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 had a front page article on how delay has raised the cost of the Greek bailout effort. The article told readers:

"the cost of helping Greece avoid default increased about fourfold, to $140 billion from roughly $35 billion at the start of the year. Confidence in the European economy was so badly battered that European leaders together with the IMF had to pledge another nearly $1 trillion to reassure investors."

While the point about the cost of delay is well-taken (it would have been easier to reassure markets with a strong commitment early by the European Central Bank and the IMF), the measure of costs is very misleading. The $1 trillion figure is a measure of loans and guarantees, not actual outlays. During the U.S. financial crisis, the Fed and Treasury extended more than $10 trillion worth of loans and guarantees by some measures. The overwhelming majority of this money involved guarantees that were never actually needed or loans that were repaid in full. This is likely to be the case with the European commitments as well.

It is important to make the distinction between this sort of confidence building effort and actual money out the door. The Washington Post and other news outlets were able to make this distiniction quite effectively with the U.S. bailout (in fact, they have misleading reported that the government has made money on these bailouts). Presumably they can apply the same analytic skills to their discussion of Europe's bailout.

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In his speech on the BP oil spill President Obama discussed his clean energy agenda. At one point he said: "There are costs associated with this transition, and some believe we can't afford those costs right now."

It would have been worth pointing out that the opposite is true. Measures to shift to alternative forms of energy require increased resources. At present, with the economy operating well below full employment it has a vast amount of unemployed labor and idle capacity. In principle, some of these idle resources can be used to promote the switch to alternative energy or for measures that promote conservation.

We would have less money for this transition if the economy were near full employment and there was little idle capacity. In that situation, the only way to get resources for the transition would be by pulling them away from their current uses. This would mean effectively some types of tax on current consumption patterns. At the moment, any taxes on can be fully rebated to consumers with little cost to the economy.

Reporters who cover this issue should be aware of these facts. It would have been appropriate to correct President Obama on this statement.

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It's no secret that New York Senator Charles Schumer is very close to Wall Street. As a senator from New York he directly represents Wall Street firms and their employees. He also gets huge amounts of campaign contributions from Wall Street. For this reason it would not be surprising that he would oppose any measure that changes the way business is conducted on Wall Street.

This is why it is surprising that the NYT told readers that: "Even Senator Charles E. Schumer (emphasis added)" raised questions about an amendment put forward by Senator Al Franken that would require that credit rating agencies be selected by the SEC rather than the issuer seeking the rating. The current situation creates an obvious conflict of interest since the credit rating agency has an incentive to issue positive ratings to ensure more business. Senator Franken's amendment eliminated this conflict by taking away the power for the issuer to pick the agency.

Given his close ties to Wall Street, it would be surprising if Senator Schumer would support any measures that interfer with a pattern of business that is very profitable for both issuers and credit rating agencies. The article notes that Schumer originally voted for the Franken amendment. It is of course common for members of Congress to vote for popular measures when they know that their vote will not make a difference. Since the Franken amendment passed with strong bi-partisan support, Senator Schumer's vote would not have made a difference in its passage. It does however give him more standing now with naive observers as he works to kill it.

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The media have been highlighting projections produced by the military that show that Afghanistan may have $1 trillion of mineral wealth. It would be helpful to put this figure in some context. The NYT helpfully described this sum as being equal to $38,482.76 for every person in Afghanistan.

It would be useful to note that this is a gross number, it does not subtract the cost of extracting the minerals nor does it consider that these resources would likely be extracted over many decades. If we assume that the cost of extracting the minerals (e.g. foreign produced equipment, foreign trained technicians, profits of foreignh companies and environmental damage  -- not counting domestic Afghan labor) is between 25 and 50 percent of the value of the minerals, then the money going to Afghanis would be between $500 billion and $750 billion.

If this money is earned over a 40-year period (Saudi Arabia has been producing oil for 80 years), then it comes to between $12.5 billion and $18.8 billion a year. Afghanistan's population is currently 29.1 million, but it is growing at the rate of 2.5 percent annually. Assuming the growth rate slows, Afghanistan's population will average about 40 million over this period. This means that the revenue from the minerals will average between $312.50 and $470 per person per year. This is still likely to have a substantial impact on Afghanistan's economy, since its current GDP per capita is just $800 on a purchasing power parity basis.

