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).
The NYT warned readers that inflation in China "poses big threat to global trade." The article is not very coherent, but it seems that the main potential threat to global trade would be that inflation in China could raise the price of its exports, making them less competitive. From the standpoint of the United States, this would mean that we might buy fewer goods from China, replacing them either with good purchased elsewhere or domestically produced goods.
While replacing imported goods with domestically produced goods reduces global trade, it also increases net exports in the United States (net exports are equal to exports minus imports), thereby increasing GDP and creating jobs. It would have been worth pointing this fact out. Most readers would probably consider increased employment and growth to be more important than increased trade.
It would have been worth mentioning that China's problems with inflation could be largely prevented if it just let its currency rise instead of spending trillions of dollars to keep down the yuan against the dollar and other currencies. A higher valued yuan would reduce inflationary pressures through two channels. First it would make imports cheaper, thereby putting downward pressure on the price of a wide range of products.
The other effect that a higher valued dollar would have is that it would slow China's economy by reducing its exports. This is exactly what China's central bank has been attempting to accomplish by raising interest rates and reserve requirements.
The natural tool for combating inflation in an economy with floating exchange rates is a rise in the value of its currency. It would have been appropriate to discuss currency values in the context of this article.
This article also includes the assertion that China had a $4 trillion stimulus package. Most accounts put its stimulus package in the range of $600-$800 billion, less than one fifth this size.Add a comment
The New York Times told readers that the battle over Representative Paul Ryan's proposal, which would redistribute tens of trillions of dollars from poor and middle class people to the wealthy is a debate over:
"the size and role of government — of the balance between personal responsibility and private markets on the one hand and public responsibility and social welfare on the other."
This is not true. Paul Ryan, who is ostensibly the proponent of small government in this story, wants the government to be able to arrest people for conducting free market transactions with prescription drugs and medical devices. In Ryan's world, the government will give certain companies patent monopolies that allow them to charge prices that are many thousand percent above the cost of production.
Ryan also has shown zero interest in opening trade for doctors and other highly paid medical professionals, which would go far towards reducing costs in the United States. Ryan also wants to deny seniors in the United States the option to buy into more efficient health care systems in other countries.
According to the Congressional Budget Office's (CBO) projections, Ryan's plan would increase the cost of providing Medicare equivalent care to seniors by $30 trillion over Medicare's 75-year planning period, an amount that is 6 times the size of the projected Social Security shortfall. This is entirely the additional cost to the country in the form of higher payments to insurers and health care providers. This does not include the cost shift from the government to beneficiaries.
It is entirely possible that strong believers in small government would prefer having the government provide health care given the enormous savings projected by CBO. The savings are equivalent of $100,000 for every man woman and child in the country. Even libertarians generally advocate having the government take responsibility in areas where large potential efficiencies exist by dealing with an issue through a centralized body.
The one unifying theme to Representative Ryan's proposal is that it redistributes a vast amount of income upward. It does not always lead to smaller government rather than bigger government.
It is understandable that proponents of redistributing income upward would try to conceal their motives by feigning an interest in small government. The prospect of a small government probably has more appeal to most citizens than the prospect of further upward redistribution of income. The NYT should not be assisting the proponents of upward redistribution in concealing their agenda.
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U.S. economists seem to not understand that central banks can raise reserve requirements as a way to control inflation. This is apparently the reason they find it inconceivable that the Fed could buy and hold large amounts of debt without leading to inflation. If the Fed buys and holds the debt, then the interest on the debt would be paid to the Fed and then refunded to the Treasury. In this way it would impose no net cost to taxpayers.
If the Fed were to buy and hold say $3 trillion of the debt being incurred due to the downturn, then it would reduce the projected interest burden in future years by close to $150 billion a year (@ $1.5 trillion over a decade), a bit less than 1.0 percent of GDP. Given the national obsession with reducing the deficit, it would be reasonable to expect that this would be one of the policies on everyone's list.
For some reason it is never mentioned. This is presumably because our economists don't have a very good understanding of economic policy. (They didn't see the $8 trillion housing bubble that wrecked the economy.)
Therefore, this NYT article on how China is raising reserve requirements to slow inflation should be important news to those in economic policy-making positions. China's central bankers would probably even be willing to provide tutorials to Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke and others to explain how they are raising reserve requirements. Maybe then this policy could be included on the list of ways to reduce the deficit.
