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 Post should have reminded readers of this fact when reporting that: "Republican leaders criticized the package as a giveaway to labor and an undeserved bailout for profligate state governments." The package in question was a bill to provide additional funding for education and health care to states.
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The NYT discussed the Obama administration's plans to extend President Bush's tax cuts only for households earning less than $250,000 a year. The article also reported on Republican claims that not extending the tax breaks for the wealthy would hurt the economy. It concluded by telling readers that:

"he [Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner] dismissed as “myths” Republican arguments that tax cuts pay for themselves, by bringing in new revenues from economic growth."

It would have been helpful to note that this is not just Secretary Geithner or the Democrat's view. It is the near unanimous view of every economist who has examined the issue, including Republican economists. For example, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a prominent Republican economist who was the chief economic advisor to John McCain in his presidential campaign, examined this issue when he headed the Congressional Budget Office. He used a wide variety of models and found that in the most optimistic scenario additional growth could temporarily replace 30 percent of the lost revenue. (Even this increase would largely disappear in the long run.)

The treatment of the issue in the article may lead readers to believe that the question of whether tax cuts pay for themselves is one that is actively debated by economists. In fact, it has long been settled even if some Republican politicians choose to ignore the evidence.

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In a discussion of the impact of the BP oil spill, the NYT qualified the estimates of the size of the spill from the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) by telling readers that: "NOAA is the same agency that devised the early, now-discredited estimate that the well was leaking only 5,000 barrels a day, one reason some people distrust the new report."

This is useful information for readers, since the fact that the agency had previously been off by a factor of ten in its earlier estimate of the size of the spill might suggest something about its competence and/or its integrity. This is relevant to the credibility that should be assigned to new estimates from the agency.

In the same vein, it would be appropriate to report on the failure of individual economists or organizations, like Harvard's Joint Center on Housing, to notice the $8 trillion housing bubble, when discussing the current views on the housing market and the economy.

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USA Today has a nice piece showing stimulus spending by state. It shows that there is no link between spending and unemployment, in large part because much of the funding goes through preset formulas that do not respond to current unemployment rates. Add a comment

The NYT had an article about Germany's relatively healthy economy, which is now growing at a healthy pace largely as the result of a surge of exports. The article also notes the effectiveness of Germany's work sharing policy which provides tax credits to companies for shortening hours rather than laying off workers. This policy has been even more effective than the article implies.

While the article tells readers that Germany's unemployment rate is 7.6 percent, this is the German government measure. This measure counts people who want full-time work but only have part-time jobs as being unemployed. By contrast, the OECD's methodology, which is similar to the one used by the United States, shows a German unemployment rate of 7.0 percent, roughly the same as before the downturn.

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In an article reporting on a study that concluded that the health care reform bill will lead to substantial savings for Medicare, the Washington Post told readers:

"critics say trust fund solvency will only improve on paper, since actual savings from the Medicare cuts would have been spent to provide coverage for more than 30 million uninsured Americans."

This is a real trip to bizzaro world. The Medicare trust fund is an accounting entity. Improvements can by definition only occur on paper, or more accurately in computer entries. It is not clear what the Post thinks it means with this statement. 

 

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The NYT headline told readers that, "Bernanke Says Rising Wages Will Lift Spending." Real wages have been virtually unchanged over the last year. Let's hope that the NYT got the story wrong and that Bernanke knows this. Add a comment

Andrew Ross Sorkin argued that assessing fines against companies for misleading shareholders is unfair because it punishes the shareholders a second time. Actually, if shareholders know that their companies will be punished, hurting its stock price, if its top executives lie about the company's performance, then they have more incentive to ensure that they do not get lying executives. This is a desirable outcome since their lying will distort stock prices, and in principle, lead to misplaced investment.

Of course if shareholders really have very little control over companies then this increased incentive will have little effect. However, that would be a very serious indictment of the system of corporate governance.  

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The NYT had an article on the hostility being directed toward the head of Hungary's central bank. The article implies that such hostility is misdirected, beginning the piece with the comment: "it’s not easy being a central banker in Europe — especially during the biggest economic crisis in a generation"

This comment is sort of like saying that it's not easy to be head of BP, especially in the middle of the largest oil spill in the history of the world. The reason that we are having the economic crisis is because of the failure of Europe's central bankers to notice the huge housing bubbles that were distorting economies throughout Europe and much of the world. If Europe's central bankers had been doing their job competently they would have acted to rein in these bubbles before they grew large enough to endanger the economy. Instead, they were obsessed with reaching their 2.0 percent inflation target.

