Tag: Washington Post

Imports Viewed Skeptically at the Washington Post

What explains the chronically misleading depictions and interpretations of international trade in the Washington Post?  Is it economic illiteracy? Intellectual indifference? Institutional bias? What?

The opening paragraph in Neil Irwin’s story (online, July 30, 2010, 9:13 am) reads:

The pace of economic growth slowed this spring, according to new government data, as Americans remained reluctant to consume and imports soared.

And a few paragraphs later:

The biggest drain on growth was imports, which rose 28.8 percent, compared with only a 10.3 percent gain in exports.

On July 14, one day after the Commerce Department’s monthly trade figures were released, revealing a slight increase in the trade deficit, the opening paragraph in the Washington Post story under the heading “Rising Imports Offset Export Gains” read:

America’s resurgent appetite for imports may undermine the Obama administration’s efforts to rekindle job growth, with a rise in overseas purchases by American businesses and households undercutting the benefits of increased U.S. sales abroad.

I have posted about this problem again and again and again and again and again (just this year), but apparently to no avail. The simplistic scoreboard interpretation of trade (where exports are considered “our” team’s points and imports “their” team’s) combined with a zeal for inciting fears about economic collapse seems to remain the formula of choice at the WaPo.

As I wrote yesterday:

U.S. producers account for over half of the value of U.S. imports, which means there is great potential to increase their competitiveness by improving their access to imports.  It also explains the strong correlation between imports and exports, between imports and GDP, and between imports and job growth — facts that too many politicians wish to expunge from the record. 

Along with politicians at the end of the last sentence, I should have included a certain newspaper.

Topics:

Compare and Contrast

Fourth Amendment:

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

Supreme Court (Katz v. U.S.):

“[S]earches conducted outside the judicial process, without prior approval by judge or magistrate, are per se unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment—subject only to a few specifically established and well delineated exceptions.”

Washington Post:

“The Obama administration is seeking to make it easier for the FBI to compel companies to turn over records of an individual’s Internet activity without a court order if agents deem the information relevant to a terrorism or intelligence investigation.”

Party Control Lives on in China

Andrew Higgins of the Washington Post reviews a new book on the continuing power of the Communist Party in sort-of-capitalist China:

McGregor points out that ‘Lenin, who designed the prototype used to run communist countries around the world, would recognize the [Chinese] model immediately.’ Case in point: the Central Organization Department, the party’s vast and opaque human resources agency. It has no public phone number, and there is no sign on the huge building it occupies near Tiananmen Square. Guardian of the party’s personnel files, the department handles key personnel decisions not only in the government bureaucracy but also in business, media, the judiciary and even academia. Its deliberations are all secret. If such a body existed in the United States, McGregor writes, it ‘would oversee the appointment of the entire US cabinet, state governors and their deputies, the mayors of major cities, the heads of all federal regulatory agencies, the chief executives of GE, Exxon-Mobil, Wal-Mart and about fifty of the remaining largest US companies, the justices of the Supreme Court, the editors of the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, the bosses of the TV networks and cable stations, the presidents of Yale and Harvard and other big universities, and the heads of think-tanks like the Brookings Institution and the Heritage Foundation.’

But not the Cato Institute, you betcha!

It Depends on What the Meaning of “Tax” Is

The print edition of the Washington Post and the online Real Estate home page feature this headline:

Debunking rumors of a housing sales tax

The article begins:

Rumors are flying that the health-care legislation Congress passed this year will impose a sales tax on all real estate sales.

So I’m thinking, OK, more crazy Glenn Beck tea-party stories about mythical Obama tax hikes, and the Post is going to debunk them. Then I keep reading:

But the rumors are based only partly on fact. Although there is a new tax, it will not apply to everyone, and existing tax breaks for home sales will remain in place.

The Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010, which President Obama signed into law March 30, is comprehensive and complex. Section 1402, “Unearned Income Medicare Contribution,” imposes a 3.8 percent tax on profits from the sale of real estate – residential or investment.

But the levy is aimed at high-income taxpayers, leaving most people untouched. And it will not take effect until Jan. 1, 2013.

Let’s look at the facts of this new law.

First, it is not a sales tax, nor does it impose any transfer or recordation tax. It is called a Medicare tax because the money received will be allocated to the Medicare Trust Fund, which is part of the Social Security system.

Next, if your adjusted gross income is less than $200,000, you are home free….

How is the tax calculated? Through a complex formula that could be called “the accountants’ protection act.” As a taxpayer, you (or your financial adviser) must determine which is less: the gain you have made on the sale of your house, or the amount by which your income exceeds the appropriate threshold.

So let’s recap here. Post contributor Benny Kass promises to “debunk” the “rumors” that “the health-care legislation Congress passed this year will impose a sales tax on all real estate sales.” And he concludes, “In the meantime, don’t believe the rumors.” But in fact the health-care law did include a new tax on real estate profits. It’s not exactly a sales tax, and it won’t apply to most people. But the only real inaccuracy in the “rumors” that he said “are flying” was the word “all.” It’s only a 3.8 percent tax on some real estate sales, no doubt only a minority of sales, though perhaps affecting more readers of the Washington Post Real Estate section than people in less-affluent regions where housing prices didn’t soar and then remain high. Frankly, I’ve seen more effective debunkings.

This “rumored” real estate tax is also discussed on page 20 of Michael Tanner’s new study “Bad Medicine: A Guide to the Real Costs and Consequences of the New Health Care Law.” But if you’re really going to try to understand the new health-care legislation, you may want to clip the Kass article to keep with your copy of the Tanner paper, as no one study can guide you through every detail of a 2000-page law. Journalists and HR experts will be kept busy for years tracking down every sub-reference and interaction in the bill.

