Tag Archives: economics

Beyond Cherry-Picking

A recent essay from The New Republic addressed a question that constantly bedevils me: why do people firmly believe things that are demonstrably false?

I’m not talking about questions that are simply unprovable, like “is there a God?” I’m talking about aspects of our common experience about which there is ample data from credible sources. The linked article, for example, looks into the widespread belief that America’s economy is struggling, when all of the data confirms the opposite.

In the article, Timothy Noah dubs the journalism tracking such unsupportable beliefs as the “Folklore Beat,” and provides examples:

Covid vaccines are unnecessary. Foreign aid constitutes two-thirds of the federal budget. Donald Trump won the election. Schoolteachers are trying to turn your children gay or trans. Little green men visited Area 51, and the military doesn’t want you to know.

Noah is impatient with the media’s tendency to report respectfully on the people espousing those beliefs.

I’ll grant that when misconceptions acquire a large following (though seldom a majority one), that’s news. But is it really necessary to hand a megaphone to every street-corner blowhard in America? News organizations don’t do this because they believe what the blowhards say. They do it because they’re sensitive—too sensitive, if you ask me—to any accusation that they’re out of touch with John Q. Public. And while it’s certainly necessary to document ways in which macroeconomic data fails to capture the complexities of everyday life, particularly with respect to economic inequality, how many times do I have to hear some uninformed fool expound on how President Joe Biden is mishandling the economy? He can’t prove it; he’s not trying to prove it; he just feels that way, and we mustn’t disrespect feelings.

When it comes to the economy, polling continues to show much of the public unhappy with Biden’s performance–although, as Noah notes, “the Wall Street titans on whom Biden wishes to raise taxes maintain a higher opinion of Biden’s economic stewardship than the public at large.”

Perhaps that’s because the rich watch economic matters more closely.

Speaking of the rich, Morgan Stanley recently quadrupled its prior estimate of GDP growth for the first six months of this year, and doubled its GDP growth prediction for October–December 2023, signaling that its economists no longer anticipate a recession. But only a paltry 20 percent of respondents to a CNBC  survey released the same week agreed that the economy was excellent or good. Other polls have returned similar results.

The New Republic essay enumerated the truly excellent economic facts of life–employment and paychecks up, inflation down, manufacturing returning to the U.S., etc.–and then considered reasons for the public’s evident dismissal of excellent economic news.

As with so many aspects of American life today, the answer turns out to be partisanship.

In 2016, Gallup polled voters on the economy one week before the election and one week after. During the week preceding the election, with President Obama in the White House and Hillary Clinton widely expected to win, only 16 percent of Republicans thought the economy was improving, compared to 61 percent of Democrats. One week after the election, fully 49 percent of Republicans suddenly thought the economy was improving, compared to only 46 percent of Democrats. Note how much greater this post-election swing was for Republicans: 33 percentage points, compared to 15 for Democrats….

How does voter opinion differ according to party identification on Biden’s handling of jobs and unemployment? So much so as to render the 47–48 percent figure meaningless. Among Democrats, 84 percent approve, in rough approximation to objective reality. Among Republicans, only 15 percent do.

Inflation? Only 5 percent of Republicans approve of how Biden handled that, as against 71 percent of Democrats. If the judgments of both remain less favorable than on jobs and unemployment, that’s because inflation, though greatly diminished, remains above the Fed’s target level of 2 percent (though if you ask me, 3 percent inflation is pretty low).

The inescapable conclusion is that when you ask somebody whether the economy is doing well, you won’t get an answer about the economy. You may not even get an answer about that individual’s personal experience (which may or may not reflect broader economic trends as compared to one, two, or 10 years ago). Most of the time, you’d be better off just asking, “Are you a Democrat or a Republican?” Because these days, that determines how people—especially Republicans—feel about pretty much everything. If the man on the street sounds like a blowhard, hyper-partisanship explains why. The rest is just noise.

Partisan polarization has overwhelmed reason. Tribalism now dictates interpretations of reality. And of course, thanks to the Internet and social media, it’s easy to find “evidence” to support your preferred version of even the most unlikely “facts.”

Welcome to Never-Never Land.

Policy, Politics And Reality

Paul Krugman condenses our current democratic dysfunction into one pithy paragraph.

In principle, voters should judge politicians by their actions; they should support politicians who pursue policies that help them, oppose politicians whose policies would hurt them. To do this, however, voters should have a reasonably good idea of what policy is doing.

