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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The Washington Post, which adheres rigidly to the philosophy that a dollar in a non-rich person's pocket is a dollar that could be in a rich person's pocket, argued in its Wonkblog section that it might be time for the Fed to start raising interest rates and throwing people out of work. The story is that when the unemployment rate falls below 6.5 percent, the inflation rate might start rising.

This one is almost too much to believe even from the Washington Post. Of course the unemployment rate has come down considerably from its 10.1 percent peak in 2010, but most of the reason is that people have left the labor force. According to the OECD, the employment rate among prime age workers (25-54) is up by only 0.8 percentage points from its 2010 low and is still down by 4.0 percentage points from its pre-recession level.

But let's look at the evidence the Post uses to make its case. The post has a chart that divides the years since 1983 into years when the unemployment rate was above 6.5 percent and years when it was below. The unemployment rate is then graphed against the change in the core inflation rate over the year. The regression line has the expected downward slope implying a negative relationship between the unemployment rate and the change in the inflation rate.

This is all nice and predictable. But the truly incredible part of the story is that in the graph itself we see that the rate of inflation actually declined in most of the years when the unemployment rate was below 6.5 percent. That's right, fans of counting and arithmetic everywhere will be able to see that in 10 of the 19 years where the unemployment rate was below 6.5 percent the inflation rate actually fell. It only rose in eight of these years, with the rate being unchanged in one of the years. Are you scared of inflation yet?

We could look at this one from a slightly different angle. The unemployment rate was below 6.5 percent as a year-round average for 15 consecutive years from 1994 to 2008. Over this stretch the core inflation rate fell from 2.8 percent in 1994 to 2.3 percent in 2008. See, hyperinflation is just around the corner.

The incredible part of this story is that even if we took the very worst year for inflation in this thirty year stretch, the inflation rate only rose by 0.8 percentage points. So, even if we happen to draw the bad straw and we get the same sort of jump in the inflation rate in 2014 from letting the unemployment rate fall too low, we will se the core rate of inflation rise from 1.5 percent to 2.3 percent. The horror, the horror.

Hey, but it's much better to throw more people out of work, at least by the thinking at the Washington Post.

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Bloomberg had a very nice piece reviewing the employment history of Washington State which has had the highest minimum wage in the country since 1998. The piece notes that the high minimum wage has not prevented the state from having stronger than average employment growth. It also presents the views of critics of the minimum wage who argue that it has still taken a toll on employment.

This is how it should be done.

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In the last three decades the rich have gotten the bulk of the benefits of economic growth, as those at the middle and bottom of the wage distribution have seen little improvement in living standards. This naturally leads many people to want to reverse the policies that have led to this upward redistribution, such as high unemployment, a trade policy that protects high end workers, while subjecting the middle and bottom to international competition, government subsidies to too big to fail banks, an ever more intrusive patent policy, an anti-trust policy that greenlights monopolies like Microsoft, and many others that could be added to this list.

Of course the winners of the last three decades don't want the public to consider policies that might reverse this upward redistribution, so instead they do things like try to promote generational conflict, claiming that the troubles of younger workers are somehow attributable to their parents Social Security and Medicare. Wall Street billionaire Peter Peterson is a leader in such efforts, having funded numerous groups for this purpose.

NPR did its part in the promotional of generational war, interviewing Paul Taylor, the executive vice president at Pew Research Center about his new book. Taylor repeatedly complained that younger generations don't seem angry about their parents' Social Security and Medicare. He told his interviewer:

"Well, what's so fascinating is there isn't any tension at the moment. You have a generation coming in that isn't wagging its finger with blame at mom or grandma, in fact, they're living with mom and grandma."

Later he adds:

"I leave this book thinking we have very serious demographically driven challenges, that we have a political system that at the moment isn't stepping up to the plate, but we have a population that isn't spoiling for a fight over these issues."

In addition to expressing his disappointment that the young don't share his antagonism to older people over their Social Security and Medicare, Taylor also seriously misrepresents some key points about these programs and the burdens they face. He tells listeners:

"Things are out of balance. Our Social Security and Medicare systems, which, in the public's mind, have done brilliantly in doing what they set out to do, they were based on the demographics of the 20th century. You had, literally, at the beginning, 150 workers per retiree, by the time all the baby boomers move into taking those programs, we'll only have two workers per retiree.

"The math of those programs does not work. Everybody who looks at the demographics knows that those systems are going broke with 15 or 20 years and the longer you wait, the more the burden of the solution is going to fall on the millennials."

Actually, the demographics have long been known to the people who designed these programs and were predicted almost perfectly many decades ago. Furthermore, the projected shortfalls in Social Security and Medicare can be met with tax increases on the millennials that are considerably smaller than the tax increases faced by the baby boomers.

