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 Washington Post notes that the Fed's new round of quantitative easing will:

"harm exports from developing countries. That's because steps to lower U.S. interest rates and put money into the economy have the effect of making other countries' currencies more expensive."

If world imbalances are going to be addressed, then developing country exports must be hurt. In economic theory, rich countries like the United States are supposed to have trade surpluses. This means that they export capital developing countries. The logic of this pattern of trade is that capital commands a higher rate of return in fast growing developing countries in which it is relatively scarce.

There were in fact substantial flows of capital from rich countries to poor countries prior to the East Asian financial crisis in 1997. However, the harsh treatment of countries in the region by the I.M.F. led developing countries throughout the world to focus on accumulating vast amounts of reserves in order to avoid ever being in the same situation. This meant that developing countries had to run export surpluses with the United States and other wealthy countries.

In effect, the I.M.F, under the guidance of the Rubin-Summers Treasury Department, put in place a dysfunctional system that would inevitably explode. The effort to re-balance trade is about reversing those policies.

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The deficit report put out by the commission's co-chairs, Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, had one striking omission. It does not include plans for a Wall Street speculation tax or any other tax on the financial industry.

This omission is striking because the co-chairs made a big point of saying that they looked everywhere to save money and/or raise revenue. As Senator Simpson said: "We have harpooned every whale in the ocean - and some minnows." Wall Street is one whale that appears to have dodged the harpoon.

This omission is made more striking by the fact that at least one member of the commission, Andy Stern, has long been an advocate of such taxes. Presumably he raised this issue in the commission meetings and the co-chairs chose to ignore him.

The co-chairs apparently also chose to ignore the I.M.F. Noting the waste and extraordinary economic rents in the sector, the I.M.F. has explicitly recommended a substantial increase in taxes on the financial industry. It is even more striking that the co-chairs apparently never considered a speculation tax since Wall Street's reckless greed is at the center of the current economic crisis.

In this context, it is worth noting that one of the co-chairs, Erskine Bowles, is literally on Wall Street's payroll. He earned $335,000 last year for his role as a member of Morgan Stanley's (one of the bailed out banks) board of directors. Morgan Stanley would likely see a large hit to its profits from a financial speculation tax.

It would have been appropriate for the reporters covering the report to ask about a financial speculation tax. It would also be appropriate to explore the connection between Mr. Bowles role as a Morgan Stanley director and the absence of any financial taxes in this far-reaching report.

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One would hope that reporters who cover economic issues for the Washington Post know a little economics. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the case. Therefore, BTP will provide a free economics tutorial for the Post's economic reporters.

The Post told readers today that:

"world leaders share the overall aims of bringing trade flows into better balance and curtailing recent clashes over currency values."

The whole piece in fact shows the opposite. In a system of floating exchange rates the mechanism for correcting trade imbalances is a change in currency values. Countries with trade surpluses are supposed to see the value of their currency rise. Countries with trade deficits are supposed to see the value of their currency fall.

When a country's currency falls in value, imports become more expensive meaning that they will import less. Its exports become cheaper for people in other countries, causing foreigners to buy more of their exports. This will reduce its trade deficit. The opposite holds for a country's whose currency rises in value.

This is really simple. If you want to see trade imbalances corrected, then you want to see the value of the currency fall for countries with large deficits like the United States. This is just like if you want the school fire put out, you want the firefighters to spray water on it.

On the other hand, if you don't want the firefighters to use water, then you really don't want the fire extinguished. In the same vein, all the officials cited in this article who complain about the decline in the value of the dollar obviously do not want the trade imbalances corrected. It is that simple, at least for folks who learned intro econ.

There is another interesting sidebar for the economically literate. The article tells us:

"Some developing countries took aim at the Fed move in part because it could weaken the dollar, making their own currencies relatively more expensive, hurting their exports and fueling inflation."

This is a non sequitur. If the dollar falls in value, then imports from the United States will be cheaper for developing countries. This will lower inflation, other things equal. In addition, reduced exports from these countries will also reduce domestic demand and employment, which will also put downward pressure on inflation. If developing countries actually make the claims attributed to them in this article then the news is that their officials have no better grasp of economics than a Washington Post reporter.

