Monday, May 23, 2016

What Does the Unemployment Rate Measure? Labor Market Slack or the Social Stress of Joblessness? Why Does it Matter?

The unemployment rate published monthly by the Bureau of Labor Statistics is one of the most widely watched of all economic indicators. But why? What does it really measure?

The news media, politicians, and voters tend to see the unemployment rate as an index of the social stress of joblessness. There is ample evidence to support that view. Researchers have linked high unemployment rates to increased mortality and impaired mental health. A recent cross-sectional analysis shows a strong relationship between unemployment  and suicide. There is evidence that unemployment undermines personal relationships, although the impact on divorce rates is ambiguous: A weak job market can break up some couples while leaving others stuck in bad marriages because they can’t afford divorce. Rising unemployment is also associated with higher crime rates, for both violent and property crimes. There is even something called the misery index, which is the sum of the unemployment rate and the inflation rate.

Economists, on the other hand, more often view the unemployment rate as an indicator of economic slack. People who want to work but are not working are a wasted resource. Finding jobs for them would add to GDP. Monetary and fiscal policymakers watch employment indicators closely because the more slack there is in the labor market, the more room there is for economic stimulus without risk of inflation.
The questions we need to address, then, are, first, can the standard unemployment rate do double duty as an indicator of both macroeconomic slack and social stress? And if not, what might be better?

Thursday, April 28, 2016

The Social Safety Net and Work Incentives: Conservative and Progressive Views

One of the most common criticisms of social safety net programs is that they discourage work. As House Speaker Paul Ryan has put it, they risk becoming a “hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency,  that drains them of their will and their incentive to make the most of their lives.”

It is not hard to find examples in which the threat to work incentives is real. Not long ago, in a post on labor market adjustments to trade shocks, I cited a recent report from the Congressional Budget Office, according to which taxes and benefit reductions can claw back as much as 80 percent of each dollar of additional income earned by households whose income is just above the poverty level.

A few days later, however, a reader called my attention to a paper, “It Pays to Work: Work Incentives and the Safety Net,” by Isaac Schapiro and colleagues at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The CBPP team uses the very same CBO data to support the opposite conclusion:
Some critics of various low-income assistance programs argue that the safety net discourages work.  In particular, they contend that people receiving assistance from these programs can receive more, or nearly as much, from not working — and receiving government aid — than from working. Or they argue that low-paid workers have little incentive to work more hours or seek higher wages because losses in government aid will cancel out the earnings gains.
Careful analysis of the data and research demonstrates, however, that such charges are largely incorrect and that it pays to work.
What is going on here? How can it be that the same data support both the view that the social safety net discourages work, and that it does not?

Monday, April 11, 2016

Inversions Strengthen the Progressive Case for Abolishing the Corporate Income Tax

The Obama administration has taken off the gloves in its war on runaway corporations. On April 4, theTreasury released a new set of rules designed to curb “inversions,” a strategy in which a US company cuts its corporate tax burden by merging with a foreign company and moving its official tax residence out of the United States. The pharmaceutical giants Pfizer and Allergan immediately announced that they would abandon their pending mega-billion inversion deal.

The new rules are a change in policy for the administration. At one time, President Obama saw the US corporate tax code as needing deep reform, not stronger enforcement. In his 2011 State of the Union Address, he said:
Over the years, a parade of lobbyists has rigged the tax code to benefit particular companies and industries.  Those with accountants or lawyers to work the system can end up paying no taxes at all.  But all the rest are hit with one of the highest corporate tax rates in the world.  It makes no sense, and it has to change.
So tonight, I’m asking Democrats and Republicans to simplify the system.  Get rid of the loopholes.  Level the playing field.  And use the savings to lower the corporate tax rate for the first time in twenty-five years—without adding to our deficit.  It can be done.
It could have been done, but it wasn’t. Now, instead, Obama seems have adopted the views of progressive icon Senator Elizabeth Warren, as expressed in a speech last November, reported on the progressive website Common Dreams. Warren disagreed with the contention that corporate taxes are too high. She urged Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, who was already working on the new rules, to be sure they were written in a way that increased the amount of taxes that corporations pay:
When I look at the details, I see the same rigged game, a game where Congress hands out billions in benefits to well-connected corporations, while people who really could use a break. . . are left holding the bag.
Only one problem with the over-taxation story: It’s not true. There is a problem with the corporate tax code, but that isn't it. It's not that taxes are far too high for giant corporations, as the lobbyists claim. No, the problem is that the revenue generated from corporate taxes is far too low.
In my opinion, the Obama of 2011 was right, while Warren, and the Obama of 2016, are wrong. Here is why real corporate tax reform—preferably the complete abolition of the corporate income tax—is a cause that progressives should embrace as enthusiastically as do conservatives.

Monday, April 4, 2016

How Reform of the Social Safety Net Could Mitigate the High Costs of Trade Adjustment: A Response to Autor et al.

