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The Burden of the Deficit, Are Reporters Prohibited from Explaining It? Print
Friday, 03 December 2010 05:36

The Post continued its editorializing in its news section by gratuitously pointing out in a front page article that negotiations to extend tax cuts and unemployment benefits:

"would add hundreds of billions of dollars to future deficits, even as a bipartisan commission appointed by Obama is trying to build support for a plan to balance the budget."

If the Post was interested in informing its readers rather than pushing its budget agenda it could have pointed out that deficits during a period of high unemployment need pose no burden to the economy or future taxpayers since the Federal Reserve Board can simply buy and hold this debt. In Japan the central bank holds an amount of debt that is close to the size of its GDP, which would be $15 trillion in the United States.

This can be seen in the difference between the IMF's estimate of Japan's gross debt (227.2 percent of GDP) and its net debt (121.7 percent of GDP). In spite of these massive holdings of government debt by the central bank Japan continues to experience deflation instead of inflation.

To some extent the Fed is already following a similar course. As a result of its holdings of government debt and other assets it refunded $77 billion to the Treasury last year, an amount that was more than one-third of the government's net interest payments. A newspaper that was interested in informing its readers rather than pushing an agenda would have explained that deficits in the current context do not impose a burden rather than gratuitously pointing out that spending and tax cuts add to the deficit.

 
The Washington Post's Expert Economic Analysis Print
Thursday, 02 December 2010 13:56

The Washington Post told readers today that the plan put forward by the fiscal commission: "could ignite a serious effort to reduce government debt and spare the nation from a European-style fiscal crisis." This assertion does not appear in an editorial, nor is it presented as the view of any expert or political figure cited in the article.

Rather this is an assertion of fact in a front page "news" story. Of course those who know economics would find this assertion laughable. Unlike the European countries facing fiscal crises, the United States has its own currency. This means that the country need never face the same sort of constraints as these countries. The worst case scenario would be the country would see a bout of inflation from an overstimulated economy. Of course the country is nowhere near this situation now and need never come close to it if the health care sector is fixed, a point never discussed in this article.

Unfortunately, this is not the only piece of editorializing in this article. The article describes the willingness of people on both the left and right to compromise as setting "aside ideological orthodoxy." This sort of condescending characterization of people's positions is left for the opinion pages at serious newspaper.

The article also took sharp issue with the judgement of financial markets telling readers that the Bowles-Simpson proposal: "would bring it [the debt] down to a more manageable 40 percent of gross domestic product over the next 25 years." This implies that the current debt to GDP ratio is not manageable, disputing the assessment of investors who are willing to make long-term loans to the government at interest rates of less than 3.0 percent. In Japan the debt to GDP ratio is 227 percent and investors are willing to make long-term loans to its government at interest rates of close to 1.0 percent. It would be interesting to know what metric the Post has used to determine that current debt to GDP ratios are unmanageable. 

The Post also implicitly patted itself on the back, telling readers that:

"the commission has already attracted more attention and received more respect than nearly anyone predicted." 

The extensive and almost completely uncritical coverage that the Post has given the commission co-chairs is a big part of the "more attention" and "more respect" to which this statement refers. More objective reporting might have noted an apparent conflict of interest when one of the co-chairs gets $335,000 from a major Wall Street bank and the financial industry somehow escapes unscathed from taxation in their proposal. It might have also highlighted the ill-informed and sexist e-mails of the other co-chair, which almost certainly would have led to the summary dismissal of a progressive member of the Obama administration.

 

 
NPR Does an Editorial for Deficit Reduction Print
Thursday, 02 December 2010 05:10

NPR again abandoned journalistic standards in pushing deficit reduction by insisting that doing so is courageous. Given the wealth of the people pushing for cuts to Social Security and Medicare, and the fawning attention that these people get from media outlets like NPR and the Washington Post, it is difficult to see what it is courageous about trying to take away benefits for middle class retirees.

