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Robert Samuelson Wants People to Be Unemployed: The Economics of the Economics of the Great Recession Print
Sunday, 29 June 2014 19:37

The basic story of the Great Recession is about as simple as they come. The economy was being driven by a housing bubble and the bubble burst. The combination of the loss of housing construction, due to the enormous overbuilding of the bubble years, and the loss of the consumption that had been driven by bubble generated housing wealth, created a gap in annual demand of more than $1 trillion. That's all simple and easy.

And what did economists think would fill that gap in demand, manna from heaven? Did they expect another building boom even when vacancy rates were at record highs? Better go study the basics of supply and demand. Did they expect investment to soar at a time of massive excess capacity? That one would not be supported by any studies of the determinants of investment I have seen. Would consumers just ignore the $8 trillion in housing wealth they saw vanish and spend just as though nothing had changed?

None of these sound remotely plausible, so what did economists think would fill a trillion dollar gap in annual spending? Of course the government could do it with more spending and/or tax cuts, but since we have a religious cult in Washington that says it is better to keep millions out of work than to run deficits, this was a political impossibility. (Of course we could have a lower valued dollar to reduce the trade deficit, but economists try to ignore the $500 billion trade deficit. That's another part of the cult.)

Anyhow, we have a simple story as to why we are facing a severe downturn. And of course it was simple to see the bubble. House prices had risen by more than 70 percent in real terms, breaking with a century long trend in which they had just kept pace with inflation. There clearly was nothing in the fundamentals to justify this sudden price surge. Income growth was weak as was population growth. And, there was no shortage of housing as indicated by both record vacancy rates and the fact that there was no increase in real rents.

In short, this is about as easy and simple as it gets and nearly every economist in the country completely blew it. For this the economics profession has enormous grounds for embarrassment. It's sort of like the fire department that rushes to the burning school building and watches in horror as it goes up in flames because they had forgotten to turn on the fire hydrant. No one would want to own up to that mistake. Nor are economists anxious to own up to the horrible economic disaster that happened because they were utterly clueless about basic economics.



The Post Has Problems With Its Scorecard in Assessing State Enrollment in the ACA Print
Sunday, 29 June 2014 15:32

The Washington Post did an assessment of which states had the largest share of their eligible population enroll in the exchanges and which states were least successful. California topped the charts with 42 percent of the eligible population followed by Vermont. Picking up the rear was Hawaii, where it tells us less than 15 percent of the eligible population enrolled.

There is a big problem with the Post's scorecard. The states didn't start in the same place. In last place Hawaii only 8 percent of its population was uninsured. By contrast, in California 19 percent of its population was uninsured. This means that even with the differences in ACA enrollment Hawaii likely still have a higher insurance rate than California.

While the piece notes Hawaii's problems in setting up its exchange, it is also the case that as the share of the population who is uninsured gets lower, it becomes more difficult to enroll the people who remain uninsured. These people are likely resistant to signing up for insurance or have difficulties navigating bureaucracies. Therefore it should not be surprising that Hawaii did not do well on this measure.

The piece also highlights enrollments of people 18-32. While there had been much hype around enrolling "young invincibles," as Kaiser has shown the difference in premiums largely reflects the differences in health care costs. It really doesn't matter much for the finances of the program how many young people enroll, although it is good to see them getting insurance.

Problems With Measuring Health Care in GDP Didn't Begin With Obamacare Print
Saturday, 28 June 2014 08:02

Neil Irwin's Upshot column rightly points to the fact that Obamacare may have an ambiguous effect on the economy over the next few years. The point is that we want to slow health care cost growth, but in a weak economy less spending on health care means lower GDP and fewer jobs.

This is true, but this is part of a larger story. Since the economy is operating well below its potential and millions of workers are unemployed or underemployed, anything that creates demand would boost GDP. This is the old pay people to dig holes and fill them up again story. We could do that and increase employment and output. Better yet, we could pay people to retrofit homes to make them more energy efficient, to educate our kids, or to provide child care. But that would mean larger budget deficits and policy is now controlled by a perverse religious cult that says budget deficits are the devil's work. Anyhow, the health care story should be seen as part of the larger stimulus/deficit story.

The other point is that we have always had problems measuring health care. Suppose Pfizer develops a great new drug called "Placebo" that is supposed to cure depression. It sells $170 billion worth of this drug in 2014. This would be an addition to GDP of approximately 1.0 percentage point. Now suppose that a whistle-blower reveals Pfizer's secret test results that show Placebo doesn't do anything. Sales plunge to zero in 2015. GDP has just fallen by 1.0 percentage point. 