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The Washington Post reported on the opposition in Congress to spending more money to aid financially strapped state and local governments or unemployed workers. It highlighted the complaint of Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson that President Obama's request for $80 billion was in appropropriate in a situation where the government has a $12 trillion debt.

It would have been helpful to include some discussion of the economic implications of the opposition to this bill. The economy will be weaker if Congress refuses to appropriate the funds requested by the Obama administration. Assuming a multiplier of 1.5 (most of the proposed spending is generally estimated to have a relatively high mutliplier), not spending this money will reduce GDP by $120 billion.

When it outlined its stimulus plan, the Obama administration assumed that a 1 percentage point increase in GDP creates 1 million jobs. This implies that a loss of $120 billion in output would lead to a loss of 800,000 jobs. It would help readers assess the proposed spending if they understood its likely economic impact.

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There is something incredibly otherworldly about current economic policy debates. We are sitting here with almost 10 percent of our workforce unemployed. Let's repeat that so even a policy wonk can understand it: almost 10 percent of the workforce is unemployed. That means people with the skills and desire to work cannot find jobs. The problem is too few jobs, too much supply  of labor, got it?

Nonetheless, there is now a national fixation on the problems of an aging population. The story is that we will have too few workers to support too many retirees. That's a problem of too little labor.

At a time when we have the greatest oversupply of labor since the Great Depression, we are now supposed to be terrified that in a few very short years we will not have enough labor. Is that possible?

Not if we know arithmetic. The NYT gave us a little glimpse of this horror story in its Economix blog today. It showed that the ratio of dependents (defined as people over 64 or under 20) to working age people (those between the ages of 20 and 64) is supposed to rise from 0.67 today to 0.74 in 2020, and 0.83 in 2030; pretty scary, right?

Well suppose we defined a slightly different dependency ratio. This will be the ratio of people who are not working to the people who are. The idea being that people who are working must support the people who are not, regardless of their age.

In 2010, this ratio stands at 1.22. We have 139.4 million people working and 170.1 million not working. However, if we assume that we get back to near full employment and the labor force grows as the Congressional Budget Office projects and population grows as the Census Department projects, this dependency ratio will have fallen to 1.05 in 2020 and then rise to 1.07 by 2030. So, are we scared yet?



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There is a well-known stock wealth effect. Economists usually estimate that annual consumption increases by 3-4 cents for each additional dollar of stock wealth. This was the basis for the strong growth of the late 90s. The stock bubble created $10 trillion of wealth causing consumption to soar and savings to plummet.

Robert Samuelson notes this stock wealth effect in his column today and tells us that we have keep the stock market happy in order to have a recovery. Actually, he's missed most of the story. Consumption in the last decade was driven by the housing bubble, not the stock market. At its peak in 2007, the stock market had just reached the same nominal level that it had been at 7 years earlier at the peak of the bubble. Since the economy was more than 40 percent larger in 2007 (in nominal dollars) than it had been in 2000, the stock market was not a big factor in driving the extraordinary consumption boom that was in turn driving the economy.

This instead was explained by the housing bubble, that gets only passing mention in Samuelson't piece. The housing wealth effect is usually estimated at 5-7 cents on the dollar. At its peak in 2006, the bubble had created $8 trillion in housing wealth. This translates into $400 to $560 billion in additional consumption each year. If the bubble does not reinflate, this consumption is not coming back. (It's not clear that it would be desirable in any case, baby boomers need to save for retirement.)

By comparison, the wealth that will be generated by modest increases in stock prices will have relatively limited effect on consumption. The market was valued at close to $20 trillion at its peak in 2007. Its current valuation is around $14 trillion. If it were to rise by 10 percent, this would generate another $1.4 trillion in stock wealth, which would translate into $42 billion to $56 billion in annual demand, after a lag of 1-2 years. This will have a very limited impact on the economy, so the idea that we have to keep the stock market happy to sustain the economy has no basis in reality.

Samuelson also somehow has the saving rate having increased to 16 percent following the stock market's crash in 2008-2009. This is his invention, it does not show up in the data. The saving rate peaked at 5.4 percent in the second quarter of 2009. The main reason for the uptick that quarter was the distribution of tax rebates from the stimulus, much of which was not spent right away.

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Apparently not at the Washington Post. It ran an article projecting a severe shortage of doctors due to the retirement of large numbers of baby boomers. The article never discussed the possibility of allowing more foreign doctors into the country.

