Questions for Democrats

consumption-by-source-and-sectorI’m concerned about what seems to be a kind of giddiness in the Democratic Party.  Winning control of the house was a major accomplishment, and there does seem to be a shift in national attitudes toward the liberal agenda.  But I’m worried that the feeling that everything is now possible is getting ahead of what it will take to make it so.

I’ll start with Green New Deal and Medicare For All.  In both cases there’s a lot that’s good.  We’ve succeeded in focusing attention on key problem areas that urgently need to be addressed.  But in both cases there is so much room for interpretation that it’s hard to see what will come out.  And I don’t understand what the decision process is going to be.

Climate change and healthcare are both highly technical issues.  We’ve talked here before about what it will take to put together a true national plan to address climate change.  (The chart at the start has to be addressed point-by-point.)  The current GND bill doesn’t claim to do anything like that and adds a number of other issues into the mix.  Part of that is good—for the first time we’ve succeeded in presenting action on climate change as a step forward for everyone, not as distasteful but necessary medicine.   At the same time, though, we now have a number of competing objectives for whatever will come out as plan.

However attractive those objectives may be, there is a lot more in GND than anyone will deliver.  Fighting climate change will create many jobs, but will not—by itself—solve unemployment.  It’s okay that part of the selection process is political, but that can’t be the main thing.  Roosevelt had a brain trust of people driving the original New Deal.   We need something like that here, and we also need a broad-based process for contributions to the plan.  It’s not enough to let the Presidential candidates or other players chime in.  This is a real test for our ability to govern.

Healthcare makes me nervous for similar reasons.   Medicare for All sounds very specific, but one hopes it’s not.   A literal Medical for All solution would not be a simple change and would force a premature answer to a problem that deserves careful study.   Virtually every developed country other than us has implemented some form of universal healthcare, and there is quite a lot of variety in the solutions.   We have every opportunity to make a careful and successful choice for both the overall plan and the sequence of steps to get there.

I don’t see enough of that happening.  Thus far there seems to be more concern about how to relate to Medicare than about how other countries have achieved universal coverage.  Positions of Presidential candidates seem like shots in the dark.  We should be careful to avoid making the transition harder than it has to be, we should avoid fighting battles we don’t have to, and we should certainly make sure to keep the ACA surtax!

A third and final topic is international affairs.   What’s worrisome about that one is that there is no way of avoiding competing objectives.   One of the biggest mistakes of the current administration is its zero-sum approach to the rest of the world.   We’re trying to “win” international affairs by making sure everyone else loses.  Such belligerence may sound great—defending America—but it’s a wrong model.  The world has learned the hard way that economic nationalism is self-defeating.   We need rules of engagement so that nations can participate in building shared prosperity.  The world has a real chance to succeed at that, but it’s not a given.

In particular it’s not easy for us and not easy now.  The drastic changes in the world economy call out for nationalism and trade wars.   “The worst thing about globalization is everything that can be blamed on it.”  Better trade rules will help some of it, as will a better safety net.  But the problems won’t go away.  Not only are we going to have to say no to tariffs, but we may also have to spend serious money outside the US to help poorer countries fight climate change.  The only way forward is to recognize how interconnected we all are.  That applies to Trump’s Devil’s bargain with dictators too.

Both the country and the world need us to get this right.

 

 

Climate Change is Not Complicated

The reason for this note is that discussions of climate change have splintered into so many directions that the subject appears more daunting than it ought to be.  Neither the current status nor the path to success is actually hard to see.

  1. Current status

– Evidence for climate change is clear and unambiguous.

The increase in global temperature levels goes back decades, as shown in the following chart (Temperature Anomaly just means the temperature increase over 19th century levels).

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Further the relation of temperature and CO2 in the atmosphere is unmistakable and pushing up inexorably with each year’s burned carbon toward the identified 1.5 ºC danger zone:

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Scientists have even demonstrated (using isotopes of carbon) that the increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is due to burning of fossil fuels, not some natural process.  Arguments to the contrary have been largely funded by the Koch organization or the oil companies themselves and typically involve doctored data.  Accusations of conspiracy have been debunked, but are still repeated by interested parties.

– Problems are already happening.

