The American Minimum Wage Would Be $26 an Hour Today If Wages Tracked Productivity (As They Once Did in the 20th Century)

Among the most ridiculous things in America is how wages for most workers have been mostly stagnant for 40 years.

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That may sound pretty crazy, but that’s roughly what the minimum wage would be today if it had kept pace with productivity growth since its value peaked in 1968. And, having the minimum wage track productivity growth is not a crazy idea. The national minimum wage did in fact keep pace with productivity growth for the first 30 years after a national minimum wage first came into existence in 1938.

Furthermore, a minimum wage that grew in step with the rapid rises in productivity in these decades did not lead to mass unemployment. The year-round average for the unemployment rate in 1968 was 3.6 percent, a lower average than for any year in the last half century.

The $26 an Hour World

Think of what the country would look like if the lowest paying jobs, think of dishwashers or custodians, paid $26 an hour. That would mean someone who worked a 2000 hour year would have an annual income of $52,000. This income would put a single mother with two kids at well over twice the poverty level.

And, this is just for starting wages. Presumably workers would see their pay increase above the minimum as they stayed at their job for a number of years and ideally were promoted to better paying positions. If we assume that after 10 or 15 years their pay had risen by 20 percent, then these workers at the bottom of the pay ladder would be getting more than $60,000 a year.

While that is hardly a luxurious standard of living, it is certainly enough to support a middle-class lifestyle. For a two-earner couple this would be $120,000 a year. Imagine this is what people at the very bottom of the labor force could reasonably expect when they are in their thirties and forties.

Don’t Try This at Home

The $26 an hour is useful as a thought experiment for envisioning what the world might look like today, but it would not be realistic as policy for local, state, or even national minimum wage without many other changes to the economy. A minimum wage this high would almost certainly lead to large-scale unemployment, and that would be true even if it were phased in over five or six years.

The problem is that we have made many changes to the economy that shifted huge amounts of income upward, so that we cannot support a pay structure that gives workers at the bottom $52,000 a year. This is the whole point of my book, Rigged [it’s free], we have restructured the economy in ways that ensure a disproportionate share of income goes to those at the top. If the bottom half or 80 percent of the workforce got the same share they got 50 years ago, we would have an enormous problem with inflation.  

Just to quickly run through the short list, we can start with my favorites, government-granted patent and copyright monopolies. Items like drugs, medical equipment, and computer software, which would all be relatively cheap in a free market, instead cost us huge amounts of money because of these monopolies. In the case of prescription drugs alone, patent monopolies and related protections may add more than $400 billion a year (roughly $3,000 per family) to our annual bill. In total, the cost from these protections can easily exceed $1 trillion a year (almost $8,000 per family).

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Not only did the federal minimum wage not keep pace with productivity growth, it did not even keep pace with inflation. A person working at the minimum wage today is getting substantial lower pay than a worker did 53 years ago in 1968.

It would be a great story if we could reestablish the link between the minimum wage and productivity and make up the ground lost over the last half century. But we have to make many other changes in the economy to make this possible. These changes are well worth making.  

Fraudulent Research on Minimum Wage Increases

A decent increase in the minimum wage would obviously decrease rates of poverty.

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President Biden’s proposal to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025 is prompting a backlash from the usual suspects. As we hear the cries about how this will be the end of the world for small businesses and lead to massive unemployment, especially for young workers, minorities, and the less-educated, there are a few points worth keeping in mind.

While $15 an hour is a large increase from the current $7.25 an hour, this is because we’ve allowed so much time to pass since the last minimum wage hike. The 12 years since the last increase in the minimum wage is the longest period without a hike since the federal minimum wage was first established in 1938. Few workers are now earning the national minimum wage, both because of market conditions and because many states and cities now have considerably higher minimum wages.

If the minimum wage had just kept pace with prices since its peak value in 1968 it would be over $12 an hour today and around $13.50 by 2025. Keeping the minimum wage rising in step with prices is actually a very modest target. It means that low-wage workers are not sharing in the benefits of economic growth.
From 1938 to 1968 the minimum wage rose in step with productivity growth. This means that as the economy grew and the country became richer, workers at the bottom of the ladder shared in this growth. If the minimum wage had continued to keep pace with productivity growth it would have been over $24 an hour last year and would be close to $30 an hour in 2025.

There has been considerable research on the extent to which the minimum wage leads to job loss. Much recent research finds that even substantial increases in the minimum, such as the $15 an hour minimum wage that is already in place in Seattle, have no effect on employment.[1]

It is worth noting that even the research that finds the minimum wage reduces employment generally finds a relatively modest effect. A recent review article by prominent opponents of the minimum wage found that the median estimate of elasticity was -0.12 for affected workers. This estimate means, for example, that a 10 percent increase in the minimum wage would lead to a reduction in employment among affected workers (e.g. workers with less education or young workers) of 1.2 percent.

It is important to realize that even in this case we are not talking about 1.2 percent of affected workers going unemployed. Low-wage jobs turn over rapidly. For example, in a typical month before the pandemic hit, more than 6.0 percent of the workers in the hotel and restaurant industries lost or left their jobs. If we take the elasticity estimate of -0.12, it would mean that at a point in time we have 1.2 percent fewer people working in the sector as a result of a ten percent increase in the minimum wage.[2]

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A higher minimum wage also has positive societal effects. A recent review of the literature found that a 10 percent increase in the minimum wage would reduce the poverty rate by 5.3 percent. Another study found that a 50 cent increase in the minimum wage reduced the likelihood that formerly incarcerated people would return to prison within a year by 2.8 percent. The long-term effects of these and other benefits are likely to be quite large.

Finally, it is worth remembering that there is a lot of money on the side of those looking to stop minimum wage hikes. This can affect the research on the topic. While few researchers may deliberately cook their results to favor the fast-food industry, they know they can get funding for research that finds a higher minimum wage leads to job loss. There is much less money available for supporting research that finds no effect.

Probably the clearest case of such bias affecting research findings was a paper by David Neumark and William Wascher, two of the most prominent opponents of higher minimum wages. Neumark and Wascher analyzed data given to them by the Employment Policies Institute (a.k.a. “the evil EPI”), a lobbying group for the restaurant industry. They used this data to replicate a pathbreaking study by economists David Card and Alan Krueger, which found no job loss associated with a minimum wage hike in New Jersey.
Neumark and Wascher’s study found that there was in fact a significant loss of jobs in fast-food restaurants in New Jersey following the minimum wage hike. However, an analysis of the Neumark and Wascher data by John Schmitt found patterns that were not plausible. It was subsequently revealed that an owner of a number of fast-food restaurants in New Jersey and Pennsylvania (the control state) had submitted fake payroll data to the Employment Policy Institute to be used in the study. (There is no reason to believe that Neumark and Wascher realized they were working with fraudulent data.) If the faked data was removed from the analysis, the finding of minimum-wage induced job loss disappeared.

This story should be seen as a warning. Most researchers are honest and will accurately report what they find in their analysis. However, we should realize that there are some pretty big thumbs on the scale in the minimum wage battle, and those thumbs want to show that minimum wage hikes will cause job loss.

