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The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

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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Our New Political Majority

(This is the last column for this week. We will resume on Sunday with cartoons. Everyone has reasons to be thankful, so take the time to talk about them with your loved ones, or your close friends this week.)

Last weekend, like most Americans, Wrongo spoke with friends and family about how we got to the disappointing political place where we are today.

Der Spiegel Online asked: If you think back ten years, could you have imagined in 2006 that America’s reality would be Donald Trump as president of the US? Probably not, but ten years ago:

  1. Economic growth and job growth both fell in 2006 as the residential housing boom came to an end.
  2. Wages were the smallest share of national income since the government began compiling the statistic in 1947.
  3. Consumer debt soared to new heights, while consumer debt payments rose to the highest on record.

Those were dispatches from the ongoing war that corporations and neoliberal economic elites made on our citizens. And it didn’t stop there. After 2006, we had the financial meltdown and the Great Recession. Banks had to be bailed out. Millions of people lost their jobs. Debt grew, and faith in government’s willingness and ability to improve the fortunes of their citizens evaporated.

The clear losers were workers in traditional economic sectors, particularly in manufacturing. According to a study by economists David Autor, David Dorn and Gordon Hanson, the increase in imports from China have resulted in the loss of 1.5 million manufacturing jobs since the early 1990s.

But automation had a greater impact: In total, some 6.9 million manufacturing jobs were lost in the US between the early 1990s and 2011. For those who have lost their jobs, it seems that their political representatives have forgotten them. Particularly when establishment Democrats and Republicans continue to push for more trade, by which they mean more imports from our global corporations who continue to export those jobs to lower-wage countries.

In 2016, despite substantially better economic times, many American still worried about losing their jobs and their financial security. They saw themselves as the losers in a game that only helps corporations and the elites. This domination of our politics by the economic elites has produced a defacto disenfranchisement of everyone else.

A new political map has emerged, one that doesn’t neatly fit into the Left vs. Right model of our politics. The new dividing line is between those who support, and those who oppose, America’s economic elites and their neoliberal policies. Those on both sides of the old ideologies who distrust the elites are connected by their fear of being left behind. This was clear in 2016 in those precincts where Trump outperformed Romney, and where Clinton underperformed Obama.

This is today’s landscape, but in 1998, Richard Rorty, an American philosopher who died in 2007, wrote “Achieving Our Country” which predicted our current political situation. According to the NYT, the following fragment of the book has been retweeted thousands of times since the election:

Members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers — themselves desperately afraid of being downsized — are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.

At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for — someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots.

One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past 40 years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion…All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.

Rorty’s basic contention is that the left abandoned its core philosophy in favor of a neo-liberal worldview that promoted globalism and corporatism. Rorty said in a lecture in 1997:

This world economy will soon be owned by a cosmopolitan upper class which has no more sense of community with any workers anywhere than the great American capitalists of the year 1900.

Mr. Rorty’s most prescient words:

The cultural Left has a vision of an America in which the white patriarchs have stopped voting and have left all the voting to be done by members of previously victimized groups.

Rorty said that in 1998. And in 2016, it was Hillary Clinton’s failed election strategy.

What’s so striking about “Achieving Our Country” is Rorty’s argument that both the cultural and political left abandoned economic justice in favor of identity politics, ignoring too many economically disadvantaged Americans.

According to voter turnout statistics from the 2016 election, 58.4% of eligible voters actually voted (135.2 million). Clinton received about 63.7 million votes (27.5% of eligible voters) to Trump’s 62 million, (26.8%) while 9.5 million votes went to others.

This means that 41.6% of America voted for nobody, far outweighing the votes cast for Trump or Clinton.

That the majority of Americans did not vote is not because they don’t care. They voted no confidence in a political system that forgot about them a long time ago.

A minority elected Trump. The majority voted against our neoliberal political system.

 

(BTW, Tuesday was the 53rd anniversary of JFK’s assassination. While it remains fresh in Wrongo’s mind, it hardly registers in the minds of the press or the public. A new idea on Oswald’s motives appeared in the LA Times. Take a look.)

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What Can Vietnam’s Success Teach Us?

Wrongo was against the Vietnam War. He was drafted right after college into the US Army while America was fighting the Viet Cong. Once in the military, he was twice on orders to go to Vietnam, but luckily, ended up serving his time in Germany, running a nuclear missile unit.

He has several army buddies whose names are inscribed on the Wall in Washington, but that was 50 years ago, and he holds no grudge against Vietnam, or its people. So, the remarkable recovery that Vietnam has made from the war, their now friendly ties with the US, and their success in becoming a middle income country ought to be instructive to our foreign policy establishment.