There are two kinds of examples.   For temperature alone, as the first chart showed, we’re continuing to set new records for average global temperature.   The effect on sea ice has been dramatic, and farmers are becoming well-aware of changes in growing seasons.

Individual catastrophic events are harder to pin down, just because it’s hard to develop statistics around rare events.  However, scientists have been able to work through the statistics to show the extent to which extraordinary storms, such as hurricane Harvey, were made worse by climate change.

– Role of climate models.

We don’t need climate models to say there is a problem.  We do need climate models to assess specifically what is going to happen.  For example, we can see that glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica are melting, but we need to figure out how quickly this can happen and what the effects will be on weather and ocean currents.  Since the earth hasn’t been here before (i.e. rapid C02 increase like this has never happened), we have to try to figure it out.

A particular concern is that climate change feeds on itself to accentuate the effects of CO2.  An example is melting of permafrost in the arctic.  That releases methane, which is also a greenhouse gas and adds to the increase expected with CO2.  Climate models are extremely detailed to deal with such effects.  The modeling work is supported by a global effort to get data on what is happening now.  This is a major effort by many independent researchers worldwide to get the best possible handle on what’s coming.

– It’s going to get a lot worse unless we start acting now.

An important fact to be emphasized is that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere just adds up.  So even if we stabilize global production of carbon dioxide, things will just get worse as we add to the total.  For a few years 2014-2016 it looked like CO2 production was stabilizing, but then the trend turned worse, and last year accelerated it.  Here is the current chart.

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As we just noted, even a stable value of CO2 emission means things are getting worse, because it is the total amount of CO2 in the atmosphere that drives temperature change.  The stable value was attractive, because it seemed to indicate that CO2 had finally peaked and might start to decline.  And the decline might mean the total CO2 could be bounded.  We’re now back to worrying about the peak, with no idea how bad things will get.

Scientists have given us a so-called carbon budget—the maximum amount of CO2 we can add to the atmosphere and still escape dangerous, irreversible changes.  Every bit we add counts against the budget.  We have to find a way to get carbon dioxide production down toward zero, and things will continue getting worse until that happens.  According to the last international climate study, CO2 production needs to drop 45%  by 2030 and reach 0 by 2050 if we want to keep the temperature increase under 1.5 ºC.

– Can’t we just pull the carbon dioxide back out later?

There is currently a lot of work in progress on how to capture and store carbon dioxide.  For now, capturing carbon dioxide even in exhaust flues is expensive—it can double the cost of electricity from a coal power plant.  Pulling it out of the air is substantially harder.  Further some effects, like movement of glaciers, are hard to stop even if we pull out the carbon dioxide later.

Earliest use of this kind of technology would be for flue-based solutions in particular industries.  That’s getting cheaper, but it’s no miracle solution.  Large-scale pulling carbon out of the air is not yet available, and the cheapest estimates for a worldwide solution would cost on the order of 10 trillion dollars annually.  Nonetheless, current climate models assume that some use of this technology (expensive or not) will be needed if we are to keep the temperature increase under 1.5 ºC.

– What about geo-engineering?

This approach, which gets sporadic publicity, involves adding chemicals to the atmosphere to block the sun—cutting temperature by putting the whole world in the shade.  A number of different substances have been investigated to do this, and any of them would need to be constantly injected into the atmosphere under supervision by some international body.

As an approach this is much cheaper than carbon capture, but it is regarded as a dangerous last resort even by the people who do the research.  All photosynthesis worldwide would be affected. The closest natural phenomenon, the Mount Pinatubo volcanic eruption in 1991, resulted in a worldwide drought.  It does not address acidification of the oceans, which would continue to disrupt life in the seas.  Further it is a time bomb, as carbon dioxide concentrations would continue to build up, so that the shading and its effects would have to keep increasing, and any interruption would be catastrophic.

 

The bottom line is that there is no silver bullet here; we have to get off burning carbon.   However it’s worth pointing out that this is NOT a death sentence (as we’ll see) and it is also NOT committing us all to a grim world of scarcity.  Even today people buy Teslas because they like them—among other things they’re performance cars—not as sacrifices for the good of mankind.  That’s the right way think about the whole transition.

 

  1. What to do about it

To understand what we need to do about climate change, we first have to think about the kind of world we would be going toward.

