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The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

Monday Wake Up Call – July 1, 2019

The Daily Escape:

East Inlet Pond, Pittsburgh NH – photo by Wes Lavin. The East Inlet area has one of the few remaining virgin stands of forest in the east.

How did Boeing, a company known for meticulous design and manufacturing, screw up the 737 Max so badly? Bloomberg is reporting that Boeing outsourced software development for some of the 737 Max’s software to Indian companies. There are concerns that decision may have contributed to Boeing’s two deadly crashes.

Bloomberg says that starting in 2010, Boeing began relying on Indian software engineers making as little as $9 an hour in their design program. The software engineers were supplied by the Indian software developer HCL Technologies, which now has annual sales of $8.6 billion. The coders from HCL designed to specifications set by Boeing but, according to Mark Rabin, a former Boeing software engineer:

“It was controversial because it was far less efficient than Boeing engineers just writing the code.”

It turns out that the HCL engineers were brought on at a point when Boeing was laying off its own experienced software developers. In posts on social media, an HCL engineer who helped develop and test the Max’s flight-display software, summarized his duties:

“Provided quick workaround to resolve production issue which resulted in not delaying flight test of 737-Max (delay in each flight test will cost very big amount for Boeing).”

This may be resume inflation. Boeing insists that HCL had nothing to do with the Max’s Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) software. HCL said that it:

“…has a strong and long-standing business relationship with The Boeing Company, and we take pride in the work we do for all our customers. However, HCL does not comment on specific work we do for our customers. HCL is not associated with any ongoing issues with 737 Max”.

It isn’t unusual for US companies to use outsourced talent. Prior to his dynamic blogging career, Wrongo was CEO of an outsourcing firm. Our clients were the US government, and several big tech and office product companies, including Dell, Microsoft, and Xerox.

But managing outsourcing is tricky, both for the company moving the work out-of-house, as well as for the outsourcer. Unless the parties develop detailed plans, procedures, and follow strict quality control, even top people can produce work that fails to meet design standards.

The typical jetliner has millions of lines of code. From Rick Ludtke, a former Boeing flight controls engineer:

“Boeing was doing all kinds of things, everything you can imagine, to reduce cost, including moving work from Puget Sound, because we’d become very expensive here….All that’s very understandable if you think of it from a business perspective.”

More profits over people.

In 2010, HCL and Boeing opened a “Center of Excellence” in Chennai, saying the companies would partner to create software used in flight testing. This is typical for big companies. Boeing also has a design center in Moscow. From Cynthia Cole a former Boeing engineer who headed the Engineer’s Union from 2006-2010: (emphasis by Wrongo)

“At a meeting with a chief 787 engineer in 2008, one staffer complained about sending drawings back to a team in Russia 18 times before they understood that the smoke detectors needed to be connected to the electrical system…”

A big reason for offshoring is price. Engineers in India make about $9 — $10/hour, compared with $35 to $40 for Indians in the US on an H1B visa, and higher for a US engineer. Anyone who understands offshoring knows that the cost of rework needs to be added to the apparent hourly cost, and in some cases, that can push the real price closer to $80/hour.

For the 787 Dreamliner, much of Boeing’s work was outsourced. It is well-known that the 787 entered service three years late, and billions of dollars over budget, in 2011. That was due in part to confusion caused by their outsourcing strategy.

Was another globalist lesson learned by Boeing with the 787? Not really, if the 737 Max troubles are any indication.

So this cheap labor story is another black eye for Boeing. It goes along with the Justice Department’s criminal probe, and the FAA’s continuing concern about the Max software. Boeing also has disclosed that the company didn’t inform regulators of the MCAS problems when they first learned about them, because engineers had determined it wasn’t a safety issue.

This is more of the crapification of America’s best companies as they chase lower costs. This time, people died.

Wake up Boeing! The high-value, high-risk elements in your product must be sourced at home.

If America had a real Justice Department, Boeing’s management would be in jail.

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Saturday Soother – Final Four Edition

The Daily Escape:

Aiguille du Midi – 2019 photo by Berenicids. The Aiguille du Midi (12,605 ft.) is part of the Mont Blanc massif in the French Alps. It can be directly accessed by cable car from Chamonix. If you enlarge the picture, the cable car building is visible at the very top of the mountain.

