House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan is supposed to be a brave and serious thinker. That's how the Washington punditry treats him. Last year, the Peter Peterson gang gave Ryan a "Fiscy Award" for "leading the way in promoting fiscal responsibility and government accountability." Politico made Representative Ryan its "health care policymaker of the year." Ryan is a regular guest on the Sunday talk shows and he can always count on a warm reception from the very serious people.

For this reason when Representative Ryan again proposed a budget that would shrink non-defense spending outside of Social Security and health care programs to zero by 2050 the proposal deserves real attention. According to the projections of the Congressional Budget Office (Table 2), Representative Ryan's budget would shrink the category of defense and non-defense discretionary spending, plus non-health entitlements to 3.75 percent of GDP by 2050.

Since Representative Ryan has said that he wants to keep military spending near its current level of 4.0 percent of GDP, this would leave no money to pay for the Justice Department, the Food and Drug Administration, Education, the National Institutes of Health or anything else that the government does.

This shrinking of non-defense spending to zero was also in Representative Ryan's budget last year, however he could have been credited with an honest, if incredibly foolish, mistake. However he has now gone on record with the same proposal in 2012, presumably indicating that this budget does in fact reflect his views and the views of the Republicans in the House, if they again approve the budget, as they did last year. 

It is remarkable that this extraordinary proposal by Representative Ryan has not gotten more attention from the people who think so highly of him in official Washington. Apparently they consider the elimination of most of the government to be a very reasonable suggestion.

                                                                            

The NYT began an article discussing a "right to work" measure in Minnesota by describing it as a "measure ... that would allow workers to avoid paying fees to unions they choose not to join." It would have been helpful to remind readers that under federal law a union is legally obligated to represent all the workers in a bargaining unit regardless of whether or not they choose to join the union.

This rule means that workers who do not join the union not only gain from whatever wage and benefit increases the union negotiates with the employer, they also are entitled to the union's representation in any disputes that are covered under the contract. For example, if the employer wants to discipline or fire a worker who is not a member of the union, the union is obligated to represent this worker in the same way as if they were a dues paying member of the union.

In this context, the Minnesota measure means that workers who support a union can effectively be required to pay for the representation of workers who do not support the union. This is not an obvious step toward promoting individual freedom.

Contrary to what the article asserts, every worker in Minnesota can already "avoid paying fees to unions they choose not to join." They have the option to not work at a company where there is a union contract that requires workers to pay for their union representation.

This measure is about taking away rights, not extending them. If it were approved, workers would no longer have the right to sign a contract that required that everyone who benefited from union representation paid for this representation. This is a case of the government interfering with freedom of contract.

The NYT had a bad case of he said/she said reporting this morning in an article that reported on a panel's recommendations for improving the nation's education system. The article noted the panel's recommendation for increased the choice of schools available for parents to select among. It then cited comments from Randi Weingarten, the President of the American Federation of Teachers, saying:

"school choice options like vouchers and charters, which use public funds but are run by a third party, have not proved to be sustainable or to improve schools."

This is not just something that Ms. Weingarten says, it also happens to be true. Extensive research has found that the vast majority of charter schools do not result in better performance by standardized test measures than the public schools, and a substantial portion do markedly worse.

The NYT should have pointed out that Ms. Weingarten's assertion was true and not left it to readers to try to decide between competing claims. The NYT's reporters have the time to investigate these claims, its readers do not.

The Washington Post is quickly becoming an employment service for psychics. An article on the Republicans' latest budget and tax proposals, which will reduce tax rates on corporations and the wealthy, tells readers that Republicans believe that their plan "will spur economic growth and provide them with a politically potent election-year message."

Reporters know that politicians do not always say what they believe. This is why real newspapers only report what politicians say. Only psychics would try to tell people what politicians actually think.

This piece also wrongly implies that reducing the number of tax brackets from 6 to 2, as the Republicans propose, is connected to tax simplification. It isn't. To calculate one's taxes, it is necessary to go to the tax tables and see what you owe given your income level. This is the same process regardless of whether there are 2 tax rates or 200 hundred. (Thanks to Robert Salzberg for calling this one to my attention.)

Readers of the front page WAPO piece on manufacturing productivity will assume that neither the Post nor any of the economic experts it consults have heard of arithmetic. The piece points to research showing that manufacturing productivity has been overstated. While it is good to see that the Post has finally noticed research that many of us have talked about for years, the Post grossly misrepresents the issues concerning manufacturing productivity and employment.

