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Robert Samuelson Doesn't Like Social Security, Again Print
Tuesday, 25 November 2014 15:01

As much as some folks might hate this fact, the government is sometimes more efficient than the private sector. This is true in the case of providing a retirement income to workers. It is also true when it comes to providing health care insurance. This is one of the main reasons that we have a government-run Social Security and Medicare program.

This means that because we have a large population of retirees we will have a relatively large government, since it costs a fair bit for tens of millions of retirees to live and get health care. Furthermore, as we get more retirees, we will get a larger government.

This troubles Robert Samuelson greatly, but not in a way that makes a great deal of sense. Social Security is modestly redistributive. Adjusting for differences in life expectancies, those at the bottom of the wage ladder get a somewhat higher return on what they pay in, while those at the top get a lower return. If we consider this redistribution valuable, we can do it through a separate tax and transfer system and then have the whole Social Security program run through the private sector with the government mandating savings.

In Robert Samuelson's world, this would be great news because we now have a much smaller government. (The private savings system doesn't count as government.) It also is far more inefficient, since privatized systems cost 20-30 times as much to run as our centralized Social Security system. Also, the expenses of a privatized system are revenue for the financial industry, but no reason to discuss that one. So, in the world of mandated private savings people have no more control over their money than our current system, but somehow we are supposed to be happy because we have a smaller government.

The other part of the Samuelson story that is worth noting is the idea that we can somehow play with the money paid into Social Security and Medicare and use it for other purposes. That is implicit in his discussion of the idea that we should decide where our money is best spent. Samuelson makes it quite clear that he doesn't want to see retirees get the Social Security and Medicare they paid for. (An Urban Institute study shows that workers on average will pay slightly more into Social Security than they get back in benefits. Medicare benefits exceed taxes by a substantial amount, but this is primarily due to the fact that we pay our doctors, drug companies, and other providers twice as much as any other country.)

As a practical matter, people are willing to pay these taxes because they value the benefits. They are not paying Social Security taxes so folks in Washington can stage wars around the world. We could view the money paid out in interest and principle on government bonds as being available for other purposes also, but most people would recognize the legal and moral obstacles to not repaying bondholders. Similarly, most people would probably see a serious issue with not giving seniors the benefits that they had paid for, even if Samuelson apparently does not.


Strange Reuters Commentary on Economic Populism Print
Tuesday, 25 November 2014 08:08

Most news outlets try to make sure that their commentators at least have some idea of the topics on which they comment. Apparently this is not the case with Reuters, which gave Hugo Dixon the opportunity to condemn the economic populism that is gaining support across Europe. (The NYT reprinted the piece on its website.) Dixon tells readers:

"The cures proposed by the populists, however, are worse than the disease. UKIP wants to pull Britain out of the European Union. The National Front wants to destroy the Union. The Five-Star Movement wants to yank Italy out of the euro. Podemos wants to audit part of the national debt before writing it off. Syriza wants to write off half of Greece’s debts."

All of these plans would involve considerable uncertainty. However, the disease -- the economic prescriptions coming from the European Union-- imply mass unemployment for the rest of this decade and much of the next, according to the projections of their proponents. It would be hard to do much worse and Dixon certainly does not argue the case, he just indicates that he doesn't like the populists' platform. 

Certainly there are more and less effective ways to design a populist agenda. For example, one that focused on attacking the rents earned by the wealthy would be a great way to both hurt the people most responsible for Europe's plight and to bring about "supply side" reforms being pushed by the European Union. But the blanket dismissal of a populist agenda when the alternative is an extended period of double-digit unemployment seems unwarranted.

Dixon shows the nature of his misunderstanding of the problem most clearly when he tells readers:

"But even if the economy is fixed, that won’t be the end of populism. Look at Britain, where growth is strong but so is UKIP."

Actually, in Britain wages have been falling throughout the recovery so that the bulk of the population has seen none of the gains from economic growth. It's not clear why Dixon thinks people should care about growth when they get none of the benefits.

It Would Take a Lot of Mismanagement to Raise the Cost of Treasury Debt by "Just" 20 Basis Points Print
Tuesday, 25 November 2014 05:50

Andrew Sorkin criticized Senator Elizabeth Warren for her opposition to Antonio Weiss, President Obama's nominee to be the under secretary of Treasury for domestic finance. Sorkin argues that Warren is mistaken about his role in corporate inversions done to evade U.S. taxes. He also argues that his background makes him uniquely well-suited for this position because it involves the sale of government debt and:

"If the interest on the securities the Treasury sells was just 20 basis points higher for a year because of uncertainty or mismanagement, it would cost taxpayers $32 billion — more than it would cost to fund the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau for 50 years. The bureau was, of course, inspired by Ms. Warren."

