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Robert Samuelson Again Forgets What He Said About the Budget Deficit Print
Monday, 26 December 2011 08:24

Less than a month ago Robert Samuelson told readers that it was unreasonable to expect the Super Committee to solve the country's deficit problem since the real issue is health care. He said that the Super Committee was not going to come up with a politically acceptable way to fix health care in three months so it was unrealistic to imagine that it would produce a solution to the long-run deficit problem.

His comments in today's column suggest that he is unfamiliar with the piece he wrote last month. (Hot rumor: there are two Robert Samuelsons.) This one tells us that the problems are that the Republicans don't want to raise taxes and the Democrats refuse to consider cuts in spending, therefore we are going to have a long-term budget problem that will lead to an enormous economic crisis.

Of course Samuelson's column last month was completely right. We pay more than twice as much per person as the average for other wealthy countries. If we get out health care costs in line with other countries we would be looking at budget surpluses not deficits. (Trade would be a good place to start. Unfortunately, the Washington Post and other major media outlets are dominated by hard-core protectionists.)

There are a few other points worth hitting Samuelson on in this piece. First, if we get military spending back down to its pre-September 11th share of GGP (3.0 percent), it will go far towards getting our future deficits down to sustainable course. (This would imply a savings of roughly $2 trillion over the next decade, if the reduction took place immediately.)

Second, there is no obvious reason that the Fed cannot simply continue to hold the assets that it has purchased as part of its quantitative easing program indefinitely. This means that the interest on these assets is refunded to the Treasury and therefore does not add to the deficit. Last year the Fed refunded $80 billion to the Treasury.

Third, listing Social Security as a benefit that people are unwilling to pay for is simply absurd. Samuelson uses 1960 as a base point. In the last five decades the Social Security tax has more than doubled and the age for receiving normal benefits has risen from age 65 to 66. It is scheduled to rise 67 in another ten years. People clearing are willing to pay for their Social Security benefits and have been.

Finally, the idea that if we don't get the deficit down something really bad is going to happen ignores the fact that something really bad is happening now. If someone had warned in 2007 that we face a prolonged downturn with an unemployment rate averaging over 9 percent for three years, they would have been ridiculed as a doomsayer. It is remarkable how easily Samuelson can ignore the disaster in front of his eyes, and would instead have us divert our attention to a vaguely defined really bad disaster in the indeterminate future.

Of course if the Post and other media outlets did not restrict their economic columns almost exclusively to people with no understanding of the economy, we might have been able to avoid the current disaster. After all, it does not take much economic sophistication to see an $8 trillion housing bubble, but the Post could not find anyone who rose to this level of knowledge.

Jonathan Alter and Nonsense on the Second Great Depression Print
Sunday, 25 December 2011 22:33

For family reasons I had occasion to see some of the Sunday morning talk shows. (These are best avoided for those with an attachment to reality.)

I got to see Jonathan Alter explain how President Obama and the Fed prevented a second Great Depression. The story went that the economy was losing 800,000 jobs a month when President Obama took office in January. If this had continued until the end of the year then we would have had a second Great Depression. Therefore the steps taken by President Obama and the Fed prevented the Second Great Depression.

There are two problems with this story. First, there is no reason to believe that the counterfactual, if the President and the Fed did not act, is that the economy would have continued to lose 800,000 jobs a month. In January the economy was still in a free fall from the Lehman bankruptcy. Is there any reason to believe that the free fall would have continued throughout the year in the absence of the stimulus and the Fed's aggressive actions? It's hard to see that.

It is hard to construct a coherent counterfactual for the Fed. In effect, the Fed is the fire crew that shows up at the scene and puts out the fire. What's the counterfactual to the fire crew showing up? If we assume that the counterfactual is that no fire crew shows up, then we can say that city would have burnt down, but that it is a highly unrealistic counterfactual. Similarly, a counterfactual that the Fed never does anything in response to an economic collapse seems rather unrealistic.

