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Why Should People in the United States be Concerned About Getting Lower Cost Engineering Services? Print
Tuesday, 17 January 2012 20:15

The Wall Street Journal wants us to be worried that we will be paying less for our shoes, clothes, and engineering services. Actually, they only want us to be concerned about the last of these three, although it never tells us why.

It had an article the point of which is to warn readers that engineering is increasingly being outsourced to Asia. This may be bad news to people who hope to work in engineering, but for the rest of us, it means cheaper products, just as buying clothes and shoes manufactured abroad meant cheaper products.

The outsourcing of manufactured jobs is of course bad news for manufacturing workers and there are many more people who either work in manufacturing or could potentially if the jobs were there. In other words, the WSJ would have a much more compelling case if it warned us about the risk of losing jobs in clothing and shoe making to Asia than it does with engineering. For the overwhelming majority of people in the United States, this should mean an improvement in living standards.

Is an Identity Crisis Worth 10 Percentage Points of Unemployment? Print
Tuesday, 17 January 2012 06:05

That's the question that the Washington Post is implicitly raising for readers in its discussion of Iceland's recovery from the recession. The piece notes that Iceland's unemployment rate is 7.0 percent. It doesn't make the comparison to other crisis-afflicted countries which have unemployment rates well in the double-digits, with Spain leading the pack at 22 percent.

In general the piece does paint a reasonably positive picture of Iceland's economy, but it warns readers that:

"It’s tempting to conclude that this country of 318,000 people simply handled the crisis more adeptly than others, like a pick-your-own-ending book in which Icelanders chose correctly. There is a sliver of truth in that, but the full story is more complicated. That’s partly because the circumstances in Iceland are far different than in the United States and Europe, but also because such a simple explanation ignores the anger, the angst and the struggles that remain here, hidden barely beneath the surface.

"Iceland has weathered the worst of the financial crisis, but its society has yet to solve the identity crisis that followed in its wake."

If Post readers were informed of the situation in the other crisis-afflicted countries, they would be able to put Iceland's identity crisis in context.

Inefficiency and Corruption: The Predictable Result of Patent Monopolies Print
Tuesday, 17 January 2012 05:53

The NYT reported on a new government regulation that will require drug companies to disclose payments they make to doctors. The reason is to expose potential conflicts of interest that could influence their research, public statements, and prescription writing.

It would be helpful to include some comment from economists on this new regulation. The sort of corruption associated with patent protection for prescription drugs is exactly what economics predicts would result from a system of government-granted monopolies that allow drug companies to sell their product at several thousand percent above the free market price. 

And Where Did the Complexity Come From? Nocera on Financial Reform Print
Tuesday, 17 January 2012 05:34

Joe Nocera's column today argues that the financial industry may have a legitimate complaint when it says that the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill is too complicated. While the law is complicated in many areas, it is important to recognize that in many cases the industry was the source of the complication.

For example, there was a widely held view following the experience of AIG, which had issued hundreds of billions of dollars worth of credit default swaps outside of the purview of any regulator, that derivatives should be traded either on exchanges or through clearinghouses in order to increase transparency. Rules to this effect were included in Dodd-Frank.

However, the financial industry wanted to preserve the option to trade some derivatives over-the-counter. Therefore they included a series of exemptions in the legislation.

These exemptions are quite complicated. In contrast, a blanket requirement that derivatives had to be traded through a third party would be relatively simple. However it was the industry that added the complexity.

There are many other areas where a similar story could be told. That is why it is hypocritical for someone like J.P. Morgan CEO to complain about the complexity of the legislation. 

NYT Strikes Out in Making the Economic Case Against Hungary Print
Monday, 16 January 2012 19:10

Hungary is being led by a right-wing populist government that seems to have a questionable commitment to democracy. The steps it has taken to end the independence of the judiciary and undermine the fairness of future of elections are ominous. However, the NYT's efforts to construct an economic case against the government fall badly short of the mark.

The NYT tells us that:


"Hungary serves as a cautionary tale for those who argue that Greece could regain competitiveness by reintroducing its currency. The drachma would plunge against the euro, the theory goes, and allow Greek products to compete on price with countries like Turkey.

