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Japan's Declining Population Means a Smaller Supply of Labor Print
Tuesday, 07 September 2010 04:07

It appears to be a standard ritual to cite Japan's declining population as an evil in all discussions of things Japanese. Today the NYT refers to the declining population as one of the factors making life bad for young workers.

Actually, a declining population is likely a plus for young workers. It means less competition for employment than would otherwise be the case. Falling population should also lead to improvements in the quality of life that will not be picked up in conventional economic measures. For example, its transportation system will be less heavily utilized, allowing people to reduce the time spent traveling to work and for other purposes.

 
Who's On First? The NYT's Mangled Reporting on EU Farm Subsidies Print
Monday, 06 September 2010 19:50

The NYT had an article on a coming dispute over EU farm subsidies in its next budget. It told readers:

"Agriculture subsidies account for more than 40 percent of the E.U. budget — worth more than €130 billion, or $167 billion, each year."

Readers probably assumed that this sentence was saying that the E.U.'s agricultural subsides are 130 billion euros each year. In fact, that number was referring to the total E.U. budget. Agricultural subsidies come to a bit over 50 billion euros each year. 

 
Donald Kohn Doesn't Think the Fed Did Anything Wrong Print
Sunday, 05 September 2010 22:24

That should have been the headline of an article about Donald Kohn who is leaving the Fed's board of governors. Kohn said that he doesn't think the Fed could have done anything different to prevent the worst downturn in 70 years because:

"Everybody — but certainly the regulators and the markets — became complacent about the housing market and whether housing prices could ever decline across a broad front.”

He still doesn't know that the housing crash was entirely predictable? Why are the taxpayers paying for this guy's pension?

 
Danger, Danger, Thomas Friedman Is Writing on Economics Again Print
Sunday, 05 September 2010 21:59

That mammoth waterfall of ignorance, Thomas Friedman, is at it again. The NYT allowed him to show his ignorance on economics in his Sunday column.

Friedman tells readers that the United States will be in bad financial shape because of all the money needed to bail ourselves out of the recession and also due to the growth in cost of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.

The first point requires a knowledge of intro econ. It actually costs us zero to bail ourselves out the recession. The government can simply run deficits to boost demand. (Friedman apparently does not understand the problem is too little demand right now -- we can produce more goods and services than people are buying.)

The government can sell the bonds needed to finance the debt to the Fed (which it is already doing to some extent). The Fed then simply holds the bonds indefinitely. This creates zero burden on the government, since the Fed refunds the interest earned on these bonds to the Treasury. My intro econ students all used to understand this -- I guess Friedman never took econ 101 or didn't have a very good teacher.

Friedman then repeats what his "tutor and friend Michael Mandelbaum" told him:

"'In 2008', Mandelbaum notes 'all forms of government-supplied pensions and health care (including Medicaid) constituted about 4 percent of total American output.' At present rates, and with the baby boomers soon starting to draw on Social Security and Medicare, by 2050 'they will account for a full 18 percent of everything the United States produces.'"

Wow -- did Mandelbaum really say this? Did the NYT really allow Friedman to repeat it in its pages? Okay, in the real world, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid accounted for 9.4 percent of GDP in 2008. The projections show that the vast majority of the projected increase in costs in these programs is due to health care costs. However, people who want to cut Social Security lump the program in with the health care programs to advance their agenda.

The post health care reform projections actually show a much slower rate of growth for Medicare and Medicaid. Apparently, Mr. Friedman was not aware of the reform. If the U.S. paid per person health care costs that were comparable to those in any other wealthy country, then the country would be looking at huge long-term budget surpluses.

 
Front Page Post Editorial Tells Readers that Dems Would Face Better Prospects With 11 Percent Unemployment Print
Saturday, 04 September 2010 05:21

Most political experts believe that a strong economy favors incumbents, but the Post told readers the opposite in a front page piece that urged Democrats to embrace deficit reduction. The piece noted comments from several Democratic senatorial candidates urging budget cuts, then told readers:

"The new push for austerity could prove too little, too late for Democrats, who fear losing their majorities in both chambers of Congress. In dozens of House and Senate races, incumbent Democrats are struggling in polls, leading political analysts to raise the serious prospect of Republican takeovers in the House and even the Senate."

