Monday, September 15, 2008

Careless, Disingenuous, or Just Ignorant?

Donald Luskin in the Washington Post:
Obama is flat-out wrong when he frets on his campaign Web site that "the personal savings rate is now the lowest it's been since the Great Depression." The latest rate, for the second quarter of 2008, is 2.6 percent -- higher than the 1.9 percent rate that prevailed in the last quarter of Bill Clinton's presidency.
That sounded a little strange to me, so I checked the national accounts. It's quite true that the savings rate is 2.6 percent in the second quarter of 2008, but the average of the last 4 quarters is less than 1 percent, and in most of the recent quarters it has been 0.5% or less -- which certainly qualifies as "the lowest...since the Great Depression."

Have US households suddenly seen the light and started saving again? A slightly closer look at the national accounts shows where that light shined from. The only thing unusual about the second quarter of 2008 was a sudden drop in "personal current taxes," which resulted in an increase in "disposable personal income," the denominator for the savings rate. Ah, yes, that's what had slipped my mind (and perhaps Mr. Luskin's as well) about the 2nd quarter. (If the reason for the drop in taxes isn't immediately apparent, you might want to check the headlines for January 24. But I'm guessing that rebate check didn't come as a surprise.)

Apparently Americans thought it might be better to save some of of the "stimulus" money for, say, the 3rd quarter or the 4th quarter...or even next year? So, yes, the savings rate did go up. That's one of the usual results of a fiscal stimulus. In fact, a fiscal stimulus is exactly how Franklin Roosevelt managed to get the savings rate back into positive territory during....what was it?...oh, yeah, the Great Depression.

Perhaps Mr. Luskin was in a hurry and didn't notice what the savings rate was in other recent quarters. Or perhaps he was deliberately using a true but misleading fact. Or perhaps he just didn't understand why the savings rate had suddenly risen. Based on past experience with Donald Luskin, I tend to go with the last explanation. I have no particular reason to question his diligence or his intellectual honesty, but his understanding of economics often seems weak, even when the points in question are fairly basic.

Apparently Mr. Luskin now hopes to have some political influence:
I'm an adviser to John McCain's campaign, though as far as I know, the senator has never taken one word of my advice.
If John McCain has indeed never taken any of Donald Luskin's advice, that speaks well for the senator's judgment.

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Anonymous Steve said...

It takes a special kind of idiot to publish a "the economy is fine" article right now. Nice timing, Don.

Mon Sep 15, 06:32:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Kaleberg said...

"Careless, Disingenuous, or Just Ignorant?"

Actually worse. Luskin and his ilk are willfully ignorant. That is, they actively avoid and deny the facts. At a certain point this is simply immoral.

Of course, there is good money in being willfully ignorant if it makes you a useful tool.

Tue Sep 16, 08:35:00 PM EDT  
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