Conversations with Activists III : Dean Baker, A Progressive Economist

Dean Baker, progressive, activist, economist, was kind enough to share some time for an interview. Readers following my blog from its earliest days will recall the extensive series of reviews of his book, The Conservative Nanny State, so scoring some time with Dean is indeed a coup.  For those who bear cynicism toward establishment economics, Dean’s star shines brightly, having predicted and warned of the 2008 housing crash as early as 2002.  Deeply committed to progressive causes, this powerhouse economist counters decisively the bipartisan consensus psychosis in Washington, dispensing easily with wrongheaded policy considerations such as Chicken Little on Social Security, or the commitment to endless, savage wars abroad.  He also is the type of dog lover who adopts the infirm and elderly, a true class act.  So without further delay, let us jump right into the discussion.

As with my previous interview, my cognitive difficulties of late slow my interaction, so bear with me; I’ve edited the discussion for ease of listening.

 

Celebrating an Activist Economist

What is an Economist?

Patents and Copyrights : Anti-Market Tools

Bank Bailouts : There’s No Such Thing as a (Totally) Free Market?

Economic Prognostication : Dean and the Housing Bubble

Economic Schism : Pragmatic Piketty and Elitist Theorists

Taxing the Rentiers : Makers of More Than $X

Origins of Dean : Chicago, Protests, Economics, and A Run for Office

Markets Follow Trade, and the Folly of Context-Free Numbers

The Liabilities of Limited Liability

The Price of Happiness

What is the CEPR?

A Money Scare : How Can We Pay for Saving the Planet?

Economy of Data

Doggy Sanctuary and Semiretirement

dean_baker

Celebrating an Activist Economist

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NP Slagle: Welcome to Scire Populum et Potentiam, to know the people and power. I’m very happy to have Dr. Dean Baker, economist at the Economic Policy Institute and co-founder and economist at the Center for Economic Policy Research, where he serves as a senior economist. He’s authored over 10 books in economics. One of which was my gateway drug into his works, The Conservative Nanny State. I wrote an extensive six-part review on this book as I found it in my own ignorance of economics a revelation. This is among a very short list of books I would recommend to every American. Dean regularly contributes op-eds to news journals such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Truthout. He’s an analyst that I believe should appear in every economic debate in the televised news media. Therefore, he’s not included in every economic debate. If I believe it should happen, it probably doesn’t. In any case, welcome Dean. I very much appreciate having you.

Dean Baker: Thanks for having me on.

NPS: Yeah. Absolutely. Just to give a little bit of background as I mentioned in the intro, your book, The Conservative Nanny State was my introduction to your works. I heard Noam Chomsky mention the “nanny state” a few times in different talks but it wasn’t until he mentioned your name that it occurred to me that the term might be more than just something that he had created. I looked it up and I found this book. The simplicity of the book, so therefore the reachability, the accessibility of it is incredible. Certainly, it jived with my own speculation about economics to begin with. Certainly makes it a lot clearer and coming from an expert like you, it’s pretty powerful stuff.

What is an Economist?

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NPS: So before we get into your origins, what do you think an economist is? What is it that you do versus what is it do most economist do? Where are the conflicts?

DB: Yeah. I think economics inevitably involves some fairly complex issues, studying data, analyze data, and knowing how to make sense of statistics. From my view though, as an economist and obviously there’s division of labor here: I do do some primary analysis myself, but first and foremost I see my responsibility as making this information available and as understandable to people as possible. It’s common for economists to throw up their hands and go, “Oh, this is complicated. People can’t understand it.” I think that is really being a cop out. Our responsibility is to talk about this in terms people can understand. At the end of the day, I believe in democracy. People can’t make intelligent choices unless they understand what’s at stake. The big economic issues have huge impact on people’s lives. If they don’t understand how those choices are being determined, how those policies are being determined, you don’t have a real democracy. I think first and foremost, my job is about looking at important economic issues and trying to present them in ways that are understandable to people. I mean I don’t mind saying that. I’m not going to deny I have a progressive bent. I think we have too much inequality. I think people should be able to count on the necessities of life, all that. But I think we will get there best by making the issues clear to people. I think most people basically agree with those things. Any case, the point is people have to understand first and foremost what’s at issue. It can be done. I just think a lot of economist, I sometimes joke about it. I think the economy is too simple for economists to understand.

NPS: Right, right. I like that.

DB: I make things simple, not complicated.

NPS: Certainly, the abridged education that I’ve had in economics has been built around laissez-faire market ideology, that the free market will be able to deliver the very best products and services for the best value, [while d]iscounting considerable obstacles to that kind of optimization. I think that what I’ve seen at least in the limited social media that I look at on this topic and this is looking at what fellow technologists are thinking about these things. They’re pretty well hung up on this notion that profits proxy for everything that’s good. To me that seems more a dogma than something that’s actually underwritten by the facts.

DB: Yeah. Well, profits … what I always like to say we should think of the market as a tool. It could be a very, very powerful tool. The point is we structure, we decided how the tool will be used. We’re don’t want people to make profits selling heroin. We banned that now. Obviously, you have a black market but we do ban. We’re better off if people made profits on legally selling heroin. It’s an arguable point. I think probably not but that’s an arguable point. In any case, for now, at least we don’t allow that. We don’t allow it legally. The whole point of certainly Conservative Nanny State really much of my writings, we structure markets to decide how profits are made.

Patents and Copyrights : Anti-Market Tools

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DB: My most obvious example here, patent and copyright monopolies. The idea somehow these are intrinsic; that Microsoft just has a copyright on Windows and they can make a huge amount of money on that. Well, you could argue that’s a good or bad thing. That’s not just the market. That was a government policy. We decide Microsoft can get a copyright and make a lot of money on it. We’re going to arrest people if they start mass producing copies of computers that contain Windows and they’re not paying Bill Gates’ money. Again, we could argue where there’s good or bad thing but that was something we designed. That was how we structured the market. What I do in Conservative Nanny State and other work is make a point: here’s how we’re structuring the market. Again, you could argue, someone could defend the copyright system and say the current system’s the best we could do and that’s an arguable proposition but we have to understand, that’s not simply a market that was given to us. That was how we chose to structure it.

NPS: Exactly. That there’s a legal framework underwriting all of that and that it’s not that somebody sat in a room and spent a long time working on some wonky optimization problem and said, “I know what will work best. We’ll just have a copyright system.” I always thought it was bananas that I would see popular songs that we might sing like Christmas carols and you’ll find that they have copyrights from one hundred and twenty years ago. At least whatever’s listed in the fake book. The fake book’s pretty old.

DB: Yeah. It gets pretty crazy and both copyrights and patents have bizarre applications. Some of the extreme ones I remember hearing that there’s… I’m forgetting the names of them [possibly General Patent and Web Defense Systems?]. Now, there’s two main services that are involved in enforcing copyrights. If a radio station plays copyright music, they have to pay a fee. If say you have a restaurant or a bar, and you’re playing copyrighted music, you’re supposed to pay. I’m sure most of them don’t but in principle, you’re supposed to pay. Anyhow, one of them was going after the campfire girls because they were singing copyrighted songs. You get some pretty wacky examples.

NPS: Right. That you have to have a powerful nanny state to enforce those kinds of things.

DB: Yeah, yeah. This is very far from a free market.

NPS: Absolutely.

DB: They’re all sitting around the campfire and they’re singing whatever songs. Now, we’re going to have the government come in there and say, “Oh, you have to pay whatever amount to so and so has the copyright on these.”

NPS: Right. I doubt seriously that my coworkers and bosses over at Microsoft would want me to say this but I’ll say it anyway. I don’t believe that the patenting and the copyright system has done justice to the software industry at all. I feel like Microsoft, Gates and Allen were able to exploit the open architecture, hardware architecture and so on in order to be able to build an operating system on top of that that they made proprietary. Because of the fact that it is proprietary and they’ve spent all of this time trying to ensure that those copyrights stay in place, we end up with products that frankly are subpar. I even told them that in my interview there. I told them that in my interview.

DB: They hired you anyhow.

NPS: Yeah. They called me back that day.

DB: They really wanted you.

NPS: Yeah, yeah. Either it speaks to their desperation or their desperation I guess, either or.

DB: Yeah. Or maybe they had admirable respect for freedom of thought. We’d like to be optimistic about that. I don’t know that’s the case but we could be optimistic that way. I’m not an expert on software. You clearly know much, much more about it but I’ve heard that from many others, that much of what when the original DOS, the pre-runner of Windows was taken from various forms of open software-

NPS: UNIX, yeah.

DB: On the government tab. Of course, it becomes proprietary and I don’t know anyone as a regular user of Windows computers, which I am that’s very happy with if you gave me the option of the computer 20 years ago and the computer I had today, you know, there’re some things clearly better but a lot of things are not. It’s not as though we could look back over the last two decades and go, “Wow! There’ve been all this great innovations, the software I have today in my computer is so much better than what I had two decades ago.” I for one would be able to say that.

NPS: And actually internally at Microsoft, this is pretty well the opinion that we get every year when we do the internal surveys. Of the pillar issues that they ask opinions on, the most troublesome for the company are the tools that we have to use internally. And though they are slightly better than what you see on the outside, just because, we’re constantly being guinea pigged, and they’re constantly trying to make sure that our systems are reliable, it’s not a good thing. The other tech companies I’ve worked at where they’re basing their systems more on open source software, much more reliability. I mean the difference is night and day. But it also raises another interesting point that I’ve brought up with some of my coworkers when they ask questions about these kinds of things. It’s one thing to patent, or copyright a complex algorithm that you can use to achieve some particular goal. And let’s say that an individual wants to benefit from that and see that others are not able to steal his work, that’s different from a company doing it. And it’s also different when we’re talking about the scale and the scope of these algorithms. I like to ask them, “How would you like to have to pay a fee every time you used the addition operator in your code?” I mean, it gets to a point where it’s just obscene. That’s like having a plumber install a toilet in your house and then you have to pay for every time you flush it.

DB: Yeah. With our intellectual property system in general, I think there’s been very little thought in the design as to, “Is this really optimal?” And you could argue for patents, you could argue for copyrights, but I think you’d be very hard pressed to look at the system we have today and say, “This is the best we could do.” And you have a lot of things that are almost like, paying for every time you flush the toilet. I mean, particularly when you get to research tools, this comes up more with patents I think than copyrights, but a lot of times you have research tools, but because their patented, they hugely raise the cost of research.

NPS: Right, absolutely. And to say nothing of medical equipment and then the pharmaceutical industry. So my father-in-law worked for Dial and for Pfizer and he let me in on a lot of the tricks that they use for evergreening, that I wrote about actually in the book review that I did for your book because I wanted to augment it with some of the information that he was giving me about how they are able to, by virtue of the way that they do the research, you end up with a mirror copy of drug molecules and usually there’s some utility to those. And it’s not necessarily the utility you’d planned, but you get to double dip and get two patents for the price of one. But I think the number that bothers me the most is the copycat drug share of the market, to me it’s obscene. So tell me a little bit about that.

DB: Yeah. Well, again we get into a strange debate, at least I find often it gets very strange when we talk about parents and prescription drugs because of course, it costs a lot of money to do research and developing new drugs and someone has to pay for that. But the question, what is the best way to do that? And again, we’ve settled on the patent system where basically what we’re doing is we’re telling companies, “Go ahead, do research and then we’ll give you a patent,” and then you basically get a monopoly on it for 20 years. You were saying with evergreening, they often find ways to extend that for number of years. Another way it’s not quite evergreening, it’s kind of a variation, is that often times companies will have several patents on a drug, and the main one may expire, and then what they do is they have a very dubious patent that they claim to prevent competitors from marketing their drug, marketing as a generic. And even though it may not stand up in court, you have an incredible asymmetry: you’re looking to come in there as the generic entry, well, you’re looking to be able to sell it at a competitive market price, that might be a 10th, even a 20th, maybe even less of what the price Pfizer charges. So there’s an incredible asymmetry if you envision a lawsuit, Pfizer stands much more to lose than the generic does to gain, which means that they are prepared to spend a lot of money in the lawsuit. It doesn’t make sense for the generic spend anything remotely comparable, because they don’t stand to gain that much. So often, Pfizer could have a patent, but they know it’s very weak, but they’ll just tell a generic that’s trying to enter, “Well, we’re going to contest this and if we lose, we’re going to appeal it. We’ll appeal to the Supreme Court. You’re going to be buried in legal fees. It’s just not worth your while.” And that’s often a way to keep generics out of the market because for them it just doesn’t make sense. Getting back to the basic picture, this is one of the things I often say to people when I’m giving a talk. I often begin, “Drugs are cheap.” And they immediately think I’m nuts. And the point that I make with that is that almost invariably they’re cheap to produce. So if you just talked about manufacturing the drug profitably, in most cases that would be $10, $15, maybe $30 to outside per prescription, and we know this because there are generic drugs here and in other countries; India as a world class generic industry, they produce very high quality drugs and in almost all cases they’re very, very cheap, whereas if they’re patent protected, they could sell for thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars, and again, it’s because they have a monopoly on a drug people need for the health and need for their life. It’s an absurd situation where people are struggling in trying to get their insurer to pay [for] hepatitis C [drugs]. There’s been several drugs recently, but originally Sovaldi was the first breakthrough drug that could cure hepatitis C, which is a debilitating, sometimes deadly disease, for $80,000 per three month course of treatment, incredibly expensive. So insurers didn’t want to pay people who were on Medicaid, other government programs, government didn’t want to pay. And you had articles about this as a big moral dilemma. Should they pay it for everyone? A lot of people with hepatitis C have lived, they’re drug addicts, they’ve done things in their life that you might say weren’t very good, should we pay $84,000 for them to be treated? And I’ll just say, okay, that’s good question. I mean, I’d probably be inclined to pay it, but whatever, some people saying no. They go, “Well actually it doesn’t cost $84,000 to manufacture this drug. It costs $200 or $300.” Again, we know this because that’s what the generics in India could sell it for. And again, they make money. They’re not charities. Like $200 or $300, that’s really a no brainer. I mean, you’re only going to spent $300 to save someone’s life, to cure them of a debilitating disease? I mean, even if they got it because they were drug addicts or whatever, that’d be nuts. So we create this huge problem for ourselves with how are we going to pay for these expensive drugs, when they wouldn’t be expensive if we didn’t have the patent monopolies. As they say, it’s a very, very perverse way of financing drug research and again, we have to pay for it. So I don’t argue that, I talk about other ways to pay for it, mostly through direct pay for the funding research upfront. Pay for it upfront and have it be in the public domain. But the current system I just think is incredibly backward, and it’s a big deal economically, but even more so this is people’s health, people’s lives.

NPS: Right, yeah. Chomsky’s read on the history of technology has been something that’s similar, that in essence, the computers that we’re using right now to talk in the vast international and actually trans-national communications network, originally it was just going to be a coast to coast network for communication. All of it was developed in the public sector, and the public sector bore the risk and lots of things didn’t pan out that we don’t hear about, but nonetheless, it was not a free market that delivered computers to us or the internet or a lot of the R&D as you point out in your books, a lot of the R&D that goes into the development of these drugs.

DB: Yeah. And even as it stands, with the National Institutes of Health, they get $40 billion a year from the federal government. Again, most of that is more basic research, so it’s not common that they’re actually developing drugs, but there are cases, important cases, AZT, the first major AIDS drugs, that was actually developed by NIH money. It was developed as a cancer drug that turned out not to be an effective cancer drug. And then in the 80s, several, probably Burroughs Wellcome was the big one, they then tested it an AIDS drug where it turned out to be an effective treatment, but a very large chunk of the expense, certainly developing the drug originally and as I understand, even some of the research done by Burroughs Wellcome was financed by the federal government. So again, you look at drug after drug, someone did an analysis recently looking at drugs that were in the last, I forget how far back they went, like last decade. Every single one of them, had a major role for federal funding. That’s not to say the industry didn’t do something. In most cases they made substantial contributions, but the point was they were building on work done by the federal government.

NPS: Right. And probably like the big banks underwritten by the federal government at the same time. So you have this extremely skewed, loss function of no way to lose and every way to gain.

DB: Yeah. It often looks that way.

Bank Bailouts: There’s No Such Thing as a (Totally) Free Market?

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NPS: So somebody that I had discussed this with had made the comment that copycat drugs were good because therefore there was market competition, as though prescription drug development occurs in a free market or laissez-faire framework. There seems to be this pervasive belief amongst intelligentsia that not only is this the usual course, but that it ought to be that way, challenging earlier points in our discussion. How do we dispel the myth?

DB: I mean, I like patents and copyrights just because they are such blatant interferences in the market; I love to point out, we can get drugs in India for, in some cases, less than 1% of what it costs here and if people want to be strict, libertarians go, “Fine, let me go to India. Let me import the drug from India.” And just to say Pfizer would go nuts if we just said, “Oh, we could just import all these generics from India. “They would put them out of business in no time. So, that’s a very clear mechanism, but there are so many other ways. I mean, one of the things that was striking to me when we had the bailout of the banks in 2008, well the market outcome of course is Citi Group and Goldman Sachs and Bank of America, they were all out of business. They got themselves in trouble because it made a lot of bad loans, and they couldn’t cover their debts. And well, in a market economy they’re out of business. People couldn’t race fast enough to engineer the bailout, to keep them going and somehow-

NPS: Basically, in both parties.