A point worth emphasizing is that the future is electric.  If we’re getting off fossil fuels, we’re not going to have people burning stuff all over the place.  So we will be generating power by suitable technology (more on that in a minute), and electricity is the means of storing and distributing that energy.  All renewable sources today generate electricity as the common currency of power.

Since the electric grid is the core for what we need to do about energy, we have two primary tasks:  strengthening the electric grid and getting all users of energy on that grid.  Each needs to be discussed separately.

– Strengthening the electric grid

This is about generating and distributing power.   We of course need a grid that is reliable and safe, but for climate change we’ll need more.  There will have to be considerable growth in electrical power generation (since we’re taking on new roles), and we will want to optimize opportunities for renewables even in the near-term.

At present there are ongoing activities to strengthen our current patched-together national electric infrastructure, but these are long-term projects and not primarily driven by climate change.  Power generation is largely a per-state matter and is quite literally all over the map.  For climate change we have benefited from the near-term improvement of substituting natural gas for coal, but there are still many coal plants and nothing says we have optimized opportunities for renewables.  Ideally we should have a nation-wide plan for growth and modernization that would allow renewable power to be generated where appropriate and used wherever needed.

It’s also worth saying something about the longer-term picture.  Ultimately this is not a story about scarcity and conservation; it’s about alternative power.  Renewables will improve, and there will be other significant new sources of power.  Fusion power in particular has been slow to develop, but should be taken seriously.  It has had a recent impetus with higher-temperature superconductors (for the magnets that contain the fusion reaction), and current international projects target 2033 for a demo system and 2050 for commercial system deployment.  Initial systems will be heat-based, like conventional power plants, but later generation systems may generate electricity directly —a mind-boggling concept.  We have a near-term job to do in saving the planet, but there’s no reason to fear we will ultimately lack for power.

– Making electricity the universal power source

The point of departure here is the following chart showing energy use by sector and energy source.  Our task is a prioritized migration to renewably-generated electricity in all sectors, with the maximum possible bang for the near-term buck.  In this transportation is an obvious target. It is a large consumer of energy (28% of US energy usage) with negligible current penetration of renewables.  Electric cars can be a big win.

consumption-by-source-and-sector

Given the complexity of energy usage overall, the single most important step to encourage migration is to stop pretending that carbon dioxide production is free, i.e. to stop subsidizing the fossil fuel industry.

We can be pretty specific about what CO2 costs us.  We are rapidly reaching the point where each new ton of CO2 in the atomosphere is a ton that will have to be removed.  The cheapest estimates of what it takes to remove CO2 from the air (average of upper and lower bound estimates) is $163 per ton.  Multiply that by the US annual production of CO2 = 5.4 B tons, and the silent subsidy to the fossil fuel people falls out as $880 B annually.  That’s no small distortion of our economy.  Essentially a trillion dollars a year.

The usual approach to this subject goes by the name of a carbon tax, but that’s actually a misnomer.  A tax is money collected to fund some government activity, and that’s not the point here.   We’re stopping a government-funded subsidy of products that produce CO2, and any money raised should be used to mitigate the effect of fuel price increases on the population.

Because raising fossil fuel prices is regressive, balancing costs and benefits is tricky and has led to voter rejection (spurred by massive Koch campaign spending) of several carbon tax proposals.  (The yellow-vest protest in France was from something worse, a budget-balancing regressive tax masquerading as a climate measure.)  The magnitude of the silent subsidy is such that it is necessary to get this right.

One example proposal worth discussing is the Carbon Fee and Dividend from the Citizens Climate Lobby.  They start with a low fee of $15 per ton of generated CO2 at fuel production or port of entry, but raise the value $10 per year afterwards.  That money gets returned per adult with an added allowance for children.  The gradual increase is in part a low entry but it also allows for increasing maturity of competing technologies.

That proposal is now a bill in Congress, and there was a recent endorsement by a number of economists and other public figures.  It may or may not become part of the Green New Deal from the Congressional Democrats.  One way or another carbon pricing is so fundamental it just has to be fixed.

