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 highlighting the latest Beat the Press posts.

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The NYT decided to turn the standard textbook economics on its head and told readers that the higher imports reported for April is good news for the economy. An article headlined, "Data readings converge to show an economy regaining momentum," told readers:

"'Rising imports are not a sign of economic weakness,' said Joshua Shapiro, chief United States economist for MFR Inc. 'To the contrary, it’s a sign of economic demand.'"

Okay, let's get out the detective hat and glasses. Imports can rise for two reasons. One is the story here from Mr. Shapiro, demand is growing rapidly. That means we are buying more of everything, including more imports. Then we have reason two, the U.S. is becoming less competitive so we are substituting imported goods for domestically produced goods. Let's go look at the evidence.

As this piece notes, exports fell by 0.2 percent in April. That one seems consistent with the declining competitiveness story. After all, if our economy is booming that should very directly boost our exports since many exports are components of products that are ultimately consumed in the United States. For example, we export many car parts to Mexico, which are then assembled into cars purchased in the United States. In this way more demand for cars here means more exports of car parts to Mexico.

Of course we don't have more than a single month's data to look at. If we compare real exports over the last three months with the prior three months they are down by an average of 1.0 percent. That certainly seems to be good evidence of the declining competitiveness story.

If we turn to real imports, there is a jump of 1.8 percent on average over the last three months. While much of this jump is attributable to the April data, even in the winter months, when we know the economy was growing slowly (if at all), imports were up over the pace in the fall. That is certainly consistent with the declining competitiveness rather than rapid growth view.

Finally, if the jump in imports in April was due to rapid growth, what was the component of domestic demand that was growing rapidly? Retail sales increased by just 0.2 percent from March's pace. Manufacturing inventories increased by a modest 0.4 percent (as compared to a 0.7 percent rise in January). And shipments of manufacturing goods increased by just 0.3 percent in April, down from 0.4 percent growth in March, and 1.0 percent in February.

In short, we seem to have a pretty good case here that the jump in imports is a story of declining U.S. competitiveness. The data refuse to cooperate with the NYT's story line.


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It's apparently difficult for the New York Times to get very basic economic information, or at least to remember it. That is the implication of an article that discusses the benefits that joining the euro offers to Lithuania and other non-euro zone EU countries.

The article pointed out that tying a country's currency to the euro eliminates its ability to improve its competitiveness by lowering the value of its currency. It then points out:

"Lithuania has tied its currency, the litas, to the euro for a decade. So it is will not really give up any room to maneuver. On the contrary, use of the euro relieves the country’s central bank of the stress of having to defend the value of the litas on currency markets."

This assertion ignores the fact that the European Central Bank (ECB) has not been a reliable guarantor its currency and the debt of the countries in the euro zone. For this reason, at the peak of the crisis countries paid an additional risk premium as a result of being in the euro zone.

This was most evident in the difference between interest rates on Finish and Danish debt. In principle, the interest rate on these two countries debt should have been very close. Both were relatively healthy economies with modest debt burdens. Yet Denmark, which tied its currency to the euro from its inception, but did not join the euro, consistently had a lower yield on its debt. The implication is that being a euro member during the crisis imposed a burden, at least on a relatively healthy economy. It was not an asset as implied in this article.

The article also implies that joining the euro would allow Lithuania to benefit from the ECB's policies to fight deflation. After noting the economic crisis facing Greece the article tells readers:

"In fact, the European Central Bank is now preoccupied with preventing other countries from slipping into the same deflationary cycle of falling prices and wages as Greece."

While the bank may be "preoccupied" with combating deflation, its policies have been a disastrous failure in this respect. The inflation rate in the euro zone is just 0.5 percent, well below the bank's 2.0 percent target (which is arguably far too low). The economy of the euro zone is operating far below its potential by every measure, with excess unemployment running in the millions. And, according to research from the International Monetary Fund, this is leading to long-term costs in the form of lower potential GDP.

In short, there is considerable evidence that the ECB has done considerable damage to the economies of its members. This article ignores this evidence.

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It was hard to miss all the news stories the last few days about the jobs that will likely be lost in coal mining areas due to efforts to curtail carbon emissions. And these are stories that should be pursued. Most coal miners will never have another job that pays anywhere near as well if they lose their job in the industry.

