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David Leonhardt Wonders Why It's Cold In the Winter and Wages Aren't Rising Print
Saturday, 11 October 2014 07:19

Sometimes a question can be really annoying. Try asking a homeless person why he doesn't have a nice apartment or Al Gore why he lost the election in 2000. David Leonhardt got in the game of really annoying questions when he speculated as to why wages aren't rising this week. Is it really necessary to ask?

The economy is still way below potential GDP. If Leonhardt ever looked at the data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics or read his own paper, he would know that the employment to population ratio is still close to 4.0 percentage points below its pre-recession level. Even if we restrict the question to prime age workers (people between the ages of 25-54), to eliminate the issue of retirement, the drop is still 3.0 percentage points. The share of the workforce involuntarily working part-time is still more than 50 percent above its pre-recession level. In other words, there is still a large amount of slack in the labor market.

When there is slack in the labor market most workers are not able to get wage gains because they lack bargaining power. That was true in the 1980s, it was true in the 1990s, and surprise surprise, it's still true in this decade. That was the main point of my book with Jared Bernstein. 

With the answer right in front of him, like the French colonel in Casablanca, Leonhardt rushes to round up the usual suspects, naturally seizing on education. Unfortunately, the data refuse to cooperate with him. The unemployment rate for college grads is still almost 50 percent higher than its pre-recession level. The wages for recent college grads has fallen sharply since 2000. Believers in supply and demand would know that more college grads should put even further downward pressure on the wages of college grads. How does this help the wage story?

The obvious issue is that we need more demand in the economy. That can be most easily accomplished with more government spending. We could also get the trade deficit down by lowering the value of the dollar, making our goods more competitive internationally. Alternatively, we could go the path of Germany and try to reduce labor supply with work sharing, paid family and parental leave, and paid vacations.

But the real story here is about as simple as it gets. (Yeah, it might be complicated for economists who couldn't see an $8 trillion housing bubble.) We can understand the need to create more jobs, but creating confusion about simple economic points is not a good make-work project.

 
Franklin Foer Confuses Amazon's Subsidies from the Government With Profits Print
Friday, 10 October 2014 07:07

Franklin Foer has an interesting, but ultimately badly confused article in the New Republic about Amazon and its growth. The article is debating the appropriate anti-trust approach to Amazon, questioning whether it merits government intervention to protect producers and not just consumers.

This is a reasonable question, but the confusion comes in the first sentence of the second paragraph, which tells readers:

"Rather than pocketing the profits from this creation, Amazon has plowed revenue into bettering itselfinto the construction of well-placed fulfillment centers that further hasten the arrival of its packages, into technologies that attempt to read our acquisitive minds and aptly suggest our next purchase."

The problem here is that there were actually few profits to pocket and what little profits did exist were due to the enormous subsidy Amazon enjoyed from not being required to collect state sales tax. The first point is straightforward. Amazon has always had very thin profits and has had almost as many losing quarters as profitable ones.

Read more...

 

 
Great Mystery at the Post, Why are People Without Jobs Unhappy About the Economy? Print
Friday, 10 October 2014 05:35

Yes folks, they pay people to ask such questions. Steven Mufson uses a Wonkblog piece to speculate on why it is that even though we have been in a recovery for more than five years people are still not happy about the economy. He tells us that President Obama has the same problem as President Bush (I), who got trashed on the economy even though revised data show it had been growing rapidly at the start of 1992.

While Mufson seeks out expert analysis to try to resolve this paradox, he might try looking at the data for a moment. No one sees the economy. They don't what the rate of growth is unless they read about it in the newspaper. What they do know is whether they have a job, whether their job is secure, and their pay is rising.

If you ask about these questions the only mystery is why Mufson is wasting our time. In 1992 the employment to population ratio was still 1.5 percentage points below its pre-recession level. That would translate into roughly 3.2 million fewer people having jobs in today's labor market. The current employment to population ratio is down by close to 4.0 percentage points from pre-recession levels, translating into more than 9.0 million fewer people with jobs. (Some of this is due to retirement of baby boomers.) Wages for most workers have been stagnant or declining in the last five years as was the case in 1992.