 

  1. Outline of a plan

The energy use chart from the last section says a lot about how this has to work.  Going down the chart, we can say the following:

– Transportation

Thus far this sector has had virtually no penetration of renewable energy sources, so its importance cannot be overestimated.   The only alternative is electric power, so we need incentives to finally get a non-trivial market share.  Carbon pricing will help, but we may need more. We’ve had incentives in the past to help electric car makers get into business.   Now the issue is the continuing cost of carbon.

– Industrial

The ongoing migration to natural gas shows the price sensitivity of this sector.  That trend toward gas should continue, and we need to start more movement onto the electric grid.  Carbon pricing should help here too, and there should be active discussion with industry to determine what form it should take.  Flue-based CO2 capture may also be appropriate in some cases.

– Electric power

We already noted the major contribution from this sector in the conversion from coal to natural gas.  That should continue with the non-trivial number of remaining coal plants, but we still have to get to renewables.   Everything that happens in this sector should flow out of a national plan for evolution of the power grid, as discussed before.  Some coal plants or even gas-powered plants may be supplanted by renewables elsewhere.

– Residential and Commercial

We should recognize that this sector is significantly smaller and with many subsectors to be considered.  The conversion to natural gas is already well-underway and the remaining petroleum sectors (e.g. New England) may not be easy to change.  So we need to map out conversion to electric or possibly even flue-based CO2 capture.   The first step is a more detailed plan.

 

We also need to call out the need to support research, as it is an unavoidable part of the picture.  That applies both for new energy sources and storage, and to the various activities underway to understand climate change and how we will have to adapt.

 

  1. International coordination

Thus far our discussion has focused on the US, but we’re only one piece of the puzzle.  Despite the nationalist rhetoric, there is only one atmosphere for everyone.   Helping other countries helps us, and poorer countries have fewer resources.  The following chart underlines the importance of that effort—the “others” are becoming the biggest piece.

s11_2018_Projections

There are actually two points to be made.   First, the Paris Agreement included an initial arrangement between rich and poorer countries, so that progress could be made.  That codified a fund (trashed by Trump) to help poor countries meet their targets.  However the issue will continue to be contentious, and one way or another we will have to contribute.  The just-completed Polish meeting was able to end without a breakdown on this subject, but it wasn’t easy.

Second, our contribution may turn out to be more than just money.  Other countries will have energy use charts that won’t look anything like the one we’re been considering.  They may need different forms of technology to support different evolution plans.  We should use our resources to see what can be done.

In the past the US recognized a responsibility to lead this process.  In Poland, the process managed to keep going without us, but it was certainly touch and go.

The world needs our contribution to leadership. That means it is doubly important to put our own house in order .  We need to know where we’re going for ourselves, and so that we can help the rest of the world in this effort to preserve our common future.

Getting Productive with China

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This is yet another note about China. It’s hard to stop thinking about it, as our current policies are both dangerously unproductive and difficult to undo.

Let’s start by believing the worst.  Suppose the Chinese really do represent the devil incarnate—the third Reich back again for another racist attempt at world domination.  What should we be doing in that case?

The answer is clear.  The Chinese have a huge population, world-class technology, and the industrial might to back it all up.  They are a formidable adversary, and need to be confronted (as in the past) by a world united against them.  What we need are strong alliances, in the Far East and elsewhere, to counteract the threat.  That alliance must be ready to act in everyone’s interest, with partners able to trust each other’s long-term commitments and no one looking to make a few bucks off the others on the sly.

We just failed that one, so let’s back the threat down.  Suppose the Chinese threat of domination is economic, not military and political.  In that case we need to protect world-wide supply chains, so the Chinese can’t just pull the rug out from under the existing order.  And we need clear rules defining fair trade, so that it’s obvious who is a renegade.  That sounds like some version of TPP and the WTO—so the highest priority is getting those right.  (TPP can’t be too bad, since large chunks of it were taken verbatim in the new version of NAFTA.)  What it doesn’t sound like is our modern version of protectionism, where we reserve the right to do anything we like and impose it unilaterally on anyone else.

Now let’s add one more element to the picture—China is the largest most rapidly growing market in the world.  This is an item of some interest, although it doesn’t get the press it deserves.  For one thing China has just added an inconceivable number of people to the world’s middle class.  One of our grievances is that China has not opened its markets as it should.