Nonetheless a sense of scale would be appropriate. There are a bit less than 80,000 coal mining jobs in the whole country. They will not all go away and the regulations proposed by the Obama administration are being phased in over 16 years. By comparison, we lost roughly 80,000 jobs in coal mining in the eight years from 1985 to 1993, when the labor force was less than three quarters its current size. I don't recall anywhere near the same focus on this far more serious hit to coal country.

By comparison, we just has trade data released this morning showing that the deficit had jumped by $3 billion in April. The trade deficit has been running at a $535 billion annual rate over the last three months. This compares to a $450 billion annual rate over the prior three months. The difference, if sustained, implies a direct loss of roughly 700,000 jobs since GDP would be 0.5 percentage points lower with this larger trade deficit. (This doesn't count the multiplier effect, which would increase the impact by roughly 50 percent.)

It is striking that a rise in the trade deficit that could cost the country 700,000 jobs this year is likely to get so much less attention from the media than the Obama administrations' proposal to reduce carbon emissions, which will cost less than 80,000 jobs over the next 16 years. If the concern is simply jobs, it is a bit hard to explain the fact that job loss due to environmental restrictions is given so much more attention than the job loss due to trade, which is more than an order of magnitude greater and happening immediately.

Perhaps the explanation has something to do with the gainers from the trade deficit. The recipe for reducing the trade deficit is lowering the value of the dollar against foreign currencies. (This is pretty basic, a lower valued dollar makes our exports cheaper to foreigners. Therefore they buy more of our exports. It also makes imports more expensive. This causes us to buy domestically produced goods rather than imports.)

While it is not hard to see a path to a lower valued dollar and a smaller trade deficit not everyone benefits in this story. Walmart has spent decades building up low-cost supply chains throughout the world. It is not anxious to see the price of the goods it is importing increase by 15 to 20 percent due to a lower valued dollar. Similarly General Electric and other major manufacturers have set up operations in Mexico, China, and other low-wage countries. They don't want to lose the advantage they get from cheap labor by seeing the dollar fall in value relative to the currencies of these countries.

Add in the fact that the financial sector also likes a high dollar since it means their money goes farther overseas and you can see why it is hard to put together a political coalition pushing for a lower valued dollar. But honest reporters would focus on what matters for jobs and the economy. 






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The NYT persists in pushing the bizarre notion that something horrible happens to economies when the inflation rate crosses zero and turns negative. Today it gave us an article with the headline of an article, "Euro Zone Edges Closer to Dreaded Deflation."

The story is that inflation in the year ending in May was just 0.5 percent, as compared to 0.7 percent for the year ending in April. It tells readers:

"Many economists say that inflation is already well below the danger zone for tipping into deflation, and some analysts have taken to calling the condition 'lowflation.'



Come on folks, this makes zero sense. Borrowers face higher real interest rates any time the inflation rate falls. If borrowers had negotiated mortgages anticipating a 2.0 percent inflation rate, then the drop to 1.0 percent means that the real burden of the mortgage is larger than expected. If the inflation rate falls to zero then the real burden of the mortgage is even larger. If it becomes negative so that prices are falling at the rate of 1.0 percent a year the situation is even worse. But the drop from zero to -1.0 percent is not different from the drop from 1.0 percent to 0.0 percent, or 2.0 percent to 1.0 percent. Each increases the burden on debtors.

A basic understanding of the inflation rate should make this point clear. It is an aggregate of millions of different price changes. When the aggregate rate is near zero the prices of many items are already falling. Crossing zero would just mean that the percentage of items with falling prices has increased. How could that possibly be of great consequence for the economy?

The prices in the index are also quality adjusted price. This often lead to situations in which the quality adjusted price shows declines even if the actual price of the product increased. There have been several months in the last few years in which the quality adjusted price of cars showed a decline. I doubt there were any months in which new car prices actually fell. Are we supposed to believe that something awful happens in the economy if the statistical agency finds that products are improving at a more rapid rate and therefore quality adjusted prices are now falling?

Even the idea that the year over year measure provides some vital statistic is silly on its face. Suppose prices fell at 0.6 percent rate in both June and July of 2013 and have risen at a 0.1 percent rate in the subsequent 10 months. (We'll assume that they rose by 0.5 percent in May of 2013 so the year over year inflation rate had not previously been negative.) Does something bad now happen that we have a 12 month period in which the change in prices was negative?

