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Lack of Demand, Not Lack of Confidence, Is the Reason that Businesses are Not Hiring Print
Thursday, 15 July 2010 04:30

Like the school kid who is always coming up with silly excuses for not doing their homework, corporations always blame the government for their failures. Lately they have been whining that the reason they don't hire more workers is the uncertainty created by government regulations. The Washington reported these complaints on the front page.

While the article did present the views of some economists, there is actually a very simple way to disprove the businesses' claim. The number of hours worked per worker has plunged in this downturn and risen only modestly from its lowpoint. The current average of 34.1 hours is almost 2 percent lower than the 34.7 average in December of 2007, the month the recession began.

If firms would otherwise hire workers but are being discouraged by uncertainty or regulations then the number of hours worked per worker should be increasing, not decreasing. Firms would be working their existing workforce longer rather than hiring new workers. Since firms are actually using their existing workforce less, this implies that the problem is a lack of demand pure and simple.

Businesses pay their lobbyists lots of money to develop stories that will make regulations more pro-business. Reporters should be able to assess these arguments, not just pass along to readers any silly story that a lobbyist can dream up.

 
Washington Post Editorializes for Trade Deals in News Section, Again Print
Wednesday, 14 July 2010 05:04
In an article on the jump in the trade deficit reported for May the Post referred to trade deals as "free trade" agreements. This is not accurate since the deals actually increase many protectionist barriers and do little or nothing to reduce the protectionist barriers that sustain high wages for many professionals. The Post could save space and increase accuracy if it just left out the word "free."
 
Can the European Welfare State Survive? Can National Public Radio Survive? Print
Wednesday, 14 July 2010 04:29

NPR wants to convince listeners that the European welfare state is on its last legs. While it tells listeners this, nothing in the piece actually supports this case.

For example, it implies that growth is grinding to a halt in Europe because of its generous welfare state, noting that Europe is expected to grow just 1.0 percent this year, while the U.S. is projected to grow by 3.0 percent. Actually, GDP growth in the U.S. is projected as being close to 2.1 percent this year by the Congressional Budget Office and most other forecasters, but this is really beside the point. More importantly, no one would draw any conclusions about growth based on a single year, especially one in the middle of a downturn.

Any economist could have explained to NPR that growth in the European Union (EU) is being constrained right now by lack of demand, not lack of supply. This means that the cause of weak growth in the EU right now cannot be welfare state restrictions on supply but rather bad policies from the European Central Bank and the Bank of England (they claim to fear inflation, which in the real world ranks slightly below an invasion from Mars on the list of risks right now). If the central banks pursued more expansionary monetary policy, there is little doubt that economies across Europe would be growing more quickly. It is almost inconceivable that NPR could do a piece referring to Europe's weak growth and not note this fact.

It is also important to note that Europe has much slower population growth than the United States. Economists usually focus on per capita income as a primary measure of economic well-being, not total GDP. (Indonesia has a much higher GDP than Denmark, but because it has 40 times the population, no one would claim that Indonesia is richer.) The difference in population growth is approximately 0.9 percentage points, which means that per capita growth in the EU and the U.S. are projected to be very comparable this year.

The piece also briefly commented on the universal health care provided in Europe and implied that this may no longer be affordable. It would have been worth noting that European countries pay on average less than half as much per person as the United States for health care. In fact, the government spends more money per person on our private health care system than governments do in Europe on their more publicly controlled systems. It is absurd to imply that a switch to a U.S.-type system would somehow save money.

 

 
Bowling Alone? Erskine Bowles Goes Off the Deep End Print
Tuesday, 13 July 2010 20:22

When the co-chairman of President Obama's deficit commission gets his deficit numbers off by 100 percent, you would think this would be worth a little media attention. But apparently this is not the case.

Therefore when Erskine Bowles warned the National Governors' Association that the country would be spending $2 trillion a year in interest on the debt in 2020, virtually no reporters thought it was worth mentioning that he had exaggerated the interest burden by a factor of more than 2 the Congressional Budget Office's "alternative scenario" (Table 1-2). 