The Post presents the question as being one of whether higher productivity or increased imports are responsible for job loss in manufacturing. Those familiar with arithmetic know that the answer is that both are responsible.

Arithmetic tells us this because we know that our net imports of manufactured goods are equal to almost one-third of the manufactured goods we consume. If we produced these goods in the United States then manufacturing employment would rise by close to 40 percent.

On the other hand, the increase in the efficiency of manufacturing production has also affected the demand for labor in the sector. If productivity had not improved then more people would be employed producing the same amount of manufactured goods. While we would have lost some output due to import competition if productivity had not improved, there are sectors of manufacturing that are still subject to limited import competition. In these sectors higher productivity translates fairly directly into fewer jobs. 

Insofar as productivity growth has been exaggerated due to a failure to accurately measure imports, as the research cited in this piece shows, it means that a larger portion of job loss has been due to imports and a smaller portion is attributable to productivity growth. However, it doesn't change the fact that manufacturing productivity growth has still been strong and that both have been important factors explaining job loss.

Remarkably, this piece never once mentions the value of the dollar. The dollar directly affects the competitiveness of U.S. manufactured goods. A 10 percent fall in the real value of the dollar relative to the currencies of our trading partners has the same impact on competitiveness as a sudden surge of 10 percent in labor productivity.

As a historical matter, the United States went from adding jobs in manufacturing to losing jobs when the dollar surged following the East Asian financial crisis in 1997. The decline accelerated as the dollar continued to rise through the end of the 90s.

It is bizarre that a major piece on manufacturing employment would never mention the value of the dollar. This would be like reporting on patterns of gasoline consumption without ever talking about the price.

The Post's Wonkblog had an interesting post about a new study showing that the cost of health insurance for a typical family will be equal to the median family income by 2037, if current trends continue. Unfortunately, the post inaccurately reported that the comparison was with average family income.

Given the growth of inequality in the last three decades this makes a big difference. According to the Census Bureau, median household income in 2010 was 49,445, whereas average income was $67,530. Perhaps more importantly, average income by definition grows in step with the economy whereas median income has been growing slowly as a result of upward redistribution. (The confusion actually is in a chart in the original paper, so Wonkblog can be forgiven for not catching it.)

The story is still an important one, if not quite as dramatic as reported. The vast majority of people in the United States will soon be unable to afford health care if nothing is done to contain costs. This is the second most predictable crisis in history, after the housing bubble, and almost no one is talking about it.

My favorite solution is to take advantage of trade -- every other health care system in the world is more efficient than ours. Unfortunately, the political debate in the United States is dominated by Neanderthal protectionists, at least when it comes to trade measures that could lower the income of doctors and other powerful special interest groups.

 

 

Robert Samuelson uses his column today to complain that:

"Four years after the onset of the financial crisis — in March 2008 Bear Stearns was rescued from failure — we still lack a clear understanding of the underlying causes."

Wow, it sure doesn't seem very hard to me. The Reagan-Volcker policies of the early 80s broke the link between productivity growth and wage growth for ordinary workers. This meant that demand growth did not necessarily keep pace with output potential as had been true earlier in the post-war period, since higher wages would quickly translate into higher consumption. 

That created an environment which opened a door to speculative bubbles. In the 90s it was the stock bubble which drove growth, primarily by pushing saving rates to then record lows. In the last decade it was the housing bubble which drove growth, both by creating a building boom and also by pushing saving rates even lower as bubble-generated home equity led to a consumption boom.

None of this story is new. I was writing about how the stock bubble was driving the economy in the 90s and how the housing bubble was driving the economy as early as 2002. And, I gave the historical picture in Plunder and Blunder: The Rise and Fall of the Bubble Economy.

But, folks like Robert Samuelson would rather pretend that the whole story is a great mystery rather than contemplate the possibility that the economic instability of the last decade had its roots in a pattern of growth that was built on redistributing income from ordinary workers to the most highly paid workers and corporate profits.

Politicians don't always say what they are thinking. Most of us know this fact. Unfortunately, the folks at the Washington Post don't. In a major front page article on the budget negotiations last summer between President Obama and the Republican leadership the Post told readers:

"Another key caveat: Much of the $800 billion would have to come from overhauling the tax code — not from higher tax rates. The Republicans believed lower rates and a simpler code would generate new revenue by discouraging cheating and spurring economic growth."

The Post actually has no clue what Republicans "believed." It only knows what Republicans say.

