Beat the Press

Do the Washington Post Editors Know How Markets Work?

The Post has a piece this morning about the non-enforcement of laws against hiring undocumented workers. The article includes several statements, including one from Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, to the effect that native born citizens will not do the jobs that are filled by undocumented workers. Believers in markets would say that if wages rose, then plenty of native-born citizens would be willing to fill the jobs. Interestingly, meat processing is one of the industries discussed in the article. Thirty years ago, this was an industry with relatively high-paying (albeit extremely unpleasant) jobs. It was also relatively highly unionized. Plenty of native born citizens wanted these jobs. The Times had a much more insightful piece on the same topic. It reports on the growing use of undocumented workers as custodians and how this has been associated with a decline of wages in the occupation. --Dean Baker

Wasting Public Funds on Destroying the Planet

It is remarkable that ostensibly intelligent people can be made to fear the possibility that Europe and Japan will be less crowded places in the years ahead. The Financial Times has an article that reports on a warning from "top fertility experts" over "Europe's chaotic response to its demographic crisis." It is hard to find the evidence for the crisis in the story. The article reports that health care spending as share of GDP is projected to rise from a Europe-wide average of 6 percent at present to 8 percent by 2050. Since the U.S. currently spends 15 percent of its GDP on health care, it is difficult to get too concerned about this prospect. The article gives the usual hype about the rise in dependency ratios, there will be fewer workers for every dependent. Those who have mastered arithmetic know that the projected increases in productivity swamp the impact of rising dependency ratios on living standards. For example, if productivity growth averages a very modest 1.5 percent...

Interesting News On China

The New York Times reported on Saturday that China's central bank is adopting a more contractionary monetary policy in order to slow its economy and reduce inflation. If China's central bank is concerned that inflation is getting out of control, then it would be an ideal time for the country to begin to raise the value of its currency against the dollar. This would have two beneficial effects from the bank's standpoint. First, a more valuable Chinese currency will make Chinese exports more expensive. This will slow China's export growth, and thereby help to slow its economy. The other effect is that a higher valued currency will make imports cheaper. Lower priced imports will help to alleviate domestic inflation by making cheap goods available as inputs into production, and also by allowing workers to consume more without pay increases. A higher valued Chinese currency will be a mixed story for the United States. On the one hand, it will make U.S. goods more competitive, both in the...

Strong Words on the Fed

"The Fed chairman may be appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate, but his real bosses are on Wall Street." This isn't the ranting of some crazed radical; it is a line from a column in the Washington Post 's Outlook section, by Richard Yamarone, an investment analyst. While I probably never would have phrased it so bluntly, I think that Mr. Yamarone is largely correct. It is worth reflecting on this one. The interests of Wall Street investors are not necessarily the same as the interests of the public as a whole. For example, big wage increases, that come out of corporate profits, would be very welcome news to the vast majority of the population, since they depend on wages for the bulk of their income. Needless to say, lower profits are not welcome news on Wall Street. The fact that we have an arm of the federal government that answers to the special interests on Wall Street, rather than the larger public, should be cause for concern in a democracy. --Dean Baker

Cooking Unemployment Data to Make the U.S. Look Better

Laurent Guerby made a post on the prior topic about European-U.S. unemployment comparisons, I was just at a conference sponsored by the OECD where exactly this issue came up. The basic point is that proponents of the U.S. model want to add people in employment training programs and disability roles in Europe to their official unemployment rates for purposes of international comparisons. This seems bogus on several grounds. First, the employment training programs are obviously heavily subsidized by the government (often 100 percent), but there are many situations in the U.S. where jobs enjoys substantial government subsidies. The EITC peaks at more than 35 percent of wages, throwing in work related child care benefits can easily push the subsidy to more than half of the wage. At what point do we say that the job is simply concealing unemployment, a 60 percent subsidy?, an 80 percent subsidy?, or does it have to be 100 percent? Furthermore, what if the government paid the full wage, and...

