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Man Who Wrecked the Economy Says Stimulus Didn't Work Print
Wednesday, 15 September 2010 15:41
That could have been the headline of an article reporting former Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan's negative assessment of the stimulus. But, hey this is the Wall Street Journal.
 
The Good News On Retail Sales Print
Tuesday, 14 September 2010 14:28

The media are anxious to find good economic news, hence they seized on the August retail sales data as evidence that the economy is moving forward again. While the 0.6 percent reported growth in non-auto sales is somewhat better than expected, it is somewhat less impressive when we remember that the July data were revised down by 0.1 percentage point.

Also, much of the growth was driven by higher gasoline sales, which is most likely due to higher prices rather than more consumption. Non-auto, non-gas sales were 0.5 percent higher than in August than in July and just 0.3 percent about the June level. This is not exactly robust growth.

 
Amid a Shift of Business Contributions to Republicans, a Growing Number of Democrats Would Prefer to Extend All Tax Cuts, Print
Monday, 13 September 2010 04:54

This phrase could have appeared in a Washington Post article that noted many conservative Democrats are now supporting the extension of the tax cuts even to high income taxpayers. Instead the article attributed the switch in sentiments to concerns about a "weakening economy." It is worth noting that the congresspeople in question have not been known for their concerns about unemployment at other times. 

At one point the article asserts that: "Democrats will also take on the forces of globalization." It is not clear what taking on the forces of globalization means. Is someone who proposes a trade agreement "taking on the forces of globalization?" There seems to be some implication that the Democrats are pushing back against some predetermined "forces of globalization," but of course no such thing exists.

Everyone wants to shape globalization in certain ways. For example, the software, entertainment, and pharmaceutical industries all want to impose increased copyright and patent protection throughout the world. This could be described as attempting to "take on the forces of globalization" with much greater accuracy than the measures described in this article.

The article also refers to efforts to recover $15-18 billion in revenue over the next decade to cover the cost of various proposals. This is equal to approximately 0.05 percent of projected revenue over this period.

 
Pharmaceutical Industry Funded Study Shows that Unauthorized Drug Copies Save Tens of Millions Print
Sunday, 12 September 2010 10:17

This is the clear implication of a new industry funded study, even if USA Today essentially ran an ad for the pharmaceutical industry by headlining its piece: "growing problem of fake drugs endangers consumers' health." The article highlighted the fact that unauthorized copies of drugs sometimes do not meet the same standards as the official version, but also notes that: "counterfeiters are now able to fake drugs so well that even experts find it hard to distinguish the copies from the real deal." This implies that often the unauthorized versions will be every bit as good as the brand drugs.

According to the article, the study finds that the unauthorized drug market is between $75 billion and $200 billion a year, but adds: "the market is likely much bigger because many cases are hard to detect." If we assume an average prescription price of $2 (many of these drugs are sold in the developing world), then this implies that the unauthorized market involves sales of 37 billion to 100 billion prescriptions year. If 1 in 1000 of these prescriptions save a life (because the patient could not afford the authorized version), then unauthorized drugs save between 37 million and 100 people a year.

In an act of unbelievable sloppiness this article fails to distinguish between unauthorized copies, where the buyer knows that they are not getting the brand drug and genuine counterfeits, where the buyer is deceived about the drug they are buying. It also would have been helpful to include a discussion of alternatives to patent support for prescription drug research. Government imposed patent monopolies are the root cause of the high prices that create a huge market for unauthorized copies of drugs.

 
Fun With George Will Print
Sunday, 12 September 2010 08:32

The Washington Post likes to run columns that are chock full of mistakes so that readers can have fun picking them apart. That is why George Will's columns appear twice a week. Let's have a little fun with the latest, which is an attack on President Obama's economic agenda.

