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).
Bryce Covert had a column in the NYT this morning arguing that the performance of the economy in a president's term is largely out of their control. There is considerable truth to this. Business cycles have a dynamic that is largely outside of the president's control. President Reagan was fortunate in having a severe recession in the first year of his administration. Memories being what they are, voters blamed the recession on Reagan's predecessor, while giving Reagan credit for the robust recovery which was largely inevitable.
Similarly, world events can have enormous impact in ways that are largely outside of the president's control. Jimmy Carter had the bad fortune to be sitting in the White House when the Iranian revolution took 6 million barrels a day of oil production off world markets, more than quadrupling oil prices.
But it is possible to take the powerless president story too far. First, as the piece notes, the president appoints members of the Federal Reserve Board. The next president will come into office with two vacancies on the seven person Board of Governors. In addition, the will have the opportunity to pick a new Fed chair (or reappoint Janet Yellen) in their first year in office. The Fed can have an enormous near-term influence on the economy. At the moment, if it were to raise rates, as many policy types advocate (including some at the Fed), it would slow growth and reduce job creation.
The second point is that both President Clinton and Bush II sat on expanding asset bubbles, stock in the case of Clinton and housing in the case of Bush II. While these bubbles grew, they had a positive impact on the economy raising incomes and boosting growth. However the collapse of the bubbles was inevitable and devastating in both cases. Clinton had the good fortune to leave office before the impact of the collapse on the economy was fully realized. Bush II was less lucky.Add a comment
The NYT had two articles on occupational licensing requirements today and there was not one mention of the restrictions that lead us to pay twice as much for our doctors as other wealthy countries. It is illegal to practice medicine in the United States unless you completed a U.S. residency program. In other words, under the law, all of those doctors trained in Canada, Germany, the United Kingdom and other wealthy countries can't be trusted to provide people in the United States with medical care.
This is called "protectionism." We all know it is stupid, self-defeating, backward looking, etc. when it comes to steelworkers, textile workers, and other workers who tend to be less educated. But somehow all our great proponents of free trade can't seem to notice the protectionism that benefits doctors. And this is real money. The average pay of doctors in the United States is more than $250,000 a year. If they were paid in line with the average for other wealthy countries the savings would be on the order or $100 billion a year or a bit more than $700 per household.
Anyhow, it striking to see the topic of unnecessary occupational licensing restrictions being addressed but zero discussion of the most costly one of them all. Hasn't the NYT heard about doctors?
FWIW, our dentists are over-protected and over-paid also. Until recently, dentists have to graduate a U.S. dental school to practice in the U.S. In the last few years, we began to allow graduates of dental schools in Canada.
Perhaps at some point our doctors and dentists will have to get by without protectionism and learn to compete in the global economy — but reporters will probably have to notice first.Add a comment
Paul Krugman devoted his column on Friday to a mild critique of the drive to take the United Kingdom out of the European Union. The reason the column was somewhat moderate in its criticisms of the desire to leave EU is that Krugman sympathizes with the complaints of many in the UK and elsewhere about the bureaucrats in Brussels being unaccountable to the public. This is of course right, but it is worth taking the issue here a step further.
If we expect to hold people accountable then they have to face consequences for doing their job badly. In particular, if they mess up really badly then they should be fired. There is a whole economics literature on the importance of being able to fire workers as a way of ensuring work discipline. Unfortunately this never seems to apply to the people at the top. And this is seen most clearly in the cases of those responsible for economic policy in the European Union.
The European Central Bank (ECB) was amazingly negligent in its failure to recognize the dangers of the housing bubbles in Spain, Ireland, and elsewhere. Its response to the downturn was also incredibly inept, needlessly pushing many countries to the brink of default, thereby inflating interest rates to stratospheric levels. Nonetheless, when Jean-Claude Trichet retired as head of the bank in 2011, he was applauded for his years of service and patted himself on the back for keeping inflation under the bank's 2.0 percent. (For those arguing that this was the bank's exclusive mandate, it is worth noting that Mario Draghi, his successor, is operating under the same mandate. He nonetheless sees it as the bank's job to maintain financial stability and promote growth.)Add a comment
Greg Mankiw used his NYT column to discuss the weak growth the U.S. economy has experienced over the last decade and goes through five explanations. To my view there's not much complicated about the story. We lost a huge amount of demand when the housing bubble collapsed and there is nothing to replace it. That is essentially #4, presented as secular stagnation by Larry Summers. Regular BTP readers know the story well, so let me briefly comment on the other four.