The Fed can buy bonds by printing money. It does this all the time and is actually buying large amounts of money now. The issue is whether it can continue to hold the bonds when the economy starts to recover or whether to prevent inflation, it will have to sell the bonds, thereby pulling money out of circulation.
The fact that China's central bank seems to understand, which U.S. policy analysts do not, is that raising reserve requirements is an alternative mechanism to pulling money out of the economy by selling bonds. If the reserve requirement is twice as high, it has roughly the same impact as cutting the money supply in half.
Those who think China's 5.5 percent inflation rate somehow shows that raising reserve requirements is an ineffective policy have to deal with the fact that its central bank has also been trying to reduce the money supply directly. Obviously neither policy has been pursued with sufficient vigor if the goal is to bring down inflation. Of course, the vast majority of people in China would probably prefer something like the 9.0 percent growth it is now enjoying, coupled with 5.5 percent inflation (fueled in large part by rapid wage growth) than a much slower growth rate and lower inflation.Add a comment
The NYT described the problem facing developing and rich countries as they try to reverse imbalances in trade:
"The problem is that developing nations, losing business from their best customers, hope to replace sales by increasing domestic consumption — selling to the same customers developed nations are trying to reach."
Actually this should in principle not be a problem at all. It would mean that people in developing countries have rapid increases in their standard of living. This is what is supposed to happen in the world economy as the developing world catches up to the rich countries.
Due to incredible mismanagement of the world financial system in the wake of the East Asian financial system (i.e. Alan Greenspan, Robert Rubin, Larry Summers saving the world [thanks James]) capital flows reversed course in a big way to go from poor countries to rich countries, especially the United States. The harsh conditions that the IMF imposed on the countries that fell into crisis led developing countries to accumulate massive amounts of currency reserves to avoid ever being in a situation where they would be dependent on the IMF for help.
This reverse flow led to the large imbalances seen today. It is understandable that the developing countries would not want to be in a situation where they are again borrowing heavily from abroad and therefore could need outside assistance at some point, but this is because they cannot count on an international financial system that protects their interests rather than just the interests of rich country banks.
This is all a question of simple accounting identities. These points should have been noted in the article.
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The NYT produced its entry in the understatement of the year contest telling readers that:
"A Congressional Budget Office review of the Ryan proposal predicted that retirees would pay more for their health care under it than they would under traditional Medicare."
Yes, this is true. But this is not a question of spending a few extra dollars a month for health care under the Ryan plan. The CBO projections show that under the Ryan plan, seniors would soon be spending more than half of their income to buy a Medicare equivalent plan. This is both due to the cost shifting from the government to individuals, but even more importantly CBO projects that Ryan's plan will lead to much higher health care expenses since it will be less effective in containing costs than the traditional Medicare program.
The CBO projections imply that Ryan's plan would add more than $30 trillion to the cost of providing Medicare equivalent policies over the program's 75-year planning period. The additional cost under the Ryan plan is an amount that is approximately equal to $100,000 for every person in the country or 6 times the size of the projected Social Security shortfall. This sum is the pure waste, it does not count the costs shifted from the government to seniors.Add a comment
The NYT contrasted the situation of the United Kingdom when it sells its debt to the United States:
"In that sense, comparing the British and American deficit-cutting plans becomes a bit more difficult. In Europe the bond market is the ultimate judge of deficit-reduction plans. In the United States, by contrast, the global demand for, and the benefits of the Federal Reserve Board’s easy-money “ ” policy, have kept 10-year bond yields well below those of Britain."
Let's see, the bond market determines interest rates for British debt and who exactly is determining the interest rate on U.S. debt, "global demand?" In both cases the bond market determines interest rates, although the exact set of factors will differ. It is interesting that the interest rates on U.K. and U.S. debt is almost exactly the same at the moment, which suggests that the markets view them as equally risky.Add a comment
That would be at the White House of course. Brooks is upset that:
"It is sad, although not strange, that in today’s Washington they have never had a serious private conversation. The president has never invited Ryan over even for lunch."
Brooks goes on to tell us five things that Ryan "believes" that Obama does not.
"First, he believes that aging populations, expensive new health care technologies and the extravagant political promises have made the current welfare state model unsustainable. Fundamental reform is necessary or the whole thing will collapse, here and in Europe.
