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Foreclosure Moratorium: The NYT Does Not Know What The Obama Administration Fears, Only What It Says It Fears Print
Tuesday, 12 October 2010 04:36

The NYT is a great newspaper with many outstanding reporters, but does it have access to the innermost thoughts of top administration officials? That seems unlikely, which is why readers should be wondering how it knows that "the administration fears it [a foreclosure moratorium] will only delay the inevitable and necessary process of forcing many Americans out of homes they cannot afford."

This particular explanation seems highly unlikely since its HAMP program seems designed to accomplish exactly this. The vast majority of homeowners who enter the HAMP program keep making payments on homes that they will eventually lose. While this does help the banks, it delays the inevitable and necessary process of forcing many Americans out of homes they cannot afford. It doesn't make sense that the administration would be spending tens of billions of dollars on a program whose main impact is to delay having homeowners forced out of their homes if it actually thinks it is important that people be forced out of their homes quickly.

There are other possible explanations for the Obama administrations opposition to a foreclosure moratorium. For example, it could be discovered that the fraud and procedural abuses are widespread. It would likely be very costly for many servicers to construct the proper paperwork to carry through foreclosures. The administration may not want to force banks to incur these costs. That is at least one alternative explanation for the administration's position. 

Are Public Sector Workers and David Brooks Overpaid? Print
Tuesday, 12 October 2010 04:06

According to the David Brooks methodology both are. Brooks points out that public sector workers get higher pay than the economy-wide average, which is the basis for his argument that they are overpaid. By this methodology, if Brooks get more than $22.67 an hour, the economy-wide average, then he is overpaid.

Economists usually approach this issue somewhat differently. They consider workers' education and experience. If we adjust for education and experience then we find that public sector workers get paid somewhat less on average than private sector workers. This is partially, but not completely, offset by the higher pensions that upset Brooks so much.

It is likely the case that many state and local governments did not adequately budget for workers' pensions, but this is more an issue of failed accounting and incompetent reporting (newspapers are supposed to be covering such issues) than excessive pensions. Brooks highlights an estimate that the amount of the average unfunded pension for all public sector workers is $87,000.

This does not seem particularly large. If we assume an average retirement of 20 years, this comes to $4,350 per worker pension year. Since many public sector workers do not have Social Security this hardly seems an excessive amount on the workers' part.

Brooks also complains that AFSCME, the public employee's union, was the largest single contributor to political campaigns between 1989 and 2004. While this may be true in the sense that AFSCME gave more money than Robert Rubin or Rupert Murdoch, AFSCME represents more than a million workers. Certainly the million richest Wall Streeters, oil tycoons, or tech entrepreneurs gave far more money to candidates than AFSCME. It is likely that politicians responded to their concerns roughly in proportion to their contributions.

Economics 101 For Robert Samuelson: Recessions Are About Inadequate Demand Print
Monday, 11 October 2010 04:21

Robert Samuelson insists that the bond markets are forcing countries to adopt austerity in the middle of a downturn. This is not true. Bad economic policy, by the same people who gave us the Great Recession (how badly do economists have to mess up to get fired?) is forcing countries to adopt austerity in the middle of a downturn.

In fact the bond markets are making money available to countries like Germany, Japan, and the United States at very low interest rates, the exact opposite of the scenario that Samuelson describes. (Samuelson notes these low rates in passing, but doesn't seem to understand their importance.) It is true that countries like Greece, Ireland, and Spain are paying much higher interest rates, but this has little to due with the generosity of their welfare states as Samuelson claims. It is due to the deliberate decision from the Great Recession makers at the European Central Bank (ECB) to squeeze these countries.

The situation of these countries is similar to that of individual states in the United States. They do not print their own currency and therefore are constrained in their ability to spend in a period of a downturn. The ECB does print money and could easily extend support to these countries during the downturn, but it has made a conscious choice to only do so insofar as they cut back on their welfare state benefits. Note this will not create inflation in the current situation; the economy's problem is inadequate demand, not too much demand.

It is not the downturn that is forcing cutbacks, it is the people controlling policy at the ECB. These policymakers do not like to be publicly associated with their policy decisions so they no doubt appreciate columns like Samuelson's that hide their role.

As a basic principle, there is no reason for general cutbacks in the welfare state. Societies are getting richer because of something called "productivity growth." The cutbacks in the welfare state are simply part of the upward redistribution that policymakers in the U.S. and elsewhere have been pushing for the last three decades.

If The Bush Tax Cuts on the Rich Expire, Will Gregory Mankiw Write Less? Print
Sunday, 10 October 2010 21:49
Gregory Mankiw, formerly President Bush’s top economist, raised this question in his NYT column this week. I’ll resist the obvious temptation to pronounce this a win-win and deal with the issue at hand.

Mankiw explains in his piece that the various tax increases (income, capital gains, and estate taxes) would substantially reduce the percentage of any additional income that he could pass onto his children, which he says is his main motivation in earning money. Therefore higher taxes will give him less incentive to write. His point being that many other high-income workers will be in the same boat.