The two most watched candidates of this presidential election season, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, have put anger over the effects of free trade at the center of their campaigns. In doing so, they have won millions of votes.

Many of the arguments they use in their stump speeches are overly simplistic, but the anger is real. And, as Eduardo Porter noted recently, angry voters have a point: New research suggests that economists have long understated the costs of trade and underestimated the time required for the economy to adjust to the trade shocks that rapid growth of both US imports and exports have produced.

If that research is correct, if free trade really causes more pain than we thought, what is the right policy response? Not protectionism, in my opinion, but there are measures we could and should take to ease the pain. Read on.

What the New Research Seems to Show

Jared Bernstein, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, points out that how we assess the balance between the costs and benefits of trade depends on whether we view people as consumers or as workers.

Consumers benefit from free trade through lower prices and access to a wider variety of products. The impact on workers is more complex. Some lose jobs at factories that can no longer compete with imports. Waiters at local restaurants lose income when unemployed factory workers stop taking their families out to dinner. At the same time, new jobs open up as trade expands employment in export industries, and as lower prices of imported goods leave consumers with extra money to spend on local goods and services.

The impact on workers depends to a large extent on whether those who lose their jobs to import competition can find their way to the new jobs created elsewhere. To take an example from my last post, suppose consumers save $1.1 billion from cheaper imported tires at the cost of 1,200 jobs lost in the tire industry. At more than $800,000 in gains to consumers per job lost, that sounds like a huge net gain for the economy as a whole. But is it a net gain for Joe, the tire worker? Not unless he quickly finds a new job as good, or nearly as good, as the one he lost.

Monday, March 14, 2016

The Trump-Sanders Bipartisan War on Free Trade

Like most economists, I am strongly inclined toward free trade. I cringe to see the way free trade is under attack, from both parties, during this primary season.

The two populist candidates are the worst offenders. Bernie Sanders, whom I support on many other issues [1] [2] [3], goes off the rails when it comes to trade. Donald Trump, whose policy views are sometimes too vague to pin down, has made clear-cut opposition to “horrible trade deals” a centerpiece of his campaign.

Nor is the pushback from the rest of the field as strong as one might hope. Hillary Clinton has changed her position on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which she supported as Secretary of State, and runs away from her previous support for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which she liked well enough when her husband signed it into law. On the Republican side, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and John Kasich all profess to favor free trade in principle, but when pushed, as they were during last week’s Republican debate in Miami, they quickly go on defense, hedging their support for trade with numerous “ifs” and “buts”.

Let’s take a look at some of the candidates’ least defensible arguments against free trade, starting with Trump and moving on to Sanders.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Why Sanders Healthcare Plan is on the Right Track Despite Critics on Left and Right

Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has reopened the healthcare debate by urging America to adopt a system more like that of other wealthy countries. “The United States is the only major country on earth that doesn't guarantee health care to all people,” he says, “And we end up spending far, far more per capita on health care as do the people of any other country: Canada, U.K., France, whatever.”

Yet, even though he’s right, his healthcare platform is under attack, not just from the right, but also from the left. Here is why I think his critics are wrong.

What to call it?

Sanders says he wants a healthcare system like those of other wealthy countries—one that provides better results at a lower cost than the one we have. Unfortunately, there is no generally accepted term that covers all such systems as a class.

Sanders calls his plan “Medicare for All,” but that is misleading. As we will see, his proposal—at least the brief version posted on his campaign website—differs from Medicare in some important ways. It also differs from many of the systems in other countries that he admires most.

Liberals tend to call Sanders’ plan a “single-payer” system. That is correct, in that Medicare for All would in fact be a system under which a single agency would make directly pay healthcare providers with funds from the government budget. However, many of the best healthcare systems of other wealthy countries are not single-payer systems in that sense. Their plans are surprisingly diverse. Some, like those of Germany and France, funnel payments through multiple independent insurance funds. Others, including those of the UK and Canada, are more decentralized than the “single payer” label suggests. None of them covers 100 percent of national healthcare expenditure.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Some Charts that Show Why it Makes Sense to Want US Economy to be More Like Europe

The idea that Democrats want to make America more like Europe is a favorite Republican attack line. The New York Times, David Brooks expresses amazement that so many millennials are supporting Bernie Sanders, an open admirer of the European model. Why would anyone in their right mind favor “sluggish” Europe over “vibrant” America?
Writing in

If we focus on data rather than snappy sound bites, the attraction of the European model is clear: European countries, especially the high-income democracies of Northern Europe, make better use of their wealth in supporting a good life for their citizens.

Here is a chart that gives the big picture. The horizontal axis shows GDP per capita. (GDP here is measured at purchasing power parity (PPP) to remove distortions caused by over- or undervalued exchange rates.) The vertical axis shows a measure of human wellbeing called the Social Progress Index (SPI). Unlike some other broad indexes of human welfare, the SPI does not explicitly include income, wealth, or GDP. Instead, it regards them as “inputs” that support the production of “outputs” like health, security, and personal freedoms. >>>Read more