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The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

Saturday Soother – August 26, 2017

The Daily Escape:

Depression Bread Line by George Segal, 1999, at the NJ Grounds for Sculpture – 2017 photo by Wrongo

There are two political imperatives facing America by the end of September: The House, Senate and the president must extend the Federal borrowing limit, and pass a budget. When Obama was president, extension of the borrowing limit was a dicey thing, as was passing a budget. From 2008-2016, we largely avoided government shutdowns, we passed spending bills, but not an entire budget.

And we never even considered tax reform, but it’s the third item on the GOP’s 2017 to-do list.

In some sense, everything except increasing the debt ceiling is optional. As of now, there are only twelve days in September when the House and Senate are jointly in session. The Senate has a few more legislative days on their schedule than the House, but it’s unclear how they’ll use them.

Republicans and Wall Street used to have concerns about the consequences for America if we didn’t get our finances under control. They said that the growing federal debt could eventually drag down the economy, burden future generations, and even threaten national security. CEOs of corporations and the biggest banks joined a campaign called Fix the Debt, arguing that the size of our debt was our most pressing issue.

But now these same people are all in on Trump’s plan to cut taxes for corporations and high earners, saying it is the way to fuel economic growth. That, despite estimates that Trump’s plan could reduce federal revenue by $3.9 trillion over 10 years, thereby increasing the debt that CEOs used to hate. From Bloomberg:

Goldman Sachs Group Inc. CEO Lloyd Blankfein, a Fix the Debt supporter…in 2012 told CNBC he’d be for higher taxes if they helped mend the fiscal gap. After the 2016 election, Blankfein told colleagues…that Trump’s proposals, including tax reform, ‘will be good for growth and, therefore, will be good for our clients and for our firm.’

Hmmm. Aren’t Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and Trump’s Economic Adviser Gary Cohn both from Goldman?

Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research sees the policy shift clearly: (brackets by the Wrongologist)

They [CEOs] were yelling, Deficits, deficits, deficits… [and] as soon as George W. Bush gets in the White House? Oh, we’ll have a big tax cut.

The same thing is happening now. Bloomberg reports that according to Seth Waugh, chairman of wealth adviser Alex. Brown, many in finance have moved on from the debt: (brackets and emphasis by the Wrongologist)

It’s not a fun, sexy thing to talk about…Waugh, another Fix the Debt member, recalls playing golf with a private equity executive…Waugh told his friend it would be nice if Congress addressed deficits… [but]…The private equity executive said nobody was talking about that. It was a dead issue, and they should take the good news: Paying less in taxes, the friend reminded him, means getting richer.

It’s probably a distant dream. The GOPs plan for tax reform involves using the budget reconciliation process, which allows them to pass it with just 51 votes, that is, without Democrats. Otherwise, they face a filibuster. Reconciliation starts with passing a budget resolution for the coming fiscal year. In that budget resolution, they need to include special budget directives or instructions:

To start the reconciliation process, the House and Senate must agree on a budget resolution that includes “reconciliation directives” for specified committees. Under the Congressional Budget Act, the House and Senate are supposed to adopt a budget resolution each year to establish an overall budget plan and set guidelines for action on spending and revenue.

So they need to pass a budget, but before that, Republicans need to vote to raise the borrowing authority of the government. That may be impossible without support from Democrats.

We’ll know very soon if Dems are willing to get on board with Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell on any of this.

It’s Saturday again, and despite the brief three-minute respite from politics brought by the solar eclipse, Trump had another successful week. (If success is his continued destruction of what remains of America’s psyche).

We are now in desperate need of something soothing to kick off next week’s war for truth. So grab a couple of Trader Joe’s Cold Brew Latte Dessert Bars (40 calories and 7 grams of sugar each), put on your best Bluetooth headphones, and listen to the late guitarist John Abercrombie, who died this week. Here is Abercrombie with Dave Holland on bass, and Jack DeJohnette on drums doing “Homecoming” live in 1995. Let’s hope it’s not the best few minutes of your week:

Pay attention to Abercrombie’s remarkable and airy technique.

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Monday Wake Up Call – April 24, 2017

The Daily Escape:

Bald Eagle with Great Blue Heron – photo by Bonnie Block

(The Wrongologist site was hit by a Denial of Service attack on Sunday, April 23. If you had difficulty accessing the site, Wrongo apologizes. We are working with the hosting company to sort it out, but the problem may continue until the end of day today.)

