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Ross Douthat, Stable Families, and Economics Print
Monday, 10 May 2010 04:40

Ross Douthat gave us a quick morality discussion about the growing numbers of children born out of wedlock. It might have helped to add some of the economic dimension to this story, both positive and negative. The positive is that economic opportunities for women have increased enormously over the last four decades. This means that many women who might have felt trapped in a bad or abusive marriage years ago now feel that they can survive on their own.

The negative side is that wages for most workers have stagnated for the last three decades as the bulk of the gains from productivity growth have gone to the most highly educated workers. Lower and insecure income places more stress on families and undoubtedly has been a factor in family breakups in many cases.

Okay, now we can go back to Douthat's morality story.

 
Has the Public Been Studying the Budget In Large Numbers? Print
Sunday, 09 May 2010 20:26

The NYT tells us that there is "heightened public concern over spending." How does the NYT know this? What does it mean? Has the public checked the amount that we are spending in Afghanistan? Has it noted the cost of government payments to first-time homebuyers?

Does the public know that -- according to the methodology used by President Obama's administration -- each billion reduction in spending will lead to the loss of roughly 10,000 jobs? Therefore, according to the Obama administration's assessment, when Democrats in Congress claim that they are cutting spending (as claimed by Representative Chris Van Hollen in this blog post) they are making plans to throw people out of work.

It would be helpful if the NYT devoted more space to the meaning of policies rather than gossip about who says what.

 
Markets are Fearful That U.S. Debt Is Unsustainable -- That is Why the Interest Rates on U.S. Bonds Fell Print
Sunday, 09 May 2010 16:21

The folks who couldn't see an $8 trillion housing bubble are spouting off like crazy about what the Greek debt crisis means. The NYT told us that: "While the immediate causes for worry are Greece’s ballooning budget deficit and the risk that other fragile countries like Spain and Portugal might default, the turmoil also exposed deeper fears that government borrowing in bigger nations like Britain, Germany and even the United States is unsustainable."

Fears that government borrowing in the United States is unsustainable should manifest themselves in higher interest rates on long-term government bonds. Unfortunately for this story, the interest rate on long-term government bonds fell last week. So, the NYT wants us to believe that investors are more fearful about the status of U.S. debt, but they were willing to hold it at lower interest rates?

Umm, no, this is a "night is day" line. The NYT is telling us something that it 180 degrees at odds with what we see in the world. There are large numbers of wealthy and politically powerful people who want to scare the public about the U.S. debt in order to advance their agenda of cutting Social Security and Medicare, but the events of last week point in the opposite direction. Investors still have great confidence in the ability of the U.S. government to pay its bills.

The theme of deficit hawks was further reinforced in the next paragraph which told readers:

"'Greece may just be an early warning signal,' said Byron Wien, a prominent Wall Street strategist who is vice chairman of Blackstone Advisory Partners. 'The U.S. is a long way from being where Greece is, but the developed world has been living beyond its means and is now being called to account.'"

The savings for the developed world as a whole is determined by its trade deficit or surplus with the developing world. The latter is determined primarily by currency values of the level of output in various countries. As a result of conscious policy by the United States and the IMF, the dollar rose sharply in value against the currencies of most developing countries in the late 90s (following the East Asian financial crisis). This laid the basis for the huge imbalances associated with the stock bubble and the housing bubble.

The complaint about inadequate savings belongs at the door of the U.S. Treasury and IMF. It was the explicit and intended result of their policies. The moral haranguing about people not saving enough is utter nonsense that belongs in gossip pages, not in a serious newspaper.


 
What's the "We" Jazz, Thomas Friedman? Print
Saturday, 08 May 2010 20:59

You get paid a really big premium for ignorance at the NYT, just ask Thomas Friedman who undoubtedly gets paid more than 99 percent of his generation. Thomas Friedman likes to tout the fact that there are still good paying jobs for people without skills in every column he writes.

He's in top form today, getting just almost everything wrong about the current economic situation as he tells readers: "My generation, 'The Baby Boomers,' turned out to be what the writer Kurt Andersen called 'The Grasshopper Generation.' We’ve eaten through all that abundance like hungry locusts."

Of course those who know anything about the economy know that the vast majority of baby boomers have not fared especially well. In the years before the baby boomers entered the workforce wages for most workers rose consistently between 1-2 percent a year, after adjusting for inflation. However wages began to stagnate in the mid-70s, when the oldest baby boomers were in their mid-twenties and the youngest were not yet teenagers. Baby boomers entered this labor market and most saw very little gain in living standards relative to what their parents had. Many had to go heavily into debt to buy and hold a home, to send their kids through college or to cover the cost of a serious illness.