The first one, that the economy actually is growing rapidly but we are missing it because the gains are not picked up in our measurements, really flunks the laugh test. The items identified are things like getting music and information free on the web or being able to use our smart phones as cameras. These are great things, but if you try to put a price tag on them (in the old days most people would buy a cheap camera every ten years or so), they are pretty small.
Furthermore, there were always benefits from new products that weren't being picked up (also costs — try getting by without a cell phone — the need for a cell phone and the monthly service is not included as a negative in the data), what these folks have to show is that the annual size of these benefits has increased. If you want to be generous, give them a 0.1 percentage point of GDP and tell them to shut up.
The crisis hangover story is also widely told. Firms are scared to invest, banks are scared to lend. This one also seems to defy the data. First, until the recent downturn in investment following the collapse of oil prices and the rise in the trade deficit following the run-up in the dollar, investment was pretty much back to its pre-recession share of GDP. Banks are also lending at their pre-recession rate. So it's a nice story to humor reporters, but there is nothing in the world to support it.Add a comment
Back in January, when the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) issued its annual Budget and Economic Outlook, the Washington Post and other deficit hawk types seized on the projections of rising deficits and debt to GDP ratios in the latter part of its 10-year projections. There was another round of cries for deficit reduction, with cuts to Social Security and Medicare again holding center stage.
Some of us took the opportunity to point out that the projections of rising deficits hinged almost entirely on CBO's projections that interest rates would rise sharply in the next few years. In effect, it assumed that interest rates would soon return to levels that were similar to their pre-crash levels. CBO had made the same assumption in its prior six Budget and Economic Outlooks. It had been wrong.
It now looks like it will be wrong again, at least for its 2016 prediction on rates. It projected in January that the 10-year Treasury bond rate would average 2.8 percent. It has averaged less than 2.0 percent through the first five and half months of the year and is currently hovering near 1.6 percent.
This means that if interest rates are going to return to "normal" or near normal levels, it is likely to be further in the future than previously believed. Don't bet on that causing the deficit hawks to give up their attacks on Social Security and Medicare, but hopefully the rest of the world will take them even less seriously than is currently the case.
One final point: it would be good if interest rates did rise because it would mean the economy was getting stronger, so there is no reason to celebrate low interest rates. However, in the context of an economy than is still far from having recovered from the collapse of the housing bubble, low interest rates are better than high interest rates.Add a comment
That's right, he's upset that the Federal Reserve Board didn't raise interest rates this week. He tells readers:
"Until a year or two ago, there was good reason for the Fed to continue with its extraordinary monetary policy. But with the U.S. economy nearly back to full employment, and incomes rising, and core inflation running close to 2 percent, it’s well past the time to start easing back on the stimulus by raising rates."
The idea here is that we need to start raising rates or the labor market will get so tight that we will have problems with rising inflation. Or so it seems. But then we get:
"This isn’t about preventing future inflation — right now, all the signals are that that risk is pretty low. But it is about weaning the U.S. and global economy off an addiction to zero interest rates that have badly distorted the price of financial assets relative to the price of everything else."
Okay, so we don't actually have a problem with inflation, we have a problem with the price of financial assets being distorted. Pearlstein never quite fills in the details, but implicitly he is saying that we have problems with asset bubbles.Add a comment
No, I'm not talking about its decision not to raise interest rates yesterday, I mean the release of May data on industrial production. The data showed a decline in manufacturing output in May of 0.4 percent. The output levels for both March and April were also revised downward. Over the last three months production has been declining at a 2.4 percent annual rate.