This really is not hard. The problem is lower than desired inflation, end of story. Whether or not the inflation rate actually turns negative and becomes deflation means zero.


Note: Dates corrected, thanks folks.

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Like building a new airport, restricting carbon dioxide emissions will cost jobs. (If it's not obvious that building a new airport will cost jobs, then you better study more economics. The new airport will pull business away from other forms of transportation and other airports. That will cause people to lose jobs. On net, there will likely be job gains, but there will definitely be people who lose their job as a result of the new airport who either don't get another job or at least another job that is comparable to the one they lost.)

The reason that many people may not immediately realize that most government measures to improve the infrastructure, or really promote any form of economic development, lead to job loss is that the media generally ignore the job losers. They don't talk to the workers at the airports that are losing business, the truck drivers who might be displaced by air freight, or all the workers in restaurants, stores, and hotels who served the old facilities.

That is clearly not the case with measures to restrict carbon dioxide emissions. We have already heard numerous accounts of how this will devastate the economies of large parts of the country that are dependent on coal. NPR ran two such pieces on Morning Edition today.

It would be helpful if these stories gave some idea of the numbers involved. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics there are just under 80,000 employed by the coal mining industry. This is less than 0.06 percent of total employment. If the economy generates jobs at the rate of 200,000 a month (roughly its pace over the last year), the total number of jobs in the coal industry are equal to the number that would be generated in 12 days.

Of course the measures proposed by Obama would not immediately eliminate all the jobs in the industry. They are supposed to be phased in by 2030 and even then the number of jobs in the industry is not likely to be zero. If we assume that the job loss occurs at an even pace over the next 16 years, it comes to a bit less than 5,000 jobs a year.

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An NYT article on President Obama's plan to have the Environmental Protection Agency impose restrictions on the emission of carbon dioxide told readers:

"Many Republican governors, in particular, are ideologically opposed to the prospect of enacting cap-and-trade programs."

How would the NYT know Republican' governors ideological beliefs and why would they think it is the basis for their actions? Politicians are not elected for their political philosophy, they are elected because they get the support of powerful interest groups. They advance their careers by pleasing these interest groups. Why would the NYT think that politicians would turn around and act on their ideology, rather than serving these interest groups?

It may be news to the NYT, but politicians sometimes don't give the real reason for their actions. Since it probably doesn't sound good to say that you are willing to let the planet be destroyed to serve the coal and industry magnates that contribute to your campaign, it shouldn't be surprising that many politicians will say that they oppose measures to restrict emissions for ideological reasons.

As a practical matter if the NYT wants to claim the opposition is for ideological reasons, it might be worth explaining to readers what the ideology is. The issue with carbon dioxide emissions is that they are creating damage to large parts of the world through changing the climate. This means rising oceans leading to enormous problems of flooding in densely populated countries like Bangladesh. It also means increased desertification in places like Sub-Saharan Africa. The result will be hundreds of millions of people losing their livelihood and in many cases their lives.

It would be interesting to know what ideology the NYT thinks these Republican governors hold that says that people have a right to destroy others' property and take their lives with impunity. It's certainly not one that is openly espoused. (It's not worth claiming that they don't believe in human caused global warming. Not one of them is that ignorant.)


Note: link fixed.

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The reason for asking is that a New York Times article on reactions to President Obama's plan to have the Environmental Protection Agency restrict carbon emissions referred to Kentucky as a "coal state." According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), Kentucky has 11,600 people employed in the coal mining industry. With total employment of 1,846,000, coal mining jobs account for just over 0.6 percent of total employment in the state.

By comparison, BLS reports that Kentucky has 12,400 employed in the heavy and civil engineering construction sector. If it can be called a coal state, presumably the larger number of people employed in heavy and civil engineering construction should also provide a basis for identifying the state. There are several occupations that have employment levels in Kentucky that dwarf the coal industry employment.

For example, the state has 35,700 people working as merchant wholesalers that sell durable goods. It has 25,200 people who are employed at car dealers. And it has 51,800 people working at employment services.

In short, the numbers suggest that Kentucky's economy as a whole may not be affected much by restrictions on the emission of greenhouse gases (which will be phased in through time).

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Robert Samuelson is correct to point out that income inequality in the United States at present is not anything like what it was back in the 1920s because of the social welfare state. We have programs like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and food stamps that are a substantial source of income and security for the middle class and poor. So conservatives are correct to point out that inequality is not nearly as bad today as it was in the 1920s due to these programs.

