For Sanity on China

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What are our stated objectives with China?

  • We want to bring them into the world economic system on appropriate terms of fair play.
  • We want access to their markets according to those rules of fair play.
  • We want protection for our businesses and workers, also according to those rules of fair play.

Those are perfectly normal and achievable objectives.  We can be specific about how to get there, and the probability of success is high.

What are our actual objectives in the trade war?

Trump has been clear about this in both words and deeds.  Our trade war is to assure that China will never be able to challenge our technological, economic, and military dominance.

Those are not the same as the stated objectives (although the press seems confused about the difference).  They are objectives for a real war.  And if you’re going to fight a real war—with bullets or with tariffs—you had better be sure you’re going to win, or the results won’t be pretty.

Problem #1:  We don’t run the world.  We are 18% or Chinese exports, same as the EU.  We’ve gone out of the way not to have an alliance with the EU on this issue.  (It’s worth noting that the EU already has a far lower balance of payments deficit with China than we do.)  The Chinese domestic economy is already larger than ours.  We can inflict pain, but we can’t put them out of business.

Problem #2:  China’s technological and military strength is not just because they’re stealing from us.  That genie is already out of the bottle, and it is an imperialist delusion to believe we can keep them poor and dumb.

Problem #3:  We’ve converted an issue of international good behavior into a matter of domination.  Without boots on the ground there’s no way in hell we’re going to enforce an agreement of subjugation.  (The distinction is not a gray area—we’re either thinking about rules we’d be willing to apply to ourselves or not.)

What’s going to happen?

The Chinese will go build their (very large) part of the world without us.   We will have no effective access to their markets or their technology (already today technology is a two-way street).  We’ll be back in a cold war with all that entails in risk, mutual hostility, military spending, and stunted world growth.

What should we do?

  1. The first step is to cool the chest-beating jingoism. (China is in fact a mixed bag for the US economy.) That way we can at least recognize the difference between the two types of objectives.  It’s the only way to behave rationally.
  2. If what we want is a correct and viable world order, then that means we need an alliance supporting our view. Ultimately this should end up in the WTO, but a first step is to codify what we want and assemble wide support.  That will add both carrot and stick to achieve our objectives.  The Business Roundtable of corporate CEO’s was explicit about this from the beginning.
  3. History shows that the best way to avoid war is mutual commerce. That means establishing rules we can all abide by.
  4. If we’re worried that the Chinese are going to take over anyway, then the best thing to do is to recognize and play to our strengths. Overall the odds are well in our favor.   The fact is that we’ve been here before.  Not so many years ago the perceived technology threat was Japan.  In China, Xi’s thirst for control makes him an enemy of what made for China’s success.

History is full of disastrous, inconclusive wars that no one wins.  Trade wars too.  We’re not so weak that we have to blunder our way into this one.

Software

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This note is a follow-on the previous item about prosperity.  Software was mentioned there, but it deserves its own focus.

There isn’t enough discussion of software businesses.   That’s an important gap, because it lets people fantasize away the changes that are taking place in employment.  Without that discussion we can blame just about anything on globalization, and then believe tariffs will fix it.  Or we can talk about automation, and still think about unions and incremental retraining as the answer.  But that’s wishful thinking.

Software businesses are different.  There is essentially nobody doing production, so there is essentially no incremental cost of production.  Product cost is research and development.  As we noted before that tends toward monopoly businesses that are hard to tax and regulate.

We also mentioned the effect on employment.  It’s not that these companies don’t hire people.  Apple and Google are getting up toward 100,000 people.  But the vast majority of the jobs, well beyond development, require a high degree of technical sophistication.   Even sales and low-level support must deal with the technical sophistication of the products.  In a company like Amazon, with close to 600,000 people, there is a rigid distinction between the sophistication of the good jobs in headquarters versus the hordes of people filling boxes.  Our current technology leaders are all software companies, with all that entails.