DB: And in both parties. So it was totally bipartisan. I was on the hill talking to skeptics, they were Democrats, and also skeptics are Republicans, well I meeting skeptics on the democratic side. And there were a lot of people of course who did have questions, many who did vote against it, more Republicans voted against it than Democrats. But in any case, there were those who voted against it, but basically they scared all these people saying the economy will disappear. They were saying this and, just to be clear, I don’t mean to say there wouldn’t have been greater disruption had you not had the bailouts. There would have been, but the economy would just disappear? What do you mean? The physical banks aren’t going anywhere. So all the banks that, we have our deposits, there’s still going to be there the next day. Their records aren’t going to go anywhere, and we actually do have a mechanism, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation to keep operating, keep normal bank services going through a crisis, which isn’t to say everything would have been perfect. But there was just this idea. We have to rescue them. And of course here we are now ten years, a little more than ten years later, and those banks, Citi Group, Bank of America, they’re bigger than ever. But you can’t call that a free market.

NPS: No, not at all. And I think you’re right in Rigged that the IMF showed that these big banks are able to borrow at a much better rate than they would be under normal circumstances because of the government insurance policy.

DB: Yeah. So there was research that the IMF had done, this was a few years ago now, and it may not still hold up because risks have fallen. That was still kind of in the wake of the crisis. But what their research had found, I’ve done some too showing this, that their borrowing costs were less than smaller banks because the presumption was if Citi Group got itself in trouble, the government would come to its rescue. Just as of course it did do in 2008, 2009. So obviously if you think from the standpoint of someone, you’re looking to lend Citi Group $20 million or another bank $20 million, well you’re going to be thinking, “I really don’t have much risk with Citi Group. It’s obviously a big bank and not likely to go under, simply because big banks don’t typically go under, but even if it were to go under, I could still count on the government bailing it out and making the whole.” So that means you’d be willing to lend to a lower rate of interest and that’s certainly what the IMF found, though again this was a few years ago. It was a careful research. I don’t think people disputed that at the time.

Economic Prognostication : Dean and the Housing Bubble

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NPS: And you were credited as being one of the economists that actually was able to predict the housing bubble.

DB: Yeah. This is a source of incredible frustration because it started like you see a disaster coming, and you’re trying to warn about it and no one’s really listening. To my view, it was not hard to see for anyone looking at the data, because it was just very, very clear with this unprecedented run up in house prices. And I had data going back to the early 1950s, government Robert Shiller, economist at Yale, subsequently won the Nobel Prize. He constructed data using public data sets, but he had to construct himself, going back to the 1890s, and we had never seen a run up in house prices, anything like this. House prices generally nationwide, at least pretty much track the overall rate of inflation. But suddenly in the late 1990s, they began to diverge from the overall rate of inflation and in the next decade quite sharply. So 2002, ’03, ’04, ’05, they’re rising at double digit levels. There’s no corresponding increase in rents. Rents are pretty much tracking the rate of inflation. Vacancy rates are actually high and rising. That doesn’t make sense. It’s not consistent with the type of labor market. So I’m looking at this and go, “How could that not be a bubble?” And the reason bubbles were on my mind, and not some of those bubble bubble bubble, we just had a stock market bubble, which collapsed in 2000 or 2001 and gave us the recession that year. And that was a big deal. So the idea that we might get bubbles in asset markets shouldn’t have been crazy to people in 2002, ’03, ’04. We had just seen a really big one collapse and gave us a recession, so I saw this in the housing market, and the reason why I thought the impact was likely to be really big was housing had grown to be a very large share of the economy. Housing ordinarily is around 4% GDP. It hit a peak of, I think it was 6.8% in GDP in 2005, so it was way above its historic average. And on top of that, people were consuming based on their housing wealth. So people bought a home for $200,000, and suddenly worth $400,000. A lot of people were borrowing against their homes, none of this was secret, by the way. I mean, I didn’t need special insight about this, I had to have some special insight or debt. Alan Greenspan actually wrote papers on this.

NPS: Really?

DB: They actually go back, and he had equity … I’m forgetting the term he used, something like equity withdrawal or spending from equity withdrawal. He had some term for it. I mean, I don’t know if he invented it, but he’d used this several papers, so it wasn’t any sort of secret that (a) housing construction was soaring to record levels, and (b) that people were spending based on their housing wealth. It was widely reported, and the point being that when the wealth disappeared, so did the spending. That’s exactly what happened. Of course, the bubble peaks in ’06, begins to drop at the fall of ’06, drops more rapidly in ’07, because basically the story you had in the housing market was people buying homes where they look at the house and go, “Is this worth $400,000?” They might’ve said no, but because the price is rising 10 or 15 to 20% every year, it doesn’t matter. So, you might say to yourself, “Well, I wouldn’t pay $400,000 for this house, but on the other hand, since it’s going to be worth $500,000, two years, yeah, why not?” But suddenly when that reverses, when the price is falling rather than rising, well then you look at it and go, “Oh yeah, it’s probably not worth $400,000, maybe I shouldn’t pay $400,000 for it.” And of course the banks wouldn’t make the loans anymore. So you’ve got house prices falling in ’07 and then very rapidly by the latter part of the year because it feeds on itself. And that was the story of the crash. House prices plummeted. And then of course residential construction plummeted. So as I said, it ordinarily had been around 4% of GDP, it fell back to less than 2% of GDP. So we went from being close to seven, 6.8% to less than 2%. That’s four and a half percentage points of GDP, that’d be 900 billion a year in today’s economy. So how are you going to replace that? Then you had the big fall in consumption, because again, you had all these people, their house went from $200,000 to $400,000, they take out a home equity loan, buy a car, take a vacation, maybe they’re sending their kids to school. So it’s not that was a stupid thing to do. They thought the house would still be worth $400,000, but then it ends up being worth $200,000. Well, suddenly they can’t do that anymore.

NPS: Oh yeah. So, in my husband’s family’s neighborhood in Scottsdale, we saw housing prices rise to just astronomical numbers. It was remarkable. Houses that were previously like $400,000 up to one point $1.2 million. And then all of that just completely vanished. And we used to live in the Dallas Fort Worth Metroplex, and I can remember construction happening out the Wazoo, all over the place in the areas around the metropolitan area where there were, basically just open fields and some farmland. And I couldn’t believe that, that many people would be moving into those houses, especially with so many houses on the market. But yeah, we ended up buying high and selling low.

DB: So sorry to hear that.

NPS: Fortunately we didn’t lose a lot of money, and it was nothing to complain about compared to what other people had to endure through all of that, the humiliation and the bankruptcies, foreclosures, just dreadful stuff. And the fact that this is done, and it’s understood, it has to be understood at top levels of power. Would you say that, that’s the case or do they genuinely not understand how this stuff works?

DB: I think they genuinely did not understand. I mean, I knew some of these people. What happens is you get this groupthink story that people talk to each other. They only take the opinions into account of other people that they think are really important honchos. I mean obviously it helps I’m an economist as opposed to someone just off the street but still, I don’t have Nobel prize, they don’t have to listen to me. So they didn’t have to count what I’m saying. And I remember being on a panel once, and I was talking about the risk of a house price decline. And it was a fairly prominent economist, he was just totally dismissive. He just said, “Well, I’ve never seen anything like what you’re describing.” And my point was, “No, we’ve never seen a nationwide fall in house prices like this because we’ve never seen a nation run up in house prices like this.” That seemed fairly straightforward to me. He was just totally dismissive. Like I’m talking about something that’s just other worldly.

NPS: Right.

DB: For me that was very concrete.

Economic Schism : Pragmatic Piketty and Elitist Theorists

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NPS: I liked the way that you described it earlier, that economics is much simpler than people think because I was going to say something similar at the beginning of this discussion about how on the one hand it seems like economics is much simpler than what people think. But on the other hand, theoretical economists start delving into NP hard optimization problems and Nash equilibria, and all of these interesting things that don’t pay that much attention to the pragmatic. And I guess that brings me to Piketty. I know that you’ve written about him and talked about his works quite a bit now, particularly Capital in the 21st Century, which I’ve started, but I can’t say that I’ve finished yet. There’s a lot in there. But I guess, what is your take on this that there’s a schism in the field of economics?

DB: Yeah. Well, I think that a lot of economics, I was joking about this, but this is actually very serious. I think it’s about making simple things complicated.

NPS: Yeah.

DB: I mean, of course my analysis of the housing bubble was pretty simple, and people asked me, as this was going on did I consider getting it published anywhere and I kind of shrugged because I go, “You know, it’s too simple. I don’t where it can get published.” I mean, it was basically a very simple story. And I actually had exactly that because there was a similar issue, back in ’05, President Bush wanted to privatized social security.

NPS: Oh yeah.

DB: His big argument was that, “Oh, we’re going to give people individual accounts and will make way more money in private accounts. And that was based on their assumption stock returns and what I was arguing was that you can’t have the high stock returns that they’re talking about given that they’re projecting slow economic growth and their price to earnings ratios in the stock market were already quite high. If you had low price to earnings ratios, you could do it, but we didn’t have low, we had high. So I was saying that you cannot get the returns that they’re predicting. So a friend of mine, Brad Delong called me up and said, “Do you want to do this as a Brookings paper?” And he goes, “I can get it published.” And I said, “Well, this is really a Brookings paper. I mean, because it’s simple. It’s basically algebra. What are dividends, what are capital gains, it’s adding two numbers.” And he said, “Oh yeah, no, it could be a Brookings paper, so I won’t have to do my work on this.” So I wrote it up, gave the basic algebra. So Brad goes out, “Thank you very much.” He did the bulk of the work, Krugman did some too, I don’t mean to downgrade his role, but Brad was the main actor here. But anyhow, he totally rewrites it and basically makes two points. One was an intertemporal consumption optimization model and then the other was the point I was making, which was again, basically simple algebra. Brad rewrote it, but basically presented the argument. What made it, the Brookings paper of course was the optimization model, though not too complex, but it was certainly more complex than simple algebra. When we actually presented the paper, no one said a word about the optimization model. No one could care less, all they cared about was the simple algebra, but without having something with some calculus in there that you could wave your hand and would go, “Oh, yeah, this is complicated. We wouldn’t have gotten there as a Brookings paper.” So it was just as clear as day that, “Okay, you have to make this complicated, get through the door, even though, that has nothing to do with the issue at hand.”

NPS: I wish I could say I was surprised by that, but I’ve spent enough time, been in and out of academia enough times that yes, that’s definitely true, that oftentimes you can present something that is even novel and advances the science. I had a classmate at Georgia Tech who submitted a paper to one of the theoretical computer science symposia and they thought the result was momentous, but the proof was too simple. So therefore they didn’t want to accept it.

DB: Oh God-

NPS: And they actually outright said that. They weren’t hiding it. They weren’t saying, “Uh, this really wasn’t good work.” They were just saying, “We like the result, but the proof is elementary, so therefore we can’t publish it.”

DB: It’s amazing. They wouldn’t be embarrassed that … Are we trying to advance the science or are we just trying to spin our wheels and …

NPS: Or make ourselves look so complicated that we can … I don’t know, to achieve some dominance in the field, maybe. The more David Attenborough programs that I see, the more I realize that we’re just animals. That’s a little bit cynical.

Taxing the Rentiers : Makers of More Than $X

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NPS: One thing that is in the news right now, and then I want to get back to your background because I want to make sure that we cover that as much as we can. I noticed that the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez mentioned in the news, the 70% tax rate on $10 million and above, and that Paul Krugman–actually I learned about her quote by reading one of Paul Krugman’s columns on this. And it looks like Piketty and I’ll never be able to say these names, [Stefanie] Stantcheva and [Emmanuel] Saez, I believe is the-

DB: Yeah, Saez, yeah.

NPS: Okay. That they say that it’s 83%, but through the last twenty years, since the Bush W. tax cuts were pushed through, I have told people repeatedly about the top marginal tax rates that we had at the end of World War II, when we had some of the greatest growth, if not the greatest amount of growth that we ever saw in American history, economic history. And so I wanted you to weigh in on that also, so how this 70% versus 83%, the numbers are sort of … they’re not immaterial, but the concept is important. How do we tax the wealthy in an optimal way?

DB: Yeah. Well, two issues. The more important one is this idea that if they effect the high tax rate that, “Oh we’d lose out, all these very highly talented people,”

NPS: Which is bullshit. They don’t, contribute that kind of work to the economy-

DB: Yeah, I guess I would divide those into groups. So when you get the people defending it, like Greg Mankiw was Bush’s, the head of his council of economic advisors, “Oh Taylor swift, don’t you like Taylor Swift’s music or whatever, and she wouldn’t perform if she’s going to be taxed at a really high rate.” (A) that’s not true. I mean the vast majority of people are not Taylor Swift, I mean, whether you like it or not, I am not a great Taylor Swift fan, but whatever. The vast majority of people who are in those income brackets are people on Wall Street who are shuffling money. Your corporate CEOs, the people who got a lot because they inherited their wealth-

NPS: The rentier culture.

DB: Yeah. So that’s who we’re generally talking about. But even the Taylor swifts, I mean, the example I like to use there’s Michael Jordan who maybe was the best basketball player ever. During the prime of his playing years, he took two years off to play baseball. Now suppose he had faced the 90% marginal tax rate. Would he have decided that he had so much money that he could spend two years playing baseball? Maybe he would have, I don’t know, but he may well not have, and certainly Jordan was a fantastic player and if you enjoy see Michael Jordan play, we actually might have gotten more of Michael Jordan with a higher tax rate than lower tax rate. But again, that’s not who we’re talking about for the most part. We’re talking about the corporate CEOs, the people shuffling paper, so I’m not worried about not giving them enough incentive to do what they do for the economy. In most cases they would probably do the same. And in the cases where he had the CEO said, “Well, if I have to pay a 70% or 80% tax rate, it’s not worth if it to me,” my view would be, “Well, fine, we’ll take the next person in line. It’s not as though,” I mean fair, there are some CEO who were extraordinary Steve Jobs, and though you can make complaints about what Apple’s done and everything, he was a visionary, so if Steve Jobs had said that, okay, we would have lost something, but the vast, vast majority of CEOs are not Steve Jobs. So if they said, “Hey, it’s not worth it for me,” it would not be a big loss to the economy. The part I do worry about, and you have to decide where this kicks in, is what they will do by way of evasion / avoidance because that is a loss to the economy. They both don’t get the revenue, but it also means it creates tax sheltering industry, and that’s what I worry about. So I would probably put a number, certainly below the 83%, probably some below the 70. Important point to remember here, we also have state and local taxes and in the case of say California, somebody who’s earning $10 million year is facing a 13% state income tax. So I’d probably be more comfortable with something close to the 50% because as you get to high tax rates, you’re giving people a lot of incentive to evade your tax, to avoid your tax and that’s just a loss to the economy. Again, I’m not worried that they’re going to say, “Oh, I don’t feel like working for that.” But it’s a loss lost the economy that they’re paying people to come up with various gimmicks so that, they don’t have to pay their taxes because that itself is a drain on the economy. I mean, if we have attached shelter industry where all these people are making their living by thinking of ways to gain the tax cut, well those people aren’t doing anything productive, so that’s what I worry about.

NPS: Well, it’s certainly be valuable to the economy to get rid of the tax lawyers.

DB: Exactly, exactly.

NPS: Most of them anyway.

DB: Well, no. I mean seriously, we want a system that involves as little as possible in terms of compliance and enforcement cost, so we have to ask not just about, “Oh, is that going to mean that this CEO or this Wall Street guy is going to work a little less if we have 70% tax rate?” That doesn’t concern me. It’s more, how many tax additional tax lawyers to the accounts are we going to have who instead of doing something productive in the world, they’re going to be coming up with games that. That’s what I worry about.

NPS: Right, right. I guess that I would be somewhat optimistic and hope that at least the good guy CEOs would be willing to reroute the money that they would be getting in salary back into the company for the profitability of the company. Good Lord, that’s something we haven’t even touched on, is simply the history of corporations and indefinite charters and all that.

Origins of Dean : Chicago, Protests, Economics, and A Run for Office

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NPS: But I want to rewind a little bit before we get onto that. Well, so I want to go back to the beginning for you, where you are from and what is it that interested you in economics and what is it that interested you in progressivism/activism? I know that you participated in sit in protest against the contras in Nicaragua and you had a very interesting advisor who was, I guess by all accounts, a Marxist economist.

DB: Yeah, [W. H.] Locke Anderson.

NPS: Yeah, Locke Anderson.

