Comments Guidelines

All comments are pre-moderated. No spam, slurs, personal attacks, or foul language will be allowed.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

EU goes to WTO over Boeing subsidies

Just as I predicted, the European Union has filed a World Trade Organization complaint against Boeing's new round of subsidies from Washington state totaling $8.7 billion from 2025 to 2040 (h/t @ThomasCafcas). I'll go out on a limb and predict that the EU will win this case.

Okay, that's not really out on a limb: The WTO found that Boeing's last round of state and local subsidies violates its Agreement on Subsidies and Countervailing Measures, and the facts are exactly the same -- except for the fact that the subsidies have grown from $160 million a year to $543 million a year, more than three times as much. This case is a slam-dunk.

Of course, after it loses, it's not like Washington state will comply with the ruling. It's not complying with the last ruling. But it gives us an opportunity to remember that Boeing embodies everything that's wrong with corporate America. According to Citizens for Tax Justice, from 2003 to 2012 Boeing made $35 billion in pre-tax profit, an average of $3.5 billion a year. It made this much despite the fact that its competitor Airbus is also subsidized. Its post-tax profit was $36.9 billion, which is to say that it received a net refund of $96 million from Washington state and $1.8 billion from the IRS over that 10-year period. In other words, it paid no state or federal income tax at all!

Not only that: Boeing demanded, and ultimately won, a concession from the Machinists' union to end its defined-contribution pension and replace it with a 401(k) plan. So one of the last remaining true pensions in the private sector bites the dust, contributing to our coming retirement crisis.

Finally, Boeing used the availability of huge relocation subsidies in other states as a bludgeon against both Washington state and the union. Ultimately, the states need federal rules to end this madness.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Shocking incentive failure rate in North Carolina

@sandymaxey points me to a new report from the North Carolina Justice Center that is making my head spin. Picking Losers shows that the state's flagship development program, the Job Development Investment Grant (JDIG), has seen 62 of its 102 projects fail in the period from its inception in 2002 until 2013. That is, 60% of the projects failed to meet either their job, investment, or wage goals, and had to have their awards canceled.

60%! This isn't baseball, where a .400 batting average is outstanding, a feat that hasn't been accomplished since Ted Williams in 1941. Let me tell you about a different failure rate: Investment Quebec takes equity stakes in a number of tech start-ups and other new companies. When I interviewed the director in Montreal in 2007, their failure rate was only 20%, a figure he considered needed to be reduced. In North Carolina, we are talking about a failure rate three times as high, despite giving the awards to firms that should not be nearly so risky.

One such firm was Dell Computers. In 2004, the company conducted a bidding war for a new computer manufacturing plant between Virginia and North Carolina. But North Carolina's analysis of the project was so out of whack that in nominal dollars it offered almost $300 million ($174 million present value) compared to Virginia's offer of $37 million. The plant shut down completely in 2010.

Here's the paradox: North Carolina has some of the best taxpayer protections in the country; indeed, state and local governments lost only a few million dollars when Dell failed. The state is rigorous about canceling awards and clawing back monies already paid out. But the problem is that the state's economic analysis of potential projects is simply atrocious. The 60% failure rate is one sign of this. The Dell fiasco, analyzed by the NC Justice Center and the Corporation for Enterprise Development in 2007, shows another aspect of fanciful economic modeling.

What can be done? I've written before about the weakness of economic development cost-benefit analysis. Even by that low standard, North Carolina's performance is breathtaking. Report author Alan M. Freyer suggests that the Legislature needs to resist calls to expand JDIG or create another fund with the same purpose, maintain its jobs standards, focus on expanding industries, vastly improve its evaluation of potential projects, and focus help on rural counties. I would add that the state should reverse its cuts to education, one of North Carolina's economic development crown jewels to date, and restrict its subsidies only to those types shown to have a positive national impact, primarily customized training for companies and generalized training for individual workers. Improving skills increases workers' income, and it also strengthens the U.S. economy as a whole, as opposed to simply building up a company's bottom line.

Cross-posted at Angry Bear.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Secretive TPP threatens health, regulation, and democracy

I'm pleased today to have a guest post from Professor Susan K. Sell, one of the leading authorities on the incorporation of intellectual property rights into trade negotiations.

The Obama administration currently is pressing Congress for Trade Promotion Authority (“Fast Track”) to help it conclude the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations. The President sees TPP as a central pillar in his “pivot to Asia”.  However, both the process and the substance of TPP are badly flawed and the office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) needs to be more accountable to the American people.

