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September 26, 2015

Latest Posts from Economist's View

Posted: 25 Sep 2015 12:33 AM PDT
Republicans can't help but side with business, but there are very good reasons for the recent increase in regulatory oversight:
Dewey, Cheatem & Howe, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: Item: The C.E.O. of Volkswagen has resigned after revelations that his company committed fraud on an epic scale, installing software on its diesel cars that detected when their emissions were being tested, and produced deceptively low results.
Item: The former president of a peanut company has been sentenced to 28 years in prison for knowingly shipping tainted products that later killed nine people and sickened 700.
Item: Rights to a drug used to treat parasitic infections were acquired by Turing Pharmaceuticals, which specializes not in developing new drugs but in buying existing drugs and jacking up their prices. In this case, the price went from $13.50 a tablet to $750. ...
There are, it turns out, people in the corporate world who will do whatever it takes, including fraud that kills people, in order to make a buck. And we need effective regulation to police that kind of bad behavior... But we knew that, right?
Well, we used to know it... But ... an important part of America's political class has declared war on even the most obviously necessary regulations. ...
A case in point: This week Jeb Bush, who has an uncanny talent for bad timing, chose to publish an op-ed article in The Wall Street Journal denouncing the Obama administration for issuing "a flood of creativity-crushing and job-killing rules." Never mind his misuse of cherry-picked statistics, or the fact that private-sector employment has grown much faster under President Obama's "job killing" policies than it did under Mr. Bush's brother's administration. ...
The thing is, Mr. Bush isn't wrong to suggest that there has been a move back toward more regulation under Mr. Obama, a move that will probably continue if a Democrat wins next year. After all, Hillary Clinton released a plan to limit drug prices at the same time Mr. Bush was unleashing his anti-regulation diatribe.
But the regulatory rebound is taking place for a reason. Maybe we had too much regulation in the 1970s, but we've now spent 35 years trusting business to do the right thing with minimal oversight — and it hasn't worked.
So what has been happening lately is an attempt to redress that imbalance, to replace knee-jerk opposition to regulation with the judicious use of regulation where there is good reason to believe that businesses might act in destructive ways. Will we see this effort continue? Next year's election will tell.
Posted: 25 Sep 2015 12:24 AM PDT
Brad DeLong:
Technological Progress Anxiety: Thinking About "Peak Horse" and the Possibility of "Peak Human", by by Brad DeLong: Another well-written piece by an authorial team led by the very sharp Joel Mokyr–The History of Technological Anxiety and the Future of Economic Growth: Is This Time Different?–that in my mind fails to wrestle with the major question, and so leaves me unsatisfied.
Hitherto,... every form of non-human power that substitutes and thus tends to reduce the value of human backs and thighs...–from the horse to the watermill to the steam engine to the diesel to the jet engine–and every single source of manipulation–from the potter's wheel to the loom to the spinning jenny to the assembly line to the mechanized factory–has required a cybernetic control mechanism. Without such a mechanism, machines are useless. They cannot keep themselves on course and on track. ... And as cybernetic control mechanisms human brains had an overwhelming productivity edge.
The fear is that this time things really are different. The fear is that, this time, technological anxiety is not misguided... For the first time, we find our machines substituting not for human backs, things, eyes, and hands, but for human brains. ... And this factor is offset only by the hope that our machines will reduce the market value of commodities faster than they reduce the value of the median worker's labor...
I must say that I really do wish that Mokyr et al. had included, in their paper, a discussion of "peak horse".
A standard economists' argument goes roughly like this: Technology is introduced only when it is profitable, and lowers the costs of production. Thus the prices of the goods and services produced must go down, leaving consumers with more money to spend on other products, and this creates demand for any workers who are displaced. Thus there will always be new industries growing up to employ any workers displaced by technological change in existing industries.
But that argument applies just as well to the oats, apples, and grooming needed for horses to subsist as for the wages of humans, no? One could ... just as easily have said, a century ago, that: "Fundamental economic principles will continue to operate. Scarcities will still be with us…. Most horses will still have useful tasks to perform, even in an economy where the capacities of power sources and automation have increased considerably…"
Yet ... "Peak horse" in the U.S. came in the 1910s, I believe. After that there was no economic incentive to keep the horse population of America from declining sharply, as at the margin the horse was not worth its feed and care. And in a marginal-cost pricing world, in which humans are no longer the only plausible source of Turing-level cybernetic control mechanisms, what will happen to those who do not own property should the same come to be true, at the margin, of the human? What would "peak human" look like? Or–a related but somewhat different possibility–even "peak male"?
