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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In an article discussing the first quarter GDP data the NYT told readers that: "Economists are hopeful that families will continue to pick up the pace of purchasing and make the recovery more sustainable." Economists who know arithmetic (admittedly a tiny subset of economists as evidenced by the failure of almost the entire profession to see an $8 trillion housing bubble) are unlikely to share this perspective.

Tens of millions of baby boomers are at edge of retirement. Because of the collapse of the housing bubble and the resulting destruction of home equity, the vast majority of people in these cohorts has almost nothing saved for retirement. The median net worth for older baby boomers (people aged 55-64) is around $180,000. This means that if they took all their wealth (including their current home equity) they would  have approximately enough money to pay off the mortgage on the median home. This would leave them with absolutely nothing to support themselves in retirement other than their Social Security. The median net worth for younger baby boomers (people aged 45-54) is approximately $80,000.

The workers in these age cohorts desperately need to be saving more for retirement, especially in a context where the Peter Petersons and Robert Rubins of the world are devoting enormous resources to try to cut their Social Security and Medicare. For this reason, economists who know arithmetic are not hoping for a consumption led recovery. They are hoping that the government will take further measures to stimulate the economy. These measures could also boost private sector investment. Economists who know arithemtic are also hoping that the Obama administration will take steps to end the dollar's over-valuation, thereby leading to more net exports.

Unfortunately, because economic policy is dominated by economists who do not know arithmetic, we may be dependent on consumption to drive the recovery.

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This is in the preemptive strike category. It seems from initial reports that no one bothered to notice that half of this quarter's GDP growth (1.6 percentage points) was driven by inventory accumulation. If we pull out inventories, final demand grew at a 1.6 percent annual rate, almost exactly the same as the 1.7 percent rate in the 4th quarter of 2009 and the 1.5 percent rate in the 3rd quarter of 2009.

In other words, we are still looking at a very weak economy; one far weaker than would be expected coming out of such a severe downturn and one which may not even be growing fast enough to create any jobs at all.

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NPR told listeners that the public has supported drilling offshore because they objected to the country's dependence on foreign oil and the wars in the Middle East.This is very interesting because it shows how badly the media have reported on this issue. There are no projections that show drilling offshore will have any noticeable effect on U.S. dependence on foreign oil. The media (including NPR) have horribly misrepresented the potential impact of offshore oil so that tens of millions of Americans actually believe that it has anything to do with dependence on foreign oil.

It would have been interesting to report the attitudes towards offshore drilling among those who know that it will not have any noticeable impact on U.S. dependence on foreign oil or the price of gas.

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There were down slightly last week, but the 4-week moving average is still 462,000. Usually claims have to be under 400,000 to be consistent with steady job growth.

This release got no mention in the Post even though it provides far more information about the state of the economy than other data releases that are routinely covered, such as the consumer confidence indexes. Perhaps the Post will give the data more attention when it starts showing fewer claims.

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New York Times columnist Floyd Norris told readers that: "China ties its currency to the dollar, and despite American jawboning, there is little that the United States can do about that." Actually, the U.S. government is free to set its own higher exchange rate of the yuan against the dollar.

The Chinese government sets an exchange rate puts the value of the yuan at approximately 14 cents. There is nothing that prevents the Treasury of offerring to buy yuan at a higher price, for example 20 cents. If the Treasury made this commitment and was prepared to stand behind it, it would like raise the value of the yuan to 20 cents. This competing exchange rate would be highly unusual, but there is nothing that literally prevents the U.S. government from doing it.

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University of Chicago economist Casey Mulligan makes the case that housing is now on the upswing. The part of the story that he seems to have missed is that after house prices rose last fall as a result of low mortgage interest rates, a hyperactive HUD, and the first time homebuyers tax credit, they have recently reversed course and are heading downward by most measures. We'll look for Professor Mulligan's account of the second housing slump in 6 months or so. Add a comment

That should not be a surprise given the paper's hostility to Social Security and its outrage over the fact that unionized auto workers can earn $56,000 a year, but the Post's editorial calling for reform does miss an important part of Greece's story. While aspects of Greece's welfare state almost certainly do need to be changed (a retirement age of 60 is hard to support in a modern economy), it is also important to note that there is massive tax evasion in Greece, especially by the wealthy.

The OECD estimated the size of Greece's underground economy at more than 30 percent of its official economy. Even if this is an overstatement, the existance of a large uncounted sector inidcates that Greece's debt burden is considerably smaller relative to the size of its economy than the official data imply. It also points to the fact that many wealthy people are likely paying the taxes that they legally owe. Greece's citizens are likely to be less amenable to giving up benefits like a relatively generous Social Security system in a context where the wealthy are avoiding their tax obligations. This is an important part of the story that needs to be mentioned in  any discussion of Greece's fiscal problems.

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Just about the whole economics profession missed the housing bubble that sank the U.S. economy. Fortunately for them, economics is not a profession where performance matters. The "experts" who completely missed the largest economic disaster in 70 years are still the sole source for the overwhelming majority of news stories on the crisis.

This is especially painful in coverage of the Greek and now larger euro crisis. Those of us who read Keynes (a group which should include all economists, but apparently excludes nearly all media "experts") know that the problem is that the European Central Bank has to make more money available to its members to get through this crisis. While many governments hold superstitions about the benefits of rain dances and the causes of inflation, there is no basis for concern that printing money will cause inflation in the current economic situation.

The story that reporters should be writing that is that the superstitions of many European governments (with Germany topping the list) are needlessly inflicting pain on tens of millions of people across Europe. Ironically, these superstitions may ultimately have a severely negative effect on Germany's economy as well.

Economists who are not clueless about this crisis could explain this situation to readers. It is unfortunate that most major media outlets have chosen to rely exlcusively on economists who are.

 

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It's possible that he doesn't know this, but it is what he said. According to the NYT, Volcker said that: "He [Volcker] and other speakers expressed fear that without some action in the next year or two that reduces deficits for decades to come, interest rates could spike, the dollar could lose value or some other financial crisis would occur."

A drop in the dollar is the only plausible way to get our trade deficit closer to balance. A large trade deficit, by definition, means that the United States must have low national savings (barring an extraordinary and unprecedented uptick in investment). Low national saving means that we must either have large budget deficits or very low private savings, or some combination. So proponents of a high dollar (like Mr. Volcker) want a large budget deficit and/or very low private savings. It would have been helpful to point this fact out to readers.

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NPR presented a segment on the impact of the new health care bill on farmer this morning. It told listeners that employers of more than 50 workers who do not provide insurance will be required to pay a "hefty" fee. It is not clear how NPR determined that the fee was "hefty."

 

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