From the Economist:

Foreign direct investment in Vietnam hit a record in 2015 and has surged again this year. Deals reached $11.3 billion in the first half of 2016, up by 105% from the same period last year, despite a sluggish global economy. Big free-trade agreements explain some of the appeal. But something deeper is happening. Like South Korea, Taiwan and China before it, Vietnam is piecing together the right mix of ingredients for rapid, sustained growth.

Since 1990, Vietnam has averaged GDP growth of nearly 6% a year per person, lifting it from among the world’s poorest countries to middle-income status. This is similar to India’s or China’s growth, but China then went on to average double-digit growth for years. Check out this photo of today’s Ho Chi Minh City, what GI’s once called Saigon:

Stark Tower 2

The tall building is 68 floors high. It is the Bitexco Financial Tower, but locals call it “Stark Tower” because it looks like Tony Stark’s headquarters in the Iron Man films. While it is the city’s tallest building now, next year it’ll only be the fourth tallest.

So, how did this communist country do it? By moving from state ownership of the means of production to a mixed model. Vietnam’s Doi Moi policy opened up Vietnam to the rest of the world. They revamped much of the legal system to create a transparent and attractive place for foreign investment. This has given foreign companies the confidence to build factories. Foreign investors are now responsible for a quarter of annual capital spending. Trade accounts for about 150% of national output, more than any other country at its level of per-person GDP.

They established the Ho Chi Minh Stock Exchange in 2000, and de-nationalized many state-owned companies, opening doors for foreign investment. Equity was sold to both foreign and domestic investors, and in some cases, foreign ownership can now be 100%. In 2015, total Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) was $13 billion.

Vietnam shares a border with China. As Chinese wages rise, some firms can easily move to Vietnam for lower-cost production, while maintaining their links to China’s supply chain for parts.

Vietnam has a relatively young population. China’s median age is 36, while Vietnam’s is 30.7. Seven in ten Vietnamese still live in the countryside, about the same as in India, compared with only 44% in China. This reservoir of rural workers should help hold down wage pressure, allowing Vietnam to build up labor-intensive industries, a necessity for a nation of nearly 100 million people.

Public spending on education is about 6.3% of GDP, two percentage points more than the average for low- and middle-income countries. In global rankings, 15-year-olds in Vietnam beat those in America and Britain in math and science.

Although Vietnam has benefited from foreign investment, only 36% of its firms are integrated into its export industries, compared with nearly 60% in Malaysia and Thailand. While Samsung plans to invest $3 billion in consumer electronics production in Vietnam, there will be very little domestic content, except for packaging. More local value-added must be found to keep GDP growth high.

There are big problems: The fiscal deficit in 2016 will be more than 6% of GDP for the fifth straight year. As mentioned, domestic content in exports is low, and imports of consumer goods purchased by newly prosperous workers fuels a trade deficit.

Vietnam is now classified as a middle-income country; so it is about to lose access to preferential financing from the multilateral development banks. In 2017, the World Bank will start to phase out concessional lending.

Vietnam is successful, despite our dropping 3.5 times the number of bombs on it that we dropped in WWII, while killing more than a million Vietnamese.

For America, Vietnam’s success, despite our past efforts to devastate it, should cause us to reflect on how and why we are a guns-first country when we deal with the third world.

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Capitalism, It’s Not You, It’s Me

There is a meme that has gone global since the early days of the Occupy movement. Here it is as a wall graffiti from Greece that uses the same meme we first saw in NYC in 2011:

Capitalism Lotek

Just kidding capitalism, it really is you.

The artist is a Greek who styles himself as Lotek. The name Lotek is derived from the short story (and later, a film) by William Gibson called Johnny Mnemonic. The story is set in 2021, in a world ruled by corporations. An anti-authoritarian gang that are called Lo-Teks, fight the power. They are in fact not low tech at all, but are high tech hackers. Sound familiar?

Greece is surely a place at war with neoliberalism and free market capitalism. So is it also time for us to reconsider capitalism?

Consider this from Mark Blyth in Foreign Affairs:

An inherent tension exists between capitalism and democratic politics since capitalism allocates resources through markets, whereas democracy allocates power through voting.

The compromises both systems have struck with each other over recent history shapes our contemporary political and economic world. Blyth observes:

  • In the three decades that followed World War II, democracy set the rules, taming markets with the establishment of protective labor laws, restrictive financial regulations, and expanded welfare systems.
  • Starting in the 1970s, a globalized, deregulated capitalism, unconstrained by national borders, began to push back.