Brad DeLong ably dealt with the basic issue as to whether taxes can be separated from spending over the long-term, as Mankiw’s discussion seems to imply. (They can certainly be separated in periods of high unemployment like the present.) But, there are several other issues to raise.

First, the relevant factor determining work effort is after-tax income, not tax rates. As a result of a number of policy decisions (e.g. protecting highly educated workers from unrestricted international competition, strengthened patent and copyright protection), Mankiw is likely to enjoy a higher after-tax wage even with the repeal of the tax cuts than he would have earned 30 years ago if Bush era tax rates were in place.

If taxes on gambling were applied to gambling on Wall Street, in the form of a modest financial speculation tax, it would drastically reduce the volume of trading. This would substantially reduce the demand for workers with advanced degrees in the financial sector.

Since the financial sector employs a high percentage of the workers with advanced degrees, a financial speculation tax would likely put downward pressure on the wages of people with advanced degrees across the board. An unfortunate aspect of the debate on tax policy is that it leads the public debate to focus on tax rates while ignoring the much more important policy decisions that determine the distribution of pre-tax income.

The second point is that the income/wealth effect of lower taxes may cause Greg and/or his children to work less. This effect is difficult to measure. In any given year, a lower tax rate may cause people like Greg to work more, but this could be different if they accumulate substantial additional wealth as a result of lower tax rates. Greg tells us that his main motivation is to accumulate enough wealth to ensure that his three children can enjoy a comfortable standard of living.

Suppose that he had already accumulated enough wealth for this purpose because the tax rates had been low for a long time. How many columns would Greg be writing then? Alternatively, can we expect as much work out of Greg’s well-educated kids if he provides them with a substantial inheritance as opposed to a situation where they had to work to make ends meet like the rest of us? Or, taken the other way, would Greg be writing as many columns today if his parents had handed him enough money so that he did not have to work to ensure a comfortable standard of living for himself and his children? We don’t know the answer to this one, but Greg certainly gives the issue short shrift in his discussion.

Finally, there is the issue of quality that Brad raises in his blognote, but doesn’t pursue sufficiently. If we pay writers by the word, then we would expect writers to write long books and articles. That’s great if we want long books and articles, but it is not necessarily a way to get good books and articles.

If economists, and others like them, are motivated primarily by money then they will do work that gets them money. This does not necessarily correspond to good economics. Many of the most creative workers received very little if anything in compensation for their work. Think of Vincent van Gogh, Charlie Parker, and Franz Kafka. Suppose we offered these great artists large sums of money for each piece they produced. Would they have produced better work?

I don’t know the answer to that one. I am not arguing that creative workers should live in poverty, only that many of the most creative people in history were motivated first and foremost by a commitment to their work, not by money. It certainly is not obvious that they would have been more creative if they thought there was more money at stake.

And Here's Timothy Geithner to Tell You How Much the Post Supports the TARP Print
Sunday, 10 October 2010 13:55

The TARP is one of those issues like Social Security, where the Washington Post has displayed considerably less diversity in opinions than Pravda back in the days of the Soviet Union. Just in case you hadn't seen their TARP is great line enough, the Post invited Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner to invent some myths that he could attack in the Outlook section.

Readers were no doubt looking for the line about how TARP and related bailouts used trillions of dollars of loans and loan guarantees from the Treasury, Fed, and FDIC to keep the largest financial institutions from going into bankruptcy, protecting the wealth of their shareholders, many of their creditors and top executives. But of course that is not a myth.

Black Teen Employment Hits Record Low and No One Notices Print
Sunday, 10 October 2010 13:30
One of the striking pieces of data in the September employment report was the fact that the employment to population ratio for black teens plunged by 2.6 percentage points to 11.7 percent, a record low.

Black teens were already taking it on the chin in this downturn. The August employment rate was down by more than 10 percentage points from the pre-recession level. It was down by 20 percentage points from the peak employment rate for black teens during the boom in 2000.

Remarkably, this fact seems to have gotten virtually no attention in the media. While everyone noted the weakness of September data, none of the major outlets seems to have commented on the incredibly dismal job prospects for black teens.

No doubt this stems in part from a new political correctness where powerbrokers don’t note the devastation that their policies have inflicted on disadvantaged groups. Undoubtedly many of these people would attribute the low employment rates to inadequate motivation to work or a lack of the necessary skills.

These explanations run into the problem that black teens seem to have been plenty motivated to work just a few years ago. Just a decade ago, the percentage of black teens who had the motivation and skills to gain employment was almost three times as high as it is today.

We can believe that the necessary skills for employment changed at an incredibly rapid rate to produce this plunge in employment rates or we can we believe that a collapse in aggregate demand led to a sharp reduction in employment opportunities. The latter explanation seems far more likely, which puts the blame on the policymakers, not black teens.

In either case, the reporters covering the September employment report should have noticed.