So the real question here is why any serious people would have any question about why the public is sour on the economy. People care about their living standards and security, they don't care about GDP numbers produced by the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

 

 
The Washington Post Continues Its War on Public Sector Workers Print
Thursday, 09 October 2014 20:35

Apparently the Washington Post editorial board is partying over the fact that bankruptcy judges are imposing cuts in the pensions of retired public sector employees in Detroit, Michigan and Vallejo, California. An editorial in today's paper noted these cuts and told readers:

"Yet in many jurisdictions the balance has tipped too far in favor of ­public-employee benefits, largely because neither public-sector unions nor the politicians whose campaigns the unions support have any incentive to budget more realistically. Unsustainable pensions helped cause the recent wave of municipal bankruptcies that has touched cities as different as Detroit and Vallejo, Calif."

Okay, so the balance has tipped too far in favor of public-employee benefits and is "unsustainable."

So those retired public sector workers must be living really well. In Detroit the average non-uniformed public sector employee gets a pension of $18,500 a year. This goes along with an average annual wage for active workers of $42,000 a year. At the Washington Post this is apparently an imbalance where things have gotten too tilted for public sector workers. 

Read more...

 

 
Wage-Price Inflation and the Way Things Work In Economics Print
Thursday, 09 October 2014 07:00

There's an old saying in economics that it doesn't matter if what you say is right, what matters is if the right person says it. I was reminded of this line when I read Matt O'Brien's Wonkblog post on the success of the Fed in allowing the unemployment rate to fall below the nearly universally accepted measure of the NAIRU, without having any notable acceleration of inflation. 

This is a great history that should be tattooed on the forehead of everyone involved in the current debate on how low the unemployment rate can go without kicking off a wage price spiral. Back in the mid-1990s all right thinking economists thought that the NAIRU was in the neighborhood of 6.0 percent. This meant that if the unemployment rate was below 6.0 percent the inflation rate would begin to increase. And, it would keep increasing as long as the unemployment rate stayed below 6.0 percent.

While there was some difference on the precise number (the usual range went from 5.6 percent to 6.4 percent), there was almost no dispute on the basic point. As O'Brien notes, even Janet Yellen adhered to this view, expressing concerns in 1996 that if the Fed didn't raise interest rates inflation would be a big problem. (Paul Krugman also expressed a similar view at the time.)

Thanks to the eccentricities of Alan Greenspan, the Fed did not raise interest rates. Instead it allowed the unemployment to continue to fall. It fell below 5.0 percent in 1997, it crossed 4.5 in 1998, and reached 4.0 percent as a year-round average. And inflation remained tame. The result was that millions of people had jobs who would not have otherwise. Tens of millions of workers at the middle and bottom of the wage distribution saw substantial real wage gains for the first time in a quarter century.

And, for the folks fixated on budget deficits, we saw a large surplus for the first time in decades. As much as the Clintonites like to boast of their great surpluses, the reality is that the budget would have remained in deficit if Clinton's Fed appointees (Janet Yellen and Lawrence Meyer) had gotten their way. It is only because the Fed allowed the unemployment rate to fall far lower than these folks thought wise that the budget shifted from deficit to surplus. (In 1996 the Congressional Budget Office projected a deficit of $240 billion [2.5 percent of GDP] for 2000. In fact, we ran a surplus of roughly the same amount. According to CBO, the legislative changes over this four year period went a small amount in the wrong direction.)

Anyhow, all of this should be a good reminder that the whole of the economics profession can be completely wrong on the most important issues affecting the economy. But that isn't why I brought you here today.

Read more...

 

 
If a Higher Dollar Costs More Jobs than Measures to Stop Climate Change (i.e. "The War on Coal"), Why Isn't That a Problem? Print
Thursday, 09 October 2014 04:02

Neil Irwin has a piece today on the causes and consequences of the recent run-up in the dollar. He argues that the rise is largely due to the fact that the U.S. economy seems to be doing better in recent months than most other major economies, especially the euro zone and Japan. In those cases, the central banks are looking to ease up further in the foreseeable future, while the Fed is debating when to tighten.