And today, capital markets and capitalists are setting the rules, and democratic governments follow them.

Some background: Cutting taxes in the 1980s caused government revenues to fall. Deficits widened, and interest rates rose as those deficits became harder to finance. At the same time, conservative govern­ments, especially in the UK and the US, dismantled the regulations that had reined in the excesses of the financial service industry since the 1940s.

The financial industry began to grow unchecked, and as it expanded, investors sought safe assets that were highly liquid and provided good returns: the debt of developed countries.

This allowed governments to plug their deficits and spend more, all without raising taxes.

But the shift to financing the state through debt came at a cost. Since WW II, taxes on labor and capital had provided the foundation of postwar state spending. But, as govern­ments began to rely more on debt, the tax-based states of the postwar era became the debt-based states of today.

This transformation had pro­found political consequences. The increase in government debt has allowed capitalists to override the preferences of citizens:

  • Bond-market investors can now exercise an effective veto on policies they don’t like by demanding higher interest rates when they replace old debt with new debt.
  • Investors can use courts to override the ability of states to default on their debts, as happened recently in Argentina
  • They can shut down an entire country’s payment system if that country votes against the interests of creditors, as happened in Greece in 2015.
  • Citizens United dictates who runs for office in the US, and in many cases, who wins.

Now that the financial industry has become more powerful than the people, should we blindly follow capitalism’s meme as the only way forward?

Free-market rhetoric hides the dependence of corporate profits on conditions provided for, and guaranteed by, governments. For example:

  • Our financial institutions insist that they should be free of meddlesome regulations while they depend on continuing access to cheap credit from the Federal Reserve.
  • Our pharmaceutical firms have resisted any government limits on their price-setting ability at the same time that they rely on government grants of monopolies through our patent system.

To use a sporting metaphor, it’s as if the best football team purchased not only the best coaches and facilities, but also bought the referees and the journalists as well. Those responsible for judging economic competition have lost all authority, which leaves the dream of ‘meritocracy’ or a ‘level playing field’ in tatters.

In our country, the divide between the business oligarchs, the political class and “the people” increasingly appears unbridgeable, marked by hostility and deep distrust. When people are told for a generation that government mustn’t make decisions that interfere with free markets, it is inevitable that people will lose faith in democratic governance, and in government’s capacity to help them solve their problems.

Capitalism in its current form no longer works for the people. We have seen a reaction in the start of movements by Occupy, by Bernie, and by others in Europe.

Remember that the greatest prosperity in living memory in the US came during the brief social democratic moment, in the 1950s and 1960s, when the constraints on business were the greatest.

More democracy and more economic justice are the necessary foundations for the path to a more prosperous, and sustainable economy.

A reformed capitalism must be a part of what emerges from that fight.

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More Political Lessons From Brexit

There is a neoliberal aspect to Brexit that has many Brits in the 1% quietly (and tentatively) quite happy. Fraser Nelson, editor of the Spectator and a columnist for the Daily Telegraph, writing in the WSJ, said the Brexiteers:

…think the vote for Brexit was about liberty and free trade, and about trying to manage globalization better than the EU has been doing from Brussels.

Neoliberalism at its finest. You could substitute “No Obama” for “Brexit”, and “Washington” for “Brussels”, and think it was the GOP talking.

Mr. Nelson says that a major problem was that the EU’s centralized, command-type structure makes local issues difficult to manage. He says that regulations issued at the European level, rules promulgated by officials whose names Brits didn’t know, people they never elected and cannot remove from office, became law in the UK. More from Mr. Fraser: (emphasis and brackets by the Wrongologist)

Mr. Cameron has been trying to explain this to Angela Merkel…He once regaled the German chancellor with a pre-dinner PowerPoint presentation to explain his whole referendum idea. Public support for keeping Britain within the EU was collapsing, he warned, but a renegotiation of its terms would save Britain’s membership…Mr. Cameron was sent away with a renegotiation barely worthy of the name. It was a fatal mistake [by the EU] not nearly enough to help Mr. Cameron shift the terms of a debate he was already losing.

The EU took a gamble: That the Brits would not vote to leave. A better deal—perhaps aimed at allowing the UK more control over immigration, a top public concern in Britain—might have stopped Brexit. But the absence of a deal sent a clear message: The EU isn’t interested in reform.

The EU apparently needs fixing, but it won’t be the UK who does it. Cameron tried in a lukewarm way to fix Europe a little around the edges, and failed. A final point from Mr. Fraser:

The question is not whether to work with Europe but how to work with Europe. Alliances work best when they are coalitions of the willing. The EU has become a coalition of the unwilling, the place where the finest multilateral ambitions go to die.