This indicates that the manufacturing sector continues to be a drag on the economy and is likely to mean further job losses in the months ahead. The report is yet another warning that the economy is not moving along at a healthy pace.Add a comment
There have been several pieces in the media complaining that the Fed is having a hard time raising interest rates from their current unusually low level. This is true, but the basic story here is quite simple: the economy remains very weak.
The growth rate has averaged just 2.0 percent for the last five years and may well fall below that pace in 2016. That is not an environment in which it makes sense for the Fed to be raising interest rates.
The recent news reports make it sound like the problem is that the Fed can't raise interest rates, as though this is a goal in itself. The real point is that we should want to see a strong economy in which it might be necessary for the Fed to raise interest rates to prevent overheating. The fact that the economy is not stronger means that people are unable to get jobs, or full-time jobs, or jobs that fully utlilize their skills.
It also means that we are foregoing an enormous amount of potential output. We could be devoting resources to the spread of clean energy, educating our kids, or providing better health care. But because there is not enough demand in the economy, resources just sit idle.
This is a real and huge problem. The fact that the Fed can't raise interest rates? Sorry, not in the same ballpark.Add a comment
It undoubtedly was very disappointing for Robert Samuelson, the Washington Post, and the rest of the Very Serious People (VSP) to see President Obama's call for increasing Social Security. For the time being, their plans to attack Social Security and Medicare seem completely dead in the water. After all, President Obama had earlier been a grand bargainer, willing to put both Social Security and Medicare on the table, now he actually wants to increase benefits. And even Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, says he is opposed to cuts, at least for the moment.
But it is important to remember that in our nation’s capital, no bad idea stays dead for long. For that reason, no one should view Robert Samuelson’s latest column as an admission of defeat. It is a call for resurrection. So let’s get out that stake and see if we can nail this vampire once and for all.
The basic theme is the standard one: it is an effort to divert class warfare into generational warfare. Over the last four decades we have seen the greatest upward redistribution of income in the history of the world. Rather than have the losers blame the gainers, Robert Samuelson wants them to be angry at their parents.
Samuelson’s basic story is that the elderly are actually doing quite well; therefore, we should be looking to take money away from them rather than give them more. His main piece of evidence is a subjective question on well-being which shows the over age 65 age group consistently answers that they are most satisfied with their financial situation.
There are many points that can be made about this sort of subjective assessment. The most obvious is that the sense of satisfaction depends on expectations. People who are in retirement or the last years of their working career have little hope of substantial improvements in their living standard, so it may not be surprising that most would answer they are satisfied with what they have. Younger people can of course hope for, and in fact expect, better times ahead as they advance in their career.
In fact, there is useful information in this survey and it goes in the opposite direction of Samuelson’s complaints. If we look at recent and near retirees, the group between the ages of 50 to 64, we see a sharp decline in their sense of satisfaction over the period since the survey began in 1972. In 2014, the most recent year in the survey, just 25.2 percent of those in this age group expressed satisfaction with their financial situation. This is down from 38.4 percent in 1972 and a peak of 41.4 percent in 1978.Add a comment
That’s right, CEPR Co-Director Dean Baker has been Beating the Press for 10 years now (and that doesn’t include the commentary on economic reporting he did for 10 years before that).
This means 10 years of waking up every morning — even on weekends! — at 4:30AM, combing through The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post (or as he has been known to say, Fox on 15th street) and other major new outlets. 10 years of dismantling bogus economic theory. 10 years of uncovering the ideological bias behind misrepresentation of data and revealing the spin that promotes narrow interests.
Beat The Press has called out deficit hawks, Social Security slashers, and bubble deniers. Every day for the past 10 years (or close to it anyway) Dean has candidly explained what policies mean for real people.
CEPR receives no dedicated funding for our blogs — all funding must come from general support, which is getting harder and harder to come by. With a 24-hour-news cycle and moneyed interests dominating the political world, it is as important as ever that people are informed about the matters that impact them the most.
