Beat the Press is Dean Baker's commentary on economic reporting. Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR).

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Naturally, the paper had an editorial celebrating a deal on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). In it they referred to the TPP as a free-trade deal and denounced opponents for appealing to "protectionist sentiment." If we want to think about this one seriously, does the Post have any evidence whatsoever that the reduction in tariffs and other barriers in the TPP are economically larger than the increase in protectionist measures in the form of copyrights and patents? If so, it has never bothered to share this information with readers.

We get that the Washington Post likes patent and copyright protection. Its friends and advertisers benefit from these government granted monopolies. But, just because the Post likes patents and copyrights does not make them any less protectionist.

At a time like this it is hard not to remember when the Post claimed that Mexico's GDP had quadrupled between 1987 and 2007 because of NAFTA. (I have no idea why they chose 1987 as the base year.) The actual growth figure was 83 percent. Anyhow, the point is that these are not people who feel bound by the evidence in making their case for trade agreements.

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Why does the NYT find it so hard to separate its news reporting from opinion when it comes to trade deals? Yet again, we are told that the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) can be "legacy making" for President Obama. After all it is:

"drawing together countries representing two-fifths of the global economy, from Canada and Chile to Japan and Australia, into a web of common rules governing trans-Pacific commerce. It is the capstone both of his economic agenda to expand exports and of his foreign policy 'rebalance' toward closer relations with fast-growing eastern Asia, after years of American preoccupation with the Middle East and North Africa."

Sounds really exciting right? Well the vast majority of the "two-fifths of the global economy" is accounted for by the United States, Mexico, Canada, and Australia, countries that were already drawn together in trade deals. For these countries the TPP will have little impact on trade. The only countries in the deal that really qualify as "fast-growing eastern Asia" would be Malaysia and Vietnam.

As a practical matter, the stronger patent and copyright protections in the pact may do more to impede trade than the tariff reductions do to promote trade, making its status as a "free-trade" agreement questionable. (To its credit, the NYT piece did not use this term.) It would be useful if the paper focused more on the facts and less on the celebration.

 

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A Washington Post article on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) referred to President Obama's assertion that the pact will boost growth. It would have been appropriate to point out that almost no economists support the claim that the pact will have a noticeable positive impact on growth.

The most favorable positive assessment comes from the Peterson Institute. It projects that the agreement would boost growth by 0.03 percentage points annually over the next dozen years. This would mean, for example, that if growth would have been 2.2 percent without the TPP, it would be 2.23 percent with the TPP. Other projections have been lower. For example, an analysis by the United States Department of Agriculture concluded that the gains would be too small to measure.

It is also worth noting that none of these studies took into account the negative impact on growth from the higher drug prices that would be the result of the stronger protectionist measures in the TPP. The United States currently spends more than $400 billion a year on prescription drugs. This amount will almost certainly increase in both the U.S. and elsewhere as a result of stronger patent and related protections in the TPP. Higher drug prices will pull money out of people's pockets, leaving less to spend in other areas, thereby slowing growth.

For these reasons, it would have been useful to point out that President Obama is making a Trump-like claim in arguing that the TPP is a mechanism to increase economic growth. That is simply not a plausible story.

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Remember when then Federal Reserve Board Chair Ben Bernanke assured the public that the problems in the financial system will be restricted to the subprime market? This one ranks, along with some comments from and about Alan Greenspan, as one of the worst economic predictions of all time. In other words, the folks at the Fed really missed it.

This is worth remembering because it seems that the Fed is trying to get the excuse making going in advance for the next economic crisis. The NYT reported on a Fed conference where they expressed skepticism as to whether they could stop the next crisis.

There are a range of views presented, not all of them silly. (Using interest rates as the primary tool against bubbles is not a good strategy.) However the idea that the Fed is helpless against bubbles looks like some serious lowering of expectations.