How Many Reporters Would Work for the Washington Post for $10.25 an Hour? Print
Sunday, 10 October 2010 07:33

According to the Washington Post, if the answer is not many, then we need to bring in immigrant reporters. That is exactly the logic it used in a discussion of the fact that most native born American citizens are unwilling to do farmwork for this wage.

Economists would ordinarily say that the lack of a labor supply at a given price suggests that the wage is too low. However, the Post only considers this fundamental economic principle in passing. It is likely that if farmworkers received $60,000 a year, with health care benefits, there would be no shortage of U.S. citizens willing to do this work.

Of course this would raise the price of farm products, but it would be much cheaper to advertise in the Washington Post if its reporters worked for $10.25 an hour. The lower cost of advertising would be passed on in lower prices for groceries, cars and other items advertised in the paper. At least this is what people who believe in economics would say.

Washington Post Invents Election Contest on Big Government Print
Sunday, 10 October 2010 07:14

The top article in the Sunday Washington Post is an entirely invented piece that tells readers in the first sentence: "If there is an overarching theme of election 2010, it is the question of how big the government should be and how far it should reach into people's lives." There is absolutely nothing in this article that supports this assertion.

The article notes in the fourth paragraph that even most people who complain about the size of government consider Social Security and Medicare, by far the largest social programs, very important. It is not clear what being opposed to "big government" means in a context where nearly everyone supports its main pillars.

There are no candidates anywhere in the country who are running in support of "big government," there are candidates who are running in support of programs which have varying degrees of support. There are many candidates (virtually all Republicans) who are running against "big government." While this position has nothing to do with the world (we all oppose waste, fraud, and abuse, the question is always the status of specific programs), it is certainly helpful to the Republicans to have the election framed in this way.

Politico Uses News Stories to Push Its Deficit Agenda Print
Saturday, 09 October 2010 21:54

Politico wrongly told readers that: "voters tells pollsters they’re worried about all the red ink in the federal budget, and Democratic centrists have grown more urgent in telling Obama it’s time to rein in federal spending." This is not true.

A recent NYT-CBS poll found that just 9 percent of respondents said that the deficit was something that they were angry about. It is also inaccurate to identify Democrats who raise concerns about the deficit as "centrist." They can more accurately be identified as Democrats with close ties to corporate interests. Their financing base is a far more obvious way to distinguish their ideological leanings.

The article also includes the bizarre assertion that: "liberals argue that it’s OK for the federal government to run up big deficits at a time of economic slowdown — $1.3 trillion this year — because it’s much more important to use government spending to inject some life into the economy, to help struggling families stay afloat."

This is like saying that: "liberals argue that the earth is round." While it is true, so do the vast majority of conservatives. The same is the case of deficit spending in the current downturn. Prominent conservatives such as Martin Feldstein and David Walker have also called for increased deficits in the face of 9.6 percent unemployment.

It is also bizarre that this article mentions cuts to Social Security repeatedly but never once discussed the possibility of raising the cap on the payroll tax or raising the payroll tax rate itself. Polls have consistently shown both policies to be far more popular with the public than cutting benefits. Serious news outlets are not supposed to just report on the policies they support.

The NYT Wants Underwater Homeowners to Throw Their Money Away Print
Saturday, 09 October 2010 21:21

The NYT argued for having Fannie and Freddie refinance homeowners who are far underwater. It makes the case with bad arithmetic and poor logic.

On the bad arithmetic part it tells readers that "up to eight million" homeowners would be able to refinance if Fannie and Freddie allowed underwater homeowners to refinance. This is true in the sense that 1000 would be "up to eight million." There are roughly 45 million homeowners with mortgages, more than half of whom are with Fannie and Freddie. Let's put it at 24 million. A very high percentage of the F&F mortgages were issued in the last two years at rates that were not very different from the current ones.

F&F are largely the market now. There were roughly 5 million homes purchases each year and a considerably larger number of refinancings, so let's say conservatively that 14 million of their mortgages were issued since January 2009, leaving 10 million older mortgages. All of the pre-2009 mortgages are not underwater, which makes one wonder which planet the 8 million figure came from.

Beyond this point, the NYT tells us that refinancing could free up as much as $24 billion in spending. Really? Suppose someone owes $300,000 on a home that today would rent for $10,000 a year. Let's say the politicians arrange for refinancing so that this homeowner only pays 4.5 percent on their mortgage. Throwing in taxes, insurance, and other ownership related expenses, this person will be paying around $20,000 a year for a house in which they can never plausibly be expected to have equity.

In other words, if the NYT program persuades this person to refinance and stay in their home rather than walk away and rent a comparable unit, it will cost them an extra $10,000 a year. This is money pulled out of the economy. If 1 million people are in this position then this is a formula to pull $10 billion out of the economy. If 2 million people are in this position then persuading people to refinance rather than walk would pull $20 billion out of the economy.

Both the homeowner and the economy would be much better off if this person just walked away. It is incredible that we still cannot get serious discussions of people walking away from homes even when they are heavily underwater.

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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.