October 12, 2004

Not the Dismal Science--the Shrill Science

The Economist surveys America's mainstream economists--a relatively conservative group, all in all--and finds that they, too, have succumbed and joined the Order of the Shrill. They have no doubt in their collective evaluation of Bush economic policy as off-scale low on nearly every dimension:

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Economist.com: WOULD John Kerry or George Bush do a better job stewarding America's economy?.... Ask economics professors... Mr Bush's policies win low marks. More than 70% of the 56 professors who responded to our survey rate Mr Bush's first-term economic policies as bad or very bad. Fewer than 20% give positive marks to Mr Bush's second-term economic agenda, and almost six out of ten disapproved.... [F]our out of ten professors rated Mr Kerry's economic plan as good or very good, but 27% gave it negative scores.... Are our economists partisans? We chose their names, at random, from among the referees of the American Economic Review, one of the profession's more prestigious publications....

A third of the economists reckon the economy is in good or very good shape; about half give a neutral response, and one in five deems the economy to be weak. They are almost equally split about how much responsibility the Bush administration deserves for the state of today's economy. Just over a third assign some or all credit or blame to the president; another third think he has had little or nothing to do with it.

Despite their diverse assessments of today's economy, the professors are overwhelmingly critical of the central plank of Mr Bush's economic policy—tax cuts. More than seven out of ten respondents say the Bush administration's tax cuts were either a bad or a very bad idea, and a similar proportion disapproves of Mr Bush's plans to make his tax cuts permanent. By contrast, Mr Kerry's plan to roll back the tax cuts for people with incomes over $200,000 wins the support of seven in ten of them.... The broad condemnation of tax cuts seems to be linked to the professors' worries about America's fiscal health and the looming retirement of the baby-boom generation. Although Americans overall seem relatively unconcerned about the budget deficit, a large majority of the economists rate it as a serious problem for the economy, with almost one in five describing it as a crisis. And they back Mr Kerry by a large margin (79% to 18%) to do more to promote fiscal discipline than Mr Bush. In contrast, the boffins seemed much less concerned by the current-account deficit; only one respondent called it a crisis, and close to 20% deemed it either a small problem or no problem at all.

Health care also seems to be an issue that pushed our economists towards Mr Kerry. More than 70% of the academics reckoned health-care costs were a serious problem for the economy—and they preferred Mr Kerry's plans to control those costs by a margin of 59% to 25% (with the rest ducking the question)....

On entitlement reform, the academics' opinions are harder to interpret. They are evenly split on the merits of Mr Bush's proposal to reform Social Security by creating personal retirement accounts: 36% think it is a good or very good idea, 38% a bad or very bad idea. Oddly, most of them think Mr Kerry offers better plans for dealing with the baby-boomers' retirement, even though he has not actually made any concrete proposals for entitlement reform.

One area where the economists clearly favour Mr Bush is trade. Mr Kerry's ranting about outsourcing has irritated economists: a huge majority dismiss outsourcing as either a small or non-existent problem, and almost 60% give Mr Kerry's trade policy a bad or very bad rating. Although they are plainly not wild about Mr Bush's record on trade, they back him by a margin of almost two-to-one to do more to help free trade and globalisation than Mr Kerry would.

The Economist is being a bit simple-minded in its puzzlement over why economists prefer Kerry on entitlements to Bush. Kerry understands the problem. Bush has proposed a "solution" to the problem that--as is standard for the Bush administration--simply doesn't add up. Add to this the facts that any entitlement-control program will have to be competently implemented, and that the Bush administration is grotesquely incompetent, and you have more than sufficient reason to vote for Kerry.

Posted by DeLong at October 12, 2004 08:30 AM | TrackBack
Comments

Nobel laureate calls for steeper tax cuts in US


WASHINGTON (AFP) - Edward Prescott, who picked up the Nobel Prize for Economics, said President George W. Bush (news - web sites)'s tax rate cuts were "pretty small" and should have been bigger.

"What Bush has done has been not very big, it's pretty small," Prescott told CNBC financial news television.


"Tax rates were not cut enough," he said.

