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A 10 Percentage Point Tax Increase: Help for Homeowners, Washington Post Style Print
Friday, 02 July 2010 13:09

The huge baby boom cohort is just approaching retirement. Workers in their 50s and 60s have just seen much of the wealth that they were able to accumulate destroyed with the collapse of the housing bubble and the resulting plunge in the stock market. As a result of this loss of wealth the overwhelming majority of baby boomers will be relying on Social Security for the overwhelming majority of their retirement income.

Thankfully the Washington Post has the perfect remedy. It proposes to immediately start to raise the normal retirement age to 67 (from 66) for those just about to retire and to continue raising it until it hits 70 for workers born in 1971. This increase in retirement age would be equivalent to roughly a 5 percent cut in benefits for those just now reaching retirement age and a 15 percent cut in benefits for those retiring in 25 years.

Since Social Security will be the overwhelming source of income for most near retirees a cut in benefits is the same as a tax increase of the same amount. So, the Washington Post is effectively proposing to help homeowners near the age of retirement with the equivalent of an income tax increase of 5-15 percentage points.

It is remarkably that the editorial does not include one word about the loss of wealth from the collapse of the housing bubble. The Washington Post's news and editorial departments were completely unable to recognize the $8 trillion housing bubble prior to its collapse (columnist Steven Pearlstein is a partial exception). Apparently, they still don't know anything about the bubble even after its collapse led to the largest economic downturn in 70 years.

 

 
There Is No Mystery About Slow Job Growth in a Weak Recovery Print
Friday, 02 July 2010 05:33

Morning Edition implied that there is some mystery about the weak job growth in the recovery to date, at one point referring to it as a "jobless recovery." It then tried to blame the health care bill and other issues for the lack of jobs. There is actually no mystery whatsoever behind weak job growth.

The recovery is extremely weak, with GDP growth of just 2.7 percent in the first quarter. Final demand, which excludes the impact of inventory fluctuations, grew by just 1.0 percent. Given the severity of the downturn we should be expecting growth in the 7-8 percent range. With such weak growth, it would be a surprise if the economy was creating jobs at a rapid pace.

 
The Washington Post Still Has Not Heard About the Housing Bubble Print
Friday, 02 July 2010 05:23

It apparently takes a long time for news to reach Washington, or at least the Washington Post. That is the only possible conclusion that comes from reading the front page Post article on data showing very weak pending home sales in May that told readers:

"Home sales were expected to decline once the credit ended, but May's acute drops have surprised many analysts. If the trend continues through the rest of the year, it could upend the market's tepid rebound and undermine the broader economy."

Actually analysts who follow housing data were not at all surprised by the sharp drop in pending home sales in May. The Mortgage Bankers Association purchase mortgage applications index had plunged after the expiration of the homebuyers tax credit at the end of April. 

It is also reasonable to expect further declines in house prices since the bubble has not fully deflated. House prices are still about 15 percent above their long-term trend levels.

The Post had a policy before the bubble bursts of talking exclusively to economists who were unable to see the $8 trillion housing bubble or unwilling to talk about it. It appears to still have this policy.

 

 
Congress Passes Tax Fraud Credit for Homebuyers Print
Friday, 02 July 2010 04:51

Can the realtors possibly do anything that would impair their credibility with reporters? It seems not. After all, they ran around touting the run up in house prices all through the boom, insisting that house prices never fall. David Lereah, the chief economist for the National Association of Realtors (NAR), even wrote a book insisting that house prices will not fall. If it is possible for an organization to be shown to not be a credible source, the NAR fits the bill.

This is why NYT readers might be baffled to see that the assertions from the NAR taken at face value. The article reports unquestioningly an assertion from Lawrence Yun, Mr. Lereah's successor as chief economist at the NAR, that as many as 180,000 who qualify for the homebuyers' tax credit may have met the requirement that they sign a contract by April 30th, but have been unable meet the requirement that they close by June 30th.

This one is ridiculous on its face. There was an uptick in home sales in April, but the level did not come close to the bubble peaks of 2005-06, so it should not have strained the system to any great extent. Furthermore, demand collapsed immediately after the April 30th deadline, so this would have freed staff to process loan applications that had been filed in April.

There were roughly 600,000 contracts signed in April. If 60 percent qualified for the credit then 360,000 who bought a home in April qualified for the credit. (It is necessary to be either a first-time buyer or have lived in the same home for more than 5 years. There were also income caps.) Mr. Yun's figure implies that 50 percent of these homebuyers were unable to close by the end of June.

Since the contracts were distributed over the month (even if there may have been some clustering toward the end of the month), the vast majority of homebuyers would have had more than 10 weeks to close in order to meet the deadline. Typically, it takes 4-8 weeks to close on a home. There is no reason to believe that the system operating any more poorly in processing these loans that they would ordinarily, which means that it is reasonable to assume that the overwhelming majority of homes contracted prior to the expiration of the credit closed by the June deadline.

It is likely that the 180,000 figure from Mr. Yun is a complete that likely exaggerates the number of qualifying homeowners who missed the June deadline by more than an order of magnitude. By getting Congress to extend the deadline on closing to September 30th, the realtors are creating a great opportunity for tax fraud. It would be very easy for contracts signed in July and even August to backdated to April so that homebuyers could get their $8,000 credit.

At a time when Congress is voting to cutoff benefits for unemployed workers that average $300 a week, its willingness to pass a provision that will almost certainly result in widespread fraud should be an interesting news story.