Actually, it would take some very serious mismanagement to raise the interest rate on government debt by an average of 20 basis points over the course of a year. While the timing of any given auction might raise the cost for that auction by a few basis points, it would take extraordinary skill to consistently mistime auctions. Furthermore, since half of the debt is short-term, with interest rates near zero, it would be almost inconceivable that the timing would change its price by any significant amount.

The comparison of the cost of running the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is an interesting one. It is worth noting that the extra interest cost here is a transfer of income from the government to people who own government bonds. Some of these people will be wealthy investors, but more than half will be held by pension funds and middle income families.

By contrast the failure of economic appointees with names like Greenspan, Paulson, Bernanke, and Geithner to see an $8 trillion housing bubble (equivalent to @$10 trillion in the current economy) is likely to cost the economy around $10 trillion in lost output. Unlike the transfer in the case of higher interest rates, this is money that is effectively thrown in the garbage. This would be enough to run the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau for 15,000 years.

So clearly it is important to get people with expertise in key policy positions. Unfortunately our leaders have largely failed to do so.


Note: The number of years the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau could be funded by the lost output due to the collapse of the bubble was corrected from 1,500, thanks John.

Because Stock Prices Have Soared, Returns in the Future Will Be Lower Print
Tuesday, 25 November 2014 05:38

The Washington Post had a piece on the wealth gap between whites and African Americans. It attributes much of the gap to the fact that African Americans with some amount of wealth are less likely to invest it in stocks and mutual funds and instead tend to hold lower yielding assets. It notes that this made a large difference as the stock market soared in recent years.

While this is true, because the stock market soared, and price to earnings ratios are above historic averages, it is likely to provide lower returns in the future. The real return on stocks in the decades ahead is likely to average closer to 5.0 percent, compared to the 7.0 percent long-term average and the double-digit returns of the last five years. While it may be the case that many African Americans can still benefit from holding more stock, the difference in returns is likely to be less in the future than in the past.

Robert Samuelson Isn't Satisfied that China Agreed to Cap Its Per Capita Emissions at Less than Half U.S. Level Print
Sunday, 23 November 2014 21:34

That's essentially what he said in his column today dismissing the importance of China's agreement to target peak emissions at 2030 levels. The refusal of China to agree to emissions limits has often been cited as a reason why the United States should not bother trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Now Samuelson apparently feels that an agreement to restrict at a peak that is less than half of U.S. peaks is not a significant concession. (The obvious logic in this sitiation is that the United States would pay poor countries not to emit greenhouse gases, but apparently politicians and Washington Post columnists can't say that.)

It is striking that Samuelson, who routinely insists that Social Security and Medicare should be cut to help future generations, is apparently unconcerned about the state of the planet that we will pass unto them. Apparently in Samuelson's view, it would be fine if we passed along a devastated planet where hundreds of millions of people may be dying from the effects of global warming, as long as we don't raise their payroll taxes.

Falling Interest Rates and Rising Stock Prices Can be Related Print
Saturday, 22 November 2014 09:31

Neil Irwin has an interesting piece noting the worldwide fall in commodity prices and interest rates has been accompanied by a rising stock market in the United States. While the piece approaches the issue from the standpoint that these movements present a seeming contradiction, that is not necessarily the case.

Falling commodity prices and interest rates can be the result of economic weakness, which is undoubtedly in part the case now. Other things equal, a weaker economy will mean lower future profits and thereby imply lower profits. However there are two countervailing factors. If economies in the U.S. and elsewhere strengthen, this would lead to tighter labor markets, that could lead to higher wages and therefore some reversal of the shift from wages to profits that we have seen since the downturn began.

The other point is that lower interest rates should be expected to be associated with higher stock prices, other things equal. The return on bonds and other interest bearing assets is the opportunity cost of holding stock. If this opportunity cost is lower, then people should be willing to pay more for the same share of stock. In this respect it is worth noting that stock markets have risen throughout the world, not just the United States. That would support the view that lower interest rates might be one of the main factors that are pushing stock markets higher.

The Congressional Budget Office Has Consistently Over-Estimated the Cost of Obamacare Print
Saturday, 22 November 2014 09:12

A Washington Post editorial argued that the Republicans would be best-served by re-appointing Doug Elmendorf as the director of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) rather than picking someone who is a conservative ideologue. The basis for this argument is that Elmendorf, in the Post's view, "has a well-earned reputation for refusing to tell policymakers what they want to hear."