The distortions created by the housing bubble were easy to see by anyone with open eyes. Residential construction as a share of GDP was hitting record levels even as demographics would have suggested the opposite. (Baby boomers were retiring or at least downsizing.) Consumption was hitting record highs as a share of disposable income, driven by housing bubble wealth. House prices had surged by 70 percent above inflation, after tracking the overall inflation rate for the prior century. And the bad loans were there en masse for anyone who cared to notice.

The Fed has a variety of tools but the most simple one is simply talking about a bubble. The financial markets will not ignore information (not a mumbled "irrational exuberance") from the Fed as they showed in response to Fed Chair Janet Yellen's comments about bubbles in the social media and biotech sectors.

There is no reason that the Fed should not have been issuing clear warnings (i.e. massive quantities of research) documenting the bubble from 2002 onward. The only cost to the Fed is a few researchers time, the potential savings are in the trillions. That seems a no-brainer. The Fed should have also been using its regulatory power to curb the issuance and sale of bad mortgages, but information is a good place to start.

Also, it is not plausible for an organization that argues an inflation target is important to say that information from the Fed has no impact on markets. It obviously believes otherwise.

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Okay, I'm sure it was just an error in editing, but come on. An NYT article on Germany on the 25th anniversary of the unification told readers:

"A new government report showed that gross domestic product per capita in eastern Germany has more than doubled in the past 25 years, but is still one-third the level in the western part of the country."

I'm sure this is supposed to read that per capita GDP in former East Germany is one-third less than in the western part of country. Even this figure is somewhat misleading since the population of former East Germany is much older and more likely to be retirees than the rest of the country. There is probably still a difference in living standards among the working age populations, but nothing like what would be implied by this sentence.

As BTP readers know, I have my share of typos, but NYT has a bit more resources than my blog.

 

Note: It appears that even the one-third less number is an exaggeration as Robert Salzberg's points out in his comment below.

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The Washington Post's difficulties in separating its news and opinion pages showed up again in a piece by David Fahrenthold that warned the public against Senator Bernie Sander's agenda in his presidential campaign. The piece is headlined "how Bernie Sanders would transform the nation."

Fahrenthold is quite direct about his opinion of Sanders. He begins by referring to Sanders' proposal to have free tuition at public colleges, then tells readers:

"And, once government was paying for college, colleges would run by government rules. Sanders’s rules. For one thing, Sanders thinks student centers are a waste of government money. He’d make sure they didn’t get any more of it.

"If he becomes president, Sanders would spend an enormous amount of money: $3.27 trillion. At the very, very least. But he is not just a big-spending liberal. And his agenda is not just about money.

"And his agenda is not just about money.

"It’s also about control."

 Got that? Bernie Sanders wants to control everything. Better not vote for that guy.

As folks familiar with Washington politics know, government largess comes with varying degrees of control, depending largely on who the beneficiary is. For example, TANF, the government's main benefit program for low income families, comes with all sorts of controls, including work requirements. When Planned Parenthood gets government money, it has to commit itself not to spend any on of it on performing abortions.

On the other hand, the government hands out tens of billions a year in tax breaks to homeowners on their mortgage interest and imposes virtually no controls. It gave big companies subsidized loans through the Export-Import Bank and also imposed almost no controls. And, it gives drug companies patent monopolies—threatening to arrest competitors—again with no controls.

The government already gives substantial aid to colleges, largely in the form of subsidized loans and Pell grants. The government already puts conditions (i.e. control) on the institutions that get this money. Will Sanders put more controls in place if the government is picking up the full bill? Perhaps, but presenting this as a zero/one story, as Fahrenthold implies, is just silly.

It also would have been helpful if Farenthold tried to express the $3.27 trillion figure in a way that provided information to readers rather than just scare them with threats of "enormous" spending. This sum is equal to a bit less than 1.4 percent of projected GDP over this period. By comparison, at their peak, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan raised military spending by 1.8 percentage points of GDP compared to the pre-9/11 level.