First, Will is anxious to tell readers that Democrats are telling the public that stimulus did not work because many think we need more stimulus. Actually, people who think we need more stimulus simply note that the stimulus was helpful, but not large enough for the task. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the stimulus added between 1.7 and 4.5 percent to GDP since its enactment (that's between $240 billion and $740 billion in additional output). It also lowered the unemployment rate by between 0.7 and 1.8 percentage points.

This was not enough to fully offset the damage from the collapse of an $8 trillion housing bubble. The collapse wiped out more than $1.2 trillion in annual demand (roughly $600 billion in lost consumption and $600 billion in lost construction). By comparison, the stimulus injected about $300 billion a year into the economy in 2009 and 2010. Roughly half of this was offset by cutbacks at the state and local level. So, we were looking at a net increase government sector stimulus of $150 billion, which was being used to counteract a decline in private sector demand of $1.2 trillion. 

Is anyone surprised that this was not enough? Will's conclusion that stimulus does not work is like seeing someone throw a few buckets of water on their burning house and then telling the fire department not to waste time with their hoses, because obviously water will not be effective against the fire.

Will then goes on to tell readers that Herbert Hoover was a great supporter of fiscal stimulus. Actually, real spending did increase under Hoover, but this was primarily because of the huge deflation of the era. In any case, the facts do not support Will's claim that:

"Real per capita federal expenditures almost doubled between 1929, Hoover's first year as president, and 1932, his last."

Actually, real federal expenditures rose by less than 20 percent if we follow Will and take 1932 as the endpoint. If we include 1933, which was partially a Hoover budget, then the increase is still just 44.9 percent. That is substantial, but certainly not "almost doubled."

Will goes on to complain that:

"Barack Obama has self-nullifying plans for stimulating the small-business sector that creates most new jobs. He has just endorsed tax relief for such businesses but opposes extension of the Bush tax cuts for high-income filers, who include small businesses with 48 percent of that sector's earnings."

Actually, most of the businesses whose taxes will be affected by the increase will only be trivially impacted. According to an analysis from the Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation, the average tax hit from Obama's plan on filers earning between $200,000 and $500,000 (the overwhelming majority of the affected small business owners) is $400. It is unlikely that a tax increase of $400 will have a big effect on the investment or hiring decisions of a business netting $350,000 a year. 

Therefore, the answer to question posed by Will: "does this increase anyone's confidence?" is almost certainly that it probably has almost no impact on anyone's confidence since it is largely irrelevant to the decisions of the vast majority of businesses.

Finally, Will ends by making a simple mistake of logic. He wants to beat up on the Cash for Clunkers program by arguing that only 1 in 6 of the cars purchases under the program were actually induced by the tax credit, as opposed to simply moving up a purchase that would have taken place anyhow.

While one may hope for a better ratio (and others have calculated higher ratios), since spending at a time of very high unemployment is essentially free, who cares? If we did not have the cash for clunkers program, fewer people would have bought more fuel efficient cars. The unemployment rate would be higher and we would be consuming more energy and emitting more greenhouse gases. How is that good? 

Will also complains that Cash for Clunkers hit poor people by raising the price of used cars. While it definitely did raise the price of used cars, most poor people already own cars. This means that Cash for Clunkers raised the price of the cars they own. For poor car owners this picture is largely a wash, their next car will cost more, but they will get more money on a trade-in. First time buyers are unambiguously hurt, but this is a minority of the poor.

 

 

 
Imagine If NYT Columnists Like Thomas Friedman Had to Know About the Great Recession? Print
Saturday, 11 September 2010 23:06

Then they wouldn't write ridiculous things like: "our generation’s leaders never dare utter the word 'sacrifice.' All solutions must be painless." If someone told Friedman about the recession, that nearly 15 million people are unemployed, that nearly 9 million are underemployed, and millions more have given up working all together, then he would not be saying nonsense about how baby boomers are looking for painless solutions.

On this planet, the vast majority of baby boomers, who have to work for a living, are already experiencing vast amounts of pain. What planet does Mr. Friedman live on and why on earth is he given space in the NYT to spew utter nonsense?

