Econ 101: Inflation –Temporary or Longer Lasting?

Prices of many goods and services have increased in recent months. Are these increases permanent or temporary or will they continue rising in the future? Before exploring those questions, it is important to understand the measures of inflation we are considering. What is the current rate of inflation in the United States? U.S. inflation in September was 3.0% (Compound annual rate of change for Consumer Price Index without food and energy prices over the month of September), or 4.0% (percent change from a year ago) or 5.4% (percent change from a year ago including food and energy prices). What does it mean if this is temporary or long lasting?

If prices remain where they are today after the 5.4% increase from a year ago, inflation going forward would be zero even though the cost of living would be permanently higher. If inflation is long lasting it means that prices will continue to rise for some time (years). What are the factors that influence the future behavior of prices? What should we expect in the U.S.?

The price of a good or service increases when its demand exceeds its supply and similarly for prices in general (when aggregate demand exceeds aggregate supply). As prices are measured in a country’s currency, supplying too much of the currency (generally when the money supply grows more rapidly than the supply of goods and services) causes its value to fall (i.e., prices in the country’s currency to rise).

On the cost side, firms will hire workers and pay them a particular wage (and related benefits) when it adds more to the company’s income than it costs, which includes the cost of the tools they use (capital). Workers will accept a job when its benefits (pecuniary and nonpecuniary) are the best they can find. The inflation expected by the employer and the employee over the period of the wage contract is an important factor in determining what will be offered and what will be accepted.

Because of changes in consumer demands, worker preferences, halving of work visas for immigrants, and supply chain disruptions, labor markets are temporarily in turmoil. September unemployment in the U.S. was 7.674 million while there were 10.4 million job vacancies. Employers are raising wages in an effort to fill those vacancies. As reported by Scott Lincicome: “Goldman Sachs analysts saw a ‘perfect storm of factors that have significantly reduced the supply of workers who are currently looking for jobs at the same time that labor demand—as measured by job openings—has risen to an all-time high.’ This includes… state and federal benefits, early retirements, severely restricted immigration, a switch to self-employment, fear of COVID, and a geographic mismatch between unemployed workers and available jobs. Combined, these factors account for most of the missing workers out there.”  “What if the labor shortage isn’t transitory?”

In short, the labor force has shrunk just as the demand for output is increasing. This excess demand for workers is driving up labor costs and thus pushing up output prices. If the 5 or 6 percent price increase experienced over the present year is expected to be temporary, i.e., if prices are expected to return to their level a year ago, because the supply of labor returns to its pre-pandemic level, wage increases should be temporary as well, falling back to their pre pandemic level and growing thereafter on average with labor productivity plus the 2% inflation target of the central bank once there is full employment and better labor market balance.

More likely, if the inflation is expected to be temporary, i.e., the current 5 to 6 percent inflation stops but prices remain at their increased level, wages will remain at the increased level, but their real (inflation adjusted) value will fall back to their original level. In other words, if these higher prices are expected to be “permanent,” the nominal wage increases now being experienced will not result in any increase in real wages and the worker short fall might remain.

While some of those who withdrew from the labor force will probably return, it is not likely to fully satisfy the demand for various reasons (early retirement, fall in immigration, etc.). Filling (or attempting to fill) the remaining labor shortage will require additional wage increases (unless the public’s demand for goods and services falls–see below). In that case, firms will plan to pass on their higher cost of labor to their customers. If we, the customers, can continue to pay the higher prices, the inflation will continue. Expectations of higher prices and or inflation will be realized.

The Covid-19 pandemic caused a sharp fall in output and thus to most people’s incomes. The government provided extraordinary financial support to temporarily fill the resulting income gap. Such support did not increase the output of goods and services or even prevent their decline but rather temporarily redistributed income from those saving it to avoid hunger and defaults on rents, mortgages, and other financial obligations by those who lost it.  “The new covid-19 support bill”  Because personal incomes were substantially maintained while actual output fell, personal savings rates increased dramatically and continue to be well above pre pandemic levels.

The Federal Reserve pitched in by buying up huge amounts of the resulting government debt increasing its balance sheet from $3.5 trillion in February 2020 to $6.3 trillion in August 2021 (measured by the monetary base, M0). This fueled an increase in board money (M3–M0 plus bank deposits and similar liquid assets of the public) from $15.5.0 trillion in February 2020 to $20.8 trillion in August 2021. This increase, though substantial, was significantly less than the increase in M0 (which almost doubled) because the Fed paid interest to banks for keeping the new base money with the Fed (excess reserves) rather than lending it to the public, by paying banks interest on all bank reserves kept with the central bank.

Historical experience is that the public will not be willing to hold these larger amounts of money for ever. They will eventually attempt to spend them down to their traditional (normal) levels, thus adding to aggregate demand for goods and services (and inflationary pressure).

Eventually, the demand for goods and services (aggregate demand) must fall to match real output, or output must rise to match demand. But if the Federal Reserve continues to print money faster than its real value is being inflated away, the inflationary process will continue or accelerate. Similarly, if the government continues to redistribute income from those with a lower propensity to consume (generally higher income families with a higher savings rate) to those with a higher propensity to consume (generally lower income families that save little), aggregate demand will remain excessive perpetuating inflation.

Historically, hyperinflation episodes invariably exploded in the collapse of the currency.  “Hyperinflation in Zimbabwe”  Turkey has come closest to a high inflation “equilibrium.” From the mid 1980s to the end of the 1990s Turkey’s inflation rate varied between 80 and a 120 percent. A high inflation “equilibrium” would be characterized by nominal interest rates and wage rates that fully incorporate the ongoing expected rate of inflation in order to preserve the appropriate real (inflation adjusted) rates. Interest rates in Turkey in this period generally exceeded 100%, as did wage growth.