Suppose for a moment that Republicans want to lower tax rates for the wealthy because they get large campaign contributions from wealthy people who want to see their tax rates go down. It is unlikely that Republicans would go around telling the public that they want to lower tax rates for the wealthy because wealthy people feel like paying less money in taxes.

They would need some alternative argument that might have appeal beyond the 1-2 percent of the public that benefits from lower tax rates. The claim that lower tax rates on the wealthy will lead to more growth, thereby benefiting everyone, is one such argument.

While it is possible that Republicans actually believe this claim, it is also possible that they are just saying it for political purposes and know it to be false or simply care whether or not it is true. It irresponsible for a newspaper to tell us that politicians' statements actually reflect their view of the world when it has no basis whatsoever for this assertion.

Developing countries are supposed to grow more rapidly than rich countries. For example, China has maintained a growth rate of close to 10 percent annually for three decade. India has recently approached this range. Argentina's growth averaged almost 7 percent over the last decade.

By contrast, Mexico's per capita GDP growth has actually trailed that of the United States. This naturally leads the Post to run a front page piece today telling readers that "Mexico's middle class is becoming its majority," a fact which it attributes in part to NAFTA.

Yes, this always happens in slow growing countries. Those who care about data will note that per capita income in Mexico fell from 32.4 percent of per capital income in the United States in 1993, the last pre-NAFTA year, to 31.4 percent in 2011. But hey, why let the data get in the way of a good story? At least the Post didn't try to claim that Mexico's GDP had quadrupled from 1987 to 2007, again.

This NYT front page story on the surge of kidnapping in Mexico provides an interesting contrast.

Those who have been following the problems of the euro zone indebtedness have no doubt heard about the problems of debt crises in Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, and Spain. But apparently France has also had a debt crisis. At least that is what the Post told readers.

An article that told readers that Europe is already so highly taxed that it can only look to cut spending referred to:

"the colossal French government debt that helped push Europe into a dangerous yearlong financial crisis from which it only now is emerging."

The French government debt is actually not especially large, at around 80 percent of GDP. Furthermore, it was the economic crisis that pushed up French debt from a much more modest 60 percent of GDP. While France did see some increase in interest rates on its debt relative to Germany's, interest rates never approached the levels seen in the crisis countries. 

Much of the problem with French debt stems from the failure of the European Central Bank (ECB) to act as a lender of last resort, which would ensure that interest rates remain low. Also the failure of the ECB to act more aggressively to boost the euro zone economy has slowed growth and raised unemployment in France and across the euro zone. This has also worsened the budget deficit. A serious piece discussing Europe's fiscal situation would have noted these facts.

The Washington Post once again jumped over the line separating the news section from the editorial section and fiction from reality. It ran a tribute to North Dakota Senator Kent Conrad on the front page of the business section.

Conrad, the chair of the Senate Budget Committee and perhaps the biggest deficit hawk in the senate, is retiring at the end of the year. His views on the deficit closely parallel the views of the Post editorial page, hence the tribute.

In praising Conrad the article repeatedly makes reference to the report of the Bowles-Simpson commission. In fact, there was no report of the Bowles-Simpson commission. The report that the article is referring to is the report of the co-chairs of the commission, former Senator Alan Simpson and Morgan Stanley director Erskine Bowles.

In order for a report to have been approved by the commission it would have needed the support of 14 members of the commission. This report only had the support of 11 members. As a result, the chairs never even put the report up for a formal vote.

Since the Post's editorial page is sympathetic to the report of the co-chairs, it apparently feels it is appropriate to misrepresent the report as a report of the commission itself. This has the effect of giving the report greater legitimacy. This is the sort of behavior that has led the Post to be known as "Fox on 15th Street."

Readers of this piece should have been warned. The second sentence refers to Conrad as "a lonely Cassandra." Of course Cassandra was the person who foretold of the disaster that eventually befell Troy.

By contrast, Senator Conrad completely missed the disaster that was made inevitable by the growth of the housing bubble. Instead, he was diverting the public's attention from this imminent crisis with his complaints about budget deficits even at a time when the deficits were relatively modest. 

Charles Murray is back in the Wall Street Journal rejecting the idea that poor economic prospects had anything to do with the fact that so many whites without college degrees dropped out of the labor force. There are a few points that are worth noting about this story. 

First Murray does a bizarre comparison by looking at real wages between 1960 and 2010. This is bizarre because wages rose rapidly through the sixties and into the early seventies, then largely stagnated. (I am using manufacturing workers to pick a typical job held by non-college educated white makes.)