Posted by: Brian at December 31, 1969 04:13 PM

http://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/12/opinion/12krugman.html?hp

Checking the Facts, in Advance
By PAUL KRUGMAN

Jobs


Mr. Bush will talk about the 1.7 million jobs created since the summer of 2003, and will say that the economy is "strong and getting stronger." That's like boasting about getting a D on your final exam, when you flunked the midterm and needed at least a C to pass the course.

Mr. Bush is the first president since Herbert Hoover to preside over a decline in payroll employment. That's worse than it sounds because the economy needs around 1.6 million new jobs each year just to keep up with population growth. The past year's job gains, while better news than earlier job losses, barely met this requirement, and they did little to close the huge gap between the number of jobs the country needs and the number actually available.

Unemployment


Mr. Bush will boast about the decline in the unemployment rate from its June 2003 peak. But the employed fraction of the population didn't rise at all; unemployment declined only because some of those without jobs stopped actively looking for work, and therefore dropped out of the unemployment statistics. The labor force participation rate - the fraction of the population either working or actively looking for work - has fallen sharply under Mr. Bush; if it had stayed at its January 2001 level, the official unemployment rate would be 7.4 percent.

The deficit


Mr. Bush will claim that the recession and 9/11 caused record budget deficits. Congressional Budget Office estimates show that tax cuts caused about two-thirds of the 2004 deficit.

The tax cuts


Mr. Bush will claim that Senator John Kerry opposed "middle class" tax cuts. But budget office numbers show that most of Mr. Bush's tax cuts went to the best-off 10 percent of families, and more than a third went to the top 1 percent, whose average income is more than $1 million.

The Kerry tax plan


Mr. Bush will claim, once again, that Mr. Kerry plans to raise taxes on many small businesses. In fact, only a tiny percentage would be affected. Moreover, as Mr. Kerry correctly pointed out last week, the administration's definition of a small-business owner is so broad that in 2001 it included Mr. Bush, who does indeed have a stake in a timber company - a business he's so little involved with that he apparently forgot about it.

Fiscal responsibility


Mr. Bush will claim that Mr. Kerry proposes $2 trillion in new spending. That's a partisan number and is much higher than independent estimates. Meanwhile, as The Washington Post pointed out after the Republican convention, the administration's own numbers show that the cost of the agenda Mr. Bush laid out "is likely to be well in excess of $3 trillion" and "far eclipses that of the Kerry plan."

Spending


On Friday, Mr. Bush claimed that he had increased nondefense discretionary spending by only 1 percent per year. The actual number is 8 percent, even after adjusting for inflation. Mr. Bush seems to have confused his budget promises - which he keeps on breaking - with reality.

Health care


Mr. Bush will claim that Mr. Kerry wants to take medical decisions away from individuals. The Kerry plan would expand Medicaid (which works like Medicare), ensuring that children, in particular, have health insurance. It would protect everyone against catastrophic medical expenses, a particular help to the chronically ill. It would do nothing to restrict patients' choices.

By singling out Mr. Bush's lies and misrepresentations, am I saying that Mr. Kerry isn't equally at fault? Yes.

Mr. Kerry sometimes uses verbal shorthand that offers nitpickers things to complain about. He talks of 1.6 million lost jobs; that's the private-sector loss, partly offset by increased government employment. But the job record is indeed awful. He talks of the $200 billion cost of the Iraq war; actual spending is only $120 billion so far. But nobody doubts that the war will cost at least another $80 billion. The point is that Mr. Kerry can, at most, be accused of using loose language; the thrust of his statements is correct.

Mr. Bush's statements, on the other hand, are fundamentally dishonest. He is insisting that black is white, and that failure is success. Journalists who play it safe by spending equal time exposing his lies and parsing Mr. Kerry's choice of words are betraying their readers.

Posted by: anne at October 12, 2004 09:09 AM

Entitlements are working OK as is. Just doing nothing would be better than doing what Bush proposes.

What Bush proposes with SS is a SNAFU. The biggest threat to entitlements (currently) is runaway health care costs. Kerry tries to address the health care costs. Bush either seems to be increasing costs by give aways to the drug companies or picking at the non-problem of tort reform.

