Thursday, March 27, 2014

"Capital in the Twenty-first Century"

John Cassidy @ The New Yorker reviews the definitive new book on income inequality:
In the stately world of academic presses, it isn’t often that advance orders and
publicity for a book prompt a publisher to push forward its publication date. But that’s what Belknap, an imprint of Harvard University Press, did for “Capital in the Twenty-first Century,” a sweeping account of rising inequality by the French economist Thomas Piketty. Reviewing the French edition of Piketty’s book, which came out last year, Branko Milanovic, a former senior economist at the World Bank, called it “one of the watershed books in economic thinking.” The Economist said that it could change the way we think about the past two centuries of economic history. Certainly, no economics book in recent years has received this sort of attention... 
Piketty, who teaches at the Paris School of Economics, has spent nearly two decades studying inequality… The main task he set himself was exploring the hills and valleys of income and wealth, a subject that economics had largely neglected. At first, Piketty concentrated on getting the facts down, rather than interpreting them. Using tax records and other data, he studied how income inequality in France had evolved during the twentieth century, and published his findings in a 2001 book. A 2003 paper that he wrote with Emmanuel Saez, a French-born economist at Berkeley, examined income inequality in the United States between 1913 and 1998. It detailed how the share of U.S. national income taken by households at the top of the income distribution had risen sharply during the early decades of the twentieth century, then fallen back during and after the Second World War, only to soar again in the nineteen-eighties and nineties.

Monday, March 24, 2014

The widening productivity and income gap

If you must know only one fact about the U.S. economy, it should be this chart:

The chart shows that productivity, or output per hour of work, has quadrupled since 1947 in the United States. This is a spectacular achievement by an advanced economy.

The gains in productivity were quite widely shared from 1947 to 1980. Real income for the median U.S. family doubled during this time just as output per hour of work performed doubled. The rising tide was lifting all boats.

(But there has been a) remarkable separation in productivity and median real income since 1980. While the United States is producing twice as much per hour of work today compared to 1980, a small part of the gain in real income has gone to the bottom half of the income distribution. The gap between productivity and median real income is at an historic all-time high today.

The Crime of 2010

Professor Krugman blogs this indictment of the Beltway, Business and Media Elites @ NYT. Millions of lives have been ruined by the cruelty of the Deficit Hawks, the willful ignorance or appalling timidity of insider DC elites - including many top Democrats - and the flaming idiocy of the TeaBaggers, who converged to force the country into an austerity discourse when the economy quite clearly needed a robust injection of federal spending:
(W)hat we’re learning from a number of sources: it’s really hard to get employers to look at people who have been out of work for an extended period, so any sustained increase in long-term unemployment tends to become permanent.
The best way to avoid this outcome, then, is to avoid prolonged periods of high unemployment.

So let me make the obvious point, just in case anyone missed it: the “pivot” of
From the Annals of Deadly Expert Advice
2010 — when all the Very Serious People decided that the danger from debt trumped any and all concern for job creation — was an utter disaster, economic and human. It was even a disaster in fiscal terms, because a permanently depressed economy will cost far more in revenue than was saved by slashing the deficit by a few percent of GDP in the short term.

Now, you might think that this post should be titled The Mistake of 2010 — but that would only be appropriate if it were truly an honest error. It wasn’t. Some of the austerians were self-consciously exploiting deficit panic to promote a conservative agenda; some were slipping into deficit-scolding rather than dealing with our actual problems because it felt comfortable; some were just going along for the ride, saying what everyone else was saying. Hardly anyone in the deficit-scold camp engaged in hard thinking and careful assessment of the evidence.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Tea Party "populists" are pushing Wall Streets's agenda

Mike Konczal @ TNR:
"Our problem today was not caused by a lack of business and banking
regulations,” argued Ron Paul in his 2009 manifesto End the Fed, which outlined a theory of the financial crisis that only implicated government policy and the Federal Reserve, while mocking the idea that Wall Street’s financial engineering and derivatives played any role. "The only regulations lacking were the ones that should have been placed on the government officials who ran roughshod over the people and the Constitution.” …
The Tea Party's theory of the financial crisis has absolved Wall Street completely. Instead, the crisis is interpreted according to two pillars of reactionary thought: that the government is a fundamentally corrupt enterprise trying to give undeserving people free stuff, and that hard money should rule the day. This will have major consequences for the future of reform, should the GOP take the Senate this fall.