It is difficult to believe that if Speaker Pelosi or some other prominent Democrat argued for a stimulus package because the unemployment rate is 19.0 percent that the media would ignore their disconnect with reality. It is hard to understand why neither Mr. Bowles nor his co-chair, former Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson, are not held to comparable standards of accuracy.

(Thanks to Jed Graham who got it right.)

 

 
The High Costs of Protectionism: Prescription Drugs, Again Print
Tuesday, 13 July 2010 07:22

The NYT ran a front page story about how SmithKline Beecham concealed test results showing that its diabetes drug, Avandia, increased the risk of heart attack. It would have been worth including some economic analysis pointing out that this sort of behavior is a predictable result of government granted patent monopolies.

The huge mark-ups that drug companies get as a result of this monopoly give drug companies an enormous incentive to misrepresent the results of drug trials. Not mentioning patent protection in the context of an article like this would be like reporting on the black market in blue jeans in the Soviet Union without pointing out that there was a shortage of jeans at the prices set in stores run by the government.

 
Maybe Members of Congress Want to Cut Unemployment Benefits to Increase Unemployment Print
Tuesday, 13 July 2010 05:09

The Post yet again tells us that members of Congress are political philosophers, telling readers that: "Congress's inaction [in approving an extension of unemployment benefits] has been accompanied by a growing sentiment among lawmakers that long-term unemployment benefits create a disincentive for the jobless to find work."

How does the Post know what sentiments members of Congress have? Furthermore is there any reason to believe that their sentiments explain their votes on important issues?

Members of Congress get elected and re-elected by getting the support of powerful interest groups, not on their abilities as political philosophers. While the opponents of extending unemployment benefits may believe that they are bad policy, this is likely less relevant to the their votes than the political considerations behind this vote.

At the moment, the Republicans appear to have adopted a strategy of blocking anything that President Obama tries to do, with the idea that a bad economy will be good for them on Election Day. While the Post may not want to assert in a news story that this is the explanation for their opposition to extending unemployment benefits, it is certainly inappropriate to provide an alternative explanation for which it has zero evidence.

 
The Deficit Commission Refuses to Talk to Anyone Who Knows About the Economy Print
Sunday, 11 July 2010 21:08

Erskine Bowles, the co-chair of President Obama's Deficit Commission and a director of the Wall Street investment bank Morgan Stanley, claimed that the current economic crisis (which is projected to add more than $4 trillion to the national debt) was "largely unforeseen." This is not true. Competent economists saw the crisis as an inevitable outcome of the housing bubble. It is remarkable that the deficit commission seems to be relying exclusively on economists who could not see this $8 trillion bubble, the collapse of which wrecked the economy.

The commission also does not appear to be considering any measures that would challenge powerful interest groups like the pharmaceutical industry, the insurance industry, highly-paid medical specialists, or the Wall Street banks. Rather than incur the wrath of these powerful interest groups by reining in medical expenses or reducing the rents earned by Wall Street bankers, the commission seems intent on taking back Social Security and Medicare benefits for ordinary workers. The reporters covering the commission should be reporting on the failure of the commission to follow its mandate in this respect.

 
Franchise Fantasies and the "Financial Crisis" Print
Saturday, 10 July 2010 10:08

The people who could not see an $8 trillion housing bubble before it wrecked the economy are still having a hard time seeing it even after it wrecked the economy. They fail to understand that the economy's problem is due to a loss of demand. We have seen more than $16 trillion in wealth vanish. The demand generated by this wealth cannot be easily replaced without strong action from the government.

While this basic point seems pretty straightforward, the media repeatedly refer to the downturn as a financial crisis, implying that the problem is that the financial system is not operating properly. In this vein, the NYT had a lengthy piece that reported on the difficulties that franchise owners are having in getting financing in order to maintain or expand their operations.

It is undoubtedly true that franchise owners are having more problems getting credit, but this is primarily due to the weak economy, not the state of the financial system. In a weak economy, any operation's prospects are more questionable, which makes them a greater credit risk for lenders.