It also wrongly described the deficit as "spiraling." Of course the deficit is not spiraling. The deficit rose in 2008-2010 because the housing bubble collapsed. NPR, like other news outlets, largely ignored the $8 trillion housing bubble. An honest discussion would point out that the deficit has temporarily ballooned because of the incompetence of people who carry through and report on economic policy.

In the longer term the deficit is projected to rise, but that is because of the projected explosion of U.S. health care costs. Our per person costs are projected to rise from more than twice the average in countries with longer life expectancies to more than three times as much.

Honest and courageous politicians and reporters would be talking about the real problem, a broken health care system. They would not be mis-representing it as a problem of a spiraling deficit.

 
Fed Loans: Who Didn't Get Them? Print
Thursday, 02 December 2010 04:56

The NYT and other papers reporting on the Fed's disclosure of information on the beneficiaries from loans in its special facilities includes the Fed's justification that the loans required collateral and the taxpayers were well protected. It would have been worth including some context here.

At the time the special facilities were at their peak, liquidity carried an enormous premium. The Fed was giving out money to banks, non-financial companies, and foreign central banks at interest rates far lower than those available in the private market at the time. This allowed the recipients to make large profits with this money at the time and in many cases kept the companies in business.

It is not surprising that the vast majority of this money was paid back, since the economy did not collapse. However, this does not mean that the loans did not involve a large public subsidy. It is comparable to giving water to people in the middle of a drought. When it rains again, we can easily get the water back with interest, but that doesn't change the fact that providing water in the drought to the folks like Citigroup and Morgan Stanley who got large amounts of it. 

 
Homes Prices are Plunging: Let's Talk About the Deficit Print
Wednesday, 01 December 2010 07:59

The media almost completely overlooked the housing bubble on the way up. In the years 2002-2007 there were probably 1000 stories written about the deficit for every story that raised any questions about house prices being inflated.

Of course the bubble did eventually burst, giving us the worst economic disaster in 70 years. But hey, no one ever said that an economics reporter could learn anything. Yesterday's Case-Shiller data showed that house prices in its 20-City index fell 0.7 percent in September. This would be an 8.5 percent annual rate of decline, which would imply the loss of more than $1 trillion in housing wealth over the course of the year.

The data for the bottom third of the housing market looked even worse. Prices for homes in this segment of the market had a 2.6 percent one-month decline in both Seattle and Boston. They fell by 3.4 percent in Phoenix and 3.7 percent in Portland. Prices for homes in the bottom tier fell by 3.9 percent in both Tampa and Chicago. They fell by 7.0 percent in Atlanta and 7.4 percent in Minneapolis.

The sharp decline in house prices in the bottom tier since the expiration of the first-time buyers tax credit means that the loss of home equity for many recent buyers will have exceeded the value of the credit. In such cases the credit effectively went to the seller, or in the case of underwater mortgages, to the bank that held the mortgage.

For one more interesting data point, the Census Bureau released data on new home sales prices for October last Wednesday. This release reflects much more up-to-date data since it is based on contract prices. The Case-Shiller index is a 3-month average that is based on closings, which typically occur 6-8 weeks after a contract is signed. The report showed that the price of a median home fell 13.6 percent in October hitting its lowest nominal level in 7 years.

These data on falling house prices were largely invisible in business and economic news reporting yesterday. Instead, the focus was the budget deficit and the deficit commission reports. After all, if we don't do anything and the deficits follow their projected course, we will have a really high budget deficit in 2025.

What does it take to get economic/business reporters to pay attention the economy?

 

 
Bowles and Simpson Violate Commission Charter and the Washington Post Covers Up Print
Wednesday, 01 December 2010 05:23

The Washington Post, which long ago abandoned rules of journalistic objectivity in pushing its agenda for cutting Social Security and Medicare, today covered up the plans by deficit commission's co-chairs to violate the commission's charter. The Post reported that the commission expects to delay voting on a plan until December 3. This means that the commission will miss the December 1 deadline for a final report specified in both its by-laws and its charter.