The end of Wrongo’s favorite sport, the college basketball season, happens on Monday. Tonight is the Final Four, the Wrong family’s equivalent of the Super Bowl, with family gathering for food and drink around the TV.

But, that doesn’t start until the early evening, so we’ve got time to talk about another scary piece of news this week: There will be severe human impacts caused by the next wave of automation. The bottom line is that plenty of jobs will be lost and we’ll see societal disruption as machines and robots take over American jobs. Axios takes it from there:

In a new report, the Aspen Institute nudges policymakers away from any notion that the American economy will naturally adjust as robots are introduced at an accelerated pace over the coming two and three decades.”

Axios goes on to quote Aspen’s Alistair Fitzpayne who says that, workers displaced in prior technological cycles “have experienced profound downward mobility” in new jobs at much lower pay and benefits.

The report’s executive summary warns, “Artificial intelligence and other new technologies may lead to deeper, faster, broader, and more disruptive automation”, and retraining programs may be unable to mitigate the downward trend in earnings and social status. Aspen warns that fewer jobs may be created than are destroyed:

  • No one knows how many new jobs will be produced, where they will be created, or how much they will pay.
  • Most studies play down the real possibility that the automation age could go very wrong, for an extended period, for large swaths of workers and their communities.
  • Workers who lost their jobs in the wave of manufacturing layoffs in the early 1980s, for instance, were still earning 15%-20% less in their new work 20 years later, according to the Aspen report.

Axios reports that Aspen tries to pull the punch, saying that with the right policy choices, we can choose to create an economy that works for everybody. That we can encourage employers to adopt a more “human-centric approach” to delivering the bottom line. That we can support displaced workers through retraining, reemployment services, and unemployment insurance to help them transition to new jobs and careers.

Maybe, but it seems questionable that those things will spontaneously happen. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) suggests all this new technology might be liberating, but she has reservations:

“The reason we’re not excited by it is because we live in a society where if you don’t have a job, you are left to die. And that is, at its core, our problem.”

The cultural stigma attached to job loss is profound, and that is unlikely to change by adding more retraining programs. Conservatives are not about to celebrate jobless people having more time to learn, to create art, or enjoy the world they live in, as long as they are unemployed.

The merciless mantra of shareholder value above all, and our corporate masters’ acceptance of the inevitability of technological change means that low and moderate-skill workers are expendable. Efficiency for more bottom line is more important than the lives of human workers.

This coming automation disruption is hard to see now. But estimates are that it will impact as many as 40% of American workers.

The 21st Century American corporation isn’t our friend, as currently constituted and rewarded. It is the enemy of our society, because they are quietly working to eliminate our jobs. We constantly reduce their taxes, vainly hoping for them to create more jobs. We look the other way when they pollute our environment. We allow them to disproportionately finance our elections.

It’s time for a new Capitalism.

But you’ve had enough for this week, so on to the Saturday Soother. Start slowly, particularly if you plan to stay up until the last Final Four game ends at around midnight. Let’s brew up a cup of New Hampshire’s Flight Coffee’s single origin Tanzania Tarime AB, ($17/12oz.), with its floral fragrance and intensely sweet flavor. Now settle into your favorite chair and listen to “Spring Morning” by Frederick Delius, played by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and conducted by David Lloyd Jones. “Spring Morning” is the third of ‘Three Small Tone Poems’ by Delius:

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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Monday Wake Up Call – August 13, 2018

(Wrongo will be taking the next few days off. He has blog fatigue, and also needs to work on some deferred maintenance here on the fields of Wrong. He’ll be back later this week, unless events require him to jump back in sooner.)

The Daily Escape:

Abandoned house, Wasco, OR – 2018 photo by Shaun Peterson.

We wake up today to Yanis Varoufakis, the former finance minister of Greece’s, review of “Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crisis Changed the World” by Adam Tooze posted in The Guardian. Tooze is an economic historian at Columbia University in NYC.

