praise of Warren’s emphasis on aiming for more equal pre-fiscal distribution of income rather than just relying on taxes and transfers to redistribute.

In particular, I was not convinced by

This history suggests that the Democratic Party’s economic agenda needs to become more ambitious. Modest changes in the top marginal tax rate or in middle-class tax credits aren’t enough. The country needs an economic policy that measures up to the scale of our challenges.

Here two issues are combined. One is modest vs major changes. The other is that predistribution is needed in addition to redistribution, as discussed even more clearly here

“Clinton and Obama focused on boosting growth and redistribution,” Gabriel Zucman, a University of California, Berkeley, economist who has advised Warren, says. “Warren is focusing on how pretax income can be made more equal.”

The option of a large change in the top marginal tax rate and a large middle class tax credit isn’t considered in the op-ed. I think this would be excellent policy which has overwhelming popular support as measured by polls (including the support of a large fraction of self declared Republicans). I note from time to time that, since 1976 both the Democrats who have been elected president campaigned on higher taxes on high incomes and lower taxes on the middle class (and IIRC none of the candidates who lost did).

This is also one of my rare disagreements with Paul Krugman, and, finally one of my rare disagreements with Dean Baker (link to a book which I haven’t read).

After the jump, I will make my usual case. But first, I note Leonardt’s excellent argument for why “soak the rich and spread it out thin” isn’t a sufficient complete market oriented egalitarian program. It is phrased as a question.

“How can the next president make changes that will endure, rather than be undone by a future president, as both Obama’s and Clinton’s top-end tax increases were?”

Ahh yes. High taxes on high income and high wealth would solve a lot of problems. But they will be reversed. New programs such as Obamacare or Warren’s proposed universal pre-K and subsidized day care will not. Nor will regulatory reforms such as mandatory paid sick leave and mandatory paid family leave. I am convinced that relatively complicated proposals are more politically feasible, not because it is easier to implement them, but because it is very hard to eliminate programs used by large numbers of middle class voters.

I’d note that I had already conceded the advantage of a regulatory approach which relies on the illusion that the costs must be born by the regulated firms. Here I note that fleet fuel economy standards are much more popular than increased gasoline taxes. One is a market oriented approach. The other is one that hides behind the market as consumers don’t know that part of the price of a gas guzzler pays the shadow price of reducing fleet average milage.

OK my usual argument after the jump

Comments (10) | |

Negative Nov. and Dec. revisions overwhelm positive January retail sales

Negative Nov. and Dec. revisions overwhelm positive January retail sales

The initial spin on this morning’s delayed retail sales report for January has been positive, with for example the Wall Street Journal calling it a “rebound” and “a sign of solid economic momentum in the first quarter.

Ummmmm, No.

Both nominally and in real terms, retails sales did improve by +0.2% in January over December.

The problem is, both November and December were revised downward. In particular, December’s initially reported poor -1.2% showing got even worse, to -1.6% nominally. In other words, for the two months combined, retail sales even measured nominally declined by -0.2%.

Here’s what they look like in real terms through January:

Because real retail sales tend to lead employment (red in the graph below) with a variable lag on the order of 6-9 months, this downturn in retail sales is more evidence that February’s poor employment report should not simply be dismissed as an outlier:

Comments (5) | |

A modest proposal to use FICA-style tax withholding as a transition to “Medicare for All”

A modest proposal to use FICA-style tax withholding as a transition to “Medicare for All”

Probably the foremost reform advanced by the Democratic Party at present is “Medicare for All.” Personally I don’t particularly care whether it is ultimately necessary to have single payer (like Canada) or universal coverage (like France or Germany) or a hybrid of each (like Australia). I am fond of the Japanese saying that translates as “There are many paths to the top of Mount Fuji,” but let’s set that aside for now.

What is generally acknowledged is the problem of how to create a “bridge” between the hodge-lodge of government and employer-based coverages we have now to whatever is ultimately passed as “Medicare for All.” That’s because there will understandably be a lot of blowback if people “lose” an employer healthcare plan, or else get hit with a new tax.

I propose that a system of payroll tax withholding that includes Obamacare and “Medicare for All” plans in addition to employer-provided medical benefits will work. Specifically, I propose three tweaks to Obamacare as it existed in 2016:

1. Two new spaces for mandatory FICA-style tax withholding spaces are added to each paycheck. One is for “Medicare for All” employment coverage, and the second is for “Medicare for All” unemployment coverage.