[1] A paper by John Schmitt explains why it could be the case that, contrary to the textbook story, a higher minimum wage may have no effect on employment.
[2] The actual story is a bit more complicated since typically these studies look at a specific type of worker, such as young people or workers with less education. It could be the case that employment in an industry has not changed, but we have seen older or more educated workers replacing younger and less-educated workers.

News Delivered With Humor Makes It More Memorable

A recent study has been done on how to make news content more memorable. The study’s findings may apply to some other types of content too.

In the early decades of televised news, Americans turned to the stern faces of newsmen like Walter Cronkite, Tom Brokaw, and Dan Rather as trusted sources for news of the important events in America and around the world, delivered with gravitas and measured voices. The rise of comedy-news programs, helmed by the likes of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Trevor Noah, and Samantha Bee, raised concerns over the blending of entertainment and news. But could the merging of humor and news actually help inform the public?

In fact, new research suggests that humor may help keep people informed about politics. A study from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and the School of Communication at Ohio State University found that, when compared to non-humorous news clips, viewers are not only more likely to share humorously presented news but are also more likely to remember the content from these segments.

“For democracy to work, it is really important for people to engage with news and politics and to be informed about public affairs,” says senior author Emily Falk, Professor of Communication, Psychology, and Marketing at Annenberg. “We wanted to test whether humor might make news more socially relevant, and therefore motivate people to remember it and share it.”

The researchers recruited young adults (18-34 years old) to watch a variety of news clips, which they designed to vary, so that some ended with jokes and others did not. In addition to collecting data on participants’ brain activity using fMRI technology, the researchers administered a memory test to determine how much information participants retained from watching the clips. The researchers also asked participants to answer questions about how likely they would be to share the news clips with others.

Participants were more likely to remember information about politics and government policy when it was conveyed in a humorous rather than non-humorous manner and were more willing to share the information online. The findings also show that humorous news clips elicited greater activity in brain regions associated with thinking about what other people think and feel, which highlights the social nature of comedy.

“Our findings show that humor stimulates activity in brain regions associated with social engagement, improves memory for political facts, and increases the tendency to share political information with others,” says lead author Jason Coronel, Assistant Professor of Communication at OSU. “This is significant because entertainment-based media has become an important source of political news, especially for young adults. Our results suggest that humor can increase knowledge about politics.”

President-Elect Joe Biden Could Give Everyone Medicare by Himself (Without Congress)

The powers of the American presidency have become incredibly vast. A good president could significantly improve the healthcare system by themselves, without congressional interference, improving millions of lives in the process.

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The people of Libby, Montana, population 2,628, share something in common with the rest of the developed world, but not their compatriots in the United States. They all have access to a single-payer, Medicare-for-All system.

As part of the Affordable Care Act, the residents of Libby, who were exposed to hazardous airborne asbestos from a vermiculite mine owned by the W.R. Grace Company, were made eligible for Medicare, for free, at the discretion of the Social Security Administration and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). It was codified in Section 1881A of the Social Security Act. The language of the statute refers to any individuals subject to an “environmental exposure,” though it was well understood at the time that this was about Libby.

The fact that the chair of the Senate Finance Committee, Max Baucus, hailed from Montana played no small part in creating Medicare for All Libbyians. But the principle was solid. Through no fault of their own, these residents were subject to a dangerous environmental hazard that would trigger long-term medical complications. The government considered it only right to pick up the exorbitant health care costs for these individuals.

There’s an environmental health hazard spreading through the entire country right now. It’s infecting people unsuspectingly and killing hundreds of thousands. And using Section 1881A, the incoming Biden administration can give all 11 million people infected with COVID—and if they want to be really aggressive—all Americans who have tested positive for coronavirus the option of free Medicare coverage, immediately.

I do not expect Joe Biden to use this power on Inauguration Day to instantly turn the United States into a single-payer country. But there’s nothing in the law that would appear to prevent him from doing it. This is the larger point. The United States Code doesn’t make for scintillating leisure reading, but buried in it are countless options for a president to help people. And once you start orienting yourself in that fashion, thinking about what you can do under the law rather than what you cannot, the possibilities really open up.

The primary pilot program in Section 1881A is the Libby, Montana program. But the executive branch is also given the authority to establish “optional pilot programs” to any area subject to a public health emergency declaration. The entire United States has been under a public health emergency since January 31, 2020, due to the coronavirus. (It’s possible that the Environmental Protection Agency would have to declare a separate public health emergency under the Superfund law to comply with the statute, but Biden’s EPA administrator could easily do so.) Individuals eligible for Medicare would have to have spent six months in the geographic area subject to the emergency; since the area is “the entire United States,” this should not be a problem, either.

At that point, the individual with exposure to the environmental hazard files an application for Medicare benefits, and receives them if they meet the proper criteria. The statute cites that those eligible for benefits must have a diagnosis of ailments like mesothelioma and other consequences from asbestos exposure. But an addendum at the bottom makes the statute applicable to any individual exposed “to a public health hazard to which an emergency declaration applies, based on such medical conditions, diagnostic standards, and other criteria as the Secretary specifies.” Cutting through the legislation-ese, this means that HHS could create a specific pilot program around COVID-19.

We know that there are going to be specific long-term costs from COVID-19. While we’re still learning about “long-haul” COVID patients, it is possible that they could experience a lifetime of health problems from their infection, whether through severe lung damage, heart failure, or gastrointestinal complications. The cost of managing these difficulties will be high, and probably out of reach for most people. It’s cost-effective to put them on Medicare and ensure that they don’t have to go bankrupt because they were unlucky enough to contract the virus. America did something similar with kidney disease under Richard Nixon and for first responders with respiratory problems after spending time at 9/11 cleanup sites. But unlike those two programs, which required Congressional action, a president invoking Section 1881A could do this through executive action, rather than having to get a new law through Congress.

If you really wanted to push it, you could do what they did in Libby: give Medicare to everyone, whether they showed symptoms or not, based on the potential for an environmental exposure. As long as the runoff from the W.R. Grace mine was still in the air, residents of Libby needed the peace of mind that they would be covered from the health consequences. The entire U.S. public needs that same kind of reassurance in the face of coronavirus.

Yes, Joe Biden ran against a single-payer system in the election. (He did run on free coronavirus treatment for all of those infected, and triggering Section 1881A would do just that. This declaration could also guarantee a free vaccine.) He’s not likely to make the incredibly aggressive move to use COVID as a pretext to give everyone the option for government-run healthcare. That’s just reality.

But it’s also reality that Biden has this option to protect people suffering from coronavirus, and even those afraid to get tested because they know they cannot afford treatment. Furthermore, Section 1881A is the kind of creative policy thinking that’s going to be required of a Biden Administration on day one if it wants to make progress for the American people, especially if Mitch McConnell and the Republicans hold onto the Senate.

Maybe Biden doesn’t want to instantly create Medicare for All. But through a range of laws that vest power in the president, he could seize drug patents to dramatically lower the cost of prescription drugs. He could change bad Obamacare rules that cost low-income families using the exchanges roughly $2 billion every year. He could do all kinds of things laid out in the Day One Agenda that would have tangible and enduring benefits for people. 

Since 1789, the legislative branch has been placing a set of powerful authorities in the president’s lap. It does not violate any notion of our system of government for the president to look for creative ways to use those authorities; in fact, it’s the very job description of the chief executive. If President-elect Biden wants to respond to the tragedy of coronavirus by giving millions of people public health care, he could.

