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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NYT columnist David Leonhardt told readers that:

"For the United States, the No. 1 problem with China’s economy is probably intellectual property theft."

Both parts of this assertion are questionable. First, the notion of "intellectual property theft" only exists relative to specific intellectual property laws. China's laws are not the same as those in the United States, so much of the unauthorized use of creative and intellectual work in China may not be in violation of China's laws and therefore is not "theft."

More importantly, the enforcement of U.S.-type patent and copyright protections would lead to much higher prices for items like prescription drugs, computers, and computer software. This would slow growth in China, meaning its imports from the United States would increase less rapidly than if it did not respect U.S.-type patents and copyrights.

The increased outflow from China of payments for royalties and licensing fees would also tend to depress the value of the yuan compared to where it would otherwise be. This means that Chinese manufactured goods would sell for lower prices relative to U.S. manufactured goods. This would be a bad outcome from the standpoint of U.S. manufacturing workers. 

In short, the failure of China to enforce U.S.-type protections for intellectual property may be a problem for people who would benefit from patent fees and royalties from copyrights, it does not follow that the United States as a whole is harmed by China's free market approach.

It is also worth noting that, unlike the removal of protectionist barriers in China, which could lead to large gains for Chinese consumers, the imposition of stronger intellectual property rules will lead to much higher consumer prices. This is important because consumers would be a potential ally in the removal of import tariffs or quotas. They are likely to be strongly opposed to more rigorous protections of patents and copyrights.

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The NYT reported that China's consumer price index (CPI) understates inflation because it includes an outdated set of goods and services. It is worth noting that this has been a reason that many economists have argued that the CPI in the United States overstates inflation.

The prices of new goods and services tend to fall rapidly in the first year or two that they appear on the market (think of CD players or cell phones). If these sharp price declines are not included in a price index then it is likely to overstate the true rate of inflation.

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An NYT piece on Germany's growth for 2010 told readers that the country's unemployment rate is 7.2 percent. This is the rate using the German government's measure. However, this measure includes part-time workers who want full-time employment as being unemployed.

The better measure is the OECD harmonized unemployment rate, which uses largely the same methodology as the Labor Department in the United States. This measure shows Germany's unemployment rate at 6.7 percent.

The article also cites a German economist's projection that the German economy grew 0.6 percent in the 4th quarter compared to 0.7 percent in the third quarter. It would have been helpful to annualize these numbers, since GDP is always reported in the United States as an annualized growth rate. The annualized growth rate based on these numbers would be approximately 2.8 percent in the 3rd quarter and 2.4 percent in the 4th quarter.

 

[Thanks to Seth for the correction -- DB]

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This fact would have been worth mentioning in a USA Today piece that discussed Core Logic's data showing a sharp price decline in November. The piece included projections from Global Insights and Moody's Analytics that house prices would decline by a further 5.0 percent over the course of 2011.

The most recent data show house prices dropping at a rate of close to 1.0 percent a month. Prices in the bottom third of the housing market are falling at 2 or 3 times this rate in several cities according to the Case-Shiller data. This suggests that the plunge is being driven by the end of the first-time buyers tax credit, since the bottom tier would be the portion of the market most affected by the credit.

It is reasonable to think that the rapid price declines in the bottom tier will be a drag on prices in the middle and top tier, since the sellers of bottom tier homes are buyers of higher end homes. This would imply that price declines are more likely to accelerate in the immediate future rather than slow.

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The NYT reported on the Federal Reserve Board's payment of $78.4 billion to the Treasury in 2010. The Fed earned this money on the mortgage-backed securities and government bonds that it bought to boost the economy. The payment is equal to almost 40 percent of the net interest paid out by the federal government last year.

The government's budget projections show the Fed's payments to the Treasury shrinking drastically over the next decade. However, it is worth noting this is a policy choice.

The Federal Reserve could buy and hold more debt in the year ahead, thereby alleviating the interest burden on future budgets created by the deficits needed to boost the economy out of recession. To limit the potential inflationary impact of the additional reserves placed in the system the Fed could raise the reserve requirements banks. If the country was having an honest debate on the long-term deficit, in which everything is "on the table," then this would be one of the items on the policy agenda. It is worth noting that banks would not want to see their reserve requirements raised.

