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$1 Million Dollar Prize! Can You Find Someone Who Holds the View That Steve Rattner Rants Against In the NYT? Print
Friday, 20 January 2012 17:48

Steve Rattner is very upset. He tells NYT readers

"Debt doesn’t matter? Really? That’s the most irresponsible fiscal notion since the tax-cutting mania brought on by the advent of supply-side economics. And it’s particularly problematic right now, as Congress resumes debating whether to extend the payroll-tax reduction or enact other stimulative measures.

Here’s the theory, in its most extreme configuration: To the extent that the government sells its debt to Americans (as opposed to foreigners), those obligations will disappear as aging folks who buy those Treasuries die off."

Wow, I really would like to find the person who believes that government bonds will disappear when the people who own them die off. I sure hope Rattner can convince readers that this is not true.

However the true statement here, that Rattner either does not understand or is trying to obscure, is that the debt itself is not an inter-generational burden. Since ownership of the debt will ultimately be passed on to future generations (ignoring the portion that is held by foreigners -- which a function of the trade deficit), the debt itself is not a generational burden.

It can raise important issues of distribution within generations and the taxes needed to pay for the debt can create economic distortions, but many other things also lead to economic distortions (like patents and copyrights).

To carry this point a step further, since deficits that stimulate the economy today are likely to increase investment (especially if they are used to finance public investment and education), they are likely to make out children richer. Furthermore, the Fed could simply hold this debt and use higher reserve requirements in future years to stem an inflationary impact from a greater volume of reserves in the banking system. In that case, interest on the debt would be paid directly back to the Treasury. Where is the burden on our kids?

[Note: the million dollar prize is a joke.]

Michael Gerson Complains that the Washington Post Won't Print Serious Pieces on Economic Policy Print
Friday, 20 January 2012 06:21

That is the nature of the complaint in his column, that no one is talking about poverty, even if he probably doesn't realize it. Of course there are people talking about the factors behind poverty, the most important of which is the weak economy. When we had low unemployment and strong growth at the end of the 90s, even those at the bottom of the income ladder were seeing greater opportunities.

To get from here to there would require more stimulus, more aggressive action from the Fed, and a lower valued more competitive dollar which would bring millions of manufacturing jobs back to the United States. However, the Washington Post (along with most other major news outlets) almost never presents the views of those making such arguments.

While Gerson thinks the problem is that people are not talking about the factors that cause people to remain mired in poverty, the real problem is major news outlets are not anxious to promote this discussion.

Taking Campaign Promises Seriously: Remember Renegotiating NAFTA? Print
Friday, 20 January 2012 06:06

Ezra Klein tells us today that candidates take campaign promises seriously. I haven't reviewed the research, but it is easy to identify some important campaign promises that President Obama made over the course of his campaign that he clearly has not taken seriously while in office.

His pledge to renegotiate NAFTA was important in gaining support from manufacturing workers in many key primary states. This pledge was clearly never taken seriously once he got in the White House.

President Obama also promised to push for legislation that would allow for judges to rewrite the terms of home mortgages in bankruptcy. Any effort in this direction has been all but invisible since he entered the White House.

Finally, the public option portion of his health care plan clearly was not a priority for his administration. While he would have signed a bill that included a public option, he made it clear that he did not view it as an essential part of the plan.

Obviously there are promises that candidates feel little qualm about abandoning once they take office.

The Industry's Invented Numbers on SOPA Are Not Facts Print
Friday, 20 January 2012 05:26

The NYT presented as fact that the movie and entertainment industry are losing $58 billion a year due to the lack of enforcement of copyrights. This is simply a number invented by the industry. It is almost inconceivable that the industry would gain even 20 percent of this amount if all unauthorized copies could be eliminated. (Current revenue from DVD sales and downloads are around $10 billion and recorded music around $6 billion.)

Furthermore, insofar as households are forced to pay more money for watching movies or listening to music, it means that they will have less money for buying other things. The impact of greater copyright enforcement on the economy would be similar to a huge tax imposed on watching movies and listening to music. This would lead to less economic growth and fewer jobs.

Zakaria Gets the Story Half Right on Workers and Jobs Print
Thursday, 19 January 2012 05:45

Readers don't expect much from the Washington Post when it comes to economic issues, so it is notable when an opinion column gets issues at least half right. In that vein, Fareed Zakaria's piece today noting the ways in which Germany seems to be outperforming the U.S. is worthy of attention. 

