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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Way back in the last decade the United States had a huge housing bubble. The Wall Street banks made money hand over fist making and selling the loans that fueled this bubble. The economic policymakers and regulators who were supposed to prevent the growth of such dangerous bubbles, people with names like Greenspan, Bernanke, Paulson, and Geithner, assured the public that everything was just fine. When they were proved horribly wrong, they then congratulated themselves for avoiding a second Great Depression.

This background is important to any story on the financial problems facing state and local governments, since it is 90 percent of the picture. It also would be good if the public remembered this history, since many of the people who either profited from the bubble or failed to take measures to counter its growth are now at the forefront in demanding that state and local governments sharply reduce their budgets and that public sector employees take big cuts in pay and benefits.

On Sunday night, the CBS News show 60 Minutes joined this campaign. The piece begins by telling viewers that:

"in the two years, since the 'great recession' wrecked their economies and shriveled their income, the states have collectively spent nearly a half a trillion dollars more than they collected in taxes."

That's not what the data show. If we look to the Commerce Department's National Income and Product Accounts we find that in total state and local government spent $45 billion more than they took in (line 27). CBS does not give a source for the "nearly half a trillion" number.

It is also worth noting that any shortfall is due almost entirely to the recession caused by the collapse of the housing bubble. If revenue had increased in step with normal growth (2.4 percent real growth, plus inflation), state and local governments would have had an additional $290 billion since the start of the downturn.

Another way to think about the size of the state and local government shortfall is that we could envision the Federal government giving state and local governments trillions of dollars in loans at below market interest rates as they did with the Wall Street banks through TARP and the various Fed special lending facilities. If the state and local governments got $3 trillion in loans at rates that were 4 percentage points below the market rate, and then they relent this money at market rates, it would largely make up for the shortfall in revenue they have faced. (It would provide them with $120 billion a year in additional revenue.)

When the governments repaid their loans, plus the below market interest, the Treasury and the Fed would then get all their money back, plus a small premium. This would allow people like Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and the Washington Post editorial board to declare that they made a profit, just as they have with the TARP. This would be one possible solution to the fiscal problems faced by these governments.

The piece also told viewers at the onset:

"There is also a trillion dollar hole in their public pension funds."

In fact, this shortfall is overwhelmingly attributable to the plunge in the stock market that followed in the wake of the collapse of the housing bubble. According to Federal Reserve Board data (Table L.119) if pension fund assets had increased at just a 5 percent nominal rate since the 4th quarter of 2007, they would have $935 billion more money at the end of the third quarter than is currently reported.

While some of us did try to warn of the risks that the housing bubble posed to the economy and financial markets (we were not featured on 60 Minutes, which was busy touting deficit stories even then), the primary fault of state and local officials was listening to Wall Street and the mainstream of the economics profession, not excessive pensions.

It would also be useful to provide a basis for assessing this "trillion dollar hole" since it is virtually certain that almost none of CBS's viewers regularly deal with such numbers. The discounted value of GDP will be more than $400 trillion over the next 30 years (roughly the period in which this shortfall will have to be addressed). This implies that additional revenue equal to 0.25 percent of GDP over this period should be sufficient to cover this projected shortfall. By comparison, the increase in annual defense spending associated with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is approximately 1.8 percent of GDP, more than 7 times larger than amount of revenue needed to cover the projected pension shortfall.

Another point of comparison is the revenue that could potentially be raised from a financial speculation tax. Such a tax could easily raise more than 1.0 percent of GDP, four times the projected shortfall, with the incidence being born almost entirely by Wall Street banks and speculators.

The segment also includes assertions that imply state and local workers are overpaid. In fact, after adjusting for education and experience state and local workers earn slightly less than their private sector counterparts. Public sector workers do get higher pensions on average than workers in the private sector, but this does not offset the pay difference. It is also important to remember that many public sector workers are not covered by Social Security so that their pension is virtually all of their retirement income.

Interestingly, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is presented as a heroic visionary in this story because of his willingness to make cuts in areas like public and education and to force workers to take pay cuts. In one instance he is shown telling teachers complaining about cuts in their benefits that they should get another job if they are unhappy with their pay.

