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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New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman apparently believes that higher unemployment will make the United States better able to compete with highly educated workers in China and India. This is the logical implication of his argument that the United States should stop accumulating debt.

If the United States reduced its deficit in the current downturn, it would reduce demand in the economy, thereby leading firms and/or governments to lay off more workers. Friedman does not indicate why he believes that higher unemployment will make U.S. workers more competitive internationally.

He seems to think that the government's debt poses a problem. Of course the Federal Reserve Board can simply buy and hold debt incurred in a downturn like the present. In this case the debt creates no interest burden since the interest would be paid to the Fed which then refunds it to the Treasury at the end of the year.

While this practice could lead to inflation in more normal times, this is not an issue at present, when a somewhat higher inflation rate would be desirable in any case. Japan's central bank holds an amount of debt that is close to the size of its GDP ($15 trillion in the case of the United States) and it is still experiencing deflation. The Fed could raise reserve requirements at some future point if inflation threatens to be a problem.

There is no good economic argument for wanting to see a lower deficit at present. Apparently Friedman has some other rationale for wanting a lower deficit.

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In a news story the Post told readers:

"The fiscal crisis sweeping Europe, in which Ireland and Greece have already needed bailouts and Portugal, Spain, and Italy could come next, offers the United States a brutal lesson. By the time the bond market turns on a country - when investors demand higher interest rates or refuse to roll over debt at any price - policymakers have no good options left.

"When that day arrives, a government has little choice but to slash budgets or raise taxes if it wants to satisfy financial markets. But those actions make an already miserable economic situation worse and tend to be vastly unpopular, costing politicians their jobs. Just ask the Irish, who are in such a cycle now."

Actually this is not a story that the United States should ever face -- contrary to the Post's sanctimonious lesson for its readers. Unlike all the countries on its list, the United States has its own currency. This means that, in a worse case scenario, Congress could have the Fed buy government debt. This could create a problem of inflation, but it would not lead to a crisis of type that the article is describing.

The Post's misrepresentation here would be comparable to telling someone living in a steel high-rise that the fire in the straw house across the street shows what happens when you aren't careful with matches. While fire can also harm a steel high-rise, the nature of the risk is qualitatively different than the risk faced by someone living in a straw house. It is wrong to imply that the two risks are the same, as the Post asserts in this piece.

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The NYT reported that the cost of the compromise on extending the Bush tax cuts will be approximately $800 billion over two years. It notes that this amount is similar to the cost of President Obama's stimulus package.

It is important to realize that most of the money in this package is maintaining tax cuts in place that were scheduled to expire. This will prevent tax increases from having a contractionary impact on the economy, however there is very little, if any, net stimulus in this package compared with current levels of taxation and spending.

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That is what readers of his column today must conclude. He insists that the United States and European countries can no longer afford their current welfare states because of an aging population.

This might be true if there was no productivity growth. However, unless something incredibly bizarre happens, the economy will continue to see productivity growth in the neighborhood of 2.0 percent annually. This means that in 2045 output per worker would be almost twice as high for each hour of work as it is today. This rise in productivity would allow large increases in both the generosity of the benefits provided for retirees and also the living standard of the working population.

 

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It seems that way since the Post used the term 8 times, including in the headline, in an article that reported on the proposed U.S.-Korea trade pact. (The NYT only found the need to use it once in its article.)

We know that newspapers ordinarily like to save space, which makes it hard to understand why they insist on using the term "free-trade" when they discuss trade agreements which increase protection in many areas. Specifically, deals like the U.S.-Korea trade pact currently in the news enhance protection for patents, copyrights, and other forms of intellectual property claims. They also do not free all trade, leaving in place most of the barriers that protect highly paid professionals (e.g. doctors, lawyers, and economists) from their lower paid counterparts in other countries.

For this reason, these trade deals cannot be accurately called "free-trade" pacts. It is true that these deals generally include the term "free-trade" in their name, but that is not a reason for neutral media outlets to adopt this favorable characterization. In the 1980s President Reagan dubbed the controversial MX missile system, the "Peacemaker." Media outlets did not follow his lead and begin referring to the missile with this term; there is similarly no reason why they should now be referring to trade agreements as "free-trade" agreements, when they clearly are not. 