Won’t you show BTP some 10th Anniversary love by clicking here and donating today? Robert Samuelson will thank you! Well…maybe not, but all of us at CEPR will.
Thanks for your support,
Dean and your friends at CEPRAdd a comment
The NYT has another piece that talks about China's demographic problem due to an aging population. (In fairness, this is really a sidebar, the piece is mostly arguing that China has failed to get itself on a sustainable growth path.) I went through the arithmetic on this last week.
The basic point is simple: China has had extraordinarily rapid productivity growth over the last three and a half decades. The impact of this growth on raising wages and living standards swamps any conceivable negative effect from a declining ratio of workers to retirees. The math is about as simple as it gets, but I'm still curious how the bad story is supposed to manifest itself.
Keep in mind, the story is supposed to be a labor shortage. What does that mean?
That's a serious question, how does an economy know it's having a labor shortage? Presumably it means that the lowest paying jobs end up going unfilled because people have better options. So what? Many retail stores will go out of business, so will some restaurants, and other low wage employers. Why would we care? Remember, no one is going unemployed. These businesses are going under because they can't find workers willing to work at the wage they are offering. Instead, workers are going to better paying, higher productivity jobs. That's unfortunate for these businesses, but hey, that's capitalism.
There is an issue that much of the support for retirees may go through the government, which means that China would have to increase taxes. There may be a Chinese Grover Norquist who will make any tax increases very difficult politically, but that is a political issue, not an economic one. Workers who have seen their real wages double or triple in the last couple of decades can certainly afford to pay somewhat higher taxes to support their retired parents.
So again, what exactly is the problem?Add a comment
The May jobs report was worse than most analysts (including me) had expected. We are now seeing a lot of columns asking how bad was it? My answer is pretty bad.
First, to get an obvious source of overstated weakness out of the way, we lost 35,000 jobs in the communications sector due to the Verizon strike. Those jobs will come back in the June report. If we add that number in we get 73,000. That’s better, but hardly a great report.
Furthermore, this bad report wasn’t hugely out of the line with the reports from the prior two months, both of which were revised down with the May release. The average for these two months was 154,500. Taken together, the three reports provide solid evidence that the rate of job growth has slowed sharply from the 200,000 plus rate of the prior two years.
We get a similar story if we look at total hours. Since December, the index of average weekly hours has risen at less than a 0.7 percent annual rate. This compares to a 2.0 percent rate over the prior year. (The index has actually been slightly negative if we use January, 2016 as the start point.)
We can also look to other items in the report that are to some extent independent of the establishment jobs numbers. For example, we can look to the employment diffusion indexes, which show the percentage of industries in which employers expect to add workers over a given period. All of these have fallen sharply in recent months.
Neil Irwin has an interesting piece in the Upshot section of the NYT noting factors that people may not consider in deciding between renting and buying their home. One item I would add to the list is the tendency to overstate the value of the mortgage interest tax deduction.
It is common for realtors to push houses on prospective buyers by telling them that their mortgage interest is tax deductible. This is true, but the value of the deduction is only equal to the difference between the household's deductions including mortgage interest and the standard deduction.
Most people will have few deductions other than their mortgage interest deduction. Typically, they may have state income taxes, and that will be pretty much it.
Suppose these taxes come to $5k a year for a couple and their mortgage interest is $10,000 a year. If they are in the 25 percent bracket, they might be inclined to think that they are saving $2,500 a year from their taxes due to the mortgage interest deduction. In fact, since the standard deduction for this couple is $12,600, they are only benefiting to the extent that the mortgage interest deduction puts them above this number. In this case their combined deductions are now $15,000, which is $2,400 above the standard deduction. That will save them $600 a year on their taxes, not $2,500.
Furthermore, as time goes on, interest will be a smaller share of this couple's mortgage payment as the mortgage is gradually paid off. This will reduce the amount that can be deducted against their taxes. This means that the mortgage interest deduction will be of less use to this couple over time.
Many homebuyers are unaware of these facts, these realtors can be misleading. They are worth keeping in mind by potential homebuyers.Add a comment
Roger Cohen tells us it does. In a column drafted in Vietnam, he tells us that the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is all about shoring up East Asian countries in their resistance to China.
