Another Failure of Arithmetic at the Washington Post

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Sunday, 04 July 2010 07:04

The NYT reported Thursday that manufacturers in Cleveland were having difficulty getting skilled workers. It turned out that the problem seemed to be that the managers interviewed in the article were not willing to pay the market wage for skilled workers, offering jobs that pay just $15-$20 an hour.

While the NYT may have been wrong about the shortage of skilled manufacturing workers in Cleveland, there does appear to be a shortage of skilled economics writers at the Washington Post. In his column today, Frank Ahrens warns readers that when they assess Paul Krugman's dismal forecast for the economy:

"you need to read him through a filter. He believes that the $787 billion government stimulus approved last year was not enough to really kick-start the economy and that much more is needed."

While $787 billion is a big number, people who understand the economy would compare it to the gap the stimulus was intended to fill rather than just be awed by the size. The collapse of the housing bubble cost the economy more than $500 billion in annual construction spending (both residential and non-residential). It lost approximately the same amount of of annual consumption spending as homeowners cut back consumption in response to the loss of $6 trillion in home equity.

The $787 stimulus package was supposed to replace more than $1 trillion in annual demand. The stimulus package included a technical fix to the tax code of approximately $80 billion that provided no real stimulus. It also included around $100 billion that would be spent in 2011 and later. This left about $600 billion to be spent in 2009 and 2010, or $300 billion a year. Roughly half of this increased in spending at the federal level was offset by cutbacks at the state and local level, leaving $150 billion a year in net stimulus from the government sector to offset a loss of more than $1 trillion in annual spending from the private sector.

People who know economics would think that a $150 billion in net government stimulus is insufficient to offset a loss of more than $1 trillion. Unfortunately, Mr. Ahren is apparently paralyzed by large numbers and is not capable of making this sort of assessment himself. This leads him to mock Krugman for making completely reasonable statements about the economy.

Mr. Ahrens lack of skills apparently prevented him from understanding that the reponse he received from his equity strategist friend, Peter Bookvar, about the state of the economy made no sense whatsoever. Ahrens reported Bookvar's response to an e-mail asking about the economy:

"'Our fragile economy CANNOT handle any tax hikes whatsoever, particularly on capital and the income of those who invest, save and spend the most,' Boockvar wrote, meaning those American families that make more than $250,000 a year. The all-caps are his, but the feeling is shared by many."

It is not clear what Bookvar thinks that wealthy people will do with their tax cut. Saving and spending are direct opposite actions. He might think that saving will help the economy (it is very difficult to see how), but then spending would hurt the economy and vice versa. The only plausible meaning that can be attached to Mr. Bookvar's comment is that he wants wealthy people to have more money and apparently wants the government to run a larger deficit to ensure that they do. The comment concludes that "the feeling is shared by many," which would seem to contradict the Post's frequent assertions that everyone is obsessed by the deficit.

Mr. Ahrens also shared another piece of misinformation in his effort to discredit Krugman's assessment of the economy. In a recent column Krugman had made some comparison's of the current situation to the depression that began in 1873. Ahrens responded by telling readers:

"The fastest that information and capital could move in this sprawling nation in 1873 was about 80 mph -- the top speed of a steam locomotive. When bad times hit back then, they tended to settle in for a good, long time." 

This is not true. The telegraph was in use since the 1830s, with the first transcontinental line put in place in 1861.

Anyhow, it is too bad that the Post cannot find someone with the skills necessary to report on the economy.