But they’re not the only ones.  Globalization and automation are essentially equivalent ways of dealing with non-core functions.  More and more companies can think of themselves as software companies, designing products that can be produced either by machines or some arms-length operation that might just as well be.  In this it is important to recognize that outsourcing is itself a technology area.  Growth in outsourcing reflects how much easier and more reliable it has become. Production becomes machine-like.  That trend is not going away.

There are several types of conclusions to be drawn here.

–  For businesses, the real money is to be made in staying on top of the heap.  That’s the software model.  It will continue to be the direction of business focus, and with it profit margins have proved substantial.

– For employment it means that we have to be realistic about where good jobs are going to be.  There are two types:

  1. There will be technically sophisticated jobs of many sorts. But all will require a sophisticated educational background. We cannot stint on education.
  2. There will be jobs that can’t be easily outsourced or automated. These can be significant in number, but not necessarily in traditional areas. Example areas are human interactions, such as healthcare, daycare, or personal services.  There is also infrastructure, which is largely outside of controlled, automatable environments and not easily moved offsite.  Much of this work will require government intervention to get done.

– We can’t expect things to just work out.   Full employment is not going to produce good jobs for everyone.   We are supposedly living in economic heaven—lowest unemployment in years—but wages still have grown only barely beyond inflation.  And in that, things are far worse at the bottom than at the top of the income scale.  Unions should be strengthened, but they can only do so much about technology (both automation and outsourcing).  And tariffs always sound good, but they are extremely expensive ways to create jobs and historically do more harm than good.

 

In this world, if we want to avoid a declining two-tiered society of haves and have-nots, we have to recognize the role of government—not just to protect people but for national success.

– We have to do better than the current hodge-podge support of education and infrastructure.  Both are critical to the good jobs of the future.  Both require government commitment.

– We have to produce a system of taxation and corporate governance that supports business success without starving that environment that feeds it.  As Apple (among many others) has shown, software profits can be moved anywhere to avoid taxes.  The latest tax changes have actually that easier.

– There are serious problems that are simply outside the scope of the private sector to fix.  The most obvious example is climate change, where we are not only ignoring not only the threat but also the business opportunities it presents.

– We have to understand roles for people in making it happen.

This isn’t actually radical.  It’s closer to the economy we had in the 1950’s and 60’s, when government supported education and research, and businesses reinvested earnings.  We just have to stop believing in good fairies.  There are no miracles solutions delivered by the private sector or anyone else.  We collectively have to provide the environment for both business success and the well-being of the population.

That is a big job, and we’d better start planning for it.  Heaven only helps those who help themselves.

Let’s Just Do Immigration

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Now that Trump has decided that the target for the total number of immigrants is unchanged, why don’t we just fix immigration:

  • Family unification is a good thing, but it has taken too much of the total, now 70%.
  • It’s sensible that some fraction of immigrants should get in based on special capabilities or other demonstrable merit.  (It’s worth noting that the current system is actually not so bad in that respect.)
  • It’s also sensible to have some fraction of immigration that is not so constrained.  You never know who’s going to be a hero, and diversity has value.  Moreover past immigrants mostly came from places where they were denied opportunities for such merit.  So a lottery system has value too.

As a default, divide it up 1/3 for each and call it even.  Otherwise negotiate the limits for a while and then call it done.  (As an interesting variant, Canada handles family unification with relationship points in the merit index.)

Additionally:

  • We need to settle DACA once and for all, because there is no value to anyone in not doing it.  Since we’re talking about merit, these are upstanding, fully-adapted, English-speaking contributors.  And their number, compared to Trump’s new annual totals, is on the order of 1%.
  • For the rest of currently undocumented immigrants, we had a bipartisan bill passed by the Senate in 2013.  That can still be a basis for work.  These people are almost all working and paying taxes.

This isn’t so hard.   It only takes the will to do it.

There remains the question of enforcement.  For that, the problem is that we’ve been postulating solutions without any serious analysis.   Politicians shouldn’t be arguing about this.  (Border control was never wild about the wall until they were told they”d better be.)  There needs to be an independent assessment of how money should be spent to enforce the law.