DB: Yeah. Well, I grew up in Chicago, under the Daley machine. I always had a sense, politics was corrupt and it needed to be cleaned up and this was back in the days of the Vietnam War. I had the sense the Vietnam war was at least a very serious mistake. It’s easy to see that a lot of things that our government was saying weren’t true. I remember I read a book [The Arrogance of Power] by [J. William] Fulbright, who was the head of the Foreign Service Committee and a big critic of the Vietnam War. And it gave the history, which I hadn’t heard. I was a casual reader, at this point I’m like twelve or eleven year old reader of the newspaper. But it was certainly an account I hadn’t heard and then realized, “Oh my God, this makes no sense our involvement in the war.” Anyhow, so I had a sense things were really not going as they should. And I actually came into economics just my last year in college because I felt economics was important, but I didn’t like the mainstream of the field. I had a professor in my last year there, David Weiman, and I got to talking with him, I was very interested in the economics he was doing and decided my senior year that I take economics with him. I decided to go to grad school in econ. You probably couldn’t do that today because I didn’t have big background, but I was lucky to do well on tests, so I was able to do well on my GREs and everything. I always had been good at math, so I was able to get in. In economics, I was always interested in like, “Okay, how can I learn this stuff to be a voice to criticize the mainstream of the profession.” That was what I was thinking about in grad school. You mentioned the sit ins at our congressman’s office. This was the 1980s, the US was actively involved, it was the Reagan years, so trying to undermine the Nicaraguan revolution, which I thought was just incredibly pernicious. I mean, people don’t know, the background I realize it’s ancient history now, it was forty years ago. There was a very corrupt dictatorship that had been installed by the United States. That’s not a euphemism. It had literally been installed by the United States back in the 1930s. We put in Anastasio Somoza’s father who passed it onto his kid. Anyhow he was very corrupt and needless to say they didn’t care at all about the needs of the people. There was no money going for healthcare and education; they were pocketing money left and right within a poor country in any case, but they weren’t sharing what they did have. And they were overthrown in a revolution in 1979 by the Sandinista’s armed revolution, they managed to overthrow them. And Carter was still president at that time. He didn’t want the Sandinistas to come to power. He was trying to keep them from coming to power. He wasn’t able to work out a deal. He was doing his best to try to work out something and basically kept them out of power while getting rid of Somoza. He wasn’t able to do that. They came to power, and they were very much committed towards providing healthcare, education, meeting basic needs of the people. Under Reagan, he very quickly got remnants of the National Guard, which is the army that does supports Somoza, and he began arming them, and they basically did a terror war–they would do attacks on villages. They’d come over the border from Honduras, there was also a group in Costa Rica. They’d come over the border, and they’d attack whatever they could, which often was hospitals or schools. As I said, terrorism is the right word. And that continued through the 1980s and our Congress person who had been a moderate Republican, they redistricted in 1980, for the 1982 election, made it a much more conservative district. He suddenly became a very conservative Republican following the district, and he supported Reagan on that. That was the basis I was in any number of protests. Actually I challenged him for the seat in 1986, it wasn’t my intention, but we couldn’t get anyone else to do it. We got the Democratic nomination and got 41%; it was not close, but it was way more than anyone expected. But anyhow, I felt that was the important thing to do. I mean, I don’t regret at all having tried to oppose the US actions there. I think we see it again today. The US, it’s involvement in Venezuela again; again I’m no fan [Nicolás] Maduro government. They are corrupt. They’ve done really horrible things in terms of what’s happened with their economy and its impact on the people. I mean these aren’t just numbers, people aren’t getting food, they’re not getting medicines, it’s a really bad story. But our concerned there, the concern of the US government is not that Venezuelan people are suffering, because that’s never been a concern of our government. It’s an anti-US government, and they want to see it overthrown.

NPS: Our presence in Latin America has been brutal and horrendous since the founding of the colonies.

DB: Yeah. And it doesn’t seem to change. I mean, you keep hoping, you know.

NPS: Every single president promises not to be an interventionist like the previous one.

DB: Yeah.

NPS: And then they say we must look forward and not backward, which I think was one of the most disillusioning things I heard Obama say.

Markets Follow Trade Policy, and the Folly of Context-Free Numbers

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NPS: Not that I want to talk about Trump necessarily because we hear enough about him, but we’ve been controlling their economies using trade agreements, which are anti-market forces. And I can’t believe that self-described free marketeers in the Republican Party believe promoting democracy or free market ideology.

DB: My guess is that’s ascribing a level of thought of planning that I think really is not true.

NPS: Institutional independence or free mindedness. Yeah, I agree with you.

DB: Yeah. So I think they’re going, “Okay, NAFTA, the transpacific partnership is coming up, how do I vote?” They’re getting the lobbyists calling them, they’re hearing the party leadership saying, and I think that’s 99% of the time, what determines how they vote. Well, what does this actually do? I think most of them have very little idea what it actually does.

NPS: I don’t know if you’re familiar with the works of George Monbiot, he’s a naturalist journalist over in Britain. He has some interesting things to say about, the narrative that people have been fed, that it is this neoliberal narrative, even though you would ask them what neoliberal means. They wouldn’t know what you’re talking about, but he thinks that we need some cohesive narrative to be able to explain to people, how our economy actually works, how we’re told it works, and what the differences are. But I think people are pretty smart when it comes to these things. They may be ignorant of the facts, but it’s not as though they don’t understand them when the facts are expressed.

DB: Yeah. Again, I think of my job as an economist is about making these things clear to people. My blog Beat the Press and what that’s about is criticizing reporting because, I think the biggest problem, of course, most people aren’t going to be reading government documents; a more informed person reads through the Washington Post, New York Times and major papers. Most people don’t, I’m saying, the more informed person and I focus on those papers, and they are not giving people information in a way that’s understandable. That’s a real big problem. I’ll just give you my pet one, [as] it just drives me nuts because there literally is no other side to it. When you see a budget number that’s expressed and in millions or billions or tens of billions, it’s giving no information.

NPS: Yes. I read that on one of your blog posts about the lack of context.

DB: Yeah. And no one, literally, no one disagrees on that. I mean, I’ve never found a reporter who tries to tell me that when they write down the transportation budget is $180 billion over the next six years, that any substantial segment of their readers, and I’m talking about New York Times readers, I don’t mean the New York Post and most of the people aren’t that educated. I mean, New York Times readers, all of them have college degrees, many have advanced degrees, law degrees, whatever. They don’t know what the budget is. So if you tell them $180 billion over six years, you could have added a zero, taken away a zero, it’s a lot of money and that’s all they know. Of course, what’s relevant is how large is that relative to the total budget? Is this big thing in terms of the total budget? A small thing? And most people have no idea. So haranguing them, it’s really not that hard to just put it in some context. The most obvious one to me is put it in percentage terms, but there are different ways you could do it. So if you said $180 million over six years, that’s $30 billion a year. It’s about seven tenths of 1% of the budget. So if you told people seven tenths of 1%, most people that gives them a reasonably good idea. It’s not a huge share of the budget. It’s not altogether trivial, but if you cut it by 20% it’s not like you have a lot of money in your pocket. If you raised it by 20%, that’s going to be a huge increase in the deficit or a big tax increase. Anyhow, if you put it as a percentage of the budget, it would hugely help in terms of informing people. Where I think this issue comes up most clearly is when you talk about a lot of social spending on the poor, that is almost very, very, very small in terms of the whole budget.

NPS: Yeah. It’s dirty pennies in the couch cushions. I mean, it’s nothing compared to the overall budget.

DB: So if you take TANF, the temporary assistance for needy families, the main welfare program-

NPS: The food stamps, yeah.

DB: It’s less than one half of 1% of the budget. The big argument, is this money well spent, is poorly spent? But it’s important, you go, “Okay, it’s a horrible program. I want it zeroed out.” Okay, we get your wish: you’re not going to have much more money in your pocket because we lowered your taxes. It’s half of 1%, less than one half of 1% of the federal budget. So it’s not all your money is going to these people you don’t like. You might not like the people. Maybe I don’t think they should get the money, but it’s really not going to affect your tax burden in any big way and people don’t understand that.

NPS: Yeah. I feel like institutionally, not just the government, the various agencies and branches of the government, but also the media don’t have much of an incentive to make things clear. An example is I’ve been staying down here in Tucson the last couple months, because of the short term that I’m on; I’ve been staying with my aunt and uncle and my uncle watches CNN almost incessantly, which means that all I ever hear about is Trump and screaming. And that literally is about it. There’s almost no content that is provided. I’ll switch on Democracy Now, and my aunt and uncle are amazed at how much stuff is out there that people aren’t hearing about. And having experts on that can spend fifteen minutes explaining something to you instead of 30 seconds screaming at other painted up people.

DB: It’s one of the things I will say I really don’t understand because I think, New York Times, which is clearly the country’s preeminent newspaper. I had this argument with reporters there for decades now. And I remember about five years ago, maybe a little longer, Margaret Sullivan who at that time was the public editor. She wrote a piece on this, my haranguing, I and others had, really pushed on this, the issue about putting budget numbers in context. She agreed completely. She said, “Yes, no one knows.” And she brought in David Leonhardt who at that time was their Washington editor, so important person there who controlled or had a lot of say I should say, I don’t know exactly who controls, but he has a lot of say about how things appear in print. And he goes, “Yeah, we might as well just write a really big number.” That was exactly the line I said, he’s welcome to take it, but whatever, we might as well just write a really big number because no one knows what these are. So here you have the public editor, the Washington editor both agreeing with me completely saying, “Look, it’s irresponsible to put these big numbers and there was no content because no one has any idea what they mean.” So I actually went out, I remember I celebrated, I go, “Holy Shit, if the New York Times does this. Well then probably Washington Post will follow, National Public Radio will follow, and if picked up, it’s a good standard.” I was going, “This is fantastic.” Nothing changed. You just go, “What is this?” I mean, I’m not asking them to do any big thing. It’s not like I’m asking them to go research some boring topic. The numbers are right there. I don’t believe their reporters are stupid. If you wrote down $20 billion, come on, you can put it on an Excel spreadsheet, a hand calculator. Probably most of them could do it in their head. This is really simple stuff.

NPS: Yeah, apparently the Brookings did a survey a few years ago. They probably done more surveys along this type since of the tea partiers and the surveys demonstrated a thorough ignorance on how much spending goes towards TANF and foreign aid. It’s interesting that they believe that more money should go to it than actually is going to it, and they also believe that more money is going to it than they think the numbers should be.

DB: Yeah, I’ve seen those stats. I don’t know if I saw that specific Brookings one. But you know, I often say if I thought as much money was going to these programs as those people thought, I’d be opposed to them too. I mean if I thought 30% of budget, people think that TANF is getting 30% of the budget they would be looking and going, “We’re spending 30% of the budget, $1.5 trillion a year, and we still have all these poor people? That doesn’t look like a really good program.” Again, and I understand some of it goes the other way. Some of them are racist, and they want to believe really bad things about these people. But you have people that aren’t racist, they actually think we want to help poor people. They just say, “Oh, we’re spending too much,” because they think we’re spending, ten or twenty times as much as we’re actually spending.

NPS: Right. And that was the case with a lot of them. They wanted there to be aid for single mothers with children, with minor children but they were opposed to welfare or food stamps. When they heard the terms that have been racially charged, then suddenly they’re opposed to it. So yeah, it makes for a very interesting lot of people in the United States. I guess there were a couple more questions I wanted to ask you-

DB: You go ahead.

NPS: Oh, thank you so much. This is awesome. I mean to actually be able to ask you questions. It’s fantastic.

The Liabilities of Limited Liability

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So limited liability, recently I had a back and forth with somebody on LinkedIn and much to my surprise what I said actually won him over–I wasn’t expecting that to be the case, but he was signing on, piling onto this notion that corporations are these magical unicorns that have been given from on high that are able to come to these optimal strategies, which of course if you know anything about high dimensional, even convex optimization, but non-convex optimization is ridiculously hard, but they somehow get in their mind that these corporations are given from on high and are able to do this all on their own and that it’s just government regulation that’s impeding them.

NPS: So I raised the concept of limited liability and how that’s actually an anti-market, which I pulled this straight from your book, so this information came from you. So I’d like for you to discuss limited liability a little bit and how it does not follow any kind of free market ideology.

DB: Yeah. I’ve often had fun with libertarians, who want to say they won’t get the government of the economy. So I go, “You want to get rid of corporations.” And they look at me like, what are you talking about?

NPS: Exactly.

DB: You and I can form a partnership, but a corporation has legal status because of the government, and specifically legal liability, limited liability. And there’s other benefits as well, but first and foremost. And what that means of course is, you could have a corporation that they do bad things to people, and we sued them and guess what, they don’t have enough money, and we’re out of luck. And if you and I had ownership and we did that, well we’d lose everything we had. In the case of cooperation, I had $50,000 in stock or whatever or I could lose that, but I could still have millions of dollars, they can’t touch that. Okay, that’s arguably, that was a good thing for us to create corporations grant them limited liability. I think it was. Well, we have to understand that is a government action. That was a policy. We’re not, free marketeers if we believe that the government should be able to grant corporations limited liability. The point I make on this, and I think this is tremendously under appreciated. Go ahead.

NPS: Oh, I was just going to say that in reading your book and then reading some on the History of the Corporation, I can’t think of the author’s name. It’ll come back to me, but I think you site in your book, that these corporate charters issued were predicated on some temporary service. So they needed to raise capital to build a bridge or pave a road with the exception of shipping and railroads and interstate commerce kinds of things because that made sense to have more of a lasting requirement for raising capital. So how is it that we have these charters issued that last indefinitely now and what was the justification for it?

DB: Yeah, so if you go back to English common law, the corporation, as you said, it was designed for specific public service, building a canal or South China, South Sea Trading Company or the East India Trading Company. So there were very specific purposes that it was started to serve a public purpose to allow, the special status of a limited liability. In England that continued to be the case well into the 19th century. They didn’t have a general incorporation law until 1867 if I remember correctly. In the US, we had it earlier, it was actually in, I think it was 1817 when we adopted general incorporation. And the basic idea there was, we have a general interest in promoting the creation of wealth. So this was a way to create wealth so companies can incorporate and have limited liability. That was the rationale. And again, you could argue whether that was a good or bad thing, but it clearly was explicit policy at the time, everyone understood that this was a government policy to promote wealth. It wasn’t just something that was out there in the world. We were going to do this as a way to promote wealth. The other point I was going to make is that, we also set rules of corporate governance, and those are actually very extensive. Most of the rules are designed to protect basically protect minority rights. So, “I own shares in Microsoft, I own,” I’m going to say 1000 shares of Microsoft or something. Well we want to make it, or I should say we either want to or not, the rules make it so that you can’t have a situation where some group gets control of 50.1% of Microsoft and then tells me and everyone else that are in the minority, “I’m just taking all your shares.” That’s what most of the rules of corporate governance are around. But the point is that there’s nothing intrinsic to the corporation that sets those rules. We could set those rules in different ways. And one of the points that I’ve been trying to make in some of my work recently is that the rules are very much skewed now to give management an enormous say. So I’m actually, people think is weird. I actually argue for more shareholder rights because what I would say is where you have these CEOs that are getting $20, $30, $40 million salaries, they’re ripping off the shareholders. And it’s not necessarily that I have so much sympathy for the shareholders. I mean most of the shares are held by very rich people, but some of them aren’t rich middle class people 401ks, pensioners also have shares. So not all of them are rich. All the CEOs are rich that we know. In that sense, I’d rather see the money go to the shareholders. But what’s a more important point to me is that this affects pay structures throughout the economy. If the CEO’s getting $30 million, the CFO, the other top people, they’re probably getting $10 or $15 million and even the third echelon you get to people who are senior, but below these people in standing they’re probably getting one or $2 million, and just stands to reason that more money is going in those people less for everyone else. So I would actually like to see shareholders have more say because I want to see them be in a position to reign in CEO pay, because the CEOs are not doing them a favor when they basically charge the shareholders $30 million for their service. You can sure get plenty of people who’ll do the job just fine for two or $3 million and this gets to a point about progressive taxation. It’s very rare that you have a CEO like Steve Jobs, the real visionary. Those people are very few and far between. The vast majority, I’m sure they’re smart. I’m sure they’re hard working, but the next in line is just as hard working. So you aren’t going to lose anything if they go, “Oh, it’s not worth it to me for two or $3 million.”

The Price of Happiness

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NPS: Yeah. And even then is anyone worth having billions and billions of dollars, no matter how talented they are.

DB: Well, that I think is at least a debatable point, because, I mean, I never met Steve Jobs, and I don’t know, he might well have been very creative even for a tenth the money he got, maybe than a hundredth of the money, there’s certainly, were you have … Getting back to Greg Mankiw who was talking, I don’t know, Taylor Swift. I mean, many of the people we think of as great artists, great musicians, they’re committed to their work, they probably would do it for our tenth of pay. You go back in time, I won’t advocate this, but how much did Vincent van Gogh ever get for his paintings? I don’t think he sold one in his lifetime. I think he was poor.

NPS: He died poor, yeah.

DB: But he was maybe the best artist in all history. And you think of Charlie Parker, the fantastic jazz musician. He died in poverty. Again, I’m not advocating that these people should be poor, but the idea that they have to get enormous sums to be creative.