This is certainly a plausible explanation for most of the rise (doesn't work well for the British pound), but the consequences are not as benign as Irwin's piece might lead readers to believe. The main consequence of a higher dollar is a larger trade deficit and therefore slower job growth and fewer jobs.

To get an idea of the magnitude of this effect, last month Goldman Sachs estimated that the 3.0 percent rise in the dollar we had seen by that point (it's a bit more now) will shave 0.1 to 0.15 percentage points off GDP growth in each of the next two years (sorry, no link). That translates into lost jobs. If the economy is 0.25 percent smaller in 2016 due to the higher dollar that would imply a loss of roughly 350,000 jobs.

In considering whether this job loss is a big deal, remember that the country has less than 80,000 people employed in coal mining. There have been frequent news stories warning of the dire job impact of measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which would lead to substantial job loss in the coal industry. Just as a matter of arithmetic, if the coal industry were completely wiped out by environmental measures, the job loss in the coal industry would be less than one fourth as much as the job loss implied by Goldman's estimate of the impact of the rise in the dollar.

In fairness to Irwin, he does note there will be winners and losers:

"If you frequently fill up your car with imported oil or drink French wine, it’s good news. If you are Boeing competing against Airbus, or General Electric competing against Siemens, or Cadillac competing with Mercedes-Benz, it is terrible news."

We might add to his list of winners people who frequently take vacations in Europe or other foreign countries. A high percentage of the people involved in crafting economic policy (e.g. congressional and administration staffers, reporters, economists) fit into this category. It is probably also worth mentioning that the financial industry generally likes a stronger dollar since it means less risk of inflation and their money goes farther overseas. And, companies like Walmart that bet big on low cost imports are also happy with a higher dollar.

For these reasons, the high dollar may not be portrayed as a matter of concern in the media, even if the impact on jobs is far larger than other issues to which they have devoted considerable attention.

 
Which Way Is Up Problems on the Dollar at the WSJ Print
Wednesday, 08 October 2014 07:17

The Wall Street Journal ran a short piece headlined, "Dudley [N.Y. Federal Reserve Bank President William Dudley] elevates the strong dollar in the Fed's policy outlook." The point is supposed to be that the rise of the dollar in recent weeks will both put downward pressure on inflation and increase the U.S. trade deficit, as U.S. goods become less competitive. Unfortunately, the piece couldn't quite keep the story straight. The second paragraph told readers:

"First, Mr. Dudley has elevated the strength of the dollar and soft global growth as factors affecting the Fed’s policy thinking. He said the weak dollar puts downward pressure on U.S. inflation and dims U.S. near-term export prospects, factors that keep the Fed patient about raising rates even as the job market improves (emphasis added). It’s unusual for a senior Fed official to speak so directly about the impact of the currency on his thinking, in part because the currency is supposed to be the domain of the U.S. Treasury."

Yes, it is unusual for a Fed official to talk so openly about the impact of the value of the dollar on the economy, which is why it is important to get the story right. Obviously this was just a typo, but it is an extremely unfortunate one.

 

Note: I see that the WSJ has corrected the typo.

 
It's Hard to Find People With the Necessary Skills for Retail and Restaurant Work Print
Wednesday, 08 October 2014 04:51

That's the story that we may hear based on new data on job openings and hires. The data showed a rise in the number of job openings in August, coupled with a fall in the number of hires.

This might seem to fit the skills mismatch story that many folks are pushing. The idea is that the jobs are out there, but unemployed workers just don't have the necessary skills to fill them. If that's the case, then we apparently need more people with the skills to work as retail clerks and table servers.

The gap in retail between openings and hires increased by 123,000 last month, as hiring fell by 83,000, in spite of a 40,000 increase in job openings. Job openings in accommodation and food services increased by 73,000 while hiring fell by 5,000, adding 78,000 to the gap. (There was also a sharp fall in hiring in construction in August, but this just partially reversed an extraordinary rise reported in July.)

