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Minnesota Does Not Have Runaway Spending and NYT Readers Should Know This Fact Print
Saturday, 02 July 2011 07:44

It is irresponsible to run a story with a statement from one politician saying it is sunny and warm in Alaska and another saying that actually the temperature is below zero and it's snowing. There are real conditions in Alaska that the reporter should know and be able to tell readers. This information will let readers know that one politician is being largely truthful, while one is not. Reporters who have a job reporting the news have the time to find out about the actual weather conditions in Alaska. Readers generally do not.

By this same standard, the NYT printed a horribly irresponsible piece on the shutdown of Minnesota's government. This article included a quote from the Republican House Speaker, Kurt Zellers:

“We’re talking about runaway spending that we can’t afford,... And we will not saddle our children and grandchildren with mounds of debts with promises for funding levels that will not be there in the future.”

While the article also includes a quote from the Democratic governor, it provides no information that would allow readers to assess the truth of the claim that spending is out of control. In fact, state and local government spending in Minnesota has not been rising relative to its GDP over the last decade. (Sorry, I couldn't quickly find state spending broken out separately.)

MN_Spend.php

Source: USgovernmentspending.com.

As the chart clearly shows, there is no upward trend in spending relative to state GDP since the early 90s and in fact current spending levels are somewhat lower than two decades ago. This means that Mr. Zellers was not being truthful. A good news story would have conveyed this information to readers.

 
Deflating the Post's Deflation Fears Print
Friday, 01 July 2011 05:39

It's always fun to read the Post's editorials on economic issues, since you never know what you might find. For example, it recently told readers that reducing the annual cost of living adjustment for Social Security beneficiaries by 0.3 percentage points annually (i.e. 3 percent after 10 years, 6 percent after 20 years, and 9 percent after 30 years) "won't hurt."

Today we get the Post's assessment of the Fed's QE2 policy. It praises the policy for preventing deflation, which it says was a risk at the time the Fed started the program. Actually, it is hard to see how deflation was a serious risk in the fall of 2010 or much impact of QE2. The core inflation rate has been pretty constant over this period, running in the range of 1.0 to 1.5 percent, with nominal wage growth running close to 1.6 percent.

The Post also makes a common mistake in viewing deflation as some sort of grave economic threat. There are good reasons for wanting a higher inflation rate (e.g. 3-4 percent) as economists across the political spectrum have argued. Most importantly it would reduce the real interest rate at a point where the nominal interest is already stuck at its zero lower bound.

In this context, a lower inflation rate is worse than a higher one, but crossing zero holds no special magic. In other words, it is bad news if the rate of inflation falls from 0.5 percent to -0.5 percent, but there is no reason to believe that this decline in the inflation rate is any worse than the drop from 1.5 percent to 0.5 percent.

The Post may be thinking about the sort of rapid deflation that was seen at the start of the Great Depression, when prices were dropping at near double-digit rates. That kind of deflation makes any sort of economic planning almost impossible, but there was little risk that economy would see rates of deflation go that high.

The other oddity in the Post's piece is that it blames QE2 for the run-up in commodity prices:

"But the negative consequences of QE2 — all of them also foreseeable — have canceled out some of the positives. Perhaps the most important of these was a commodity price boom, caused by the fact that many investors used the Fed’s freshly printed money to speculate on grain or oil. The winnings accrued to a wealthy few, while the U.S. middle class coped with higher prices for groceries and gasoline."

There are two big problems with this story. First, much of the recent run-up in commodity prices is likely to be enduring, driven by rapid growth in China and elsewhere in the developing world. I don't know anyone betting on a return to $40 a barrel of oil.

However the other part is even more bizarre. Speculators did not need QE2 to speculate. The Post's editorial writers are probably too young to remember, but back in 2008, before the collapse of Lehman, most commodity prices were even higher than their recent peaks. The Fed was in a tightening phase at that point. Given that we saw a much larger speculative bubble just three years ago, when the Fed still had relatively tight monetary policy, why would anyone think that the current bubble was primarily due to the Fed's actions?

