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The Myth of "Wealthier Seniors" and Cutting Social Security and Medicare Print
Thursday, 24 June 2010 06:40

One of the important untrue items circulating in policy debates in Washington is that we can have substantial budget savings if we cut Social Security and Medicare benefits for "wealthier seniors." Peter Peterson, the billionaire Wall Street investment banker regularly announces that he doesn't need his Social Security when highlighting his efforts to reduce the budget deficit.

In fact, everyone in the policy debate knows that there are very few people like Peter Peterson among Social Security and Medicare beneficiaries and it would not matter one iota if we took away their benefits completely. The billionaires or even millionaires are such a small share of the senior population, that it would barely affect the finances of these programs even if we could find a simple way to take back all their benefits (we can't).

This is why it is incredibly dishonest when the Washington Post puts forth its case in an editorial for cutting Social Security and Medicare benefits for "wealthier seniors," a change that the paper describes as making the programs "more progressive." Invariably what the Post and others mean when they use this line is cutting benefits for people with incomes of $50,000 or $60,000 a year. While these incomes would put a senior household way above the $29,700 median for the over 65 population, these incomes would not fit anyone's definition of wealthy. By contrast, President Obama put the cutoff at $250,000 when setting an income floor on people for raising taxes.

While income distribution is highly unequal, there is not much inequality in the distribution of Social Security and Medicare benefits. This means that very little money can be obtained by cutting benefits for the small number of genuinely wealthy elderly. The only way to save large amounts of money from these programs is by cutting benefits for large numbers of people, including people who are not wealthy.

Everyone in the debate knows this, but since cutting benefits for middle-income families who paid for these benefits with their taxes is not popular, we get nonsense lines about cutting benefits for "wealthier seniors" to make the program "more progressive."

Of course, the Post has never felt the need to be constrained by the truth in pushing its agenda. In arguing the case for NAFTA a few years ago, the lead editorial told readers that Mexico's GDP had quadrupled between 1988 and 2006. According to the IMF its GDP had risen by 83 percent. Oh well.

 
How Many Taxpayer Dollars Will Fannie Mae Spend Punishing Homeowners? Print
Thursday, 24 June 2010 05:00

That is the question that reporters should have asked when Fannie Mae announced a new policy of going after deficiency judgments against homeowners who strategically default on mortgages. Usually banks do not pursue deficiency judgments because whatever they are able to collect will not cover the expenses involved. Fannie Mae is apparently planning to pursue these legal actions even when it will lose it money.

Since Fannie Mae is already receiving over a hundred billion dollars from the government to cover its losses, this means that it will require even more taxpayer dollars than would otherwise need in order to engage in this punitive activity against defaulting homeowners. It also announced that it would increase the period in which it excludes a defaulting homeowner from qualifying for another mortgage from 5 to 7 years, if it determines that they had strategically defaulted.

This decision also appears to be based on a desire to punish defaulters, not profit maximization. This would mean that Fannie would be turning down the opportunity to buy otherwise profitable mortgages, further increasing its losses. As the Washington Post would say in other contexts (e.g. discussions of extending unemployment benefits), Fannie's actions will add to government deficits that are already at record levels.

It is also worth reminding readers that the losses at Fannie and Freddie were effectively subsidies to banks. They paid banks more for mortgages than they were worth.

 

[Addendum: Just to emphasize a point in the original note, banks typically do not pursue deficiency judgments because they don't believe that they will collect enough money to cover the costs. The suggestion in this article is that Fannie Mae intends to depart from the normal practice, not because they think they will recover more money, but rather to punish people who strategically default. This means that Fannie will be costing taxpayers more money, not less, because Fannie's executives (who get paid $6 million a year) decided it was important to punish strategic defaulters.]

 
What Makes Politicians Who Are Friendly to the Financial Industry "Centrists"? Print
Thursday, 24 June 2010 04:47

The New York Times reported on efforts by New York state legislators and a bloc of representatives who it describes as "centrists" to remove or weaken a provision of the financial reform bill that would require the large banks to spin off their derivative trading operations into separate divisions which would not be protected by federal deposit insurance.

It is not clear why these representatives should be characterized as "centrist." There is no obvious political philosophy that corresponds to the view that the government should subsidize these banks by providing free insurance for its derivative trading operations. What unites these representatives as a group is their ties to the financial industry. It would be more accurate to describe them by their support from the financial industry than an imagined political philosophy.