That's an interesting thought. After all, the hardest battles at the end were about getting longer and stronger patent-related protections for the pharmaceutical industry. It's not obvious how that helps us gain solidarity among the people of the region against China.
There is much else in the deal that doesn't obviously help us vis-a-vis China. For example, the Investor State Dispute Settlement mechanism, which institutionalizes the far-right wing legal doctrine of regulatory takings (we have to compensate foreign investors for any law or regulation that reduces their expected profits), doesn't seem like the sort of thing that advances an anti-China coalition.
Nor is it obvious why we would not have had stronger rules of origin requirements. As the TPP is written, China will be able to hugely increase the amount of goods it can export to the United States tariffs free by having them assembled into products in one of the TPP countries. This is not to argue that we should be looking to construct a trade deal to marginalize China, but if that were the point, the TPP would probably not be that deal.Add a comment
That is a headline I would love to see. Of course, Donald Trump would threaten to have them investigated.Add a comment
No, I'm not about to become a charter member of the Robert Samuelson fan club, but he does get the basic story right in his column this morning. The robots are not taking our jobs, or at least not at an especially rapid pace. As Samuelson correctly points out, robots are just a form of productivity growth and productivity growth has been very slow in recent years. This is 180 degrees at odds with the robots taking our jobs story.
In fact, we should want more robots taking our jobs. That would allow more rapid wage growth and/or longer vacations and more leisure, assuming of course that the Federal Reserve Board did not deliberately slow the economy to create more unemployment.
There are a couple of other points worth mentioning on this piece. Samuelson is dismissive of the potential impact of self-driving cars. He tells readers:
"Consider. An opinion survey by Brandon Schoettle and Michael Sivak at the University of Michigan found that only 16 percent of respondents wanted self-driving vehicles; 39 percent preferred “partially self-driving” and 46 percent wanted no “self-driving” features. Safety is one anxiety. Cost may be another. Presumably, car prices would be higher, reflecting the costs of software, sensors and electronics. Will drivers pay the premium, especially when today’s cars last longer than ever? (The average age of today’s vehicles is 11 years, up from five years in 1969, reports the Transportation Department)."
This one completely misses the potential of self-driving cars. If cars are remotely driven, there is no need to own your own car. You can summon a car to meet your specific needs at the time you need it. In other words, if it's just a short trip by yourself, you would presumably summon a small car that uses very little gas (or electricity). If you're going on a longer trip with friends or family, you would summon a bigger car that would allow everyone to be comfortable. Not owning a car could lead to enormous savings, in addition to not needing parking spaces or garage space to house your car.
It's not surprising that people grabbed for a quick survey would not have a clear idea of the potential of this technology. It's unlikely any of us can fully grasp the potential of major innovations. I remember Paul Krugman dismissing the value of the iPad when it first came out. I say this not to trash Krugman, but to point out that even a very insightful economist, who had time to reflect on the topic, had no clue as to use of this new product. Anyhow, put me down as a big optimist on self-driving vehicles.Add a comment
In an article on the decision by Japan's Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, to delay a long scheduled increase in its sales tax, the NYT told readers:
"Its [Japan's] debt may be large, but it is almost entirely funded by domestic savers, making a crisis like the one in Greece much less likely."
While it is true that most Japanese debt is held domestically, an even more important difference is that Japan's debt is almost entirely in yen. This means that Japan can never be in the situation Greece faced where it was unable to meet payments on its debt. Japan could always print the money to pay the bonds. Greece could not, since it is not allowed to print euros.
There is a risk that printing large amounts of yen would lead to inflation, but that is a very difference situation that the one Greece faces. Also, the idea that Japan will face a risk of excessive inflation at any point in the near future does not seem very plausible.
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The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) must be in deep trouble. The NYT has apparently abandoned any pretext of objectivity in covering the trade deal. The second paragraph of a news article on the political obstacles confronting the TPP equated the deal with "the cause of free and open trade." While that may be effective rhetoric for a pro-TPP politician, it has nothing to do with the reality of the deal.