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A front page Washington Post article assessed the amount of stimulus that would likely be coming from the 2 percentage point cut in the payroll tax. While the article did note that many low-income workers will actually be paying more in tax in 2011 than 2010, because of the expiration of the $400 Making Work Pay tax credit, it failed to note the more important point for this discussion, that most workers will see little change in their tax liability.

For example, a worker with the median annual earnings (@ $31,000) would receive a tax cut of $620 as a result of the reduction in the payroll tax. Since they are losing the $400 Making Work Pay tax credit, their net tax cut would be $220 over the course of the year. This is the amount of additional income that could provide a potential stimulus to the economy, not the full $620.

The article failed to make this correction, for example reporting projections of the tax cut's impact from Mark Zandi at Moody's Analytics that did not incorporate the impact of the ending of the Making Work Pay tax credit. The Zandi projections show the boost to the economy compared to a situation in which there was no tax cut at all, not the incremental boost associated with the difference between the payroll tax cut and the Making Work Pay tax credit.

The piece also inaccurately depicted the current 5.3 percent savings rate. It noted that this savings rate is well above the near zero rate that existed at the peak of the housing bubble, however it did not mention that the current saving rate is still well below the post-war average of 8 percent. Given that the current rate is still lower than normal, and that many near retirees have just seen much of their wealth disappear with the collapse of the housing bubble, it is more reasonable to expect that the saving rate will go up than down.

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The NYT had another piece suggesting that pessimism about the economy is preventing consumers from spending more. Actually, the current 5.5 percent saving rate is well below the post-war average, which is close to 8.0 percent. With tens of millions of baby boomers approaching retirement with almost no wealth, and many of the politicians in Washington planning to cut back Social Security and Medicare, it would be reasonable to expect the saving rate to rise rather than fall, meaning that consumption will weaken in the future. Add a comment

Most of the thousands of economists gathered this weekend at the annual convention of the American Economics Association in Denver would probably agree with MIT economist David Autor, that the big problem facing the U.S. labor market is that our workforce is not being adequately educated. Autor claims that most of the new jobs that are being created are at the top and the bottom of the skills level. His recipe is to have more people go to college and earn advance degrees.

By contrast, the NYT devoted a lengthy article to tell readers about the dismal job market facing young lawyers. It reports that many recent graduates of law schools that are below the top tier can only find very low paying legal jobs, if they find any within the professional at all.

It is worth noting that if Autor is right, then the NYT has seriously misrepresented the state of the legal market. Alternatively, the economy could simply be suffering from a situation in which there are too few jobs in total. This would mean that the fundamental problem is not the skills of the workforce but rather the skills of the people designing economic policy.

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The NYT reported that conservatives criticize the Fed's new round of quantitative easing (QE2) for, "printing money, financing the federal deficit and devaluing the dollar." The devaluing of the dollar is in fact one of the main goals of QE2, not an unfortunate outcome as the piece later notes. One of the ways in which QE2 would boost the economy is by making U.S. goods more competitive internationally by lowering the value of the dollar.
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That is effectively what a USA Today article implied when it told readers that:

"U.S. [population] growth is the envy of most developed nations."

The article implied that countries with stagnant or declining populations will experience economic hardship as a result. In fact, the impact of productivity growth in raising living standards is an order of magnitude greater than whatever drag demographics, in the form of rising dependency ratios, might be in slowing the growth of living standards. Furthermore, lower populations may directly improve living standards by reducing congestion and pollution and increasing the ratio of capital to labor. This is especially likely to be the case in the densely populated countries of Europe and Japan.

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The Planet Money segment of Morning Edition wrongly told listeners on Friday that Spain might be too big to save, implying that the country is too large for the European Central Bank (ECB) to cover its debts. This is not true.

The ECB, with the approval of the European Union, could easily cover the debts of Spain and any other country for the simple reason, to take Ben Bernanke's line, that it has a printing press. It is possible that the ECB will opt not to save Spain, either because of concerns about inflation or simply out of a desire to teach Spain a lesson (i.e. it was stupid to join the euro) but this would be a choice. Spain could be saved if the euro zone countries want to save it.

It is also worth noting that Spain may well be better off if it is not saved. Its unemployment rate is currently over 20 percent. The austerity being demanded by the euro zone countries will prevent the unemployment rate from declining any time soon. By contrast, if Spain were to default on its debt and leave the euro it would be immediately be free to take steps to boost growth and employment. This could lead to a sharp turnaround and a rapid move back toward full employment.