Is Bernanke Promoting Inflation?

There is an interesting aspect to the recent rise in the inflation rate that the media have not really explored. The biggest factor in the higher than expected May measure was a jump in rent. (The two rental indices, owners' equivalent rent and rent proper, account for nearly 40 percent of the core consumer price index [CPI].) One explanation for more rapid increases in rents is that people who cannot afford to buy houses, due to higher mortgage rates, are now looking to rent. The Census Bureau's data on vacancy rates gives us evidence to support this position. Rental vacancy rates have fallen by almost a full percentage point from their record high 10.4 percent in the first quarter of 2004. At the same time, the vacancy rate in ownership units has increased from 1.7 percent to 2.1 percent over this period. (There are twice as many ownership units as rental units, so the overall vacancy rate is basically the same over this period.) Insofar as this story is true, it implies a very...

Great Political Caricature, Courtesy of David Brooks

In his New York Times column today, "Changing Bedfellows", David Brooks did a far better job describing the nanny state conservatives' framing of economics than I could ever hope to do in my book. Of course, he ostensibly was saying how the world actually is, rather than how the nanny state conservatives want us to see it. According to Brooks, we have the populist nationalists who argue against immigration and trade, and want to ensure workers' security through Social Security and national health care insurance. This group includes Pat Buchanan, Lou Dobbs, Al Sharpton and Kevin Phillips. On the other side, we have the progressive globalists, who want to expand trade and allow immigration in order to promote economic growth. This group includes Hillary Clinton, Mark Warner, John McCain and Rudy Giuliani. It's great caricature, a perfect example of the framing that I criticized in my book, The Conservative Nanny State : How the Wealthy Use the Government to Stay Rich and Get Richer [...

Is Alan Blinder a Protectionist?

Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne is a decent person, whose views on many issues I share, but his column today is almost a caricature. It perfectly demonstrates why liberals/progressives are so lost on economic policy. Dionne notes the collapse of good-paying jobs in the auto industry, the manufacturing sector, and increasingly other sectors due to trade and outsourcing. He then cites a recent article by Princeton University professor and former Fed Vice-Chairman Alan Blinder (identified as "no protectionist") warning that the trend toward declining wages due to competition with the developing world is likely to spread to more sectors in the future. The implicit question that Dionne then poses is "how can we maintain middle class living standards without being hoary protectionists?" The answer of course is that Alan Blinder, Bill Clinton and the other "free traders" referred to in the article are in fact protectionists. They just don't own up to it. The competition that our...

Joe Six-Pack's Stock Portfolio?

"Experts" get away with saying almost any nonsense they like when it comes to talking about the stock market and the economy, but I think that we may have hit a new high today. A Times article today quotes Mark Cliffe, global head of financial markets research at ING Group in London, saying that the U.S. stock market has fallen 5-6 percent this year. The expert adds that if it falls another 5 percent, it could affect consumer spending and "‘Joe-Six' could start to cut back his stock portfolio." Okay, there could be a wealth effect from lower stock prices on consumption, but this usually takes some period of time. Furthermore, wasn't the purpose of supply-side tax cuts (as in President Bush's tax cuts) to increase saving? In other words, we are supposed to believe that less consumption is bad when it happens because the stock market falls, but good when it is due to a tax cut. (More savings MEANS less consumption.) But part 2 of this quote is the real fun -- Joe Six-Pack's stock...