The current rules on foreign doctors are highly protectionist to ensure that doctors can command high salaries. However, if shortages become too severe, the country could easily opt to relax these rules. There is no shortage of smart and ambitious kids in the developing world who would eagerly seize the opportunity to train to U.S. standards and work as doctors in the United States. This flow could easily meet any future demand for doctors in the United States.

It would also be a simple matter to attach a tax to the earnings of these doctors that would be paid to the home country. This tax could be used to train 2-3 doctors for every doctor that practices in the United States, thereby ensuring that the health care in developing countries improves by this arrangement as well.

Remarkably the Post does not discuss the possibility of increased use of foreign physicians even though it is almost fanatical in its support of free trade in other circumstances.

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I often think it's too bad that Social Security isn't a private company. If it were, it could sue Marketplace Radio for libel for this sort of reporting. Does Marketplace's host have any idea what she is talking about when she says: "Social Security is in such a sorry state"? According to the Congressional Budget Office the program can pay all benefits for the next 34 years with no changes whatsoever and even after that can pay more than 75 percent of benefits indefinitely. The program is in much better shape in this respect that it was in the 40s, 50s, 60s, or 70s. So what on earth is this person talking about? Can Marketplace Radio pay all its expenses for the next 34 years?

Marketplace's expert then tells us that Social Security will probably be means-tested. This idea is extremely unpopular among both the public and policy experts, so it would be interesting to know the basis for this assessment. She also recommends raising the retirement age, apparently unaware of the fact that the retirement age has already been raised to 67. She also is apparently unaware of the fact that the vast majority of the huge baby boom cohort has almost nothing saved for retirement and therefore will be almost entirely dependent on Social Security.

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It would be nice if the media didn't feel the need to rely almost exclusively on economists who are continually surprised by the economy. The Commerce Department's release of May data on retail spending surprised many economists by its weakness as noted by both the Post and the Times.

Economists who know economics were not surprised. Prior to the recession consumer spending was propelled by the $8 trillion in housing wealth created the bubble. This is the well-known housing wealth effect that economists were supposed to learn in their under-graduate training: annual consumption increases by 5-7 cents for every dollar of housing wealth. The bubble sent consumption soaring and pushed saving rates to record lows.

Now that most of the bubble wealth has disappeared, consumption is returning to more normal levels. Even now the savings rate , at around 4.0 percent, is well below its levels before the stock and housing bubbles, which averaged more than 8.0 percent. In fact, with most of the huge baby boom cohort in its 50s, with very little wealth accumulated for retirement, the demographics should be heavily tilted towards saving. This is why the small subgroup of economists who know economics are asking why consumption is so high, rather than so low.

Reporters should recognize that the economics profession doesn't have the same sort of internal controls as other occupations, like custodians or retail clerks, Therefore many economists are not good sources for information about the economy.

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The Washington Post is famous for relying on David Lereah, the chief economist for the National Association of Realtors (NAR) and the author of Why the Housing Boom Will Not Bust and How You can Profit from It, as its main source for information on the housing market during the bubble. It apparently still has not learned that the NAR is not a neutral source of information on the housing market.

It printed without question an assertion from Lawrence Yun, Mr. Lereah's successor, that as many 180,000 people who qualify for the first-time homebuyers credit (which also applied to some existing owners), may have signed a contract by April 30th (meeting one deadline), but be unable to close by June 30th, a second requirement for the credit.

Let's look at this one. The number of existing homes sold in April was about 470,000. Since it generally takes 6-8 weeks between contracts and closings, this implies there were about 470,000 homes contracted in February. The pending sales index rose by about 13.5 percent between February and April, which means that there were about 540,000 existing homes placed under contract in April. The Commerce Department reports that there were 48,000 new homes put under contract April for a total of 590,000 homes.

Many of these homes would not qualify for the credit either because the buyer previously owned a home (but not long enough to qualify for the move-up credit) or due to the income caps. If we assume that 75 percent of the homes contracted in April qualify for the credit, this would mean that roughly 440,000 people signed contracts in April who qualify for the credit.