There were gains in living standards during the last three decades, but they overwhelmingly went to the people at the top. This included the Wall Street crew, corporate executives, highly educated professionals, like doctors and lawyers, and elite columnists like Mr. Friedman. This was not an accident. These people designed economic policies that were intended to redistribute income upward. The government became openly hostile to unions. It pushed trade policies that made our factory workers compete with low-paid workers in Mexico and China while leaving our doctors and lawyers largely protected from the same sort of competition. The government also deregulated sectors like airlines, telecommunications, and trucking that offered good paying jobs for millions of workers without college degrees. The result of these and other deliberate policies was to ensure that most of the gains from productive growth went to those at the top rather than the vast majority of baby boomers.

Now the baby boom cohort is retiring. The vast majority have next to nothing to support themselves other than their Social Security. The vast majority of baby boomers do not have the defined benefit pensions that their parents did. They never had much money in 401(k) accounts and they lost much of what they did have in the stock crashes of 2000-2002 and 2008. More importantly, they lost most of their home equity, the major source of wealth for most families, with the collapse of the housing bubble.

We can blame the average auto worker, shoe salesperson and school teacher for not being smarter about the macroeconomy than Robert Rubin, Alan Greenspan, and other managers of economic policy, but the fact is that they made the mistake of listening to these people. They thought that stock prices and house prices would just keep rising forever. Sure, this was stupid, but Rubin, Greenspan and the rest were supposed to be really smart people, and it was their job to know the economy. Too bad Thomas Friedman was never smart enough to notice either the stock bubble or the housing bubble and to warn his readers.

Instead, Thomas Friedman wants to lecture us all about how we have been living too lavishly. We have to give up our Social Security and Medicare and accept lower living standards. This would be laughable except for the immense political power and the hundreds of billions of dollars that stand behind Friedman's agenda.

At the moment, the concern about deficits is painfully absurd. If only Friedman could learn the most elementary economics he would know that the economy's problem right now is too little spending, not too much. He probably hasn't noticed, but the unemployment rate is almost 10.0 percent. If we got frugal now, then the unemployment rate would go still higher -- of course that probably would not matter where Mr. Friedman lives.

Over the long-term we do face a problem with our broken health care system. This is the cause of our projected long-term budget problems. Of course fixing our health care system would hurt the health insurance industry, the pharmaceutical companies and highly paid medical specialists, so that is not on Mr. Friedman's agenda. Instead, he wants to tell school teachers and auto workers (both current and retired) that they have to tighten their belts. And, he gets paid big bucks for this.

 


 
April's Job Growth Was Not "Strong" Print
Saturday, 08 May 2010 07:46

Apparently our news stories are being written by people too young to remember the 90s and unable to find anyone with the competence to look up the data. The economy added 290,000 jobs in April. It is important to note that 66,000 of these jobs were temporary jobs associated with the 2010 census. There is nothing wrong with census jobs, but the point is that these are temporary and have nothing to do with the underlying strength of the economy. So, we can ignore that fact and boast about 290,000 jobs, but if we are then going to be consistent, we should be sure to ignore the loss of these temporary jobs in July and August.

Of course, ignoring that these are temporary jobs generated by the census would give us a poorer understanding of the economy, but would at least be consistent. What is not consistent is ignoring that these jobs are temporary now and then highlighting their loss in July and August. We'll see.

But, back to the fundamental issues. Is 290,000 jobs in a month (224,000 excluding the census jobs) strong job growth coming out of the worst downturn in 70 years. Well the economy created more than 250,000 jobs a month in the years from January 1996 to January 2000. If we adjust for the larger labor force, it generated 400,000 jobs a month for the year following the employment trough of the 74-75 recession and 420,000 jobs a month for the year following the 81-82 recession. Put another way, if we assume an underlying rate of growth of the labor force of 100,000 a month, then it will take 80 months (6 2/3 years) to make up the job deficit from the downturn at the current rate of job growth. Now, let's go celebrate!

 

 

 
The Post Makes Stuff Up in the News Section to Push Its Deficit Reduction Agenda Print
Saturday, 08 May 2010 07:02

The Washington Post (a.k.a. Fox on 15th Street) pulled out the stops in pushing its deficit reduction agenda today. Its news section includes a lengthy story on the euro crisis that makes things up in order advance the Post line about evil budget deficits.

It starts by misrepresenting the central problem: "and the currency that was designed to rival the U.S. dollar for power and influence is foundering because of a lack of fiscal discipline among its weakest members." While Greece's problems can be attributed in large part to a lack of fiscal discipline, this is clearly not the case with Spain and Ireland, both of whom had budget surpluses and low debt to GDP ratios prior to the downturn. Portugal is a more ambiguous case. The euro would not be facing a crisis if only Greece and Portugal, two relatively small economies, were facing difficulties.

The euro's problem stem from the fact that many economies across Europe were driven by a housing bubble. The European Central Bank (ECB), like the Fed, thought that bubbles were fun and opted to ignore the growth of dangerous housing bubbles in many countries.