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The NYT noted the increase in employment of temporary workers by 45,000 in November. This was by far the most rapid job growth in any sector. In attempting to interpret this rise it is important to keep in mind that temp employment rose by 107,000 last November. It seems as though many stores are opting to fill their seasonal demands for labor with temp employment rather than hiring workers who they may expect to keep on permanently after the holidays, however the pattern is less pronounced this year than last. Add a comment
Floyd Norris has a nice piece reporting on the recent patterns in house prices. He notes that the sharpest run-up in prices occurred at the lower end of the market and that these houses have also seen the sharpest price declines and that this process is continuing now. Add a comment

After long insisting that disclosure of the loans made by its special lending facilities would lead to a financial disaster, the Fed made many of the details public on Wednesday, as required by the Dodd-Frank bill. Now that this information has been released and there have been no financial troubles, the Post, which had backed the Fed's refusal to disclose, attacked the proponents of disclosure.

It misrepresented the views of Senator Bernie Sanders, the lead Senate sponsor of the disclosure measure. The Post claims that Sanders had wanted the information made available immediately, as the loans were being made. In fact, Sanders had argued that information on disclosure could have been made available sooner, but not necessarily immediately. It is difficult to contend that a delay of 2 years is necessary or that any disclosure would jeopardize the Fed's conduct of monetary policy, which had been the original position of the Fed and the Post.

The Post also trivializes the fact that many large banks may have made large sums of money by having access to the Fed's lending facilities at a time when liquidity commanded a very high price. This is consistent with the Post's general support for measures that redistribute money from ordinary workers to Wall Street. However, most of the public does not share this goal for public policy.

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The NYT concluded an otherwise useful article on the long-term unemployed by suggesting the country may just settle in with an 8-9 percent unemployment, which had become the norm in some European countries. It is important to note that these European countries have far more extensive welfare state supports than the United States. This allows the long-term unemployed to still enjoy a decent standard of living in European countries. This would not be the case in the United States. Add a comment

The Washington Post repeated the story that consumers have been reluctant to spend due to the bad economy. In fact, the savings rate has hovered around 5.0 percent through the last 2 years. This is well below the pre-stock bubble average, which was more than 8.0 percent. This implies that consumers have continued to spend at an unusually rapid clip, albeit not as fast as when their spending was driven by $8 trillion of housing bubble wealth.

The article also implied that house prices are no longer falling. This is not true, the September Case-Shiller 20 City index showed that prices were falling at an 8.5 percent annual rate. This would eliminate more than $1 trillion in housing equity over the course of a year.

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The Post continued its editorializing in its news section by gratuitously pointing out in a front page article that negotiations to extend tax cuts and unemployment benefits:

"would add hundreds of billions of dollars to future deficits, even as a bipartisan commission appointed by Obama is trying to build support for a plan to balance the budget."

If the Post was interested in informing its readers rather than pushing its budget agenda it could have pointed out that deficits during a period of high unemployment need pose no burden to the economy or future taxpayers since the Federal Reserve Board can simply buy and hold this debt. In Japan the central bank holds an amount of debt that is close to the size of its GDP, which would be $15 trillion in the United States.

This can be seen in the difference between the IMF's estimate of Japan's gross debt (227.2 percent of GDP) and its net debt (121.7 percent of GDP). In spite of these massive holdings of government debt by the central bank Japan continues to experience deflation instead of inflation.

To some extent the Fed is already following a similar course. As a result of its holdings of government debt and other assets it refunded $77 billion to the Treasury last year, an amount that was more than one-third of the government's net interest payments. A newspaper that was interested in informing its readers rather than pushing an agenda would have explained that deficits in the current context do not impose a burden rather than gratuitously pointing out that spending and tax cuts add to the deficit.

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The Washington Post told readers today that the plan put forward by the fiscal commission: "could ignite a serious effort to reduce government debt and spare the nation from a European-style fiscal crisis." This assertion does not appear in an editorial, nor is it presented as the view of any expert or political figure cited in the article.

Rather this is an assertion of fact in a front page "news" story. Of course those who know economics would find this assertion laughable. Unlike the European countries facing fiscal crises, the United States has its own currency. This means that the country need never face the same sort of constraints as these countries. The worst case scenario would be the country would see a bout of inflation from an overstimulated economy. Of course the country is nowhere near this situation now and need never come close to it if the health care sector is fixed, a point never discussed in this article.

Unfortunately, this is not the only piece of editorializing in this article. The article describes the willingness of people on both the left and right to compromise as setting "aside ideological orthodoxy." This sort of condescending characterization of people's positions is left for the opinion pages at serious newspaper.

The article also took sharp issue with the judgement of financial markets telling readers that the Bowles-Simpson proposal: "would bring it [the debt] down to a more manageable 40 percent of gross domestic product over the next 25 years." This implies that the current debt to GDP ratio is not manageable, disputing the assessment of investors who are willing to make long-term loans to the government at interest rates of less than 3.0 percent. In Japan the debt to GDP ratio is 227 percent and investors are willing to make long-term loans to its government at interest rates of close to 1.0 percent. It would be interesting to know what metric the Post has used to determine that current debt to GDP ratios are unmanageable. 

