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Thomas Friedman Argues That There are Still Good Paying Jobs for Workers Without Skills Print
Sunday, 24 October 2010 08:06

Friedman argues by example of course. He argues for rebuilding the country's infrastructure, which would of course be a great thing. However, he wants the country to pay for it with more taxes on the middle class and cutting Social Security benefits.

A skilled columnist would know that the U.S. Social Security system is already among the least generous of the OECD countries. A skilled columnist would also know that most near retirees will have almost nothing to support themselves in their retirement other than Social Security because the people who Friedman thinks of as experts (economists) are not very good at their jobs (i.e. they allowed the housing bubble to grow to a level where its collapse would inevitably wreck the economy and destroy the savings [mostly home equity] of near retirees).

A skilled columnist would suggest a tax on the people who have profited from and caused the economic decay of the last three decades. Specifically a financial speculation tax, which could raise more than $150 billion a year while discouraging financial speculation and reducing the drain of resources that the financial sector imposes on the economy.

A skilled columnist would also know that the real source of the long-term budget problems projected for the United States is health care. A skilled columnist would focus on the need to get U.S. health care costs in line with the rest of the world as the only way to fix the country's long-term budget problems as well as removing an enormous source of strain on the private economy.

But Friedman shows that the U.S. economy still has good paying jobs for people without skills by writing a column that addresses economic issues with no apparent awareness of most of the relevant facts. If the NYT had more op-ed positions it could go far toward reducing inequality. 

In France, Age 60 Is an EARLY Retirement Age Print
Saturday, 23 October 2010 08:42
How can reporters have been covering the debate in France for weeks and still not know that age 60 is an early retirement age, not the normal retirement age? It is comparable to the early retirement age of 62 for Social Security benefits. The normal retirement age in France is currently 65. In France, as in the United States, most workers start collecting benefits shortly after reaching the early retirement age. It would have been useful to make this distinction so that readers would understand what is at issue.
For the 645,546th Time, We Can Put Conditions on Bank Bailouts Print
Saturday, 23 October 2010 08:14

Joe Nocera has a nice discussion of the foreclosure scandal in the NYT. However at the end he decries the fact that if we require Bank of America and other big banks to adhere to the law, then the losses could be so large that we would need to bail them out again.

The part missing from this story is that we could have bailed the banks out with conditions that were so onerous the banks would not be happy about the bailouts. We could have wiped out the shareholders, forced the creditors to take large haircuts and also put real caps (instead of the idiot versions intended to fool gullible reporters) on executive compensation.

The reason that these conditions were not imposed in 2008 is because the of the power of Wall Street, not the underlying dynamics of the situation. Nocera should have figured this one out by now.

The New York Times Uses Its News Section to Express Its Dislike of the Welfare State Print
Saturday, 23 October 2010 07:33

A NYT news article described the strikes in France over the increase in the retirement age as being:

"a cents-and-euros struggle to avert the inevitable moment when decades of cumulative benefits — from short work weeks to long vacations, from state health care to early retirement — begin to unravel."

The article presents no evidence as to why it is inevitable that "decades of cumulative benefits begin to unravel." Nor does it present any statements from any expert who supports this view.

In fact, since productivity in France is growing through time (i.e. it is producing more in each hour of work), there is no reason whatsoever that its benefits need unravel. Workers can continue to enjoy increases in after-tax wages while maintaining the welfare state at its current level.

The comment about the "inevitable" unraveling of the French welfare state is an expression of distaste on the part of the NYT that should be left to the opinion pages. 

The Washington Post STILL Has Not Noticed the $8 Trillion Housing Bubble Print
Friday, 22 October 2010 05:26

News apparently takes a long time to reach downtown Washington, D.C. That is the only conclusion that Washington Post readers can have after seeing the paper attribute the economic downturn to: "the ways the subprime mortgage crisis that began in 2007 would ripple through the economy."