In its most recent World Economic Outlook, the International Monetary Fund stated that: “In settings where inflation is rising amid still-subdued employment rates and risks of expectations de-anchoring are becoming concrete, monetary policy may need to be tightened to get ahead of price pressures, even if that delays the employment recovery.” “World Economic Outlook-October 2021

As stands out clearly from the increasingly but unevenly rising inflation in the 1970, the process of increasing inflation is not linear (see the chart above).  As inflation increased, the Federal Reserve tightened monetary policy (raised interest rates to slow monetary growth) to slow inflation, causing real output to slow or decline. Policy then eased prematurely, and inflation and the expectation of higher inflation took off again, each time reaching a higher peak (until Paul Volcker stepped on the breaks and ended the game in 1979-80–the exciting year I worked at the Federal Reserve Board).

The Federal Reserve is smarter today than it was in the 1970s and has the tools to prevent the acceleration of inflation and the unhinging of inflation expectation. But the excess money balances and personal saving are very large and the government’s seeming willingness to run up unprecedented deficits create a powerful inflationary head wind. The tightening of monetary policy that will be needed (sooner rather than later in my view) will reduce the Fed’s purchases of Treasury debt and increase interest rates. Higher interest rates will increase government spending for debt service on its very large stock of debt, which will further increase government borrowing and debt or require cuts in spending for other programs. This must be added to the economic challenges of confronting climate change, the continuing recovery and adjustments from the Covid-19 pandemic, the deepening and destructive partisan divide that is stifling Congress, and the growing lack of public trust that drives it.

Whether our current inflation is temporary or longer lasting depends on how quickly and decisively the Federal Reserve tightens monetary policy and how quickly people go back to work. Whether the U.S. economy and the government’s large stock of debt continue to enjoy safe haven status around the world depends heavily on whether our government brings its spending and tax policies under better control.

Eviction Moratorium

Many people who lost their jobs because of Covid are not able to pay their rent until they return to work. What should we do about it?  Most landlords will work out an arrangement for deferred rent with tenants that are otherwise trustworthy. Most overdue debts are handled this way. But a case can be made, and has been made, for temporary government assist. Where you think the money should come from to bridge the income gap tells a lot about your general attitudes toward our market economy. When renters lose their incomes and stop paying their rent, they are passing on part of that loss to their landlords.  

But landlords are people with financial needs as well.  As noted by George Will: “As of June, landlords were owed $27.5 billion in unpaid rents. Almost half of landlords, who include many minorities, own only one or two rental units. They continue paying mortgages, property taxes, insurance and utilities while the CDC requires them to house nonpaying people or risk jail. Landlords can plausibly argue that the moratorium is a “taking.”  https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/08/04/eviction-moratorium-exacerbated-americas-institutional-disarray/

The income supplement to out of work renters can come from the general taxpayers (us) or from landlords.  Investing in real estate is one of the primary ways in which lower middle-income families build wealth and move up the ladder. They should not be the ones to bear the cost of this assistance.  The CARES Act and subsequent programs was meant to share this burden more fairly, but its disbursements seem to have been slow.  The eviction moratorium, in addition to being illegal, is immoral.

The Corporate Income Tax

Should the U.S. Corporate Income Tax be increased from its current 21% (plus state corporate income taxes that average about 5%) back to 28%? No, it should be reduced to zero. The corporate income tax should be abolished. Only people pay taxes, either workers from their wages, consumers in the prices they pay goods and services, or shareholders from their business incomes. The corporate income tax, taxes these people twice.  So who really pays a corporate income tax?

One of the standards applied by economists for a “good” tax is that it does not distort the allocation of resources. If tax treatment encourages investments that are less productive than otherwise, output will be lower, and we will be poorer. This is called the tax neutrality principle. “Next up: tax-reform”  The corporate income tax violates this principle because it taxes the same income twice contributing to a bias toward debt rather than equity financing. The activities of corporations generate wage income to its workers, which is taxed as income of its workers. Their purchases of supplies and services from other companies generate income for those companies, which are taxed there. The difference between a corporation’s revenue on its sales and these expenditures–its profit–is paid to its owners (shareholders) and is taxed as part of their incomes.

But corporate income is taxed again in the name of the company itself–double taxation. That tax must come from some combination of reduced employee remuneration (wages and benefits) and shareholder income.  Studies indicate that it comes largely from reduced wages. https://www.forbes.com/sites/johngoodman/2021/04/02/who-pays-the-corporate-income-tax/?sh=4eb92e9b58ab

Another problem with this double tax on corporate income is that many corporations operate in many countries. It is not easy (if even possible) to agree with each of these countries, which have their own tax policies, which income to tax in which country. Companies have become expert at shifting their activities and attributing income to the lowest tax jurisdictions.  Where, for example, is the intellectual property, which can be an important source of company’s income, owned for tax purposes? The answer is often Ireland.

Economists agree that the most neutral tax is a flat rate consumption (sales) tax.  “The Principles of Tax Reform” Consumption would be taxed were it takes place thus avoiding the issues in current income taxes of where the income is produced. In our global, internet linked world, the applicable consumption tax would be the one levied on the residence of the consumer as it finances the government services provided there.