Ironically, in the example given in the editorial Elmendorf told the Republicans exactly what they wanted to hear:

"In 2009, for example, he publicly declared that an early draft of Obamacare would increase, not decrease, health-care costs, thus forcing the president and his congressional allies back to the drawing board."

Of course the Republicans wanted to hear that Obamacare would be an expensive program. It also turns out that Elmendorf was wrong. CBO has had to continually revise down its estimates of the cost of Obamacare.

It is interesting that the Post would highlight as evidence of Elmendorf's impartiality a case where he told the Republicans what they wanted to hear and was wrong to do so.

NYT Abandons Distinction Between News and Editorial Page to Push Trade Deal Print
Friday, 21 November 2014 23:51

Some people at the New York Times apparently feels so strongly about pushing the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Pact (TTIP) that it is prepared to abandon the longstanding separation between the news and editorial pages. A news article reporting on a statement from the new European trade commissioner on her commitment to achieving a deal with the United States described the deal as:

"a pact aimed at lowering tariffs and reducing regulatory barriers to encourage job creation and economic growth in Europe and the United States."

Really? Who decided that encouraging job creation and encouraging economic growth is the purpose of the TTIP? Yes, the politicians pushing the TTIP say that it is about job creation and economic growth, but perhaps we should let the NYT reporters and editors in on a little secret: politicians are not always truthful.

In fact, since the trade barriers are already very low between the U.S. and Europe, the economic impact of reducing them further will be trivial. On the other hand the deal will likely increase trade barriers in the form of stronger patent and copyright protection. Yes, that last word was "protection," as in the opposite of free trade, as in increased barriers and higher prices. Economic theory tells us that this will generally lead to slower growth and fewer jobs.

If the NYT were acting like a newspaper it could have described the TTIP as:

"a pact aimed at increasing the profits of the pharmaceutical industry, the entertainment industry and other powerful lobbies."

But that statement probably would not help the cause of getting the deal approved.

Charles Krauthammer Thinks that Colombia and Togo Should Be Able to Emit as Much Greenhouse Gases as the United States Print
Friday, 21 November 2014 08:00

That's the only conclusion that can be drawn from his column denouncing President Obama's agreement with China on restricted emissions as a "swindle." Krauthammer is upset that China would be allowed to continue increasing emissions until 2030, whereas the United States is expected to hasten its pace of emission reductions beginning immediately.

It is only possible to see this arrangement as being somehow unfair to the United States if we ignore how much each country is emitting per person. By this measure, China will never come close to current U.S. levels. And, since the problem is one of historical emissions (the carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for centuries), if China follows the path agreed to last week, it will never be responsible for anywhere near as much harm to the environment on a per person basis as the United States.

Since these facts are pretty straightforward, Krauthammer must somehow not view per person emissions as being relevant and instead think that allowable emissions per country should be independent of their population. If that is the case, then Krauthammer's sense of fairness would allow smaller countries throughout the world to emit as much greenhouse gas as the United States. In that scenario it would of course be a waste for the United States to spend any money reducing emissions, as Krauthammer argues.

Final Demand in Japan Grew at a 0.8 Percent Annual Rate in Japan in Third Quarter Print
Friday, 21 November 2014 05:56

The NYT used the reported drop in third quarter GDP as the basis for pronouncing the death of Abenomics in Japan with a piece headlined "with bad economic news for Japan, Abe's magic seems to evaporate." A closer examination of the data indicate that Abe's program may not be dead yet.

While GDP did fall at a 1.6 percent annual rate in the third quarter, following a much steeper drop in the second quarter, the decline was entirely driven by a sharp falloff in the pace on inventory accumulation. According to the OECD, inventories contributed 2.4 percentage points to the decline in growth, implying that final demand grew at a 0.8 percent annual rate in the quarter. (I have crudely annualized quarterly rates by multiplying by four. Due to rounding, these numbers will not be exact.) 

Inventory changes are extremely erratic. They added 4.8 percentage points to growth in the second quarter, after subtracting 2.0 percentage points in the first quarter. It is virtually certain that they will be a strong positive factor in the fourth quarter growth figure. (The drop in GDP is attributable to a sharp increase in consumption taxes in April. The resulting contraction in GDP has led Abe to postpone another increase scheduled for next April.)

It is worth noting that Abenomics has been an extraordinary success in promoting employment, with the employment to population ratio rising by two full percentage points since Abe took office in 2012. This would be the equivalent of 5 million jobs in the United States. The 3.0 percentage increase in the employment rate of women had been especially impressive. The employment to population ratio for women in Japan is now higher than in the United States.

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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.