This brings up the second problem. The Great Depression was not one horrible year. It was a decade of double digit unemployment. To get a decade of double digit unemployment we would need the government to sit on its hands for a decade even as tens of millions of people are suffering. Again, this is possible, but it hardly seems the most likely counterfactual.

To be clear, I don't think there is any doubt that the stimulus helped the economy and created in the range of 2-3 million jobs. The Fed's actions to prevent a financial collapse were also a plus, although there should have been some quid pro quo for the trillions of dollars in below market loans going to the banks. But, the second Great Depression is a figment of the imagination of the Washington policy wonks.

Also, to be fair to Alter, he made a number of good points in this segment. However, the one about the second Great Depression is DC drivel that deserves to be attacked whenever it rears its ugly head.


NYT Gives Case Study in Bad Reporting on Detroit Print
Sunday, 25 December 2011 17:24

As a general rule budget reporting in this country is atrocious. It is standard practice to report numbers for the aggregate budget or specific programs without providing any context that would make these numbers meaningful. Often articles do not even make clear the number of years over which spending or revenue will be spread, as though it makes no difference whether we are talking about spending $200 billion over one year or ten. The NYT carried this a step further in a news article on Detroit's budget which can only be taken to mean that the NYT wants you to think that Detroit has a serious budget problem.

Let's start with the basics:

"Within days of Mr. Bing’s [Detroit Mayor Dave Bing] announcement, state officials said they were starting a preliminary review of the city’s finances, which concluded this week with the announcement of a deeper state look at the books and an alarming snapshot of Detroit: more than $12 billion in long-term debt, an estimated general fund deficit of $196 million and no sufficient plan for dealing with the shortfall."

This is supposed to sound really bad to readers. After all, how many of us will ever see $12 billion? And a deficit of $196 million is also really scary. But what on earth does this mean to Detroit? The article gives us no information whatsoever on the size of the city's budget or its economy.

If we make the long trek to the City of Detroit's website, we find that its proposed budget for 2012 is $3.1 billion. This means that the deficit is just under 6.5 percent of its budget. Is that big? Well, the federal deficit is more than 30 percent of the federal budget, so by that metric Detroit is not doing bad. Federal debt (counting money owed to Social Security and other public trust funds) is just under 3 times the size of the budget, not hugely different than Detroit's ratio of a bit less than 4 to 1.

Of course the federal government is not bound by any balance budget requirements and it has the ability to print its own currency, so it does have far more ability to deal with debt and deficits than a city government. Still, the article really provides no basis for assessing how bad Detroit's budget problems actually are. If the city's economy turns around and begins to grow at a healthy pace, these deficits will likely be manageable. On the other hand, if it continues to shrink, as it has been doing for the last five decades, then the deficits will likely be a very serious problem.

The article also includes one other outstanding example of meaningless numbers. It told readers:

"With 11,000 city employees and 139 square miles of increasingly vacant land to tend to, it has struggled, year by year, deficit by deficit, to pay its bills. Once the nation’s fourth-largest city, it has seen its population drop since a high of 1.8 million in 1950 to a low last year of 714,000."

Imagine that, 11,000 city employees in a city that now has just 714,000 people. Is that a bloated bureaucracy or what?

The answer would have to be the "or what?" in really big letters. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 14.1 million local government employees. With a population of just over 300 million people that translates into 1 employee for roughly every 21 people. By comparison, Detroit's government looks positively austere with a ratio of just 1 employee for every 65 people.

Of course the article is not entirely clear on who counts as a local employee. In most cities the schools are run by an independent entity. If we pull out local employees in education, we find that there are 6.2 million non-education employees at the local level. This translates into a ratio  of 48 people for every city employee. This is closer but still implies a much lower ratio of people to city employees than Detroit's 65 to 1.

There may be more to this story and Detroit may really have a badly bloated city bureaucracy, but the numbers presented in this article do not support that story and they certainly give readers no ability to assess the issue for themselves.

