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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Robert Samuelson insists that the bond markets are forcing countries to adopt austerity in the middle of a downturn. This is not true. Bad economic policy, by the same people who gave us the Great Recession (how badly do economists have to mess up to get fired?) is forcing countries to adopt austerity in the middle of a downturn.

In fact the bond markets are making money available to countries like Germany, Japan, and the United States at very low interest rates, the exact opposite of the scenario that Samuelson describes. (Samuelson notes these low rates in passing, but doesn't seem to understand their importance.) It is true that countries like Greece, Ireland, and Spain are paying much higher interest rates, but this has little to due with the generosity of their welfare states as Samuelson claims. It is due to the deliberate decision from the Great Recession makers at the European Central Bank (ECB) to squeeze these countries.

The situation of these countries is similar to that of individual states in the United States. They do not print their own currency and therefore are constrained in their ability to spend in a period of a downturn. The ECB does print money and could easily extend support to these countries during the downturn, but it has made a conscious choice to only do so insofar as they cut back on their welfare state benefits. Note this will not create inflation in the current situation; the economy's problem is inadequate demand, not too much demand.

It is not the downturn that is forcing cutbacks, it is the people controlling policy at the ECB. These policymakers do not like to be publicly associated with their policy decisions so they no doubt appreciate columns like Samuelson's that hide their role.

As a basic principle, there is no reason for general cutbacks in the welfare state. Societies are getting richer because of something called "productivity growth." The cutbacks in the welfare state are simply part of the upward redistribution that policymakers in the U.S. and elsewhere have been pushing for the last three decades.

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Gregory Mankiw, formerly President Bush’s top economist, raised this question in his NYT column this week. I’ll resist the obvious temptation to pronounce this a win-win and deal with the issue at hand.

Mankiw explains in his piece that the various tax increases (income, capital gains, and estate taxes) would substantially reduce the percentage of any additional income that he could pass onto his children, which he says is his main motivation in earning money. Therefore higher taxes will give him less incentive to write. His point being that many other high-income workers will be in the same boat.

Brad DeLong ably dealt with the basic issue as to whether taxes can be separated from spending over the long-term, as Mankiw’s discussion seems to imply. (They can certainly be separated in periods of high unemployment like the present.) But, there are several other issues to raise.

First, the relevant factor determining work effort is after-tax income, not tax rates. As a result of a number of policy decisions (e.g. protecting highly educated workers from unrestricted international competition, strengthened patent and copyright protection), Mankiw is likely to enjoy a higher after-tax wage even with the repeal of the tax cuts than he would have earned 30 years ago if Bush era tax rates were in place.

If taxes on gambling were applied to gambling on Wall Street, in the form of a modest financial speculation tax, it would drastically reduce the volume of trading. This would substantially reduce the demand for workers with advanced degrees in the financial sector.

Since the financial sector employs a high percentage of the workers with advanced degrees, a financial speculation tax would likely put downward pressure on the wages of people with advanced degrees across the board. An unfortunate aspect of the debate on tax policy is that it leads the public debate to focus on tax rates while ignoring the much more important policy decisions that determine the distribution of pre-tax income.

The second point is that the income/wealth effect of lower taxes may cause Greg and/or his children to work less. This effect is difficult to measure. In any given year, a lower tax rate may cause people like Greg to work more, but this could be different if they accumulate substantial additional wealth as a result of lower tax rates. Greg tells us that his main motivation is to accumulate enough wealth to ensure that his three children can enjoy a comfortable standard of living.

Suppose that he had already accumulated enough wealth for this purpose because the tax rates had been low for a long time. How many columns would Greg be writing then? Alternatively, can we expect as much work out of Greg’s well-educated kids if he provides them with a substantial inheritance as opposed to a situation where they had to work to make ends meet like the rest of us? Or, taken the other way, would Greg be writing as many columns today if his parents had handed him enough money so that he did not have to work to ensure a comfortable standard of living for himself and his children? We don’t know the answer to this one, but Greg certainly gives the issue short shrift in his discussion.