 
Can the NYT Refer to the Debt Without Using a Term Like "Ballooning?" Print
Saturday, 11 September 2010 08:15

Apparently not, since they feel the need to constantly tell readers in the news section that the paper considers the deficit/debt to be too large. There is no information added by the inclusion of the word "ballooning" in this sentence: "The specter of a ballooning national debt has led even some of the early supporters of the cuts, including the former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, to advocate letting them expire." 

The sentence could have been more accurate and shorter if told readers that Mr. Greenspan claims (the reporter does not know Greenspan's real views on the economy) that concerns over the national debt cause him to advocate letting the tax cuts expire. 

 
Washington Post Reports That Drug Patents Kill More than 1 Million People a Year Print
Saturday, 11 September 2010 07:48

The Post ran a badly confused article on unauthorized drugs and the harm they allegedly cause. The article uses the terms "counterfeit" and "fake" indiscriminately. It reports that some of the drugs bear the names of major manufacturers, indicating that many do not. Only the former can be viewed as "counterfeits."

The drugs that are not falsely sold as the products of major manufacturers are bought by people who understand that they are not buying a drug produced by a major drug company. This means that they are likely buying the drug because it sells for a price that is far below the price of the drugs sold by the major manufacturers.

For this reason, the article's assertion that:

"Experts say the global fake-drug industry, worth about $90 billion, causes the deaths of almost 1 million people a year and is contributing to a rise in drug resistance,"

is absurd on its face. The vast majority of the people buying these drugs would almost certainly not be able to afford the drugs produced by the major drug companies. If the $90 billion figure is true, then this implies that people around the world are buying tens of billions of prescriptions of unauthorized drugs. (Legal generics often sell for $4 at major retail chains in the United States. Presumably, unauthorized copies sell for much less in the developing world.)

While not all of these prescriptions involve life-saving drugs, even if just one in a thousand of these prescriptions is for a life-saving drug then the information in the article implies that unauthorized drugs are saving tens of millions of lives every year. Of course if we used a more efficient mechanism than patents to finance research then people around the world would be able to get high quality drugs at low prices.

 

 
David Wessel Tells Morning Edition that Ben Bernanke Doesn't Know What He Is Talking About Print
Friday, 10 September 2010 05:18

Wessel did not use exactly those words, but he told listeners that the only option that the Fed still has to boost the economy is to buy more long-term bonds. In 1999, when he was still a professor at Princeton, Bernanke wrote that, in similar circumstances Japan's central bank should deliberately target a higher inflation rate in the range of 3-4 percent.

This was an idea that was originally proposed by Paul Krugman and has more recently been suggested by Greg Mankiw, President Bush's top economic advisor, and Olivier Blanchard, the chief economist at the IMF. It would be interesting to know how Mr. Wessel determined that this idea is not a possible policy option.

 
The Washington Post Reports One Side of Football Scores Print
Friday, 10 September 2010 04:52

That's right, the Dallas Cowboys scored 14 points. In a separate game, the New York Giants got 9 points. This is what the Post's sports section would look like if it reported on football the same way the business section reports on trade.

An article on a Steelworkers' complaint against China for unfairly subsidizing its clean energy industries concluding by reporting that:

"Undersecretary of Commerce for International Trade Francisco Sanchez noted that the overall numbers showed 'very bright spots' for U.S. exports to fast-growing Asian and Latin American nations. He added that exports throughout major southeast Asian nations were up 40 percent this year amid strong regional economic growth."

The employment impact on trade is determined by the trade balance, as Mr. Sanchez presumably knows. The trade deficit with most developing countries has been worsening over the last year. For example, the trade deficit in goods with India was $2.8 billion through July of 2009, the deficit with Thailand was $6.4 billion. The corresponding numbers for 2010 are a deficit of $6.0 billion with India and $7.4 billion with Thailand. In other words, the trends are going the wrong way, the United States is losing more jobs because of trade, not fewer.   

 
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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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