2.  The individual mandate penalty that the GOP killed in 2018 remains dead. But it is replaced, in all cases where an individual is not covered by employer-provided coverage, with an automatic payroll deduction for individual enrollment that defaults to the least expensive monthly bronze plan for individuals under 40, and the least expensive monthly silver plan for individuals age 40 through 64. This would kick in only for new employees in the first two years, after which it would apply to all employees.

3. Employers could voluntarily purchase, on behalf of their employees, coverages that are at least at the mandated levels set forth in #2 above.

Here’s how it would work.

Comments (0) | |

The Trump Tax Cut and Big Pharma

The Trump Tax Cut and Big Pharma

CEOs of 7 pharmaceutical multinationals addressed the Senate Finance Committee:

Pharma execs offer Senate ideas to lower drug costs – except actually cutting prices. Executives from seven pharmaceutical companies — AbbVie, AstraZeneca, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Johnson & Johnson, Merck, Pfizer and Sanofi — are testifying before the Senate Finance Committee. The pharma executives have a number of ideas to reduce drug prices for patients, except lowering list prices. High drug prices has become a rare bipartisan issue, with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle demanding change.

One of these questions posed to the CEO of Abbvie was how much of the benefit from the 2017 tax cut did his company pass onto consumers. I guess the Senator was expecting an honest answer being “none”. But the actual answer came out that AbbVie did not get much benefit from this reduction of corporate profit tax rates. How could that be? Well – look at its past 10-K filings and you will see that AbbVie has sourced little to none of its massive profits to the U.S. parent. Why would you benefit from a tax rate cut when one is engaged in massive transfer pricing manipulation?!

Comments (6) | |

Neoliberalism as Structure and Ideology in Higher Education

Neoliberalism as Structure and Ideology in Higher Education

 A few weeks ago I speculated on the structural aspect of neoliberalism at an economy-wide level, the way its characteristic framing of economic decision-making may have emerged from changes in the role of finance in business and the composition of high-end portfolios.  My purpose was to push back against the common tendency to view neoliberalism solely as a philosophy, to be countered by other philosophies.  Today I stumbled across this superb bit of reporting from the Chronicle of Higher Education that implicitly makes the same kind of argument in a different context.  (Hat tip: Naked Capitalism.)

The article describes the massive expansion of non-profit online education that has occurred in recent years, with several institutions approaching 100,000 students each.  Interviews with planners and administrators make it clear that the motivating force is not a philosophical rethinking of what education means or should mean; rather they are responding to the emergence of a market that someone needs to serve—if not them, someone else.  More than 30 million adults in the United States have some college credits under their belt but no degree.  With the labor force increasingly segmented by credentials, many of them are desperate to finish their degrees as quickly as possible.  Since they are trying to make ends meet at low-wage jobs, they want programs that are as convenient and inexpensive as possible: commodity education.  Everything about the new online degree providers is dictated by this situation.

Read the article for yourself.  Here’s what I like about it:

It isn’t weighed down by explicit value judgments.  It lets readers do this for themselves.

It presents what we can call a neoliberal turn in higher education not primarily as a change in philosophy or mode of discourse, but as a reflection of changing circumstances.  There’s a two-way dance between the economic pressures facing students, their expectations and competences in a world in which the role of consumer has been made more determining and ubiquitous, the shift toward tuition financing, and other economic factors on the one hand, and the cognitive structures those implementing these systems use to justify and assess what they’re doing on the other.  If anything, the article foregrounds the arrow going from economic context to cognition, which redresses the balance somewhat (as I see it).

Comments (1) | |

100 years of industrial production

100 years of industrial production

This is a post that can literally be written only once in 100 years!

Because as of last Friday, it has been exactly 100 years since the first publication of industrial production by the Fed in January 1919. So this is a good time to take a sweeping historical look at production in the United States.

The first graph below is the entire 100 year history, on log scale so that equal percentage changes in each time period are calibrated equally:

A few features stand out: the Great Depression, the World War 2 boom, and two downshifts in the long term trend: first in the 1970s-1999, and second from 1999 to the present.

