UA-43475823-1

The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

IMF Reports US Standard of Living is Falling

The Daily Escape:

Haleakala Crater, Maui

Is it the best of times or the worst of times? This is no longer a partisan discussion. We have an economy in the midst of a long expansion, the third longest since 1850. The statistics say we are close to full employment. But, our mortality rate is moving in the wrong direction, and we have an opioid epidemic that is serious enough to cause jobs to go unfilled. The NYT reports that in Youngstown Ohio, middle class factory jobs go begging:

It’s not that local workers lack the skills for these positions, many of which do not even require a high school diploma but pay $15 to $25 an hour and offer full benefits. Rather, the problem is that too many applicants — nearly half, in some cases — fail a drug test.

The Fed’s regular Beige Book surveys of economic activity across the country in April, May and July all noted the inability of employers to find workers able to pass drug screenings.

So the best of times? Probably not. Bloomberg reports that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) looked at the US economy. This is what they see:

For some time now there has been a general sense that household incomes are stagnating for a large share of the population, job opportunities are deteriorating, prospects for upward mobility are waning, and economic gains are increasingly accruing to those that are already wealthy. This sense is generally borne out by economic data and when comparing the US with other advanced economies.

The IMF then goes on to compare the US with 23 other advanced economies in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in this chart:

The chart is a bit of an eye test unless it’s viewed on a big monitor, but its overall point is that the US has been losing ground relative to its past OECD reports by several measures of living standards. 35 countries make up the OECD. The members include all of Western Europe, Russia, Japan, Australia, and several developing nations like Korea and Panama.

This from Bloomberg:

And in the areas where the US hasn’t lost ground (poverty rates, high school graduation rates), it was at or near the bottom of the heap to begin with. The clear message is that the US — the richest nation on Earth, as is frequently proclaimed, although it’s actually not the richest per capita — is increasingly becoming the developed world’s poor relation as far as the actual living standards of most of its population go.

This analysis is contained in the staff report of the IMF’s annual “consultation” with the U.S., which was published last week. The IMF economists haven’t turned up anything shocking or new, it’s just that as outsiders, they have a different perspective than what we hear from our politicians and economists.

For example:

Income polarization is suppressing consumption…weighing on labor supply and reducing the ability of households to adapt to shocks. High levels of poverty are creating disparities in the education system, hampering human capital formation and eating into future productivity.

What is to be done? Well, the IMF report concludes:

Reforms should include building a more efficient tax system; establishing a more effective regulatory system; raising infrastructure spending; improving education and developing skills; strengthening healthcare coverage while containing costs; offering family-friendly benefits; maintaining a free, fair, and mutually beneficial trade and investment regime; and reforming the immigration and welfare systems.

In other words, they suggest substantial reform. It’s doubtful that America can take care of these things anytime soon.

The subtext to most of their suggestions is that other affluent countries have found ways to improve in these areas, while the US has not. We don’t have to look too far into the past to see when those countries were modeling their economies on ours. But today, on all sorts of issues, like taxation, labor markets, health care, and education, the opposite is now true.

One major difference between the US and the rest of the developed world is ideological: Voters and politicians in the US are less willing to raise taxes to finance a better life for our citizens.

Other wealthy countries have figured out how to raise revenue, provide quality education, help the the unemployed, reduce poverty, and keep their citizens healthier than America has.

We must catch up, or admit our time as the world’s indispensable economy is over.

Today’s music (dis)honors the turmoil in the White House. See ‘ya Mooch! Remember that in just six months, Trump has gone through two National Security Advisers, two Chiefs of Staff, two Communications Directors, two Press Secretaries, and two Directors of the FBI.

Here is “Disorder in the House” by the late Warren Zevon and Bruce Springsteen:

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

Facebooklinkedinrss

January 20, 2017 – Trump Inaugural Edition

Today is the Trump Inaugural. So many preparations, and so much detail for the transition team to worry about. From the no stone left unturned department, comes this from the WSJ:

 Workers preparing for the Trump Inaugural have taped over the name of the company — “Don’s Johns” — that has long supplied portable restrooms for major outdoor events in the nation’s capital…Virginia-based Don’s Johns calls itself the Washington area’s top provider of portable toilet rentals. But the name apparently strikes too close to home for inaugural organizers.