There are two remarks to be made.   One is that China has only recently developed enough of an upper middle class to be an effective market for us.  This is a matter for emphasis now, and the maximum leverage is when the US and EU work together (each representing 18 percent of Chinese exports).   There are actually multiple reasons to be guardedly optimistic about current prospects for negotiation.

Second, the fact is that as a country we’re actually rather reluctant exporters.  Our domestic market has always been so large as to be primary.  Going forward, this is a matter of some concern.  For example we claim we want to sell cars in China and elsewhere, but we’re relaxing environmental regulations to help our manufacturers—and guarantee that the mainline production won’t be acceptable in most other countries.  Denying climate change has the same kind of effects across the board.  We can’t forget that open markets are only the first step to actually selling the stuff.  Even today the Europeans, with the same level of Chinese imports as us, have a substantially lower trade deficit.

As a next point, in formulating China policy we should at least make an attempt to think about things from their point of view.  That doesn’t justify it, but we have a large blind spot if we don’t try.   It’s a worthwhile exercise independent of whether we like their current leadership or not.

On that subject the primary factor is that China underwent some of the worst effects of western imperialism, lasting well into the twentieth century.  The Opium Wars deserve their name.  The British made fortunes with opium produced in India and sold under military protection in China.  And the rest of the West joined in.  The Chinese had expected some help in the aftermath of World War I, but were denied.

It is not surprising that the Chinese feel both suspicion and hostility toward the West, as well as a need to be fully in control of their own destiny.  In that light it is easy to imagine the attitude of the Chinese toward Trump’s initial set of demands in the trade war, expressed as terms for unconditional surrender.  It probably made Trump feel important and powerful, but it’s hard to imagine anything less likely to produce real cooperation. As for Chinese attitudes toward the South China Sea and intellectual property, we should remember the “Monroe Doctrine” and the heroes who brought British textile technology to the early US.  That’s not to say they’re right; it’s just counterproductive—and frequently delusional—to approach international cooperation as a moral crusade.

The only solid basis for relations with China (or anyone else) is shared interest—again regardless of whether we like their current leadership or not.  We’re not going to defeat them—in either military or economic terms—so it’s crazy to assume that’s the right model for policy.  (You can even go farther and say that’s it’s not even in our interest, but we don’t have to go that far here.)  They’re no more willing to capitulate than we are, so it’s a lot more productive to stay in the real world.  Mutual trust is a requirement for success.

With that we can make some suggestions:

  1. We should be negotiating rules for open markets and intellectual property protection as a matter for the WTO. As noted, there is ample basis for agreement of those subjects going forward, so there is reason for guarded optimism—meaning not just agreement but cooperation.  To be clear, the US has historically won 85% of its cases with the WTO.
  2. Technological competition with China is inevitable. They are already formidable competitors, but our strengths and weaknesses are different, so there is room for both of us in a growing world economy. Above all we should recognize and take care of our own strengths.
  3. We have work to do in preparing our economy for a world where the outside is at least as important as the domestic market. Not being the world’s biggest economy is a big change.
  4. We have even more work to do to make sure that the whole population profits from an ever more highly-integrated and highly-automated world. That’s not only a moral requirement, but the only way to defeat the parasitic demagogues who threaten to take over here and elsewhere.

Saving the Country

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This note grows out of a comment made during the election night coverage of the midterms.  Analysts were breaking down the vote in various categories, and one of them remarked that if you just look at white voters, this seems like a completely different country:  Republican voters outnumbered Democrats 3 to 2.  They were all-in for the Trump program.

It’s worth paying attention to what that means.  Diversity is not a matter of tolerance; it’s a matter of national success.

Immigrants and their families are assets by any statistical measure.  They need to work harder to succeed, and they do it.   As the various waves of immigration entered this country, they have adapted and prospered, and the country as a whole has benefited.  It’s no accident that the most prominent players in our new economy—Google and Apple—were founded by an immigrant and the son of an immigrant.

But there is another aspect to this as well.   Outsiders (and not just immigrants) are not so easily tempted by images of an idealized past paradise.  Those siren-song images are not from their past, so they can keep focused on reality and the future.

Despite the many similarities between the Trump regime and the early stages of the “illiberal democracies” of Poland and Hungary, our diversity provides perhaps a degree of protection.  White voters have not called all the shots in the midterm election.  And it’s possible to believe that we’ve taken a first step back from the brink.

