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Ross Douthat is Upset that No One Wants to Cut Social Security and Medicare Print
Wednesday, 26 January 2011 05:27

Every budget expert knows that Social Security is fully funded through the year 2037 with no changes whatsoever. Even if nothing is ever done the program will always pay close to 80 percent of scheduled benefits. It also, under the law, cannot contribute to the deficit since it cannot spend more money than is in the trust fund.

Medicare costs are projected to rise more rapidly, but this is due to rising private sector health care costs, not the inefficiency of Medicare. This means that containing Medicare costs and preventing a soaring deficit involves fixing the health care system, not gutting Social Security and Medicare.

While these simple facts are known by every budget expert, that doesn't keep the pundits from insisting that President Obama and other politicians support cuts to Social Security and Medicare. Hence we get Ross Douthat whining that no one seems to be listening to him in today's NYYT.

 
Umm, Congressional Districts Are Roughly the Same Size Print
Tuesday, 25 January 2011 05:27

The New York Times told readers that: "The median Democratic Congressional district now has a population 11 times as large as the median Republican Congressional district, according to an analysis by Transportation Weekly, a trade publication that focuses on federal transportation spending."

This is not right. Congressional districts are required to have roughly the same population under the constitution. There cannot be perfect equality since districts cannot cross state lines but the most populous district does not have even twice the population of the least populated district. The idea that the median Democratic district has 11 times the population of the median Republican district is absurd on its face.

 

[Addendum: the NYT corrected this article -- ratio referred to population densities, not population.

 
Medicare and Social Security as the Biggest Drivers of the Deficits Print
Monday, 24 January 2011 15:46

Why does the NYT have to lump Medicare and Social Security together when everyone knows their stories are fundamentally different? According to the Congressional Budget Office, over the next quarter century annual spending on Social Security is projected to increase by an amount equal to 1.4 percentage points of GDP. This is considerably less than the increase in annual defense spending of 1.7 percentage points of GDP between 2001 and 2010. And, Social Security expenditures over this period are fully paid for by past and future Social Security taxes.

In contrast, the cost of Medicare is projected to rise by 2.3 percentage points of GDP over this period, starting from a considerably lower base. The annual cost of Medicaid and other health care programs is projected to rise by 1.9 percentage points. As everyone recognizes, the story of long-term budget deficits is the story of our broken health care system. Why is this so hard to tell the public?

(Thanks to Daniel Alvarado.)

 
Another Front Page Post Editorial Against Social Security Print
Monday, 24 January 2011 11:21

The Post wrongly told readers in a front page news story that "budget analysts across the political spectrum agree that popular Medicare and Social Security programs will have to be overhauled to truly cure the nation's ills." This is not true.

For example, a book that was co-authored by Peter Orszag, who had been President Obama's director of the Office of Management and Budget, and Peter Diamond, a Nobel Laureate and Obama nominee to Fed, suggests relatively modest changes to Social Security. In fact, virtually all budget analysts across the political spectrum agree that the shortfall in the Social Security program is relatively minor.

 
Fareed Zakaria's Pinata of Errors Print
Monday, 24 January 2011 05:29

Those of us who follow economic reporting closely have long recognized the Washington Post's opinion pages as the mother lode of confused economic thinking. Fareed Zakaria lives up to the standard in today's column, which offers policy tokens for both the left and right.

He starts by noting that the tax/spending package agreed to by President Obama and the Republicans last year added $900 billion to the deficit over 10 years and then wrongly tells readers:

"We can't keep playing this game."

Of course we can. The important point, apparently lost on Zakaria, is that the deal increased the deficit by $900 billion over the next two years. This is a period in which virtually every economic forecast projects the U.S. economy to be well below full employment levels of output. This means that deficit spending will crowd out little or no private investment. So what exactly is the problem with playing this game; that we might put more people to work?

Even the interest burden on this debt need not pose a problem. The Fed could simply buy and hold the bonds used to finance the debt. This would mean that the interest is paid to the Fed, which then refunds it to the Treasury at the end of the year. Last year the Fed paid almost $80 billion back to the Treasury. When the economy eventually moves back toward full employment it can raise reserve requirements in the banking system to ensure that the additional reserves don't lead to inflation.

Zakaria then gives us the right's caricature of U.S. politics, telling us with reference to policies to promote growth:

"The left and right disagree here as well, with the right focusing more on measures to spur the private sector and the left on government spending."

Let see, the right tends to be in favor of having the government impose strong patent and copyright monopolies on the market. Is this government involvement spurring the private sector? Does it spur the private sector more than having the government contract with private firms to develop new drugs or new software? If so, it is not obvious how.

How about if the Fed targets a higher rate of inflation (e.g. 3-4 percent) in order to reduce real interest rates and reduce private sector debt burdens. Is this a focus on government spending as opposed to the private sector?

He then tells us that the private sector has been investing furiously around the world but "meagerly" in the United States. If Zakaria had access to the Commerce Department's data he would know that investment in equipment and software has been rising at almost a 20 percent annual rate over the last year. Actually, investment has been relatively healthy in this downturn.

Zakaria then gives as an example of over-regulation driving business overseas Goldman Sachs' decision to only offer Facebook shares to its foreign customers. It's hard to see exactly what the problem is here. Facebook is trying to skirt U.S. laws on disclosure requirements for publicly traded companies. They are apparently able to do this by just selling shares to foreign investors. Perhaps this means that foreign investors will get a good deal or alternatively will get scammed by Facebook, but it is hard to see any important implications for the U.S. economy. This doesn't affect how many jobs Facebook will create in the United States.