Your Health Insurance, Designed by Lobbyists

Christopher Weaver of Kaiser Health News has an excellent article in today’s Washington Post on the various government agencies that will now be deciding what health insurance coverage you must purchase, and how many of those decisions will ultimately fall to lobbyists and politicians:

For years, an obscure federal task force sifted through medical literature on colonoscopies, prostate-cancer screening and fluoride treatments, ferreting out the best evidence for doctors to use in caring for their patients. But now its recommendations have financial implications, raising the stakes for patients, doctors and others in the health-care industry.

Under the new health-care overhaul law, health insurers will be required to pay fully for services that get an A or B recommendation from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force…[which] puts the group in the cross hairs of lobbyists and disease advocates eager to see their top priorities – routine screening for Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes or HIV, for example – become covered services.

And it’s not just the USPSTF that will be deciding what coverage you must purchase:

[P]lans must also cover a set of standard vaccines recommended by the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, as well as screening practices for children that have been developed by the Health Resources and Services Administration in conjunction the American Academy of Pediatrics. Health plans will also be required to cover additional preventative care for women recommended under new guidelines that the Department of Health and Human Services is expected to issue by August 2011.

The chairman of the USPSTF says the task force will try “to stay true to the methods and the evidence… the science needs to come first.”  A noble sentiment, but as my colleague Peter Van Doren likes to say, “When politics and science conflict, politics wins.”  Witness how industry lobbyists have killed or neutered every single government agency that has ever dared to produce useful comparative-effectiveness research.  (You’re next, Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute!)

When government agencies are making non-scientific value judgments–e.g., are these studies reliable enough to merit an A or B recommendation? what should be the thresholds for an A or B recommendation? will the benefits of mandating this coverage outweigh the costs?–politics does even better.  Witness Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md) overruling a USPSTF recommendation when she “inserted an amendment in the [new] health-care law to explicitly cover regular mammograms for women between 40 and 50. “

Speaking of value judgments, the one flaw in Weaver’s article is that it inadvertently conveys a value judgment as if it were fact.  He writes that the mandate to purchase coverage for preventive services is “good news for patients” and that 88 million Americans “will benefit.”  Whether the mandate is good news for patients depends on whether patients value the added coverage more than the additional premiums they must pay.  (The administration estimates that premiums for affected consumers will rise an average of 1.5 percent.  One insurer puts the average cost at 3-4 percent of premiums.  Naturally, some consumers will face above-average costs.)  Whether the benefits outweigh the costs is ultimately a subjective determination. (The best way to find out, as it happens, is to let consumers make the decision themselves.)

WaPo on No-Fly: Black Hole to Quicksand

I wrote here Monday, and the Washington Post editorialized today, about the lawsuit in which the ACLU is representing a group of people who believe they have been wrongly placed on the government’s no-fly list. I find the Post’s editorial needlessly equivocal and muddied.

The plaintiffs “have a point — to a point,” says the Post. “[T]he list is essentially a black hole.” But it never says how their suit overshoots the mark.

When someone vindicating a constitutional right has a point, he or she has a point—period. Due process is a right prescribed by the Constitution, not something to dither about like Hamlet.

Hewing to a reasoned-sounding middle ground, the Post says, “There are legitimate law enforcement reasons for keeping the list secret: Disclosure of such information would tip off known or suspected terrorists, who could then change their habits or identities to escape government scrutiny.”

Think this through. The no-fly list is self-revealing. Any terrorist who tries to fly and can’t is “tipped off” that he or she is a suspect. (Does it matter whether the list or something else prevented him or her from flying? No.) Said terrorist will take steps to evade the list or someone else will take over—terrorists are fungible. The benefit of secrecy is small to the point of superfluous.

The Post correctly states that “U.S. citizens who believe they are on the list because of bad information should have a chance to challenge that designation before an independent arbiter.” But then it goes all mealy: “A federal court may be an appropriate forum, if governed by procedural safeguards to protect national security information. Creating an independent review panel within the executive might also meet the need.”

The secrecy rationale is tiny. The federal courts have vast experience with issues of all sensitivities. Developing a new (suitably) ”independent” panel would be a mountainous chore. And the constitutional doctrine of separation of powers cuts strongly against the Post’s proposal.

This editorial’s “middle ground” looks a lot like quicksand—a lot like the black hole the no-fly list is.

It’s Summer in Washington and the Livin’ Is Good

“According to a new Regional Income Earnings Index developed by the Martin Prosperity Institute, Greater Washington, D.C. is the nation’s metropolitan region with the highest income,” writes Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class.

Washington, which produces rules, regulations, and political consulting services, ranks just ahead of San Jose and Stamford, Connecticut, where people invest their own money to produce software and allocate capital for a complex economy.

Even before the Obama administration started concentrating job creation on the federal sector, the Washington Post was reporting

The three most prosperous large counties in the United States are in the Washington suburbs, according to census figures released yesterday, which show that the region has the second-highest income and the least poverty of any major metropolitan area in the country.

Rapidly growing Loudoun County has emerged as the wealthiest jurisdiction in the nation, with its households last year having a median income of more than $98,000. It is followed by Fairfax and Howard counties, with Montgomery County not far behind.

This of course reflects partly the high level of federal pay, as Chris Edwards has been detailing. And it also reflects the boom in lobbying as government comes to claim and redistribute more of the wealth produced in all those other metropolitan areas.

To slightly amend a ditty I posted a few years ago,

Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys,

Don’t let ‘em make software and sell people trucks,

Make ‘em be bureaucrats and lobbyists and such.