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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Paul Krugman does a nice job dissecting the logic, or lack thereof, of Republican efforts to dismantle Obamacare. He points out that one of the games played by the Republicans is claiming that the Graham-Cassidy bill would increase Medicaid spending. It makes this claim based on the fact that nominal Medicaid spending would increase under the bill. While this is true, the bill would hugely cut spending compared with the baseline which factors in both projected increases in the number of people covered and the medical cost inflation.

It might be harder to get away with this cheap trick if papers like the New York Times used budget reporting to actually inform readers. As it is, budget reporting usually doesn't put numbers in any context, which makes them absolutely meaningless to the vast majority of readers. This point was acknowledged a few years back by both Margaret Sullivan and David Leonhardt, who were at the time the NYT's public editor and Washington editor. 

In spite of the acknowledgment that its budget reporting does nothing to inform the vast majority of its readers, the paper has done nothing to change the practice. (Does the paper really find it hard to find reporters who know basic arithmetic?) As a result, it is much easier for Republicans to lie when they want to do something like massively cutting back Medicaid spending.

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It is more than a bit bizarre that no one seems to pay any attention to the budgetary implications of the Fed's decision to start selling off its assets. The impact is potentially fairly large in the scheme of things, possibly as much as $600 billion over the next decade. This is equal to roughly 0.5 percent of GDP. It's pretty much the same number at stake in the various Obamacare repeal efforts.

For some reason, none, as in absolutely zero, of the news stories I have seen or heard about the asset sales mentioned its impact on the budget. It was the same story back in June when the Fed raised the issue at its meeting that month.

It's a bit hard to understand how reporters at the New York Times, Washington Post, NPR, and elsewhere can independently decide that adding hundreds of billions of dollars to the budget deficit over the next decade is not worth mentioning. (The basic story can be found here.)

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Germany's official measure of unemployment is constructed differently than the U.S. measure. They count people working part-time who want full-time jobs as being unemployed. In contrast, these people are counted in the United States as being employed. As a result, the official measure is not directly comparable to the U.S. measure. Fortunately, the OECD constructs a "harmonized" unemployment rate which essentially applies the U.S. methodology to the unemployment measures for other countries.

Since the OECD measure is readily available, it is difficult to see why the NYT used the German official measure in an article on growing poverty and inequality in Germany. The piece tells readers that Germany's unemployment rate is 5.7 percent. This is the official German measure. The unemployment rate using the OECD's harmonized measure is 3.7 percent. Since few readers are likely to be familiar with the methodology used to construct the German measure, using the 5.7 percent figure is misleading to them. 

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The NYT criticized the Republican tax-cutting plans. In particular, it focuses on the plan to apply a 15 percent or 25 percent corporate tax rate for all business pass-through income. This is in place of the current individual income tax rate, which could be as high as 39.6 percent.

The editorial argues that this would be a huge tax break for partners in hedge funds and real estate developers (like Donald Trump), who typically get their income through pass-through corporations. While this is true, it is only part of the story.

Allowing owners of pass-through corporations to just pay the corporate tax rate instead of the individual income tax rate would be a huge loophole that every higher paid person would rush to take advantage of. For example, a highly paid medical specialist would reorganize their business as a pass-through corporation to pay a lower tax rate. The same would be true of other professionals. 

In effect, this would allow the vast majority of high-income individuals to pay a lower tax rate than school teachers or firefighters while creating an enormous tax shelter industry. This is truly awful from the standpoint of policy (increasing inequality while reducing efficiency), but if the point is to give more money to the rich, it gets the job done. 

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Bryce Covert has an interesting column in the NYT arguing that Equifax and the other two private credit agencies be replaced with a public system. There does seem to be a good case here.

After all, what do we get from competition in this story? As Covert points out, the credit agencies don't work for consumers, they work for the people who buy the data. This means that they don't really have much incentive to ensure their information about us is accurate and to make sure their systems are not hacked.