However one thing that is definite is that there is no excuse for mistreatment of desperate people looking to escape overwhelming problems for themselves or their families.  We can’t satisfy them all–immigration law is there to say who gets help–but that’s no excuse for treating them all as criminals or worse.

 

Losing by Bullying in China and Elsewhere

Most of us choose not to run our lives as bullies.  That’s not because we’re all so nice; it’s because being a bully is usually a bad option.  For one thing it’s precarious—the bully loses everything as soon as he’s not top dog.  And what’s worse is that it precludes other ways of getting things done.  The bully has nothing to offer but bluster.

The US has been the predominant world power since World War II, but we’ve generally chosen not to play the bully.  Instead we’ve used international institutions to enshrine our views as a kind of international rule of law.  That has been a very successful enterprise—no one wants to be odd man out.  And after 50 years we remain both the military and the economic powerhouse.  (How that filters down to the well-being of the population is another story.)

Recently however we’ve made the all-too-common mistake of believing our own propaganda.  We’re just too nice, and in our beneficence everyone is stealing from us.  For example NATO—which exists to make sure a Russian WW III is fought in Europe and not here—is now a case of wasting money to defend ungrateful allies.  The time has come to step out from behind the curtain and take all that we can get.

How have we been doing as a bully?  Let’s look at a few examples:

Iran

In Iran we’ve decided to take off the kid gloves and go for everything short of war.  The result thus far has been to strengthen the hard-liners in the government and to unite the population behind hatred of the US.  Initial steps have begun to resume nuclear weapons development—an effort that has strong support in the population as a whole.

Regime change remains unlikely, and even if it happens, it won’t be pro-US.  As for nuclear weapons, we’ve made North Korea a proof-positive of their value.

Venezuela

Trump administration high-handedness has intensified the ever-present fear of US domination—even among Maduro’s opponents.  That played a big part in the failure of the Guaidó uprising.

Arbitrary exercise of power makes us weaker.

China

This is currently the most consequential case.  We have legitimate grievances with China, but the situation is not so black and white, and it matters how we play it.

Our bullying approach began with tariffs before negotiation.  Then we chose to violate the our own trade agreements to go for an exclusive deal to benefit only us.  And we are unabashedly using the process to prevent China from challenging our dominance.  Finally we’re consumed with a feverish China bashing that has nothing with the reality of China’s effect on the US economywhich has many positives, and the negative effects don’t begin to compete with what we’ve done to ourselves.

There are two points worth emphasizing:

  1. The US represents 18% of Chinese exports, as does the EU. By making this an exclusive deal we lost half our leverage. That was a “get out of jail free” card for the Chinese. They didn’t have to worry about dividing the West, because we did it for them. (Not the only example of giving China exactly what they want.)
  2. We have dispensed with the idea that this is about international rules for fair trade. Instead this is strictly about what our national leverage can get us.  That’s not a great basis for compliance (particularly given history), and there are many ways that trade deals can fail to deliver.   Further, by setting arbitrary tariffs we’re striking a blow for protectionism, not open markets.  That’s the last thing we should be doing when a primary goal is access to a Chinese economy that is already larger than ours and growing faster.

The is another way to do this, and it was waiting to happen.  Within the WTO China is still classified as a developing country.  All parties recognize that needs to be renegotiated, which would have happened regardless of who was President.  The hand we were dealt was better leverage, better compliance, and no trade war.

There’s another way to look at this.  The following chart shows the kinds of items China exports to the US.

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It’s not just cheap widgets.  It’s the computer equipment that runs the software that is the basis for our economic strength.  The worst thing China could do to us is stop its exports.  So what do we really want?  In some order, we want access to the Chinese market, we want a say in how China competes in the rest of the world, and we want to address intellectual property theft.

We have good means of addressing all of these, but bullying China isn’t one of them.  A trade war is counterproductive for the first two, which is why we created the WTO.  For the third, we now have a common interest, and it’s worth noting that Chinese hacking has gone way up, since Trump declared economic war.

Bullying behavior may give a rush of power, but it’s no better for countries than for people.  It makes the world worsemost of all for US!

