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Budget Arithmetic: Can NPR Reporters Learn It? Print
Tuesday, 16 November 2010 19:54

That's the question that listeners to All Things Considered must be asking after hearing Mara Liasson tell them:

"If you sit down with the numbers and look at what the government actually does and how it pays for it, it's obvious that there is no simple solution."

Actually, anyone who bothered to sit down and look at the numbers would see that there was not a big deficit problem by any realistic measure until the housing bubble collapsed. If NPR could find a reporter who could read a simple chart (to paraphrase Senator Simpson in one of his famous e-mails) they would quickly recognize that the debt to GDP ratio rose only modestly over the last business cycle, even with the huge increase in defense spending associated with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The real run-up in the deficits and the debt began in 2008. That's right folks, it was the collapse of the housing bubble (which NPR never talked about) that led to the big deficits. While NPR is telling its listeners that the deficits are a problem, the deficits are giving people jobs. If we either cut spending or raised taxes we would be pulling money out of the economy and throwing people out of work.

In this sense, people who want lower deficits in the current slump want more people to lose their jobs. This is the same as people who want fish to live out of water effectively want them to die. It is possible that people who push for lower deficits do not know that this would mean throwing people out of work, just like it is possible that some people don't know that fish cannot live out of water, but neither group of people should be working as a reporter for a serious news outlet.

The longer term deficit is also very simple. It is a problem of exploding health care costs. We currently spend more than twice as much per person for health care as the average for the countries that enjoy longer life expectancies than the United States. The long-term budget projections assume that this ratio will rise to three or four to one. If the United States spends four times as much per person on its health care as Germany, Canada and everyone else, then it will face enormous economic problems. One of these problems is a serious budget deficit, since more than half of health care in the United States is paid by the government.

However, honest people would talk about the problem of health care costs, since nothing about the situation is helped if the government saves money by just cutting back its spending without fixing the system. In that case we would just be left with a situation in which tens or perhaps hundreds of millions of people could not afford decent health care.

So contrary to what NPR told its listeners, there is a very simple solution: fix health care.

 
David Brooks: Math is Hard, Just Give Money to Rich People Print
Tuesday, 16 November 2010 05:40

David Brooks complains that liberals used rigorous economic models.

"The economic approach embraced by the most prominent liberals over the past few years is mostly mechanical. The economy is treated like a big machine; the people in it like rational, utility maximizing cogs. The performance of the economic machine can be predicted with quantitative macroeconomic models.

These models can be used to make highly specific projections. If the government borrows $1 and then spends it, it will produce $1.50 worth of economic activity. If the government spends $800 billion on a stimulus package, that will produce 3.5 million in new jobs.

Everything is rigorous. Everything is science."

Brooks contrasts this approach with the moralizing and whining of conservatives:

"Conservatives, who are usually stereotyped as narrow-eyed business-school types, have gone all Oprah-esque in trying to argue against these liberals. If the government borrows trillions of dollars, this will increase public anxiety and uncertainty, the conservatives worry."

He then concludes that because the economy is still weak, we should listen to the conservatives and cut spending and taxes.

Actually, the liberal models have performed quite well if Brooks actually bothered to look. The stimulus was projected to create 3.7 million jobs in its original form. The bill actually approved by Congress contained roughly one-third less stimulus, so we should have expected it to create roughly 2.5 million jobs. No one who looked at the models that Brooks is condemning would have thought that this would have been sufficient to restore the economy to normal levels of output and employment in an economy that had lost over 6 million jobs by the time the stimulus kicked in.

Brooks also misrepresents the attitude of liberal economists to the moralistic conservatives who just want to give all our money to rich people. All of their whining has specific implications. For example, when Brooks or some other conservative complains that businesses aren't hiring because of all the uncertainty about taxes and regulation, then the implication is that businesses are finding ways to meet their demand for labor in ways that don't involve permanent hires.

