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It's Not the Market Sinking Euro Zone Countries Print
Friday, 09 December 2011 05:20

Suppose you go out to sea in your beautiful new sailboat. (Don't worry folks, I don't have a boat and I don't think I even know anyone who has a boat.) A couple hundred miles offshore, your boat gets attacked by a gang of pirates. They tear up your sails, smash your engine, and run off with your lifeboat. When your body is found 2 weeks later, NPR surveys the damage and says "that's the power of the sea." 

That was the tone of a Morning Edition story (sorry, no link yet) which discussed the new euro zone agreement and whether the markets would be satisfied. This is not a question of governments being forced by the market to make changes any more than the victim of the pirate attack can be said to have been killed by the sea.

The European Central Bank (ECB) created the conditions in which countries are facing bankruptcy, first by failing to notice the largest asset bubbles in the history of the world. Its inadequate response to the downturn and continued obsession with inflation has deepened the downturn. And, its repeated assertions that it will not act as a lender of last resort and stand behind euro zone sovereign debt, has ensured that member nations would be vulnerable to speculative attacks that could make otherwise solvent governments face bankruptcy. 

It is wrong to confuse the deliberate policy of the ECB with random outcomes of the market. Reporters should be highlighting the distinction, not concealing it.

 
News Flash! Energy Efficiency Investments Don't Produce Instant Results Print
Thursday, 08 December 2011 05:44

If the Washington Post managed the development of computers the way it reported on the administration's efforts to promote green cars, I would be writing this piece on a typewriter. President Obama has been in office less than 3 years. It would be absolutely astounding if his administration's efforts to promote cleaner cars had already produced marketable results. 

The effort to get affordable electric cars will inevitably be a long process involving many cost-saving and efficiency-enhancing innovations. People who know technology understand this fact. People who don't should not be writing on this issue for major news outlets.

It is also worth noting that in a period in which the economy has widespread unemployment, as is the case now, there is very little opportunity cost to this sort of spending. In other words, if the government did not spend this money we simply would have had more people unemployed. This may make deficit hawks happy, since it would mean a somewhat lower deficit/debt, but there is no obvious advantage to the country from this situation. 

 
Good Reporting Would not Have Given Us Stories About a Double Dip Recession Print
Thursday, 08 December 2011 05:30

In an article about the impact of the euro crisis on the U.S. economy the NYT told readers:

"the American economy has shown signs of life recently, with talk of a double-dip recession fading and job growth picking up."

People who were knowledgeable about the economy did not talk of a double-dip recession. There was a growth slowdown in the first half of the year due to one-time factors. This was the period in which most of the federal stimulus was withdrawn, imposing a substantial drag. There was a large rise in oil prices, which was partially reversed in the third quarter (although prices have risen part of the way back to their prior peaks in recent weeks). And, the Japanese earth quake and tsunami disrupted some supply chains, most notably in the auto industry.

With these factors having passed, it was predictable that the economy would again grow at near its trend rate of 2.5 percent. This growth rate will do nothing to reduce the huge gap between the economy's potential output and its actual output, leaving tens of millions of people unemployed or under-employed. Unfortunately, because baseless comments about a double-dip recession were given such prominence in the media, this sort of growth is viewed as being acceptable.

 
Mario Draghi Is Not the Market Print
Wednesday, 07 December 2011 13:00

Harold Meyerson confuses them today in an otherwise useful column on how democratic governments are being forced aside due to economic pressures. He approvingly quotes Wall Street investment banker Roger Altman:

"financial markets have become 'a global supra-government. They oust entrenched regimes where normal political processes could not do so. They force austerity, banking bail-outs and other major policy changes. . . . [L]eaving aside unusable nuclear weapons, they have become the most powerful force on earth.'"

This is not quite right. The circumstances under which the financial markets brought about a run first on the debt of Greece, Ireland and Portugal, and more recently on the debt of Italy and Spain were created by the policies pursued by the European Central Bank (ECB) and Mario Draghi and his predecessor Jean Claude Trichet.

The ECB has run a policy that is focused on containing inflation and forcing governments to reduce their deficits. It could have instead run a policy that placed its primary emphasis on promoting growth. It also could have played the role of lender of last resort. It was a quite deliberate policy decision by the ECB to impose a fiscal straightjacket on the heavily indebted countries of Europe. (Its policies have made this debt burden much worse.)