On the Hill, it’s hard to find where the Tea Party and Wall Street disagree. Tea Party senators like Mike Lee, Rand Paul, and Ted Cruz, plus conservative senators like David Vitter, have rallied around a one-line bill repealing the entirety of Dodd-Frank and replacing it with nothing. In the House, Republicans are attacking new derivatives regulations, all the activities of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the existence of the Volcker Rule, and the ability of the FDIC to wind down a major financial institution, while relentlessly attacking strong regulators and cutting regulatory funding. This is Wall Street’s wet dream of a policy agenda.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Dooming the long-term unemployed via inflation hysteria

Matthew O'Brian @ The Atlantic:
Are the long-term unemployed just doomed today or doomed forever?
That's the question people are really asking when they ask if labor markets are
starting to get "tight." Now, it's hard to believe that this is even a debate when unemployment is still at 6.7 percent and core inflation is just 1.1 percent. But it is. The new inflation hawks argue that these headline numbers overstate how much slack is left in the economy. That the labor force is smaller than it sounds, because firms won't even consider hiring the long-term unemployed. That our productive capacity is lower than it sounds, because we haven't invested in new factories for too long. And that wages and prices will start rising as companies pay more for the workers and work that they want.

In other words, they think that the financial crisis has made us permanently poorer. That the economy can't grow as fast as it used to, so inflation will pick up sooner than it used to—and we need to get ready to raise rates. (Notice how that's always the answer no matter the question).

There are only two problems with this story: There's not much evidence for it, and we should ignore it even if there is. It's pretty simple. If tighter labor markets were causing wage inflation, they'd have caused wage inflation. But they haven't, not really. Now, it's true that average hourly earnings ticked up in February, but, as Paul Krugman points out, that was probably a weather-related blip. All the snow kept 6.8 million people from working full-time like they normally do, and, historically-speaking, that tends to affect hourly workers more than salaried ones. So higher-paid people probably made up a bigger share of the workforce last month—and voilĂ , it looked like wages rose. But that was just statistical noise, and if you look at the bigger picture, wage growth is still far below its pre-Lehman levels.

Friday, March 14, 2014

"Inner city men not even thinking about working" has no racial connotations in Paul Ryan World?

Raw Story:
Paul Ryan attempted to walk back Wednesday’s comment in which he described
a “culture in our inner cities in particular of men not working, and just generations of men not even thinking about working and learning the value and culture of work.”…
“This isn’t a race based comment it’s a breakdown of families, it’s rural poverty in rural areas, and talking about where poverty exists — there are no jobs and we have a breakdown of the family. This has nothing to do with race,” he insisted.
Paul Ryan can't be totally stupid. Which leaves the obvious conclusion that he's disingenuous to the point of total cynicism. The problem with his racial dog-whistling is that he doesn't have the courage to stand by it and ends up assuming we're as stupid as he wants us to believe he must be to see no racial connotation in his "generations of lazy inner city men" discourse.

The racial elephant in the wealth inequality room

Ned Resnikoff @ MSNBC:

In 1967, with the Civil Rights movement still in full swing and Jim Crow still looming in the rearview mirror, median household income was 43% higher for white, non-Hispanic households than for black households. But things changed dramatically over the next half century, as legal segregation faded into history. By 2011, median white household income was 72% higher than median black household income, according to a Census report from that year [PDF].

To say that economic inequality is still a heavily racialized phenomenon, even a generation after the end of the Civil Rights era, would be an understatement. Yet both major parties continue to discuss inequality in largely color-blind terms, only hinting at the role played by race.
The trend is even more startling when one looks at median household wealth instead of yearly income. In 1984, the white-to-black wealth ratio was 12-to-1, according to Pew Research Center. By 1995, the chasm had narrowed until median white income had only a 5-to-1 advantage over black income. But over the next 14 years the wealth gap began to grow once again, until it had skyrocketed up to 19-to-1 in 2009. 
Yet even a recent 204-page analysis of the federal War on Poverty, spearheaded by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., gives only passing mentions to racial disparity. In the first section of the report, which purports to explain the causes of modern poverty, Ryan and his co-authors bring up race only twice: Once to identify “the breakdown of the familiy as a key cause of poverty within the black community,” citing Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and again to applaud the narrowing of the “achievement gap” between white and black schoolchildren. Weeks later, during a radio appearance, Ryan said poverty is in part to blame on the fact that “inner cities” have a culture of “men not working.”

