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Frank Bruni Is Angry That the Government Pays 1000 Times as Much to Peter Peterson as It Does to the Average Kid

By: Dean Baker Sunday June 8, 2014 4:21 am
The vast majority of the money going to seniors in the Urban Institute's calculation refers to payments for Social Security and Medicare. These are benefits that seniors paid for during their working lifetimes with designated taxes.

The vast majority of the money going to seniors in the Urban Institute’s calculation refers to payments for Social Security and Medicare. These are benefits that seniors paid for during their working lifetimes with designated taxes.

Actually he is not angry about how much money the government pays to Peter Peterson but if he were consistent in his logic he would be. Bruni wrote an apology from older generations to millennials, and one of the central themes is that we are supposed to feel bad about all the money that we get for Social Security and Medicare:

The Urban Institute released a report in 2012 that looked at figures from 2008 for the combined local, state and federal spending that directly benefited Americans 65 and older versus spending that went to Americans under 19; the per capita discrepancy was $26,355 versus $11,822.”

The vast majority of the money going to seniors in the Urban Institute’s calculation refers to payments for Social Security and Medicare. These are benefits that seniors paid for during their working lifetimes with designated taxes. Ignoring the fact that people paid for these benefits would be as dishonest as ignoring that the fact that a rich person like Peter Peterson could get millions of dollars a year in interest payments on government bonds because he happened to pay to buy hundreds of millions of dollars of government bonds.

Neither Bruni nor economists at the Urban Institute would ever make the mistake of talking about the interest payments to wealthy people on government bonds without noting that these people had paid to buy the bonds. Why do they forget this connection when it comes to talking about Social Security and Medicare benefits?

And these are benefits that are largely paid for. According to an analysis from the Urban Institute, the typical retiree will get slightly less back in Social Security benefits than what they paid into the program in taxes. The cost of their Social Security benefits will substantially exceed what they paid in taxes, however this is due to the fact that health care costs more than twice as much per person in the United States as the average for other wealthy countries.

This is not due to getting better care in the United States. It is due to the fact that our doctors get paid twice as much, our drug companies and medical equipment suppliers charge close to twice as much, and administrators and top management in hospitals and other health care providers get paychecks that are many times larger than their counterparts in other countries.

We may owe an apology to millennials for handing them an enormously unequal economic system, but that is not Bruni’s complaint. He wants middle class seniors to apologize for getting benefits that cost lots of money because the wealthy charge so much to provide them. As a practical matter the impact of inequality will swamp any costs that might be associated with Social Security and Medicare.

If young people get their share of the economy’s productivity growth their real wages will be close to 50 percent higher in 30 years according to the Social Security trustees projections. On the other hand, if the trends in inequality we have seen over the last three decades continues, their wages will be little changed from what they are today.

Of course Bruni does have a point when it comes to global warming, but here also the class dimension should not be ignored. The media highlighted economic hardships that could come from measures to slow global warming in ways that they never did in other contexts, such as increases in military spending. This has helped bolster the case of those who did not want to take action. So the people who own and control major news outlets like NPR and the NYT should perhaps be signing Bruni’s letter, but the bulk of the public who had little say in the matter have less cause.

(I would have Al Gore sign the letter also since the guy could not even be bothered to pay a couple of grad students to maintain a website on his movie/book.)

Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economy and Policy Research. He also writes a regular blog, Beat the Press, where this post originally appeared.

 

Stress Test: The Indictment of Timothy Geithner

By: Dean Baker Saturday May 24, 2014 8:32 am

At one point in his autobiography, Timothy Geithner proudly recounts responding to a question from Damon Silvers, a lawyer with the AFL-CIO who was at the time a member of the Congressional Oversight Panel for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). Silvers had referred to Geithner’s background in banking. As Geithner relates the story, he corrected Silvers by pointing out that he had never worked in banking, never worked in investment banking, but rather had spent his whole career in public service.

Timothy Geithner, Still Shoveling

Timothy Geithner, Still Shoveling

Anyone reading this book will forgive Silvers for his confusion. Even if Geithner had never been officially employed by a bank, his attitudes and concerns clearly reflect those of the financial industry. This comes through in matters big and small.

On the small side, Geithner tells us that Jamie Dimon, the CEO of J.P. Morgan, offered to have his staff draft the financial reform bill. He adds that Dimon later expressed his irritation to President Obama because Geithner would not take him up on this offer, explaining that Dimon apparently did not recognize that having the staff of the country’s largest bank draft financial reform legislation was not the message the administration wanted to send the public. Apart from the messaging issue, Geithner doesn’t seem to see a problem with having the largest firm in the industry deciding how it will be regulated.

