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USA Today Says Rents Are Rising, BLS Says Otherwise Print
Thursday, 05 May 2011 05:53

USA Today told readers that rents are now rising rapidly because of an improving job market. That should raise suspicions, since the job market is not really improving much.

If we check out the data from our friends at the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), we don't see much of story. Here's the trend for owner's equivalent rent (OER). This is a measure of rent that looks at the implicit rental value of owner occupied homes. The BLS index for OER has risen by less than 1 percent over the last two years. There's not much of a story of rising rents here.

OER

We get a little different picture if we go to the BLS index for rent proper which measures the increase in the price paid by people who are actually renting their home. This shows that rents have risen by 1.4 percent over the last two years, with most of the increase coming in the last year.

rent

The likely reason for the difference is that the index for the rent paid on rental units includes utilities that are provided by landlords under the rent contract. Since the cost of heating and electricity have risen substantially in the last year, it is not surprising that a rental index including these utilities would rise more rapidly than one that does not.

Still, the 1.0-1.5 percent increase shown by the BLS index is far below the 4.0-5.0 percent increases reported in the article. There are 3 likely reasons for this difference. First, the BLS index is nationwide. USA Today has focused on a few cities that were likely selected because they had rapidly rising rents.

The second reason is that the indexes USA Today cites refer to open units on the market. In any given year only a fraction of rental units turn over. These units are likely to experience larger rent increases than units where the tenant does not change. Typically landlords are reluctant to raise rents on current tenants since they don't want to risk driving them out.

The third reason is that the USA Today indexes don't control for the mix of units. If the units coming on the market are disproportionately new units that have just been built then it is reasonable to believe that they are in better condition and have more amenities that the rental housing stock as a whole. This means that the index might be showing an increase simply because the units in it this year are better on average than the units that were in it last year.

These three factors likely explain the gap between the modest rate of rental inflation reported in the USA Today article and the very low inflation rate reported by BLS. In short, rents are likely very much under control, with much of any increase in market rents being attributable to higher utility costs.

 
Jobs, Regulation, and Republican Nonsense: Do Post Readers Really Have More Time to Investigate Issues Than Its Reporters? Print
Thursday, 05 May 2011 05:08

The Post apparently believes that its readers have more time and expertise to evaluate the claims of politicians than its reporters. How else can one explain the he said/she said piece on jobs programs that the Post ran today?

The article featured Democrats demanding new government programs to create jobs while the Republicans insisted that excessive regulation was the problem. If the latter were true it would be necessary to explain why excessive regulation did not prevent the economy from creating 3 million jobs a year from 1996 to 2000. A real newspaper would have devoted some space to evaluating the competing claims of the two parties.

 
The Washington Post Doesn't Know that People Are Concerned About Jobs Print
Thursday, 05 May 2011 04:55

In one of his debates with President Carter in 1980, Ronald Reagan famously quipped that everyone who supported abortion has already been born. In the same vein, it is probably worth noting that everyone who works for the Washington Post has a job. This may explain its fixation with reducing the deficit while virtually ignoring the most prolonged period of high unemployment since the Great Depression.

A front page article told readers that:

"With voters growing increasingly anxious about the debt, Republicans and some Democrats are refusing to approve additional borrowing without an explicit strategy to reduce deficit spending."

Actually polls consistently show that jobs are far and away voters main concern. Furthermore, the most likely reason that voters might be "growing increasingly anxious about the debt" is that the media is constantly bombarding them with hysterical and often largely untrue pieces about the debt and its consequences.

This article refers to Representative Ryan's plan for privatizing Medicare. It would have been useful to note that the Congressional Budget Office analysis of this policy projects that it would add more than $34 trillion (almost 7 times the size of the projected Social Security shortfall) to the cost of buying Medicare equivalent policies over the program's 75-year planning horizon.

 
Martin Feldstein on Tax Reform in the NYT Print
Thursday, 05 May 2011 04:10

Deficit reduction is all the craze now that it is official policy in Washington to ignore the downturn and the tens of millions unemployed and underemployed. (Hey, how many of these people have advanced degrees and went to Ivy League schools?)

Harvard economist and former AIG director Martin Feldstein made his contribution to the effort today in a column on tax reform in the NYT today. Feldstein wants us to "raise taxes, but not rates." His proposal is to limit deductions for tax expenditures to 2 percent of total income.

Feldstein tells readers:

"What’s the result? Taxpayers with incomes of $25,000 to $50,000 would pay about $1,000 more in taxes; those with incomes of more than $500,000 might pay $40,000 more."

Before anyone gets too excited over this former Reagan economist pushing progressive tax reform, it's worth considering this one a bit more closely. Let's put the average income in the $25k-50k group at $38,000. The promised $1,000 tax increase for these folks is about 2.6 percent of their income. The average income for people earning over $500,000 is around $1.7 million. The $40,000 Feldstein expects to get from this group comes to 2.3 percent of their income. 