Posted by: bakho at October 12, 2004 09:48 AM

Medicare costs for the added drug program can be readily limited by allowing the Medicare administration to bargain over drug prices just as the Veterans administration does. This will gain more time. There will eventually have to an addition to revenue, for Medicare can not be sustained for the baby boomers unless there is an added revenue stream.

Posted by: anne at October 12, 2004 09:57 AM

Why do you think that they preferred Bush to Kerry when it comes to trade? I've suspected it's because he's demagogued outsourcing to death.

Posted by: Brian at October 12, 2004 10:22 AM

The Economist is generally a great newsmagazine. Every four years the editorial board goes collectively insane and endorses the Republican candidate. Shortly after the election they all seem to regain their senses.

I guess I'm complicit -- every four years I almost cancel my subscription, but never do.

Posted by: Drew at October 12, 2004 11:52 AM

http://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/12/business/media/12drug.html?pagewanted=all&position=

Questions on the $3.8 Billion Drug Ad Business
By STUART ELLIOTT and NAT IVES

When Emily Martin was hospitalized for emergency gallbladder surgery last summer, her doctors found that she also had acid reflux, causing erosion of her esophagus.

"My stomach was very unsettled,'' said Ms. Martin, a 26-year-old mother in Oradell, N.J. So she asked her doctor for Nexium, the "purple pill" that is the nation's most widely advertised prescription drug. "I saw the commercial and they showed people talking about immediate and miracle relief,'' she said.

It has worked, without side effects, said Ms. Martin, who pays only a $30 monthly insurance co-payment for Nexium, which can cost $200 a month or more.

Patients like Ms. Fleming are why the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca spent nearly $260 million on television and other mass-media advertising aimed at Nexium users last year.

Approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2001 as a treatment for severe acid reflux disease, Nexium is now so commonly prescribed for heartburn and indigestion symptoms that it has become one of the nation's best-selling drugs, with United States sales last year of $3.1 billion - even though many medical experts say that for most patients, cheaper over-the-counter heartburn remedies may work just as well.

The issue of drug advertising directly aimed at consumers was thrust into the news recently when Merck withdrew its arthritis painkiller Vioxx from the market, citing studies indicating a risk of heart attacks or strokes. Critics noted the role that advertising and marketing played in the drug's being widely prescribed to patients who might have done just as well with ibuprofen or other inexpensive over-the-counter remedies.

Vioxx, whatever its safety risks, was hardly unique as a prescription drug that became a best seller on the strength of advertising aimed directly at consumers. In the seven years since the F.D.A. lifted longstanding strictures against such ads, prescription drug advertising has grown into a $3.8-billion-a-year business. And the F.D.A. says that, despite the controversy accompanying the withdrawal of Vioxx, it has no plans to place new curbs on such ads.

Nexium is typical of the brand-building trend. No one is arguing that the drug poses serious health risks, beyond a slight chance of side effects like headaches and flatulence. Despite clear beneficiaries like Emily Martin, though, many medical experts say most patients would do just as well with various cheaper over-the-counter remedies for indigestion and heartburn, including AstraZeneca's own Prilosec - a chemically similar predecessor that no longer requires a prescription and sells for $40 a month or less.

"Nexium is no more effective than Prilosec," said Dr. Sharon Levine, an executive with Kaiser Permanente, the nation's largest health maintenance organization. "I'm surprised anyone has ever written a prescription for Nexium."

AstraZeneca, a British-based company, says that it is unfazed by the critics and that the Vioxx backlash would have no effect on its own consumer advertising for Nexium or other drugs. "We're moving forward undeterred," said Jim Coyne, a spokesman for the company, whose American division has its headquarters in Wilmington, Del. "We've got adequate support for what we say in the ads."

Posted by: anne at October 12, 2004 12:44 PM

How about a compromise on Godwin's law. Let's just agree that Bush is a yuppy Juan Peron.

Posted by: Zizka at October 12, 2004 01:37 PM

"They are evenly split on the merits of Mr Bush's proposal to reform Social Security by creating personal retirement accounts: 36% think it is a good or very good idea, 38% a bad or very bad idea. Oddly, most of them think Mr Kerry offers better plans for dealing with the baby-boomers' retirement, even though he has not actually made any concrete proposals for entitlement reform."