For this reason, the sentence: "The euro, created 11 years ago, has always stood upon two unequal legs: a disciplined European Central Bank that has set interest rates for the entire monetary union and a wide variety of national budgets and economic policies ranging from prudent to profligate," could perhaps be more accurately written: "The euro, created 11 years ago, has always stood upon two unequal legs: an incompetent European Central Bank that has set interest rates for the entire monetary union and a wide variety of national budgets and economic policies ranging from prudent to profligate." Had the ECB done the proper job of a central bank it would have taken steps to pierce the bubble (which could have involved many measures other than raising interest rates) before it grew to such dangerous proportions.

It is worth noting that the Post consistently ignored the economists who warned of the dangers of the housing bubble in the build up to the crisis. It is continuing to ignore the bubble even after its collapse led to the worst economic crisis in 70 years.

The Post also gets the necessary remedies confused. It tells readers: "If Greece still had its own currency instead of being tethered to the euro zone, a sudden devaluation would have already slashed the value of the country's wages and benefits." Actually, the important point is not the absolute fall in Greece's wages and benefits, but rather their decline in value relative to those of other countries in Europe.

This is the key point, the issue is less the budget problems, but rather that the fixed exchange rate precludes and effective process of economic adjustment to a period of lower budget deficits. Because Greece and the other troubled countries are stuck in the euro zone, they can neither lower interest rates nor decrease the value of their currency to offset the contractionary impact of deficit reduction. As a result, deficit reduction can lead to a downward spiral in which lower output leads to a higher budget deficit, requiring further cuts, and therefore causing a further drop in output.

 
Why Should We Care What the Chamber of Commerce Tells Us About China? Print
Friday, 07 May 2010 05:58

The Washington Post devoted a whole article to the views of a delegation of "senior U.S. executives " selected by the American Chamber of Commerce in Beijing. These executives told readers that China's industrial policy was a far bigger concern than the value of its currency.

It is understandable that executives of U.S. corporations operating in China would argue this case. A drop in the dollar relative to the yuan will improve the U.S. trade situation for two reasons. First, it will make U.S. exports cheaper for buyers in China, leading them to buy more. Second, it will make Chinese imports more expensive for people in the United States, leading the U.S. to consume fewer goods from China and more domestically made goods.

The U.S. executives in China only care about the former effect. The latter effect -- the impact of a lower dollar on imports from China -- is likely to be the far more important one, since we import far more than we export. Rather than presenting the views of these executives as the simple truth about U.S. trade with China, the Post should have presented them as the views of a narrow interest group. It should have presented the views of independent experts or representatives of other groups to put these views in context.

 
What About the ECB's Reputation as a Competent Central Bank? Print
Friday, 07 May 2010 05:43

In an article on the Greek crisis, the Post noted that the European Central Bank (ECB) could: "use its essentially limitless ability to create money to stanch the crisis." It then added: "though doing so could hurt the long-term credibility of the central bank as an inflation fighter that does not yield to politics."

It is not clear how rescuing Europe's economy implies that the ECB had decided to "yield to politics." This is an invention by the Washington Post. Central banks are supposed to intervene to help economies in this sort of crisis, that is why governments create them. If the ECB fails to act to stem this crisis, when it obviously has the power, its reputation and Europe's economy will suffer serious consequences.

 
NPR Shills for Doctors Print
Thursday, 06 May 2010 04:49

Morning Edition ran a segment this morning telling us about the tragic plight of the poor doctors who don't know how much their reimbursements will be from Medicare next month. It gave us the doctors' perspective and also the perspective of a Medicare beneficiary who complained that she could not find doctors who are willing to work for Medicare's pay rate.

It would have been helpful to include the perspective of an economist who could have told listeners that physicians are the most highly paid profession. An economist also could have told listeners that our physicians are paid far more than doctors in countries like Germany and Canada, which is one reason that the U.S. health care system is so uncompetitive. An economist also could have discussed the protectionist measures that keep the pay of U.S. physicians so far above world levels.

Finally, an economist could have ridiculed the idea that physicians will en masse stop accepting Medicare patients. The logic is very simple. There is no large group of wealthy potential patients that is underserved now. In other words, wealthy people already have all the doctors that they need. This means that if the nations' physicians decide that they will not accept the 40 million Medicare beneficiaries then they will have no way to make up this lost income. They will have to get by on a lower income. The threat to just serve higher paying patients is nonsense.

 
Are Freddie's Losses on Loans Purchased Since September 2008? Print
Thursday, 06 May 2010 03:53

The Washington Post told readers that Freddie Mac needed an additional $10.6 billion from the government to cover its losses. The article never discusses the extent to which these losses are due to loans purchased before Freddie Mac was taken over by the government in September of 2008 or losses on loans purchased after this date.

This distinction is important because when Fannie and Freddie lose money, it means that they paid banks too much for the loans they purchased. If they paid too much for loans before they were taken over then this was presumably the result of bad business decisions. However, if they lose money on loans purchased after September of 2008, then the government is effectively subsidizing banks by paying too much money for their loans. This was the original intention of the TARP program.

Taxpayers have a right to know if Fannie and Freddie are being used to subsidize banks by overpaying for their loans. The Post and other news outlets should be trying to answer this question.

 
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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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