For the Economy—Stop the Tantrums and Look

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To forestall expectations—this article is not about Trump’s daily antics.  It starts with a basic fact from Dani Rodrick (no cheerleader for globalization).  He talks about asking students a simple question: Would you rather be rich in a poor country or poor in a rich country?

…think of a rich person as someone in the top 10 percent of a country’s income distribution while a poor person is in the bottom 10 percent.   Similarly, a rich country is in the top decile of all countries ranked by average income per person while a poor country is in the bottom decile of that list.

The correct answer is “Poor in a rich country”—and it’s not even close.  The average poor person in a rich country, according to my parameters, earns three times more than the average rich person in the poor country ($9,400 versus $3,000 adjusted for differences in purchasing power across countries).  Disparities in other aspects of well-being, such as infant mortality, go the same way too.  The poor in a rich country have it much, much better than the rich in the poor country.

Students get it wrong because they don’t realize what a minute share of society those BMW-driving superrich represent—no larger perhaps than one hundredth of 1 percent of the total population.  When we expand the numbers to cover the full top 10 percent of a typical poor country, we have come down to income levels that are a fraction of what most poor people in rich countries make.

There’s a lot here that’s relevant, but the most basic message is that when you make the pot bigger, things ought to get better for everyone—even in the most extreme cases.

We live in time period where the pot is getting bigger all over the world, and especially in the hugely populated countries of China and India.  So the right question to ask is NOT “how can we stop those people from stealing from us?” but “why are we not making things better for everyone?”  As we’ll see it is a useful question to ask.

The major changes going on in the world are technological.  Technology has made production of many goods both cheaper and ever easier to locate anywhere.  There are good (and increasingly many) jobs in that world, but they are not the same jobs.   Some jobs get replaced by technology, some jobs get moved to places where labor is cheap enough to compete with the next level of automation.  In both cases they cease to be good jobs.   As with other such cases in the past, the social dislocations are enormous—but they are only as bad as we make them.  And the best way to make matters worse is to pretend the changes don’t exist!

In this country we have both the rhetoric and the policy of such delusion.  We’ve gotten out of the business of helping people who lose jobs in the blind belief that a happy private sector will take care of it.  In fact, people are going to lose jobs and find their skills devalued through no fault of their own.  Further, with the changing economy, education is for most people the necessary path to a good job and a viable financial future.  However we have become alarmingly hostile to it, underfunding it and looking for reasons to limit it to the targeted “vocational ed” that seems to be in the air.  And internationally our response to problems of dislocation has been a tantrum:  everyone is out to get us, so we’ll take our marbles and go home.

The rhetoric says that Mexico and China and …  have caused an epidemic of depression, joblessness, and despair.  That’s self-destructive blindness.  (The worst thing about globalization is all that can be blamed on it!)  We did it.  We refused to recognize the technological dislocation we’re living through, so we provided no help, blithely punting to the private sector.  However, private sector expansion and even tariffs are false hopes for jobs that aren’t economically viable.  We have to support people, and as much as possible get them on a new track.  And we particularly need to make sure that the next generation doesn’t suffer for it.

That takes money, but it’s not as if we don’t have any.   We’ve just devoted $1.4T to a corporate tax cut that is nothing more than a misguided subsidy to have the private sector solve this very same problem!  (We know now that the money is going instead to investors, primarily via stock buybacks.  Real tax reform is another subject and can be close to revenue-neutral.)  We have to spend it on the people who need it and on education and infrastructure.

And for the rest of the economy, things aren’t so bad out there in the real world.

First of all, even before the tax cuts, our corporations and our upper tier of incomes have been doing just fine.  There are problems for people, middle class and below.   But there’s no indication that the technology-driven side of American business is going anywhere but up.

Second this is a period of unprecedented geopolitical opportunity.   China has finally reached the point where it is a viable market for the West and with an incentive to act that way.   There has been so much rhetoric about China that even the basics get lost.  China has been a statistically poor country for a very long time.  Its economic development has been export-directed and they do have some shady practices, but China’s ability to absorb imports has been limited at best.  That is no longer true, and China recognizes that its economic interdependence with the West requires a new relationship.  Given China’s size, the opportunities are real—which is to say that if we play our cards right the pie should get bigger for everyone .  (A more recent NY Times piece also makes that point.)  And given the speed and magnitude of technological change, the pie should continue getting bigger for a long time.

In some ways you can compare our situation to the world in the 1950’s.  European countries had lost their colonies and their predominance, and they had to recover from the damage in the war.  It was a rough transition, but they ended up far better off than they had been before.

We are living through a time of major transition.  We are well-positioned, but we have to help some people through it.   And with more players we may not always be so overwhelmingly predominant as we are today.   But this is an extraordinary future for us and everyone else.  We just have to be willing to open our eyes and get it.

4 thoughts on “For the Economy—Stop the Tantrums and Look

  1. Pingback: Mid-Term Diplomacy | on the outside

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