While such an approach may be an effective short-term strategy it is absolutely disastrous in the long-term. At any point in time it will be difficult for long-time workers to leave their jobs with the state and find comparable employment elsewhere, especially in the midst of the worst downturn in 70 years. However, as new workers come into the labor force, lower pay and worse benefits in the public sector will make these jobs less attractive. This means that New Jersey's schools and other public agencies will have less choice in selecting their workforce, which is likely to lead to a deterioration in the quality of education and other public services. This is not obviously far-sighted thinking.

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USA Today touted the portion of the recent tax package that allowed for 100 percent expensing of new investment. The piece neglected to mention the fact that the stimulus package already allowed for 50 percent expensing. This is likely to reduce the impact of going to 100 percent expensing. Add a comment
That doesn't seem quite right. But the NYT reported that Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, claimed that the country spends $114 billion a year on energy subsides. This would imply that the country spends almost one-third of its GDP on energy subsidies. That doesn't seem plausible. Add a comment

The NYT showed that there were still good paying jobs for unskilled workers in the economics profession by citing two economists who touted the growth in temporary employment as evidence for the growth of structural unemployment in the economy. Structural unemployment results when there is a mismatch between skills and the available jobs.

Economists with skills would have noted that temporary employment plummeted in the downturn and is only now beginning to recover lost ground. After the recent gains in hiring in temporary employment the number of jobs in the sector is still down by almost 20 percent from its pre-recession level. In the real world, this is not evidence of structural unemployment.

 

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The Post has a nice piece examining the situation of a group of construction workers in the Las Vegas area one year after a major project on which they had worked was completed. The piece does a good job of examining the difficulty that these workers are facing finding new jobs without leaping to the unsupported claim that the bulk of the unemployment that the economy is now experiencing is structural (as opposed to cyclical) in nature. Add a comment

The NYT reported that inflation in China is higher than its leadership's targets. It might have been worth noting that a higher valued currency helps to lower inflation.

This is for two reasons. First, insofar as inflation is driven by excess demand, a higher valued currency will reduce exports (it makes them more expensive for foreigners) and thereby bring demand more in line with potential output.

A higher valued currency will also make imported items, like food and oil, less expensive. This will directly reduce inflation.

For some reason China is apparently not considered this obvious path for addressing its problems with inflation.

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Reuters decided to abandon evidence-based reporting in a news story that told readers that the United States is suffering from "structural" unemployment. The use of the term "structural" is important because it implies that the main reason that people are unemployed is that there is a mismatch between skills and the available jobs. The alternative explanation, is that we just need more demand in the economy to drastically increase employment levels.

There are certain pieces of evidence that economists would look to as evidence of structural unemployment. For example, there should be high rates of job openings, which would suggest that there are sectors of the economy or regions of the country in which employers are having difficulty finding workers. In fact, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show the job opening rate at 2.5 percent. This is above the 1.9 percent low hit last year, but only slightly higher than the 2.3 percent low from the last recession. It is well below the 3.4 percent pre-recession rate.

If the economy's main problem is structural unemployment then there also should be sectors where wages are rising rapidly as firms are forced to compete for an inadequate supply of skilled workers. There is no major sector of the economy where wages are rising substantially more than the rate of inflation.

If the main problem is structural unemployment then we should also expect to see sectors where workers are putting in large numbers of hours. The reason is that employers cannot find enough workers so they pay over-time wages and other premiums to get the available workers to put in more time. Again, there is no major sector of the economy where average weekly hours has even risen to its pre-recession level.

In short, this article presents no evidence whatsoever that the U.S. economy is suffering from structural unemployment. The focus of the article is the decline in the manufacturing industry, and especially the auto industry, in the Midwest. However, there are always declining sectors of the economy. The question is whether these sectors are large enough and the workers in these sectors sufficiently ill-prepared for other lines of work to lead to structural unemployment in an otherwise growing economy. This lengthy piece provides no evidence to suggest that this is the case.

