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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The desire to beat up on Donald Trump is understandable, but it is important to realize that not everything he says is wrong. For example, according to press accounts he adheres to the belief that the world is round.

Anyhow, Greg Ip goes a bit overboard in a Wall Street Journal piece where he argues that Trump's claim that a trade deficit can be reduced or eliminated with tariffs is wrong. Referring to Trump's approach to the trade deficit, Ip tells readers:

"But that is out of step with standard economics, which predicts that a country’s trade balance is determined by the gap between what it invests and saves, not by tariffs."

As an accounting identity a country's trade balance is always equal to the gap between what it invests and what it saves. This means that if the U.S. invests $200 billion a year more than it saves, then it will by definition be true that it has a trade deficit of $200 billion.

However, this accounting identity tells us nothing about causation. If we are below the full employment level of output, and Donald Trump's tariffs or threats of tariffs, reduce our annual trade deficit by $200 billion (@ 1.1 percent of GDP), then this would lead to additional employment, output, and savings in the United States. A standard multiplier would suggest that a $200 billion reduction in the size of the trade deficit would lead to a $300 billion increase in GDP. This higher GDP would lead to more corporate and individual savings, as well as more tax revenue, which also count as savings. (The growth in GDP would also led to more imports, partially offsetting the initial improvement in the trade deficit.)

In other words, it is totally possible to reduce the size of the trade deficit as long as the economy is below its full employment-level of output. This is basic economic theory. Folks should be clear on this point, even if it suggests that Trump might be partly right on something.

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The Washington Post gave a column to Robert Rubin, the man best known for setting the U.S. economy on a path of bubble-driven growth in the late 1990s, the opportunity to share his wisdom on the economy. Unsurprisingly, Rubin proposes to cut Social Security and Medicare, as he has in times past. Of course, Rubin is not likely to need these programs since he earned over $100 million in his stint at Citigroup in the housing bubble years. The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission recommended that the Justice Department investigate Rubin's conduct at Citigroup during this period but for some reason it seems the Justice Department did not follow through.

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It's a sad day when the Republican Presidential nominee is closer to the mark on an issue than a major news outlet, but that appears to be the case when it comes to CNN and trade. CNN managed to get badly confused as it confronted Trump's "myths" with "reality. It rightly criticized the idea that trade is a zero sum game, trade is typically mutually beneficial so that both parties gain, but the situation is still not quite as CNN presents it.

Its myth #1 is that "America is losing money to Mexico, China, and others." The piece then gives us the "reality," which it claims is:

"There's no proof that a trade deficit is bad for an advanced economy like the United States."

While a trade deficit is not necessarily bad for an advanced country (actually, trade deficits are likely to be worse for advanced countries, in theory fast-growing developing countries should be the ones running deficits), it certainly is bad in a context where an economy is operating below its full employment level of output. The trade deficit means that spending in the United States is creating demand in other countries rather than the United States. In a context of secular stagnation, which many economists believe the U.S. is now experiencing, the trade deficit is making the lack of demand worse than it would otherwise be.

It's true that the demand lost to a trade deficit could be offset by a larger government budget deficit, but at the moment there is little explicit support in either political party for larger budget deficits. This means that there is nothing to offset the demand lost to trade deficit, therefore the trade deficit means slower growth and higher unemployment.

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Economists just hate to let the data get in the way of a good morality tale. For this reason we keep seeing stories about the problem of men not working, and in particular less-educated men not working. The big theme here is that technology has eliminated the need for the sort of work these less-educated men do. We got another example in this genre from Justin Fox in a Bloomberg piece.

The big problem with this story is that there has been a decline in employment rates for both men and women, including those with college degrees, since 2000. Furthermore, if we focus on less-educated workers (those without college degrees) the drop in prime-age employment rates has been larger for women than for men. (The Fox piece tries to make a case for the technology story with data that refuse to cooperate. A chart in the piece that is supposed to show men dropping out of the labor force everywhere, shows that in Canada the rate of non-participation went from 9.5 percent in 1995 to 9.5 percent in 2015. In Germany it fell from 8.4 percent in 1995 to 7.6 percent in 2015.) 