This is exactly what happened in Argentina. It had a sharp 6-month plunge after its December 2001 default, but then had 7 years of solid growth until the world economic crisis in 2008 brought Argentina's economy to a near standstill.

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Yes, David Brooks devotes a column to the health care bill in which he refers to the "trauma of the past two years." Wow, things must have been bad at the NYT's oped pages. Did Mr. Brooks have nightmares about death panels?

Mr. Brooks' trauma may explain why the column is so out of touch with reality. Brooks warns that:

"The number of people in those exchanges could thus skyrocket, especially as startup companies undermine their competitors with uninsured employees and lower costs."

What does Brooks think he is saying here? As it stands, start-ups already do not have any obligation to pay for their workers' health care. Furthermore, the absolute orthodoxy in economics (i.e. you are an idiot if you don't accept it) is that health care payments come out of wages, so the savings to employers from not providing health care should simply end up as higher wages, so how will the start-ups benefit in this picture?

More importantly, if President Obama's health care plan allows start-ups to be much more competitive domestically, won't they also be much more competitive internationally? And, this is a big problem?

Maybe the NYT should let Mr. Brooks go on leave until he recovers from his trauma.

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Both the New York Times and the Washington Post decided to make major news stories out of a new Census report on state finances for fiscal 2009. Both papers highlighted a reported 30 percent decline in revenue for the year.

While this might sound like a terrifying plunge, the bulk of this reported decline in revenue was attributable to the loss in value of investments held by the states, most importantly stock held by their pension funds. The fact that the stock market fell in the 2009 fiscal year (June 30, 2008 to June 30, 2009 in almost all states) is not exactly news. The S&P 500 fell by 27.9 percent from the end of June, 2008 to the end of June, 2009. 

Furthermore, it would have been worth pointing out that this plunge has been largely reversed. The S&P rose 12 percent during the states' 2010 fiscal year and its most recent close has brought the market almost back to its June 2008 level. In other words, the plunge in revenue that is the highlight of these articles has already been almost completely reversed by the subsequent rise in the stock market.

This does not mean that the states do not still face serious funding shortfalls. Revenue has been hard hit by the recession and stocks still have not provided the return that was anticipated, meaning that pensions do face shortfalls. However, it would have been helpful to readers to point out that the plunge in investment values has been been reversed rather than to highlight this plunge as a major cause for concern.

Hat tip to Gary Burtless.

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I will depart from my policy of not commenting on articles where I am mentioned to clarify the issues (to me) surrounding Gene Sperling's selection as a President Obama's national economic advisor. The primary issue is not that Sperling got $900,000 from Goldman Sachs for part-time work, although that does look bad. The primary issue is that Sperling thought, and may still think, that the policies that laid the basis for the economic collapse were just fine.

Sperling saw nothing wrong with the stock market bubble that laid the basis for the 2001 recession. The economy did not begin to create jobs again until two and a half years after the beginning of this recession and even then it was only due to the growth of the housing bubble. Gene Sperling also saw nothing wrong with the growth of that bubble. Gene Sperling also saw nothing wrong with the financial deregulation of the Clinton years which, by the way, helped make Goldman Sachs lots of money. And, he saw nothing wrong with the over-valued dollar which gave the United States an enormous trade deficit. This trade deficit undermined the bargaining power of manufacturing workers and helped to redistribute income upward.

In short, Sperling has a horrible track record of supporting policies that were bad for the country and good for Wall Street. This track record is far more important than his $900,000 consulting fee in providing my basis for objecting to Sperling's appointment. It is remarkable that it was not mentioned in this article.

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The Washington Post had an article on Estonia's entry into the euro zone. It contrasted Estonia, along with Germany, as "growing" economies, with debt laden ones, like Greece and Ireland. It would have been worth noting that Estonia now has an unemployment rate of 16.2 percent. It's economy shrank by more than 15 percent in the downturn and it is not projected to get back to its 2007 level of GDP until after 2015. For these reasons, it is strange to paint Estonia as a success story. Add a comment

The NYT ran a blognote providing background on Gene Sperling, who is likely to be selected as President Obama's new National Economic Advisor. At one point the post refers to Sperling's work in the Clinton administration and told readers that he is:

"particularly proud of the work he and colleagues did to create the Earned Income Tax Credit."

Actually the Earned Income Tax Credit was a Nixon administration policy that first took effect in January of 1975.