What is difficult understand is how current laws allow these agencies to be profitable. Suppose these credit agencies were held liable for their mistakes. If a person is denied a job or is unable to buy a home because of an erroneous credit report, this would seem to warrant tens of thousands of dollars in damages.

Covert tells us that one in four credit reports contain a major error. Suppose that leads to 100,000 people a year to suffer serious consequences, that would be less than 0.25 percent of the people with serious errors in their report. If the average damages come to $15,000 (including legal fees), this would run to $1.5 billion in annual damage payments. If 1.0 percent of the people with erroneous reports suffered consequences, it would come to $6 billion a year.

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It's good to see the NYT has diverse voices on economic issues. In his "Economic Scene" column on the economy's supposed labor shortage, Porter argued that "raising barriers to imports — inviting retaliation from trading partners — is exactly the wrong approach." Three days ago, the NYT had an editorial arguing strongly for increased protectionism in the form of stronger and longer copyright and patent protections. These forms of protection not only raise prices and slow growth, but they redistribute income upward, taking money from most of the population and giving it to those who stand to gain from patent and copyright protection.

It is worth noting that the assertion that the economy is now or will in the near future be suffering from a labor shortage seems dubious. Employment rates for prime-age men at all levels of educational attainment are still below their 2000 rate. That seems hard to reconcile with the view that we have a labor shortage. In the same vein, the percentage of unemployment due to people voluntarily quitting their jobs is still relatively low, suggesting that workers do not feel very secure about their labor market prospects. And, workers are still far from recovering their share of output, with the profit share still well above the pre-recession level.

For these reasons, we should be skeptical about the existence of a labor shortage. It is also worth noting that a labor shortage is 180 degrees at odds with the often asserted problem that the robots will take all the jobs.

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After screaming about budget deficits throughout the Obama administration, Republicans in Congress are apparently planning to pass tax cuts that will substantially increase the budget deficit from the baseline projections. The NYT decided to help them in this effort by printing without comment their absurd claims about growth.

According to the NYT, Senator Ron Johnson, a member of the Budget Committee, said:

"Just going from 2 to 3 percent growth adds about $14 trillion of economic activity over a decade, $2 to $3 trillion of revenue to the federal government."

This would be like saying that we would have a great baseball team if we just brought Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Jackie Robinson back to life. Presumably, the NYT would recognize that anyone who said that about baseball was either lying or seriously out of touch with reality and would point this fact out to their readers.

Similarly, the idea that we have a simple route to "just" raise the rate of annual growth from 2 to 3 percent, is equally absurd, but the NYT treated it as though it is a comment that a sane person could have honestly said. That's great stenography, but truly awful reporting.

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Glenn Kessler, the Washington Post's Fact Checker, is trying to be even-handed in assessing the claim by advocates of single-payer health insurance of large potential administrative savings from switching to a universal Medicare-type system. Unfortunately, he gives too much credence to an insurance industry funded report (identified as such in the piece), which whittles away at the difference.

The basic story is that Medicare's administrative costs, as shown in the Medicare Trustees Report come to less than 2.0 percent of annual benefits. (Table II.B1 puts administrative costs for 2016 at $9.2 billion, with total payments at $669.5 billion.) The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services puts the administrative costs for private insurance at $216.3 billion for 2016 (Table 2), with total spending of $1,135.4 billion (Table 3) for a ratio administrative expenses as a percent of related outlays of 23.5 percent. (The administrative expenses are deducted from total spending to get health related outlays.)

While there is some room for fudging both of these numbers, it is pretty hard to make the difference go away. The industry funded study ups the Medicare costs to 5.2 percent by allocating a large amount of non-Medicare spending to Medicare administration. For example, it notes that the Treasury Department collects taxes for Medicare and the Justice Department pursues fraud cases in the system. As the report explains to get to this number:

"Medicare unreported costs include parts of salaries for legislators, staff and others working on Medicare, building costs, marketing costs, collection of premiums and taxes, and accounting, including auditing and fraud issues, etc."