In the same vein Geithner tells us that Robert Rubin didn’t like the Volcker Rule. This is a surprise? The Volcker Rule was designed to be a substitute for Glass-Steagall, which Rubin helped repeal as Treasury Secretary. Rubin then went on to personally profit to the tune of more than $100 million as a top executive of Citigroup, the firm that benefitted the most directly from the repeal.

On the more substantive side, Geithner’s concerns seem to begin and end with finance. We see this early on in his recounting of the heroics of the Clinton era in engineering various bailouts. For example, he tells us about the twists and turns that the Treasury Department went through to rescue Mexico from its financial crisis in 1994. In his account he saved 90 million Mexicans from default which would have implied hyperinflation and mass unemployment.

While we can never know the counter-factual, Mexico had the worst per capita growth of any major country in Latin America in the two decades following the Clinton administration’s bailout. By contrast, Argentina, which did default in 2001, quickly recovered the ground lost in the ensuing crisis and grew rapidly until the world economic crisis in 2008. Of course the financial industry was much happier with the Mexican route, in which their loans were repaid in full, than the Argentine route where they were forced to take substantial losses.

Paradise Lost: Fred Hiatt and Bowles-Simpson

By: Dean Baker Tuesday April 22, 2014 5:43 am
Fred Hiatt

“No one in Washington is more Serious than Fred Hiatt.”

As many have noted, the Very Serious People in Washington have a peculiar love affair with the Bowles-Simpson commission, or more accurately the report produced by the two co-chairs of the commission. (The report is often referred to as a report of the commission. This is not true since it did not have the support of the necessary majority of commission members.) There is no one in Washington who is more Serious, than Washington Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt.

Hiatt once again expressed his disappointment that President Obama did not embrace the co-chairs’ report.

At home, the fateful moment came in 2011 when Obama cold-shouldered the bipartisan panel he had appointed to right the nation’s finances for the long term. That, too, was a decision in keeping with the polls.

The Simpson-Bowles commission had called for higher taxes and slower growth in Medicare and Social Security spending.

Hiatt is either unfamiliar with the commission’s by-laws that required that a report have the support of 12 of the 16 commission members or simply decided to mislead readers. The point is that in reality Obama did not “co-shoulder” the commission, since the commission did not produce a report, contrary to what Hiatt asserts.

However the substance is even more fun. Hiatt tells readers:

Instead of chaining themselves to 20th-century arguments and interest groups, Democrats could have begun to shape — and realistically promise to pay for — a 21st-century progressive program focusing on early education and other avenues to opportunity. They could have resources for family policies that really would help address the wage gap.

Okay, never mind that we don’t have family policies that can address the wage gap. (Maybe teach the families of corporate directors to tell them not to take bribes to let CEOs get outlandish pay?) The more striking point is that Hiatt is criticizing President Obama for not cutting Medicare, but in fact Medicare spending is now projected to be less than what it would have been with the Bowles-Simpson cuts.

In 2020, the last year for their budget proposal, Bowles and Simpson projected that we would spend $1,461 billion on Medicare and other health care programs. The latest projections from the Congressional Budget Office show us spending $1,417 billion in 2020 on health care programs.

We can argue over the cause of the slowdown in health care spending, but in any case we have actually achieved greater savings in this area that Bowles and Simpson had hoped to achieve with their cuts. In other words, if the point was to free up money for other programs, we got more than what Bowles-Simpson would have given us. It’s therefore difficult to see what he is complaining about. Of course if the point was to inflict pain on middle income people then Hiatt’s disappointment is more readily understandable.

Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economy and Policy Research. He also writes a regular blog, Beat the Press, where this post originally appeared.

Catherine Rampell Is Right: Medicare Is a Steal, but for Whom?

By: Dean Baker Thursday April 10, 2014 9:08 pm

It’s not the beneficiaries who are doing the stealing

Catherine Rampell used her column today to defend an earlier column complaining that baby boomers are taking from young people through Social Security and Medicare. She acknowledges that most baby boomers will not come out ahead on Social Security (actually they come out someone behind in the source she cites) but then tells readers:

Medicare, on the other hand, is pretty much a steal no matter when you turned 65.

This is true, but it’s hard to argue that it is the beneficiaries who are doing the stealing. We pay more than twice as much per person on average for our health care as people in other wealthy countries. We have little or nothing to show for this extra spending in terms of outcomes. For example, every other wealthy country has longer life expectancies than we do. It therefore is hard to argue that seniors are the beneficiaries of the exorbitant spending on Medicare.

