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).

Follow on Twitter Like on Facebook Subscribe by E-mail RSS Feed

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.

Add a comment

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.

Add a comment

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.

Add a comment
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.]

Add a comment

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.

Add a comment

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.

Add a comment

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.

Add a comment

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.

Add a comment

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.

Add a comment

The Post ran a major article telling readers that the value of the benefits they receive under Medicare will vastly exceed the taxes they paid into the program based on a new analysis from the Urban Institute. It then tells readers that many workers think that they paid for their Medicare benefits and:

"...that mistaken impression complicates the job for policymakers trying to build political support in the coming months for dealing with deficits that could drag the economy back down."

The idea that workers have paid for their benefits actually would be close to accurate if the U.S. health care system was anywhere near as efficient as the health care systems in other wealthy countries. The per person cost of care in these countries, all of which enjoy longer life expectancies than the United States, are less than half as much as in the United States.

It is great to see that the Post is worried that "mistaken impressions" by the public might complicate the work of policymakers. There are a whole set of mistaken impressions that it could try to combat rather than foster, starting with the idea that the budget deficit is somehow at the center of the country's economic problems. 

Add a comment

The economy is doing well compared with the Great Depression, but not by any other measure. This is why Robert Samuelson and other spokespeople for the rich and powerful are so anxious to raise the prospect of the Great Depression. It implies that we should somehow be thankful for 9.8 percent unemployment, as he said in his column today. As informed observers know, this is a joke.

In a worst case scenario where the banking system did literally collapse, the Fed could have brought it back to life through its unlimited ability to print money. The first Great Depression was not the result of bad decisions at its onset. Rather it was the result of a decade of inadequate policy response. If the government had spent large amounts of money to boost the economy, as it finally did to fight World War II, the depression would have ended much sooner.

Samuelson uses the second half of his column to repeat Fox News talking points about how firms are not hiring because of concerns over the cost of the health care reform bill. If the Post required its columnists to have some evidence for its assertions Samuelson would have been forced to show that the firms most affected by the coverage requirement in the bill are more reluctant to hire than other firms. This would presumably mean that firms with just under or just over 50 employees are hiring fewer workers than other firms. This would be the case because almost all larger firms already provide health insurance for their workers and smaller firms will not be affected by the coverage requirements in the bill. Of course the data does not show any weaker hiring performance in firms of near 50 than in firms of larger or smaller size.

Add a comment

In reporting on a WikiLeaks cables showing U.S. State Department officials acting as sales agents for Boeing, the New York Times decided to tell readers that the real motivation was high-paying jobs for American workers. This leak might be seen as rather embarrassing since most small businesses cannot count on top State Department officials spending their time pushing their product. These businesses have to pay for their own marketing.

However, the NYT threw in the comment:

"It is not surprising that the United States helps American companies doing business abroad, given that each sale is worth thousands of jobs."

Of course most immediately each sale means tens of millions of additional profit for Boeing. The NYT presents no basis whatsoever for its assertion that the concern for American jobs was a larger motivational factor for the State Department sales pitches than the concern for Boeing's profits.

It is also worth noting that in the standard trade models that economists use to argue the merits of lower trade barriers, each sale is not worth "thousands of jobs." The standard trade models assume a fully employed economy. In these models, at best an additional sale could mean that a small number of workers are employed at modestly more productive jobs, leading to small gains in wages and efficiency. If administration officials actually believed that each sale of a Boeing jet abroad means thousands of jobs then they do not accept the standard economic arguments that are used to push for trade agreements. 

Add a comment
A chart accompanying an NYT piece on the difficulty of saving shows the sharp decline in the national savings rate in the 90s and the 00s. The piece suggests that this is due to the increased difficulty that people have in saving. The more obvious explanation is that the wealth created by the stock bubble in the 90s and the housing bubble in the last decade led people to consume more and save less. The effect of wealth in increasing consumption is one of the most widely accepted behavioral effects in economics. Add a comment

It seems not from this article on how drug companies are now giving out coupons to cover part of the patients' co-payment for expensive brand drugs. The logic is simple: the patent monopoly allows the company to sell the drug for a price that could be several hundred times its cost of production. This gives it an enormous incentive to try to get patients to use their drug and for doctors to prescribe it. This means that it can be very profitable to give out coupons that get around the co-payment which insurers charge as a disincentive to use expensive drugs.