The key issue is whether we continue to see the upward redistribution of the last three decades or whether the gains from growth are broadly shared. The Social Security Trustees project that average compensation will increase by more than 50 percent over the next three decades. If the wages of typical worker increase in step with the average then it would be difficult to see the generational injustice if their payroll taxes increased by two to three percentage points, especially since this will be needed in order to support their own longer retirements.

It is striking that NPR is willing to focus so much more attention on the threat to the living standards of millennials presented by a 2-3 percentage point increase in payroll taxes than the policies that could lead to much or all of the benefits of productivity growth over the next three decades going to those at the top, as has been the case for the last three decades.

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Of course most NYT readers are well aware of the fact that the government is projected to spend around $48.5 trillion over the next decade, so they realized that President Obama's proposal to spend $60 billion more on the Earned Income Tax Credit is no big deal in terms of overall spending. That's why this NYT article saw no reason to put the number in any context. However for that tiny group of readers who don't have the total budget in their heads and may have thought this proposal would be a big deal in terms of federal spending, the CEPR Responsible Budget Reporting Calculator would quickly tell you that this spending amounts to 0.14 percent of projected spending.

The piece also includes a quote from Harvard economist Nathaniel Hendren, saying "we’re rightly concerned about budget deficits." It would have been worth reminding readers that the efforts to lower the budget deficit have cost the country at least $5 trillion (@ $17,000 per person) in lost output over the last six years and kept millions of people from working. Some NYT readers may not realize the costs the country is enduring because some people like smaller budget deficits.

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There was a larger than normal jump in spending on consumer services reported for January. The Reuters article attributed this to weather driven increases in spending on heating.

Actually the biggest rise in spending on services in January was for health care. The Commerce Department showed the annual rate of spending increased by $30.5 billion in January. This amounted to a 1.6 percent increase in spending compared with December. This is an extraordinary rate of increase, especially considering the slow growth in health care costs over the last five years.

Most likely the increase was due to one time factors associated with the Affordable Care Act. It will matter hugely to the success of the program and the budget and the economy if this increase turns out not to be a one time increase.

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Yes, it's Monday morning and Robert Samuelson again complains we are being cruel to our children. As in the past, he is not bothered by the likelihood that we will hand them a planet badly damaged by global warming. Nor is he upset that we might hand them a country in which the rules are rigged to give the rich a hugely disproportionate share of national income.

Nope, this is the Washington Post. He is upset that seniors will be getting Social Security checks averaging $1,500-$1,600 a month. And that it will be paying bloated prices for seniors' health care. In keeping with the Washington Post's fundamental philosophy that a dollar in the pocket of someone who is not rich is a dollar that could be in the pocket of a rich person, Samuelson is not upset about overpayments to wealthy doctors and drug companies, he's upset about seniors getting health care.

Those who actually give a damn about the well-being of our children and grandchildren know that on average their pay will be about 40 percent higher in three decades. If they pay two or three percentage points more of their wages in Social Security taxes, to support their own longer retirements, who gives a damn? We pay much higher Social Security and Medicare taxes than our parents and grandparents' generations.

If most people in our children and grandchildren's generation do not enjoy substantially higher living standards than we do it will be due to the fact that the Jeff Bezos of the world have managed to appropriate most of the gains from growth. Serious people therefore focus on policies to reverse the upward redistribution of income over the last three decades, however employees of Jeff Bezos, and apparently the Pew Foundation, try to divert people's attention to get them upset about the $1,300 monthly Social Security checks going to today's seniors. 

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Brooks tells us that people who are unhappy about the enormous upward redistribution of the last three decades are guilty of the sin of envy. Let's try an alternative hypothesis, large segments of the public are angry because the wealthy are rigging the rules so that an ever larger share of the pie gets redistributed to their pockets.

There are a large number of well-documented ways in which they have engineered this heist. For example, they have too big to fail insurance that transfers tens of billions of dollars each year into the pockets of the CEOs and shareholders of the country's largest banks. They also managed to secure near tax-free status for the financial industry, which puts tens of billions more into the pockets of the big actors there. And they have constructed a tax code chock-full of shelters that allow pension fund managers like Mitt Romney to get incredibly rich by buying up new companies and teaching them the game.

They have created longer and stronger government-granted patent monopolies that redistribute hundreds of billions annually from the general public to pharmaceutical companies, tech companies, and patent lawyers. They have put in place a corporate governance structure under which CEOs essentially pay off corporate directors to look the other way as they pilfer their companies. And they have maintained protectionist barriers that allow doctors and other highly paid professionals to earn far more than their counterparts in other wealthy countries.