On the other hand, we know who does benefit. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services released data this week showing that small number of doctors account for a grossly disproportionate share of Medicare’s payments to doctors, with many collecting more than $1 million a year from the system. The top earner, a big campaign contributor, pocketed more than $20 million in a single year.

Doctors in the United States earn more than twice as much on average as their counterparts in other wealthy countries. We also pay more than twice as much for our prescription drugs and for medical equipment. If one were to look for people stealing from Medicare, these and other health care providers would be the obvious candidates.

It is also worth noting that the well-being of people of Rampell’s generation (her explicit concern in the piece) will depend far more on stopping and reversing the pattern of upward redistribution of income that we have been seeing since 1980. If this is not reversed then millennials will see little of the 50 percent growth in real compensation over the next three decades that is projected by the Social Security trustees. if millennials are able to secure wage gains that track the economies productivity growth then their gains in compensation will be an order of magnitude larger than any possible tax increases associated with Social Security and Medicare.

Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economy and Policy Research. He also writes a regular blog, Beat the Press, where this post originally appeared.

NYT Does Hilarious April Fools Joke on Budget Reporting

By: Dean Baker Wednesday April 2, 2014 1:39 am
The facade of the New York Times building

The joke’s on your readers, Grey Lady …

The NYT took advantage of April Fools Day to do budget reporting that provided no information to almost all of its readers. An article on the budget introduced by Paul Ryan, the Republican head of the House Budget Committee, told readers how much the budget proposes to cut over the next decade in dollar terms. Since virtually no one has any idea of how much the government will spend over the next decade, this information is meaningless to almost everyone who reads the New York Times.

The NYT piece told readers:

Mr. Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman and a possible White House contender in 2016, laid out a budget plan that cuts $5 trillion in spending over the next decade.

Later the piece added:

In his plan, military spending through 2024 would actually rise by $483 billion over the spending caps established in the 2011 Budget Control Act ’consistent with America’s military goals and strategies,’ while nondefense spending at Congress’s annual discretion would be cut by $791 billion below those strict limits.

As with past budget proposals, Mr. Ryan seeks to eliminate the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion, a $792 billion retrenchment, then turn the health care program for the poor into block grants to the states — saving an additional $732 billion over the decade. He would turn food stamps into a block grant program and cap spending, starting in 2020, cutting that program by $125 billion in five years.

Of course only a tiny fraction of NYT readers have any idea what these numbers could imply for their pocket book, in terms of potential tax savings, for the total budget, or for the programs affected.

Had this been written as a real news story, these sections might have read:

“Mr. Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman and a possible White House contender in 2016, laid out a budget plan that cuts $5 trillion in spending over the next decade. This is 12.3 percent of projected spending or roughly 2.7 percent of projected GDP over this period.

“In his plan, military spending through 2024 would actually rise by $483 billion over the spending caps established in the 2011 Budget Control Act “consistent with America’s military goals and strategies,” while nondefense spending at Congress’s annual discretion would be cut by $791 billion below those strict limits. The increase in defense spending is equal to 7.4 percent of projected spending, while the cut in nondefense spending is 13.0 percent of spending in this category.

“As with past budget proposals, Mr. Ryan seeks to eliminate the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion, a $792 billion retrenchment, then turn the health care program for the poor into block grants to the states — saving an additional $732 billion over the decade.This cuts total federal spending on non-Medicare health programs by 26.0 percent over the 10-year budget period. Since the cuts are phased in, the cuts in 2024 amount to 49.6 percent of projected spending on non-Medicare health programs in that year.

“The cuts to the food stamp amount to 16.4 percent of projected spending on the program. Since Ryan’s proposed cuts are first applied to years after 2019 they amount to 33.3 percent of projected spending on food stamps in these years, reducing total spending by 0.5 percent in these years.”

Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economy and Policy Research. He also writes a regular blog, Beat the Press, where this post originally appeared.

Robert Samuelson’s Arithmetic Challenged Economics

By: Dean Baker Sunday February 23, 2014 7:13 pm

Yes, it’s Monday and Robert Samuelson is badly confused about economics again. Today he complains about the White House’s “fairy-tale economics.”

A stone dragon statue

Under Samuelson’s fantasy of Fairy Tale Economics, are dragons job creators?

Robert Samuelson is upset because the Obama administration has been arguing that it is possible to raise the minimum wage without any job loss. He apparently feels that he can now dismiss this claim as fairy-tale economics because the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) issued a study that put its best guess of the job loss from the administration’s proposal at 500,000.

