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The Post's Simplistic Editorial Criticizing "Simplistic" Thinking on Trade Print
Sunday, 07 November 2010 07:25

The Washington Post editorial board, which thinks that Mexico's GDP quadrupled between 1988 and 2007 (due to NAFTA), is again pushing its trade agenda. The Post plays the usual game of calling trade agreements that increase protectionism in many areas (e.g. patents and copyrights) "free-trade" agreements. (Anyone out there opposed to "freedom?")

The "simplistic" ads against U.S. trade policy that the Post criticized reflect the fact that this policy has had the effect of redistributing income upward over the last three decades. These deals have been quite explicitly designed to put manufacturing workers in direct competition with low-paid workers in the developing world.

At the same time, these deals have done little or nothing to remove the barriers that make it difficult for students in Mexico, China, or India from training to work as doctors, lawyers, or other highly paid professionals in the United States. There would be enormous potential gains to consumers and the economy by bringing down the cost of medical care, legal services and other services provided by these workers.

This would be a trade policy that would promote both efficiency and equality, but you won't read about it in the Washington Post.

 
News Flash!!!! A Falling Currency Is How Trade Deficits Adjust! Print
Saturday, 06 November 2010 15:46

Okay, let's wash away the ungodly stupidity. Doesn't anyone take intro econ anymore? Here's the test question and no one gets to write on currency or trade policy until they get it right.

If a country has a large trade deficit in a system of floating exchange rates how does it move to balance? Yes, that's right, its currency falls in value. That's the whole story, everything else is secondary.

So, the United States has a large and growing trade deficit. Do you want the trade deficit to fall? If so, then you want the dollar to decline in value. The value of the dollar determines the cost of U.S. exports to other countries and the cost of imports for people in the United States. The former is high now and the latter is cheap. That is why we have a trade deficit.

We shouldn't have to read any more pieces like this one in the NYT. Make these folks learn a little basic economics.

 

 
Interest Payment Are Not Profits Print
Saturday, 06 November 2010 11:42
Come on folks, the government did not make "a profit of $1.1 billion in the third quarter on its huge bailout of the mortgage finance giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac," as the NYT told us this morning. This money was the interest paid on the money that the government lent to the mortgage giants to keep them solvent. The government is still almost $140 billion in the hole on this deal, as is noted later in the piece.
 
The Need for New Antibiotics: Can We Talk About Alternatives to Patents, Please? Print
Saturday, 06 November 2010 08:54

Does the pharmaceutical industry prevent the media from discussing alternatives to the patent system for financing drug research? That would seem to be the case, since an NYT article on the failure of the industry to pursue the development of new antibiotics never once mentioned alternatives to relying on the current patent system.

It does not plan to offer government subsidies in addition to patent monopolies or proposals to make these monopolies even longer, but never considers the possibility that the research would simply be financed directly through public funds with all the findings placed in the public domain. Is there just a mental blockage here or is something else going on? 

 
How Many Jobs Does it Take to Hold the Unemployment Rate Constant? Print
Saturday, 06 November 2010 08:08

This one should not be all that hard but the papers have numbers all over the place. Let's turn to our old friend, arithmetic, to shed some light on the topic. The Congressional Budget Office tells us that the labor force is growing at the rate of 0.7 percent a year. The current size of the labor force is 153.9 million. This implies that we need about 1.1 million jobs a year to keep even with the growth of the labor force. (The number would be a bit less if the 6 percent share of self-employed in the labor force held constant.) That translates into a bit over 90,000 a month.

The 151,000 jobs reported for October is about 60,000 more than is needed to keep the unemployment rate from raising. At this pace it would reduce the pool of unemployed workers by 720,000 over the course of a year. With a gap of about 10 million jobs at present, this rate of job growth would fill the gap in around 14 years.

In order to fill this gap in a reasonable period of time, say 3 years, we would need job growth of 370,000 a month. This would bring the economy back to normal levels of unemployment by late 2013, six years after the onset of the recession.

 

 
Tell the Post: Representative Cantor Cannot Acknowledge Something That is Not True Print
Saturday, 06 November 2010 07:53

In pushing its editorial line that Social Security and Medicare must be cut the Post told readers in a news story that:

"Cantor acknowledged that any effort to solve the nation's budget problems 'is going to have to deal with entitlements' - big, popular programs such as Social Security and Medicare (emphasis added)."

A real newspaper would have used a term like "asserted" or "claimed." Of course it is not necessary to deal with programs like Medicare and Social Security to fix the country's projected long-term budget problems as can be easily shown. It is necessary to fix the country's health care system. If per person health care costs in the United States were comparable to costs in other wealthy countries then our budget problems would be easily manageable.

 
NYT Gives Pointless Numbers on California's Budget Print
Saturday, 06 November 2010 07:39

In an article on the challenges faces Jerry Brown, California's newly elected governor, the NYT tells readers that the state faces a $20 billion dollar budget deficit. It notes that Brown left his successor with a $1.8 billion deficit when he left office in 1982.