Congress returns today. They will try to pass an increase to the Debt Ceiling before the April 28th funding deadline. After that, at least a partial government shut-down looms.

The Republicans are not in agreement about their stance on the extension. The Orange Overlord complicated the negotiations by saying that he wouldn’t sign a Debt Ceiling increase unless it contained funding for the Wall that Mexico was supposed to pay for.

Consider the exchange between Chris Wallace of Fox News Sunday and Trump Budget Director Mick Mulvaney. Mulvaney said that it was the Democrats who are guilty of “stunning” obstructionism because they will not negotiate on a bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Wallace noted that President Trump had offered Democrats a deal: If you fund the border wall, payments to Obamacare would not be cut. Wallace:

You are holding hostage health insurance for millions of lower-income Americans.

Mulvaney replied:

Actually, what I would say is they’re holding hostage national security…

Then he brought up obstructionism by Democrats:

The Democrats will oppose everything that this president wants to do, which is stunning to us, especially when we are offering them something they want in return.

Wallace countered:

You’re saying, ‘give us what we want. And if you don’t, we’re going to cut off funding that would provide health insurance for millions of lower income Americans’.

The laugher was that Mulvaney’s logic is that Trump is trying to build a border wall to protect millions of low income Americans who may lose their health care benefits in the trade-off.

So Mexico won’t pay for the wall, and Republicans don’t want to pay for the wall either. They would prefer that Democrats agree to pay for Trump’s wall to give the GOP cover for those Republicans who won’t fund Trump’s ghastly promise of a wall.

On the obstructionist claim, everyone knows that the Republicans made obstructionism an eight-year strategy when Obama was president. Now, Mulvaney’s pearl-clutching about obstructionism can’t possibly sound legitimate to anyone other than people who watch Fox News. We need to remember that it was the Republicans who picked the 100th day of the (now Trump) administration for last year’s Continuing Resolution that funded the government, to expire. The idea was to make Hillary Clinton look bad after she won, and then couldn’t get a Debt Ceiling increase passed without Republican help.

It never occurred to them that if the Republican nominee won, that he wouldn’t be able to get much done without support of Democrats.

So it’s time for Republicans to wake up, and pass a Debt Ceiling increase. After all, they control the House, Senate and White House. It is their job to avoid a government shutdown.

To help them wake up, here is the UK group Stone Foundation, a modern UK soul band with a tune from their new album, “Street Rituals”. The song is “Your Balloon is Rising”, featuring Paul Weller formerly of the punk rock group The Jam, and later, Style Council.

Here is “Your Balloon is Rising”, a blue-eyed soul tune that allows Weller to show all of us that he still has it:

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

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Monday Wake Up Call – March 27, 2017

The Daily Escape:

(Many Glacier, Glacier National Park, August 2016 – photo by Wrongo)

What’s next for the White House? Many are saying that the collapse of the Republicans’ failed effort to pass Trumpcare demonstrated that the ideological cleavage within the House and Senate Republicans will not be easy to overcome. This could make it more difficult for Trump to get much of his agenda passed in the immediate future.

Trump wants to move on many things, including tax reform and passing a budget, but the biggest challenge facing Republicans is the Debt Ceiling. The clock started ticking on the need to raise the debt limit, because it already expired on March 15th. That was a “soft” deadline, since the Treasury department can fire up a well-used arsenal of “extraordinary” measures to delay a reckoning, meaning that Congress can take until the early fall to enact a debt ceiling increase.

More time may not mean that a solution will be forthcoming, since the main adversaries to increasing the debt ceiling are the same people who helped derail Trumpcare. The House Freedom Caucus and their allies in the Senate have in the past, expressed a willingness to let the country default, rather than increase the level of the Treasury’s debt.

Since they were able to face down Trump on health care, they may well be emboldened to stand up to the president and Congressional leadership again on an issue that is so close to their hard hearts.

If America were to default on its debts, Trump would be presiding over the Bananaization of our Republic, and our ability to lead in the world would be eclipsed. Wrongo plans to write more about this in the future, but it will take real management by Trump to head this off, at a time that his management skills have been called into question.

So far, he has shown himself to be little more than a salesman for his ideas.

The famed management guru Peter Drucker, who wrote about management for corporations, non-profits and governments, at one point wrote management rules for presidents, in a 1993 article for the WSJ:

It’s hard to imagine a more diverse group than Bill Clinton’s predecessors in the American presidency — in abilities, personalities, values, styles and achievements. But even the weakest of them had considerable effectiveness as long as they observed six management rules. And even the most powerful lost effectiveness as soon as they violated these rules.