President Obama went a step forward in December’s major address on inequality, when he noted that “the painful legacy of discrimination means that African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans are far more likely to suffer from a lack of opportunity—higher unemployment, higher poverty rates.” Yet that amounted to a footnote in a speech that also included the line, “The opportunity gap in America is now as much about class as it is about race.”

“I think it doesn’t make for good politics,” said Color of Change executive director Rashad Robinson of the racial wealth gap. “It’s messy and requires us to be deep and think about much bigger and more long-term solutions than Washington’s oftentimes willing to deal with.”

Yet in a serious discussion about American inequality, the subject of race is essentially unavoidable. That’s because most of the pipelines to a higher economic class—such as employment and homeownership—are “oftentimes not equally accessible to black folks,” said Robinson.

Disparities in homeownership are a major driver of the racial wealth gap, according to a recent study from Brandeis University. According to the authors of the report, “redlining [a form of discrimination in banking or insurance practices], discriminatory mortgage-lending practices, lack of access to credit, and lower incomes have blocked the homeownership path for African-Americans while creating and reinforcing communities segregated by race.”

Many of the black families that have successfully battled their way to homeownership over the past few decades saw their nest eggs get pulverized by the 2008 financial collapse. The Brandeis researchers found that “half the collective wealth of African-American families was stripped away during the Great Recession,” in large part due to the collapse of the housing market and the subsequent explosion in the nationwide foreclosure rate.
Similarly, employment discrimination has done its part to ensure that black unemployment remains twice as high as white unemployment—a ratio that has stayed largely consistent since the mid-1950s. National Bureau of Economy Research fellows have found that resumes are significantly less likely to get a positive response from potential employers if the applicants have names that are more common in the black community. And an arrest for even a non-violent drug offense can haunt a job applicant for the rest of his life; combined with the fact that black people are nearly four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, despite using the drug at roughly the same rate, criminal background checks have helped to fuel racial inequity in job hiring...

Monday, March 10, 2014

The New Land Lords

The financial elites behind the 2008 financial crisis and housing market meltdown, predictably, have their hands in the housing "recovery":

Saturday, March 8, 2014

The richest 20% own over 80% of all financial assets

House of Debt blog

This means that when increases in the stock market are reported, the financial gains are skewed largely to the (already) wealthiest 20%.

"America's Long and Productive History of Class Warfare"

Harvard Business Review executive editor & author of  "The Myth of the Rational Market," Justin Fox @ HBR:
Six days before the election, the Republican nominee for president attended a fund-raising dinner at a posh New York restaurant. Two-hundred of the country’s richest and most powerful men were on hand. The next day, they were confronted with this atop the front page of one of the city’s leading newspapers:

This particular scan is from the historical-cartoon site HarpWeek, but the drawing has long been in the public domain — it ran in the now-defunct New York World on Oct. 30, 1884. The candidate was James G. Blaine (the droopy-eyed fellow in the center of the picture who is about to dig in to some Lobby Pudding), and the man who subjected him to this harsh treatment was Joseph Pulitzer, who had bought the World the previous year and was rapidly building it into the most popular and powerful newspaper the nation had ever seen.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Increasing the minimum wage saves taxpayers food stamps expenditures


Paul Krugman and Bill Maher on craziness & paranoia among the clueless 1%

The comedian's version:

The economist's version:
Suddenly, or so it seems, inequality has surged into public consciousness — and neither the one percent nor its reliable defenders seems to know how to cope.

Some of the reactions are crazy — it’s Kristallnacht, they’re coming to kill us — with the craziness quite widespread; notice how many billionaires, plus of course the Wall Street Journal, rallied around Tom Perkins. But even the saner-sounding voices evidently have a hard time wrapping their minds around the notion that anyone might find 21st-century finance capitalism a bit, well, unfair.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Euro a mess? Who could have predicted...

Oxford economic historian Kevin O'Rourke dissects the economic mess driven by the Euro, which was clearly a terrible idea from the outset:
The euro area economy is in a terrible mess.

