The Post is always anxious to tell readers about the need to reduce the deficit, it's endlessly repeated editorial line. Of course this is the opposite of what the polling data show.

For example, a poll conducted by Pew on June 3-6 asked respondents which economic issue concerned them most. Forty one percent said jobs, only 23 percent said the deficit. A NBC/Wall Street Journal poll from early May found that by 35 percent to 20 percent people thought economic growth and job creation should be the first economic priority. Only 20 percent ranked the deficit first.

A Fox News poll, also done in early May, found that by a margin of 47 percent to 15 percent people thought the economy and jobs was a more important priority than the deficit and government spending. An early April NYT/CBS poll found that 23 percent of respondents listed the economy as the top priority, while 22 percent listed jobs. Only 11 percent listed the deficit.

So, the polls don't seem to support the Post's claim that the public is more worried about the deficit than jobs.

Thanks to Ben Somberg for calling this one to my attention and supplying the polling data.

The vast majority of state and local pension funds are underfunded. The NYT, and especially Mary Williams Walsh, have done excellent work over the years trying to call attention to this underfunding. However, today's article on the topic definitely goes overboard.

The article is largely based on an analysis by Joshua Rauh, a finance professor at Northwestern University, that calculates the unfunded liabilities of pension funds by assuming that assets only get the same rate of return as U.S. Treasury bonds. By contrast, the standard method for calculating liabilities assumes that pension funds earn a real return of 5.0 percent annually, based on the mix of assets they generally hold.

While the article implies that the state's assumption is overly optimistic, in fact it is a very reasonable assumption, given the current ratio of stock prices to trend earnings. With the plunge in the stock market following the recession and the financial crisis, the ratio of price to trend earnings is now close to the historic average of 14.5 to 1. This makes it possible for stocks to provide close to their long-run average real rate of return of 7.0 percent. By contrast, assuming a 7.0 percent real return on stocks at their pre-crash price level (which pension funds did) was close to ridiculous.

This makes a huge difference in the assessment of the size of the shortfall. For example, the shortfall of Ohio, the state with the largest shortfall relative to the size of its budget, falls in Rauh's analysis from $217 billion to $75 billion. The shortfall of Illinios, which is highlighted in the article, falls from $219 billion to $85 billion.

These are still substantial shortfalls and should not be trivialized. However, they are not nearly as unmanageable as the numbers discussed in this article. For example, the shortfall in Illinois would be equal to roughly 13 percent of the gross state product (GSP). This shortfall could be met with a combination of tax increases and spending cuts equal to roughly 0.5 percent of the state's GSP over the next 30 years. This would involve a substantial, but not unprecedented, budget adjustment.

On the last day of 2009 (yes, coincidentally December 31st), the Washington Post departed from standard journalistic practice by running material produced by the "Fiscal Times" in its own news section. The Fiscal Times is a news service funded by billionaire investment banker Peter Peterson. Peterson has been working to gut Social Security and Medicare for at least two decades, starting and funding a wide variety of organizations that have this as their purpose.

The Fiscal Times is Peterson's latest creation in this line. He had his kid hire some of the journalists displaced by the collapse of the newspaper industry to put it together. While most newspapers would not publish as news material produced by an organization with such a clear agenda, the Washington Post apparently had few concerns along these lines.

Today the Post ran a piece from the Fiscal Times that glorified the efforts of two members of President Obama's deficit commission who are trying to push through a plan that is likely to involve substantial cuts to Social Security and Medicare, the country's most important social programs. The piece implied that the two members who accepted the view that it is necessary to reach an agreement on reducing the deficit in the current political environment are getting beyond ideology. In contrast, those who think it is important to protect social programs that virtually the entire working population will depend on in retirement are somehow being ideological.

It told readers that: "On the fiscal commission, Stern [Andy Stern, former head of the Service Employees Internation Union, one of members highlighted in the peice] is already looking for ways to break through the ideological camps on deficit-reduction." In fact, individuals who are not motivated by ideology would note that the country's projected long-term deficit problem is driven almost entirely by the broken U.S. health care system.