More To Say About China

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This piece is a little broader in scope that our past posts about China.  That seems useful, since war-mongering in press coverage of China has put us all in blinders.  We’re not claiming here that the Chinese are angels, but there is a lot more to the story that needs to be discussed.

We start with a couple of basic points, of interest regardless of whether we consider China friend or foe:

  1. China is now the world’s biggest economy and is continuing to grow rapidly. Further its population is more than four times the US.  That has many consequences worth thinking about.
  2. China has built itself up from nothing to a world class challenger in many areas. This is not just—or even primarily—a case of “stealing from us”. It is imperative that we understand their example and what we can learn from it.

On the first point, it should be noted to begin with that while the Chinese economy is the biggest in the world, the country is so big that its per capita income is well-below Mexico.  A rising standard of living in China could drive growth in the rest of the world for quite some time.

That is a dramatic turnaround in what China means to the rest of the world.  It is also the reason why virtually everyone expects China’s trade relations to be renegotiated.  Opening China has moved from a largely theoretical matter (because there just wasn’t that much to be sold) to become the primary issue.

This is the time for negotiation, but it’s also a window of opportunity we can easily miss.  In this, as we’ve noted before, a unilateral trade war is actually counter-productive. We’re defending protectionism, when the primary issue is open access to the Chinese market!  Further by insisting on a bilateral deal, we’re substantially reducing the leverage needed to make the deal a success.  The Business Roundtable of corporate CEO’s said as much prior to the start of current negotiations.  This isn’t about trade deficits; it’s about worldwide rules of fair trade going forward.

Trade negotiation, however, is not the only issue here.  US businesses have long had the luxury of focusing on the domestic market.   Economies of scale will now demand a less parochial view.  An obvious example is loosening of fuel economy standards.  That’s a concession to our automobile industry for the domestic market that will hurt international competitiveness.  Another example is 5G mobile equipment.  US vendors are behind the curve, because the domestic market has been fractured and slow-moving.

We are not doing our economy a favor by granting special favors (including tariffs) to domestic businesses.  That’s just perpetuating the idea that winning here is all it takes.  (Tariffs are also an unreliable and inefficient way of producing jobs.)

As for what we can learn from China, we give a few examples

– Government-sponsored R&D pays big benefits.  That is the single biggest contributor to the Chinese success.   They have created a world-class technological empire out of almost nothing.  Even the much-lamented Chinese technology theft is a non-trivial (if nefarious) accomplishment.  How many companies do a good job managing transitions of responsibility even for their own software?

We used to care about the government role in research too.  It was assumed in the good old days of the 50’s and 60’s. Now we have not only cut back on government R&D (Trump’s latest budget is a recent example), but with the current anti-science nostalgia we’re not even sure we want much to do with scientific progress.

– Education is an imperative.  It’s people who make for national success and we need them to be prepared for the jobs that will defend our national standard of living.  China has been ready to spend the money to make it happen.

– We should want to drive up the value chain.  Despite past history, the Chinese understand perfectly that price-competitive businesses are not the way to go.   Real wealth comes from dominant industries with the power to sell on content instead of price.  That’s what technology can deliver.  It’s simply not in the cards to believe past successes will just revive.

– All businesses need to embrace technology for success.  Even in the cost-sensitive outsourcing business, ease of interworking was an important factor in Chinese success.

– Finally (and paradoxically) a dynamic, decentralized economy is a real plus.  This may seem surprising in a list of lessons from China, but it’s strangely true.  The major impetus that kicked off the Chinese economic miracle was an accidental liberalization.  As a small opening, Chinese municipalities were allowed to run independent businesses once they reached their nationally-set production goals.  As it happened, these independent businesses took off and eventually marginalized the state-run enterprises.  Many morphed into successful private companies.  (Xi is now attempting to put that genie back in the bottle, with reemphasized state enterprises.)

We should never underestimate the value of the dynamism of the US economy.  But we had better be careful to understand what has really worked for us.  There has always been an important government role, and diversity mattered too.  In the Chinese example, success was only possible because government provided the environment, particularly education and infrastructure, for the businesses to grow.  That’s precisely what worked for us establish US dominance in the post-war years.   In general, prosperity requires both the environment and the opportunity to achieve success.