U.S. Hospitals Charging Patients Up to 1800% More for Services Than They Cost

The American system has produced some incredible medical advances, but it is reasons like these absurdly high costs that make it largely such a catastrophe.

Hospitals in the United States charge patients as much as 1,800% more than their costs amid the coronavirus pandemic, according to a new study.

The 100 most expensive hospitals in the United States charge between $1,129 and $1,808 for every $100 of their costs, according to a study by National Nurses United, the largest nurses union in the country.

Overall, hospitals across the US charge an average of $417 for every $100 of their costs. The average markup has more than doubled over the past two decades, according to the report.

The markups have resulted in hospital profits skyrocketing by 411% from 1999 to 2017, hitting a record $88 billion.

“The rise in charges coincides with growing hospital mergers and acquisitions by large systems,” the union said in a news release. “The result is increased market consolidation, which leads to higher profits and increased charges, not savings for patients as hospital systems often claim.”

Medical workers worry that high costs will increase the number of people avoiding medical care.

“There is no excuse for these scandalous prices. These are not markups for luxury condo views, they are for the most basic necessity of your life: your health,” nurse Jean Ross, the president of the union, said in a statement. “Unpayable charges are a calamity for our patients, too many of whom avoid— at great risk to their health — the medical care they need due to the high cost, or they become burdened by devastating debt, hounded by bill collectors or driven into bankruptcy.”

The union warned that “high hospital charges also drive up Covid-19 treatment costs.”

A study by the health care data nonprofit FAIR Health in the spring found that uninsured coronavirus patients or those that receive care considered out-of-network by their insurer face costs ranging from $42,486 to $74,310 if they require inpatient hospital treatment.

A survey by the health care research group the Commonwealth Fund also found that more than two-thirds of Americans say that “potential out-of-pocket costs would be very or somewhat important in their decision to seek care if they had symptoms of the coronavirus.”

While insurers often negotiate prices with hospitals, uninsured patients have little recourse. And as with other health care and coronavirus-related disparities, people of color are disproportionately impacted. Latinos are nearly three times as likely and Black people are nearly twice as likely to be uninsured than white Americans, according to a study from the Kaiser Family Foundation.

The National Nurses United report argued that the findings further make the case for a Medicare for All system because Medicare is the “most effective” system to limit price gouging.

“The most viable solution to slowing the growth in hospital charges and the continued inflation of hospital prices, is to bring all health care purchasers together, under a public, nationwide single-payer plan,” the report said.

The RAND Corporation, a nonprofit think tank, found that hospitals charged private insurers an average of 2.4 times more than Medicare rates.

“Nurses know that the best way to rein in these outrageous charges that create such grievous harm for our patients is with Medicare for All, as other countries have proven,” said Ross, the union president. “Medicare for All will not only guarantee health care coverage for every person in the United States, it will end medical bankruptcies, medical debt lawsuits, and the health insecurity faced by millions who make painful choices every day about whether to seek the care they desperately need.”

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A study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine earlier this year found that 34% of health care expenditures go toward administrative costs alone. The US spent about $2,497 per person on administrative costs in 2017, compared to $551 per person in Canada, which has a single-payer system. Switching to a single-payer system would drive down health care costs by $600 billion on administrative costs alone, according to the analysis.

“Americans spend twice as much per person as Canadians on health care. But instead of buying better care, that extra spending buys us sky-high profits and useless paperwork,” lead author Dr. David Himmelstein, a professor at the CUNY School of Public Health at Hunter College, said in a statement.

Another study published in The Lancet earlier this year found that Medicare for All would save the country about $450 billion per year while preventing more than 68,000 unnecessary deaths annually.

Lead researcher Dr. Alison Galvani, an epidemiologist and director of the Center for Infectious Disease Modeling and Analysis at Yale University, argued that Biden’s proposal to essentially expand Obamacare could actually increase costs compared to the Medicare for All plan that the president-elect decried during the primaries as too costly.

“Without the savings to overhead, pharmaceutical costs, hospital/clinical fees, and fraud detection, ‘Medicare for all who want it’ could annually cost $175 billion dollars more than status quo,” she told Newsweek. “That’s over $600 billion more than Medicare for all.”

An analysis published in PLOS Medicine of 22 single-payer studies showed that 19 of them “predicted net savings … in the first year of program operation and 20 … predicted savings over several years; anticipated growth rates would result in long-term net savings for all plans.”

Critics have argued that reducing costs by switching to a single-payer system would result in doctor shortages and the rationing of health care. But data shows that fewer than 1% of doctors have opted out of the existing Medicare and Medicaid programs, with nearly half of those being psychiatrists. Single-payer proponents also dismiss rationing claims, arguing that Americans are already effectively self-rationing due to sky-high costs, even for those with private insurance.

A Federal Reserve survey published last year found that about 25% of American “adults skipped necessary medical care in 2018 because they were unable to afford the cost.” Another survey found that 26% of Americans with diabetes have rationed their insulin, primarily due to the cost.

“It would be a missed opportunity for America to ignore lessons about universal coverage from other countries out of a fear that they ration health care more than we do,” researchers at the Commonwealth Fund warned in a report last year. “In reality, more people in the U.S. forgo needed health care because access to care is rationed through lack of access to adequate insurance or unaffordable services and treatments.”

Will Trump Win Again?

American president Donald Trump will not be victorious in the popular vote — that is certain. He will probably lose the popular vote by an even higher margin than what Hillary Clinton beat him with in 2016. That said, the Electoral College is what determines presidential outcomes, and there are factors that may allow Trump to win the Electoral College again.

A poll credited with predicting Trump’s Electoral College win in 2016 — the IBD/TIPP Poll — shows Trump with a 0.7 point lead among Hispanics and a 3 point lead in the Midwest. The Midwest is particularly important to win due to having swing states such as Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. Most polls show that Trump has maintained a multiple percentage point lead in the state of Ohio, a state that seems to have largely been neglected by the national media outlets based in coastal areas such as California and New York. (The people working for those coastal media outlets have been increasingly seen as out of touch with the realities of wage stagnation, drug epidemics, and deindustrialization that has taken place place in much of America.) Whoever wins Ohio has won the presidency every year since 1964 — a record of over half a century that makes it stand out even among the other swing states.

Much of my own family supports Trump, something that continues to disturb and disappoint me in 2020. That being said, something people don’t always realize is that much of the population is struggling to an absurd degree in what has long been world history’s wealthiest nation. A CNBC article from before the pandemic found that 78 percent of people were living paycheck to paycheck, a number that can only have grown worse with what is essentially now an economic depression during the pandemic. Many people are therefore too stressed and too busy to consistently study politics effectively, and the American formal education overall does a terrible job at giving people a decent political education. It doesn’t help that there is so much disinformation now that it takes a fair amount of intelligence to see through it, and too many people in America have suffered cognitive problems for reasons such as growing up in extreme poverty, being subjected to abuse generated in their family members by America’s flawed society, and even — as seen in Flint, Michigan — drinking lead in their water supply. The Flynn Effect is a phenomenon recounting how average IQ scores have gone up as factors such as nutrition have improved. It’s been apparent for all of us since our days in school that high general intelligence is somewhat rare, but many people are not as smart as they would otherwise be growing up in healthier environments. Since democracy is about making choices based on information, democracy suffers when the general capacity of the population to make intelligent decisions is reduced. America would look different if the average IQ was 10 points higher than what it is today.

