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President Obama Asks Congress for 0.1 Percent of the Budget to Deal With Children at the Border Print
Wednesday, 09 July 2014 04:39

That one may be helpful if you read the NYT article on President Obama's request of $3.7 billion from Congress.

 
China Is a Rich Country? Print
Wednesday, 09 July 2014 04:11

That's what millions are asking after hearing Morning Edition's top of the hour news segment (sorry, no link). The segment referred to negotiations over emissions caps for greenhouse gases. It said that China argued that it should not be subject to the same rules that apply to other rich countries.

China was presumably making the argument that it was not a rich country and therefore should not be subject to the same rules as rich countries. While China's economy is now larger than the U.S. economy on a purchasing power parity basis, since it has four times the population, on a per capita basis it is about fourth as rich. This means both that it has fewer resources to cope with the problem and that the average Chinese person is far less responsible for global warming than the average person in the United States.

It is also worth noting that in an era of secular stagnation, like the one we are in now, spending to slow global warming would increase employment and output. It is not a drain on the economy.

 
High Asset Prices, the Savings Glut, Secular Stagnation, and Unemployment Print
Tuesday, 08 July 2014 12:38

Neil Irwin has an interesting piece in the NYT noting how high prices for a wide variety of assets have driven returns down to historical low levels. He notes that this is a predictable outcome, and in fact an intended result, of the low interest rate policy being pursued by the Fed and other central banks.

The idea is that high asset prices make it cheap for firms to borrow to finance new investment. They also make it easier to buy a home and allow many people who had higher interest rate mortgages to refinance into lower cost ones, thereby freeing up money for other types of consumption. There is also a wealth effect whereby higher stock and house prices will translate into increased consumption. Through these channels central banks hope to provide some boost to growth.

However the flip side of this policy is that investors can anticipate lower returns on their savings, unless they want to hold exceptionally risky assets. This is the idea of there being a savings glut, or as Irwin suggests today, a shortage of adequate investment opportunities.

The idea of a savings glut is not new, Ben Bernanke first mentioned it back in 2004 when he was a member of the Board of Governors. However the implications were not fully drawn out by Bernanke at the time or by Irwin in today's piece. A savings glut implies an economy that is not producing at its capacity.

To cut through the nonsense, savings in an economic sense means not spending. From the standpoint of the economy, it is just as much savings if you put $1,000 in the stock market, a checking account in your bank, stuff it under your mattress, or burn it in your fireplace. Anything that does not involve the purchase of a newly produced good or service means saving. Saying that we have a saving glut means we have an economy that does not generate enough demand to keep the economy at full employment. This is of course the story of secular stagnation that folks like Larry Summers have recently discovered and the problem that some of us pre-mature secular stagnationists have raised for years.    

The idea that the economy could be subject to an ongoing problem of inadequate demand used to be grounds for eviction from the realm of serious economists. But anyone who is willing to look at the evidence with a straight face really can't escape this conclusion.

Read more...

 

 
Putting Numbers in Context: Give Dana Milbank a Pulitzer Prize Print
Tuesday, 08 July 2014 12:12

Regular readers of Beat the Press know that I go into the stratosphere when I see a news story or column that uses numbers in the millions, billions, or trillions and doesn't provide any context, like relating it to the total budget if it's a tax or spending item. The reason for my ire is simple: everyone knows that almost no one is going to be able to assign any significance to these Really Big Numbers. Therefore such pieces are providing no information to readers.

On the other hand it is very simple to provide context to readers. Dana Milbank showed how today when he wrote about the $4.2 million dollars that President Obama announced he would spend on a new Excellent Educators for All Initiative, which is supposed to address inequities in the quality of teachers across schools. Milbank pointed out that the commitment amounted to about 0.0001 percent of federal spending. In other words, this is gesture done for show.

By writing that President Obama plans to spend 0.0001 percent of the budget on his Excellent Educators for All Initiative, Milbank is telling readers that this is not a serious plan for addressing educational disparities, it is a public relations gesture. People who just saw the $4.2 million number may be under the mistaken impression that this program could actually make a difference in the quality of education for poor children.

Of course if reporters routinely expressed numbers in context there would be less incentive for politicians to push forward with silly public relations gestures, because everyone would know they are silly gestures. That would be a direct positive effect of this sort of effort at providing readers with real information instead of treating budget reporting as a fraternity ritual in which reporters write down numbers which they know to be meaningless to almost everyone who sees them.

 
Impact of Cutting Unemployment Benefits: North Carolina Dreaming (see Addendum) Print
Tuesday, 08 July 2014 07:36

Last year North Carolina's conservative Republican legislature got tough. It sharply reduced the duration of unemployment benefits and made them much more difficult to collect. The changes took effect at the start of July, 2013. Their story was that unemployment insurance and other benefits discourage workers from seriously looking for jobs. If we take away this crutch of unemployment benefits, then workers will figure out how to find jobs. This both saves the government money and is better for the workers themselves since they will actually be making a living on their own.