The Post also implicitly patted itself on the back, telling readers that:

"the commission has already attracted more attention and received more respect than nearly anyone predicted." 

The extensive and almost completely uncritical coverage that the Post has given the commission co-chairs is a big part of the "more attention" and "more respect" to which this statement refers. More objective reporting might have noted an apparent conflict of interest when one of the co-chairs gets $335,000 from a major Wall Street bank and the financial industry somehow escapes unscathed from taxation in their proposal. It might have also highlighted the ill-informed and sexist e-mails of the other co-chair, which almost certainly would have led to the summary dismissal of a progressive member of the Obama administration.

 

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NPR again abandoned journalistic standards in pushing deficit reduction by insisting that doing so is courageous. Given the wealth of the people pushing for cuts to Social Security and Medicare, and the fawning attention that these people get from media outlets like NPR and the Washington Post, it is difficult to see what it is courageous about trying to take away benefits for middle class retirees.

It also wrongly described the deficit as "spiraling." Of course the deficit is not spiraling. The deficit rose in 2008-2010 because the housing bubble collapsed. NPR, like other news outlets, largely ignored the $8 trillion housing bubble. An honest discussion would point out that the deficit has temporarily ballooned because of the incompetence of people who carry through and report on economic policy.

In the longer term the deficit is projected to rise, but that is because of the projected explosion of U.S. health care costs. Our per person costs are projected to rise from more than twice the average in countries with longer life expectancies to more than three times as much.

Honest and courageous politicians and reporters would be talking about the real problem, a broken health care system. They would not be mis-representing it as a problem of a spiraling deficit.

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The NYT and other papers reporting on the Fed's disclosure of information on the beneficiaries from loans in its special facilities includes the Fed's justification that the loans required collateral and the taxpayers were well protected. It would have been worth including some context here.

At the time the special facilities were at their peak, liquidity carried an enormous premium. The Fed was giving out money to banks, non-financial companies, and foreign central banks at interest rates far lower than those available in the private market at the time. This allowed the recipients to make large profits with this money at the time and in many cases kept the companies in business.

It is not surprising that the vast majority of this money was paid back, since the economy did not collapse. However, this does not mean that the loans did not involve a large public subsidy. It is comparable to giving water to people in the middle of a drought. When it rains again, we can easily get the water back with interest, but that doesn't change the fact that providing water in the drought to the folks like Citigroup and Morgan Stanley who got large amounts of it. 

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The media almost completely overlooked the housing bubble on the way up. In the years 2002-2007 there were probably 1000 stories written about the deficit for every story that raised any questions about house prices being inflated.

Of course the bubble did eventually burst, giving us the worst economic disaster in 70 years. But hey, no one ever said that an economics reporter could learn anything. Yesterday's Case-Shiller data showed that house prices in its 20-City index fell 0.7 percent in September. This would be an 8.5 percent annual rate of decline, which would imply the loss of more than $1 trillion in housing wealth over the course of the year.

The data for the bottom third of the housing market looked even worse. Prices for homes in this segment of the market had a 2.6 percent one-month decline in both Seattle and Boston. They fell by 3.4 percent in Phoenix and 3.7 percent in Portland. Prices for homes in the bottom tier fell by 3.9 percent in both Tampa and Chicago. They fell by 7.0 percent in Atlanta and 7.4 percent in Minneapolis.

The sharp decline in house prices in the bottom tier since the expiration of the first-time buyers tax credit means that the loss of home equity for many recent buyers will have exceeded the value of the credit. In such cases the credit effectively went to the seller, or in the case of underwater mortgages, to the bank that held the mortgage.

For one more interesting data point, the Census Bureau released data on new home sales prices for October last Wednesday. This release reflects much more up-to-date data since it is based on contract prices. The Case-Shiller index is a 3-month average that is based on closings, which typically occur 6-8 weeks after a contract is signed. The report showed that the price of a median home fell 13.6 percent in October hitting its lowest nominal level in 7 years.

These data on falling house prices were largely invisible in business and economic news reporting yesterday. Instead, the focus was the budget deficit and the deficit commission reports. After all, if we don't do anything and the deficits follow their projected course, we will have a really high budget deficit in 2025.

What does it take to get economic/business reporters to pay attention the economy?

 

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The Washington Post, which long ago abandoned rules of journalistic objectivity in pushing its agenda for cutting Social Security and Medicare, today covered up the plans by deficit commission's co-chairs to violate the commission's charter. The Post reported that the commission expects to delay voting on a plan until December 3. This means that the commission will miss the December 1 deadline for a final report specified in both its by-laws and its charter.