One of the worst things that Trump has said is encouraging his supporters to vote twice — once by mail and once at the polls. This is encouraging his supporters to commit voter fraud, a felony punishable by up to 5 years in prison. With so many people in my family that support Trump, I have spent a considerable amount of time thinking about and reading the more scientific reasoning about why they support him. One of the reasons is that Trump speaks with short sentences that are easier to understand, at what was once evaluated as a speaking level lower than many other politicians. In association with that, Trump is an accomplished con man, seen through the history of his fraudulent for-profit college and his casino bankruptcies, and he is good at making his supporters feel good. He’s an incredibly charismatic politician — the people who deny this are delusional to what his supporters and many others feel. In getting a bit more anecdotal here, even people who know me and don’t particularly like me (i.e., some people in my family) admit that I am perceptive and by nature feel certain things many others don’t. This doesn’t mean I am a sensitive snowflake — I am not and I hate the amount of our discourse taken up by identity politics rather than focus on people’s material interest. In any case, I always seem to feel when someone is charismatic, no matter how vile that person is. Trump is charismatic. The other main reasons are that Trump is an authoritarian, something much of the population identifies with, and — my biggest takeaway from seeing so much of my family support Trump — is that support of Trump is something for people to come together on. American society has become broken, divisive, run-down, and incredibly politically polarized for much of the population, and support of Trump presents an opportunity for what is arguably one of the few ways for Trump supporters to have meaningful positive interactions with each other. Politics is not like talking about the weather or other small talk subjects — it presents a much greater opportunity than those subjects to have more valuable and fulfilling conversations, even if the people discussing the politics are wrong about what issues to support to benefit the majority of the population. The desire to have these fulfilling social conversations, I posit, is an integral part of human social contact, and one that was increasingly fading in the device-driven world before the pandemic and the term social distancing became a widely used term.

In addressing Trump’s perceived strength, the idea that Trump had a significant positive impact on the economy is a joke. The biggest positive factor on the economy in the last decade was probably the appointment of Janet Yellen and her low interest rate policies at the Federal Reserve, and that allowed the unemployment rate to drop low and it therefore also allowed some of the only minor wage growth for low-wage workers in the last 50 years. To his credit, Trump appointed Jerome Powell, who largely continued the policies of Janet Yellen by not raising interest rates and thus allowing the unemployment rate to remain low before the pandemic hit. Trump also refused to go along with the terrible Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, and the tax cuts mainly for the wealthy and corporations that he pressed for did have a slight boost in demand for the economy. If Trump had done well on other major economic things I would give him credit for them, and it’s clear from these points that he did some decent things for the economy while in office. The decent things he did for the economy are heavily outweighed by the flaws of his governing, such as his illogical trade war and his failure on managing the pandemic. The result of his impact on the economy is a net negative effect, one that may prove to be far more net negative later on as the impacts of those policies are felt for years, but many left-wingers don’t admit the very few things he did that were decent. I consider Trump the worst president by far in modern history, but I consider it important to tell the truth about matters such as these and give credit where it’s due. Trump is stunningly ignorant of most important political issues, and he doesn’t talk about it anymore like he did in 2016, but he does seem to understand that trade deficits in America are bad, and that’s part of why in 2016 he won over so many Rust Belt workers who have been screwed by trade policy. The trade deficit increased under Trump however, despite his having the ability to decrease it through policy, and this was before the pandemic. The reason that trade deficits for the U.S. are bad is that it decreases demand in the economy, and we generally have needed more demand to help workers in the last 50 years. On another note, I read an article by a former Republican governor endorsing Joe Biden, and I read it looking for positive things he had to say about Trump. Essentially the most he said that was good about Trump are some regulatory changes. That was all. In conducting surveys of Americans, I would venture a guess that few are fond of the deregulations that allow more coal debris and pollutants to be deposited in streams near residential water supplies and the deregulation that allows imported meat to claim to be made in America. It is rather incredible that so many continue to support Trump despite him not enacting policies that benefit their material interest. The vast majority of the Trump tax cuts go to the richest people in America, not middle-income or low-wage workers. Trump blocked the Post Office from sending out masks to hundreds of millions of Americans because he “didn’t want to create a panic.” There is audio of Trump with Bob Woodward where Trump back in February acknowledges that COVID-19 is far more deadly than the flu, but then he lies to the public in trying to downplay its severity and holds mass gatherings of people close together where many of them don’t wear masks. Trump’s campaign recently had an event in Nebraska where people caught hypothermia and were left out in the cold due to a lack of transportation provided by the campaign. I scanned social media when this happened and I didn’t find any defense of this from the Trump supporters. Trump is a con man that has successfully deceived millions of people, and that includes many things such as his lies about the pandemic, his lies about stopping the wars overseas and his lies about bringing many manufacturing jobs back. If American society was a more rational place, the CNBC program American Greed that focuses on corporate crime would have had an episode on Trump where they focus on his immoral business dealings and damage to much of the population. There’s a long list of how Trump has negatively impacted the public, but I chose to focus more on the economic conditions since that’s more concrete than focus on controversial issues such as abortion and religion.

All of this said, even as a president with an awful track record, Trump may still win the Electoral College. It looks unlikely by polling and the history of presidents losing when they in power during awful economic conditions, but there are variables present in this pandemic election year that normally haven’t been present in past elections. One is that many more Democrats than Republicans will vote by mail, and a considerable percentage of these mail-in ballots won’t be counted. This isn’t a conspiratorial claim — it’s the state of the voter suppression in American politics. In the 2016 election, Greg Palast — author of the book titled “How Trump Won 2020” — found that 141,000 ballots were thrown out after a challenge due to their signatures. He found that there weren’t any voters arrested for forgery because of this. Additionally, Palast said recently that “Once a year, secretaries of state can literally wipe off the voter rolls those voters they think shouldn’t vote. And not surprisingly, these hacks tend to remove people of color where they can, where Republicans control the state. So for example, in Georgia, as you just heard, the Secretary of State [Raffensperger] removed 198,000 voters illegally on false information. Almost all of them [were] black voters, young voters, including Martin Luther King’s 92-year-old cousin.” Palast also said that “In 2016, 5.8 million ballots were cast and never counted. By the way, that’s an official number from the EAC [Election Assistance Commission], from our federal agency; 5.8 million votes cast not counted.” Most disturbingly, Palast mentioned the study finding that “According to MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology], 22%, [i.e.,] one in 5 million mail-in ballots, is never counted.”

If 22 percent of mail-in ballots aren’t counted in 2020, that combined with the voter suppression of other people likely to vote for Joe Biden may hand Trump another Electoral College victory. Again, there is a far higher percentage of Republicans going to the polls to vote for Trump than there is Democrats going to the polls to vote for Biden, and this may culminate in not only Trump eventually winning the Electoral College yet again but it may make Trump have an overall lead today on election day before more mail-in ballots are counted. This may then devolve into a scenario where the contested election is taken to the 6-3 conservative majority on the Supreme Court, where the results of the election that are not favorable to Trump may be thrown out.