The TPP negotiations are five years old yet the only substantive information citizens have gotten about them has come from Wikileaks.  Provisions in the TPP will have far reaching effects on public health, labor, the environment, data privacy, and Internet use.  Congress and the public have been shut out, and the USTR has relied on its 600 or so “cleared advisors” that represent global corporations.  The USTR has insisted upon utmost secrecy, and a look at the chapters on intellectual property and investor-state dispute settlement raise alarm bells that the public needs to be aware of.   It is likely that the USTR knows that if it released the texts that the public would reject the agreement. If TPP is so good for Americans why not let them know what is in it?

The USTR touts the TPP as a trade agreement for the 21st century, but it is less about trade and more about regulatory harmonization.  The chapter on intellectual property aims to increase intellectual property protection far beyond what is required in the Agreement on Trade-Related Intellectual Property (TRIPs) in the World Trade Organization. The plurilateral forum is the US’s way of getting what it knows it would be unable to achieve in a more transparent multilateral venue.  Ironically, Obama’s signature legacy – the Affordable Care Act to reduce the costs of medical care – directly will be threatened by the TPP. Health care costs will sharply increase if the intellectual property provisions of TPP go through. Big Pharma and medical device makers have played a significant role of crafting the provisions which include: making surgical and diagnostic procedures patentable; requiring states to get patent owners’ consent before approving generic drugs for market; limiting parallel importation; requiring that pharmaceutical companies be involved in domestic drug pricing decisions; limiting compulsory licensing; incorporating 12 year terms of data exclusivity for biologic drugs; and seizing trans-shipments of drugs. Other provisions would permit patentability for second uses of known drugs, and for reformulations of drugs that do not enhance therapeutic efficacy (e.g., tablet to a gel cap).  The end result will be to increase the costs of medical care and reduce access to a more affordable alternative. USTR’s “cleared advisors” will gain the rents that they seek.

While the intellectual property chapter aims for upward regulatory harmonization (at the expense of public health), the Investor-State Dispute settlement provisions aim for downward regulatory harmonization. Investor-State Dispute Settlement provisions give private investors the right to sue governments directly for regulatory changes that reduce the expected value of the investment. ISDS bypasses domestic courts and a tribunal of three private lawyers decides cases. There is no right to appeal ISDS rulings.

Several well known ISDS cases highlight the dangers these provisions pose to sovereignty, democracy, and public health. Under ISDS in NAFTA, pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly is suing the Canadian government for $500 million. Canadian law features a policy of post-grant opposition under which a party can challenge a patent that the state has granted. Under this mechanism the Federal Court of Canada invalidated patents on two Eli Lilly drugs, ruling that they did not meet the criterion of patentability. Eli Lilly appealed this ruling all the way up to the Supreme Court of Canada and lost on both appeals. Now the company is using the ISDS channel to override the Canadian Supreme Court and secure a taxpayer payout of $500 million.

This important case is a bellwether; if Eli Lilly is successful then it will spread and embolden foreign investors aggressively to challenge and trump domestic public health laws. Under ISDS clauses in bilateral agreements, Philip Morris is suing Uruguay and Australia for their public policy efforts to curb tobacco use such as plain packaging of cigarettes. The firm is demanding compensation for these countries’ efforts to regulate its lethal products. Under ISDS foreign investors can sue over labor policies such as increasing minimum wages, and environmental policies such as fracking bans if such regulatory changes reduce the expected value of their investments.

President Obama will need Trade Promotion Authority to finalize the TPP. Some in Congress oppose it. Populist politicians like Senator Elizabeth Warren decry the special access that members of Wall Street and global corporations have had to the process while democratically elected representatives, citizens, and consumers have been shut out. On the right, Tea Party conservatives object to Obama’s Executive branch overreach.  Congress should reject Trade Promotion Authority and make USTR accountable to citizens and elected representatives through good transparency policies. USTR must not be allowed to negotiate in secrecy and appear to be thoroughly captured by the so-called 1%. Congress should not trade away our democracy.

Susan K. Sell is Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University.  She is author of Private Power, Public Law: the Globalization of Intellectual Property Rights, and co-editor of Who Governs the Globe?

Third Way trade agreements study leaves out a lot

Third Way (h/t TPM), a Democratic pro-trade think tank, has released a new study, "Are Modern Trade Deals Working?" It examines the various "free trade" deals the U.S. has signed since 2000 to conclude that 13 of 17 have led to an improvement in our goods (not including services; see more below) trade balance with the countries involved, giving a net improvement over the 17 agreements studied of $30.2 billion per year.