Mr. Yun's claim that 180,000 people who signed contracts before the deadline may not be able to close by June 30th would mean that more than 40 percent of these buyers are in this situation. While there was somewhat of a surge in buying in April, it did not approach the levels reached at the peak of the bubble in 2005-2006. It is therefore difficult to believe that it could have created too much of a backlog of paperwork. Furthermore, the mortgage applications index indicates that sales plummeted after the end of the month, so there would be few new sales for mortgage processors to deal with.

In short, there is little reason to believe that the vast majority of sales qualifying for the credit could not be completed within two months of the contract date. (Remember also, sales were spread over the month. Someone who signed on April 15th has more almost 11 weeks to meet the deadline.) Mr. Yun's estimate likely exaggerates the number of people in this situation by an order of magnitude. The Post should learn that people who work for trade associations are not good sources for unbiased information.

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David Brooks doesn't like the stimulus, as readers of his columns know. Today he engages in a bit of magical thinking in putting out his case for deficit reduction.

His first invention is telling us: "deficit spending in the middle of a debt crisis has different psychological effects than deficit spending at other times." This is very interesting, what "debt crisis" is Brooks referring to? We can point to a debt crisis in Greece, and arguably Portugal and Spain, but it is not clear what that has to do with the argument for stimulus in the United States. There were debt crises in Latin America in the 80s, no one ever raised these in the context of the Reagan era budget deficits.

In the real world we would look to things like the ratio of debt to GDP in the United States (@60 percent) and compare it to the ratios in other countries and to the U.S. at other points in time. There are several countries with debt to GDP ratios of far more than 100 percent who are able to borrow money with no difficulty. For example, Japan has a debt to GDP ratio of more than 110 percent yet it pays less than 1.5 percent interest on its long-term debt. Right after World War II the debt to GDP ratio in the United States was also over 110 percent, yet interest rates were low and the economy had decades of solid growth.

The next thing we would do in the real world is look at the interest rates that the United States is currently paying. At present the interest rate on 10-year Treasury bonds is about 3.2 percent, near a post-World War II low. In short, the debt crisis is magic -- an invention of David Brooks -- not something that exists in the world.

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For more than a month BP was telling the world that the rate of leakage from its well was just 5,000 barrels a day. It now appears that the size of the leak is actually an order of magnitude greater. How could BP be so far off the mark? Did they really not have a clue? (What do people get paid for at this company?) Or, where they deliberately not telling the truth?

And the question that we ask here at BP, why aren't the media asking this obvious question?

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That's a question that NPR listeners might ask after being told that the differences between organized labor and President Obama were due to the President's political pragmatism. Many of the differences stem from President Obama's willingness to serve the interests of powerful business groups such as the pharmaceutical industry, the insurance industry, and the big banks. President Obama's positions may be viewed as politically "pragmatic" in that these are very powerful interests who can badly hurt politicians who cross them, but they are not politically pragmatic in terms of being responses to public sentiment. It would have been useful if this report had made that distinction. Add a comment

It's great that the Post is able to find the truth in such matters. It told readers:

"For all of Wall Street's money and power, it has been a different army of lobbyists that has proven most effective over the past year in shaping the financial overhaul legislation on Capitol Hill. Again and again, big banks have been outpaced by small-town interests, proving that even when it comes to overhauling financial regulation, politics really is local."

Let's see, two years ago the big banks were rescued from bankruptcy by the helping hand of Big Government. Today, they are again making record profits and awarding record bonuses to top executives. Congress never seriously considered breaking them up and taking away the implicit government security blanket of "too big to fail," a subsidy that could be as much as $36 billion a year. It also is unlikely to impose the sort of Glass-Steagall separations that would prevent the big banks from speculating with taxpayer insured dollars.

Some people might think that this outcome suggests that the big banks are calling the shots. Thankfully we have the Post to tell us otherwise.

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Probably not, but most readers of the Post probably don't realize that this is what is at stake in the debate over a proposal by the Democrats that would raise taxes on the foreign earnings of U.S. corporations by $14 billion over the next decade. This sum is equal to approximately 0.05 percent of projected imports over this period. It would have roughly the same effect on trade overall as a drop in the value of the dollar relative to the euro from 1.2 dollars to the euro to 1.203 dollars to the euro. (The decline in the value of the dollar affects both imports and exports.) In other words, this tax will have no measurable effect on the trade balance even though many politicians will likely make a big issue out of it. Add a comment

That is what the Washington Post argued in an article on President Obama's deficit commission today. The article told readers that: "Adjusting Social Security benefits is a likely point of consensus, commission members say." [The word "adjusting" is presumably a typo. The only way to reduce the deficit is by cutting benefits.]