WTF??? So Mr. Bush's vague and non specific plan for privating social security which contains not an iota of explanation of who's going to pay for current retirees, and who will cover the risk of loss and who provides the 'magic beans' necessary to implement it is somehow a 'concrete proposal' ???? Were already maxing out the government credit card, but these people think Bush's free lunch of a plan is something to seriously consider????????????

Posted by: Aaron at October 12, 2004 01:52 PM

The idea of developing private Social Security accounts at an expense of hundreds of billions of dollars which will have to be given to the Social Security Administration to fund a coming generation of baby boomers is comical. But, baby boomers are aging and soon will be a formidable active voting block to insure social benefit programs. There will likely be no change in Social Security, though there may be attempts if such a Congress prevalis in elections.

Posted by: anne at October 12, 2004 02:02 PM

"a relatively conservative group"

Relative to what? - an American Socilology department? The cultural studies faculty?

utter nonsense

Posted by: Giles at October 12, 2004 02:44 PM

The notion of Personal Retirement Accounts sounds good to a lot of people, especially those workers made painfully aware of the FICA taxes withheld from their checks every month, and by the employers who match those taxes. But, sound and appearance are frequently very misleading. Who is to manage such accounts? The employee? The employee's firm? An investment firm? The U. S. Treasury? What will the account funds be invested in? Treasury bonds? Dow stocks, mutual funds,etc. The perils are many, while the additional benefits over the present social security arrangement, seem few if any. Would'nt the fees for advising and administering these private accounts simply further enrich the moguls of the various sectors of the financial industry?

Posted by: bncthor at October 12, 2004 02:55 PM

Giles--meet Ed Prescott. Not exactly outside the mainstream you know.

Posted by: Rob at October 12, 2004 03:26 PM

Giles wrote, " 'a relatively conservative group'
"Relative to what? - an American Socilology department? The cultural studies faculty?
"utter nonsense"

I'd wager that economists are conservative relative to mathematicians (at least pure mathematicians), and probably physicists and biologists.

Posted by: liberal at October 12, 2004 03:28 PM

Im glad someone mentioned the Prescott comments on the Bush tax cuts. CAN SOMEONE EXPLAIN THEM ? Firstly, havent federal tax revenues as a percent of GDP been cut to as low as they've ever been (like 15%). And, why does he suggest taxes should have been cut (a lot) more ??

Posted by: 49eels at October 12, 2004 04:34 PM

bncthor

Fine points that could play havoc with private Social Security accounts. I am however favoring the indexing of Social Security funds, by the Social Security Administration itself, to the total American stock market.

Posted by: anne at October 12, 2004 04:40 PM

I dont see any 'puzzlement' in the cited text. Can someone help me out here?

Posted by: Eric Barrier at October 12, 2004 04:44 PM

Eric- see my previous note, above at 1:52.

Posted by: Aaron at October 12, 2004 04:47 PM

Besides being more liberal than Giles, economists as a group are also more liberal than churchgoing white males in small-town Mississippi.

It's only in the last year or two that I've started seeing cargo-cult conservatives denouncing economics as a profession. During the previous several decades conservatives were normally taking economics as gospel and using it to justify dismantling the welfare state, putting an end to minimum wage laws, discouraging unions, charging fees in public libraries, closing down the Smithsonian institution, selling the national parks to timber companies, etc.

You have to start asking yourselves whether the Gileses of the world are competent adults. Their wishfulness and hostility to facts has moved into Timothy Leary territory.

Posted by: Zizka at October 12, 2004 05:00 PM

Most social scientists probably don't like the idea that their disciplines have an implicit ideology, but if they do, the ideology of economics is libertarianism: see the first welfare theorem. Government is held to be guilty until proven innocent. Now, in Keynesian-Samuelsonian style economics, government is innocent quite a bit: there are plenty of market failures that are worse than the government failures that would come of correcting them, like pollution, erratic business cycles, etc. Still, even there, the presumption is that the burden of proof is on the government to show why it would be an improvment, not the private sector to show that it's doing a good job. Being a weak libertarian myself, I like this presumption.