Of course the deficits that the country is now running are sustaining the economy. If the deficits were lower, then output would be lower and unemployment would be higher. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) recently estimated that the stimulus has reduced the unemployment rate by between 0.7 and 1.8 percentage points.

The CBO estimates imply that if the Democrats had been earlier in their push for fiscal austerity and not pushed through the stimulus, then the current unemployment rate would be between 10.3 percent and 11.4 percent. This Post piece asserts that this situation would have improved their electoral prospects in November, although it cites no one who backs up this position.

The editorial, which is not labeled as such, includes several other unsupported assertions. At one point it told readers that government spending is out of control, commenting that "Democrats vow to bring spending under control," which of course is only possible if spending is already out of control.

It also implies that the Democrats have spent recklessly commenting about their "conversion to fiscal restraint" and the difficulty of convincing voters that they are serious. Of course the only budget surpluses in the last 40 years were run with Democrats in the White House, and the largest structural deficits were run under Republican administrations, so it is a bit bizarre that the article would imply that Democrats need to convert to "fiscal restraint."

The article also told readers the country's fiscal health is in danger and that the changes need to restore it are unpopular:

"Some fiscal hawks are skeptical that either party is willing to make the unpopular decisions necessary to restore the country to fiscal health."

The financial markets do not believe that the country's fiscal health is in danger, otherwise they would not make long term loans to the government at interest rates below 3.0 percent. It is also not clear that the steps needed to ensure that long-term budget deficits do not become a problem are unpopular.

While one source cited in the story (Robert Bixby, the director of the Concord Coalition) wants to cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, it is only necessary to fix the U.S. health care system to ensure stable budgets into the indefinite future. If the United States paid the same per person health care costs as people in any other wealthy country we would face huge long-term budget surpluses rather than deficits.

The piece should have also pointed out Colorado Senator Michael Bennet's error when he asserted that we are borrowing from China because of our budget deficit. The United States is borrowing from China because of its trade deficit, which is in turn the result of an over-valued dollar. This is an embarrassing gaffe from a senator.

It is also worth noting that this editorial did not once mention the unemployment rate. This is remarkable for a piece discussing the Democrats' election prospects.

 

 

 
Immigration, Social Security and Logic at the Washington Post Print
Friday, 03 September 2010 05:37

The Post has an oped by Edward Schumacher touting the benefits that undocumented workers have provided for the Social Security system. Many pay taxes without ever collecting benefits.

While his numbers don't seem quite right (he claims that annual payouts would exceed tax revenue over the years 2011-2015 without the $12 billion estimated net contribution from undocumented workers, the trustees report shows taxes exceeded benefits by more than $15 billion in the years 2012-2014), the more important problem is with his logic.

Presumably the point of immigration reform measures would be to normalize the employment situation of immigrants so that the workers who are here are on the books, both paying required taxes and receiving the benefits to which they are entitled, like Social Security. If immigrants get the benefits to which they are entitled, then it will make the finances of Social Security somewhat worse.

In reality this is a trivial issue for the program, which is fully solvent for the next 29 years according to the Congressional Budget Office. An increase in the payroll tax of 0.16 percentage points would fully offset the cost of the payment of benefits to undocumented workers. However, it seems bizarre to advocate that immigrants be brought into the country to pay taxes to a program from which they get no benefit, as Mr. Schumacher seems to be doing.

 
Morning Edition Gets the Story on Investment 100 Percent Wrong Print
Friday, 03 September 2010 05:20
A report on the unemployment situation told listeners that the real problem in the economy is not a lack of demand, but rather inadequate investment. Actually investment in equipment and software has been growing at almost a 20 percent annual rate over the last three quarters. While it might be desirable to see investment grow even more rapidly, demand is a major determinant of investment growth. If the economy grew more rapidly as a result of a spur to consumption, it would almost certainly lead to more rapid growth in investment.
 