This suggests that the problem is a lack of demand in the economy, not the destruction of jobs held by less-educated men due to technology. The remedy in this case would be create more demand by policies like getting the government to run larger budget deficits or by getting the trade deficit down through a lower valued dollar. We can also look to create more jobs by reducing the duration of the average work year through policies like paid sick days and family leave and mandated vacation time. In this story, we certainly wouldn't want the Fed to deliberately slow the economy and rate of job creation with higher interest rates.

It is worth noting that the dismal labor market prospects of formerly incarcerated people is a real issue. The piece is right to highlight this issue, it just cannot explain the larger falloff in employment rates over the last 15 years.

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At a time when we are seeing the slowest productivity growth on record the NYT decided to devote a Room for Debate section to the question of how we will deal with surging productivity (called "automation" in the description). Blaming the problems of high unemployment and low wages on automation has certain attractive features. It makes our major social problems the result of the development of technology rather than bad economic policy. This is a longer topic (yes, it will be addressed in my forthcoming book), but let's just say that it is not only Donald Trump's supporters who have a tenuous grip on reality.

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A NYT piece discussing the tax rules surrounding business losses like the $916 million loss taken by Donald Trump on his 1995 tax return left out an important aspect of the law. The piece points out that many small businesses are organized as "pass-through" corporations, which means that the profits, or losses in this case, are directly passed through to the owners to declare on their tax returns.

However, these corporations also have the important benefit of limited liability. This means that if Donald Trump's business dumps hazardous waste in a poor neighborhood, leading to an increase in birth defects and cancer, the victims can only sue Donald Trump's corporation, not Donald Trump. If the corporation goes bankrupt, then the victims would be out of luck, even if Donald Trump still was a very rich person. They would not be able to go after his personal assets.

The rationale for the corporate income tax is that the corporation is an artificial individual. (This is also the basis under which the Supreme Court has bestowed it with free speech rights.) The income tax is a quid pro quo for the benefits of corporate status. A pass-through corporation gets to enjoy the benefits of corporate status without having to pay the corresponding taxes.

It may not take a "genius" like Donald Trump to take advantage of this loophole, but it was a pretty good sleight of hand to slip it into the tax code. It's yet another way to redistribute income upward.

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The NYT is bending over backwards to promote the protectionist pattern of trade policies of recent presidents. Yes folks, it is protectionist even if they call them "free trade" deals. Patent and copyright protection are protectionism, even if your friends benefit from them. And when we spend an extra $100 billion a year on doctors, compared with pay in Canada and Western Europe, because doctors who don't complete a U.S. residency program are not allowed to practice in the United States, that is protectionism.

So the story is what happens if we try to bring back some of the barriers to trade in manufacturing, the area where our political leaders have gone farthest to reduce barriers. In discussing NAFTA the NYT goes to great lengths to tell us any rollback would be a disaster. It explains how our industry has become closely integrated with Mexico's then warns:

"What we do know is that even relatively small tariffs can stand in the way of the kind of supply networks on which many modern industries are based. With these networks, goods can cross back and forth across national borders multiple times as part of the pipeline that leads to a finished automobile or a computer or even a side of beef. It’s not that companies couldn’t adjust; over time they could. It’s that the networks evolved this way for a reason, and readjusting would come at a considerable cost."

Really? Even small tariffs would upset everything. Let's see, suppose the U.S. imposed a five percent tariff on everything imported from Mexico. As a first approximation, everything we bought from Mexico would cost five percent more than it did previously. In reality, this price increase would not be passed on in full, but this is a good starting point. The NYT tells us that this would be really bad news.