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The media have played a huge role in fundamentally misrepresenting trade policy and thereby larger economic policy. As a result, the public is quite confused on key economic issues.

This is brought home in an article today about a study showing that foreign-born foreign-trained doctors perform slightly better than doctors who were born and trained in the United States. The article notes in passing that an extensive set of tests required for licensing make it difficult for foreign doctors to practice in the United States. The number of foreign medical residents who can enter the United States is also tightly constrained.

This suggests that the United States could get many more highly qualified foreign doctors if it eliminated these barriers so that they only ensured the quality of training. (It is easy to design mechanisms to ensure that the physicians' home countries benefit from having their doctors' practice in the United States, so this need not be a concern.) 

Remarkably, this point is never raised explicitly as an issue of trade and economics in this or other articles. Trade policy is usually only discussed in the context of trade agreements such as NAFTA (which are wrongly labeled "free-trade" agreements) even though the barriers that prevent foreign professionals like doctors from practicing in the United States cost our economy tens or hundreds of times as much as the money at stake in these agreements.

The failure to seriously discuss trade in the media leads the public to have the misleading view that less-educated workers, like those in manufacturing, can't compete in the modern world economy, while the most highly-educated workers have the skills and ability to prosper. In reality, the most highly educated workers prosper because they have the political power to limit the number of Chinese, Indian and other foreigners who are allowed to compete with them, unlike manufacturing workers.

If there was genuine free-trade in highly paid professional services then doctors, lawyers, and economists would see the same downward pressure on their wages as autoworkers and textile workers. The gains to the economy from lower prices for health care and other services that would result from free trade in highly-paid professional services would be enormous, but it is as hard for most economists to notice these gains as it is for them to see an $8 trillion housing bubble.

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Morning Edition told listeners that the shadow inventory of foreclosed homes will keep the housing market depressed for several years to come. Actually house prices are not depressed. House prices are still 15-20 percent above their trend levels. The housing market will not be back to normal until house prices fall back to a more sustainable level.

This is really getting annoying. NPR completely missed the housing bubble. During its run-up they relied almost exclusively on economists who did not have a clue, many of whom were on the industry payroll. Given the enormous damage that has been done to the country by the collapse of this bubble, can't NPR make a point even now of finding someone who knows something about the housing market? Isn't that what their reporters are paid for?

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That's right folks, you get to say whatever you want in the media now to further the cause of cutting Social Security. Today on This Week, Cokie Roberts told viewers that:

"You could close this capital or turn it into condos and you could close down every domestic program that we have and you would still have a deficit because of Social Security and Medicare and interest on the national debt."

Well that's not quite right, Social Security is running an annual surplus. The money that program takes in each year in taxes and interest on its bonds exceeds what is being paid out in benefits. It's not clear what Ms. Roberts had in mind when blaming Social Security for the deficit, but it has nothing to do with reality.


Thanks to Gene Devaux who watched so I wouldn't have to.

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The NYT ran a piece today on a growing tendency for producers of unauthorized copies of merchandise to copy less high end items. The piece uses the term "knockoff" and "counterfeit" interchangeably. In fact, there is a very important and fundamental difference.

A counterfeit item is intended to fool the buyer. Its sales price depends on the buyer believing that they are getting something they are not. By contrast, buyers of unauthorized copies that are not counterfeit understand that they are not purchasing the brand item.

This distinction is important because the buyer is not being ripped off when they buy a knockoff that is not a counterfeit. They are getting what they paid for. This means, among other things, that the buyer cannot be expected to cooperate in efforts to crack down on such sales. The buyer is benefiting like the seller. In the case of an actual counterfeit item, the buyer is being ripped off and can be expected to cooperate with efforts to clamp down on counterfeiters.

This distinction also would be useful in understanding the meaning of the unsourced assertion that: "the counterfeiting industry ... costs American businesses an estimated $200 billion a year." If this is the amount of lost business associated with actual counterfeits, then this would largely be a loss to the economy. People paid $200 billion for items that they did not actually receive.