Too close to Donald John for Donald John Trump? Of course. Somebody placed blue tape over the company name on dozens of portable restrooms installed near the Capitol for the inauguration. The company says they didn’t do it. But, the company’s name is clearly blocked from the TV cameras:

Once Donald J. Trump becomes the 45th president of the US, he will certainly push the agenda that got him elected. We all will need a way to sort the signal from the noise that we will hear from both his partisans and his opposition (which includes the Wrongologist). When you hear people raising reasoned questions and objections to Trump’s proposed policies, odds are that you’re listening to the kind of dissent that’s essential to our democracy, and you ought to take it seriously. For the kinds of arm-waving, emotional, knee-jerk support (or criticism) that you will hear every day, feel free to ignore that. You will know the knee-jerk stuff, since it will be sung in harmony by all the other partisans. And the media will repeat it often for your consideration.

Wrongo has serious problems with Trump, but is hopeful that his administration will:

  • Live up to his populist domestic promises, and
  • Simplify our country’s confusing foreign policy

If he normalizes relations with Russia, extracts us from the messes in Iraq and Syria and if he encourages domestic jobs growth, Wrongo will likely sign up for all of that. If he pushes through a big infrastructure bill that isn’t a wealth transfer to corporations, Wrongo will probably go along with that as well.

Wrongo does not trust Trump or the GOP on health care insurance. He worries that Republicans will throw a number of Americans under the bus, causing a great deal of unnecessary pain.

You can be sure that Trump is going to try to do some terrible things over the next four years, such as appointing ideologues to the Supreme Court. But, Congressional Republicans will clearly attempt far worse things than will The Overlord.

So the terrible fact is, we have to count on Trump to rein in the worst of the GOP’s ideas and instincts.

Needing to trust Donald Trump is enough to frighten anyone.

Trump tweets continually to rally his supporters while simultaneously manipulating the media. It’s unnerving. Saying that Trump is terrifying, while correct, is useless. The most obsessive of his opponents focus on worst-case scenarios that are designed to rally (and raise money from) the anti-Trump troops among us. Sadly, that strategy largely guarantees that the opposition will look disorganized and fragile. It also causes the American center-left to be fragmented issue by issue, and therefore, unable to broadly challenge the GOP, at least in the short run.

The Dems need to coalesce around only the potentially win-able issues. Otherwise, they should “just say no” to any Trump legislation intended to weaken or break our social contract. Sen. Schumer is correct when he says that the GOP needs to own 100% of the pain they cause the average person, whenever they break the contract. Any Democrat that breaks ranks to support issues like cuts to Medicare or privatization of Social Security must be challenged from the left in the next primary.

Democrats did not believe they would be in this political mess. They are trying to find their footing, but establishment Democrats want to simply tweak the message, and stay the course.

However, the battle against Trump and the GOP majority must move from “Republican Lite” to a fight to put social justice and progressivism back on the table as viable options for all Americans.

Otherwise, it will be a precipitous fall from political relevancy for Democrats.

Establishment Democrats who profit from the status quo, have no incentive to come up with an agenda that appeals to people who are suffering because of that status quo. The great weakness of Hillary Clinton’s campaign was that she aimed her appeals at the minority of voters who would benefit from the established neoliberal order, while largely ignoring those who suffered under it.

That decision could cost the Dems for a generation.

Facebooklinkedinrss

Is It Legitimate To Say Trump’s Not Legitimate?

“As our case is new, we must think anew and act anew”Lincoln

Everybody’s been talking about the dust up between Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) and Donald Trump. Lewis’s statement that Trump is not a legitimate president obviously hit our Overlord-elect in a soft, squishy spot, and he immediately lashed out at Lewis.

Advocates from both sides rushed to defend their guy’s actions. Lots of people are saying “not my president”, which doesn’t necessarily imply illegitimacy as much as disapproval, but many like the sound of saying Trump is illegitimate:

  • There are misguided people who sincerely think that Trump wasn’t elected in a fair election, that votes were somehow stolen from Hillary Clinton, despite the lack of evidence to support that contention.
  • There are others who think the result was unfairly influenced by outside forces ranging from the FBI here at home, to foreign governments, principally Russia. If you believe that FBI Director Comey’s actions were illegitimate, or that Russia intervened, you could conclude that the result may be illegitimate.

But, most think the election results reflect what happened in the voting booth; that the outcome was how people voted, and Trump won according to the rules.

Charles Blow in the NYT defined two types of legitimacy: (brackets by the Wrongologist)

It is true that Donald Trump is, by all measures of the law, the legitimate president-elect and will legitimately be inaugurated our 45th president on Friday…There simply is no constitutional or statutory mechanism to nullify the installation of an elected president based on election influencing, even by a hostile state actor. The framers of the Constitution had no way of anticipating digital warfare being used in a propaganda attack. The Constitution was ratified before electric lights were invented.