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Elites like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). After all, it was designed to redistribute more income to sectors like the pharmaceutical industry, the financial industry, and the entertainment industry. The point is to use an international agreement to over-ride national and subnational governments that might pass laws to protect workers, consumers, or the environment.

In keeping with this spirit, the NYT touted the virtues of the TPP in an article describing President Obama's efforts to conclude negotiations and get the deal through Congress:

"For President Obama, who cited the potential agreement during his address this week to the United Nations, success in a negotiating effort as old as his administration would be a legacy achievement. The proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership would liberalize trade and open markets among a dozen nations on both sides of the Pacific, from Canada to Chile and Japan to Australia, that account for about two-fifths of the world’s economic output."

This paragraph tells readers that the NYT really really likes the TPP. After all, legacy achievement is pretty damn good. Does it beat out the Affordable Care Act, the Dodd-Frank financial reform, the stimulus that helped pull the economy out of the trough of the recession?

Apart from this editorializing, the rest of the paragraph is not true. While the countries in the TPP do account for two-fifths of the world's economy, it is not clear that it would "liberalize trade" between most of the countries. The United States already has trade agreements with most of the other countries in the TPP, including Mexico, Canada, and Australia. In these cases, most of the barriers to trade have already been eliminated. Even the barriers with other countries are already low in most cases. This means that the TPP will do little to lower trade barriers.

On the other hand, a quite explicit purpose of the deal, as noted in this article, is to increase protectionism in the form of longer and stronger patent and copyright protection. Perhaps the NYT likes these forms of protectionism, but they are still protectionism. This means that it is wrong to say that the TPP will liberalize trade. It is entirely possible that the net effect of the deal will be to increase the size of the trade barriers between the countries in the pact.

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Steve Mufson picked up the Washington elite's quest to get more money for some of the country's biggest corporations by telling readers that the Export-Import Bank is not really corporate welfare because it makes a profit.

"It isn’t much welfare; the bank has an excellent lending record — a default rate of 0.175 percent as of September 2014 and a 50 percent recovery rate on defaulted loans — and the appropriation for about $110 million covers administrative expenses."

This displays the sort of basic confusion on economics that readers have come to expect from the Washington Post. The point is that the government is subsidizing loans to some of the largest companies in the country. By relying on the creditworthiness of the U.S. government, the Ex-Im Bank is allowing a small number of huge companies, who always account for the overwhelming majority of Ex-Im bank lending, to get loans at below the market rate. This is similar to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac which allow mortgage holders to get mortgages at a below market rate by providing a government guarantee.

This is a clear subsidy outside of Washington Post land. If it serves a public purpose, for example promoting homeownership, then it is arguably a good policy. But the nonsense and name-calling being put forth to justify the Ex-Im bank hardly make the case.

Anyhow, since the honchos will undoubtedly keep pushing the Ex-Im Bank until Boeing gets its money, how about a compromise? Any company that gets below market interest loans as a result of Ex-Im bank subsidies has to agree not to pay its top executives more than 10 times the president's salary ($400k) for a five year period. That's a $4 million hard cap on all compensation. The company's top execs and all board members sign a certification to this effect promising them 10 years hard time if they lie.

What do you say folks? Can the CEO of Boeing and GE get by on $4 million a year? There are jobs at stake, right?

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The NYT apparently thinks it has a big news story in its article telling readers that companies use temporary visas to bring over tech workers who learn skills and then transfer them to workplaces in India and other countries. The jobs are then shifted overseas to take advantage of lower cost labor.

This is one of the main goals of the trade agreements the United States has signed over the last three decades. The point has been to allow U.S. firms to take advantage of lower cost labor in the developing world. For the most part this has meant shifting manufacturing jobs, like those in the steel and auto industry. However the same logic of the gains from trade applies to more highly skilled jobs, like the tech jobs discussed in this article.