Okay, suppose the dollar falls by five percent against the Mexican peso. As a first approximation, everything we bought from Mexico would cost five percent more than it did previously. In reality, this price increase would not be passed on in full, but this is a good starting point.

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The NYT had a major article on the problems of the health care exchanges established under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The piece implied that the problem is that too many people are opting to go without insurance, even bringing up the silly old line about the lack of young healthy people. (The exchanges need healthy people, it doesn't matter if they are young. In fact, older healthy people are more profitable since they pay higher premiums.)

In fact, fewer people are going without insurance than had been predicted when the ACA was passed. In 2012, before the key provisions of the ACA took effect, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projected that the uninsured population would fall to 32 million by 2015. In fact, it fell to 32 million by 2014, a year in which it was projected there would still be 38 million uninsured people. According to data from Gallup, the number of uninsured non-elderly fell to less than 28 million by the fourth quarter of 2015. (The 2012 projections also assumed that all states would expand Medicaid since it preceded the Supreme Court ruling that allowed states to opt out.)

The reason that the health care exchanges have had lower than predicted enrollments is that fewer employers have dropped employer based insurance than expected. This is the sort of thing that a major article on unexpected problems in the exchanges should have noted.

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Gretchen Morgenson had an interesting piece pointing out that it is rare that corporate boards ever clawback substantial sums from CEOs involved in illegal or inappropriate activity. (The immediate context is the clawback of some future performance pay from Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf.) The issue, as Morgenson presents it, is that boards don't generally do clawbacks except where it is legally required.

The point is that boards do not want to do clawbacks. This raises the obvious question as to why boards would not want to clawback money from CEOs?

Corporate boards are supposed to be working for shareholders. If they have a legal basis for getting extra money for shareholders by taking back pay from a CEO, they should want to do it. The assumption in Morgenson's piece, which is undoubtedly accurate, is that the boards are allied with the CEO. They don't want to take away from money from him/her unless they are forced to by the law.

This is the context in which CEOs like John Stumpf can earn close to $20 million a year, more than 500 times the pay of the median worker. And then we can count on leading policy experts to tell us the problem is that most workers lack the skills to compete in the modern economy.

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In an article reporting on Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell's statement that he will not bring up the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in a lame duck session of Congress, the Post asserted:

"Some Republican lawmakers typically inclined to support trade deals have objected to some provisions in the TPP that could hurt tobacco and pharmaceutical companies."

Actually, there are no provisions in the deal as now written that "hurt" tobacco and pharmaceutical companies. The provisions in question don't help the industries as much as they would like.

In the case of the tobacco industry, it is not guaranteed the same access to investor state dispute settlement tribunals as other industries. The pharmaceutical industry only got a guarantee of the equivalent of eight years of marketing exclusivity as protection against biosimilar drugs. While the industry wanted this protection for 12 years, it currently has no guarantee of protection, so the issue is one of how much it will gain.

It is understandable that powerful interests would look to get as much as possible out of a trade and regulatory pact like the TPP, but it is highly misleading to report their failure to get everything they want as being hurt by the deal.

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A headline of a NYT business section piece confidently told its readers that "China manipulates its currency, but not in the way Trump claims." The gist of the argument is that China has recently sold off some of its foreign exchange reserves in order to raise the value of its currency. It goes on to assert that because the inflow of foreign investment into China has slowed, its currency should fall if left to market forces.

Actually, China still holds well over $4 trillion in foreign reserves counting the money in its sovereign wealth fund. Given standard rules of thumb, a country with China's level of imports would be expected to hold between $500 billion and $1 trillion in foreign reserves. These additional holds of reserves have the effect of keeping down the value of China's currency, just as Donald Trump claims. (I will not vouch for the fact that this is what Trump is thinking when he complains about currency management.)

It is also worth noting that even though China's economy has slowed, it is still growing far faster than the economies in Europe, Japan, and the United States. This would be expected to lead to an inflow of capital to China, which would correspond to China running a trade deficit. Instead, China is continuing to run a trade surplus of between 2–3 percent of GDP.