Finally, there is the issue of quality that Brad raises in his blognote, but doesn’t pursue sufficiently. If we pay writers by the word, then we would expect writers to write long books and articles. That’s great if we want long books and articles, but it is not necessarily a way to get good books and articles.

If economists, and others like them, are motivated primarily by money then they will do work that gets them money. This does not necessarily correspond to good economics. Many of the most creative workers received very little if anything in compensation for their work. Think of Vincent van Gogh, Charlie Parker, and Franz Kafka. Suppose we offered these great artists large sums of money for each piece they produced. Would they have produced better work?

I don’t know the answer to that one. I am not arguing that creative workers should live in poverty, only that many of the most creative people in history were motivated first and foremost by a commitment to their work, not by money. It certainly is not obvious that they would have been more creative if they thought there was more money at stake.

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The TARP is one of those issues like Social Security, where the Washington Post has displayed considerably less diversity in opinions than Pravda back in the days of the Soviet Union. Just in case you hadn't seen their TARP is great line enough, the Post invited Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner to invent some myths that he could attack in the Outlook section.

Readers were no doubt looking for the line about how TARP and related bailouts used trillions of dollars of loans and loan guarantees from the Treasury, Fed, and FDIC to keep the largest financial institutions from going into bankruptcy, protecting the wealth of their shareholders, many of their creditors and top executives. But of course that is not a myth.

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One of the striking pieces of data in the September employment report was the fact that the employment to population ratio for black teens plunged by 2.6 percentage points to 11.7 percent, a record low.

Black teens were already taking it on the chin in this downturn. The August employment rate was down by more than 10 percentage points from the pre-recession level. It was down by 20 percentage points from the peak employment rate for black teens during the boom in 2000.

Remarkably, this fact seems to have gotten virtually no attention in the media. While everyone noted the weakness of September data, none of the major outlets seems to have commented on the incredibly dismal job prospects for black teens.

No doubt this stems in part from a new political correctness where powerbrokers don’t note the devastation that their policies have inflicted on disadvantaged groups. Undoubtedly many of these people would attribute the low employment rates to inadequate motivation to work or a lack of the necessary skills.

These explanations run into the problem that black teens seem to have been plenty motivated to work just a few years ago. Just a decade ago, the percentage of black teens who had the motivation and skills to gain employment was almost three times as high as it is today.

We can believe that the necessary skills for employment changed at an incredibly rapid rate to produce this plunge in employment rates or we can we believe that a collapse in aggregate demand led to a sharp reduction in employment opportunities. The latter explanation seems far more likely, which puts the blame on the policymakers, not black teens.

In either case, the reporters covering the September employment report should have noticed.

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According to the Washington Post, if the answer is not many, then we need to bring in immigrant reporters. That is exactly the logic it used in a discussion of the fact that most native born American citizens are unwilling to do farmwork for this wage.

Economists would ordinarily say that the lack of a labor supply at a given price suggests that the wage is too low. However, the Post only considers this fundamental economic principle in passing. It is likely that if farmworkers received $60,000 a year, with health care benefits, there would be no shortage of U.S. citizens willing to do this work.

Of course this would raise the price of farm products, but it would be much cheaper to advertise in the Washington Post if its reporters worked for $10.25 an hour. The lower cost of advertising would be passed on in lower prices for groceries, cars and other items advertised in the paper. At least this is what people who believe in economics would say.

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The top article in the Sunday Washington Post is an entirely invented piece that tells readers in the first sentence: "If there is an overarching theme of election 2010, it is the question of how big the government should be and how far it should reach into people's lives." There is absolutely nothing in this article that supports this assertion.

The article notes in the fourth paragraph that even most people who complain about the size of government consider Social Security and Medicare, by far the largest social programs, very important. It is not clear what being opposed to "big government" means in a context where nearly everyone supports its main pillars.