This isn’t a review of Tooze’s book, which sounds fascinating. Rather, it’s a meditation on one of Varoufakis’s ideas in his review of the book. Varoufakis says: (emphasis by Wrongo)

Every so often, humanity manages genuinely to surprise itself. Events to which we had previously assigned zero probability push us into what the ancient Greeks referred to as aporia: intense bafflement urgently demanding a new model of the world we live in. The financial crash of 2008 was such a moment. Suddenly the world ceased to make sense in terms of what, a few weeks before, passed as conventional wisdom – even McDonald’s, for goodness sake, could not secure an overdraft from Bank of America!

Tooze focuses on the causes of the Great Recession in 2008, and the implications for our 10-year long economic recovery. He observes that neoliberalism’s mantra about markets had to be shelved to save the US economy: (emphasis by Wrongo)

Whereas since the 1970s the incessant mantra of the spokespeople of the financial industry had been free markets and light touch regulation, what they were now demanding was the mobilization of all of the resources of the state to save society’s financial infrastructure from a threat of systemic implosion, a threat they likened to a military emergency.

We have no idea where the current aporia will take us, particularly since this “moment” has already lasted 10 years, and the hard-won economic progress may be easily reversed. Varoufakis continues:

Moments of aporia produce collective efforts to respond to our bewilderment. In the late 18th century, the pains of the Industrial Revolution begat free-market economics. The crisis of 1848 brought us the Marxist tradition. The great depression produced both Keynes’s General Theory and Friedman’s monetarism.

We are clearly at a point of intense bewilderment. What direction is correct for our economy and our society? The concept of aporia may explain why no real solutions have emerged in the past 10 years.

Tooze thinks that the world economy today is at a similar point to where it was in 1914. That is, we’re headed to a global war based on the competition of the advanced economies for resources (this time, it’s markets, water and energy), while the Middle East is at war, competing to determine which variant of Islam will be transcendent.

Varoufakis thinks we are more likely to be where we were in 1930, just after the crash. Since 2008, like back then, income inequality has continued to grow, and we have a potential fascist movement in the wings. Varoufakis asks if today’s politicians have the vision, or the ability, to corral corporatist power on one side, and the emerging nationalist movement on the other.

We’re into the post-2008 world, one in which the owners of society, the largest corporations along with the international capitalists, portray austerity as our only answer. They stress the need for continued globalization and the upward transfer of wealth via tax cuts as the best chance to survive and prosper after the 2008 crash.

This is global capitalism at work: Continuing to extract all the wealth that it can in every economy with a compliant government.

People are getting near a breaking point. They want a better life, and they want to regain political control. The challenge for capitalists and their politicians is: Can they continue to distract the base, keeping them compliant with corporatism and the financialization of our capital markets?

Capitalism ought to fear nationalism, because a nationalist movement could easily rally the poor and the middle class against Wall Street and corporate America. But, for the moment, capitalism seems to be stirring the nationalist pot. To what end?

Whether a fight against Wall Street and Corporatism will emerge, whether it will evolve into a fascist-style rallying cry remains to be seen.

We’re too early in this iteration of aporia to know or to see where we are going clearly. We need an alternative to today’s global capitalism because the track we’re on could easily turn the world into a gigantic Easter Island-like landscape.

What alternative to today’s capitalism (if any) will develop? Will ordinary people have some say in the alternative?

Stay tuned.

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We Won’t Manage Our Water Resources

The Daily Escape:

Louvre, Paris – 2017 photo by Brotherside

Let’s leave North Korea and the G-7 for others to worry about. Wrongo suggests that you read “Crisis on the High Plains: The Loss of America’s Largest Aquifer- the Ogallala” from the University of Denver’s Water Law Review. Here’s the key section:

The Ogallala Aquifer supports an astounding one-sixth of the world’s grain produce, and it has long been an essential component of American agriculture.

This isn’t new news. There were plenty of environmental writers in the 1980’s and 1990’s highlighting the depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer as the biggest single threat to world food supplies.