In short, Trump is much closer to the mark on this one than the NYT.

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Most workers suffer serious consequences when they mess up on their jobs. Custodians get fired if the toilet is not clean. Dishwashers lose their job when they break too many dishes, but not all workers are held accountable for the quality of their work.

At the top of the list of people who need not be competent to keep their job are economists. Unlike workers in most occupations, when large groups of economists mess up they can count on the media covering up their mistakes and insisting it was just impossible to understand what was going on.

This is first and foremost the story of the housing bubble. While it was easy to recognize that the United States and many other countries were seeing massive bubbles that were driving their economies, which meant that their collapse would lead to major recessions, the vast majority of economists insisted there was nothing to worry about.

The bubbles did burst, leading to a financial crisis, double-digit unemployment in many countries, and costing the world tens of trillions of dollars of lost output. The media excused this extraordinary failure by insisting that no one saw the bubble and that it was impossible to prevent this sort of economic and human disaster. Almost no economists suffered any consequences to their career as a result of this failure. The "experts" who determined policy in the years after the crash were the same people who completely missed seeing the crash coming.

We are now seeing the same story with trade. The NYT has a major magazine article on the impact of trade on the living standards of workers in the United States and other wealthy countries. The subhead tells readers:

"Trade is under attack in much of the world, because economists failed to anticipate the accompanying joblessness, and governments failed to help."

Of course many economists did not anticipate the negative impact of trade, but of course many of us did. The negative impact was entirely predictable and predicted. (Here are a few from CEPR, there are many more books and papers from my friends at the Economic Policy Institute.) The argument is straightforward: trade policy has been designed to put manufacturing workers in direct competition with low paid workers in the developing world. This costs jobs and puts downward pressure on the wages of these workers. It also puts downward pressure on the wages of less-educated workers more generally, as displaced manufacturing workers seek jobs in retail and other sectors. Stagnating wages and increasing inequality are the predicted result of this pattern of trade, not a surprising outcome.

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The establishment types are pulling out all the stops in trying to resuscitate the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Hence we get a report from the OECD on the declining growth rate of world trade and a front page article highlighting the report in the Washington Post.

I haven't read the report carefully, but it is worth making two quick points. First, trade has grown rapidly as share of world GDP from 1970 to the 2008 crash. (Interestingly, the world economy was growing more rapidly in the 1960s when there was little increase in the ratio of trade to GDP.) It was virtually inevitable that the rate of growth of trade would slow. Once the volume of trade is very large relative to the economy, it is hard for it to grow too much further.

In other words, once we have removed all the barriers in trade between the U.S. and Canada, we will have seen most of the expected growth in trade and in subsequent years we would expect trade to grow pretty much at the same pace as the economy. If we want to see more trade, then make the economies grow faster, say with larger budget deficits providing stimulus.

The other point is that many economists have argued that GDP growth is being substantially understated due to measurement error. The basic story is that we are getting lots of items free over the Internet that we used to pay for. These free items are not counted in GDP even though the costly ones they replace would have been.

I am a skeptic on this one. Clearly there is some truth to the story, but I doubt it amounts to more than 0.1 percentage point of GDP growth and almost certainly not more than 0.2 percentage points. Nonetheless, the argument is taken seriously by many. Jan Hatzius, the chief economist at Goldman Sachs, argues that the understatement could be as much as 0.75 percentage points.

Whatever the true story, the measurement error occurs overwhelmingly in items likely to be subject to international trade (e.g. music and videos transferred over the web.) This means that however much we are understating GDP growth due to measurement error of this sort, we are likely understating trade growth by close to twice this amount. That could help to explain a substantial portion of the reported slowing of trade growth.

It is also worth noting that stronger and longer patent and copyright protection (as required in trade deals like the TPP), which can be equivalent to tariffs of several thousand percent on the protected items, would be expected to slow both overall economic growth and the volume of international trade.