Anyone know the implicit ideologies of other social sciences? I saw something about the implicit ideology of sociology being Marxism, but I suspect that it is vile slander. Some say that the Straussian tried to make neoconservatism the implicit ideology of political science, but since, unless I'm mistaken, very few political scientists take Strauss seriously, I can't imagine that's going too well.

Posted by: Julian Elson at October 12, 2004 09:48 PM

I invite anyone of these pundits and posters to actually read the Annual Report of the Trustees of Social Security, which is only available to those rara aves who have access to the web and the ability to view files in HTML or PDF, or God forbid wait less than a week to have a free paper copy sent First Class Mail.
2004:Trustees Report. (link didn't show in Preview: http://www.ssa.gov/OACT/pubs.html) . There deeply hidden on page 3 of the Introduction/Highlights section is the following suggesting there are four possible solutions to Social Security shortfalls of which I will give you number one: "the combined payroll tax rate could be increased during the period in a a manner equivalent to an immediate and permanent increase of 1.89 percentage points". We could compare this to the language of the 2003 Report, similarly on page 3, which suggested that the alternative to inaction was "the combined payroll tax rate could be increased immediately by 1.92 percentage points".

I guess I am an idiot who can't read plain text. Because when I read language from the 1997 report (covering 1996 and hidden way deep on page 5) reading "In the long range (i.e., the next 75 years) the difference between the summarized income and cost rates for the OASDI program is a deficit of 2.23 percent of taxable payroll based on the intermediate assumptions" I am seeing a "crisis" that left totally unaddressed, and without any additional collection of increased payroll taxes between then and now has now saw the cost of the fix shrink from 2.23 percentage points of payroll to 1.89 percentage points over a seven year period.

Humor me here. We didn't fix this in 1997 when we could have fixed the entire problem with a 2.23% payroll tax increase, leaving that money in my pocket. But we can still fix it in 2004 with a 1.89% payroll tax increase. What am I missing here? The very definition of a crisis is something which left unaddressed requires an ever increasing fix. Here we did nothing and yet the cost to fix the whole problem with no changes in benefits or retirement age actually got cheaper. And not to confuse the issue unduly, but with a markedly more pessimistic prediction for growth in the out years.

Let me repeat. We did nothing and left 2.2% of every paycheck since 1997 in my pocket when we could have used that to save Social Security. Instead I am left to keep every dollar of that and am only charged 1.89% of my paycheck going forward to have the same effect. And this in an economic model (Intermediate Cost) which predicts average Productivity Growth in the out years (2011 on) at 1.6%.

As I said humor me. I spent most of my 17 years on the UC Berkeley campus in Dwinelle Hall, where we had ground floor entrances on five different floors, and where I personally saw a student challenge a very distinguished professor of History to demand directions to a way out of the building (when asked which direction N, S, E or W the student replied "I don't care, just get me out"). As a result I am easily confused. In my day Economics Profs like Brad had their offices in the relatively boring Barrows Hall which kept its entrances nicely confined to floor one. So please ye level headed folks: leave the op-ed pages and enter the land of actual numbers and explain exactly where is the so-called crisis?

(And don't conflate Social Security and Medicare. A different animal with a whole different set of problems/solutions.)

Posted by: Bruce Webb at October 13, 2004 12:48 AM

Bruce,

Very nice. You didn't say so, but since you cited the assumption of low productivity growth, you understand where the forecasting miss came from. The SS administration uses very conservative assumptions in its forecasts. Employment was higher in the late 1990s than almost anyone had anticipated, and wage growth was OK, too. The combination meant that the SS fund was in better shape than had been anticipated (though I would guess it also pushed up the SS funds liabilities - more people eligible for larger checks).

The SS administration makes conservative estimates for good reason, and it would be unwise to assume late 1990s-style growth for any near-term period of significant length. The funding problem will get worse over the next 4 years, almost without question. You caught an important feature of the SS squeeze - it isn't hard to rectify. An you are right to insist that Medicare be considered separately. Medical costs have risen faster than the overall cost of living, making the Medicare squeeze far harder to address than that in the SS fund.

