Beat the Press

The NYT Features the Views of the Mysterious "Many" Who Don't Understand Social Security's Finances

Serious newspapers don't pull down ghosts from the sky to present their views to readers. However, in an a rticle discussing the implications of the health care plan, the NYT told readers:"many have come to believe that the system [Social Security] must change or go broke, the battle Mr. Bush fought and lost in 2005." Of course people who are familiar with the finances of the system don't believe such things. The Congressional Budget Office projects that the program can pay all scheduled benefits through the year 2044 with no changes whatsoever. Even after this date it could still pay more than 75 percent of projected benefits long into the future (a level far higher than current benefits) even if no changes were ever made. In fact, these projections show that Social Security is on a sounder financial footing today than it has been through most of its history since it can go 34 years with no changes being made at all. This was not true at any point in the first 40 years of the program...

The NYT Does Not Like Social Security

That is what can be concluded from its decision to call the Treasury bonds held by the Social Security trust fund "IOUs." This is not the normal term applied to government bonds in the New York Times or anywhere else. This is a pejorative term that has the effect of undermining the credibility of the trust fund. That is the sort of comment that is usually reserved for its opinion pages. The article also wrongly tells readers that: "By 2016, Social Security will begin paying more in benefits than it collects in payroll taxes, according to the annual report of government trustees." Actually, Social Security is currently paying out more in benefits than it collects in taxes. This fact has no special relevance for the program since it has already accumulated more than $2.5 trillion in government bonds to cover future projected shortfall. Opponents of Social Security have long sought to hype the date when benefits would exceed annual tax collections in order to promote the sense of crisis...

Robert Samuelson's New Economic History

While rightly blaming Greenspan for the economic downturn, Robert Samuelson gets a few things wrong in his Post column . First, he attributes the revitalization of the U.S. economy to the end of the double-digit inflation of the 70s. Actually, most of the drop in inflation had been completed by the early 80s. However, there was no uptick in productivity growth from the inflation-wracked 70s until the mid-90s. It is also worth noting that the whole world saw a sharp drop in inflation over this period with no noticeable uptick in productivity growth in the vast majority of countries. In short, there is no plausible link between the fall in inflation and economic revitalization that he touts. It is also wrong for Samuelson to claim that the 2001 recession caused by the stock market crash was mild. In fact, the economy had considerable difficulty recovering from this crash, which is why Alan Greenspan left the federal funds rate at 1.0 percent for almost two years. While the recession...

Japan's Central Bank Holds Much of Japan's Debt

An AP story in the Washington Post on the IMF's warnings about debt levels told readers that: "Japan's debt is proportionately even bigger -- about twice its GDP -- but the impact is cushioned because most is held by Japanese households." Actually the fact that the debt is mostly held by Japanese households by itself is of little consequence. If Japan had been running large trade deficits and foreigners had bought private assets but not government bonds, then Japanese households and its economy would be in the same situation as if foreigners had bought its debt. The key point is that Japan has been running trade surpluses so that it has accumulated foreign assets rather than selling off domestic assets. It is important that a very high portion of Japan's debt is held by its central bank. This means that the interest on the debt is paid to the bank. It is then refunded to taxpayers so this debt does not impose any burden whatsoever. --Dean Baker

NPR Covers Up for Economists' Responsibility for Pennsylvania Pension Shortfall

A Morning Edition piece on the shortfall in Pennsylvania's public employee pension funds told listeners that just 10 years the funds were over-funded, then the good times went away. Actually, 10 years ago the stock market was in the middle of a huge bubble. This temporarily inflated the assets of pension funds, including the public pension funds in Pennsylvania. While competent economists recognized this bubble and warned of the consequences of its collapse, virtually all of the economists who were steering economic policy, and being relied upon as sources by media outlets like NPR, insisted that stock prices would continue to rise and that the stock market would offer 7 percent real returns on average in the years ahead. Because Pennsylvania and other states listened to these incompetent economists in planning its pension contributions and benefit levels, they now face enormous funding shortfalls. Few, if any, economists have suffered at all in their careers for this incredible...

$85 Billion is 2 Percent for the Pharmaceutical Industry

The NYT article on the passage of the health care reform package noted that the pharmaceutical industry had agreed to reduce their charges by $85 billion over the next decade. It would have been helpful to tell readers that this is a bit more than 2 percent of projected revenues over this period for the industry. The patent monopolies granted by the government on prescription drugs give them about three times as much money every year. --Dean Baker

Does the Post Know How Patent Monopolies Affect Drug Prices?