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When the issue is trade deals, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the New York Times throws out its usual journalistic standards to push its pro-trade deal agenda. Therefore it is not surprising to see a story in the news section that was essentially a misleading advertisement for these trade deals.  

The headline tells readers that Donald Trump's comments on trade in the Monday night debate lacked accuracy. The second paragraph adds:

"His aggressiveness may have been offset somewhat by demerits on substance."

These comments could well describe this NYT piece.

For example, it ostensibly indicts Trump with the comment:

"His [Trump's] first words of the night were the claim that “our jobs are fleeing the country,” though nearly 15 million new jobs have been created since the economic recovery began."

It is not clear what the NYT thinks it is telling readers with this comment. The economy grows and creates jobs, sort of like the tree in my backyard grows every year. The issue is the rate of growth and job creation. While the economy has recovered from the lows of the recession, employment rates of prime age workers (ages 25–54) are still down by almost 2.0 percentage points from the pre-recession level and almost 4.0 percentage points from 2000 peaks. There is much research showing that trade has played a role in this drop in employment.

The NYT piece continues:

"He [Trump] singled out Ford for sending thousands of jobs to Mexico to build small cars and worsening manufacturing job losses in Michigan and Ohio, but the company’s chief executive has said 'zero' American workers would be cut. Those states each gained more than 75,000 jobs in just the last year."

It is not surprising that Ford's CEO would say that shifting production to Mexico would not cost U.S. jobs. It is likely he would make this claim whether or not it is true. Furthermore, his actual statement is that Ford is not cutting U.S. jobs. If the jobs being created in Mexico would otherwise be created in the United States, then the switch is costing U.S. jobs. The fact that Michigan and Ohio added 75,000 jobs last year has as much to do with this issue as the winner of last night's Yankees' game.

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We have seen a number of sharp swings in oil prices over the last two decades. Clearly the underlying fundamentals of the market are the main factor in determining the price, but the fact that Wall Street-types spend tens of billions of dollars speculating on the stuff can also play a role.

NPR assured us otherwise in a Morning Edition segment today. They gave a comment from an economist who said the impact of speculation was essentially zero, effectively mocking all the folks who complained about it.

This position is not one universally held by economists. For example, this paper from the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank analyzed recent movements in oil prices. It found that speculation had the effect of exaggerating movements in both directions by around 15 percent. The implication is that when oil prices hit their all time high of $150 a barrel in 2008, speculation might have been responsible for more than $20 of this price. This would cost U.S. consumers more than $12 billion over the course of a year if the impact lasted that long. This is equal to 0.08 percent of GDP at the time or more than one third of the gains the International Trade Commission projects for the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

While the paper still supports the idea that the fundamentals of supply and demand are the main factors determining price, it does provide evidence that speculation can play an important role. If the analysis in this paper is correct, then people would not be wrong to be bothered by speculation in the oil market.

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The NYT ran a short AP piece on Social Security and "why it matters." The piece wrongly told readers that Social Security is "a main driver of the government's long-term budget problems." This is not true. Under the law, Social Security can only spend money that is in its trust fund. If the trust fund is depleted then full benefits cannot be paid. The law would have to be changed to allow Social Security to spend money other than the funds designated for the program and in that way contribute to the deficit.

The piece also plays the "really big number" game, telling readers:

"the program faces huge shortfalls that get bigger and bigger each year.In 2034, the program faces a $500 billion shortfall, according to the Social Security Administration. In just five years, the shortfalls add up to more than $3 trillion.

"Over the next 75 years, the shortfalls add up to a staggering $139 trillion. But why worry? When that number is adjusted for inflation, it comes to only $40 trillion in 2016 dollars — a little more than twice the national debt."