In December 2013 euro area GDP was still 3 percent lower than in the first quarter of 2008, in stark contrast with the United States, where GDP was 6 percent higher. GDP was 8 percent below its precrisis level in Ireland, 9 percent below in Italy, and 12 percent below in Greece. Euro area unemployment exceeds 12 percent—and is about 16 percent in Portugal, 17 percent in Cyprus, and 27 percent in Spain and Greece.

Europeans are so used to these numbers that they no longer find them shocking, which is profoundly disturbing. These are not minor details, blemishing an otherwise impeccable record, but evidence of a dismal policy failure.

The euro is a bad idea, which was pointed out two decades ago when the currency was being devised. The currency area is too large and diverse—and given the need for periodic real exchange rate adjustments, the anti-inflation mandate of the European Central Bank (ECB) is too restrictive. Labor mobility between member countries is too limited to make migration from bust to boom regions a viable adjustment option. And there are virtually no fiscal mechanisms to transfer resources across regions in the event of shocks that hit parts of the currency area harder than others.

Problems foretold

Monday, January 20, 2014

Dr. King's "Revolution of Values"

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play
the good Samaritan on life's roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth.
                                                                          Martin Luther King

"IMF warns on threat of income inequality"

Financial Times:
The International Monetary Fund has highlighted the threat posed to the global economy by growing income inequality as the world’s business and political leaders prepare to head off to the World Economic Forum in Davos this week.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Uh, oh! "Brooks Worst Column Ever!"

Robert Kuttner, piling on @ American Prospect, lowers the bar in considering today's Brooks offering a milestone of sorts:
Well, this is getting to be a habit. Alert readers may recall that a few weeks ago, I wrote a piece about Tom Friedman’s worst column ever, plugging efforts by a billionaire hedge fund friend to persuade college students that their enemy was Social Security. 

Now, Friedman’s colleague David Brooks has written an even worse column. It’s really hard to determine Brooks’ worst column ever, since he seems to turn out one every week.
Brooks’ latest piece, in Friday’s Times, begins inauspiciously, “Suddenly, the whole world is talking about income inequality.” (Where has Brooks been, Jupiter?)
Paul Krugman, the "Liberal Conscience" animated by fairly conventional Keynsianism, further diminishes Our Mr. Brooks:

Why We Talk About the One Percent

Many people in Washington, even those willing to concede that inequality has been rising rapidly, are uncomfortable talking about the famous 1 percent — perhaps because it sounds too populist, too much like an invitation to crowds with pitchforks. For a long time respectable discussion focused on the top 20 percent; today I see my colleague David Brooks talking about the top 5 percent.
But framing the discussion in terms of some broader group is in this case deeply misleading. Here’s what the Piketty-Saez numbers tell us about the top 5 percent (incomes in 2012 dollars):
            Piketty and Saez 
If you look at the bottom 4 percent of the top 5, you see good but not spectacular income gains. These are the kinds of gains that you might be able to explain in terms of skills, assortative mating, and so on. But the top 1 percent is in a different universe altogether. And in fact the gains within the top 1 percent are concentrated in an even smaller group: this is a Pareto distribution thing, in which the higher the income the greater the percentage gains.
The point is that using wider definitions than the one percent is, in effect, diluting the wolves of Wall Street by lumping them in with the upper middle class. Not the same story at all.

Another terrible David Brooks column

Dean Baker @ CEPR Beat the Press challenges the ignorant ramblings of one David Brooks, Big City Newspaper Columnist and Pop Sociologist:
David Brooks is sweating hard trying to defend the one percent against the rest of the country and reality. His column today desperately warns readers:

"Some on the left have always tried to introduce a more class-conscious style of politics. These efforts never pan out. America has always done better, liberals have always done better, when we are all focused on opportunity and mobility, not inequality, on individual and family aspiration, not class-consciousness."

Funny, I thought Social Security, the Fair Labor Standards Act (i.e. the 40-hour workweek), the National Labor Relations Board, and other products of the New Deal were pretty big accomplishments. Much of this was done quite explicitly with a sense of class consciousness. These were all measures that were backed by mass movements that sought to ensure that working people got their share of the economic pie. Good thing we have David Brooks to tell us the opposite.