Remarkably, in a piece that includes many references to international competition, there is no discussion whatsoever of the value of the dollar. In a system of floating exchange rates, like what we currently have, a large trade deficit is supposed to adjust through a decline in the value of a country's currency. Such adjustment has not happened in the case of the United States due to a deliberate policy of both the United States (in the Clinton administration) and some of our trading partners in keeping the value of the dollar up.

The piece also includes the bizarre assertion that manufacturing workers in the United States are uniquely unable to compete internationally. In fact, our more highly educated workers, like doctors, lawyers, and accountants are even less competitive with their counterparts in the developing world. However, professionals have the political power to sustain and even increase the barriers to foreign competition. By contrast, U.S. trade policy has been quite explicitly focused on subjecting U.S. manufacturing workers to such competition.

The article also seriously misrepresents the experience of Germany, its model of a successful wealthy country. While it did have substantial reforms of its labor market, it did not have a long period of double-digit unemployment as this piece implies. Germany also did not have sharp declines in wages. Compensation for manufacturing workers continued to rise over the last decade and is currently almost 50 percent higher than in the United States.

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The NYT printed a scare story about San Francisco's retiree health care costs in lieu of a printing news. The paper told readers that the projected cost of providing health care for retired city workers has been estimated at $4.4 billion and the city has put aside just $9.7 million to cover this cost.

That sounds really really scary. However those who read through the article would discover that the city is currently spending more than $138 million a year for retiree health care. This fact implies that the city has been in the habit of paying for these expenditures out of its current budget. Furthermore the projection that is the highlight of this article implies that there will be no substantial increase in this figure in the years ahead. (If the $4.4 billion is spend over the next 30 years it would imply an average annual cost of $147 million.)

It is possible that the San Francisco's health care burden is more onerous than this calculation suggests, but readers of this article would have no way of knowing since the point of the article seems to have been to scare readers rather than provide information.

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The headline of a Washington Post article told readers:

"Economic recovery gains momentum."

The report that provided the basis for this assertion was the Fed's release of data on industrial production for October. This report showed a rise in production of 0.4 percent in November, after a revised decline of 0.2 percent (previously reported as 0.0 percent) in October. However, this swing was entirely the result of a reversal in the output of utilities, which plunged in October and then jumped in November.

Fluctuation in utility output are overwhelmingly determined by weather conditions, not the state of the economy. Economists usually focus on manufacturing output which is more stable. This increased by 0.3 percent in November, the same as the rate now reported for October (revised down from 0.5 percent). This is a somewhat slower pace of growth than the 5.3 percent rate over the last year.

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The Post showed once again why it is known as "Fox on 15th Street" when it used a front page news story to tell readers that members of Congress:

"acknowledged the need to avoid expiration of the Bush tax cuts and the likely shock to the economy that would result."

It may be the view of the Post's editors that there is a "need" to avoid expiration of the Bush tax cuts, but this is not an objective fact about the economy. While the expiration of the tax cut without any other action by Congress would be a hit to the economy, the impact is not larger than other negative shocks that the Post has largely ignored in the past, such as the collapses of the housing and stock bubbles or the run-up in the value of the dollar in the Clinton years.

It is also important to note that the failure to approve legislation now does not preclude Congress from acting next year as the Post's article implies. If the economy remains weak, as is likely, there will be substantial pressure on Congress to approve additional stimulus. It is highly unlikely that Congress would do nothing if the economy stagnated and unemployment continued to rise. There is no precedent for such behavior.

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It seems that he doesn't from the quote buried at the end of a NYT piece on U.S. trade with China. In reference to the trade deficit, Gary Locke, the Commerce Secretary said:

"The reality is that if we are to close the trade deficit, Americans need to export more and the Chinese need to purchase more."

Actually exports are only half of the story in trade. A trade deficit means that the United States imports more than it exports. Adjusting to more balanced trade almost always means both reducing imports and increasing exports. It is virtually impossible to envision a scenario in which the country moves to anything close to balanced trade without adjustments on both sides.

