May 11, 2008

Kevin Phillips: Numbers Racket: Why the Economy is Worse Than We Know

Kevin Phillips, author of American Theocracy (a book I endorse), has an article in Harper's Magazine about the fudging of economic data by the American government. The problem, according to Phillips, apparently began with the Kennedy administration and has continued on an erratic basis through to the present day, with the guilt being shared by both Democratic and Republican administrations. The first third of the article documents how the Consumer Price Index (CPI), unemployment statistics, and the gross domestic product (GDP) numbers have all been manipulated over the decades, not necessarily out of some grand conspiratorial plot, but out of "accumulating opportunisms."

Sources: John Williams,, U.S. Bureau of Labor

The second third of the article looks a little more deeply at the opacity that has developed over the three economic statistics mentioned above:

Of the "big three" statistics, let us start with unemployment. Most of the people tired of looking for work, as mentioned above, are no longer counted in the workforce, though they do still show up in one of the auxiliary unemployment numbers. The BLS has six different regular jobless measurements—U-1, U-2, U-3 (the one routinely cited), U-4, U-5, and U-6. In January 2008, the U-4 to U-6 series produced unemployment numbers ranging from 5.2 percent to 9.0 percent, all above the "official" number. The series nearest to real-world conditions is, not surprisingly, the highest: U-6, which includes part-timers looking for full-time employment as well as other members of the "marginally attached," a new catchall meaning those not looking for a job but who say they want one. Yet this does not even include the Americans who (as Austan Goolsbee puts it) have been "bought off the unemployment rolls" by government programs such as Social Security disability, whose recipients are classified as outside the labor force.

Second is the Gross Domestic Product, which in itself represents something of a fudge: federal economists used the Gross National Product until 1991, when rising U.S. international debt costs made the narrower GDP assessment more palatable. The GDP has been subject to many further fiddles, the most manipulatable of which are the adjustments made for the presumed starting up and ending of businesses (the "birth/death of businesses" equation) and the amounts that the Bureau of Economic Analysis "imputes" to nationwide personal income data (known as phantom income boosters, or imputations; for example, the imputed income from living in one's own home, or the benefit one receives from a free checking account, or the value of employer-paid health-and-life-insurance premiums). During 2007, believe it or not, imputed income accounted for some 15 percent of GDP. John Williams, the economic statistician, is briskly contemptuous of GDP numbers over the past quarter century. "Upward growth biases built into GDP modeling since the early 1980s have rendered this important series nearly worthless," he wrote in 2004. "[T]he recessions of 1990/1991 and 2001 were much longer and deeper than currently reported [and] lesser downturns in 1986 and 1995 were missed completely."

Nothing, however, can match the tortured evolution of the third key number, the somewhat misnamed Consumer Price Index. Government economists themselves admit that the revisions during the Clinton years worked to reduce the current inflation figures by more than a percentage point, but the overall distortion has been considerably more severe. Just the 1983 manipulation, which substituted "owner equivalent rent" for home-ownership costs, served to understate or reduce inflation during the recent housing boom by 3 to 4 percentage points. Moreover, since the 1990s, the CPI has been subjected to three other adjustments, all downward and all dubious: product substitution (if flank steak gets too expensive, people are assumed to shift to hamburger, but nobody is assumed to move up to filet mignon), geometric weighting (goods and services in which costs are rising most rapidly get a lower weighting for a presumed reduction in consumption), and, most bizarrely, hedonic adjustment, an unusual computation by which additional quality is attributed to a product or service.


"All in all," Williams points out, "if you were to peel back changes that were made in the CPI going back to the Carter years, you'd see that the CPI would now be 3.5 percent to 4 percent higher"—meaning that, because of lost CPI increases, Social Security checks would be 70 percent greater than they currently are.

Furthermore, when discussing price pressure, government officials invariably bring up "core" inflation, which excludes precisely the two categories—food and energy—now verging on another 1970s-style price surge. This year we have already seen major U.S. food and grocery companies, among them Kellogg and Kraft, report sharp declines in earnings caused by rising grain and dairy prices. Central banks from Europe to Japan worry that the biggest inflation jumps in ten to fifteen years could get in the way of reducing interest rates to cope with weakening economies. Even the U.S. Labor Department acknowledged that in January, the price of imported goods had increased 13.7 percent compared with a year earlier, the biggest surge since record-keeping began in 1982. From Maine to Australia, from Alaska to the Middle East, a hydra-headed inflation is on the loose, unleashed by the many years of rapid growth in the supply of money from the world's central banks (not least the U.S. Federal Reserve), as well as by massive public and private debt creation.