 

All that being said, what can we say about dealing with China?  A few guidelines:

We are misled if we think “enemy” is all we need to know.  China is an important factor for both good and bad in the world economy.  They were an important help in the efforts that prevented a depression in 2008.  They can be a major locomotive in the world economy going forward.  They contribute to the worldwide development of science and technology—which makes us all richer.  They recognize the importance of climate change.  It is our task to make that all work for us.

To get there we need to treat the Chinese like any other adversary—we should deal with them from strength and look for mutual advantages.

It is not productive simply to dictate, with the idea that we can shut them down by denying them access to our market.  We represent 18% of their export market and much less of their total economy.  That’s plenty to cause trouble, but not enough to dictate, and in any case real pain would hurt us as well.  Further, if we want success in their market, there has to be ongoing mutual self-interest—no signed document will do it.   And there’s a historical side of this as well:  China endured some of the worst of western imperialism in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  That memory lingers, and we are not served by recalling it with our behavior.  Mutual advantage is much better than antagonistic isolation.

We need to extend the rules for fairness in international commerce through the WTO.  As noted earlier all parties recognize this has to happen, and we have historically led such initiatives.  We have twice the leverage in cooperating with the EU (also 18% of Chinese exports), and we avoid the hypocrisy of endorsing protectionism in the argument for opening of their markets.

Matters such as intellectual property protection and theft should be solvable problems, in part because the Chinese now have much to defend as well.  It’s not for nothing that Huawei is well ahead of the curve in 5G development.   Chinese universities are now high on the list of international institutions (even though Western ones still have cachet in China!), and the Chinese are acquiring patents like everyone else.  It’s also true, if seldom noted, that Chinese computer hacking decreased significantly by the end of the Obama years and went way up when Trump declared economic war.

The military installations in the South China Sea are a serious problem, but the fact is that the great majority of Chinese imports and exports pass that way—so it’s not surprising they’re worried about it.  We make that worry all the greater by declaring that it is legitimate to use all resources at our disposal to get the Chinese to do what we want.  The only real solution is some kind of freedom of the seas regional agreement that all parties can have confidence in.

Human rights violations are also important, and we have to keep those issues alive.  It’s hard to know how far we’ll be able to get.  The one thing you can say is that we shouldn’t be too quick to use Xi a stand-in for China as a whole.  We’ve already noted Xi is a throw-back (a “princeling” heir to the Maoist past), so perhaps there is hope for better later.  There are many conclusions to be drawn about us if you take Trump as a stand-in for everything American.

In the end the point is to treat China like any other independent nation.  China as “enemy” has real roots, but also large doses of domestic politics (China has been a convenient excuse for our own misdeeds) and “yellow peril” racism.  China needs to work properly in the international system of trade and ideally also in international security agreements.  Any efforts to avoid a new set of arms races will have to involve them.

Vigilance is fine, but there is at least the potential of much to build on.

A Story that Ought to be Told

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It’s natural enough that different factions of the Democratic Party see things differently.  But we’ve got to stop letting the Republican Party off the hook.

  1. Bill Clinton may have let China into the WTO, but he was not around to see or act on China’s behavior. Essentially 100% of job losses occurred under Bush, either directly or as a result of the 2008 crash.  Obama had no opportunity to do anything:  his first two years were spent avoiding a depression, and after that the Republican Congress shut down government.
  2. That Republican Congress has never received its deserved public exposure. Its stated objective was non-cooperation with Obama on all issues,.  They understood perfectly what stimulus is good for, and they made sure it didn’t happen—with the proven-bogus “balanced-budget amendment”.   The Republican Party deliberately kept the country poor for the 2016 election
  3. On meat and potatoes issues Trump is not a rebel, he’s a Republican. His primary effect on the economy was through the tax cuts. Those were properly the Koch organization tax cuts—delivered as ordered to the primary donors to the Republican Party.