This is far from the only place where Brooks seems to be at odds with reality. Brooks condemns focusing on inequality because it leads to ineffective policies like raising the minimum wage. He then cites a study by Joseph J. Sabia and Richard V. Burkhauser telling readers:

"Consistent with some other studies, they find no evidence that such raises had any effect on the poverty rates.

"That’s because raises in the minimum wage are not targeted at the right people."

Actually the Sabia and Burkhauser study goes against the overwhelming majority of other studies on the topic as summarized in this analysis by University of Massachusetts professor Arin Dube.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Record low of unemployed Americans recieiving benefits

Huffington Post:
A record-low 25 percent of unemployed Americans will receive benefits now that Congress has allowed the federal program to expire, according to data from the Department of Labor compiled by House Democrats on the Ways and Means Committee.

The number is the lowest since the Department of Labor began keeping records in 1946. Before Congress let the federal unemployment benefit-assistance plan expire on Dec. 28, 38 percent of unemployed Americans who paid unemployment taxes were receiving unemployment insurance either through their state or the federal government...

A Tale of Two Rands - Unemployment Benefits and Economic Illiteracy

Rand Paul - well-known foe of economic illiteracy - arguing that "extending unemployment benefits to two years does a disservice to the unemployed.":
Economic illiteracy condemns us to well-intentioned, big-hearted, but small-brained
responses to real problems.

Millions of people are out of work. We all have sympathy for those who are unemployed and I believe it is our moral obligation as a society to take care of those who cannot take care of themselves. Liberal pundits try to argue that Democrats are the only ones who care about the poor and unemployed, but the truth is, caring doesn't help unless it is linked to good policy...

According to a study by Rand Ghayad and William Dickens for the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, employers will choose a less-skilled worker who has been unemployed for two months over a worker with more skills who has been unemployed for two years. So yes, extending unemployment benefits to two years does a disservice to the unemployed...conservatives who argue for shorter unemployment benefits actually have more concern for the worker than liberals who believe in no limits... (Bold added)

Rand Ghayad, the economist Paul cites, @The Atlantic, countering that based on his research "there's no reason to cut unemployment benefits:

Rand Paul says he cares about the unemployed."...

So why does he want to end unemployment benefits for people who have been out of work for 6 months or longer? Well, Paul cites my work on long-term unemployment as a justification—which surprised me, because it implies the opposite of what he says it does.

Monday, December 30, 2013

"9 Things The Rich Don't Want You To Know About Taxes"

An Oldie but Goodie from David Cay Johnston @ AAN (4/11):

For three decades we have conducted a massive economic experiment, testing a theory known as supply-side economics. The theory goes like this: Lower tax rates will encourage more investment, which in turn will mean more jobs and greater prosperity -- so much so that tax revenues will go up, despite lower rates. The late Milton Friedman, the libertarian economist who wanted to shut down public parks because he considered them socialism, promoted this strategy. Ronald Reagan embraced Friedman's ideas and made them into policy when he was elected president in 1980.

For the past decade, we have doubled down on this theory of supply-side economics with the tax cuts sponsored by President George W Bush in 2001 and 2003, which President Obama has agreed to continue for two years. You would think that whether this grand experiment worked would be settled after three decades. You would think the practitioners of the dismal science of economics would look at their demand curves and the data on incomes and taxes and pronounce a verdict, the way Galileo and Copernicus did when they showed that geocentrism was a fantasy because Earth revolves around the sun (known as heliocentrism). But economics is not like that. It is not like physics with its laws and arithmetic with its absolute values.

Tax policy is something the Framers left to politics. And in politics, the facts often matter less then who has the biggest bullhorn.

The Mad Men who once ran campaigns featuring doctors extolling the health benefits of smoking are now busy marketing the dogma that tax cuts mean broad prosperity, no matter what the facts show.

As millions of Americans prepare to file their annual taxes, they do so in an environment of media-perpetuated tax myths. Here are a few points about taxes and the economy that you may not know...  (All figures are inflation adjusted.)

Friday, December 27, 2013

"The Fear Economy"

Professor Krugman @ NYTs:
More than a million unemployed Americans are about to get the cruelest of Christmas “gifts.” They’re about to have their unemployment benefits cut off. You see, Republicans in Congress insist that if you haven’t found a job after months of searching, it must be because you aren’t trying hard enough. So you need an extra incentive in the form of sheer desperation.