Book4_21697_image002

                             Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Note that there is some increase in real wages in the late 90s, the first period of sustained low unemployment since the late 60s. Interestingly, these wage gains coincided with the first period of sustained low unemployment since early 70s. Also, if we look at the graph that Murray has with his article we see that the labor force participation for whites with just a high school degree actually rose slightly in this period, reversing the long-term trend. That might suggest that labor market conditions are a big part of this story.

There are two other points worth considering in this story. First, the share of white males with just a high school degree (i.e. no college or even vocational training) has fallen sharply over this period. In other words, whites with just a high school degree are a smaller and relatively less educated segment of the white work force today than was the case 40 years ago.

The other point is that we might think that relative income means something. In a thirty year period where per capita income more than doubled, we might expect that workers would have at least something to show. The fact that the wages of white males with just high school degrees has barely budged in three decades indicates that their situation has deteriorated seriously in relative terms.

Charles Krauthammer is angry at President Obama for not allowing more oil drilling and delaying the Keystone Pipeline. He suspects that he doesn't like fossil fuels. (There's something called "global warming," which could lead to hundreds of millions of deaths due to floods and droughts, but hey, we don't talk about that here.)

Anyhow, Krauthammer is upset that President Obama keeps saying that drilling everywhere all the time will not bring down the price of oil. Of course this happens to be true.

Even if we told BP and the other oil companies we don't care how many people they kill in the process (11 workers died in the Deepwater Horizon explosion) and whose land and beaches they destroy (in other words, no respect for private property) they could at most increase production by 1-2 million barrels a day, and even this increase would take years to bring about.

That would increase would supplies by around 2 percent, perhaps leading to a reduction in price on the order of 5 percent. If Krauthammer has research that shows something different, he should share it with readers.

The Keystone pipeline would mostly have the effect of redistributing gas within the U.S. It would lead to higher prices in the Midwest and somewhat lower prices on the East Coast.

Krauthammer also criticizes Obama for claiming that reduced demand will lower prices. While Obama is wrong if he literally meant that reduced demand would mean lower gas prices, if he meant that increased efficiency would lower energy costs, then he is absolutely right. It costs half as much to drive a car a mile if it gets 40 miles a gallon than if it gets 20 miles a gallon.  

One last point, Krauthammer is upset that President Obama is spending 0.0004 percent of the federal budget on research into using algae as a fuel source. If we cut this spending, that apparently Krauthammer knows to be foolish, we could rebate 5 cents to every person in the country.

The NYT reported that India is seeing somewhat of a growth slowdown, telling readers that growth slowed from 9.9 percent in 2010, to 7.4 percent last year, and a projected 7.0 percent this year. It then added:

"while that is fast relative to developed countries, most economists consider it laggardly."

Actually, 7.0 percent growth is fast relative to the growth rate in the vast majority of developing countries as well. For example, last year Argentina and Panama were the only countries in Latin America to achieve a growth rate in excess of 7.0 percent. While India can likely grow more rapidly than this, 7.0 percent is still an impressive growth rate by most standards.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects that the interest rate on 10-year Treasury bonds won't hit 3.0 percent until the third quarter of 2014 and that even at the end of the next presidential term they will still be hovering near 4.0 percent, a lower rate than at any point during the budget surplus years of the Clinton administration.

This might lead people to think that budget deficits are not having a serious negative effect in driving up interest rates. But David Brooks tells readers that CBO is wrong:

"In December, a re-elected Obama would face three immediate challenges: the Bush tax cuts expire; there will be another debt-ceiling fight; mandatory spending cuts kick in. In addition, there will be an immediate need to cut federal deficits. During the recession, the government could borrow gigantic amounts without pushing up interest rates because there was so little private borrowing. But as the economy recovers and demand for private borrowing increases, then huge public deficits on top of that will push up interest rates, crowd out private investment and smother the recovery."

Wow, it would be great if Brooks could share the analysis he used to determine that interest rates are about to spike and derail the recovery. I do my best to keep on top of new economic research, but I have no clue what Brooks could be talking about. Maybe he could share it with readers in a future column.

Brooks apparently also did not know that President Obama put out a budget for fiscal year 2012. His column said that:

"One of the crucial moments of his presidency came in April of last year. Usually, presidents lead by proposing a budget and everybody reacts. But Obama decided to hang back and let Representative Paul Ryan propose a Republican budget. Then, after everybody saw the size of the cuts Ryan was proposing, Obama could come in with his less scary alternative. That is cageyness personified."

Actually, President Obama did put out a budget in February of 2011, two months before Representative Ryan put out his plan.