In an earlier note on a Universal Basic Income, I presented back-of-the-envelop estimates of the consumption tax rate required to finance a UBI of 18,000 dollars per year for each and every adult and half of that amount for children (under 20 years old) if we abolish all income taxes (individual and corporate) and replace existing entitlement programs (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, unemployment insurance, etc.) with that UBI. The combination of a flat rate consumption tax and a UBI produces an interesting degree of tax progressivity relative to income. I hope that you find it interesting. “Replacing Social Security with a universal basic income”

Replacing Social Security with a Universal Basic Income

The idea of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) in place of existing entitlement programs (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, unemployment insurance, etc.) that is financed by a flat rate income or consumption tax calls for a deeper discussion of its financing. “Our-social-safety-net”

For purposes of illustration, lets assume a UBI of 18,000 dollars per year for adults and half that for children (under 20 years old). This is somewhat above the current average Social Security benefit for someone retiring at age 65.  The current American population of 330 million consists of about 82 million children and 248 million adults. Thus, the total cost of such a UBI would be about 5.2 trillion dollars. This would exceed total expenditures in 2019 of 4.4 trillion dollars, of which 2.7 was for the social safety net (entitlements–social security and welfare). Total Federal tax revenue in 2019 was 3.5 trillion dollars of which 36% or 1.26 trillion dollars was from payroll taxes (social security and Medicaid and Medicare). This left a staggering deficit in 2019 of almost one trillion dollars that had to be borrowed from China and others when our economy was at full employment and should have been in surplus. And now look at our shocking deficit in this pandemic year! But that is another story.

The goal of this note is to illustrate the significant progressivity that would exist with a flat rate consumption tax in place of the corporate and personal income taxes and the payroll tax when replacing existing safety net expenditures with a UBI.

The original rational for the regressive payroll tax to pay for social security pensions was that social security was a traditional retirement program funded from the savings of each pensioner. The assumption was that the pension it paid reflected the money that each worker paid into the so called but misnamed social security trust fund. In short it was characterized as what we call a defined contribution system (you get what you saved) when it was in fact structured as a defined benefit system (you get a defined amount no matter what you actually paid in). In fact, as Americans lived longer and longer, thus enjoying more and more retirement years, the system collapsed into a basically pay as you go system (today’s workers were paying for today’s retirees’ pensions). The trust fund has very little savings in it. So instead of the payroll tax funding the worker’s future pension it became a regressive tax funding current retiree pensions. The payroll tax should be abolished. “Saving Social Security”  

A flat tax (whether on income or consumption) has many economic virtues, with simplicity at the top of the list.  But a flat rate rubs some people the wrong way who think that the wealthier should pay more tax than implied by a flat rate. My sense of fairness calls for someone with twice the income (if we are focusing on an income tax) to pay twice the tax. That is exactly what a flat rate tax (the same tax rate for everyone whatever their income level is) provides.  Whether we go for an income tax or a consumption tax we should forget about the corporate income tax. It is more trouble than it is worth in a world in which many if not most companies operate globally (i.e. in many different tax jurisdictions). It only contributed 7% of total Federal tax revenue in 2019 and unfairly taxes the company incomes of company owners twice. “Principles of Tax Reform

A flat personal consumption tax that would raise the same revenue as raised by all Federal taxes in the U.S. in 2019 (3.5 trillion dollars) would require a 24% rate. But that revenue did not cover all of the government’s expenditure as noted above. In addition, replacing existing safety net expenditures of 2.7 trillion dollars with a UBI of 18,000 dollars per adult and 9,000 dollars per child (5.2 trillion dollars) would result in total Federal government expenditures in 2019 of 6.9 trillion dollars or 2.5 trillion dollars higher (5.2 – 2.7). A flat consumption tax rate of 47% would be needed to raise 6.9 trillion dollars. This seems very high for two important reasons. First it assumes a balanced budget for the actual level of defense and other non-entitlement expenditures in 2019, i.e. it raises almost one trillion dollars more than the government actually collect in 2019.  Secondly it is financing the additional 2.5 trillion dollars for the UBI from which the higher tax would be paid, i.e. the net tax would be lower.

Though the marginal tax rate would be flat (the same for everyone), the resulting tax burden would actually be quite progressive. To provide a rough idea of the net progressivity of the UBI with a 47% consumption tax, assume that all income is consumed (this would overstate consumption some for higher income families). The poorest families, those who have no income other than the UBI, and assuming a family of two adults and two children, would pay no net tax and receive a net income subsidy of $28,620 or $2,385 per month. For the median family in 2019 (50% income level) the average income was $63,030. But including their UBI their total tax payments would be $55,004 or an excess of $1,004 over their UBI for a tax rate on their (pre UBI) income of 1.6%. For the family at the 80% income level, the average income was $130,000 and their total tax payments would be $86,480 or an excess over their UBI of $32,480 for a tax rate on their earned income of 25%.  This is a significantly progressive outcome while preserving the flat marginal rate.

Individual states may well choose to provide assistance for individual specific purposes, as they do now, for example, for education at various levels. But at the Federal level every effort should be made to prevent such add-ons to our social safety net. If as we become richer as a whole, we choose to be more generous, the amount of the UBI can be raised (or lowered) but only for everyone equally. This would prevent individual interest groups from tacking on special assistance for themselves. The ability of such special interests to gain special favor is a major reason for the slippery slope of the creeping welfare state we now enjoy.

It is important that policies, whatever their good intentions might be, also provide good incentives for outcomes that are desirable for society as a whole. A danger with progressive marginal tax rates, is that the majority of taxpayers have an incentive to raise the rate on those with incomes greater than their own. Or at best there is no incentive for them to resist such a temptation. Soaking the rich is not only an unfair treatment of those who have prospered inventing and delivery goods and services we liked enough to buy, but it will drive them away to tax jurisdictions that better respect their property rights. One of the many virtues of a UBI financed with a flat rate consumption (or income) tax is that the only way to increase the average tax rate on the wealthy is to increase the UBI for everyone.

A UBI would fulfill our desire to help those in real need but would return the responsibility of individual decisions of how that assistance is to be used to the individuals involved. It would simplify and depoliticize the determination of who gets help and how much and would remove the burden of determining our proper tax obligation for most of us. It would thus greatly simplify the administration of such a combined program. It would better align the political incentives for the level of assistance with the preferences of society as a whole. While most people work for more than the income it generates–the self-esteem of being a useful member of society is also important–a UBI would remove the economic disincentive of many current welfare programs of working resulting from the loss of benefits when income reaches a modest level.