Of course the downturn was not due to subprime mortgage crisis, it was due to the collapse of a housing bubble. Residential construction would not have been cut by more than 50 percent if the issue was just the subprime crisis. It fell by 50 percent because the bubble led to enormous overbuilding of housing.

Similarly the saving rate has risen by more than 6 percentage points, leading to falloff in annual consumption of more than $600 billion. This is not the result of the subprime crisis. This is the result of the loss of $6 trillion in housing bubble wealth, along with the loss of $6 trillion in stock market wealth which was supported by housing bubble driven growth.

The subprime crisis was a triggering event. Had there not been an enormous housing bubble in the process of bursting the subprime crisis would have had little macroeconomic consequence. This news may at some point reach the Post. 

The article also includes a strange analysis of the current housing market:

"If the foreclosure process is slowed down too much, it could lead people to hold off on home purchases as they wait for a new, cheaper supply of homes to hit the market. In that sense, it could further delay a recovery in the long-ailing housing market."

If the foreclosure process is slowed then it reduces supply. If people delay purchases, then this reduces demand. In principle, this doesn't move prices in either direction, unless there is a reason to believe that one effect is markedly larger than the other.

As a practical matter, banks are sitting on a huge inventory of foreclosed homes so a moratorium is likely to have very little impact on the supply of foreclosed homes coming on the market. The dire warnings of the consequences of such a moratorium don't really have a basis in reality.

The Washington Post Explains How Foreclosure Moratorium Hurts Homeowners Print
Thursday, 21 October 2010 07:32

No, unfortunately that is not a joke. The Washington Post devoted a major article to explaining to readers how a foreclosure moratorium is actually bad for homeowners. The article explains that for government workers with security clearance, the ambiguous debt status of a mortgage facing foreclosure may raise issues, since being behind in one's debts can be grounds for revoking a security clearance. (The logic is that if you can't manage your finances you might be susceptible to blackmail.)

There are two serious problems with the Post's piece. First, it is unlikely that someone stands in a better position with their security clearance after their house has been foreclosed than before. There may be some uncertainty while the process is in limbo, but the uncertainty is better than having the foreclosure actually take place.

Second, it is not true as the Post asserts that:

"Foreclosure delays started when Ally Financial, formerly GMAC, suspended evictions last month after concerns arose about flaws in court documents used to seize homes."

Actually, the flood of defaults has created a huge backlog as banks try to catch up with the huge number of people who are behind in their mortgages and also in many cases consider loan modifications. In other words, it is not new that many homeowners who are behind in their mortgages would find themselves in an uncertain status on foreclosure. So, there really is no story here.



Currency Wars: Developing Countries Are Supposed to Be Borrowers Print
Thursday, 21 October 2010 05:07

The NYT had a piece on the recent decline in the value of the dollar and effort by other countries to offset its impact. The article noted in particular developing country efforts to reduce capital inflows that are raising the value of their currency.

It would have been worth noting that in standard economic theory, developing countries are supposed to be borrowers. The logic is that capital is relatively scarce in the developing countries, which means that it gets a higher return. Capital therefore should flow from relatively to slow growing rich countries to more rapidly growing developing countries.

This was the direction of flows until the East Asian financial crisis in 1997. The harsh conditions that the IMF imposed on the East Asian countries led developing countries throughout the world to focus on building up reserves so that they would not have to deal with the IMF. This reversal coincided with the "high dollar" policy touted by then Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin. It helped to lay the basis for the imbalances associated with the stock and housing bubbles.

To a large extent, the decline in the value of the dollar would effectively reverse the distortions to the world economy resulting from the IMF-Rubin policy of the late 90s. It is also worth noting the recent decline in the dollar is largely just reversing its run-up as a result of the financial crisis in 2008. Money flowed into the U.S. as a safe haven, pushing the dollar well above its pre-crisis levels. It is now falling back toward the level it was at before the crisis.