NPS: To be motivated and that greed, that money is the only thing that motivates them. That sounds more like something a rentier would say is that money is the only thing that motivates him. People will do creative work, especially if their basic needs are being met. So my husband is a psychiatrist and so he’s read a lot of these reports and is and is fascinated by these reports on what amount of money it would require to make people happy. And it turns out that it’s not a lot. It’s basic necessities, healthcare, shelter, being able to provide for your kids’ college, and those sorts of things that make people tremendously happy. And if you have those things you’re going to work on what’s interesting to you. I know it’s speculation, and I’m a humanist optimist in that sense. I believe that, that’s what people will do.

DB: Yeah. Well, I’m inclined to agree with that. Of course, the key thing is not just the money that they have, but they’re secure so they want to know that they have care insurance today but aren’t going lose it tomorrow, that’s a really important thing because obviously it’s a big fear that people have today. They might think, “Oh, I have a decent job, and I could afford my mortgage, my rent, pay for my healthcare insurance, but I can lose the job tomorrow.” That realistic fear.

NPS: Yeah. What I’ve been through in the last year and a half, pretty bad health crisis, and I have nothing but gratitude for the good healthcare that I have through Microsoft that most people this country don’t have healthcare that’s that good because we have sort of Cadillac insurance policy with Premera, but most people don’t have anything like that kind of security. And it’s astonishing to me that there hasn’t been more of an organized uprising in this regard. Hopefully there will be.

DB: Yeah. No, I’m hopeful that in the next election we’ll see some real movement towards establishing a genuine universal system. I mean, I thought the affordable care act was a big step forward, but obviously that’s not go nearly far enough, but I think it was a step in the right direction.

What is the CEPR?

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NPS: Yeah, definitely. So the formulation of the CEPR, what motivated you to co-found this organization and what do they do and what are you continuing to do with them these days?

DB: Well, you know, I had been at the Economic Policy Institute, and I appreciate the time I worked there and everything. But I felt that it was overly bureaucratic because they were very cautious in everything and a lot of layers of bureaucracy. I used to joke with someone, they’d say, how long does something take? I’d say, “Well, imagine it taking it as you could possibly envision, double that and add six months.” That was obviously being somewhat facetious, but what I felt was there’re a lot of issues that, we could have an impact on, but we often had to act quickly, and I didn’t think that the Economic Policy Institute gave me that room. So I formed Center for Economic and Policy Research with an old friend of mine from grad School, Mark Weisbrot and we felt that was basically what want to. There was a lot of policy issues that we could have an impact but we just have to move quickly. And one of the big ones at that time, we had a book come out literally as we were starting it, Social Security: The Phony Crisis and everything were taking issue with the view that was held really across the political spectrum in Washington, I should say. Social security faced a crisis because I had any number of Democrats, democratic pollsters, I remember once one of them just telling me, basically, “You have to acknowledge there’s a crisis or people just won’t take you seriously.” It was based on his polling, his focus groups. And we didn’t accept that, we felt (A) the data, it wasn’t true and (B) if you talk, people would listen.

NPS: It was absurd rallying point. I had college teachers that actually would say in class that social security was going to be bankrupt in a couple of decades and that none of us could rely on it. And it just seemed ridiculous to me that something like that could ever come to pass when we have more money in this country than we know what to do with.

DB: Yeah, I remember I spoke of course around the country many times on this, and I remember, at that time I knew the social security trustees projections pretty much inside out, and I’d just go, “Okay, let’s say they’re all exactly right. Here’s what it looks like. And it doesn’t go away, you face a short fall. But literally the idea there’d be no money, that’s literally … I mean, again, assuming you never did anything, and they’re exactly right in all their projection, but when I couldn’t convince, I’d say speaking to a college class, the line it’d always go, “Okay, so we have some point in the future, is it ten years as twenty,” I’d have them give me a year, at some point. “Okay. So we’re not paying social security benefits.” So then I’d go, “Okay, so in this year …” This was back in the 1990s. “So in this year, 2015, are we still going to have an army?” Looking at me like, “Of course. ‘Okay. Are we still going to have our court system?’ Yeah. ‘Are people in Congress still going to be …'”

NPS: Get paid, right.

DB: I go, “Okay. So we’re going to be paying for the army, paying for our courts, congress people. So we’re going to have 30 million people who are over 65, and we’re going to tell them that there’s no money for their benefits?” You just go, “Okay, that makes zero sense. That is not going to happen.” So anyhow, obviously we didn’t do it. You can’t do anything alone as a small think tank. But we helped I think change the tide on that, and by 2005. Yeah. When Bush tried to privatize, the Democrats are no longer saying there’s a crisis. And of course more recently many, if not most Democrats had been calling for increasing benefits, which I think would be a good thing.

NPS: It definitely would be. My aunt and uncle rely on it critically. Obviously it’s a necessary thing to have and I don’t like part of the narrative about social security, that it is money you paid into it so therefore you’re entitled to it later, because it was set up originally paying benefits to people who had not paid into it. And that has always been the way it’s worked, that the current working force is subsidizing the retirees, which makes sense. I mean, ideologically it’s progressive, and it’s comforting, but that’s not the way that it’s spun usually.

DB: Yeah. Well, I sure like the idea that people think they have a right to it, so in that sense, I think that part of it is good because it makes it much, much harder to-

NPS: Oh yeah, definitely a human, right.

DB: Yeah.

NPS: Yeah. But healthcare also should be a human right, and it should be something that is available to everyone.

A Money Scare : How Can We Pay for Saving the Planet?

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NPS: Just as a funny aside, I try not to get on LinkedIn or any other social media and get into debates very often because my husband yells at me about doing because, it’s such a time drain. I’m not even on Facebook anymore, and I wouldn’t be anyway after the revelations of how they’re using data. But there was this man on LinkedIn that was arguing that so many of us are complaining about how we’re running out of water, we’re running out of coral reefs, we’re running out of fish, temperature is changing and there’s scarcity of oil and all these things. And he said, “But what about the real problem that there’s scarcity of money?” And I just wrote back and said, “In a certain respect, money is a number in a spreadsheet.” I mean, it’s more complicated than that, but I thought that was astonishing that people have this mindset of a gold standard, that money intrinsically is of value when it really is just supposed to be a proxy for value. I don’t know if it was a funny interaction.

DB: A lot of people have strange views. I was once debating some libertarian guy, forget the exact topic, but it was something related to the Federal Reserve Board. And I remember this woman came up to me afterwards because we’re at a reception, and she said, “Do you …” I forget exactly how she put it, but basically, “Do you think gold has intrinsic value? ‘Well, if you wanted the jewelry or something, but no.'”

NPS: Yeah, that’s what I said to a coworker … actually, my tech lead at Microsoft, he made a comment about that, that if money were underwritten by gold, then I said, “Well, the problem is gold and precious jewels and precious stones, all this stuff, it doesn’t really have value if you think about it.”

DB: But, it’s amazing. It’s actually one of the most basic social conventions, but it is just a social convention.

NPS: Yeah, it’s other otherwise nonsense that we just take for granted. And I had never really thought about that seriously until this past year, because if somebody asks you about gold, you say, “Oh yeah, it’s valuable.” Should I buy some bricks of gold and bury them under my house? Yeah. Let’s see. Well, here’s an interesting question about an actual market system. At what scale do you think market economies can exist? Obviously it doesn’t seem to work, as an overarching theme, but are there macrocosms where it does work and work well?

DB: I mean, I think we’ve gotten a huge amount out of a market economy, so I won’t deride it. I mean it just that you have to set the rules, and it’s interesting, and I won’t claim expertise on the platform economy, but it’s totally noncontroversial among economists, where you have a natural monopoly say electric companies, just to be clear when I’m saying, electric companies, I mean people who actually laid the lines to your house. So I understand we could have competing generators but no one was going to lay duplicate electric lines to my house, that they have to be regulated because, here it is, it’s a central service, and there is no competitor, so it’s totally noncontroversial among economists. I mean, maybe you could find one libertarian somewhere who has some story why you don’t have to regulate it. It’s basically noncontroversial, and it seems that we have something similar with things like Facebook, things like Google that they have for practical purposes, monopolies people, and that’s a story just like, “Well, you then have to regulate them because then they could obviously exploit them endlessly and they seem to be doing that.” That seems to cry out for regulation, both in terms of what they could do with your information because I’m sure, Facebook in particular is probably doing all sorts of things with information about us that we wouldn’t want them doing, but–

NPS: Absolutely, yeah.

DB: –but also what they could charge because again, you can’t have it … No one’s going to lay the second electric wire, no one’s going to have the serious competitor to Google. So, those are clear cases where, we need to reign them in. I mean, other aspects … To me, it’s problematic, people talk about putting up … With greenhouse gas emissions that somehow we have to restrict the market, in my view again, it’s defining the market. I mean, we know greenhouse gas emissions are causing global warming. So, the analogy I make, it’s not an interference in the market if I tell my neighbor that he can’t dump his sewage on my lawn, that’s what we’re saying with greenhouse gas emissions, that we have to restrict them because it’s not just something you’re doing pride, you’re throwing this into the atmosphere. If you have a way to … You’re going to burn oil, and you have a way to suck in all the carbon emissions so that … That’s fine, it wouldn’t bother me and there’s still issues with the extraction, but in terms of the greenhouse gas emissions. All right, fine. If you can deal with that, you can’t, I mean just to be clear. But I mean if someone came up with some brilliant way to do that. All right, well then I guess we don’t have to worry about burning oil. I don’t know, I mean it’s just, you have to think clearly about what you want the market for, what it’s doing in specific circumstances.

NPS: You said as the tool rather than overarching philosophy, but more just one of the many tools that you have. It’s interesting you mentioned the greenhouse gas regulation because it brings to mind the notion of the externality, which I heard when I was at Georgia Tech, Ken Arrow came to give a talk, and he mentioned externalities extensively and how much complexity that adds into any kind of market economy and that a lot of these things are things that we have to consider and regulate, just like what you said.

DB: Yeah, he was a very good economist. Very thoughtful.

Economy of Data

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NPS: Yeah. I happen to work in data science. I’m a statistician working at Bing Ads, although I’m not working on the actual ad space, so unfortunately you can say that I’m in that bemoaned financial sector, and I can’t believe that I found my way into it and decrying it the whole time. But I continued to derogate it. I think also there is this problem of data and regulation of data. Facebook can keep tabs on what you’re doing and then exploit that using machine learning to figure out exactly how to target you with ads. And I wonder to what extent … I was thinking aloud about this, and ended up writing a pretty long blog post about it on my other blog [Algo-Stats], some of the complexities that come up in this and that I feel like a tighter regulation is coming. But what is your take on, data and the way that it’s appropriated for profits? I get a sense, even though I know this would be hard to regulate, I feel like people whose data is used to generate money should either be told very clearly that’s going to happen or be in on a cut of the profits.

DB: Yeah, I think we have to do one or both. Again, these get into issues that I’ve just looked at very, very cursorily. But the idea that, Facebook and Google can get all this data on people, compile it. First and foremost, I think very few people appreciate how much data they could actually get on you and then be sharing it with what they’re doing with it. I mean it’s … I don’t know, what I should say. I definitely would know that I don’t want every search I’ve ever done on Google to the public.

NPS: Oh yeah. No, absolutely not.

DB: Presumably they won’t do that. They’d have no reason to do it, at least that I know. But, in principle, they have access to it, they could, I don’t think there’s any … So, I think there have to be clear restrictions on how this data can be used, say if they’re profiting from it, it seems reasonable in different directions. One, you restrict how much they can profit. You could say that, “Okay. You have to share that with the people you got it from.” I’ve not stayed closely, so I really can’t speak with expertise, but I will say, I don’t think the current system is working, meaning I don’t think the people who are basically giving them the money or happy with it.

NPS: Right. I’ll send you the article that I wrote.

DB: Okay. Yeah, I’ll be interested in reading it.

NPS: Noam Chomsky was kind enough to read an earlier draft of it and thought that it raised some interesting points. So, I think you might find it interesting because it touches on some arenas where data is being used in shocking ways. Ways that I didn’t know going into writing the article, I would not have believed that data was used in this particular capacity, for instance, it’s used to sentence criminals, and it’s used to do dispatch, police patrols in various cities so that the data can reinforce racist stereotypes because they, originally would be patrolling, say black neighborhoods and harassing black people. And if the data confirms that, that’s where they’ve been and that’s where they found, either vagrancy or under age drinking or whatever. I mean, the things that you have everywhere, across obviously all races, all features. But they don’t send the police into white communities as much, so the data tells you to go to the black communities and then they can say the data is the justification for it, and not own up to the actual racism, the systemic racism that promotes that.

DB: Yeah, it’s classic.

Doggy Sanctuary and Semiretirement

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NPS: You said that you said that you’re semi retired now to work on a sanctuary for a puppy dogs. So tell me about that a little bit and what’s next for you?

DB: Well, you know, basically I have to say it was kind of wearing on me being in DC; I got up at 4:30 AM every morning and after a while, it does take a toll on you. My wife and I both decided we wanted a change, so we’d been coming out here, Best Friends Animal Sanctuary. We’ve been volunteering here since probably about ten years ago, I’m not sure when exactly our first year out here was. And we love doing that, and it’s a beautiful area here. We’re halfway between Zion and Grand Canyon national parks, so it’s a beautiful area. I just felt that I wanted change of pace, work somewhat less, play with the dogs, love dogs. We have our own but also the dogs there, help them out and basically be able to work on a more measured schedule. What’s nice here is I work on things that I think are important. I don’t have to worry about funders, what they think is important. So I could work on the things I want to do, so my goal is to put in twenty, I’d probably put in thirty, forty hours a week but in any case, much less than I had been doing and yeah, so I think I could still make a contribution, still get involved in the debates I’ve been doing and just avoid a lot of what I considered often a waste the time getting pulled into things in DC. We’ve been here a little over six months now, and we’re both very happy with it.

NPS: I would imagine. So I feel like DC would be a hard city to live in irrespective of the fact that you have all these corrupt people.

DB: Yeah, well there’re nice aspects to DC, they have a very nice park right in the middle of the city Rock Creek Park that we actually lived close to, like the whole time [inaudible 01:33:30] in two different neighborhoods, but both were very close to Rock Creek Park. So there are aspects of it that are very nice, but we could walk literally to anywhere in the city here. It’s the tiny town, it’s 4,500 people so-

NPS: Wow. Yeah, just a final word on this. Your book, The Conservative Nanny State to me is … I mean, there may be better books that you’ve written as far as the points that you make, or the data you presented. I’m not sure, but I found it to be a revelation. I think that it … like Piketty’s work. I think that it’s … it could be as important to the lay person in understanding contemporary economics as Chomsky is in the history of technology or Zinn is in the history of the United States. So thank you so much.

DB: Thanks, that’s really quite a compliment.

NPS: So thank you very much, and you enjoy the rest of your Friday.

DB: You too, I enjoyed the interview.

NPS: Yeah, thanks. Bye-bye

DB: Bye.

The Conservative Nanny State : A Book Review Part Six : Small Business, Taxation, Public versus Private, and Roots of Mythology

In our concluding article analyzing Dean Baker’s The Conservative Nanny State, we touch on the role of the archetypal small business, taxation, and the persistent, seemingly immortal debate on private versus public infrastructure, all with respect to the pantheon of the mythology.

Small Business Blight

Baker argues that the small business occupies a unique, critical niche within the mythology : nanny state purveyors sell policy decisions often on the basis of how said policies affect small businesses in aggregate, based on the pervasive perspective that small businesses are a highly desirable feature of the economy.  Analysts across the political spectrum laud small business in editorial after editorial, such as left-leaning Huffington Post and right-leaning Forbes.  It’s so deeply embedded in our framework that to even ask whether small businesses are, in fact, better for the economy remains anathema.  Arguments range from job creation, financial independence, patent creation relative to big businesses, and the like.  Of course, we previously discussed whether patents really do represent innovation, to say nothing of encouraging it.

Before answering either way, Baker lists cases in which nanny state enthusiasts leverage the widely accepted propaganda to argue policy.  For example, Congress very nearly repealed the estate tax in the early years of George W. Bush’s administration, offering up the hapless small farmer as a would-be victim of the vicious “death tax.”  Baker argues reasonably well that the example is mostly nonexistent, owing largely to the zero bracket and the fact that most of the so-called small businesses affected are not genuine small businesses, but rather partnerships designated to be tax shelters, defined by the Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation.  The New York Times remarked in 2001 that the American Farm Bureau was unable to locate any families who lost their farms due to the estate tax.  The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities suggests recently with Donald Trump’s mad push for dissolving the tax that the true effect of repeal is shielding most inherited wealth from any taxation, as much accumulated wealth among those touched by the tax is untaxed income.  A similar argument applies to Trump’s insistence that most taxes, incidentally perhaps the only taxes he’s paid recently, should be lower to encourage economic growth.  Another interesting discussion on this topic is Nicholas Johnson’s article analyzing the actual effects of a 2012 tax break in North Carolina, promoted of course disingenuously as small business support.