It’s not wrong to say that both parties share blame for the growth of inequality and such—but not in equal measure.  The position of the “Trump base” would have been quite different if Obama had not been denied all opportunity to act.  A Clinton Presidency would have worked on education, healthcare, and climate change instead of the Koch tax cuts.

Clinton was reluctant to criticize the Republican Congress, because she thought ordinary Republicans might support her (Comey fixed that!).  We seem to be making a similar mistake by excusing Republicans in the guise of “everybody did it until now”.   We’re letting Trump be the hero who brought it all to the fore.

On issues Trump is a Republican.  Republicans produced the 2008 crash, the Iraq war, the drastically increased inequality, and the current polarization of society.  Democrats fix things.  Trump has made it harder, but we can get it done.

Post 9/11 Consequences to Remember

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It’s important to recall the legacy of our post-9/11 actions in the Middle East.

  1. After the invasion of Afghanistan, we couldn’t be bothered to pacify the country because we were in such a hurry to invade Iraq.

Consequences:  Years of bloody chaos in Afghanistan ending in retreat.

  1. After the invasion of Iraq we chose sides with the Shiites and couldn’t be bothered with their close associations with Shiite Iran.

Consequences:  Iran was the primary beneficiary of the Iraq war.

  1. After declaring Iran to be public enemy #1, we were so eager to impose sanctions that we couldn’t be bothered about their nuclear weapons program.

Consequences:  All sides in Iran are now united in hatred of the United States.  The nuclear weapons program has always had broad popular support.  The Europeans have forestalled it for a bit, but guess what?

Maybe they’ll get a nuclear club welcoming party like the one we threw for Kim Jong-Un.

Prosperity in Today’s Economy

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The title of this article sounds rather ordinary, but in fact there’s more to say than you might expect.   There aren’t a lot of new facts here, but we bring together several strands of argument that don’t tend to be followed to conclusion.  It’s useful to think step-by-step about prosperity today and going forward.

  1. Our national standing today is largely determined by technology.

There are many aspects to this.  The most obvious one is the role of high-tech companies in the economy.  The NYTimes had an article a few months ago (on the occasion of Apple’s becoming the first $1 T company) with graphic displays showing the size of Apple (as well as Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and many others) in the US economy.  The dominance of high-tech is unmistakable. That’s what supports our standard of living and always has. Railroads, steel, automobiles were all high-tech in their day.  (Note this is not saying that Google or Facebook are angels, it’s our national strength in technology that matters.)

It is only because we are on top of that heap that we have the money that supports the rest of the economy.  That includes much of small business and service industries.  It is from the strength of our competitive economic position that we can pay for the non-competitive industries we choose to support.  The aluminum and steel tariffs are being paid by us from the industries that don’t need them.  To state this somewhat differently—we are not going to build a dominant economy by selling each other stuff anyone can make at artificially high prices.

It’s also worth pointing out, given all the discussions of the military budget, that the technology argument applies in spades for the military.  Building new aircraft carriers is not going to make us safe.  One only has to think, theoretically of course, about the effect of a North Korean virus disabling the military’s command and control.  From the chart below, it is obvious that our level of military spending ought to quash everyone else hands down if money were the only object.  But it’s not doing the job, because that’s not the game anymore.  And it’s not just AI, it’s across the board.

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What all this means is that the people who support our technology position are critical resources who matter to all of us.

This is a lot less elitist than it sounds, because it’s not saying we shouldn’t care about or value everyone else (more on that later).   The point is that we shouldn’t be spending our time worrying about who is or isn’t supplanting whom.  Our success depends on nurturing and exploiting the best and the brightest—at least for these skills—and we had better spend our time trying to find them and encourage them, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation.  And if foreigners choose to come here and establish successful startup companies—mostly in high tech—we should be happy they do.  It is a major strength of the US economy that people find the US to be the best place to realize their ambitions.  We erode that strength at our peril.

Anger at elite technologists may be natural, but they are the wrong targets.  Their effect on the rest of us is positive.  What we need to avoid is a two-tiered society of haves and have-nots, as we’ll discuss later.