This is the sort of gaming that economic theory predicts would result from government intervention in the market, like a patent monopoly. If this sort of behavior occurred in response to a government intervention intended to help low and moderate income people, like for example rent controls, the coverage would likely include comments from economists ridiculing such ill-advised interventions in the market. However, this piece includes no discussion whatsoever of the fact that the resources wasted in this gaming, and the possible negative health outcomes from people using less than optimal drugs, are entirely the result of patent monopolies. None of this would be occurring if drug research was financed through other mechanisms and drugs sold at their free market price, which would typically be less than $10 per prescription.

Add a comment

The NYT can't quite decide whether the southern European countries (Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece) suffer from too many or too few workers, but it is anxious to tell readers that the situation is disastrous. The article begins by telling the story of a young Italian lawyer who can't find a job commenting that:

"the most highly educated generation in the history of the Mediterranean hits one of its worst job markets."

This is the story of too many workers and too few jobs. It sounds and is really bad.

But then the NYT flipped 180 degrees and decided that the real problem is the opposite, too few workers:

"experts warn of a looming demographic disaster in Southern Europe, which has among the lowest birth rates in the Western world. With pensioners living longer and young people entering the work force later — and paying less in taxes because their salaries are so low — it is only a matter of time before state coffers run dry."

Okay, is the problem too many workers with too few jobs or too few workers, with too much demand? Either one of these stories is possible, but both are not, or at least not at the same time.

To help clarify matters, the NYT gives us this quote from Boston University Economist Lawrence Kotlikoff:

"If these [low] fertility rates continue through time, you won’t have Italians, Spanish, Greeks, Portuguese or Russians, ... I imagine the Chinese will just move into Southern Europe.”

According to Professor Kotlikoff, there should be a huge shortage of young workers, which would drive up wages, and plunging demand for homes, which will make housing cheap. This sounds like a great story for young people in southern Europe, as long as they are not prejudiced against the Chinese.

But then we get back to the labor surplus story:

"'This is the best-educated generation in Spanish history, and they are entering a job market in which they are underutilized,' said Ignacio Fernández Toxo, the leader of the Comisiones Obreras, one of Spain’s two largest labor unions. 'It is a tragedy for the country.'”

Then we shift back to a simultaneous surplus and shortage of labor with another quote from Professor Kotlikoff:

"For Dr. Kotlikoff, the solution is simple: 'We have to change the labor laws. Not gradually, but quickly.'” But the piece then complains that changes are coming slowly:

"New austerity measures in Spain, where the unemployment rate is 20 percent, the highest in the European Union, are further narrowing the employment window. Spain has pledged to raise its retirement age to 67 from 65, but incrementally over the next 20 years.

"'Now people are being sent into early retirement at age 55,' said Sara Sanfulgencio, 28, who has a master’s degree in marketing but is unemployed and living in Madrid with her mother, who owns a children’s shoe store."

Okay, so if the retirement age were instantly raised to 67, as this article is advocating, how is this supposed to create more jobs for young people like Ms. Sanfulgencio? In a context of an economy operating well below full employment it would seem her job prospects are improved by reducing the competition from older workers, which means keeping the retirement age low.

In short, the NYT clearly does not like the economic policies in southern Europe and it is anxious to tell readers that they are disastrous, it is just not sure why.

One important item missing from this picture is the European Central Bank (ECB). It could be buying up large amounts of public debt from Spain and other European countries both to boost demand and to alleviate their debt burden. (The interest on debt held by the ECB could be refunded back to European governments, thereby imposing no burden on their taxpayers.) This could help to increase employment. Also, if it leads to a modest increase in the inflation rate from its current new zero level, it would alleviate debt burdens and help to facilitate the necessary process of real wage adjustments between countries. 

It is also worth noting that the current downturn is the result of the incompetence of the ECB which opted to ignore the growth of dangerous housing bubbles in Spain, Ireland and elsewhere. Remarkably, no one at the ECB lost their job or probably even missed a promotion as a result of this disastrous policy failure.

Add a comment

The NYT apparently has not learned about the financial crisis that followed in the wake of the collapse of the housing bubble. That is the only possible conclusion that readers can take away from an article about anger at public sector workers that failed to note that the plunge in the stock market in 2008-2009 was the major cause of the shortfalls in public sector pensions. 

Certainly if the reporters and/or editors at the NYT had known about the financial crisis and the stock market plunge it would have been featured prominently in this piece.

Add a comment

For some reason the NYT wants to scare its readers about Japan's economic situation, warning that the country faces a "demographic squeeze" because its population is declining. Simple arithmetic shows that this is nonsense.