Krugman is focused on economic policy, but his evaluation of what voters know–very little–is equally true of other policy domains. As he says, In a sensible world–i.e., one that worked as envisioned– voters would have both “a reasonably accurate picture of what’s happening” and a basic understanding of what aspects of our lives are actually under politicians’ control.

As he points out, in the world we inhabit, neither of these things is true. (This observation echoes a popular meme making the Facebook rounds, to the effect that it’s easy to believe in conspiracies when you have no idea how things really work.)

Krugman uses the current gloom over the economy as an example.

Start with the state of the economy. You might be tempted to assume that in a world in which getting and spending occupies a large part of everyone’s life, people would have a pretty good sense of how the economy is doing, even if they aren’t familiar with national income accounting. In reality, however, economic perceptions are largely shaped by media coverage — and, increasingly, by partisanship.

Indeed, the role of partisan skew has gotten so large recently that the Michigan Survey of Consumers, probably the most influential gauge of economic perceptions, highlighted it in its most recent data release; you might say that the Michigan Survey has warned us not to trust the Michigan Survey.

He has appended a chart illustrating the wide differences in consumer sentiment among self-identified Democrats and Republicans since 2019. The chart shows–among other things- that today’s Republicans  have a more negative assessment of economic conditions than they did in March 2009, when the country was in the depths of the financial crisis, a time when unemployment was at 8.7 percent and the economy was losing 800,000 jobs a month.

Other data confirms Krugman’s point that people’s views on the economy reflect what partisan media and their own political preferences are telling them; they show “a huge divergence between what people say about the state of the economy, which is quite negative on average, and what they say about their own personal finances.”

Then there’s the grousing about Biden and the increase in gas prices, despite the fact that the rise is global and Presidents have virtually no control over them.

So we’re living in a nation with many voters who seem to have both a distorted view of the state of the economy and false beliefs about what aspects of the economy politicians can affect. How is democracy supposed to function well under these conditions?…

The fact remains that public perceptions have become extremely disconnected from reality — economics is just one example. It’s a real conundrum. And if you’re waiting for me to propose solutions, well, not today.

That disconnect from reality is an absolutely foreseeable consequence of our national inability to know who and what we can trust.

The constant drumbeat about “fake news,” the willingness of far too many elected officials to lie through their teeth–not to mention their unwillingness to call a lie a lie–aided and abetted by media outlets engaged in propaganda rather than news, are all bad enough.But they would be far less effective if the population at large was minimally knowledgable–if people knew the basic facts about America’s legal framework, the rudiments of economic theory and the difference between science and religion.

When people who are ignorant of  those basics are constantly told that the “legacy” news media is peddling falsehoods, that “others” are to be feared and their voices discounted, that the United States was founded as a “Christian Nation,” that scientific “theories” are  nothing more than wild-ass guesses, and much more–they are far more susceptible to conspiracy theories and disinformation. Some of those theories are so far out–space lasers, pedophiles in charge of the federal government and similar lunacies–that most relatively sane people will reject them, but others–the President is in charge of prices at the gas pump, or the economy is not as robust as it looks–are far more likely to take hold.

When we no longer have Walter Cronkite (or reasonable clones) to trust, all bets are off.


The Great Compression

In a recent newsletter, Paul Krugman referenced a 1991 economics paper in glowing terms. He said that he’s read many economics papers during his career, but very few that changed the way he sees the world.

This one, evidently, did.

Krugman began his discussion by reminiscing; as a Baby Boomer, he’d grown up at a time when extremes of wealth and poverty were far less pronounced than they are these days–a time when middle managers and better-paid blue-collar workers were more or less  financial equals. It was a time, as he reminds us, when  C.E.O.s of major companies were paid “around 20 times as much as the average worker, compared with more than 200 to 1 today.”

Although female and Black workers certainly weren’t equal, the extremes of wealth we see today–the enormous gap between the rich and the rest– were inconceivable, and the middle class was substantial. (I still remember a long-ago political science class that attributed national stability to the existence of a sizable middle-class, among other things.)

And we took it for granted. A more or less middle-class society, almost everyone assumed, was the state toward which an advanced economy naturally evolved.

Not so much, we learned as the boomers turned middle-aged. The future of inequality wasn’t what we expected it to be; America today has more or less returned to Gilded Age disparities in income and wealth.

The question, of course, is “why did this happen? Why isn’t the future of inequality what we expected?