'Whatever you win today, it shoots you back tomorrow,' said Radovan Jelasity, chief of the Hungarian unit of Erste Bank, an Austrian institution.


In theory, the plunge of the currency should help the economy by making Hungarian products less expensive abroad and cutting the cost of labor relative to neighboring countries.

But economists and business people say the advantages of a weak currency are more than canceled out by negative factors, like soaring prices for imported fuel or imported components for Hungarian factories, not to mention higher payments on foreign currency loans.


But the economic climate is grim, with 10.7 percent unemployment and inflation of 4.3 percent even as the economy heads into recession."


Okay, so the word is that things are really bad in Hungary with its 10.7 percent unemployment rate. Let's see how that looks compared to the competition.


                                 Source: OECD.

If we compare Hungary to the debt crisis countries that remain within the euro it is looking pretty good. The closest among this group is Portugal, with an unemployment rate of 13.2 percent. The others are considerably worse. (The unemployment rates given are all the most recent available, which differs somewhat across countries.)

The 4.3 percent inflation rate might be somewhat higher than is desired, but hardly a crisis. The United States had higher inflation rates many times in the last 50 years without serious economic disruptions. Furthermore, in the context of a heavily indebted population, inflation performs the valuable function of reducing the real value of debt. It is also a necessary part of the adjustment process for a country looking to regain competitiveness by reducing the value of its currency.

The moral of this story is that Hungary's government may actually be led by bad guys, but it doesn't seem that their policies have had terribly negative economic consequences thus far. That could change down the road, but it still appears that Hungary's economy is doing relatively well.  

Powell's Books is a Union Store Print
Monday, 16 January 2012 15:06
That might have been worth mentioning in an NYT piece that reported on people turning to smaller alternatives to Amazon as a matter of principle. Some of these people object to Amazon's labor practices. Such people would likely appreciate the opportunity to buy from a unionized bookseller like Powell's.
The Invisible European Central Bank: A Missing Part of the Euro Zone Crisis Print
Monday, 16 January 2012 08:35

The NYT had a mostly good piece discussing the gap in competitiveness between the northern and southern European countries that lays at the heart of the debt crisis in the euro zone. One item that would have been worth adding is the fact that European Central Bank is making any potential adjustment process far more difficult by not having more expansionary policies and by refusing to act as a lender of last resort.

Forcing heavily indebted countries to meet tough deficit targets, at the same time that their interest burdens are soaring, is creating an impossible situation. This is leading to a downward spiral in which austerity measures slow growth and raise deficits, which undermines confidence in the debt. This pushes up interest rates, which makes the deficits even larger.

The Average 12-Year-Old is Taller Than the Average 6-Year-Old: The Post Gets Desperate in Making the Case Against an Inequality Problem Print
Monday, 16 January 2012 07:49

The Washington Post has consistently used both its news and opinion pages to try to convince readers that the main threat to their well-being and that of their children came from older people getting fat Social Security checks and generous Medicare benefits. This position has become harder to maintain, both because the economic collapse has made these benefits more important than ever to middle and lower income families and also because the fact that rich are making off with the bulk of the benefits of economic growth is becoming increasingly apparent. Still, the Post labors on.

Today, the paper featured a column by political consultant Bill Knapp arguing that we should all be happy because the economy has created jobs over the last 40 years and also because people at most points along the income distribution have seen some gains in income.

This is known as "the 12-year-olds are taller than 6-year-olds" argument in reference to the claim that poor nutrition might be stunting growth. The Bill Knapps of the world would get out their yardstick and measure a representative sample of 12-year-olds and do the same for 6-year-olds. After careful analysis of the data they would find that the 12-year-olds are taller. They would then write up their findings and get a column in the Washington Post telling readers that bad nutrition is not affecting growth.

Let's skip the idiocy. Economies grow, they add jobs, and people get on average richer. This happens everywhere barring war, natural catastrophe, or incredible economic mismanagement. The issue is the rate at which they grow and that people see improvements in their living standards. And for most people in the United States, the improvements in living standards over the last three decades have been very modest. The reason is that most of the gains have gone to the richest one percent.