Many folks think these economic distortions that slow growth while making the rich richer at the expense of everyone else are bad policy. But Brooks wants us to think that efforts to eliminate these distortions are simply envy that must be held in check.

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The Washington Post is widely known as the newspaper that uses both its opinion and news pages to constantly tell readers that we have to cut Social Security and Medicare spending because the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) predicts big deficits 10, 20, or 30 years in the future. That is why it was extraordinary to see an article in the Sunday paper telling readers that CBO is often wrong and that its scores may not always be the best basis for policy decisions.

The central theme of the piece was that the Eisenhower administration was able to commit $25 billion to building the inter-state highway system in 1956 (the equivalent of $1.1 trillion in today's economy) in part because he didn't have to get this spending scored by CBO. While this was clearly a large expenditure relative to the size of the economy, the benefits would have been very difficult for a CBO-type agency to quantify.

In pointing out the errors of scoring by CBO, the piece seriously understates the case. In 1996, after all the Clinton era increases and spending cuts had already been put into law, CBO still projected a deficit for 2000 of 2.5 percent of GDP ($420 billion in today's economy). In fact, in fiscal year 2000 we actually had a surplus of roughly the same size, implying a forecasting error of close to 5 percentage points of GDP.

This was not due to further legislative changes. The tax and spending changes over the intervening four years actually added slightly to the deficit. The problem was that CBO grossly under-estimated economic growth over this four year period and over-estimated the unemployment rate, predicting a 6.0 percent unemployment rate for 2000 when the actual rate was 4.0 percent. 

Having underestimated growth in the years 1996-2000, CBO then hugely over-estimated growth and revenue in the next decade, failing to see that the stock bubble would collapse, sending both the economy and revenue plunging. As a result, we never came close to paying off the national debt, Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan's big fear when he argued in favor of the Bush tax cuts in 2001.

And of course the CBO completely missed the collapse of the housing bubble and the fact that it would tank the economy. As a result, the Washington Post was highlighting concerns about the relatively small deficits of 2006-2007, while completely ignoring the bubble that was about to devastate the country.  

More recently CBO has likely been exaggerating deficit concerns by failing to fully incorporate the slowdown in health care cost growth in its projections of future spending. If this slowdown continues, then not only will near-term deficits be relatively modest, but even the longer term deficits highlighted by the Post will also be easily contained.

One issue this article gets wrong is the nature of the data at CBO's disposal. We have very reliable data on GDP dating back to the early post-World War II years. The Bureau of Labor Statistics is a reliable source of inflation data for 100 years. CBOs problem in its scoring does not stem from a lack of data.  

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A NYT article discussing class divisions in Venezuela included a chart showing an implicit rate of inflation calculated by the Cato Institute. The chart shows an annual rate of inflation of more than 300 percent, compared to an official rate of around 50 percent.

The basis for the difference is that the Cato rate effectively assumes that items are paid for in dollars. As the black market price of Venezuela's currency plunges against the dollar, this leads to a very high measure of inflation. This measure is of dubious relevance to the people of Venezuela, since only a tiny portion of their purchases involve payments in dollars.

As a practical matter, because there are shortages of many items the true inflation rate would be higher than the official rate, since many items cannot be purchased at the measured price. However, the dollar conversion methodology used by Cato is not an appropriate way to measure the effect of shortages. In principle, the correct method would assign a price to the items that are subject to shortages based on their black market price and then weigh them in their proportion to consumers' consumption bundle.

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It's pretty impressive to be able to know something about the future when all the evidence suggests the opposite. Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus apparently knows that we will never be able to raise additional revenue to cover Social Security's projected shortfalls. That is the only way we can explain her assertion (expressed in euphemisms) that we have to cut Social Security benefits now to:

"protect those most in need of generous benefits."

Of course the evidence shows that the public has been in the past and is now willing to pay higher taxes in order to maintain Social Security benefits. Few, if any, members of Congress lost their seats over the tax increases put in place in the 1980s. Polls have consistently shown substantial support for raising revenue by increasing or eliminating the cap on taxable wages. And, they have even shown a preference for raising the payroll tax to cutting benefits. (In fact, less than one third of the public even noticed the 2.0 percentage point increase in the payroll tax at the start of 2013.)

The payroll tax increase needed to keep the program fully solvent for the rest of the century is less than one tenth of projected real wage growth over the next three decades. Given the popularity of Social Security across the political spectrum we might think that the public would be willing to pay some price to maintain benefits for all workers, not just those most in need of generous benefits. Fortunately we have Ruth Marcus to tell us otherwise.

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