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If Ruth Marcus did not exist someone would have to invent her. She is the living embodiment of an ill-informed Washington pundit who desperately wants to meld the world to fit her preconceptions. (Okay, her colleagues at the Post, Fred Hiatt and David Broder give her stiff competition.) 

Anyhow, the theme today is that Obama failed to recognize that his shellacking was from too much big government. First, it is important to recognize that there is a large body of research that shows that President Obama's shellacking was overwhelmingly the result of 9.6 percent unemployment, coupled with the fact that the Democrats held many marginal districts as a result of their gains in the last two elections. Models that incorporate only these variables predict most of the Democratic losses last week.

In other words, if President Obama could not do more to bring the unemployment rate down, then he should have expected his shellacking. Those opposed to more stimulus (like the Post crew) in effect wanted to see the Dems trounced since it was an entirely predictable outcome of the policy.

But, let's get to the big government story. Ms. Marcus tells us that the public is upset about big government interventions in the economy, like President Obama's health care plan and cap and trade. 

Let's consider each of these in turn. Has the public seen President Obama's health care plan? That doesn't seem likely, since very few of the provisions have been implemented thus far. What the public knows of the health care plan is what the media has reported. This has included stories of "death panels," government takeover of the health care industry, and massive cuts in Medicare.

These charges have the common characteristic of not being true. (I will acknowledge that the cuts in Medicare are a real possibility, but please note that this would mean smaller government, not bigger government.) Polls bear out the fact the public is extremely ill-informed about the health care plan. We can blame media outlets like the Washington Post for this failure. (This is the principle, strongly endorsed by the Post, that if the students don't learn, then it is the teacher's fault.) 

So, how is over-reaching and excessive government intervention the problem if the public doesn't really have a clue about the health care reform? Basically, the Republicans made things up and they stuck in the minds of millions of voters. That is the story.

Describing cap and trade or related measures to limit greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) as big government intervention is also peculiar. Are the zoning restrictions that prevent me from building a slaughterhouse across the street from Bill Gates' house "big government?" I suspect that most people would say no. The issue here is of protecting property rights and making people accountable for externalities.

The externalities from GHG are destroying property and causing millions of people to die from such things as floods in Bangladesh and Pakistan and droughts in Sub-Saharan Africa. We can call rules designed to prevent this harm "big government," but that is just name-calling. In reality, this is just about limiting externalities in the same way as zoning ordinances do. But hey, that wouldn't fit the Post's story.

 

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In introductory economics students learn that in a system of floating exchange rates (like the one we have), trade deficits and surpluses are eliminated through changes in the exchange rate. That is the point of the float. This means that if a country has a trade deficit, like the United States, then we should expect its currency to fall.

This means that when countries that complain about the U.S. trade deficit complain about the decline in the value of the dollar, as the NYT claims is the case with Germany, China, and Brazil, these countries are saying that they don't understand economics. In this case, the news is that major economic powers are being governed by people who don't know economics.

This would be like countries promoting their exports and then complaining that foreigners were buying up their output. If these countries want the United States to reduce its trade deficit then they want the dollar to fall. There is no other plausible mechanism to reduce a trade deficit. In the article the drop in the dollar is described as the "easy way out." It should also have been described as the "only way out."

The article also notes complaints from other countries that the low interest rates resulting from the Fed policies may lead to bubbles in their economies. Insofar as this is true, these countries are in fact complaining about their own poor economic management. Low interest rates, like low food and energy prices, should promote growth, not impede it. If countries consider low interest rates harmful to growth, it suggests that they have a poorly structured economy.

This article also refers to the United States' "addiction to debt." This sort of bizarre criticism (it is not supported by anything) belongs on the opinion pages, not in a news article.

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Would a prominent public figure be allowed on NPR to defame a major U.S. corporation without challenge? For example, could a cabinet official assert that Microsoft is the main cause of global warming, with no evidence whatsoever to support this position, and not have anyone point out that this charge lacks merit? My guess is no.