It's not clear why the NYT thinks this is news, this is what is supposed to be the result of recent trade deals. Those who are displaced by foreign competition are obviously losers, but the rest of the economy benefits by having lower priced goods and services.

On net, workers who tend to be similar to the ones being displaced are losers when this displacement happens on a large scale due to the overall effect on wages. Those who are largely protected from foreign competition (by protectionist restrictions, not economic laws), like doctors and lawyers, benefit. It's not clear why the NYT thinks it has news here, it is reporting on how trade policy has been designed to work.

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Yesterday, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump released his plan for changing the tax code. The basic story is that he would give big tax cuts across the board, with the largest tax cuts going to the wealthy. He assured everyone that it will be revenue neutral since it would lead to a huge spurt of economic growth. (His number was 6.0 percent, topping Jeb Bush's 4.0 percent by two full percentage points.)

Many of the reports on the plan did note the growth assumption and pointed out that few, if any, economists took it seriously. As a practical matter, we have seen this one before. Ronald Reagan put in place a large tax cut in the 1980s and George W. Bush did the same in the last decade. You have to try very hard to find a positive growth effect from either. Certainly no one could make the case with a straight face that these sorts of proposals could even get us to Bush's 4.0 percent number, much less Trump's 6.0 percent.

But apart from what the tax cuts may or may not be able to do in terms of growth, there is also the matter of how the Federal Reserve Board would react. If that sounds strange to you then you should be very angry at the reporters at your favorite news outlet, because they should have been talking about this.

Suppose that Donald Trump's tax cut really is the magic elixir that would get the economy to 6.0 percent annual growth. But what if the people at the Fed's Open Market Committee (FOMC) don't recognize this fact? Suppose the FOMC thinks the economy is still bound by the pre-Trump tax cut rules and believes that inflation will start to accelerate out of control if the unemployment rate falls much below its current 5.1 percent level.

In this case, we would expect to see the Fed raise interest rates sharply as they saw the Trump tax cuts boosting growth. Higher interest rates would slow house buying and new construction, discourage car sales, and put a crimp in both public and private investment. If the Fed raises interest rates high enough, it could fully offset the boost that Trump's tax cut is giving to the economy. In this case, even though the Trump tax cuts might have been the best thing for the economy since the Internet (okay, better than the Internet), we wouldn't see any dividend because the Fed would not allow it.

For this reason, the Fed's likely response to a tax cut is a fundamental question that reporters should be asking. If the Fed is likely to simply slam on the brakes to offset any possible stimulus, then a tax plan will have little prospect of providing a growth dividend.

Since the press have been obsessing (rightly) over the possibility that the Fed is about to embark on a series of rate hikes, it would be reasonable to believe that someone would think to bring together the Fed's interest rate policy and the candidate's economic plans. Thus far it seems no reporters have discovered the connection.  

 

Note: Typo corrected.

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In his interview with Donald Trump on 60 Minutes, CBS reporter Scott Pelley felt the need to assert that Social Security is "a basket case." Actually, according to the latest Social Security trustees report it can pay all scheduled benefits through 2033 with no changes whatsoever. If nothing is ever done to the program it is always projected to be able to pay retirees a larger real benefit than what they get today, or more than 75 percent of scheduled benefits. If we put in place tax increases comparable to those in the 1980s (equal to less than 10 percent of projected wage growth over the next three decades), the program would be fully funded indefinitely.

Given these facts, it would be interesting to know the basis for Pelley's decision to call the program a basket case. Its prospects over the next two decades are almost certainly better than those of his network.

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It must be nice to have a trade group that is so powerful that it can get newspapers like the Washington Post to parrot your line even when it is not true. The folks at Pharma will presumably be toasting a Wonkblog piece that told readers:

"The drug industry trade group keeps reminding the public that drug spending has been holding steady for years, at about 10 percent of the total health-care pie. They point to that as evidence that drugs are a special area of the health care industry, unlike almost any other sector, where competition occurs and prices actually go down over time."