It’s worth noting that in its report CBO did not dismiss the possibility of zero job loss as fairy-tale economics. CBO noted the economic research on the topic and commented that the plausible range of impact would include near zero. CBO did not do original research, rather it chose to pick a number for its estimate that was a midpoint of the findings of recent research. (See my colleague John Schmitt’s post for a longer discussion.) So the dismissal of a zero estimate of job loss as fairy-tale economics is Samuelson’s invention, not a conclusion based on CBO’s analysis.

It is also worth doing a little arithmetic to assess the 500,000 figure. As Samuelson points out, CBO projects that the minimum wage hike would affect 16 million people directly and another 8 million through spillover effects. This means that the lost jobs will be roughly equal to 3 percent of the workers directly affected and 2 percent of the total number of workers who see wage hikes.

For the most part, the reduction in employment of 500,000 will not correspond to workers being laid off. More likely it means that workers will not be replaced when they leave and that firms will be slower to hire when they see an increase in demand.

This is important to keep in mind, because we are not talking about 500,000 workers being permanently unemployed. Minimum wage jobs tend to be high turnover jobs. As a practical matter, a loss of 500,000 jobs means that workers will spend more time looking for jobs when they first enter the labor force or change jobs. This means that they can expect to spend roughly 2-3 percent less time working, but when they do work they will get close to 19 percent more per hour. Note this is not “fairy-tale economics,” this is Robert Samuelson’s economics if he bothered to think through what he was saying.

There are other fun items in Robert Samuelson’s piece. He is still unhappy about the Affordable Care Act. He tells readers;

In another report, the CBO estimated that the health insurance subsidies in the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) would discourage people from working, resulting in a loss of the equivalent of 2.5 million full-time workers by 2024.

Let’s try a little logic here. CBO says that being able to get access to health care insurance outside of the workplace will lead people to reduce the number of hours they work by the equivalent of 2.5 million full-time jobs. This means that near retirees, people in bad health, and parents with young children will opt to work less. Samuelson apparently thinks this is really bad for some reason — maybe he can explain why in a later column.

But from the standpoint of employment, it’s hard to see why this is not good news. In effect, this is saying that 2.5 million people who would rather not be working will be opting out of the labor force. This means that 2.5 million jobs will be opening up for people who do want to work. And the problem is?

Finally, Samuelson is upset that President Obama has not approved the XL pipeline, which he describes as a “job-creation project.” Here too a bit of arithmetic is in order. According to the standard estimates, the XL pipeline would increase employment by about 0.007 percent for two years. The jobs added would be the equivalent of two days worth of normal job creation. That would not seem to fit the bill of a “job-creation project.”

However the other side of the story is that it will facilitate the extraction of oil that is very dirty from the standpoint of global warming. In other words, it will contribute in a big way to global warming and the destruction of the planet.

This is especially ironic coming from Samuelson. One of the main themes of his columns is that the old are stealing from the young with their Social Security and Medicare. However Samuelson apparently sees nothing wrong with handing our kids a wrecked planet so that we can increase employment by 0.007 percent for two years.

Hey, this is the Washington Post and Robert Samuelson, you were expecting an argument that made sense?

Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economy and Policy Research. He also writes a regular blog, Beat the Press, where this post originally appeared.

WaPo Tells Liberals That They Have No Political Power: The Case of Social Security

By: Dean Baker Saturday February 22, 2014 8:39 am

Washington Post

“Liberals didn’t kill Obama’s Social Security cuts: Republicans did.”

The WaPo gets infuriated at the thought that anyone who doesn’t have lots of money could affect political outcomes in the United States. Hence it was quick to run a piece with the headline:

“Liberals didn’t kill Obama’s Social Security cuts: Republicans did.”

The reference is to President Obama’s decision to remove the proposal to reduce the annual cost of living adjustment to Social Security benefits. The proposal would have reduced benefits by roughly 0.3 percentage points annually against current law. This cut is cumulative so that after ten years it implies a cut of roughly 3.0 percent, after twenty years, 6.0 percent, and for someone who lives to collect benefits for thirty years the cut would be 9.0 percent. (Obama’s proposal includes some offsets, so the actual cuts would be somewhat less, especially for the oldest elderly.)

The point of the piece is that Obama would have gone with this proposal, and probably still would today, if the Republicans were prepared to make some concessions on revenue. This is the logic of saying that the Republicans killed the plan, not liberals.

However this is just half the picture. The Republicans did not force President Obama to take the proposal out of his budget, liberals did. Because of a massive outpouring of opposition from across the country, Democratic members of Congress, who have to run for re-election, urged President Obama not to include the proposal in his 2015 budget.

