I'm just asking. By the way, what measure is he using that shows that the United States has declining human capital? All the data with which I am familiar shows the workforce is getting more educated through time.

That is what readers of an NYT article on higher shipping fees for faster service must be wondering. The article tells readers that shippers now have a shortage of space because:

"With little demand for shipping, ocean carriers took ships out of service: more than 11 percent of the global shipping fleet was idle in spring 2009, according to AXS-Alphaliner, an industry consultant."

Okay, so we are seeing a big run-up in prices and, "fighting for freight, retailers are outbidding each other to score scarce cargo space on ships, paying two to three times last year’s freight rates — in some cases."

ummm, what happened to the 11 percent of shipping fleet that is now idle? The article does make a brief reference to this idle capacity later, noting that firms are reluctant to bring it back on line. This sounds a bit like a case of collusion to keep prices high. It might make for a good article by an enterprising reporter.

(I'm back from the DC power failure - 32 hours in my hood.)

CNN had a segment on inequality in Brazil in which it told viewers:

"The country's Gross Domestic Product -- the value of goods and services it produces -- was $2 trillion in 2009, the 10th largest in the world, according to the CIA World Factbook. But per capita income for the same year was estimated at $10,200, the 105th highest in the world. Simply stated, most of the wealth being produced is not finding its way down to most Brazilians."

Actually, per capita income reveals nothing about inequality. It is simply GDP divided by the population. Brazil has a relatively low per capita income because it has a large population. The number for per capita income would be the same if everyone had the same income or one person had it all.

The piece could have referred to Brazil's Gini index, which is a measure on inequality. At 56.7, it is one of the highest in the world, although it has been dropping in recent years.

(HT to Robert Naiman.)

 

The lead article in the Sunday Post reported on the battle over extending President Bush's tax cuts. At one point it told readers that: "because they [the tax cuts] were expected to eventually cause huge deficits, Republicans wrote them to expire in 2010."

Actually the story is somewhat more pernicious. President Bush had set a budget target for his tax cuts. Had they run through 2011 the cost would have exceeded his target. Therefore they wrote the law so that the cuts ended in 2010, keeping the 10-year cost within his target.

The article also includes the bizarre statement: "And with unemployment at 9.5 percent, even some Democrats are queasy about raising taxes on high earners -- a category that includes many small-business owners -- when policymakers are trying to encourage them to create jobs."

Actually, there is little evidence that raising taxes on high income households will have any notable impact on job creation. (Job growth was quite rapid under the Clinton era tax rates.) Furthermore, many of the Democrats who oppose raising taxes on the wealthy have opposed many or all of President Obama's stimulus measures, indicating that they have little concern about job creation.

It is certainly more plausible that these politicians are worried about campaign contributions from high income households, an issue that remarkably was never mentioned once in this article.

In an article that discussed the two-tier pay system that Chrysler and GM adopted as part of their rescue plan, the Post told readers that the debate over autoworkers' wages during the bailout pitted "the advocates of the free market against those for a 'fair wage.'" Actually, there was no one in this debate advocating a free market. Those who wanted to see the wages of union auto workers cut were still very supportive of the licensing and professional restrictions that protect doctors and other highly paid professionals from foreign competition. These people also support other major forms of interference with market outcomes such as copyrights and patent protection.

The only clearly recognizable view held by those who insisted that autoworkers wages lowered to $14 an hour was that they wanted to see autoworkers get paid less money. The Post should simply report what people say and not attribute an ideology to them which almost certainly does not fit reality.  

Sometimes the Post just leaves readers speechless. It has a front page article with the headline: "GOP finds grist for campaigns in projections of record deficits [this headline only appears in the print edition]."
The article goes on to explain how Republicans are yelling about the new record deficits.

There are two striking features to this article. First, Republicans have criticized President Obama for everything under the sun, including a speech encouraging children to work hard in school. That the Republicans are critical of the latest budget projections is not news and certainly not front page news. Although it might merit a front page story if they did not criticize the projections.

The other striking feature of this story is that the front page only presented the Republican criticisms. Only those who read to the jump page saw that Democrats response that the deficits were the result of the economic collapse in 2008. Even this point is largely left as a matter of "he said, she said," rather than being reported as the fact that it is.

The folks who thought the housing bubble was cool are now working overtime to make the victims of its collapse suffer as much as possible. This presumably explains the reason that Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson claimed that a Goldman Sachs study of 44 countries found that a study of 44 countries found that: "reducing government expenditures by one percentage point, in contrast, increases average annual growth by 0.6 percentage points."

What the study actually found was that a one percentage point decline in government consumption expenditures was associated with a 0.63 percent increase in growth. However, it found that a one percentage point increase in government investment expenditures (spending on education, research, infrastructure etc. ) was associated with a 1.25 percentage point increase in growth. This would mean, for example, that a one percentage point decline in spending that was split evenly between cuts to government consumption and cuts to investment would lead to 0.31 percentage point decline in GDP growth.