That's great, we're supposed to debate why drug prices have been holding steady as a share of total health care spending. That will be a classic Washington Post debate, since drug prices have actually been rising considerably faster than overall health care spending. As noted last week:

"According to the National Income and Product Accounts (Table 2.4.5U) prescription drug spending increased at average annual rate of 6.3 percent over the years from 2004 to 2014, rising from $203.6 billion in 2004 to $374.7 billion in 2014 (Line 122). By contrast, spending on health care services rose at annual rate of 4.7 percent over this period, going from $1240.1 billion in 2004 to $1954.0 billion in 2014 (Line 168)."

Furthermore, over the last five years the gap in growth rates is even larger, with prescription drug spending rising at a 6.2 percent annual rate and spending on health care services rising at just a 3.7 percent annual rate.

So we can follow the Washington Post and debate why 3.7 percent is the same as 6.2 percent or we could talk about developing a more efficient and less corrupt method of financing drug research. We don't need to hand out government granted patent monopolies to finance research, we can pay for the research upfront.

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Yeah, we all want our children to enjoy a more comfortable life than we do, but how much more comfortable does it have to be before we feel we have failed them? The Social Security Trustees project that before tax wages will be on average 55 percent higher in real terms than they are today. Suppose that we have a huge 5 percentage point increase in taxes to pay for Social Security and Medicare? That still leaves wages in thirty years more than 45 percent higher than they are today. Would that be unfair to our kids?

Robert Samuelson says it is. He wants us to raise the age at which we would qualify for Social Security to further tilt the income equation in favor of our kids. He says the problem is that middle-income people are living longer than low-income people. While raising the age of eligibility might seem to hurt lower-income people who don't live as long, he says we can make benefits for the low-income elderly more generous, just as we have done with TANF. (Okay, Samuelson didn't include the last part about TANF.)  

Anyhow, the story of a growing gap in life expectancies is a problem of inequality. Similarly, the reason that many of us would not take for granted that our children will have before-tax wages that are 55 percent higher than today is due to inequality (as in the one percent). The rich got most of the benefits of growth over the last 35 years and it is very possible that they will get most of the benefits over the next 35 years.

And to address this problem, Robert Samuelson wants us to take away Social Security benefits from the middle class and make them work longer. Yes, that make sense. As the ad says, "only in the Washington Post."

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Everyone knows that the Washington Post wants to see Social Security and Medicare cut. The paper is constantly pushing this agenda in both its news and opinion pages. But how did the Post decide that President Obama shares this agenda? 

It made this assertion in an article headlined, "Obama and Boehner both craved compromise -- but could never reach it."  The piece tells readers:

"Those virtues [a desire to compromise for the national good] never resulted in progress, though, even on some of the political goals the men shared: lasting fiscal reforms, a meaningful immigration bill, keeping the government open at times of fiscal disagreement."

The "lasting fiscal reforms" the Post is referring to here include its desired cuts in Social Security and Medicare. It is not clear why the Post would claim these cuts as a political goal of President Obama. He never claimed cuts to these programs as goals in his two presidential campaigns, nor did he ever try to promote cuts during his years in the Senate.

It is true that he was prepared to agree to cuts as part of a compromise with the Republicans in Congress, but that is hardly evidence that he saw such cuts as an end in itself. It is also worth noting in this respect (since the Post apparently doesn't have access to such information) that the reductions in projected Medicare spending from lower cost growth vastly exceed the savings from the cuts that were proposed in the 2011 standoff between President Obama and the Republicans in Congress.

This means that if the point was to save the government money, we have already achieved more than the savings that would have come from the cuts being proposed. Of course if the point is to cut benefits to make life harder for seniors receiving Medicare, then further cuts would still be appropriate.

 

Note:

I see many people disagree with this one. Let me clarify my point. I am fully aware that Obama was prepared to go along with cuts to Social Security and Medicare. I spent a lot of time writing and arguing that this was a bad idea. The question is whether this was a priority that he set for himself.