  1. Businesses today are different from the past in important ways.

Since we’ve identified the key role played by the tech sector, it’s worth thinking about what kind of businesses those are.  So let’s take a quick look at Google, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, and Facebook.

– A first point to notice is that they are all some form of monopoly.  This is not surprising as they are all (even Amazon and Apple) essentially software companies.  Software businesses invite monopoly, because costs of production are minimal. In such cases, research and development costs become primary, and the company with largest market share can afford to offer products with more features than a smaller competitor can.  As automation continues, particularly with AI, similar arguments will apply to much of the rest of the economy.

Managing monopolies is a serious issue:

Monopolies squelch competition.   It is imperative for our success that established companies can’t limit the innovative power of new entrants.  That has been our historical advantage over foreign competitors and is a major factor in any discussion of how we deal with the rise of China.  This is not just a problem with Google, etc.  The demise of Net Neutrality is a classic case of giving in to established players, in this case the major telecom carriers.

Monopolies take more than their share of our money.  Monopoly power limits price sensitivity. Since the determining feature of competition is more often uniqueness more than price point, products are priced at what the market will bear—as with the iPhone or patented drugs.   Furthermore, through manipulation of assets including intellectual property, hi-tech monopolies have been tough to tax.   Apple’s success in this is legendary.   Their windfall from the recent corporate tax cuts is something to behold (and unnecessary as a spur to investment).  It is imperative we learn how to tax monopoly-level profits.

– Next, personal success in these companies requires a high-level of technical competence.   Amazon is obviously a case in point, with two completely different populations:  the mass of box fillers versus the corporate staff.  Note that technical competence is not just a matter for developers, but is also required for the many people in management, support, administration, and even sales.  As just noted, as automation proceeds, this trend will extend well outside of high-tech.

This represents the threat of a two-tiered society, as discussed earlier.  As a country this implies at the very least a basic responsibility for broad-based solid education and a livable minimum wage.

It should be emphasized that strengthening of education is required for both national success and personal prosperity.   Regardless of what advantages we have for staying on top of the heap, we cannot succeed if we don’t have the people to do it.

– Third, all of these business are intrinsically international.  With the growth of the world economy (and China in particular) economies of scale are such that we have to think in global terms.

– Finally our fourth and last comment for this section is about a different trend not limited to high-tech—the institutionalized irresponsibility of business.  It has become gospel that businesses have responsibility only to their investors, and all other considerations are more or less theft.  Businesses used to care about retirement, healthcare, training, even local charity.  But current reality is that if someone is going to care about those things, it’s out of the question for it to be them.

In addition, because of the sheer size of the country, the US more than anywhere else has to deal with the phenomenon of towns or regions where the economic base can just disappear. Company town are the obvious example. In an age of accelerating technology change, we can’t stop such things from happening.   And we can’t expect rescue to happen by all by itself.

However we emphasize this isn’t just about charity.  In the current state of affairs, the private sector is not be doing what’s necessary even to provide the environment for its own success.

That leads to the next topic—what do we need for national success?

  1. Our infrastructure problems mean more than we thought.

Infrastructure has to be thought of as whatever is necessary for national success and personal welfare.  I.e. much more than roads and bridges.  The educational system fits in this category as it is required for both personal and national success.  Declining upward mobility and the student loan crisis are two indications that there is a lot that needs to be done.

Support for theoretical research is in the same category.  It is precursor work for new technologies before they are ready for business. A point worth stressing it that it is not only the research itself that is important—research work assures that there will be a population ready to exploit new opportunities as they arise.

Continuing on, we list a few more significant infrastructure projects needing immediate attention.

– The American Society of Civil Engineers keeps a web site with a break down of national infrastructure requirements.  We currently rate a D+.

– To that we add the urgent needs of combatting climate change, which will be considerable, regardless of how the final plans work out.

– Healthcare is currently in flux with ACA under attack and nothing to replace it.

– Finally we have the general specter of a two-tiered society, with all the misery and threat of conflict that represents.  That too needs to be dealt with as a national problem, and there’s no one in this picture other than government to do it.