The problems of the Trump regime affect everyone.  First and foremost, we are squandering our strongest economic advantages out of ignorance and arrogance.  And we are at each other’s throats by conscious choice.  Dictatorships are not just bad for outside groups, they are historically bad for everyone.

So we should give credit where it’s due.  Three cheers for diversity in all of its shapes and colors—the saviors of the country!

 

Don’t Pretend This Election is Normal

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On the economy:  We’ve embarked on an unprecedented binge of deficit-financed stimulus in good times.  In just the past fiscal year the deficit ballooned by an extra $300 B, far more than foreseen.   That’s a great stimulus for the election, but it will be a long, cold winter.

Erratic tariff policy is already causing layoffs and market swings, with the major impact delayed until after the election.  George Bush’s 2002 steel tariffs cost 200,000 jobs;  this time effects will go much wider.  And there is no pot of gold from these trade wars.

Finally we’re setting ourselves up for the very considerable economic consequences of ignoring climate change.

On personal welfare:  Last year’s attack on ACA showed no commitment to do anything serious about healthcare—other than remove the progressive tax that funds it.

The huge business tax cuts have produced no wage increases beyond inflation (and no jump in business investment either).  Further those tax cuts have left no room for education, infrastructure, or social services, leading to recent plans to cut Medicare and Social Security.

Supreme Court justices were chosen to fight unions and satisfy the moral pretensions of the evangelical right.  Roe v Wade is only the beginning.

On freedom: We’ve had ongoing and increasingly brutal attacks on truth and the media.  Trump’s attempts to control the FBI have not succeeded, but by all accounts a win in the mid-terms means replacing Sessions with a more obliging alternative.  We’re reached the stage where we actually have to worry about the Justice Department!

On democracy:  It needs to be emphasized that the Kavanaugh appointment completes Trump’s control of government.  With a committed majority on the Court and capitulation by Republicans in both Houses of Congress, there is effectively no check on what he does.  We haven’t had time yet to understand how bad this is going to be.  Even Constitutional limits only work if the Court will enforce them.  Without a Democratic majority in the House, there is nothing protecting the nation from whatever comes into his head—trade wars, real wars, silencing of opposition, personal vendettas, whatever.

Our founding fathers chose democracy for a good reason.  They knew all about one-man rule.  Democracy is inherently fragile, but that’s what made us what we are.  We need to preserve it.  VOTE.

Unity and Divisiveness

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Newspapers are filled with discussions of our political divisions and whether we can ever return to unity and shared national values. Many of those discussions are quite philosophical.  This one is not.

The first thing to note is that divisiveness is hardly surprising when the two strongest political forces in the country are actively inciting it:

– The mainstream Republican Party is at this point inseparably intertwined with the Koch organization for both money and organization.  There is no secret about the Koch organization’s objective.  They want to return to a world where their ultra-rich members run the country, pay minimal taxes, and do anything they want.   Consequently they want minimal government with defense and very little else—no regulation, only basic education, no social services.   Since those are not necessarily popular positions, the Kochs have been systematic about divide and conquer, using the Tea Party and later Trump as front men to stoke culture wars.  Pence, Pompeo, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh are examples of Koch people.  These are the people behind the scenes in the famous NYTimes op-ed piece.

– Trump is a populist front for the Kochs, but with his own objectives as well.  For Trump divisiveness is the name of the game.   It’s his people against the enemy with a siege mentality to build loyalty among the followers.

 

The conclusion from this is that the polarization of attitudes is not entirely—or even primarily—a matter of differing philosophies.  What you have on one side are the self-serving programs of the Koch organization, together with justifications their think tanks have concocted to sell them.   On the other side is a set of attitudes—starting with democracy and including even an immigration proposal—many of which were shared by both parties until the Koch people bought the Republicans.

As noted, Trump and the Tea Party are populist fronts.   Contrary to what you read every day, the Tea Party was not a spontaneous movement; it was created and funded by the Koch organization.  Its prominence, and the prominence of its message were only possible because of the level of funding.  The Tea Party presaged Trump in the “true-believer” attitudes of the members.  The Kochs had studied techniques of the communist party (of all things) to understand how to sell the message of secular paradise.