If per person health care costs were the same in the United States as in any other wealthy country, then the projections would show huge budget surpluses rather than deficits. It also should be possible for the people in the United States to take advantage of lower-cost health care systems elsewhere, even if the power of special interests like the insurance and pharmaceutical industry prevent reform here. This basic fact should feature prominently in any discussion of the long-term deficit that is not motivated by ideology. It is never mentioned in this piece.

The article also treats an assertion from Mr. Stern as a basic fact: "Now Stern argues that deficit reduction isn't simply a conservative issue. 'What I keep saying to the progressive community is that when the crisis hits, it's students, workers and poor people who pay the price.'"

Of course, the crisis has hit - the country is facing its worst downturn since the Great Depression. While students, workers, and poor people have paid the price, this is entirely the result of politics. The government quickly moved to rescue the major banks, using vast amounts of public money to save Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and Bank of America from bankruptcy. At the same time, it has refused to spend enough money to boost the economy back to full employment levels of output or take serious steps to prevent people from being thrown out of their homes.

However, the decision to protect the wealthy rather than students, workers, and poor people was entirely a political decision. The banks were able to use their political power to ensure that they got the resources needed to prevent their collapse. On the other hand, those not interested in helping students, workers, and poor people began to highlight concerns about deficits in order to head off additional spending. It may always be the case that the wealthy will dominate the political process to the extent that they do today, but it is worth pointing out that it is politics, not economics, that determines who suffers in a crisis.

The Post apparently thinks so. It told readers that a year and a half after China initiated a massive infrastructure focused stimulus program that kept its economy growing at near double-digit rates:

"many economists and others here are asking pointed questions: Does China really need all this infrastructure? And what's going to happen when the bills come due?"

Let's think about this one for a moment. China built or rebuilt roads, bridges, railroads, schools, hospitals and other public buildings all over the country. Were some of these projects wasteful -- absolutely. China's economic managers are surely very competent, but when you spend $800 billion quickly, you can be certain that a significant amount of money will be wasted.

So, what was the cost? Well, if only we had smart, prudent, deficit hawk types running things in China, the people who worked on these projects could have been unemployed. The Chinese really lost an opportunity by not listening to those deficit hawk types.

And, what about when the bill comes due? After all, China only has a couple of trillion dollars in foreign exchange reserves and a current account surplus of more than 6 percent of GDP (this would be more than $900 billion annually in the U.S.). With economy growing just 9-10 percent a year, they must be terrified about the looming debt crisis. Arghhhhhhhh!

Today, USA Today printed the realtors' story (earlier it had been the Post and then Marketplace radio), so BTP repeats an earlier comment. Btw, kudos to the National Association of Realtors for getting so many news outlets to swallow their story, hook, line, and sinker. You might think that an organization that helped inflate an $8 trillion housing bubble by insisting that nationwide house prices will never fall would have limited credibility at this point, but apparently not.

Marketplace radio repeated the National Association of Realtors' (NAR) nonsense that 180,000 homeowners who purchased homes in April may not be able to qualify for the first-time buyers' credit if the original deadline that requires a closing by the end of June is left in place. The NAR wants the deadline extended to the end of September.

As noted earlier, this claim is absurd on its face. While there was an uptick of homes sales in April, this was from rather depressed levels. The April sales volume did not approach the sales levels at the peak of the boom in 2006. At that time, the vast majority of closings took place within 6 to 8 weeks. Therefore, there is little reason to believe that this should not have been the case with the April sales as well.

This is especially likely to be the case since new contracts plunged (as measured by mortgage applications) immediately after the expiration of the credit. This means that workers would be freed up to handle the contracts signed in April.

The main effect of the extension of the credit being pushed by the NAR is likely to be to promote fraud. Many contracts are likely to be backdated so it appears that they were signed before April 30th and therefore qualify for the credit. The NAR has likely exaggerated the number of people potentially affected by the June deadline by at least an order of magnitude.

David Broder used his Washington Post column to tell President Obama to stop worrying about the Gulf oil spill. (Hey, who cares about the potential destruction of a whole ecosystem for generations to come?)

He instead repeated an assertion from Representative Jim Cooper and the Wall Street Journal that companies are currently hoarding $1.84 trillion in cash:

"The newspaper noted that the cash reserves had jumped 26 percent in one year, the largest increase since at least 1952. Cooper's point is that by stockpiling that vast amount against the possibility of a double-dip recession or another wave of bankruptcies, nervous executives are starving business of investments for expansion and freezing unemployment at a painfully high level.