America will suffer further harm from another four years of Trump. I dislike Biden and consider him to be a politician with a long record of terrible policies, but after years of Trump, it’s apparent that another four years of Trump will continue to have the sort of vast consequences and immense damage seen during the pandemic. In any case, with either person winning the presidency, I would encourage people to try to make the most of what they have even if it’s not that good. A year from now may be an even worse time than today, and now is already bad for so many of us. That’s just the realistic view of things. Exercise and a healthy diet (including plenty of vitamin D to protect against COVID-19 problems) will help us stay strong, and staying strong will remain important when life is tough.

Scientist’s Plasma Shot That Could Prevent COVID-19 Isn’t Being Considered by The Government

That the use of plasma (shown effective in many other cases) isn’t being considered is another inefficiency by the (U.S. at least) governmental response to the coronavirus pandemic.

It might be the next best thing to a coronavirus vaccine.

Scientists have devised a way to use the antibody-rich blood plasma of COVID-19 survivors for an upper-arm injection that they say could inoculate people against the virus for months.

Using technology that’s been proven effective in preventing other diseases such as hepatitis A, the injections would be administered to high-risk healthcare workers, nursing home patients, or even at public drive-through sites — potentially protecting millions of lives, the doctors and other experts say.

The two scientists who spearheaded the proposal — an 83-year-old shingles researcher and his counterpart, an HIV gene therapy expert — have garnered widespread support from leading blood and immunology specialists, including those at the center of the nation’s COVID-19 plasma research.

But the idea exists only on paper. Federal officials have twice rejected requests to discuss the proposal, and pharmaceutical companies — even acknowledging the likely efficacy of the plan — have declined to design or manufacture the shots, according to a Times investigation. The lack of interest in launching development of immunity shots comes amid heightened scrutiny of the federal government’s sluggish pandemic response.

There is little disagreement that the idea holds promise; the dispute is over the timing. Federal health officials and industry groups say the development of plasma-based therapies should focus on treating people who are already sick, not on preventing infections in those who are still healthy.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, said an upper-arm injection that would function like a vaccine “is a very attractive concept.”

However, he said, scientists should first demonstrate that the coronavirus antibodies that are currently delivered to patients intravenously in hospital wards across the country actually work. “Once you show the efficacy, then the obvious next step is to convert it into an intramuscular” shot.

But scientists who question the delay argue that the immunity shots are easy to scale up and should enter clinical trials immediately. They say that until there’s a vaccine, the shots offer the only plausible method for preventing potentially millions of infections at a critical moment in the pandemic.

“Beyond being a lost opportunity, this is a real head-scratcher,” said Dr. Michael Joyner, a Mayo Clinic researcher who leads a program sponsored by the Food and Drug Administration to capitalize on coronavirus antibodies from COVID-19 survivors. “It seems obvious.”

The use of so-called convalescent plasma has already become widespread. More than 28,000 patients have already received the IV treatment, and preliminary data suggest that the method is safe. Researchers are also looking at whether the IV drip products would prevent new infections from taking root.

The antibodies in plasma can be concentrated and delivered to patients through a type of drug called immune globulin, or IG, which can be given through either an IV drip or a shot. IG shots have for decades been used to prevent an array of diseases; the IG shot that prevents hepatitis A was first licensed in 1944. They are available to treat patients who have recently been exposed to hepatitis B, tetanus, varicella and rabies.

[…]

The proposal for an injection approach to coronavirus prevention came from an immunization researcher who drew his inspiration from history.

Dr. Michael Oxman knew that, even during the 1918 flu pandemic, the blood of recovered patients appeared to help treat others. Since then, convalescent plasma has been used to fight measles and severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, among other diseases.

Like other doctors, Oxman surmised that, for a limited time, the blood coursing through the veins of coronavirus survivors probably contains immune-rich antibodies that could prevent — or help treat — an infection.

[…]

Throughout May, researchers and doctors at Yale, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Duke and four University of California schools sent a barrage of letters to dozens of lawmakers. They held virtual meetings with health policy directors on Capitol Hill, but say they have heard no follow-up to date.

Dr. Arturo Casadevall, the chair of the National COVID-19 Convalescent Plasma Project, said he spoke to FDA officials who told him they do not instruct companies on what to produce. Casadevall told The Times that the leaders of the national project were “very supportive of the need to develop” an IG shot rapidly and that he believed it would be “very helpful in stemming the epidemic.”

Joyner, of the Mayo Clinic, said there are probably 10 million to 20 million people in the U.S. carrying coronavirus antibodies — and the number keeps climbing. If just 2% of them were to donate a standard 800 milliliters of plasma on three separate occasions, their plasma alone could generate millions of IG shots for high-risk Americans.

“At a hot-spot meatpacking plant, or at a mobile unit in the parking lot outside a mall — trust me, you can get the plasma,” Joyner said. “This is not a biological problem nor a technology problem. It’s a back-of-the-envelope intelligence problem.”

The antibody injections, for now, do not appear to be a high priority for the government or the industry.

Grifols, on April 28 — the same day that the U.S. topped 1 million confirmed coronavirus cases — made a major product announcement that would “expand its leadership in disease treatment with immunoglobulins.”

The product was a new vial for IG shots — to treat rabies.

Noam Chomsky Interview on Popular Movements

A notable interview:

It is Sen. Bernie Sanders who is regarded by the political establishment as the most dangerous politician because of his commitment to a just and equitable social order and a sustainable future. Meanwhile, the conclusion of the Davos meeting in January demonstrated the global elites’ ongoing commitment to unimpeded planetary destruction.

This is indeed the state of the contemporary U.S. political environment, as the great public intellectual Noam Chomsky points out in this exclusive interview for Truthout.

C.J. Polychroniou: The impeachment trial of Donald Trump isnearly over, and what a farce it has been — something you had predicted from the start, which is also the reason why you thought that an impeachment inquiry was a rather foolish move on the part of the Democrats. With that in mind, what does this farcical episode tell us about the contemporary state of U.S. politics, and do you anticipate any political fallout in the 2020 election?

Noam Chomsky: It seemed clear from the outset that the impeachment effort could not be serious, and would end up being another gift by the Democrats to Trump, much as the Mueller affair was. Any doubts about its farcical nature were put to rest by its opening spectacle: Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts struggling to keep a straight face while swearing in senators who solemnly pledged that they would be unmoved by partisan concerns, and at once proceeded — as everyone know they would — to behave and vote along strictly party lines. Could there be a clearer exhibition of pure farce?

Are the crimes discussed a basis for impeachment? Seems so to me. Has Trump committed vastly more serious crimes? That is hardly debatable. What might be debatable is whether he is indeed the most dangerous criminal in human history (which happens to be my personal view). Hitler had been perhaps the leading candidate for this honor. His goal was to rid the German-run world of Jews, Roma, homosexuals and other “deviants,” along with tens of millions of Slav “Untermenschen.” But Hitler was not dedicated with fervor to destroying the prospects of organized human life on Earth in the not-distant future (along with millions of other species).

Trump is. And those who think he doesn’t know what he’s doing haven’t been looking closely.

Is that a wild and ludicrous exaggeration? Or the very simple and apparent truth? It’s not difficult to figure out the answer. We’ve discussed it often before. There is no need to review what is happening on Trump’s watch while he devotes every effort to accelerating the race to catastrophe, trailed by such lesser lights as Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and Australia’s Scott Morrison.