Since this is talking about shortfalls projected to be incurred over a long period of time, it would be helpful to express the shortfall relative to the economy over this period of time, not debt at a point in time. This is not hard to do, since there is a table right in the Social Security trustees report that reports the projected shortfall as being equal to 0.95 percent of GDP over the 75-year forecasting horizon. By comparison, the costs of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan came to around 1.6 percent of GDP at their peaks in the last decade.

The piece also gets the reason for the projected shortfall wrong. It tells readers:

"In short, because Americans aren't having as many babies as they used to. That leaves relatively fewer workers to pay into the system. Immigration has helped Social Security's finances, but not enough to fix the long-term problems.

"In 1960, there were 5.1 workers for each person getting benefits. Today, there are about 2.8 workers for each beneficiary. That ratio will drop to 2.1 workers by 2040."

Actually, the drop in the birth rate and the declining ratio of workers to beneficiaries had long been predicted. The reason that the program's finances look worse than when the Greenspan commission put in place the last major changes in 1983 is the slowdown in wage growth and the upward redistribution of wage income so that a larger share of wage income now goes untaxed.

In 1983, only 10 percent of wage income was above the payroll tax cap. Today it is close to 18 percent. This upward redistribution explains more than 40 percent of projected shortfall over the next 75 years.

It is also worth noting that the loss in wage income for most workers to upward redistribution swamps the size of any tax increases that could be needed to maintain full funding for the program. While AP wants to get people very worried over possible tax increases in future years, it would rather they ignore the policies (e.g. trade, Fed policy, Wall Street policy, patent policy) that have taken money out of the pockets of ordinary workers and put it in the hands of the rich.

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As is widely known the Washington Post never misses an opportunity to blame the victims of policy for bad outcomes, rather than rich and powerful folks who design policy. We are treated to yet another example of this charade with the Post running a major article that claims that video games are a major reason that fewer young men are working today than 15 years ago.

The basic story is that many young men, particularly those with less education, have dropped out of the labor force in the last 15 years. According to survey data, they appear to be spending much of their time playing video games. They also report to be relatively happy. See, all you people who thought it was a bad economy are mistaken, the problem is the video games are just too much fun.

Okay, that's a great Trumpian level of analysis, but let's get back to the real world. Less-educated young men are not the only group with declines in employment rates. In fact, the drop in employment rates among less educated women over the last 15 years has been even sharper. Furthermore there has been a decline in employment rates among all groups of prime-age workers (25–54), even those with college degrees.

This general drop in employment rates might suggest that the real problem is a lack of demand. In other words, young men are not working for the same reason young women are not working, the Washington Post and other advocates of austerity have been successful in reducing demand in the economy by reducing the government budget deficit. So the problem has little to do with video games, the problem is the policy, but hey, if the Post can use video games to distract attention from what its favored policies are doing to people — why not?

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You don't remember casting that vote? Well, you didn't actually cast it, but if you have a 401(k) someone like Blackrock CEO Larry Fink cast the vote for you.

Most middle-income people have 401(k)s for their retirement and most of this money is in mutual funds. These mutual funds have control over the proxy votes for the shares they hold. This means that funds like Blackrock, which has more than $5 trillion in assets, have enormous say over the distribution of income in this country. And, as Gretchen Morgenson points out in her NYT column this morning, these folks almost always endorse outlandish pay packages for CEOs. As they say in Wall Street circles, what's a few million dollars between friends?

So, if you're upset about an economy where the rich keep getting richer, just remember, you voted for it, sort of.

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The NYT did what we should expect newspapers to do when reporting on presidential campaigns, it told readers that Donald Trump's energy plans don't make any sense. In the first paragraph of a piece on a speech Donald Trump gave in Pittsburgh, the NYT told readers that his promise to increase production of both coal and natural gas is "impossible." This is of course true, since the fuels are substitutes. In fact, the main reason coal production has fallen sharply in the last five years has been the boom in low cost natural gas from fracking. If we increase the latter further, then it is almost inevitable that it will result in a further drop in coal production.