If the Post were not so committed to Bowles and Simpson's agenda then it would have called readers attention to the fact that they are violating the rules under which the commission was established. Of course, if it were following standard journalistic practices, the Post would have pointed out that the deficit increased not because of out of control spending, as the co-chairs have repeatedly claimed, but primarily due to the downturn caused by the collapse of the housing bubble.

It also would have pointed out that the huge long-term projected deficits are entirely attributable to the broken health care system. If the United States paid the same amount per person for health care as countries with longer life expectancies we would be facing huge budget surpluses, not deficits. However, because it editorial position dominates its news section, almost no readers of the Post would know this simple and important fact.

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Suppose that school teachers could keep teaching and get regular promotions year after year no matter how badly they performed in the classroom. Suppose also that there was no incentive to teach well. Economic theory predicts that we would get a large number of unmotivated mediocre teachers.

Okay, suppose that the people who design economic policy never need to worry about getting fired no matter how badly their policies turn out. They continue to hold their jobs and get regular promotions. Under such circumstances we should expect that we would get mediocre economists.

This simple fact should have been included in an interesting WSJ discussion of efforts to promote new directions in economics. If there is no incentive to get things rights, then economists should expect that economic policy will be largely done by people who are not competent.

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A new report from the Congressional Budget Office prompted another round of celebrations in the media over how little the program cost taxpayers. In fact, the program kept the major Wall Street banks in business preserving trillions of dollars in paper wealth for stockholders, bondholders, and top executives at these institutions.

The situation can be compared to one in which the government prints up a trillion dollars and hands it to the Wall Street gang. Since the money was just printed, it does not require any tax revenue. Nonetheless, this transfer will be a burden on all non-Wall Street types in future years, since the Wall Street crew will have a claim on society's resources that they would not otherwise have.

In the case of the TARP and related Fed and FDIC programs, the government made trillions of dollars in loans and loan guarantees available to the banks at far below market rates. This allowed them to survive in a situation where they would have gone under if the market had been left to work its magic. The fact that Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley and the rest still exist and its top executives are hugely wealthy is a direct result of the taxpayers' generosity.

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Nearly all economists speak derisively of tariff barriers that raise the price of imported goods above their marginal cost. In addition to the inefficiency this causes, tariff protection also invites corruption as the protected industries try to maximize the value of the rents they receive.

The identical logic applies to patent protection, except patents can raise the price of goods by tens or hundreds of times the competitive market price, not the 15-30 percent that would be more typical of tariff protection. It would be useful if this point was made in the context of an article reporting on how a drug company had ghost authored a textbook for two medical researchers.

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In the NYT they are. In a world where we have 9.6 percent unemployment and the deficit is problem #1, anything is possible.

The NYT reported on evidence of serious labor shortages in export centers and then told readers today:

"China can point to the labor shortage in the export hubs as one reason not to let the renminbi’s value rise, since companies are already grappling with the possibility that higher wages could make their goods less competitive. A significant currency appreciation could help cause a wave of business failures and bankruptcies, Chinese officials say."

Okay, black is white, night is day. This makes zero sense. China would have a good case against raising the value of the currency if the opposite were the case. If it had high unemployment so that reducing its exports could create serious deprivation and social unrest, then it would have a good argument against raising the value of its currency, but low unemployment?

If high labor costs push a firm out of business then this is because it uses its labor less efficiently than other firms. This is known as "capitalism." Firms that cannot compete are supposed to go out of business. Furthermore, in the context of a tight labor market, the bankruptcy does not even hurt workers, since the employees of a bankrupt firm just go over to one of the other firms that are desperate for workers.

The evidence in this article should support the case of those who believe that China should raise the value of its currency. That case should have been made to readers.

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Using the economic analysis that his advisers relied upon in designing the stimulus package, this would be the projected effect of President Obama's proposal to freeze the pay of federal employees. According the NYT, this will reduce the amount of money that federal employees have to spend by $2 billion in 2011 and by $5 billion in 2012.

Following the multipliers in the Romer-Bernstein paper released by the Obama transition team, we can assume that roughly half of this money would be re-spent. This means that consumption would fall by $1 billion in 2011 and $2.5 billion in 2012. The Romer-Bernstein analysis assumed that an increase in GDP of 1 percent would lead to an increase in employment of 1 million. In this case, GDP will be about 0.007 percent lower in 2011 and about 0.018 percent lower in 2012, implying drops in private sector employment in these years of 7,000 and 18,000 jobs, respectively. The NYT should have noted the impact that the Obama administration's economic team expects to result from this proposed pay freeze.

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