Every day brings new forebodings. We have just learned, for example, that the gigantic Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica has been eroding from warm water below. The Washington Post describes this as “a troubling finding that could speed its melt in a region with the potential to eventually unleash more than 10 feet of sea-level rise,” adding, “Scientists already knew that Thwaites was losing massive amounts of ice — more than 600 billion tons over the past several decades, and most recently as much as 50 billion tons per year.” It has now been confirmed, as suspected, that “this was occurring because a layer of relatively warmer ocean water, which circles Antarctica below the colder surface layer, had moved closer to shore and begun to eat away at the glaciers themselves, affecting West Antarctica in particular.” The chief scientist involved in the study warns that this may signal “an unstoppable retreat that has huge implications for global sea-level rise.

That’s today. Tomorrow will be something worse.

What’s causing the warmer water? No secret. This is only one of the likely irreversible tipping points that may be reached if “the Chosen One,” as he modestly describes himself, is granted another four years to carry out his project of global destruction.

We have just witnessed an extraordinary event at the January Davos meeting of the Masters of the Universe, as they are called; for Adam Smith, they were only “the masters of mankind,” but 250 years ago it was just British merchants and manufacturers.

The conference opened with Trump’s oration about what a fabulous creature he is. The encomium was interrupted only by a comment that we should not be “alarmist” about the climate. His Magnificence was followed by the quiet and informed comments of a 17-year old girl instructing the heads of state, CEOs, media leaders and grand intellectuals about what it means to be a responsible adult.

Quite a spectacle.

Trump’s war on organized life on Earth is only the barest beginning. More narrowly, in recent days, the Chosen One has issued executive orders ridding the country of the plague of regulations that protect children from mercury poisoning and preserve the country’s water supplies and lands, along with other impediments to further enrichment of Trump’s primary constituency, extreme wealth and corporate power.

On the side, he has been casually proceeding to dismantle the last vestiges of the arms control regime that has provided some limited degree of security from terminal nuclear war, eliciting cheers from the military industry. And as we have just learned, the great pacifist who is committed to end interventions “dropped more bombs and other munitions in Afghanistan last year than any other year since documentation began in 2006, Air Force data shows.”

He is also ramping up his acts of war — which is what they are — against Iran. I won’t even go into his giving Israel what the Israeli press calls “a gift to the right,” formally giving the back of his imperial hand to international law, the World Court, the UN Security Council and overwhelming international opinion, while shoring up the Evangelical vote for the 2020 election. The prerogative of supreme power.

In brief, the list of Trump’s crimes is immense, not least the worst crime in human history. But none merit a nod in the impeachment proceedings. This is hardly a novelty; rather the norm. The current proceedings are often compared with Watergate. Nixon’s hideous crimes were eliminated from the charges against him despite the efforts of Rep. Robert Frederick Drinan and a few others. The Nixon impeachment charges focused on his illegal acts to harm Democrats.

Any resemblance to the farce that is now winding up? Does it suggest some insight into what motivates the powerful?

Speaking of the 2020 election, the corporate Democratic establishment and the liberal media are once again mobilizing to undermine Bernie Sanders, even though he may very well be the most electable Democrat. First, can you summarize for us what you perceive to be the core of Sanders’s politico-ideological gestalt, and then explain what scares both conservatives and liberals the possibility of someone like Sanders leading the country?

The core of Sanders’s “politico-ideological gestalt” is his long-standing commitment to the interests of the large majority of the population, not the top 0.1 percent (not 1 percent, 0.1 percent) who hold more than 20 percent of the country’s wealth, not the very rich who were the prime beneficiaries of the slow recovery from the 2008 disaster caused by financial capital. The U.S. achievement in this regard far surpasses that of other developed countries, so we learn from recently released studies, which show that in the U.S., 65 percent of the growth of the past decade went to the very rich; next in line was Germany, at 5percent, then declining sharply. The same studies show that if current trends persist, in the next decade all growth in the U.S. will go to the rich.

The welfare of these sectors has never been Sanders’s concern.

The Democratic establishment and liberal media are hardly likely to look kindly on someone who forthrightly proclaims, I have no use for those  regardless of their political party — who hold some foolish dream of spinning the clock back to days when unorganized labor was a huddled, almost helpless mass…. Only a handful of unreconstructed reactionaries harbor the ugly thought of breaking unions. Only a fool would try to deprive working men and women of the right to join the union of their choice.” By right to work” laws, for example, or by hiring scabs, or by threatening to ship jobs to Mexico to undermine organizing efforts, to sample the bipartisan political leadership.

That’s surely the kind of socialist wild man whom the country is not ready to tolerate.

The wild man in this case is President Dwight Eisenhower, the last conservative president. His remarks are a good illustration of how far the political class has shifted to the right under Clintonite “New Democrats” and the Reagan-Gingrich Republicans. The latter have drifted so far off the political spectrum that they are ranked near neo-fascist parties in the international spectrum, well to the right of “conservatives.”

Even more threatening than Sanders’s proposals to carry forward New Deal-style policies, I think, is his inspiring a popular movement that is steadily engaged in political action and direct activism to change the social order — a movement of people, mostly young, who have not internalized the norms of liberal democracy: that the public are “ignorant and meddlesome outsiders” who are to be “spectators, not participants in action,” entitled to push a lever every four years but are then to return to their TV sets and video games while the “responsible men” look after serious matters.

This is a fundamental principle of democracy as expounded by prominent and influential liberal 20thcentury American intellectuals, who took cognizance of “the stupidity of the average man” and recognized that we should not be deluded by “democratic dogmatisms about men being the best judges of their own interests.” They are not; we are — the “responsible men,” the “intelligent minority.” The “bewildered herd” must therefore be “put in their place” by “necessary illusions” and “emotionally potent simplifications.” These are among the pronouncements of the most influential 20thcentury public intellectual, Walter Lippmann, in his “progressive essays on democracy”; Harold Lasswell, one of the founders of modern political science; and Reinhold Niebuhr, the admired “theologian of the (liberal) establishment.” All highly respected Wilson-FDR-Kennedy liberals.

Inspiring a popular movement that violates these norms is a serious attack on democracy, so conceived, an intolerable assault against good order.

I believe we witnessed something similar in the last U.K. elections in the case of Jeremy Corbyn. Do you agree? And, if so, what does this tell us about liberal democracy, which is nowadays in serious trouble itself on account of the rise and spread of authoritarianism and the far right in many parts of the world?

There are definite similarities. Corbyn, a decent and honorable man, was subjected to an extraordinary flood of vilification and defamation, which he was unable to confront. At the same time, polls indicated that the policies that he put forth — and that had led to a remarkable victory for Labour in 2017 — remained popular. A special feature in the U.K. was Brexit, a matter I won’t go into here (my personal opinion, for what it’s worth, is that it is a serious blow to both Britain and the EU, and is likely to cause Britain — or what remains of it — to become even more of a vassal of the U.S. than it has been under Blair’s New Labour and the Tories, whose social and economic policies have caused the country great harm). Corbyn’s vacillation on the Brexit issue, which became a toxic one, surely contributed to the negative feelings about him that seem to have been a major factor in the electoral disaster for Labour, but it was only one.