The obvious mechanisms would be to increase average hours per worker or increase the hiring of temps. Liberal and progressive economists insist on examining the evidence to see whether it supports the whining of the conservatives. In this case (and all others) it doesn't. The increase in hours per worker since the trough last fall has been very modest and average hours are still well below their pre-recession level. Temp employment has rebounded very weakly and is also far below its pre-recession level.

In short, Brooks is not just complaining about the economic models of liberals. He is also complaining that liberals try to examine the logical implications of their whining and look for evidence of these whinings being accurate. Brooks' view is apparently that we just give in to conservatives since this is the only way to get them to stop whining.

 

 
Morning Edition Has Determined That the Deficit is a "Great Problem" Print
Tuesday, 16 November 2010 05:20

Listeners might have thought that 9.6 percent unemployment, with 25 million people unemployed, underemployed, or who have given up looking for work altogether was the biggest problem facing the country today. But, NPR knows better.

It concluded a fawning interview with New Hampshire Senator Judd Gregg by referring the deficit as a "great problem." It would have been interesting if they explained to listeners how they arrived at this conclusion.

People who know economics know that current deficits are due to the collapse of the housing bubble. NPR had virtually no time for analysts who warned of this entirely predictable disaster (unlike the endless hours that it devotes to deficits). If deficits were smaller today we would have fewer jobs and higher unemployment. It is not clear why anyone would advocate this outcome.

In the longer term, the large projected deficits are attributable to a projected explosion of health care costs in the United States. Per person costs are projected to rise from a bit more than twice the average of other wealthy countries to 3 or 4 times the average per person cost. If health care costs increase as projected, it will have a devastating impact on the economy. It will also lead to a large budget deficit. If U.S. health care costs were comparable to those in Canada, Germany or other wealthy countries, the United States would be looking at long-term surpluses, not deficits.

A competent interviewer would have asked Senator Gregg why he persists in misrepresenting a health care problem as a budget problem.

 
Robert Samuelson's Confusion on Real Interest Rates Print
Monday, 15 November 2010 06:02

Robert Samuelson is beating up on Japan in his column today. While its economy has certainly had troubles in the last two decades, the picture is not quite as bleak as he seems to believe. Its rate of productivity growth (the most important measure of economic dynamism) since 1995 has been almost identical to the average for the OECD and within 0.2 percentage points of the rate in the United States. Furthermore, since depreciation is a large and growing share of U.S. output (primarily because computers become obsolete quickly) it is likely that a net measure of output would show Japan and the United States having virtually the same productivity growth over this period. Net productivity is the measure that is relevant for living standards, since you can't eat depreciation.

It is also worth noting that Japan's unemployment rate is just 5.0 percent. It never rose above 6.0 percent over the last two decades.

However Samuelson's biggest error is that he fails to understand the problem that deflation, or more correctly low inflation, poses for Japan's economy. While he rightly ridicules the idea that consumers would delay purchases to buy items of like cars to buy them at a price that is 0.5 percent lower the following year, this is not the main way that low inflation harms the economy. 

In an economy operating below capacity, it would be desirably to have very low real interest rates to boost investment. This means that the cost of borrowing is low relative to the return on investment. Because interest rates can't go negative, it is impossible for real interest rates to fall as much as would be desired given the weakness of Japan's economy. It would be ideal if it could keep its nominal rates at their current near zero level, while inflation rose to 3.0 or 4.0 percent.

The other reason why inflation would be desirable is that it would allow homeowners to get out from under their debt burdens. If wages rose 3.0-4.0 percent annually in step with inflation, the burden of a fixed mortgage debt would be eroded through time. Also, if house prices rose in step with inflation, consumers would gain equity in their homes.

However, the problem in both of these cases is that the rate of inflation is too low. The fact that it crosses zero and is negative is of no special importance. The problem is low inflation, not deflation.

