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Everyone Should Read Floyd Norris Print
Friday, 18 March 2011 05:16

Floyd Norris has a good piece about how overconfidence in the ability to deal with risks led to both the financial crisis and the crisis with Japan's nuclear power plant. The piece makes the essential point that seems to have escaped great economic thinkers here, that there is no way Japan can default on its debt.

Even though Japan's debt is more than twice its GDP (about three times the size of the U.S. debt), there is no risk of default since its debt is in its own currency. In this way Japan is like the United States and the United Kingdom, and unlike Greece and Ireland.

In the worst case scenario, Japan or the United States would print lots of money and see inflation. Given that Japan has been flirting with deflation for almost two decades this doesn't seem like a plausible scenario, but in any case it is not the story of Greece being held at the mercy of the bond vigilantes who will not buy its debt.

The people who hold up Greece's crisis as a possible scenario for Japan and the United States deserve our contempt if they are deliberately misleading their audience or our empathy if their mistake stems from their problems with understanding basic economics. However their arguments do not deserve serious consideration by people involved in policy debates.

 
Governor Walker Tells Post Readers That He Doesn't Understand Basic Economics Print
Thursday, 17 March 2011 05:33

It's always scary when someone in a position of responsibility doesn't understand some of the basics of their job. Apparently this is the case with Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.

In a column in the Washington Post this morning Walker noted that under his new compensation package for public sector employees in Wisconsin, workers in the state will still be paying a far smaller portion of their health care benefits than most workers in the private sector or federal employees. He then comments:

"It’s enough to make you wonder why there are no protesters circling the White House."

Actually, it's enough to make you wonder what Governor Walker could possibly be thinking.

Employer payments for pensions, health care coverage and other benefits are part of a total compensation package. It makes little difference to an employer whether they pay another dollar for health care or for wages. Public employees in Wisconsin had bargained for a compensation package that gave them lower wages than their private sector counterparts, but more generous benefits. Their total compensation package was still somewhat lower than for private sector workers with the same education and experience. When Governor Walker increased the amount that workers had to pay for their pensions and health insurance, he cut their pay pure and simple putting them further behind their private sector counterparts.

Governor Walker seems not to understand this simple fact. According to the logic of his column, a worker getting a salary of $40,000 a year with full health care benefits and an employer-provided pension would be better off than a worker getting $200,000 a year and no benefits. Obviously this makes no sense. It would be good if one of Governor Walker's aides could explain this to him.

 
The Japanese Central Bank's Holding of Government Debt Also Reduces Its Interest Burden Print
Thursday, 17 March 2011 05:23

The Post noted that Japan's central bank is buying government debt in order to hold down interest rates. While this is true, it is also worth noting that its holding of debt reduces the interest rate burden on the government.

Interest on debt held by the central bank is refunded back to the treasury, leaving no net cost to the government on this debt. Under some circumstances, this can lead to inflation. However, Japan continues to experience deflation, in spite of the fact that its central bank holds an amount of debt that is roughly equal to its GDP. This would be equivalent to the Fed holding $15 trillion in debt.

 
NYT: It's Already Been Decided, Social Security Will Be Cut Print
Thursday, 17 March 2011 04:47

The NYT told readers this morning:

"Once this year’s budget battle is settled, Congress will move on to potentially bigger fights over whether to raise the national debt limit and how to rein in the costs of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security."

Wow, huge majorities oppose cuts to Social Security (Medicare also), but the only debate in Congress is over "how" to cut the program. So much for democracy in America.

 
Power Breakfast: Presents Debate on Evolution and the Shape of the Earth Print
Thursday, 17 March 2011 04:37

The Power Breakfast segment this morning on WAMU, my local NPR affiliate, told listeners that the debate on reducing the country's dependence on foreign energy was between people who wanted to increase supply by increased drilling and those who favored conservation. This is not true. There is not enough reserves of oil or gas to make more than a small difference in U.S. dependence on imported energy.

A news organization would point this fact out, since it is the job of reporters to know this fact. Unlike listeners, they are paid to know this information. Unfortunately, Power Breakfast led listeners to believe that the country has an option of being energy independent if it were only willing to put its environment at risk. While increased drilling may be able to wreck the environment it can have no noticeable effect on the country's need for foreign oil. Reporters old enough to remember the BP spill in the Gulf understand what is at issue.

 
Does Kent Conrad Know the Economy Is In a Downturn? Print
Wednesday, 16 March 2011 04:54
It seems from his comments on Marketplace Radio that Senator Conrad doesn't realize that the economy is in a serious downturn. If he did, his complaint that the government borrows 40 cents of every dollar it spends would make no sense. The reason that the economy has a large deficit at present is that the economy has an 8.9 percent unemployment rate and is operating well below its potential level of output. If the government were not borrowing 40 cents of every dollar it spends the economy would be weaker and the country would have a higher unemployment rate. Senator Conrad should have been asked about this issue during his interview.
 