Much of health care spending has this character. We value our health, but we measure what we pay for. If we are healthier because of better diet and more exercise, and therefore spend less on heart related drugs and procedures, this counts as a drop in GDP. And many procedures and drugs really don't improve our health, just like Pfizer's Placebo drug. So, there will be many issues associated with measuring the economic impact of Obamacare, but it is wrong to imagine that we didn't previously have problems measuring the output of the health care sector.

Faulty Labor Economics at the NYT Print
Saturday, 28 June 2014 07:45

Kevin Carey has an interesting piece in the NYT's Upshot section which notes evidence that U.S. college grads seem to perform markedly worse on standardized exams than their counterparts in other countries. While this discussion is interesting his conclusion is completely wrong.

He concludes by telling readers:

"This reality should worry anyone who believes — as many economists do — that America’s long-term prosperity rests in substantial part on its store of human capital. The relatively high pay of American workers will start to erode as more jobs are exposed to harsh competition in global labor markets. It will be increasingly dangerous to believe that only our K-12 schools have serious problems."

Actually economists would believe the exact opposite of what he asserts. If college graduates in other countries are better educated than our college graduates, and therefore more productive, then this will make us richer as a country. We will be made richer by the fact that we can get the goods and services they produce at a lower cost than would be the case if their college graduates were less educated than ours. This is good news in standard trade models.

Of course the implication is that college grads in other countries will be wealthier than college grads in the United States, but we are made better off, not worse off, by the fact that other countries have well-educated college grads. An editor at the NYT should have caught such a basic mistake.


Note: I see from comments that many are convinced that higher productivity elsewhere makes us poorer. This should not in general be true. Whatever we purchase from abroad is almost by definition better or cheaper, or we wouldn't be buying it. That makes us richer. There is the issue of unemployment created by increased imports. In the standard model (which most economists adhere to far more religiously than I do), the rise in imports should lead to downward pressure on the dollar, which will lead us to export more and import less of other goods and services. That will bring us back to full employment.

There is a distributional issue, the people displaced will make less than they had previously while everyone else will in principle earn more. Note that this displacement goes the opposite direction of displacement in prior decades when trade was structured to put our manufacturing workers in direct competition with lower paid workers elsewhere. This tended to put downward pressure on less-educated workers, whereas implicitly we are seeing a story here where our college-educated workers may suffer in international competition.

It is also worth noting that nothing about this story can drive our wages to developing country levels. There are different ways we can tell this story, but perhaps the simplest is to point out that 80 percent of what we consume is produced here. The fact that we can get some items at very low cost due to cheap labor in the developing world is not going to lower productivity for the portion of our economy responsible for this 80 percent of our consumption. Unless you have a story about redistribution from wages to profits that is about 10 times as large as what we have actually seen there is no way that we would see developing country wages.

What Sort of Loans Does the NYT Expect Investment Banks to Be Securitizing? Print
Friday, 27 June 2014 05:23

That's the obvious question that readers should be asking after seeing the paragraph at the end of an article on the Treasury Department's plan to help low income people stay and/or become homeowners:

"The Treasury had promised that Mr. Lew would address the expansion of credit to potential home buyers, millions of whom are unable to get a mortgage with today’s tight standards. No new programs were offered, though Mr. Lew said the Treasury was working to jump-start the all-but-vanished market for private mortgage-backed securities, which would help lenders grow more confident and make more loans."

The clear implication is that lenders would be making loans that don't meet the standards of Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, but would be packaged into mortgage-backed securities by private issuers. Some folks may be old enough to remember the last time we saw something like this.

Trillions of Dollars to Help the Poor? Print
Friday, 27 June 2014 05:11

The NYT had an interesting piece on the persistence of poverty in eastern Kentucky and rural areas more generally. However the piece is seriously misleading when it refers to "the trillions of dollars spent to improve the state of the poor in the United States and promote development." This comment would likely lead readers to believe that we are spending large amounts of money on anti-poverty programs. That is a very questionable claim.

Current spending on TANF, the main federal anti-poverty program is $17.4 billion, less than 0.5 percent of the federal budget. The budget for food stamps, which do not go exclusively to the poor, is around $75 billion or a bit less than 2.0 percent of federal spending. Other anti-poverty programs account for a considerably smaller share of federal spending.

In prior decades anti-poverty programs accounted for a larger share of the budget, but it is misleading to imply that they have ever been a major drain on the public's tax dollar. Anti-poverty programs have always been dwarfed by spending on the military and social insurance programs like Social Security (which does have an enormous impact on poverty).