Oh well, that's why it is always fun to read the Post's editorials on economic issues. 

 
Larry Summers and the Size of the Stimulus on Marketplace Radio Print
Friday, 01 July 2011 04:57

Marketplace radio had an interview with Larry Summers, formerly the head of President Obama's National Economic Council. At one point the interviewer questioned Summers about whether he viewed the size of the stimulus as too small. Summers responded that while he felt the economy needed a bigger stimulus, he thought the stimulus was the biggest package that it was possible to get through Congress at the time.

It would have been appropriate to ask, if Summers held this view, why neither he nor President Obama made such a statement after the stimulus passed. If they knew that the stimulus was too small then it meant that the recovery would be weak and that unemployment would remain higher than necessary.

In such circumstances, it would have been reasonable for President Obama to take credit for passing a big stimulus, which was an important step for getting the economy back on track, but that it would likely be necessary for further measures.

Instead, President Obama quickly began touting the "green shoots of recovery" and focused on reducing the deficit. This has created a political environment in which further discussion of stimulus has become almost impossible politically.

This pattern of behavior is completely inconsistent with what Summers claims was his view of the state of the economy at the time. This would indicate that either President Obama ignored the head of his National Economic Council or that Summers is not accurately describing the advice he gave to Obama at the time.

 

 

 
Sanctity of Contract Does not Apply to Public Pensions Print
Friday, 01 July 2011 04:22

The New York Times ran a piece on two court decisions that states were not obligated to maintain cost of living adjustments in pensions. It would have been appropriate to provide more background to these rulings.

In effect the courts were saying that contracts with workers do not have the same standing as other contracts. It is almost inconceivable that the courts would allow a state government to unilaterally cut its contracted payments to a supplier or other government contractor.

The media have often (wrongly) asserted that differing positions on various issues reflect distinct views of government. This arguably is such a case. On the one hand, there are people who believe that the government should re-write rules to protect the interests on the wealthy, on the other hand there are people who believe that the government should act to benefit the vast majority of the population. 

At one point the article asserts that:

"Ever since the stock market crash of 2008 wiped out many people’s retirement savings, officials have had a hard time persuading taxpayers of the virtues of covering the cost of inflation-adjusted pensions, which typical taxpayers no longer get themselves."

If officials have spent a lot of time, "persuading taxpayers of the virtues of covering the cost of inflation-adjusted pensions," it has not received much coverage in the media. The most obvious basis for the case would simply be that this is a contractual obligation to the states' workers. It would be interesting to see polling data on the issue of whether states should meet such contractual obligations.

It is worth noting that government officials have openly pushed the sanctity of contracts in other contexts. For example, when he was head of President Obama's National Economic Council Larry Summers argued for the importance of the sanctity of contract in the context of the bonuses going to AIG executives. Many of the top executives of the company, which was saved from bankruptcy by a massive government bailout, had bonuses that ran into the billions of dollars.

It is likely that the vast majority of the public did not support giving bonuses to these executives. (Bankruptcy voids contracts.) However, these bonuses were paid.

The article also includes the inaccurate assertion that:

"Social Security benefits are adjusted for inflation, but the adjustments can go both up and down."

This is not true. There is no provision for lowering benefits.

 
Economists Who Know About the Housing Market Expect Prices to Continue to Fall Print
Thursday, 30 June 2011 05:12

USA Today told readers that:

"economists say it could be several years before the nation's housing market recovers."

This is probably referring to the views of economists who did not see the housing bubble. Economists who saw the housing bubble know that house prices are still about 10 percent above their trend level. This means that they do not expect the housing market to recover in terms of prices rising back to prior levels. They expect further price declines until the market returns to trend levels and then subsequent increases in step with the overall rate of inflation.

It would be helpful to readers if USA Today did not rely exclusively on economists who managed to overlook one of the largest asset bubbles in the history of the world.

 
Would the FDA Decision on Avastian Be Easier If Genetech Didn't Have So Much Money at Stake? Print
Thursday, 30 June 2011 04:59

The system of patent-supported research gives drug companies like Genentech enormous incentive to mislead the public and government agencies, like the FDA, about the effectiveness of their drugs. Companies can lose billions of dollars if the FDA determines that a drug is not safe or effective and removes it from the market.