The Ogallala is an interconnected series of water bodies, not one single geological water body. That implies that the last drop extracted from a New Mexico well will not cause immediate drought in Nebraska. But it is still possible that catastrophic depletion could occur over a tight enough timescale to cause a major disruption of US food supplies, especially in light of climate change. Here is a map of the Ogallala that shows the depletion of water from about 1950 to 2015:

Source: USGS SIR 2017-5040

Sadly, the prospect of the US managing our water resources seems well beyond our will and ability. We also see this in California, where the aquifers in the Central Valley are being depleted by farming.

Most of the time, the primary cause of water depletion is the decision of farmers to grow crops which are unsuitable for the local climate, invariably for financial reasons. The only true solution is a long term retreat from high water demand crops grown in semi-arid areas, in favor of growing them in more suitable areas.

And who are these farmers?  We know about the corporate farms in the Midwest, but some farmers are actually foreign countries. This from NPR: (emphasis by Wrongo)

Outside of Phoenix, in the scorching Arizona desert, sits a farm that Saudi Arabia’s largest dairy uses to grow hay for cows back home. That dairy company, named Almarai, bought the farm last year and has planted thousands of acres of groundwater-guzzling alfalfa to make that hay. Saudi Arabia can’t grow its own hay anymore because those crops drained its own ancient aquifer.

More:

They got about 15 water wells when they purchased the property. Now, each one of those wells can pump about 1.5 billion gallons of water. It’s an incredible amount of water they’re going to be drawing up from that aquifer underground…

The remarkable thing about this Saudi Arabian company is that it did the same thing in Saudi until the water ran out. The aquifers they used to grow hay and alfalfa at home simply went dry, and the Saudi government told its dairy companies to start importing hay from elsewhere.

It turns out that hay yields in the desert are the best in the US. You can literally get three or four times as much hay growing in the desert because you have a very long growing season: It’s hot, so the hay dries really quickly once it’s cut. It turned out this was such a good idea, the UAE decided to buy a farm in Arizona too.

America has already given away our manufacturing capability, and thereby created the rust belt. Now, we’ve decided to “export” our water.

Saudi Arabia’s amber waves of grain. Because, “free trade.”

The Ogallala article mentions that, if everyone immediately reduced their usage by 20%, the aquifer should last another 100 years. That’s the generation of Wrongo’s great-great-grandchildren (as yet unborn).

Not much time if you think that the Ogallala has been with us for 10,000+ years.

If we believed that the water resource should belong to those who must pay to replenish and renew it, rather than to those who can monetize it most profitably, our property rights laws would have to be different.

But we don’t, and they aren’t.

Our culture is predatory.

When the spoils are eaten, there is no more. Who will we turn on then?

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Houston’s Petrochemical Industry Fails to Protect City

The Daily Escape:

Ranwu Lake Campsite, Tibet photo by Arch-exist Photography. Ranwu Lake is a tourist attraction in SE Tibet, and is called the “Tibetan Switzerland”.

Life in the age of corporatism resembles life in the food chain. In a potentially disastrous outcome from the Harvey flooding, a chemical plant in Crosby, Texas belonging to French industrial giant Arkema, has had several explosions of peroxide and other volatile chemicals. From the NYT:

The company had already ordered all workers to leave the damaged plant, and Harris County ordered the evacuation of residents within a 1.5-mile radius.

These chemicals have to be refrigerated. When the plant’s warehouses lost power, they transferred the product to diesel-powered refrigerated containers. But later, the backup generators were swamped by flood waters, so cooling was lost, and the explosions began. On Tuesday, the company released a statement:

Refrigeration on some of our back-up product storage containers has been compromised due to extremely high water, which is unprecedented in the Crosby area. We are monitoring the temperature of each refrigeration container remotely….while we do not believe there is any imminent danger, the potential for a chemical reaction leading to a fire and/or explosion within the site confines is real.

The rains are over, but the chemical fires linger. Richard Rowe, the CEO of Arkema’s American operations said:

The company has no way of preventing chemicals from catching fire or exploding at its heavily flooded plant…the company has no way to prevent…this worst case outcome.

The CEO says, “No way to prevent explosion“. Back in the olden days, that would be known as a “major design flaw”. Most engineers would have recommended placing the generator sets above at least the 100-year high water mark, just to prevent this kind of fun event. They would also put the diesel tanks above that water line.