NPR deserves some serious congratulations. As a matter of policy they now reject the concept of he said/she said journalism; creating the image of balance even when one said is clearly true and the other isn't.

This would mean, for example, they would not just air Republican complaints that the Obama administration is responsible for the high price of gas and the Obama administration's response that the price of oil is determined in world markets, which can only be affected to a very limited extent by U.S. production. It will now tell listeners that the price of oil is in fact determined in world markets and that U.S. production is a relatively small fraction of world production.

This is a huge step forward for NPR, and because of its standing, news reporting more generally. They definitely deserve to be commended for this stance. Let's hope they live up to it.

Clive Crook seems to want to both expand and privatize Social Security in part to address the real problem that retirees do not have enough money to have a decent standard of living. Before addressing his main policy proposal, it's worth addressing a few things that he gets wrong.

First, he complains that the program is adding to the deficit, telling readers to:

"Forget the 'trust fund' and its holdings of government debt. That’s money the government owes to itself: It nets out to zero."

Yes, I keep telling Peter Peterson to forget his holdings of government debt. That is simply money owed by the government.

Look, this is a real simple logical point. We keep a separate account for Social Security. Clive Crook and whoever else may not like that fact, but it happens to be reality.

That is why it is possible for Social Security to run out of money in a way that it is not possible for the Pentagon or State Department to run out of money. If Crook doesn't believe in the idea of Social Security being a separate account then his next sentence is nonsense:

"What counts is that the system is now adding to the budget deficit, and will add more with time."

If it's all one budget, then every spending program adds to the deficit all the time. What Crook wants to do is to ignore the $2.7 trillion in government bonds that Social Security built up over the last quarter century by taxing workers more than was needed to pay benefits. This is known as "stealing."

Crook then proposes two measures to eliminate projected shortfalls. One is to raise the retirement age. This proposal ignores the fact that many older workers, especially those with less education, work at physically demanding jobs where it will be difficult for them to work into their mid or late sixties.

His next proposal is means-testing. This one doesn't make much sense once you look at the data. While Peter Peterson may not need his Social Security, there are not many billionaires collecting benefits. To have any noticeable impact on the program's costs you would have to hit people with non-Social Security incomes of around $40k, and even then the gains would be limited.

However Crook is exactly right in saying that the current Social Security benefit is inadequate to support a decent retirement. To remedy this he proposes a mandatory contribution equal to 5 percent of wages to a new government-run retirement fund. (There would be subsidies for lower income workers, but Crook would probably leave many moderate-income workers hard hit with this 5 percent contribution.)

The idea of increasing the money put aside for retirement is fine, except he uses President Bush's proposal for individual accounts as his model. Of course President Bush did not want to have collectively invested money, he wanted people to have their own accounts where they could play around with their money. This would have added cost and increased risk compared to what Crook is suggesting.

As far as Crook's plan, it is not clear what the benefit is from having individuals get an investment return as opposed to a guaranteed benefit based on average returns. The difference is that the government need not worry about the timing of the market (it will survive through a down market), whereas individual workers have to worry a great deal about timing. If the government assumed this timing risk and paid workers an average return on their investment (e.g. 3.0 percent above the rate of inflation), then workers could avoid timing risk.

If there is a downside to going this route and upside to subjecting workers to the risk of market timing, it is hard to see what it is. Anyhow, Crook's plan clearly is not going anywhere any time soon, but it is good to at least see someone recognizing the need to increase, rather than decrease, retirement income.

Simon Johnson had a nice blogpost in the NYT arguing that populism has often been a source of good economic ideas in U.S. history with a focus on populist sentiment for breaking up too big to fail banks. At one point Johnson notes some of the constructive measures pushed by populists, noting that the direct election of senators and the income tax were both populist ideas.

One other item that should be on this list is ending the gold standard. This was a rallying cry for the populists throughout their history. It was also good policy, as going off the gold standard laid the basis for the recovery from the Great Depression. 

George Will has decided that it is unconstitutional for state and local governments to negotiate contracts with their workers that have the governments paying for some of the time of union staff. He found $900,000 of such payments in the Phoenix police contract and decided that is an unconstitutional gift.

It would be interesting to see how Will compares this to CEOs of companies that contract with the government paying themselves tens of millions of dollars a year. That might seem a much larger gift.

No doubt Will would say that companies negotiated a contract with the government and how the company choose to divide their money is their own business. However if he applied the logic consistently then he would end up with the exact same story with government workers.(Will also argues that the political power of public sector unions adds an element of corruption to this story. That doesn't help his case much. Government contractors have also been known to make campaign contributions.)