Trump is a step beyond.  For one thing he has brought the cult of personality to the cult of secular paradise.  For another he has added his own program to the program of the Kochs.  In so doing, he has become a complete mask for what is going on.  His tariff program—no matter how ill-conceived—really sounds populist, and his culture war persona is impeccable.  He’s always in the news.  The Kochs were undoubtedly delighted to see their tax program go through as his achievement.

If Trump really does make himself a dictator the Kochs may get more than they bargained for (and we get to live with it), but for now—despite tariffs, racism, and scapegoating—he’s their guy.

 

So going back to the question of divisiveness, where exactly do we stand?   Support for the Koch-Trump program is of two sorts:  there are those who really do benefit (some level of rich), and there are Trump’s true believers.  Many articles have remarked on the strength of the reciprocal love that binds the latter group with Trump.   Not an easy thing to address.

Why did these people buy in from the beginning?  Lots of reasons have been presented:  economic factors, racism, cultural conflicts, or simple non-homogeneity of the population.  While there is plenty of evidence for the non-economic reasons, it makes sense to focus on the economic ones to start with, because those create an environment where the other evils can flourish.  People fighting over scraps are unlikely to play nice.  It’s true that polarization is self-sustaining once it starts, but addressing people’s concrete problems always has to be a first step.

One thing going for change is that the ideology of private sector salvation has now had a chance to show its true colors.  The tax cuts did not get turned into bonanzas for employees; instead they got turned into this dramatic and revealing chart:

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Furthermore healthcare was a fiasco, and even climate change is emerging as a threat.  The tariffs only sound good—more people buy and build cars than make steel.

The only way any of that matters is if the Democrats do take the House.  If that happens, the Democrats have a chance to show that they can produce solid programs for real problems.  Healthcare was well-chosen if we can get our act together and really do it.  The opioid crisis is still untouched.   It would be nice to produce a jobs program that can get people out of Walmart.  The Republicans have tried to poison opportunities with the tax cuts, but we’ll have to figure a way out.  The ACA tax might be a model.

So the message is that the way back from divisiveness may be more ordinary than it seems.  Stop calling people names and figure out ways to make visible progress.  That may even lead to forced cooperation between parties.  Even if nothing gets implemented, it will be clear what could be.

And someday there may even be justice for the Republican Party’s prolonging the pain of the 2008 crash, so they could deliver the Koch tax cuts!

Never-Never Land

You can’t turn around today without someone talking about how great the economy is.  Low unemployment and low inflation.  What could be better?

In fact you don’t have to look far to know something’s wrong.  For once this is less a matter of lies than of myopia.   We’re living in an artificially-created bubble, and while we don’t know exactly when it will end, this is never-never land.   We’ll go through it step-by-step:

– The bubble

We incurred $985 B of deficit this fiscal year as short-term stimulus to an economy already at full employment.  That’s a monumental $300 B over last year—in good times. As in every other such case, the tax cuts are NOT paying for themselves.  During the year we had a small reduction in unemployment from 4. 1% to 3.7%, but at no faster rate than last year and with no increase in inflation-adjusted wages (one-time bonuses from the tax cuts were negligible in the statistics).  You might ask why we would do such a thing—$1 T is a lot of money—but one thing the deficit certainly delivers is that much more economic activity in an election year.  The same people who starved recovery from the 2008 crisis to help with the 2016 election gave themselves a big boost for this one.

You might also ask how long we can continue doing it, and the following budget chart makes that unmistakably clear:

deficit3a

We’re running up unimaginable deficits in good times, with consequences we’ll talk about in a minute.  And the chart actually understates the situation.  The underlying figures come from a CBO report written in April, when their estimate of the 2018 deficit was $805 B. With a final 2018 deficit of $985 B, the situation now looks considerably worse. The CBO report said that we would reach deficit = $1T by 2020 and then reach the sinister milestone of debt = total GDP by 2028.  With the current deficit, we have reached the $1 T value in 1/3 the time, so that second milestone looms sooner now too.

The stock market is a similar case. The corporate tax cuts went directly to company bottom lines, raising price/earning ratios and stock values. What’s more corporations turned around and used all that money for stock buybacks, increasing demand for stocks and further enhancing stock prices.

None of this is sustainable.