Which raises the question of why Colorado Senator Michael Bennet was allowed to tell listeners on Morning Edition that if something is not done soon there will be no Social Security benefits for people his age (45). There are no, as in zero, nada, none, projections from any source that show Social Security will not be able to pay Mr. Bennet and his age cohort larger benefits (adjusted for inflation) than what retirees are receiving today.

That's right, you can look at projections from the Congressional Budget Office, from the Social Security trustees and any number of private sources and every last one shows that in any remotely plausible scenario Social Security will be paying benefits that are higher than what current retirees receive long after Senator Bennet passes into history.

This means that either Mr. Bennet is clueless about the financial status of the country's most important social program or he deliberately misled listeners. This issue would have been pursued by a serious news organization, instead of just passing along Mr. Bennet's falsehood unquestioningly to unsuspecting listeners.

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Don't turn up the heat, it's too cold! That seems to be the message from the rest of the world about the decline in the dollar that might result from the latest round of quantitative easing QE by the Fed.

The NYT told readers that:

"The Fed’s action, by lowering American interest rates, can also cause money to flood into other countries as investors seekhigher [sic] returns — which can threaten to overheat those countries’ economies."

Okay, here we have a statement from the NYT that QE is bad because it will lower interest rates in other countries and cause their economies to grow more rapidly. But, elsewhere we are told that the problem with QE is that it will lower the dollar which will make U.S. goods more competitive internationally. This will reduce the exports of developing countries and slow their growth.

So, other countries are mad about QE because it can both cause their economy to overheat and also because it will slow growth. Let's see, QE will make these countries both grow too fast and too slow. Now that's a really bad policy.

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The NYT got the story 100 percent wrong when it told readers that:

"International concerns about the high budget deficit in the United States, and Washington’s seeming willingness to print money rather than tackle tough debt-cutting measures, help partly explain the recent anti-American criticism from countries as diverse as Brazil, China and Germany."

Actually, the Fed is taking more expansionary monetary policy; the government is not engaging in more stimulus. It would likely print even more money if the government began raising taxes and cutting spending.

This article is written largely like an advocacy piece. It does not include the view of any economists or any economic analyst who points out that the high current deficits are primarily the result of the economic collapse. Nor does it point out that the advocates of economic austerity lacked the competence to recognize the enormous housing bubbles, the collapse of which wrecked much of the world's economy. Readers should know that the admonitions for austerity are coming from highly paid people of questionable competence.

 

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The NYT repeatedly refers to the credibility of the Federal Reserve Board. This is an interesting assertion. The Fed failed about as completely as a central bank possibly could in allowing the growth of an $ 8 trillion housing bubble. According to the Fed's own projections, the collapse of this bubble is likely to lead to more than $4 trillion in lost economic output, more than $13,000 for every person in the United States.

By comparison, the costs of the inflation that it was battling in the 70s and 80s were trivial. It is difficult to see how anyone who understands economics would give the Fed any credibility whatsoever based on its track record.

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This should have been the headline of an article in which Germany's finance minister both complained about the United States credit-led model of growth and the decline in the value of the dollar. A falling dollar is the mechanism through which the United States would get off its credit-led model of growth. It will make imports more expensive in the United States, leading us to buy fewer imports. It will also make our exports cheaper, leading us to increase exports. This will reduce the U.S. trade deficit and therefore its foreign borrowing.

Complaining about both the credit-led model of growth and then complaining about the decline in the currency is like complaining that the room is too hot and then complaining when someone turns on the air conditioner. Germany's finance minister apparently does not understand economics, which should have been the main point of this article.

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The media are filled with discussions about how the Democrats lost the elections because they over-reached or according to a front page Post article because President Obama was disconnected to the American people. However, there are number of models from political scientists that largely predicted the outcome based on the Democrats' past success (meaning a large number of seats in marginal districts) and the bad economy. It would have been useful to call attention to these models even if it undermines the story the media want to tell. Add a comment

In a major page two article the Post concealed the true nature of the major criticisms of the Fed's actions on the crisis. The article presents a secondary issue as to whether Greenspan's support of financial markets, for example his actions following the 1987 crash, led investors to underestimate risk.