[Addendum: the NYT has now corrected the post. Also, the EITC law was actually signed by Ford after Nixon resigned.]

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Casey Mulligan has a blognote in the NYT today dismissing concerns about a double-dip in the housing market telling readers that:

"the price and construction data so far do not seem to suggest that home values will be significantly different this year than they were in 2010."

Those looking at Mr. Mulligan's charts will note that he only shows the Case-Shiller data on home prices through September. This is striking because the Case-Shiller 20-city index was released the last Tuesday of 2010. This index showed a price decline of 1.3 percent from September to October. Over the three months since prices temporarily peaked in July, at the expiration of the first-time buyers tax credit, home prices have fallen at a 9.2 percent annual rate.

Home prices in the bottom third of the market, which was most affected by the credit, are plunging in almost every city. These declines are likely to affect the higher end of the market in the year ahead since the people selling bottom tier homes are the ones buying more expensive homes. These data form the basis for most concerns about further declines in house prices. Without the most recent data it is difficult to make useful projections about 2011 prices.

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The NYT profiled Indiana's governor Mitch Daniels as a responsible deficit hawk. At one point it describes his agenda for saving money on Social Security and Medicare:

"Benefits should be cut for high-income and healthy people."

It is worth noting that most of the proposals for changes in the Social Security benefit formula of the type described in the article would reduce benefits for people who have had average earnings as low as $40,000 a year. This is not an income level that would usually be described as "high income." For tax purposes, President Obama and the Democrats in Congress have used $200,000 as a cutoff.

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Given that the unemployment rate is 9.8 percent, that more than 1 million people a year are losing their homes to foreclosure, and that corporate profits are back at pre-recession levels, one would think that there are plenty of legitimate grounds to criticize President Obama and the Democrats in Congress. But, the NYT decided not to restrict itself it to reality.

In a piece warning the Republicans not to misread their mandate the NYT explained that this is exactly what the Democrats had done:

"It’s also how Democrats elected in 2006 and 2008 came to enact a series of expensive new programs without ever really bothering to explain to the public why such investments were necessary or how they would be paid for. They wanted to believe the voters had risen up to demand a resurgence of liberal government, when in fact all the evidence suggested that all anxious voters really wanted was a government that seemed to work."

It would have been great if the NYT could have given 2 or 3 examples of "expensive new programs" that the Democrats had enacted without paying for. The only expensive program that sticks out at the moment is the health care reform bill. This bill is paid for, at least according to the Congressional Budget Office, even if not according to the NYT.

Given the fact that this piece is completely out of touch with reality perhaps the NYT has decided to introduce a comics section.

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The Post used this term in a piece reporting that the J.P. Morgan executive may become President Obama's next chief of staff. In fact, NAFTA, which Daley helped push through Congress, and other trade deals that he has supported included many protectionist provisions, most importantly increasing intellectual property protections. These deals also did little or nothing to free up trade in highly paid professional services like those provided by doctors and lawyers.

The trade deals supported by Daley were primarily about subjecting manufacturing workers to increased competition with low-paid workers in the developing world, thereby driving down their wages. They had little to do with free trade.

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Yep, Brooks said that proposals to raise $150 billion a year from Wall Street banks and speculators are now on the national political agenda. So are alternatives to patent monopolies for supporting prescription drug research and international Medicare vouchers that will allow beneficiaries to take advantage of the more efficient health care systems in Germany, Canada and elsewhere, with the government and the beneficiary splitting the savings.

Brooks told readers this morning that "...the exciting thing about this moment is that everything is on the table," so all of these policies must be under consideration. Okay, Brooks probably didn't really mean this, but we can still have fun.

He should also correct his characterization of big versus small government. He seems to use government spending as a share of GDP as a measure of whether government is "big." In fact, a government that spends less as a share of GDP can easily have more control over the economy than a larger government. For example, a government can mandate private expenditures such as the purchase of health care rather than pay for health care through direct spending. Or, it can grant monopolies like patents and copyrights instead of paying subsidies. It can also give out tax expenditures, like the mortgage interest deduction, instead of paying out subsidies.

The government can also squeeze large segments of the workforce by having the Federal Reserve Board pursue policies  that push up interest rates and therefore unemployment. Such policies would also have the effect of squeezing state and local governments, forcing them to cut back spending and/or raise taxes. In short, there is little direct relationship between the government's share of GDP and its impact on the economy.

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