There are no candidates anywhere in the country who are running in support of "big government," there are candidates who are running in support of programs which have varying degrees of support. There are many candidates (virtually all Republicans) who are running against "big government." While this position has nothing to do with the world (we all oppose waste, fraud, and abuse, the question is always the status of specific programs), it is certainly helpful to the Republicans to have the election framed in this way.

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Politico wrongly told readers that: "voters tells pollsters they’re worried about all the red ink in the federal budget, and Democratic centrists have grown more urgent in telling Obama it’s time to rein in federal spending." This is not true.

A recent NYT-CBS poll found that just 9 percent of respondents said that the deficit was something that they were angry about. It is also inaccurate to identify Democrats who raise concerns about the deficit as "centrist." They can more accurately be identified as Democrats with close ties to corporate interests. Their financing base is a far more obvious way to distinguish their ideological leanings.

The article also includes the bizarre assertion that: "liberals argue that it’s OK for the federal government to run up big deficits at a time of economic slowdown — $1.3 trillion this year — because it’s much more important to use government spending to inject some life into the economy, to help struggling families stay afloat."

This is like saying that: "liberals argue that the earth is round." While it is true, so do the vast majority of conservatives. The same is the case of deficit spending in the current downturn. Prominent conservatives such as Martin Feldstein and David Walker have also called for increased deficits in the face of 9.6 percent unemployment.

It is also bizarre that this article mentions cuts to Social Security repeatedly but never once discussed the possibility of raising the cap on the payroll tax or raising the payroll tax rate itself. Polls have consistently shown both policies to be far more popular with the public than cutting benefits. Serious news outlets are not supposed to just report on the policies they support.

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The NYT argued for having Fannie and Freddie refinance homeowners who are far underwater. It makes the case with bad arithmetic and poor logic.

On the bad arithmetic part it tells readers that "up to eight million" homeowners would be able to refinance if Fannie and Freddie allowed underwater homeowners to refinance. This is true in the sense that 1000 would be "up to eight million." There are roughly 45 million homeowners with mortgages, more than half of whom are with Fannie and Freddie. Let's put it at 24 million. A very high percentage of the F&F mortgages were issued in the last two years at rates that were not very different from the current ones.

F&F are largely the market now. There were roughly 5 million homes purchases each year and a considerably larger number of refinancings, so let's say conservatively that 14 million of their mortgages were issued since January 2009, leaving 10 million older mortgages. All of the pre-2009 mortgages are not underwater, which makes one wonder which planet the 8 million figure came from.

Beyond this point, the NYT tells us that refinancing could free up as much as $24 billion in spending. Really? Suppose someone owes $300,000 on a home that today would rent for $10,000 a year. Let's say the politicians arrange for refinancing so that this homeowner only pays 4.5 percent on their mortgage. Throwing in taxes, insurance, and other ownership related expenses, this person will be paying around $20,000 a year for a house in which they can never plausibly be expected to have equity.

In other words, if the NYT program persuades this person to refinance and stay in their home rather than walk away and rent a comparable unit, it will cost them an extra $10,000 a year. This is money pulled out of the economy. If 1 million people are in this position then this is a formula to pull $10 billion out of the economy. If 2 million people are in this position then persuading people to refinance rather than walk would pull $20 billion out of the economy.

Both the homeowner and the economy would be much better off if this person just walked away. It is incredible that we still cannot get serious discussions of people walking away from homes even when they are heavily underwater.

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Standard & Poor's, which is probably best known for giving investment grade rating to mortgage backed securities backed by junk mortgages at the peak of the bubble, warned that demographic changes would pose severe budget burdens and urged the United States to begin to begin cutting back programs for the elderly now. In an article presenting Standard & Poor's view on this issue, it would have been worth reminding readers of the company's track record. It probably would also have been appropriate to remind readers that it was paid large amounts of money for the investment grade ratings it gave to these mortgage backed securities.