Maybe next time. The Houston Chronicle had this amazing map of chemical plants in the Houston area:

In case it is hard to read the map legend, the yellow markers are for petrochemical plants that have a “medium” potential for harm based on their location within the 100-year flood plain. The red markers have a ”high” risk for harm. Houston’s ship channel and the surrounding area along the Gulf coast represent about 40% of U.S. petrochemical manufacturing. At least 25 Houston-area plants have either shut down, or experienced production issues due to Hurricane Harvey’s flooding.

Any guesses that the concentration of plants in the Houston flood zone will cause our corporate overlords to think about relocation of a few of these sites? Or, how they best secure them from the next 500-year flood, which looks like it will happen in say, the next five years? From Forbes:

Harvey was a wake-up call, reminding us that it is time to take a more serious look to ensure the safety of the petrochemical industry and the public at large, just as the nuclear power industry has done in reaction to the Fukushima disaster.

But Arkema has worked hard to change EPA rules in their favor. David Sirota reports that the new rules, which were set to go into effect this year, were halted by the Trump administration after a lobbying campaign by Crosby plant owner Arkema and its affiliated trade association, the American Chemistry Council:

Those rules — which would have taken effect on March 14 — were blocked by EPA administrator Scott Pruitt. The move was a big win for the chemical industry that has spent more than $100 million supporting federal lawmakers since 2008.

Apparently, sacrifices must be made in the name of making America great.

The closures are not just disrupting markets; they’re also causing the release of toxic pollutants that pose a threat to human health. The NYT reports that damaged refineries and oil facilities have already released more than two million pounds of hazardous substances into the air.

The sheer number of facilities around Houston that have to come back online at the same time creates another huge emissions problem. From City Lab:

The real problem is that the plants are allowed to operate so close to residential areas in the first place. Houston’s lack of zoning regulations have been front-and-center in discussions about why Harvey has been so terrible for the city, and that’s no different in the discussion about air pollution.

Not to worry, Houston, your petrochemical corporations will be fine. They have insurance. They will get to write off any damage against their profits. They will get tax incentives to rebuild, or if they choose to move, tax credits from the town down the road.

The people? Most will have no insurance to rebuild their homes or to purchase new furniture.

And the pollution impact? A cost of doing business for the petrochemical industry.

Unfortunately, for the people, pollution’s about their health. And there will be no help forthcoming for the most vulnerable Houstonians.

Have a slice of Texas-themed music: Here is Robert Earl Keen, doing “Corpus Christi Bay” from his 1993 album “A Bigger Piece of Sky”:

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Is Taxing Robots a Solution to Fewer Jobs?

The Daily Escape:

(Slot canyon with dust devil – photo by Angiolo Manetti)

Yesterday, the Dutch voted in an election pitting mainstream parties against Geert Wilders, a hard-right, anti-Islam nationalist whose popularity is seen as a threat to politics-as-usual across Europe, and possibly, as an existential threat to the EU.

Wilders, who wants to “de-Islamicize” the Netherlands and pull out of the EU, has little chance of governing, as all of the mainstream parties have already said they won’t work with him. Given Holland’s complicated form of proportional representation, up to 15 parties could win seats in parliament, and none are expected to win even 20% of the vote. OTOH, polls show that four in 10 of the Netherlands’ 13 million eligible voters were undecided a day before voting, and there is just 5 percentage points separating the top four parties, so Wilders could surprise everyone.

As Wrongo writes this, the Dutch election results are not known, but PBS NewsHour coverage on Tuesday surfaced a thought about taxing robots. PBS correspondent Malcolm Brabant was interviewing workers in Rotterdam:

Niek Stam claims to be the country’s most militant labor union organizer. He says the working class feel insecure about their prospects because of relentless automation and a constant drive to be competitive. The union is campaigning for robots to be taxed.

Brabant then interviewed a worker:

Robots do not buy cars. Neither do they shop for groceries, which leads to a fundamental question: Who’s going to buy all these products when up to 40% of present jobs vanish?