It is also worth noting that this piece very casually refers to "piracy" in reference to China's lack of respect for U.S. intellectual property claims. In many cases, the unauthorized copies of U.S. products may not violate current Chinese law. In such cases there is no piracy involved. 

It also would have been wort mentioning that enforcement of U.S. intellectual property claims will impose substantial costs on Chinese consumers and is likely to sharply slow growth by reducing their purchasing power.

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It would have been worth mentioning this fact in a piece that discussed Germany's effort to insist on fiscal responsibility in the euro zone's member states in the context of support for bailouts. Most of the currently troubled countries, with the major exception of Greece, would have met almost any standard of fiscal responsibility prior to the crisis.

The current problems of these countries stem from the collapse of housing bubbles that for some reason the top officials of the European Central Bank either did not see or did not take seriously. It would have been worth pointing out that Germany's fiscal responsibility agenda would not have helped in the current situation. 

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The auto industry put out a study that apparently assumes that if people don't spend money on cars, they will not spend it on anything. This was in the context of evaluating the employment impact of proposals to substantially increase mileage standards.

The NYT uncritically reported the projections from this study, which found that a large increase in mileage standards could reduce the number of jobs nationwide by 1.3 million. The article did not include the views of any economists who would have pointed out the unrealistic nature of this assumption.

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The interest rate on 10-year Treasury bonds plummeted in the summer, falling at one point to under 2.4 percent. It has recently risen back to a still very low rate just under 4.5 percent.

The Washington Post had a front page piece that highlighted this run-up in rates. The piece warned that higher rates will slow the economy and raise the government's borrowing costs. It suggested that the higher rates could be attributable to the tax deal between President Obama and the Republicans in Congress which will close to $900 billion in debt over the next two years.

It is worth noting that the recent rise in interest rates puts them at almost exactly the level projected by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) last summer. CBO projected that the 10-year Treasury bill rate would average 3.4 percent for 2010 and 3.5 percent for 2011. The CBO projections suggest that the drop in interest rates was the development that needed to be explained, not the recent increase.

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The Washington Post has long expressed its disdain for the Social Security program in both its opinion and news section. It continued this practice by not even mentioning the potential impact of the tax compromise on Social Security in an article reporting on the progress of the bill in the Senate.

The risk is that the Republicans will put pressure on President Obama to extend the payroll tax cut beyond this year by describing the end of the tax cut as a tax increase. This raises the prospect of a permanent reduction of 2 percentage points in the payroll tax. The loss of this revenue would effectively double the projected shortfall in Social Security over its 75-year planning horizon putting its future in serious jeopardy.

While this article reported the results of a poll on the package it ignored the most obvious implication. The extension of unemployment insurance benefits is hugely popular even among Republicans. This suggests that the benefit of extension would likely pass as a stand alone effort. That means that politicians who are raise concerns about the unemployed as a reason for supporting this package are not being honest.

It also would have been helpful if the numbers in this piece were expressed as a share of the budget and/or the economy. That way most readers may have been able to assign them some meaning. As it is, the Post could have just substituted the words "really big number,"  RBN to save space, and provided as much information to the overwhelming majority of its readers.

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The Boston Globe helped to create some new myths on Social Security with a piece by Robert C. Pozen that ran under the headline “Myth Busters: The Truth About Social Security Reform.”

Pozen first told readers that Social Security is not progressive even though its payback structure is highly progressive. (A low-wage earner will get a payment equal to about 90 percent of their average wage income, while a maximum wage earner [$106,800 in 2010], will get a benefit equal to less than 30 percent of their taxable wage.) He argued that the differences in life expectancy (wealthy people live longer), offset the progressivity of the payback structure.

While this is partially true, the differences in life expectancy do not fully offset the progressivity of the payback structure. Also, Social Security includes survivor and disability benefits that disproportionately benefit low and moderate-income earners.

The second myth created by Pozen’s piece is his claim that the proposed increase in the Social Security retirement age is no big deal. He described as a myth the claim that:

The Budget Commission’s proposal raises retirement age too quickly, especially for physical laborers.”