The article tells readers that the share of the population over 65 is projected to rise from 25 percent in 2010 to 40 percent in 2050. Given that roughly 20 percent of the population is under age 20, this implies that the current ratio of people ages 20-65 to people over age 65 is approximately 2.2 to 1. Assuming the under 20 portion falls to 15 percent of the population by 2050, in that year the ratio will be 1.4 to 1.

If productivity growth averages just 1.5 percent annually (it has been averaging more than 2.0 percent in the U.S. over the last 15 years), then output per worker will be more than 80 percent higher in 2050 than it is today. If the average retiree currently consumes 70 percent as much as a prime age worker, then this increase in productivity would allow retirees in 2050 to enjoy a 50 percent rise in living standards above current levels, while still leaving workers almost 30 percent better off.

The situation will be even better insofar as more workers are pulled into the labor force. As this article notes, because of weak demand, many younger workers cannot find jobs. If Japan were facing a "demographic squeeze" then young workers will have no problem finding jobs since there will be a shortage of workers. Also, because of the longevity and relative good health of many older Japanese, it is likely that many people will opt to continue working past age 65.

The decline in population is in fact a benefit in many respects for Japan. It is a very crowded island with expensive land prices. A falling population will reduce the pressure on land making housing more affordable. It will also reduce congestion in cities. In addition, the decline in population will make it easier for Japan to meet commitments for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, if countries are ever held responsible for the contributions to global warming.

Add a comment

USA Today ran a piece warning of the projected rise in Medicare costs associated with the baby boom cohorts turning 65, the age of eligibility. While the article told readers that the projected increase in Medicare costs will eventually exceed the program's revenues, it would have been worth mentioning that Medicare would be easily affordable if the U.S. did not pay more than twice as much per person for health care as other countries.

There are simple ways in which the United States could benefit from the lower cost of health care in other countries but the protectionists in Congress refuse to consider such options. Unfortunately this article relied exclusively on protectionists as sources.

Add a comment

It would be such a great thing if the people who made and wrote about economic policy learned third grade arithmetic. Then they would be able to recognize little things like $8 trillion housing bubbles before they reach such enormous sizes where their collapse can wreck the economy.

The latest person flaunting his ignorance in this area is the usually sensible Ryan Avent who tells us that, "I find the arguments for another big drop in national prices to be rather implausible."

Avent gets many things wrong in making his case. Among the biggest is his assertion that price to rent ratios are about normal. In fact rents are roughly at the same level they were at in the mid-90s in real terms, while real house prices are still close to 30 percent above their mid-90s level. This basic measure suggests that prices still have considerable room to fall.

Avent's effort to explain the price decline reported in recent months' data on short-term economic fluctuations makes no sense. House prices have never responded in any significant way to short-term economic conditions. House prices have never fallen in the past because of 3-4 months of weak job growth or soared because of a similar run of strong job reports. In other words there is zero reason to believe that house prices would be moved in any noticeable way by 1-2 good or bad quarters.

If you look at the Case-Shiller data there is a very simple story. The first time buyers credit supported the market first and foremost by pushing up prices in the bottom tier. This support disappeared when the credit disappeared. Prices in the bottom tier have been plummeting in the few months of post-credit data that we have available. In the four available months since June, prices in the bottom tier fell by 6.4 percent in Seattle, 8.0 percent in Portland, 12.5 percent in Minneapolis, and 23.0 percent in Atlanta.

The logic is that the credit most immediately affects the bottom tier. (This is where first time buyers mostly buy.) It will soon feed over into the higher end homes, since the people buying these homes are selling homes in the bottom tier.

In terms of the fundamentals, the basic story is that we continue to have a record supply of vacant units. It was an astounding failure of the economics profession that almost no one in a prominent position was able to see an enormous and dangerous development like the housing bubble. It shows the incredible lack of controls within the profession that no one seems to have paid any career consequence for this failure.

As economic theory would predict,  when there are no negative consequences for poor performance, we see more of it. That appears to be the case as the people who write and talk about the economy still don't seem to have a clue about the housing bubble and its impact on the economy.

Add a comment

The NYT told readers that the November 2010 index for pending home sales was:

"5 percent lower than November 2009 when buyers were scrambling to close purchases to qualify for the first federal tax credit."

Actually, the credit that expired in November of 2009 was based on completed sales. It typically takes 6-8 weeks from when a home is put under contract until the sale is completed. As a result, no one who signed a contract in November of 2009 could have reasonably expected to complete the sale in time to qualify for the tax credit. The actual surge in contracts was in September and October. Pending homes sales in November of 2009 were 18 percent below the October level.

Add a comment