Washington Post Half-Heartedly Seeks Clarity About Export-Import Bank Jobs Claims

It was good of the Washington Post Editorial Board to raise questions yesterday about the veracity of the “jobs-created-by-Export-Import-Bank-policies” claims proffered by the Bank’s supporters. I just wonder whether the editorial pulled its punches where a reporter on assignment or a more inquisitive journalist would have delivered an unabashed blow to the credibility of the Bank’s primary reauthorization argument: that its termination will lead to a reduction in U.S. exports and jobs.

Kudos to the Post for raising an eyebrow at the Bank’s claims of “jobs created” or “jobs supported” by Ex-Im financing:  

[W]hen it comes to jobs, well, just how rigorous are [Ex-Im’s] estimates, really? Congress ordered a study of that very question when it last reauthorized Ex-Im in 2012. In May 2013, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) produced its verdict: Meh.”

“GAO noted that Ex-Im must speak vaguely of “jobs supported,” rather than concretely of jobs created, since its methodology cannot really distinguish between new employment and retained employment. To get a number for “jobs supported,” which includes both a given firm and that firm’s suppliers, Ex-Im multiplies the dollar amount of exports it finances in each industry by a “jobs ratio” (calculated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics).

Using that approach, Ex-Im estimates an average of 6,390 jobs are “supported” by every billion dollars of exports financed. The Post is right to note the GAO’s conclusion:

These figures do not differentiate between full-time and part-time work and, crucially, provide no information about what might have happened to employment at the firms in question, or others, if the resources marshaled by Ex-Im had flowed elsewhere in the economy.

But, of course, what happens to the subsidized and nonsubsidized companies in the absence of Ex-Im is exactly what the Bank wants to conceal because it is the hyped-up specter of job loss that it relies upon to gain support for reauthorization. Realistically, in the short term, Ex-Im benefits some U.S. companies (those whose exports are subsidized) at the expense of other U.S. companies (those whose exports are not subsidized). Termination of Ex-Im will roughly reverse those fortunes by re-leveling the playing field between U.S. companies (to borrow and alter a metaphor) while freeing up the resources Ex-Im controls for more efficient uses.

Alas, the editorial fails to ponder this shuffling-of-resources-from-outsiders-to-insiders function that Ex-Im dutifully serves. Instead it gives an excerpt from the GAO report (in a manner slightly altered from the original) that has the effect of presenting Ex-Im in a more favorable light:

GAO found nothing fraudulent about any of this, nor do we.

Fraud? We weren’t considering fraud. We were evaluating whether the claim that Ex-Im creates or supports jobs is a credible one. Intentionally or not, exonerating Ex-Im from fraud seems to serve the purpose of rendering all other concerns about Ex-Im claims secondary by giving the false impression that the important thrust of the inquiry has been completed. Here’s the full paragraph:

GAO found nothing fraudulent about any of this, nor do we. The watchdog agency simply noted the rather crucial assumptions and limitations embedded in Ex-Im’s methodology and urged the bank to be more transparent about them—because “Congressional and public stakeholders may not fully understand what the jobs number that Ex-Im reports represents and the extent to which Ex-Im’s financing may have affected U.S. employment.” (Emphasis added)

Again, the context in which the editorial reports this GAO finding seems to change the tone and thrust of GAO’s message. Here is the text from the GAO report on this point:

Because of a lack of reporting on the assumptions and limitations of its methodology and data, Congressional and public stakeholders may not fully understand what the jobs number that Ex-Im reports represents and the extent to which Ex-Im’s financing may have affected U.S. employment.

The emphasis in the editorial’s portrayal implies that the Ex-Im data may be chock full of compelling evidence of the Bank’s importance, but without adequate explanation that evidence is too complex for Congress and public stakeholders to fully comprehend. However, the clear meaning of the GAO report is that the Ex-Im data are limited in their utility as evidence of the Bank’s importance to jobs, exports, and the economy, and that using the data for that purpose is misrepresentative and misleading.

Had the Editorial Board dug a little deeper into the GAO report, it might have found, among other limitations to “Employment Requirements Tables” (ERTs, used by Ex-Im to project its jobs-supported figures), is that “the employment data are a count of jobs, not of persons employed… Persons who hold multiple jobs show up multiple times in the employment data.” Basically, it is job “functions” that are counted, not jobs, and—despite the best efforts of organized labor—it is quite common for one worker to perform multiple job functions.

Moreover, Ex-Im’s “jobs-supported” numbers derive from ERTs that themselves derive from input-output analysis conducted by the Bureau of Economic Analysis and roughly follows—with some customized adjustments—the approach of other Commerce Department studies on the relationship between exports and jobs.  In the “Methodology and Caveats” section of the 2010 Commerce Department study “Exports Support American Jobs,” there is this disclaimer:

Averages derived from IO analysis should not be used as proxies for change. They should not be used to estimate the net change in employment that might be supported by increases or decreases in total exports, in the exports of selected products or in the exports to selected countries or regions.

Of course, that is precisely what Ex-Im proponents are doing. Those important caveats have not deterred pro-reauthorization lobbyists from warning members of Congress of how many jobs are imperiled in their states and districts in the absence of reauthorization. In most cases, the actual effect of Ex-Im authorizations on particular states and districts is so small relative to the economy and relative to overall exports that creative arithmetic features prominently. 

For instance, yesterday the Chamber of Commerce tweeted:

In Ohio alone, Ex-Im has supported 15,300 jobs and financed $2.4 billion worth of exports since 2007.” (Emphasis added)

Let’s parse: We are talking about a seven-year period here, so on an annual basis Ex-Im has financed an average of $343 million in Ohio exports, supporting 2,186 jobs. (The jobs figure is based on Ex-Im’s estimate of 6,390 jobs supported per $1 billion of exports financed, and as mentioned above, these are really job “functions.”)  But Ohio has exported an average of $47 billion per year since 2007 and employs 5.4 million workers. I suppose tweeting, “In Ohio alone, Ex-Im has supported 0.04% of all jobs and financed 0.7% of all exports” wouldn’t convey the same sense of urgency to Ohio’s congressional caucus.

In the end, the editorial seems to diminish the importance of its own inquiry by giving a nod to the way things are done inside the Beltway, offering a faintly exasperated, but more tongue-in-cheek “lobbyists will be lobbyists” excuse instead of speaking out against the continued use of propaganda in the policy debate.