Government’s role in this picture is three-tiered:

i. Government needs to make sure everyone has the education and access to the opportunities to succeed.

ii. Government needs to support what is necessary for national infrastructure, much of which will not happen spontaneously in the private sector.

iii. Government needs to supply a last-line safety net for those who fall through the cracks.

This is a non-trivial task, and we emphasize that the biggest part of it is not charity.   We have a current mismatch between a dearth of good jobs and a growing backlog of infrastructure needs of all kinds.

From the point of view here our much-discussed infrastructure needs—back to the roads and bridges—have to be viewed as bellwethers.  The fact that we can’t deal even with roads and bridges means that we have a fundamental problem funding the common good, and we have to take that head on.

  1. There is a mismatch between the needs of our country and the forces that currently control it.

The governing ideology of this country is simple to summarize:  let the private sector do it and get out of the way.  All government regulation is bad, and taxes are just a brake on the private sector’s ability to make everything great.

The chief beneficiaries of this policy are the ultra-rich funders of the Republican Party, although the problem of money in politics (especially after Citizens United) transcends parties. In this enterprise Trump is largely a front man for the real forces running things.

For these people, with fortunes going back even into the nineteenth century, it’s natural to regard the country as a money-machine.  Taxes, regulations, and government services—except for the military—are deductions off the bottom line.

The problem with that view, even for them, is that it is the wrong model for the world we just described.  That set of policies would make sense in an extractive economy, where all that is necessary for success is a cadre of imported experts to arrange for pumping oil with purchased technology.  In that case you don’t need much from the national population in order to collect the proceeds.

That’s not our situation.  As described, we live in a technology-dominated world where the population must earn our national success.  For that world we’re currently going in the wrong direction.  Devaluing education, denying climate change, cutting research, encouraging xenophobia will get to us sooner than we’d like to think.  China is a formidable challenger.

However, it not so hard to be optimistic if we can just be serious about what needs to be done.  We have all the tools for success:  the money, the work to be done, even the means to avoid a two-tiered society.

The story is not complicated.  If we can return to exploiting our strengths, then we should be able to remain in the technological forefront for our chosen areas of focus.   If we can control the monopolies, then the associated margins in an expanding world economy should yield money enough (if we can collect it) to produce a workable society for everyone ready to participate.

There is certainly no shortage of work in the infrastructure area, and it needs all kinds of people.  In this respect the Green New Deal may be too glib in pinning everything on climate change, but their basic idea is correct.   If we play our cards right, the high technology future will provide the funds to support the infrastructure for its own success and for the prosperity of the nation.

We should not underestimate the job.  Careful and transparent planning is critical—defining exactly what needs to be done to support both the economy and the population.  And then determining how that work can be best supplied.

It should be emphasized is that we’re NOT talking about socializing away the free market economy.  If there’s one bad misconception that needs to be hammered down everywhere, it’s the idea that the private sector is magic for all problems.  We’ve just gone down a long list of things it’s not going to do.

Even Adam Smith was clear about this from the beginning.  The private sector is a participant in the public economy, but that economy will deliver the benefits of a free market only if #1 government keeps the private sector from corrupting the markets (e.g with monopolies and bribes) and #2 government provides the resources (e.g. education and other infrastructure) necessary for success.  That’s the definition of our job.

This will necessarily require a renewed focus on government and public service.  It’s interesting that a couple of recent mainstream books (Volker, Lewis) have recognized public service as an important issue.  In that respect “Green New Deal” isn’t a bad term:  we need to be as serious as Roosevelt’s brain trust in planning for the next stage for our country’s future.

This is a battle both old and new.   In Smith’s words, “The interest of [businessmen] is always in some respects different from, and even opposite to, that of the public …The proposal of any new law or regulation of commerce which comes from this order, ought always to be listened to with great precaution, and ought never to be adopted till after having been long and carefully examined, not only with the most scrupulous, but with the most suspicious attention.”  Wealth of Nations is only achieved when government does its job.