NYT Says the European Union Tortured Greece Print
Friday, 27 June 2014 04:41

My mistake, it actually began an article on Jean-Claude Juncker, the likely next president of the European Commission, by referring to the "rescue" of Greece. This seems a rather dubious characterization of an economic program that caused a plunge in Greece's GDP of more than 20 percent and pushed its unemployment rate above 25 percent. Greece would almost certainly have fared much better if it had defaulted on its debt, abandoned the euro, and re-established its own currency. In any case, it is no more appropriate to describe the economic plan that the European Commission imposed on Greece as a "rescue" than as "torture." The NYT would never use the latter term in a news story. It shouldn't use the former term either. 

The Drop In Health Care Spending in First Quarter Followed Surge in Fourth Quarter of 2013 Print
Thursday, 26 June 2014 04:49

The NYT noted that a sharp drop in health care spending reduced the first quarter growth rate by 0.16 percentage points. It is important to recognize that this drop followed a surge in health care spending reported for the fourth quarter of 2013 that added 0.62 percentage points to growth in quarter. That compares to an average of 0.28 percentage points for the prior four quarters. It is likely that the data overstated the actual increase in spending in the fourth quarter and therefore also overstated the drop in the first quarter. The average impact of health care spending on growth for the two quarters taken together is almost the same as over the prior four quarters.

Tax Cuts Didn't Starve Discretionary Spending, Votes to Cut Discretionary Spending Starved Discretionary Spending Print
Thursday, 26 June 2014 04:08

A NYT editorial on Senator Thad Cochrane's narrow victory in a Republican primary criticized his record:

"He has consistently voted for the kinds of tax cuts that have starved discretionary spending and held down the economic recovery."

This is incorrect. There is no direct relationship between the tax cuts Mr. Cochrane has supported and the cuts in discretionary spending that Congress and President Obama agreed to. The cuts came about because of a commitment to hit arbitrary deficit targets. Given the vast amount of unemployment and underemployment in the economy, there is no reason to be reducing the deficit. There is no reason that we could not have both maintained higher levels of discretionary spending and left the tax cuts in place.

It is important to be clear on this issue since the public needs to know that the main factor slowing growth and keeping millions of people out of work is simply a perverse cult of low deficits, not the need to raise taxes on anyone.

Barro on Pension Fund Investments Print
Wednesday, 25 June 2014 09:28

Josh Barro has a thoughtful piece on public pensions and risk in the NYT's Upshot section. He makes many points with which I agree, most notably raising cautions about pension fund investments in "alternative investments." These are mostly private equity funds, but can also include venture capital and hedge funds. The problem with these alternative investments is that they come with unknown return distributions (essentially the pension funds have a promise that a smart investor will beat market indexes) and they come with high expenses. The public has good reason to be concerned when their pensions start to go more heavily into these alternatives to make up for funding shortfalls.

The issue where I differ is on how pensions need view the risk in the stock market. Josh notes my comment that pension funds don't need to be concerned about the short-term fluctuations in the market, only long-period averages. His counter is that many funds became underfunded when the stock market plummeted and therefore had to boost funding in the recession. He also notes that many pensions cut back funding and even raised benefits when the stock bubble in the 1990s led to considerable overfunding.

This points are correct, but they stem largely from bad projections about future returns, and I don't mean year to year, I mean long period averages. When price to earnings ratios in the market go above long-term averages, it is not possible to get historic rates of return. This means that the return projections used by pension funds in the 1990s should have been adjusted downward since there was no way on earth they would get the 7.0 percent real (10.0 percent nominal) returns that most funds were assuming.

The same story applied at the peak in the pre-recession period. They should have adjusted downward their assumption on long-term returns to a 5.0-5.5 percent real rate (8.0 percent to 8.5 percent nominal). After the market plunged they should have adjusted their return projections upward, which certainly would have been consistent with the sharp bounceback we have actually seen over the last five years. With these adjustments, pension funds would not have suddenly found themselves hugely underfunded even with the plunge in the market that we saw at the start of the recession.

None of this is 20-20 hindsight. I have been arguing this story about long period stock returns for almost twenty years, first in the context of Social Security and more recently in the context of pension funds.

Barro seems troubled by the idea that governments can benefit by investing in the stock market. It is not clear why this should be troubling, after all individuals benefit by investing in the stock market all the time. And the notion of risk arbitrage comes up in all sorts of different contexts.

For example, the claim that we made money on the TARP bailout is entirely a story of arbitrage. In a time where there was an enormous risk premium associated with lending, we made below market loans to favored banks, where the interest rate charged by the government was still above the risk free rate paid by the government. (The claim we make money on the Export-Import Bank is also a story of risk arbitrage.)

In short, we see instances of the government arbitraging risk all the time. It is not clear what policy we would be advancing if we prohibited it from doing so. We do know that such a prohibition would raise the cost of hiring public employees since they obviously value the guaranteed retirement income from a defined benefit pension.



Typos corrected -- thanks to Robert Salzberg.

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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.