But there is another way of considering legitimacy, another test that his election doesn’t meet: That is when legitimacy is defined as “conforming to recognized principles or accepted rules and standards.”

Here, [John] Lewis and his fellow believers are on solid footing.

Trump overreacted to Lewis, saying that John Lewis’s Congressional district is poverty stricken, and all Lewis does is talk, Trump is simply wrong on the facts. Lewis’s district includes a combination of prosperous and less prosperous bits of Atlanta. From Atrios:

But basically this is Trump’s view that all black people live in hellholes and all urban areas not within 15 feet of his golden palace in the sky are hellholes…Which is fine, he’s entitled to his preferences. But 70 years on this Earth and it seems like he’s seen his penthouse, some golf courses, the occasional glance out his limo window, and that’s it, other than 24/7 cable news. Strange life, given his resources.

Charles Blow reminds us: (brackets and emphasis by the Wrongologist)

[Trump is] A lecher attacking a legend; a man of moral depravity attacking a man of moral certitude; an intellectual weakling attacking a warrior for justice…Trump attacks Lewis as, “All talk, talk, talk — no action”; Lewis, who repeatedly thrust his body unto the breach for justice, who was arrested, beaten and terrorized, including during the time that young Trump was at his well-heeled schools, receiving draft deferments from the Vietnam War.

In fact, one of Trump’s five deferments was in 1965, the same year as the Selma marches and “Bloody Sunday,” during which Lewis was struck so violently by a state trooper wielding a billy club that Lewis’s skull was fractured.

Let’s stop focusing on whether the Overlord-elect is “legitimate”.  The important thing is that we now have a president who wants to help Putin destroy the European Union. He wants to dismantle NATO, tear up the Iran Nuclear Agreement, and confront China.

At home, we will lose the ACA. There will be malicious surgery to Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid. Corporate and personal income taxes (at least for the wealthy) will go down. (In fact, the rash of corporate commitments to build new production facilities in the US may be in anticipation of a corporate tax deal). We may see a Value Added Tax (VAT) of 20%-30% to pay for it all. VAT’s fall disproportionately on the middle and lower classes.

There will be ideologically-driven Supreme Court appointments as well.

It is worth emphasizing that Trump has the most conservative Senate and House since at least 1930. Part of the reason he is dangerous is that the restraint centrist Republicans once placed on Republican Presidents is largely gone.

America’s center and left are so weak, they can’t stand against the programs that conservative Republicans, the Tea Party and the alt-right coalition that will govern us, are now preparing.

The question shouldn’t be whether Trump was elected legitimately, that ship has sailed.

But how will we derail his program?

Facebooklinkedinrss

Saturday Soother, January 7, 2017

Happy Birthday today Kelly!! Other than that happy fact, little went right in America this week. Our Overlord, Donald I, rode to a presidential win by saying he would bring jobs back to America that have been lost to automation and offshoring by US companies.

But economists have said for years that creating jobs for low skilled Americans will be difficult. Here is further evidence that bringing back jobs may be tougher than Trump thinks. Salon reports that for men ages 25 to 54, the work statistics are poor:

For this group, labor force participation has sunk to 88.5% from a 1954 peak of 97.9%. Most of that loss has occurred among men who have a high school degree or less, according to a report this year by the Obama administration.

And there are interesting facts to consider where unemployed men are concerned. The NYT’s Upshot reports that the jobs that have been disappearing, like machine operator, are predominantly those that men do, while the occupations that are growing, employ mostly women. More from Upshot:

Of the fastest-growing jobs, many are various types of health aides, which are about 90% female. When men take these so-called pink-collar jobs, they have more job security and wage growth than in blue-collar work, according to recent research. But they are paid less and feel stigmatized.

Upshot quotes David Autor, an economist at M.I.T.:

The jobs being created are very different than the jobs being eliminated…I’m not worried about whether there will be jobs. I’m very worried about whether there will be jobs for low-educated adults, especially the males, who seem very reluctant to take the new jobs.

The issue is America’s culture of masculinity. Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist and public policy professor at Johns Hopkins says:

Traditional masculinity is standing in the way of working-class men’s employment…We have a cultural lag where our views of masculinity have not caught up to the change in the job market.