Posted by: kharris at October 13, 2004 05:27 AM

"the ideology of economics is libertarianism"

No Julian what you seem to be describing is liberalism (in the non american sense of the world)

Posted by: Giles at October 13, 2004 07:49 AM

"The notion of Personal Retirement Accounts sounds good to a lot of people, especially those workers made painfully aware of the FICA taxes withheld from their checks every month, and by the employers who match those taxes. But, sound and appearance are frequently very misleading. Who is to manage such accounts? The employee?"

Hell yes! He should have been managing his own money from the very beginning.

"The employee's firm?"

Um, no. That wouldn't work any better than having the employee's firm manage his health insurance purchasing decisions.

"An investment firm?"

Sure, as long as the individual whose money is to be managed gets to pick the firm. Won't be utopia, but it'll work better than any other available option.

"The U. S. Treasury?"

God, no! That's how we got into this mess in the first place.

"What will the account funds be invested in? Treasury bonds? Dow stocks, mutual funds,etc."

Whatever the person with the money picks out. Maybe not even in "the market" but in a few extra kids. Or maybe nothing - there's no law that says you have to retire.

If it were up to me, I'd sink it all into pharmaceuticals and the Metheuselah Mouse Prize. If the investment paid off, not only would I make a monetary profit, but I wouldn't even have a reason to retire!

"The perils are many, while the additional benefits over the present social security arrangement, seem few if any."

Few, if any? How about the prospect that a long-term investment in the stock market, which has never come close to losing money, offering a return far greater than Social Security? How about the fact that present day needs, no matter how pressing, would not be required by law to take a back seat to a retirement that you may or may not live to see? How about parents once again having their interests aligned with those of their children?

"Would'nt the fees for advising and administering these private accounts simply further enrich the moguls of the various sectors of the financial industry? "

So what? If they manage my money well and make me a profit, then by God they deserve to get a cut. If they don't, I'll stick it in an index fund and let it sit there for 40 years. And, if I get a life-threatening illness in the meantime, I'll take every last penny of it out and fight for my life - if our National Health Care architects haven't outlawed that by then.

Posted by: Ken at October 13, 2004 08:34 AM

Kharris, all good points. But the reality is that the Social Security Trustees present three different sets of assumptions: the Low Cost, the Intermediate Cost, and the High Cost which are supposed to cover the range of possible outcomes. In their words from the 2004 report (on page 1):

"Because any projection of future experience is uncertain, the Trustees use three alternative sets of assumptions to show a range of possible outcomes. The intermediate set of assumptions, designated as alternative II, reflects the Trustees' best estimate of the trust funds' future financial outlook; the low cost alternative I is more optimistic, and the high cost altenative III more pessimistic."

Now I understand the obligation of the Trustees to make conservative assumptions about future growth. But if you examine the Reports over a period of time you see that the range of estimates for long-term growth under all three Alternatives has been systematically repressed. We are supposed to believe that 1.9% Productivity Growth in the out years is "more optimistic", 1.6% Productivity Growth is the "best estimate", and 1.3% is "more pessimistic". Exactly who else is predicting economic growth within these parameters? And lest people think these Trustees are neutral actors with green eye-shades, among the seven signing the report in 2004 are the Secretary of the Treasury (Snow), the Secretary of Labor (Chao) and the Secretary of HHS (Thompson).

The Report is hardly insulated from political influence. And you can ponder this: if the economy hits the "Low Cost Alternative" targets, the Trust Fund is totally funded. And what would that take? (2004 Report page 88)
Productivity increase
2004 2.8%
2005 2.1%
2006 2.2%
2007 2.2%
2008 2.1%
2009 2.0%
2010 2.0%
2011 1.9%
2012 and beyond 1.9%

This is their "more optimistic" scenario. Somehow I doubt they are plugging these same growth figures into their tax models.

It is my understanding that whatever happens in the fourth quarter we have already beat the 2.8% number for this year. Which means the date for Trust Fund shortfall will be pushed back in next March's report. How much it gets pushed back depends on how pessimistic a number they can sell for future growth.

If anyone really believes that the top limit for US productivity growth is less than 2% then buy gold. Embrace the numbers, read the reports, grok the economic and demographic assumptions, and then refute me. I am willing to be shown up as a crank. But follow the link please, and cite page & table references.

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