Escaping With the Trust Fund

Folks, I am off for a weeklong vacation. I will not be back at my blogging duties until Monday, June 12th. In the meantime, my colleagues at CEPR, Heather Boushey, David Rosnick, John Schmitt, and Mark Weisbrot will be intermittently filling in. I should also warn that there may be somewhat more delay before your comments get posted. Comments to the blog are moderated, and I can't guarantee the pace at which items get posted in my absence. I am sorry to leave in the middle of a lively debate on the Social Security trust fund. I am sure that there will be no difficulty reaching consensus on this issue in my absence. --Dean Baker

Fiction on the Social Security Trust Fund

Nothing like some comments on the trust fund to get the blogging juices flowing. It is amazing how metaphysical these discussions on the trust fund get. I don't really see anything very complicated here. I am simply referring to the law as it stands. Under the law, Social Security can only pay benefits out of the money that it has in its trust fund. Yes, that means it has a separate account from the rest of the budget. If the budget has an enormous surplus, but the trust fund is empty, then no benefits get paid, that's the law. On the other side, if the government has an enormous deficit, but the trust fund still holds bonds, then Social Security benefits still get paid, that's the law. I have not commented on whether I like the law or not, I am simply describing the law. (By the way, Medicare is currently being financed in part by the bonds held in its trust fund, and I have not heard a single politician make an issue of this.) Under the law, there is absolutely nothing that would...

Libeling Social Security

One of the disadvantages of having a public Social Security system is that people are free to make all sorts of untrue statements about it without facing any consequences. For example, an oped in the Washington Post this morning described the Social Security trust fund as "largely an accounting fiction." This statement is of course absurd. The trust fund consists of U.S. government bonds, which the government is obligated to repay under the law. There is no sense whatsoever in which it can accurately be described as fictional. Because Social Security is an agency of the government, the author is free to impugn the soundness of Social Security's financial situation with impunity, and the Post need not fear any consequences from printing this libel. On the other hand, if the author had made similarly untrue claims about the financial status of General Electric or Microsoft, the paper would be quickly greeted with an angry call from some honcho corporate lawyer. The correction would...

There's Still Good Paying Jobs for CEOs

Gretchen Morgenson had a good piece in the Times documenting some of the ways in which corporate boards manage to dish out bonuses to CEOs even when they miss performance targets. With all the scandals in CEO pay over the last decade, it is remarkable that this sort of nonsense persists unchecked. Clearly there is a structural imbalance, with top executives being able to pilfer corporate coffers to enrich themselves at the expense of shareholders. It would be a simple matter (legally, if not politically) to change some of the rules of corporate governance to redress this imbalance. For example, how about requiring that the compensation of packages get sent out for shareholder approval at regular intervals? Suppose the rules also require that shareholder proxies that don't get returned don't count? (The standard practice now is that unreturned proxies are counted as supporting management.) How about also making corporate directors personally liable for not using proper care in setting...

Does Henry Paulson Advocate a Large Trade Deficit?

According to press accounts, Mr. Paulson is an ardent believer in a strong dollar. Regardless of what you think of the budget deficit, the strong dollar IS the reason for the trade deficit. This is not really a contestable point. No one opts to buy imported goods rather than domestically produced goods because of the budget deficit. They buy imported goods because the strong dollar makes them cheaper. It really is that simple. Of course, the United States cannot continue to run large trade deficits indefinitely. And the trade deficit is more than twice as large as unified budget deficit (it's more than 50 percent larger than the on-budget deficit). It might be cause for concern that our new Treasury secretary is a big advocate for enlarging the country's most unsustainable deficit, but you wouldn't get this from any of the reporting. The high dollar policy is also redistributive since it puts downward pressure on prices and wages in the sectors of the economy exposed to international...

Should Anyone Care About Consumer Confidence?

I have always considered the consumer confidence index to be one of the least valuable releases of economic data. Consumer spending is hugely important for the state of the economy, but the index provides very little information about the direction of spending. The index includes two components, a current situation component, which does track current spending reasonably well (and therefore has little predictive value about the future), and an expectations component which is highly volatile and has very little predictive value. The Times had a piece on the recent dip in consumer confidence this morning that backs up my view. The article includes a chart that shows the latest reading for the index is near its 2002 levels, when real consumer spending rose at a respectable 2.5 percent annual rate and the savings rate fell by more than a percentage point. In other words, a low consumer confidence index did not seem to have much impact on consumption growth. The index probably does give...

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