Our Social Safety Net

Virtually every country provides assistance to their poorest citizens–to those who fall for one reason or another from normal employment. Approaches to fulfill this objective differ widely. The Federal safety net spending in in the United States in 2019 was 2,600 billion dollars. Total government (Federal, State, and local) entitlement spending was 2,900 billion dollars. Of this, about one third was for Social Security and one third for Medicare and Medicaid.

“The federal government funds 126 separate programs targeted towards low‐​income people, 72 of which provide either cash or in‐​kind benefits to individuals. (The rest fund community‐​wide programs for low‐​income neighborhoods, with no direct benefits to individuals.) State and local governments operate more welfare programs.”[1] This year, in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Federal Government has added about $3 trillion dollars ($3,000,000,000,000) for temporary one-time assistance for the impact of the forced interruption of production, and is likely to add more.

The goal of these programs is, or should be, to adequately support those needing it without creating disincentives to work and with minimal abuse (corruption). The CARES Act and other pandemic assistance programs were quickly created in an emergency. It is thus understandable that mistakes were made. As time goes on charges of corruption (politically motivated expenditures) are multiplying. The administrative challenges of suddenly making millions of individual payments quickly and correctly were and are huge.

There is a dramatically better way to do this. We might characterize our existing approach of government directed assistance (e.g. food stamps) as the Socialist Model. It is top down and dictates how the assistance is to be used. Replacing all of these programs with a Universal Basic Income (UBI) leaves the decisions on how its recipients use it with each individual. This might be characterized as the Individualist Model. It has many advantages over our existing approach.

A UBI would eliminate all government discretion over who receives assistance and how much they receive.  Every adult citizen would receive that same amount monthly (and every legal child would receive the same smaller amount). The government could not favor one group over another on any bases other than age. This removes political considerations from defining and administering the payments. Every birth and death in the country is recorded in a county hall of records and every legal immigration is recorded with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS). Thus, the records upon which payments would be based already exist. Using them would remove my need every year to submit a certified document to my pension plan stating that I am still alive. No special measures or supplements would have been needed to address the personal income shocks of covid-19.

One carveout would be required for medical insurance. Every person or family should be required to use part of its monthly UBI to buy a health insurance policy that at a minimum includes catastrophic care coverage. At the launch of UBI and this insurance mandate, insurers would not be allowed to refuse coverage to people with preexisting conditions and the government would cover the actuarial estimate of the extra cost of such conditions.

As the UBI would replace Social Security pensions, another modification would be for the unlikely case that the UBI would be less than ones current Social Security pension (which in 2017 was $13,824 for someone who retired at age 65). So, for such a person who has already retired or is, say, within five years of retirement, their UBI should not be less than their existing Social Security pension. But a UBI of $1,500 per month ($18,000 per annum) for everyone seems reasonable, which would make this case mute.

Those with a welfare state mentality argue that people can’t be trusted to spend such income wisely (from their perspective). I reject such thinking. There are among us, of course, those individuals with addictions and mental illnesses who are indeed not capable of making their own decisions and thus caring for themselves. Our laws and practices already provide for such special cases and would continue to supersede the rights of such individuals to make their own decisions about the uses of their UBIs.

But can we afford it? Today’s American population is about 330 million, of which about 80 million are under the age of 20. To get a rough sense of what is possible, if we replaced today’s safety net expenditures of 2.9 trillion with a UBI to the 33% poorest (110 million people, of whom 25% or 26 million are under 20 years old) in the U.S. in 2019 each person could received about $26,000 per year or about $2,200 per month. If children (those under 20) are paid half what is paid to adults, existing safety net expenditures could finance about $15,000 per child per year and $30,000 per adult if a UBI is given to the lowest third of the population in terms of income. For a family of four this would be an annual income of $90,000, which is above the median household income of about $64,000 in 2019, and is clearly excessive.

But a UBI must be universal. It must be paid to everyone for several simple reasons. Most importantly, it would eliminate the disincentive to work in the existing programs, which end if a person’s income rises above a specified level. With a UBI, every additional dollar of income joins an irreducible UBI. Every additional dollar earned make the recipient that much better off (the UBI amount plus the earned income). This is a very important feature. In addition, it would remove any political question over the level of income at which it should be withdrawn. It would be paid to everyone regardless of their income.

But paying the UBI to everyone, not just the lowest one third, would triple its cost. Can we afford it? Clearly those who pay taxes will have to pay more to cover this additional cost. But as the additional cost is to cover payments to these taxpayers, they would not pay more on net (depending on the nature and structure of our tax systems).  For reasons of equity and tax efficiency I have long advocated a flat tax, meaning the same marginal tax rate for everyone paying taxes. “My-political-platform-for-the-nation-2017” I would go even further and replace income taxation (both corporate and personal) with a flat rate, comprehensive consumption tax.  When a flat rate tax, whether income or consumption, is combined with a UBI, the net result is mildly progressive. Low income people pay no tax on net and in fact receive net income via the UBI (what Milton Friedman called a negative income tax). Middle income families might break even (receive a UBI sufficient to pay for their extra taxes) and for higher income families their extra taxes would be greater than their UBI, hence a progressive average tax rate system even with flat marginal rates.

A UBI with a flat rate consumption tax would enormously simplify our tax and welfare system while improving the financial incentives to work and returning more control over our lives to individuals from the state. Covid-19 dramatically demonstrates that the time has come to replace existing welfare systems with a Universal Basic Income (UBI).


[1] Michael Tanner, “When Welfare Pays Better than Work” CATO Institute, August 19, 2013.

The order to reopen–who gives it?