While these costs are not detailed carefully, Table 4 in the appendix shows that the study allocated 14.5 percent of the salaries of members of Congress and staff, as well executive branch salaries, to the administrative costs of Medicare. It also allocated 14.5 percent of non-correctional judicial costs.

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Economists usually argue that it's best to tax the things you want discourage, like cigarettes, alcohol, and gasoline, not things you want to encourage, like work. That is why it is striking that that the Washington Post could not find one economist who thought that a plan in London to tax vacant housing units is a good idea. 

The only expert cited in the piece argued that the tax would have little effect on the housing market because the rich would not care if their property taxes were doubled or tripled, they would still leave units vacant. (The piece repeatedly refers to "experts" even though only one is cited by name.) This answer is striking for three reasons.

Whenever tax increases on the rich are proposed, the Washington Post and other newspapers are usually filled with assertions from economists about how it will cause to them work less, move, or take other steps to avoid the tax. Apparently for some reason a tax on vacant property is different from other taxes; the rich don't mind paying it.

The second reason the comment is striking is that it suggests a relatively costless way for the city of London to raise money. If doubling or tripling the property tax for vacant properties won't affect the behavior of the rich then maybe they could quadruple or quintuple the tax. Hey, if the rich don't mind paying a tax on vacant property, why not charge them ten or twenty times the regular property tax? They won't even notice.

The third reason is that the comment comes just before a statement telling us most vacant properties in London are owned by middle-class people, not rich people:

"Most of London’s 20,000 empty units aren’t owned by the super-rich, but by the middle and lower rungs — and studies show that most homes are empty because they are the subjects of inheritance tussles or uninhabitable or in need of repairs."

Taxing these people on vacant units might be just the incentive they need to resolve inheritance disputes or to sell a vacant property to someone who could afford to make the repairs for it to be habitable. Of course, this works from the assumption that we actually want less vacant property.

In arguing the case against the tax, the Post even found someone was happy to live next to a building with many vacant units:

"Plus, there are upsides to living next to absentee neighbors.

"'I would shudder to imagine if this was running at 80 percent occupancy,' said Suruchi Shukla, a 38-year-old consultant, with her head cranked skyward at the building."

So there you have it: a tax on vacant property wouldn't reduce the number of vacant units, and it would be a bad thing if it did. And remember folks, this is supposed to be a news story, not an opinion piece.

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The NYT had an article on the most recent Republican plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA). It included a quote from Senator Bill Cassady, a co-sponsor of the bill:

"'Right now, 37 percent of the revenue from the Affordable Care Act goes to Americans in four states' — California, New York, Massachusetts and Maryland, Mr. Cassidy said. 'That is frankly not fair.'"

If just four states getting 37 percent of the money sounds unfair to you, it might be worth keeping in mind that these four states account for more than a quarter of the country's population and GDP. That still means that they are getting a disproportionate share of the money from the ACA, but it is not quite the same as if four small or average size states were getting 37 percent of the money.

It is also worth remembering that ACA spending accounts for roughly 1.5 percent of the total budget. Getting a disproportionate share of 1.5 percent of the total budget doesn't seem like all that big a deal, after all southern states have historically gotten a grossly disproportionate share of the military budget.

Then we have to consider the fact that many states don't get much money from the ACA by choice. Specifically, they have chosen not to expand Medicaid to provide more of their residents with health care insurance. They also have not done much to publicize the exchanges, which would have sent more money to their states through subsidies to moderate income people.

So this is the grave injustice that Senator Cassidy is looking to remedy and to do so he wants to have 30 million plus people lose their health care insurance, and to allow  insurers to again discriminate against people based on pre-existing conditions. That may be unfortunate, but at least California, New York, Massachusetts and Maryland won't be getting a disproportionate share of ACA spending.

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