Otherwise, this might have been a case where you just leave the Christmas lights out all year. Why bother to take them down? It’s of course painful at the Post to acknowledge that progressive groups without big bucks can make a difference in national politics, but it does happen from time to time.

The piece also tells readers:

many of his advisers believed that chained CPI [the cut to the annual Social Security cost-of-living adjustment], with protections for poor seniors, was a good policy that used a more accurate measure of inflation.

Actually, the Post doesn’t know what President Obama’s advisers believed. The Post knows what they said. President Obama’s advisers hold their positions because they are thought to be good at spinning reporters. Part of that spin means telling reporters that they really “believe” that President Obama’s positions are the best possible policy.

It is possible that President Obama’s advisers really do believe that seniors living on $1,300 a month (the average Social Security benefit, which is more than 90 percent of the income for almost 40 percent of retirees) have too much money, but they would say this to Washington Post reporters regardless of what they actually believed. That is a job requirement.

If a Post reporter claims that they know an Obama official well enough to ascertain their true beliefs then they are probably too close to that person to be able to report on them objectively

Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economy and Policy Research. He also writes a regular blog, Beat the Press, where this post originally appeared.

Charles Lane is Wrong on NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership

By: Dean Baker Tuesday February 4, 2014 5:20 am

Charles Lane is wrong, as usual, in arguing that the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), like its predecessor NAFTA, is good for U.S. workers. However, the piece is useful in providing an opportunity to explain some basic economics.

Protest sign: Stop TPP

The Washington Post mobilizes its best(?) in support of bad trade deals.

Most of the piece is dedicated to saying that NAFTA, which to some extent is a model for the TPP, was really good for the country. Lane starts by disputing that NAFTA contributed to the $181 billion trade deficit that the United States ran with Canada and Mexico. He tells readers:

But $100.7 billion of this deficit is because of oil imports, according to U.S. government trade statistics. NAFTA has nothing to do with this; Canadian and Mexican oil imports always flowed freely.

Nope, that’s not how it is supposed to work. The United States is a net importer of oil and derivative products. That does not mean that the United States is supposed to run a trade deficit. According to good old econ 101, a deficit on oil trade is supposed to mean that the dollar falls, which then leads us to increase exports and reduce imports of other items. This adjustment would not take place over night, but we would expect it to take place over a long enough period of time. So pointing to oil imports and saying that we really don’t have a trade deficit with these countries really is silly. (This doesn’t mean the deficit is due to NAFTA, but it certainly doesn’t preclude the possibility.)

Then Lane gives us a head scratcher. He tells us this trade figure doesn’t include, “almost $90 billion worth of goods that entered this country from elsewhere and then got re-exported to Mexico or Canada.” He then points out that re-exports create jobs in the U.S. in shipping and other areas. Incredibly, Lane then adds in the full $90 billion value of the re-exports, telling readers:

Eliminating oil and including re-exports produces a U.S.-NAFTA surplus of roughly $7 billion in the goods trade.

Wow, so we get just as many jobs from having one million cars pass through ports in Oakland and Los Angeles on their way to Mexico and Canada as we do from building one million cars and exporting them to Mexico and Canada? Apparently we do on the Post’s opinion page. Remember these are the folks, who in NAFTA boosterism, claimed Mexico’s economy quadrupled from 1987 to 2007. (The actual increase was 83 percent.)

Getting beyond Lane’s silliness, there are two ways in which trade has hurt most workers in the United States. First the overall trade deficit has cost the country millions of jobs. This is as basic as it gets. If we have a trade deficit, this is demand that is going overseas rather than creating jobs in the United States. If we spend $100 billion in Europe, that $100 billion is not creating jobs in the United States.

We can in principle offset a trade deficit with increased domestic demand, but that is not easy to do when the deficit is large, as is the case today. With a $500 billion annual trade deficit (3 percent of GDP) we need some mix of large budget deficits, booming investment, or surging consumption, to offset the demand lose due to the trade deficit. We were able to offset this loss of demand with the stock bubble in the late 1990′s and the housing bubble in the last decade, but otherwise it does not seem plausible. (BTW, the impact of the trade deficit in reducing demand swamps any plausible effects of reduced consumption due to upward redistribution of income. It is bizarre that economists are finally willing to talk about the latter, but still unwilling to think about the former.)

Okay, so a large trade deficit means less demand and fewer jobs. If we put the deficit at 3-4 percent of GDP (the deficit would increase if we were at potential GDP) then we would be talking about 4.2-5.6 million direct jobs. Assuming a multiplier of 1.5, this would get us 6.3-8.4 million jobs. In other words, this is a big deal.