Washington Post Does Cover Up Duty for Republican Plans to Cut Social Security Print
Thursday, 21 October 2010 04:39

The Washington Post headlined a piece on a Republican proposal to cut Social Security benefits, "GOP Social Security plan would cut benefits for higher earners." This headline may lead one to believe that the plan would only cut benefits for relatively affluent workers. In fact, the plan would cut benefits for 70 percent of all workers, as indicated in the first sentence. The plan also raises the retirement age to 70, which amounts to an additional benefit cut of roughly 15 percent for all workers. 

The table accompanying the article also badly understates the impact of the cuts proposed in the Republican plan. It compares the benefits that a medium earner would get under the Republican plan in 2050 with the earnings that a medium earner would get today. The more appropriate comparison is the currently scheduled benefits for a medium earner in 2050. This is projected to rise by more than 48 percent to over $1,800 a month (in 2010 dollars) by 2050. The Republican plan would imply a cut of more than 35 percent against this scheduled level of benefits.

The article also presents an inaccurate statement from a spokesperson for Representative Ryan (the author of the Republican plan) without pointing out to readers that it is wrong. The spokesperson said that:

"According to the Social Security Administration, Congressman Pomeroy's do-nothing plan will impose painful, across-the-board benefit cuts on current seniors and those nearing retirement."

Actually, the trustees project that the program can pay full benefits for through the year 2037 with no changes whatsoever, at which point it would be able to pay 75 percent of scheduled benefits. Very few current retirees can expect to live more than 27 years.


[Addendum: Actually, the numbers in the chart refers to benefits that are indexed to the average wage in the economy. This means that if benefits doubled in nominal dollars and the average wage doubled, then indexed benefit would show no increase. The size of the cuts in the plan put forward by Representative Ryan depend on the exact point a worker's wages fall in the distribution.  If one combines the impact of the change in the indexation formula proposed by Representative Ryan and his proposed increase in the retirement age, it would lead to a 25 percent cut from scheduled benefits for medium wage earner.]


The Washington Post Tells Readers That It Doesn't Understand How Monetary Policy Works Print
Wednesday, 20 October 2010 04:59

A Washington Post editorial expressing doubts about the Federal Reserve Board's plan to boost the economy with additional quantitative easing told readers:

"it's not clear how the Fed will sop up all the extra liquidity it's creating once growth resumes." 

Actually, it is clear. The Fed has several tools to reduce the money supply and prevent inflation. It can raise the federal funds rate that banks pay for borrowing reserves overnight, it can increase the reserve requirement, forcing banks to hold more reserves, and it can raise the interest rate it pays on reserves encouraging banks to hold more reserves. One would hope that the Post's editors would be familiar with these mechanisms.

The piece then goes on to express its real concern:

"The deeper fear is that QE2 is a cyclical solution to a structural problem. Many corporations are flush with cash already but simply don't see enough opportunities for profitable investment within the United States. The list of reasons include households with too much debt; political and policy uncertainty; a growing mismatch between the skills of unemployed U.S. workers and the available work; and a broader shift in economic dynamism from the developed to emerging markets."

This is an interesting story. All the evidence, including what appears in the Washington Post news section, suggests that we have a cyclical (i.e. not structural) problem. In other words, unemployment as soared because the economy lacks demand.

The problem is that the economy was driven by an $8 trillion housing bubble. Now that this source of demand has disappeared, the economy needs a new source of demand. In the short-term this demand can only come from the government and from very stimulatory monetary policy. In the longer term, a lower dollar is needed to move the trade deficit closer to balance.

There is zero evidence to support the Post's claim of, "a growing mismatch between the skills of unemployed U.S. workers and the available work." It would be an important news item if it uncovers any evidence of this phenomenon.

Why Are All Health Care Reformers Protectionists? Print
Wednesday, 20 October 2010 04:29

David Leonhardt outlines an interesting proposal to reduce the cost of Medicare. He challenges readers to come up with alternatives.

There is an easy and simple one that health care reformers appear unwilling to consider. Let Medicare patients buy into the more efficient health care systems in other countries and split the savings. According to the Congressional Budget Office's projections, these savings will rise into the tens of thousands per beneficiary per year.

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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.