Therefore economic theory predicts that companies will make misleading claims to try to prevent removal. If the government did not grant patent monopolies that allow companies to sell drugs at prices far above the free market level, this incentive would not exist.

This fact should have been noted in reporting on the FDA's decision to stop authorizing the use of Avastian as a treatment for breast cancer. 

 
If Greek Debt Is Going to Be Restructured Then Current Lending to Greece Is Actually Handing Money to Creditors Print
Thursday, 30 June 2011 04:51
The Washington Post should have made this point in an article that noted that Greece is likely to face further problems in meeting its debt obligations. If Greece ultimately has to restructure (i.e. partially default) on its debt, then it means that the new money being put in by the IMF and the EU is effectively allowing current debtors to be repaid. The public lenders will then be the victims of the partial default. Rather than being loans to the Greece, these loans are effectively a transfer from the taxpayers who support these institutions to Greece's creditors. The article should have made this obvious point.
 
Speaker Boehner Can't Remember the 90s Print
Thursday, 30 June 2011 04:20

That would seem to be the implication of his quote in an NYT article:

“The American people know tax hikes destroy jobs ... They also know Washington has been on a spending binge for many years, and they will only tolerate a debt-limit increase if we stop it.”

Actually, the economy was creating 3 million jobs a year in the late 90s, when the higher Clinton-era tax rates were in effect. This means that unless the memory of the American people is as bad as Mr. Boehner's memory, they could not know that "tax hikes destroy jobs," since it is not true. (It is impossible to know something that is not true.)

This error would seem to qualify as a "gaffe," like when then-Senator Obama referred to voters in Pennsylvania being bitter and clinging to guns and religion in response to bad economic times. It would have been appropriate for the NYT to press Mr. Boehner on whether he is really ignorant of the economy's job growth record in the 90s or whether he is deliberately saying things that he knows not to be true.

The "spending binge" presumably refers to the increases in spending that began when President Bush took office. (Spending as a share of GDP rose substantially during the Bush presidency. [Corrected - thanks Tom.]) Most of the increase in spending was on the military. If the Republicans were to support reversing this increase in military spending then they would likely enjoy wide bi-partisan support.

 
What Does It Mean to Say That Investing in a 401(k) Is Safer Than Investing in Stocks? Print
Thursday, 30 June 2011 04:04
The NYT reported the results of a telephone survey which found that 41 percent of respondents thought a 401(k) or IRA was a better long-term investment vehicle than investing in stock. It's not clear what question people thought they were answering. The vast majority of people who invest in stock do it through a retirement account. Therefore, it's not clear what it would mean to say that investing in a 401(k) or IRA is better than investing in stock.
 
Doctors' Lobby Stifles Study to Examine Access to Care Print
Wednesday, 29 June 2011 05:04

Doctors in the United States have enormous political power. They use it to limit the supply of doctors domestically both by restricting medical school enrollment and the number of foreign doctors who can enter the country. As a result of these protectionist measures, the United States pays more than twice as much for its doctors as other wealthy countries, costing it more than $90 billion a year.

The NYT reported on the successful effort by the doctors' lobby to stop the use of government testers to determine the ability of people with different types of insurance to get appointments. The plan was to have people call doctors' offices and ask for an appointment saying that they have various types of insurance (e.g. Medicare, Medicaid, private insurance). This would provide a basis for determining how easy it is for people get care.

The article should have pointed out that this use of anonymous testers is absolutely standard. It has been used to uncover discrimination in the issuing of loans by banks, in selling cars, and offering jobs. It would be irresponsible for the government to be spending hundreds of billions of dollars a year on programs like Medicare and Medicaid without knowing how effective they are in providing care.

Therefore when Senator Orin Hatch complained that the administration was "wasting taxpayer dollars to snoop into the care physicians are providing their patients", he was not saying anything that made sense. Presumably he was doing the bidding of the doctors' lobby.

 
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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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