Long-time readers of this blog may remember that I did a similar analysis (though in less detail than the Third Way study) in 2012. Unlike the Third Way report, my post included all U.S. free trade agreements (rather than starting in 2001 like Third Way) as well as the effect of the 2000 agreement for Permanent Normalized Trade Relations (PNTR) with China. So, compared to the Third Way study, my post includes the FTAs with Israel, Canada, and Mexico, but did not consider the Panama FTA, which had not yet come into effect when I posted. My conclusion was essentially the same as Third Way's, that the effects of the agreements on our trade in goods were usually positive, but of small size (the effect of the Israel FTA was also small). Because the Third Way study begins in 2001, however, it omits the impacts of NAFTA and PNTR with China. However, as my post showed, they are the most important by far.

This fact is not lost on opponents of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). Lori Wallach of Public Citizen Global Trade Watch told the Associated Press that "studies such as Third Way's make a big deal out of modest trade improvements with countries like Panama, and gloss over huge trade deficits with major trading partners such as South Korea, Mexico and Canada." She's right.

In 1993, the year before NAFTA went into effect, the United States had a surplus with Mexico on trade in goods of $1.7 billion. In 1995, it went to a deficit of $15.8 billion, and in 2014 the goods trade deficit was $53.8 billion, down from 2007's peak of $74.8 billion. This was in sharp contrast with the analysis of Gary Hufbauer and Jeffrey Schott, who predicted trade surpluses on the order of $9-12 billion through the 2000s, even as they admitted that the peso was overvalued (it collapsed in value in the December 1994 "Tequila crisis").

Meanwhile, the balance of trade in goods with Canada went from a deficit of $10.8 billion in 1993 to $34.0 billion in 2014. Note that the U.S. had a peak deficit of $78.3 billion in 2008, which collapsed to  $21.6 billion in 2009.

In 2000, the year PNTR was adopted, the United States had an $83.9 billion goods trade deficit with China. In May of that year, the International Trade Commission (h/t David Cay Johnston) released a report estimating that the trade balance would worsen by a further $4.3 billion. According to the article, the U.S. Trade Representative and the White House both criticized this study strongly. And in fact, the 2001 deficit fell to $83.1 billion. However, in 2002 it was $103.1 billion, an increase more than four times the ITC prediction, and by 2014 it had grown to $342.6 billion.

By including trade in goods but not trade in services, Third Way is admirably the stacking the deck against its own position. It points out that the U.S. has a global surplus in trade in services of $232 billion in 2014, including a $45 billion surplus with Canada and Mexico. However, it doesn't mention that the U.S. goods trade deficit was $737 billion in 2014, or that the country's overall 2014 trade deficit was $505 billion, up from $477 billion in 2013.

The ultimate question is whether TPP and TTIP are going to be more like the U.S.-Australia Free Trade Agreement, or more like NAFTA and PNTR. Considering that the TPP includes all the NAFTA countries, Australia, Chile, Japan, and six others, comprising "nearly 40 percent of global GDP," I think it's safe to assume that it will have a much bigger impact than the FTAs with Australia or Chile, for instance. Similarly, since the European Union has an economy about the same size as the U.S. economy, I believe the TTIP will also have big consequences.

Moreover, we have to remember that these are much more than trade agreements. Both of them have increased protections for investors, patents, trademarks, and other intellectual property, and in both of them the U.S. is advocating the inclusion of investor-state dispute settlement so companies can sue governments through arbitration rather than courts, something that has proven more favorable for companies vis-a-vis both governments and consumers. So, in addition to the negative effects on U.S. workers that we would expect on the basis of the Stolper-Samuelson Theorem, all signatory countries are likely to suffer from higher prices for medicine and assaults on their regulations through investor-state dispute settlement.

Thus, while the Third Way study is right as far as it goes, what it leaves out is far more significant and worrisome.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015


No, it's not a sports score. It's the number of $100 million incentive packages offered in each place beginning in 2010. This is based on my first paper to use the September 2014 February 2015 update of Good Jobs First's Megadeals database (you can download the entire update in spreadsheet form).

I've said before that U.S. investment incentive use is totally out of control. The new paper confirms this beyond my worst nightmares. Think about it: The United States and the European Union have comparably large economies, yet U.S. state and local governments have put together an average of 15 $100 million packages per year in 2010-2014, compared to 1.2 per year in the EU. Yes, more than ten times as many per year in the U.S.!