Posted: 25 Sep 2015 12:06 AM PDT
Posted: 24 Sep 2015 02:43 PM PDT
Federal Reserve Chair Janet L. Yellen:
Inflation Dynamics and Monetary Policy, by Chair Janet L. Yellen: ... In my remarks today, I will discuss inflation and its role in the Federal Reserve's conduct of monetary policy. I will begin by reviewing the history of inflation in the United States since the 1960s, highlighting two key points: that inflation is now much more stable than it used to be, and that it is currently running at a very low level. I will then consider the costs associated with inflation, and why these costs suggest that the Federal Reserve should try to keep inflation close to 2 percent. After briefly reviewing our policy actions since the financial crisis, I will discuss the dynamics of inflation and their implications for the outlook and monetary policy. ...
It's a relatively long speech. Skipping ahead:
Policy Implications
Assuming that my reading of the data is correct and long-run inflation expectations are in fact anchored near their pre-recession levels, what implications does the preceding description of inflation dynamics have for the inflation outlook and for monetary policy?
This framework suggests, first, that much of the recent shortfall of inflation from our 2 percent objective is attributable to special factors whose effects are likely to prove transitory. ...
To be reasonably confident that inflation will return to 2 percent over the next few years, we need, in turn, to be reasonably confident that we will see continued solid economic growth and further gains in resource utilization, with longer-term inflation expectations remaining near their pre-recession level. Fortunately, prospects for the U.S. economy generally appear solid. ... My colleagues and I, based on our most recent forecasts, anticipate that this pattern will continue and that labor market conditions will improve further as we head into 2016.
The labor market has achieved considerable progress over the past several years. Even so, further improvement in labor market conditions would be welcome because we are probably not yet all the way back to full employment ... which most FOMC participants now estimate is around 4.9 percent...  
Reducing slack ... may involve a temporary decline in the unemployment rate somewhat below the level that is estimated to be consistent, in the longer run, with inflation stabilizing at 2 percent. For example, attracting discouraged workers back into the labor force may require a period of especially plentiful employment opportunities and strong hiring. Similarly, firms may be unwilling to restructure their operations to use more full-time workers until they encounter greater difficulty filling part-time positions. Beyond these considerations, a modest decline in the unemployment rate below its long-run level for a time would, by increasing resource utilization, also have the benefit of speeding the return to 2 percent inflation. Finally, albeit more speculatively, such an environment might help reverse some of the significant supply-side damage that appears to have occurred in recent years, thereby improving Americans' standard of living.33
Consistent with the inflation framework I have outlined, the medians of the projections provided by FOMC participants at our recent meeting show inflation gradually moving back to 2 percent, accompanied by a temporary decline in unemployment slightly below the median estimate of the rate expected to prevail in the longer run. ... This expectation, coupled with inherent lags in the response of real activity and inflation to changes in monetary policy, are the key reasons that most of my colleagues and I anticipate that it will likely be appropriate to raise the target range for the federal funds rate sometime later this year and to continue boosting short-term rates at a gradual pace thereafter as the labor market improves further and inflation moves back to our 2 percent objective.
By itself, the precise timing of the first increase in our target for the federal funds rate should have only minor implications for financial conditions and the general economy. What matters for overall financial conditions is the entire trajectory of short-term interest rates that is anticipated by markets and the public. As I noted, most of my colleagues and I anticipate that economic conditions are likely to warrant raising short-term interest rates at a quite gradual pace over the next few years....
The economic outlook, of course, is highly uncertain... Given the highly uncertain nature of the outlook, one might ask: Why not hold off raising the federal funds rate until the economy has reached full employment and inflation is actually back at 2 percent? The difficulty with this strategy is that monetary policy affects real activity and inflation with a substantial lag. If the FOMC were to delay the start of the policy normalization process for too long, we would likely end up having to tighten policy relatively abruptly to keep the economy from significantly overshooting both of our goals. Such an abrupt tightening would risk disrupting financial markets and perhaps even inadvertently push the economy into recession. In addition, continuing to hold short-term interest rates near zero well after real activity has returned to normal and headwinds have faded could encourage excessive leverage and other forms of inappropriate risk-taking that might undermine financial stability. For these reasons, the more prudent strategy is to begin tightening in a timely fashion and at a gradual pace, adjusting policy as needed in light of incoming data.