It seems that they don't. The paper has a good article in the business section discussing how drug companies use illegal or unethical methods to push their drugs in order to take advantage of the huge patent rents available. However, the lengthy article never once notes that the patent system is at the heart of the problem. If drug research was financed through a mechanism that allowed drugs to sell at their market price, the incentives for this sort of corruption would disappear. --Dean Baker

Bernanke, Who Engineered Huge Bank Mergers, Rails Against Giant Banks

The NYT reported that in a speech before the Independent Community Bankers of America Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke lashed out against the risks created by giant too big to fail banks. It would have been worth mentioning that Bernanke had helped to engineer several mergers that made very large banks even larger during the financial crisis in 2008. For example, when Bear Stearns was collapsing, the Fed supported an arrangement whereby it was taken over by J.P> Morgan in exchange for a guarantee of $30 billion in assets. The Fed also supported the takeover of Wachovia by Wells Fargo. If Mr. Bernanke has changed his view on the risks posed by very large banks, it would have been appropriate to call readers attention to this fact. --Dean Baker

China's "Human Face" on Opposition to a Higher Yuan

According to USA Today , China's government tried to put a "human face" on its opposition to raising the value of the yuan by presenting the case of a small business owner who is worried that he will lose his workers to better paying employers if the yuan rises in value. Of course, this is not exactly how the situation was described. In the article, the small business owner on display complained that his material costs had risen by 17 percent in the last year while his labor costs had risen by 30 percent. He then added that a 3 percent rise in the value of the yuan would be devastating. Of course if his labor costs rose by 30 percent this suggests that his workers have many other options where they can make better wages. He must therefore raise his wages to keep pace. If this makes him unable to stay in business, then it would be unfortunate for him, but present no real problem for his workers, since they obviously have alternative employment options. This does not sound like a...

Are Auto Companies Really Worried that Financial Reform Will Prevent Them From Giving Consumers "Cheap Credit"?

That's what the Post told readers in noting opposition to Senator Dodd's bill. Of course just because they say that they are worried about their ability to provide cheap credit to consumers does not mean that this is actually their concern. Lobbyists sometimes do not tell the truth. --Dean Baker

Greenspan Tries to Rewrite History of Housing Bubble

Alan Greenspan refused to acknowledge responsibility for the housing bubble again in a talk given at Brookings yesterday. It would have been helpful if the NYT had provided some additional history to point out to readers that what Greenspan was claiming was not true. For example, Greenspan asserted that: "Unless there is a societal choice to abandon dynamic markets and leverage for some form of central planning, I fear that preventing bubbles will in the end turn out to be infeasible. ....Assuaging their aftermath seems the best we can hope for.” Rather than using the Fed's research and ability to shape public debate to warn of the bubble, Greenspan repeatedly insisted that there was no housing bubble. He even encourage homebuyers to take out adjustable rate mortgages at the end of 2003 when fixed rate mortgages were near a 50-year low. In fact, the Fed even published a study saying that there had been no run-up in prices -- rather the widely increase was attributable to measurement...

Non-Story On Regulator Bonuses: A Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Waste

AP broke the big news -- better be sitting down: "During the 2003-06 boom, the three agencies that supervise most U.S. banks – the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., the Office of Thrift Supervision and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency – gave out at least $19 million in bonuses" Oh my god! oh my god! Just think, the money used to pay bonuses at these three agencies over this three year period would have been almost enough to pay the one-year bonus of a single top performer at Goldman or AIG. What an incredible waste of taxpayer dollars. It is understandable that AP would look into this issue, but responsible people there should have quickly realized that there is nothing here. We have all sorts of incompetents running the regulatory agencies (starting with Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke), and we should certainly be asking about whether they deserve their paychecks, but the money at issue with these bonuses is far too trivial to waste anyone's time with. --Dean...

TARP Give Aways

The Post discussed the extent to which banks have repaid their TARP money , noting that small banks have been much slower to pay back the government loans than large banks. At one point the article discusses the sale of warrants on bank stock that the government received as part of the package. It comments that: "the goal of requiring the warrants was to ensure that taxpayers would see a return once the banks recovered." It is worth noting that the government lent TARP funds at interest rates that were far below the interest rates prevailing in the market at the time. In many cases these below market loans were needed to allow banks to survive. In all cases, the subsidy provided by these below market loans amounted to a substantial gift to the bank. For example, Goldman Sachs (one of the more creditworthy banks) had to pay 10 percent interest on the money it borrowed from Warren Buffet at almost the exact same time as it got TARP loans from the government. The interest rate on TARP...

Why the "Jobs Bill" Won't Creat Jobs

The NYT article on the jobs bill passed by the Senate yesterday included the views of economists Timothy Bartik and John Bishop as to why the bill will likely create few jobs. It would have been helpful to include the fact that the private sector adds roughly 4 million jobs a month, most of which are replacing jobs lost due to either workers quitting or being laid off. The jobs bill would allow firms to take the credit for any of the workers that they would have hired anyhow, as long as the workers has been employed less than 40 hours in the last sixty days. Since the credit provided in the bill is relatively small (6.2 percent of wages for the rest of 2010 and $1,000 if the worker stays on the payroll for 1 year), the vast majority of workers for whom the credit is claimed almost certainly would have been hired even without the credit. In other words, it is money for nothing. --Dean Baker

Senator Simpson's China Bashing

The NYT ran a profile of former Senator Alan Simpson, who was selected as one of the co-chairs of President Obama's deficit reduction commission. The article quotes him as saying: “when Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security suck up the entire revenue stream, we will be going to China and others to finance two wars, and that means borrowing it.” This statement reflects either Mr. Simpson's ignorance of economics or his antipathy towards China, or possibly both. The reason that the United States borrows money from China is due to the over-valuation of the dollar. At the current level of GDP and current value of the dollar, the United States would be borrowing just as much from China if its budget was balanced. Anyone who is concerned about foreign borrowing by the United States should be discussing the value of the dollar, not the budget deficit. --Dean Baker

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