There are reasons that this study is inapplicable to current circumstances. Most notably, the bulk of the benefit from spending cuts appears to come through the channel of lower interest rates inducing more investment. This is unlikely to be a important channel given that interest rates are already extremely low, however, even ignoring this issue, Gerson has seriously misrepresented the findings of the study that he cited.  

The housing bubble -- you know that $8 trillion run up in house prices. When it burst it led to a financial crisis that almost brought down the financial system. It also pushed the economy into the worst downturn in 70 years, since its collapse caused construction to plummet and consumption (which had been fueled by bubble created home equity) to plunge.

You would think that people who report on the housing market would have noticed the bubble -- sort of like environmental reporters taking note of global warming -- but that doesn't seem to be the case at NPR. It ran two separate stories this morning on the housing market, neither of which made any reference to the housing bubble.

The second included an extended presentation of the views of Nicolas Retsinas, the director of the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard. Mr. Retsinas gained notoriety for insisting that there was no bubble during the peak years of the run-up in house prices and insisting that it was still a good time for moderate income families to buy homes. 

The NYT portrayed the Fed as facing a serious dilemma in dealing with its portfolio of mortgage backed securities (MBS). It argued that it can either start selling them now and risk slowing the economy or wait until the economy has recovered more and risk losing money by selling them in a higher inflation environment.

There actually is another option that would address the deficit concerns that appear constantly in the NYT and other media outlets. The Fed could simply hold the bonds indefinitely and then reinvest the proceeds in Treasury bonds when the MBS are paid off. This means that the Fed would have a constant flow of interest income which would be rebated to the Treasury, reducing the interest burden from the debt to the Treasury. Insofar as it is worried about inflation, the Fed could raise bank reserve requirements (on a fixed schedule) among other actions.

This option should have been discussed in the article. Japan's central bank has gone the route of holding large amounts of long-term debt for long periods of time. In spite of this fact, the country remains far more concerned about deflation than inflation.  

The NYT had a peculiar front page article in which it portrayed Defense Secretary Robert Gates as a budget cutter even though he wants to increase the defense budget by 1.0 percent a year in excess of inflation. It notes that he doesn't want the government to buy some of the weapons system being pushed by Congress. It then comments:

"In one of the paradoxes of Washington budget battles, Mr. Gates, even as he tries to forestall deeper cuts, is trying to kill weapons programs he says the military does not need over the objections of members of Congress who want to protect jobs."

It is not clear what the article views as paradoxical. Increasing the defense budget by 1.0 percent a year in excess of inflation does not imply an austere budget. Nonetheless it also doesn't imply an infinite budget. There is nothing paradoxical about the defense secretary having to set priorities in this context.

The article also includes the peculiar comment that defense spending:

"has averaged an inflation-adjusted growth rate of 7 percent a year over the last decade (nearly 12 percent a year without adjusting for inflation), including the costs of the wars."

Inflation has not averaged anywhere near 5 percent over the last decade, so the 12 percent nominal growth rate is inconsistent with the 7 percent real growth rate.

USA Today wrongly told readers that: "private employers are uncertain about the economy's health and are hesitant to add jobs." The uncertainty of businesses does not explain their reluctance to add workers. If this were the case, then businesses would be increasing the number of hours worked per worker. While average weekly hours are up somewhat from the low hit last fall, they are still down by 0.7 hours from their pre-recession level. This indicates that firms are not hiring because they have no need of additional labor.
But the article did not quite support the headline. Businesses always want more from the government. As the article points out, the Chamber of Commerce has won some big battles in limiting aspects of the financial reform bill, the health care bill, and other pieces of legislation. Naturally, the Chamber will complain about its losses and insist that business is being attacked, but this is a political tactic, not reality. The Post's headline writers should know this.

Politicians routinely praise small business as the source of all good. In reality, small businesses, just like large businesses, are a mixed bag. While they can be a source of economic dynamism and good jobs, many small business owners rip off their workers and their customers, cheat on their taxes, and contribute little of value to the economy before they fail.

It is the job of the media to report on small business with clear eyes, not just repeat happy-talk nonsense from politicians. Therefore, it was disappointing to read a NYT article on a package of special loans and tax breaks for small businesses that began:

"Perhaps the last best hope of Democrats to pass legislation aimed at creating jobs before the November elections seemed to be crumbling in the Senate on Wednesday as Republicans signaled that they would block a bill to expand government lending programs and grant an array of tax breaks to small businesses."

Why would the article assume that the bill is "aimed at creating jobs?" Yes, this is what the politicians said about the bill. But --- hold onto your hats boys and girls -- politicians sometimes say things that are not true.

An alternative explanation is that politicians want to give money to small businesses, a constituency that can be very influential in many upcoming congressional races. Many of the features of this package, such as tax breaks that apply to past actions, look more like measures to give businesses money than to create jobs.

Rather than attributing motives, it would be more appropriate to simply report the bill's contents and what various parties say about it.

That is what readers of the article on David Cameron, the new Prime Minister would be led to believe. After all, the piece told readers that the previous Labor government's policies had turned:

"...Britain into one of the most heavily taxed, tightly regulated countries in the developed world, with government accounting for about half the work force and half of the economy."