Downward Revisions at the National Association of Realtors Print
Friday, 23 December 2011 16:16

Several people have asked me about the news that the National Association of Realtors (NAR) are revising down their estimates of existing home sales over the last 4 years by an average of 14 percent. I have not looked at this issue in great detail, but the NAR explanation does seem plausible on its face.

Their story is that they rely on data from realtor sales for most of their estimate and then impute a fixed percentage for owner sold properties. In principle, they should also remove new homes that were sold by realtors. (These are not existing homes.) It seems that their survey was in fact capturing a larger portion of total sales since fewer people were selling homes on their own and builders were increasingly turning to realtors to sell new homes. 

There were some people who had raised issues about the data previously, but it is time consuming and expensive to re-benchmark a survey. It is understandable that the NAR would not have done it sooner, although they could have made more of a point of noting some of the issues that had been raised about the survey's accuracy.

This sort of problem arises in other contexts. John Schmitt, my colleague at CEPR, found evidence that the Current Population Survey (CPS), which provides the basis for the monthly employment report, was overstating employment. This is due to the fact that it is covering a smaller share of the population than it did three decades ago. A comparison of the CPS with the 2000 Census data indicated that the people who are excluded from the survey are less likely to be employed than the people who are covered. This effect was especially large for young African American men. The CPS may overstate employment by this group by as much as 8 percentage points. 

As a more general point, reporters should know that comments from the NAR, or any trade association, must be taken with a grain of salt. While its survey may in general be credible, its economists are not paid to give information to the public. They are paid to advance the interests of its members. In the case of the NAR, this means selling houses. It was absurd that David Lereah, then the chief economist of the NAR, was the primary and often only source in stories on the housing market during the bubble years. Remarkably, reporters tend to treat his successor, Lawrence Yun, the same way. 

The Protectionist Washington Post Won't Even Discuss Trade in Health Care Print
Friday, 23 December 2011 06:51

The United States pays more than twice as much per person for its health care as the average for other wealthy countries. It has little to show for this in the way of outcomes as it ranks near the bottom in terms of life expectancy. If we paid the same amount per person as people in other wealthy countries then we would face no long-term deficit problem, as the long-term projections would show budget surpluses rather than deficits.

This is why it is striking that a lengthy Washington Post article on health care never mentioned the sharp contrast between health care costs in the United States and elsewhere in the world. This implies the potential for large gains from trade. For example, if beneficiaries opted to buy into the health care systems of Canada, Germany, or England, the Medicare projections imply that there would be tens of thousands of dollars a year in annual savings that could be split by the government and beneficiaries. A less protectionist paper would have noted these opportunities.

The article also includes a couple of assertions that are questionable or could use some further elaboration. It cites House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan as saying that:

"cutting provider payments beyond the targets in the Affordable Care Act [is] a sure path to Medicare’s collapse."

Given the size of the Medicare program, it is not clear that many providers would have much choice but to accept lower rates. This is almost certainly true in the case of doctors. There are few wealthy patients who do not currently have all the physicians' services they want. This means that if doctors refused to take Medicare patients because they considered the payments inadequate they would simply have to work less or retire early. Since most doctors probably cannot afford to do this, they would likely have little choice but to accept lower pay. (Of course if we removed the protectionist barriers that exclude qualified foreign physicians there would be plenty of doctors willing to accept much lower Medicare payments.)

The article also fails to note the reason that Medicare Part D has cost less than projected. According to the Food and Drug Administration there has been a sharp slowdown in the development of breakthrough drugs. It is possible that the decision to run Part D through private insurers is responsible for the slowing pace of technical innovation in the drug industry, but it is difficult to see how this would be the case. However, if the proponents of this decision (using private insurers rather than Medicare to run the program) want to take credit for slower cost growth, this is what they would be claiming.

The Post Disagrees With Financial Markets Print
Friday, 23 December 2011 06:26

In an article discussing House Speaker John Boehner's performance in his job, the Post referred to his negotiations last summer with President Obama over, "the federal government’s swelling debt problem." Newspapers interested in maintaining the separation between the news and opinion pages would have simple referred to the debate over raising the debt ceiling, which is what was at issue.