While this is a reasonable criticism, there is the more direct point that the Fed stood by while an $8 trillion housing bubble built up in the years from 1996 to 2006. This bubble was easy for any competent economist to recognize. There was an unprecedented divergence in house prices from their long-term trend with no remotely plausible explanation in the fundamentals of the housing market.

This bubble was driving the economy. The housing bubble, along with a later bubble in non-residential real estate, led to an enormous building boom. The housing wealth created by the bubble led to a huge increase in consumption as the saving rate fell to zero.

It was 100 percent predictable that the bubble would burst. It was also inevitable that this would lead to a large decline in demand as construction plummeted in response to enormous over-building and consumption plummets in response to lost housing wealth. The lost demand is equal to approximately $1.2 trillion annually, close to 9.0 percent of GDP. There is no easy way to replace this amount of lost demand, which is why the economy is currently experiencing 9.6 percent unemployment.

All of this was entirely foreseeable by any competent economist. Greenspan and the Fed either failed to see what was going on, or saw this and failed to act anyhow. That is the nature of the criticism that the Post would not print.

It is also striking that the Post reports a debate at the meeting over whether the Fed's quantitative easing policy runs the risk of raising inflation above the Fed's 2.0 percent target. The fact that such a debate took place should have been a scandal and the headline of this article.

The Fed has a legal obligation to target full employment and price stability. The 9.6 percent unemployment rate is hugely above anyone's measure of full employment. It is leading to trillions of dollars of lost output and ruining the lives of tens of millions of people. The consequence of inflation edging above 2.0 percent are incredibly trivial by comparison. This is like someone worrying about the greenhouse gas emissions from the firetruck rushing to put out a school fire. The fact that ostensibly serious people involved in setting U.S. monetary policy could debate this point should be a scandal.

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The Washington Post editorial board, which thinks that Mexico's GDP quadrupled between 1988 and 2007 (due to NAFTA), is again pushing its trade agenda. The Post plays the usual game of calling trade agreements that increase protectionism in many areas (e.g. patents and copyrights) "free-trade" agreements. (Anyone out there opposed to "freedom?")

The "simplistic" ads against U.S. trade policy that the Post criticized reflect the fact that this policy has had the effect of redistributing income upward over the last three decades. These deals have been quite explicitly designed to put manufacturing workers in direct competition with low-paid workers in the developing world.

At the same time, these deals have done little or nothing to remove the barriers that make it difficult for students in Mexico, China, or India from training to work as doctors, lawyers, or other highly paid professionals in the United States. There would be enormous potential gains to consumers and the economy by bringing down the cost of medical care, legal services and other services provided by these workers.

This would be a trade policy that would promote both efficiency and equality, but you won't read about it in the Washington Post.

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Okay, let's wash away the ungodly stupidity. Doesn't anyone take intro econ anymore? Here's the test question and no one gets to write on currency or trade policy until they get it right.

If a country has a large trade deficit in a system of floating exchange rates how does it move to balance? Yes, that's right, its currency falls in value. That's the whole story, everything else is secondary.

So, the United States has a large and growing trade deficit. Do you want the trade deficit to fall? If so, then you want the dollar to decline in value. The value of the dollar determines the cost of U.S. exports to other countries and the cost of imports for people in the United States. The former is high now and the latter is cheap. That is why we have a trade deficit.

We shouldn't have to read any more pieces like this one in the NYT. Make these folks learn a little basic economics.

 

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Come on folks, the government did not make "a profit of $1.1 billion in the third quarter on its huge bailout of the mortgage finance giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac," as the NYT told us this morning. This money was the interest paid on the money that the government lent to the mortgage giants to keep them solvent. The government is still almost $140 billion in the hole on this deal, as is noted later in the piece.
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Does the pharmaceutical industry prevent the media from discussing alternatives to the patent system for financing drug research? That would seem to be the case, since an NYT article on the failure of the industry to pursue the development of new antibiotics never once mentioned alternatives to relying on the current patent system.

