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Power Breakfast: Discussion of the Martian Invasion and the Price of Gas Print
Thursday, 10 March 2011 05:37

WAMU, one of the NPR affiliates in Washington, DC, has a segment during Morning Edition called "Power Breakfast" which discusses issues being debated in Congress. This segment is often embarrassing for the amount of misinformation that it can pass along in just a few minutes.

This morning was one such occasion. It began with a comment by Texas Senator Kay Baily Hutchison, complaining about the price of gas and the cost of filling up her pick-up truck. Ms. Hutchinson then said that part of the answer to high gas prices was increased drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and then talked about a bill that she is co-sponsoring with Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu which would allow for some additional drilling.

While the segment did give a short sound bite to an opponent of drilling, Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, it would have been appropriate to ridicule Ms. Hutchison's comment, since there is no plausible story in which her bill would have any visible impact on the price of filling up her pick-up.

The amount of additional oil that can be drilled from the Gulf is only around 0.2 percent of world supply. It would take roughly 10 years to get up to this level of production. Using normal elasticity assumptions, this would imply a reduction in the price of oil of around 0.5 percent. That would mean that if we completely opened the Gulf for drilling, it would save Ms. Hutchison about 30 cents off the cost of filling her pick-up in 2021. Of course the bill she has proposed would have considerably less effect. 

If politicians can say ridiculous things to advance their political agenda, and the media do not point out that their comments are ridiculous, then they will have incentive to say ridiculous things. This makes for an ill-informed nonsensical debate on public policy issues. The media bear much of the blame for this since it can be expected that politicians will do whatever advances their political career. It is the media's job to hold them accountable.

Republicans Push Proposal to Eliminate Jobs and Raise Unemployment in the Senate Print
Wednesday, 09 March 2011 06:20
Okay, I didn't expect this headline, but it would be worth reminding readers that this would be the effect of the Republican proposal for sharp budget cuts for the remainder of the 2011 fiscal year. Analyses by both Goldman Sachs and Moody's have shown that the spending cuts, if extended into 2012, would eliminate more than 500,000 jobs. It would have been appropriate to mention this point in the article.
Washington Post Reports that Most Retired California Public Employees Receive Lower Pensions Than Generally Believed Print
Wednesday, 09 March 2011 06:04

That was not the way that the Post framed the issue, but this is the implication of an article on public sector pensions in California that began with a discussion of the $520,000 a year pension received by the former administrator of a small city. The article cites the claim by the California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility that more than 15,000 retired state employees receive pensions of more than $100,000 a year. It then cites a spokesperson for the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees saying that the average pension is just $19,000. 

If both numbers are accurate, then this means that roughly 3 percent of retirees account for almost 20 percent of total benefits (assuming an average pension for the over $100k group of $110k), which means that the average pension for the bottom 97 percent is a bit over $16,000 a year.

The article includes a statement from an economist blaming the public sector employees for not better policing their pension system. While this is a reasonable point, it is also reasonable to ask why the people supervising the pension systems, who are paid six figure salaries for this work, have not called attention to abuses like the one highlighted at the beginning of this article.

News Flash! Western Europe Is Richer Than Eastern Europe Print
Wednesday, 09 March 2011 05:39

The NYT has an article telling readers that Latvian officials working for the European Union bureaucracy earn much higher pay than their counterparts who remain in Latvia. This is of course true. It would be very surprising if it were not the case.

The European Union is dominated by relatively wealthy countries like France, Germany, and the U.K. It would be expected that the pay of its officials would reflect pay scales in these countries. This means that when poorer countries, like Latvia, enter the EU, their nationals can anticipate big pay increases if they move from employment by the Latvian government to employment by the EU, just as a plumber would get a big increase in pay if they moved from Latvia to Germany.

M.I.T. Economist David Autor Shows Soaring Demand for Uneducated Workers Print
Tuesday, 08 March 2011 22:14

David Autor has inaccurately reported that he has found evidence of a hollowing out of the distribution of jobs for men, with increased employment at the top and the bottom ends of the wage distribution and a loss of jobs in the middle. NYT columnist David Leonhardt seems to have largely bought this story as well.