First, let's note a couple of the things he gets wrong. Zakaria touts the growth in exports under President Obama, claiming that they have been growing at a 16 percent annual rate. He tells readers that this "means that U.S. exports should double earlier than 2014, the goal President Obama set in 2009."

Apparently, Zakaria is looking at the nominal value of exports. The real value of exports has increased by a total of just 12.9 percent since the fourth quarter of 2008. At this pace, we won't see exports double until around 2023. Perhaps Obama meant that he would reach his goal primarily through higher prices, but usually presidents don't want to boast about higher inflation on their watch.

The second point is that no serious person (okay, this is the Washington Post opinion page) would value exports in isolation. Net exports, exports minus imports, create jobs, not exports alone. If we export car parts to be assembled into a car in Mexico, it certainly does not create more jobs in the United States than when the car was assembled in the United States.

Because imports have exceeded exports by a huge amount over the last 15 years (i.e. we have large trade deficits) the United States has lost millions of jobs. The trade deficit has only declined by about half a percentage point of GDP during the Obama years. So in this sense, trade has contributed little to growth and jobs. 

Zakaria also errs in his portrayal of the investment record on Clinton, Bush, and Obama. He tells readers:

"From 2001 to 2007, investment in equipment and software — the kinds of investments that boost productivity and create good jobs — declined 15 percent as a share of gross domestic product. ... In contrast, the current recovery, while anemic in terms of number of jobs created, is more broad-based and more durable. Business investment is rising, having boomed 18 percent since the end of 2009."

Actually, much of the investment in equipment in software at the end of the Clinton years was driven by the bubble in tech stocks. It was wasted establishing operations like Pets.com and other companies that quickly ended up in the dustbin of startup history. While this spending created jobs in the same way that paying people to dig holes and fill them up again will create jobs, it did not boost productivity.

Productivity growth over the Bush years averaged 2.2 percent annually. In the pre-recession period it averaged 2.7 percent. This compares to a 2.0 percent annual rate for the Clinton years taken as a whole and a 2.7 percent rate for the period following the beginning of the productivity speedup in 1995. In other words, there is little basis for saying that the falloff in investment in the Bush years harmed productivity growth.

On the other hand, the boom in investment during the Obama years touted by Zakaria is simply making up for the collapse of investment during the downturn. This is a normal pattern following a recession. Even with the Zakaria boom, equipment and software investment have still not risen back to its pre-recession share of GDP.

Now for the part that Zakaria gets right; Germany has done well because of its different attitude towards its workers. It is German government policy to try to persuade employers to keep workers on their payroll even during a downturn through policies like work sharing. This ensures that the workers continue to stay in the workforce and upgrade their skills. By contrast, many workers in the United States face long-term unemployment and some may never work again. 

Germany has been so successful with this policy that its unemployment rate is now 1.6 percentage points lower than it was before the recession began. That is in spite of the fact that its GDP growth has been no better than GDP growth in the United States. The difference has been its labor force policy. 

Zakaria notes the importance of the German experience and, citing a paper from the Brookings Institution, holds it up as a model for the United States. At CEPR we are always glad to see Brookings follow our lead so that the Post can write about a topic of importance.



Activist Supreme Court Makes Government Bigger Print
Thursday, 19 January 2012 05:21

The NYT reported on a Supreme Court ruling that retroactively granted copyright protection to foreign works that had previously been in the public domain. As Justice Breyer argued in dissent, this action appears to exceed the constitutional authority given to Congress, which ties copyrights to a specific public policy goal: "to promote the progress of science and useful arts."

In this case, since the copyright is explicitly being applied retroactively to work that has already been produced, it cannot possibly be viewed as providing incentive to develop the material. This means that the government is assigning a monopoly to items that were formerly in the public domain and available at no cost. It is prepared to arrest people and throw them in jail if they don't respect this government granted monopoly.

Given the large number of political groups complaining about activist judges and big government intervention into people's lives, it would have been useful to include some of their views about the court's action. Perhaps this can be addressed in a follow-up piece.

The NYT, SOPA and Jobs: Where Was the Truth Vigilante? Print
Thursday, 19 January 2012 04:29

The NYT's truth vigilante was apparently sleeping when the paper printed without comment the Motion Picture Industry's claim that the country lost 100,000 jobs due to on-line "piracy." The truth vigilante would have pointed out that the money that consumers do not spend paying for copyright-protected work is available to be spent in other areas. The payments for copyright protected items have the same effect on the economy as a tax, they pull money out of the economy. While some of this may end up supporting more creative work, it is likely that most would simply end up as greater profits for the industry and larger royalty checks for a small number of highly paid performers.