The Social Security trust fund holds more than $2.6 trillion in government bonds. According to the Congressional Budget Office, this money will be sufficient, along with current tax revenue, to pay all scheduled benefits through the year 2044. The decision to cut benefits would effectively mean defaulting on these bonds -- denying workers the benefits that they have already paid for through the designated Social Security tax.

The article misrepresents the finances of the program by telling readers that: "Social Security has been self-supporting since 1935, with taxes paid by current workers financing benefits for current retirees." This has not been true since the Greenspan Commission's recommendations were implemented in 1983. The commission's plan raised taxes and the normal retirement age, thereby reducing benefits. This led to a substantial degree of pre-funding, allowing the trust fund to accumulate more than $2.6 trillion in government bonds over the last quarter century.

As a result of this prefunding, the article's comment later in the paragraph: "Sometime in the next few years, taxes will no longer cover benefits," has no relevance to anything. Under the law, Social Security benefits are paid out of the trust fund, it makes not an iota of difference whether annual Social Security tax revenue is greater or less than annual benefit payments. This is an invention of the Washington Post and critics of Social Security.

The next paragraph tells readers:

"The program's defenders argue that there is no crisis: If Treasury would repay billions of dollars in surplus Social Security taxes borrowed over the years, the program could pay full benefits through 2037. But many budget experts question whether supporting the existing benefit structure should be a cash-strapped nation's first priority."

It is worth noting that the decision not to "repay billions of dollars in surplus Social Security taxes," is effectively a decision to default on the portion of the government debt held by the Social Security trust fund. It is worth highlighting this point so that readers understand the position being advocated by "many budget experts."


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The NYT discussed the likely path of fiscal and monetary policy. It noted that it was unlikely that the Fed would adopt a substantially more expansive path concluding with a quote from an economist: "A second round of quantitative easing at the moment would substantially increase inflationary risks."

It is worth noting that there is no economic theory that shows quantitative easing (the Fed buying long-term bonds) leads to inflation when the unemployment rate is far above normal levels, as is the case at present.

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The lead Washington Post editorial complained that the pro-stimulus crowd is not supporting its plan to cut Social Security benefits or to raise taxes on the middle class as a path to deficit reduction, insisting that this means they are not serious about reducing the deficit in the long-term. In fact, many progressives have supported measures that would address the long-term budget problem with items like a financial speculation tax.

There are also measures that would substantially reduce health care costs like publicly funded clinical drug trials which could allow all drugs to be sold as generics for $4 per prescription. This would save hundreds of billions annually in spending on prescription drugs. We could also allow Medicare beneficiaries to buy into the more efficient health care systems of other countries, with the government and the beneficiaries splitting the savings. This could save trillions of dollars in the decades ahead.

However, the Post does not even want these ideas discussed since they could hurt the powerful interest groups whom they favor. Rather, the Post insists on measures that will low and middle income families.

It is also worth noting that the reason the deficit has soared in the last few years has been due to the collapse of the housing bubble. If the Post had not almost exclusively on economists who could not see an $8 trillion housing bubble as its sources and for its oped page content, it is possible that policymakers would have noticed the bubble and acted to rein it in before it grew large enough to wreck the economy. Add a comment

With so much focus on the deficit it's probably hard to keep track of things like the unemployment rate. This is the likely explanation for a USA Today article that told readers in its first sentence: "last week's disappointing report on the job market may not be as dreary as it appears."

The article explained that many of the 411,000 workers who took jobs with the Census may have taken private sector jobs had they not had the option of working for the Census. According to the article, these people opted to take what they viewed as relatively high-paying and easy temporary jobs rather lower paying permanent positions in the private sector. It refers to evidence of a similar effect in prior years when Censuses were conducted.

It is important to note that the question is not whether the Census workers would have taken other jobs (they may have), but whether anyone would have taken the other jobs. The argument in USA Today is that low-paying jobs have gone unfilled because employers, who would have hired the Census workers, view other applicants as being unqualified. The comparisons to past Census years is dubious. The unemployment rate was 4.0 percent in 2000 and 5.0 percent when the 1990 Census was being conducted.

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