Basic Logic for Ben Bernanke Print
Friday, 03 September 2010 05:03

Since reporters feel the need to report nonsense from the Fed chairman without presenting anyone pointing out the obvious, BTP will fill the gap. The NYT reported on Ben Bernanke's testimony before the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission.

It notes Bernanke's statement that in 2003-2004 it was not clear that the housing market was in a bubble and that by the time it was clear, it was too late for the Fed to do anything without seriously harming the economy. Of course it was clear as early as 2002 that the housing market was in a bubble, but more importantly, Bernanke's claim that the Fed could not act until it was clear is absurd.

The Fed always acts in an uncertain environment. For example, Alan Greenspan raised interest rates in anticipation of inflation on numerous occasions. The logic of this action was that it was worth slowing the economy and raising the unemployment rate rather than risk an increase in the rate of inflation. In effect, this action assumes that the certainty of higher unemployment from raising interest rates is better than the risk of higher inflation.

Had the Fed acted to burst the bubble in 2003-2004, the risk would have been that it temporarily depressed house prices by scaring people about excessive prices and limiting the exotic mortgages that were boosting demand. By contrast, if it had acted correctly in preventing the growth of a dangerous bubble, it would have prevented the worst downturn in 70 years.

Any serious weighing of the benefits and risks of bursting the bubble in 2003-2004 would have surely come down in favor of bursting the bubble. The Fed's decision not to burst the bubble was one of the most disastrous failures of monetary policy in history.

 
House Prices Still Have More to Fall, Deal With It Print
Friday, 03 September 2010 04:35

The NYT has long opposed agricultural price support programs. Ironically it supports house price support programs. It seems to want the Obama administration to take further steps to keep the housing bubble from deflating.

The basic story is that house prices are still 15-20 percent above their trend level. These prices seem relatively affordable given the extraordinarily low interest rates in the market at present. However, if we think that interest rates are a major determinant of price, then we must believe that prices will plummet if interest rates return to a more normal level.

Sound housing policy would accept the fall and focus on helping homeowners facing the loss of their home. It would not try to perpetuate the bubble.

 
David Brooks Is So Cute When He Tries to Do Economics Print
Friday, 03 September 2010 04:06

Economics isn't that hard, but David Brooks seems to have trouble with it. He thinks everything would have been different if President Obama had pushed through a $713 billion stimulus that was centered on cutting the payroll tax, had pushed through an infrastructure bank instead of his pork barrel projects, and had focused on getting an energy bill rather than a health care bill.

There is no way of knowing how the politics would have played out, but in terms of the economics, it is difficult to see how Brooks' stimulus would have left us in a different place than the Obama stimulus. With stimulus, size does matter, and Brooks is basically talking about a stimulus of roughly the same size as the one President Obama got through Congress.

Payroll tax cuts are relatively progressive (the tax is regressive), so a cut has a fairly high multiplier since most of the money will be spent. Mark Zandi estimates the multiplier on these cuts at 1.3. This is better than for most tax cuts, but less than the 1.7 multiplier estimated for food stamps, the 1.6 for unemployment insurance benefits or infrastructure spending and the same as the 1.3 estimated for aid to state and local government. 

This means that if we compare David Brooks stimulus with President Obama's stimulus of roughly the same size, we should expect it to have roughly the same impact on the economy. President Obama's stimulus included some items that would be expected to have more impact (UI benefits and food stamps), and some that would have about the same impact (aid to the states and his own payroll tax cut, which was called "Make Work Pay"), and some that would have less impact if we include the alternative minimum tax fix as part of the stimulus.

As a result, if President Obama had done the David Brooks stimulus we should expect the unemployment rate to be around 9.5 percent, rising to 9.8 percent this morning, and headed to above 10.0 percent by the end of the year. I can't answer whether this would have made President Obama more popular than he is now.

 

 
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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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