He certainly never put it forward as a reason to put him in the White House, as in saying "if you elect me, I will cut SS and Medicare," or a more politic "I will reform entitlements." In terms of his aides statements on the issue, they always said that the cuts Obama was willing to agree to were compromises in order to preserve funding in other areas and to end the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy.

I really have no clue what is in Obama's heart of hearts and I suspect the Washington Post does not either. For this reason, it should not asserting that he "craved" cutting benefits. 

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Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen gave a speech yesterday in which she referred to the value of the Fed's 2.0 percent inflation target and warned of the uncertainty caused by any effort to raise the target to a higher rate. While having more stable prices is undoubtedly better than having less stable prices, it is a bit bizarre how this 2.0 percent has become the object of worship.

First, to those who care about such things it should be disconcerting that the inflation rate has been consistently below 2.0 percent for the last six years. That might suggest the 2.0 percent target is not all that meaningful. People who expected 2.0 percent inflation would have been shown wrong.

But what seems more striking is that while domestic inflation might be relatively stable, the rate of change of import prices is far from stable. The chart below shows the rate of change of non-oil import prices over the last three decades.

Change in Non-Oil Import Prices (prior 12 months)

 

EIUIREXPET 175218 1443196584726

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics.

As can be seen the inflation rate for non-oil import prices fluctuate widely, for example going from -4.2 percent in the period from March 2001 to March 2002 to positive 2.4 percent in the following twelve months. (The fluctations would be larger if we included oil.) Since imports are more than 15 percent of the economy, how can these sorts of fluctuations not pose a problem, but a gradual increase from 2.0 percent to 4.0 percent inflation be a big deal? If there is some logic to the commonly held view that Yellen is espousing, it is hard to see.

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Your choices are a professor holding a chair endowed by a pharmaceutical testing company and the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA). The professor, Darius Lakdawalla, holds the Quintiles chair at the School of Pharmacy at the University of Southern California. In an NYT "Room for Debate" piece on pharmaceutical prices (I was also a contributor), Lakdawalla told readers:

"[D]rug spending has been growing no faster than overall health care spending over the past 10 years."

That is not what the good people at BEA say. According to the National Income and Product Accounts (Table 2.4.5U) prescription drug spending increased at average annual rate of 6.3 percent over the years from 2004 to 2014, rising from $203.6 billion in 2004 to $374.7 billion in 2014 (Line 122). By contrast, spending on health care services rose at annual rate of 4.7 percent over this period, going from $1240.1 billion in 2004 to $1954.0 billion in 2014 (Line 168). This is shown below.

Book2 25033 image001

Source: Bureau of Economic Analysis.

The BEA data seem to be showing a very different story that what Professor Lakdawalla is telling us. In fact, over the last five years the gap in growth rates is even larger, with prescription drug spending rising at a 6.2 percent annual rate and spending on health care services rising at just a 3.7 percent annual rate. That difference could explain why presidential candidates apparently feel the need to talk about the cost of prescription drugs.

 

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There is an annoying tendency among elite types to assume that their ignorance on important issues is shared by others. Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson gave us a great example of the effort to project his misunderstanding of the economy when he told readers:

"Over the past decade, there has been a profound shift in its public standing. Before the 2008–09 financial crisis, the Fed enjoyed enormous prestige and freedom of action. All the Fed had to do, it seemed, was tweak short-term interest rates to keep expansions long and recessions short. What’s clear now is that we vastly exaggerated the Fed’s powers of economic management."

Sorry folks, but Samuelson is describing his own need for rethinking, not the need for those with a better understanding of the economy. We had recalled the weak recovery from the 2001 recession. While the GDP recovery was impressive, the labor market recovery was not. While the recession officially ended in December of 2001, we continued to lose jobs all through 2002 and until September of 2003. We didn't get back the jobs lost in the downturn until January of 2005. At the time this was the longest period without job growth since the Great Depression. The Fed's pushing its short-term interest rate down to just 1.0 percent did not seem to help much.