Second, he believes that seniors and the middle class cannot be excused from the benefit cuts that will have to be imposed to rebalance these systems. Third, he believes that health care costs will not be brought under control until consumers take responsibility for their decisions and providers have market-based incentives to reduce prices.
Fourth, he believes that tax increases should not be part of these reforms because the economic costs outweigh the gains. Fifth, he does not believe government can nurture growth and reduce wage stagnation with targeted investments."
Let's look at some of these points more closely.
Number one is certainly a very peculiar belief given the fact that Japan and most countries in Europe in have much older populations than the U.S. and are still showing comparable rates of productivity growth. It would be interesting to know what sort of timeline he envisions for this scenario since it would take many decades for the age composition of the United States population to catch up to its older neighbors, all of whom continue to see growing economies.
The second belief only makes sense if the first one is true, which the evidence in the world does not support in any obvious way.
The third belief is contradicted by the experience of the dozens of countries who have comparable quality health care systems to the United States and pay less than half as much per person. Most, if not all, of them rely less on co-payments and other patient contributions than the United States. It is also worth noting that if the United States had the same per person health care costs as any other wealthy country, it would be looking at huge budget surpluses rather than deficits.
The fourth belief assumes that there are no areas where the government can possibly do things better than the market. Ryan and Brooks may not understand this point, so I will explain.
If the government can provide a service like health care insurance or retirement pensions more efficiently than the private sector, as a vast body of evidence suggests, then it means that we would either want higher taxes or a less efficient economy. It does appear that Ryan would prefer the latter. His Medicare proposal would add more than $30 trillion to the country's health care costs over Medicare's 75-year planning period. This amount, which reflects the pure increase in costs, not the shift from the government to beneficiaries, is almost 6 times the projected shortfall in the Social Security program.
The fifth point seems to imply that Ryan thinks that in 2011 we have somehow stumbled on the optimal level of government support for infrastructure, education, and research and development. I suppose God may have spoken to Representative Ryan, but the rest of us might view the optimal degree of government support as a matter to be determined by evidence at each point in time. This means the level could be very different in 1961, 2011, and 2041 depending on the possibilities available.
As Brooks has described Representative Ryan's positions, it seems that the Congressman holds many views that are contradicted by a vast body of evidence. Representative Ryan may be a very nice guy (I met him once in his district where we debated Social Security privatization. He seemed nice enough.), but do we really think it's important for President Obama to spend his time and the taxpayers' money having lunch with someone who is so out of touch with reality?Add a comment
I'm not kidding. At the top of the hour intro to Morning Edition they told listeners that the United States paid off its debt in 1835 and was debt free. It then added "too bad it only lasted for a year."
Most economists and analysts would evaluate the well-being of an economy and society by its per capita income, life expectancy, literacy rates and other such measures. NPR apparently uses the debt level of its government.Add a comment
Dana Milbank has apparently been assigned to the fashion beat at the Washington Post. His column on a rally at which the Progressive Caucus outlined their budget proposal, noted that caucus Chairman Raul Grijalva was, "wearing a tie that hung loose from his neck and ended five inches above his waistband." He went on to tell readers that he was unimpressed with the group's platform encouraging readers to speculate what would happen "if progressives ran the world."
Let's see, I suppose that we could have ten years of zero job growth, 25 million people unemployed, underemployed or out of the workforce altogether, declining real wages, millions of homeowners losing their homes, and tens of millions of homeowners underwater.
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In its article covering President Obama's speech on the budget yesterday the Washington Post told readers that:
"Obama acknowledged that the debt must be tackled faster than he has previously proposed."
It is only possible to "acknowledge" something which is true. The Post obviously believes it is true that "the debt must be tackled faster than he has previously proposed," but that does not make it so. This is the Post's opinion. A real newspaper would have reported that President Obama "said that the debt must be tackled faster than he has previously proposed." It would not have implied that its view of the world is the unquestioned reality, especially in a front page news story.
Remarkably, the coverage of the President's speech in both the Post and the NYT included no mention of the recession. The main reason that the deficit has soared in the last three years is because of the economic collapse that followed the crash of the housing bubble.
If the deficit is reduced substantially before the economy has gotten back to near full employment levels of output the main effect will be to slow growth and throw more people out of work. This fact was never mentioned in either piece even though President Obama proposes to have his deficit reduction targets to become binding in fiscal year 2014, a point at which the unemployment rate is still projected to be 7.2 percent. By contrast, the first stimulus package was put into law under President George W. Bush when the unemployment rate was just 4.7 percent.