This isn’t an entirely new idea. Silvia Merler, blogging at Bruegel, says:

In a recent interview, Bill Gates discussed the option of a tax on robots. He argued that if today human workers’ income is taxed, and then a robot comes in to do the same thing, it seems logical to think that we would tax the robot at a similar level. While the form of such taxation is not entirely clear, Gates suggested that some of it could come from the profits that are generated by the labor-saving efficiency…and some could come directly in some type of a robot tax.

The main argument against taxing robots is made by corporations and some economists (Larry Summers), who argue that it impedes innovation. Stagnating productivity in rich countries, combined with falling business investment, suggests that adoption of new technology is currently too slow rather than too fast, and taxing new technology could exacerbate the slowdown.

It can be argued that robots are property, and property is already taxed by local governments via the property tax. It might be possible to create an additional value-added tax for robots, since an income tax wouldn’t work, as most robots are not capable of producing income by themselves.

Noah Smith at Bloomberg argues that the problem with Gates’ basic proposal is that it is very hard to tell the difference between new technology that complements human work, and new technology that replaces them. Shorter Noah Smith: Taxation is so hard!

Why are Western economies stagnant? Why has wage growth lagged GDP growth? Automation is certainly a key factor, but rather than point the finger at the corporations who continually benefit from government tax policies, let’s just assign blame to an object, a strawbot, if you will. That way, we won’t look too carefully at the real problem: The continuing concentration of economic and political power in the hands of fewer and fewer corporations.

Automation isn’t the issue, tax laws that allow economic treason by corporations in their home countries are the issue.

Why is nationalism on the march across the globe? Because fed-up workers see it as possibly the only answer to the neoliberal order that is destroying the middle class in Western democracies.

Let’s find a way to tax robots. Something has to offset Trump’s tax breaks for the rich.

Now, a musical moment. Did you know that “pre-St. Patrick’s Day” was a thing? Apparently, some dedicated celebrators prepare for the day itself by raising hell for up to a week beforehand. With that in mind, here is some pre-St. Pat’s Irish music, with Ed Sheeran singing “Nancy Mulligan” a love song about his grandparent’s marriage during WWII, against the wishes of her parents, and despite their Catholic/Protestant differences:

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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February 22, 2017

The Daily Escape:

(Student dormitories surround the largest Buddhist Monastery in Tibet) 

Trump spoke at Boeing’s factory in South Carolina last Friday to help unveil the latest version of the company’s 787 Dreamliner. During his visit, he praised Boeing and its employees for the new jet and vowed to protect US manufacturing jobs:

We want products made by our workers, in our factories, stamped with those four magnificent words: Made in the USA…

Boeing, however, buys many parts for the plane globally. It assembles the plane in the US. In fact, foreign parts account for almost a third of the cost of the entire plane. So much for “Made in the USA“:

  • An Italian firm makes the center fuselage and horizontal stabilizers.
  • A French firm makes the aircraft’s landing gears and doors.
  • The Germans supply the main cabin lighting.
  • The Swedes make the cargo access doors.
  • A Japanese company makes parts for the lavatories, flight deck interiors and galleys.
  • Another Japanese firm supplies the system’s lithium-ion batteries.
  • The French make its electrical power conversion system.
  • The British company Rolls Royce makes the engines.

None of those countries are low wage/low tax places. Robert Reich has a good observation about Boeing’s partners: (brackets by the Wrongologist)

Notably, these companies don’t pay their workers low wages. In fact, when you add in the value of health and pension benefits – either directly from these companies to their workers, or in the form of public benefits to which the companies contribute – most of these foreign workers get a better deal than do Boeing’s workers. (The average wage for Boeing production and maintenance workers in South Carolina is $20.59 per hour, or $42,827 a year.) They [foreign workers] also get more paid vacation days.

These nations also provide most young people with excellent educations and technical training. They continuously upgrade the skills of their workers. And they offer universally-available health care.

To pay for all this, these countries also impose higher tax rates on their corporations and wealthy individuals than does the US. And their health, safety, environmental, and labor regulations are stricter.

We’re not talking about China or Bangladesh. Boeing’s partners are in high-wage/high-tax locations. Why? Because the parts made by workers in these countries are more reliable than parts made anywhere else. Boeing isn’t concerned about costs of personnel or parts (within reason), they are concerned with reliability and total cost of ownership of the plane for their clients.