However, if this represents someone's estimate (a source would be helpful) of the lost sales to business associated with unauthorized copies, then this figure could be consistent with a net gain to the economy. Consumers were able to buy products at lower prices -- often much lower prices -- than would have been possible without the copies. In this case the gains would likely dwarf the benefits from NAFTA or other trade agreements.

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The NYT had a piece comparing efforts to detect financial crises to efforts to detect earthquakes. This implies that some fundamental new methodology is needed.

In fact, the economic crisis was entirely predictable and predicted by people who understand economics. The more obvious problem is the incentive structure within the economics profession. It provides economists with no incentive to break with conventional wisdom even when it is obviously wrong and provides no sanction against those whose failure to break with conventional wisdom led to disastrous consequences for the economy and the country.

Unless this incentive structure is changed, no improvements in methodology will make any difference at all.

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The WSJ has an article today about Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd's efforts to promote FDIC Chair Sheila Bair as the head of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Near the end, it notes the support for Harvard Professor Elizabeth Warren, the leading contender, but then tells readers that: "others worry that choosing someone seen as too activist—a charge leveled at Ms. Warren—could turn public sentiment against from the agency."

This naturally leads readers to wonder about the identity of these mysterious "others." Do they have names? Do they have specific positions relevant to this discussion (e.g. CEOs at Bank of America and Citigroup) or are they just a random cross-section of America?

And what does it mean that activism will "turn public sentiment from the agency?" It is believable that the financial industry will be upset about the agency if they block many of their initiatives, but do we really think this would spark a mass uprising?

If only we knew who these mysterious others are then we could ask them such questions. But as it stands --- it's all so mysterious.

 

Hat tip to Gary Therkildson.

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The Washington Post simply cannot let go on its deficit obsession. The day after a new GDP report indicates that the unemployment rate will remain near double-digit levels long into the future, the Post's lead editorial warns people that something really bad could happen ten years out if we don't deal with the deficit. As is their way, the Post never discusses the situation honestly. It begins by telling readers that:

"increasingly, 'the public' [in "publicly held debt] means foreign governments and investors."

Why does it matter that foreigners hold government debt? Why would anyone care? There is an issue about foreign ownership of U.S. assets, which means that future income on these assets will flow abroad rather than to people in the United States, but this is as much or more of an issue of foreigners holding private assets like U.S. stocks and bonds. Furthermore, foreigner's acquisition of U.S. assets is tied to the trade deficit and the value of the dollar. If the Post is upset about foreigners holding too many U.S. assets than it should be editorializing for a reduction in the value of the dollar. Hasn't anyone on its editorial board taken econ 101?

The Post fails to mention the two factors that are driving its deficit/debt horror story. First is the debt that is being accumulated simply due to the downturn. I guess since they don't seem to have access to government data at the Post's editorial board they don't know about the high level of unemployment and the severe recession driving up deficits. The prospect of these deficits creating a high interest burden for future generations can be largely eliminated if the Federal Reserve Board just bought and held the bonds used to finance this deficit.

If that seems implausible, there is a good example of exactly this being done on a small island nation called "Japan." Over the last 15 years, Japan's central bank has bought up an amount of government debt that is almost equal to Japan's GDP. As a result, Japan's interest burden is less than 2.0 percent of GDP (@ $290 billion a year in the U.S.) even though its ratio of debt to GDP is close to 220 percent. In spite of this massive intervention by the central bank, Japan continues to be plagued by deflation, not inflation.

The other factor driving the deficit projections is the projected explosion of U.S. health care costs. If the U.S. faced the same per person health care costs as people in other wealthy countries we would be looking at surpluses, not deficits. However, the Post -- as a bastion of deficit chicken hawkism -- doesn't like to talk about health care reforms that would threaten the interests of the pharmaceutical industry, insurance industry and other powerful groups. They just want to cut programs like Social Security and Medicare that benefit ordinary workers.
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The NYT reported on new projections from the Population Reference Bureau showing continuing increases in population in the developing world and slow or negative growth in wealthy countries. Low birth rates in the wealthy countries are projected to lead to a rise in the ratio of retirees to workers. The NYT described this prospect as "sobering."