Both articles made reference to the deficit reduction plan from the President's deficit commission. This is wrong. There was no plan from the commission. The co-chairs of the commission, Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, never put their plan up for a vote because they knew they lacked the majority needed for passage. The plan referred to in these articles is only the proposal of the two co-chairs. It is not the plan of the commission.
This should be a simple point for a major newspaper to get right.Add a comment
The NYT discussed the agenda of an upcoming meeting of G-20 finance ministers. It focused on efforts to pressure China to raise the value of its currency.
This discussion implied that the United States must depend on its ability to pressure China to change its currency policy. In fact, the United States does not have to rely on China changing its policy, it can force a change with unilateral action.
Specifically, just as China sets an official exchange rate of the yuan against the dollar that is below the market value of the yuan, the U.S. could set an exchange rate of the dollar against the yuan that is equal to the market value of the yuan.
This could mean, for example that the Treasury Department would announce a policy whereby it would buy yuan at the rate of 4 yuan for a dollar. This compares to the rate of 6.7 yuan to a dollar supported by China's government. While it would be illegal under China's laws for its nationals to take advantage of this exchange rate, it is likely that many businesses and wealthy individuals would find ways to evade the law. This would make the exchange rate set by the Treasury the effective exchange rate in the market.
It is a policy decision by the Obama administration not to take this route. This should have been pointed out by the article. Obviously the Obama administration has chosen to not really push aggressively to raise the value of China's currency.
China's government knows that the U.S. can take these steps and has chosen not to, therefore it may infer that the push to raise the value of its currency is not really a priority and is instead being done for political purposes. This NYT article supports the Obama administration's efforts to mislead the public on this topic.Add a comment
This is the only thing that readers can infer from his reference to President Obama's "refusal to propose a viable solution" to the debt problem. In fact, the Congressional Budget Office projects that the health care bill approved by Congress last year will trim tens of trillions of dollars off the long-term deficit. One can only conclude that Milbank wasn't aware of the bill in making this accusation.Add a comment
The WSJ had a nice piece showing that United States pays far more per person for health care than other wealthy countries, even though they all enjoy longer life expectancies than we do. After presenting the data, the article then tells readers:
"Among the things that do matter [for controlling costs]: Consumers need to have some skin in the game, through mechanisms such as co-payments."
Actually, in most, if not all, of the countries in the WSJ chart, patients typically have lower co-payments/cost-sharing than is the norm in the United States. This would not seem to be an essential part of controlling costs.Add a comment
I'm not kidding. The rest of the article actually is reasonable, but we get this from a person on the street interview:
"'We have an au pair from France, and she recently filled up our minivan and gave me a bill for $70,' said Melanie Janin, a mother of three from Bethesda. 'I was like, Oh, my God.' ”Add a comment
It sure looks that way since it presents the removal of a provision in the health care bill pushed by Senator Wyden as a victory for special interests. This removal was part of the final budget deal.
The provision would have allowed healthy workers to opt out of their company's insurance plans, leaving only older and sicker workers. This is an effective way to undermine employer provided benefits, which was presumably Senator Wyden's intention in pushing this proposal.
While the NYT gave extensive space to Senator Wyden complain about the removal of his provision as a victory for special interests, and gratuitously added the irrelevant information that the provision cost the government nothing, it did not interview anyone who opposed the provision for the article.Add a comment
The Washington Post had a piece on the reaction of financial markets to the debate over the budget. It included a comment from William Gross, the manager of the Pimco bond fund, complaining that if the United States did not reform entitlements then a default is inevitable. He then said that the default would take place through "inflation, currency devaluation and low-to-negative real interest rates.”
This sort of "default" probably does not sound too bad to the overwhelming majority of the public who do not hold large amounts of government debt. More importantly, the devaluation of the currency is essential if the United States is to stop being a huge net borrower from other countries.
Changes in the currency value are the main mechanism for adjusting trade balances in a system of floating exchange rates. If the dollar is over-valued by 20 percent then this has roughly the same effect as subsidizing our imports by 20 percent and placing a tariff of 20 percent on all our exports. The over-valued dollar has far more impact on our trade balance than all of our trade deals put together.
If the value of the dollar does not fall substantially, then the United States will continue to run large trade deficits. This logically implies that we will have negative domestic savings (i.e. it is an accounting identity, there is no way around it). Low private savings means either large budget deficits or very low private savings or some combination.