Like all of us, President Trump is eager to reopen the economy. Does he have the authority to do so or do state governors? Fortunately, neither can force us to start eating out again, or return to our offices. We remain a country where those decisions rest with each of us individually (or jointly with your boss with regard to returning to your office, shop or factory). That means that those parts of the economy that have shut down will get going again when the affected businesses have taken measures to protect their customers and employees sufficient to regain their customers’ trust that they are safe places to visit. But as I argued last month, that should always have been the basis of social interactions.  “Beating-covid-19: Compulsion-or-Persuasion-and-guidance”

The broad-based, blunt instrument of sheltering at home unless your activities are vital (says who?) is imposing staggering damage to the economy.  The best way to minimize that damage is to restore public trust as quickly as possible that those with it are being isolated and treated.  A blanket shut down of non-essential activities is not the best approach. Each of us in our personal situation can better determine where we feel safe to go than can a government agency.  However, some of us will not give sufficient weight to the dangers of exposing our friends and the general public to the disease if we might have it.  Public policy should educate the public to the dangers of covid-19 and how best to protect ourselves and should minimize the financial incentive to continue working when sick. State coercion (mandatory quarantines) should only be applied to those testing positive for the virus.  This approach will allow all firms and stores to operate whose employees and customers judge them to be safe and will give businesses maximum incentive to make themselves safe.

Covid-19 will be around for at least another year or two until an effective vaccine is available and then distributed to more than 60 percent of the world population. The most effective way to contain its spread in the interim is to undertake widespread, quick, and accurate testing and to quarantine those who test positive with efficient contact tracing.  Adding the newly available tests for antibodies indicating immunity to the virus will identify those who are no longer susceptible to acquiring or spreading the disease. They should be safe in public.  Other corona viruses have created immunity in those who have had them and SARS-CoV-2 is expected to do the same, though this has not yet been established.

The U.S. has belatedly increased its testing for the virus. Initially it impeded the development and supply of test kits. As of April 16, the U.S. has tested 10,266 people per million while Germany has tested twice that. The U.S. by that date had 105 deaths per million while Germany had less than half that.  The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) should get out of the way and allow profit seeking entrepreneurs to flood the market with test kits.  The government should focus its (our) money on a large increase in testing for the virus and quarantining those testing positive and those they contacted and should offer significant financial prizes for an effective vaccine and for the development (or discovery) of effective treatments. Unlike patents as an incentive, this will encourage collaboration and knowledge sharing among those attempting to develop treatments.

On April 16 President Trump outlined guidance for the phased reopening of closed businesses and activities that is consistent with the approach outline above.  The government’s traditional public health role is important. But much more discretion should be given to individual case by case judgements about risks and entrepreneurial initiatives about remedies rather than broad based government edicts.

We will not return and cannot be required to return to the public square until we believe it is safe to do so. Individual shops and firms have a financial incentive to find convincing approaches to being safe and will get there quicker than even the best-intentioned government official issuing instructions and mandates. The government has an important role to play in fighting this virus and facilitating our return to normal life, but it should remove impediments it often creates to the private sector’s management of the related risks and the huge and unnecessary damage it imposes on the economy.

Covid-19: What should Uncle Sam do?

On February 29 the first person in the United States died from Covid-19, the disease caused by SARS-CoV-2, the so-called novel coronavirus first observed in Wuhan, China.  On March 12, three more people succumbed from this disease bringing the total to 41. Ten days later on March 22, 117 died bringing the total to 419 as the exponential growth of Covid-19 deaths continues. Globally 15,420 had died by midday March 23 and deaths are rising fast.

How and where will this end?  Shutting the economy down and keeping everyone isolated in place until the virus “dies” for lack of new victims would ultimately kill everyone from starvation (if not boredom).  This pandemic will only end (stabilize with the status of the flu, which currently kills about 34,000 per year in the U.S.) when an effective vaccine is developed and administered to almost everyone. This will take one year to eighteen months if it is discovered today, and that is if we are lucky that the safety and effectiveness trials go according to plan. Without a vaccine, the pandemic will “end” when most of us have acquired immunity to it as a result of having and surviving (as almost everyone will) covid-19 –acquiring so called herd immunity.  This assumes that having and surviving the disease will immunize us. This is generally the case with viruses but has not yet been established for SARS-CoV-2.

Our hospitals and medical services could not handle the patient load if every one contracted this disease over too short a period, so it is important to slow down the pace of infection–so called flattening the curve (which could spike quickly as you see from the opening paragraph). The ideal strategy is to allow the infection of those with low risk of serious illness or death to speed up herd immunity with minimum demand on our limited health facilities, while protecting and treating the most vulnerable. The young and healthy are least vulnerable and the old and health-impaired are the most vulnerable.  We should reopen schools and restaurants after Easter and gradually restart our cultural entertainment lives adhering to higher standards of hygiene and public interaction. This would be ideal both with regard to speeding up herd immunity and with regard to minimizing that damage to the economy.

What should government do?

I am from the government and I am here to help (it is risky to attempt humor in these times, but what the hell). “Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin warned GOP senators that the unemployment rate could spike to nearly 20 percent if they fail to act dramatically…. The United States is expected to lose 4.6 million travel-related jobs this year as the coronavirus outbreak levies an $809 billion blow to the economy, according to a projection released yesterday by the U.S. Travel Association…. Research from Imperial College London, endorsed by the U.K. government, suggests that 2.2 million would die in the United States and 510,000 would die in Britain if nothing is done by governments and individuals to stop the pandemic.” “six-chilling-estimates-underscore-danger-of-coronavirus-to-public-health-and-the-economy”

“Infectious disease experts do not yet know exactly how contagious or deadly the novel coronavirus is. But compared to SARS and MERS, SARS-CoV-2 [as the novel coronavirus is now labeled] has spread strikingly fast: While the MERS outbreak took about two and a half years to infect 1,000 people, and SARS took roughly four months, the novel coronavirus reached that figure in just 48 days.”  “Mapping the Novel Coronavirus Outbreak”

The U.S. does not have the medical equipment or hospital beds that will be needed for those anticipated to need ICU facilities.  And as poorly equipped medical staff fall ill from their exposure to the Coronavirus, we will run out of enough doctors and nurses to care for them forcing us to default to the unpleasant realities of medical triage where doctors begin to assess and choose those that have a higher probability of survival and to leave the weakest to fend for themselves. This has already started in Italy.