There is no obvious reason that people in wealthy countries should be concerned about the prospect of a rising ratio of retirees to workers. This ratio has been increasing for a century. The projected increase in the elderly dependency ratio is largely offset by a decline in the number of dependent children. At the worst, the rise in the dependency ratio will offset some of the gains in wage growth associated with rising productivity, as has been the case in prior decades. So, it is not clear what the NYT wants readers to find "sobering" about this news.

The article also implied that a large jump in the share of GDP going to Social Security and Medicare is due to the aging of the population. Much of the cause of the projected increase in spending on these programs is the projected increase in per person health care costs. If per person health care costs in the United States fell to the levels in Germany or Canada, the share of GDP devoted to these programs in 2050 would be little different from what it is at present.

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Economics seems to be the science of forgetting. All the great truths that were pounded into our heads when we grad students, or even undergrads, seem to be missing from the thinking of those making pronouncements on the economy and economic policy.

For example, the housing wealth effect, a well-established economic doctrine firmly rooted in the center of the discipline, seems to have disappeared from most discussion of consumer spending patterns. The basic point -- that a dollar of additional housing wealth leads to 5-7 cents in additional consumption each year -- explains both the consumption boom at the peak of the bubble and the falloff in consumption in the wake of its collapse. Instead of noting the huge amount of lost housing wealth and recognizing the drop in the consumption and rise in the saving rate are permanent, economists and economics reporters are looking at consumer attitudes and hoping that greater optimism will lead to a new spending boom.

In the same vein, it is remarkable how little attention a very classic inventory cycle has received in explaining the changes in GDP over the last five quarters. The basic story is that firms were shedding inventory as fast as they could in the 4th quarter of 2008, with the rate of decline increasing into the first quarter of 2008. Although inventories continued to decline in the second quarter, they declined at a slower rate, which meant that inventories added to growth. Eventually firms stopped cutting inventories and began rebuilding. In the most recent quarter they were adding inventories at a very rapid pace, $85.9 billion a year.

With the latest figure, the inventory cycle has come to an end. I don't have a crystal ball telling me the rate of inventory accumulation in the next few quarters, but it is unlikely that it will be much higher than the current rate. This means that inventories will provide little boost to growth in future quarters, making GDP growth look like final demand growth and that is not very good.

While GDP growth has been erratic over the last four quarters, final demand growth has been much less so. It has been consistently weak, averaging just 1.2 percent. In the most recent quarter it was 1.3 percent. So unless we have some good reason for final demand growth increasing (state and local cutbacks, the end of the housing tax credit, and the phasing down of the stimulus all push the other way), we can expect very slow GDP growth for the next several quarters and rising unemployment.

gdp-final_demand_28123_image001

 

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As we all know, there are two types of people in the world: those who say that there are two types of people in the world, and those who don’t. David Brooks tells us today that he is in the former category.

 

He etches out two fundamental positions in economic policy debates. On the one hand are the Obama liberals who believe in an expanded role for government in directing the economy. Brooks’ Obama liberals believe that the government has to rein in business and protect the citizenry.

 

His other pole is the Paul Ryan conservative. Paul Ryan conservatives believe in unleashing the power of individual entrepreneurs. They want to get the government out of the way by privatizing Social Security, Medicare, and other programs currently provided by the government.

 

The David Brooks categorization gives us a great fairy tale about the battle of big government liberals versus market-oriented conservatives. But, suppose we step back to the real world for a moment. Let’s imagine that we want to structure the government and market to provide services in the most efficient way and don’t particularly care about whether that means big or small government, which are not well-defined concepts in any case. Outside of David Brooksland, there are many people who hold this view.

 

When we consider a program like Social Security, we would ask how to carry through its purpose – ensuring workers a core retirement income— at the least possible cost. Any serious analysis would almost certainly show that some public Social Security type program fits the bill.

 

The administrative costs of the Social Security program are approximately 0.6 percent of what is paid out in benefits each year. By contrast, the administrative costs of privatized systems like the ones in Chile and the U.K. are on the order of 15-20 percent of the benefits paid out annually.

 

Furthermore, these privatized systems do not allow individuals to do what they want with their money. They threaten them with jail if they don’t turn over a fraction of their earnings to the financial industry each year. So the commitment to a privatized Social Security system seems more like a commitment to force people to give money to Merrill Lynch than a commitment to individual freedom.