It does not plan to offer government subsidies in addition to patent monopolies or proposals to make these monopolies even longer, but never considers the possibility that the research would simply be financed directly through public funds with all the findings placed in the public domain. Is there just a mental blockage here or is something else going on? 

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This one should not be all that hard but the papers have numbers all over the place. Let's turn to our old friend, arithmetic, to shed some light on the topic. The Congressional Budget Office tells us that the labor force is growing at the rate of 0.7 percent a year. The current size of the labor force is 153.9 million. This implies that we need about 1.1 million jobs a year to keep even with the growth of the labor force. (The number would be a bit less if the 6 percent share of self-employed in the labor force held constant.) That translates into a bit over 90,000 a month.

The 151,000 jobs reported for October is about 60,000 more than is needed to keep the unemployment rate from raising. At this pace it would reduce the pool of unemployed workers by 720,000 over the course of a year. With a gap of about 10 million jobs at present, this rate of job growth would fill the gap in around 14 years.

In order to fill this gap in a reasonable period of time, say 3 years, we would need job growth of 370,000 a month. This would bring the economy back to normal levels of unemployment by late 2013, six years after the onset of the recession.

 

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In pushing its editorial line that Social Security and Medicare must be cut the Post told readers in a news story that:

"Cantor acknowledged that any effort to solve the nation's budget problems 'is going to have to deal with entitlements' - big, popular programs such as Social Security and Medicare (emphasis added)."

A real newspaper would have used a term like "asserted" or "claimed." Of course it is not necessary to deal with programs like Medicare and Social Security to fix the country's projected long-term budget problems as can be easily shown. It is necessary to fix the country's health care system. If per person health care costs in the United States were comparable to costs in other wealthy countries then our budget problems would be easily manageable.

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In an article on the challenges faces Jerry Brown, California's newly elected governor, the NYT tells readers that the state faces a $20 billion dollar budget deficit. It notes that Brown left his successor with a $1.8 billion deficit when he left office in 1982.

These numbers will be completely meaningless to almost all of the NYT's readers since few have an idea as to how large California's economy is today compared with 1982. The current deficit is equal to roughly 1.1 percent of $1.8 trillion California's gross state product (GSP). By contrast, the $1.5 billion deficit in 1982 would have been equal to a bit less than 0.4 percent of California's $390 billion GSP in that year. This means that the burden posed by California's current deficit is almost three times as large as the burden that Brown passed on to his successor.

Reporters are supposed to have time to look this stuff up, readers don't. 

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I have no idea if Bill Gates has any land where he may have taken out flood insurance that was provided by the federal government, but let's suppose that he did. If there was a flood, should he be able to collect on his insurance? After all, he certainly doesn't need the money.

This probably seems like a nutty question. After all, he paid for the insurance, why shouldn't he be able to collect on it like anyone else?

While that seems pretty straightforward, for some reason the same question apparently causes people great pain when applied to Social Security. Today Floyd Norris labors over the fact that rich people will collect Social Security benefits. Of course, they collect much less relative to what they paid in than poor people, so the structure of the program is progressive. But, they do get something back, so even Bill Gates and Warren Buffet will be able to pocket around $2,400 a month.

The reality is that the genuinely affluent get very little money from Social Security because they are few of these people. The discussion about cutting benefits for "affluent" retirees is aimed at people like school teachers and firefighters who may have had incomes in the range of $50,000 to $70,000. Such incomes don't fit the usual definition of "affluent," but folks use different logic when it comes to Social Security.

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Morning Edition told listeners that consumers are not spending because they are worried about their jobs. While they undoubtedly are worried about their jobs, they are spending nonetheless. The savings rate for the 3rd quarter was 5.3 percent, well below the post-war average, which is close to 8.0 percent. This level of consumption is a falloff from the peak housing bubble years when the saving rate fell to near zero, but it is still higher than we should expect when house prices fully adjust.

The point is important because it is ridiculous to expect increased consumer spending to lead a recovery. Households, especially those near retirement, must rebuild their wealth after seeing close to $6 trillion in housing wealth disappear. Those who bemoan the lack of consumption apparently still have not recognized the housing bubble and its impact on the economy.

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