 
Good News in Africa is Not too Good Print
Thursday, 24 June 2010 04:25

The NYT ran a piece on a study showing an improving economic picture in Africa titled: "Report Optimistic on Africa Economies." The article notes a number of measures by which Africa has been doing better in the last decade than it had in prior decades.

The article is accompanied by a chart that shows growth rates by continent over the last decade. The chart shows that Africa had an average annual growth rate of 4.9 percent. It would have been useful to point out that Africa's population growth averaged 2.3 percent over this period. This means that it per capita GDP growth averaged just 2.6 percent.

While this is a much better growth rate than Africa saw in the prior two decades, it is only slightly faster than the 2.0 percent rate of per capita GDP growth seen in the United States over the period from 1960 to 2009. This means that even in this period of relative prosperity, Africa is making almost no progress in catching up with the developed world.

 
Washington Post Touts Unaffordable Housing In Canada Print
Wednesday, 23 June 2010 16:25

Most people involved in discussions of housing policy think its good when housing becomes more affordable. The Washington Post apparently believes that it is good when housing becomes less affordable. At least that is what readers of an article discussing Canada's housing market would have to assume.

The piece touts the fact that, in contrast to the United States, the Canadian market has "already has rebounded beyond pre-crisis levels." According to the Teranet-National Bank House Price Index, nominal house prices in Canada have almost doubled over the last decade. Since overall inflation has been roughly 30 percent over this period, this means that housing has now risen by more than 50 percent relative to the other prices and more than 40 percent relative to wages. As a result, it is far more difficult for Canadians who do not own homes to buy them today than was true a decade ago.

It is not clear why anyone would view this as a desirable outcome. It involves a massive transfer from the young people who do not own homes to those who already do.

It is also not clear that this situation is sustainable. It is likely that current house prices are supported in part by an expectation of future price increases. If prices continue to increase in excess of inflation, then housing will get even more unaffordable. The result is likely to be at some point that there is a glut of supply and inadequate demand leading to house price declines. The experience of declining house prices will reverse the expectation that house prices will continue to rise, thereby leading a much greater fall in demand and further declines in prices. The end result is likely to be much lower house prices and a painful process of adjustment for Canada.

It is striking that the Post either views this situation as good or somehow cannot recognize the problem of a housing bubble even after the collapse of one just devastated the U.S. economy.

 

 
Blue Dog Pork and the Tall Tale of Capital Constrained Banks Print
Wednesday, 23 June 2010 03:36

The Wall Street Journal reported on efforts by Arkansas Senator Blanche Lincoln to secure a provision in the financial reform bill that will aid an Arkansas bank owned by the Walton family (yes, the Wal-Mart gang). The provision would exempt banks with assets of less than $15 billion from meeting a more stringent capital requirement, replacing the $10 billion cutoff in the bills approved by the House and Senate.

The article cites Lincoln's rationale for this change. She claimed that the tighter capital rules "...would hinder their [banks] ability to generate lending for consumers and businesses at a time when access to credit is already difficult to come by."

In fact, there is little evidence that capital constraints on banks are affecting the ability of consumers or businesses to raise capital at present, as Lincoln implied. There are many banks that did not over-leverage themselves during the run-up of the housing bubble. These banks now have plenty capital to lend. However, there is no evidence that they are taking advantage of the weakness of their competitors by stepping up lending. This implies that capital constraints are not a major factor in the current downturn.

This is worth noting since the media have often been willing to accept, at face value, the rationales given by Blue Dog Democrats such as Lincoln for actions that seem like old-fashioned pork-barrel politics. As another example, last week the Washington Post reported on Indiana Senator Evan Bayh's efforts to save the fund manager's tax subsidy. It asserted that he was motivated by a concern about helping growing businesses, as opposed to the more obvious explanation - that he simply wanted to help wealthy people who supported his political ambitions.

While this WSJ article explores the obvious political motivation for Lincoln's actions, it does not note that her rationale makes no sense. The media should subject the pork pushed for wealthy supporters by Blue Dog Democrats to every bit as much scrutiny as they do the measures promoted for the benefit of other constituencies.

