201007

July 31, 2010 8:11AM

Retiring Official: DOT Is Sitting on Pro‐​Toyota Probe Results

Damning if true: 


A new report in the WSJ strongly suggests Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is unwilling to release a report on the agency’s investigation into charges of “sudden acceleration” in Toyotas because its findings are too favorable to the Japanese automaker’s case. The source is a high‐​ranking retiring NHTSA official, George Person, formerly chief of the agency’s Recall Management Division.


Department spokeswoman Olivia Alair describes the report as ongoing and not completed; she also denies that Person was “involved in” the probe but does not appear to deny that he was briefed on the resulting report and is familiar with its contents.


Person says some NHTSA officials objected to the keeping of the report under wraps; it is not known what position was taken by the Obama appointee who heads NHTSA, David Strickland, a former lobbyist for the trial lawyers’ association AAJ and a principal author of the horrendous children’s‐​product‐​safety law CPSIA. Earlier here.


“Wherever the science leads,” indeed.

July 30, 2010 6:16PM

Social Security Bloviate‐​fest

The annual bloviate-fest on Social Security has begun, even before the Social Security Trustees’ report has been released this year.  Apparently the report is to be released next week --- after a three-month delay from its statutory release deadline of April 1. 

There’s concern from groups interested in preserving Social Security that President Obama’s National Commission on Deficit Reduction will propose changes to the program involving benefit cuts. These groups, which include the AFL-CIO, MoveOn.org, NOW, and the NAACP have issued and allegedly rebutted five "myths" about Social Security.  But their selection of myths and myth-busting arguments are weak and involves questionable arguments.

Below is a list of the twisted logic that these groups are using to convince voters that all’s well with Social Security’s finances and that we should not worry and just be happy. Also below are my reactions to the “faux-myth-busters” arguments.

Myth #1: Social Security is going broke.

Reality: There is no Social Security crisis.  By 2023, Social Security will have a $4.6 trillion surplus (yes, trillion with a 'T').  It can pay out all scheduled benefits for the next quarter-century with no changes whatsoever. After 2037, it'll still be able to pay out 75% of scheduled benefits --- and again, that's without any changes. The program started preparing for the Baby Boomers' retirement decades ago.  Anyone who insists Social Security is broke probably wants to break it themselves.

Real Reality: We’re in a vortex, and these folks refuse to extend help. Yes, I also don’t like the “crisis” terminology.  A better descriptor is “vortex,” the upper reaches of which can seem calm, for a time.  But eventually, we’ll realize that what we thought was a good place to be is really an inexorable path to the doom of being spun around super fast.

Yes, Social Security will have a surplus (of Treasury IOUs) of $4.6 trillion by 2023. But, notwithstanding the “T” attached to that sum, all’s not well.  By 2023, the program’s net liabilities (the shortfall of future revenues relative to future benefit commitments under existing laws) will exceed $20 trillion (note, also with a “T”).  Last I checked, 20 exceeds 4.6 by about four fold.

The fact that Social Security “will be able to pay” 75% of scheduled benefits after 2037 means we would have to impose a 25% benefit cut at that time if no adjustments are made earlier.  It’s said that the natural human instinct for justice emanates from a simple thought experiment --- of placing oneself in the shoes of the victims. In this case, it’s those poor future souls who would have to acquiesce to a 25 percent benefit cut.  But they would be forced to do so only because the faux-myth-busting authors shrieked in horror when confronted with a much smaller benefit cut that would be required now to place the program’s finances on a sustainable course.

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July 30, 2010 4:21PM

Even Keynesian Accounting Can’t Find All That ‘Stimulus’

From January 2009 to the present, President Obama and his team have repeatedly made grandiose claims about the economic benefits of shoveling money at shovel‐​ready projects or green jobs. “It is largely thanks to the Recovery Act that a second Depression is no longer a possibility,” said the President. He also claimed that lavish spending alone (not Federal Reserve actions or bank bailouts) is what prevented the unemployment rate from “getting up to … 15%.”


If any of that were remotely close to being true then, as a matter of simple accounting, rising federal spending would have shown up as a huge offset to falling GDP in 2009, and also as a major component of the modest increase in GDP growth in early 2010. On the contrary, the table below shows that the increase in federal nondefense spending contributed only two‐​tenths of one percent (0.2) to the change in GDP in 2009. That was no better than 2008 when the Recovery Act did not exist. If nondefense spending had not increased at all in 2009 (unlike 2008) then GDP would have fallen 2.8% rather than 2.6% — scarcely the difference between a recession and a “second Depression.” If nondefense federal spending had not increased at all in 2010, the economy still would have grown at a 3.6% pace in the first quarter, 2.1% in the second. Cutbacks in state and local spending were a trivial damper on GDP growth last year, contrary to recent speculation, and real state and local spending rose significantly in this year’s second quarter (unlike the first).


This is just an exercise in crude Keynesian accounting, not economics. Yet it nonetheless makes the stimulus bill look like a huge waste of money. The reason Keynesian accounting is no substitute for economics is that governments can only spend other peoples’ money. To claim that such spending is a net addition to “aggregate demand” is to ignore those other people — namely, current and future taxpayers.