So, what should the government do? Its response might be considered under three categories:  a) Stop or slow the spread of covid-19; b) Help state and local health service providers care for those needing it; and c) minimize the damage to the economy (i.e. to those whose income is affected by the disease or the measures taken to slow the spread of the disease).

As with all good policies, as the government determines its immediate approaches to the crisis, it should keep one eye on the longer run implications of the policies adopted. It should balance the most effective immediate actions with the minimization of what economists call moral hazard in the future.  The simplest and best-known example of moral hazard results from the now hopefully banished practice of governments bailing out banks when they fail as a way of protecting depositors. This one way bet for the banks–they profit when they win their bets and the government bails them out when they lose them–encouraged banks to take on excessive risks. In the U.S. we have replace bank bail outs with deposit insurance and efficient bank resolution (bankruptcy) procedures. “Key Issues in Failed Bank Resolution”

If economists do nothing else, we pay very close attention to incentives, particularly those created by government rules and regulations (including taxes and subsidies).  Government financial assistance must also be carefully designed to be temporary, recognizing the danger that expansions of government into the economy in emergencies have the bad habit of becoming permanent.

From these general considerations our response should be guided by these principles: Measures should be effective with the least cost. They should be narrowly targeted. They should be temporary. The cost of financial assistance should be shared by all involved–no bailouts.

Flatten the curve 

The government’s first priorities must be to slow the spread of covid-19 while supporting the medical needs of those contracting it.  Limiting the number of infected will limit the resulting deaths (guesstimated to be around 1% of those infected by this virus). Slowing the rate at which people are infected–flattening the curve–will reduce the peak demand for hospital beds and related services until a vaccine is found (once one or several candidates are discovered today, it will take 12 to 18 months of tests to establish its safety and effectiveness and manufacture enough to start administering it).

Despite clear warnings that the novel coronavirus posed serious threats to the U.S. for which we were not prepared, President Trump failed to act until very recently, calling the scare a Democratic plot as recently as February 28. “Trump-says-the-coronavirus-is-the-democrats-new-hoax”  “U.S. intelligence agencies were issuing ominous, classified warnings in January and February about the global danger posed by the coronavirus while President Trump and lawmakers played down the threat and failed to take action that might have slowed the spread of the pathogen, according to U.S. officials familiar with spy agency reporting.” “US-intelligence-reports-from-january-and-february-warned-about-a-likely-pandemic”

Countries that acted quickly to identify and isolate those infected by the virus have generally succeeding in slowing its spread without shutting their economies down.  South Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan have tested widely and quarantined those testing positive, many of whom were asymptomatic. Their economies have not been shut down. Restaurants and bars remain open as do schools in Singapore and Taiwan.  New cases in S Korea have fallen to very low levels two weeks ago and active cases have been declining since March 11 as more people recover than acquire the disease. On March 22 only two people died from the disease.  Cases and deaths have remained low in Japan, Singapore and Taiwan. The following describes the lesson’s from Singapore’s success: plan ahead, respond quickly, test a lot, quarantine the sick, communicate honestly with the public, live normally:  “Why-Singapore’s-coronavirus-response-worked–and-what-we-can-all-learn”

As a result of the U.S. failing to act earlier, the potential for this approach has been reduced in the U.S.  Nonetheless, the government should urgently remove its barriers to testing, increase the supply of tests, and pay most of the cost of testing. In order to discourage frivolous testing those being tested should pay a small amount of the cost (e.g. ten dollars per test).  Even today (March 21) very few Americans are tested despite frantic catch up efforts by the U.S. government.  “A-government-monopoly-led-to-botched-covid-19-test-kits-but-private-labs-are-now-saving-the-day” Positive test results (“cases”) in the U.S. are rising rapidly (983 new cases on March 16 jumped to 9,339 on March 22, for a total of 33,546). However, as so little testing has been possible, there is no way we can know whether this dramatic increase reflects increases in infection or only the increase in the identification of existing infections. “Peggy Noonan gets tested–finally”

As a result, the government has urged people to stay home, and most entertainment centers (theaters, cinemas, restaurants, gyms, and bars) have closed, and a few state governors are mandating it.  Many international flights have been cancelled.  Aside from grocery stores and pharmacies, most shops and malls have closed. A controversy is raging over whether closing schools does more harm than good. Among the arguments against it is that because serious illness and death among the young is rare but they can spread the disease (to their families at home and others), attempting to block their infection interferes with herd immunization (protection from infection as the result of a large proportion of the population becoming immune as the result of recovery from infection).

The economic impact of those drastic measures will be explored below, but the government must now urgently prepare for the surge of covid-19 patients promising to overwhelm our brave medical health care workers, medical supplies and hospital beds even with these draconian measures. Priorities must be given to properly equipping medical service providers and training their replacements as they fall ill. Hospital beds and respirators and other equipment needed for the more seriously ill must be urgently produced, in part by turning out and away, less seriously ill patients and those with non-emergency, elective treatments. We can delay the investigation into why these steps where not taken two months ago when the need was identified.

Care for the sick

The government should support the market’s natural incentives to develop better treatments and ultimately a vaccine (i.e. profit). This raises challenging policy issues. Protecting the patent rights of firms developing treatments protects the profit incentive for them to do so. However, the sharing of research findings, thus threatening such patents, can greatly accelerate the discovery of helpful medicines or procedures. Hopefully rights can be established and protected that both encourage drug development and cooperative information sharing.