 

 

 
NYT Claims of a Skills Shortage Disproved by Evidence in Article Print
Thursday, 01 July 2010 22:31

The NYT reported that manufacturers are having a hard time finding the skilled workers they need for their modern factories. However, the evidence presented in the article suggests the opposite. It reports that in Cleveland, the city on which the article is focused "more skilled workers earn $15 to $20 an hour."

This is not an especially high wage. For example, it is unlikely that many New York Times reporters live on $30,000 to $40,000 a year nor would they be very happy if their children got a job paying this much. The problem appears to be that manufacturers don't want to pay the market wage for the skills that they need. This is like someone who wants to buy a 4-bedroom home with a yard in a good neighborhood in Washington for $200,000, and then complains that there is a shortage of good homes.

There are good homes in Washington and there would be plenty of skilled workers for manufacturers to hire in Cleveland, if they were just willing to pay the market wage. The only evidence of a lack of a skills in this article is that the managers interviewed for the piece don't seem to have a good grasp of basic economics.

 
U.S. Growth in 2010 is Projected to Be Worse Than Anemic Print
Thursday, 01 July 2010 08:19

That's what readers could infer from the NYT's description of the 2.9 percent projected growth for Japan as "anemic." Japan's population is decreasing at the rate of 0.2 percent annually. Therefore this growth rate translates into a projected per capita growth rate of 3.1 percent.

By contrast, most forecasts put U.S. GDP growth in the range of 2.0-3.0 percent. Since the population in the United States is growing at a rate of 0.9 percent annually, this translates into a per capita GDP growth rate of 1.1 to 2.1 percent. In other words, the United States is expected to have a per capita growth rate that is least a percentage point slower than the Japanese rate that was considered "anemic."

 
Deficit Committee Co-Chair Reveals Himself as Numerologist Print
Thursday, 01 July 2010 05:15

Erskine Bowles, the Democratic co-chairman of President Obama's deficit commission, revealed that he was a numerologist yesterday when he suggested that the commission should set a limit on federal government spending at 21 percent of GDP. (Numerologists assign mystical powers to specific numbers.)This fact should have been highlighted more prominently because it is unusual to have people with such extraordinary beliefs in prominent positions in government.

More typically these people are pragmatists who believe that goods and services should be provided in the most efficient possible way. For example, if it is more efficient to provide retirement benefits through a public Social Security system or health care through a public Medicare-type system, most people in responsible positions would support expanding the public sector.

However, because of his belief in numerology, Mr. Bowles would waste resources, thereby slowing growth and eliminating jobs, by instead providing these services in a less efficient manner in the private sector. This is a very peculiar view and should be highlighted by those reporting on the deficit commission.

 
If Germany Is a Winner, It Is Partly Because It Has Work Sharing Print
Thursday, 01 July 2010 04:58

Harold Meyerson touts Germany as one of the winners in this downturn noting that its unemployment rate remained below that of the United States. While he attributes this fact to its strong manufacturing sector, Germany has actually suffered a steeper downturn than the United States.

The reason that Germany's unemployment rate is more than 2 percentage points lower than the rate in the United States is that it has a policy of work-sharing to deal with inadequate demand. Instead of paying out benefits to unemployed workers, it pays companies to reduce workers' hours.

In a typical arrangement workers would see their hours cut by 20 percent. The government makes up 60 percent of the lost wages or 12 percent of total wages. The company makes up 20 percent of the lost wages or 4 percent of total wages. The worker then ends up with a pay cut of 4 percent while working 20 percent fewer hours. This loss of pay is likely to be largely offset by fewer work-related expenses, for example lower commuting costs as a result of working a 4-day week instead of a 5-day week.

As a result of work sharing Germans are experiencing this downturn in the form of shorter workweeks and longer vacations. By contrast, in the United States workers are experiencing the downturn as near double-digit unemployment.

 
Were Opponents of Civil Rights Really Only Concerned About States' Rights? Print
Thursday, 01 July 2010 04:34

That is what the NYT would have told readers if they followed the same practice they do now in talking about opponents of extending unemployment benefits. The NYT told readers that: "the jobless aid measure is one of the last remnants of the Democrats' jobs agenda, which has largely fallen prey to GOP concerns about the deficit."

How does the NYT know that the Republicans are really concerned about the deficit, because they say are concerned about the deficit? Almost without exception, the opponents of the major pieces of civil rights legislation in Congress claimed that they really were not opposed to civil rights, they just wanted the issue left to the states. Would the NYT tell its readers that the opposition to the legislation stemmed exclusively from concern about states' rights.

In this case, many members of Congress who had no difficulty adding to deficits with spending on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or with tax cuts largely targeted to the wealthy, are suddenly concerned about the deficit when the issue is unemployment benefits or aid to state governments. While it is possible that their views about deficits really have changed, it is also possible that concerns about deficits are not the real reason for the Republicans' opposition.

Politicians sometimes are not completely honest in the explanations they give for their actions. Reporters should know this. Therefore news outlets should tell readers what politicians say. It should not try to tell readers what their motive is, because the news outlet does not know.

 
People With Aids Unable to Afford Drugs: The Cost of Protectionism Print
Thursday, 01 July 2010 04:19

The NYT had an article reporting that a number of states are restricting enrollment in a program that provides drugs for people with AIDS. It notes that the program cost governments an average of $12,000 a year. It would have been mentioning that in the absence of patent protection these drugs would sell for a few hundred dollars per year.

Patent protection for drugs is an extremely costly form of protectionism causing many drugs to be sold at several thousand percent above their free market price. There are almost certainly more efficient mechanisms for supporting prescription drug research. While the Washington Post recently devoted a lead front page article to tariffs on ironing boards, no major news outlet has been interested in discussing the much greater distortions resulting from protection for prescription drugs.

 
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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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