In other words, if Mr. Gross does not want the dollar to fall, then he either wants to see large budget deficits and/or very low private savings. Or alternatively, he doesn't understand basic economics.Add a comment
WAMU, my local NPR affiliate, had an especially appalling segment of "Power Breakfast" this morning. The segment highlighted a congressional hearing on the topic of financial literacy and then commented on the obvious irony.
Of course there is no obvious irony to anyone who has ever learned any economics. The government's large deficit (presumably the source of Power Breakfast's "irony") is supporting the economy right now. This spending is needed because the collapse of the housing bubble created a gap of more than $1.2 trillion in annual demand in the economy. Anyone who thinks that the government should balance its budget right now wants to throw millions more people out of work.
Our Power Breakfast crew might not understand enough economics to realize this fact, but that does not change the truth of the matter. It is of course ironic that someone who knows nothing about economics can have a job reporting on it, while millions of people who can do their jobs are going unemployed.Add a comment
The NYT has a front page story on the debate over Representative Ryan's plan to privatize Medicare. The article is entirely in the form of he said/she said, providing readers with absolutely no information that would allow them to assess the arguments over the plan. This is especially important since the article reports that changes like those in the Ryan plan are necessary to control costs.
The assessment from the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) is that the Ryan plan raises, not lowers, the cost of insurance. The CBO assessment implies that the Ryan plan would raise the cost to the country of buying Medicare equivalent policies by $20.5 trillion over the next 75 years (Medicare's planning period). This amount is almost four times as large as the projected Social Security shortfall. It comes to more than $60,000 for every man, woman, and child in the country. While this extra cost would not be borne by the government under the Ryan plan, it implies an enormous burden on future generations of retirees who may have to spend more than half of their income on health care.Add a comment
In a column complaining that too many people are dependent on the government, Robert Samuelson badly underestimates how many people are dependent on the government. He failed to take note of the fact that nearly every person in the country is dependent on the U.S. Postal Service to deliver its mail.
Of course it would be silly to claim that people who use the Postal Service for some of their mail are dependent on the government, but much of Samuelson's column falls victim to the same sort of silliness. For example, he wants to say that Social Security beneficiaries are dependent on the government. The problem with this story is that these beneficiaries paid taxes during their working lifetime that cover the cost of their benefits.
Social Security is a retirement program that is run through the government because the government provides the service far more efficiently than the private sector. The administrative costs of the retirement portion of the Social Security program are equal to about 0.5 percent of the benefits paid out each year. By contrast, the administrative costs of privatized programs, like the one in Chile that is often held up as a model, are in the neighborhood of 15 percent of the benefits paid out. Why is it a problem that we choose to run our retirement system in the most efficient possible way?
The same story applies to Medicare. The Ryan plan for privatizing Medicare, which Samuelson smiles upon as a step forward, would add more than $20 trillion (more than $60,000 per person) to the cost of buying Medicare equivalent policies over the program's 75-year planning horizon. This $20 trillion is not the savings to the government from paying less for retirees' Medicare. This is the pure waste associated with establishing a more inefficient system of health care.
While Samuelson makes his usual point about a broken and bloated government, the facts tell a different story. The country has a broken health care system: full stop. If the United States paid the same amount per person for health care as people in any other wealthy country we would be looking at huge budget surpluses, not deficits.Add a comment
Nearly every public opinion poll ever taken has shown that Medicare and Medicaid are enormously popular programs. People in all demographic and political groups support these programs by large majorities. Even the vast majority of Republicans support these programs.
This is why it is peculiar to see the Washington Post tell readers that:
"House Republicans upped the pressure on the president last week when they introduced a plan to slash government spending by $6 trillion more than the president’s plan over the next decade — largely by shrinking Medicare and Medicaid."
Given that the Republican plan to essentially end Medicare and Medicaid is likely to be enormously unpopular in addition to being bad policy (it would add more than $20 trillion to the cost to the country of buying Medicare equivalent policies for the next 75 years) it is hard to see why this would place additional pressure on President Obama to do anything. Would it increase pressure on Republicans to support tax increases on the wealthy if President Obama proposed large tax increases on the middle class?
The claim that President Obama is now under increased pressure to propose cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid coincides with the Washington Post's political position (they want to see President Obama propose large cuts to the budget), but there is zero evidence presented in the article to support this claim.Add a comment