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The Myth of Profligate Euro Zone Countries Print
Thursday, 01 December 2011 05:33

Spain had a budget surplus before the economic collapse. Spain had a budget surplus before the economic collapse. Spain had a budget surplus before the economic collapse.

Perhaps repeating this line three times will help the type of people who have columns in the Washington Post on the euro zone crisis get some understanding of the issue. Today we get a lecture on southern country profligacy from Daniel M. Price. Yesterday, Post columnist Matt Miller told us how he misleads his daughter about the nature of the euro zone crisis and suggested that the rest of us be equally misleading with our own children.

The reality is that most of the countries currently facing debt troubles were not profligate prior to the crisis. While it may be reasonable to describe Greece as being profligate, the only euro zone country that looks much like Greece is Greece. The other euro zone crisis countries had hugely better finances in the years leading up to the crisis.

Italy, the closest Greece competitor among euro zone crisis countries, had relatively small budget deficits in the years before the crisis. Its debt to GDP ratio fell from 93.7 percent of GDP in 2001 to 87.3 percent of GDP in 2007. In other words, the deficits of these years were completely sustainable.

Spain ran budget surpluses in the years from 2005-2007. Its debt to GDP ratio fell from 50.3 percent in 2000 to 26.5 percent of GDP in 2007. There is no remotely plausibly story of government profligacy here.

In short, people who describe the euro zone crisis as a story of excessive government deficits are pushing an ideological agenda that has nothing to do with reality. The story of the current deficits of the non-Greece countries is the story of the collapse of housing bubbles that threw the euro zone economies into a severe downturn. The European Central Bank (ECB) has magnified the problem by maintaining relatively tight monetary policy in order to maintain very low inflation and also explicitly asserting that it would not act as a lender of last resort to the heavily indebted countries.

Blaming government profligacy may be useful to those who want to see cuts in social spending, but it is not a story that is based in reality. It conceals the incompetence/greed of the private sector bankers who fueled the bubble. It also ignores the recklessness of the ECB of clinging to its inflation obsession even in the midst of a crisis that threatens the survival of the euro and could cause millions of additional workers to lose their job.

 
Inflation Will Matter for the Future of the Euro Print
Thursday, 01 December 2011 05:14

The NYT Magazine had a useful piece outlining some of the key issues on the future of the euro. It would been helpful to mention the issue of euro zone inflation as one of the key factors affecting the ability of euro zone countries to get through the crisis. The southern euro zone economies are currently uncompetitive with Germany and other northern euro zone economies. They can regain competitiveness either by having their nominal wages fall (the path suggested in the piece) or by having their wages and prices rise less rapidly than in the northern European economies.

The former path is extremely painful. It would require many years of high unemployment. Even then, success is far from assured. One effect of falling prices is that the debt burdens of these countries would increase in real terms. (If wages and prices fall by 10 percent, then Italy's 2 trillion euro debt is 10 percent larger relative to the size of its economy.) Falling wages and prices are also likely to discourage investment, since businesses will know that the products that they will be selling in 5 or 10 years will get lower prices than they would today.

The alternative route to regaining competitiveness would have a somewhat higher euro zone rate of inflation, which would allow the southern euro zone countries to regain competitiveness by having a lower, but still positive rate of inflation. However, going this route would require the European Central Bank to loosen its commitment to maintaining a 2 percent rate of inflation.

 
The U.K Has Its Own Central Bank Print
Wednesday, 30 November 2011 05:27
This important fact should have been noted in an article on a public sector strike in the U.K. against plans to cut workers' wages and benefits. The article includes some discussion of the effectiveness of the U.K. austerity plan and notes that interest rates on U.K. debt are now lower in Germany. An important difference between the U.K. and Germany is that the U.K. has a bank that can buy its debt in a crisis. The European Central Bank insists that it will not play this role for Germany and other euro zone countries.
 
House Prices Are Not Depressed Print
Tuesday, 29 November 2011 21:28

A NYT article on President Obama's latest program to help underwater homeowners included the assertion:

"an increasing number of economists worry that depressed housing prices and underwater borrowers are holding back a broader recovery."

Actually, the United States does not have depressed housing prices. According to the Case Schiller national house price index, inflation adjusted house prices are still more than 9 percent above their 1996 level. The problem was that the country had a housing bubble that is now mostly deflated. The problem in the economy is not a depressed housing market.

 
Post Gets Loans and Gifts Confused with Big Banks Print
Tuesday, 29 November 2011 08:06
The Post ran an article [sorry, it won't allow linking] with the headline: "big banks got $13 billion in undisclosed Fed loans." Actually, the article refers to a Bloomberg investigative piece by Bob Ivry and colleagues that found that Fed loans at below market interest rates amounted to a subsidy of $13 billion to the country's largest banks. This $13 billion was effectively a gift from the taxpayers to J.P. Morgan, Goldman Sachs, and other large banks. It was not a loan as the Post headline implies.
 