The TPP actually does very little to advance free and open trade, primarily because the trade barriers between the countries in the pact are already low. This is why the International Trade Commission (ITC) found that removal of these barriers would add just over 0.01 percentage point to annual growth over the next 16 years.
In fact, because it increases barriers in the form of longer and stronger patent and copyright protection, the TPP may on net actually increase protectionism among the countries in the pact. (The ITC did not factor in the impact of higher prices for prescription drugs and other protected products in its analysis.)
In addition to these protectionist measures, the TPP may also restrict labor mobility through its clause on industrial secrets. This could require states to enforce non-compete agreements that prevent workers from moving from one company to another or starting their own business.
The TPP also effectively brings in through the backdoor, the far right-wing legal doctrine of regulatory takings. Under the rules in the TPP, foreign investors would have to be compensated for any regulatory action that reduced their profits. This is a major issue for many opponents of the deal.
However, the NYT article ignores the long set of issues around the TPP. It completely equates the TPP with the cause of free trade, using the term "pro-trade" at five different points in the article to describe supporters of the TPP.
The piece also refers to the alleged loss of $300 million in export markets due to a trade deal between Japan and Australia. (It implies this market would be regained with the TPP.) According to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, this is equal to a bit less than 0.4 percent of current production in the United States.Add a comment
All NYT readers know that protectionism is stupid and self-defeating. It hurts everyone involved. So where were all the economic experts to give the usual lines on protectionism in response to efforts to change the Digital Millennium Copyright Act?
The NYT reported on these efforts without ever once mentioning the economic costs that would be implied by making listeners pay more money for music and the cost that intermediaries like YouTube would have to incur to comply with stronger copyright protection. The failure to mention these costs is remarkable given how space the NYT and other media outlets have devoted to denouncing proposals from Donald Trump to impose higher tariffs and plans by Bernie Sanders to chart a different course for trade policy.
Economics works the same regardless of whether the item in question is a car, a ton of steel, or a song. Imposing barriers that raise the price imposes costs on consumers and the economy. The biggest difference is that in proportionate terms the barriers involved with copyright protection are likely to be far larger than any trade barriers that Trump or anyone else might impose on imported manufactured goods. While the latter are unlikely to exceed 50 percent of the sale price, and would almost certainly be far less, copyright protection can make music that would otherwise be available for free very costly.
To get an idea of how costly such protections can be, New Zealand's government estimated that increasing the length of copyright protection from 50 to 75 years, as required by the Trans-Pacific Partnership, would cost it 0.24 percent of annual GDP, the equivalent of $4.3 billion in the U.S. economy in 2016. It would have been helpful to include some estimates of the costs associated with the stronger protections being discussed in this piece.
It is also worth noting that only a very small portion of the costs associated with this protection is likely to end up in the pockets of the performers. Much of it is simply deadweight loss — the lost benefit that consumers would have had from being able to listen to music at its marginal cost which they will forego now that it is selling at its higher protected price. A large portion will go to costs associated with enforcement, including new locks that would be put in place. And, much would go to intermediaries in the process, including the lawyers and lobbyists working on changing the law.
It is likely that performers will get less than ten cents for every dollar of lost benefits to consumers and their take may well end up being less than one cent per dollar. Unfortunately, the NYT never mentioned these losses at all, ignoring the well-known benefits of free trade.
Yes, musicians and singers need to be paid for their work, but there are more modern and efficient mechanisms for this task.Add a comment
The pressure for a Fed rate hike is building as consumer spending in April came in somewhat higher than expected. Other data remain mixed, with investment notably weak.
The Washington Post ran an article that seemed to support the rate hike agenda. It told readers that the Fed's key measure of inflation, the core personal consumption expenditure deflator, had ticked up in recent months. This is not true.
If we take the measure as being the year over year change, this was just 1.6 percent from April of 2015 to April of 2016. It was 1.7 percent for both January and February.
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