Nobel Laureate Robert Lucas put it this way:

If the government builds a bridge … by taking tax money away from somebody else, and using that to pay the bridge builder — the guys who work on the bridge — then it’s just a wash. It has no first‐​starter effect. There’s no reason to expect any stimulation. And, in some sense, there’s nothing to apply a multiplier to. You apply a multiplier to the bridge builders, then you’ve got to apply the same multiplier with a minus sign to the people you taxed to build the bridge. And then taxing them later isn’t going to help, we know that.

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July 30, 2010 3:56PM

Peter Ferrara’s Too‐​Nice Attack on Phony Washington Budget Deals

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Peter Ferrara of the Institute for Policy Innovation explains that Washington budget deals don't work because politicians never follow through on promised spending cuts. This is a very relevant argument, since President Obama's so-called Deficit Reduction Commission supposedly is considering a deal featuring $3 of spending cuts for every $1 of tax increases (disturbingly reminiscent of what was promised --- but never delivered --- as part of the infamous 1982 TEFRA budget scam).

Washington's traditional approach to balancing the budget is to negotiate an agreement on a package of benefit cuts and tax increases. President Obama's deficit commission seems likely to recommend just this strategy in December. The problem is that it never works. What happens is the tax increases get permanently adopted into law. But the spending cuts are almost never fully adopted and, even if they are, they are soon swept away in the next spendthrift budget. Then --- because taxes weaken incentives to produce --- the tax increases don't raise the revenue that Congress initially projected and budgeted to spend. So the deficit reappears.

In 1982, congressional Democrats promised President Ronald Reagan $3 in spending cuts for every dollar in tax increases. Reagan went to his grave waiting for those spending cuts. Then there was the budget deal in 1990, when President George H.W. Bush agreed to violate his famous campaign pledge --- "Read my lips, no new taxes," he had said in 1988 --- in pursuit of a balanced budget. But after the deal, the deficit increased substantially: to $290 billion in 1992 from $221 billion in 1990.

As the excerpt indicates, Peter's column is solid and everything he writes is correct, but it suffers from one major sin of omission. He should have exposed the dishonest practice of using "current services" or "baseline" budgeting. This is the clever Washington practice of assuming that all previously planned spending increases should go into effect and categorizing any budget that increases spending by a lower amount as a spending cut. In other words, if the hypothetical "baseline" budget increases by 7 percent, and a budget is proposed that increases spending by 4 percent, that 4 percent spending increase magically gets transformed into a 3 percent spending cut.
 
Politicians love "current services" or "baseline" budgeting for two reasons. First, it allows them to have their cake and eat it too. They can simultaneously shovel more money to interest groups while telling voters they are "cutting" spending. Second, it rigs the process in favor of bigger government. This is because lawmakers who actually propose to restrain the growth of spending can be lambasted for wanting "savage" and "draconian" budget cuts totaling "trillions of dollars" when all they're actually proposing is to have spending grow by less than the so-called baseline. But since people in the real world use honest math rather than "current services" math, they assume that spending is being reduced next year by some large amount compared to what is being spent this year. And if the phony budget cut numbers sound too big (especially for specific programs such as Medicare or Medicaid), they sometimes conclude that it would be better to raise taxes.

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July 30, 2010 2:55PM

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.

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July 29, 2010 6:33PM

Education Standards at Work — the NY Debacle

President Obama today touted his Race to the Top program, which pressures states to, among other things, adopt national education standards. Also today, the New York Board of Regents revealed that it had been misleading its citizens for years, giving them an inflated notion of how well their children were performing academically. Last year 77 percent of students were “proficient” in English according to NY state standards. This year it’s 53 percent.


So what’s to stop this from happening at a national level? In fact, what’s to stop an endless cycle of setting high standards that produce low scores, gradually dumbing the standards down to give the illusion of progress, and then resetting them to a high level again when the deceit is discovered?


At any stage of this cycle, officials can claim that students are showing improvement or that steps are being taken to raise standards — without any need to, you know, improve the schools.


Instead, we could just adopt in education the same system of freedom and incentives that’s been responsible for actual progress in every other area of human activity for the past two centuries. Or is that just too obvious?

July 29, 2010 4:11PM

The Letter Is Different, but the Spirit Still Lives

An update from my post yesterday about the bill to establish a Commission to End the Trade Deficit (now called the “Emergency Trade Deficit Commission”): apparently the bill that passed the House was different from the bill initially considered, and to which I linked (and commented). My apologies.


The bill that was passed had many of the most egregious provisions and provocative wording stripped out. There was no talk of eliminating the trade deficit, for example. And the provision that would have prohibited congressional consideration of any trade deal before the Commission reported is, thankfully, gone too. But I would suggest that the underlying message of the bill — that individuals cannot be trusted to make their own decisions about which products to buy, and from where — is intact. There are plenty of references to “improving trade balances,” “enhancing the competitiveness of U.S. manufacturers,” and environmental and labor standards. I stand by comments about those sentiments.


Maybe a commission is a useful way of distracting members of Congress from actually doing anything, and certainly this bill is less offensive than the original, but it still betrays an unwillingness of some members of Congress to let consumers and firms make decisions without a commission studying, reporting on, and possibly correcting them.