There’s a lesson here: Trump’s idea of putting a wall around America and charging more for imports won’t make us more competitive with the rest of the world. Investing more, and investing smarter in the education and skills of working-age Americans is what has to happen. Subsidized and formal on-the-job training will also help make US workers more competitive.

Trump isn’t interested in the kind of education reform which would re-energize our middle class and improve our global competitiveness. He’s simply rehashing his campaign speeches. Trade is global, and has been for thousands of years. Capital is global; there is no way to restrict its movement. Trying to implement a protectionist system will fail.

The best weapon a country has in the global competitive environment is an educated people.

 

Here is the British rock group Ten Years After doing “I’d Love to Change the World”. This is the lead single from their 1971 album “A Space in Time”. It was their only Top 40 hit. The Vietnam War ended three years after this song was released, so the lyric, “them and us, stop the war” had relevance then, and still has relevance now. The lyric “tax the rich, feed the poor/ ’til there are no rich no more,” has more relevance today than it did in the early 1970s when it was written.

Here is “I’d Love to Change the World”:

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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How Do You Solve a Problem Like Ohio?

Our industrial heartland has withered away, in that there are fewer manufacturing jobs than ever, while manufacturing revenues have never been higher. Forty years of promises by politicians have come to nothing: These people are victims of a world order in which corporations have either exported or automated those jobs, with no responsibility to workers. It is left to the towns of Middle America and the federal government to clean up their mess.

This world order we live in today was born in 1980, with Thatcher and Reagan. According to Ian Welsh, the world order made a few core promises:

If the rich have more money, they will create more jobs.

Lower taxes will lead to more prosperity.

Increases in housing and stock market prices will increase prosperity for everyone.

Trade deals and globalization will make everyone better off.

Those promises were not kept, and in America’s Midwest, economic stress is now the order of the day. That stress has contributed to rising rates of drug addiction and falling life expectancy.

Understandably frustrated, Ohioans and other Midwesterners gave Donald Trump a victory in November. His win has refocused attention by pundits and pols on the plight of our failing de-industrialized areas. While we have economic growth, we also have growing inequality. Here is a graphic illustration of the problem, comparing the US with the EU:

The Economist reports that from 1880 to 1980, the incomes of poorer and richer American states tended to converge, at a rate of nearly 2% per year. The chart above shows that the pattern no longer exists. This causes us to ask if the shift of resources and people from places in decline to places that are growing is simply taking longer to adjust, or has the current world order failed our people? In econo-speak, the gains in some regions should compensate those regions and towns harmed by the shift, leaving everyone better off.

But that is a political and financial lie promulgated by the very corporations that benefited, and by their political and economist cheerleaders.

With economic decline, some towns and cities became poverty traps. A shrinking tax base means deterioration in local services (think Detroit). Public education that might provide the young with new skills and thus opportunities, fails. Those that remain are on government subsidies or hold low-wage service jobs, or both. It is impossible to tell these citizens that the decay of their home town is an acceptable cost of the rough-and-tumble of the global economy.

Politicians are short on solutions. Since housing costs have risen sharply in towns and cities that are growing, underemployed Americans are less likely to move, and those who do, are less likely to head for richer places. Enrico Moretti of the University of California, Berkeley and Chang-tai Hsieh of the University of Chicago argue that our GDP could be 13.5% higher if this wasn’t the situation in America.

But if moving isn’t an option, what can be done to improve the outlook for those who are left behind?

Would more government subsidies help? Prosperous tax payers already support poorer ones. Subsidies for health insurance costs with Obamacare, as well as industrial tax incentives provide some cushion, but they are not likely to deliver long-run economic recovery, and they have not stemmed the growth of populist political sentiment.

To be fair, many people in Ohio and elsewhere want good jobs, but without having to move too far to get them. That may be impossible.

In the 19th century, the federal government gave land to states, which they could sell to raise proceeds for “land-grant universities”. Those universities, including some that are among our finest, were given a practical task: to develop and disseminate new techniques in agriculture and engineering. They went on to become centers of advanced research and, in some cases, hubs of local innovation and economic growth.