The U.S. incentive packages are bigger, too. The largest of the six EU packages (Global Foundries in Dresden, Germany, in 2011) comes to about $285 million at an exchange rate of $1.35 per euro (and the euro is down to less than $1.15 now). Boeing, Sempra Energy, Intel, Cerner Corporation, Cheniere Energy, Shell, Tesla, and Chrysler all received packages worth over $1 billion. Moreover, Boeing's incentives were accompanied by substantial retirement and other benefit concessions from its workers.

How does this happen? Governments in the European Union and the United States both face the same need to attract investment, but the EU has a binding legal framework that restricts what Member States can do. Every subsidy program or large individual subsidy must be notified in advance to the European Commission, and only implemented if the Commission approves. Every region in the EU has a maximum subsidy level it can give, with a limit of 0 for the richest regions and only 50% (subsidy/investment) for the poorest regions, mostly in the former Communist countries. Finally, investments larger than €50 million have their maximum allowable subsidy cut sharply, by 50% on the amount between €50 million and €100 million, and by 66% for the amount over €100 million.

Because of the lack of a framework in the United States, state and local governments spend almost $50 billion per year just to attract investment, and up to a further $20 billion in subsidies not even requiring investment, according to my estimates. This is more than enough to rehire every state and local employee who lost their job since the recession. All other things equal, subsidies make the economy less productive, and these subsidies transfer money from average taxpayers to the far richer subsidy recipients. In other words, they slow economic growth and contribute to economic inequality.

Changing this is a huge job. The first step is simply knowing what the stakes are, achieving transparency in how much governments give to business. Things are improving on the transparency front, but we still have a long way to go. Then we've actually got to change the rules...

UPDATE: Greg LeRoy of Good Jobs First sent me an updated version of the spreadsheet, which has 76 incentive packages greater than $100 million that it has discovered since 1/1/2010. The updated spreadsheet is now available at the Megadeals link above.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

What is Noah thinking? Part 2

Noah Smith has replied to my recent post criticizing his use of median household income to measure middle class living standards. He raises some interesting questions, but some of them still leave me scratching my head.

Smith writes:
I don't understand the idea that "households have had to" compensate for lower weekly wages (also the choice of weekly over hourly wages continues to mystify me, since long workweeks suck, but OK).
Of course, no one literally had to compensate for the fact that their wages were falling, but people do prefer to maintain (if not improve!) their current level of consumption. So, if wages are falling, and you want to maintain your standard of living, you have to adjust something.

Let's make no mistake, real wages were falling (see Table B-15), and even today remain below their all-time peak. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) likes to use the period 1982-84 as its base period for inflation calculations, so the numbers that follow are in 1982-84 dollars to adjust for inflation. Smith likes to talk about 1980-2000, working from one business cycle peak to another, but he ignores the previous business cycle peak, 1973, which is a very interesting and important one since that is the year of peak real hourly wages (equal to 1972) and real weekly wages were just 37 cents less than 1972. It seems to me that it's more interesting to ask if middle class workers are as well off as they were at their peak than to ask if they are as well off in 1979 or 1980.

What happened to real wages? In inflation-adjusted dollars, the hourly wage peak of 1972-73 was $9.26 per hour; in 1980 it was $8.26 per hour, in 2000 it was $8.30 per hour, and in 2013 it had increased to $8.78 per hour.

But it's actually worse than that. Unlike professors, whose working time is pretty much their own as long as they teach well enough and publish enough to get tenure, most people cannot choose how much they work: Their employer decides that for them. Your paycheck is hourly wage times hours worked, and hours worked by production and non-supervisory workers has fallen from 36.9 in 1972 and 1973 to a low of 33.1 in 2009 and in 2013 was 33.7 hours per week. That is why we can't look at just the hourly wage, but need to use the weekly wage (hours per year would be an even better metric, but BLS does not publish the data that way). By the way, this category of workers is no small slice: It makes up about 62% of the entire non-farm workforce and 80% of the non-government workforce.

Because both hourly real wages and hours per week fell, real weekly earnings fell even more: From $341.73 (again, 1982-84 dollars) in 1972 to $290.80 in 1980, $284.78 in 2000, and $295.51 in 2013. If you're keeping track at home, that's a fall of 15% from 1972 to 1980, a 16.67% fall from 1972 to 2000, and still 13.5% below the 1972 peak in 2013.

