Beat the Press

And, I Am Out of Here! -- Thanks TAP -- See You at CEPR

Today is the last day that Beat the Press will be appearing on The American Prospect's website. You'll have to go to Beat the Press' new home page (or new RSS feed ) from now on to read it. Thanks again to TAP for hosting BTP and exposing it to its well-informed and thoughtful readership over the past four years, as well as for graciously redirecting readers to BTP's new page . I hope you will continue to check in at TAP for the important perspective that it provides. --Dean Baker

Which Country Got All the Royalties in February?

That might have been a good question for reporters to address when they reported on the February trade data released yesterday. The data showed that royalties and licensing fees had increased by $883 million from January, a rise of more than 40 percent. This has occasionally happened in prior months and presumably reflects one-time payments to a producer or set of producers. However, this was a big part of the $2.8 billion rise in the overall trade deficit from January and it deserved some mention in the coverage of the February data. --Dean Baker

People Are Losing Their Homes and Their Jobs, But They Are Really Mad About the Deficit

That's effectively what the Washington Post told readers in another front page editorial highlighting the need for deficit reduction. The article said: "But by suggesting the deficit may have peaked, administration officials are taking a political gamble. If the favorable number does not hold up in coming months and the budget shortfall surpasses the $1.4 trillion recorded last year, voters in the November midterm elections could punish the Democrats for offering false hope." That's a great story. Is it plausible that even 1 percent of voters are going to have any clue as to whether this year's deficit is marginally higher or marginally lower than last year's deficit? Is there any reason that anyone should care? Is there any evidence that this will influence their vote in an environment where they are concerned about their jobs and their homes? In the Post's dreams maybe, but not on this planet. --Dean Baker

Pew Shows the Lack of Creativity Among Creative Workers

A new Pew poll of reporters and editors found a great deal of pessimism about the prospects for the newspaper industry. At one point, the article reports the poll's finding that: "about three-quarters of the editors who took part said they would have serious objections to accepting direct support from either the government or interest groups, and a similar number said their organizations had not seriously thought about taking donations from nonprofit groups." Of course there are other ways in which new media can be supported. Currently the government supports newspapers by granting them copyright monopolies. Without this special protection anyone would be able to use content without paying for it, including for commercial purposes. So these editors are already taking government support, even if they don't realize it. In the Internet era this mechanism of financing newspapers is obviously no longer adequate. It is striking that Pew failed to consider any of the obvious alternative...

Ben Bernanke, Who Missed an $8 Trillion Housing Bubble, Warned About the Deficit

In an article reporting on the debate over extending unemployment insurance benefits the Washington Post told readers: "on Wednesday, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke warned that growing budget deficits imperiled the economy's long-term stability." It is worth noting that in his capacity as a Federal Reserve Board governor from 2002 to 2005, chief economic adviser President Bush, and then Fed Chair since January of 2006, Bernanke never raised any concerns about the housing bubble and the threat it posed to the economy. Based on this history, readers may question Mr. Bernanke's ability to assess threats to economic stability. The Post should have informed readers of Bernanke's record on this issue. --Dean Baker

Texas and the Housing Bubble

Paul Krugman asks in his column this morning why Texas managed to largely escape the worst of the housing bubble while Georgia leads the country in the number of failed banks. Both are states in which the major cities have relatively few zoning restrictions or natural barriers, which allows for easy sprawl to meet new housing demand. Krugman explains the difference by the better consumer protection legislation in Texas. While this may have played a role, it is important to note that Texas had just been through a boom/bust cycle in the 80s. The state was at the epicenter of the S&L crisis. Land prices had soared with the oil boom at the start of the decade, but then collapsed along with the price of oil in the middle of the decade. Texas bankers who had lived through this experience might have had more realization that house prices could fall than bankers in other parts of the country. Of course, the experience of a recent boom and bust cycle did not affect in slowing the bubbles...

How Big Is China and How Ignorant Are They at the WAPO?

Those are the questions that readers of the WAPO's Sunday Outlook section must be asking. The Post told readers that: "this year, China's economy is expected to produce about $5 trillion in goods and services. That would put it ahead of Japan as the world's second-biggest national economy, but it would still be barely one-third the size of the $14 trillion U.S. economy." This reflects China's GDP measured on an exchange rate basis. However, economists typically use purchasing power parity measures of GDP for international comparisons. By this measure, China's economy is expected to be about $9.5 trillion this year . At its current growth rate, it will pass the size of the U.S. economy in about five years. By many measures it is already larger than the U.S.. For example, it has more Internet users, college graduates in science and engineering, a larger car market, and about twice as many cell phone users. The article also tells readers that the exchange rate will not have much impact...

NYT Goes Off the Deep End On Budget Deficits

The NYT notes that interest rates have recently risen and are generally predicted to continue to rise. It then told readers : "That, economists say, is the inevitable outcome of the nation’s ballooning debt and the renewed prospect of inflation as the economy recovers from the depths of the recent recession." Okay, what are they smoking there? We have just been through a period of extraordinarily low interest rates. Interest rates fell to their lowest levels in more than 50 years. This was a deliberate policy response to the worst downturn since the Great Depression. Once we are out of the worst of this downturn, everyone expected that interest rates would rise even if we had a balanced budget and moderate inflation, the latter of which is predicted by almost all economists. In other words, the standard projections from the Fed, the Congressional Budget Office and most private economists is that interest rates will be rising to normal levels from very low levels. Almost no one is...

Financial Crisis Commission Too Dumb to Recognize Housing Bubble Even Now!