Wrongo has condensed Drucker’s management rules for presidents for your convenience:

  • What Needs to be Done? Is the first thing the President must ask. He must not stubbornly do what he wants to do, even if it was the focus of his campaign
  • Concentrate, Don’t Splinter Yourself. There usually are half a dozen right answers to “What needs to be done?” Yet unless a president makes the risky and controversial choice of only one, he will achieve nothing.
  • Don’t Bet on a Sure Thing…Roosevelt had every reason to believe that his plan to “pack” the Supreme Court…would be a sure thing. It immediately blew up in is face – so much so that he never regained control of Congress
  • An Effective President Does Not Micromanage…the tasks that a President must do himself are already well beyond what any but the best organized and most energetic person can possibly accomplish
  • A President Has No Friends in the Administration…they are always tempted to abuse their position as a friend and the power that comes with it
  • Sixth rule? Harry Truman advised JFK: “Once you’re elected, stop campaigning”

(h/t Barry Ritholtz)

Just how many of these rules does Trump follow, and how many does he violate? Discuss.

Perhaps if he followed all of them, the country would avoid Trumageddon, be less divided, and get a middle of the road agenda enacted.

So here’s a wake-up call for Donald Trump and his advisors: FOCUS!! To help them wake up and get focused, here is the Canadian group Bachman Turner Overdrive with their big hit (#12 in the US) from 1973, “Takin’ Care of Business”:

Wrongo used to take the 8:15 in to the city. Working from home is a major improvement.

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

Sample Lyrics:

And I’ll be taking care of business (every day)
Taking care of business (every way)
I’ve been taking care of business (it’s all mine)
Taking care of business and working overtime, work out

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The Pant Suit vs. The Pant Load – Budget Edition

Now that both presidential conventions are history, the real discussion about the merits of the candidates and their programs begins. The first question to answer is: What are the costs of the promises made to America by Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton?

Both candidates have made political promises that, if implemented, have both costs and benefits to the nation. While the analysis of benefits may be difficult to assess, the costs are not.

The Committee for a Responsible Budget (CRB) has issued a report, “Promises and Price Tags: A Fiscal Guide to the 2016 Election” that estimates how our national debt would rise under the programs of both presidential aspirants. It shows that gross debt held by the public would rise from about $19 trillion today to $23.9 trillion by 2026 under Hillary Clinton’s plan and to $35.2 trillion under Donald Trump’s plan.

They based the estimates on the public positions taken by each campaign as of June 24, 2016. They also generated a low, central, and high cost estimate of the fiscal implications of Trump’s and Clinton’s proposals.

We need to stop and say that our gross debt will rise no matter who is elected, since under existing law, gross debt is projected to rise from about $19 trillion today to about $29.1 trillion by 2026, about a 50% increase. With that in mind, here is CRB’s summary of the impacts of both candidate’s plans on the national debt:

Debt Under Candidates Proposals

Donald Trump has expressed concern about the dangers of our current $19 trillion debt. Yet his plan would increase that number significantly. Under CRB’s central estimate of Trump’s plan, gross debt would more than double from $19 trillion today to $39.5 trillion by 2026.

The increase in gross debt under Clinton’s plan would be smaller but still significant. Under the central estimate of Clinton’s plan, gross debt would rise by more than 50%, from $19 trillion today to $29.6 trillion by 2026, in line with the current law. So, her promise to pay for new spending seems to be true.

Digging a little deeper, here is CRB’s breakdown of both candidates’ plans by revenue, costs and spending. Most of Hillary Clinton’s increased costs come from spending in non-health, non-retirement programs:

  • She would spend $350 billion more on college education, $300 billion more on infrastructure, another $300 billion on paid family leave, and nearly $500 billion on a variety of other initiatives.
  • Clinton would also make several health-related changes that would cost about $150 billion.
  • To offset these costs, Clinton proposes a variety of tax increases – mostly on higher earners and businesses – totaling $1.25 trillion.

The largest share of Trump’s deficit impact comes from his proposed individual and business tax reforms, which would reduce revenue by about $9.25 trillion:

  • His plan to reform the veteran’s affairs system and increase veterans’ access to private doctors would cost about $500 billion.
  • And his plans to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act and reduce illegal immigration would cost about $50 billion each.

So, what happens to the total amount of our national debt?