In other words, insofar as this tax reform proposal is progressive, it is very trivially progressive. Comparing the $40,000 additional tax take with the $500,000 bottom end cutoff may confuse people here. Given that more than 8 percentage points of GDP ($1.2 trillion annually) has been redistributed upward to the top 1.0 percent over the last three decades, we might hope to do a little better with our tax reform.

But wait, it gets worse. It is worth asking who would get nailed by Feldstein's proposed caps. Most people in that middle $25k to $50k group take the standard deduction. The most common deductions for this group are the mortgage interest deduction and the deduction for health care expenditures, including employer paid health care.

While there is a good argument for limiting the mortgage interest deduction (if someone wants a big home, why should the rest of us share the bill), if these people have a large deduction for health care expenses, it is likely because they have a serious illness in their family. Taxpayers with a large health care deduction are likely families with a chronically ill child or a severe medical condition, like cancer.

Of course, we can argue that there are better ways to pay for health care than through the tax code, but remember we're cutting back on government health care spending too. So don't anticipate that we fix any inequities created by Feldstein's tax reform on the expenditure side.

In short, what we have from Feldstein is exactly what we expect from those on the right: an effort to lift more money out of the pockets out of the middle class, the poor, and the sick to make the wealthy even wealthier.

 
Navy Seal Pay Compared With Teachers and Wall Street Print
Wednesday, 04 May 2011 15:44

In the wake of their successful assault on Osama Bin Laden's hideout, ABC News did a short feature on the Navy Seals. The report tells us that the people who hold this highly demanding and dangerous get paid about $54,000 a yeat. It then adds that:

"The base salary level [of Navy Seals] is comparable to the average annual salary for teachers in the U.S., which was $55,350 for the 2009-2010 school year, according to the Digest of Education Statistics.'

That is one possible comparison. There are other possible reference points. For example, the CEOs of Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan both pocket around $20 million a year. This means that they make almost twice as much in a day as a Navy Seal earns in a year. Not many bank heads have to worry about getting shot in the line of duty.

Of course some Wall Street types do even better. Hedge fund manager John Paulson reportedly pocketed $5 billion last year. If we assume a 3000 hour work year (presumably he had to put in some overtime), Paulson had to work about 2 minutes to earn as much as a Navy Seal does in a year. 

 
The Post Warns that U.S. Savings Could Increase Quickly Print
Wednesday, 04 May 2011 07:01

This is what the Post was warning about in its article headlined, "The dollar, at risk: U.S. efforts to speed the economic recovery could transform currency's slow decline into a precipitous fall," although it is possible that no one at the paper knows the introductory economics that would allow them to make this connection.

Those who have been through an intro econ class know that the trade surplus is by definition equal to net national savings. This means that countries that have large trade deficits like the United States must by definition have negative net national savings.

The main determinant of the trade surplus (or deficit), given a level of GDP, is the value of the dollar. If the value of the dollar were to fall precipitously, which is presented here as a bad scenario, it would lead to a quick adjustment towards balanced trade through strong growth in net exports. Higher levels of net exports would boost the economy, leading to stronger private savings and a smaller budget deficit. So, the Washington Post headline is actually warning that if we are not careful, we will see stronger economic growth and a smaller budget deficit.

As a practical matter, the precipitous fall in the dollar warned about in the article is almost impossible for exactly this reason. The euro zone countries would not let the dollar fall to 2 dollars to a euro precisely because it would destroy Europe's export market in the United States and make U.S. goods hyper-competitive in Europe. The same is true of Canada, Japan, China and other U.S. trading partners. If the dollar were for some reason go into a free fall all of these countries would almost certainly actively intervene in currency markets (as China already does) to limit the decline. This should be obvious to anyone who has reflected on the situation for even a minute.

The article gets several other important points wrong. First, the fall in the dollar is only reversing the run-up in the dollar that began with Robert Rubin's stint as Treasury Secretary. Rubin's high dollar policy sent the country on the course of bubble driven growth of the late 90s and the 00s that led to record low private savings rate and in last few years, high budget deficits. The recent decline in the dollar is just reversing the Rubin run-up.

fredgraph

The other important fact that the Post got completely wrong was its assertion that:

"History is full of examples of countries where large budget deficits eventually led investors to lose faith, causing the currency to tumble. The Asian financial crisis, which rocked the likes of Thailand, Singapore and South Korea in the late 1990s, is one recent example."

According to the IMF, in the year prior to the East Asian financial crisis, Thailand had a budget surplus equal to 2.7 percent of GDP. Singapore and South Korea had surpluses equal to 14.4 percent of GDP and 2.6 percent of GDP, respectively. These countries clearly do not support the claim in this article that large budget deficits lead to declining currency values. 