In any case, Baker moves on to argue that the job creation precept of small businesses is actually misdirection, echoed later by The Fiscal Times : small businesses destroy perhaps as many jobs as they create, promoting uncertainty and churn in employment.  Further, he observes that tenure at larger firms is longer, benefits are better, and stability is greater.  More recently, a refrain from critics of the Affordable Care Act is the would-be damage to small businesses.  And yet the mandated requirements actually nudge employment quality in small businesses closer to that of larger firms.

The ACA debate hints at a larger argument that regulation inherently hurts businesses, reliably trumpeted by the conservative Heritage Foundation.  Of course, their arguments, promoted by debunked supply-siders, mandate we accept that a job is universally good, irrespective of the quality or pay.  Their predictable argument is that regulations

may be treated as "unnecessary"
if (1) the costs they impose
exceed the benefits they produce,
or (2) even though they produce
benefits that may exceed costs,
they do so in an unnecessarily
costly manner because of an
inefficient method or approach[.]

Their optimization strategy places money first, captured nicely by the following : if I successfully lobby the government to revoke that pesky “regulation” preventing me from lawfully confiscating my neighbor’s cache of groceries, I’ll save money.  Further, it is indeed inefficient for me to simply not have access to my neighbor’s food, as I have to obtain my own food otherwise.  How does this differ?  Multiply this argument into “externalities” such as dumping lead and other toxins into the water supply and relaxing safety regulations in manufacturing, and one begins to appreciate that more than the job is at stake.

Baker argues further that small businesses receive powerful nanny state protections, such as adjusted tax framework, reduced interest loans, lax safety protocols, minimum wage exemptions, and laughably ineffective self-disclosure regulation of environmental violations.  It turns out that the tax framework permits small business owners to deduct all manner of goods and services, perhaps required regardless of whether that person is a business owner (such as an automobile or a computer), costing the taxpayers.  Further, government subsidies for loans to failed small businesses can be staggering, described in Forbes and a few more hysterical right wing libertarian blogs.  That is, we the taxpayer foot the bill for unstable, mostly failed businesses who enjoy nanny state protections against labor, wage, and environmental regulation and means of pocketing breaks.  He correctly observes that citizens requiring TANF benefits to feed their children receive near universal excoriation while failed businesses and illegal deductions rarely enter the discussion, let alone suffer bad press.

Admittedly, small businesses contribute some desirable dynamism to the economy, but the usual question is whether they are an optimal instrument within free market or social experiment framework; if they were, they wouldn’t require such strong protections to succeed.

Taxes, Taxes…

Baker argues rather holistically against the ignorant perspective of nanny state promoters, that taxes are a voluntary donation.  I’ve listened for decades to family and friends bemoaning of the prospect of a single red cent of their hard-earned money finding its way to welfare recipients.  I remarked that the rate of welfare fraud, coupled with the infinitesimal fraction of discretionary spending moving into the hands of these people is virtually zero; money of higher orders of magnitude flows freely into the mass murder machine of the military and, as suggested earlier, giant tax deductions by corporations.  Tax evasion is rampant in the U.S., a partial list of which appears in Wikipedia; Baker cites a study by the IRS reported in the New York Times in 2006 demonstrating an escalation in high-dollar evasion.  It shouldn’t be a surprise that most evasion cases never reach prosecution.  What’s worse, as of 2006 thirty percent of federal taxes remained uncollected, meaning that if the evaders paid their fair share,

tax rates could be reduced
for everyone by twenty-five
percent, and the federal
government would have the
same amount money.

By contrast, if all TANF recipients, as the nanny state supporters like to suggest, got jobs and got off the government dole, we could reduce our tax burden by a whopping 1.4%.  The conservative nanny state mythology appears more and more to be a carnival mirror of stupidity.

More recently, Trump has stumped for lowering the corporate tax rates, arguing as expected that the current burden is overwhelming to American companies.  And yet the assertion, like most parroted by Donald, is patently false, as documented in April by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.  Corporate profits are growing, and the rich are getting richer.  How would reducing a largely unpaid tax burden help working people?  It’s worth remembering the the top individual income tax rate in 1944 was ninety-four percent for earnings above $200,000, or $2.5 million in 2017 dollars.  Innovation, economic growth, and a vibrant technology sector generated by state spending were humming along nicely.

Baker points out that this nanny state gentlemen’s agreement on evasion doesn’t extend to filers requiring the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), discussed by the New York Times; audit rates are readily available by income level from the IRS, documented by USA Today.  The gist is that twenty percent of those filing for the EITC receive requests for additional information, akin to a mini-audit.  By contrast, less that twenty percent of earners with income above $10 million ever receive an audit.

Baker continues with a discussion on internet sales, quite interesting in and of itself; suffice it to say that retail giants such as Amazon had escaped paying sales taxes because of ambiguities in managing purchases across state lines.  The public relations defense against self-disclosure was simply that the administrative burden was too high; this is patently false.  When I worked in Amazon Last Mile Logistics, we routinely handled varying jurisdictions in the company’s deliveries.  The complexity of operating in multiple geographies scales easily, as anyone familiar with the space should know.

Finally, he tackles the curious distinction between stock trading, casino gambling, and ordinary scratch-off and lottery tickets.  The taxation rates are astonishingly regressive, ordinary lottery wins being roughly thirty percent, casino gambling seven percent, and stock trading a brutal 0.003%!

Why is Private Better?

We’ve argued at length in previous posts about state capitalism, the economic system, despite all smoke and mirrors, under which we operate.  A pervasive argument of conservative pundits and nanny state babies is that private corporations can easily outperform public agencies because of waste intrinsic to their structure.  That is to say, without the pressure of profit mandates, shareholder backlash, and market principles, government agencies can profligately expend resources enriching themselves and preserving their positions.  By contrast, private organizations, we’re told, operate more efficiently with minimal largess.

I shouldn’t even have to quote statistics or studies to undermine this absurd notion, as anyone who’s ever worked in corporate America knows this simply isn’t true.  It isn’t to say that customer service, after a fashion, might be better in private agencies, as public agencies are generally quite underfunded, part of a scheme by conservatives to “starve the beast,” a notion to which we’ll return.  But this suggests not that all products and services are more sensibly driven by markets, as the destructive nature of markets is well-understood (and there would be no nanny state if this weren’t the case), rather perhaps customer service itself is better left to private organizations.

Donald Kettl, professor at the University of Maryland, penned an interesting op-ed in Excellence in Government, arguing a dual blame to so-called liberals and conservatives : liberals forgot to work out the details of their big ideas, and conservatives have actively, successfully fought to starve and dismantle the administrative state, an oft-mentioned strategy in connection to the recently fired Steven Bannon.  I’d disagree on some of the terminology, but Kettl correctly argues that the political left in this country ceased to operate among the political elites many decades ago.

Baker’s key arguments are that Social Security and Medicare operate on remarkably low overhead, as marketing and monstrous compensation packages for executives simply don’t exist.  He goes on to sketch an argument we’ve mentioned previously, that health insurance ought to be nationalized for the sake of the population.  As David Swanson so aptly put it, Americans can discover, oddly, that other countries exist, and that they’re leveraging universal health insurance programs, as Physicians for a National Health Program have long advocated.  We need not repeat all the arguments here, but as Noam Chomsky so often describes our current, fragmented joke of a system, it’s

an international scandal.
It’s roughly twice the per
capita costs of comparable
countries, and some of the
worst outcomes, mainly because
it’s privatized, extremely
inefficient, bureaucratized,
lots of bill paying, lots of
officials, tons of money wasted,
healthcare in the hands of
profit-seeking institutions,
which are not health
institutions, of course.

Considering, as we have previously, that virtually all technology which we take for granted originated in the state sector, and that no private agency would underwrite such long term investments, it should be glaringly obvious the role the nanny state plays in generating technology, then handing it off to private interests once it’s become marketable.  The nanny state mythology, astonishingly, convinces even highly educated people that the market somehow spins all of this from whole cloth.

Summary : Why A Nanny State?

In summary, Dean Baker’s book is an awesome read, filled with powerful arguments of which we can only scratch the surface.  He has many more recent works with additional facts and figures worth perusing, but The Conservative Nanny State is a primer for many a discussion on the proper role of government in the economy.

So why does the mythology tickle so many ears?  I grew up hearing so much of the rhetoric, and I’ll admit it seemed reasonable at the time.  With much research, I must confess the answers are quite disturbing.  As Chomsky mentions quite frequently, the rise of the public relations industry under Edward Bernays was a product of the remarkable success of the Department of Information (later the Ministry of Information) in convincing not particularly violent citizenry into warring against their white brethren in World War One.  Walter Lippmann and other premiere intellectuals of the day discovered that the power to “manufacture consent” was the only tool remaining in the toolbox, as violence eventually won’t work in an increasingly democratic setting.  Relegating the rabble, the “meddlesome outsiders” to passive spectatorship in policy and active villainy in war is a monumental achievement, and crucial to this effort is a series of scares, beginning with Wilson’s Red Scare, the propaganda around Cuba’s communist roots of the 1920s mentioned earlier, McCarthyism, and the like.  I can remember my uncle reminiscing about listening to records of Ronald Reagan during elementary and middle school, in which Ronnie explained that universal healthcare is a thing of the communists.  Of course, he neglected to mention that his government positions ensured glorious medical care well into his sad last days of Alzheimer’s dementia; unfortunately, he neglected to offer an appropriate avenue for poor white brethren to secure similar, reasonable old age accommodations, to say nothing of the black and brown.

The gist is that the conservative nanny state mythology is a remarkable feat of propaganda and avarice, designed effectively to persuade poor spectators into stumping for obscenely wealthy men with whom they’ll never associate.  Rush Limbaugh, one of the principal advocates for said state, has argued that income mobility ensures egalitarianism in our system.  Would that his variant of egalitarianism cure his stupidity.

The simplest explanation, as William of Ockham once suggested, might be correct.  Power and money has enabled an overclass to systematically hijack the debate, reframing policy discussions in their own image, just as is suggested in the Powell Memorandum.  As for the book, read it.

The Conservative Nanny State : A Book Review Part Five : Richly Bankrupt and Terrific Torts

In our penultimate article in the series on Dean Baker’s The Conservative Nanny State, we examine his discussion on bankruptcy, so-called tort reform, and “takings.”

Bankruptcy : A Nanny State Protection for Me But Not You, But Where is Personal Responsibility?

Bankruptcy has long been a feature of Anglo-American law, owing to creditors’ need for a lawful, orderly way of involuntarily dispossessing debtors, all merchants, of properties and freedom in the late sixteenth century.  In the United States, most bankruptcy laws passed within the first half of the nineteenth reflected this philosophy, exhibited in court battles wherein state-directed debt relief remained under debate.  With the ascent of the Whig party in the 1840 elections, the federal government established voluntary bankruptcy protections in an 1841 act; the government repealed the act a mere two years later, but the philosophy clearly was shifting.  By 1867, debts of the confederate states left northern states clamoring for more legislation.  It turns out that the many pushes for changes to bankruptcy laws often follow an economic downturn, generally at the request of large creditors; this ping-pong persisted well into the twentieth century, with repeal efforts following any slight accommodation for debtors.  In 1910, Congress offered corporations voluntary mechanisms for voluntary debt discharge, something fought vehemently by creditors hoping for harsher provisions.  For twenty years, the battle waged on, edging finally into the Great Depression during Herbert Hoover’s administration.  As expected, creditors and debtors alike rushed to the nanny state for new protections in light of unforeseen, devastating economic realities.  By 1938, sufficient support was available to pass the Chandler Act, named for its primary advocate Congressman Walter Chandler, Democrat from Tennessee, reviewed in an article appearing in The Fordham Law Review in 1940.  Though we’ll pass over the technical details, suffice it to say the Chandler Act represented a study-driven overhaul aimed at updating the Nelson Act of 1898.  For forty years, minor changes appeared here and there, until the passage of the Bankruptcy Reform Act of 1978, a culmination of ten years of hearings and studies, replacing the Nelson Act entirely.  In the years to follow, Congress continued adjustments here and there, representative of the dual difficulties in corporations and creditors fighting to further ensnare debtors while often suffering the same fate themselves.  The complete history is quite interesting, and one can find a worthy read in Charles Jordan Tabb’s The History of the Bankruptcy Laws of the United States.

Dr. Baker’s discussion focuses more on the most recent overhaul of bankruptcy law, the constructively-named Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005.  Nanny state apologists suggest individuals who file for bankruptcy are irresponsible spend thrifts who deserve to suffer, but shareholders can escape such difficulties through mechanisms described above.  Well understood is that medical bills sit nicely in the plurality of causes, as described in a report in 2013 by CNBC.  Baker frames the issue quite effectively, describing the large jump in total credit card debt from $100 billion in 1980 to $800 billion in 2004, the time of his writing.  Value Penguin reports more recent statistics gathered from the Census Bureau and the Federal Reserve, exhibiting a peak of $900 billion at the time of the financial crisis, a slump, but later exceeding the 2004 level as of 2016.  Baker argues that the explosion of this kind of volatile debt indicates

that the risk of default on these
loans was not a serious obstacle
to credit card lending[.]

Further, according to Jeremy Simon while writing for CreditCards.com , the so-called bankruptcy reform passed in 2005, misleadingly called “Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act,” increases the deluge of credit offers to recent filers of bankruptcy : the longer waiting period and tighter restrictions for a subsequent filing offers these sharks the opportunity to bathe in the blood of consumers.

Baker attacks the absurd bankruptcy reform from a different perspective : first, true proselytes of the free market should not want government protection for lenders who make bad choices; in a free market, they would naturally default themselves.  Second, this very protection expands conservative nanny state’s role in the economy rather significantly by empowering it further as a debt collector, contravening further the argument that smaller government is a genuine objective.  As suggested above, the leap in national credit card debt in recent years can’t possibly follow the capacity for repayment, so these lending institutions generally need not concern themselves with stated objectives of offering credit; upon failure to collect bad debts, they can, as Noam Chomsky says, “run cap in hand to the nanny state.”  The bankruptcy bill is one such startling example, though the ugliest hypocrisy of all followed with the bank bailout during the financial crisis : banks need the government to help them crush consumers, but when they run aground, they require a big, powerful state to save them.

Any discussion on bankruptcy leads to consideration of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), a financial agency designed to protect financial institutions in international exchanges.  Baker describes some of the history, particularly how the IMF originally regulated exchange rates under the Bretton Woods system until 1973; the IMF thereafter played the role of international debt collector.  We’ve discussed Bretton Woods before, an international framework designed by Harry Dexter White and John Maynard Keynes in 1944 to prevent repeats of the Great Depression.  For nearly thirty years, the United States experienced tremendous economic growth with no recessions.  In 1971, Richard Nixon eliminated the dollar’s status as a commodity currency, or currency based on gold, transmuting our bills into fiat currency, or currency by governmental decree.  With that and other unilateral decisions in what historians call Nixon Shock.  Though a more thorough treatment of the history of Bretton Woods is instructive (see Chomsky’s discussion), suffice it to say that both purposes of the IMF serve at the pleasure of the nanny state, though the latter day purpose as debt collector serves the financial sector more directly.  Free of the Bretton Woods regulatory apparatus, the financial sector has become extremely wealthy with unrestricted flow of capital diminishing regulation.  The IMF, to Baker’s point, imposes harsh austerity (discussed in a previous post) on nations if they refuse to meet terms imposed by creditors; that is, the IMF protects collectively foreign investors, much like that institution we’re taught is so destructive : the union.  Baker says it best, arguing that

[i]n a free market, there is no place
for a supranational institutional
like the IMF to rewrite the rules to
ensure that creditors are protected.

In a more competitive environment, any creditor could loan any nation needed funds, easily undercutting adversary firms with lower interest rates.  Creditors instead unionize through the IMF to drive nations into bankruptcy.  Baker argues that risk is the business of lenders, and they should suffer the consequences for making bad choices.

Fat Lawyers Gave You McDonald’s Coffee Lawsuit

Baker takes up the topic of tort reform, a favorite windmill the quixotic chicken-littles of the nanny state frequently fan in the faces of the public.  We’re told frequently that greedy lawyers and ne’er-do-wells are robbing hardworking industrialists blind, and that the nanny state must artificially curtail the requisite damages paid by these innocent business elites.  It’s most reminiscent of Ronald Reagan’s inane, racist complaint that “welfare queens” are driving “welfare Cadillacs”.  In fact, the conservative nanny state caters to a host of fascinating topics losing the good hard-working conservatives hours of sleep at nightly, including criminal innocence-by-insanity, lazy people loafing off disability benefits, and, most recently, insistence that illegal immigrants are committing vicious, hideous crimes, a blatant and highly destructive lie repeated ad nauseum by Donald Trump.  It turns out, quite expectedly for anyone willing to devote a paltry few minutes to research, that none of these would-be blights on society actually exist to any appreciable extent.  In fact, tax fraud by wealthy elites is a far more pervasive problem than any of the strawmen aforementioned.

And yet these myths leave an indelible imprint on the impressionable minds of the nanny state’s protectors.  Take torts for instance; Baker describes two stories I remember growing up hearing, the black woman who sued McDonald’s for burning her with coffee, and the story of a property owner sued by an intruder who was injured on the owner’s property in the course of a burglary.  Astonishingly powerful is the propaganda surrounding the cases, as we in a poorer segment of society literally would fall over ourselves to defend the honor of McDonald’s and this property owner.

