The Media and Policy Makers deliberately misrepresent and ignore EconomistsPosted: August 4, 2013
I use to watch PBS a lot. It’s been rather overrun by nutso libertarians and republicans the same way Europe was over run with Bubonic Plague-carrying fleas during the middle ages. Back in the middle ages, the “enlightened” religious and kingdom policy makers decided cats were the problem–since they obviously represent all things witchy–when they were really part of the solution. Cats ate rats and mice and a lot of the worst of the flea-bearing vermin. The guilty fleas escaped blame. Nowdays, pundits, policy preachers, and the political class believe that economists are part of the problem and have created a serious amount of snake oil-based explanations that simply do not hold up to analysis or data.
So, PBS Newshour gets David Brooks–dilettante extraordinaire–and Ruth Marcus–professional effete intellectual snob for hire–to explain the recent employment numbers. Yup, why get economists to talk about the consensus in our community when you can have inside-the-beltway surrealism ? Why is David Brooks given a platform to spew lies, nonsense, and propaganda? Dr. Baker, I am excerpting you completely. Forgive me the lapse in fair use.
The PBS Newshour won the gold medal for journalistic malpractice on Friday by having David Brooks and Ruth Marcus tell the countrywhat the Friday jobs report means. Brooks and Marcus got just about everything they said completely wrong.
Starting at the beginning, Brooks noted the slower than projected job growth and told listeners:
“Yes, I think there’s a consensus growing both on left and right that we — the structural problems are becoming super obvious.
“So when the — this recession started a number of years ago, you had 63, something like that, out of 100 Americans in the labor force. Now we’re down, fewer than in [the employment to population ratio is now 58.7 percent] — than when the recession started. And so that suggests we have got some deep structural problems. It probably has a lot to do with technological change. People are not hiring — companies are not hiring human beings. They’re hire machines.”
It’s hard to know what on earth Brooks thinks he is talking about. There is nothing close to a consensus on either the left or right that the economy’s problems are structural, as opposed to a simple lack of demand (i.e. people spending money). This is shown clearly by the overwhelming support on the Federal Reserve Board for its policy of quantitative easing. This policy is about trying to boost demand. A policy that the Republican Chairman, Ben Bernanke, has repeatedly advocated to Congress as well. This policy would not make sense if they viewed the weak demand for labor in the economy as being the result of structural problems. So clearly Brooks’ consensus excludes the Fed.
It also is worth noting the other part of Brooks’ story, that instead of hiring workers firms “hire machines,” is completely contradicted by the data. Investment has actually slowed in the last couples of years. (Non-residential investment is up by just 2.4 percent from its year ago level.) This means that firms are not hiring machines, or at least not as rapidly as they had in prior years. Also the rate of productivity growth has slowed sharply from the pre-recession period. In the last three years productivity growth has averaged less than 1.0 percent a year. This compares to more than 2.5 percent a year from 1995 until the recession in 2007. This means that machines are displacing workers much less rapidly than in a decade when we had much lower unemployment.
How does one get a job speculating on national TV on things one knows nothing about? I think I would like a job like that. It has to be easier than actually going to school and become a research specialist in a field. I think I’d be great at astrophysics commentary. Maybe I can replace Dr. Neil DeGrassi who gets all the kewl special effects-based astronomy gigs on PBS. Hell, there’s a doctor in front of my name too. Who cares if it’s not in anything germane or relevant to astrophysics? Certainly not PBS. But,here’s the shrill one with the facile, data-based debunk.
Indeed: one strong indicator that the problem isn’t structural is that as the economy has (partially) recovered, the recovery has tended to be fastest in precisely the same regions and occupations that were initially hit hardest. Goldman Sachs (no link) looks at unemployment in the “sand states” that had the biggest housing bubbles versus the rest of the country; it looks like this:
So the states that took the biggest hit have recovered faster than the rest of the country, which is what you’d expect if it was all cycle, not structural change.
I’ve done a quick and dirty take on unemployment by occupation, looking at changes in unemployment rates from the 2007 business cycle peak to the unemployment peak in 2009-10, and then the subsequent decline; it looks like this:
It’s the same as the geographical story: the occupations that took the biggest hit have had the strongest recoveries.
In short, the data strongly point toward a cyclical, not a structural story — and there is broad agreement, for once, among economists on this point. Yet somehow, it’s clear, Beltway groupthink has arrived at the opposite conclusion — so much so that the actual economic consensus on this issue wasn’t even represented on the Newshour.
Robert Reich thinks that its basically in Republican best interests to keep people unemployed and suffering. Believe me, people are unemployed and suffering. I can really offer us some anecdotal evidence on that as well as the numbers.
Job-growth is sputtering. So why, exactly, do regressive Republicans continue to say “no” to every idea for boosting it — even last week’s almost absurdly modest proposal by President Obama to combine corporate tax cuts with increased spending on roads and other public works?
It can’t be because Republicans don’t know what’s happening. The data are indisputable. July’s job growth of 162,000 jobs was the weakest in four months. The average workweek was the shortest in six months. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has also lowered its estimates of hiring during May and June.
It can’t be Republicans really believe further spending cuts will help. They’ve seen the effects of austerity economics on Europe. They know the study they relied on by Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff has been debunked. They’re no longer even trying to make the case for austerity.
It could be they just want to continue opposing anything Obama proposes, but that’s beginning to seem like a stretch. Republican leaders and aspiring 2016 presidential candidates are warning against being the “party of ‘no.’” Public support for the GOP continues to plummet.
The real answer, I think, is they and their patrons want unemployment to remain high and job-growth to sputter. Why? Three reasons:
First, high unemployment keeps wages down. Workers who are worried about losing their jobs settle for whatever they can get — which is why hourly earnings keep dropping. The median wage is now 4 percent lower than it was at the start of the recovery. Low wages help boost corporate profits, thereby keeping the regressives’ corporate sponsors happy.
Second, high unemployment fuels the bull market on Wall Street. That’s because the Fed is committed to buying long-term bonds as long as unemployment remains high. This keeps bond yields low and pushes investors into equities — which helps boosts executive pay and Wall Street commissions, thereby keeping regressives’ financial sponsors happy.
Third, high unemployment keeps most Americans economically fearful and financially insecure. This sets them up to believe regressive lies — that their biggest worry should be that “big government” will tax away the little they have and give it to “undeserving” minorities; that they should support low taxes on corporations and wealthy “job creators;” and that new immigrants threaten their jobs.
It appalls me that some one classified as a “liberal”–like Ruth Marcus supposedly is–can be a mouthpiece for lies that support a decidedly illiberal agenda. I believe Economist Mark Thoma has the correct take on this one.
The arguments serve an ideological goal. Perhaps we shouldn’t assume that the main motivation of many pundits and policymakers is economic rather than political?