In fact, the past 20 years have been the slowest secular period since publication of industrial production started 100 years ago. As shown in the below graph, normed to 100 in June 1999, production has only grown 15% in the 20 years since. It grew just under 10% during the 2000s expansion, and only about 5% in the last 11 years:


Comments (5) | |

More signs of a slowdown: initial claims and real retail sales

More signs of a slowdown: initial claims and real retail sales

We got two negative data points. One is cause for concern; the other – not quite yet.

Let me start with the “not yet” first. Initial jobless claims rose 4,000 to 239,000. That means that the 4 week moving average rose to 231,750:

This means that the number is both higher YoY, and 12.5% above its 206,000 low in September.

Ordinarily that would be cause for concern. BUT, the biggest factor in the increase is the week of 253,000 claims two weeks ago, which was almost certainly due to the government shutdown. That week, in turn, was immediately preceded by the week of 200,000 claims, which was the lowest in nearly 50 years.

The bottom line is, although the trend is clearly higher since September, I would prefer to wait two more weeks for both of those outliers to pass out of the 4 week moving average before hoisting a yellow flag on jobless claims.

Now let me turn to the number that *is* a cause for concern now: real retail sales, which cratered by -1.2% in December. That is the worst monthly reading since just after the Great Recession, and consistent with readings in the year before both of the last two recessions, so unless this reading is revised away, it is a definite sign of a slowdown. On the other hand, in the longer view monthly readings of -1% or more aren’t that uncommon during expansions:

Comments (0) | |

Amazon defeated in New York UPDATED

Amazon defeated in New York UPDATED

In the biggest ever defeat for a subsidized project in history, Amazon announcedFebruary 14th that it was canceling its planned half of HQ2 for New York City, which was to receive subsidies worth at least $3.133 billion. After facing months of public opposition, the company provided a Valentine’s Day present in the form of capitulation. Amazon showed that, like Electrolux, its efforts to extract maximum subsidies from 238 cities constituted corporate rent-seeking on a grand scale. Not only did Amazon conduct an exploitative public auction for the supposedly single HQ2 facility, it furthered the impression that it was engaging in rent-seeking by its refusal to discuss alternatives with New York officials, by its absolute insistence on opposing a union for its workers, and by its sudden though not unexpected cancellation announcement. Activists scorched the firm, too, for the fact that for the second year running, Amazon will pay 0 in federal income tax despite earning $11.2 billion in profits in 2018 and $5.6 billion in 2017.

This is not to be confused with Foxconn, which is looking more and more like an economic development failure. There, it appears that the company will not be able to provide the investment and benefits it promised in Wisconsin. With Amazon, what we have is a case of the company being unwilling to continue the political battle to obtain its $3+ billion in incentives. While Amazon is by far the largest project ever defeated, such defeats are not unprecedented. I participated in two successful campaigns in the late 1990s and early 2000s against abusive tax increment financing (TIF) projects in the St. Louis suburbs of Olivette and O’Fallon, but these were on the order of $40 or $50 million, not $3 billion. Alas, I was also on the losing side of an exceptionally bitter battle against a TIF-funded mall in Hazelwood, Missouri, which still hurts to think about. The residents lost their homes to eminent domain, the city administration was high-handed and manipulative, and the new mall contributed substantially to the death of at least two nearby malls, part of the $2 billion retail subsidy merry-go-round during 1990-2007 documented by the East-West Gateway Council of Governments.

Comments (2) | |

Amazon defeated in New York; more to come

Amazon defeated in New York; more to come

In the biggest ever defeat for a subsidized project in history, Amazon announcedyesterday that it was canceling its planned half of HQ2 for New York City, which was to receive subsidies worth at least $3.133 billion. After facing months of public opposition, the company provided a Valentine’s Day present in the form of capitulation. Amazon showed that, like Electrolux, its efforts to extract maximum subsidies from 238 cities constituted corporate rent-seeking on a grand scale.

Moreover, as Richard Florida reports at Citylab, the victory has also energized reformers around the country searching for a solution to the problem of corporate bidding wars. I myself have received inquiries from multiple elected officials’ offices about the European Union’s systematic control of investment incentives.

I’m playing at a chess tournament in Texas right now, so I will have more to say about this when I next have time to post.

Comments (1) | |