Perhaps. It IS clear that not all regulations are created equal, some are inefficient, and some are just stupid. But, a business environment with fewer government regulations is the wet dream of most business owners, while it often harms consumers. It is also true that the Brexit supporters were able to conflate in the minds of voters all the discontent with UK austerity, benefit cuts, poor quality job creation and wage stagnation along with the EU’s hegemony, into a big ball of emotion.

And it worked.

The inside-the-bubble UK neoliberal view is that the EU was the problem, and the British voters solved that. America doesn’t have an analogue. We could leave NAFTA, but that has none of the earth-shaking possibilities. We could fail to pass the TPP. That would be a yuuge anti-neoliberal event.

There is an economic malaise in blue collar UK. Once an industrial powerhouse, it has become service driven, with finance and lawyering representing a significant portion of its economy. Sounds just like America in 2016.

Let’s link all of this up with our domestic political economy:

  • Income inequality has grown in the US since at least the 1980s.
  • Real median income is the same as in 1996.
  • Our Labor Participation Rate (the share of American civilians over the age of 16 who are working or looking for a job) is about where it was in the 1970s.
  • Despite a rosy headline unemployment rate of 4.7% (which counts only people without work seeking full-time employment), the U-6 rate (includes discouraged workers and all marginally attached workers, plus those workers who are part-time purely for economic reasons) is much higher at 9.7%. In human terms, that is 15.3 million souls who need a job.

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton both see these things. The candidate who convinces voters that s/he will really address them will win.

Trump is correct when he says if there are millions out of work, how can we permit immigration? He wrongly focuses on Mexicans, but he’s right: We need fewer people pursuing the fewer jobs we will have until at least until 2025, when finally, all the Baby Boomers retire.

America is in a class war, but it’s the working class versus the middle class rather than workers versus billionaires, as Bernie talks about. Joe Six-pack doesn’t hate the billionaire class. Therefore, Trump is acceptable.

The Pandering Pant Load sees this, and has moved to exploit their anger.

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More Questions for The Pant Suit and the Pant Load

Yesterday, Wrongo broke the bad news about the May job report. Exactly one year ago, Wrongo wrote “Technology Isn’t Creating Enough Middle Class Jobs.” That article spoke about how deploying new technologies continues to cost more and more mid-skilled jobs.

With low interest rates, the cost of capital investments have fallen relative to the cost of labor, and businesses have rushed to replace workers with technology. Because of technology, since the mid-1970s capital and labor have become more substitutable, and it’s a major global trend. Some proof of this is in the article in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, where  Loukas Karabarbounis and Brent Neiman from the University of Chicago found that the share of income going to workers has been declining around the world.

As Brad Delong, economist at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote recently, throughout most of human history, every new machine that took the job once performed by a person’s hands and muscles increased the demand for complementary human skills — like those performed by eyes, ears or brains.

This is no longer true. From Wrongo’s June, 2015 column:

Facebook is touted as a prime player in the knowledge economy, but it only employs 5,800 to service 1 billion customers! Twitter has 400 million total users. It has 2,300 employees.

What is the value of Facebook and Twitter to the jobs economy? These are two of our very “best” success stories, and they only employ 8,100 workers.

These firms have had a huge impact on society, but the total jobs they have created are only a rounding error in our economy.

As the idea sinks in that human workers may be less necessary than in the past, what happens if the job market stops providing a living wage for millions of Americans?

How will people afford to pay the rent? What will happen if the bottom quartile of workers in the US simply can’t find a job at a wage that could cover the cost of basic staples?

What if smart machines took out the lawyers and bankers? Bloomberg is reporting that job loss is on the way for bankers. Banks are racing to remake themselves as digital companies to cut costs. In other words, they’re preparing for the day that machines take over more of what used to be the sole province of humans: knowledge work. From Bloomberg:

State Street had 32,356 people on the payroll last year. About one of every five will be automated out of a job by 2020, according to Rogers. What the bank is doing presages broader changes about to sweep across the industry. A report in March by Citigroup…said that more than 1.8 million US and European bank workers could lose their jobs within 10 years.

They close by saying that Wall Street will go on—but without as many suits.

Some estimates say that automation could cost half of all current jobs in the next 20 years. The OECD thinks the number is smaller. They argued last month that lots of tasks were hard to automate, like face-to-face interaction with customers. They concluded that only 9% of American workers faced a high risk of being replaced by an automaton.

9% of today’s American workforce equals 13.6 million jobs. It just took us seven years to gain 14.5 million jobs, most of which were contractors and temp jobs.