This led us to be very concerned about the difficulty in recovering from the recession that would inevitably follow the collapse of the housing bubble, which was visible to those with clear eyes long before it burst. So the confusion on these issues belongs to Samuelson, not to "we."

Unfortunately his confusion continues. He tells readers that the economy is near full employment. This is only true if we think that millions of people in their thirties and forties have opted for early retirement since the beginning of the recession. These people have dropped out of the labor force and are therefore not counted as unemployed. The amount of involuntary part-time and quit rates are still both at recession levels.

He then says:

"the financial crisis and Great Recession so traumatized consumers and businesses that they reined in their spending and risk-taking."

Nope, consumption is actually very high relative to disposable income or GDP. This is a fact that is well know to those with access to government GDP data (i.e. everyone). Similarly, the investment share of GDP is pretty much back to its pre-recession level.

The explanation for the continued doldrums is actually very simple. We have nothing to fill the demand gap created by a trade deficit of 3 percent of GDP (@ $500 billion a year). In the last decade we had the housing bubble, but in the absence of the bubble, there is no easy way to fill that gap. We could do it with budget deficits, but that gets our friends at the Post really upset. Instead, we get high unemployment and weak wage growth, and people are unhappy. It's all so complicated.

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I see my friends Paul Krugman and Brad DeLong are arguing over whether the pressure from the banking industry for the Fed to raise interest rates is the result of their calculation that higher interest rates would raise their profits or is it just ignorance of the way the economy works. Krugman argues the former and DeLong the latter. I would mostly agree with Krugman, but for a slightly different reason.

I don't see the clear link, claimed by Krugman, between higher Fed interest rates and higher net lending margins for banks (the difference between the interest rate they charge on loans and the interest rate they pay on deposits). Such a link may exist, but his data don't show it. On the other hand, I think it is still not hard to make a case for banks' self-interest in following a tight money policy.

An unexpected rise in the inflation rate is clearly harmful to banks' bottom line. This will lead to a rise in long-term interest rates and loss in the value of their outstanding debt. This is very bad news for them.

While we (the three of us) can agree that such a jump in inflation is highly unlikely in the current economic situation, it is not zero. Furthermore, a stronger economy increases this risk. If we assume that the banks care little about lower unemployment (they may not be bothered by lower unemployment, but high unemployment is not something they wake up every morning worrying about), then they are faced with a trade-off between a greater risk of something they really fear and something to which they are largely indifferent. It shouldn't be surprising that they want to the Fed to act to ensure the event they really fear (higher inflation) does not happen. Hence the push to raise interest rates.

I suspect also there is a strong desire to head off any idea that the government can shape the economy in important ways. There is enormous value for the rich to believe that they got where they are through their talent and hard work and that those facing difficult economic times lack these qualities. It makes for a much more troubling world view to suggest that tens of millions of people might be struggling because of bad fiscal policy from the government and inept monetary policy by the Fed.

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The Washington Post ran an editorial yesterday worrying about the end of globalization. It told readers:

"Freshly released data from the World Trade Organization and other economic forecasts show that the world is on course for its third consecutive year in which growth in global trade will be lower than overall economic growth, which is itself anemic, according to the Wall Street Journal. The last such three-year streak ended in 1985."

There are several aspects to this that are striking. First, the comparison with the three years ending in 1985 is interesting since the U.S. economy grew very rapidly from 1982 to 1985. The economy had been in the middle of a steep recession in 1982. It had a sharp recovery over the next three years with growth averaging 5.4 percent. If the U.S. economy suffered from this period of weaker trade, it's difficult to see how.

The second point is a simple question of logic and arithmetic. When trade barriers are removed we expect to see rapid growth in trade. Once most barriers have been removed, the rate of growth is likely to slow, since trade is already very large. It is unlikely that we will see rapid growth in trade between the 15 original members of the European Union, since most of the barriers to trade were removed more than twenty years ago.