'They were badly burned in the Great Recession,' Cooper said, 'and now they are nervous about government policy.' Uncertainties in Washington about energy policy, taxes, financial regulation -- to say nothing about bad-news bulletins from Afghanistan and other overseas datelines -- cloud the economic picture more than oil plumes pollute the gulf."

While there is little economic evidence that would support Representative Cooper's assertion as to why companies are hoarding cash, there is a more obvious explanation. Firms are seeing very weak demand growth in an economy that has near double digit unemployment. There is a large body of research that shows that demand growth is the primary determinant of investment. In the absence of strong demand growth, firms do not want to take big risks on expensive new investments.

The most obvious way to increase to demand growth would be through more stimulus from the government. Both Representative Cooper and Mr. Broder have actively opposed more stimulus. So, the best explanation for why companies are sitting on vast hoards of cash is that people like Representative Cooper and David Broder have blocked efforts at more effective government stimulus.

Most of us know that lobbyists sometimes argue positions for their clients that they don't really believe. They do this because they are paid lots of money by their clients. The same applies to the politicians who often repeat the lines given them by lobbyists, whether or not they believe them.

The fact that lobbyists and politicians are not always truthful apparently would be news to the Post. It began an article on lobbyists' efforts to block the elimination of a tax break for hedge funds and other special partnerships by telling readers:

"Their [the lobbyists'] worry: That Congress had vastly underestimated the impact that the measure would have on partnerships, one of the primary ways U.S. investors raise capital to invest in businesses and real estate."

While it may actually be the case the lobbyists are concerned that closing this tax break will impair capital formation in the United States, it is also possible that the lobbyists could not care less about capital formation and this was just the best line that they could find to try to prevent the elimination of a tax break that could cost their clients billions of dollars in the next decade.

If the lobbyists argued that their wealthy clients should not have to pay the same tax rate as ordinary workers (as would be the case if the tax break is eliminated), they would probably find little sympathy from the general public. Therefore, they must find some argument about how eliminating this tax break will hurt the economy, no matter how fallacious it might be. Reporters should be aware of this fact.

The article commits the same error near the end when it told readers:

"Some moderate Democrats have worried that the partnership-sale and carried-interest tax increases would hurt the venture capital industry."

The reporter of course does not know what has actually "worried" moderate Democrats. The reporter can only know what the moderate Democrats claim has worried them. The moderate Democrats would be unlikely to say that they get large campaign contributions from venture capitalists and therefore are working to keep their taxes from rising. They would likely claim to be concerned about the health of an important industry even if they were just doing favors for campaign contributors.

The Washington Post has an article on the looming doctor shortage in the United States and some modest measures by the Obama administration to counter the shortage. (According the article, the Obama administration's program will reduce the shortall by less than 0.25 percent.)

It is striking that the article, like most prior pieces on doctor shortages, includes no discussion of immigrants. This is exactly the sort of situation in which we would expect the country to turn to immigrant labor -- jobs that native born Americans apparently no longer want to do. There is no shortage of smart people in the developing world who would be willing to train to U.S. standards and work as doctors in the United States.

The gains to the U.S. would be so large that it could easily afford to repatriate enough money to the home countries so that they could train 2-3 doctors for every one who comes to the United States. This would ensure that the health care systems in the developing countries benefit from this program as well. Unfortunately, since protectionists so completely dominate policy debates in the United States, the idea of increasing the number of foreign trained doctors is rarely raised.

Would good tax policy lead to the second coming? It is a little bizarre to read in a news story that the first time buyers tax credit: "may have helped avert financial Armageddon." Yeah, right, what is this supposed to mean, that the reporter liked it?

News story should report on news. They can include opinions from observers. It should not include bizarre speculation with nothing to support it.

USA Today reported that higher wages for Chinese workers could mean higher prices for U.S. imports for China. While the paper reported this as bad news, this is exactly the process through which the U.S. corrects its trade imbalance. There is no other way.