It Was the Bubble, not Subprime, That Sank Fannie and Freddie Print
Wednesday, 16 March 2011 04:46
The NYT told readers that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac collapsed due to their movement into the subprime and Alt-A market in 2005 to regain market share. While the move into lower quality mortgages worsened their situation, Fannie and Freddie would have suffered very large losses even if they had stuck to their traditional market. The collapse of the housing bubble led to record default rates on all mortgages. The majority of mortgages in default now are on prime loans.
 
Public Employees Living the Good Life Print
Wednesday, 16 March 2011 04:32
The NYT had a good piece describing the lives of some of the Ohio employees who its governor thinks are overpaid.
 
NPR Joins Drive to Cut Social Security Print
Tuesday, 15 March 2011 19:48

NPR ran a piece that largely accepted untrue or misleading Republican assertions about Social Security. The piece told readers that:

"Republicans also believe [emphasis added] the very best time to fix Social Security is now, during a time of divided government when both Democrats and Republicans can share ownership of any changes."

Actually, NPR's reporters/editors have no clue what Republicans "believe." They are just making this up. The Republicans in question (like Democrats) are politicians. They say things that advance their political agenda whether or not they actually believe them. Competent reporters know this and don't try to tell their audience that these politicians actually believe their assertions; competent reporters just report the assertions and let their audience make up their own mind as to whether the politicians believe what they are saying. 

It is also not a fact that Social Security needs to be fixed in any meaningful sense of the term. The Congressional Budget Office projects that the program can pay all benefits for the next 28 years with no changes whatsoever and can pay nearly 80 percent of projected benefits indefinitely into the future, even if nothing is ever done to change the program.

The article includes a statement from Alabama Senator Richard Shelby noting that Social Security paid out more in benefits than it took in taxes last year: "

"Social Security is now at the tipping point, the first step of a long, slow march to insolvency if we don't do something about it."

It would have been worth noting that this actually was part of the design of the program. The reason that payroll taxes were raised to a point where they exceeded benefits was to cover the cost of the baby boomers' retirement, which meant that there would be points like the present where benefits exceeded taxes. Otherwise, the increase in the payroll taxes in the 1980s made no sense. It would have been appropriate to point out to listeners that Mr. Shelby either does not understand the program or is deliberately trying to mislead the public.

Similarly, the segment included an assertion from Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn that money was stolen from Social Security:

"The fact is ... $2.8 trillion was stolen from Social Security .., The money was spent. It's broke. And we're going to have to fund $2.8 trillion over the next 20 years just to make the payments that we've got. I would think most people would think we ought to fix that."

Actually, not a penny was stolen from Social Security. Social Security lent money to the federal government by buying bonds, just as individuals, private corporations and banks do all the time. When an individual or company buys a bond from the government, it doesn't matter to them at all (except as citizens) whether or how the government spends the money. The government owes the exact same money regardless.

When the government pays back the bonds held by the Social Security trust fund it will effectively be replacing the bonds held by the trust fund with other bonds. The borrowing took place when the government sold bonds to the Social Security trust fund in the first place. It is not new borrowing when the government repays the bonds held by the Social Security trust fund.

 
The Hill Has a Problem With Theory and Practice Print
Tuesday, 15 March 2011 07:28

The Hill told readers today that:

"The [Social Security] trust fund itself has a theoretical $2.6 trillion surplus, but that money has been spent by the federal government like general revenues."

It is not clear what information the paper thinks is added by the word "theoretical." It is possible to add the word to almost any sentence (e.g. "Washington has a theoretical basketball team"). When something actually exists in the world, calling it "theoretical" is presumably intended to impugn it in some way.

Of course the trust fund does exist in the world, it is held in the form of U.S. government bonds. These bonds are referred to as "IOUs" in the Hill piece. It is highly unusual to refer to bonds of private corporations or government bonds as IOUs.

The article also makes the bizarre assertion that: "the payback [use of interest on the bonds held in the trust fund to pay Social Security benefits] has arrived at a very difficult time, when Washington is running a $1.6 trillion budget deficit." Actually, the interest rate on government debt is very low right now. This means that it is in fact a very good time for the government to be replacing the bonds held by Social Security with other bonds.

Readers can assume, based on these comments, that the Hill does not like Social Security and wants to see benefits cut. Usually this sort of editorializing is left to the opinion pages but apparently the Hill could not contain its animosity towards the program.

 
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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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