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Home Publications Blogs Beat the Press If Frank Bruni Knew Arithmetic He Wouldn't Write Columns Like This One

If Frank Bruni Knew Arithmetic He Wouldn't Write Columns Like This One

Saturday, 17 September 2011 22:04

Frank Bruni, one of the NYT's new columnists, ran a column today complaining about government corruption in Italy and the impact that an aging population in both Italy and the U.S. will have on reducing the living standards of our kids. This is one of those columns which could have been so easily prevented if the NYT just required a remedial 3rd grade arithmetic course for columnists that intend to write on economic issues.

For example, Bruni complains that seniors and older workers want to protect Social Security and Medicare. If he looked at the Congressional Budget Office's projections for Social Security he would see that they show a 1.6 percentage point increase in the payroll tax would leave the program fully solvent throughout its 75-year planning period.

By comparison, workers' wages are projected to rise by almost 40 percent over the next three decades. This means that the program can be kept fully solvent with a tax increase that is less than 5 percent of projected wage growth over the next three decades. This will impoverish our kids?

Of course most workers have not shared in the wage growth over the last three decades. The vast majority of wage growth has gone to those in the top 10 percent of the wage distribution. However this raises questions about  government policies that redistribute income upward, like trade policy, Federal Reserve Board policy, and patent policy. However, none of these villains appear in Bruni's column, he just wants to take Social Security checks, which average less than $1,200 a month, from current and future retirees.

The same story applies to Medicare. The problem is not that Medicare beneficiaries are getting such great care. The problem is that we pay way too much to pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, and doctors. If we paid the same amount per person for our health care as people in other wealthy countries then we would not have to increase payments to Medicare for many decades into the future. But again, Bruni's target is the seniors getting Medicare, not the powerful interests driving up costs. 

We find the same logic in Bruni's diatribes against Italy. He complains about the excessive pay and perks of the Italy parliament. While he may well have a case, if we take his numbers at face value, the 1000 member parliament costs Italy around $200 million a year. By comparison, Robert Rubin personally pocketed close to $120 million sitting near the helm at Citigroup, as the company was being driven into the ground and taking the economy down with it.

There is no excuse for public officials ripping off the people they are supposed to represent. But it is striking that they feature so prominently in Bruni's piece, while the barons of finance, who make the corruption of public officials look like chump change, are nowhere to be found.

Finally, Bruni somehow thinks that young Italians will be hurt by the country's low birth rate. In fact, this is likely to help future generations of Italians since it means that there will be shortages of workers. That will allow them to command higher wages. There are also many benefits of a smaller population that will not be picked up in official statistics. For example, public facilities like parks and beaches will be less crowded, as will transportation facilities. Also, it will be much easier to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants with a smaller population.

Comments (10)Add Comment
written by Robert, September 18, 2011 2:05
"In fact, this is likely to help future generations...since it means that there will be shortages of workers. There are also many benefits of a smaller population that will not be picked up in official statistics. For example, public facilities like parks and beaches will be less crowded, as will transportation facilities. Also, it will be much easier to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants with a smaller population."

The implication is obvious. We need to dramatically reduce immigration.
Huh?, Low-rated comment [Show]
written by Terry Humphrey, September 18, 2011 8:32
Re: Ranta
Dr. Baker proposed a 1.6 increase in the payroll tax in the second paragraph.
Greater Good for Greater Number: Trickle Down Utilitarianism, Low-rated comment [Show]
Monetary Sovereignty, Low-rated comment [Show]
People who can read, and know where to look, have Dean Baker. Then there's radioland.
written by Rachel, September 18, 2011 12:21
The things you hear while making breakfast(at 5 am), because NPR was busy talking yuppie piffle, egg-donors rights to privacy, etc. And other radio stations were airing those heart-breaking ads urging the elderly to sign over their homes.

So there was a right-wing radioman claiming that for anyone middle-aged, the Social Security fund would be completely empty by the time they were 65. Anguish, I presume, spread through the audience. Unless they had Dean, or similar sources of enormous expertise. But that's not easy to find. And it's really a shame. You hear that, NPR??
Pareto Optimum Means Zero-Sum Game Situation
written by RepubAnon, September 18, 2011 2:08
It's been a while since freshman economics, but I recall a Pareto Optimum as a situation where making someone better off means making someone else worse off (ie a zero-sum game scenario). Thus, Pareto optimization ultimately hits a sticking point.

In our current economic clime, people would rather pay large sums out-of-pocket to live in gated communities with private security and send their kids to private school than pay smaller sums in taxes for police and public education. This isn't a rational scenario - but it's very human.

It is this fear-induced hoarding mindset that causes many of our problems today. Remember old scenarios where people with bomb shelters planned on fighting off their less-well-prepared neighbors in case of nuclear attack? Same thinking, except now people feel there isn't enough income to go around.
written by urban legend, September 18, 2011 2:21
I'm betting Bruni doesn't even give a crap what the truth is about Social Security. He's got his story, and he knows its popular among his equally ignorant peers, and so he's going to stick to it no matter what you or anyone else who really understands the facts says.
Et tu, Bruni?
written by Fritz Niedermeier, September 18, 2011 6:11
Just keep in mind that in the lead-up to the debt limit ceiling crisis, neither Bruni nor Nocera nor Friedman nor Dowd nor a single one of the NY Times's liberal columnists, save Krugman, typed a single word to inform people what the debt limit celing was, why raising it was important, or what would happen if it were not raised, which is to say, what the majority of Republicans voted for--not to raise it--and what nearly all the GOP candidates also are on record as supporting. An immediate cut of 30%-40% in federal appropriated spending would have meant what to most Americans? Do you know yet? Doesn't it sound like it would have been pretty bad? Yet Frank Bruni, who infamously swooned over George W. Bush's cowboy boots and winks, wasn't going to tell you. He didn't know and didn't care. None of them, save Krugman, do. They're on Easy Street. The rest of us...well, just keep in mind without Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and a house if we have managed to keep one, and children if we have them and they're working, we're going to be pretty bad off, especially if the Wall $treet casino keeps getting its way with our retirement savings and pensions and anything else they can.
written by coberly, September 18, 2011 7:25
can't add much to what dean... and most of the commenters... have already said, exept

that the tiny increase needed in the tax could be phased in at a rate of about forty cents per week per year in today's terms.

and if continued past the "Death of the Trust Fund" date, would "fund" Social Security as far as the eye can see "over the infinite horizon" while wages more than double... leaving the next generations far better off than we ever were, WITH a fully paid up SS and twice as much to spend every Friday as they have now.

moreover, even that it not needed. if NO changes are made in SS at all the future beneficiaries will get "enough" by OUR standards, though perhaps not enough by theirs: in which case THEY could decide how much they want to raise their own taxes to raise their own benefits.

The big Lie today is to stampeded us into cutting benefits forever, in order to destroy SS as an effective way for workers to be able to afford to retire "if all else fails." It is, by the way, their own money. It has nothing to do with the deficit, and isn't even "government spendign."

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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.