I happened upon the McDonald’s case again during a legal presentation at Southern Methodist University; the legal scholar offered a piece of the case I hadn’t heard in my household : the woman only asked for medical coverage from McDonald’s, as they had received hundreds (more likely thousands) of complaints through the years that coffee served at 180 degrees Fahrenheit is dangerously hot.  Baker points out one more piece of the puzzle : McDonald’s served their coffee at such a high temperature to mask the bad taste of a cheap brew, thereby increasing profits while distributing the cost to burned consumers.  Again, this is reminiscent of the Ford Pinto case we discussed previously.

The Consumer Attorneys of California offer a good read on the McDonald’s case; suffice it to say a 79 year-old woman spilled the coffee on her thighs, burning herself so badly that she required skin grafting.  McDonald’s, putting customers first, refused to help her until a court compelled them to make up for their mistakes.  The case of the burglary really was about a high school student climbing on the roof of a gym on school property, and a skylight, painted over, gave way when he stepped on it.  A court correctly asserted that public facilities ought to have better protections in place.

Both of these cases are rare instances in which a court awards damages for torts, or wrongs leading to civil liability.  It turns out that less than three percent of civil cases ever lead to a jury trial, as most are decided much earlier, generally through settlement.  It’s revealing to consider a favorite of the tort reformists, medical malpractice.  In the last four decades, tort reform aimed at streamlining the malpractice liability system has managed to shift larger and larger profits into the pockets of insurance companies; Kenneth Thorpe, professor at Emory, published an article in Health Affairs discussing trends in states adopting caps on medical damages, finding a statistically significant decrease in premiums but inconclusive on whether the liability system is genuinely deterring substandard care.  Further, it might come as a surprise that few victims of malpractice actually sue; a Harvard study published some years ago found that only one in eight victims ever leverage the court system.  More recent work appearing in Medscape suggests the number is closer to one in twelve, and that doctors have at their disposable proven means of reducing the probability of lawsuits.  Interestingly, members of my family have had opportunities here and there to sue for malpractice, yet they never did, often citing the “litigious” nature of society, a win for propagandists.

Baker continues the discussion with a partial explanation of the more general costs associated with the current legal system, and that standardizing law and removing much arcane procedure could drive down prices.  But he contends, I think correctly, that limiting fees for lawyers’ services contravenes market ideology.  Fighting corporations is nasty business, as anyone who’s ever had to deal with a medical insurance company knows.  And despite what nanny state conservatives may tell us, the deck is very heavily stacked in their favor.

He also points to the importance of punitive damages, in that suing and punishing a corporation for endangering the public is, in fact, a public service.  It’s hard to even quantify the damage done by McDonald’s broiling hot coffee policy, all in the name of profits.  I’m reminded of all the time one waits on hold when trying to reach customer service for any company, be it cell phone providers, internet providers, or, as mentioned before, insurance companies.  In the interest of profits, these companies understaff their departments, using badly recorded music and automated menus to delay customers for several minutes, sometimes hours.  These hidden costs, or externalities, don’t directly figure into their budgets, as someone else pays that price.  Punishing them for bad service seems perfectly in keeping with market ideology.

Takings : Gimme More, Take Less…

Baker ends the chapter with a short discussion on “takings,” or costs exacted by the government in exchange for property confiscation or laws and regulations which reduce the value of property.  That is, so-called property owners, or corporations, might be quite unhappy when the government enforces regulation limiting how much they can pollute on their property, perhaps cutting down profits or lessening the value of owning the property.  And yet, when government intervention substantially increases the value of property through infrastructure and habitat clean-up, property owners happily accept the benefits without a direct repayment to the taxpayer.  For instance, farmland along the major interstate near my hometown, Interstate 35, was not particularly valuable before the interstate was constructed.  Commercial zones along the interstate are quite a boon for landowners, as gas stations become quite important along long stretches of highways.

The major point here is that nanny state conservatives dislike any regulatory action diminishing property value but freely accept every last penny they can bilk from beneficial government action.  Baker nicely suggests that true devotees of market ideology ought to accept freely that lessening of property values due to government intervention is a cost of doing business, and if they were savvier customers, they’d have foreseen it, harkening to the dogma of personal responsibility they hold so dear.

Next time, we’ll conclude this series with a brief summary of Baker’s discussion on small businesses and taxes.

The Conservative Nanny State : A Book Review Part Four : Demonized Unions and Glorified Patents

Continuing our series analyzing Dean Baker’s The Conservative Nanny State, we’ll touch on a few key features quite effective in funneling wealth upward with no obvious systemic advantage : undercutting of collective bargaining and bestowal of monopoly status for intellectual property.  Baker argues, astutely, that neither of these features really make sense in a free market system, as collective bargaining is a market-based strategy for assuring at least a living wage for tradespersons vying for limited jobs, and government-conferred monopolies are illogical when producing, say a life-saving drug, is incredibly cheap.

Repeat After Me : Unions are Evil, Unions are Evil…

Baker touches briefly on elite hostility to organized labor for mid-to-lower income tradespersons, arguing that it’s an important feature of the conservative nanny state.  It’s certainly easy to see why, as trade unions, as we’ve discussed previously, generated most of the benefits we derive from employment, including paid holidays, vacation, healthcare, weekends off, and the like.  Yet the prevailing sentiment is often quite negative, as documented by Gallup since 1936.  Even in my own work experience have I witnessed the effects of this propaganda.  In working for the aforementioned defense contractor, I remember a strike executed by union members when the parent company chose to slash benefits.  Coworkers scoffed at and mocked the picketers, bemusing of the scabs and the internal contortions to cover the labor loss.  I heard internally that an upper level manager actually physically assaulted one of the picketers after a heated exchange.  The strike failed, the union workers sustained a more undesirable benefits package than had been offered previously, a remarkable victory for anti-unionists among the elites.

My own personal experiences in corporate America offer further revealing data regarding elite hostility toward unionization : both in working for corporate Uber and Amazon, I encountered many of the low wage employees (dubiously mislabeled as free contractors) among the drivers, cabbies in the case of Uber and delivery drivers in the case of Amazon.  I met probably seventy drivers while working for Uber, as the company would spring for free Uber rides home if I remained in the office past ten o’clock at night.  Though the drivers were understandably reticent to discuss with me, a corporate employee at the time, their opinions on Uber’s downward pressure on their wages, I generally could ease them into opening up after I shared the long labor history of America with them.  The picture was universally bleak : living, breathing people trying to survive sharp increases in the cost-of-living in San Francisco found themselves in a harsh, highly competitive trade with a quite hostile corporate sponsor.  Uber routinely would fire drivers with little or no warning, all based on a very arbitrary rating system with very little means of disputing a bogus negative rating.  Uber also sharply cut wages on these drivers.  The picture among Amazon drivers was very similar : no benefits and fast firings were the law of the jungle, true even in more liberal democracies such as the United Kingdom.  I informed virtually all of these drivers I met that the only proven means of driving wages upward is collective bargaining through unionization, something the drivers tell me Uber harshly demonizes; see The Verge for a discussion on Seattle’s efforts to protect Uber drivers.

America’s sordidly violent labor history features an unusually sharp hostility toward trade unions for semi-to-unskilled labor, as they are harmful to profits.  A rather salient piece to the puzzle is the National Labor Relations Act (or Wagner Act) of 1935, conferring the right of private sector employees to organize unions and participate in collective bargaining; the National Labor Relations Board received special attention during my Uber employee orientation, as one of the chief legal officers lambasted the committee as desperate bureaucrats hell-bent on squeezing money out of the innocent drivers.  In remarkably effective legalese rhetoric, she argued that the NLRB is out-of-touch and irrelevant in a world where Uber drivers can nab a fortune in driving, thus, it’s a charity to classify drivers as contractors.  Though she aptly described the experience some of the earlier “contractors” enjoyed, an unnervingly large fraction of latter-day drivers never managed to attain this golden driver’s seat.  Certainly, Uber represents something of a revolution in ride-sharing, but why not support one’s workforce?

Returning more to the historical context, the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 outlawed secondary strikes, strikes instigated by workers of one trade expressed in solidarity with another trade’s ongoing strike.  You read that correctly : a painter’s union cannot legally strike in solidarity with carpenters participating in a union strike.  Though there is much to discuss on the topic of organized labor (and we’ll touch briefly on a few of Baker’s further points momentarily), suffice it to say the corporate nanny state mythology somehow manages to convince highly-compensated workers that not only is labor solidarity unnecessary (the market argument), but that they themselves derive no protectionism from said nanny state or any other well-to-do analog of the trade union, the former of which is a remarkable feat of propaganda, the latter of which Baker quite powerfully decimates as we discussed earlier.

Patent Trolls and Copyright Cows : The Geese Laying Golden Eggs

Baker turns attention to two extremely powerful, state granted protections for individuals and corporations : patents and copyrights.  Again, conservative nanny state apologists might consider these instruments to be laws of nature, naturally forming optimal strategies in the fantasy land of free markets.  By contrast, Baker aptly describes them correctly as “government-granted monopol[ies].”  That is, an agency, be it individual, government, non-profit, or corporation, can apply for patent or copyright protection on an invention, idea, artistic expression, and so on, ensuring that agency time-limited monopolistic control over usage and sales.  The argument in favor of these anti-market practices is that they encourage innovation and creativity, generally socially positive notions.  In fact, the power derives directly from the U.S. Constitution : under Article I, Section 8, we have that Congress has the power

[t]o promote the Progress of Science and
useful Arts, by securing for limited 
Times to Authors and Inventors the 
exclusive Right to their respective 
Writings and Discoveries.

This power owes to the guild and apprentice system from the Middle Ages, Baker explains, as a means of increasing innovation and scientific discovery.  Yet, are these the most optimal means of doing so?  Certainly, executives of Merck, Pfizer, Apple, Google, Amazon, and a lengthy list of other companies are quite wealthy.  But do these state-guaranteed monopolies efficiently generate innovation?  My own background includes an understanding of the evolution of software development, and the open source standard (free and open to the public) has grown tremendously in popularity in recent years.  Well-known to software developers is the superior reliability in Unix-based operating systems relative to that of proprietary models.  It’s reasonably understood history that the biggest software firms in large part owe their success to IBM’s PC open architecture strategy, suggesting an open OS standard could have created a proliferation of competitive products in both basic kernel (OS) space operations and those in the user space.  Though we have many advances now in personal computing, much of the game-changing advancement has occurred either in the state sector (discussed in previous posts) or in highly competitive, less monopolistic settings.

Baker describes an interesting economic parallel : dead-weight loss is the difference between patent-protected and market-based prices, though he scoffs that his fellow economists find no fault with this loss with respect to pharmaceutical prices, despite their hostility toward the same loss incurred in tariffs.  Technical economics aside, Baker poses the critical question : are patents and copyrights the most optimal instruments of their kind for encouraging and rewarding innovation?

To answer the question, Baker points to a highly controversial beneficiary of the patent system : the drug research lobby.  If we are to believe conservative nanny state apologists, he argues, the patent system should be the most capable protection in assuring innovation in medical advances and lifesaving technology.  Patents account for a factor four multiplier in drug costs, meaning if a generic costs one dollar, the corresponding brand-name drug costs four dollars, according to the final Statistical Abstract of the United States, the 2012 edition.  (We could discuss the highly politicized, stupid decision to discontinue this long running report published by the U.S. Census Bureau, but we’ll defer for now.)  As of the publishing date of the book, the factor was three, meaning the divide has grown by thirty-three percent.  Pharmaceutical companies offer exactly the argument as described above, despite large fractions of profits wasted on marketing and executive salaries.  Overall, Baker reports $220 billion in drug sales in 2004, confirmed by the aforementioned report.  By 2010, this number grew to nearly $270 billion.

Because patent protection ensures higher drug prices than could otherwise be paid, literally millions of Americans each year skip medications to save money.  Harvard Health Publications reported in 2015 cites a survey by researchers Robin Cohen and Maria Villarroel that eight percent of all Americans fail to take medications as directed because of lack of money.  As expected, older and less well-insured Americans missed dosages in higher numbers, but astonishingly, six percent of Americans with private insurance skimped on their medications.  That is to say, the private insurance system, adored by conservative nanny state apologists, forces Americans further into poverty and costs too much.  A report in 2012 by The Huffington Post indicates that these pharmaceutical companies spend nineteen times as much on marketing as they do on research, suggesting that the huge windfall of patent protection isn’t really going to good use.

Baker points to an even more serious consequence of artificially ballooning prices : black market drugs.  A strategy comparable to “medical tourism,” discussed earlier, leads Americans to order potentially dangerous drugs from foreign countries.  This steady flow of both illegally and legally obtained medicines is completely expected under a system in which these millions of Americans self-report failing to take drugs for lack of money, a failure of the patent system.

Perhaps most damning is Baker’s argument with regard to copycat drugs, or drugs designed to mimic the behavior of a patented, available drug.  Pharmaceutical companies have discovered that hitching themselves onto bandwagons of popular, patent-protected drugs of high import (such as allergy, diarrhea, and heartburn medications) is extremely lucrative.  That is, rather than invest money and energy on new lifesaving drugs and technologies, they try to replicate something in the mainstream by tweaking a few formulas.  As of 2004, two-thirds of all newly approved drugs in America were copycats, according to the Food and Drug Administration.  That leads to a startling number with regard to where the research money goes : sixty percent of research dollars goes to such wasteful creations.  So sixty percent of medical dollars, private and public, do not promote innovation at all, because of the patent system.  Other inefficiencies of said system appear in a 2015 report by BBC : for instance, many drug companies employee “floors of lawyers” to fight in court for patent extensions, a strategy interestingly called evergreening.  Dr. Marcia Angell, former editor for The England Journal of Medicine, discussed in The Canadian Medical Association Journal drug companies copying their own drugs for patent extensions, an example being Nexium and Prilosec developed by AstraZeneca : the drug company hiked the price on the outgoing to migrate patients onto the incoming, hoping to retain marketshare once the patent expired on the outgoing.

The aforementioned pair of drugs are examples of enantiomers, or drug molecules equivalent in structure and form, one a mirror image of the other.  These arise naturally in the course of development, often with very similar physiological interactions; thus, the practice of patenting both separately is rather suspect.  In “Enantiomer Patents: Innovative or Obvious?” appearing in the Pharmaceutical Law & Industry Report, Brian Sodikoff, et al. discusses the legal standards in doing so, suggesting the patent system overly caters to the corporations.  A few other examples of double-dipping are Lexapro and Celexa, and Ritalin and Focalin.

It turns out that drug companies leverage several tricks in the spirit of the foregoing to stretch the lifetimes of patents, including

  • rebranding mixtures of existing drugs, such as Prozac and Zyprexa to obtain Symbiax,
  • morphing generic drugs into new drugs by adjusting dosages, such as Doxepin into Silenor,
  • repackaging an existing drug as is for a new purpose, such as Wellbutrin and Zyban, and Prozac and Sarafem,
  • creation of extended release variants of existing drugs by established mechanisms, such as Ambien and Ambien CR, and Wellbutrin and Wellbutrin XL,
  • changes of delivery mechanisms, such as Ritalin as a pill and Daytrana as a topical patch,

among others.  In each of these cases, big pharma manages to hike the price substantially, even when cheaper generics are available with adjustable dosages.  These corporations argue they should receive full patent protection as though they devoted the same amount of resources for researching the copycat as they did for developing a brand-new therapy from scratch, a preposterous claim. What’s worse, drug reps, or prettified agents armed with high discretionary credit routinely accost physicians, offering expensive samples and lavish luncheons for free; NPR reported earlier this year that the drug rep interaction significantly increases the number of costly prescriptions written by doctors.  Though we could discuss these inefficiencies and contradictions more, we’ll leave it at that.

By the previous arguments, we certainly can begin to believe that patents and copyrights probably aren’t the most efficient means of promoting innovation, as Baker correctly asserts.  So how does one promote innovation?  Baker suggests raising government investment in research, establishing a grant and prize system aimed at spurring innovation.  Researchers would strive toward successful development of lifesaving medical technology, competing jointly for grants to fund their work.  Upon successful innovation, they could receive prize money commensurate with the societal benefit.  Upon acceptance and approval, their contributions would become public domain, so drug manufacturers could compete on the open market for the cheapest way to produce the drugs, much like application developers could leverage IBM’s open architecture.  As Baker observes, this isn’t the only approach, but it certainly is worth trying, considering the current system is so remarkably wasteful.  Since the government confers the patents and copyrights for the public good, the government could ostensibly leverage other instruments to promote “the Progress of Science and Art.”

Next time, we’ll consider Baker’s arguments on bankruptcy, torts, and takes.

Shyam Kirti Gupta and Shyam Kelly Gupta contributed to this article. 