The third point concerns relative prices. In the United States, trade has fallen very slightly as a share of GDP from 2011 to 2014 (from 17.7 percent to 17.67 percent) even though real exports and imports both grew far more rapidly than real GDP over this period. Exports grew by 9.9 percent, while imports grew 7.3 percent. By comparison, GDP grew 6.3 percent.

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Joe Nocera seems to be obsessed with promoting the Export-Import Bank. Today he put out at least his fourth column on the topic, although this time he did refrain from calling his opponents "idiotic."

His story is that Republican opponents of the bank are "job-killers." (I'm not sure if this also applies to us non-Republican opponents.) Let's think this one through for a moment.

The basic story is that we have huge companies like General Electric and Caterpillar that get the vast majority of the subsidized loans from the Ex-Im Bank. Does that sound like handouts to huge companies? Nope, Nocera tells us just because these huge companies get all the money doesn't mean that they are the beneficiaries:

"'At a time when we want to compete around the world, it is hard to believe what is happening in the U.S. Congress,' said Jeff Immelt, the chief executive of General Electric.

"'The ultimate irony is that we are on the verge of an American manufacturing renaissance,' bemoaned Jim McNerney, the chairman of Boeing. 'Yet this action is causing companies to start looking outside the U.S. instead.'

"'People complain that the bank only helps big companies,' said Doug Oberhelman, the chairman and C.E.O. of Caterpillar. 'A lot of our suppliers are small. They don’t export, but we do. And if we aren’t exporting, they aren’t selling to us.” He added, “I find it staggering that we would put highly paid export-oriented jobs at risk.'

"What Oberhelman finds 'staggering,' Immelt finds 'hard to believe' and McNerney finds ironic is the refusal of Republican extremists — led by the House Financial Services Committee’s chairman, Jeb Hensarling — to allow a vote on the reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank of the United States, a vote that would pass in a landslide."

Okay, this argument has the form of the government should give me money because it is not really about helping me, I will spend the money on a car, on clothes, and on restaurant meals. If the government doesn't give me money, then I won't spend this money and all the people who would have been employed by this spending will be out of jobs. So it's really about helping them, not me.

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That's what folks must have been speculating about when they read Neil Irwin's account of the Fed's decision to put off a hike in interest rates this week. Near the end of the piece Irwin tells readers:

"As Stanley Fischer, the Fed vice chairman, said in a television interview last month, if the Fed waits until it is absolutely certain it is time to raise rates, it will probably be too late.

"In other words, Fed officials inevitably have to make a decision based on what their models predict, not on cold hard evidence."

Huh? What exactly is the bad thing that happens if it's "too late" when the Fed acts? In the models I know, we start to see some acceleration of inflation. Given that the inflation rate has been well below the Fed's target for most of the last six years, the Fed should want the inflation rate to accelerate, at least if it is following its stated policy of targeting a 2.0 percent average rate of inflation. (This rate is too low, according to folks like I.M.F. chief economist Olivier Blanchard.) The inflation rate could average 3.0 percent over the next four years and still be consistent with the Fed's stated target.

None of the standard models shows a rapid acceleration of inflation as a result of the Fed being "too late." They show the inflation rate increasing very gradually. According to the most recent projections from the Congressional Budget Office being a full percentage point below full employment for a full year would lead to just a 0.3 percentage point rise in the rate of inflation. This would appear to be the cost of being too late in the standard models.

Perhaps Irwin could tell readers what Mr. Fischer was thinking about in giving his warning.

 

Addendum:

The headline writer for this piece deserves some grief for writing that "Yellen blinked" in reference to her decision not to support an interest rate hike. The implication is that this decision was due to a lack of will as opposed to good judgement. This is not the job of the headline writer to determine, nor the implication of the piece. Thanks Jeff for pointing this out.

 

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