Beat the Press is Dean Baker's commentary on economic reporting. He is a Senior Economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). To never miss a post, subscribe to a weekly email roundup of Beat the Press.

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That's not exactly what the piece said. Rather it said that China raised concerns about the debt ceiling in discussions with Secretary of State John Kerry. It implied that such concerns may affect China's willingness to buy and hold U.S. debt.

The purchase of U.S. government bonds is the mechanism through which China "manipulates" the value of its currency. By buying U.S. bonds it raises the price of the dollar relative to the Chinese yuan, thereby making its exports cheaper to people living in the United States.

As a matter of policy, both the Bush and Obama administration claimed to be committed to ending this "manipulation." While the dollar has fallen against the yuan in the last decade it is still priced at a level that results in a huge U.S. trade deficit with China. The position of both administrations has been that their pressure is leading to a gradual reduction in the value of the dollar relative to yuna, however this article suggests that concerns over default may lead to much more rapid progress.

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The Washington Post ran an editorial endorsing Republican House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan's proposal for ending the shutdown/debt ceiling standoff. It is apparently anxious to seize on yet another route to try to cut Social Security and Medicare benefits for seniors.

While the obvious crisis facing the country is a government that is not doing its job and an economy that is suffering enormously from a shortage of demand (i.e. too little government spending), the Post sees this as an opportunity to fix its invented crisis about the long-term budget deficit. This is in keeping with the Post's basic philosophical principle that a dollar in the pockets of ordinary workers is a dollar that could be in the pocket of a rich person. The editorial therefore insisted once again that we have to cut Social Security and Medicare.

The story on Social Security is of course bizarre. Few people think that seniors have too much money. Most must face sharp reductions in living standards when they reach retirement. The median income for a person over age 65 is less than $20,000 a year, that's a day or two's pay for your typical Wall Street high flyer. Furthermore, Social Security is entirely funded from its dedicated tax for the next two decades. Even after the trust fund faces depletion in 2033 the overwhelming majority of benefits would still be payable from the tax. Eliminating the cap on income subject to the tax would fill most of the remaining gap.

The real story of budget deficits is in health care. And here the problem is that people in the United States pay way too much for the care we get. Although the quality of health care is no better in the United States than in other wealthy countries we pay more than twice as much per person as the average in other countries. If this gap persists, in the long-term it will create serious budget problems, since more than half of our health care is paid by the government.

There are two ways to reduce costs. One is to get our costs in line with what people pay in every other country. This would mean taking on the health care industry. Our doctors (who comprise close to 20 percent of the country's richest 1 percent) would see their pay cut by roughly 50 percent, on average. We would cut what we pay for drugs and medical equipment by roughly the same amount. This could be done if we were prepared to eliminate the government protections that keep these prices so out of line with prices in the rest of the world.

This would mean opening our borders to more qualified foreign doctors and also educating more at home. (The reason free trade in physicians' services is not being discussed in current trade agreements is that the doctors' lobbies are too powerful and folks like the Post's editors are happy with protectionism that redistributes money to the rich.) It would mean paying less to drug companies and medical equipment companies. It would also mean ending the massive waste of our private health insurance system.

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According to polling data the Republicans are taking a beating over their decision to shutdown the government and risk default on the debt to stop Obamacare. The Washington Post decided to help them out. Using their new journalism model, where there is no distinction between news and editorial views, they used the news section for this purpose.

In a front page article in the implications of missing the debt ceiling, the Post discussed a report from Moody's which argued that the government could structure its payments so that the debt is serviced and there is no default. It therefore reasoned that the impact on financial markets would be limited. The piece discussed this assessment and then told readers:

"The memo offered a starkly different view of the consequences of breaching the debt limit than is held by the White House, many policymakers and other financial analysts. Over the weekend, economists at Goldman Sachs said the economy would take a devastating hit even if Treasury kept making payments on the debt, because the pullback in federal spending would amount to roughly $175 billion, or 4.2 percentage points of gross domestic product."

Actually Moody's view (as described in the Post piece) is not a "starkly different view." Moody's report focused on the financial market implications. It did not discuss (at least by the Post's account -- I couldn't find the memo), the macroeconomic effects of the cuts discussed by Goldman Sachs and other economists.

It would be striking if analysts at Moody's really did have a "starkly different view" of the economy than almost all the other analysts who follow it. However the Post did not actually produce any evidence that this is the case. It just misled readers by implying that the huge macroeconomic hit from sharp cutbacks in spending is a debatable point, as opposed to something like the shape of the earth, which serious people do not waste time disputing. 

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Eduardo Porter used his column today to point to a skills gap in the United States between the skills needed for the jobs being created and the skills of the people currently entering the workforce. The column rightly points out that this gap does not explain current unemployment and that employers could find more skilled workers if they offered higher wages. But it then refers to a study put out by the Brookings Institution:

"Mr. Rothwell says that the problem is getting bigger: while just under a third of the existing jobs in the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas require a bachelor’s degree or more, about 43 percent of newly available jobs demand this degree. And only 32 percent of adults over the age of 25 have one."