First, the commission did not issue a proposal. The co-chairs, Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, issued a proposal that got the support of 9 other commission members, 3 short of the number needed to make it a formal proposal of the commission.

Pozen goes on to tell readers that the proposal increases the normal retirement age at a:

“much slower pace for increases in the retirement age than the projected increases in life expectancy. During the 48 years between 2027 and 2075, the normal retirement age will rise by only two years, but life expectancy in the United States will on average rise by more than 10 years.”

Actually, the Social Security Trustees project an increase in life expectancy of 6.4 years over this period. The bulk of gains in life expectancy in recent years have gone to high-end earners. If this pattern continues in coming decades, it is very likely that the gains in life expectancy for most workers will not exceed the increases in the normal retirement age proposed by Bowles and Simpson.

Pozen then assures readers:

“In their proposal to reform Social Security, the co-chairs would allow physical laborers to claim half of their benefits early and the other half at a later date. Moreover, the proposal directs the Social Security Administration to develop a new and more flexible method for delivering retirement benefits for those in “physical labor jobs.”

Actually, the suggestion by Bowles and Simpson that there would be different retirement schedules for different occupations is reversing a worldwide trend toward standardizing benefit schedules. The Bowles-Simpson proposal is precisely the policy for which Greece was widely ridiculed. Hairdressers were one of the occupations that qualified for early retirement based on the fact that they worked with dangerous chemicals. It is not clear that the government is well positioned to make this sort of assessment and that it can impose rules that prevent easy gaming.

The third myth created by Pozner’s when he labels as a myth the claim: “The proposal would constitute a large “cut’’ in Social Security benefits for American workers.

Before addressing the benefit schedule, it is worth noting Bowles-Simpson propose a change in the annual cost of living adjustment (COLA) that would amount to roughly a 3.0 percent cut in benefits for someone who lives 20 years after starting to collect benefits. Whether or not this is “large” can be debated. However, it is worth noting that this proposed cut would have more impact on the after-tax income of most beneficiaries than the ending of the Bush tax cuts would have on most of the people who earn more than $250,000 a year.

For example, those earning more than $300,000 a year would see their income about $250,000 taxed at a 36 percent rate instead of a 33 percent rate. Since this higher rate would apply to just one-sixth of their income, it would reduce their after-tax income by just 0.5 percent. Only the very wealthy would see their after-tax income fall by a larger percentage due to the expiration of the Bush tax cut than the 3.0 percent cut in Social Security proposed by Bowles-Simpson from changing the annual COLA.

The media and members of Congress have certainly acted as though this change in taxes is “large,” so the proportionately bigger cut in benefits proposed by Bowles and Simpson must also be “large.”

Pozen wrongly asserts that:

“The proposal would actually increase the current schedule of Social Security benefits for low-wage workers. It accomplishes this result by expanding the concept of minimum benefits available to any worker.”

In fact, most low-wage earners would not have enough years of earnings to qualify for the step up in benefits proposed by Bowles and Simpson.

Pozen then notes that, in addition to the cut in the COLA, scheduled benefits will be cut for “more affluent workers.”  It is worth noting that “more affluent workers” in this context means anyone with average earnings above $10,000 a year.

Pozen also claims that the schedule of benefits proposed by Bowles and Simpson must be compared to the payable benefit in years after 2037, since the program is not projected to have enough money to pay full benefits in years after 2037.

In fact, there are literally an infinite number of ways to fill the gap in funding. The idea that if Congress does not endorse the Bowles and Simpson plan that there would be no other way to close the projected shortfall in the next 27 years is absurd on its face. 

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I happened to notice Matt Kranz's calculations in USA Today of what someone would have earned owning shares of GE stock since 1970. The calculations don't adjust for inflation, which means that no one can assess what their real return would have been. Perhaps even more striking is the fact that the calculation does not include dividend payouts. Typically close to half of the real return on a stock will be in the form of dividend payouts. Add a comment
That is a question that the Post might have asked in a short piece that discussed the possibility that President Obama's re-election campaign will cost $1 billion. Add a comment

In an article that discussed the benefits of the tax deal for the middle class the NYT told readers:

"And other provisions that benefit the middle class have gotten virtually no attention, including a temporary repeal of a limit on itemized deductions and repeal of the phaseout for personal exemptions. Together, those tax breaks will cost nearly $21 billion."