This can be easily demonstrated. Many firms that compete with the franchises do not franchise their operations. Instead, the company owns the individual outlets. These large companies (e.g Wal-Mart and many McDonalds) have no difficulty getting access to credit right now, in fact interest rates are currently at historic lows. If there was a market for franchises who want to expand, but can't get access to credit, we should expect to see the large chains jumping in to fill the gap. In fact, the opposite is happening, most major stores have curtailed their expansion plans because of the downturn.

So, chalk this one up as fiction.

 
May Increase in Inventories Largest Since March Print
Saturday, 10 July 2010 07:08

Yes, that would be another way of saying that the May increase was larger than the April rise, but that is what USA Today told readers. Actually inventories are a very important part of the recent pattern of growth in the economy.

During a recession inventories fluctuations tend to amplify swings substantially since it is the rate of change in the change of the stock of inventory (acceleration or deceleration) that affects GDP growth. During the downturn firms start to run down their inventories making a negative contribution to growth. When inventories stabilize, the fact that they are no longer declining adds to growth. Then when firms start to rebuild their inventories it adds even more to growth. Once firms have attained a normal rate of inventory accumulation, then inventories will provide little additional boost to growth even if firms continue to add to their inventories. 

This is very clear in the current recovery. The economy shrank at a -0.7 percent annual rate in the second quarter of 2009, it rose at a 2.2 percent rate in the third quarter, a 5.6 percent rate in the fourth quarter. The growth rate fell back to a 2.7 percent rate in the first quarter of this year. Nearly all of this variation was due to changes in the rate of inventory accumulation. There was little change in the pace of final demand growth over the last four quarters.

 Book4_17955_image001

The rate of inventory accumulation in the first quarter of 2010 was approaching its normal level. While inventory accumulation can be faster in any given quarter, it is unlikely to provide the sort of boost to growth that it did over the last three quarters. This means that GDP growth will be closer to the rate of final demand growth, which is looking pretty weak at the moment.
 
Miami Herald Invents a "Consensus Among Economists" to Push Social Security Cuts Print
Friday, 09 July 2010 21:40

The Miami Herald took first place in the contest to have the most inaccurate article on Social Security when it printed without challenge an assertion that: "For awhile, there's been a consensus among economists that raising the retirement age makes a lot of sense." This is obviously not true, since there is no shortage of economists who do not agree with this view and it is quite possible that a majority of economists do not agree with this position. Any reporter who had researched this topic at all would know that the assertion is not true and would not present it to readers as being true. 

Instead the article presented almost exclusively the views of people calling for cuts in Social Security. Remarkably, the article included no discussion at all of the likely financial situation of the retirees who would see their benefits cuts as a result of an increase in the retirement age. These workers have seen most of their savings wiped out by the collapse of the housing bubble and the plunge in the stock market. No "adult discussion" [a term used in the article] of Social Security can occur with assessing the situation of the people who would be affected by proposed benefit cuts. 

The article also never once mentions the possibility of addressing the projected long-term shortfalls in Social Security by raising the cap on income subject to the Social Security tax or by raising the tax rate. Polls consistently show that these positions are far more popular than the raising the retirement age.

In fact, the people attending a set of public meetings last week held by America Speaks, an organization funded by Peter Peterson, a long-time foe of Social Security, overwhelmingly preferred raising the cap on the Social Security tax to increasing the retirement age. This was even after being presented with a heavily biased budget book prepared by America Speaks. There is no way to write a balanced story on Social Security without mentioning revenue options.

The article also makes a point of discussing the increases in life expectancy without noting that tax rate has been increased substantially over the last 70 years, precisely to cover the cost of a longer retirement. Again, it is impossible to write a balanced article without pointing out that current workers have paid higher tax rates in order to finance a longer retirement.

The article also implies that it would be reasonable to cut Social Security benefits to finance other parts of the government. This would mean describing the payroll tax as a "Social Security" tax even though the money was being used to finance the war in Afghanistan or other expenditures. It is unlikely that this would be a popular position. If people realized that their representatives in Congress wanted to use taxes designated for Social Security for other purposes -- in effect defaulting on the government bonds held by the Social Security trust fund -- it is likely that many would be voted out of office.

Impartial reporters should be pointing out to readers what members of Congress are trying to do with their Social Security tax dollars. There would be few items that would qualify as a greater political scandal.

 
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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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