This background would allow readers to better assess the nature of Standard and Poor's advice to the American people. Economists who are not paid by Wall Street banks have used the exact same data to point out that the projected budget problems are due to the incredible inefficiency of the U.S. health care system. If the United States paid the same per person costs as any other wealthy country the long-term projections would show huge budget surpluses, not deficits.

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In years past news reports regularly repeated auto company assertions that their UAW workers earned in excess of $70 an hour. Thankfully this inaccurate claim seems to have been largely missing from news reports in recent months.

But, now it is back in the NYT. Our old friend arithmetic can show the problem. We know that the average UAW worker gets roughly $28 an hour in pay. (This is on the old pay scale, many new workers get as little as $14 an hour.) This leaves us with at least $42 an hour going to health insurance, pensions, and other benefits. With a 2000 hour work year this would imply $84,000 a year going to these benefits.

UAW workers do get good health care benefits, but does the average benefit exceed $20,000 a year? That seems pretty unlikely. The pensions are also comparatively generous, but it is a safe bet that GM is not contributing more than $25,000 a year to their workers' pensions on average.

The way that the industry got their $70 plus an hour figure was by including the cost of payments for retirees (e.g. health care benefits for already retired workers) and averaging them over their current workforce. This may be useful for the companies accounting, but it has nothing to do with what current workers actually receive in wages and benefits.

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That's what AP told readers today. Tomorrow we will no doubt find that many scientists believe that the earth is round and that humans evolved from more primitive primates. Stay tuned. Add a comment

The Post had a front page piece that highlighted efforts to cut pensions for state and local workers. The piece told readers that there is declining support for public sector workers because many people resent the fact that they have been forced to take pay cuts while public sector workers often have had their pay and benefits protected.

It is worth noting that major media outlets, like the Washington Post, routinely highlight and often exaggerate the pay and benefits received by public sector workers. In contrast, they deliberately mislead their audience about the extent of public support for major Wall Street banks.

For example, media outlets have repeatedly highlighted the fact that most of the TARP loans to the banks have been repaid without pointing out that these banks benefited enormously from having access to trillions of dollars in loans and loan guarantees at below market interest rates. Without these guarantees Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley, Bank of America and many other large banks would have gone bankrupt. Their shareholders would have lost hundreds of billions of dollars, freeing up wealth for non-Wall Street America. And their top executives would not be drawing pay in the tens of millions of dollars (@100 public sector worker pensions).

Major media outlets have acted almost as though they were conducting a political campaign. They have flooded the public with reports minimizing the cost to the public of the Wall Street bailouts while putting out endless stories (many largely false) about overpaid public sector workers.   

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Thomas Friedman devoted his column this morning to criticize an effort by the oil firms to roll back environmental regulation in California. The effort takes the form of a referendum that would delay rules requiring greater energy efficiency until the unemployment rate is below 5.5 percent.

While this sequence appears to be motivated by a concern for California's economy, the logic goes in the opposite direction. In periods of high unemployment investments in more efficient technology have very little cost to California since they are likely to employ workers who would otherwise be idle. In fact, by requiring California firms to invest in clean technology the regulations could well be net job creators.

By contrast, in standard economic theory environmental regulations will pull workers away from other sectors in periods of full employment. This would raise costs and therefore reduce total output and employment. From an economic standpoint it would make more sense to only require firms to take steps to reduce emissions when the unemployment rate is above 5.5 percent rather than below.

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What do conservatives have against reality? That is undoubtedly the question that readers of David Leonhardt's Economix blogpost on the revaluation of China's currency will be asking. Leonhardt turned the post over to Derek Scissors of the Heritage Foundation.

Mr. Scissors argues that the rise in the value of the Japanese yen in the 80s had little to do with the decline in the U.S. trade deficit with Japan. Scissors argued that the trade deficit just shifted to China. He claims that the main reason that the deficit fell in the 80s was the slowdown in growth and the onset of the recession.