The phaseout of the personal exemption only begins to kick in for couples with incomes over $250,000. This places them above 98 percent of the population in income.

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Yep, that's when you know when your economy is really in trouble. The NYT told readers today that China is suffering from inflation:

"Wages have also risen sharply this year in coastal provinces amid reports of labor shortages and worker demands for higher pay. Many analysts expect more wage increases next year.

"That may be good for workers, analysts say, but it will also change the dynamics of the Chinese economy and its export sector while contributing to higher inflation."

One might think a good remedy for this situation would be to raise the value of China's currency, which would reduce exports and the demand for labor in export industries. This would alleviate the labor shortage and the upward pressure it places on wages and thereby inflation.

But, "Beijing contends that raising the value of its currency would hurt coastal factories that operate on thin profit margins, forcing them to lay off millions of workers."

Okay, so Beijing is worried that measures to alleviate the labor shortage that it is concerned about will lead to layoffs of workers. There is either something being seriously misreported in this news story or China's leadership has less understanding of economics than the leaders in the United States.

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Dana Milbank is really excited as he tells readers in the first sentence of his column:

"For the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of President Obama."

Wow, and why is Mr. Milbank so excited? Has President Obama stood up to the Wall Street banks, the health insurance industry, the pharmaceutical companies, or the oil industry? Well, not exactly, Milbank tells us that: "I'm proud that he has finally stood firm against the likes of Peter DeFazio."

For those who don't know of him, Peter DeFazio is a 12 term Congressman from Oregon. He has never held a leadership position in the party and has not played an important role in designing any major piece of legislation. (In other words, he does not have much power.) He has also backed President Obama on all the key items in his legislative agenda.  

But, Mr. DeFazio has criticized President Obama's tax deal with the Republicans. This got President Obama angry and he told DeFazio and his types to get lost. That passes for being tough at the Washington Post.

Milbank is also impressed that:

"That display [telling the liberals to get lost] was coupled with some hardball politics (Larry Summers's warning that rejecting the package would return the economy to recession)."

That's really cool. Larry Summers told the liberals that if this deal does not got through that the economy would go into a recession. How tough can you get?

Does Larry Summers have a model that shows the economy will fall back into recession without this deal? This certainly is not the forecast that the administration is using in its budget modeling. This modeling projects 4.3 percent as the growth rate for 2011. This modeling assumes the continuation of the Bush tax cuts, a continuation of UI benefits, and a couple of other items that would not happen if the Obama-Republican package and no subsequent language is approved. However, there are no (as in zero, nada, not any) models that show the items assumed in the President's budget projections, which may not happen absent this deal, boosting the growth rate by 4.3 percentage points relative to a situation without these items.

This means that when Larry Summers was playing hardball and telling Congressional Democrats that failure to the pass the compromise would lead to a recession he was saying something that is not true. Outside of polite Washington circles this is known as a "lie." (It is also worth noting that Larry Summers has a proven track record of being wrong about almost every major macroeconomic development in the last 15 years, the stock bubble, the housing bubble, the over-valued dollar, and financial deregulation.)

Apparently, at the Post, saying things that are not true to advance a political agenda is something to be applauded.

 

[Addendum and apology to readers. I foolishly accepted Milbank's characterization of Summers' remarks rather than reading the remarks myself.

Summers did not say that rejection of the budget deal would throw the economy back into recession as Milbank claimed. Summers said that rejection of the deal would increase the risk of recession. This claim is true, since the deal would be a net stimulus to the economy if enacted. If the economy does not get this stimulus, then it would be weaker and therefore at greater risk of recession. So, Summers statement is true; it is Milbank's inaccurate representation of his position that would be a lie.]

 

 

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