Actually, as John Schmitt, my colleague at CEPR, and former colleague Heather Boushey pointed out, Autor's work shows the opposite. In the most recent business cycle, 2000-2007, there was a relative decline in the demand for all male occupations, except those at the bottom of the wage distribution. There was less of a decline for jobs near the top than for those in the middle, but it would be more than a bit of an exaggeration to call this a hollowing out of the job distribution. Autor's data is essentially showing an increased demand for less-skilled occupations pure and simple.

The story for the prior business cycle is also not quite what Autor describes. Between 1989 and 1999, there actually was a decline in relative employment for all occupations below the median except those near the very bottom (the bottom decile).

A large percentage of the workers in this bottom decile were immigrants. There has been considerable research (e.g. here and here) that suggests that immigrants don't compete directly with native born workers and instead fill a sub-class of occupations in which jobs would have gone largely unfilled in the absence of immigrant workers. Insofar as this is the case, it suggests that the growth in the lowest wage occupations was not a demand-side phenomenon, but rather a supply side story. In this view, if there had been a large influx of immigrants occupying the middle wage occupations, then we would have seen strong growth in employment in these occupations as well (albeit at much lower wages).

In the period from 1979-1989, the first business cycle analyzed by Autor, there is a decline in the relative shares of employment for all occupations below the 60th percentile. This also does not support the hollowing out story.

To summarize, in the first cycle, Autor finds increased relative demand for highly skilled occupations and decreased demand for less skilled occupations. In the second cycle he finds increased demand for highly skilled occupations and decreased demand for all but the lowest skilled occupations, which may be the result of an influx of low-paid immigrant workers. In the third period, there is a decline in the relative demand for everyone but less-skilled workers. In other words, he really doesn't show any evidence of a hollowing out of the job distribution.

Cash Customers: The Big Winners from Debit Card Fee Regulation are Missing from NYT Story Print
Tuesday, 08 March 2011 05:47

The NYT reported on the dispute between retailers and banks over debit card fees. The banks, by their own claim, take advantage of their monopoly power to charge fees that are far above their cost. (We know this because they have threatened to raise the cost of services like maintaining checking accounts if they have to lower their fees on debit cards. They could only do this sort of cross-subsidy if they had some degree of monopoly power in debit cards.) 

The article never discussed the situation of customers who pay in cash. These are likely to be the biggest gainers from lower debit card fees. Retailers are generally required to charge all customers the same price regardless of how they pay. This means that cash customers pay a price that covers the cost of debit card and credit card transactions, even though they do not receive the benefit of these services.

In effect, the banks impose a sales tax of 1-2 percent on all customers to cover their fees. Debit and credit card users get a benefit in the form of greater convenience for this tax. Cash customers just pay the tax. Of course cash customers also tend to be poorer, since these are largely people who could not get credit cards and may not even have bank accounts. So, these fees are a transfer from the less wealthy to more wealthy.

Fareed Zakaria Is Upset Because the Government Spends So Much More on Each Rich Person Than on Each Child Print
Monday, 07 March 2011 04:56

Actually Zakaria is not upset that the government will give far more money to the average rich person this year than the average child. He is upset that it spends more money on the elderly.

The main reason that the government spends more on the elderly than the young is that we run a public pension program, Social Security, through the government. We also run a seniors' health insurance program, Medicare, through the government. In both cases people pay a dedicated tax for these benefits. (The Medicare tax does not pay for the whole cost of the program.)

Zakaria is upset that seniors are allowed to receive the benefits that they have paid for. By the same logic, he should be upset that billionaires like Peter Peterson can get millions or even tens of millions of dollars in interest each year on the government bonds they own. After all, this money would be far better spent educating our children than being put in the pockets of these incredibly wealthy people. The Zakaria methodology would have us go after these interest payments on the debt, if it were applied consistently.