Zakaria then turns to drug development where the Obama administration announced plans for a $1 billion program to help spur progress. He then complains that regulations are the problem, commenting that:

"The Food and Drug Administration takes twice as long to approve a drug as its European counterparts. As a result, health-care research has been moving offshore, particularly as China and India innovate in every product and process."

Actually this makes no sense whatsoever. Under the TRIPs agreement, countries are prohibiting from providing favorable access rules based on the location of research. This means that the rate at which the FDA approves drugs would have nothing to do with a company's decision on where to locate its research. We should expect company's to base their research where it can be done at the lowest cost. They would then look to have drugs approved wherever it is profitable to have them approved. There is no logical connection between the two, even though pharmaceutical industry lobbyists may try to convince members of Congress and gullible columnists that there is.

 
The NYT's Hallucinations of a Business Investment-Led Recovery Print
Sunday, 23 January 2011 18:54

The New York Times was touting the prospect of renewed spending by business leading the recovery. There are two major problems with this story. First, investment in equipment and software has already been growing rapidly. Over the last four quarters it has grown at almost a 20 percent annual rate. People who have access to the Commerce Department's data on GDP (a group that apparently excludes employees of the NYT) are aware of this fact.

The other important fact known to people with access to this data is equipment and software spending is actually a relatively small share of GDP. (There was huge overbuilding of non-residential structures, so it is not plausible to imagine a big pick-up in this sector any time soon.) Equipment and software spending were equal to 7.1 percent of GDP in the third quarter of 2010. This means that even if the growth rate doubles to 40 percent, it would only add 1.4 percentage points to GDP growth. This would have less impact than reducing imports by 10 percent.

In short, while a more rapid pace of investment spending can be helpful, it is unlikely to be sufficient to restore the economy to healthy growth path. That will almost certainly require a reduction in the trade deficit, which in turn depends on a decline in the value of the dollar. The latter is apparently a low or non-existent priority for the Obama administration.

 
China Can Only Steal Intellectual Property If It Says It Is Stealing Print
Sunday, 23 January 2011 08:56

With reference to intellectual property, the New York Times told readers that, "China has a well-earned reputation for theft." Intellectual property rules are defined by each country. China can only engage in "theft" if it has set up rules that is violating. In many cases, its laws on intellectual property do not provide clear protection to U.S. firms, therefore they may not be engaging in anything that can be described as "theft."

This article also misinforms readers about the relative size of the Chinese and U.S. economies. It told readers that China's per capita income is less than $4,300. This is the measure of income on an exchange rate basis. The more realistic basis for comparison is China's GDP measured on a purchasing power parity basis, which is $7,400 a year – 75 percent higher.

 
The Washington Post Wrongly Tells Readers that the United States Has Little Control Over the Value of the Dollar Print
Saturday, 22 January 2011 08:12

An article that discussed President Obama's public campaign to boost exports told readers that the federal government "has little control" over the value of the dollar. This is not true. The Treasury and Fed could set out to lower the value of the dollar if they opted to do so. This could mean selling dollars in international money markets and buying other countries' currencies. They could even opt to peg the value of the dollar against other countries currencies, as China has done with the dollar.

In the Clinton years, Robert Rubin had a policy of pushing up the value of the dollar. He put muscle behind this effort through the U.S. control of the IMF at the time of the East Asian financial crisis. The conditions that the IMF imposed were so onerous that developing countries decided that they needed to accumulate massive amounts of reserves in order to avoid being put in a similar situation. This meant accumulating large amounts of dollars. They did this by keeping down the value of their currencies against the dollar (i.e. raising the value of the dollar).

It is very misleading to assert that the value of the dollar is outside of the government's control. President Obama, like his predecessors, has allowed the dollar to remain over-valued. An over-valued dollar effectively subsidizes imports and imposes a tariff on exports. There is nothing that President Obama's new competitiveness panel can realistically hope to do that would come close to offsetting the competitive disadvantage created by an over-valued dollar.

 
Low Interest Rates and Optimism About the Economy Did Not Lure Homebuyers in December Print
Friday, 21 January 2011 06:52

The Post reported on the better than expected numbers on existing home sales reported for December. It told readers that:

"Low interest rates, relatively affordable prices and tentative optimism about the economy helped lure buyers in December."

Actually, the data on existing home sales reports on closed sales in December. It generally takes 6-8 weeks between when a house contract is signed and when the sales are closed. This means that the December data reflect attitudes in October and early November, not December.

 
The New York Times Didn't Hear About the Stock Bubble Print
Friday, 21 January 2011 06:04

The NYT ran a piece profiling Gene Sperling, the new head of President Obama's National Economic Council (NEC), that could have been a paid advertisement. The piece completely ignores the economic imbalances that developed under the Clinton administration and hit their peaks during Sperling's tenure as NEC head, most notably the stock bubble and trade deficit caused by an over-valued dollar.

The article gives Sperling credit for coming up with the idea of using the budget surpluses at the end of the Clinton years to "save Social Security," which thereby prevented this money from being either spent or given back in tax cuts. It would have been worth noting that the surplus eventually disappeared as a result of the collapse of the stock bubble and the stimulus measures necessary to get the economy back on its feet.

 
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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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