Politicians and academic economists might disdain a modern-day version of the program, one that would train workers, foster new ideas, and strengthen weakened regional economies.

But if our politicians do not provide answers, our populist insurgents will.

Time for a Christmas song. Here is Elvis with “Santa Claus Is Back in Town & Blue Christmas”, from his comeback special on NBC. This was recorded over six days in June, 1968 and aired on December 1, 1968. Elvis flubs “Santa Claus is Back in Town”:

Despite his flub, he does get this line right:

You don’t see me comin in no big black Cadillac

Kind of like out-of-work Ohioans.

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Capitalism Is Past Its Sell-By Date

“This is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people no longer. It is a government of corporations, by corporations, and for corporations…” Rutherford B. Hayes (March, 1888)

Nearly 130 years ago at the height of the Gilded Age, President Hayes had it right. Capitalism then was an economic free-for-all. Today, capitalism again is rewarding too few people. And data show that the problem is worse than we thought. The WSJ reported on a study by economists from Stanford, Harvard and the University of California that found:

Barely half of 30-year-olds earn more than their parents did at a similar age, a research team found, an enormous decline from the early 1970s when the incomes of nearly all offspring outpaced their parents.

Using tax and census data, they identified the income of 30-year-olds starting in 1970, and compared it with the earnings of their parents when they were about the same age. In 1970, 92% of American 30-year-olds earned more than their parents did at a similar age. By 2014, that number fell to 51%. Here is a chart showing the results:

wsj-30-year-olds-make-less

And we know that real median household income in the US today is basically the same as in 1989. The paper doesn’t provide specific reasons for the decline in incomes for younger Americans, but it generally blames slower economic growth and, especially, the rapidly widening income gap between the top 20% and the rest of society.

They found that the inability of children to out-earn their parents is greatest in the Midwest. This underlines that those who voted for Trump have a point: The Midwest has been hit harder by import competition, especially from Japan and China, and by technological changes, than other regions of the US.

When looking only at males nationally, the decline is even starker: In 2014, only 41% of 30-year-old men earned more than their fathers at a similar age.

There are some issues with the study worth mentioning: Most kids born in the 1940s did well in their thirties, maybe because their parents were 30 during the Depression and WWII. By the 1960s, an industrialized economy brought significantly higher wages to 30 year olds. A high denominator in the ratio of parent’s income to child’s income (compared to the past) made it more difficult for succeeding generations to exceed their parents’ incomes.

The economy also has shifted in the past 30 years and is now service-based, as factories moved overseas, and automation became prevalent. This change swapped higher wage manufacturing jobs for mostly lower wage service jobs. That alone could make it all but impossible for young adults to hit the ratios that their parents did relative to their grandparents.

Maybe the American Dream didn’t die; it just never really existed in the sense of broadly-based income mobility. Have another look at the chart, upward mobility (as measured by making more than your parents) has been declining since the mid-1940s.

Why? Between rising globalization and rapid advances in automation, we now have more people than jobs. And no matter whom we elect, this trend will continue. Those manufacturing jobs are never coming back. Even in China, robots are now displacing workers in factories.

We don’t need “good paying manufacturing jobs”; we need good paying jobs.

This is the most serious challenge capitalism has faced in the US. Without improving personal income, there will be fewer who can afford college, or afford to buy the things that capitalism produces. Low personal income growth puts sand in the gears of our economy.

The left offers a critique of contemporary global capitalism but no real practical alternative. Neither does the right, but their memes of America First, nostalgia for a golden (gilded?) age, and more tax cuts seem like less of a stretch than a Bernie Sanders-like frontal assault on capitalism.

No one in either party has a plan for a world in which robots displace the demand for labor on a large scale. And the under-30 cohort is now spending at least 4 times more (in the case of Wrongo’s university, 10 times) for a college education than what their parents paid, and they are earning less.

If people matter at all to our leaders, and if 90+% of them lack the means to live without working, America must make employment our top priority, despite the fact that many have been deemed redundant by capitalists in the private sector.

Surplus labor drives the price of labor down; allowing the employer class to afford a pool boy, or a nanny, or another cook.

And it makes the waiters more attentive to Mr. Trump.

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