However his column is somewhat misleading on the income gains over the last three decades for families at the middle and bottom of the income distribution. For those at the bottom, much of the 50 percent gain in income since 1979 is due to the increasing cost of Medicare and Medicaid. The measure being used refers to the amount the government pays for these programs. Using methodology, every time a heart surgeon raises her fees or Pfizer raises the price of its drugs the income of the poor rises. If we just treated health care as a service and priced it at its per person cost in the average wealthy country, the income gain for those at the bottom would be much smaller.

Much of the 40 percent gain in incomes for families in the middle is the result of an increase in the number of workers per family. In 1979 there were still many two parent families in which the women did not work outside the home. Such families are rare today. The additional number of workers is the main factor explaining the rise in income over this period since wages have increased little. It is also worth noting that these measures of income do not adjust for work related expenses like transportation or the cost of child care.

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That's what the NYT told readers in an article reporting on the debate over Scottish independence. The article referred to a study by a Scottish engineering company, the Weir Group, that Scotland would incur $840 million in transactions costs if it were to adopt its own currency. This would be the equivalent of roughly $65 billion a year in the United States. Since many countries that have smaller economies than Scotland have their own currencies, it is difficult to believe they incur these sorts of costs. (Trading costs on most currencies are typically in the range of 0.01 percent.)

The article also said that Great Britain may not let Scotland keep the pound if it were to become independent. Actually Great Britain really doesn't have any choice in the matter. Any country can use any currency it wants as their official currency. Several countries (e.g. Ecuador and Panama) use the U.S. dollar as their currency. They did not ask the United States for permission to do so.

The better question is why an independent Scotland would want to keep the pound as its currency. Presumably one of the goals of independence would be to free Scotland from the grips of the austerity policies being pursued by the conservative government. This would not be possible if Scotland remained tied to the pound, just as the euro zone countries cannot break from the path of austerity as long as they stay in the euro zone.

The piece also includes the claim, based on two studies, that:

"Creating a border with Scotland’s largest trading partner — the rest of Britain — could also be costly. Researchers at the University of Edinburgh and the University of Stirling project that such a change could reduce Scottish output more than 5 percent."

This implies an enormous cost to international borders. The implication is that Canadians effectively pay a tax of roughly $2,000 per person per year because their country is not part of the United States. That doesn't seem plausible.

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George Will is again making misleading statements on economic issues because of his inability to get access to government data. In today's column he is touting the economic record of the North Carolina, which he attributes to the state's conservative policies.

He told readers:

"The state has added more than 200,000 jobs in three years. Unemployment has fallen from 10.4 percent in January 2011, then eighth-highest in the nation, to 6.2 percent, one of the largest improvements among the states in the past 13 quarters."

According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the 200,000 job gain in North Carolina over the last three years amounts to an increase of 5.18 percent, that is a hair better than the nationwide average of 5.12 percent job growth over this period, but doesn't seem like the sort of thing on which to base a political campaign. Furthermore, the number of jobs in North Carolina is still a full percentage point below its pre-recession peak, while nationally the number of jobs is down by less than 0.1 percent from pre-recession levels.

This gap is worse when we take into account the southern premium. Like most southern states, North Carolina had been adding jobs more rapidly than the country as a whole. This is in large part due to the weather. (People prefer to live in warmer climates, especially in their retirement years.) In the years from 1990 to 2007, the number of jobs in North Carolina increased by 34.3 percent compared to 26.7 percent for the country as a whole. At best, the policies that Will is celebrating has brought job growth in North Carolina even to the pace in the country as a whole.

The sharp drop in North Carolina's unemployment rate has all been in the last year. Its unemployment rate in the first four months of 2013 averaged 8.6 percent, well above the national average. This drop was the result of a reduction in the length of unemployment benefits, as well as making it more difficult to qualify for benefits. The result was that many people dropped out of the labor force. People who are getting benefits have to look for jobs, they often give up looking when their benefits expire. 

From the first four months of 2013 to the first four months of 2014 the size of the national labor force increased by 0.2 percent. (Benefit duration was shortened for the country as a whole, but not by as much as in North Carolina.) The size of the workforce shrank in North Carolina over this period by 1.1 percent, the equivalent of 1.7 million people leaving the workforce nationally. It is not clear that this is something over which politicians would want to boast.

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