We now have data for 10 months into the experiment (through May) and John Hood, the chairman and president of the John Locke Foundation, a North Carolina think tank, has a piece in the Wall Street Journal telling us that it is a resounding success. Hood tells readers:

"According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of payroll jobs in North Carolina rose by 1.5% in the second half of 2013, compared with a 0.8% rise for the nation as a whole. Total unemployment in the state dropped by 17%, compared with the national average drop of 12%. The state's official unemployment rate fell to 6.9% in December 2013 from 8.3% in June, while the nationwide rate fell by eight-tenths of a point to 6.7%."

Okay, let's take these in turn. North Carolina did have more rapid job growth than the rest of the nation in the period since it cut benefits, but it also has had more rapid job growth than the rest of the nation for the last four decades, before many of the benefit cutters were even born. This because it is in the South, which has been growing more rapidly than the Northeast and Midwest for quite some time. (My explanation is air-conditioning, but you're welcome to throw in other items.)

If we look at North Carolina's labor market over the last year (May 2013 to May 2014) we find that the number of jobs, as measured by the Labor Department's establishment survey, grew at 1.92 percent rate. This beats the 1.86 percent rate for the rest of the South Atlantic region, but the difference certainly is not enough to employ all the people who were cut off from the unemployment rolls. (The South Atlantic region is a grouping of states from Florida to Maryland. It has been used by government agencies for many decades.) If the argument is that the ending of benefits put the fear of God in the unemployed and made them finally get serious about working, these numbers don't do much to support the case.

The situation gets even worse if we pull out the Charlotte-Gastonia-Rock Hill area. The reason for pulling out this relatively fast growing region is that it straddles the border with South Carolina. Many of the workers who have gotten jobs with companies in North Carolina actually live in South Carolina. If unemployed workers' past employment experience had been in South Carolina, they will not have any additional motivation to find work as a result of North Carolina cutting benefits.

We can't know how many of the new workers the Charlotte metropolitan area are from South Carolina, but it is striking that if we pull out this area, North Carolina's job growth slightly lags the rest of the South Atlantic region. Excluding the Charlotte area, job growth in the state was 1.76 percent over the last year, roughly a tenth of a percentage point less than the average for the rest of the region. This means that outside of the Charlotte area, it doesn't seem that the cut in benefits did anything to increase incentives to work. As a practical matter, the differences in both directions are small, but the point is that there is no evidence that cutting benefits did anything to increase employment growth in North Carolina compared with comparable states. 

Read more...

 

 
GDP and the Public Sector Print
Monday, 07 July 2014 04:28

Lew Daly has an interesting, but unfortunately misdirected, critique of the measurement of the public sector's contribution to GDP. He notes several areas, such as infrastructure and education spending, where the government contributes to our well-being, but which are not directly picked up in GDP as contributions from the government. While the point is true, the piece fundamentally mistakes what GDP is and also grossly understates the government's role in the economy.

First, GDP is a measure of economic activity. It is not a comprehensive measure of societal well-being and anyone who tries to use it as such is showing off their ignorance. GDP can be thought as being comparable to weight. It is difficult to imagine a doctor doing a medical exam and not wanting to know the patient's weight. It is useful and important information. If a person is 50 percent above or below their ideal weight, it likely means they have a serious health issue. On the other hand, someone could be right at the ideal weight for their body type and still be dying of cancer. Any doctor who ended their check-up with writing down what the scale shows has done some serious malpractice.

Similarly, GDP is telling us the value of goods and services the economy produced. It is not telling us whether the pollution that results is killing us, whether it all went to produce weapons and prisons, or whether Bill Gates and his kids pocket it all. We need other measures to evaluate such things, and we have them, but they are not GDP.

On the other point, the problem of assessing the government's role in the economy goes much deeper than Daly suggests. A huge amount of economic activity is undertaken through the incentives of patent, copyright, and trademark monopolies. Pharmaceuticals alone account for more than $380 billion a year in sales (2.2 percent of GDP). The bulk of these expenditures are higher prices that drug companies can charge because the government will arrest any competitors.

Read more...

 

 
Wild and Crazy Times at the Low End of the Housing Market Print
Sunday, 06 July 2014 13:38

Floyd Norris had an interesting piece on the impact of investor purchased homes on prices at the lower end of the housing market. His takeaway is that investor purchased homes have made housing less affordable for many low and moderate income households.