Why is it that men can get away with saying that they deserve better than women? Perhaps that is a rhetorical question. After all, we elected Donald Trump, who can get away with anything.

The Salon article had this snippet: (emphasis by the Wrongologist)

Health problems and the opioid epidemic may also be a major barrier to work, according to research by Alan Krueger, a Princeton economist and former Obama adviser. Nearly half of men ages 25 through 54 who are neither working nor looking for work, take pain medication daily.

Some of these men may have been injured on the job and were subsequently laid off. But some may also represent part of the huge increase in opioid use in America. They may be part of the increase in disability cases since the Great Recession: More than 10 million Americans received Social Security disability benefits in 2014 (most recent statistics). Benefits paid to disabled workers totaled $11.4 billion per month nationwide, a substantial increase from the $6.1 billion paid monthly in 2004. The top three states receiving disability benefits are West Virginia, Alabama and Arkansas.

We became this society honestly. Our politicians hold our corporations in high esteem. The corporations repay us by automating most jobs and shipping other jobs overseas. They do this with little or no responsibility to help displaced workers retrain, or find new work. They do this while asking for bigger tax breaks to remain domiciled in the US. They do this while blaming our education system for not providing trained, ready-to-work job entrants at no cost to them.

We just cannot count on them to be good corporate citizens.

Those on pain killers may or may not have disabilities that prevent them from working. But in any case, society does not owe unemployed working age men permanent, high paying manufacturing or mining jobs, despite whatever efforts Trump may make.

It is time for them to adapt.

We need a soother. Here is Grex Vocalis a Norwegian chorus formed in 1971. Grex Vocalis has reached the finals of the BBC contest “Let the Peoples Sing” three times. In this video they are performing “An Irish Blessing” (May the road rise to meet you) written by an American, James E. Moore in 1987, live at the Amadeo Roldán Theatre in Havana Cuba:

A Norwegian chorus performing an Irish tune, written by an American, in Cuba. That’s gotta be soothing.

For those who read the Wrongologist in email, you can view the video here.

Sample Lyrics:

May the sun make your days bright

May the stars illuminate your nights

May the flowers bloom along your path

Your house stand firm against the storm.

Facebooklinkedinrss

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.

Facebooklinkedinrss

Trump Promised Jobs. That’s Why He Won

Take a good look at this map. It shows which counties switched parties in the 2016 US Presidential election compared to 2012. Red counties switched from Democrat to Republican, blue counties switched from Republican to Democrat and the vast majority in grey did not switch parties:

counties-that-changed-partys

Source: Brilliant Maps

Of course, it doesn’t show vote margin or size of the total vote in each county. The main thing this map shows is the large number of counties in the North East and Midwest that flipped to Trump, after having been Democratic counties in the prior election. The effect was large enough to deliver the normally Democratic leaning states of Iowa, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin into the Republican camp.

Tim Duy has an article about how economists and most politicians get so wrapped up that they miss the human element in economic dislocations. Duy makes the point that they ignore two of the negative impacts of job losses. First, they say how lost jobs free up human capital for use elsewhere in the economy. Of course, as jobs are added to the economy, skill levels and training determine whether laid-off workers are part of that equation.

“High-skilled” workers is what we need, but they are not always the kind of workers that were laid off.

Second, Duy reminds us that most workers have little ability to move to where better jobs might be found. Politicians tell us that the economy is shifting to urban and suburban areas; to higher skilled jobs; that workers must go and get retrained. That misses the point.

Most new jobs for those who were laid off will only be found if workers are able to relocate, to move from rural or devastated urban locations to geographic areas where jobs are expanding. Duy notes it is particularly difficult for rural areas:

The speed of regional labor market adjustment to shocks is agonizingly slow in any area that lacks a critical mass of population…Relative to life spans, in many cases the shocks might as well be permanent.

We don’t have answers for most of these communities. Rural and urban economic re-development is hard. The people living in these regions have experienced job losses (or no jobs growth) for decades; positive jobs growth has occurred elsewhere.

And the laid-off workforce isn’t mobile. In effect, we have limited access to housing in our major cities by pushing housing costs beyond the reach of most middle class workers. This, from Kevin Erdmann:

If you lost your manufacturing job in Buffalo, and you’re thinking of moving to New York City because there are more jobs there, you might decide not to move because it is too expensive. It is the affordability that is keeping you out. But, even here, the affordability problem is just the messenger. It is the rationing mechanism for a housing stock that is relatively fixed for political reasons.