The failure of the U.S. government to provide for or allow significant testing for covid-19 is a scandal. The government should get out of the way. “Coronavirus-and-big-government” Its claim last week and the week before that testing was opening up is sadly not true.  By March 19th the U.S. with a population of 327 million had only tested 103,945 people (0.03%).  S. Korea with a population of 51.5 mil. had tested 316,664 by March 20th (0.6%) and Germany with a population of 82.9 mil. had tested 167,000 by March 15th (0.2%)  “Covid-19-why-arent-we-prepared”

President Trump’s trade war has damaged world’s ability to fight covid-19 in general but more specifically his tariffs on medical supplies are contributing to their shortage in the U.S.  “The US-China trade war has forced US buyers to reduce purchases of medical supplies from China and seek alternative sources. US imports of Chinese medical products covered by the Trump administration’s 25 percent tariffs dropped by 16 percent in 2019 compared with two years earlier.”  “Tariffs-disrupted-medical-supplies-critical-us-coronavirus-fight”

Save the economy

Having missed the opportunity to flatten the curve via testing and targeted quarantines, the U.S. has taken much more drastic steps to restrict public interactions, shutting down the entertainment, educational, and transportation sectors of the economy. These should result in temporary interruptions of the supply of these services that will bounce back when the restrictions are lifted. Some output will be lost forever (lost classroom time, and restaurant meals) but others can be recouped or at least restored to original levels (rates). Clothing and other retail items not purchased during the shut down can be purchased later.

What the economy will look like afterward (hopefully only a few months) will depend on several factors. The first is the extent to which our public behavior is altered permanently. Home movies might permanently replace some part of our usual attendance to the cinema. Teleconferencing might permanently reduce meeting travel or accelerate the existing trend in that direction, etc.

The policies being debated in congress at this moment for protecting individuals and firms from the financial cost of the temporary shutdown can profoundly affect the future composition and condition of the economy. Every big firm out there is working on how they can tap some of the taxpayer’s money that government will be giving out. Those pushing government interventions into new areas on a permanent basis will exploit the occasion to slip in their favorite policies. Unfortunately, once the government moves into an area– it rarely withdraws. Almost 19 years later, the horrible Patriot Act, adopted when a scared public was willing to trade off liberty for security, is still largely with us.

Our public interest would be served by incentives that lead those who might be sick with covid-19 to stay home rather than risk infecting others, and by policies that enable viable firms that lost customers and individuals who stayed home to bridge their financial gap until returning to normal. Affected firms and individuals will continue to have expenses (food, rent, mortgages, etc.) but no incomes. They should be provided with the funds to meet these expenses in order to return to life/work when the lights go back on. The sharing of the cost of those funds must be considered politically fair and must incentivize the desired behavior. Everyone must have some skin in the game (a share of the cost). Adopting measure that fill those criteria will not be easy.

The government (taxpayers) should cover much of the cost of the covid-19 related medical services and hospital costs, including very widespread testing. Medical service providers should be tested daily (e.g., several doctors have died from covid-19 in Italy). Anyone staying at home and testing positive should receive sick leave paid for by the government.

Assistance to companies and the self-employed should be as targeted as possible on those forced to reduce or stop operations as a result of covid-19. Where possible, assistance should take the form of loans to companies that continue to pay wages to their employees even if not working. Restrictions should be placed on how such loans are used (no stock buy backs, or salary increases during the life of the loans). Bank and lending regulators should allow and in fact encourage temporary loan forbearance by the lenders on temporary arrears from otherwise viable firms. “Bailout-stimulus-rescue-check” One small businessman convincingly argued that wage subsidies that keep working on the payroll are better than generous unemployment insurance, which makes it easier for firms to lay off their workers. “Dear-congress-i’m-a-small-business-owner-heres-what-my-business-needs-to-survive”

What about the big companies, such as Boeing, the airlines, the Hotel Chains, and Cruise ship operators? Yes, they should be included in the loan forbearance and incentive loan programs, but they should receive no special consideration beyond that. If government (partially) guaranteed loans through banks to pay wages and other fixed expenses for a few months are not enough to finance a firm’s expenses without income for a few months it is probably not viable in the long run anyway and should be resolved through bankruptcy as were GM and Chrysler in earlier financial crises. This would wipe out the stakes of owners while preserving the ability of the firm to return to profitable operation with new owners. “Bailing-out-well-if-bail-out-we-must”

Monetary policy

The American economy (and elsewhere) is suffering in the first instance a supply shock (sick people unable to work and produce). This fall in income from supply disruptions also reduces demand. Cutting the Fed’s already low interest rate target to almost zero is a mistake. No one will undertake new or expanded investments because of it, and its impact on reducing the return on pensions and other savings will, if anything, reduce spending. The last decade of very low interest rate policy targets has already contributed to excessive corporate debt and inflated stock prices (recently deflated back to normal).

Injecting liquidity via new lending facilities and international swap lines, as the Fed is now undertaking, is the correct response. If lenders allow their borrowers to delay repayments for a few months, they need to replace that missing income somehow (rather than calling in nonperforming loans and bankrupting the borrower). The Federal reserve should substitute for that income by lending to banks freely against the good collateral of government debt or government guaranteed debt.

“The vital need of everyone in the economy, from the corner drugstore to the local transit authority to the mightiest multinational, is liquidity: credit to meet payroll and other key obligations so as to remain solvent until the end of what we all must hope is a finite crisis.”  “Here’s-an-economic-aid-plan-better-than-mitch-McConnell’s”

Macroeconomic policy

As noted above, the government’s help should be narrowly targeted to the direct victims of covid-19.  A general fiscal or monetary stimulus is not needed or desirable.  Nonetheless, it will add to the federal debt that is already bloated by years of annual deficits at the peak of a business cycle when a surprise is customary and appropriate.