It is understandable that Draghi and the ECB would like to pretend that the problems facing Greece, Italy and other countries in the euro zone are simply the result of the market imposing its discipline. However, this is not true. They are responsible for the difficulties facing these countries.

 
The Fed Tries to Confuse the Record in Battle with Bloomberg Print
Wednesday, 07 December 2011 05:47

Bloomberg has done some outstanding reporting over the last few years on the Federal Reserve Board's bailout of the financial sector. Much more money went through the Fed's special lending facilities than went through the TARP program that was approved by Congress.

Bloomberg's reporters have taken the lead both in pressing the Fed to release data on its bailout programs and also in publicizing the numbers when they were released. They even sued the Fed (successfully) to force it to release data on the beneficiaries of lending through the discount window. The Fed has resisted the release of information about its programs, claiming that it would make it more difficult for it carry through bailout programs and monetary policy.

Yesterday Fed chairman Ben Bernanke attacked Bloomberg claiming that its reporting was misleading. It looks like the Fed missed the mark on just about every issue.

Perhaps the most important issue is the Fed's claim that it did not lend at a below-market rate to banks, thereby effectively giving them a subsidy. In fact, it is almost definitional that the rate did provide a subsidy.

No one forced the banks to borrow from the Fed. If they had better options, they would have borrowed elsewhere. Instead the Fed made large amounts of money available to banks at a time when liquidity carried an enormous premium. This meant that the banks could relend the government's money to others and earn a substantial profit.

This lending may have been justified to stem the financial crisis, but in principle the government could have imposed conditions (e.g. real caps on executive pay, downsizing the too-big-to-fail banks, modifying mortgages) on the banks as the price of getting access to credit at below-market rates. Bernanke and Congress did not seek to impose such conditions.

Given Bernanke's strenuous opposition to the release of data on the bailout programs it would be interesting to know if he now feels that it is more difficult for the Fed to conduct monetary policy.

 
Things Are So Bad in Japan That it Suffers from Both Too Many and Too Few People Print
Wednesday, 07 December 2011 05:16

The media regularly gives us stories about the impending demographic disaster in Japan because of its low birth rate and declining population. Today, in the context of an article about the clean-up from the accidents at its nuclear reactors last spring, the NYT told us Japan's problems are even worse than we thought:

"The Soviet Union did not attempt such a cleanup after the Chernobyl accident of 1986, the only nuclear disaster larger than that at Fukushima Daiichi. The government instead relocated about 300,000 people, abandoning vast tracts of farmland.

Many Japanese officials believe that they do not have that luxury; the evacuation zone covers more than 3 percent of the landmass of this densely populated nation."

So we now learn that Japan is not only suffering because it has a declining population, but also because it is a densely populated country. Can things get much worse?

In reality, the demographic story is silly. The alleged problem is a decline in the ratio of workers to retirees. (The correct measure is the ratio of workers to non-workers, the latter would include children.) In a healthy economy, the rise in productivity growth swamps the impact of even very negative demographic trends.

For example, going from 3 workers to retiree to 2 workers per retiree over a 20 year period (an extremely fast rate of decline) would imply that the share of workers' wages going to support retirees would have to increase by 0.6 percentage points annually, assuming a 70 percent replacement rate for retirees. This is 40 percent of the 1.5 percent annual productivity growth in the years of the productivity slowdown (1973-1995) and 24 percent of the 2.5 percent annual productivity growth in the years since 1995.

This means that in a healthy economy workers can continue to enjoy substantial increases in living standards even during years in which the demographic trend leads to a sharp increase in dependency ratios. Insofar as this is associated with a declining population, there are many gains associated with less crowding and less pollution that will not show up in GDP statistics.

 
Another Front Page Washington Post Editorial Against the Welfare State Print
Tuesday, 06 December 2011 08:14

The boys and girls at Fox on 15th Street are really getting excited over their hopes that the European welfare state might be dismantled. The third paragraph of the lead front page article told readers:

"If adopted by other nations in the union, the deal would mean drastic cuts in European budgets. It would also spell the end of three decades of overspending that helped finance a cozy social protection system envied by much of the world."

Of course the most generous welfare states who have the most "cozy" social protection systems are not facing fiscal crises. These are countries like Sweden and Denmark and even Germany, all of whom have relatively solid finances. Paul Krugman put up a nice graph on his blog yesterday showing the non-relationship between the share of government spending in GDP and the current interest rates paid by government.