But wait! After directly quoting and discussing what I said about real weekly wages, Smith suddenly, with no documentation, rejects that premise: "So, median real wages in America stayed roughly flat in America in 1980-2000, and people worked more - actually, what happened is that many women stopped being housewives and began working." Nothing I said in my post was about median real wages, but weekly real wages of production and non-supervisory workers. And he knows this is my view, because he clicked through, and even linked to, my much longer post, "The best data on middle class decline." He suddenly introduces a different measure entirely, and gives no argument for why it's better.

That's not to say there's no argument one could make for that measure. In fact, Dean Baker in an email a few years back pointed out to me that the real weekly wage measure I have used does not include McDonald's supervisors, who certainly are not well paid by any stretch of the imagination. But likewise, it does not include everyone from CEO on down. To clarify the difference, my preferred measure is the average (mean) of what's close to the bottom 62% of workers, while the median is of course the median of everyone. Which better captures the situation of the middle class?

I submit that my measure is better. Smith is right that real median wages have stayed fairly flat from 1980 to 2000, and in fact they have also varied little from 2000 to 2013. But that does not seem consistent with increasing cries of economic distress, as people have lost jobs, homes, and, too often, their pensions. I have always thought that declining real wages were fairly invisible at first: People might have made less than the previous generation, but for any given individual, that effect was offset by their increasing experience over time, leading to a slightly higher  real income for that person. It was only when large numbers of people began to lose jobs, and could not find anything that paid as much as their old job, that the issue of middle class decline rose more to public consciousness.

Having shifted measures in midstream, Smith's final comments are rather less compelling. He has via  this shift precluded the answer that women entered the workforce in large numbers from 1980 to 2000 to help maintain consumption, a position buttressed by the finding of Elizabeth Warren and co-researchers that private debt has increased sharply. I would also point out that women entered the workforce more rapidly in the 1973-79 period (when incomes were falling the most consistently) than in 1980-2000, as a close inspection of this FRED chart will show. Finally, going back to Warren's work, she argues that the rapid rise of home prices swallowed up the nominal income increase due to women entering the workforce, and that the average house grew in size by less than half a room in over 20 years, even while new single-family houses were growing by the much larger percentages Smith gave in his initial article.

Hence, Smith's claim that I'm saying increased women's labor force participation "represents a deterioration in the living standards of the average American" is mistaken, based on his using a different measure of middle class income than I do. I have tried to indicate why I think my measure is better, which would make women's labor force participation indeed at least in part a response to the falling incomes his measure doesn't show.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Greece may be first head-on challenge to Eurozone austerity

Yesterday Greece elected a new anti-austerity party, Syriza, to lead its next government. New prime minister Alexis Tsipras has pledged to end the austerity measures forced on Greece in the wake of the world financial crisis. Syriza is two votes shy of a majority in the Greek parliament, and announced a coalition last night with a right-wing Euroskeptic party, the Independent Greeks.

Syriza campaigned on a platform of ending the austerity measures and renegotiating its debt with the so-called "troika" of the International Monetary Fund, European Central Bank, and the European Union. The German government is strongly opposed to any debt forgiveness, but supporters of Syriza, such as the Jubilee Debt Campaign, are quick to point out that in 1953 it was Germany that received substantial debt forgiveness, with half its debt written off. And let's also not forget that despite Germany's self-image of economic virtue, a large part of its current world-topping trade surplus comes from the fact that the euro is undervalued for Germany.

As Paul Krugman points out, while critics inside and outside Greece routinely refer to Syriza as "hard left," "left-wing," etc., "it’s actually preaching fairly conventional economics, while the supposedly responsible officials of Brussels and Berlin have been relying on radical doctrines like expansionary austerity and a growth cliff at 90 percent." He quotes Francesco Saraceno: "On closer inspection, it seems far more radical the position of those who, despite having grossly underestimated the negative effects of austerity, ask for more of the same; of those who insist on advocating supply-side reforms to cope with a chronic lack of demand..."

 This lack of demand is reflected in Greece's unemployment rate, which has been above 25% since July 2012. It has retreated to 25.8% from a high of 28% in 2013, but because its gross domestic product has fallen so much, the country's debt/GDP has continued to increase despite its austerity policies. Indeed, the ratio has increased because of austerity.

It remains to be seen how successful Syriza will be. But it is already serving as an inspiration to other anti-austerity parties, notably Podemos in Spain, which still has an unemployment rate of 23.7%.

Austerity policies remain very much in play in the United States, with us today seeing an announcement of a bipartisan House committee on Social Security "reform" (read: cuts). It is good to finally see some hope that Europe is beginning to reject the politics of austerity.