When unions negotiate a contract that provides for payment of union officers they understand that they are giving up something in terms of wages or other compensation. In other words, the government does not negotiate a contract with workers and then say "hey, here's another $900,000 to pay for union activities." The money to cover the cost of running the union is coming out of compensation that workers would have otherwise earned.

That is the econ 101 lesson and that is why it is unlikely that any court would waste taxpayers money reviewing a lawsuit that is so obviously ridiculous. George Will obviously does not like unions, but he will have to do a bit more homework if he wants to make his case in court, although he has obviously done enough homework to make the Washington Post oped page. 

Last week Allan Meltzer had a column in the WSJ telling us that we should stop complaining about inequality and start loving it. His main point is that inequality is increasing everywhere, therefore there is nothing that we can do about it.

Neither part of this story is especially true. As Paul Krugman, Mark Thoma and others have already noted, inequality has not increased anywhere to the same extent as in the United States and in many countries there has been little or no change in most measures of inequality. So clearly different national policies can make a big difference in the extent of inequality.

However even if inequality was increasing everywhere, it does not mean that policy is not a factor. The WSJ may not have heard, but there are international forums like the G-8 and institutions like the WTO where countries coordinate policy.

This means, for example that if they agree on a policy of strong anti-inflation measures that raise unemployment everywhere (as they did), then they have collectively agreed to implement policies that redistribute income upwards. Similarly, if they agree to have stronger patent and copyright protection (as they have), then they have also agreed to policies that redistribute income upward. Unless we think that policies that are decided in international forums should not be subject to political debate, the fact that the same policies of upward redistribution have been imposed in many countries (not just the United States) is hardly an argument that we should not be concerned about them.

The other part of Meltzer's argument that is just wrong is that because Steve Jobs produced great products we should not be upset about inequality. Most economists are familiar with the concept of "economic rent." Economic rents occur when people get paid more than is necessary to get them to do their work.

For example, if a firetruck showed up at a burning home with children trapped inside, the parents would gladly pay whatever money they had to have the firefighters rescue them. In Alan Meltzer's world, if firefighters were making millions of dollars a year showing up at the burning homes of the wealthy we should not complain because saving children from burning buildings is a fantastic service and certainly we are all glad that the firefighters are there.

Of course, the reality is that firefighters are willing to do their work for much less money. They get a relatively good salary, but none of them are making millions of dollars a year.

Arguably the economy has been structured in a way that leads to large rents for those at the top. This is what those complaining about inequality are upset over. The fact that Steve Jobs might have actually made great contributions to society in exchange for his wealth has nothing to do with the time of day and Mr. Meltzer presumably knows this.

 

 

A front page Washington Post article touted the 1.1 percent jump in retail sales reported for February. The piece said that the jump came in spite of the increase in the price of gas. This is only partly true, since more than a third of the increase in spending was due to increased spending on gas.

In the short term, higher gas prices are likely to be associated with increased spending, since people find it difficult to reduce their gas purchases. Over a longer period of time, they are likely to change their driving habits to save money.

More importantly, the February retail sales data follows three months in which the Commerce Department consumption expenditures data showed no real gain in spending. While the February retail sales detail indicate that the January data on consumption expenditures may be revised upward, when placed against the prior three months, the February gain does not look particularly impressive. 

As the piece notes, it is also important to remember that this was an unusually mild February. The fact that the weather was relatively warm and there were few major snowstorms across the Northeast/Midwest meant that people were more likely to go shopping, go out for dinner and do house repairs that would typically be the case in February. This clearly gave some boost to retail sales for the month.

This piece also seriously understates the role of consumption thus far in the recovery when it tells readers:

"Experts have been waiting for consumers to open their wallets because they are the backbone of the economy, accounting for roughly two-thirds of gross domestic product."

Actually experts know that consumption has been surprisingly strong thus far in the recovery. The savings rate has been under 5.0 percent for the last three quarters. Historically the savings rate had averaged more than 8.0 percent. It fell sharply in the last two decades as the wealth created by the stock and housing bubbles led people to spend a much larger share of their income.

With this wealth largely eliminated by the collapse of these bubbles it would be reasonable to expect the saving rate to return to its historic level or possibly even to rise above it, as the huge baby boom cohorts approach retirement with almost no assets. The fact that the savings rate has remained well below its historic average tells experts that consumers are spending at a surprisingly strong rate which may not be sustained indefinitely. 


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