These numbers will be completely meaningless to almost all of the NYT's readers since few have an idea as to how large California's economy is today compared with 1982. The current deficit is equal to roughly 1.1 percent of $1.8 trillion California's gross state product (GSP). By contrast, the $1.5 billion deficit in 1982 would have been equal to a bit less than 0.4 percent of California's $390 billion GSP in that year. This means that the burden posed by California's current deficit is almost three times as large as the burden that Brown passed on to his successor.

Reporters are supposed to have time to look this stuff up, readers don't. 

 
Should Bill Gates Be Able To Collect His Federal Flood Insurance? Print
Friday, 05 November 2010 05:49

I have no idea if Bill Gates has any land where he may have taken out flood insurance that was provided by the federal government, but let's suppose that he did. If there was a flood, should he be able to collect on his insurance? After all, he certainly doesn't need the money.

This probably seems like a nutty question. After all, he paid for the insurance, why shouldn't he be able to collect on it like anyone else?

While that seems pretty straightforward, for some reason the same question apparently causes people great pain when applied to Social Security. Today Floyd Norris labors over the fact that rich people will collect Social Security benefits. Of course, they collect much less relative to what they paid in than poor people, so the structure of the program is progressive. But, they do get something back, so even Bill Gates and Warren Buffet will be able to pocket around $2,400 a month.

The reality is that the genuinely affluent get very little money from Social Security because they are few of these people. The discussion about cutting benefits for "affluent" retirees is aimed at people like school teachers and firefighters who may have had incomes in the range of $50,000 to $70,000. Such incomes don't fit the usual definition of "affluent," but folks use different logic when it comes to Social Security.

 
Tell NPR, Consumers Are Spending Print
Friday, 05 November 2010 05:39

Morning Edition told listeners that consumers are not spending because they are worried about their jobs. While they undoubtedly are worried about their jobs, they are spending nonetheless. The savings rate for the 3rd quarter was 5.3 percent, well below the post-war average, which is close to 8.0 percent. This level of consumption is a falloff from the peak housing bubble years when the saving rate fell to near zero, but it is still higher than we should expect when house prices fully adjust.

The point is important because it is ridiculous to expect increased consumer spending to lead a recovery. Households, especially those near retirement, must rebuild their wealth after seeing close to $6 trillion in housing wealth disappear. Those who bemoan the lack of consumption apparently still have not recognized the housing bubble and its impact on the economy.

 
Real Estate Prices Have to Fall So That They Can Then Rise and Boost the Economy Print
Friday, 05 November 2010 05:20

That seems to be the argument in a Washington Post column by David M. Smirk. I'm not kidding, here is the essence of the argument laid out in the 3rd and 4th paragraph of the piece:

"A more compelling theory [than inadequate stimulus] is that global assets remain overvalued. Specifically, the price of real estate debt and sovereign debt on bank balance sheets, propped up by government actions, remains too high. The economy can't gain traction until these prices reflect realistic valuations.

Asset prices are important because America has never had a recovery without residential housing leading the way. Real estate values are still high by historic standards. The value of all real estate is roughly $18 trillion, with mortgage debt about $10 trillion. The ratio of mortgage debt to GDP value is 56 percent. In the 1960s and 1970s, the ratio was 29 percent. In the late 1990s it was only 38 percent."

Smirk is right that real estate is still over-valued, but it is hard to understand how a decline in real estate prices will boost the economy. What matters for a residential housing lead recovery is the need for residential housing. This results from excess demand for housing. We have record levels of vacant housing in the country right now. We will have to see quite a drop in housing prices in order to fully absorb the existing supply.

This gets back to the mortgage debt part of the story which has nothing to do with current real estate values, but rather with their past values. Of course the mortgage debt to GDP ratio is too high, that is what happens when you have a housing bubble. People borrow against inflated housing values. Unfortunately, the Washington Post did not have room for columns from people making this point in the years from 2002-2006 when the housing bubble was growing.

It is not clear how Smirk thinks that a drop in housing prices helps this picture. This will worsen the debt burden of homeowners, leaving them with less wealth thereby further reducing consumption. The decline in house prices must happen (we can't sustain bubble-inflated prices indefinitely), but it makes the immediate economic situation worse, not better.

In the real world, this recovery cannot be led by housing construction because this is not the traditional sort of recession. The normal recession comes about because the Fed raises interest rates to slow the economy. This leads to a plunge in housing construction creating pent-up demand. When the Fed decides to take its foot off the brakes and get the economy going again it just lowers interest rates, triggers the pent-up demand for housing and the economy takes off.

This recession was the result of the collapse of a housing bubble which led to a huge excess supply of housing. Interest rates are also just about as low as they can possibly be, taking away the option of further declines by simple Fed actions.

Apparently Smirk and the Post failed to notice the difference between this recession and prior downturns. Therefore we get this attack on Obama and Paul Krugman that is incoherent in just about every way.

 
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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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