There is a small problem with that argument. The trade deficit dropped while the economy was still growing rapidly. It fell from a peak of 3.1 percent of GDP in the 2nd quarter of 1987 to less than 2.0 percent of GDP in the 2nd quarter of 1988, as shown in the graph below. This quarter was sandwiched between two quarters of growth above 5.0 percent. The deficit declined further to less than 1.4 percent of GDP by the 3rd quarter of 1989, when the economy grew 3.2 percent. 

quarterly-gdp

 

In short, the recession cannot explain the decline in the size of the trade deficit because the deficit declined while the economy was still growing rapidly. The more obvious explanation is the decline in the value of the dollar that was negotiated at the Plaza Accords in 1986. This is yet another example of the facts being biased against conservatives.

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That would be Ben Bernanke, who by his own claim brought us to the edge of a second Great Depression. The Post told readers that Bernanke:

"has aimed to use the weight of his words to try to give more momentum to efforts to reduce the budget deficit in the medium to long term."

It would have been reasonable to note the irony that a person who failed so miserably at his job -- causing tens of millions to be unemployed or underemployed, and also causing deficits to soar -- would lecture Congress and the public about deficits.

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That's what readers of Andrew Ross Sorkin's column on AIG are all asking, but arithmetic and Mr. Sorkin are rarely found in the same room. Of course the real story of AIG and the other bailouts is that the government used its credit to keep the company, and more importantly its creditors and top executives in business.

Sorkin apparently assumes his readers do not understand that below market loans and guarantees have enormous value. Of course if the government had made the same commitments to the owner of a corner hot-dog stand as it did to AIG, this person would be as rich as Bill Gates right now. Mr. Sorkin could then write a column about how the loans and guarantees didn't cost the government anything (since the hot-dog stand owner had repaid them), but NYT readers know better.

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According to the New York Times, Scott Walker, the Republican candidate for governor is worried that they can't. Of course, the NYT did not make the issue quite this clear to readers.

It told readers that Mr. Walker is worried that subsidies to high speed rail could cost Wisconsin $7-$10 million a year. It would be necessary to divide by Wisconsin's population of 5.6 million to realize that an expenditure of 2.8-4.0 cents a week is a high item on the Republican gubernatorial candidate's list of concerns.

(Thanks C. Mike for catching my initial error.)

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The NYT discussed the issues involved in currency pricing and trade protection with reference to China and other countries. The article raised concerns that growing protectionism could hurt economic growth, but it never noted that most highly educated professionals already benefit from extensive protectionism. The inequality resulting from their protection is one of the key factors motivating protectionist sentiments in the United States.

It also raises the prospect that a higher valued yuan would seriously damage China's economy. It would have been helpful to note the importance of China's exports to the U.S. to its economy. China's good exports to the U.S. are approximately equal to 6 percent of its GDP. Even a sharp rise in the yuan is unlikely to reduce its exports by more than one-third (2 percent of GDP) over a 2-year period. This is currently equal to less than 3 months of growth in China.

It is also worth noting that China's exports to the United States fell by 17.4 percent from the third quarter of 2008 to the third quarter of 2009. China was able to offset the loss of export demand from the United States and elsewhere with a massive stimulus package. As a result, its economy grew by more than 9.0 percent in 2009.

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Since some folks are determined to spread nonsense about the TARP, I suppose it's necessary for those of us not on Wall Street's payroll to keep trotting out the truth. The basic points of the TARP backers are:

1) it didn't cost us anything;

2) it was necessary; and

3) Dodd-Frank ensures that it will never happen again.

 

Claim 1 is just absolute nonsense. We gave the banks trillions of dollars worth of loans and loan guarantees through the TARP, the Fed and the FDIC at way below market rates at the time. It is true that most of this money was paid back, so the government got back what it lent, but that does not mean there was no cost to the taxpayer.