 

The same applies to privatizing Medicare. We can hand people vouchers and tell them to buy the health care they want. However, this would require a massive array of laws and bureaucracy to ensure that the providers accepting these vouchers were not gaming the system and ripping off beneficiaries and the government. This approach can increase profits for insurers and providers but there is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that it would make it possible to provide the elderly with health care at a lower cost.

 

We can take steps to lower costs and reduce the role of government that will send David Brooks’ small government types fleeing in horror. Suppose that we got rid of government patent monopolies and allowed all prescription drugs to be sold at generic prices in a competitive market. Free market types should love this one. Instead of drugs selling for hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars per prescription, they could be bought at chain drug stores for five or ten bucks.

 

The research could be supported by government research grants awarded through competitive contracts. The government already spends $30 billion a year on biomedical research through the National Institutes of Health. If this sum was doubled, then it would probably be sufficient to replace the industry’s funding; especially if a requirement of getting grants was that all research findings would be posted on the Internet where they would be freely available to other researchers.

 

We could also try a variation of the Paul Ryan approach to Medicare vouchers. Instead of creating an incredibly burdensome task of policing a privatized system in the United States, we can allow beneficiaries the option to buy into the much more efficient systems in Europe, Canada and elsewhere. Free market types should love this win-win situation where giving beneficiaries a choice will allow taxpayers to save money on Medicare and put large sums of money (more than $10,000 a year in many cases) into the pockets of our retired workers. But, this voucher system means less money for the insurers, the drug companies and other providers, so Paul Ryan would not support it.

 

There are many other cases where smaller government can be used to accomplish the progressive goals of providing basic needs and limiting inequality[CSN]. But Paul Ryan and his friends are not likely to be interested in these policies. This might suggest that, in spite of what David Brooks tells us, Mr. Ryan’s concern is not reducing the size of government, but rather redistributing income upward.

 

Of course, upward redistribution of income is not a very good political platform since there are many more people who end up losers in this story than winners. And, in a democracy, politicians are unlikely to win elections if they promise to take money out of most voters’ pockets.

 

So, Mr. Ryan and David Brooks come up with stories about how conservatives want to limit government and unleash individual entrepreneurs. The story might have little basis in reality, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t get it in the NYT and persuade lots of people to take it seriously.   

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This surprising result -- that the failure to eat chicken leads to starvation -- would be shown true using the same methodology of a new study on the impact of the TARP. The study, by Princeton University Professor Alan Blinder and Mark Zandi, the chief economist at Moody's Analytics, examines the impact of the TARP and the stimulus on economic growth and unemployment. It finds that GDP would be 11.5 percent lower in 2010 had it not been for these two policies, with about three quarters of the benefits attributable to the TARP and various Fed/Treasury/FDIC policies that provides aid to the financial sector.

While the analysis of the stimulus is pretty standard and very much in keeping with other estimates, this is not the case with the analysis of the financial sector policies. The problem with the study is the implicit counterfactual. It effectively assumes that if we did not do the TARP and related policies, that we would have done nothing even as the financial sector melted down.

This is comparable to doing an analysis of the benefits of eating chicken where the counterfactual is that people eat nothing. Needless to say, we would find very large benefits to eating chicken in such a study.

Suppose as an alternative counterfactual, we let the market do its work. Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, Morgan Stanley would be out of business, with their highly paid CEOs walking the unemployment lines. Rather than doing nothing, we could have the Fed flooding the system with liquidity (much as it did), without having to worry about money being siphoned off by bonuses for the honchos who led these banks to ruin.

It would be difficult to fully flesh out the counterfactual in this scenario, but it is certainly more plausible than the one described by Blinder and Zandi. If we need a study to make us feel good about the fact that the Wall Street is rich while the rest of the country is poor, it fits the bill, but it is not serious analysis and the media should not treat it as such.

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The Post noted the weak economic data in recent weeks and then told readers:

"fits and starts are common during early stages of economic expansion."

This is not true for recoveries from steep downturns like the one the U.S. has just experienced. In the first four quarters of recovery following the 1974-75 recession the economy grew 3.1 percent, 6.9 percent, 5.3 percent and 9.4 percent. In the first five quarters following the 1981-82 recession the economy grew by 5.3 percent, 9.3 percent, 8.1 percent, 8.5 percent, and 8.0 percent.

We should be seeing robust economic growth right now based on past patterns. It is a very bad sign that we are not.

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