U.S. Unemployment Rates:
Red - Including workers who are part-time for "economic reasons"
Yellow - Including other "marginally attached" workers
Blue - Including "discouraged" workers
Black - The official "unemployment rate"

Source: US Bureau of Labor Statistics

The last third of the article sums up the numerous economic problems the U.S. is currently facing:

The real numbers, to most economically minded Americans, would be a face full of cold water. Based on the criteria in place a quarter century ago, today's U.S. unemployment rate is somewhere between 9 percent and 12 percent; the inflation rate is as high as 7 or even 10 percent; economic growth since the recession of 2001 has been mediocre, despite a huge surge in the wealth and incomes of the superrich, and we are falling back into recession. If what we have been sold in recent years has been delusional "Pollyanna Creep," what we really need today is a picture of our economy ex-distortion. For what it would reveal is a nation in deep difficulty not just domestically but globally.

Undermeasurement of inflation, in particular, hangs over our heads like a guillotine. To acknowledge it would send interest rates climbing, and thereby would endanger the viability of the massive buildup of public and private debt (from less than $11 trillion in 1987 to $49 trillion last year) that props up the American economy. Moreover, the rising cost of pensions, benefits, borrowing, and interest payments—all indexed or related to inflation—could join with the cost of financial bailouts to overwhelm the federal budget. As inflation and interest rates have been kept artificially suppressed, the United States has been indentured to its volatile financial sector, with its predilection for leverage and risky buccaneering.

Arguably, the unraveling has already begun. As Robert Hardaway, a professor at the University of Denver, pointed out last September, the subprime lending crisis "can be directly traced back to the [1983] BLS decision to exclude the price of housing from the CPI. . .With the illusion of low inflation inducing lenders to offer 6 percent loans, not only has speculation run rampant on the expectations of ever-rising home prices, but home buyers by the millions have been tricked into buying homes even though they only qualified for the teaser rates." Were mainstream interest rates to jump into the 7 to 9 percent range—which could happen if inflation were to spur new concern—both Washington and Wall Street would be walking in quicksand. The make-believe economy of the past two decades, with its asset bubbles, massive borrowing, and rampant data distortion, would be in serious jeopardy. The U.S. dollar, off more than 40 percent against the euro since 2002, could slip down an even rockier slope.

The credit markets are fearful, and the financial markets are nervous. If gloom continues, our humbugged nation may truly regret losing sight of history, risk, and common sense.

HT: Economist's View

Update: Mark Thoma, Associate Professor of Economics at the University of Oregon, has responded to the Kevin Phillips article. Generally speaking, Dr. Thoma doesn't agree much with Mr. Phillips'.

The question is which gives the more distorted picture, the old definitions from 25 or 30 years ago, or the newer definitions. I'm sticking with the newer definitions, though sometimes it doesn't matter much...

Dr. Thoma made a decent argument, but he undermined himself (IMO) when he wrote:

The economists in the agencies that prepare our national economic statistics are dedicated individuals whose only goal is to make the statistics as accurate as possible. They are not political hacks willing to distort the picture of the economy to help the administration. Far from it. Their goal is to provide the most accurate statistics possible and there are always improvements they would like to see made.

I'm not questioning the professional dedication of American government economists and statisticians, but this statement strikes me as naive to think that politicians don't tell their bureaucratic underlings that they want to see the numbers massaged in a certain way. Trust me, as a former accountant, I've seen far too many bosses tell their staff that the numbers (and supporting documentation, such as charts and graphs) need to look a certain way. And those underlings, wanting to keep their jobs, will massage the numbers in such a way that they both conform (mostly) to GAAP and keep the boss happy. The bureaucratic economists are going to be able to tell their bosses, the politicians, "no?" I don't think so.

1 comment:

Dana Seilhan said...

Sometimes I think the CPI is a manipulative tactic all its own. As Joe Dominguez (of Your Money Or Your Life) pointed out, even if the price of refrigerators and cars goes up every year, are you buying a refrigerator or a car every year? Clothing prices may go up, but that's for new clothing--can't you buy used? And so on. Inflation matters the most on items we must consume continually, such as food, but even there you find some leeway. Depending on where you live the price of a specific food item may or may not become ridiculous. For instance, in Louisiana a gallon of milk at the dollar store was four dollars back in 2006, but sometimes you can buy milk for $2.50 a gallon in Ohio this year.

Part of the problem with Americans and money is we use money without thinking. That's what gets us into the most financial trouble, I think.

As for the unemployment rate, it's a joke anyway. It only applies to people who file for it. I've been without a job since 2004 (partly out of choice) and you can bet they aren't counting me, and I don't even collect government benefits.