 
Correcting Ross Douthat in His Attack on Progressives Print
Monday, 15 November 2010 05:09

Ross Douthat denounced progressives who attacked the Bowles-Simpson proposals for cutting Social Security and Medicare to help finance lower taxes on the hard-pressed wealthy. He got a few things wrong in the process.

First, Douthat complains that businesses in the United States have to "labor under one of the higher corporate tax rates in the developed West." While the marginal tax rate in the United States is somewhat higher than the average, because of the extensive loopholes in the corporate tax, the effective tax rate in the United States is lower than the average for the OECD. There certainly is no general opposition among liberals to reform that would reduce the tax rate while offsetting the lower rates with fewer deductions.

He complains that in the liberal/progressive's world, "the Social Security retirement age never budges, no matter how high average life expectancy climbs." Mr. Douthat apparently has not heard that the Social Security retirement age is rising already. The age at which workers collect full benefits has already risen from 65 to 66. It will rise to 67 for workers who reach age 62 after 2022. Also, although life expectancy has been rising, this is mostly due to increases for workers in the top half of the income distribution. The increase in the retirement age already in law will eat up most of the increase in life expectancy over the last 40 years for workers in the bottom half of the wage distribution.

He also appears to believe that Social Security is a subsidy for middle class workers. This is not the case. Because of its progressive benefit structure, most middle income workers will get a real return of less than 2.0 percent on the money they paid in payroll taxes.

Douthat also complains about the government warping the health care marketplace. While this is true, the main distortions are not being primarily protected by liberals. Patent protection for prescription drugs cause them to be sold at prices that are several hundred percent above their competitive market price, however conservatives tend to be the biggest proponents of stronger patent protection. Increased international competition would also go far toward bringing our health care costs more in line with the rest of the world.

Douthat also compares the views of liberals in the United States unfavorably with Europe, noting that many European countries are cutting back on the generosity of their welfare states. Apparently Mr. Douthat didn't know that their welfare states are currently far more generous than the welfare states in the United States. This means that the cutbacks will still in most cases leave the welfare states in these countries considerably more generous than in the United States. For example, the recent hotly contested law in France raised its early retirement age to 62 and its age for full benefits to 67, the levels already in law in the United States. And, French workers have seen a much more rapid increase in life expectancy than workers in the United States over the last four decades.

Finally, Douthat apparently is a Neanderthal protectionist who fears international competition. He argues that the United States could have higher tax rates and a more generous welfare state in the early post-war period because its competitors had been destroyed by the war. Actually, in economic theory, the United States benefits from having wealthy countries from whom it can buy goods and services more cheaply than they can be produced domestically. It is not clear why Douthat thinks that this is a problem.

 

 
The NYT Doesn't Know That We Have 15 Million People Unemployed Print
Saturday, 13 November 2010 18:19

That is the only thing that readers can conclude from its heroic efforts to balance the budget in 2030. This exercise is utterly mind-boggling. We have more than 25 million people unemployed, underemployed, or who have given up work altogether. This is a real crisis. Furthermore, it is worth noting that these people are largely suffering as a result of the incompetence of the budget balancers. (The budget balancers were the same people who dominated economic debate in the years before the crash and could did not see the $8 trillion housing bubble that wrecked the economy and gave us the huge deficits that now have them so obsessed.)

Obviously it is politically popular in Washington to be obsessed by the deficit, but we are supposed to have an independent press in this country. It is utterly loony to be focused on the projected deficit in 2030, when we have tens of millions of people who are seeing their lives ruined today by the downturn. This is like debating the colors to paint the classrooms when the school is on fire with the students still inside. Given economic reality, it would make far more sense to use the effort devoted to construct an elaborate game like this to designing a route toward restoring full employment.

It would also be worth pointing out to readers and participants in the NYT game that the long-term deficit is 100 percent a health care story. If the United States paid the same amount per person for health care as any of the 35 countries with longer life expectancies, we would be looking at huge budget surpluses for the indefinite future. Pointing out this simple fact would at least get people to focus on the real long-term problem facing the country: a broken health care system.