While this is partly true, by focusing only on the last couple of years the piece misses much of the picture. While investor purchases have pushed prices to unusual levels in many markets, in some cases they essentially put a floor on the market, helping to stabilize prices at levels that are consistent with longer term trends. The chart below shows house prices in the Case-Shiller indices for the bottom third of the market for five cities. (This is the same series used for the charts in the article.) 

btp-2014-07-06

There are several features of this chart worth noting. First, it is possible to see a rise in house prices (most pronounced in Minneapolis) in the middle of 2009. This was the result of the first-time homebuyers tax credit. This policy currently ranks #1 as most boneheaded policy of the century. It encouraged millions of people to buy into a market that was still inflated by the housing bubble.

Read more...

 

 
Trends in Part-Time Employment Print
Friday, 04 July 2014 13:56

A Washington Post article on the June employment report yesterday noted the jump in involuntary part-time employment:

"In June, their ranks [the number of people who are working part-time but want full-time jobs] swelled by 275,000 to 7.5 million. In 2007, 4.4 million people fell into this category."

It is important to note the longer term trend here since the month to month movements are highly erratic. The number of people working part-time involuntarily is down by 640,000 from its year ago level and by more than 1.6 million from its peak in 2010.

There are more people voluntarily working part-time, but this is a positive. (These are workers who answer a survey by saying they have chosen to work part-time, less than 35 hours a week.) The number of people voluntarily working part-time typically rises in an upturn, presumably because workers feel they have more choice about jobs and many people would rather work fewer hours to take care of children or other family members or possibly because their own health makes full-time employment difficult. The Affordable Care Act has likely increased the number of people who are working part-time voluntarily since many workers will no longer feel the need to work at a job that provides health care insurance since they can buy it through the exchanges.

 
We Don't Need Patent Monopolies to Finance Vaccine Research Print
Thursday, 03 July 2014 04:19

It is amazing that a lengthy piece in the NYT discussing the high cost of new vaccines and the efforts of companies to promote them never discussed the possibility of alternatives to patent monopolies as a way to finance the research. Until recent years, most vaccines actually were developed with public funding, so obviously it is possible.

If the research were paid with public funding, then vaccines would be cheap since they would all be generics. And, there would not be a problem with companies misrepresenting their safety and effectiveness. Monopoly profits give companies an incentive to lie, a fact that economists generally recognize in other circumstances.

The impact of misleading promotion campaigns is especially important in the case of vaccines. Many vaccines are required for allowing children into school. In other words, the government will arrest parents who don't pay companies their monopoly profits on these vaccines. And in the loon tune land of modern economics, this is called a free market outcome.   

 
Global Warming and the Which Way Is Up Problem in Economics Print
Wednesday, 02 July 2014 04:18

It is painful to read Eduardo Porter's column on the prospects for slowing global warming and China's greenhouse gas emissions. It's not that Porter got anything in particular wrong; he is presenting standard projections that are the basis for international negotiations. Rather it is the framing of the trade-offs that is painful.

Porter poses the question of the extent to which China should be willing to slow its economic growth to curb its greenhouse gas emissions, as opposed to rich countries like the United States bearing more of the burden. The reason this is painful is that most folks might recall that our major economic problem at the moment is secular stagnation. 

In case people forgot, this is a problem of inadequate demand. The story is that we don't have enough demand for goods and services to keep our workforce fully employed. As a result we have tens of millions who are unemployed, underemployed, or who have given up looking for work altogether. This is not just a U.S. problem but one that afflicts much of the world.

Okay, now bring in the problem of global warming. Isn't it horrible that we face this immense environmental problem at the same time that our economies are suffering from this horrible problem of secular stagnation? Arghhhhhh!

The problem of global warming is one that needs lot of work. We need people to retrofit our buildings to make them more energy efficient, to put up solar panels and wind turbines to get clean energy. How about paying people to drive free buses so that commuters have more incentive to leave their cars at home? We need to build smart grids to minimize energy wastage. The list is really long.

This issue comes up very directly in terms of our economic relations with China. Our big complaint (at least publicly) is that China is deliberately keeping down the value of its currency against the dollar in order to export more to the United States. That's a too little demand story again. But, we also want them to spend more on curbing greenhouse gas emissions. That's a perfect way to address the too little demand story.

Instead of subsidizing its exports to the United States (the effect of China's present trade policy), China could redirect these resources to subsidizing its installation of solar panels. Everyone stays fully employed and we get fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

These transitions are not all simple and easy, but the basic point is that two problems fit together perfectly. The enormous spending associated with World War II was the cure for our last depression. No one in their right mind would want to see another catastrophic war, but a massive deployment of resources to curb greenhouse gas emissions worldwide would serve the same purpose.

Come on folks, this really isn't hard.

 
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About Beat the Press

Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. He is the author of several books, his latest being The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive. Read more about Dean.

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