Also, as people familiar with current events know, this crisis did not stem from "three decades of overspending," it came about because of a collapse of housing bubbles in the United States and across Europe. This is the opposite of a problem of an excessive welfare state. It was a problem of a private financial sector gone wild making the reckless loans that fueled the bubble. Apparently the Post has not heard about this.

 
Net Exports Create Growth and Jobs, Not Exports Print
Tuesday, 06 December 2011 06:06

The NYT had a good piece on Ireland's effort to get back on a solid growth path. At one point it refers to a 5.4 percent rise in exports as an encouraging sign:

"driven by gains from Pfizer, Intel, SAP and other multinational companies that were drawn to Ireland in the 1990s and 2000s by its low taxes, well-educated English-speaking work force and access to the European market."

Actually, this picture is less clear. Many of the exports associated with these companies are likely to be associated with increased imports as well. For example, if Intel is exporting more microprocessors assembled in Ireland it is also importing more components. The net gain to Ireland's economy might be very small since most of the value added may take place elsewhere.

 
David Brooks Teaches People How Not to Talk About Regulation Print
Tuesday, 06 December 2011 05:18

Some people try to teach by providing step by step instructions. This can be very tedious. David Brooks instead teaches by example. In his column today, David Brooks commits two of the great sins that would not appear in any serious discussion of regulation. 

First he discusses the cost of the regulations put in place by different presidents:

"George W. Bush issued regulations over eight years that cost about $60 billion. During its first two years, the Obama regulations cost between $8 billion and $16.5 billion, according to estimates by the administration itself, and $40 billion, according to data collected, more broadly, by the Heritage Foundation."

So regulation under the last president Bush cost $60 billion. Is this $60 billion a year (@0.4 percent of GDP)? Is it the accumulated cost over ten years (@0.04 percent of GDP)? Or, is it over a one-time cost of $60 billion? David Brooks doesn't tell us. The differences are of course enormous, but we have not a clue based on the information given in the article.

The second major sin is that we have no idea how Brooks is measuring costs. Suppose that my neighbor has the disturbing habit of dumping his sewage on my lawn. If this is a common problem, then I and others similarly afflicted may unite to put a socialist in the White House who will prohibit people from dumping sewage on their neighbors' lawn.

Most regulation does in fact have this character. It prohibits businesses from doing harm to the life and property of others. The question is, does Brooks' measure of the cost of regulation simply count the cost to my neighbor of dealing with his own sewage, or is it supposed to be some net measure that subtracts the savings that accrue to me and other current recipients of our neighbors' sewage?

Brooks doesn't tell us, but since analyses of most regulations show the benefits far exceed the cost (in the case of the Clean Air Act, the net benefits were estimated as $2 trillion over the next few decades), it is likely that Brooks is simply counting the cost to my neighbor of cleaning up his own sewage. It's not clear what this tells us exactly about the burden of regulation, but hey, this is David Brooks, what did you expect?

 
Robert Samuelson Misuses the Euro Crisis to Advance His War on the Welfare State Print
Monday, 05 December 2011 05:45

A newspaper that doesn't fact check its news articles can hardly be expected to fact check its opinion pieces. This mean that Robert Samuelson can get away with just about anything he wants in his column.

Today it is a diatribe against the welfare state. He tells readers that the euro crisis is the grand reckoning of the welfare state. Now that the euro zone economies are growing slowly and have aging population, the welfare state is no longer sustainable.

If the Post had fact checkers, they would ask Samuelson why, if the problem is an excessive welfare state, the countries with the most generous welfare states appear to be doing just fine. If we just take the measure of spending relative to GDP, the leaders would be countries like Sweden, France and Denmark, all of which are surviving the crisis reasonably well. None of the crisis countries rate near the top of the list and Spain is an outlier in Europe for having a much lower than average share of government spending in GDP.

A fact checker would have reminded Samuelson that the crisis came about because out of control lending by bankers who somehow could not recognize the huge housing bubbles in the United States and much of Europe that created the largest asset bubble in the history of the world. This is a story of a broken private sector and/or too little government regulation.

The immediate problem facing the euro zone countries is too little demand, the exact opposite of the problem that Samuelson is blaming, which is too much demand and too few resources. (Lesson for reporters: the bloated welfare state story is too much demand chasing too few resources. The problem today is too little demand chasing too many resources, hence the mass unemployment. Remember this one and you are head of 99 percent of your peers.)

 

 

 
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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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