It is also worth noting that higher Chinese prices will work to the benefit of workers who have been placed in direct competition with Chinese workers. While trade negotiators from both parties have actively worked to place U.S. manufacturing workers in direct competition with low-paid workers in China, they have largely left in place barriers that protect doctors, lawyers and other highly-educated professionals from competition with their much lower-paid counterparts in China.

As a result of these one-sided protectionist policies, wages of non-college educated workers in the United States have fallen relative to more highly educated workers. The increase in wages for this segment of the Chinese labor force will improve the relative position of non-college educated workers in the United States. The benefits on the trade balance and for non-college educated workers should have been mentioned in the article.

In the world of Washingtonspeak, history gets rewritten right in front of your eyes. No doubt we will soon discover that the environmentalists were the ones drilling off the coast of Louisiana.

In the spirit of the historical rewrite, Michael Crittenden tells readers in the WSJ blog Real Time Economics that: "the Fed has been a top target for criticism and skepticism following the government’s response to the 2008 financial meltdown."

Uh no, that's not quite right. The Fed has been a top target of criticism because the people running the Fed, Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke, could not see an $8 trillion housing bubble, the collapse of which wrecked the economy. This was one of the most astounding acts of economic incompetence of the last century. The fact that the Fed's response to the financial turmoil caused by the collapse of the bubble seems more focused on saving Wall Street than the economy has not helped its standing.

 

Marketplace radio repeated the National Association of Realtors' (NAR) nonsense that 180,000 homeowners who purchased homes in April may not be able to qualify for the first-time buyers' credit if the original deadline that requires a closing by the end of June is left in place. The NAR wants the deadline extended to the end of September.

As noted earlier, this claim is absurd on its face. While there was an uptick of homes sales in April, this was from rather depressed levels. The April sales volume did not approach the sales levels at the peak of the boom in 2006. At that time, the vast majority of closings took place within 6 to 8 weeks. Therefore, there is little reason to believe that this should not have been the case with the April sales as well.

This is especially likely to be the case since new contracts plunged (as measured by mortgage applications) immediately after the expiration of the credit. This means that workers would be freed up to handle the contracts signed in April.

The main effect of the extension of the credit being pushed by the NAR is likely to be to promote fraud. Many contracts are likely to be backdated so it appears that they were signed before April 30th and therefore qualify for the credit. The NAR has likely exaggerated the number of people potentially affected by the June deadline by at least an order of magnitude.

The Washington Post had a front page article on how delay has raised the cost of the Greek bailout effort. The article told readers:

"the cost of helping Greece avoid default increased about fourfold, to $140 billion from roughly $35 billion at the start of the year. Confidence in the European economy was so badly battered that European leaders together with the IMF had to pledge another nearly $1 trillion to reassure investors."

While the point about the cost of delay is well-taken (it would have been easier to reassure markets with a strong commitment early by the European Central Bank and the IMF), the measure of costs is very misleading. The $1 trillion figure is a measure of loans and guarantees, not actual outlays. During the U.S. financial crisis, the Fed and Treasury extended more than $10 trillion worth of loans and guarantees by some measures. The overwhelming majority of this money involved guarantees that were never actually needed or loans that were repaid in full. This is likely to be the case with the European commitments as well.

It is important to make the distinction between this sort of confidence building effort and actual money out the door. The Washington Post and other news outlets were able to make this distiniction quite effectively with the U.S. bailout (in fact, they have misleading reported that the government has made money on these bailouts). Presumably they can apply the same analytic skills to their discussion of Europe's bailout.

In his speech on the BP oil spill President Obama discussed his clean energy agenda. At one point he said: "There are costs associated with this transition, and some believe we can't afford those costs right now."

It would have been worth pointing out that the opposite is true. Measures to shift to alternative forms of energy require increased resources. At present, with the economy operating well below full employment it has a vast amount of unemployed labor and idle capacity. In principle, some of these idle resources can be used to promote the switch to alternative energy or for measures that promote conservation.

We would have less money for this transition if the economy were near full employment and there was little idle capacity. In that situation, the only way to get resources for the transition would be by pulling them away from their current uses. This would mean effectively some types of tax on current consumption patterns. At the moment, any taxes on can be fully rebated to consumers with little cost to the economy.

Reporters who cover this issue should be aware of these facts. It would have been appropriate to correct President Obama on this statement.