The debt has risen rapidly because of the recession that followed in the wake of the collapse of the housing bubble. Financial markets do not see the debt as a problem, which we know since they are willing to lend the government huge amounts of money at very low interest rates. There was no reason to interject this sort of editorial comment in a news story.

Tell Andrew Gelman: Reducing Inequality Doesn't Have to Mean Raising Taxes Print
Friday, 23 December 2011 05:48

It is more than a little bizarre to read a column on public attitudes to inequality in the NYT which completely equates reducing inequality with raising taxes. In fact, the main reason that inequality has risen so much over the last three decades has been the increase in the inequality of before-tax income.

This increase is attributable to policies like a trade policy that subjects manufacturing workers to competition with low-paid workers in the developing world, while largely protecting doctors, lawyers, and other highly paid professionals from similar competition. Inequality stems in part from the government's too big to fail insurance for large banks that allows them to take large risks with taxpayers bearing the downside.

Inequality is due to the enormous extension of patents and copyright monopolies over the last three decades. The country currently pays close to $300 billion a year for prescription drugs that would sell for around $30 billion in a free market. The difference of $270 billion a year is five times the amount of money at stake with the Bush tax cuts for the rich.

It is likely that the public would reject most of the policies that have allowed the wealthy to seize a much larger share of income over the last three decades if any politician ever had the courage to raise them. Instead, Gelman and many others would like to restrict debate to "Loser Liberalism," where the question is exclusively whether we want to tax the winners to help the losers.



Andrew Gelman has added to his earlier note and indicated that he was only referring to the particular pieces being discussed. He did not intend to restrict a discussion of inequality to tax rates.

Politifact and the Echo Chamber Nation Print
Thursday, 22 December 2011 18:29

Politifact told its readers about the "Echo Chamber Nation" in its follow up to its "Lie of the Year" story, but not quite in the way they intended. To remind readers, the Politifact Lie of the Year was the Democrats' claim that the Ryan plan approved by the Republican House would end Medicare. The Ryan plan would in fact replace the fee for service Medicare that has been in place since the program was created in 1966 with a system of "premium supports," which most people would call vouchers.

This is comparable to replacing a traditional defined benefit pension with a 401(k). Most people would probably say that if a company had done this that they had ended their pension. However, if anyone said this, Politifact would call them a "liar" and possibly even the "liar of the year."

Yes, calling such a person a liar may make sense in some circles. This passes for wisdom in that narrow group of Washington elites who think that they are balanced because they can criticize both Democrats and Republicans without paying any attention to the evidence. Within this Echo Chamber, saying the Republicans voted to end Medicare could be the Lie of the Year, but not in reality land.

And You Thought You Were the Only One Who Read BTP Print
Thursday, 22 December 2011 13:30

We made John Nichols' Honor Roll for "Most Valuable Economic News Source" over at the Nation. I'd like to get a mention for most accurate, but no one gives awards for that.


The Washington Post is Pushing Ideology Again Print
Thursday, 22 December 2011 07:48

Some of us may have thought the dispute over the extension of the payroll tax cut involves maneuvering between politicians who are looking to get re-elected next fall. They all have important interest groups who they rely upon for votes and/or campaign contributions.

However the Post told us that we are wrong to think this. Its lead front page article yesterday told readers that:

"at its heart, the fight over the tax cut is only the latest incarnation of the same ideological clash that has afflicted Congress for the past year, over what the government should fund and how it should be paid for.

Once again, Democrats and Republicans foundered over whether to fund an initiative by cutting entitlements and other spending or by raising taxes on the wealthy."

Isn't it great that the Post can get into politicians' minds and determine the real motives for their actions? Ordinary people would just think of them as people who seek power, who say and do whatever is necessary to advance their careers, but the Post can tell us their innermost thoughts. That is why we need newspapers like the Washington Post.

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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.