This would have been a better headline for the Washington Post article on the testimony before the crisis commission of Fannie's former chief executive as well its top regulator. The discussion before the commission was apparently whether Fannie and Freddie were motivated by profit when they moved into Alt-A mortgages in 2005 and 2006 or whether they were trying to fulfill their mission of increasing homeownership. While there may be some debate over individual motivations, the obvious point that apparently went unmentioned in this article was that if the executives at Fannie and Freddie were not totally clueless about the housing market, they would have been cutting back on buying mortgages altogether in 2005 and 2006, when house prices were at levels badly inflated by the bubble. It was guaranteed that prices would drop and a high percentage of even traditional prime mortgages would go bad. In this environment, the responsible route for Fannie and Freddie would have been to only...

NPR Tells Listeners That Financial Regulation Is "Complicated"

We need reporters to do this ? In the course of the report NPR assured listeners that there was nothing that could be done about AIG's explosive issuance of credit default swaps (CDS) because it was an insurance company that operates in hundreds of countries. And furthermore, the federal government doesn't even regulate insurance, states do. Did this mean that the Fed could do nothing if it chose? Where were the statutory powers that allowed the Fed to arrange the unraveling of the Long-Term Capital Hedge Fund? Neither NPR's reporters nor anyone else would be able to find any statutory authorization for this action. The Fed used its authority and its ability to threaten non-cooperative actors to force most of the major banks to join this effort. In the same vein, if it had decided that the issuance of trillions of dollars of CDS by AIG was a problem, there were certainly steps it could have taken. For example, it could have told the major banks that they should not be buying CDS from...

Another Front Page Editorial from the Washington Post

The Washington Post (a.k.a. Fox on 15th) feels so strongly that we should reduce the budget deficit that they ran yet another front page editorial on the topic. The piece told readers in the second paragraph: "This mounting government debt poses a painful choice for developed countries such as Britain, Japan and the United States: either a deep reordering of public expectations about everything from the retirement age to tax rates, or slower growth as record levels of borrowing crimp economic activity." Well, that's pretty clear. The Washington Post told us in no uncertain terms that things will have to be pretty bad, no two ways about it. Only those who bothered to read to page two would find out that there is actually considerable uncertainty about the point at which debt really poses a serious burden on the economy. On page two they would discover the United States actually had a debt to GDP ratio that was nearly twice as high as it is presently. This did not prevent it from having...

Social Security, Like Peter Peterson, Is Draining Resources From the Federal Budget

The Washington Post (a.k.a. Fox on 15th Street) told readers that: "Social Security is already draining resources from the broader federal budget, as spending on benefits has risen above this year's Social Security tax collections." Yes, Social Security benefit payments exceed the money currently being collected in Social Security taxes. The gap is being made up by the interest it earns on the $2.5 trillion in government bonds held in the Social Security trust fund. It is peculiar to describe spending money from its interest earning (or for that matter the bonds themselves) as "draining resources from the broader federal budget." However, if that is the standard the Post wants to use, then we should say that any individual or entity that draws interest from the federal government on bonds it holds is also "draining resources from the federal budget." This means that billionaire Wall Street investment banker and long-time foe of Social Security Peter Peterson is also draining resources...

10 Percent at the WSJ Isn't the Same as 10 Percent for the Rest of Us

That is the only thing that readers can conclude from a statement in an article on Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke's urgings to reduce the deficit. The WSJ told readers that: "The government is running a budget deficit in excess of about $1.3 trillion, more than 10% of the nation's total economic output." Of course, the Commerce Department is telling us that GDP for the fourth quarter of 2009 was $14.5 trillion, which would mean that the deficit is less than 9.0 percent of GDP. This trouble with numbers carries over to the substance of the piece which is supposed to be that the country faces an imminent crisis in being able to sell its debt. It warns readers that: "yields on 10-year Treasury notes have risen from around 3.25% in late November to just under 3.9% today, in part because of concerns in credit markets about the mountains of government debt investors are being asked to buy to fund U.S deficits." Hmmm, we are paying 3.9 interest because there are concerns in...

Globalization and the Green Economy: China Provides Expertise to the U.S.

The NYT reports that China's government signed a deal with the state of California and General Electric to provide engineering expertise and high tech parts for the construction of high-speed rail. This is a fascinating and totally predictable story which cause great pain to many purveyors of the economic conventional wisdom (CW). China has been building high-speed trains, the United States hasn't. This means that the country has substantially more expertise in this area than the United States. As a result the transfer of this green technology will go from China to the United States, the opposite direction assumed by purveyors of the CW. More generally, this story shows the absurdity of the assumption of the purveyors of the CW that somehow the U.S. will transfer all its grunt work (i.e. manufacturing) to the developing world and leave the high tech stuff for our smart workers. The reality is that the developing world has hundreds of millions of smart workers who are able to do...

Did the Media Miss the Bubble? Did Saddam Lose His Last War?

Steven Pearlstein often has insightful columns, not today. He discusses a conference he attended in which a repeated theme was how the media contributed to the crisis with its poor reporting. He then comments: "although it's a bit overdone, I'll admit there is a dollop of truth in it." A "dollop?" How about an enormous ocean full of truth to it and Pearlstein continues to contribute to the crisis today by covering up the earlier failure. He tells readers that: "Three years after the onset of what was then thought of as the "subprime crisis," there remarkably is still no consensus on why it happened, who is to blame, how necessary the government bailouts were and what needs to be done to prevent such a cataclysm from happening again. Over time, the issues have been overwhelmed by populist anger, infused with political ideology, distorted by partisan maneuvering and special-interest pleading, and ultimately eclipsed by economic recovery." Yeah, it's all really really complicated. Except...

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