It's no secret that New York Senator Charles Schumer is very close to Wall Street. As a senator from New York he directly represents Wall Street firms and their employees. He also gets huge amounts of campaign contributions from Wall Street. For this reason it would not be surprising that he would oppose any measure that changes the way business is conducted on Wall Street.

This is why it is surprising that the NYT told readers that: "Even Senator Charles E. Schumer (emphasis added)" raised questions about an amendment put forward by Senator Al Franken that would require that credit rating agencies be selected by the SEC rather than the issuer seeking the rating. The current situation creates an obvious conflict of interest since the credit rating agency has an incentive to issue positive ratings to ensure more business. Senator Franken's amendment eliminated this conflict by taking away the power for the issuer to pick the agency.

Given his close ties to Wall Street, it would be surprising if Senator Schumer would support any measures that interfer with a pattern of business that is very profitable for both issuers and credit rating agencies. The article notes that Schumer originally voted for the Franken amendment. It is of course common for members of Congress to vote for popular measures when they know that their vote will not make a difference. Since the Franken amendment passed with strong bi-partisan support, Senator Schumer's vote would not have made a difference in its passage. It does however give him more standing now with naive observers as he works to kill it.

The media have been highlighting projections produced by the military that show that Afghanistan may have $1 trillion of mineral wealth. It would be helpful to put this figure in some context. The NYT helpfully described this sum as being equal to $38,482.76 for every person in Afghanistan.

It would be useful to note that this is a gross number, it does not subtract the cost of extracting the minerals nor does it consider that these resources would likely be extracted over many decades. If we assume that the cost of extracting the minerals (e.g. foreign produced equipment, foreign trained technicians, profits of foreignh companies and environmental damage  -- not counting domestic Afghan labor) is between 25 and 50 percent of the value of the minerals, then the money going to Afghanis would be between $500 billion and $750 billion.

If this money is earned over a 40-year period (Saudi Arabia has been producing oil for 80 years), then it comes to between $12.5 billion and $18.8 billion a year. Afghanistan's population is currently 29.1 million, but it is growing at the rate of 2.5 percent annually. Assuming the growth rate slows, Afghanistan's population will average about 40 million over this period. This means that the revenue from the minerals will average between $312.50 and $470 per person per year. This is still likely to have a substantial impact on Afghanistan's economy, since its current GDP per capita is just $800 on a purchasing power parity basis.

The Washington Post reported on the opposition in Congress to spending more money to aid financially strapped state and local governments or unemployed workers. It highlighted the complaint of Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson that President Obama's request for $80 billion was in appropropriate in a situation where the government has a $12 trillion debt.

It would have been helpful to include some discussion of the economic implications of the opposition to this bill. The economy will be weaker if Congress refuses to appropriate the funds requested by the Obama administration. Assuming a multiplier of 1.5 (most of the proposed spending is generally estimated to have a relatively high mutliplier), not spending this money will reduce GDP by $120 billion.

When it outlined its stimulus plan, the Obama administration assumed that a 1 percentage point increase in GDP creates 1 million jobs. This implies that a loss of $120 billion in output would lead to a loss of 800,000 jobs. It would help readers assess the proposed spending if they understood its likely economic impact.

There is something incredibly otherworldly about current economic policy debates. We are sitting here with almost 10 percent of our workforce unemployed. Let's repeat that so even a policy wonk can understand it: almost 10 percent of the workforce is unemployed. That means people with the skills and desire to work cannot find jobs. The problem is too few jobs, too much supply  of labor, got it?

Nonetheless, there is now a national fixation on the problems of an aging population. The story is that we will have too few workers to support too many retirees. That's a problem of too little labor.

At a time when we have the greatest oversupply of labor since the Great Depression, we are now supposed to be terrified that in a few very short years we will not have enough labor. Is that possible?

Not if we know arithmetic. The NYT gave us a little glimpse of this horror story in its Economix blog today. It showed that the ratio of dependents (defined as people over 64 or under 20) to working age people (those between the ages of 20 and 64) is supposed to rise from 0.67 today to 0.74 in 2020, and 0.83 in 2030; pretty scary, right?

Well suppose we defined a slightly different dependency ratio. This will be the ratio of people who are not working to the people who are. The idea being that people who are working must support the people who are not, regardless of their age.