There are two points that should be made on this comment. First a small one: in the most recent data 33.5 percent of people age 25-29 had college degrees. And, the share of young people in large cities with college degrees would be even higher, since people with more education tend to gravitate to large cities. So the gap between the 43 percent figure and the share of the work force with degrees may not be that large. (It's also worth noting that the Brooking study looked at vacancies in a severely depressed economy. These are going to be skewed towards higher end workers. When the economy is closer to full employment the ratio of retail clerks and assembly line workers to managers increases.)

The other more important point is the one raised earlier by Porter, employers are not raising wages for college grads. The wage is a signal. Higher wages tell young people that it is worthwhile to invest the time and money needed to get a college degree. If young people don't anticipate a payoff for this investment, they won't make it.

This is yet another enduring cost of the prolonged downturn. We can anticipate a future workforce that will be less well-educated because the downturn prevented the labor market from giving the right signals to young people. 

 

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That's what the NYT told us this morning in a piece on what the Fed does and can do. The piece turns to a discussion of bubbles. It notes regulatory efforts to limit bubbles, then comments:

"The outstanding question is whether the Fed should try to pop bubbles if those first lines of defense don’t work. The problem with popping bubbles is that the Fed really only has one way to do it: by raising interest rates for the entire economy, which is something like dropping bombs on cockroaches."

Hmm, the only way for the Fed to pop bubbles is by raising interest rates? Let's think this one through.

Suppose we go back to the early days of the housing bubble in 2002, before the subprime nonsense had fully taken off. Let's imagine that then Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan had read a great little paper warning that house prices had grown out of line with trend values and that this increase had no plausible explanation in the fundamentals of the housing market. After having the Fed staff review the evidence, he concludes that there is in fact a dangerous bubble in the housing market.

Greenspan then prepares the following statement as his opening comment for the next time he gives congressional testimony:

"We are increasingly concerned about the bubble that has developed in the housing market. Prices are 20-30 percent above their trend levels, with no change in the fundamentals that can possibly explain this rise. At some point prices will inevitably fall back to their trend level.

"The Fed is prepared to take whatever steps are necessary to prevent any further growth in this bubble. This means that we will redouble our regulatory efforts to ensure that proper procedures are being followed in the issuance and securitization of mortgages in the institutions under our control. I will also urge the other federal and state regulators to take similar steps to ensure the integrity of new mortgages in the institutions under their control. I will follow this up by scheduling regular meetings with these regulators to discuss the steps they have taken to advance this goal.

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The Washington Post told readers that a chart showing a spike in the interest rate on Treasury bills coming due on October 31 should scare us. The rate on short term notes has gone from near zero to around 0.29 percent. This is a huge hike in own percent, but it is still a pretty damn low interest rate.

The story here is pretty simple. These short term bills get much of their value from the fact that they are hugely liquid. Because of concerns over the debt ceiling they are no longer hugely liquid. Okay, this is not good news, but I just can't get that scared over this. The financial markets will not freeze and the economy will not shut down because the interest rate on these notes is getting close to 0.3 percent.

Pushing the government against the debt ceiling is not smart and not going to be good for the economy (unless it ends the dollar's status as the preeminent reserve currency), but we should refrain from telling horror stories.

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I am not quite sure why, but apparently some people do take Niall Ferguson's pronouncements on economics seriously. I usually ignore his comments, since I can't imagine not having something better to do with my time. Nonetheless, I did note Paul Krugman and Brad DeLong beating up Ferguson for his failure to understand the Congressional Budget Office's projections for the long-term budget deficit.

But rather than having the decency to find some rock behind which to hide, Harvard Professor Niall Ferguson rose to the occasion and tried to rewrite what he had earlier said. In a new blog post he writes:

"Which is more important then:
1. The fact that, as far as the CBO knows today, the fiscal position in 2038 will almost certainly be worse, and maybe much worse, than it is now?
OR
2. The fact that one of the CBO's projections is not quite as bad this year as it was last year, when it was abominable, as opposed to just terrible."

Well, there are all sorts or reasons why we should not be terribly worried about #1 (see my paper here for beginners), but for purposes at hand, #2 is exactly what Ferguson had argued in his original column where he highlighted the deterioration in the new CBO projections compared to the projections from 2012.

This one is not really debatable. Here's the key paragraph:

"A very striking feature of the latest CBO report is how much worse it is than last year's. A year ago, the CBO's extended baseline series for the federal debt in public hands projected a figure of 52% of GDP by 2038. That figure has very nearly doubled to 100%. A year ago the debt was supposed to glide down to zero by the 2070s. This year's long-run projection for 2076 is above 200%. In this devastating reassessment, a crucial role is played here by the more realistic growth assumptions used this year."