The paper he was praising–“The Great Compression”– was written by Claudia Goldin and Robert Margo, and it showed that,  as Krugman put it,  America had gone to bed in 1939 in the Gilded Age and woke up in 1945 as the middle-class nation of his childhood, where wages were–as the paper labeled them–“compressed.”

Some of the reasons for that compression of wages are obvious:  World War II required a controlled economy. Wage increases were regulated– and the rules tended to be more generous to less well-paid workers. But those rules, and the economic controls, were lifted after the war.

Why didn’t things spring back to where they had been before once wage and price controls had been lifted?

One answer, as Krugman demonstrates, was the emergence of unions.

A strong union movement, it seems, was able to lock in the new wage norms created by the war for several decades after the war was over. And the rise of unions was clearly linked to politics: first the New Deal, then the war, created favorable environments for union organizing.

Another important element was public policy. Policy, as Krugman and many other economists can attest, can shape a fairer, flatter, more inclusive economy.

What does this tell us about the future of inequality? On one side, it’s encouraging: high inequality isn’t something unavoidable, the necessary consequence of implacable technological forces: political action can create a much less unequal society. On the other side, both the politics of the New Deal and, even more so, the policy environment of World War II, were pretty unique. Progressives are, in general, delighted with how activist the Biden administration is proving; but despite Republican cries of “socialism,” its actions are far more modest than what happened in the ’30s and ’40s.

The big question is how much of the Great Compression we can achieve through less dramatic policies, in a political environment where spending one percent of G.D.P. on infrastructure seems radical. No, I don’t know the answer.

Our ability to fashion public policies that reinvigorate and regrow that all-important, stabilizing middle class depends significantly on a widespread recognition of the economic reality that everyone does better when everyone does better.

Even the most creative entrepreneur cannot innovate and profit in the absence of a supportive physical and social infrastructure and enough people with the wherewithal to pay for his product.

How To “Gentrify”

Urban planners’ debates about gentrification have been going on for many years. How does a well-meaning local government encourage neighborhood improvement without inadvertently pricing longtime residents out?

If you are reading this in hopes that I have a suggested solution to that dilemma, you’re in the wrong place, although there are certainly some intriguing theories floating about. But there is one approach to upgrading deteriorating neighborhoods that I enthusiastically support. It’s an insight I owe to my husband, from his years as Indianapolis’ Director of Metropolitan Development.

The typical downward trajectory of lower-middle and working class neighborhoods starts with a lack of visible maintenance–houses with peeling paint, unkempt yards, perhaps even broken windows. Lack of maintenance is evidence that leads many disapproving observers to conclude that “those people” just don’t care. My husband’s conclusion was rather different: “those people” were   applying their inadequate incomes to “frivolities” like food, utilities and transportation to work.

What would those neighborhoods look like if we raised the minimum wage to $15/hour? What if desperately poor people, or those on the cusp of poverty, had some disposable income?

There is an often-overlooked connection between economic health and neighborhood revitalization. Regular readers of this blog have read my rants about job creation before, and are aware of my absolute conviction that jobs are created by demand.  The owner of the widget factory isn’t going to hire more people to manufacture his widgets if there aren’t more people willing and able to buy them.

A recent study has added to the already ample evidence for this conclusion–and to the also-ample evidence that “supply-side” economics is, and has always been (as George H.W. Bush memorably labeled it) “voodoo” economics.

“Supply-side” is the economic theory embraced by Reagan and others in the 1980s. That theory dismisses the importance of wages at the bottom of the economy—the demand side. Instead, it rests on the theory that if we “free up” capital at the top—the supply side—wealthy entrepreneurs will create new jobs and a rising tide will lift all boats.

This is the theory that has justified Republicans’ forty-year commitment to tax cuts for the rich. The theory never made sense, and during the past forty years, all evidence has rebutted it. Tax cuts for the rich have never sparked economic growth, although they have certainly made the rich richer.

And that’s what the most recent study has found.

In their study of 18 countries over 50 years,  scholars at the London School of Economics and Kings College concluded that tax cuts do not “trickle down.” In fact, they do little to promote growth or create jobs. Instead, they drive up inequality, by limiting their effects to the people who get the tax cuts.

Focusing on the bottom of the income distribution–ensuring that low-wage workers don’t sink into poverty, that they can afford to put food on their tables, buy diapers for the baby, and see a doctor when necessary (a different but equally pressing issue) and still have funds to fix that broken window and repair the lawn-mower–would do more to “revitalize” neighborhoods than many if not most of well-intentioned government programs. 