 
Why Is It Unsustainable for the Fed to Continue to Hold Financial Assets? Print
Tuesday, 22 June 2010 21:30

David Leonhardt had a thoughtful piece about the Fed's decision to accept higher rates of unemployment rather than engage in more aggressive quantitative easing to boost the economy. At one point he asserts that:

"There is a direct analogy between the budget deficit and the Fed’s
asset holdings. Neither is sustainable. Congress needs to
demonstrate that it has a plan for reducing the deficit over the long
haul so that investors will be confident enough to continue lending
the United States money at low rates.

The Fed, meanwhile, has to show it has a strategy for selling the
trillions of dollars of assets it bought during the crisis — without
damaging the value of private investors’ holdings and without, at
some point, igniting inflation."

It is not clear that why continued holding of assets is unsustainable. Japan's central bank has been holding vast amounts of the government's debt for more than a decade and yet it is still in the situation of fighting deflation. In the context of sustained economic weakness there is no obvious way that holding government assets will lead to inflation.

Furthermore, even if the economy was to rebound, the Fed has other mechanisms for preventing inflation, such as raising reserve requirements, which can allow it to continue to hold assets without causing inflation. This is an important point because it means that the debt accrued in the midst of a severe downturn need not impose a substantial interest burden on the government in future years. The interest on government bonds held by the Fed is rebated to the Treasury, creating no net cost to the government. There is no obvious reason why the Fed can't hold a substantial amount of the debt accrued during the downturn indefinitely while using other mechanisms to stave off inflation.

 
Where Did the Administration Assume Declining Health Care Spending? Print
Tuesday, 22 June 2010 07:03

That is the question that readers of the WSJ are asking. The Journal told readers that:

"The deficit is lingering at nearly 10% of the gross domestic product. Even under the president's assumptions on declining health-care spending and a freeze on non-security domestic spending, the deficit would not drop to what Mr. Orszag has called sustainable levels over the next decade without a sharper policy response."

Of course the reason that the deficit is lingering at near 10 percent of GDP is that the unemployment rate is lingering at near 10 percent of the labor force. This has depressed tax collections and increased payouts for unemployment insurance and other benefits.

Deficits are projected to rise relative to the size of the economy precisely because the budgets do not assume that health care costs decline. Rather, the projections assume that cost growth will continue to outstrip the growth of the economy. If health care costs were contained then the projected shortfalls would be easily manageable.

 
Washington Post Has Front Page Piece on 157 Percent Tariff on Ironing Boards, Ignores Much Larger Government Imposed Distortions on Prescription Drugs Print
Tuesday, 22 June 2010 05:09

The Washington Post, which has famously fumed about the fact that union auto workers earn $57,000 a year, devoted a major front page story to an Indiana ironing board factory that benefits from a tariff on Chinese ironing boards that can be as high as 157 percent. The article includes several statements from economists about the unnecessarily high prices that consumers pay for ironing boards and the resulting economic distortions.

It is worth noting that the Washington Post has never once reported on the distortions created by the system of financing prescription drug research through government patent monopolies. As a result of these patent monopolies, drugs that could be profitably sold as generics for $4 a prescription are instead sold as brand name drugs for prices that can be tens or even hundreds of times higher. The mark-up on branded drugs can be equivalent to tariffs of several thousand percent.

The distortions created by patent monopolies are increased as a result of the asymmetric information in the sector. The manufacturer knows far more about its drugs than patients or doctors. This allows the manufacturer to mislead patients and doctors about the safety and effectiveness of drugs. There are more efficient ways to support research into the development of new drugs. (The government already spends $30 billion a year on bio-medical research through the National Institutes of Health.)

Given its interest in ironing boards, and the relative impact on the public's well-being of prescription drugs and ironing boards, it might be reasonable to expect that Post would at least once consider the distortions created by patent monopolies in the prescription drug industry.

 
How Many People Work on a Drilling Rig? Print
Tuesday, 22 June 2010 04:54

Marketplace radio passed along to listeners the oil industry assertion that it was spending $300 million a month on the wages of workers on offshore drilling rigs that have been idled by President Obama's moratorium on new deep water drilling. The Washington Post reports that the ban has idled 33 deep-water drilling rigs.

If the average worker on a rig earns $100,000 a year, the industry's claim about lost wages would imply that it was employing 36,000 workers, or more than 1,000 on each idled rig. This seems implausibly high, and should cause reporters to question the industry's claim rather than just report it as being true. (The industry has an incentive to exaggerate the impact of the moratorium on workers since it helps to advance its agenda of ending the moratorium.)

 
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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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