The Conservative Nanny State : A Book Review Part Three : Myths of Corporations and Truths of the Federal Reserve

Continuing our series of analysis on Dean Baker’s The Conservative Nanny State, we attempt to disrobe the corporation as the nanny state fraud it has become, and demystify the role of the Federal Reserve in profoundly affecting the livelihoods of low income earners.

In the Beginning, God Created the Corporation…

Baker offers quite a thoughtful analysis around the mythology surrounding corporations, a key feature of the conservative nanny state.  The typical argument is that corporations, free and independent, would follow the market harmoniously but for unnecessary, inefficient government interference; this laughable, demonstrably false assertion is an astonishing feat of propaganda, given even a slight historical context.

Helpful in this discussion is a few notes on the definition and history of what is this assumed-to-be essential feature of a market system : in Anglo-American law, a corporation, historically, was an organization created by a state-issued charter to raise capital for advancing some good-will state objective, such as building a bridge or paving roads.  Incorporation was a temporary status, as corporations generally (with a few notably understandable examples, such as in those managing railroads, trade, and shipping) dissolved upon completion of the state’s tasks appearing explicitly in said charter.  Charters of increasingly long duration appeared as the machine of war industry raged feverishly during America’s conflict with Britain in 1812, as discussed more thoroughly in Mansel Blackford’s The Rise of Modern Business in Great Britain, the United States, and Japan.

So if the corporate charter historically traces roots to some set of concrete state goals, why ought investors bother asking the government for articles of incorporation for other business endeavors?  After all, businessmen were free, as they certainly are now, to form partnerships to accomplish whatever financial objectives they chose.  It turns out that articles of incorporation offer something that private partnerships do not : limited liability, or state-conferred immunity for shareholders from both civil and criminal penalties, as well as a guarantee that personal losses cannot exceed the value of one’s investment in said corporation.  That is to say, I can invest, say, $100 in a corporation.  If the corporation commits any and all manner of illegality, I cannot to a large extent suffer any legal charge or punishment, unless I were actually “directly” complicit in the crimes.  More clearly, an investor is not liable for damages rendered with his investment, unless he directed or carried out damages himself.  Further, if my $100 becomes $1000, I get to keep the $900 profit.  But if the company files for bankruptcy with colossal debts say proportionate to thousands or millions with respect to my original investment, I can only lose my $100, and nothing more; lenders to the corporation eat the cost.  Sounds like a fantasy, doesn’t it?

This happens to be an example of what Baker terms takes, or one-sided exchanges offered by the nanny state to individuals.  In data science and statistics, we have another term for this phenomenon : a capped loss function, a loss being a penalty we incur given some random event.  A curious, yet substantial boon for shareholders is that of capped, left-skewed loss function; that is, they take a risk in investing their money, but they can lose no more than that, even if a company, such as Lehman Brothers, defrauds millions with overly risky speculative financial instruments, as in the financial crisis of 2007, or the Enron bankruptcy in 2001, costing thousands their retirements.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that now the government forges charters of indefinite duration.   And the masters of these corporations want more than just the perks listed above : they claim these tyrannies are, in fact, flesh-and-blood persons.  For instance, we can point to the infamous Citizens United decision in the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010 declaring that corporations can contribute vast sums to political causes under the guise of first amendment protection.  More recently, a 2014 decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. asserted freedom of religion for corporations by exempting them from the mandate to provide contraceptive care under the Affordable Care Act.   Though these decision receive deservedly bad press about being turning points in corporate take-over of our democratic institutions, it’s worth remembering that corporations have enjoyed the rights of personhood for quite a long time.  In 1886, the Supreme Court declared that corporations should receive equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution in Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Co., despite the intent of the amendment being protection for emancipated slaves.  For more on the history of the corporate personhood dogma, see a report by the Brennan Center for Justice.

So Baker is quite correct in asserting that such a Big Rock Candy Mountain experience wouldn’t be imaginable without a powerful nanny state to guarantee its advantages.  Further, he argues quite pointedly that

...a serious discussion must begin with a
basic truth : the corporation does not
exist in a free market[,]

meaning the free market ideology wouldn’t bear risk of the magnitude corporations routinely undertake.  A familiar theme by now should be that the fantasy begins and ends with government intervention.  Another amenity Baker raises is shareholder anonymity : if I want to invest in a company which participates in child labor exploitation where it’s legal, I can do so without much concern about being discovered.

As it turns out, this is increasingly unavoidable with creation of multinationals, or conglomerates of varied businesses who deal across continents where legal protections for citizens vary.  It might not come as a surprise that these multinationals tend to farm out factory and dangerous work to countries where they need not observe ethical labor practices; Amnesty International has long documented such practices in Indonesia, including slave and child labor on palm oil plantations.  Other examples include Apple’s use of child labor through the manufacturing giant Foxconn and Walmart profiting from prison labor, though we can point to countless other examples of labor abuse, human trafficking, and complicity in organized crime, documented in various media reports and by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

And as it turns out, the story gets worse : what should be a state tool designed to improve the general welfare has enjoyed ever-diminishing oversight while a narrowing of focus : in 1919 the Supreme Court ruled that profits are the lone objective of incorporated companies in the decision Dodge v. Ford.  That is, not only are they a shield from prosecution for shareholders and a safety net against personal financial liability, they must pursue profits, placing any other priorities as secondary.  Everything else is public relations, something to which we’ll return later.  Sounds rather destructive, doesn’t it?

 We can actually point to a much more comprehensive list of corporate atrocities in the name of profit-seeking, such as

  • vicious atrocities in Central America (described somewhat in earlier posts) perpetrated by the United Fruit Company, as described in Big Fruit,
  • business decisions to intentionally continue production of the ill-fated Ford Pinto, discussed in Mother Jonesdespite critiques of the hype of the article, the central thesis remains : Ford executives decided killing customers was the right business decision,
  • the deliberate contamination of Hinkley groundwater by Pacific Gas and Electric, the subject of the film Erin Brokovich,
  • the deliberate cover-up and falsification of research linking sugar consumption to heart disease and obesity by the Great Western Sugar Company, carefully documented in the film Sugar Coated,
  • the falsification of research by tobacco firms, documented in the thriller The Insider,
  • the burying of significant scientific research on climate change for forty years by Exxon Mobile, documented by Exxon Knew,

and so on.  In each of the cases, shareholders could lose no more than the value of their investment, despite their money financing criminal actions.  This is an extremely important point, worth belaboring.  If I personally hired someone to poison my community’s water supply, I could face capital murder.  But if I pay a corporation to do it as a shareholder, I’m in the clear.  Certainly we can argue about fine legal points such as intent, but the metaphor is apt with respect to outcomes.  So Baker suggests conservatives and market ideologues whining about the minimal government oversight of these tyrannies remember that they can always go into business together through private contracts, surrendering this limited liability.  In any case, they don’t want markets nor personal responsibility, often repeated ideals of the conservative nanny state; rather, they want a welfare safety net for themselves.

Baker nicely summarizes with the following :

[i]t takes a conservative nanny
state to create an institution...
that allows investors to cause
harm and not be held accountable.

Baker continues with more highly elucidating discussion on corporate perks, all worth reading, but I’ll move on after addressing one point I find rather important which will come up again later : the corporate income tax.  Donald Trump’s incessant shrieking that the corporate income tax being too high echoes repeated mantras from conservative pundits and think tanks (like U.S Chamber of Commerce and the ultra-conservative Heritage Foundation), complaining of crushing of entrepreneurial initiative and unfair “double taxation.”  And yet these purveyors of the nanny state fail to mention that many of the largest corporations for whom they serve as mouthpieces never pay a penny through this tax, as documented by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.  Further, even if we suspend belief to partake of the melodrama, this is a very, very small price to pay for the aforementioned incredible legal protection.  So Baker correctly points out that this is a voluntary tax, meaning individuals need not incorporate to do business; the tax is a fee for the overwhelming advantage of limited liability, among other amenities conferred by government-issued charters.  If entrepreneurs don’t want to pay the fee, they can assume the risk.

So what is a reasonable, market-based alternative?  As discussed earlier, Western European countries offer some interesting possibilities.  Further, worker-owned corporations (documented earlier by the National Center for Employment Ownership), limits on charter issuance, and requirements within the charters for leadership to be liable to stakeholders rather than just shareholders would be a good start.  If all else fails, traditional contracts and partnerships are perfectly suitable approaches.

Even beyond charter issuance, most large corporations owe their beginnings to extreme government investment and intervention, something Baker calls takes, to which we’ll return later.  In that vein, how about a return-on-investment for taxpayers?  Walmart wouldn’t have been possible without the Interstate Highway System; Amazon wouldn’t be possible without the internet; where’s the taxpayer’s return?

Among the objections to the aforementioned, corporatists like to claim that “stakeholders” are customers, and that they vote with their dollars, leading to a perverse propaganda that corporations actually aren’t tyrannies.  Even if we are to believe such a preposterous framework, one must have a dollar to vote under said theory, marginalizing the poor and the disinterested customers immediately.  More still, this framework is even more preposterous when we consider externalities, or effects of transactions not taken into account.  For instance, Walmart may decide to build a supercenter near me, multiplying traffic by a factor of twenty and causing awful pollution, yet, they don’t simply vanish just because I don’t patronize their stores.  Further, even high school students learn about oligopolies and the aforementioned U.S. Chamber of Commerce, examples of special interest collectivism designed to diminish the well-known destructive effect of markets on profits; with a twist of irony, they also hate collectivism when leveraged by working people (code-named unions), to which we’ll return later.  In any case, these purveyors of the nanny state may decry these possible reforms as “government meddling in the economy”, but the corporation is  by definition precisely that.  Another objection is that progress slows without the risk protection conferred by the nanny state, as investors won’t want to take chances with their savings.  Considering that we’re decimating the ecology around us, perhaps some forms of “progress” ought to slow down.  In any case, requiring these corporatists to accept personal responsibility in making careful, conservative, thoughtful investments is better aligned with the demands they make of poor people everyday.

In summary, conservative nanny state mythology demands we accept as a law of nature that corporations are an essential feature of the most optimal economic strategy, a proposition easily debunked with elementary analysis.  Again, corporations would not survive in a true market-based system.  Alternatives are appearing throughout the economic landscape, as we’ve mentioned earlier.

What is the Federal Reserve?

Baker continues his discussion of the nanny state by unveiling the purpose of the Federal Reserve; its chairperson, a position previously held by appallingly lauded Alan Greenspan, wields perhaps the greatest power over the economy of any individual.  By shifting the so-called federal funds rate, or the short-term rate for lending between banks, this chairperson can adjust the speed of the economy; cutting rates increases lending, borrowing, and job production, while hiking them has the opposite effect.

Perhaps the dirtiest secret of this process is a preplanned unemployment rate, meaning that in order to ensure downward pressure on wages in large segments of the economy, a steady, large supply of unemployed workers must remain available.  Ironic as it seems, this heavy-handed intervention in the economy seems perfectly natural to free market ideologues, as they generally are among the beneficiaries of such policies.  Baker discusses the Beige Book, a report published by the Federal Reserve eight times a year; during periods of low unemployment, particularly 1997 to 2000, employers lamented the increased benefits and wages necessary to entice employees from other companies, even in trades traditionally plagued with low income in the neoliberal period.  As vicious and malevolent as this form of social planning might seem, elites claim it is necessary to ensure inflation remains stable.  The human cost seems less important, as employers enjoy more access to the Federal Reserve board members, and competing on the open market for employees is something they’d prefer not to do.  Baker further discusses how Greenspan disproved conventional thinking by economists of the day that low unemployment would accelerate inflation in the late nineties, undercutting the very rationale for retaining a buffer of unemployment.  Likely, precluding inflation is a convenient cover for pressing a large swathe of the population into stagnation.  Baker describes a bit of the makeup of the agency itself, referring the reader to the official website for more detailed explanations.

Suffice it to say, the governing bankers and economists vary greatly in policy design regarding inflation and unemployment, and Baker very correctly points out that a one or two percent rise in unemployment matters significantly less to well-compensated bankers than to autoworkers or other tradespersons of mid-to-low income.  Conversely, said bankers likely will balk at even meager increases in inflation, considering this undercuts the value of existing loans.  Baker’s point is that the very people running the Federal Reserve carry a heavy bias toward policy hostile to most of the working class, something rather obvious when one considers the matter seriously.  He further remarks that the most recent three chairmen, Paul Volcker, Alan Greenspan, and Benjamin Bernanke enjoy fanciful reputations as “inflation fighters,” generally with little-to-no acknowledgement of the overwhelming sacrifices demanded of working class people who lose their jobs when these fighters hike interest rates to stem inflation. In fact, Baker, Andrew Glyn, David Howell, and John Schmitt discuss remarkable alternatives to controlling inflation with unemployment in Unemployment and Labor Market Institutions: The Failure of the Empirical Case for Deregulation; they discuss substantive case studies in collective labor bargaining with employers in Sweden, Ireland, and other western democracies, finding that when workers’ associations assess wage change on the economy at large, both inflation and unemployment remain lower than those in the United States.  Unfortunately, the vicious assault on collective bargaining here in the states has shriveled union participation to less than ten percent of workers; by contrast, a large majority of working class people in the aforementioned democracies are card-carrying union members.  And it benefits them greatly.

Next time, we’ll discuss unions more thoroughly, along with special nanny state provisions which contravene markets.

The Conservative Nanny State : A Book Review Part Two : Job Protectionism and Differing Sets of Rules

Continuing our discussion of Dean Baker’s The Conservative Nanny State, we’ll address a powerful function of the nanny state : job protectionism.  Conventional wisdom among the elite and intellectual sector is that though lower income earners face harsh competition because of a heightened labor supply (read : too many people vying for the same job), we in the higher income brackets don’t face competition because we were sufficiently lucky or prudent to seek work for which little labor supply exists.  It turns out that this self-congratulation is a bit premature.

Poor People Should Compete with Foreign Workers, But I Don’t Have To… I Shouldn’t Have ToHelp Me Nanny State!

Baker begins with discussing a rather well-known feature of the neoliberal program : the offshoring of labor and the import of foreign labor which pits low-to-mid income earning tradespersons in the United States against very cheap labor in the third world.  Thus, despite close to a doubling of the economy and worker output since 1980, these income earners’ wages have quite predictably stagnated.  Despite this, those of us in the top five percent have experienced great wealth gains in the same period, also a rather well-known but perhaps harder to explain phenomenon.  Baker suggests that the stock answer to why this is the case tickles the ears of the purveyors of the conservative nanny state, as highly compensated persons in the aforementioned bracket are important in maintaining the mythology : go to school, work hard, then make big bucks; those who ignore this advice deserve poverty.  In fact, highly educated acquaintances of mine from across the political spectrum often happily claim that the sum total of their income is due to their substantial, innate value after heeding the mythology, yet poor people either should get off their lazy asses (the conservative version) or utilize government incentives for vocational training (the so-called liberal version), a dichotomy Baker coincidentally references almost verbatim.   So what is the truth?  Baker offers a rather astonishing observation : the U.S. immigration policy, discussed in Eric Freeman’s Barriers to Foreign Professionals Working in the United States, along with protective licensing agencies and diffuse, indeterminate standards, ensures that fewer highly skilled professionals are available than are needed.  A few years ago, both the New York Times and The Atlantic offered a discussion of the difficulties facing foreign doctors in obtaining licenses to practice medicine in the U.S., describing the labyrinthine procedural hurtles depriving these competent, well-trained, desperately needed professionals of a career here in the States.  The New York Times reported in 1997 that the U.S. government actually paid hospitals in New York not to train foreign doctors.  Imagine if the U.S. government actually paid an automotive firm not to offshore manufacturing?  Baker continues by spelling out the cost of this protectionism, coinciding nicely with its very justification :

[i]f free trade in physicians brought doctors'
salaries down to European levels, the savings
would be close to $100,000 per doctor,
approximately $80 billion a year... [ten]
times as large as standard estimates of the
gains from NAFTA.

It’s worth remembering that the absurdly mislabeled “free trade agreements” NAFTA and CAFTA have virtually nothing to do with higher-compensated trades such as doctors, lawyers, and technocrats.  After all, it wouldn’t do to compete with every competent Chinese or Indian doctor, even if the healthcare savings conferred to the weary working class would be immense.  Yet anecdotally, doctors tell me that skyrocketing tuition, malpractice insurance, and the cost-of-living require much higher salaries.  Baker doesn’t address tuition and rising costs-of-living directly in this book, though I speculate he’d attribute at least the former if not both to the conservative nanny state.  Noam Chomsky has speculated that tuition hikes are a mechanism for control of young college students rather than an economic necessity in sustaining the university system.  Baker’s point here is that the protectionist barriers for doctors, lawyers, and technocrats have absolutely nothing to do with market principles, as none of us could compete in an absolutely free and open market with the wages we receive today.  The incredibly high cost of the American medical system drives hundreds of thousands of people into bankruptcy each year, roughly sixty percent of the 1.5 million people who file each year, according to The Huffington Post in 2015, no doubt partially explaining a phenomenon known as medical tourism, or Americans traveling abroad to receive medical treatment.  CNN reports that the increasingly growing industry grants Americans access to world-class healthcare at maybe thirty to forty percent the cost of the same care here.