 
Tell the Washington Post that All Non-Flat Earthers Believe that Oil Prices Are Determined in a Global Market Print
Wednesday, 04 May 2011 05:21

In an article that discussed the federal government's policy on offshore oil leases the Washington Post told readers that:

"Democrats and environmentalists say that in a global marketplace, such moves [authorizing offshore drilling] have far less impact on prices than unrest in Libya and other geopolitical factors."

It is not just Democrats and environmentalists who say this. Anyone who understands markets say this. At most additional offshore drilling can add a few hundred thousand barrels a day to world oil supplies. By contrast, Libya produced about 1.8 million barrels a day before its civil war, Algeria produces 2.1 million barrels and Saudi Arabia produces 9.8 million.

Changes in production by these major producers will have far more impact on the price of gas than our decisions on drilling offshore. People who know economics say this regardless of whether or not they are Democrats or like the environment.

 
China's Purchase of U.S. Treasury Bonds Keeps the Dollar Over-Valued Print
Wednesday, 04 May 2011 04:55

In an article on China's growing foreign investment the NYT told readers that:

"China is also a major player in the global debt markets, holding about $1.6 trillion in United States Treasury bonds, an investment that helps keep American interest rates low and finances America’s enormous debt."

It would also be accurate to say that China's purchase of Treasury bonds "keeps the dollar over-valued and sustains the enormous U.S. trade deficit with China and other countries."

If China did not purchase these bonds, the dollar would fall against the yuan and other currencies. A lower valued dollar would reduce our imports and increase our exports, moving us closer to balanced trade, increasing U.S. GDP and creating jobs.

 
Why Do Senate Republicans Think that Regulations Are Preventing Us from Creating Jobs Now Even Though They Did Not Prevent Us from Creating 3 Million Jobs a Year in the Late 90s? Print
Wednesday, 04 May 2011 04:45

It might have been helpful if the NYT had asked this question instead of just telling readers that:

"But Senate Republicans rolled out their own jobs agenda and took shots at the Obama administration over what they described as undue restrictions on business.

'This excessive regulation is really seriously inhibiting our effort to get out of this economic recession and create jobs,' said Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader."

Since there have been few important changes in regulation under President Obama it might have been useful to give readers some idea of what the Republicans are talking about. Otherwise, it sounds like they are complaining that Lake Michigan is inhibiting our effort to get out of recession. It could in principle be true -- for example if the Lake had enormous floods -- but since the Lake has been there a long time, it is not obvious why it would suddenly cause a problem. The same is true for regulation.

 
Ryan Plan Raises Medicare Costs So Much that Reporters Cannot Even Understand It (Never Mind: See Note) Print
Tuesday, 03 May 2011 16:46

According to the Congressional Budget Office's (CBO) analysis, Representative Paul Ryan's plan for privatizing Medicare would raise the cost to the country (the combined cost to the government and beneficiaries) of providing Medicare equivalent policies by $34 trillion over the program's 75-year planning horizon. This is a number that is so huge that it difficult for many people to understand it.

This number comes to roughly $110,000 for every man, woman, and child in the country. It is almost 7 times as large as the projected shortfall in Social Security that has so many people in Washington terrified.

It turns out that even health care reporters have a difficult time understanding how much the Ryan plan is projected to raise costs. The Kaiser Health News Service told readers that CBO's projections show that the Ryan plan would raise the portion of the health care premium paid by beneficiaries in 2030 from 25 percent to 68 percent.

Actually, those looking at the CBO projections (Figure 1) will see that under the Ryan plan beneficiaries do pay 68 percent of the cost of a Medicare equivalent policy in 2030. They will also see that the baseline projection shows them paying just 25 percent of the cost. Except the figure also shows that the baseline Medicare policy only costs 60 percent as much as the Medicare equivalent policy under the Ryan plan.

This means that to make an apples to apples comparison, we would have to multiply the beneficiary's 25 percent contribution by 60 percent, to get that they would pay 15 percent of the cost of a Medicare equivalent policy under the Ryan plan. While the increase in the beneficiary's contribution reported by Kaiser might have sounded like a huge burden, it actually understates the change. If we use the cost of a Medicare equivalent policy under the Ryan plan as the denominator, the beneficiary's contribution goes from 15 percent under the existing system to 68 percent under the Ryan plan.

 

Addendum:

Actually, looking at this with better eyes, Kaiser did report the CBO numbers correctly. They expressed the beneficiary's contribution under the existing Medicare program as a percent of the cost under a Medicare equivalent policy under the Ryan plan. There was a slight misstatement, since the payment would be 41.7 percent of the cost of the policy to Medicare, but for purposes of the analysis it is appropriate to show the payment as a share of the cost under the Ryan plan so that readers can make an apples to apples to comparison.

The chart accompanying this piece does get the issue confused. According to the CBO analysis, beneficiaries currently pay 39.3 percent of the total cost of a Medicare policy provided through the traditional Medicare system. This would be equal to 35 percent of the cost of a Medicare equivalent plan provided through a privatized system. This shares rises to 68 percent of the cost of a Medicare equivalent plan by 2030.

 
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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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