The prognosis for many medium and some higher-skilled workers appears grim.

The corporatists have seen these forecasts. It explains their unwillingness to do anything serious to create effective jobs programs here at home. They don’t need to do anything, because there is a (virtually) infinite supply of skilled and unskilled workers in the overpopulated third world.

So, these are today’s questions for the Pant Suit and the Pant Load, and their answers need to be specific:

  • Where will the household’s income come from when jobs alone can’t provide it?
  • How will we deal with large-scale inequality that requires large-scale redistribution?
  • Is it time to think about how to provide more income that isn’t directly tied to a job?

From Eduardo Porter:

For large categories of workers, wages are already inadequate. Many are withdrawing from the labor force altogether. In the 1960s, one in 20 men between 25 and 54 were not working. Today it’s three in 20. Although the population is generally healthier than it was in the 1960s; work is almost uniformly less demanding. Still, more workers are on disability.

The issue is not technology, or robots, or restoring our manufacturing base. It isn’t better skills, or technology or outsourcing. We have too many people chasing too few good jobs.

This is why we need the presidential candidates to speak the truth about job creation in America.

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Will We See a Recession Soon?

With Trump vs. Clinton vs. Sanders sucking all of the oxygen out of the news cycle, it’s probable that you missed the release by the Federal Reserve on May 18th of its delinquency and charge-off data for all commercial banks in the first quarter. It isn’t a pretty picture.

Here’s a few nuggets:

  • Delinquencies of commercial and industrial (C&I) loans at all banks, after hitting a low point in Q4 2014 of $11.7 billion, have ballooned. C&I loans are classified delinquent when they are 30 or more days past due.
  • Between Q4 2014 and Q1 2016, delinquencies have increased by 137% to $27.8 billion. Currently, they are halfway to the all-time peak during the Financial Crisis in Q3 2009 of $53.7 billion. And they’re higher than they were in Q3 2008, when Lehman Brothers melted down.

Below is a chart of delinquencies released by the Board of Governors of the Fed. The shaded areas are times of economic recession. Wolf Richter of Wolf Street added the emphasis in red to point out where we stand in relationship to the 2008 Lehman moment:

C&I Deliq Q1 16

As you can see from the chart, business loan delinquencies are usually a leading indicator of economic trouble. They begin rising at the end of the credit cycle, since loans made in the good times start to go bad when the economic situation changes. Then, the obligations of interest payments and loan repayments begin to pose a problem for weaker borrowers whose sales, instead of rising as expected when times were good, may be flat or shrinking while expenses can be rising. Suddenly, there’s not enough money to service the loan.

This started with the oil and gas sector reacting to lower crude oil prices in 2015, but it has moved beyond the oil patch. Total US commercial bankruptcy filings in April, 2016 rose 3% from March, and are up 32% from a year ago, to 3,482, according to the American Bankruptcy Institute.

This is happening at an interesting time.

First, the health of the economy will be a huge deal in the General Election. Both Trump and Clinton have a stake in saying it isn’t as good as it could be. Yet, it is highly unlikely that we will be in a recession in November 2016, because our current economic momentum will carry us for at least another 6 months.

Second, the Fed is now indicating that it believes the economy is strong enough to raise rates for a second time this year, perhaps as soon as June, according to the Fed’s recent Open Market Committee minutes. That supports the idea that no recession is imminent.

But we still have this pesky loan delinquency data.

Loan delinquencies must be cured within a specified time. If not, they’re taken from the delinquency bucket and dropped into the default bucket. If defaults are not cured within a specified time, the bank deems a portion (or all) of the loan balance uncollectible, and writes it off, therefore moving it out of default and into the write-off bucket.

That’s why the delinquency statistics usually do not get very large – loans don’t stay delinquent for a very long period.

The Fed has painted itself into a corner. They have to raise rates because low rates are destroying many pension funds and they hurt retirees who rely heavily on interest-bearing investments. Pension funds have been modeled on interest rates of between 6%-8%, which have not been seen for at least 10 years.

But, a Fed rate hike would add more risk of more loans becoming delinquent.

And the largest American corporations are awash with the debt that they used to fund buy-backs of their shares. That debt has to be renewed periodically. If rates rose high enough to help pension funds, it could wound quite a few large companies.

If that wasn’t bad enough, South America, Europe and the Chinese are looking increasingly fragile. Even if the Fed engineers a domestic miracle of sorts, it may not be enough. The financial world can be a minefield when we are trying to hang on to our hard-earned money.

So, prepare to hear both Trump and Hillary tell you they have the answers.

Since their global corporate benefactors now rule the world, they should be able to figure out what to do with it.

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