By contrast, the requirements of the Stop On-Line Piracy Act are a good example of "job-killing" government regulation. They would impose additional costs on intermediaries which would be passed on to consumers and slow technological progress.

It is incorrect to use the term "piracy" in this discussion, even though the entertainment industry has paid lots of money to get it accepted. The items in question may not be in violation of the law in the countries where they are posted. In that case, the posting cannot properly be termed "piracy." It would be more accurate to use the neutral term "unauthorized copy."  

NPR Doesn't Like the 35 Hour Work-Week in France Print
Wednesday, 18 January 2012 05:46

Morning Edition did a segment this morning on the 35 hour work week in France. To show how bad the 35 hour work week is, the segment told listeners that hospital workers had accumulated 2 million days worth of overtime, which they will have to take as days off by the end of 2012. It warned that this would force hospitals to shut down for months at a time.

Most listeners would have little ability to assess the risk from taking this many days of leave since they probably don't have much idea of how big France's hospital sector is. In the United States the hospital sector employs 4.8 million workers. If the sector in France is proportional to the size of its employed workforce, then France has approximately 1.2 million workers in the hospital sector. This means that if everyone uses their days off (workers in the U.S. often lose days of paid leave), they will have to take an average of 1.7 extra days off in 2012. Is that scary or what?

The piece also included the completely unsourced assertion that few people believe that the 35 hour work week has led to increased employment by dividing up jobs. The people who do not believe that the shorter work week created jobs must believe that the 35 hour work week led to sharp increases in productivity. If workers can produce the same amount in 35 hours as they did in 39 hours (the previous standard work week in France), it would imply an 11 percent increase in productivity.

This would be an astonishing gain in productivity. Economists view productivity as the primary determinant of living standards. Productivity growth is the whole point of all those great plans for tax cuts (usually for rich people) that people like Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, and Paul Ryan keep throwing on the table. If NPR's sources are correct in their view, and shorter work weeks lead to massive gains in productivity (none of the tax cut bills are projected to lead to productivity gains of even one-fifth this size), then shorter work weeks could be a great way to both increase equality and improve growth: a classic win-win situation.   

[Addendum: The transcript is now available. It seems that the 2 million days referred to a single hospital in Paris, not the entire hospital system.]

[Addendum 2: Andrew Watt has a more serious discussion of the impact of the 35-hour work week in France.

Economics Lesson for Senator Leahy Print
Wednesday, 18 January 2012 05:31

Senator Patrick Leahy, the sponsor of the Protect Intellectual Property bill, claimed that if Congress rejected his bill it would "cost American jobs." This is almost certainly not true.

Insofar as individuals are able to able to gain access to copyrighted material for which they would otherwise have to pay, they are able to save money. This if effectively the same thing as a tax cut, putting more money in their pocket, the vast majority of which will be spent on goods and services in their community, thereby creating jobs.

If they are denied access to this material, most would not be paying the copyright-protected price. Insofar as some of these people would pay the copyright protected price, it would mean some additional revenue to companies like Disney and Time-Warner. Most immediately this would mean higher profits for these companies. It may have some marginal impact on their employment, but the jobs lost from the money taken away from consumers would almost certainly be larger than the jobs gained by allowing these entertainment companies to gain more revenue. This is similar to imposing quotas on imported clothes. This will lead to more jobs in the textile industry, but fewer jobs everywhere else.

Senator Leahy's bill will also impose additional cost on search engines like Google and intermediaries like Facebook. These costs are like a tax on the Internet. They pull money out of the economy and make these providers less efficient.

The NYT should have included this sort of economic analysis along with Senator Leahy's comments.

Numbers in Space on Taxes and Spending Print
Wednesday, 18 January 2012 05:12

The NYT went overboard in an effort to present numbers in no context whatsoever when it discussed efforts to pay for the extension of the payroll tax cut for the rest of 2012. The article discusses the cost of various spending cut proposals without putting them in any context whatsoever, including even the number of years involved.

For example, it told readers that requiring a Social Security number to claim the child tax cut would save $9.4 billion according to the Congressional Budget Office. The article never gives a time period over which these savings would be realized.

Presumably, this is a 10-year estimate. Over this period, the federal government is projected to spend more than $43 trillion, so these savings would amount to a bit more than 0.02 percent of projected spending over this period. It would be helpful to include some context when presenting these numbers, otherwise they have little meaning to readers.

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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.