To conclude, let me emphasize that, following the dual mandate established by the Congress, the Federal Reserve is committed to the achievement of maximum employment and price stability. To this end, we have maintained a highly accommodative monetary policy since the financial crisis; that policy has fostered a marked improvement in labor market conditions and helped check undesirable disinflationary pressures. However, we have not yet fully attained our objectives under the dual mandate: Some slack remains in labor markets, and the effects of this slack and the influence of lower energy prices and past dollar appreciation have been significant factors keeping inflation below our goal. But I expect that inflation will return to 2 percent over the next few years as the temporary factors that are currently weighing on inflation wane, provided that economic growth continues to be strong enough to complete the return to maximum employment and long-run inflation expectations remain well anchored. Most FOMC participants, including myself, currently anticipate that achieving these conditions will likely entail an initial increase in the federal funds rate later this year, followed by a gradual pace of tightening thereafter. But if the economy surprises us, our judgments about appropriate monetary policy will change.
Posted: 24 Sep 2015 10:42 AM PDT
Should we rationally expect rational drug pricing?:
Rational Drug Pricing, by Jeff Sachs: Drug pricing has taken center stage in U.S. politics, and it's high time that it should. ...
Drug pricing is not like the pricing of apples and oranges, clothing, or furniture that well and good should be left to the marketplace. There are two major reasons. First, the main cost of drug production is not the cost of manufacturing the tablet but the cost of producing the knowledge embedded in the tablet. Second, there is often a life-and-death stake in access to the drug, so society should take steps to ensure that the drug is affordable and accessible.
To ensure that financial resources flow to scientists to produce the knowledge embedded in the tablet, the government does two things. First, the government pays directly for a substantial part of the research and development (R&D). ... Second, the government grants patent rights for drug discovery. ...
It's a basic insight of economics that patent rights are a "second-best" solution to drug pricing, not an optimal solution. A patent creates an artificial monopoly to incentivize R&D. Yet it also reduces access to the product, perhaps with unacceptable and immoral life-and-death consequences. Rational drug pricing would get the best of the patent system but ensure that it is compatible with access to the life-saving drugs.
Unfortunately, the current rules of the game in the U.S. pharmaceutical sector do not compensate for the weaknesses of patents. They amplify them. ... What should be done? Here are three key principles.
First, private R&D should certainly be protected by patents but only enough to elicit the needed R&D, not to produce outlandish profits. ...
Second, when the U.S. government pays for much of the R&D, it should share in the property rights. This should be a no-brainer, but in fact the NIH simply gives away most or all the intellectual property that it has financed, so the taxpayer pays part of the R&D bills but the returns are fully captured by private companies.
Third, when companies ... make profits from their U.S.-based research and U.S.-based production and sales, they should certainly pay U.S. taxes on their profits. The fact that the IRS lets them hide their profits in overseas tax havens is scandalous and without any logical justification whatsoever.
Posted: 24 Sep 2015 10:18 AM PDT
Robert Kuttner:
America's Collapsing Trade Initiatives: ...Obama's trade policy is in tatters. The grand design, created by Obama's old friend and former Wall Street deal-maker, trade chief Mike Froman, comes in two parts: a grand bargain with Pacific nations aimed at building a U.S.-led trading bloc to contain the influence of China, and an Atlantic agreement to cement economic relations with the European Union.
Both are on the verge of collapse from their own contradictory goals and incoherent logic.
This past June, the president, using every ounce of his political capital, managed to get Congress to vote him negotiating authority (by the barest of margins) for these deals. Under the so-called fast-track procedure, there is a quick up-or-down vote on a trade agreement that can't be amended.
The assumption was that the administration could deliver a deal backed by major trading partners. But our partners are not playing. ...
The U.S. negotiators, increasingly, are prepared to give away the store, to get a deal. ...
It is a bit premature to write the obituaries for these deals. Never underestimate the power of corporate elites. But one has to ask, what was Obama thinking? The U.S. faces serious economic challenges from an economy that is still stagnant for regular people. And we face complex national security challenges from China. These trade deals address neither challenge, much less the even more daunting economic woes in Europe. ...
In general, I support lowering trade restrictions, but the details of trade agreements are important. Just because a deal is proposed does not necessarily mean it's a good one. I haven't kept up with the details of the current negotiations, but for the most part those that have appear less than impressed.

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