Senator Kyl Claims that Businesses Don't Hire When Demand Increases Print
Monday, 28 November 2011 06:10

Economists and people who believe in gravity think that firms hire when they see an increase in demand. The alternative is to turn away customers because a business does not have the necessary staff. Companies trying to make profits generally do not like to turn away customers.

Nonetheless, Republican Senator Jon Kyl said that the payroll tax cut did not lead businesses to hire workers. It is clear that workers did spend much of this tax cut. The savings rate in the last quarter was under 4.0 percent. If workers did not spend much of the tax cut, the implication is that the saving rate would have been under 3.0 percent in the absence of the tax cut. While this is higher than the near zero rate when the housing equity created by the bubble was driving consumption, it is far below the 8.0 percent pre-bubble average. 

The NYT should have pointed out that Kyl was wrong; that he either doesn't understand basic economics or was deliberately making assertions that he knew not to be true. Instead it just presented Kyl's statements and responses by Democrats in he said/she said context. NYT reporters have the time to find the truth of such statements, most NYT readers do not.

 
Robert Samuelson Gets it RIGHT! Print
Monday, 28 November 2011 05:54

As we like to say here at Beat the Press, the long-term deficit problem is primarily health care, health care, and health care. Robert Samuelson gets this one 100 percent right in his column today.

He concludes that the way to contain costs is some sort of voucher system or a single-payer type universal Medicare program. It's questionable whether a voucher system will actually contain costs, as opposed to reduce the quality of care (unless it involves buy-ins to other countries' systems), but this is the direction the budget debate should take. The question is how we deal with health care costs; it is not a problem of an out of control budget more generally.

 
Germany Insists that Euro Zone Countries Move Aggressively to Slow Growth and Raise Unemployment Print
Monday, 28 November 2011 05:41

The euro zone economies continue to operate well below their potential GDP, with large amounts of excess capacity and huge numbers of unemployed workers. In this context, the main impact of the austerity being demanded by Germany of countries across the euro zone will be a further reduction in growth and increase in unemployment. Slower growth will worsen budget deficits across the region.

This point should have been mentioned in a Washington Post article on the pursuit of austerity in euro zone countries. Many Post readers may not recognize that the predicted effect of these policies is to slow growth and raise unemployment.

 
Bill Keller Missed the Housing Bubble Print
Monday, 28 November 2011 05:04

NYT columnist Bill Keller decries a political process in which the consensus of mainstream economists is not according the respect it deserves. He failed to note one obvious reason why these experts' views might not be getting much respect: almost none of the experts noticed the huge housing bubbles whose collapse led to severe recessions in the United States and Europe.

In this case, the process of credentialing ensured that evidence would be ignored rather than examined. Those who raised concerns about the bubbles were dismissed as cranks. Even after the collapse, the economists who managed to overlook the largest asset bubbles in the history of the world have suffered almost no consequences in terms of their employment or professional standing. Clearly the economics profession does not have a structure where performance is rewarded and failure is punished. Given this fact, it is certainly understandable that the pubic would be suspicious of pronouncements by economists.

It is also worth noting that Keller's takeaway about the profession's consensus of what needs to be done is in fact wrong, or at least seriously misleading. He says that there is a need to reduce "entitlements." In fact, there is no obvious need to reduce Social Security. Its cost is projected to increase only modestly in coming decades as a share of GDP and is fully paid by its designated tax through the year 2038. Even after that date, the tax is projected to cover more than 80 percent of scheduled benefits through the rest of the century.

The real story is Medicare and Medicaid, the cost of which is in turn driven by the broken U.S. health care system. If the United States paid the same amount per person for health care as people in other wealthy countries we would be looking at long-term budget surpluses, not deficits. It is misleading to describe the problem of a broken health care system as a problem of "entitlements."

This is especially important because it conceals the main choice in containing Medicare and Medicaid costs. On the one hand, we can look to reduce the quality of care provided by these programs, as advocated by politicians of both parties. Alternatively, we can look to reduce the waste and excessive fees charged by providers.

There are enormous distribution implications to how this issue is resolved. However most people will not even be aware of these issues if the media hides them under the problem of "entitlements."

 

 
Is David Gregory a Vegetable? Senator Schumer and the Budget Deficit Print
Sunday, 27 November 2011 11:10

Thirty years ago, the Reagan administration told us that ketchup is vegetable. More recently Fox News told us that pepper spray is essentially a food product. So inevitably people must be asking whether David Gregory is a vegetable.

Gregory, who is the host of Meet the Press, had Senator Chuck Schumer on the show speaking about the failure of the supercommittee to come up with a deficit reduction plan. Schumer listed the causes of the deficit as the Bush tax cuts, the increase in military spending and the increasing cost of Social Security and Medicare (referred to as "entitlements). Remarkably, Schumer did not mention the recession, which is by far the most important cause of the large deficits of the last few years.

An anchor who was not a vegetable would have jumped on Senator Schumer and asked him if he is really unaware of the recession and its contribution to the deficit. Gregory simply went on to the next question as though Schumer had said something that made sense. So what exactly does Gregory do for his pay?

 
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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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