If you decide to move to the NYC area, you see that the housing supply is largely fixed. New buildings are hard to get through zoning. Construction costs in big cities are very high. Income taxes are rising rapidly.

Erdmann makes the point that housing in big cities doesn’t move up with increased demand:

So, it doesn’t matter if Brooklyn apartments rent for $500, or $1,000, or $2,000, or $4,000. There isn’t one for you. Fixing this by fixing affordability isn’t going to change the supply curve. It’s simply substituting non-monetary rationing mechanisms for the monetary one.

Trump’s message that US firms need to consider domestic jobs as much as their bottom line, also resonated with middle and upper-middle class households. OTOH, it’s not like Trump took on the Coal Industry on behalf of workers. He blamed federal environmental policy, but that isn’t what caused the loss of coal industry jobs.

Trump doesn’t really have any answers, but he pretends to care while pretending to have answers. Pretending to care and pretending to have answers gave him the switched counties on the electoral map above. People want work. They want secure jobs.

Trump might be running a “jobs” scam, but if it fails, what is the Democrats’ alternative?

We have four years until the next election, two if you are looking at Congress. What policies will work? Will we just trade Trump’s scam for another one peddled by the establishment?

Business as usual hasn’t delivered. The idea that economic growth creates jobs is a pipe dream for many: For the past 40 years, economic growth did not improve wages.

Trump’s promise swung the election. If he fails, what will be the Democrats’ response?

Facebooklinkedinrss

Who Moved My Cheese?

Some may remember the book by this name by Spencer Johnson, published in 1998. The underlying message of the book is “Don’t waste time fighting against change: accept that bad stuff will happen to you for no good reason and just keep moving”.

This outdated and simplistic message remains the message of the Democratic Party to the White Working Class (WWC). Donald Trump’s message is different. He offers them nothing but a dream, to limit immigrants working in the US and to cut off the US market from China. And since the WWC knows that more of the same isn’t going to work, they’re voting for Trump.

It is useful to remember that since our “Most Favored Nation” trade deal with China in 1979, we have lost 35% of all manufacturing jobs in this country.

The WWC thinks that the Democrats have not been able to do anything to help them keep their jobs. The reasons for failure can be at least equally shared by the Parties, but since Dems have said for years that they are the party of the working class, they are getting the greater share of the blame for 35 years of no results.

There are two issues that dominate the discussion: Illegal immigration and transition assistance when jobs are lost. Regarding Immigration:

  • The WWC knows that Dems need the political support of the Hispanic community, and that requires Dems to show sympathy with illegal immigration.
  • The WWC believes that illegal immigration has put downward pressure on job opportunities and wages in the trades, in restaurant and hotel work, and in service sectors where immigrants may be overly represented.
  • That’s why Trump’s stance on immigration is so popular with the WWC. They probably know in their hearts that kicking all the Mexican workers out, or building a wall is ridiculous. But the Democrat’s position on immigration is diffuse, and is viewed as “soft” on illegals by the WWC.

Despite anything the Dems say about retraining or “transition assistance”, the WWC knows that someone on job transition assistance can’t earn enough to support a family. Other problems:

  • Identifying the fields/industries that workers can train in that will produce stable, living wage employment is an inexact science. So, demand for retrained workers is often less than the supply for any given job type.
  • Businesses have been very successful at shifting the burden (and cost) of training displaced workers from themselves to society. This is helped along by a corporate critique that public and not-for-profit private schools are failing to maintain standards, and they can’t churn out sufficient grads with qualifications that meet the corporations’ highly specific requirements.
  • Hence the continuing financial opportunities for for-profit technical schools and for-profit universities, (can you say Trump University?)

And Ford Motor Co. just gave Trump a big wet kiss:

Ford Motor Co. says it’s moving all of its US small car production to Mexico…The company is building a new $1.6 billion assembly plant in San Luis Potosi, Mexico. It will make small cars there starting in 2018.

What can the Pant Suit say about this that would go beyond what the Pant Load will certainly say? And if she did, would WWC people believe her?

On the macro level, our current capitalism has turned to technology to produce much of what is needed with far less human labor input than ever before. That leaves job growth (and job opportunity) in only the low-skilled, low-paid “service” jobs; or in highly advanced, specialized jobs requiring very advanced training/skills/talent.

This means that the dogma of Endless Economic Growth, which we have accepted since the Industrial Revolution, is dead. Along with killing that, we need to kill off the current organizing principle of our economic system, where humans exist solely to fulfill the needs of businesses.