Mr. Trump may not know he is promising the impossible, but now NYT readers do.

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Fareed Zakaria used his Washington Post column to tell readers that there are no simple solutions, it's just too complicated. The point is that the gods have condemned us to suffer slow growth and rising inequality. In addition to making the absurd point that we should be worried because people are having fewer kids (just imagine, the robots will take all the jobs and we won't have any workers) Zakaria tells us that nothing seems to work.

"Facing these forces [globalization, an aging workforce, and technology], leaders have no easy path to restore growth and revive their countries. Deep, radical reforms are unpopular and in this climate do not seem to lead to roaring growth. Ireland, Portugal and Mexico have all enacted broad market reforms, and yet, growth has not come booming back. Japan has spent hundreds of billions on stimulus plans and yet it is just muddling along. Thus, even the leaders who come to office with strong public approval and much promise find themselves trapped by the same forces. Very quickly their approval ratings begin to drop and new populist anger grows. Italy’s reformist prime minister, Matteo Renzi, has seen his numbers fall below 30 percent. The populist Greek leader, Alexis Tsipras, is down to 19 percent."

Well, that seems to cover the bases, right? Except that there is a lot to show for the stimulus in Japan (which could be far more aggressive, since the country has negative long-term interest rates and is still facing near zero inflation). Since Abe took over at the end of 2012 the employment-to-population ratio in Japan has risen by 2.5 percentage points. This would be the equivalent of adding 6.2 million jobs in excess of the endogenous growth in the population in the United States. By contrast, the employment-to-population ratio has risen by just 1.1 percentage point in the United States over this period, in spite of the strong job growth of the last three years.

This might help to explain why Mr. Abe's approval rating is at 60 percent, a marked contrast with the rating of other leaders on Zakaria's list. One can debate whether or not Keynesian-style stimulus is simple, but the world looks much less complicated if we talk about the real world honestly and not ignore facts that contradict our message.

I will have much more to say countering the Zakaria/mainstream establishment line in my forthcoming book, Rigged: How Globalization and the Rules of the Modern Economy Were Structured to Make the Rich Richer, coming soon to a website near you.

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Paul Krugman used his column to berate reporters for not highlighting when candidates are lying. The basic point is that reporters are in a position to know that a candidate is saying something that is outright false, whereas the typical reader/viewer likely doesn't have the time to check the truth of a particular claim. Not doing this basic service encourages lying, since candidates will freely change positions and make claims that are not true if they know they will not pay a price for lying.

The immediate context is the presidential debate next Monday. Krugman notes in passing that reporters tend to pass on fact checking and instead engage in theater criticism:

"One all-too-common response to such attacks involves abdicating responsibility for fact-checking entirely, and replacing it with theater criticism: Never mind whether what the candidate said is true or false, how did it play? How did he or she 'come across'? What were the 'optics'?

"But theater criticism is the job of theater critics; news reporting should tell the public what really happened, not be devoted to speculation about how other people might react to what happened."

This is a point I have often made in the past. I would carry the complaint even a step further than Krugman. Not only is theater criticism the job of theater critics, the amateur criticism in which highly paid reporters engage is the sort of thing we all do all the time. All of us engage in conversations with people over the course of our lives. In doing so, we are constantly assessing their confidence, whether they are acting defensive, whether they are forceful, and whether they appear sincere. Reporters have no comparative advantage in this area.

We will have roughly 100 million people watching the debate on Monday night. There is no reason to believe that the judgement of the reporters covering the debate on the relative confidence and outward sincerity of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton will be any more accurate and insightful than the judgement of the typical viewer among the 100 million.

By contrast, most of the 100 million will not know if Trump has yet again changed his tax proposal, has made up new stories about the origins of birtherism, or is saying nothing coherent on trade policy. This is where reporters can add value. They should save the theater criticism for their family and friends.

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