In 2010, this ratio stands at 1.22. We have 139.4 million people working and 170.1 million not working. However, if we assume that we get back to near full employment and the labor force grows as the Congressional Budget Office projects and population grows as the Census Department projects, this dependency ratio will have fallen to 1.05 in 2020 and then rise to 1.07 by 2030. So, are we scared yet?

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There is a well-known stock wealth effect. Economists usually estimate that annual consumption increases by 3-4 cents for each additional dollar of stock wealth. This was the basis for the strong growth of the late 90s. The stock bubble created $10 trillion of wealth causing consumption to soar and savings to plummet.

Robert Samuelson notes this stock wealth effect in his column today and tells us that we have keep the stock market happy in order to have a recovery. Actually, he's missed most of the story. Consumption in the last decade was driven by the housing bubble, not the stock market. At its peak in 2007, the stock market had just reached the same nominal level that it had been at 7 years earlier at the peak of the bubble. Since the economy was more than 40 percent larger in 2007 (in nominal dollars) than it had been in 2000, the stock market was not a big factor in driving the extraordinary consumption boom that was in turn driving the economy.

This instead was explained by the housing bubble, that gets only passing mention in Samuelson't piece. The housing wealth effect is usually estimated at 5-7 cents on the dollar. At its peak in 2006, the bubble had created $8 trillion in housing wealth. This translates into $400 to $560 billion in additional consumption each year. If the bubble does not reinflate, this consumption is not coming back. (It's not clear that it would be desirable in any case, baby boomers need to save for retirement.)

By comparison, the wealth that will be generated by modest increases in stock prices will have relatively limited effect on consumption. The market was valued at close to $20 trillion at its peak in 2007. Its current valuation is around $14 trillion. If it were to rise by 10 percent, this would generate another $1.4 trillion in stock wealth, which would translate into $42 billion to $56 billion in annual demand, after a lag of 1-2 years. This will have a very limited impact on the economy, so the idea that we have to keep the stock market happy to sustain the economy has no basis in reality.

Samuelson also somehow has the saving rate having increased to 16 percent following the stock market's crash in 2008-2009. This is his invention, it does not show up in the data. The saving rate peaked at 5.4 percent in the second quarter of 2009. The main reason for the uptick that quarter was the distribution of tax rebates from the stimulus, much of which was not spent right away.

Apparently not at the Washington Post. It ran an article projecting a severe shortage of doctors due to the retirement of large numbers of baby boomers. The article never discussed the possibility of allowing more foreign doctors into the country.

The current rules on foreign doctors are highly protectionist to ensure that doctors can command high salaries. However, if shortages become too severe, the country could easily opt to relax these rules. There is no shortage of smart and ambitious kids in the developing world who would eagerly seize the opportunity to train to U.S. standards and work as doctors in the United States. This flow could easily meet any future demand for doctors in the United States.

It would also be a simple matter to attach a tax to the earnings of these doctors that would be paid to the home country. This tax could be used to train 2-3 doctors for every doctor that practices in the United States, thereby ensuring that the health care in developing countries improves by this arrangement as well.

Remarkably the Post does not discuss the possibility of increased use of foreign physicians even though it is almost fanatical in its support of free trade in other circumstances.

I often think it's too bad that Social Security isn't a private company. If it were, it could sue Marketplace Radio for libel for this sort of reporting. Does Marketplace's host have any idea what she is talking about when she says: "Social Security is in such a sorry state"? According to the Congressional Budget Office the program can pay all benefits for the next 34 years with no changes whatsoever and even after that can pay more than 75 percent of benefits indefinitely. The program is in much better shape in this respect that it was in the 40s, 50s, 60s, or 70s. So what on earth is this person talking about? Can Marketplace Radio pay all its expenses for the next 34 years?

Marketplace's expert then tells us that Social Security will probably be means-tested. This idea is extremely unpopular among both the public and policy experts, so it would be interesting to know the basis for this assessment. She also recommends raising the retirement age, apparently unaware of the fact that the retirement age has already been raised to 67. She also is apparently unaware of the fact that the vast majority of the huge baby boom cohort has almost nothing saved for retirement and therefore will be almost entirely dependent on Social Security.


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