 

 

 
The Origins of "Unsustainable" Public Pension Obligations Print
Saturday, 13 November 2010 08:51

The NYT and other major media outlets have continually referred to public pensions as being "unsustainable" or out of control. The implication is that public sector workers get exorbitant pensions.

In fact the main reason that the public pensions are underfunded at present is not the generosity of the benefits, but rather the plunge in financial markets that followed the collapse of the housing bubble. If public pensions had earned just a modest 5.0 nominal annual rate of return since 2007 their assets would stand at $3.6 trillion today, 41.3 percent above current levels. This would eliminate most, if not all, of the their reported shortfall.

 

 
Does Ruth Marcus Want President Obama to Apply the Post's Censorship to His Lecture Series Print
Saturday, 13 November 2010 08:14

For years the Post has used both its editorial and news pages to push the idea that Social Security and Medicare are unaffordable burdens for the U.S. economy. The paper almost never lets readers hear from any of the expert voices who question this assessment or shows any of the evidence that exposes it as being wrong.

Today, Ruth Marcus suggested that President Obama have a lecture series to explain to the American people that these entitlements are unaffordable. She also suggested that he offer his podium to dissenters, like Republican Congressman Paul Ryan who wants to privatize both Medicare and Social Security.

The question that millions are asking is does Marcus envision that President Obama would allow dissenters who oppose its austerity vision, or does she want him to be as one-sided as the Post? For example, should President Obama give his podium to someone who would show that there would be no budget problem if per person health care costs were the same in the United States as in any other wealthy country? Should podium users be allowed to point out that Medicare could save trillions over its 75-year planning period by just giving people the option to get care from countries with more efficient health care systems? Will the public be exposed to the idea that we could save trillions of dollars over the next decade by adopting a more efficient mechanism for developing prescription drugs.

It would be great if President Obama used his platform to educate the public about major economic issues. Unfortunately, I think that Ms. Marcus's intention was that this platform only be used to highlight Post approved views.

 
European Economic Growth: Can We Make Reporters Multiply by 4? Print
Saturday, 13 November 2010 08:07

In the United States economic growth numbers are almost always presented as annual rates. In Europe and much of the rest of the world they are typically presented as quarterly rates. This means that if a reporter simply presents the official rate from a government agency, as the Post did in an article on the debt crises in Ireland and Portugal, they will be giving readers a quarterly growth rate. This will likely leave a large portion of the paper's readers confused as to actual growth rate.

It is a very simple matter to convert a quarterly growth rate into an annual rate. The proper way is to take the 1 plus the growth rate to the fourth power, an operation that could be done in far less than a second by almost any calculator produced in the last 15 years. However, for small numbers, like the 0.4 percent growth figure reported for the euro zone last quarter, it is just fine to multiply the quarterly rate by 4 to get a 1.6 percent annual rate.

 
The Impact of Expiring Tax Cuts: Can We Get Names? Print
Saturday, 13 November 2010 07:50

The Post told us about the prospect that the Bush tax cuts would expire in January:

"The stakes are enormous. Millions of taxpayers could see hundreds of dollars sliced from their paychecks in January unless Congress acts. Economists say expiration of the tax cuts would deal a devastating blow to the fragile U.S. economy, and has the potential to push it back into recession."

There can be little doubt that the impact of pulling money out of the economy at this point will be negative, and given that the economy is scraping against zero growth already, it would not take much to throw it into another recession. But it might be a bit much to describe this as a "devastating blow." The expiration of the Make Work Pay tax credit and other parts of the stimulus will also pull money out of people's pockets and slow growth. The Post has never issued similar warnings about this prospect.

It would have been appropriate to refer to actual statements of specific economists rather than present overblown adjectives as being the considered judgment of the economics profession. In the same vein the article later describes the $4 trillion cost of continuing all the credits for a decade as a "budget buster." This assessment should come from a participant in the debate, not the newspaper.

 
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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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