Anyhow, if you want to believe the skills mismatch story, you have to believe that the mismatch is most serious in sectors that we don't typically think require many skills. 

 
Lesson for the NYT: Companies Are Not Always Honest Print
Wednesday, 08 October 2014 04:23

At some point when we are growing up most of us discover that people don't always tell the truth. Apparently, some folks at the NYT have not learned this lesson.

In an article reporting on Walmart's decision to stop providing health insurance for 30,000 part-time workers, the NYT told readers:

"In scaling back coverage for part-time employees, Walmart joins retailers including Home Depot, Target and Trader Joe’s, which have dropped benefits in response to the Affordable Care Act, the health care overhaul enacted by the Obama administration."

Actually, the NYT doesn't know that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is the reason these retailers cut their health care coverage. Retailers have been cutting health care coverage, along with wages and other benefits, for more than a quarter century. While the ACA may have been a factor in these recent benefit cuts, it is entirely possible that these stores would have cut health coverage even if the ACA had never passed. That would be the case even if the companies may have told the NYT that the ACA was the reason they were ending coverage. 

 

Addendum:

I should mention that in standard economic theory, payments for health care are seen as coming out of wages. This means that if Walmart is cutting its health care because workers can now get access to insurance through Medicaid or the exchanges, we should expect to see a roughly equal increase in their wages. On the other hand, if Walmart is just cutting benefits with no increase in wages, this is in effect just a cut in pay. Since the piece makes no reference to any planned pay increases, it sounds like the latter.

 
It Is News That the AIG Bailout Was a Way to Give Money to Goldman Sachs Print
Tuesday, 07 October 2014 04:32

Andrew Ross Sorkin tells us that the fact the AIG bailout was about helping Goldman Sachs and other big banks is not news because we knew it all along. This is one that gets the blood flowing early in the morning.

This brings to mind the old line, what's this "we" jazz, white man? Yes, it was knowable that the AIG bailout was about saving the banks and many of us argued that at the time. But this money was not generally included on the list of handouts to Goldman Sachs and its CEO Lloyd Blankfein, who takes home $20 million a year. (That's roughly equal to what 12,700 food stamp beneficiaries receive.) So yes, many of us did call the AIG bailout a backdoor handout to the banks, but that was not something generally conceded in policy circles.

It matters because if everyone understood that the $192 billion injected into AIG was largely about keeping big banks from failing then there might have been more political support for breaking up the big banks and in other ways restricting their conduct. Conceding this point now that the debate over financial reform is largely in the past seems more than a bit dishonest.

If I can be allowed a brief digression, back in the mid-1990s the Washington Post ran a major front page article that bemoaned the fact that U.S. soldiers who had died in the civil war in El Salvador had not received proper military honors. The problem was that the Reagan administration was trying to conceal that we had troops in combat situations, so it couldn't acknowledge the true fate of these soldiers. Incredibly, the piece only discussed the plight of the soldiers and their families. It acted as though we all knew that the Reagan administration had lied about the involvement of U.S. troops in combat.

Of course many people did believe that the Reagan administration was lying back in the 1980s, but there had never been any major stories in the Washington Post, or any other major newspaper, that told readers that the Reagan administration was lying. In the same vein, it has not been the generally accepted backdrop in reporting that the AIG bailout was about rescuing the big banks, even though many of us did know this at the time.

Finally, Sorkin again makes the annoying assertion on the AIG bailout that, "we got our money back — with more than $22 billion in profit."

This one deserves derision. Access to liquidity back in 2008-2009 carried an enormous premium. We gave $192 billion to AIG at a time when other companies were dying for cash. We would have made an enormous profit if we had invested government cash almost anywhere. For example, if we lent $192 billion to Dean Baker's Excellent Hedge Fund, which used it to invest in the S&P 500 and then split the gains with the government, the country would have pocketed over $100 billion from the deal. So would Dean Baker's Excellent Hedge Fund.

Saying that the government made a profit on the bailout deals is irrelevant in any meaningful sense. The people who make this assertion are either showing their ignorance or being dishonest.

 
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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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