Dean Baker Is Must Reading

Dean BakerI think I have to call it: Dean Baker is the most important writer for liberals to read. But you understand: I’m talking about real liberals — economic liberals and not those corporate posers who think liberalism consists of support for same-sex marriage, a woman’s right to choose, and the idea that people ought to be “nice” to one another. Baker is the most clear-eyed commentator on economic issues that we have. What’s more, he’s great at poking the eyes of the pretentious apologists of the oligarchs. You should start each day by read his blog, Beat the Press. To demonstrate, I will to go over what he’s posted there in the last 24 hours.

Last night, Baker took on perhaps the most pretentious apologist, George Will and Tax Reform: If Only He Were Old Enough to Remember the Sixties. One thing that I most hate about modern American conservatives is how they argue that they are just looking out for the little guy, when they have no interest in that whatsoever. Will’s column on Friday was, The Cheerfulness of Tax Reform. In it, he says that everyone would be cheerful if the economy were doing well and so therefore everyone should be cheerful about tax reform. We all know that the only thing that is holding back the economy is a more “fair” tax system, am I right?!

Will is just hocking Dave Camp’s tax “reform” proposal. But what’s interesting about it is how Will is oh so very concerned about the fact that the economy isn’t growing enough to create jobs for the unemployed or the fact that young people aren’t saving enough for retirement or that the poor “on the lower rungs of the ladder of upward mobility” are paying too much in taxes. This is pretty good! We’re supposed to believe that the Republican Party is worried that the poor are paying too much in taxes when they’ve been bitching for the last four years about the fact that 47% of Americans pay no federal income taxes (often implied or even stated as “no taxes” whatsoever).

Will made a number of mistakes in his argument. The most notable was that he claimed that we should lower tax rates because economic growth was so great in the 1960s. Dean Baker had a few choice words for Will:

While Will is right about the low bar for success (we should be seeing very rapid job growth following a steep downturn like the 2008-2009 recession), the sixties do not support his case for a need to cut tax rates. Through most of the 1960s the top individual tax rate was 70 percent, while the corporate rate was 50 percent. That compares to a top individual rate of 41 percent today, and a corporate tax rate of 35 percent. The top marginal tax rate in the first two months when we had 300k plus job gains was 90 percent. If Will wants to make the case for lower tax rates spurring job growth, he should not be citing the sixties.

Early this morning, Baker wrote, NYT Brings Adventures in Uninformative Budget Reporting to Kansas. This is another battle in his long war with journalist over the tendency to throw out large numbers without context. It’s interesting that The New York Times seemed to surrender some time ago, adopting a policy of not reporting meaningless budget numbers. But they don’t seem to follow the policy very well. In this case, The Times explained that Kansas has a $280 million shortfall in the current fiscal year. Baker noted that it is roughly 2% of the Kansas budget. He summed up, “It is understandable that the governor and his allies would prefer euphemisms to conceal their agenda. It is not clear why the NYT would share the same motivations.”

Another of Baker’s big interests is our totally messed up intellectual property system. This morning, he wrote a brief post that gets into one example of how this makes our economy work far worse, If We Didn’t Have Patents, How Would Major Companies Be Able to Harass Innovative Start-Ups? It involves the Chinese company Xiaomi. According to The New York Times, “Xiaomi does not yet have much of a patent portfolio, leaving it vulnerable to lawsuits from competitors.” Baker explained what that meant. The “patent portfolio” is an offensive weapon used by companies to attack each other companies with baseless lawsuits. In other words: it’s all bad for the regular economy — but great for the legal profession.

The most interesting of the posts is his most recent, Health Care Cost Slowdown Persists in Spite of Projections. Baker is rarely better than when he is taking on Robert Samuelson at The Washington Post. Baker has written many posts with titles like, It’s Monday and Robert Samuelson is Confused. But the great thing about Baker is that nothing is automatic — when Samuelson says something smart, Baker backs him up. I haven’t found that Samuelson says that much smart, though. Like Will, he is an apologist who is always looking for ways to justify his own ideological policies.

Last night, he wrote, Health Spending — Under Control? His main point is that the only reason that healthcare spending inflation is down is because of the poor economy. This is Samuelson’s clarion call, “Healthcare spending is out of control, we must starve old people!” But Baker noted that there is no basis for Samuelson’s contention that the better healthcare numbers are almost entirely due to the bad economy:

Robert Samuelson discusses the slowdown in health care costs in his column today and considers possible explanations. He notes a study from Kaiser Family Foundation which attributes three quarters of the slowdown to the weak economy. This study predicted that spending would accelerate in 2014.

We actually have data on this, since the Bureau of Economic Analysis reports spending through October (Table 2.4.5U, Line 168). Through the first 10 months of 2014 we are on track to see a 3.3 percent increase in spending compared to 2013, down slightly from the 3.5 percent increase last year. (This category accounts for about 70 percent of total spending.) That would suggest that 2014 is not fitting the pattern predicted by the Kaiser analysis, which should raise doubts about the extent to which a weak economy can explain a reduction in spending.

Dean Baker is must reading. And if you aren’t going to read his blog, you should read some of his free Kindle books like Getting Back to Full Employment: A Better Bargain for Working People (with the also great Jared Bernstein) or The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive. And if you haven’t read it, everything you need to know about Social Security was written by him and Mark Weisbrot 13 years ago, Social Security: The Phony Crisis.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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