“The United States is not confronted with a financial crisis and a follow-on crisis of demand, as in 2008 or 1929. Rather, previously robust consumption and production are being deliberately halted to save lives. Thus, traditional tools of monetary and fiscal stimulus, such as zero interest rates and direct cash aid to households, are unlikely to prove decisive. You can’t shop, or invest in new construction, while on lockdown.”  “Here’s-an-economic-aid-plan-better-than-mitch-McConnell’s”

This is a dangerous period both for our personal health and for the health of the economy. Affected firms should be helped in order for them to continue paying their employees and to remain solvent until they can return to production. But the United States has failed to prepare properly and is handling the fight against covid-19 poorly. We need to reopen our schools and restaurants and return to normal at a reasonable pace while allowing herd immunity to develop at a faster pace while supporting the most rapid development of a vaccine possible. Don’t fight this wildfire with our eyes shut while enhancing the dangers of future fires from ill-advised measures undertaken in this emergency environment.

Stay strong everyone. We will all get through this.

Health Care in America

Late night’s Democratic Presidential debates hit us in the face with how complicated the healthcare debate is. Trying to address it in one-minute sound bites is unpromising so I don’t blame the candidates for failing to be clear. We spend twice as much on healthcare as Canada or our European friends with similar or worse results. We must reduce spending without compromising outcomes while ensuring that everyone receives the care they need.

Our approach to covering the cost of care is to provide insurance to pay for some or most of privately provided care. Insurance spreads the financing of medical costs, whatever they are, among a defined group. Those lucky enough to stay healthy help cover the costs of those not so lucky. Defining the “group” whose costs are thus shared is important. In the U.S. typically the employees of large companies define the group (the risk pool). In this way, there should be a random distribution of lucky and unlucky health-wise within each group. The government subsidies employer provided health insurance by excluding it from the employees’ taxable wages. This creates problems when a worker is fired or wishes to change jobs.  If those with preexisting medical issues join an insurance pool, its overall medical expenses will predictably increase as will its insurance premiums needed to cover the higher cost. If the risk pool is the entire population, as it would be with Medicare for All, it would be the tax payer who pays the cost. These features flag only a few of the challenging issues that healthcare policy needs to address.

The elephant in the room is the high cost of care.  How insurance is structured profoundly influences the bloated cost of care.  Requiring patients to pay at least a bit of the cost (copays) introduces an element of cost consciousness on the part of patients and their doctors that can influence the care chosen.  But there are also other factors, such as restrictions on who can provide what care (MDs, nurses, teleconferencing, etc.) that influence the cost of care.

I have explored some of these issue in the past in more detail and am providing several links here for those of you who are interested. The first blog was written ten years ago: https://wcoats.blog/2009/07/29/econ-lesson-the-rationing-of-medical-care/.  The second link is to a blog written two years ago:  https://wcoats.blog/2017/07/31/finally-health-care-reform/

Should we subsidize college educations?

“According to a national report by the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (sheeo.org), high school graduates earn an average of almost $30,000 per year. Bachelor’s graduates earn an average of just over $50,000 a year. And those with a higher level degree (master’s, doctorate or professional) average nearly $70,000 per year. This translates to a significant earnings gap over the course of one’s life.” https://www.educationcorner.com/benefit-of-earning-a-college-degree.html “According to the SSA, the average wage in 2017 was $48,251.57.” https://wallethacks.com/average-median-income-in-america/  Moreover, college graduates generally have more interesting and secure jobs.

Who should pay for those advantages? The students themselves, or their families, have often borrowed the money to cover their educational expenses. Currently they owe $1.6 trillion  “Here’s-what-trillion-student-loan-debt-is-doing-US-economy”. Democratic party presidential candidate Bernie Sanders proposes to cancel all of it. He would also make all public colleges and community colleges tuition free.

Is that a good idea? Is it fair and does it encourage or enable a better use of our human resources? A proper evaluation requires indicating who would pay for it if not the students themselves. From the above data we see that college graduates make a lot more than everyone else on average—almost double the income of high school graduates.

If the $1.6 trillion in education debt is cancelled, the burden of repaying it (most of it was lent by banks, often guaranteed by the government) will be shifted from the better off (students who will receive higher incomes in the future because of their college educations) to tax payers. Total tax collections by the federal government in 2018 were $3.3 trillion, half of which was income tax, 35% was payroll tax (social security) and only 6% was corporate income tax.  https://www.pgpf.org/budget-basics/who-pays-taxes

Senator Sanders says he will cancel all student debt within six months. Does he plan to cut spending on other programs by $1.6 trillion, a 36% cut, or to increase taxes by $1.6 trillion (the deficit for FY 2019 is already forecast to be $0.9 trillion), or some mix of these?  According to Charles Lane: “Sanders and other left-leaning Democrats promise to pay for tuition-free college and Medicare-for-all with higher taxes on the top 1 percent of earners. Most Nordic countries, by contrast, have zero estate tax. They fund generous programs with the help of value-added taxes that heavily affect middle-class consumers…. The Nordic countries tried direct wealth taxes such as the one that figures prominently in the plans of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.); all but Norway abandoned them because of widespread implementation problems.”   “Democrats-use-Nordic-nations-as-models-of-socialism”

The Tax Policy Center “estimates that 69 percent of taxes collected for 2019 will come from those in the top quintile, or those earning an income above $157,900 annually. Within this group, the top one percent of income earners — those earning more than $783,300 in income per year — will contribute over a quarter of all federal revenues collected.”  Can we and should we try to squeeze even more out of them?

The effective federal tax rate for the top 1% income earners in 2018 was 29.6%, compared to 12.1% for the middle quartile of income earners and 2.9% for the bottom quartile (almost none of which was income tax). It is not obvious where the burden of this gift to the prospectively better off college grads will fall. But it seems to involve a lot of income transfers, which seem to sound nice to our new “socialists.”