Work helps us find our place in society. It is something that we see as having an inherent value, something that fills a basic human need, similar to food and shelter. But our current economic system no longer recognizes that, and our economy provides little opportunity for fulfilling that basic need for a large portion of American citizens, including many in the WWC.

The idea of government deploying under-utilized labor to build and repair our infrastructure, or to re-tool our country to reduce carbon emissions would be a step that might return the WWC to jobs and a place in society. It would cost a ton.

But the idea that the government would create demand is too socialist for most politicians to accept, despite the fact that the rest of the tools just haven’t worked in 35+ years.

Tell me again why Bernie Sanders was a terrible choice.

Facebooklinkedinrss

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.

Facebooklinkedinrss

China’s Grand Strategy

In December 2015, Wrongo linked to a year-end prediction in the LA Times:

“One Belt, One Road”, also known as “OBOR,” is a new development strategy initiated by China in 2015 to promote its economic connectivity and cooperative relationship with nations in Eurasia by helping them develop infrastructure. These initiatives should also help Chinese exports.

OBOR is called the new Silk Road by the Chinese. The Silk Road was an ancient network of trade routes linking China’s merchants with Central Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Europe in the seventh century.

Now, China’s president, Xi Jinping, wants his country to revisit the time when the Silk Road was a conduit for diplomacy and economic expansion, and when Chinese silk was sent across the globe.

OBOR has drawn remarkably little attention and comment in the US, especially by our politicians and pundits, who prefer to focus on old white men in red ball caps.

This is surprising, considering OBOR’s economic implications and its geostrategic significance.

OBOR seeks to convert the Eurasian land mass into a single economy by interconnecting a network of roads, railroads, pipelines, ports, airports, and telecommunications links, and, based on these, to create a series of logistics corridors (One Belt). Supplementing this will be a maritime component (One Road), aimed at linking Southeast Asia, Oceania, and North Africa, through the South China Sea, the South Pacific Ocean, and the Indian Ocean. China would develop deep water ports and then build the infrastructure to link them to interior markets. Here is a graphic that shows the “One Belt, One Road” project:

OBORSource: The Economist

China plans to commit $4 trillion to build out the OBOR project. That may sound like a lot, but China currently has $3.5 trillion in reserves, mostly in US$. The Chinese say that they have 900 deals in 60 countries in place, or in negotiation, or planned. Most would be designed, built and managed by Chinese enterprises, along with local partners. The Chinese government will directly or through several newly established funds they control, provide the financing for both the Chinese companies and their local partners, with low-interest loans or grants.

OBOR will enable China to employ the large project development capacity that it has built up during its industrialization and infrastructure development drive, much of which China now sees as surplus to current needs.

By seeking to use OBOR to create a Eurasian bloc, China resurrects Mackinder’s World Island Theory, described as: Whoever controls the Heartland of Europe and Asia will rule the world. The corollary is: Who controls the Land Power will unavoidably compete with who controls the Sea Power. Today, the US is the Sea Power, while control of the Land Power is up for grabs, and China is betting that OBOR can help it become the Land Power.

This is China’s Grand Strategy.

Russia is in an interesting position. On the one hand, China is its ally, particularly in oil and gas, with Russia as supplier, and China as the buyer. China will need Russia’s military strength along with its own to offset the military power of the US once the real competition begins. Also, Russia cannot ignore the positive significance that a strong OBOR could provide in its relations with the US and the EU.

China’s bet is that the US is losing its grip in Europe. And that the EU will not be a long-term player politically even if it is economically. The EU is challenged from within by stagnant economies, and challenged from the East by Russia, who sees the EU’s expansion to former Soviet bloc nations as both military and political threats. Possibly, Germany can be spilt off from the rest of Europe.

This is China’s plan for global economic and political primacy in the 21st century. The US response has been to continue playing geopolitics with breathtaking ineptitude: When you are number one, you ally with number three (Russia), against number two (China). Or better yet, get them to fight each other.

But when the US tries to contain both simultaneously, it pushes them together.

Most significant, an autonomous Asian nation is promulgating a global economic and political expansion through bilateral deals. It is presenting a positive and credible vision of future commercial and political success for many countries who no longer trust the West, if indeed, they ever did.

This is very much against the multilateral trade model that the US and the EU have stood for in the past 70 years. Sadly, the West has not demonstrated any positive vision for the future since the end of the cold war.

But trust Trump. He’ll make a great deal, and those Chinese will certainly stay at home.

Facebooklinkedinrss