As in the case of Sanders, I suspect that the prime reason for the bitter hatred of Corbyn on the part of a very wide spectrum of the British establishment is his effort to turn the Labour Party into a participatory organization that would not leave electoral politics in the hands of the Labour bureaucracy and would proceed beyond the narrow realm of electoral politics to far broader and constant activism and engagement in public affairs.

More generally, much of the world is aflame. As the men of Davos recognized with trepidation at their January meeting, the peasants are coming with their pitchforks: The neoliberal order they have imposed for the past 40 years, while ultra-generous to them and their class, has had a bitter impact on the general population. A leading theme at Davos was that the Masters must declare that they are changing their stance from service to the rich to attending to the concerns of “stakeholders” — working people and communities. Another theme was that while not “alarmists,” they acknowledge the threat of global warming.

The unstated implication is that there is no need for regulations and other actions about climate change: We Big Boys will take care of it. Greta Thunberg and the other children demonstrating out there can go back to school. And now that we see the flaws in our neoliberal model of capitalism, you can put aside all those disruptive political programs calling for health care, rights of workers, women, the poor. We’re taking care of it, so just go back to your private pursuits, keeping to democratic norms.

As the neoliberal order is visibly collapsing, it is giving rise to “morbid symptoms” (to borrow Gramsci’s famous phrase when the fascist plague was looming). Among these are the spread of authoritarianism and the far right that you mention. More generally, what we are witnessing is quite understandable anger, resentment and contempt for the political institutions that have implemented the neoliberal assault — but also the rise of activist movements that seek to overcome the ills of global society and to stem and reverse the race to destruction.

The confrontation could hardly have been exhibited more dramatically than by the appearance of Greta Thunberg immediately after the most powerful man in the world — the leader in the race to destruction — had admonished the Masters to disdain the “heirs of yesterday’s foolish fortune tellers” (virtually 100 percent of climate scientists) and to take up his wrecking ball.

If Worker Pay Had Kept Pace With U.S. Productivity Gains Since 1968, Today’s Minimum Wage Would Be $24 an Hour

A full-time minimum wage worker would be earning $48,000 a year in the United States if they made $24 an hour.

If the minimum wage had kept pace with inflation since 1968, it would be close to $12 an hour today, more than 65 percent higher than the national minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. While this would make a huge difference in the lives of many people earning close to the national minimum wage, it is actually a relatively unambitious target.

Until 1968, the minimum wage not only kept pace with inflation, it rose in step with productivity growth. The logic is straightforward; we expect that wages in general will rise in step with productivity growth. For workers at the bottom to share in the overall improvement in society’s living standards, the minimum wage should also rise with productivity.

This is an important distinction. If the minimum wage rises in step with inflation, we are effectively ensuring that it will allow minimum wage earners to buy the same amount of goods and services through time, protecting them against higher prices. However, if it rises with productivity that means that as workers are able to produce more goods and services per hour, on average, minimum wage earners will be able to buy more goods and services through time.

While the national minimum wage did rise roughly in step with productivity growth from its inception in 1938 until 1968, in the more than five decades since then, it has not even kept pace with inflation. However, if the minimum wage did rise in step with productivity growth since 1968 it would be over $24 an hour today, as shown in the Figure below.[1]

Graph (1)

It is worth considering what the world would look like if this were the case. A minimum wage of $24 an hour would mean that a full-time full year minimum wage worker would be earning $48,000 a year. A two minimum wage earning couple would have a family income of $96,000 a year, enough to put them in the top quintile of the current income distribution.

It is worth noting the standard counter to the argument that the minimum wage should keep pace with productivity growth. It would be claimed that the productivity of minimum wage workers has not kept pace with average productivity growth, so that it would not be feasible for minimum wage workers to earn pay that rises in step with average productivity growth.

There is some truth to this claim, but only at a superficial level. The productivity of any individual worker is determined not just by their skills and technology, but also by the institutional structure we put in place. In a world without patent and copyright monopolies, the skills of bio-technicians and software designers would likely be much less valuable than they are today.

Similarly, the skills of experts in stock trading and designing complex financial instruments would have much less value if we had a financial transactions tax in place and allowed large banks to fail when their mistakes made them insolvent. And, the skills of doctors and other highly paid professionals would have much less value if our trade policy was as committed to subjecting them to international competition, as has been the case with auto and textile workers.

Lower pay for those at the top increases the real pay for those at the bottom and middle. A $15 an hour wage goes much further when all drugs are selling as low costs generics, the financial sector is not sucking 2 percent of GDP ($230 billion a year) out of the economy, and doctors get paid the same as their West European counterparts.

If the productivity of less-skilled workers has not kept pace with average productivity, this was by design. It was not the fault of these workers; it was the fault of those who designed policies that had the effect of devaluing their skills.

This raises a final point: we can’t imagine that we can just raise the minimum wage to $24 an hour without serious disruptions to the economy, many of which would have bad effects (i.e., unemployment) for those at the bottom. While there is certainly room to raise the minimum wage, and many states have done so with no measureable impact on employment, there clearly is a limit to how far and how fast we can go.

It is quite reasonable to have a target where the minimum wage returns to where it would be, if it had tracked productivity growth over the last 50 years. But we will have to reverse many of the institutional changes that have been put in place over this period to get there. This is where the sort of policies described in Rigged (it’s free) come in, but that is a much longer story.


[1] This calculation uses a productivity growth figure that is economy-wide, is based on net output, and adjusts for differences between the NDP deflator and the consumer price index. These issues are discussed in more detail here.

Extreme Weather Will Continue to Worsen as the Climate Crisis Becomes More Severe

The changing climate is already having dire consequences on global societies, and the effects will become much worse in the future unless political leaders suitably address the environmental crisis of rising temperatures.

The past decade has been the hottest on record, the UN said Wednesday, warning that the higher temperatures were expected to fuel numerous extreme weather events in 2020 and beyond.​

The World Meteorological Organization, which based its findings on analysis of leading international datasets, said increases in global temperatures had already had dire consequences, pointing to “retreating ice, record sea levels, increasing ocean heat and acidification, and extreme weather”.

WMO said its research also confirmed data released by the European Union’s climate monitor last week showing that 2019 was the second hottest year on record, after 2016.

“The year 2020 has started out where 2019 left off – with high-impact weather and climate-related events,” WMO chief Petteri Taalas said in a statement, pointing in particular to the devastating bushfires that have been raging in Australia for months.

The bushfires, unprecedented in their duration and intensity, have claimed 28 lives and highlighted the type of disasters that scientists say the world will increasingly face due to global warming.

The fires have already destroyed more than 2,000 homes and burnt 10 million hectares (100,000 square kilometres) of land – an area larger than South Korea or Portugal.

“Unfortunately, we expect to see much extreme weather throughout 2020 and the coming decades, fuelled by record levels of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere,” Taalas said.

The UN agency said that average global temperatures during both the past five-year (2015-2019) and 10-year (2010-2019) periods were the highest ever recorded.

“Since the 1980s each decade has been warmer than the previous one,” the UN agency said in a statement, warning that “this trend is expected to continue”.

