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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For those wondering what those Wall Street boys do to earn tens of millions a year in salary and bonuses, the NYT has part of the answer. The Wall Street boys rip off school districts and other governmental units who pay them high fees for creating complex financial instruments that they don't understand. Add a comment

This exciting tidbit was conveyed in the lead-in to a story on the failure of the Obama administration's mortgage modification program (HAMP). That is a surprising assessment given the fact that purchase mortgage applications have dropped by more than 30 percent from year ago levels since the end of the homebuyer's tax credit on April 30th. Unless 30 percent fewer people feel like selling their homes in 2010 than 2009 (a relatively weak period for house sales), then house prices will be headed sharply lower. (This is based on a complex technical process known as "supply and demand.")

The issue of the direction of house prices is actually very relevant to the topic. The housing bubble has not fully deflated in many areas of the country. This means that government efforts to keep people in their homes are likely to still leave many people underwater. In other words, by design, the Obama program will be paying servicers and investors money for mortgage modifications that still leave homeowners with no equity in their homes. This makes HAMP a good mechanism for getting money to banks, but a very way to help homeowners.

It is not possible to assess the merits of this sort of mortgage modification program without a serious assessment of the future course of house prices. NPR excluded such a discussion with the unsupported assertion in its lead-in.

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It's super silly season in Washington. The powers that be have decided that Social Security should be cut, so now anyone can say anything they want against the program, even if it is directly contradicted by the evidence.

In this spirit the WSJ told readers: "In 2010, Social Security expenditures will exceed receipts for the first time since 1983, the last time Congress enacted major changes to the program." This is not true. As trustees report clearly shows, the program is projected to have a surplus of almost $80 billion in 2010. It is true that tax receipts will be less than projected benefits, but that is not a relevant figure for the program since it also collects interest on the bonds held by the trust fund.

 

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The Post should have reminded readers of this fact when reporting that: "Republican leaders criticized the package as a giveaway to labor and an undeserved bailout for profligate state governments." The package in question was a bill to provide additional funding for education and health care to states.
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The NYT discussed the Obama administration's plans to extend President Bush's tax cuts only for households earning less than $250,000 a year. The article also reported on Republican claims that not extending the tax breaks for the wealthy would hurt the economy. It concluded by telling readers that:

"he [Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner] dismissed as “myths” Republican arguments that tax cuts pay for themselves, by bringing in new revenues from economic growth."

It would have been helpful to note that this is not just Secretary Geithner or the Democrat's view. It is the near unanimous view of every economist who has examined the issue, including Republican economists. For example, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a prominent Republican economist who was the chief economic advisor to John McCain in his presidential campaign, examined this issue when he headed the Congressional Budget Office. He used a wide variety of models and found that in the most optimistic scenario additional growth could temporarily replace 30 percent of the lost revenue. (Even this increase would largely disappear in the long run.)

The treatment of the issue in the article may lead readers to believe that the question of whether tax cuts pay for themselves is one that is actively debated by economists. In fact, it has long been settled even if some Republican politicians choose to ignore the evidence.

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In a discussion of the impact of the BP oil spill, the NYT qualified the estimates of the size of the spill from the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) by telling readers that: "NOAA is the same agency that devised the early, now-discredited estimate that the well was leaking only 5,000 barrels a day, one reason some people distrust the new report."

This is useful information for readers, since the fact that the agency had previously been off by a factor of ten in its earlier estimate of the size of the spill might suggest something about its competence and/or its integrity. This is relevant to the credibility that should be assigned to new estimates from the agency.

In the same vein, it would be appropriate to report on the failure of individual economists or organizations, like Harvard's Joint Center on Housing, to notice the $8 trillion housing bubble, when discussing the current views on the housing market and the economy.

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USA Today has a nice piece showing stimulus spending by state. It shows that there is no link between spending and unemployment, in large part because much of the funding goes through preset formulas that do not respond to current unemployment rates. Add a comment

The NYT had an article about Germany's relatively healthy economy, which is now growing at a healthy pace largely as the result of a surge of exports. The article also notes the effectiveness of Germany's work sharing policy which provides tax credits to companies for shortening hours rather than laying off workers. This policy has been even more effective than the article implies.

While the article tells readers that Germany's unemployment rate is 7.6 percent, this is the German government measure. This measure counts people who want full-time work but only have part-time jobs as being unemployed. By contrast, the OECD's methodology, which is similar to the one used by the United States, shows a German unemployment rate of 7.0 percent, roughly the same as before the downturn.

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In an article reporting on a study that concluded that the health care reform bill will lead to substantial savings for Medicare, the Washington Post told readers:

"critics say trust fund solvency will only improve on paper, since actual savings from the Medicare cuts would have been spent to provide coverage for more than 30 million uninsured Americans."

This is a real trip to bizzaro world. The Medicare trust fund is an accounting entity. Improvements can by definition only occur on paper, or more accurately in computer entries. It is not clear what the Post thinks it means with this statement. 

 

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The NYT headline told readers that, "Bernanke Says Rising Wages Will Lift Spending." Real wages have been virtually unchanged over the last year. Let's hope that the NYT got the story wrong and that Bernanke knows this. Add a comment