If the Post were not so committed to Bowles and Simpson's agenda then it would have called readers attention to the fact that they are violating the rules under which the commission was established. Of course, if it were following standard journalistic practices, the Post would have pointed out that the deficit increased not because of out of control spending, as the co-chairs have repeatedly claimed, but primarily due to the downturn caused by the collapse of the housing bubble.

It also would have pointed out that the huge long-term projected deficits are entirely attributable to the broken health care system. If the United States paid the same amount per person for health care as countries with longer life expectancies we would be facing huge budget surpluses, not deficits. However, because it editorial position dominates its news section, almost no readers of the Post would know this simple and important fact.

 
Economic Theory Predicts that We Would Not Have Very Good Economists Print
Tuesday, 30 November 2010 06:51

Suppose that school teachers could keep teaching and get regular promotions year after year no matter how badly they performed in the classroom. Suppose also that there was no incentive to teach well. Economic theory predicts that we would get a large number of unmotivated mediocre teachers.

Okay, suppose that the people who design economic policy never need to worry about getting fired no matter how badly their policies turn out. They continue to hold their jobs and get regular promotions. Under such circumstances we should expect that we would get mediocre economists.

This simple fact should have been included in an interesting WSJ discussion of efforts to promote new directions in economics. If there is no incentive to get things rights, then economists should expect that economic policy will be largely done by people who are not competent.

 
TARP Celebrations: Round 657 Print
Tuesday, 30 November 2010 05:52

A new report from the Congressional Budget Office prompted another round of celebrations in the media over how little the program cost taxpayers. In fact, the program kept the major Wall Street banks in business preserving trillions of dollars in paper wealth for stockholders, bondholders, and top executives at these institutions.

The situation can be compared to one in which the government prints up a trillion dollars and hands it to the Wall Street gang. Since the money was just printed, it does not require any tax revenue. Nonetheless, this transfer will be a burden on all non-Wall Street types in future years, since the Wall Street crew will have a claim on society's resources that they would not otherwise have.

In the case of the TARP and related Fed and FDIC programs, the government made trillions of dollars in loans and loan guarantees available to the banks at far below market rates. This allowed them to survive in a situation where they would have gone under if the market had been left to work its magic. The fact that Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley and the rest still exist and its top executives are hugely wealthy is a direct result of the taxpayers' generosity.

 
Protectionism Leads to Corruption #4567 Print
Tuesday, 30 November 2010 05:46

Nearly all economists speak derisively of tariff barriers that raise the price of imported goods above their marginal cost. In addition to the inefficiency this causes, tariff protection also invites corruption as the protected industries try to maximize the value of the rents they receive.

The identical logic applies to patent protection, except patents can raise the price of goods by tens or hundreds of times the competitive market price, not the 15-30 percent that would be more typical of tariff protection. It would be useful if this point was made in the context of an article reporting on how a drug company had ghost authored a textbook for two medical researchers.

 
Labor Shortages in China Are an Argument Against Raising the Yuan? Print
Tuesday, 30 November 2010 05:34

In the NYT they are. In a world where we have 9.6 percent unemployment and the deficit is problem #1, anything is possible.

The NYT reported on evidence of serious labor shortages in export centers and then told readers today:

"China can point to the labor shortage in the export hubs as one reason not to let the renminbi’s value rise, since companies are already grappling with the possibility that higher wages could make their goods less competitive. A significant currency appreciation could help cause a wave of business failures and bankruptcies, Chinese officials say."

Okay, black is white, night is day. This makes zero sense. China would have a good case against raising the value of the currency if the opposite were the case. If it had high unemployment so that reducing its exports could create serious deprivation and social unrest, then it would have a good argument against raising the value of its currency, but low unemployment?

If high labor costs push a firm out of business then this is because it uses its labor less efficiently than other firms. This is known as "capitalism." Firms that cannot compete are supposed to go out of business. Furthermore, in the context of a tight labor market, the bankruptcy does not even hurt workers, since the employees of a bankrupt firm just go over to one of the other firms that are desperate for workers.

The evidence in this article should support the case of those who believe that China should raise the value of its currency. That case should have been made to readers.

 
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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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