Remarkably, Knapp can't even get his numbers right on how rich the one percent are. He tells us that:

" When you adjust for family size, the top 1 percent made, on average, $335,779 a year."

Actually, that is a cutoff for entering the 1 percent, not the average for the group. (Math is hard.) The average income for families in the top 1 percent is over $1.3 million.

After flunking the arithmetic portion of the column, Knapp then turns to the Nigerian cell phone user argument. Knapp thinks that the average Nigerian in 2012 enjoys a higher standard of living than did the average American in 1990, because Nigerians in 2012 have a higher rate of cell phone usage.

Okay, he didn't make this argument directly about Nigeria and the United States, but he did make this sort of argument about the "telling facts about our economic growth and future," which amounted to a rundown on the numbers for the use of cell phones, computers, and broadband. Knapp didn't even try to put these numbers in comparative terms, for example seeing how we measure up against Europe and Japan (not especially well).

So there you have it. Don't worry about how much money Robert Rubin and Angelo Mozilo made off the housing bubble and the difficulty that you are having finding a job, paying for your health care or your kids' education. Just be thankful that you have an iPhone.

Is Thomas Edsall the High Priest of Loser Liberalism? Print
Sunday, 15 January 2012 22:13

Thomas Edsall does the classic caricature of the debate between liberals and conservatives telling readers:

"Looked at another way, the two sides are fighting over what the role of government in redistributing resources from the affluent to the needy should and shouldn’t be."

This is absolutely not true. The government decides how to structure the market. Its decisions in this area swamp the impact of the redistributive policies that liberals and conservatives often fight over.

For example, patent protection for prescription drugs redistributes more than five times as much money to the holders of patent monopolies as the Bush tax cuts did for the richest two percent of the population. Similarly, the protectionist barriers that limit the competition that doctors, lawyers and other highly paid professionals face from foreign competition are comparable to giving them a welfare check that averages in the neighborhood of $100,000 a year.

There are many other ways in which government policy on structuring the market have enormous impact on the distribution of income. It is understandable that conservatives would like to divert the public's attention from the ways in which the government structures the market to redistribute income upward. It is hard to understand why liberals would ever accept this "loser liberalism" framework which reduces the policy debate to the extent to which government should redistribute money from the winners in the market to the losers.

The Washington Post's Tortured Logic On the Fed's Housing Proposals Print
Sunday, 15 January 2012 09:18

The lead Washington Post editorial noted (and excused) the Fed's complete failure to understand the dangers posed by the housing bubble (the economy is soooo complicated) and then somehow used this failure as an argument against its housing proposals. The Fed's main housing proposals were that Fannie and Freddie should make it easier for underwater homeowners to refinance and also that they should look to convert some of their foreclosed properties to rental units. The Fed also suggested that it might be advantageous to allow foreclosed homeowners to stay in their home as renters. (Yes, that one is my right to rent plan.)

The Post doesn't like the plans because the government could lose money on the deals. They also say that they may not fix the housing market.

Let's take these in turn. In answer to the first, the question is how much money does the government stand to lose by allowing homeowners who are already underwater to refinance at lower rates. Remember, we are already on the hook for the loans. The deal is simply that homeowners will now be paying lower interest to holders of mortgage backed securities, or in cases where Fannie and Freddie held the loans directly, to the government. The downside risk to the government seems pretty small and, as the Fed noted, if it reduces the default rate, then it could be a net gainer. Of all the ways in which we can conceivably help homeowners, this one should top the list as no-brainer.

The question about fixing the housing market depends on what we mean by "fixing?" There was a housing bubble. It burst. Does the Post think that we will get house prices back to their bubble-inflated levels? That is probably not possible and certainly not desirable. If the point is to get homes occupied and to allow people who are no longer homeowners to find good rental housing, then again the Fed's proposals seem like no-brainers.

The Fed deserves tons of ridicule; letting the housing bubble grow to such dangerous levels was an act of ungodly stupidity. But its latest proposals on housing are definitely a step in the right direction. 

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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.