The United Nations said last year that human-made greenhouse gas emissions needed to tumble 7.6 percent each year to 2030 in order to limit temperature rises to 1.5 Celsius – the more ambitious cap nations signed up to in the landmark Paris climate deal.

Current pledges to cut emissions put Earth on a path of several degrees warming by the end of the century.

Not a fluke

Taalas said that since modern records began in 1850, the average global temperature had risen by around 1.1 degrees Celsius, and warned of significant warming in the future.

“On the current path of carbon dioxide emissions, we are heading towards a temperature increase of 3 to 5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century,” he warned.

Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, which provided one of the datasets, added that the trend line was unmistakable and could not be attributed to normal climate variability – a position taken by US President Donald Trump.

“What’s happening is persistent, not a fluke due to some weather phenomenon: we know that the long-term trends are being driven by the increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere,” he said.

Data from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration meanwhile revealed that polar sea ice coverage continued its downward trend in 2019.

Both the Arctic and Antarctic oceans recorded their second-smallest average annual sea-ice coverage during the 1979–2019 period of record, the agency said.

Broken record

WMO also highlighted a new study published this week in Advances in Atmospheric Sciences with data showing that ocean heat content was at a record high in 2019.

The past five years were also the warmest on record in terms of ocean heat content, that study showed.

Since more than 90 percent of excess heat is stored in the world’s oceans, their heat content is a good way to quantify the rate of global warming, WMO said.

Conservationists said the UN agency’s findings were to be expected.

“It is no surprise that 2019 was the second hottest year on record – nature has been persistently reminding us that we have to pick up the pace,” said Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, leader of WWF’s global climate and energy practice, calling for dramatic measures to halt the warming trend.

“This is not so much a record as a broken record,” added Chris Rapley, a professor of climate science at University College London.

“The message repeats with grim regularity. Yet the pace and scale of action to address climate change remains muted and far from the need.”

Reducing the Very Overpriced Cost of Healthcare

As is known to many people, American healthcare is far more expensive than necessary.

One of most enduring, economically and socially damaging, downright frustrating facts about life in the United States is how expensive health care is here. Not only does U.S. health care cost far more than in other advanced economies, but compared with the nations that spend less, we have worse or equivalent health outcomes. In fact, U.S. life expectancy now lags behind that of all the advanced economies.

An MRI scan that cost $1,400 here went for $450 in Britain and $190 in Holland. Thirty tablets of a drug to reduce the risk of blood clots (Xarelto) cost $380 here, $70 in Britain, $80 in Switzerland and $60 in Holland. Hospital admission for angioplasty is $32,000 here, $15,000 in Australia, $12,000 in Britain, $7,000 in Switzerland, $6,000 in the Netherlands.

Add to those differences the latest outrage in health-care costs: surprise medical billing, when even well-insured patients can wake up from surgery finding that they owe thousands of dollars, because someone treating them while they were unconscious was out of their insurance network.

Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton (a Nobel winner) recently summarized the problem by labeling it an $8,000-a-year annual health-care tax paid by U.S. families. This is the difference in costs between what we pay for health care and what people in other countries pay. As Case put it: “We can brag we have the most expensive health care. We can also now brag that it delivers the worst health of any rich country.”

Why call this expense a tax? Well, for one, if you want health coverage, you can’t escape it. But even if you don’t — and good luck with that — you still can’t escape the tax, as both employer- and government-provided health care extract payments through lower paychecks and public financing.

Case and Deaton may be erring on the low side in their $8,000-per-family figure. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development puts per-person spending in the United States at $8,950 a year. That compares with $5,060 in Germany, $3,470 in Canada and just $3,140 in Britain. If we assume a family of three, we would get an annual health-care tax of $11,670 compared with Germany and more than $17,000 compared with the cost of health care in Britain.

How can such differences persist, especially in a service where consumption is so essential to well-being? If ice cream were that much more expensive here, we’d have a lot to squawk about, for sure. But it wouldn’t be a matter of life and death.

An obvious, and correct, answer as to why U.S. health care is so expensive is because we do so little, relative to other systems, to control costs. But it’s worse than that. We do a fair amount to make health care more expensive.

First, our system of private insurance costs far more than single-payer systems like Canada’s, and also more than countries with private but heavily regulated insurers like Germany. OECD data show that as a share of health spending, our administrative costs are three times that of Canada’s and twice that of Germany’s. Getting our administrative costs closer to those in other countries would require regulating private insurers and expanding public coverage, but it could save us at least 10 percent of our total health-care bill.

Next, we pay twice as much to our health-care providers and for prescription drugs as everyone else. The latter costs us more than $3,000 per family per year. We pay more than twice as much for medical equipment, costing us a bit less than $1,500 per family per year. Doctors and dentists cost us close to an extra $750 per family per year.

One reason for the outsize costs of these inputs to U.S. health care is that government policy protects our providers. When it comes to manufactured goods, like cars and clothes and almost everything on the shelves of Walmart, economists and policymakers push for “free trade” and more competition. But when it comes to health-care providers, these same authorities turn protectionist.

In areas like prescription drugs and medical equipment, this protection is explicit: Manufacturers are granted patent monopolies. The government will arrest anyone who sells protected items in competition with a patent holder.

In the case of doctors, we have maintained or increased barriers that make it difficult for qualified foreign physicians to practice in the United States. We also prevent other health-care professionals, such as physicians’ assistants and nurse practitioners, from doing many tasks for which they are entirely competent. There is a similar story with dentists and dental hygienists.

Other countries directly control drug prices. In France, the government determines whether a new drug is an improvement or a copycat, and, if the drug is deemed useful, the government negotiates drug prices with the manufacturers and caps their revenue. When sales exceed the cap, the manufacturer must rebate most of the difference back to the government.

Here in the United States, we give drug companies and medical equipment manufacturers’ patent monopolies and allow them to charge whatever they want. We don’t even let the government use its massive leverage to negotiate lower drug prices for Medicare beneficiaries. That’s what makes these goods expensive; they’re almost always relatively cheap to produce.

This is fixable. It would take regulating costs, reducing reimbursements to providers and increasing competition.

The pharmaceutical industry’s rationale for cost-exploding medical patents is that it helps incentivize research and innovation. Without them, it’s likely that pharmaceuticals and medical equipment companies would do less speculative research. But it would take a fraction of the savings from reducing such protectionism to replace patent-support research with publicly supported research (for which we already spend $40 billion a year).

In terms of boosting competition, allowing foreign doctors whose training meets our standards to more easily practice medicine here would bring U.S. physicians’ pay in line with international standards. Of course, our doctors pay much more for their education than doctors trained elsewhere, so part of this new structure would also require reducing the domestic cost of medical education and alleviating some of the educational debt burden that U.S.-trained doctors have acquired.

Increasing competition would also require using antitrust measures to push back on the pricing power engendered by the consolidation of both hospital groups and medical practices. An analysis by the New York Times of 25 metro areas found that hospital mergers “have essentially banished competition and raised prices for hospital admissions.”

Even if we succeed in raising competition and reducing protectionism, health care will still be too expensive for many low- and moderate-income families, many of whom have suffered stagnant incomes in recent decades. Like every other wealthy country, we will need to get on a path to universal coverage. But whatever form that takes, if we can significantly reduce our current health-care tax, the savings will easily be large enough to extend quality, affordable coverage to every American.