Without TARP and the other government bailout programs, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Citigroup, Bank of America, and many other large banks would have gone bankrupt. Their top executives would be unemployed today and their shareholders would have lost hundreds of billions of dollars in wealth, as would their creditors.

Thanks to their access to below market credit in their time of need, courtesy of the taxpayer bailouts, the Wall Street executives are still pocketing tens of millions a year and the banks are again making record profits. Had the market been allowed to work its magic, this wealth and income would have been available for the rest of society. The financial sector will continue to be a drain on the rest of the economy because the government saved it from the consequences of its own recklessness.

 

Claim 2 implies that the economy would have collapsed absent the TARP. It assumes an absurd counter-factual: that the government and the Fed would have allowed the banks to collapse and then done nothing in response to boost the economy. Of course that would have been a catastrophe, but it is simply a lie to claim that our options were either doing TARP or never doing anything.

There is no reason that we could not have let the banks go down in the cesspool of junk loans that they had fostered and then flooded the system with liquidity after the fact to boost the economy. This is the serious alternative scenario -- not the permanent do nothing scenario that TARP proponents have created.

 

Claim 3 ignores the fact that we have bigger too-big-to-fail banks than we did before the crisis. Most of the largest banks are larger today than they were before the crisis because we allowed a series of major mergers (e.g. J.P. Morgan Chase with Bear Stearns and Bank of America with Merrill Lynch) as a result of the crisis. It is very unlikely that the future regulators will be any more willing to tolerate the collapse of these giants than was the 2008 crew.

Resolution authority may give the regulators more flexibility in a crisis in the future than they had in the 2008 crisis, but the big problem was that they wanted the creditors paid off, not that they didn't. For example, the Treasury Department/Fed made good on 100 percent of AIG's debts, instead of trying to impose haircuts on its creditors. There is no reason to expect regulators to act any differently in future crises.

In short, the TARP opponents are absolutely right. TARP was an unnecessary giveaway to the Wall Street crew that was responsible for the financial crisis.

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The Post had a good article on how TANF, the main federal welfare program, has not expanded significantly in the wake of the downturn, even as the need has increased enormously. At one point the article tells readers that:

"Despite urging from the Obama administration and welfare directors around the country, lawmakers decided not to extend the emergency welfare money, which gave states more than $4 million, in part to subsidize wages to help people go to work."

Actually, the law would have provided more than $4 billion, not $4 million. However, it would have been helpful to express these sums relative to the size of the federal budget so that readers would know how large they are. The $4 million figure would be equal to 0.00011 percent of federal spending. The $4 billion number is equal to 0.11 percent of federal spending.

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That was what he told Post readers in his column. He talked about President Obama's deficit commission as "the last hope for gaining control of government spending," telling readers that:

"The problem is so big as to seem insurmountable: $13 trillion of debt, now equivalent to 60 percent of gross domestic product. In 10 years, that is projected to increase to 90 percent of GDP, at which time we'll be making $1 trillion a year in interest payments." 

People with more familiarity with numbers would note that the country has had larger debt to GDP ratios in times past. They would also point out that that the $1 trillion in interest payments is less than 5 percent of projected GDP in ten years. The government faced the same interest burden in the early 90s.

Furthermore, unless the Fed acts irresponsibly (a big if, it did allow the $8 trillion housing bubble that wrecked the economy), it will own much of the government's debt. In this case, the interest will be paid to the Fed, which in turns will rebate it to the Treasury leaving no net interest burden. Currently the Fed is rebating an amount equal to almost 40 percent of the interest paid by the Treasury. Reporters at most newspapers would be expected to understand this relationship.

It is also not clear what Milbank thinks is out of control about government spending (maybe he sees flying saucers also). Government spending has mostly increased to support the economy in response to the worst downturn since the Great Depression. His column suggests that he may be unaware of this downturn.

 

 

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