Failing Drug Research Model: Can't the NYT Talk About Patents? Print
Monday, 07 March 2011 04:15

It seems not. A front page NYT article reported on the drop in profits that the drug industry expects over the next year as many of its blockbuster drugs lose patent protection. The article reports that some of the major pharmaceutical companies may cut back their research spending as a result.

The article never discussed the possibility of alternative funding mechanisms. For example, Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel prize winning economist, has advocated a prize fund whereby the government would buy up patents and allow all drugs to be sold at their competitive market price. It is also possible for the government to simply pay for the research up front (it already finances almost half of biomedical research through the National Institutes of Health). This also would allow the vast majority of new drugs to be sold for a few dollars per prescription.

This sort of overview of the pharmaceutical industry would have been an appropriate place to discuss the merits of the current patent system for financing prescription drug research.

Robert Samuelson Wants to Take Money from Seniors to Make the Wall Street Boys Richer Print
Sunday, 06 March 2011 21:16

Yes, Robert Samuelson is at it again, spreading inaccurate and misleading claims about Social Security to justify taking money from retirees.

It seems that for some reason he has a hard time understanding the idea of a pension. This shouldn't be that hard, many people have them.

The basic principle is that you pay money in during your working years and then you get money back after you retire. Social Security is a pension that is run through the government. Therefore Samuelson wants to call it "welfare."

It is not clear exactly what his logic is. The federal government runs a flood insurance program. Are the payments made to flood victims under this program "welfare?" How about the people who buy government bonds. Are they getting "welfare" when they get the interest on their bonds? If there is any logic to Mr. Samuelson's singling out Social Security as a source of welfare, he didn't waste any space sharing it with readers.

There are a few other points that deserve comment. He claims that the trillions of dollars of surplus built up by the trust fund over the last three decades were an "accident." Actually, this surplus was predicted by the projections available at the time. If anyone did not expect a large surplus to arise from the tax increases and benefit cuts put in place in 1983 then their judgement and arithmetic skills have to be seriously questioned.

In terms of the program and the deficit, under the law it can only spend money that came from its designated tax or the interest on the bonds held by the trust fund. It has no legal authority to spend one dime beyond this sum. In that sense it cannot contribute to the deficit. Mr. Samuelson apparently wants to use Social Security taxes to pay for defense and other spending.

If we allow for the possibility that we could impose a "Social Security" tax on workers and then use this money for other purposes, the decision to not use it for other purposes can be said to make the deficit larger. But this is sort of like saying that our decision not to steal money from disabled people makes the deficit larger. After all, if we had a policy of stealing from the disabled, then the deficit would be lower. How can anyone argue with that.

Finally Samuelson decided to get a little creative with numbers to press his case. He told readers that:

"In 2008, a quarter of households headed by people 65 and over had incomes exceeding $75,000."

That's not what the Census data show. They put the share of the over 65 population with incomes of more than $75,000 at 15.8 percent. And, almost half of these people had incomes of less than $100,000. In this context it worth remembering that President Obama put his lower cutoff for those subject to tax increases at $200,000.

So, we are reminded yet again that Robert Samuelson really doesn't like Social Security and that he is willing to make up numbers to push his case.

The Post Complains About Congress Soliciting Bernanke's Opinion Print
Saturday, 05 March 2011 09:12

The Washington Post editorial board is upset that members of Congress tried to prompt Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke to weigh in on the merits of Republican proposals for large budget cuts. While they are right to be upset about such childish behavior, the Post missed the main reason.

After Alan Greenspan, Ben Bernanke is the person most responsible for the economic collapse the country is now recovering from. He was one of Fed governors from 2002 to 2005, before having a brief stint as President Bush's chief economic advisor. He then returned as Fed chairman in January 2006. During this period, he stood by and did nothing as the housing bubble grew to ever more dangerous levels and in fact publicly insisted that it was no big problem. It would be hard to imagine a more disastrous mistake.

Given Mr. Bernanke's track record he is very lucky to have a job (and indeed a well-paying one) at a time when so many workers do not. It is hard to see why the opinion on economic policy of someone who didn't see any problem with an $8 trillion housing bubble would be especially valuable.

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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.