I was always taught that when you make a mistake the best thing is to own up to it and apologize. Apparently at Harvard and the WSJ the accepted practice is to deny the error and to criticize the people who corrected it.

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According to the Washington Post, a debt default would have some clearly positive outcomes. Specifically it told readers that it would weaken the United States position as a financial safe haven for the rest of the world.

This would have two beneficial effects. If less money flowed from elsewhere in the world to the United States this would reduce the value of the dollar relative to other currencies. This has in fact been a stated goal of both the Bush and Obama administration, which both claimed that they wanted to end "currency manipulation." Currency manipulation means that other countries are deliberately buying up dollars to raise the value of the dollar against their own currency.

The effort to end currency manipulation is an effort to lower the value of the dollar. If investors stop buying dollars because it is no longer a safe haven, then this would lower the value of the dollar in the same way that if foreign central banks stopped buying dollars to "manipulate" the value of their currency, it would lower the value of the dollar. In other words, people who would applaud the end of currency manipulation should also applaud the ending of the dollar as the world's safe haven currency.

The other positive part of this story is that such a shift would lead to a downsizing of the financial industry in the United States. This would allow the resources in the sector to be reallocated to more productive sectors of the economy. It would also reduce the power of the financial industry in American politics.

A debt default may still be a bad story, but the vast majority of people in the United States have little to fear from the ending of the dollar as a safe haven currency.

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There are a couple of other points worth making on the Sixty Minutes piece beyond what I said earlier. First, the numbers involved should be put in some context. The Sixty Minutes folks were warning us that if the Disability fund runs dry, "it's your money and our money." So we should know how much of our money is at stake.

According to the Social Security Trustees Report, spending on the disability program in 2013 will be $144.8 billion. If we go to CEPR's incredibly spiffy responsible budget reporting calculator we find that this sum is equal to 4.2 percent of spending for the year.

Before you run off and spend this windfall, it is important to remember that the bulk of the people collecting disability would almost certainly even fit Senator Coburn's definition of disabled. We have people with terminal cancer, people who were paralyzed in car crashes, and many other ailments that undoubtedly impose a real impediment to work.

Based on what we know from the University of Michigan study, it is unlikely that even 10 percent of those collecting disability would fit most people's definition of bogus claims. But just to humor our disability bashing friends at Sixty Minutes, let's say that it's 20 percent. That means that we can knock down federal spending by 0.84 percent ($29.0 billion) if we just crack the whip. That's not trivial, but not enough to allow too many big fiestas with the savings.

This brings up the second point. The bogus cases will never be so polite as to identify themselves as bogus cases. In order to weed out a higher percentage of the people who should not be getting benefits we will have to tighten restrictions and deny a large share of claims. This will mean denying more claims that should be approved.

In other words, we can undoubtedly whittle down the number of bogus claims that get approved, but the cost will be that more legitimate claims will be turned down as well. So the price of denying benefits to some people who might be making too big of a deal out of back pain may be to deny benefits to people who can barely walk due to a back injury.

If the judgment of the hearing officers were perfect we wouldn't have this problem, but it's not. The question that anyone who wants to go the crackdown route has to answer is how many genuinely disabled people are you prepared to deny benefits in order to weed out a bogus applicant? Unfortunately, Sixty Minutes did not ask this question.

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That's what readers of an NYT column by Stephen D. King, the chief economist at HSBC, must be wondering. The piece, perversely titled "When Wealth Disappears," tries to construct a story of gloom and doom out of King's own confusion about economics.

The basic point seems to be that we have to adjust to a period of slower growth based on his claim that the growth of the period from the end of World War II until the end of the last century was an anomaly. To start with, the period of strong growth by most accounts is in fact much longer, going back well into the 19th century.

Furthermore, the accounting is more than a bit peculiar. Most of the slowdown in growth that troubles King is due to slower population growth. This means that countries might see slower overall growth, but little change in per capita GDP growth. Since it is the latter that affects living standards, why would anyone care if overall growth slows?

The same logic applies to one of the issues that troubles King. With most women now already taking part in the paid labor force, we cannot have the same gains to growth from more women entering the labor force as we did in the period from 1960 to 2000. While this is true, that growth was attributable to an increase in workers' hours, not an increase in output per worker. Certainly it is good that women have opportunities that they did not previously, but we usually think of society getting richer because we are getting more money per hour of work, not working longer hours. (On that point, if we want to adopt the Stephen King growth measure, Europe can see a 25 percent jump in output if European workers decided to put in the same number of hours each year as workers in the United States.)

If we have to fear a slowdown in productivity growth, as some economists have argued, this would imply a slower improvement in living standards. But King explicitly rejects this view:

"The end of the golden age cannot be explained by some technological reversal. From iPad apps to shale gas, technology continues to advance."

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