– The deficit

Much discussion of deficits seems theoretical, but the consequences of our current deficits are real.  Republicans are already talking about cuts to Medicare and Social Security as counterpart to last year’s tax cuts.  Just imagine now we’ve reached a downturn in the economy—not even necessarily as bad as 2008.  We’ll have the massive deficit-induced debts shown in the prior chart, and now—on top of that—tax receipts that have just collapsed with the economy.  In that case we’re not talking about changes around the edges of Medicare and Social Security, we’re talking about no money for it and “taking the hard choices we just have to do.”   That means dramatic change in what it means to be living in this country.

Further (as noted in the CBO report) the deficit is a time bomb.  As interest rates rise in good times, the yearly cost of financing the deficit rises accordingly.  We’re already talking about deficit finance costs higher than the defense budget.  And it will just continue up, eating into available money for healthcare, education, opioid crisis even before a downturn.  There are good reasons not to incur deficits in good times!

– Our economy

With all Trump’s talk about the private sector and relief from regulation you might think that the country has been liberated from misguided government meddling with private enterprise.  But you’d be wrong.  The current executive-imposed tariffs and trade wars constitute the most extreme government intervention in the economy within memory.

The steel tariffs hit anyone building anything out of steel—basically forcing export-directed activities off shore.   The new USMCA regulations have already caused layoffs at Ford (and the touted benefits to labor are so far from clear that the unions can only wait and see).  The trade war with China disrupts values chains of any corporations not sufficiently well-connected to get exemptions.  The government is choosing winners and losers in the economy based on impulse (coal and steel sound good) or lobbying (the Apple watch).  And established companies have been winning out over newer, innovative ones (net neutrality) any time the issue comes up.

All of that, together with xenophobia and lack of support for education, augurs poorly for the state of our economy going forward.  And we’re even waging economic war with the largest, most rapidly growing economy in the world—in the name of protectionism!

– Our population

Since the subject is the economy, we’re talking here about the related topics of personal and national economic success.  It is of course a truism that the world economy is changing.  Good jobs, and the jobs that maintain our national standard of living, are changing.  Very many of them require more and different training.  (One list of the top ten growing job categories is given here.)  Economists going back to Adam Smith have recognized the responsibility of government to educate the population.

However with the tax cuts we took a very different tack, essentially trusting private sector prosperity to raise all boats.  There is no evidence that works.  The tax cuts went primarily to stock buybacks (see the mind-boggling level of buybacks below), leaving issues such as education (including the student loans crisis), infrastructure, and healthcare up for grabs.

stock buyback2c

For now, protectionism is the solution to job retraining, consequences of automation are unaddressed, and instead of preparing people for good jobs we’re busy fantasizing about the past.

– Climate Change

Climate change belongs on this list, because inaction will just make the economic effects worse.  Climate change may have morphed into a partisan issue, but nature isn’t fooled.

Consequences will be in many forms—severe weather, changes of temperature and rainfall, sea-level rise.   Turning around today’s carbon-based economies takes time, so if we don’t start acting now, we’re talking many trillions of dollars of expenses for repair and to forestall truly disastrous consequences.  The recent IPCC report found more serious effects than previously recognized by 2040.   As the following chart shows, the US currently generates twice the per-capita CO2 of any other major player, so we have a long way to go.

s12_Top_FF_Emitters_percapita

For now we are doing worse than nothing.  Climate change is an issue where international unity of purpose is extremely important, because cheaters—with cheap coal—can prosper.   We have not only endorsed coal for ourselves but actively encouraged cheating.  Further our departure from the Paris Agreement process—and in particular our disavowal of the whole idea of rich countries helping poorer ones act in our common interest—leads directly to dangers such as Brazil abandoning protection for the Amazon.

Ignoring climate change means more damaging effects of warming, and more drastic (and expensive) action in the end.   Furthermore, as a purely economic issue, by denying the issue we are sidelining our own companies’ participation in this necessary multi-trillion-dollar enterprise.  The day will soon come (we’re now talking just 20 years to get off coal, oil, and gas) when this moves to page 1 of the news, and stays there.

 

Our never-never land economy is good only so long as we keep our eyes closed.  But if we don’t open them soon, we won’t recognize what we’ll find later.