Would there still be people who don’t keep their properties up? Sure. Would there still be landlords who are basically stingy slumlords? Yes. But investments in real estate represent a considerable asset to most owners, and the fiscal incentives to protect those investments  by maintaining the properties are strong.

The real lesson behind my husband’s long-ago insight, however, is the holistic nature of our communities, and the importance of not limiting our focus when trying to improve one aspect of our common lives.  We need to recognize the inter-relationships of such things as economic development, job creation and neighborhood improvement.

And “bottoms up” isn’t a phrase limited solely to alcohol consumption.

A Trillion Here, A Trillion There…

What does the pandemic have in common with income inequality? Both target the same low-income people, and enrich the already-wealthy.

According to Inequality.org, U.S. billionaires have seen their wealth jump over $930 billion since mid-March alone.

If this interminable election season finally ends, and if–as polls suggest is possible (I’m too superstitious to say “likely”)–Democrats take the White House and Senate, that first hundred days is going to be busy. At a minimum, the latest “gift” to the billionaire class, Trump and McConnell’s unconscionable tax act, needs to be reversed. But that’s the minimum.

A September essay in Time Magazine by Nick Hanauer and David Rolf considered just how much that billionaire class has taken from the rest of America.

In this essay, Hanauer and Rolf begin by setting out the extent to which income inequality has hampered America’s ability to deal with the pandemic.

Like many of the virus’s hardest hit victims, the United States went into the COVID-19 pandemic wracked by preexisting conditions. A fraying public health infrastructure, inadequate medical supplies, an employer-based health insurance system perversely unsuited to the moment—these and other afflictions are surely contributing to the death toll. But in addressing the causes and consequences of this pandemic—and its cruelly uneven impact—the elephant in the room is extreme income inequality.

How big is this elephant? A staggering $50 trillion. That is how much the upward redistribution of income has cost American workers over the past several decades.

Hanauer and Rolf go on to explain that the 50 trillion dollar number isn’t some
“back-of-the-napkin approximation.”  A working paper by Carter C. Price and Kathryn Edwards of the RAND Corporation, demonstrated that–had the more equitable income distributions of the three decades following World War II (1945 through 1974) simply held steady–the aggregate annual income of Americans earning below the 90th percentile would have been $2.5 trillion higher in the year 2018 alone. Since 1945, that number is $50 trillion.

That’s $50 trillion that would have gone into the paychecks of working Americans had inequality held constant—$50 trillion that would have built a far larger and more prosperous economy—$50 trillion that would have enabled the vast majority of Americans to enter this pandemic far more healthy, resilient, and financially secure.

Nearly all of the economic growth of the past 45 years was captured by those at the very top of the income distribution. And as Hanauer has repeatedly argued, that extreme disproportion has left millions of Americans with very little disposable income, a situation that hobbles economic growth overall.

It also made us much more vulnerable to the pandemic.

Even inequality is meted out unequally. Low-wage workers and their families, disproportionately people of color, suffer from far higher rates of asthma, hypertension, diabetes, and other COVID-19 comorbidities; yet they are also far less likely to have health insurance, and far more likely to work in “essential” industries with the highest rates of coronavirus exposure and transmission…. Imagine how much safer, healthier, and empowered all American workers might be if that $50 trillion had been paid out in wages instead of being funneled into corporate profits and the offshore accounts of the super-rich. Imagine how much richer and more resilient the American people would be. Imagine how many more lives would have been saved had our people been more resilient.

The article goes through the numbers, including numbers that answer the question “What if American prosperity had continued to be broadly shared?—how much more would a typical worker be earning today? They set out their conclusions in graphs embedded in the article. On average, they concluded that extreme inequality is costing the median income full-time worker about $42,000 a year.

Remember, these calculations would result from keeping former income inequalities static–not engaging in redistribution down, but simply refraining from engaging in redistribution up.

The top 1 percent’s share of total taxable income has more than doubled, from 9 percent in 1975, to 22 percent in 2018, while the bottom 90 percent have seen their income share fall, from 67 percent to 50 percent. This represents a direct transfer of income—and over time, wealth—from the vast majority of working Americans to a handful at the very top.

This situation is bad for the economy, bad for our health and very bad for our democracy. It needs to be reversed.