Yet another device of protection for physicians is the American Medical Association, an organization of physicians with substantial political clout, largely responsible for ensuring tough immigration standards and difficult standards.  It turns out we have another label for this : a trade union.  “Union” has become a terribly dirty word in Americana, as what should be a revered, indispensable public institution has largely succumbed to a massive, unremitting campaign of propaganda; we’ll return to this topic shortly.

So is this really happening?  Baker suggests that denialism is the most widely cited defense against these allegations.  He refers to hilarious anecdotes such as “my doctor is Pakistani” as the defense mounted by those who stand the most to lose by acknowledging this protectionism.  I could make the same observation that I’ve worked with many foreigners over the course of my career in technology, so even my initial knee jerk response was disbelief.  Baker retorts that citing a Mexican avocado in an American grocery store as proof that the U.S. government doesn’t restrict agricultural trade would receive unbridled derision and heart laughter right out of the economics profession.  Per Baker, we should treat this denialism in kind.  He argues, rather poignantly, that

[t] truth is that the "free traders" don't
want free trade--they want cheap nannies--
but "free trade" sounds much more noble.

So what can we do?  First, we recognize the protectionism extant in our own fields; next, we recognize the solidarity we should share with those less fortunate tradespersons not conferred the enormous benefits of said protectionism.  Finally, we fight for a better path forward.  Baker’s proposal, which he by no means claims is the only means of improvement, is to enact true free trade agreements which establish international standards meeting or exceeding our own in each industry.  Further, highly-skilled professionals migrating to America could pay a percentage of their incomes back to their home nation for the purpose of training other professionals; many repatriates send money home to their families in any case, generating demand in third world nations, an obviously desirable feature if we’re to speak of serious market application.

Baker ends this section with an important point about a more egalitarian market-based approach reducing salaries for highly compensated earners : if the cost of doing business falls because of an increased pool of workers, the cost transfers to the population at large.  This, in turn, tends to reduce the cost of living for everyone.  None of these changes would happen immediately, but it’s nonetheless worth remembering that reductions in healthcare costs means more money for wages for everyone, including those of us in the technocracy.

The other point worth making here is that protectionism, if applied at all, ought to apply equally.  Factory workers, welders, and janitors ought to receive equal protection for their livelihood.  As we’ve suggested before, the rise of Trump easily follows from a highly disenchanted working class marginalized by globalization and a hostile overclass enemy; these are issues not just critical to good citizenship, but now perhaps for the very survival of our species.

Never Make a CEO Compete…

Before moving on, I feel it’s important to address thoroughly one point Baker omits in his discussion on protectionism for the well-to-do (though he picks up the general topic later in the book) : the most highly-compensated sliver of the economy, particularly CEOs.  I’ve worked in technology companies for over a decade, some of whom are in the Fortune 500, and an (admittedly) anecdotally pervasive theme is the frustration with, disapproval of, and devaluing of each respective executive leadership team.  Generally the sentiment is that chief executive officers (CEOs) and their directs are pampered, overpaid, egotists whose positive contribution dwindles as the machine grows : by the time corporation reaches a slow stage of monolithic decay, say as in a defense contractor, the CEO doesn’t seem to serve any function except to drain resources from the remaining parts of the business.  My first job, stated before, was in precisely such a company, and we referred to the executives collectively as “mahogany row,” owing to the rather beautifully polished paneling in their luxury, separate-but-not-equal building complete with covered parking (fellow Texans understand that perk, considering heat and hailstorms).  Our offices, by contrast, reminded me of my elementary school : seemingly ancient construction with doubtless asbestos-filled flooring and lowered ceilings to conceal the cigarette smoke stains, an artifact of the smoke-filled days of yesteryear.  In any case, my thinking is somewhat more elementary : whatever skills an executive requires to perform his duties no doubt exist elsewhere.

Considering the well-documented, exorbitant increase in CEO pay with no obvious, market-based cause, we might suspect they somehow are gaming the system.  Baker describes CEO pay later in the book, referencing L. Mishel, et al.’s The State of Working America, an exposition on the stunning explosion of the CEO-to-average worker pay factor, roughly forty in the 1970s, obscene three hundred in late 1990s, then back to still obscene two hundred as of the mid 2000s.   He also points to The Growth of Executive Pay by Lucian Bebchuk and Yaniv Grinstein, a discussion measuring pay of the top five executives in each of 1500 corporations over 1993 to 2003; they conclude that CEO pay jumped at least twice as quickly as could be explained by a number of success metrics, including company profits, industry mix (concentration by region of business types), and market capitalization (the total value of the corporation).  That is to say, scarcity and demand of a business, value of the business, and profitability of the business fail to explain skyrocketing executive pay over the period studied.  Continuing with Mishel’s analysis, Baker explains that CEO pay in the United States is two-and-a-half to five times larger than that of CEOs in Canada, France, and Japan, despite industry leaders in these nations wresting substantial market share from their American competitors, meaning the American system somehow rewards incompetence with skyrocketing wages.  Worse yet, American executives often enjoy zany contract clauses conferring the so-called golden parachute, a severance package so exorbitant that ordinary Americans could easily retire on it.  Imagine living in a world where taking a job is win-win; even if you find yourself fired for aforementioned incompetence by the board of trustees, you’ll depart with barrels of cash.  Aside from the astonishingly anti-market nature of this practice in principle, there are many measurable, deleterious effects in action as well, documented in Bebchuk et al.‘s “Golden Parachutes and the Wealth of Shareholders” appearing in the Journal of Corporate Finance.  In any case, the practice persists : what a country club indeed.

So what explains stratospheric CEO pay?  It seems rather elementary, as American CEOs can raise their own wages by appointing friends to his corporate board, the body responsible for setting his wages.  He, in turn, serves on their respective boards, returning the favor in a spectacularly golden tsunami of quid pro quo, unaccountable to shareholders because of the difficulties of organizing them and the many shenanigans encoded in the corporation’s charter, such as stock proxying; that is, if the shareholders hold a vote on replacing the current CEO, any shareholder who fails to vote by default votes for the CEO to remain.  Imagine if that were common practice in our government elections : the incumbents would be virtually unbeatable!  Baker concludes his chapter on CEO pay with suggestions on how to improve the system, including tying executive pay not to profits only (such as what happens when the cost of oil skyrockets), but relative performance to the industry, and more Congressional oversight.  He cites the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act, passed by Newt Gingrich’s Congress in 1995 over Bill Clinton’s veto to further diminish shareholders’ access to the courts when executives manipulate stock prices, as an example of the power Congress can exercise, though this was in a destructive direction.  As usual, empowering the super-rich and undercutting everyone else somehow receives the lyrical moniker “reform”, a staple of the conservative nanny state’s propaganda.

It turns out there’s more to the story on how CEOs siphon vast cash reserves from corporate profits above and beyond what first-order effects can explain : anecdotal discussions with corporate insiders reveal a rather odd practice of organizing compensation committees intent on basing CEO pay on some arbitrary percentile, say the seventy-fifth, of market pay.  Any astute data scientist understands such implications : a steady-state solution requires CEO pay to grow until all resources deplete.  That is, if a CEO joins a company, the committee decides his pay should target the 75th percentile.  By increasing the rate of pay of a single CEO, the 75th percentile gradually eases upward independent of other market metrics.  Recent scholarship by the Economic Policy Institute lends credence to rather dodgy practice, apparently owing to what economists call “rents”, or excessive increases in market cost for whatever purpose. Aside from the silly, baseless justifications for this practice, why not let CEOs compete on the open market?  Again, to one of Baker’s central theses, markets simply aren’t the desired mechanism for these folks.

So how can we make these folks compete?  We’ll touch on corporations in an upcoming part of the series, but suffice it to say there are many examples of worker owned businesses, documented by the National Center for Employee Ownership in 2016, designed often so that if employees want management changes, they fire their leadership.  Imagine if an incoming CEO recognized fully that he is accountable to the employees?  It turns out that employee-owned companies could be a means of requiring the shareholders and the stakeholders to be more closely aligned.  Another key question is to what extent an organization of employees needs a CEO : decentralized autonomous organizations represent one extreme possibility, in which leadership largely follows computer-encoded rules; some of these organizations exist as of the time of this writing.  Certainly, a robot CEO wouldn’t ask for extreme pay.  In any case, it seems as though more democratic control within the organization could ensure that unnecessary leadership overhead vanishes, and where leadership is required, greater control would rest with the employees; perhaps employees could take turns playing the CEO.  In the world of start-ups and technology, businesses could operate more easily in this mold, adopting as part of their charter a constitution, if you will, fostering a more egalitarian, democratic operating principle.  As Baker points out, and we’ll discuss it more thoroughly later, the classic corporation framework isn’t necessarily the optimal solution (and we have pretty good evidence to the contrary), nor is it a law of nature.

We’ll continue in the next discussion with trade unions, and Baker’s definition of the Federal Reserve.

The Conservative Nanny State : A Book Review Part One : An Introduction

In a series of posts, we’ll be analyzing and reviewing Dean Baker’s The Conservative Nanny State, an excellent discussion of the mythology of conservatives with respect to the government, corporations, and economics.  Instructive is how this mythology can apply in recent events, a review of which follows.  Donald Trump may serve an ideology of nothing more than “me first,” but behind the scenes, the nanny state machine continues to perpetuate a heavily propagandized mythology of markets, capitalism, and government..

All in a Day’s Work : Conservative Market Mythology

Donald Trump’s recent tantrums around the Republican failure to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act adorn the craven, viciously insipid strategy of the Paul Ryan / Mitch McConnell crowd : for eight years, they’ve vowed incessantly to supplant Obamacare with a better version upon gaining both majority power in Congress and a rubber stamp in the White House, yet in those eight years, they’ve managed to formulate absolutely nothing in the way of a cogent substitute.  This bears repeating : despite more time than is necessary to complete a doctorate in the most abstract, difficult theoretical fields in mathematics, the devout acolyte of Ayn Rand that is the vapid Paul Ryan has formulated absolutely no solution to our healthcare quagmire, aside from the tired, intellectually bankrupt admonishments of impotency about poor people being lazy and workers not trying hard enough.  Subject to the market fanaticism they worship so completely, they should be fired immediately for such astonishingly blatant incompetence.  Trump, by slight contrast, seems to care nothing for the details, wanting only to piss all over every last accomplishment of Obama; never mind all the campaign promises of universal healthcare.  He prefers to destroy Obamacare now, perhaps unaware of the malevolence and cruelty in destabilizing the exchange and kicking off coverage at least twenty to thirty million people, a estimate reported by NPR.  He’s apparently too busy

and so on.  His character assassination of Sessions for attention seems to be the last straw among a mountain of bundles, drawing ire from his shrieking media base of support (documented in The Atlantic) since Sessions is an alternative right folk hero.  Noteworthy is a quote from an arch-conservative writer for The American Conservative, Rod Deher, who didn’t support Trump but bears rather preposterous ideas :

I believe the Democratic Party today wants to
do as much damage as it possibly can to social
and religious conservatism. I believe the
Democratic Party would empower some of the worst
people in America. But at least you know what
they’re going to do. Trump really is an unstable
lunatic whose word means nothing, and who sees no
higher obligation than serving himself.

Certainly, the fact-free fantasy land of the conservative establishment is nothing new, ranging from the Powell memorandum discussed in earlier posts, to Reagan’s supply-side blather denounced even by George H.W. Bush as “voodoo economics”, to Trump’s mind-numbingly stupid insistence of widespread voter fraud by illegals, to Mike Pence’s insistence that smoking isn’t harmful,  to Pat Robertson’s claims that Trump represents God’s will, and the list continues.  Supply-side economics, like the young earth hypothesis, seems immortally immune to the colossal three-decade record of failures, long documented by the Center for American Progress.  Take the recent shenanigans in Mississippi and Kansas : both state governments slashed taxes with the promise of economic boosts, and both states have subsequently slashed services, some with disastrous import, such as curtailing of medical school faculty salaries.  Astoundingly, the party of so-called “fiscal conservatism” seems not to understand why less water flows when one turns the faucet down.

Big Government and the Poor : Supervillains

Conservatives and so-called new Democrats have long argued that so-called “big government” is universally a bad thing, indicative of avaricious largesse at best and vicious totalitarianism at worst; from my early life, I’ve heard conservatives in my home state of Texas bemoan the overwhelming burden of government regulation and taxation asphyxiating an otherwise highly efficient, wealth-and-job-creating small businesses. They argue further that welfare, otherwise known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) poisons the resolve of potential workers and feeds a lazy, repulsive underclass always in the market for cheating hard-working business owners out of their hard-earned profits.  So deep was the racism and disdain for welfare recipients that we greatly feared the marginalized black community in my hometown, despite having been on the welfare rolls ourselves soon after my mother and father divorced back in 1987, the irony being that we as poor whites had more in common with the poor blacks than we did upper middle class Texans.  Despite my college curriculum lifting partly the veil of ignorance, at least with regard to history, I nonetheless took my first “big-boy” job at a defense contractor believing, rather naively, that the conservatives there really were serious about eliminating government waste and pursuing honest efficiency to benefit the organization.  Imagine my surprise to discover that almost the exact opposite is the case : with some notable exceptions (see my LinkedIn connections), the organization was rife with effete, wasteful protectionists, all-too-willing to bend contractual obligations with the U.S. government to butter their own bread and conceal their incompetence.  Supplanting genuine concern for the government customer was a sneering cynicism at even their most sacred public institution of all : the military.  They held contempt even for arch-conservative Dick Cheney himself, as he had a long history of opposing the Osprey V-22 program in the first Bush administration.  In the more religious pockets of my social sphere of those days, welfare recipients were the target of ire, with the lobotomous justification that “the heart is desperately wicked… who can know it?”  That is, the innate wickedness of the human creature discussed in the Bible suggests that helping a poor person ever is a mistake contravening the will of the Most High; only the filthy rich deserve a second thought.  Then again, local faith leaders in my home community offered social commentary on a vast array of topics, including dubious claims that Santa Claus, in fact, is a woman masquerading as a jolly old man (Santa somehow sounded female), that Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer, is in fact an alcoholic (owing to a condition known as telangiectasia), and perhaps most intriguing, that devotees of Catholicism are, believe it or not, addicted to cats.  Serious analysis aside, ahem, Pat Robertson would no doubt explode with pride, as wealth is godliness in his refined estimation; after all, why else would Operation : Blessing feature more return shipments of diamonds from than food shipments to impoverished Zaire?  His cozy relationship with bloodthirsty Mobutu Sese Seko clearly paid dividends.  All of this seems underscores a profoundly destructive paradigm in which we measure a person’s worth, exclusively, by her capacity to generate capital.  Whether the means by which she raises the capital is good for society is largely irrelevant, but if she fails to generate said capital, she’s discounted.  The industrial revolution heralded this cruel dogma; Noam Chomsky suggests that though feudalism and slavery were horrendous, brutal tyrannies, the intrinsic value of a person in each caste at least wasn’t taken for granted; the caste values were viciously low,  but the value wasn’t questioned.  Post-industrial revolution and with the abolition of slavery, industry leaders discovered more profit in shrinking compensation for workers below that of a living wage.  Though the natural knee-jerk response to such a statement is understandable, one must bear in mind the effects of our state capitalist system on the global population, not just those in our own country.  Also bear in mind this is in no way an endorsement of either of the aforementioned antiquated, monstrous frameworks, but it’s worth noting the shift in values and its origins, something we’ll discuss later in this series.

Enter Dean Baker, Economist

It turns out that laissez-faire market ideology and small government are, in fact, grand hoaxes, the former of which we’ve discussed in a little depth previously as we referenced American-flavor state capitalism.  Quite instructive on the latter topic is The Conservative Nanny State : How the Wealthy Use the Government to Stay Rich and Get Richer, written by Dean Baker, economist and co-founder of the Center for Economic Policy and Research.   Weighing in at just over one hundred pages, the book is a treasure trove of powerful evidence-based arguments targeted at refuting the myths surrounding what he calls the conservative nanny state, an apt and resonant depiction of big government in support of the overclass.

He discusses in awesome detail

  • the sly yet devastatingly powerful protectionism for upper-income earners such as doctors, lawyers, and technocrats accompanying the better-known globalization and immigration policies leading to downward wage pressure on lower-income earners,
  • the union-busting governmental muscles flexed to diminish collective bargaining in America,
  • the skyrocketing CEO pay in the United States stemming from the corporation, a legal fiction conferred enormous power by the government,
  • the government supplied monopolies on inventions and creative work through patents and copyrights,
  • the government punishment of debtors down on their luck accompanying happy-go-lucky freedom from debt corporations enjoy, both a product of a thing dubiously labeled “bankruptcy reform,”
  • the government crackdown on individual’s capacity to sue run-away corporations and the decidedly one-sided nature of the two-way street of eminent domain and government investment,
  • the government protections for small businesses which are actually quite harmful to the economy and the environment,
  • the government coddling of high-dollar tax evaders while systematically demonizing recipients of the safety net,

among many others.  In this series of posts, we’ll analyze his arguments, addressing additional points and more recent evidence.