Donald Trump wants to dramatically reduce taxes for most Americans while maintaining spending relatively near its current levels. As a result, under CRB’s central estimate, he would add $11.5 trillion to the debt through 2026.

Hillary Clinton wants to increase both spending and taxes, adding about $250 billion to the debt over 10 years under CRB’s central estimate. Under their low cost estimate, Clinton’s plan would reduce 10-year deficits by $150 billion.

Increases in debt are not always a bad thing, particularly in times of economic slack, if the debt accumulation is driven by stimulative fiscal policy. But a 40 percentage point of debt to GDP increase, from 87% of GDP to 127% of GDP, seems unlikely to give us a positive outcome.

But, if we elect The Pant Load, that’s what we will get. Trump said to the WaPo in May:

I am the king of debt. I do love debt. I love debt. I love playing with it.

This should worry you. Trump went on to say:

Look, I have borrowed, knowing that you can pay back with discounts. And I have done very well…I would borrow, knowing that if the economy crashed, you could make a deal, and if the economy was good, it was good, so, therefore, you can’t lose.

So, Trump would stiff the nation’s creditors. Haven’t we had enough of Republican mis-leadership on the nation’s finances?

Haven’t we had enough of Republican tax cuts for the most comfortable among us at a cost to the least comfortable among us?

Remember that it was the GOP-led Congress that threatened not to raise the debt ceiling in 2011. That led to the Standard & Poors rating agency’s lowering of the US credit rating.

Think carefully about what Trump’s glib plans imply for America.

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Monday Wake-Up Call – October 19, 2015

Page A21 of Friday’s New York Times carried the news that our budget deficit for the fiscal year that ended on September 30th was $439 billion, or $44 billion less than the prior year, and nearly $1 trillion less than its peak during the Great Recession. Oh, and it equaled just 2.5% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The Wall Street Journal reported that the budget shortfall was 9% lower than last year, and at its lowest level since 2007.

If the “paper of record” buries this story, don’t expect to see it on the nightly news, or the Sunday bloviator shows. Yet, it was not very long ago that the media was obsessed with the budget deficit, egged on by Republicans who returned incessantly to Talking Points 101 from their slash Social Security and Medicare playbook . The WSJ provides a history of recent deficits:

Deficit History

The surplus on the top graph occurred during the Clinton administration. That would be about the same time that “spending” began exceeding “revenue” on the second graph.

The budget deficit is less of a problem than it has been since 2007, and since our economy is larger, it is also even less as a share of US GDP. Indeed, at 2.5% of GDP, our current deficit is less than the average of the past 40 years. The increase in tax receipts from higher tax rates, an improving economy (and stock market), combined with marginal cuts in federal spending (the Sequester) have all helped drop the deficit by almost 75% from its 2009 high.

So the deficit is falling, but the total debt of the US government is still increasing.

The debt is the total amount of money the US government owes. It’s the amount borrowed to cover all the deficits over the years. When the fiscal year ended on September 30, the US government owed $13.124 trillion to the public (a measure that includes Treasury securities held by the Federal Reserve.) To see the current tally, see the Treasury’s “The Debt to the Penny and Who Holds It” website.

To increase our debt, we have to increase the debt ceiling. But, once again, Congress can’t agree to increase the debt ceiling unless the Tea party faction of the Republican Party can score a few political points about Medicare, Social Security and Planned Parenthood.

Why does the Beltway media continue to fall for the Republican trope that they are the fiscally prudent party? We now have 35 years and five Presidents of proof that Republican Presidents spend like teenagers with their parents’ credit card.

But the “meh, so what?” emoji from the Beltway media after we cut $1 trillion from the deficit is truly disappointing. So today’s wake up is for the media who think that cutting the deficit is a low value target for our collective consciousness.

Today’s Wake Up is “For What It’s Worth”. Even though it is associated with Vietnam and Kent State, it isn’t an anti-war song. It was written about the “Sunset Strip riots” in November, 1966. From Wikipedia:

On one evening, 1,000 demonstrators gathered to protest against the enforcement of the curfew laws. Although the rallies began peacefully, trouble eventually broke out among the protesters and police. The unrest continued the next night and periodically throughout the rest of November and December forcing some clubs to shut down within weeks.

Here are Buffalo Springfield with “For What Its Worth”:

50 years later, this song is still relevant. That speaks to the song’s genius.

Unfortunately, we can’t say the same for our media and politicians.

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

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