The NYT's assertion is at odds with the data. In 2008 (the last year for which full data are available), according to the OECD, the share of government expenditures in GDP in the UK was 47.5%. This is slightly above the 45.6 percent average for the European countries in the OECD, but below the 52.7 percent share in France, the 50.1percent share in Belgium and the 48.7 percent share in Italy. In other words, the government share of the economy in the UK is somewhat above the average for wealthy European countries, but certainly not at the top in this category.

The article also told readers that government employment accounts "...for about half the work force." According to the Office of National Statistics in the U.K., public employment accounts for 21.1 percent of total employment.

The article includes numerous other comments that only serve to express disapproval of the UK welfare state rather than provide information. For example, it describes the new government's effort to "dismantle Britain’s sprawling bureaucracy." No less information would be provided without the word "sprawling."

At one point it reports on plans to establish: "...independent but publicly financed schools in which head teachers and their staff would be freed from the stifling oversight of local councils and the central education authorities." The same information could be provided without the word "stifling." 

Clearly the New York Times supports the agenda of the new government, but expressions of support for a government or political party belong the editorial page, not the front page.

 

 

USA Today had a major story warning that middle-class families may be hit by the estate tax. It warns that people with estates of just a million will be subject to the tax if the law is not changed. The article never points out that the tax will only affect the amount of the estate over $1 million, nor does it mention that the exemption is per person, so that a couple can easily pass $2 million on to their heirs and escape all tax liability. In short, this article gave readers absolutely no idea of the issues involved and it is likely to make many people, who will at most be trivially affected by the estate tax, to believe that they face serious liability.

The article also bizarrely asserts that partisanship has prevented a resolution of the issue. This is not true as can be clearly seen from the evidence presented in the article. While most Republicans support lowering or eliminating the estate tax, there are also some Democrats who have held out for lower rates. The article presents no evidence whatsoever that partisanship is preventing a resolution, as opposed to a conflict between people who want to pay lower taxes and others who want them to pay higher taxes.

 

This article discusses the Obama administration's housing policy, which seems to be moving away from an exclusive focus on homeownership. The article notes that many moderate-income people who bought homes in the last decade ended up losing them.

It would have been worth mentioning the housing bubble in this context. In many cases, it might have made sense for families, in principle, to become homeowners in the years 2002-2007, but not when it meant purchasing homes at bubble-inflated prices. The bubble could have been easily detected by a simple examination of price-to-rent ratios and other fundamentals. Unfortunately, the vast majority of housing professionals, including the people at HUD and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, were too lazy to do this sort of assessment. As a result, millions of moderate-income families bought homes that they were not able to keep.

Business people always want more money. That is part of a being in business. (Has Goldman Sachs or General Electric ever said they want lower profits?) This means that their spokespeople can be counted on to complain about taxes, regulations, wages or anything else that costs them money. Sometimes what they say is not true.

This can be clearly seen with current complaints that fears about regulation and higher taxes are discouraging hiring. This claim can be easily tested. If firms are in a situation where they would be hiring except for these fears, then we should be seeing an increase in the average number of hours worked per worker. We are not seeing an increase in hours worked that is at all out of line with prior recoveries. In fact, in the June data, hours worked fell. 

Reporters should examine whether the claims of business people are plausible instead of just repeating them.

Market Place radio did a segment on the estate tax this morning and neglected to tell listeners that the tax is a marginal rate that only applies to the value of an estate above a cutoff. It also got the pre-Bush tax cut rate wrong.

Therefore when it told listeners that the estate tax will revert to the 2001 level next year if nothing is done, it likely left them hugely confused about the tax rate. The piece said that estates of more than $1 million would face a 55 percent tax rate. This would have led listeners to believe that an estate worth $1.1 million would face a tax liability of $605,000.

In fact, the first million would face no tax liability and the next $100,000 would be taxed at a 37 percent rate, making the total liability $37,000.

 

The NYT devoted a story to an audit by Social Security's Inspector General that found the system pays $53.2 million annually more than it should to former state and local government employees. The overpayment stems from a failure to correctly offset pensions earned in government employment that is not covered by the Social Security system. 
Too bad that they couldn't run it before the financial reform bill was approved.

USA Today notes a decline in the percentage of people who expect to receive their Social Security benefits. The first sentence of the piece implies that the loss of confidence is due to that fact people have been: "battered by high unemployment and record home foreclosures."

While the recession could explain the loss of confidence in Social Security, it is also possible that the huge public relations campaign by Peter Peterson and others has played a role. Peterson, a Wall Street investment banker, has pledged $1 billion to a foundation that has cutting Social Security and Medicare as its major goals. He has spoken widely around the country telling people that Social Security is going broke and that it has no trust fund. He has enlisted prominent political figures, including former President Bill Clinton in this effort.

There are other efforts to undermine public confidence in Social Security, most notably President Obama's deficit commission. Former Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson, one of the co-chairs of this commission, has also frequently insisted that Social Security is going broke.

It is possible that these public relations efforts have had their intended effect of undermining confidence in the Social Security. The article should have at least noted this possibility.

 


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